I remember the first time my hands started trembling. It was in the extra long twin bed of his dorm room. My hands were cradling the beard around his face. Tears started streaming down my face. We stopped. He asked what was wrong. His eyes were melting with concern. He hushed me softly and wrapped his arms around me. I grabbed his blanket and covered my body; the body that I still felt surprised didn’t belong to a little girl anymore. This is the first of many times this scenario would happen. Over and over again.
Repressed sexual abuse is impossible to wrap your brain around. I think my brain even forgot it was there, and one day my heart reminded my brain it was still trickling blood. I never gave much thought to that night when I was seven years old. I was a happy, successful, smart girl. But I was always too afraid to engage with boys.
Sophomore year at Middlebury, I knew it was time. I couldn’t put it off forever. My roommate encouraged me and I made out with a boy. It was my first kiss. I didn’t expect much to come of it, but he began to care for me more and more. The more he cared, the more I pushed away. I acted indifferent. His friends thought I was messing with him. My friends thought I just didn’t like him “that way.” I was hurting him with my half-answers and lukewarm responses to his advances. No one knew I was fiercely protecting myself. But slowly, we fell into a deep closeness, and for the first time, I had a boyfriend.
As time went on, he knew something was wrong. I stumbled through half-truths. He never pressed me for the full story, but took hints and was able to assume the story. He understood why I was so hesitant and painfully shy at first. Hooking up went very slowly. One night, my legs started shaking, followed by my hands, and then my lips. My whole body was trembling. This happened several times. Sometimes we would lie in bed together and I watched him sleep. Seeing the beard, the masculinity of his chest, I felt fear even though I knew he deeply loved me. But after talking about everything else, the story wouldn’t come out of my mouth. I was petrified he would see me differently- used, gross, a victim. Finally, after five months of dating, we were sitting underneath a tree near the library after midnight, and he whispered to me,
“Please….just tell me what happened to you.”
He was far from a virgin when we met, but it took us six months for us to have sex. He waited, and waited. I wanted to be sure I was ready, I wanted the moment to be completely my own. Afterwards, I laid in bed, holding his hand. He propped his head on his elbow, and asked,
“How are you feeling?”
It was always an issue in our relationship. But I finally started trusting him and falling in love with him, too. He was the only person at Middlebury to know the story, and he accepted me despite it. He showed me a respectful relationship and never made me feel guilty for my problems. A man in my life, who loved me for so many things, and not just my body. It was one of the deepest elements of our relationship, and something no one in our social circle was aware of.
We returned this September still together, after over a year of dating. But a few weeks into school, he ended the relationship abruptly; harshly. He had been unfaithful throughout the summer. I was devastated. All of my friends understood why I was upset, but not the extent of it. Before, I had thought that the abuse I didn’t understand was resurfacing when I became sexually mature. But I was wrong. It began when I finally found someone I truly loved and trusted. But he left before I finished healing. Another man, another disappointment. Someone else who lied to me. I was so confused.
In between normal feelings of heartbreak, I was grieving something much more complicated. I started having flashbacks of the abuse- a night I had never remembered before. It got to the point I could physically feel the pain, and hear my voice and my abuser’s inside my head. I used to be working in the library, trying to focus on my work when a wave would wash over me. I would run, literally, back to my room only to break down in private. What happened to me? Will I get over this? Did he leave me because of my issues? It took me so long to open myself up to him…will every relationship be like this? Could I ever be a normal girlfriend? Will I ever be whole for anyone? Will I ever just be whole?
It felt like someone placed pounds of bricks across my chest and they didn’t move for months. I found myself unable to engage in conversation, but sitting quietly, trying to think of something to say. I was having consistent nightmares and would wake up in cold sweats. Finally I would force myself to stay awake all night long just to avoid them. I bought heavy makeup to hide the circles under my eyes. I’d change my clothes five times a day just to keep my brain occupied. I started running to release the pain, but after running eight miles at full speed, I hurt my feet and had to stop.
All my girl friends were impressed by my composure, but I was too gaged with trauma to express it. I was a zombie. Other friends were going through heartbreak, and in comparison, it looked like they were doing much worse. My friends misinterpreted my detachment for strength. Didn’t anyone notice what was happening to me? I was torn. I wanted people to know, and yet I was ashamed for them to know. I was too talented an actress for my own good. No one realized the extent of my problems. I felt all my skin was good for was keeping my body from shattering into a million pieces. Even when I was laughing with my friends, enjoying a moment of happiness, I was secretly so deeply sad. And angry. I’d never been so angry. I wanted to murder my abuser. Stab him a million times until he felt the hurt he had caused. I hated every fiber of his being. I hated what he had turned me into.
Because my boyfriend was gone, I had no one to talk to about my problems. I wasn’t sure my friends would understand. How could I tell them I was depressed about something that happened so long ago? Would they see me differently? Think I was overreacting? Would I be burdening them with my issues I should have, in my mind, already left behind?
I started cutting myself with scissors to cope with the pain. I wanted my outside body to match my inside. I wanted to punish myself for something that, logically, I knew wasn’t my fault. I started wearing big sweaters to hide the red slashes. The sides of my ribs and my arms were covered in cuts. I had a pair of scissors next to my bed and a box of Band-Aids. One morning, writing my daily schedule on a post-It, I mindlessly penciled in time to self-injure. I woke up one morning, with my scissors in my bed and bed sheets stained with blood. I was sober the night before, but for whatever reason, was so overcome I couldn’t remember anything. I even went to buy myself a sharper knife. As I stood at the checkout with my single item, the cashier rang up the kitchen knife. I stared with haunted, blank eyes at its silver edges. With tears lodged in my throat and a choky voice, I looked at her and asked,
“I’m sorry, could you put it back please?”
Afterwards I decided I needed help. I threw away my scissors and bought medicated cream to help my scars. I told some of my friends. In the end, they all reacted well.
I go to counseling now. My closest friends at Middlebury know my story. Slowly, with time and lots of healing, I’m expelling the memory. I feel happier now. I’m doing well in my classes. I’m feeling more and more like my old self, but even better. Nothing is hiding deep inside anymore. I’m freeing myself and it’s empowering. I know my abuse isn’t one committed at Middlebury, but it’s one felt at Middlebury. Many people in the audience know me well, yet they have no idea this is my story. Rape, child abuse, assault- its affected everyone in the audience. Everyone knows someone who has suffered from this, whether you know it or not. It’s more prominent than anyone wants to believe. After disclosing my story to my friends, I was shocked to learn one was a victim of incest and another was raped in Gifford.
I also wanted to write this to explain how sexual assault is something that sticks with you for your whole life. Repression and confusion is a real emotion. If a friend tells you of this, don’t dismiss it as something in the past. It may be very real for them in this moment. Rape and sexual assault victims are expected to recognize right away when they’ve been violated, but it needs to become accepted that this realization is often a slow process.
I lost a lot of myself last semester. The vibrant, glowing woman was gone. And for victims of sexual assault and abuse listening- please don’t make my mistakes. Listen to my message. Freezing the pain doesn’t make it go away. It’s a parasitic growth, and try to recognize that you’ll be forced to face it eventually. In the end, no one has defined me by one moment 14 years ago. No one. Help comes fastest when you ask for it. Trust that the ones who love you will still love you. I hurt myself. Badly. I have scars that won’t fade completely. My GPA dropped nearly a whole point last semester than my normal average. I isolated myself from my friends. Don’t be ashamed of your grieving. You’re allowed to suffer. Don’t be ashamed of your suffering but don’t let it define you. The men who took advantage of you, the people who doubted your claims, friends who belittle your pain, and a society that puts blame on the victim- fuck those people. Don’t give yourself to them like I did. What you give to them, you take away from the people who love you most. And believe me, you are deeply loved.