I Choose the Pen
Choosing myself after sexual assault
**Trigger Warning: Sexual Violence**
I am writing this in pencil. Today I needed an outlet so I decided to write. The plan was not to overthink it, it was simply to write out my thoughts. I sat down, opened my bag and stared at my writing utensil options: two pens and a mechanical pencil. I love writing with pens. Both pens at my disposal possessed a cozy grip, medium point, and strong proclivity for smooth writing. Next to the pens, the mechanical pencil reverberated a sense of comfort. Strangely enough, this comfort conflicts with my actual opinion of pencils. I’ve never liked the way they write — coarse and unpredictable. The graphite creates ridges that change the way the pencil glides along the paper. Sometimes this creates smooth, linear lines and other times they are rough and disproportionate. With too much pressure, the tip of the pencil can break right off. Sure, the pencil has its benefits — mistakes can easily be removed. The perfectionist in me doesn’t like the scribbles or unsightly lines the pen leaves from crossed out misspellings or grammatical errors. The pencil caters to this need. But the real reason I chose the pencil was because I knew exactly what I intended to write about and planned on enlisting the eraser as my trusty, complacent guardian. With the quick swipe of the eraser, I could remove any traces of shame, any feelings of embarrassment, all suffocating discomfort. I could eradicate my experiences entirely, pretend they were never there to begin with, right?
The morning after I was raped in college, I experienced a complicated mixture of denial and affirmation. I woke up with a void in my memory where hours of the night before should have been. When I got up to go to the bathroom, my first step was met with the crinkle of an empty condom wrapper. I looked down and immediately felt as though the walls were caving in. My body told me something horribly wrong had happened; the pit in my stomach and pounding in my head silently screamed at me to fix everything — somehow make myself feel better. My head echoed thoughts of palpable vulnerability and anguish, but also just as certain thoughts of denial.
Jake* is your closest college friend.You spend several nights a week together. You trust him. Less than a month prior, you told him about the first time you were assaulted in high school; about the time you trusted another male friend and he took advantage of you. He heard how many of your friends didn’t believe you afterward and how it crushed you. You took a chance and trusted Jake with your most grueling memory. No, he was not capable of this. It must have been a misunderstanding. Maybe you encouraged him somehow.
I sat at my desk and stared at my bed: the place where the hurt and confusion originated. The only concrete evidence, the empty condom wrapper, laid on the floor next to the safe haven I normally retired to for rest and comfort. This place felt dirty now. I needed an explanation. I decided to text him. What happened last night? He was confused. I didn’t know? I was there. We had sex. He came over drunk from a party he’d been at for the last few hours, I had three drinks, and then we had sex. I was confused. I didn’t want to have sex with Jake. Why couldn’t I remember? I’d never blacked out from three drinks before. How could I have possibly blacked out from just three drinks then done something I knew, and previously made explicitly clear to Jake, that I did not want to do? The last thing I remember was the two of us, alone in my dorm room. I was drinking my third glass of wine, sitting at my desk facing Jake. He was sitting on the bed holding his glass of gin and tonic and we were chatting about nothing in particular. In hindsight, it seemed as though I was getting really drunk, really fast, but it didn’t concern me at the time. Then my memory goes blank — nothing. The next thing I remember, it was morning. None of this made sense. I’d heard about roofies before and knew Jake had access to drugs because he’d offered me some before, but he wasn’t capable of this, right? But I only had three drinks.
I texted our mutual friend, Nick*. Nick said he’d seen Jake before he’d gone to my room. Jake was drunk and telling a group of guys at the party that he could sleep with his “easy” friend, me, whenever he wanted, but there was no way he was capable of what I was implying, Nick said. Jake could never drug and rape someone. He’s a good guy. I couldn’t deal with what I’d just heard. In a few short texts, Nick had both reinforced and invalidated what happened. I noticed I’d stopped breathing momentarily and took a deep breath. This couldn’t be happening again. I felt like a hostage in my own body.
I acted on impulse. I told Jake I didn’t want to be friends anymore and I willfully gave in to my reflex to move on and ignore my feelings. I erased.
Today, as I clicked the end of my mechanical pencil to release the lead, I thought about the choice I made to use a pencil instead of one of my favorite pens. I thought about the solace I found in the ability to erase, the comfort in elimination, and how detrimental this way of thinking has been to who I am. I’ve spent much of my life in-denial. This had effects far beyond my experience of the situation in college, it has created the passive, compliant, often insecure individual I’ve developed into. I’ve spent so much energy denying my own truth — pretending my feelings weren’t there because they hurt. Depression and PTSD have been close companions to the memories of those experiences that have followed me around. My eraser trailed behind like a shadow.
Sometimes my eraser took on the form of alcohol. Alcohol made it easy to forget. A few beers helped a few months later when I had a seemingly random, ten second flashback to that night with Jake: complete darkness, laying on my back, my body heavy and immovable like a human paperweight, someone on top of me, confusion, then nothing — that’s when I needed to erase the most. Other times, my erasure was less intentional. I’d read an article about campus rape and be reminded of my experience. Again, my body would feel the distress, but this time my head would tell me not to worry about it. Get over it. Your experience was nothing like the victim in the article, she was actually violated. You’re making a big deal out of nothing. I had been conditioned to invalidate my own feelings.
A quick Google search will identify some of the synonyms for the word invalidate: cancel, nullify, and undo. I can’t cancel what happened. I can’t nullify my feelings. And I can’t undo the lasting effect they have had on my life and who I am as a person. Usually, when pencil is erased, it is done to fix something. I can’t fix this by erasing it. It happened, and my feelings are valid and exist whether I choose to confront them or not. At this point, I can choose comfort in the coarse, but erasable graphite of the pencil, or the uncertainty in the potentially imperfect, but smooth and permanent ink of the pen. I can continue denying my thoughts and dismissing my feelings, or I can live my truth, trust my own perceptions, and go from there.
From now on, I think I’m going to ditch the pencil and choose the pen. I’m going to choose me.
*All names have been changed.