CW: self harm, suicidal ideation, sexual assault
So here we go.
Really there’s no clear or comfortable path to start talking about sexual assault. So I don’t. Not usually, anyway. The first time I was sexually assaulted I was 12. The first time I talked about it I was 21. Sometimes it feels like I’ve carried this past of hurt inside of me so long it’s become a part of the fabric of me, that I won’t ever be able to separate the two without ripping myself apart.
Well, in some ways sexual assault has already ripped me apart. Emotionally, I don’t trust people to stay in my life. Relationships, including friendships, feel inherently precarious to me because every time I’ve trusted someone in the past, they’ve inevitably failed me by taking advantage of me. That, or I’ve pushed them away out of fear of letting anyone get to know me that well.
I also used to be a cutter, which is something that, presumably before now, only a few people knew. It became a ritual for me after my best friend groped me when I was 12, the tipping point at a moment when I was already grappling with complicated family relationships, my queerness and my overwhelming anxiety separate from this new trauma.
What I don’t think people understand about self harm is the overwhelming wave of shame that accompanies the movement of all that anger and hurt inwards. I don’t think people understand that hurting yourself intentionally is about cutting through the numbness and the hurt and the anger, about trying to feel something and exert control when everything feels so chaotic around and inside you. That doesn’t justify it, but that’s the general logic of a person who self harms.
Self harm isn’t necessarily about wanting to die or being suicidal. In my case, I only started experiencing suicidal ideation as my depression worsened in the aftermath of that initial assault and after self harm was taken from me as a coping mechanism (because my family found out about it which is horrible and shameful and I don’t talk about that much, if at all, but I will say that, if you find out a friend or relative is self harming, please try to hide your anger and confusion from them because it will harm them more).
Beyond this lack of understanding, and perhaps because of it, there’s still so much stigma surrounding self harm. The lack of understanding and misconceptions fuel this stigma. This stigma fuels the lack of understanding and misconceptions. To make matters worse, when self-harm is represented in media, it’s often done in a way that romanticizes it or misrepresents it, such as in Thirteen Reasons Why or P!nk’s “Fuckin Perfect” music video.
Stigma breeds shame, the central topic of this little personal essay (which maybe feels like a meandering more than a strand of cohesive thought, but whatever). I am ashamed of the fact that I used to cut myself, because it feels reckless now. I feel guilty for what I put my family through because of that recklessness. I am ashamed I don’t have any scars, when the reality is I just happened to not cut deeply enough for there to be a physical trace of what I did. I feel guilty for thinking about these things so often when I haven’t cut in 11 years, even though I’ve often considered in during impulsive moments of anxiety over the years. I find it nearly impossible to give myself any compassion when it comes to this part of my past, despite the fact that I was only 12. I was still a child. I know this. And yet I beat myself up for it because it feels like some inherent flaw in me as a person and not the culmination of a series of failures from the people and places that should have protected me from some such physical and emotional harm.
Shame and guilt are complicated.
Just like I didn’t open up about my history of self-harm for years, I didn’t open up about my history of sexual assault, because people blamed me for what happened or flat out didn’t believe me when I tried to reach out to peers for support. The first time I was sexually assaulted I was groped by my best friend in his bedroom. The second time a classmate inappropriately touched me when we sat next to each other in algebra in seventh grade. The third time was when my first and only boyfriend coerced me into sexual acts I felt like I couldn’t say no to, didn’t want and wasn’t necessarily in the right mindset to consent to. People have told me that this last instance counts as rape, but it’s difficult for me to accept that label when I carry some of the guilt for it happening.
I tried to tell people about what Colin did to me in his bedroom, but any friends I told took his side or said it wasn’t bad enough to be sexual assault so I stopped talking about it. For years I stayed silent. I would get stuck in a cycle of thinking about it obsessively and having flashbacks then not thinking about it at all and thinking I was over it, but I wasn’t. I’m still not. He was my fucking best friend, he was there for me when my grandfather passed away, he was my emotional rock and...then he wasn’t. Still, there was no way I could have been friends with him after what he did because he shattered years worth of trust in seconds.
I’ve never talked about what Ernest did to me in Algebra class. After the teacher sat us next to each other, in almost every class he would slide his hand under my butt and fondle it. Once I snapped in the middle of class when he pinched my buttcheek with his hand and the teacher reprimanded me for being disruptive (Thanks Mrs. O’Malley). I was too ashamed to explain the real reason for my outburst, not when my classmates were staring at me. Later she gave me a hard time when I asked to change seats, and she refused when I would only say that I wanted to switch because sitting next to Ern made me feel uncomfortable. So I said nothing and pushed back tears. It didn’t help that Ern was a well-known creep amongst the girls in our grade, because I was the one being targeted and no one did anything.
And then...Aidan. I did care about him, but I’m ashamed of the things that happened and wished I’d known I could’ve handled it differently. Looking back, I honestly felt I couldn’t say no and feeling like you couldn’t say no doesn’t necessarily make a yes a true, enthusiastic and consensual yes.
As far as I know, Colin, Ern and Aidan will never be reprimanded for what they did to me or how they made me feel about my body. They probably don’t think about me often, if at all. The cruelest part of sexual assault is that they get to live happy, functional lives while I am stuck in an emotional rut because as far as me ever truly being “over” these experiences, I’m not sure that will happen.
Sophomore year of college, I was going through a period where I was struggling emotionally particularly badly. I was going through one of those periods of intense flashbacks and trying to deal with the “Colin Thing” as I have often called it. I was depressed. I was lonely. I was on the edge and no one knew it because I was suffering alone, too ashamed to talk about my feelings to anyone. Not that I had anyone to turn to. I had none of the friends I have now, but that’s another story (and basically thanks to therapy).
So. 20-year-old Tay is in a bookstore with her mom. She buys a book at the urging of her mom (who let’s be real, just wants to leave the store) even though it doesn’t look that interesting, if 20-year-old Tay is being honest. When she walks out of that bookstore, she doesn’t know she now owns a book that will play a huge part in disrupting the trajectory she’s on, which probably wouldn’t have had a happy ending.
20-year-old Tay starts reading the book and she gulps at something in the plot she sees coming and then ends up sobbing on a train while reading the book. Not because it’s particularly sad, but because for the first time in those nine years between Colin’s room and that train car, she feels seen.
So what book was I reading? Mosquitoland by David Arnold. In that book, the main character Mim is assaulted by a stranger in a bathroom and she later confides what happens in a friend. See, for me, Speak wasn’t my main touchstone for sexual assault. It was important and I related to it, but I read it before the “Colin Thing” happened, so I didn’t really have that same reparative experience. The assault that takes place in Mosquitoland is also closer, but still different in intensity, to what I had experienced. This is why stories about all kinds of assault are so important. One story isn’t enough, not in a world where 1 in 4 women, 1 in 6 men and 3 in 5 trans/non-binary individuals are assaulted.
Sometimes the story that reaches out and says, “You are valid. You are okay even if you’re not okay. What happened to you matters” arrives unexpectedly. And then you end up crying on a train with people staring at you.
It’s strange to tell that story now, partly because I ended up befriending David in the gap between then and now without ever telling him that story, about why Mosquitoland was such a vital book for me, and partly because I feel like such a fundamentally different person now than I did then, which is why I referred to myself in the third person. That girl doesn’t feel like me anymore. I’ve changed so much that in some ways, it feels like my identity has fractured and I’m not sure when I stopped being her and started being me.
It wasn’t until this past summer that I encountered another piece of media that helped me further cope with my internalized shame: Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette on Netflix. Not only does she provide a stunning deconstruction of comedy through that same form, but she also does such a great job of exploring queer shame. Because, to varying extents, Colin, Ern and Aidan all had some idea that I was queer, that they were engaging with a queer body when they did what they did.
I’m also ashamed of my queerness. We talk so much about pride in this community that I think we often forget about shame, or feel ashamed at even bringing up the topic of shame. There’s a 99% chance you already know this if you know me, but I’m asexual and I’m sex-repulsed (which means that beyond lacking consistent, sustained sexual attraction, I am physically and emotionally resistant to the idea of me personally having sex). I didn’t know I was asexual when Colin, Ern and Aidan assaulted me. I didn’t know what asexuality was until three months after reading Mosquitoland when I was 20.
Because of that, I blamed myself for being broken and inadequate for years. I thought it was my fault that I couldn’t just shake it off. I thought it was my fault that I didn’t want it, and that I was the one who was “wrong.” I’m still dealing with that, to be totally honest. And I’m not ready to date because I’m still dealing with that. I’m still managing the compounded stigma against being ace (and therefore queer) and against being a sexual assault victim along with the stigma I hold against myself even though I know that’s not fair.
That’s where I’m at. That’s how I got there. There’s my beginning, middle and end. No comic relief. No self deprecating humor, not this time. Just truth.
Like Hannah Gadsby would say, I need to tell my story. That’s what I tried to do in this post. If you are struggling and reading this, I can assure you that you are loved. It’s okay to not be okay. You deserve to let go of the shame you’re harboring, because whatever it was, it wasn’t your fault. You are a human being. You are a heart and a brain in a body doing the best you can. That’s enough.
We can fight the stigma. We can tell our stories. While it might not feel that way, it’s enough.
For now, at least.
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