Are You Sure?
This has been the most difficult thing I’ve ever attempted to write. I usually know a piece is going to be good when the words start to come to me naturally, and my hands have to work to keep up with my brain as I clumsily tap away at my keyboard. Writing something coherent often requires a certain amount of reflection that is only possible when you aren’t still standing in the eye of the storm. In this case, the storm follows me, and I’m not sure there will ever be a day when it doesn’t. Skies may clear temporarily, but trauma is the storm that keeps on storming. You learn to live in a thunderous climate; at times you even get used to it and consider it “home.” And because I’m not rude or a meme on some high schooler’s Instagram, I’m not going to write that you “learn to dance in the rain,” but I will tell you that removing yourself from your trauma isn’t — in my experience — possible. Sure, I can reflect on it, talk extensively about it in therapy, cry to my friends about it after exactly three glasses of wine…but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to “look back” on it. I can only look within and see it still sitting there, examine it, and try my best to not resort to denying its existence and significance. And that’s what I’ll attempt to do in this piece.
I was a guest on a podcast recently where the host asked me a series of personal questions because, for some reason, I have decided to live my life this way. One question was “what is your worst memory?” I sensed an elephant in the small recording studio. The host is a dear friend of mine, and someone who is well aware of what happened to me that night. I could certainly be imagining this and projecting onto her — as projection is a favorite pastime of mine — but it felt as though she was anticipating me saying, “I’m going to go with the rape on that one.” But I didn’t, and not because I was avoiding that answer, but because that answer isn’t true.
The truth is, I don’t remember that night. I have flashes, which are all blurry and play in my mind like a succession of poorly edited jump cuts in an NYU undergrad’s magnum opus. Those snippets definitely aren’t pleasant, but I do in a way feel removed from them. That memory barely feels like it belongs to me because mentally I wasn’t really there. That’s the whole problem. My worst memory is vivid. It’s easy to picture and, whenever I do, I have to squeeze my eyes shut and hum some random song I haven’t thought about in years to try to make it disappear.
I’m sitting in my childhood bedroom, on the bed I used to quickly leap onto so that the boogieman wouldn’t grab my feet. I’m staring at my laptop screen and feeling the panic of not wanting to be anywhere wash over and consume me. I’m looking at an article published online; a piece that quoted him. He had just publicly given his side of the story and it was the mirror opposite of mine. He put the blame of the assault on me and denied any fault of his own. Everything crumbled. That sounds cheesy or metaphorical but that’s exactly how it felt; it felt literal. I had worked so.fucking.hard on believing myself and weaving together the truth, parsing through my anger, the sickness I felt in my gut. And in one instant, the delicate strands of logic and self-trust began to unravel at lightning speed, at the hands of the man who caused it all in the first place.
It was a few days before Christmas and I remember hearing holiday songs play downstairs where my family was waiting for me to spend time with them. But all I could do was sit there, in a room that once represented safety and comfort, and watch my hands tremble. I was ripped away from my reality and placed in one where everything looked the same but felt much, much worse. The initial feeling of being lost among what should be familiar — that is my worst memory. I’m going to sue myself for writing this next line, but…the boogieman wasn’t under my bed, he was in my head.
When someone takes something that, in theory, only you should be able to hold onto — something intrinsically yours — you feel a loss of power. This is a logical idea that most people understand on a superficial level, but I don’t think people fully comprehend how it actually feels. The feeling of powerlessness is ironically very strong. It’s omnipresent and it seems to be waiting for you at every turn, ready to bring you to your knees. It makes you want to melt into a puddle and evaporate. It weighs heavily on you, holding you down, but somehow also makes you feel weightless; you’re nothing but vapor, but still somehow made of jelly and can’t do anything but lay there, immobile. It feels a lot like what that night entailed, but it comes now, in the light of day, in the soberness of my mind, in the sharp, clear present. That night, he took my body and did what he wanted with it without my consent. And then he took my belief in myself and snatched that away from me too. He gaslit me into not trusting my own thoughts, memories, reality and self. And without those things, I lost the power to feel like myself, to navigate the world in my own body. He was dangling that power over my head, and watching me dizzy as I gazed up at it, just out of reach. The best word I can think of to describe it is torture.
Women coming forward is often met with anger, particularly from men. Not only do they not believe her, they are mad at her. How could she confidently take a stand and say for sure what happened to her, to her own body? I truly think this infuriates them, this self assuredness. We recently saw men — and women — get upset about Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s willingness to take the stand. She retold her experience of assault without a hint of self doubt and was promptly gaslit into thinking that she must be remembering incorrectly. It must have been someone else, she must be mistaken. Because a woman knowing for sure who assaulted her and being absolutely positive that it was assault is threatening to the patriarchal society we have built. It could begin to chip away at what is so solidly in place, and that is their worst nightmare. So, they turn the tables and chip away at that woman’s reality to keep her unsure and silent.
There is a common misconception that when a woman comes forward, it means she has decided to stand her ground and is no longer experiencing any doubt about her assault. But believing yourself when it comes to sexual violence is an everyday battle. There are the internet trolls, the countless times you’re told that claiming mistreatment is an overreaction, and the very world that raised you to believe that you don’t know what you’re talking about. All of these factors work together and against you, trying to convince you to back down and quit fighting. We’ve created a society that not only doesn’t believe women, but doesn’t want them to believe themselves.
After I came forward, strangers found me online and tried to fill my mind with doubt. Someone went as far as creating a fake Twitter account to tweet at me and tell me I was the kind of feminist that tries to convince all women that every sexual act is assault. What those who accuse me of “overreacting” don’t realize is that I, like many women, have spent my entire life denying that so many instances were not okay. I brushed off advances from older men while I was underraged, hands down my shirt from a stranger standing behind me at a concert, boys feeding me alcohol and waiting until I couldn’t keep my balance to lure me into the bedroom, friends disagreeing with my request to wear a condom and then sticking themselves inside me before I could protest, men saying they would pull out and then “finishing before they could,” etc. et-fucking-cetera. In fact, after most of these situations, I felt guilty, ashamed, and dirty for being the “slut” that would let those things happen. I often even convinced myself that I had invited that kind of behaviour. The truth is, sometimes I still do. I can post long Facebook rants about consent and sexism, but that doesn’t erase years of being taught that avoiding harassment is my own responsibility and feeling violated is really just me being dramatic. The irony here is that the women that men call fragile or attention seekers or anything of that nature are the same women who have endured diabolical bullshit in silence for years. There comes a time when you decide to stick up for yourself and dictate what can and cannot be done to you and your body. But standing that ground is an endless fight, not only against those who try to refute what you know in your gut to be true, but also with the version of you who is still convinced she doesn’t deserve shit. It’s so easy to instill doubt in someone who has been raised on it. I wish I could tell these assholes that they can save their energy because I’m creating enough self doubt in my mind for all of us, but that would give them too much joy and they’re the ones that don’t deserve shit.
The flames of gaslighting burn so deeply in your mind that you begin to distrust your own body. Sometimes when I’m engaging in consensual sex, something will trigger the memory of that night and then I either start crying or flinch away from my partner. I never realize this has happened until I realize I am now somehow turned away from my partner, or that there are hot tears streaming down my face. I’m told that whenever this happens, my eyes goes blank and it’s apparent that I have left my body. It happens reflexively, I have no control over it. It’s PTSD, and it feels like I’m broken in a way that I have no idea how to fix. How do you address something and try to prevent it from happening when you don’t even feel as if you’re there when it does? Aside from that, it is, at least, an indicator that something happened to me and my body is automatically responding. It’s clear evidence. And yet, I still have trouble believing it. The doubt has made itself so at home in my brain that I’m willing to ignore clear signs my body is giving me. To fall prisoner to gaslighting and value the toxic lies it spreads over the signs my own body gives me is part of what makes the whole experience feel so crippling. I’m held hostage, and my captor has figured out how to use me against myself.
When I first came to terms with my assault, I reached out to my assailant and told him that what he did was wrong and asked him to please change the way he treats women in the future. He apologized to me, admitted fault, and promised he’d leave me alone. I assumed he was sorry. I felt bad for making him deal with the fact that he caused me pain. I never imagined that his apology could be insincere, or a way to buy my silence. Eventually I decided to come forward publicly and that’s when he changed his story. The gaslighting began and I questioned myself all over again. This cycle calls into question your very perception of reality, but deep down you always know the truth. That’s why it’s such torture; you are aware of what really happened, but every time you arrive at the truth, a small, needling voice whispers, “are you sure?” That cycle continues on and on until you feel like you’re spiraling into a hell where you’re stuck with your terrible thoughts for the rest of eternity. The part of me that knew I was right and knew I had to keep fighting to believe myself was so fucking angry and hurt. I felt stupid for being naive enough to believe that this man ever had my best interests in mind. I’ve worked on putting myself back together for three years since he tried to break me, and something that has helped ground me is realizing that he is truly someone who wanted to hurt me. Of course he lied, of course he changed his story while knowing it would devastate me, because he has no regard for my well being, as he has made blindingly clear since the night he raped me. This is the reality I must hold onto if I want to stay footed on the ground. It’s dark and painful, but at least it’s real.