[Content Note: Sexual assault, abuse]
This might be a difficult read. Please know that yes, I am starting with a new therapist next week who I think will give me the help I desperately need. I write here because the process deserves documentation and because to have it concretely down in words is a step toward recovery.
Things that are true: Emotional strength doesn’t usually feel strong. Fear accompanies courage. Sometimes the wounds of what has been done to you do not open until years after the damage is done. Many lessons we learn as children are false lessons.
I am a survivor.
Many of you may assume somewhat rightly that I am referring to being a survivor of sexual assault. Yes, I am a survivor of that. I could not say that until recently because I refused to call it sexual assault and because it could have been worse, I couldn’t credit myself with “surviving”. You know how it goes don’t you? There are levels of assault and you only get to feel a certain amount of bad depending on the level. It’s like the terror alert system, accept there are a lot of things you’re not supposed to not feel bad about and if you do, well, you’re weak and probably brought it on yourself anyway. I mean, having sex you regret isn’t assault.
Or whatever. Fuck you. Regret born from fear and a feeling of lack of concern or consent is assault. Yes, internet, I said it. Having sex you didn’t want to have is nonconsensual and is therefore rape. Plain and simple. I’m tired of this shit. You don’t get to police people’s pain. It hurts because a wound has been inflicted. It hurts and it shouldn’t fucking happen.
Seriously, you guys.
But actually, I want to talk about how I ended up there and why I was quiet and felt I had no choice in the matter back then. It is because I am a survivor of insidious emotional abuse…abuse I endure for my entire young life for as long as I can remember. My first memories were knowing certain truths that were so very false. But I was a kid. I was a good kid. What defenses did I have?
I remember lying there bracing myself for pain I had asked to please not be inflicted upon me wondering why I didn’t just get up and go home. At the time I thought, “well, I let it get this far. This is my fault. You can’t just stop at this stage of the game. You deserve this.” But what that really was about was a profound belief, barely conscious, that I do not matter. My well-being does not matter. My safety does not matter. My happiness is irrelevant.
Where would I pick up such an idea? I mean, I’m an American for fuck’s sake! Individualism! Westward expansion! Killing buffalo on the way to Oregon in order to make a life in the gold filled mountains. Seizing life by the hojos in order to fulfill your own desires! That’s ‘Merica!
But, I assumed that was for someone else. Or more to the point, I was taught from the earliest age that to be of service to others who have big dreams, to sacrifice of yourself until you have nothing left to aid in the achievement of those desires, to put my own well-being aside when someone else had problems, was the only way to be a Good Person. More accurately, it was the only way to earn love. I believed that putting myself first would directly result in a loss of love. I did not believe that I had any value other than what I could do for other people and if there was ever a time when I could have done more (and you can always do more), I was not doing enough and was unworthy of happiness or love.
Pretty fucked up, right? It didn’t get better once I was in school and I attracted friends who exploited this about me. I was exploited for my kindness, obedience and lack of self worth at home and at school…and wasn’t even really aware of it until I was well into my 20’s.
I was depressed for most of my young life as well. I didn’t think of it as clinical because I was surrounded by awful people almost all the time. At home, my parents were my best friends. I didn’t like people my own age. This is mostly because I grew up fast. I had a lot of responsibilities at the house, not the least of which was being a counselor, almost a contemporary to them. I took on their weaknesses and worries and didn’t know it was happening. I was a kid and learned a bunch of wrong lessons, interpreting what I heard in the worst way and then not having it disproven. When I tried to question the “truths” with which I was raised, I was told to be quiet, to not cop an attitude, to not argue. Sometimes when I was upset, I was told to cut it out because it was inconvenient.
At school, I was manipulated and guilt-tripped on a daily basis over the problems of my peers. I was an easy mark, as I would accept whatever blame people wanted to place on me. If I was at all involved in a less than ideal situation, I would take as much blame as there was because I could have done more to have avoided the situation. I could always have had more control over my part of things and for that I felt nothing but guilt and fear. I feared that I was not worthy of friends, that if I was not as selfless and sacrificial as I could be that being treated poorly was punishment for my imperfection.
I believed that if I was not the most supportive, the most giving, the nicest, the humblest, I would inevitably be left by anyone who made the mistake of loving me or even just liking me. I watched as the decision to no longer speak to extended family members or family friends was made without consulting me. I always heard the reasons though…usually something about not being supportive or selfless enough or giving enough. How could I unlearn that? How could I get away from that truth? Anyone’s head could be on the chopping block at any time.
And so I live with this today. It is a deep, unmoving cut surrounded by years of scar tissue. I have a home full of wonderful people who love me dearly. They want to be near me. They want to build a life with me, all of us looking forward to becoming the caricatures of cantankerous old people we know we will be together. I believe this, when I am not looking through the veil of depression and fear. Even then, I believe them intellectually, but deep in my heart I remember all those years of worthlessness.
When I was about to graduate from highschool, I had a boyfriend who was the darling of the computer department. Everyone expected to go on to do great Bill Gates level kind of things. It was pretty accepted by everyone that we were going to get married because you think that way when you’re 18. One day, one of the computer teachers took me aside and told me that it was my responsibility to make sure he stayed motivated for greatness in life. Basically, I would best serve the world by standing behind him, by holding him up. I was heart broken at that moment because, for me, that summed up everything I thought I already knew about life. I asked her, “Don’t you care if I succeed on my own merits?” And she said, “Oh, I’m not worried about you. You’ll be fine.”
I think I was supposed to take this as a compliment, but in reality it was icing on this particular Reality Cake. That was everyone’s excuse for minimizing me. I have always been so independent, so well behaved, so self-sufficient, so uncomplaining. I didn’t need to be cared for because I was going to be fine. I wouldn’t be great though. I would be fine. My job was to make sure that geniuses achieved their greatness, whether those geniuses be my partner or my parent. If greatness failed to be achieved? Why didn’t I do everything possible? What more could I have done? Why didn’t I give until I was dead?
And therein lies why I was never suicidal. Did I want my constant guilt and sense of uselessness and sadness to end? Of course. But if I were to die by my own hand, I would no longer be in service. I would cement my legacy as the mule, but mule who didn’t care enough or give enough to live for everyone.
So as I lay on that bed those few years ago waiting for it to be over, hoping it didn’t turn violent, wondering why I didn’t yell or fight to have concern paid to me, to be cared for, I knew that it was because I believed that my purpose was service to anyone who wished to take from me. I was part of a cycle that had ruined parts of the lives of some of the women who came before me. It manifested differently in each generation. For them it was choosing to be selfish and being blind to that fact. For me, it was desperately grasping to inclusion and believing whole heartedly that if I stopped grasping for just one second, I would lose everything.
I could say more history of them, but this isn’t a story about them. This is a story about me and I am a survivor of abuse and assault. Perhaps the assailants were unwitting in their crimes, but crimes they were.
I matter. My well-being and happiness are important. I mean more to those who love me than the sum of the services I provide. I am strong. I am courageous. I deserve the life that I have built.
I am completely terrified.
And I am finally loved.