Trigger Warning: For people who have experienced sexual assault of any kind, this post contains content that may be triggers for you. If you have concerns about handling trigger responses, I encourage you to not read this post.
General Note: The “she” in this post is a friend of mine. I asked for and received full permission to share this post, including a brief passage of her story. I also gave her full editorial control. She asked for no changes. Without her permission, this post would not be published, so I thank my friend for her trust and bravery.
It’s 4:20 right now and I know this blank page will soon be filled with words that have crawled hand tooth and nail from dark, secret places in my heart, revealing themselves and demanding attention.
As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, this past week of the 2016 Presidential campaign has been rough. With nearly a dozen sexual assault survivors coming forward (so far) to share their stories, the last few days have been especially hard. Each woman’s experience is uniquely hers. Disparate stories, different contexts in different cities that took place in different years with one common thread: they each state that they were attacked by the same predator.
A famous man. A “ladies” man. A man who has publicly bragged for years about forcing himself on women. A man name Donald Trump. “Grab them by the pussy”, he flippantly joked, “You can do anything.”
The first time I heard those braggart words, I vomited, barely making it to the kitchen sink in time. While scooping up and tossing out the dinner I had just puked into unwashed glasses and half-filled mugs of coffee, I had to stop long enough to consciously force myself to breathe in, slowly out.
Breathe in, slowly out; it is my mantra during extreme triggers and flashbacks. Breathe in, slowly out; an exercise I’ve learned in therapy to help prevent or stop a panic attack. It doesn’t always work, but sometimes it’s the only rope I have to cling to. So I breathed on.
Scrubbing clean those cups and mugs and plates and forks, I felt hot anger coursing through my body. Scouring clean the sink, the faucet, the backsplash, the counter, it felt like a bad dream, the same one I had as a child each time he forced me to do despicable things.
But this wasn’t a bad dream. No. Just like all all those times before, my brain was tricking me, working itself into overdrive to protect me from the reality of what I had just heard. Still wet with the stench of Clorox and soap, I crawled into bed and cried.
I snuggled with my deaf dog Edison, a healing magic unicorn if there ever was one. I took a nap. I got up. I made coffee. I took a double-dose of Klonopin and I carried on. That’s what we do, survivors. We carry on.
I spent the rest of the week carefully managing the lurid details of sexual assault, bombarding me from, of all places, the news. It’s a delicate balance, staying informed without letting powerful triggers send you into a tailspin, and the news of this past week has been one non-stop, ass-kicking trigger for millions of Americans including me.
As I do sometimes, I have taken to social media more than once this week to speak up as a survivor and for survivors, to share my story again, to defend these women I do not know, to explain to those who do not understand what it is like to be sexually assaulted, to rage against rape culture and victim shaming and to implore people to understand that “He Said, She Said” doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface.
Having shared my story in a very public forum and having spoken out about rape and rape culture many times, people frequently reach out to me to share their story, to connect, I imagine, with someone who understands, to find resources or to express gratitude for what they call my bravery, though I am uncomfortable with that characterization.
For the record, I don’t feel brave. I don’t share my story and speak out because I am compelled by some Polly Anna altruistic notion that I can stop rape with just my voice. No, my ego isn’t that big and my story isn’t all that special or unique. No, I am not being brave when I speak out. For me, speaking out is a selfish act of healing, but fuck it. I think I’ve earned that right every now and then.
I am always honored when someone trusts me, a complete stranger, with intimate, violent and disturbing details about their own assault. Often, I find myself wanting for words to express something meaningful to them, but I try. Even if I fail at empowering or inspiring dialogue, I can at least acknowledge and validate his or her experience. Sometimes, that’s enough. Sometimes, that’s all they need.
Then came Day Eight.
Last night, sitting on my front porch, enjoying the solace of a Friday night on my own, letting go of a long week with a cigarette and a glass of wine and planning this weekend’s photo shoot, I got a message on social media. It was from a friend.
“About a month ago, I was raped and left in the woods naked”.
In the heavy hard-stop pause of that period, my eyes instantly welled up and another piece of me died. With each sucker-punching sentence, it became harder to see the words through the levee of tears ready to spill over. Finished, yet dumbfounded, I read her story again.
‘“About a month ago, I was raped and left in the woods naked”.
It’s hard to comprehend those words and all that they mean, let alone the rest of my friend’s story, in one reading. Or two. Or three.
I took a deep breath. I set down my phone. I pounded my fists against the growing, aching knot in my stomach. I walked inside and I began to pace- I do that during flashbacks, when the trigger is too powerful or comes out of nowhere or the breathing isn’t working. It’s my tell.
When I start pacing, my husband knows to stop, to turn off the TV, to check in with me, to be silent or embrace me or leave the room or talk me through my breathing- whatever I need at that moment. Last night, with my husband several thousand miles away, I was left to pace, this time in circles around the dining room table, my mind racing, my guard up, frantically checking locked doors that I knew were locked but was compelled to check anyway. I reined in my flight response by sheer will alone.
I wanted to run. I wanted to drive away into the night. Then through daylight. Through border towns and corn fields and miles and miles of desolate road. But to where and to what end? My demons travel with me no matter where I go and rape occurs every hour of every day in every town in every state- and beyond. Rape, like oxygen, is everywhere.
In the aftermath of sexual assault, flight is never really an option. It took me years of running to figure that out. No, the only tool survivors have is to fight. So I grabbed the closest weapons at hand: another bottle of wine, some more smokes, a triple-dose of Klonopin and an extra dose of Xanax. Blue and yellow have become my signature colors this past week.
Once I got myself to an emotionally and psychologically safe place, my friend and I exchanged a few messages. My friend bravely trusted me with additional details that have only been shared with a handful of other people.
My friend has set out on a path to healing. My friend is strong and focused and determined in all aspects of life, and I know my friend will heal and move on. My friend has created a small support network and knows I will be there in any way I can. I am proud of my friend and honored that this story was entrusted with me, but I am also sad, angry and I want to scream.
I am sad because this happened to my friend. I am sad that it happened to me. I am sad that I understand all too well the long journey ahead for my friend. I am sad that so many men and women have to put back together the pieces of their life, knowing full well that they will never truly be the same again. I am sad because survivors’ friends and loved ones often feel powerless to help. I am sad that I wasted over thirty years of my life suppressing and avoiding my own sexual assaults. I am sad that I have PTSD.
I am angry that women, men and children are still being raped in 2016. I could spit bullets knowing that predators truly believe that they are entitled to do what they want to our bodies without consent, that they will use power in all it’s forms to demean and dehumanize us. I am pissed off that our stories and our experiences are frequently dismissed as “boys will be boys” or “locker room banter”. I want to scream when our motives for speaking out are questioned. My blood boils when people choose to be ignorant to this epidemic that is causing such heartbreak and destruction.
One silver lining, as small as it may be, is that I’m glad I am self-aware enough to know that I do not and should not own a gun, ever, because when the justice system re-victimizes us or fails us, I’m not sure I could stop myself from using it.
I am profoundly grateful that I married a man who is patient with me, who supports me in ways I could never put into words, who doesn’t watch me try to heal from the sidelines but actively participates and does the work himself.
I am a better man because of the friends and strangers who reached out to me after I disclosed my abuse, sharing their story with me. I am proud to work with a team of truly good, decent, loving human beings who know my story and support me on my journey. I am blessed to have people in my life, both the inner circle and on the periphery, who offer support and encouraging words.
But, at this moment, at 4:20, the real silver lining is that my friend is already a survivor and has taken the first step towards healing. The term survivor is not binary, it is not a before and after proposition. It is a spectrum, a process, a journey, an adventure and it ain’t easy. My friend is already surviving, less than a month after her assault, and I know she will go on to accomplish every goal and make her dreams come true.