Sometimes I wonder how I ended up here.
I contemplate the ‘what ifs’ or whether my life would be different had I known what I know now ten years ago. The answer? Probably. I think it’s a bitter pill to swallow, particularly if you have learned to become as self-reliant, stubborn and independent as I have over the years. Hindsight truly is a bitch.
There’s the old saying, “Everything happens for a reason” that I often find myself pondering. A lot of the time I hate the phrase and the passivity and helplessness that it conjures up within people, as if to say that we govern nothing that happens to us. Other times I simply try to surrender, attempting to loosen my white-knuckle grip on the illusion of control and hand myself over to the universe. It’s a daily street fight and one that I don’t see myself overcoming any time soon.
But as I continue on this path of ‘healing’ – whatever the fuck that means – I am humbly reminded that the answers do not appear while you’re living the life of another being; transformation cannot occur while you are at the helm of someone else’s ship, even if that someone is who you’ve grown to believe you truly are. You have to reach deep within yourself – beyond any realm of consciousness – to your unharmed, unchanged, undamaged, soul. It’s only there that the truth can possibly set you free; it is only there that the world as you know it can become clear and understood; it is only there that your true courage can be found, that your voice can be heard in all its pain-fuelled glory. It is within that sacred space that you must sit in the shit, through the discomfort and fear, and allow the painful and beautiful truth of who you are to wash over you, untamed by any resistance you have to offer. It is there, and only there, in those fleeting moments, that I can begin to acknowledge my truth and seek wisdom and growth from the past.
I don’t know how to do this; I am wandering aimlessly here, questioning how best to face my story in a way that will propel me forward instead of forcing me back into my silence and shame. The truth is messy and confusing. There are gaps in time and many, many questions. But this is a journey, and every journey begins with a single step, so here I am; this is my step.
I’m three years old. I’m terrified. I feel myself being pulled back and up, away from reality through the top of my head. The confusion and fear rattle around in my head, tugging at the edges of my consciousness, barely reminding me that I am actually still here. Now. By this age I struggle to understand the rules of the world and I often feel lost within a paradoxical of love and total betrayal. Secrecy is my only solace at this age. Silence is my safety blanket and I’m not prepared to let it go.
Do no wrong.
Please everybody and you’ll be okay.
Those were the rules of my world. But my world seemed different. I was different. I would learn years later that around that time I was sent to doctors and speech therapists who eventually diagnosed me with Selective Mutism, a severe anxiety disorder where a person is unable to speak in certain social situations. No more questions were asked, that diagnosis was good enough for my parents and I would probably grow out of it, and on we went with life as we knew it.
If only they knew.
For months I retreated within the safe shell of my body, reserving my voice for just a few people. I was happy and content, an otherwise-“normal” child, but I felt a constant murmur of anxiety below the surface, pinching at my core, reminding me that the world wasn’t simply a whimsical fairground of rainbows and fairytales. I have always lived inside of my head; I can be quiet and calm on the outside yet at the same time reeling, observing the constant noise and chaos of my thoughts, distracted by my mind. I would often try to listen, to tune in to one piece of dialogue at a time and make sense of the whirlpool of chatter. But more often than not I’d be swept away by a torrent of relentless thoughts that I was too young to comprehend, back into the corner of my being where quiet and calm were restored and numbness saved me from the rawness of reality.
I quickly turned into an observer of the world, content to take a step back and watch as others interacted and conversed. I think I always had a lot to say, but isolating those things and giving them a voice would fill me with apprehension, a deep ache and a weight on my chest. People’s glances, having my existence acknowledged, comments to my parents about my white-blonde hair and big blue eyes would force me into a space that was difficult to claw myself out of. Being seen would pull me further from the surface, back into a faded existence where only I could go.
I don’t remember much of this time but I had always recalled a neighbour’s Birthday party when I was three or four. All of us children were sitting on the floor in their living room and the party entertainer asked everyone to stand up one by one and sing a nursery rhyme. Sure enough, every child stood up eagerly, beaming from ear to ear as they screeched verses of ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep‘ and ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star‘. Meanwhile, I sat under the table, frozen, screaming inside, wishing with every ounce of my being that people wouldn’t notice me and would move onto another game. I was shit out of luck and was being poked and prodded by the grownups who were relentlessly willing me to come out, join in and to “stop being silly”. My mother was frustrated and getting mad that I was embarrassing her and being “that kid”. My attempt to avoid attention had done the opposite and I was terrified. The tears came in full force and I suddenly felt myself leave my body through the top of my head, a cold rush poured over my scalp and I was floating way above everyone else. I was looking down at myself curled up in a ball, trying not to die from the unbearable feelings in my stomach and chest. Everything suddenly became still and quiet inside and it felt as though I was watching myself in a movie, high on the feelings of euphoria. I slowly stood up, a roomful of eyes on me penetrating my core and I did what was required to make the moment end. I now understand this to be one of my first mechanisms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); dissociation. Having already experienced my first sexual encounter at that age, dissociation was already my best friend. The shame and fear ruled over me. He ruled over me.
Flash forward more than twenty years. At this point I had learned to deal with my ‘anxiety’ with a combination of total denial, avoidance, daily purging and by wearing an array of fabulous and functional masks. I could be whomever the world needed me to be; if you needed a compassionate friend to help you through a crisis, to scrape you off the ground after your second overdose or to comfort you all night after your boyfriend broke up with you, I was your girl. If you wanted to go out partying and get wasted every single night, dancing and stumbling home at 4am, you knew where to find me. If you needed me to write your assignments for you, you already had my email address pre-loaded. If you wanted me to be the perfect student/teacher/coach/athlete/[insert blank], I would be there with a smile on my face and no questions asked. I knew how to respond to the demands of my world without hesitation. At the time it didn’t even feel like a burden or anything other than a true reflection of who I was. I had an insatiable need to be “good”, and I thought this was how to achieve that. Be perfect, keep people happy and alive. Never say “No”.
Granted, there were definite cracks in the person that I was presenting and I was constantly trying not to become sabotaged by the reality of how far from perfect and fine I actually was. There were some things that I simply couldn’t hide, – especially from my closest friends – but I had a well-versed selection of excuses and reasons with which I could explain them all away. I hated talking on the phone. That fear of the unknown about a conversation that I couldn’t control would send me into a panic. I would always have someone else answer my phone or call whoever I needed to call because I just couldn’t do it. When my friends and I would go shopping, I’d be too afraid to speak to a stranger so I’d hand my clothes and bank card to a friend and rapidly leave the store while they paid for them for me. I avoided doctors like the plague and would hate going into unfamiliar situations alone. I couldn’t understand why I had this crippling sense of fear over the smallest, most trivial things. But the fear was real. Conversely, I loved performing. I was an athlete and had danced for years. I’d always been involved in sport and had been in musical theatre productions and had choreographed shows. I had studied Theatre Studies and Phys. Ed. in high school and had no problem being seen on a stage, sports field or athletics track. I had presented my work at international conferences by myself in foreign countries, I was an assistant lecturer and a sports coach. Speaking to large groups of people didn’t phase me in the slightest, but looking someone in the eye in a one-on-one encounter was physically impossible. I had no conscious understanding of why, though; it was simply a kink in my inner wiring that was just there for no reason. Or at least that is what I had convinced myself to believe.
One weekend when I was twenty-four I was visiting my parents. I’d just completed my Master’s degree and was beginning the gruelling job search during a super shitty economic climate. It seemed likely that I’d have to move back to where my parents lived for a while until I could find my feet and I wasn’t overly thrilled by that thought. As usual I was being pleasant and witty and trying to get through the formalities of the customary parental catch-up, which often feels more like an interrogation. Talking about myself, especially to my parents, is like drawing blood from a stone, but this time everything felt excruciating. That day, my ears were physically aching from all the noise inside my mind and I couldn’t focus on anything. I knew why, but I had to push through. I had to be fine. Because I am fine. Always.
A week prior to that – the day before I was to submit my final thesis – I was sitting in a trauma therapist’s office half-heartedly trying to find a way to break through the crippling silence that had consumed me for years. I say “half-heartedly” because I’d already given up on the Mental Health system. I’d been passed around counsellors enough times that even the process of saying my name and address again, knowing full-well it was written in their paperwork, seemed about as appealing as stabbing myself in the eye with a screwdriver. I didn’t want to talk. I didn’t want to know what was wrong with me. I had absolutely no interest in entertaining the idea of trusting a therapist or accepting help. But people were noticing that things weren’t right with me and my bubbly, cheery, got-my-shit-together façade was beginning to fade. This wasn’t an option and I needed to do whatever it took to get back to being “fine”, so I pursued therapy. I had been technically homeless for weeks. The lease on my apartment had been up the month before, and without knowing where graduation would lead me, I couldn’t commit to another 12-month lease in my city. I’d had to quit four of the five jobs I’d been working so that I could concentrate on meeting my thesis deadline, something that had seemed impossible to focus on for several months. So, I either slept in the library on campus or in my car. I’d shower at the university gym after punishing myself there for hours every morning. Nobody knew and nobody needed to know. I knew I had friends who would absolutely let me sleep on their couch or in their beds until I’d finished with school, but I never would have asked that of them, because that’s weak.
During my short time with this therapist, while trying – and failing – to unravel a seven-year eating disorder and connect it back to the day that I was raped on vacation at seventeen, right as I neared the end of my college days, I experienced another assault while walking home from an awards evening at my university. I didn’t know how to cope. I hadn’t so much as mumbled a word of this to my therapist, or anyone, because I had learned as a child that talking was dangerous and by this point in my life I knew that I deserved everything that had happened to me. Instead, I worked to simply try to nod or shake my head to his incessant questioning in the hopes that he would stop interviewing me about the personal and horrifying details of my life and either give up on me or wave a magic wand and fix me overnight. He quickly showed great interest in my symptoms and learned what some of my triggers were and what would cause me to fully dissociate to the point where I couldn’t interact with the present. He would ask question after question about whether his inferences were correct, whether X, Y, or Z were the worst triggers and how flashbacks manifest themselves in me. This level of focus and apparent care was new and, relatively reassured by his attentiveness, I began to reveal more information to help him understand what I was experiencing. Maybe this guy was as good as everyone had told me he would be. Maybe I’d finally been referred to the right person, the one who was going to fix me and make all of my troubles go away. I was desperate. I tried my best to communicate what my symptoms and triggers were, handing over more information than ever before, he had all he needed to understand what would create a PTSD reaction in me, and how much awareness and control I would have during these episodes. From my naivety and willingness to cooperate, that day he was able to use this information to provoke an extreme reaction in his office and rape me while I simultaneously experienced a flashback of my previous assault. I remained there, silent, paralyzed by fear, unable to react and unaware of the present. There was no noise. No fight. Just me. The dissociation finally faded and I noticed the sound of his belt buckle as he pulled up his pants. He handed me a Kleenex box and told me to clean up the mess and get out, and that he’d see me next week. I was confused, overwhelmed, physically numb and felt nothing but self-hate. I knew it was what I deserved, this is what I was worthy of and so I simply left the building, thanked the reception staff and immediately threw up next to my car. No amount of purging would rid my body of the shame and disgust that was creeping in. I don’t know where I went but I drove for hours until dark before returning to the campus library to finish my thesis before the morning. I never returned to his office.
Needless to say, by this point my coping mechanisms were second-to-none. Any hint of a feeling or emotion could be purged out and flushed away down the toilet before I’d even have a chance to identify which feeling it was. Any sign of a memory creeping into my conscience could be dulled by minor dissociation, still allowing me to communicate and present myself as ‘normal’ while removing my mind from the past and into a place where it could once again find stillness and peace. When I was alone, I would often dissociate completely to avoid spiralling into flashbacks. I was exhausted and totally consumed by self-loathing, disgust and shame. But the show had to go on, so I continued to purge the feelings away, numb my body, block out the memories and live in my blissful world of denial and bullshit. Everyone around me was completely clueless, and I even fooled myself most of the time.
On the second day back at my parents’ house, they randomly brought up the conversation of a family that I’d grown up with. I no longer had any contact with the daughter, who had been a friend of mine when we were kids. Apparently there had been a court case and she had accused her childhood neighbour of abusing her, but after months of investigations it turned out that her older brother had been a perpetrator instead. The second my parents told me this I felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach. Two or three images were cycling through my mind, the faint sound of voices in the background. The memories seemed familiar, as though I’d remembered them before and had somehow forgotten about them again. I was panicked and confused and needed to stop the feelings from surfacing so I made an excuse to leave. I drove to the local supermarket where I downed a litre of water and ran to the public washroom to throw up. I needed to escape whatever was happening inside of my body. It wouldn’t stop. I couldn’t bear to be trapped inside something that felt so raw and crawling with anxiety. No amount of purging or exercising was working to get rid of the agonizing sensations. I couldn’t physically outrun whatever was bubbling under the surface. I knew what was coming and I wasn’t ready to face it. I could, however, get away from the village and the cloud of darkness and mystery that was draping over my existence there. I packed my bags and returned to where I had been living at university and played it off as wanting to visit friends.
I didn’t think about it again for a few weeks until I returned back to my parents’ house. I’d run out of money so had to move back for the time being. I joined the local gym and a friend and I would attend fitness classes there every evening. The second class I went to, the hall was full with well over a hundred people. I couldn’t quite believe there were that many people and I recognized an uncomfortable number of them; old childhood friends, friends’ parents, teachers, friends of friends, etc.. I’d been away for six years and had forgotten how small this town was. I looked around the room trying to figure out where amongst the crowd to put myself. I locked eyes with a familiar face and sure enough, it was my childhood friend who my parents had told me about. She looked horrified to see me and looked away immediately. Once again I felt like someone had just punched me in the stomach. It felt like my face was on fire and my ears were burning but I didn’t know why. I was trying not to let any feelings surface but was panicking. I couldn’t remember how to tie my laces and the class began while I was still sitting on a bench at the front of the gym, staring at my shoes.
Since that day over six years ago, I’ve been hit with a steady stream of childhood memories. Flashes of horror, feelings of sharp pain, flashbacks of abuse at the hands of my childhood friend and her family. The memories hit me hard. They knock me down both physically and mentally, stopping me in my tracks and sabotaging whatever it is I am doing at the time. How had I forgotten 95% of these memories? I must be making them up because it doesn’t make any sense that my mind had been able to eradicate any inkling of four or five years of repeated sexual abuse. There were a few memories that I’d never really forgotten, but had managed to stuff into a dark, isolated corner of my mind, only to have them barely surface a few times during my adolescent and adult years. My coping mechanisms meant that the memories never really surfaced enough for them to paralyze me. I knew that I’d participated in sexual activity as a child. I knew that my friend, her brother and their father had been involved. I knew that there were pornographic photographs taken of me, though I didn’t understand them to be that until recent years. I knew that I had done things that I shouldn’t have done and that I would have been in trouble had I ever told anyone at the time. I knew that I was disgusting, an eight-year-old slut who defied authority, who would be a disappointment to my parents and who should be tortured and punished for not magically knowing how to participate in sex and foreplay at a young age. I knew that I was dirty and broken and deserved everything. I knew that it was all my fault so it made sense that it should be a secret and that I should deal with it alone. I’d dug my own grave and everything that followed was because I was, at my very core, a bad person.
What I didn’t know until my mid-twenties was just how much abuse had taken place. Far beyond the realms of ‘normal’ sexual activity (not that any form of sexual activity with a child is ‘normal’), the things that happened within the walls of that family’s house are still so excruciating to fully acknowledge and accept as something that happened to me and not because of me. The recovery of these memories and subsequent experiences are at the forefront of most things that I believe about myself today. I get lost in the confusion and disbelief. How could I allow them to do so much to me? With me? The pain, the sickening perverseness of it all. The objects they used on me, in me, and the things my friend and her brother did. All of this shit and the relentless memories. They govern my self-worth, my own inferences about what I deserve and the kind of person that I am. They are deeply ingrained within my inner child and my adult perception of the world in which I exist. But I know that this is not how my story was supposed to end, and this is not a permanent state of being. I’ve recently allowed myself to trust that this is perhaps not the truth of who I am. I have stumbled upon a handful of truly amazing, inspiring, compassionate people over the past couple of years and months, and it has only been through their unwavering support and encouragement that these words rest on this page today. This moment, right now, is the single step that I have committed to take in the pursuit of a life that I want. This is the first tangible action that I will endeavour not to lace with shame and self-hate. I already feel the heaviness in my chest and the racing of my heart, but I know that I am not alone and that I am more than my story has taught me to believe.
To be continued…