Side Out: Taking the Ball Back After Abuse
A message to the parents and coaches of young athletes
My head was pressed against the glass of the suburban and the rolled up sweatshirt I had tried to use as a pillow kept sliding down with every rhythmic cut-chung, cut-chung, cut-chung of the parkway. It was the end of three full days at the volleyball east coast championships at Penn State. It was close to 1am as we neared the park-and-ride where the parents who hadn’t chaperoned would be waiting for their kids.
All of my teammates lived within 10 minutes of the drop-off location, except for me. I was the only girl from a different county which meant I still had a 90 minute trek home. I don’t remember what the plan was or if there even was a plan to get me home if we had arrived back at such an unforeseen hour, but nonetheless I couldn’t reach either of my parents by phone.
So I just stood there in the midst of the shuffle and hand-offs with my duffle bag, until most of the cars had pulled away. Eventually one of the parents noticed me and asked where my ride was.
“I don’t have one,” I said.
My coach and the remaining parents made quick glances between each other as if I were a stray dog that had wandered up to them hungry, tired and cold. I just wanted a safe place to sleep until morning.
“I’ll take her back to my brother’s house where I’m staying and drive her home in the morning,” my coach said.
There was a sigh of relief among all of us. The chaperones had done their job. Each player was accounted for and now safely on their way to a restful, well deserved night’s sleep.
After the warm flush of embarrassment of being a 1am burden subsided, I felt incredibly lucky. Excited, even. Although my coach could be an utter raving, tyrant as she was that weekend, she was also funny and occasionally warm-hearted off the court. In her prime, she was the setter for her country’s national volleyball team which also made her my idol. She had already lived the dream I had for my future and I wanted to soak up every morsel of her coaching.
I studied her every move. Whether she was demonstrating technique, walking across the gym, or picking up a ball from the floor, I studied her. Not only did I want to play like her, I wanted to move like and carry my body through space like her. To own the ground I stood on. Confident. Focused. Resolved. Fierce.
And now I was about to have 1-on-1 time with her? How did I get this lucky?
The house and streets were already dark and put to bed when she and I pulled up. I was glad about that. This burrow of New York felt like the gruesome underbelly of the pristinely groomed, spacious and safe neighborhood I was from. The streets were narrow, driveways shorter, front yards looked like small patches of grass and there were so many cars parked along the curb that you couldn’t tell which vehicles belonged to which house. It was like a neighborhood with all of the space sucked out of it.
We walked up the concrete steps to her brother’s house by 2am. I wondered if our arrival would wake him but for all I knew his bedroom could be tucked away down a hall in the house, far from the noise of us entering.
She opened the door slowly and I nearly walked into her back as she failed to step forward like I imagined she would. I was surprised to hear her speak in such a middle-of-the-day voice at that hour, but as she leaned her head through the door there was an immediate and lengthy exchange of words between her and a man, whom I assumed to be her brother. Beyond the doorway which I still could not see past, I was surprised to hear more voices. Many more. When I tilted my head to catch a glimpse over her shoulder, I could barely see the faint shadows of their dark skinned faces. The room was only lit by the amber glow of many- many white candles, and the smell of burning incense had finally reached the door. I don’t know what was said. I will never know.
Their native tongue was not my own. What I did understand solely by intuition, is that our arrival had interrupted them and my presence was not only unexpected, but also un-welcomed by those beyond the door.
From what I observed when she finally grabbed my hand and swept me past that room and down the hall to her bedroom, was what seemed to be a dark, chanting, group prayer.
I didn’t ask. She didn’t offer to tell.
“The bathroom is right outside the door if you need it. Do you have something comfortable to sleep in?” she asked.
“Yeah, thanks,” I said, panning the small room with a queen size bed at the center.
“You can have that side of the bed. THIS one is mine. DO NOT CROSS THIS LINE” she said in her playfully stern manner as she dragged her hand down the center of the bed to mark an imaginary line.
I laughed, “Got it.”
“What kind of music do you like?”
Music? I thought. She unzipped the nylon cover of a blue cassette holder and ran her finger along a row of homemade mixed cassette tapes as I did a quick and inconspicuous locker room change into my sweats and a fresh t-shirt. Although it sounded like the group down the hall had brought their late night festivities to a close, there wasn’t a chance in holy hell I wanted to venture even a centimeter beyond her door to the bathroom.
I sat Indian style on my side of the bed, feeling a bit uncomfortable with the idea of pulling the covers down and jumping into my coaches bed without some kind of gesture from her that it was ok that I did.
She pulled a cassette out, put it into the player just behind the head of the bed and pressed play.
“Relax. Get comfortable. I know you’re tired,” she said as she pulled my side of the bed covers down. “You played very well this weekend, but we need to work on your body position when you’re under the ball.”
“Ok,” I said, laying down feeling partially disappointed that she wasn’t totally pleased with my performance. She flopped down on her back beside me and shared more critiques as the first song came to an end.
“This next song is for you.” She rolled toward me onto her side and reached her arm above our heads to turn the volume up slightly. For me?? What in the world could it be? I thought.
The song PYT by Michael Jackson came through the speakers. As I lay there listening, trying to make sense of how these lyrics could ever be for me, she started to sing along.
“I want to love you (P-Y-T)
Pretty young thing
You need some lovin’ (T-L-C)
Tender lovin’ care
And I’ll take you there
Gotta get to you baby
Won’t you come, it’s emergency
Cool my fire yearnin’
Honey, come set me free
Don’t you know now is the perfect time
We can dim the lights
Just to make it right
In the night
Hit the lovin’ spot
I’ll give you all that I’ve got”
As the song progressed, so did she. She moved closer. I could feel her eyes and sense her intention and it was making the skin on my face warm. I was sure she would notice the uneasy flush on my face. My heart started to beat like thunder inside of my chest. I felt paralyzed with the thought of what was coming. Although I wasn’t certain of what it might be, I was sure if I met her stare with my eyes it would happen faster, so I kept them fixed on the ceiling above me.
Her hand touched my cheek.
FIRE! If someone could just yell FIRE it would make us all jump to our feet and be free of this awful and awkward moment.
I closed my eyes, turned my head slightly towards her and tucked my chin as if her touch was intended to put me to sleep. Maybe it was? Maybe my childlike mind was playing out sex scenes from movies because for the first time in my life I was laying in bed with a stranger, and that’s what strangers laying in bed do, but in reality she was just doing what a grown woman does with a young child in bed- she was being maternal.
The music, the touch…was it was all to comfort me? That makes more sense, I thought.
“Are you my pretty young thing?” She said as she moved her whole body on top of mine and lifted my chin so my face met hers.
“Hmm? Are you my little girl?”
Her eyes looked blacker than the night and her breathe was close enough for me to taste. What is happening here? Why are her hips so buried into mine? Why has her voice cascaded down to a deep, airy groan? Why does it feel like she is going to kiss me?
I was red hot and terrified to move.
FIRE!! Please, someone yell FIRE!
She kissed me and thrust her hips deeper into mine. As her grip around my body tightened, her thrusts quickened against my pelvis and her moans dialed up more intensely. My body wouldn’t move an inch. My mind couldn’t compute. There was too much information and not enough.
One tear escaped from the corner of my eye. The single wet droplet must have rolled from the side of my temple to hers and stung her like acid, because she lurched her head back suddenly to look at me.
She looked angry. “What’s wrong,” she asked accusingly.
I couldn’t get anything out except for a flood of tears and,
“I don’t know. This doesn’t feel right.”
She popped up to her feet, cursed at me in her native language while she put on her shoes, grabbed her keys and left the room.
Left the house.
Left in her car, as I watched her headlights disappear from the small basement window of her bedroom.
Oh my God…what have I done?
For hours, I wept. I played and replayed the events in my head trying to remember what I had done that caused so much anger in her. Did I insult her? Did I misread her? Was she coming back? I didn’t know, but I knew if she did, I would apologize for everything in hopes she would forgive me.
Please, please come back. I need to pee. I want to go home.
It was dawn when she came back. The pain of holding my bladder for all those hours was subdued by my anxiousness of her opening the door. She came in calm. Quiet.
“I’m so sorry!” I blurted out in sobs before she could speak. She wrapped her arms around me as gently as a mamma bird protects her babies.
“Hush..it’s ok my little girl. It’s ok.” she said.
And we walked out to her car together for the long ride home.
The above story marked the beginning. My initiation, if you will, to a three year long victimization from an adult whom I trusted.
She made me different from my teammates and my school friends. When they were at the beginnings of flirting, kissing boys, and discovering the magical sensations of their own vaginas, I was with her. Snuck into her hotel room at tournaments, so she could grope and penetrate every inch of my newly maturing body and then toss me out into the hall as soon as the voices of parents and players faded down another hallway while they looked for the “always disappearing, Janelle.”
Within minutes she would join the search squad as if she was just as worried. They would find me sitting in a chair in the hotel lobby, or back in my room and she would parade past them in a fury.
“Where were you! You cannot just disappear like that without telling the chaperones or me where you are going!” she would yell.
There was nothing I could say, really. The truth would have been too unbelievable.
“I am going to teach you how to make love,” she had said when I was 15.
There was no part of my body that didn’t ache and burn. A kind of exhaustion I can’t do justice. Every cell that made me me, felt burdened with a dark, rancid, unshakeable slime. The sweat and juices from her hot pleasure dripped onto my skin like a porous canvas. I would never be able to remove the scent nor the stain of that lesson in love making. If that was love, I wanted nothing more of it.
I turned the knobs of the shower water to lukewarm and laid myself down on the bottom of cold ceramic tub. Maybe I thought in some miraculous way I could baptize myself with that water. That it would erase her mark on me and wash me clean right down to the soul. But the filth only seemed to disperse around me and the water couldn’t penetrate the depths she had reached.
How I prayed that someone would come swooping in and lift me up, up and far away from this reality. But there was no one. No God, no angel, no hero that comes in and does this. It was an unfair reality to have to understand at such a young age, but my reality nonetheless.
If I was to be lifted, I would have to lift myself.
The nightmare after the nightmare
I didn’t ask to have this story. But I do. When I first rallied up the courage to share what had happened with the appropriate adults, I saw the burden of my words written all over their faces. It was difficult to witness their reactions and not feel that those responses were a reflection of me.
Disgust on their face, meant I was disgusting. Anger meant I had done wrong. Repulsion meant I was offensive. To add, there were some who felt utter disbelief and asked, “Are you sure?” which to me, translated to Are you making this up?
But even for the remaining few who clung to their doubts, the truth of this woman’s history came to the surface in old police reports made against her in the years prior to me. I was not her first, or second, or third.
I don’t know the stories of the other girls. I just know how unsuspectingly mine began. I wanted to be the best damn volleyball player of my time and was working my tail off to go to college on scholarship. I wanted to make my parents proud. My coaches proud. Myself proud. I was prepared to make the necessary sacrifices that came along with that. Structured study time, foregoing high school parties, giving up my summers for training camp, etc.
But pursuing that dream also put HER in my path. She was the price I had to pay. The sacrifice I hadn’t planned for. The loss of my childhood, my sanity and any clear sense of who I was.
I learned about aspects of human dysfunction and cruelty that I shouldn’t have had to learn. I learned that labels like “coach” and “mentor” do not come with a guarantee of safety and trust. They can easily be words that deviant adults hide behind while they target their prey.
I learned that the demand to “respect your elders” can put a good kid in serious danger. And most painful of all, I learned that when the shit hits the fan, most people slink far, far away- back into the safe corners of their world because they don’t want the fuss. Even when the fuss is over the safety of a child.
It seems that no one knows what to do with trauma’s heavy burden. Some run, some deny, some try to pass blame and create a thousand and one ways it could have been prevented. The truth of it all is that there is only ONE who is at fault, yet so rarely does the perpetrator pay any price at all.
Eventually, everyone’s lives go back to normal and the incident becomes just an unfortunate memory. Except for me. Except for any victim.
The violation, the shame, the smells and memories that jolt us awake, the fear, the taste, the sounds, the missing of a lost part of our self we desperately want back. It all stays, like a code inscribed onto every cell of our being.
I wanted it out. And dear god, did I try every creative way to sedate or expel it. I binged, purged, dragged razors along my skin to watch myself bleed, smoked, starved myself to bones, moved away, over-sexed, rejected sex, and one time I played Russian roulette with my car and drove into the middle of oncoming traffic.
Nothing worked. These things, by nature, don’t ever work. But they did get me on the fast track to the nearest mental hospital, before I turned 20. Me…the girl who had the brains and talent to do anything she put her mind to. Traded in for an eating disorder, a locked unit at the psych ward and a roll of quarters for phone calls. I was told it was so they could “keep me safe”… from myself.
I couldn’t help but wonder about this cruel and ironic twist. How was it that I was behind lock and key with the mentally ill while my coach hadn’t a single day of freedom taken away from her?
Why was I the one sleeping on plastic sheets, waiting in line for sedatives and staring out of safety windows?
“Janelle,” the nurse says, holding a tray of food. “It’s been brought to my attention that you’ve been refusing meals, so I need you to eat this, and I will sit here with you until you finish.”
Fuck you, I thought, and my coach, and all the people in all of the world who think they can micromanage my body.
My body. It’s MY BODY for christ’s sake!
I pressed my head up against the glass. I could feel the cold January air touch my face as it leaked through the allotted one inch opening of the window. It smelled like freedom. I closed my eyes and imagined myself slipping through the opening…running…far, far away from there.
But to where? I thought. To what? Happiness? Is happiness even out there? Would I run to the dreams I don’t have anymore? To the love that isn’t there? How far and long would I have to run until the memories stopped catching up to me?
So many questions. So many goddamn questions.
A letter to my coach:
I googled your name today. Did you know I do this every couple of years to find out where you are? I could care less about what you’re doing really, it’s just that knowing you are far away is comforting.
But today my blood ran hot, then cold, when I saw a new image of you in my search. It was an online article published by your local paper, announcing you as the new coach for secondary school volleyball.
“Her passion and enthusiasm to work with student athletes” is what the school said impressed them most in your interview. It seems as though they don’t have all of the information about you, do they?
With my shaking hands, I blasted the link to a handful of my loved ones and in the subject line I put, “WTF”
All of them replied with pretty much the same thing. “WTF?”
I simply cannot just leave this gigantic WTF in the middle of the room.
This is a really big deal. The f*** was my life. And now the f*** is the lives of those kids you coach and the parents who trust that you are who you say you are. That you have their child’s best interest and safety at the forefront of your mind. That you honor these young adults like they should be honored. They are not sexual prey.
I feel a pressing responsibility when it comes to the safety of these children I don’t even know, because I have information that they have the rights to know. I feel tremendous guilt that they could possibly be at risk because I didn’t take you to court like the detectives suggested, when I was 15. I didn’t, because one nervous, cowardly adult said to me,
“If you testify, you will ruin her whole life.”
I couldn’t shake that thought. I didn’t have the heart to ruin a life. Even yours. Even after what you had ruined of mine. So I retreated. I silenced myself like the others.
Imagine how different it would have been if I had been told about the specialness of my life and how my life was valuable enough to defend from ruin? Imagine if I was told about how many children’s lives I could protect by my testimony? How empowered I would have felt, knowing that even from the depths of my fear and despair, my voice could change a life for the better.
Almost as painful as what I endured with you, was the inaction and silence of the adults who knew. I am not angry with them anymore, in fact my heart aches for the struggle and conflict they may have felt they were up against at the time. Trauma is a burden no one knows what to do with, so it gets shuffled around like a hot potato. But as for me, I made myself a promise that in my adulthood I would never turn away or stay silent when awareness and truth need to be brought into the light.
I hope my story can be that light.
My intention is not to ruin your life, but it is to protect the lives that need protecting. That is my job. In fact, I believe as human beings this is all of our jobs.
There was something you asked me years ago when you tried to come back into my life.
“Haven’t you found enough love forget what happened in the past?”
Your question sealed my belief that you may just qualify as a sociopath. Although my answer to this question would have no effect on you, I hope it serves as a message of hope to all of those who are survivors:
Love does not erase bad history. Nor does anger, retaliation, self-harm, addiction, or the long running list of the crazy shit we try, to blot it out of existence. History is merely a string of events that happened in the past. Regardless of how disgusting and painful that history may have been, at some point we get to decide how we are influenced by it. We get to decide how we want to unfold the rest of our lives and how we show up for our own becoming.
I had to learn this before I could rise up from the obliterated place where you left me. That even when pain, shame, anger and hate felt like they might suffocate all the goodness and life out of me, there were still other choices to be made.
There are always other choices.
We can choose to turn pain into purpose. Indifference into action. Cruelty into love. You taught me things I never wanted to know. You stole things from me I didn’t know I could be robbed of. But as I sit here today and think about the woman I have become in spite of all of that, I can’t help but feel grateful for the light in me that is indestructible.
I don’t need to forget you, I only need to remember exactly how high I have risen and how capable I am.
I forgave you long ago, so I am free. And yes, full of love.
But are you?