Hey, little kid that I saw at the bus stop one day.
It was nearly midnight in Honolulu.
We were waiting for the shuttle to take us to the aeroplane
when your mother said, your mother said,
like I couldn't hear her, she said,
"Get the fuck away from me!
Why don't you ever shut up?
Get the fuck away from me!"
I was struck silent and still by these lines. There was something so painful and familiar about those words. I can't remember if those exact words were ever said of me. I'm missing a lot of time. But I know the sentiment was there, often enough, in both my parents, when I was a kid.
Recently, I was talking with someone who seemed not to understand what it means to be haunted, literally, by your own past. To be stalked through your dreams by loved ones trying to kill you, reliving moments that are like something out of a scripted nightmare or a gritty after-school special. Even today, I live with a hyper-vigilance, and it isn't against my triggers anymore as much as it is against myself.
I am constantly afraid of my own body, of the way a song or TV show will cause my breathing to catch or my hands to shake or my body to shudder out of control. In that moment, my own nervous system will betray the cool, calm, collected professional exterior I manage ninety-nine percent of the time and I won't even be able to breath, tears rushing down my face and words I don't want to say aloud tumbling from my mouth. I can't stop it when it happens. I have to just sit there until I calm down. Sometimes it takes a while. And the whole time, I wish for nothing more than for it to stop.
I live with the constant fear that this will happen in public. That it will happen in a movie theater. In a restaurant. At work. I am sitting in a coffee shop in Nashville right now, and as I write this to you, I am crying. I wonder what the lady sitting across the table from me thinks of the tears I can't contain as I write this.
Well, I just want to say that it happened,
'cause one day when you ask yourself,
"Did it really happen?"
You won't believe it, but yes, it did.
And I'm sorry.
And I'm sorry
'cause it happens everyday.
There is a tendency, particularly in people complicit in abuse by their silence, by their ignorance, or by their reluctance to intervene, to deny its reality. Though they are doing what is natural, protecting themselves from the brutality of the world, their denial gives them a role in that abuse. They contribute to its perpetration, its perpetuation, its prevalence in the lives of otherwise bright and hopeful beings, sometimes long after the abuse has ended.
This denial of what has happened has a tendency to eat away at survivors. Our abusers are already skilled at crazy-making, brilliant liars and manipulators whose strength depends on communal silence in the face of horror and our isolation as victims. It takes a lot to admit what has happened to us. Our abusers condition us to keep our mouths shut, to deny it if asked, and society furthers that effect by its tendency to ignore and marginalize. That those around us, even years later, will minimize, deny, or otherwise ignore the truth of our past compounds that pain, makes it difficult for us to name the ghosts in our heads, in our hearts, even after we've long since accepted and acknowledged the truth of them.
They won't believe you
when you tell them.
They won't believe you
when you say, "My mother, she did not love me.
My mother, she did not love me."
No, no, no, no.
No, no, no, no.
If you are ever confronted with a survivor, do us a favor. Don't pretend it didn't happen. It happened. You don't have to like it, or like your role in it, but don't pretend it didn't.
Also, don't pretend you know what we've been through. If I've learned anything from my own abuse, it is that this kind of horror is deeply personal. Even two people – a mother and child, a brother and a sister – experiencing the same abuse, won't experience it the same way. Don't assume that your pain looks or feels like what ours looks like.
Just accept what we tell you. Say it's horrible. Say you're sorry it happened. Say you're proud of who we are now. But don't deny us, or say you know how we feel.
And I, for one, am glad you don't. I wouldn't wish my bad days and terrible nights on you. I don't want this kind of suffering for anyone.
Some days you feel like a cartoon
and people will rush to make excuses for you.
You'll hear yourself complain
but don't you ever shut up; please,
Kid, have your say...
I recently dropped something about being an abuse survivor in passing conversation to someone I thought already knew my backstory. We've known each other for the better part of a year now, and I just assumed it had come up already. When I realized I'd just dropped a bomb, I gave him the shorthand run down. “I had no idea,” he said. “I would have never guessed any of that.”
I hear that a lot. When I left the DV unit at the DA's office, I sent out a thank you to everyone in my department. I'd been there for over nine months and I'd never told most of them. When I wrote that they'd helped me heal and that I wanted them to know that there was at least one survivor who saw how committed they were, how hard they worked, how much they tried, and was grateful, some of them were shocked. “We didn't know,” one said, surprised etched across his serious face. “We had no idea.”
Of course not. You'd never know it to meet me. You can know me for months and months, maybe even years, and never know. Not anymore. I'm glad of that. I'm glad that you can't always tell just by looking anymore. But just because you can't see it, that doesn't make it any more or less true.
The friend I told recently speculated in passing that being survivor had shaped my feminism. “Of course,” I said. “How could it not?” Truthfully, though, it shapes everything. I don't always say that it does, but I know in my heart of hearts, the experience is indelibly imprinted on who I am and how I see the world as much as those unseen bruises used to be.
I've occasionally run into people who are curious as to why I would ever tell anyone, especially when I can hide it if I choose. They ask: “Aren't you passed it?” and “Don't you want to be passed it?” and “Aren't you worried that continuing to talk about it continues to allow it to victimize you?”
The truth is, I can be healthy. I can be happy. I can be a functional, contributing member of society. I can be, by any measure of the word, a success in life. But I will also always be a survivor. I will never stop being a survivor. And there are a lot of us out there. I have lost count of the amount of my smart, successful, educated friends, most of them women, who are all those things despite being abused and assaulted by someone they believed was safe and trustworthy, someone who was supposed to care for them. I can tell you that when I tote up their numbers, the survivors outweigh those that aren't, and that's just the ones I know about.
I am an educated, upwardly mobile, full-abled, cis-gendered, relatively young, relatively attractive white woman in the first world. I live in a privilege position now, socially speaking, and talking about my experiences is one of the ways I take what happened to me and I make something good out of it. I speak for those who right now cannot speak for themselves. I speak for those who are still too afraid to. I speak so that we are not invisible, and in the hopes that someone else will hear me and know they are not alone. That they know they will be believed if they talk to me. That I am here, and I can help. That they can get through it and get past it and make something fine from their lives.
Every time I do this, I don't feel revictimized. I feel empowered. I feel my own strength. And those ghostly shadows in my life grow a little smaller compared to the truth of what was then and what is now. And by talking about it, I also acknowledge the ways in which I am still a work in progress, and the areas I still have to work on. It keeps me humble. It reminds me that there are still miles to go. And, I've found, far more people believe me than I ever would have imagined. Far more people love me despite my flaws and my fears and my demons than the abused little kid I once was ever would have believed. In acknowledging the truth, I find acceptance. I find a kind of peace.
'Cause I still love you
Even if I don't see you again.
“That's some crazy strength,” my friend concluded when I had finished telling him my story.
“Yep,” I replied, because that's the truth.
That's some crazy strength.
Every survivor I know has it, whether we feel it every day or not. I have it. You have it. And we are successful despite everything that has happened. That is our true secret superpower. We are not defeated, and every day that we get up and keep going, we are demonstrating a kind of super-human strength.
So if you're reading this, and you feel alone, or broken, or lost, know this: It really happened. It may still be happening. But you are a superhero. Every day that you go on breathing in spite of it, you are a success. You can get out. And, in spite of it, you will be okay. Even when you're not. You will still be okay.
Because I believe in you.
And I did it.
And you can, too.
And I love you
even if I don't see you again.