Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
I’ve really struggled writing this one.
I have complicated and somewhat incoherent feelings about the spectacle of trauma. To write about what my abuse looks like and how it affects me — am I playing into a culture that requires credentials, proof of purchase on pain? Does the same shock of sympathy hit people when we elide details? Do people read what I write because they recognize accounts of abuse/sexual assault are rare, violently silenced and distorted… or are we just programmed to get hard over the explosions, train wrecks, bodies, tortureporn?
No easy answers there.
I also feel a deep uneasiness dedicating a thousand words to my own history. It’s not from any sense of privacy. I still have a lot of guilt? disbelief over what I’ve lived. It wasn’t that bad, was it? I mean, it happened (it happened, right?), but am I making it worse than what it was? Is it all in my head? My stories can’t be as important as taking apart Paterno (yes, again, for those of you who are excellent at selectively filling your skull cavity with sand and denial) or tackling Swat’s rape and abuse culture/s. My stories are, I am?, not as important as someone else, someone who had it “worse.”
So this column is a big GO FUCK YOURSELF to the abuse culture I’ve internalized, to the narratives my parents wish I believed, to staying quiet.
It seemed important to talk about the costs of writing that last column. I can’t really say I’m presenting a “real time aftermath,” as I’m not writing it during the real time aftermath – and that probably doesn’t exist, right? Every moment requires contextualization, interpretation, [re]construction.
After the final edits went in, somewhere around midnight, I was stuck awake for another three hours thanks to a tremendous jolt of adrenaline. Welcome to hypervigilance, which is when your brain thinks “normal” is “constantly getting shit on.”
When I managed to trick myself to sleep, I dreamt.
The dream was vivid and intense. Anxiety, terror as sharp and full as blood in your mouth, limp beaten-down despair, the whole thing stretching on until I woke up (and after). What I remember:
Flashes of images and knowledge from the first two-thirds. I am running from my parents, jumping around from house to house, potentially traveling through the backyards of my childhood neighborhood (which were in fact my shortcut away from their house). The phone would ring, in this part of the dream, and that’s my cue to run again. My parents are on the other end of that phone, and they know where I am.
Now, I’m in a garage. I shut the huge doors by pulling them down. I knew that my father was on the other side of them, about to pry them back up with his fingers.
I grab a roll of crepe paper, red, and I knot it somewhere hazy at the top of the right door and on the floor. I rush over to the left door and fumble with the bottom knot — too late. He was opening the bay. I run inside the house, snapping the deadbolt and the regular lock. My family’s laundry room.
The next part is staccato again, images and knowings surrounded by gaps. I can tell you that my father did get in, punched me right in the nose. I saw what happened to my face – it was like a cave opened up in the middle, just this giant hole which took up much more of my face than a nose does. I can’t remember what happened to my mouth. The edges of the hole are red and raw, like a sore, and the center was filled with yellow. Pus yellow, decaying teeth yellow, biohazard yellow. It was kind of like a giant, soft tonsil stone had been shoved into my face.
I have the vague idea that my father was somehow dragging me around (hair? neck? can’t remember). I saw out from my eyes, once, realizing he had slid two bars through the mess of my face. One he had pierced a little bit above my once-nostrils, the other through where a septum normally is.
I woke up in the middle of this part, conquered and trapped and terrified. I lay in those feelings for a while, not really aware that I was in my own bed but not particularly convinced I was in their house either. Horror zen.
When I was more fully awake, I rolled to my right.
I have a bay window with slimmer windows on either side of it. These two auxiliary panes have a screen-door that stay closed over them with the aid of a tiny metal clasp. The right screen, the one directly in my line of vision, had swung open. I hadn’t unlocked it.
My heart stammered.
The swamp of dream-feelings rushed back up around my ankles, wrists.
I was convinced my father had opened the window, my mouth was hanging open, I think I might have articulated an animal’s thin whimper. I had this sudden and sweeping paralysis: I’ll never escape. They’ll find me, they’ll get me.
Irrational, right? Irrational and superstitious. Obviously the screen just swung open. The clasp is old; the building shifts. No one opened it, least of all my father (as nimble and quiet as a walrus in heat).
Welcome to life post-[my complex]-trauma. “It’s just” nightmares about the ex-friend who assaulted me, waking up for the second time in a week in silent tears — this time because I considered being a sexual creature. A “superstitious” surety, fact draped over my shoulders, that I’ll die tomorrow, die alone, be caught, stalked, screamed at, grabbed by one of my abusers on the street, the parking lot outside my dorm. “Irrational” outbursts of ignoring schoolwork, canceling Thursday night plans, skipping meals, bolting from a party if someone so much as glances over.
It’s not being able to speak it. It’s getting bigger, louder, selfishly grabbing up that space they wouldn’t give me – singing to remember, mourn, believe it, but too many words bubble blood up between my teeth, choke my throat.
It’s understanding again the impulse toward quiet. It’s giving in.