(Today, I’m sharing another powerful submission to our extra:ordinary project (stories of everyday resilience) from Lindsay in Columbus, OH. )
Be easy with you as you read – know that this piece includes some strong, vivid, and explicit language around sexual violence. Thank you, Lindsay, for your experience, truth, wisdom and hope!
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1) Do you identify as a victim or a survivor?
I don’t think I identify with either of these categories on a regular [basis]. I feel that I pretend I moved beyond the label in an effort to assimilate my experiences into a daily, functional life; to take ownership still while hiding. Well, that is how I think of it now, but that was not the original motivation behind my rejection of the identities of victim or survivor – to claim one was to admit I was one, any category. I desperately didn’t want to be different or broken. I didn’t want to be a victim or a survivor because those identities made the violence and the shame public; it brought it to the front and made it tangible. I believed that picking a category would make these instances of inappropriate violence, sexual exploitation, and accelerated maturity defining characteristics of myself in the most negative light. I have been in counseling for over a decade and have reached the point where I am comfortable with the defining capabilities of my traumatic experiences because I know that I am more than just these scarring instances; I am complex, I have interests, and I have taken the time to explore and develop them, often under the suggestions of various counselors, making them my own with little twists. I currently keep pretty mute on my traumatic experiences – I do not openly talk about it unless it is incredibly relevant and with company I feel safe with. I recently relocated to Columbus, OH from WNY where I had spent the first 26 years of my life. It’s been about a year and a half and I still don’t really have anyone here I would talk to about my trauma besides my counselor. There are instances in the past when I have shared my story – in college and graduate school – I spontaneously chose survivor to describe myself in every instance. Isn’t that the ultimate instance? That innate, muscle reflex when put on the spot; so that’s the answer – that ultimately, deep down inside I know that I am one hell of a survivor.
2) Tell us a bit about your experience of abuse — what was it like for you?
The first instance of sexual abuse happened when I was six or seven, too young to understand or even identify that what occurred was sexual or wrong until later in life. My mother and I were visiting family in Pennsylvania when it happened. I was spending the evening at a cousin’s house to hang out with kids my age. The father was not related to me directly but took an interest in me immediately, playing with me on the floor, hands going in places to tickle. We all went to bed I was put in a very open space with a guest bed. I woke up in the middle of the night to hands in my nightie and my panties were missing. He talked to me so gently, so calmly as he “explained” what he was doing and how much he cared about me. My gut was in knots during it all, tears quietly dripping from my eyes. When I think back to it I remember feeling conflict. Conflict of how my body was physically reacting, how I thought I was suppose to trust adults, the shame I felt for being wrong about what was “right” about child-adult relationships. I don’t remember everything that happened the night. I didn’t recall the incident until I was in eighth grade, keeping quiet still another two years until I told a friend what I remembered. What I remember is touching, and guidance, and exploration, sharp pains and shh shh shh’s when I made sounds. I remember lying awake later, trying to go back to sleep, staring at the ceiling as he lay next to me in the big guest bed. I remember jumping on the bed in the morning with my cousin Eric (name change; we were waiting for pancakes, I could smell the cinnamon. They were shaped like little men. I will never forget those pancakes) when he found his father’s shorts in the sheets. I stopped jumping and turned red. I’ll never forget his response, “Don’t worry Lindsay, I heard last night. You won’t feel weird about in a few days trust me. You get use to it.” Throwing the shorts into the corner, Eric started jumping again and I followed suit. I have always felt guilt about not talking until I was much older because I maybe could have helped my cousins. Eric had a younger sister. But it is silly to believe I could have saved them. I was working on saving myself. When I got home I tried once to tell my Mom – while she was closing the drapes in our living room one evening. I struggled with describing the event not really understanding what it was that happened to me. She quickly brushed me off saying not to worry about it, that she was sure I was fine. So that is what I became. I made myself feel fine. So fine I forgot until a summer day after eighth grade when I was being tickled and I had my first panic attack on a vacation with family friends. Then I felt terror and disgust because I understood the flood of memories triggered. I felt dirty. It was a feeling that I honestly believe led to my next traumatic experience.
I was in tenth grade and I had been dating a very sweet guy named Ben (name changed) for a few months but we had hit a wall. I couldn’t make out with him. Our physical contact was limited to holding hands and kissing hello and good-bye. Not very exciting for Ben obviously and he was wonderful about but he obviously kept on trying. I eventually told him about my uncle incident and he again was nothing less than amazing but even that wasn’t enough for me. I broke up with him because I was quietly mortified that he knew how dirty and broken I was. These same feelings were also motivators to find another boyfriend as quickly as possibly to ultimately create the same feelings over again. I ended up with a guy a year ahead of me in school – I met him in my technical drawing class. He was nerdy, he had acne, was awkward, and incredibly smart. I ran into, predictably, the same problem with John (name changed) except he was not as accepting of it. At first he would gently push to go farther, stopping when I would start to cry or scream. But after a few weeks he said he was owed to go farther. I would try my hardest, holding my panic in as long as I could, it would come out and then it was ignored. My screams and panic were irrelevant. It was forced intimate progress. He’d hold me down. I would be bleeding sometimes when he was done. We broke up and went back out – he was so manipulative. He would say no one would want me; he was doing me a favor being willing to love someone so broken. He would get angry, I mean furious – throwing things, pushing me hard into walls and doorframes. In my mind, I alleged that I deserved the bruises and the tears because I was indeed broken and less than worthy of many. We finally broke up after a big incident, John was really heated up, angry and throwing things and drying to burn off some steam with some physical satisfaction; I obviously was not into this and was trying to dodge the opportunity. Become angrier and frustrated with my weak attempts he just picked me and carried me quite accurately kicking and screaming up the stairs and into his bedroom. No one heard me either; no one ever seemed to be at his house despite living with his mother and sister. He put me down in his room near his bed and I immediately tried to run out – it was small room crammed with furniture. Despite not having must to work with I tried to escape while kept me trapped as he laughed, shuffling across the floor on top of dirty cloths. He lunged and got me pinned on my back – I squirmed and vocalized. I could feel him tugging at my panties; my shorts were already off. A power of panic surged through me and I punched him – hard. He was caught off guard and rolled off me easily. I grabbed my shorts on the way to the back door. I was putting on my shorts in the kitchen when John appeared in the door way, we both ran, he caught my arm, swung me around into a doorframe, he wound up to punch but dropped his fist, starting to cry. After a few very uncomfortable minutes watching him sob, I quietly and cautiously ducked out the back door of his house. I had a few more moments of violence John but this was a major moment for me. It was a moment of fight. While I know what he did to me is rape. I was forced to do things against me will. I was penetrated. He made me bleed with his nails on purpose. It was physically torturous and cements the idea for me that physical expressions of caring that are sexual are terrible. Always and he replaced uncertainty with fear, supported by shame.
My final incident happened when I was in college. I was twenty and it was the week before my academic junior year. I had worked the summer prior at a summer camp. We were a sleep-away camp so the staff became very close. I had invited my co-workers to my college apartment for a celebration before we all broke up to other lives. It personally had been a rough summer, two of my friends had tried to kill themselves while another actually succeed in suicide. My own mother had a near death operation and all of this honestly occurred in a twenty-four hour time period. I was sent spinning for the rest of the summer for that incredible time chunk. I ended up getting put on an anti-depressant to help. That fateful evening I was drinking; my camp friend Ivan from Sweden was getting me my drinks as he was getting mine. Everyone was having a good time. I had friends from home at the party too as well as college friends. Things get hazy after a few memories of the evening. I remember making out with a female friends. I had a boyfriend but that was considered okay. I was apparently taking into my own bedroom by Ivan and was being used when people walked in to make sure I was okay. I was passed out during all of this. Ivan was chased from the house, being driven away by another friend from camp. Ivan even sent a text message the next day thanking me for some excellent memories. It makes me feel slimy just typing that. My boyfriend broke up with me after it. His best friend had been at the party and he did not believe my claims of not knowing what had happened. I tried to kill myself that night, my best friend sitting on my as I begged her to help me, endless tears falling. That was once I started to sober up. And I could remember little things, hands on the small of my back, on my thigh. Tidbits being added by friends – he switched to water after one beer, he had bought condoms before he came, he said he was going to take what I had been teasing all summer. I had no idea. I hate calling this incident rape. It as again penetration that I did not consent; another instance where I lucked out in way that makes me feel worse, it was short, I was saved in an instance by friends. But those friends know. All of them knew that this was a third incident for me. A third time I had been violated. I was beginning to wonder if I had a sign on my forehead, they had to be doing the same.
I began to identify myself as just another statistic. I fit the statists of one in six of American women who has been a “victim” of rape or attempted rape. I am the 15% sexually assaulted under the age of 12, the 44% under the age of 18. I am more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, to develop PTSD, abuse alcohol and drugs, develop eating disorders, to contemplate suicide, to get raped again. I still don’t understand why it’s happened to me and I am starting to accept that I don’t have to. But this is a step out of the darkness. I had to walk to a lot of darkness to get this point. To write down what happened to me.
3) How did you survive?
I survived by ignoring it. Being older now I know I never really ignored it – I let it manifest in various ways – in high school it was counting calories, vomiting on command, cutting and burning myself – but all of this was done quietly. Only a few friends knew what I was doing. They knew about my phases of being suicidal. I tucked all of this behind straight A’s, student council, presidency of clubs, organizer of volunteers at the soup kitchen; I had lots of friends in different circles and different grades. I even had a job on top of babysitting. In my senior year I started college early, I won seven scholarships (by applying to 65) and I did this all while wanting to die. I just did what was expected despite what I may have felt.
I approached college the same way. My vices changed – I added alcohol and marijuana, kept the calorie counting, and lessened the cutting; but my general approach of acting like there was nothing wrong continued. It was most comfortable that way. I hated taking about it to friends- I always felt like delivery of what has happened was too comfortable, like I didn’t express it right, that I left something out. I worried it wasn’t “traumatic” enough, that my want to share it all was like a statement of importance, that what happened to me was important. I knew it was but I felt like it wasn’t supposed to be. By this point I was in counseling and I had been for a few years. I would start with a counselor, go for a few months, and something would change and for various reasons I would be asked to start over at a new center or with a new person. I felt like I kept hitting a wall with the topic.
Through this I had boyfriends and 1 girlfriend. There were hook ups and flings. They were all disasters in there own way. My counselors have told me that I used them to recreate the emotions, to hide in them, to be comfortable in them. This was how I survived. It’s not how I live now but it was how I got here, today.
4) Did you tell anyone about what was happening to you? Why or why not? What was their response?
I tried to tell my mother when it first happened (I was seven). I remember the incident very vividly. I was very hesitant as I told her something “important” – I had begun the conversation with “I have something important to tell you Mom.” I struggled with words to explain the shorts Eric had found and why they had been there to begin with. She was walking around the living room, closing the drapes as I followed behind here as I spoke. She didn’t really look at me as she cut me off and told me not to worry about it, that sometimes laundry gets stuck together. I was told I was being silly. I remember being upset about it, so frustrated, sitting in my bedroom with hot tears streaming down my face. There was a pencil on the floor – I popped the eraser off and dragged the metal top against the skin of my upper arm.
I remember telling my friends Emily and Lauren (name changes) about John and what he had done to me and had attempted. Lauren cried; she had dated John as well and had experienced similar situations and she hadn’t told anyone out of embarrassment. After dating John, Lauren was admitted into the psych ward at our local hospital. Emily had recently told both Lauren and I about how her brother, someone we knew very well, had been sexually abusing her for five years in her own home. It had turned out that we all had started cutting to help deal with our problems. We also counted calories. We were smart enough to know that what we were doing to ourselves was not healthy. We never encouraged each other to be unhealthy – we did the exact opposite; we were each other’s personal cheerleaders for recovery. Emily hugged us both when I was done telling what I could about John.
Emily was at the party when I was raped in my own apartment. She was the one who kept me from killing myself after it happened. I never had to tell her and I am thankful for that. It’s a story I rarely tell because I was drunk when it happened.
5) How did you get free?
I changed the way I thought. I was never going to be “normal” because normal is bullshit. There was nothing wrong with me. I never asked for these things to happen to me. They just happened. It is not because I am a bad person. I didn’t deserve these things and I certainly didn’t do anything to cause them. It is okay to be angry. It is okay to remember what happened. Use what happened to become better, to be stronger. In a warped way I am lucky because I know just how fucking strong I am. I know how far I can be pushed and I know I can come back, I can survive anything else life has left in store for me. I’ve seen the ugly of human nature and I have been gifted the access to ultimate instances of human kindness. I realized there was freedom in feeling the life I was given without apologies.
6) What is your life like now? Do you have a relationship with the perpetrator(s)?
I continue to have relationships with my rapists from high school and college on Facebook. In both instances I was friended by them; both of them act as if nothing odd ever happened. My rapist from high school took it a bit father with instances of showing up at my college housing on two separate occasions, a year apart. The second instance was at my apartment alone when he showed up. We had been talking on instant messager when I felt an odd surge of confidence to argue with him about a minor topic. Twenty minutes later he was pounding on my windows screaming, threatening to kill me. I hid in a corner with all the lights off, terrified and crying as I held my cell phone, ready to dial 911. That was the last incident I have had with him recently. He is back to casual comments on pictures and statuses on Facebook.
I recently deleted one from college but he still pops up on my newsfeed because of mutual friends he is still involved with. He didn’t seem to notice.
7) Do people in your life now know about your past? Are you “out” about it?
Yes but a limited “out.” I do not readily identify with a label about my experiences. They only come up when relevant in conversations, but even then I would rather leave my personal moments out of conversations. Sexual violence is something I often speak out against because of my personal experiences of how debilitating it can be. I am most likely to share in situations like that – where I believe my experiences have value, they can help others.
I use to worry people could tell that I was different because of my experiences. I would share when I started getting close to new friends because I felt pressure, not because I felt safe. Today I am much more conservative about who hears about my incidents. It is coming from a healthy perspective of finally seeing myself as more than the sum of my parts; I am very strong and resilient because of my parts and my passion. It’s a limited “out” because I am more complex than just my past.
8) What does resilience mean to you? Do you feel you are resilient?
Resilience has come to mean the act of bouncing past. Dictionary.com says “to spring back” is the act of being resilient but I disagree with this. When I first began to fall I was so young, I am so different today from that version of myself, I could never go back and I wouldn’t want to. To go back almost seems to lessen the importance of your fall. I fell … hard. I didn’t stop falling for years. But then I finally started to recover. I made some changes for me; I found and set up around myself a network of support. I started doing things that made me happy. I put effort into “my bounce”. But never once was I moving in the direction I once was nor will I ever be. I bounced away from where I was in the forward direction that all lives must ultimately go. I am resilient but not in the traditional sense. I know where I have been, where I once was and I use those experiences and those memories to guide my forward direction. I am trying to be true to myself. I have realized that I am a beautifully complex person because of my past and my momentum into the future.
9) What brings you joy now?
There are surprisingly a lot of things that bring me joy. I didn’t realize how much joy I use to “choose” to miss in my comfort of sadness, frustration, anxiety, and depression.
I find joy in my pets; I have three cats (one is the boyfriend’s) and a dog. When I was living by myself – after my father died and I was getting a divorce – they are the reason I am still alive. The make me smile daily. My boyfriend brings me so much joy. He is constantly making me laugh and touching me gently. I have never been in such a loving and supportive relationship as the one I am in now. My amazing support network – these people are simply amazing; they are an inspiration and they make laugh. They push me and congratulate me. They are truly priceless. I teach – my career is to protect children and nourish their minds.
I find joy in reading – I even find joy in picking out my next read! It’s so exciting- all the potential directions! I even go to libraries and bookstores as treats. I love to cook and garden. My plants give me a deep, full body joy. The smell of dirt, the care they require, the beautiful results – my family owned a greenhouse so growing is who I am. The fact that I made space for plants once again has been such a noticeable difference. I have writing and my art. I take the time for little treats in the shower, the occasional bath or facemask. Yoga makes me feel light and running makes me feel invincible. I have learned how to find joy in the process of making more joy for myself.
10) What message do you have for others who are still undergoing violence and/or are still recovering?
If you are here, if you are this far, you are going to make it. Give it time because your effort will eventually yield results.
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Absolutely gorgeous. Thank you, Lindsay!