My parents tell me that I taught myself to read at age three. I'll take their word for it (my memory's not that good), but I do know that as far back as I can recall, I have loved stories, books, and words.
This time, I need to tell my story.
It's probably the hardest thing I've ever had to write. I say 'had to', although, in truth, no one is forcing me--aside from that nagging voice that lives in my head. I've always felt power in words, be they written, spoken, or sung. I started writing stories on a TRS-80 color computer with a program called "Kid Writer" that let you write a story and add clip-art style graphics. I was a frequent visitor to the library, which was thankfully a short walk away from both my grammar and high schools. In the summer, when I lived with my grandparents, I would use my grandmother's library card, because an 'adult' card could check out unlimited numbers of books. Sometimes I would make more than one trip in a single day (I've always been a fast reader).
Back to that 'voice' that lives in my head. I don't know if it's a product of all the books I've read over the years, but for much of my life I've had a voice that is like an internal narrator, allowing me to remove myself from events and view them as if they were happening to a character in a story, rather than impacting me directly. This has its ups and downs, of course. The upside is being able to handle troubling events without a complete breakdown. The downside is that sometimes even when I want to be able to just 'live in the moment' and experience raw emotion, it's hard to let go of my narrator and enjoy whatever life is offering.
Mostly, I had a normal, happy childhood. My large family all get along for the most part, and my parents/grandparents were very supportive, and involved. My mom and grandfather coached the swim team that my brother and I were on. My dad coached my brother's little league team. My mom has a degree in education, so she was involved in making sure our schoolwork was done and up to spec. Sure, there were some ups and downs. Other kids in school picked on me (our family was lower income than most of the others), but I contented myself with only having one or two close friends.
I say 'picked on', but really, I was bullied. Never physically, but lots of hateful things were said to me all day at school, on the bus, on the playground. Older kids took great delight in getting me to say or do stupid things (I was a pretty sheltered and naive child), and they gave me a "nickname", Gar (a type of fish). Even though adults would tell me how bright or how pretty or how talented I was, the lack of peer acceptance really weighed down on my soul and eroded my confidence and self-image. Words have such amazing power, and when they are flung cruelly at a child, they hurt just as much as a punch to the stomach.
The power of words collected into books helped me to escape and survive. Ah, books. They could take me away from anything, transport me to another world. When I read, I would get so absorbed in the story that I literally did not hear or see things going on right next to me. My parents would stand right next to me, and call my name, and I would not hear or respond. To this day I get emotionally invested in the characters and books I read, often crying or laughing out loud as I read. Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, Encyclopedia Brown, Sweet Valley High, Baby Sitters Club, The Hardy Boys, Tom Sawyer, Black Beauty, and Island of the Blue Dolphins, just to name a few of my favorites. I even enjoyed schoolbooks we were assigned to read.
Oddly enough, it was a book, my boon companion, that led me to try and kill myself one February day my sophomore year of high school.
Follow me below the fold for the rest of the story.
One February, I was in class at school; we were studying psychology. I had finished the assigned reading ahead of the others, and skipped ahead, as was normal for me to do. That proved to be a dangerous thing this day. I can't remember the topic it was under, but I read a story of a young girl who had been raped by a relative. When she spoke out and told her parents, they basically turned her out, said she was lying, supported the rapist (who they couldn't believe would do such a thing), and essentially removed her from the family. Because she dared to speak out.
And as I read this story, wave after wave of memories, long and deeply buried, came flooding back to my brain. Flashes of a male relative hovering over top of me, rubbing against me. I don't recall there ever being any penetration, but fondling and touching occurred. I sat at my desk, stunned, not sure what to do. Eventually I asked for a hall pass to go use the bathroom. Once I made my way there, I locked myself in a stall, crying, trying hard not to make too much noise so that I wouldn't alert anyone.
My first reaction was fear that if I told my family, I would be rejected, disbelieved, outcast. Perversely, I was also worried that they would believe me, and that my dad would go ballistic on the relative, and that one or the other would end up dead or in jail or worse. Every scenario I could imagine ended with the family being torn apart. So I decided I could not speak out.
Not knowing what else to do, I settled on killing myself.
I was already somewhat depressed, as one of my grandfathers had died a few months before. Like I said, we were a close family, and this was the first death I'd ever had to deal with, growing up knowing and loving all four grandparents and even a great-grandparent. To this day, Reba McEntire's "The Greatest Man I Never Knew" reduces me to tears. Between that, and not knowing how to face my abuser, and not wanting to risk being ostracized from my family, death seemed the only option. That night, after dinner, I went to the medicine cabinet when no one was around, and took a big handful of OTC cold medicine. I made my way to my bedroom, climbed into bed, swallowed all of the pills, and lay there waiting to die.
I didn't die (obviously), but I did get very sick. My stomach rebelled and I vomited up much of the medicine. It at least worked to convince my parents that I was sick, and to get them to let me stay home from school for a couple of days. I remember lying there, miserable, wondering how to cope. Books and writing saved me. I could write my pain, and that was some catharsis. I started getting super protective of my writing, then, password protecting files, saving them on disks that I kept hidden in my room rather than leaving them in the computer room. And when the pain got to be too much, I would turn again to my long time friend, books, and take myself away from this new world of hate and pain, to a world where I was safe and loved. Thus, I was able to get through the rest of high school, until the chance came to go to a place where I could literally escape – College.
College opened a new universe to me. I had a clean slate – I knew absolutely no one at the college I attended; indeed, that was one of the factors that went into choosing the location I did. The scholarship was another large factor. As I mentioned, my family was lower income and my parents wouldn’t be able to help out a lot with expenses.
That scholarship also set me on the first step of the path of healing. Before my first semester started, I was invited to take part in a multi-day “Leadership Council” by the college. Older students got in based on their roles on campus, but all incoming freshmen that were awarded scholarships were also invited. The first two days were spent at NYU, participating in a variety of workshops on things like ethics, etc. Then we spent another couple of days camping along the Delaware River, doing a variety of team building exercises.
One of those exercises involved everyone sitting in a circle. We were all given a blanket, and one of the counselors sat in the middle of the circle. The other counselor sat outside the circle, out of our line of site. He said that he was going to read a series of statements, and if you identified with or agreed with a statement, you were to get up and place your blanket overtop the counselor sitting in the middle. All of the statements were negative energy, heavy emotion type things. One of them was “I was sexually or physically abused.” At first, no one moved, but after a moment, I got up and placed my blanket on top of the counselor (who was now partially buried under the blankets). Tears in my eyes, hands trembling, it was the longest walk I ever took. Once everyone had placed their blankets, the counselor sitting outside the circle started reading positive energy sort of statements, and said that if we felt closely aligned with one, we should get up and take a blanket back from the counselor in the circle.
I don’t remember what statement made me get up and take a blanket back, to be honest. I remember us all discussing how negative emotions weigh you down, especially if you just let them pile up, but how when you share, the weight is lifted. I started to think that maybe I would be able to share what I went through, eventually. I participated in the “Take Back the Night” event that year, and spoke a little, in very general terms, of what happened to me. I wasn’t able to say a lot before I got overwhelmed with tears, but it was a start.
In the meantime, I was also attending classes and making friends. Making friends! I’d never been good at that before, but there were so many new and diverse people that I was discovering I genuinely liked meeting and talking to them. And they liked me! For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by people my age who thought I was worthy, that my thoughts and opinions mattered. I learned that our differences are our strengths, and something to be celebrated rather than feared or made fun of. There were a lot of other firsts for me at college – first time being at least semi-independent; first exposure to different cultures and religions, email, the Internet, my first role-playing game, and even my first boyfriend.
In many ways, he was gentle and kind and understanding. I did love him, in my own way. There were mistakes, though, and although to many we appeared a perfect couple, the strain eventually broke us apart. I think he liked me being more naïve and inexperienced than him. He did not like me having my own interests and friends; something I finally got him to admit near the end of our relationship. He was good at manipulation, and getting me to go along with what he wanted to do. That’s something I’ve only ever come to realize in hindsight, that it was mostly always about him and his needs.
The final nail in the coffin for the relationship came months before I managed to actually break up with him. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice to say that he date raped me. I guess since we’d been together over 2 years at that point, he felt he had the right to sex on demand, or that I didn’t have the right to say no, I’m not sure. I don’t think he even realized the impact it had on me, the horror I felt. This was someone I’d trusted with my history of being a CSA survivor, and for him to do that... I just couldn’t be in the relationship any more.
Around that same time, I was taking a winter session course about substance abuse. The professor worked at a counseling center independent of the school, and after class one day I got up the nerve to ask him about it. He gave me their number, and the next day I set up an appointment. They reassured me that nothing would be sent to my home, and we worked out a payment that I could afford. Those counseling sessions were some of the hardest, and some of the most rewarding things I ever went through. I learned that it was OK to be angry with my relative, and that I had done nothing wrong and had nothing to be ashamed of. One of my exercises was to write a letter to my abuser. I wrote it in the form of a poem, and I’m ready to share it now with everyone:
You told me I would never be goodMoving on as a survivor of CSA and date rape has had its ups and downs. There are still things that can send me years back, to that scared confused teenager. I never asked for or received acknowledgement or an apology from my abuser. To this day, I keep this part of me hidden away from the people who know me in real life. But time and therapy have given me the tools and perspective I need to know that I'm not helpless any more. And my friends, from college, to new friends I've met along the way, to online communities like this one, remind me that I am not my past, and I am worthy. And for that invaluable gift, I thank you all.
But I am
You told me I had no taste
But I do
You told me I couldn’t do anything right
But I can
You told me I would never find friends
But I have
You told me lots of things I shouldn’t have listened to
But I did
I listened when you told me
“You can trust me”
And later, when you told me
“I hate you”
And for a few years, I forgot
What you did
But I still heard your words
Saw your anger
Felt your wrath
And your fists
And when I remembered
Everything you did
Your words made sense
For the first time
I am worthless
I am nothing
Who would want me as a friend
I did something wrong
Everybody can tell
I deserved it
It was my fault
All of these are your words
This is what you were telling me
With your fists
I cried long hours
And wrote for longer ones
And tried to reconcile
Of my hero
With the reality
Of my abuser
But I couldn’t cope
You told me my life was worth nothing
I believed you
So I tried to end it
Because who would miss me
Who would care
It would be easier if I was dead
And if they did wonder
Why I did it
Would you tell them
Or would you play innocent again?
You’re good at that
Would you tell them you killed me
Or would you lie to them too?
I listened to your lies
I listened because you were
And I thought I could
I was wrong
But so were you
We battled, you and I
For my mind
And you LOST.
House of LIGHTS (Loving Inspiration, Giving Hope To Survivors). A place for survivors of physical, sexual, psychological, and emotional abuse, assaults, and bullying. A place for the people who support them. A quiet place for all voices to be heard. A safe place where we can learn to educate, support, and protect our children and each other.
In House of LIGHTS diaries we tell our stories, heal, support each other, and learn how to protect and empower our children.
LIGHTS: Loving inspiration, giving hope to survivors: LIGHTS.
We have a purpose: To heal ourselves, to speak for the victims, and to change our culture. The silence is over. We accomplish our goals one story at a time.