Sitting in his office with tears streaming down my face, he sat there patiently waiting for an answer to the question he asked five minutes before: What’s your reason for being alive?
“At least we didn’t get you pregnant,” he said as he slammed my locker shut on the last day of eighth grade, just like he had done every day before.
The truth is: I was going to wait to post this. I was going to wait to post it until May 19th, 2018. 10 years to the day after I was raped in a school bathroom by some guys I thought were my friends.
But in all actuality, the truth is: I never wanted to post this, never wanted this story to get out. I wanted to keep it under lock and key in a trunk, buried away under the deep recesses of my memory, never to be open. Because people can’t hurt you if they don’t know you, can’t hate you if you don’t let them in. People can’t love you if you don’t let them in.
And I’m terrified of being loved.
Because the truth is, as much as I’ve spent the last (almost) 10 years trying to outrun my past, trying to forget it, there’s a part of my story that I never wanted to admit, too painful even for myself. What happened in that bathroom is one thing: I relive that every day with flashbacks and triggers and panic attacks and random encounters at Dick’s Sporting Goods. And I’m almost to the point where I can say, “This is what happened to me. This is what they did. But I’m stronger now.”
“At least we didn’t get you pregnant,” he smirked at me, his hazel eyes and nicotine breath forever seared into my mind. But what he didn’t know, what I’ve spent the last 10 years trying so hard to outrun, the secret that’s literally killing me is this:
Just a few days before the last day of eighth grade, just over a month after being raped, I had a miscarriage.
I had a miscarriage, and I feel ashamed:
ashamed that it happened; ashamed that I’m sometimes glad it did.
ashamed that I wonder what my life would be like if the baby had been born; ashamed that I think my life is better right now.
ashamed that I was 13 years old and terrified to tell my parents, my entire church community what happened because how would they respond?
ashamed that I was 13 years old and secretly glad that I lost the baby because I didn’t want to face the stigma of being a pregnant teenager, especially in the church.
ashamed that at 23, I’m still worried about what my church would have thought 10 years ago if I had shown up to Sunday morning worship pregnant, the whispers, the stares, the shunning. What happened? Are you going to put it up for adoption? This could ruin your life you know.
ashamed that at 23, I still feel ashamed for feeling guilt and shame over things that aren’t my fault.
And I’ve gone over the “what if”s in my head over and over and over again. What if
And now that the cat’s out of the bag, I feel as though I have to apologize:
Sorry for telling you; sorry for not.
Sorry for feeling guilty; sorry for knowing it’s not my fault.
Sorry for feeling shame; sorry for knowing that I’ve come so far.
Sorry for letting you in; sorry for feeling like a burden.
Sorry for regretting not jumping off the side of the parking garage that Monday back in September when I drove myself to the ER (because there are days when I regret that, and then feel guilty for regretting it).
I apologize a lot because I’m scared of living, scared of taking up space, scared of breathing.
I know how fragile this life can be, and I know how delicate the line between life and death because I walk it every day.
And maybe, if I apologize enough, invalidate myself enough, my impact on the world will be lesser, the crater I leave behind won’t be as great: a great void narrowing instead of expanding.
People can’t miss you if you don’t let them in. People can’t miss you if you never existed in the first place: invalidate yourself into oblivion.
I’ve come so far in the last nine months, the last four months specifically since beginning work with my current therapist.
And what we’re working on is Radical Acceptance: it is what it is.
My life is what it is. My past is what it is. My future will be what it will be. This moment is filled with me typing this post, backspacing again and again, trying to get these words right. Maybe lessen the blow because, after all, words do hurt, despite what that childhood adage might say.
And last month, I got baptized, signifying that I was ready to let go and let God. I was going to give up control, give up my story, give up my past, and let God work in my life, through my life, in spite of my life.
But, I’m stubborn. And I’m scared:
scared of living.
scared of loving.
scared of being loved.
scared of giving up control because I’m afraid I won’t be able to find my way back out.
I’ve spent the last (almost) 10 years of my life just surviving: moment by moment; too scared of the future to even plan for one.
But I want to live. I want to thrive. And holding on to these secrets, the parts of me I’m sure will scare people away if they knew, the parts of me I deem unlovable or too ugly or too broken are literally killing me.
“You want to drive into trees a lot,” the full weight of these secrets are on the gas pedal, and I’m not strong enough to pull them off.
Because that’s the thing about secrets: they weigh a lot more than the truth, and they’re harder to carry over the distance of life.
Many friends make light work.
And all I can do is shine a light on my broken parts, reveal them for what they are, for who I am. Because take me or leave me, I can’t keep apologizing for who I am.
(I’ll probably still say sorry a lot and continue to invalidate myself because trying to dig through 10 years worth of garbage to move what I know to be true from my head to my heart is a long process, painful, sometimes unending process.)
“You inspire me,” my therapist, Brandon, said to me today. “Do you realize how strong you are? That you have a purpose in life?
Because I don’t look at you and see your baggage. I see a young woman with a bright future who’s trying her best to navigate the storms of this life, who’s trying to process her past and move forward, who’s fighting so hard to stay here, who loves deeply and cares fully and feels wholeheartedly, who’s unabashedly wholehearted: who gets up in front of people and says: This is me. This is what I’ve been through. This is how I’ve been hurt. But I still get up in the morning and try my best to get through the day.
And to me, that is inspiring.”
This is real. This is raw.
This is me.
Love me, hate me, pray for me, complain about me. It doesn’t matter.
Nothing you say to me can be worse than what the voices in my head say to me on the daily, but I’m working on it.
I’m working on so many things.
And right now, what I’m working on is this: fully illuminating my past so that it can be a light for my future.
I can’t hide in the dark forever.
I can’t be scared to live, to exist, to breathe, to take up space.
I’m here. I’ve been hurt deeply and profoundly, and sometimes I feel so unworthy of love.
But I’m not going to stop living.
stop being who I am.
Because I don’t want to run from my past for another ten years.
because a) I have asthma and can’t run very far for very long. and b) simply surviving is so very unfulfilling.
So I’m sorry.
But I’m also not.
I can’t spend the rest of my life dodging trees while running from my past.
This is me: jumping fully in, ready to admit that I was raped and lost a baby, and sometimes I feel 100% at fault.
This is me: starting to recognize that I’m worthy of love.
Sorry it took me so long to catch up.
Don’t you do it. Don’t you dare make that joke.
Dang it. He knew the joke I was about to make–the morbid joke with death as a punchline. But, you see, that’s the way I’ve always dealt with my pain: holding my breaking facade together with Plaster of Smile; laughing instead of crying; invalidating how I truly feel in the darkness by making a light out of the whole situation.
That’s the kind of person I am, the kind of family I live in–finding humor in the darkness. We cracked jokes at my grandfather’s funeral. And I’ve just sort of adopted that way of thinking, adapting it to fit my ever-growing body over time because it’s grown a lot over the last few years.
I no longer have the eating disorder that ravaged my body for five years, and I haven’t been to the gym for a few months on the orders of my therapist, so I’ve been learning how to manage the weight with what I have.
I’ve also been learning how to manage the wait with what I have. Because right now, I’m in the in-between phase: the “Look how far I’ve come but look how far I still have to go” phase. The kind of phase where people ask me You’re not healed yet? It’s been years.
Technically, yes. It has been years. It’s been almost ten, in fact. Ten years since the initial trauma. Ten years since being raped. Ten years since the voices in my head became theirs and not mine. But it’s also been ten years of repressing and ignoring. Ten years of shame and guilt. Ten years of you’re not worth enough to take up people’s time.
In reality, it’s only been about nine months. And extra fact: it’s only been the last three-ish months that really count. Because it’s really only been the last three-ish months where the stars have aligned in my favor, where people have come into my life at the right time to make the burden I carry just a little bit lighter.
It’s frustrating, Brandon said to me in therapy on Monday, you’re using all these skills you’ve learned to get better, but you still don’t view yourself as worth it.
I fill spaces with I’m sorry. Apologizing for existing, apologizing for opening up, apologizing for taking up space in a crowded world.
And I know I need to stop: need to stop invalidating myself, need to stop apologizing, need to stop thinking I’m too much–too broken to be fixed, too much of a mess to be useful–and simultaneously not enough–not good enough, not worth enough, not enough to be taking up the space I’m taking.
You need to stop apologizing. Don’t be sorry. You’re family, and we’re here for you.
I know. I’m sorry.
Today was 62 degrees and sunny. Tomorrow it’s supposed to be warmer. Yesterday it snowed. That’s just the way life is right now.
It’s 62 degrees and sunny, but I still wanted to die, not actively, just passively. Because, yes, there is a difference. Because here’s the thing: I want to be here in the world with the sunshine and the flowers and the laughter, but most days, I don’t feel worth being in the world, like somehow the world would be better off without me because I don’t add much.
And I know that the voices in my head–the voices that are not my own, the ones of the guys who raped me, who called me worthless and unlovable, and bitch and slut, the one of my ex who told me I should have completed it after he found out I tried to kill myself.
I told the guy that I wouldn’t go out with him. So it’s my fault.
He was angry because he doesn’t like talking about feelings, not since his parents divorced. So it’s my fault– I know that these voices are lies because somehow I found enough strength to reach out with all the faith I had left to one person who urged me to get help: the right move but the wrong life preserver.
It’s 62 degrees and sunny, but I’m tired of people telling me to “buck up” “find the bright side in all of this” “find the silver lining.” Because it could have snowed today. It snowed yesterday, and then three hours later, it was 52.
Yes, I’m happy to be alive and all that jazz. But there are moments, brief fleeting moments when I regret not jumping off that parking garage back in September. But those are just that: moments. That’s all life is: a string of moments held together by hope. Hope that the darkness won’t last forever, hope that the next moment will be better than the last, hope that even if it’s not, I have the tools I need to survive.
Because sometimes I feel like I’m not strong enough to survive the moment I’m in, so I reach out, looking for a hand that can pull me up just long enough for me to catch my breath. And I hope you do that too.
Sometimes I have to be reminded over and over and over again that I’m not a burden. That I deserve to be here. That hear is something people are willing to do. Because everybody’s pain and sorrow and grief and hurt and whatever feeling they may be feeling deserves to be heard, deserves to be seen. And most of the time, I invalidate mine. But I’m working on it; doing the best I can with what I have, trying to make it from moment to moment.
I want to be here, and I want you to be here, too.
I want to help carry your burdens, even if sometimes I feel guilty for letting people help to carry my own.
It’s 62 degrees today and I have hope because it’s easier to just be when it’s sunny. And being is beautiful.
And breathing is beautiful. And laughing is beautiful. And doing all of these things when it’s -10 and snowy, when it’s darker than night inside your head is especially beautiful.
Believing in hope when hope seems hopeless is the reason I am here. Because people believed in me and hope when I couldn’t.
Because despite my past, despite the shame and guilt I carry, despite the feelings of inadequacy I spew with I’m sorry, there are people who still love me and support me, who encourage me on in my weak moments.
And to me, that’s more beautiful than any day that’s 62 and sunny.
“I was watching some home movies today because I returned home this afternoon after having lunch with Bekah; I sat on the couch and was paralyzed by fear and hopelessness and despair. And the particular movie I popped in started at me learning to walk and ended sometime after Hannah was born.
Anyway.. I dont really know why I started watching home movies, because I haven’t watched them in years, but I think I wanted to find the video of me doing the hand signals the refs use in football.
Anyway… tangent once again. I also may have watched them because I feel lost. I don’t know who I am or where I’m going. Because right now, I’m just the freak who gets to the gym, and just sits in her car for an hour crying because all she wants to do is die, even though she doesn’t actually want to die. She just wants the pain to stop.
I have to hope that somewhere inside me is the little girl I saw on camera today: the blue-eyed, curly-haired, ornery thing who, after being told that dinner was going to be soon, snuck a box of animal crackers into the living room anyway; who, after being caught, just grinned a mischeveous grin at the camera.
I have to hope that somewhere is the little girl who, despite not saying much, laughed a lot, danced a lot, and when she fell down, she got back up.
I have to hope that somewhere is the little girl, who, after being asked if she’d be a good flower girl at her aunt’s wedding, shook her head “no,” and then shrieked in laughter.
I have to hope that someday I’ll find myself again.
Because if you asked me at age 8 what I would be by now, I would have said: doctor teacher lawyer president [no commas because I wanted to be everything]. I never in a million years would have said: fighting to stay alive.
And I have to hope this pain that I’m feeling, this brokenness that I still don’t believe can be fixed, will be used for something great.
Because when you fall, you have to get back up again. Even if it hurts so much.” – Me, to a friend, October 6, 2017
(that above is the number 1 reason why I don’t text a lot of people: I tend to ramble, and then I end up writing essays on platforms that should be short and sweet.)
Over the last few months, I’ve written a lot of blog posts. I’ve written blog posts about (almost) driving into trees, about spending 20 hours in the Psych ER, about panic attacks and suicidal thoughts, about my doubts when it comes to my faith, about not knowing if I’d still be attending the church I grew up in, about mental breakdowns and finding God, and, just yesterday, about sexual harassment and being raped.
(I’m not going to link to any of these. They can all be found on the right-hand column of my blog.)
Over the last few months, I’ve met so many wonderful people: new pastors and their families, college students and their friendships, new therapists and their ability to help me make sense of everything that I’ve tried to ignore for so long.
Over the last few months, I’ve been real and raw and honest and vulnerable with everyone I’ve had conversations with, not just with those I feel comfortable and safe with. I’ve been pushed out of my comfort zone so many times, but I’m learning how to find comfort in the uncomfortable spaces. I’ve learned to be ok with not being ok, with exposing my brokenness, with shedding a light on my dark places, with telling people “Hey, I’m really struggling to stay alive today, and I haven’t really slept in a while, and I feel like my heart’s going to pound out of my chest, and I’d really rather be anywhere but here right now. But the world hasn’t stopped turning. The sun came up, and I am here.”
I’ve gotten up in front of my church and said, “If you asked me a few months ago if I’d still be attending this church, I would have said no. Because I felt like I didn’t belong…”
I’ve gotten up in front of college students and said, “I was raped, and the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do was tell them to their face that I forgive them…”
And the thing I’ve learned over the last few months is that there are so many people out there who struggle with the same things I do–who have anxiety and depression, who have been raped and harassed, who have doubts and strong faith. I’m not alone with what I’m feeling. I don’t have to carry this burden alone.
There are people out there who love and support me, who encourage me and walk alongside me when I can’t do any of that for myself.
And there are people out there who will do the same for you.
Here’s what I need to tell you, friends, I’m still struggling just as much as I was five, four, three, even two months ago. I still find it hard to stay alive. I still panic every time I go to the gym by myself (I’m so thankful for the friend who decided that that was no good and started to make me go to the gym with her). I have panic attacks and suicidal thoughts, and some nights I can’t sleep.
And I’m hurting in profound and deep ways.
But here’s the thing: it’s different than it was when I started this agonizing journey of healing back in July. Because back then, I was Nobody. I had no idea who I was; I couldn’t find myself past the haze of depression and anxiety. I relied too heavily on other people, wanting them to give me an identity: “Writer Girl; Gringa; Bitch; Slut; A Burden.”
I didn’t know who I was (sort of like the way those guys who harassed me every day never knew my name). I was a generic avatar in a sea of faces, changing who I was to fit the definition those people around me gave me. I didn’t stand up for myself, couldn’t stand up for myself because for nine years I was pretending–an actor cast as myself in my own life.
I was lost and alone and self-destructing.
Until I wasn’t.
And I don’t know when it happened or how it happened or why it happened. But somehow, over the last month and a half, I’ve found myself again. I have this confidence I didn’t know I had.
There’s a power in vulnerability, and sharing my struggles and doubts out loud, not just on paper, has allowed me to find a voice that I didn’t know existed beyond the words I splatter on a page.
And for that, I am thankful. I’m thankful for those who started me on this journey, who encouraged me to get help, who were a listening ear when I was wandering alone in the desert.
I’m thankful for those I’ve met since: who have loved me and supported me and have even encouraged my vulnerability–who appreciate my rawness and real truth, even if it is painful.
Because yes, it’s painful. And this depression and anxiety sometimes seem like they’re going to consume me alive (because between Sunday morning and Monday night, I had four panic attacks).
But, I know who I am now. I’m no longer a stranger living in someone else’s house. I am home, and it’s easier to weather the storm in your own house.
Because for so long I defined myself as:
But, God. Man, oh, man. He has done some truly powerful things in my life. He hasn’t healed me, far from it. (because I’m going to therapy and I’m taking my medication, but I’m still struggling. Even today, as I sat in group therapy with a bunch of other people who are feeling a bunch of different things, and I absorbed all their feelings, and all I wanted to do in that moment was run out of the room and jump off the top floor of the parking garage, which luckily my fear of being the freak who ran out of the room stopped me, and 2) the parking garage is on the other side of the hospital and I hate running).
But He’s written me a different definition, a different story.
Here’s where I reclaim my identity, reclaim my story.
Here’s where I tell my rapists and those who harassed me, who told me I’d be better off dead: look how far I’ve come. How strong I am.
Here’s where I rewrite my life.
I fall down. I get back up.
I crack jokes and laugh until I cry.
And my depression and anxiety and everything else will not stop me.
Because I, I, am known by a God who called the stars by name, who holds the planets in His hand, and has whispered my name over and over and over again:
“Kaleigh, you’ll be ok.”
Preface: I’ve been trying to write these thoughts down for a while now, but often times the hardest part of being a writer is trying to figure out how to best tell the story. And I don’t know if this is the best way to tell this story; I don’t know that there ever is a “best way” because, in the search for perfection, we all fall short. I’m telling it anyway because I have to. It’s a compulsion of mine: I want to be heard, and maybe with being heard I can give a voice to those who feel like they don’t have one. Depression, anxiety, and mental illnesses in general steal so much, and sometimes they steal our voices. And I refuse to let them steal mine. What is below are bits and pieces from conversations I have had with my therapist over the last few weeks, clipped together in a way that’s orderly and coherent–unlike what’s going on in my head, unlike my conversations with her. Therapy is wonderful on so many levels: it’s made me more observant of my own behaviors, allowed space for me to be self-reflective, to ask the tough questions. But it’s also made me feel worse because now I’m talking about what I’m feeling and the thoughts in my head instead of just ignoring them. And maybe, by sharing this, it will help someone else.
I went out and looked at the stars last night: climbing out of bed at one in the morning, a blanket wrapped around me as tightly as possible, tiptoeing down the stairs, trying to avoid the squeaky spots, opening and closing the kitchen door as quietly as possible to avoid detection. I do this a lot: look at the stars, especially when I’m panicky, anxious, on edge. There’s a beauty about them, illuminating the sky to make it appears as though it’s 50 different shades of grey as they dance around the wispy clouds. Unfortunately, there’s too much light pollution where I live to get the full effect of their beauty, but it’s enough.
I do a lot of the other thing too: tiptoeing around, walking as close to walls as possible to avoid detection, making myself smaller–hoping to take up less space both physically and metaphorically. Maybe if I pretend I’m invisible, I’ll actually become invisible; invalidating myself and my feelings to hopefully leave fewer footprints behind.
It’s not that I don’t want to make an impact on the world. I do. But there’s this constant fear in the back of my head that I won’t make it out of this cycle; I’ve been down this spiral so many times, and maybe this is the time I won’t make it back up. So, maybe, if I pull away, stop talking to people, stop letting people in, they won’t be affected by my absence as much. Erasing myself from their lives because it’s harder to miss someone if they never existed in the first place.
I feel like people have given up on me–we can’t fix what’s going on, so we might as well not bother doing anything. Even though there are so many things people can do if they just ask the right question: what do you need?
But maybe it’s not other people who have given up on me; maybe it’s me who has given up on myself.
I’ve been broken for so long, been trying to pick up the pieces, and I keep dropping them. Maybe I think there’s no hope left for me because I’ve felt hopeless for so long. Because the anxiety and the depression keep coming back, and every time they come back, they become harder and harder to beat. And I’ve written so many suicide notes over the last four months, I’ve lost track. And I’m trying my hardest to stay alive; I’m doing all I can–going to the store, having coffee with friends, writing as much as I can, leaving my house, going to the gym–but this unbridled panic won’t go away. I can’t leave my house without my anxiety shooting sky high, can’t go to the gym or the store without having a panic attack, can’t have a panic attack without it being accompanied by suicidal urges.
But the point is that you’re trying to stay alive. Your sense of self-preservation is kicking in.
But what if my self-preservation isn’t enough to stop the thoughts in my head from taking over? Like I can eat food and not self-harm and go to the gym, but what’s the point if I can barely make it through a workout without feeling like the world’s going to collapse around me? What’s the point if I don’t feel safe anywhere, not even in my own home or my own head? If I feel this hopeless right now when I’m doing everything right, what happens when something goes wrong?
You handle that when you get to that. One step at a time.
My favorite mixed idiom to use is: I’ll burn that bridge when I get to it. My brain has always raced to the finish, trying to think up every possible “what if” that could ever happen, trying to solve problems that probably won’t ever happen. I talk myself out of doing more things than I talk myself into doing. But the point is: I don’t feel safe. And maybe I should have given up a long time ago.
But you didn’t. You reached out. You got help. You checked yourself into the ER the last time you felt suicidal.
It wasn’t the last time. It wasn’t even the worst time recently. I’ve thought about checking myself in again. There have been nights, many nights, where I’ve thought I wouldn’t make it through, where I should’ve asked for help, and I didn’t. I don’t want to inconvenience anybody, be a burden to anybody, which goes back to the walking as close to the walls as possible, not making eye contact. I don’t want them to see me the way I see myself.
How do you see yourself?
I feel like the worst person in the world. Even though I know it’s not true. I’m afraid to let people in, to tell them what’s going on in my life, the thoughts in my head because I don’t want them to hate me the way I hate myself. Which is ridiculous because I know that what’s going on in my head are lies and that if I keep things to myself, they will eat me alive. But I’m afraid people will give up on me because “I’m too far gone, too broken, not worth enough.”
I think those things about myself all the time, feeding off the lies told to me by the people who broke me. And I feel shame and guilt for thinking those things, for feeling like I deserved what happened to me, that it’s all my fault. Some of the time, I still feel shame and guilt for what happened to me.
I know it’s not my fault, and that nothing gone in my head is rational, but I don’t know how to tell people what I feel without sounding crazy. Maybe I am.
But maybe it’s the world that’s crazy, maybe it’s the world that’s broken, and maybe I just feel that chaos and brokenness more because I’m more sensitive: I feel what people around me feel. So not only do I feel what I’m feeling and my own hurt, but I feel what they’re feeling and carry their hurts with me. And that’s a lot of hurt for one person.
It is a lot of hurt for one person. So how do you deal?
I don’t deal, not always. I used to block out what I was feeling until I became numb, and then I would self-harm to feel something, anything. Physical pain is easier to fix than emotional pain. And now I write, and sometimes I still self-harm. But I’m learning to deal.
After my dad left the ER, one of the other patients came and sat with me as I slept, not in a creepy way, but in a “We’re all in this together. Pretty girls with sad eyes shouldn’t be alone here.”
But maybe it’s more than pretty girls with sad eyes who shouldn’t be alone. Maybe none of us should be alone. We should know that we have people in our court supporting and encouraging us, praying for us and loving us.
And right now, I’m drowning. Trying to tread water as I keep my head above the waves, but I’m oh so tired. I’m oh so weak.
But you’re recognizing your weaknesses, and you’ve given a name to them.
That’s all any of us can do, really. And right now, I’m having panic attacks and suicidal urges, and I’m feeling hopeless and like I can’t find my way out, and that’s ok. It’s ok to feel these things, to admit that I’m struggling, to admit that my life isn’t perfect. And the only thing I can do is what I’m currently doing: trying to stay alive despite what the thoughts in my head are telling me, despite what I’m feeling.
Because sometimes, when my soul is heavy, when the depression and anxiety are too much, I look at the stars. The same God who painted the night sky in all of its shining glory created me, and that is enough.
I have a hard time getting out of bed. To a point, I think all of us have days like that: days when it’s rainy and damp and chilly; days when we’re so tired because sleep didn’t come easily, if at all. And I don’t want to diminish those days because I never want to invalidate anyone else’s feelings, invalidate other people’s bad days.
My “hard to get out of bed” days are my every day. Every day it’s hard for me to get out bed: the weight of the world and the weight of my pain are too heavy; the fear of “if I get out of bed, I will die” is too high.
One of these feelings is new, relatively speaking. The other one has been my lifelong companion, a friend I didn’t ask for. One that’s moved in, crashed on my couch, invaded my personal space, crowded me out, made me feel like a stranger in my own home. This is anxiety: the constant feeling that I’m going to be late for an appointment I didn’t even make, the impending due date for a major project for a class I’m not even taking, hearing the Imperial March but never running into Darth Vader, discovering a bomb and hearing the beeping get faster and faster and faster but it never exploding. All the time. 24/7.
I’ve always felt this way. I never realized that it was abnormal. I always thought everybody felt this way: so unsure of themselves, feeling like they were going to throw up every time they opened their mouth to speak in class, unable to make eye contact whenever talking to someone, never wanting to meet someone new because “what if they get to know me and then they discover that they don’t like me?,” wanting to find the nearest exit every time they are in a room with more than five people.
I don’t want to say that my anxiety controlled my life when I was younger. But, it did. I was so unsure of myself that I didn’t want to take up people’s time. So, I didn’t talk to people, didn’t ask family members to play games with me, tried to make myself as invisible as I possibly could. And, on the days when I was super stressed, when I had actual tests and was afraid to go to school because of the bullies, I would pick at scabs until they bled. Scarring my body before I even knew what self-harm was.
Growing up in the church, I was always told that God was an all-knowing, ever-loving God. He so loved the world that He gave his one and only Son and so on and so forth. He formed us in our mothers’ wombs; He knows the number of hairs on our head; He knows us inside and out, and He has a plan for our lives.
I was also told that He would never give us more than we can bear. And if we read our Bibles enough, pray enough, are a good enough Christian, He’ll protect us from the bad. Bad things happen to bad people; good things happen to good people. If I really, truly loved Him with my whole heart, if I surrendered everything over to Him, He would protect me from the evil in the world.
And I believed it.
Then one day when I was in eighth grade, I was raped in a school bathroom. When you’re 13 years old and already so unsure of yourself, what they tell you becomes what you believe: slut, worthless, unlovable, ugly. Those four words have been on repeat in my head, and sometimes, at the worst moments, I relive those 15 minutes over and over and over again.
And because of the anxiety I had carried with me for years, I didn’t tell anyone: I was scared, didn’t want to be blamed, just wanted desperately to be loved, didn’t want anyone to know that I was now dirty. I cleaned myself off, went to my locker, grabbed my backpack, climbed into my dad’s car, and kept silent for a year of running into them in the hallways every day, having one of them breathe down my neck as they sat behind me in class, having my stomach do somersaults everytime they smirked at me.
And sometime in that year, I met a new companion: Depression. He moved in and with him, the doubt came too.
Was I not a good enough Christian? Did I not love God enough? Did God not love me enough? Was there even a God? Because if there is a God, how can He allow things like this to happen?
Sometimes depression is sadness. Sometimes it’s anger or despair or hopelessness. Sometimes it’s complete numbness. And that’s what I was: numb. For three or four years, I felt nothing. Yes, there were occasional moments of happiness and laughter, sadness and tears. But that’s all they were: moments, beautiful but fleeting.
And because I wasn’t feeling anything, I started self-harming. Physical pain was better than emotional numbness. And then, when that wasn’t enough, I stopped eating. We all want to feel in control of our lives, and I could control the number of calories I ate. So I did. I restriced and restriced and restriced because I wasn’t deserving. I didn’t deserve to eat.
I tried to erase the parts of myself I didn’t like, tried to erase the feeling of their hands on my body. I tried to make myself someone worthy of love despite the continual fighting off the demons in my head who were telling me otherwise.
And then one February night during my Sophomore Year of High School, I stopped fighting. For one second, I stopped fighting the voices in my head. I was oh so tired.
I could use a million metaphors to describe what happened next, but this isn’t Star Wars: there’s no “metaphors be with you” to lessen what I’m about to say:
That was the night I attempted suicide. I wrote a note, swallowed pills, laid in bed, and then watched the snow falling outside my window sparkle in the moonlight. When I think back to this night, there’s a disconnect in my brain: because on one hand, it was beautiful: the fluffy snow sparkling in the moonlight. But, on the other hand, there’s nothing beautiful about feeling like there’s no hope, there’s no way out.
In the next moment, as I’m able to quiet my racing thoughts, there was a still quiet voice in my ear, “You’ll be ok.”
And that was enough. In that moment, that was all I needed.
I found that suicide note a few years ago, tucked away in a polka dot notebook I forgot I had. I would like to say that after reading it, ripping it up, and throwing it out the window as I drove down the expressway, I never wrote another one, but that would be a lie.
I’ve written more than I can count. In the last three months alone, I’ve written at least 15 on the nights that I’m not sure I’ll make it through the storm. But, after the storm subsides, when the winds calm down, and the waters recede, I delete them from my phone, erasing the words I’m so ashamed of writing.
Being raped shattered me, as it would anyone. And nine years later, I’m still trying to pick up the pieces. Nine years later, I’m still trying to rewrite the definition they gave me.
I’m 23 years old now, but not much has changed: I’m still so unsure of myself; I invalidate my own feelings to make room for other people’s; I don’t want to take up people’s time; I’m still learning how to ask for help.
Somedays I still self-harm. I have flashbacks and panic attacks, mostly at the gym because there are too many guys that I don’t trust, and not enough people that I do. Two months ago, I almost drove into a tree. On purpose. Because sometimes I’m still convinced I don’t deserve to be here. One month ago, I drove myself to the ER because instead of writing a manual on using Skype for Business, the only words on the screen in front of me were: I want to die. I need to die.
Somedays, I use up all my faith when I get out of bed and trust that the floor won’t collapse beneath my feet.
And I want you guys to know two things: 1. There’s a difference between what I feel and what I know: most days, I feel like I want to die. But, I know that I actually do not want to die. And 2. that you can’t fix this. There’s nothing you can do to take all this pain away. But, if you rephrase the question “What can I do (to fix this)?” to “What do you need?,” the number of things you can do skyrockets from zero to so many: I need a hug. I need prayer and support and encouragement and love. I need people to sit there with me as I’m trying to work through what I’m feeling in that moment. I need people to listen to what’s going on in my head. I need people to let me feel what I’m feeling and not get frustrated. Because, trust me, no one’s more frustrated than me.
I’m frustrated because I should be better. It’s been nine years, and in those nine years, I’ve felt nothing; I’ve felt anger; I’ve forgiven, and I’ve tried to move on. I’ve been hurt and harassed and there are stories that I’m not ready to tell. I went to Guatemala and led a young girl to a God that I wasn’t even sure I believed in at the time.
And why haven’t I left? Why haven’t I walked away? The truth is, I have. For so long I was angry at God for letting this happen to me. For abandoning me. For leaving me for a younger, prettier, less broken model.
But, here’s the thing: so many times over the years I have been reminded of God’s grace, of His goodness, of the love He has for me. On the night I attempted suicide, He whispered, “You’ll be ok.” He snapped me out of it as my car was heading for a tree. He gave me the strength to ask for help, to drive to the ER even though I was terrified, because I was terrified.
Right now, I’m oh so weak. But God, He’s strong enough for the both of us. He’s carried me through things I wouldn’t have made it through on my own.
And even though I have so many questions: Why did this happen? Why did I survive when so many people do not? What on earth kind of plan do you have for my life? Does beauty really come from ashes?, I know that there are things that my finite brain can’t even begin to comprehend.
Sometimes, all we can do is give a name to the darkest parts of ourselves, and turn the rest over.
My name’s Kaleigh, and I have Generalized Anxiety, Social Anxiety, Major Depression, PTSD, and Suicidal thoughts, and I’m letting God do the rest.
Because that’s all I can do–all any of us can do. Because I can’t fix this. You can’t fix this. Medication and therapy can’t fix this. They can make it more manageable, but that’s it.
Only God can fix this. And I’ve come to accept the fact that maybe it won’t fix this in the way I want Him to. Maybe depression and anxiety and the memories will always be a part of my life. He knows what He’s doing and the plans He has for my life. I still struggle with guilt and shame and the feeling that everything that’s happened in my life is somehow my fault. But, sometimes, every once in a while, He’ll fill me with this sense of peace, a reminder that He’s got this, even when I have no faith, when I feel hopeless, when I’ve lost sight of the light.
Last Sunday, I woke up and my anxiety was through the roof. I felt out of place, uncomfortable, a stranger in my own body. I got up, went to Sunday School, and went to Church, trying to maintain normalcy when all I wanted to do was die. As the last song was ending and the closing prayer was started, I collapsed in my pew and started sobbing. And then, somehow, I don’t quite remember how, I ended up at the prayer rail, still sobbing because God reminded me in that moment that He’s taken my guilt and shame; He reminded me that I’m worthy; there’s no one too broken or dirty. And when I finally stopped crying, when I finally found the strength to stand up and turn around, there were a whole bunch of people surrounding me with open arms and tears in their eyes, reminding me that I’m not alone in this. None of us are alone in life.
So, yes, somedays are hard. Most days are hard. But on those days where I can’t get out of bed, where my faith seems too small, where I’m afraid that despite my best attempts at self-preservation, my suicidal thoughts will win out, where the depression and anxiety seem like too much to bear; on those days, I look at the lines on my hand.
They remind me that the same God who created the stars in the sky, the falling snow, the sunrises and sunsets, the rainbows, and the color-changing leaves of autumn stitched me together piece by piece.
And sometimes, that is enough.
We like to go through life pretending we’re fine, that everything’s all good and dandy. I do, too. When people ask me how I’m doing, I quickly reply “Fine” because I hope they won’t poke and prod at the facade that I’ve spent so long trying to build. I mean, sure, I’ll make a Facebook post about something I’m struggling with, or whatever, but that’s nothing: I’m still hiding behind this persona of someone who likes to pretend she has it all together.
The truth is, I don’t. The truth is that on Friday I had THE worst panic attack/flashback I’ve ever had in my life. The truth is that it’s still going on, and I don’t know how to make it stop. Because the thing about adulthood is that I can’t just curl up into a ball, wrap a blanket tight around me, and stay in bed all day. I have to go to work. I have to carpe diem and all that jazz.
And it hurts. It hurts so much. It hurts because I don’t want to feel broken. It hurts because all I want to do is be happy and smiley and be someone that people fall in love with. Who could ever love someone who’s broken?
But right now, all I want to do die, not like actually, but I just.. I have this feeling. This uncontrollable panic, this unappeasable dread. I wrote a blog post a few months ago in which I describe my rape. I’m going to tell it again in part here (you can read the full version here). I’m going to tell it again because this is what I felt happening on Friday. This is why I’m still feeling the lingering effects, why my heart is still trying to escape through my ears, and why my stomach is stuck in my throat.
The first time it happened was a Monday at 4pm in a school bathroom. The second time it happened was a Friday at 6:45 in a college workout room. The first time it happened, I was just leaving the bathroom stall and had expected my locker to be slammed shut not two minutes before. The second time it happened, I was just about to finish my workout, trying to convince myself that I could stick it out a little while longer.
I was already on edge.
The first time it happened, I hadn’t seen them walk in. I heard the door open, but I thought it was just a teacher. The second time it happened, I saw them walk in. I heard the door click after they swiped their IDs, and I could see them when they walked in.
The first time it happened, I was standing at the bathroom sink, washing my hands, when they snuck up behind me and grabbed me, putting a hand over my mouth before I could even muffle out a “No.” The second time it happened, I was lying on an exercise mat, doing my ab workout, when it started to sneak up on me, wrapping me in my past before I could ground myself in the present.
The first time it happened, I wanted to be anywhere but there, so the drip drip drip of the bathroom sink that I didn’t have time to turn off became the ocean waves, and the nose plugging until I opened my mouth to gasp for air–which is what they wanted, an open mouth–became me drowning. The second time it happened, I wanted to be anywhere but there, but I powered through. I hopped on the treadmill and tried to outrun the memories that were closing in faster, which is what they wanted anyway–for me to remember forever.
The first time it happened, there were 10 hands, 5 tongues, too many teeth, and 5 I-didn’t-want-them-anywhere-near-me. The second time it happened, it was just me, alone in the hall, surrounded by echoes of memories.
The first time it happened, I was 13, almost 14. The second time it happened, I was 23, just barely 23.
I can tell you so many things about the first time it happened: who they were, what I was wearing, what they smelled like, how long it lasted.
- It doesn’t matter who they were, but I’ve learned to say their names.
- A hoodie and a pair of jeans.
- They smelled like sweat and sawdust and orange juice.
- It lasted 15 minutes, but it felt like an eternity.
I can tell you so many things about the second time (because that’s what it feels like. It feels like it happened a second time, and I wish I knew why): who I was, what I was wearing, what it smelled like, how long it lasted:
- It doesn’t matter who I was, but it matters who I am right now, even if I don’t know who I am. Maybe they were right when they told me I was a bitch, a slut, and called me worthless. I’m hurting, and I wish I wasn’t.
- Workout leggings, a sports bra, and a smelly tank top.
- I smelled like sweat and sawdust and peaches.
- It lasted an hour and a half, but the first 20 minutes felt like 20 seconds. And I guess, technically, it’s still going.
I can tell you that the first one ended with me getting off the bathroom floor, cleaning myself off, and not telling anyone for a year. I can tell you that the second one ended with me collapsing onto a bench, pacing back and forth, and finally telling someone about half an hour in.
I can tell you that the first one lead to self-harm and an eating disorder. I can tell you that the second one lead to finger-nail shaped crescents in my right arm and this feeling of nausea that won’t subside.
I can tell you that for all the things I remember about the first one, there are some I don’t remember. I hope I never do.
I can tell you that the panic attack/flashback I had was full of the worst possible I can’t remembers.
I can tell you that on Friday, I’m so glad I ran into a friend who was willing to walk with me to the locker room, willing to sit with me and talk with me until I was calm enough to go home.
Because I can tell you that on Friday just walking down the hall towards the locker room that reminds me of a bathroom was enough for me to feel like I was going to throw up and pass out.
The last blog post ended with me talking about forgiveness, and healing, and how God loves me, and I’m beautiful and strong and worthy of being loved.
I can tell you that this one does not. This one ends with me being unsure if I am actually healing. This one ends with me still feeling nauseous and panicky, and maybe I can’t forgive them quite yet, and maybe I’m not beautiful or strong or worthy of being loved. Because I definitely don’t feel very strong right now, and I must definitely don’t love myself. This ends with me feeling oh-so-very weak.
But maybe that’s ok. Maybe it is.
Right now, all I can take are baby steps. Yesterday, I spent the same amount of time at the gym as I normally do, except I spent 45 minutes trying to convince myself that I could walk up those stairs I felt closing in on me on Friday; I spent 10 minutes working out before it all became too much, and then I spent 20 more minutes convincing myself I could walk back to the locker room.
Tonight, I did the same thing over again: except I only spent 30 minutes trying to convince myself; I spent 20 minutes working out, and I spent 20 minutes sitting in the rain, hoping there would be a rainbow.
And I waited and waited and waited, and there was a rainbow.
And then I cried, because I’m in a tough spot right now: the thunderstorms are coming in, and they’re bringing an overwhelming flood.
But God. God creates rainbows.
I don’t have a rainbow right now. But I do have baby-steps. And I hope to the God who loves me and has provided me with the best friends, that that is enough.
To be honest, I’ve thought about what I was going to say in this letter for a while now, and I’m still not quite sure that I have the right words. But that’s the thing about words: context is everything; you take them out of a context they were meant for and place them in another, and they make no sense, or they change the meaning of the new context. If you do this enough times, the words become useless—displacing and relocating until the original meaning is lost. Right now, you’re probably hearing a lot of words from family and friends, some you may be even saying to yourself. Don’t take these words out of context. Your friends and family are probably telling you that they love you. Don’t turn these words into an “I love you but….”
You may be feeling a lot of feelings right along with these words: anger, sadness, shame, maybe even some guilt.
Everything you are feeling right now is valid. Every emotion you have and don’t have is valid. Somedays you might be feeling everything at once, and some days you might be feeling nothing at all—you might not know which one is worse, neither do I.
I don’t know your story. I don’t know what led you to attempt suicide. I don’t know if it was a genetic predisposition, or a single event, or a series of events that culminated in this one cataclysmic moment in your life. Whatever happened, your past is valid. Don’t let anybody tell you different. Don’t let anybody take the pain you might be feeling away from you to assign it to themselves. You are grieving. You are hurting. They, too, may be grieving and hurting, but this is not about them. This is about you. To take the focus away from you is to invalidate the pain you are feeling. Let the emotions roll over you like waves, take them as they come, one at a time. That’s all we can do: focus on one moment at a time.
I’m writing this letter; I’m telling you all of this because I understand. I understand what it’s like to be on the front lines of this very real battle. I understand what it’s like to feel as though giving up is your only option. I understand because seven years ago, I, too, tried to kill myself.
Seven years later, I’m still trying to pick up the pieces of my life. I’m still trying to recover. I’m still wrestling with tough feelings and intrusive thoughts that won’t go away. Sometimes I still wonder why I survived when so many others do not, maybe you’re wondering that too. Maybe you’re wondering what you did to deserve all this pain. I don’t have all the answers. In fact, for every answer I don’t have, I have a million more questions.
Here’s the thing I’ve learned in the last seven years, time goes on. Time goes on, but I still live my life in terms of anniversaries: I focus on how long it’s been since the events in my past because that way I don’t have to focus on the future. The future terrifies me simply because it’s unknown. I live in terms of anniversaries because they’re set in stone. I know what’s happened in my life, but I don’t know what’s going to. And that terrifies me.
I look to the past because it helps me gauge how far I’ve come: I’ve survived x,y,z, and today I did a,b,c.
I don’t know where you are in your healing journey, or even if you have begun healing yet. I am going to tell you that the journey ahead of you is going to be long and hard. I tell you this not to scare you, but to remind you that you are a survivor. You are strong. You can do this. And you need to have faith in something—I don’t know if it’s God, or if you wonder if God’s abandon you. I wondered that too for a long time. For me, the only thing I could believe in for a long time was gravity. I had faith that the ground would stand firm beneath my feet, holding me up when I was too weak to stand. Then, only then, was I able to reclaim my faith in a higher power.
Believe in something. It’s the only way you’re going to get through this.
I’m not going to say that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem because to do so would be to deny the truth that sometimes this pain doesn’t go away. I’m also not going to tell you to stay here because there are people that love you. If love were enough, the world would be different.
I’m telling you that depression will come in cycles—high tides and low tides. Somedays it’ll feel like you’re floating on air, like you’re weightless, you can do anything. Somedays it’ll feel like your chest is collapsing because the weight of the world is too much to bear. Have faith that this too shall pass.
Somedays it might seem that you’re living in at the South Pole, where the sun doesn’t rise for months at a time. But, even there, there are months where the sun doesn’t set. Have faith that in the darkest times, there will be light again. If you ever need to be reminded of this, look outside at the darkest night. Sometimes the only way to see stars is to have darkness.
I am telling you to stay here because right now you are walking through a valley, but when you start climbing up the other side, when you reach the top of the mountain, the view is so beautiful.
I’m telling you to live for the little things. Find what makes you happy and do it. Read, write, dance in the rain, pet every animal you come across, listen to that music, eat that cupcake, go see that animated movie. Sometimes we are so focused on the road ahead of us we forget to live in the moment. Sometimes we are so focused on the here and now we forget that it’s not forever.
I don’t know if this letter has helped or hurt or really if it’s made any sense at all. But I’m going to end with this personal story:
The summer after my freshman year at college, I went to Guatemala with a group of students. One day, we went to a multi-story mall. A smaller group of students and I, while exploring, went to one of the upper levels of the parking garage. As I went and stood next to the barrier and looked around and over to the ground, I thought that I was going to feel the urge to jump. I always had before, which is why I tend to avoid heights. But in that moment, as the sun was beginning to set and the horizon was turning to hazy dusk, I felt this sense of calm and peace rush over me, if only for a moment. That’s how I know I was beginning to heal.
A few days later, we were serving dinner in the Guatemala City dump. A teammate and I climbed onto the top of the bus and looked around. As I looked over the dilapidated, rundown metal shanties in front of me, I caught sight of the mountains in the distance. In that moment, I was reminded that beauty and brokenness can live right alongside each other. Out of brokenness comes beauty.
You are beautiful.
Love, your friend,
There’s this idea about Suicide: that it’s a choice; that it’s selfish. I’ve never seen it that way.
We all make choices every day. We choose what clothes to wear; what to eat for breakfast; what route to take to work (depending on if we’re late or not); what to have for dinner; what to fill our evening spare time with; what time to go to bed.
Our body’s natural instinct is life–it fights like hell to keep us alive. It’s the Fight or Flight Response in dangerous situations. It’s why you can’t manually strangle yourself because as soon as you pass out, your lungs will start breathing again. It’s why our lungs burn after holding our breath for too long as we dive down to the bottom of the pool.
In people like me, who suffer from Depression, or in those who suffer from similar mental illnesses, there is sometimes a disconnect between our body and our minds. Our bodies work so hard to keep us alive while our minds are trying to convince us that death is better.
Depression is like a black hole–so thick and dense and gravity filled that no light, no anything can escape. I have days like that: days when it’s easier to lie in bed, when the weight of the expectations placed on me by myself and others is so heavy I feel like it’s compressing my chest, when the gravity of my past is heavier than my hopes for the future. On days like that, my mind is playing a tug-of-war game with my body. My mind wins for a while, but then my body kicks in–helping me put one foot in front of the other, shoveling food into my mouth, even though I tell myself I don’t deserve it; helping me get dressed, pulling one arm through my shirt and then the other; helping me get out of the house; making me exercise, because even though I don’t want to do it, it’ll help me in the long run; helping me do all the things I enjoy because maybe they’ll make me happy again.
Our bodies try so hard to keep us alive. But on those days where my body is doing all the work and my mind is working so hard against it, I feel like a zombie, like I’m going through the motions. I’m physically present, but not all there–like a stranger me watching myself on TV. My body does all the work while my mind is dead weight.
On the night I attempted suicide, my body was on auto-pilot. It’s like it was tired from fighting my mind every day, it just gave up. The time between going to bed and throwing the pills up is almost a complete blur. I remember bits and pieces: writing the note, swallowing the pills, the voice whispering, “You’ll be ok.” but it’s like I wasn’t in control. I was like a zombie being sucked in by a black hole, doomed to never escape, to be sucked in and pulled apart atom by atom. But then something–God, my inner instinct to survive, whatever you want to call it–kicked in.
Scientists don’t know a lot about black holes.Theoretical physicists posit that they may be able to be used for time travel–that if you can travel through one fast enough that you may be able to travel to the past or maybe even the future.
Some nights when the darkness is bad, I find myself being transported back to that school bathroom. I’m transported back to when I was raped–feeling them touch my body all over again, hearing the words they whispered into my ear Slut, bitch, worthless. Sometimes I’m transported back, and I’m watching it unfold like it’s not happening to me, but there’s nothing I can do to stop it, which is worse.
The mornings after these dark nights, I look in the mirror and the dark circles under my hollowed out eyes remind me of someone else, who I was years ago when I was too far gone to ask for help.
Dark holes are too dark to be physically seen, but scientists know where they are by the way they affect the space around them.
I know that depression and mental illness is real because of the way it makes me feel: empty, alone, worthless.
On the good days, the intrusive thoughts are hypotheticals: what if I? What if I drove into a tree? What if I jumped from this balcony? What if I swallowed all these pills that fell into my hand? What if I cut myself using this razor? These are the at least I’m still alive days.
On the bad days, the intrusive thoughts are commands: do this. Sometimes they’re dares. Drive into a tree (you won’t). Jump (you won’t). Swallow these pills (it’ll be fun). Cut yourself (it’ll feel good). These are the zombie days.
On the really good days, there are no intrusive thoughts. On the really good days, I am productive and happy and free. These are the few and far between days.
For every one thing scientists know about black holes, there are a million things they don’t know.
My biggest question is: do they end? Or do they just go on forever, ad infinitum, to inifinity and beyond?
I like to imagine that at some point instead of being all black and dense and gravity filled, that they change to light and sparse and zero gravity. And instead of being sucked in and ripped apart, you float and are put back together. Order to the chaos. Restortation to the destruction. Yang to the Yin.
Even if the possibility of that is slim to none, I like to believe it’s true because I know that darkness isn’t all there is.
Because I used to think that my fear of heights was because I was afraid of falling. Then one day I realized it’s because I am afraid of jumping.
And when the intrusive thoughts come back, and I’m tempted to just jump, I’m reminded of the time I went to the mall in Guatemala, and as I looked down from the sixth floor parking structure, I realized that I didn’t want to jump. I live for that feeling again.
I stopped swimming and taking baths because I was afraid of drowning, but I now trust my body to keep me alive.
I know that darkness is just the absence of light, and on my darkest days I look at the stars, because on the darkest, clearest of days, a single candle can be spotted 30 miles away (if the earth was flat).
I have hope that on the other side of black holes, flashes the most spectacular light.
To Dan and Brock Turner:
Here’s the thing: I’m not a parent, so I don’t know what it’s like to want to protect your child, to want to defend them when they are a victim, to want to soften the blow when they do something wrong. I don’t know what it feels like to raise a child and watch them make mistakes, watch them do terrible things. But I do know this: I know that sometimes the best way to protect your child from future harm is by letting them face the consequences of their actions today.
Humans are not perfect, nor we should we pretend to be. We all do terrible things, and we all face punishment for our wrongdoings, or at least we should—it’s how we learn, how we become better humans, how we become more sympathetic to someone else’s plight. As a child, I was punished if I did something wrong, even if the only person hurt by my actions was me. If I hurt someone else by my actions, my punishment was more severe. As it should be. That’s how I learned not to hurt people, to respect them.
We all hurt people; it’s just a part of life. The question is: do we learn from the hurt we cause, or do we continue to allow it to happen? By defending your son in the way that you did, I don’t know if he has learned anything.
But I know who has: future victims—the young people who have watched this case unfold. The young girls have learned that if they’re raped, which approximately 1 in 4 will be, they’re better off not saying anything. They’re better off not pressing charges, because even if there is evidence, their attacker will get off lightly. It’s better to suffer quietly than to be publicly attacked, to have your name dragged through the mud, to have every decision you make questioned because society needs to justify what happened. Girls who are raped can be as brave as they want, but in this culture, bravery is not enough.
The young boys have learned that if they are white, middle-class and above, athletic, smart, and have a “bright future ahead of them,” they can rape someone and have consequences that do not match their actions. But if you’re a black man who’s wrongly accused of rape, good luck, dude. No one’s on your side either.
I hope I’m wrong about both of the above.
I also know this: your son is not the victim here. You wrote in your letter to the judge about how your son used to be compared to how he is now. As you put it:
As it stands now, Brock’s life has been deeply altered forever by the events of Jan 17th and 18th. He will never be his happy go lucky self with that easy going personality and welcoming smile. His every waking moment is consumed with worry, anxiety, fear, and depression. You can see this in his face, the way he walks, his weakened voice, his loss of appetite.
That, dear sir, is what guilt looks like. I’ve seen it before. I’ve felt it before, usually in the twilight period between doing something wrong and confessing, the period where I’m sick-to-my-stomach terrified that I’m going to get caught. The only thing your son is a victim of is what he did to himself. He made a choice that night, and I know you and he blame it on the alcohol, but the alcohol is not the problem. It’s not a drinking problem; it’s a societal problem. Rape can happen alcohol or not, “promiscuous behavior” or not; rape can happen, as it did for me, in a Middle School bathroom; a place where I, arguably, should have been the safest, besides my own home.
A murderer can still get the maximum sentence even if the murderer only took “20 minutes.” A rape is still a rape even if it was only “20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.” Mine took less than 15 minutes, but it took more than 15 minutes for me to heal. There is no timeline on healing. 8 years later, and I’m still not fully healed. But I’m getting there, and your victim will, too.
I read her letter. All 12 heart-breaking, gut-wrenching pages of it. It took me three days, a new record. And I read it again and again, letting the words wash over me as my heart broke, as memories resurfaced. I read it first as a sign of solidarity: “I’ve been through this too, and I want to support you the only way I know how.” I read it again because I was amazed at the strength your victim showed as she faced you in court, publicly sharing her letter. I read it again and again because I see something in her I recognize—the sleepless nights, the wanting to leave your body behind, the strength it takes to get out of bed every day–and even though I’m farther along on this journey than she is, I am amazed at how far she’s come.
I don’t know the kind of person she was before you raped her; I’ve only gotten glimpses by the words she’s shared, but I do know who she is now: she is someone who’s walked through one of the toughest things imaginable and has come out on the other side stronger than she was before. I do know who she’ll be: she’ll be amazing; she’ll be shining bright; she’ll be someone who touches the life of everybody she has come in contact with. She’s touched mine, and I’ve only read her letter.
You had a bright future ahead of you. So does your victim. All of us victims do. You were great at swimming. She is great at something, too. I was great at school, until I was raped, and then just thinking about school made it hard for me to breathe.
And, yet, here we both stand: she and I, on the other side, each telling our own story about the same thing. And I’m angry—not about what happened to me—but that it keeps happening, that we have to keep saying the same things over and over and over again.
As for who you were before you decided to rape her: it doesn’t matter. You chose your fate. You were a swimmer, now you’re a registered sex offender and a convicted rapist. The only thing that matters now is where you go from here. How do you learn from this? Can you own up to the choice you made without blaming it on the alcohol? Can people learn from you? Can you teach others, not about the dangers of alcohol consumption and sexual promiscuity, or about binge drinking and its unfortunate results, but about what rape is and how not to rape others?
John Steinbeck wrote, ““I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one. . . . Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. . . . There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?”
You’ve already done ill.
I hope you choose to do well. Because that means there’s hope that good can triumph over evil.
And if there’s one thing we could use more of in this world, it’s hope.