I fought the man…and nobody won
This kind of stuff never happens to me.
Depression happens to me. Bad stuff definitely happens to me. But sexual assault? That never happens to me.
I’m a feminist. I grew up with a hardworking single mother. I believe women. I defend women. I love women. I know this kind of stuff happens all the time, but not to me. I’m strong-willed, I’m loud, I’m outspoken, I grew up with older brothers, I know how to defend myself, I have good instincts, I am tough, I am smart, so this kind of thing could never, ever happen to me.
I am wrong.
2016 has been a very, very long year. I know, it’s only March, but it feels like forever since the night this year started. That’s when all of this started.
I was assaulted by a male coworker after our shift on New Year’s Eve. I won’t go into details, because to be honest, I’m really, very tired of rehashing the event over and over. I will sum it up like this: I was groped, I was grabbed, I was touched, and I was followed home for over a mile, all while I repeatedly pushed him off of me and said keywords and phrases like, “No” and “Stop” and “Please don’t do this” and “You’re making me uncomfortable.”
When I told my boss (who happens to be male) about it the next day, the attacker confirmed that he was blackout drunk and didn’t remember a thing. I was asked to sit down, face him, and try to accept an apology so that we could all move forward. I tried to be diplomatic. I tried to weigh my options. I tried to be a good employee and make things easier on everyone else while possibly compromising my own needs. I was still in so much shock from the event itself, I didn’t know what to do, I couldn’t think clearly at all.
In the end, I said no. I refused. This wasn’t a career, this was a restaurant job where I held the title of “Assistant Manager” (though, if we’re being honest, I was a glorified hostess taking on payroll and manager duties for only $12 an hour). It wasn’t worth it. Sexual assault wasn’t worth it. I didn’t want an apology, I didn’t want to face my attacker, I didn’t want to sit in front of him and let him beg me to keep his job, I didn’t want to continue to work with him, and I didn’t want to work for someone who thought that was an option. So I quit.
I was in denial about the post-traumatic stress for a while. I questioned my right to feel so broken. I doubted my decision to leave my job, with no savings in the bank. I mean, I wasn’t actually raped. I got away. I removed myself from the situation. I needed to just get over it and move on.
I couldn’t. It consumed me. I became paralyzed. I lost my voice. I became small. Friends told me my personality had changed. I wasn’t the life of the party anymore. I wasn’t even at the party. I was actually at home in bed, crying most of the time. I stopped being funny. I tried to be funny a few times on stage, but it wasn’t until I saw the reactions I was getting that I realized it wasn’t funny. I wasn’t ready to be funny about it yet, and people expressed their concern.
I did file for unemployment because I had been tipped off by a friend that you do in fact qualify for unemployment if you quit a job because you feared for your safety. I just needed a little assistance while I got on my feet and found a new job. I love to work. I always work. I wasn’t a great student in school growing up, but in my adult life, I’ve always been a hard worker. I just needed a little help in the meantime, and I deserved that, right? My former boss, the one who asked me to accept an apology for being assaulted, didn’t think so. He rejected the unemployment. His reason being that I quit voluntarily because of a “personal conflict with a coworker.” All of my fears about being wrong to stand up for myself were now confirmed. I got myself into this mess, and I didn’t deserve any help getting out.
But I fought back. I must admit that I mostly fought back because of the support from friends, and the encouragement of a woman who worked at the unemployment office. When I spoke to her on the phone, I was defeated by the idea of being rejected, but she was furious when she heard my story. She comforted me, she got angry for me, she gave me resources, she told me how to appeal and insisted that I do so. She reassured me that she herself had been in a similar situation years earlier, and that I owed it to myself to fight. She talked to me on the phone for 45 minutes, while I cried, promising me that I did the right thing. She told me that when it happened to her, she stuck around at her job for a year and half, and “it was a year and half too long.”
That was one of the most eye-opening parts about going through all of this. When I shared my story with other women, I was encouraged by all of them, but discouraged to find out it was because most of them had also been through a similar experience. I used to think I was someone this kind of thing would never happen to, and now here I was, going through it, finding out so many women I knew had been through the same. But with their support, I filed an appeal, and waited for the process to pan out so I could make my case.
Meanwhile, the depression continued to get worse. My body literally shut down. I struggled to fight off a cold that turned into the flu, and then that flu turned into full-blown pneumonia. There was a moment at the beginning of February, when I found myself on an exam table in a doctor’s office, with 103 fever, hysterically crying and telling her that I didn’t have a job and I couldn’t afford the chest x-ray she was insisting I needed. I couldn’t afford to have pneumonia or beat pneumonia or even be properly diagnosed with pneumonia. I lost 16 lbs. I’m not naturally ballerina thin, but I couldn’t exactly afford to lose 16 lbs.
I needed therapy. I knew I needed therapy. Close friends and family were pointing that out to me constantly, it was definitely time to get some professional help. But counseling costs money. Physically getting to a therapist’s office costs money. I simply couldn’t afford to get better.
I thought a lot about killing myself. I don’t think I was truly suicidal (been there, failed to do that) but I fantasized about the idea a lot. I’d lay in bed, hiding under the covers, telling myself that being dead would be so much easier. But then I’d think, “I owe people money, I can’t kill myself.” I couldn’t even afford to kill myself.
I couldn’t afford anything.
I doubted myself every single moment, even with friends and strangers assuring me I was doing the right thing. I waited in fear for my appeal hearing, while watching the Kesha/Dr. Luke debacle unfold publicly. Nobody ever sides with women, how can I possibly expect to win this case?
When the day of my hearing finally arrived in early March, I put on my nicest outfit and went downtown with all of my notes, ready to plead my case but also ready to vomit the second I saw my employer. I was so nervous about the possibility of facing him, but I never had to. He didn’t show up. I don’t know if he thought I wouldn’t fight back, and decided to not continue to fight me on it. I don’t know if maybe he got busy and forgot. What I do know is, I was there, rehashing the trauma, because of him. This process was still going on because of him. But even without him there, I had to move forward and keep my eye on the (very minimal) prize and give my testimony. My roommate testified too, he’s the one who actually found me on the night of the assault. I know he won’t love me saying this publicly, which is why I won’t mention his name, but he got choked up when he told the judge he’d never seen me as scared as I was that night.
Afterwards, we celebrated the hearing being over and I spent the afternoon feeling more relieved than I ever had before. No matter the outcome, I was one step closer to finally having closure.
I got a letter in the mail last week. It’s long. It’s full of confusing legal jargon. I remember my heart beating so fast when I first read it, trying to get to the point and make out what it all meant. I’ve read it a thousand times over since.
“The Appeals Board held the claimant took reasonable measures to preserve her employment…”
“…the claimant voluntarily quit her most recent work due to being sexually harassed on the job.”
“…this was obviously a traumatic experience for the claimant, and the employer did not protect the claimant…”
“Accordingly, the claimant voluntarily quit her most recent work with good cause.”
“The notice of redetermination is reversed.”
I won. I won, I won, I won. I blasted inspirational music (only performed by women of course), I danced around my room, I jumped up and down and called all of my friends and read the letter to them. I cried. I smiled. I cried more. I WON.
Then I realized, I didn’t win. I had no chance at winning. I lost the night of the incident, and never had a chance at winning after that. I was assaulted and traumatized and then I was put through hell to have to prove that I was assaulted and traumatized, and that I deserved something for it.
The back payments I am now owed since the beginning of January are a lot less exciting when I think about the fact that I have to pay it back to people who loaned me money, and then I have to use the rest to finally get some much needed therapy. But now I can actually start the process of moving forward, and moving on, and finding a therapist, and finding a job.
Seriously, does anyone have leads on jobs?
Now I can see myself becoming this loud, angry, feminist online. It makes me worry about my image, and what people think of me, because I care about what everyone thinks about me. I’m obsessed with what everyone thinks about me. I know, that’s my bad.
But still, I continue to feel myself fuming and rolling my eyes and getting upset about arguments made against a certain female presidential candidate, a lot of them in reference to her “smile” and the “tone of her voice.” I feel less inclined to make stupid pop culture jokes these days and instead wanting to write angry rants about how infuriating it is that Sony fired Dr. Luke because of the bad press they got, not because of what he actually did to Kesha. I know all too well now, from my own experience, a sexual assault isn’t bad for business until it is truly bad for the business. (My attacker did end up being fired, by the way)
I feel myself getting back to the old me, the funny me, the lighthearted me, the “will do anything to be the center of attention at a party” me. But I’m still angry. I’m angry and I have every right to be, even if anger isn’t a good look for me.
The point is, being a woman sucks. Being a woman really, really, really, sucks. Being a woman is fucking hard and awful and dangerous and it always will be. Don’t get me wrong: I love being a woman, I love women, and I know we have made great strides as women. But that doesn’t mean I don’t get to hate it sometimes, too. So while I do feel this natural female instinct to apologize to everyone, because lately I haven’t been very fun or funny, or because I’m being too political or too angry on the internet, I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to say that I’m sorry, because I’m not sorry.
I’ve learned a lot this year so far and now I feel empowered to speak up more when I can, and I will…because I fought the man, and lost, but I didn’t let him win either.
Ok but seriously, please, someone, give me a job.