My life is defined by two very distinct themes; the first being my evolving queerness, and the second being the trauma I experienced as a survivor of gender-based violence, including physical abuse and rape. I spent most of my pre-teen and teen years hiding both, which I was pretty good at. Early into my undergrad years I came to terms with the first. Writing about these experiences here, now, with you, is me coming to terms with the second.
December 26, 1996
My mother calls me downstairs in our latest rental home. The living room was still covered in wrapping paper and clothes and presents from the day before, and I’m certain I’m being called to finally take care of the mess. Her big blonde curls and pageant dresses are all over the TV.
Why is she on TV? Isn’t she supposed to be visiting today?
My mother says something about JonBenet being in heaven, which is odd because we’d never really been to church and she’s never said anything about Jesus before. Whatever she said, it’s blended in with the rest of the white noise that held the sound of news anchors saying words like “rape” and “strangled” and “murdered” and “kidnapped” — the same words my neurotic grandmother uses in her inappropriately specific monologues about strange men and people touching me.
I have a 1,000-piece Lisa Frank bead set sitting on my bed upstairs, but I can’t pull my body away from our wood-paneled 80s TV. Instead, the fingers on my right hand start pulling at the strands of the dingy forest green carpet. All I can think about is peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and sitting in the stairwell of JonBenet’s summer home and eating those sandwiches with her and her brother Burke. We first met when competing in a summer beauty pageant. I couldn’t understand why the news anchors even cared that she competed.
My mother never says anything about JonBenet until I’m fourteen and John and Patsy and Burke move to town for good. I still hate that forest green color.
Early July 1997
I live in Northern Michigan, so even though it’s July, it’s still a little chilly at night. I’m wearing a two-piece long sleeve pajama set while at a sleepover. Her parents make me a chocolate milk, and I curl into a corner of the 90s floral patterned couch while the opening credits of Spice Girls begin rolling.
I wake up in her sister’s bed the next morning, my matching pajamas on the floor next to the bed, unsure as to how I even got to the bed or how I managed to miss the entire movie. I slip my clothes back on and stumble into the kitchen and ask why I woke up without my clothes on. Her father stumbles through a response, muttering something about me getting too warm last night and not to worry. Even at six years old, I know something’s not right.
I’m 13 and in 8th grade. Most of my friends and classmates have computers and internet MSN Messenger by now. I used to be one of the more popular girls in my grade of 120; now I’m the target of my so-called-friends cyber-bullying.
I’m invited to a slumber party of a friend whose older sister was also having a slumber party. It’s probably important to know that I’m usually at the receiving end of most slumber party pranks. Not only did I inherit my mother’s thighs, but I also inherited her ability to sleep through a freight train. And her tendency to fall asleep earlier than most. Most pranks somehow involved snow; either my bras would be frozen in a snow bank or snow would be dumped into my sleeping bag. Sometimes I would wake up with shaving cream slathered across my face and choking on the fumes from the shaving cream because my vinyl sleeping bag was pulled over my head. There was more than one time where I woke up covered in permanent marker.
This time, though, I wake up in the middle of the night to the older girls sitting on top of me while another tried to see how far she could drive a pool stick in my body. I woke up and pretended to still be asleep, and I didn’t believe in God but I wished in that moment that I did. I worried they had done something to paralyze me because I kept screaming at myself to get up but my arms wouldn’t move and my legs felt numb. The other girls looked on in the dim basement light and giggled and cheered them on and a few laughed so hard they snorted. It eventually stopped. I don’t know how long it went on for. I’m not sure where I live, but I know it’s not in my body; everything felt like nothing and I didn’t know where that place was.
A week later, I start having nightmares and panic attacks and flashbacks. Some nights I see that matching pajama set I wore when I was six. Some nights I relive that moment when I asked my friends parents why my clothes were on the floor. Others, I start to remember minuscule moments – being carried to my friends sisters bed, the brain freeze I got from slamming my glass of chocolate milk, a dark figure that I can’t really make out.
I had buried this night somewhere deep in my head. It was now being dusted off for the first time.
Another night of my usual routine. Make sure Carson, who’s seven now, has his homework done. Make dinner for him and Masen, who’s now five. Give them baths, read to them before bed because it turns out they have a reading disability. Keeping River in check; he’s 14, but his ADHD makes it difficult to interact with him.
Mom is at work; she went back to working the night shift at the hospital three years ago, after my father lost his job at the factory. Turns out my father is even less interested in taking care of my younger brothers and giving them a stable routine. And as the oldest kid and the only girl, my mother relies on me to make sure my brothers are being looked after; my father didn’t want to put in the time and energy that these two babies needed to thrive and be successful, so I put in the time and energy.
I have an AP Biology exam in the morning, something I’ve been obsessing over despite having missed half of the past two months of school because my depression makes it hard to find the will to get out of bed and drive 20+ miles to the school in the next town over, which I transferred to because I couldn’t take it at my old school.
River got the bulk of the physical abuse from him. His ADHD was the biggest threat to my father’s abusive power and control tactics. A few weeks back, River stands up to our father during one of his screaming fits; I honestly thought my father was going to put him through the wall – it made a big enough cracking noise when he threw River into the wall that I thought he had for a second.
My father doesn’t approve of the classes I’m taking – AP Biology, AP Literature, AP Calculus. He doesn’t see the value in education. He thinks it’s what caused me to drop off the social ladder entirely. So I wait til he’s gone to bed or I can hide out in the basement to get my studying done. But this test is supposed to be harder than anything else I’ve taken, so I sit at the kitchen table cramming every last bit of information possible. The pendant light above the table shakes as he storms around the house, slamming doors, very clearly agitated that I was studying. Thirty minutes in, he demands to know why I have to study for the exam – shouldn’t I have already learned what I needed to know in class? Or was I behind because I was being so lazy and not going to school? If I needed to spend this time studying, then I clearly wasn’t smart enough to be taking the class anyway (just for clarification, I tested as reading at a college level when I was 12). I was wasting my time studying when I could be working.
My father saved the emotional and psychological abuse for me throughout the years. But something in me broke. All I wanted was to do well on this exam. I slammed my 900 page book shut, raised it over my head, and I threw it at him. He threw my textbook down the basement stairs, and I could hear the spine ripping as it dropped down each wood stair. I tried to dodge him, but I ended up thrown against the wall, bruises on my hip and back from hitting it so hard, bruises on my upper arm from him hitting me with the closed fist that was usually saved for my brother.
I hide in my room, trying to cry as quietly as possible so he wouldn’t hear me, So Jealous on repeat, and start the official countdown to the day I leave for college in August.
I just finished my finals earlier that day, so I spend the night celebrating the only way I know how: Tour de Franzia and shitty joints. The backtrack loop of my Buffy DVD wakes me up, the kind of with the creaking and howling noises. There’s someone in my bed, and my clothes are all over the room, and I’m still spinning from the excessive combo of shitty wine and weed. My bed is lifted up as high as I possibly could, and I stumble on to the floor, trying to find my clothes as quietly and quickly as possible in the dark. How did I let this happen? Did he even use a condom? Annie – I need to find Annie.
Annie is in the basement of the frat house, playing beer pong. She comes to the porch with me and we chain smoke cigarettes. My right hand keeps twitching, my legs shaking, my overly-dyed hair even more manic looking than normal. I tell her enough so that she knows what happens. I worry that if I say too much I’ll turn catatonic. She takes me home with her to our sorority house and makes me a cup of tea and tucks me in on the couch.
I watch reruns on Bravo, trying to keep my eyes open. If I close them, then the world becomes black and I start remembering. What happens if I tell everyone, or anyone? What happens when I eventually come out and everyone knows what happens? They’re going to think he turned me gay. Everyone knows I’m a virgin.
I fall asleep somewhere around sunrise, only managing a few hours. I wake up and the living room is filled with my sisters, our last meeting of the year about to start. He runs in the same social circle as me, so everyone knows what happened, or at least his version.
I run the women’s house in the fall. I’m supposed to lead the campus peer-advocacy program next year. I can’t be the girl who was assaulted in the women’s house.
I just walked at graduation and was finishing my last four credits, in a month-long crash course during May. I had decided that I was not a relationship kind of girl. I cut off my hair the year before, willingly allowed girls to test out their sexual curiosity on me, but I made sure I was emotionally detached. By my last semester, it was my M.O.: no emotions, no entanglement. But then I meet a girl. I convinced a group of friends to go to the nearest gay bar with me at the end of the semester, for a night of tequila shots and drag queens and pretty girls. My friends invited their gay friends, which was how I met this girl. She’s charming and sexy and likes to play the role of the dominant provider. I fall for her act and end up moving to the same city as her after graduation. She turns out to be just as manipulative and emotionally abusive as my father, and I hate myself every night I go to her apartment and cook her dinner anyway.
I originally move to the city to work as an “organizer” for Clean Water Action, but it turns out my job is based solely on door-to-door fundraising, so I lose that job within a few weeks. I’m stuck in a lease and scramble to score a nanny job. The hours are inconsistent, but I make enough to pay my rent and the bills and the almost monthly car repairs. But I’m still pretty broke, and she has a pretty impressive savings account and starts economically pinning me down. I make enough money to eat, but not enough to eat how I used to, so she and I go grocery shopping and I pick out everything I need to make elaborate meals every week and she pays for it all. But when we go to the store, she calls me a leech or criticizes me for working as a nanny, anything to make me feel like shit. We run into friends of hers from the fire academy, and she says I’m a visiting friend or a cousin. She spends almost 40 hours a week with these people, and apparently none of them know I exist. I let this go on for six months before leaving for good.
I take a job at a domestic violence shelter in Metro-Detroit, part of my escape from my abusive relationship. This is supposed to be my breaking moment – a real job with a 401k and health insurance and vacation time. I’m a case manager, so the bulk of my responsibility is to help victims navigate the social services system, give them referrals to local agencies, advocate for them within the very broken social services system. I can do this job because I’m not a counselor or a therapist and I won’t be focusing on their trauma.
The social services system is far more broken than I thought. And it turns out the domestic violence movement is broken, too. 45 days is rarely enough time for my clients to find housing and a job and support their kids, but I have to ask them to leave anyway.
My first client is a human trafficking victim. She primarily speaks Spanish and has no support system. She calls me her guardian angel and takes every moment she can to tell me how grateful she is for me; she came to shelter telling us she was in a domestic violence situation, but my women’s & gender studies background pays off and I realize she’s actually a victim of human trafficking. She tells me about her trafficking, her previous abusive marriage, and the other traumatic experiences she’s lived through. But there are few resources for domestic violence victims, let alone human trafficking victims. I spend half of my work week just advocating for and working with her.
Three months in, and I am having nightmares. I wake up crying. My roommates are medical marijuana caregivers, so I have unlimited access to quality pot. I wake up throughout the night and take a few hits so I can get at least a few more hours of sleep in.
Six months in, I’m smoking three to five bowls a day. Anxiety attacks always seem to linger over my head. My girlfriend, who is still at our college that is two hours away from me, starts talking about engagement rings, and I make a pinterest board for our future wedding. But I’ve reached my breaking point. I carry around my clients and their stories and their barriers along with my own story, and I don’t know how to tell her about it. I don’t know how to tell her that I safety plan in my head every time I walk into a new room, or that I’ve been remembering more and more specific details about my own trauma. Seven months in, everything in me has cracked. She’s left me. A client is threatening to punch me in the face.
In late October, I hand in my resignation letter. My anxiety and depression have reached the worst I’ve ever experienced, and it has begun to physically manifest in my body. I started having stomach issues towards the end of August, and by the end of September I had been throwing up for two weeks straight and landed myself in the hospital for four days. I’ve regained my appetite and don’t struggle with nausea like I was, but I still lost somewhere around 25 pounds in a span of six weeks. I try to get my ex to take me back, and she almost does, but she decides that we just aren’t emotionally compatible and that we shouldn’t talk anymore. Given the state I’ve been in the past year, I can’t really blame her.
While I was laying in the hospital bed, coming off of anesthesia from the endoscopy they performed that morning, part of me wished that whatever stomach issue I had would kill me quickly. And I realize then that it’s time to leave Detroit.
One of the most popular slogans from the second wave feminist movement was “the personal is political.” The feminist movement gave me the tools to understand the world around me and to understand my own lived experience. I needed feminism far more than I understood at eighteen. I once read an interview with Dorothy Allison where she told the reporter, “For me, feminism was a love affair.” For me, feminism will always be a love affair. But now, after spending five years wholly embodying my feminism and dedicating myself to feminist work, I’m realizing that I won’t last in this movement if I don’t own up to just how personal the political is.
This is my first step in that direction.