notes from your big sibling
By Kerry Cohen
When I was seventeen, the summer before I left for college, two of my best friends rented an apartment in Long Beach Island. They would be there for July and August. They offered for me to come for two weeks of that time. I was honored, but also a little disappointed. I wanted to be included for the whole thing.
The apartment was in a weathered building about five blocks from the beach. My friends’ rooms had full-size beds, but mine, the guestroom, had two twins. I hung my clothes in the closet, trying hard not to feel like an extra. My first day I walked down to the beach with one of the friends and dipped my feet into the icy water. That was the last time I saw the ocean while I was there.
That night we drove to a club that jutted out onto the bay. My friends knew a few of the guys and around midnight we wound up at one of these guys’ houses. There was beer and pot, and more importantly there was a boy I found attractive, a scruffy guy with black curly hair and thick, dark eyelashes. He was nice enough, and by time the sun was starting to rise we were naked and tangled in a sleeping bag in someone’s bedroom. I didn’t sleep until I got back to the beach house later that morning, and when I woke in the late afternoon, we ate cereal, lit up cigarettes, and drank coffee. And then we started all over again: drank some beer, went to a club, hung out at some guy’s house, had sex with a nameless someone.
Except one of my friends was having sex with a particular someone. She had a boyfriend here. The other friend also had some kind of ongoing drama with a boy. I was really the only one having random sex, as usual. And as usual, I wished it were otherwise, that I could have a boyfriend, too. I never seemed to have the secret knowledge other girls had to make a boy stay.
During my second week at the shore, we had a party. About twenty guys and five girls on the island came to the apartment to drink and smoke. By this time, I’d slept with three different guys, only one of them twice. But none of those boys were at this party. Around two in the morning, most everyone straggled out. My friend’s boyfriend, who was drunk, stayed behind. They went into her room, and I went into mine, exhausted. A few minutes later, I heard arguing, and suddenly he came through my open door. He lay face down on the extra bed.
I sat up in bed. “No way. This is my bedroom.”
He didn’t say anything. My friend stood at the doorway, pissed.
“You can’t sleep in here,” she yelled at him.
“Leave me alone,” he said.
She turned to me. “I don’t want you sleeping in the same room.”
“This is my bed,” I said. I considered telling her I wasn’t remotely attracted to her boyfriend, with his big muscles and slicked back hair, but I was afraid I’d insult her. “I was about to fall asleep. Get him out.”
“I can’t,” she said, her anger now at me. He snored softly.
“Where the hell am I supposed to sleep?”
I grimaced. “The couch? Where some guy spilled beer? Where everyone drops cigarette ashes?”
She shrugged, still mad.
“Forget it. He’s asleep. I’m about to do the same.”
She narrowed her eyes and stomped out. I heard her door slam. I didn’t want her mad at me, but I was so tired I could barely stay awake.
Sometime later, I wasn’t sure when, I woke to the feel of the blankets being pulled back.
“What are you doing?” I tried to push him away, but he was strong. He trapped my arms on either side of me as he pulled off my underwear. I could smell him, old beer and body odor. I heard the TV on in the main room, which meant someone was probably awake. I thought of who that person might have been, just on the other side of the wall, just a yell away. His t-shirt, which was cut into a tank, hung down, brushing against my face as he rose up with athletic grace to pull off his sweatpants. Panic flooded my body. I tried to pull my hips away and close my legs, but he yanked me back and wrestled them open. The thought came: this could not be happening. Just as I thought it, though, I became calm. Numb. The situation was also so familiar, the feel of my underwear sliding off my hips, a person I barely knew hovering above me. I didn’t think of the word “rape.” I wouldn’t associate that word with this moment for many, many years. Perhaps this is why I didn’t scream or yell out. I whispered instead, “Don’t.”
But he did anyway. His breath hot and fast on my cheek. His hairy legs scratchy against my own. Up, down, up, down. I held my breath, willing it to be over, my mind empty. The TV in the other room droned on, whoever was watching it unaware of us here, of me. It didn’t matter. Why did it matter? It was just one more guy. Just get through it. All you have to do is get through it. After a bit I gave up, letting him do what he wanted. Up, down, up down. Every few minutes headlights moved across like a searchlight. Eventually he grunted and pulled himself out so he came on my stomach. I kept my head turned away, my eyes on the shadows on the wall. I felt like I might throw up.
“You’re a cool girl,” he said before he went back to his bed.
I said nothing. I thought about crying, but I didn’t. Eventually, I got up to wipe my stomach with a towel.
The next day I didn’t tell my friend. I didn’t tell anyone for many, many years. As far as I knew, there was nothing to tell. I had sex again. I did it all the time, didn’t I? This separation between choosing and not choosing, between rape and not-rape would be a hard one to untangle. It would take me many years before I understood that they both hurt me, and not in terribly different ways. But they were different. They were. And just because I was a “slut,” just because I easily fell into bed with many, many boys I felt nothing for, I had not asked to be raped.
- Kerry Cohen, age 44
by Danielle Harlow
I guess you could say my Dad is weird…crazy…operating on a different dimensional plane than the rest of us, but whatever he is, he didn’t know how to babysit a little girl. My dad worked third shift, my mom worked first, and so he was meant to be my daytime caretaker. Problem is, he liked to go to the corner store, smoke cigarettes, and drink coffee, and he preferred to do this alone. So he would take me through the neighborhood until we found some playing children, convince me to play with them and drive off for his “adult time.” So I was placed in the mortifying position of having to befriend strange children, sometimes much older than me, and answer their (reasonable) questions about where my dad had gone, or to somehow navigate my way home and hang out in an empty house until he returned. I was four or five.
It didn’t last long; my mom wised up, found a good, professional babysitter and that was the end of the specific shame and anxiety I felt about being dumped off on any available stranger, so my dad could pursue his own interests. But, of course, that is not the end of the story, which could be subtitled “Daddy Issues.” I grew up to be a very awkward teenager. I was chubby and I had acne and greasy hair and a big nose (I still have a big nose, but my face kinda figured out what to do with it. When I was 13, my body had no idea what to do with itself on any count.) I was kind of a magnet for insults: “Ugly” was one I heard a lot. I heard a lot about my nose. Maybe because of my kind of chaotic home life, I let these insults burrow deep into my psyche and I progressed into adulthood with serious, probably body-dysmorphic misconceptions about my physical appearance.
In college I started to get attention from men, but because in my own head I was so ugly that I should have skipped higher ed and gone straight to guarding a bridge after high school, I honestly thought it was a miracle that anyone would actually want to have sex with me. This lead, as you might imagine, to the wrong kind of attention from the wrong kind of men. I suspect, in fact, they were exactly the same kind of boys who would have called me “ugly” five years prior. And so I progressed, believing that someone’s desire to have sex with me was a good yardstick of my worth. (And just for the record, I don’t regret having sex, semi-casually. For me, it was novel, fun, transgressive and always consensual. I just regret some of the partners.)
If I tell you I got engaged, it will not surprise you to learn that I chose a man who was deeply flawed, and that our mutual fucked-upness conspired to make a relationship that was kinda dysfunctional. So when a co-worker asked me out, even though he knew I was engaged, I did think about it, because he was handsome and charming and my relationship had a lot of room for improvement. Ultimately, there was too much love to betray my fiancé and I turned him down. That’s when the problems started.
At an after-hours work function, he introduced me to his female friend, who was ostensibly there to ask me out for him again, but she had a second agenda: to warn me. She said: “Women should help other women, right? Well, my friend, is great in a lot of ways, but in one way he’s very bad. He likes challenging women and usually that means married women or women with families. At his last job, he pursued a lot of women like that and he did something really bad with one of them. They were having an affair, but she wanted to ended it because she felt guilty, so he started doing things to make her think she was crazy. Like touching her and then denying he had touched her when she asked him to stop. Her behavior started to change, because she was being manipulated like that. Finally, her boss asked her what was wrong and she admitted the affair. When their boss confronted my friend, he denied the whole thing, said she was obsessed with him and delusional. She just had a baby and they thought she had post-partum depression. They were going to fire her, until she turned over private email conversations between them that proved the affair. Then other women came out about his behavior toward them and he was fired instead. I’m worried he might want revenge and that he’s going to try the same things on you.”
I told him to leave me alone the next day, kept it strictly professional, and things were mostly okay. Some comments and glances here and there but nothing women aren’t so inured to that it barely even raises an eyebrow. I largely forgot the conversation with my coworker’s friend. Time passed, I got married, had a baby, returned from maternity leave and after about a month on the job, when to a work party at my boss’s country house.
Then the problems started. While I was standing in a swimming pool (in my best post-maternity Grandma speedo), he went underwater and ogled my lower half (as if I couldn’t see him). He “walked in” on me while I was nursing my baby in a private, back room. And then at the end of the night, he asked me to come over to his apartment. I changed the subject in the most awkward segue ever deployed and he asked again. I changed the subject again and he let it drop.
But then the problems really started, because my relationship with my husband had deteriorated into tit-for-tat emotional abuse, although it was more like tit: emotional abuse, tat: doing whatever it takes to prevent this, oh my God, please not in public, anywhere but in public, then private explosion of hurt and retribution. My body was full of oxytocin and other nursing hormones, and instead of being rational about things, I tried to be kind, because who among us has not experienced unrequited love? (That was the oxytocin talking.) And there was the teenage me, still inside 30 year old me, and the college me crammed in there too, who thought that any kind of sexual attention, however inappropriate, was somehow self-worth affirming. It made me feel pretty, which my husband had ceased to do. For a few weeks, I didn’t know what to think. I kind of ignored it, perhaps even encouraged it but after he touched my ass in the stairwell, I knew we had to resolve it. I tried asking him out to lunch to talk about it, which provided a sufficient entry point to emotionally manipulate me, convince others that I was obsessed with him/making a play for him and to deny doing things that I asked him, in writing, to stop doing.
He was a creative, favored by our female boss who had been his classmate in graduate school and I was a replaceable admin. I knew he would lie if I made a formal complaint. He turned some coworkers against me and generally made life hell. My work performance suffered and by mutual agreement, I resigned with a generous severance package and the promise of a glowing reference. They were generous because they knew about his troubled work history but it was more politically expedient to ouster me. Since leaving, I have learned he perpetrated a very similar course of action against a female classmate while he was in graduate school.
So, dear teenager, I’m not telling you not to ever let a man do a bad thing to you—because, as these other stories attest, sometimes it can’t be prevented. I’m telling you if what they do makes you feel bad, or dirty, or slutty, or like you brought it on yourself, or that it’s your fault, ARGUE THE POINT. Looking back at photos of myself, I was as awkward as any teenager, but I was not ugly. What is ugly, anyway? And I guarantee, if you think you’re ugly or you’re hearing that you are from other people, you are not ugly. FUCK that voice in your head and especially FUCK those other people (I promise you they’re only saying it because they are self-conscious about how they look and think they’ve found somebody who won’t argue the point. ARGUE THE POINT.) If you marry someone who tries to make you feel worthless and stupid, ARGUE THE POINT. Argue it with them, because they may get the counseling they need so that you can raise your daughter in a home full of mutual respect and courtesy. Argue it with yourself too. Argue it now as a teenager, and keep arguing it, because this is an argument you can win.
Danielle Harlow, age 30
I wrote this for another teenager going through a really terrible experience. You may have seen her in the news and just like I wanted her to know it’s not her fault and she isn’t alone, I want you to know the same thing. It is not your fault that other people refuse to control their actions.
I don’t tell this story often, but I’ll tell it because it’s important to erase the stigma of being a victim of any kind of sexual attack and if a 16 year old girl can tell her horrifying and just flat out fucking wrong-assed story to the news media, I can do it here, in honor of Jada, a 16-year-old girl who shouldn’t have to be telling this story in the first place.
I was 16 when it happened to me, too, Jada. I’m 35 now.
I was at a party too, with friends, I knew. I drank a little bit, which by the way isn’t an invitation, as you know, to have someone attack you. There weren’t any “adults” around and I stayed up really late talking to a guy who had been ohhhhh so sympathetic about my recent break-up. We were sitting in the kitchen floor of the house the party was at and when I got tired I bid him good night, after all he had a girlfriend who was my friend and went into the bedroom at the house I was supposed to sleep in.
I forgot to lock the door.
You wouldn’t think that you’d need to lock the door in your own friend’s house that you were having a kickback or chill our or a sleepover in. You wouldn’t think that a girl in her P.E. shorts left over from junior high and a Hello Kitty t-shirt was “asking for anything” and that I wouldn’t have to think to lock the door.
I forgot to lock the door.
I had the dog in the room, a doberman.
When I was half asleep, I heard the door open and I assumed it was my friend coming to get the dog to let her out. I didn’t even think…
Damnit, why didn’t I lock the door?
He held me down by my throat.
Why didn’t I lock the door? Why am I still thinking about that door?
He told me no one would ever believe me, that they’d all think I was a slut and why would he ever do that because he had a girlfriend and he was good looking and everyone knew he got fucked when he wanted to.
Why didn’t I lock the door?
I was 16 too. I was all of 90 pounds soaking wet… I was.. I was
Why am I obsessing about what I was like? When in reality the thing I should obsess about is why in the fuck this asshole thought he had the right to touch me in the first place, that he could just walk into a room and have my body, threaten me with physical violence, and basically tell me I was worthless? Why am I more obsessed with a door than the fact that like you, Jada, my attacker harassed me afterwards for weeks and weeks. I’m old so it happened over the phone back then, relentless phone calls, prank calls, like they actually called my house (he and his friends) and told my step father I was a slut and a whore over the phone.
Why didn’t I lock the door?
But darling Jada, you’re braver than I was because I never told my parents what happened to me. It took me a few years to tell anyone what happened to me. You’re smarter than I am by leaps and bounds by standing up for yourself and not sitting around thinking about the damn door or what you were wearing or anything else that rape culture tells us we should think about. You are smarter and stronger than I was because keeping quiet let that fucker get his hands on other girls and for that I’m sorry, because I couldn’t be as brave as you to save other girls from harm.
I stand with you Jada. I am a survivor of rape (not a victim, none of us are victims, we brush ourselves off and keep on living, just like you, but you’re living loud, be proud of that.)
You’re old enough now, to hear this:
Fuck what anyone says to you about this. Just fuck them. They aren’t worth a second of your time. You are worth a million diamond rings and all the stars in the sky. You are amazing. You are strong and you’re a goddamned warrior princess if I ever saw one. You are fearless, even. You deserve your justice and I’ll keep on yelling over here until you get it. Don’t ever let anyone break your spirit because, darling Jada, you have a strong one.
You don’t know me at all, but I love you.
I was two and a half, maybe three, when she gave me an anatomically correct baby-doll. The doll was supposed to also be me because she gave it my Hebrew name. We were both Shana Laya, dark-haired and tiny.
What do we call this?
“The vagina,” I said. It was one of the first words I knew.
And who gets to touch it?
I didn’t know. She said Grandmothers.
I remember the feeling of being murdered, fear so bright and consuming that it felt like my body was inside out, and that if I could squeeze down hard and tight enough, I might keep myself from flying apart. I remember her pitch-dark bedroom, rolling over and over on the mattress, trying to skitter away on all fours, and finally going back to the guest room when she was finished, to join my twin brother. On my way I would see my reflection in the full-length mirror on the back of her door, catching me and not-me in some abstract slice of moonlight. Me as a doll, me as a translucent half-human, me as nothing but skin particles. Once back in bed, I would lie in the dark with my eyes open, listening to my brother grind his teeth, waiting to see the first shades of sunrise filter in under the curtains. Only then could I sleep.
She lived in a condominium building with a swimming pool. The rule was that I could swim and play until her friends came outside to sit in lounge chairs, and then I had to show them my body. Show my friends how you look in your bathing suit. Show them your boooooody. I was five, six, seven, eight. No one ever said this was strange. I would resist until my father said I had to get out and greet the old ladies to shut her up. Did they want to see my body? I believed they did. I hated old ladies. Watching them rub suntan lotion on themselves gave me the inside-out feeling.
She was my mother’s mother. When we were all together in my grandmother’s living room on Sunday afternoons, my mother would sit by herself on the floor or the striped chair and say strange things when paid attention to. I would sit by my father and brother on the big couch while my grandmother sat on the loveseat and begged me to prove my love for her by sitting next to her. I didn’t want to and would burrow deeper into my father’s side. Hours would pass. My mother became angrier as the light changed. My grandmother would invite my brother to sit by her and then she’d say See Jenny? You’re supposed to love your grandmother, not be mean to her. Finally my father would whisper in my ear, “Just go sit by her so we can leave.” She would put her hands all over my thighs, saying loudly that it was her right because she was my grandmother and grandmothers got to touch granddaughters as much as they wanted.
I left Shana Laya outside on the patio all winter on purpose. My parents found her in the spring, naked and grimy, with matted hair. They were upset because they thought I would be sad about it, so I tried to be sad. Actually, I was angry. How had she survived? I hadn’t intended for her to survive. I threw her away and they never knew.
When we went to the movies as a family, my grandmother insisted on sitting next to me. I always said no, I didn’t want to, but I was required. She molested me under her coat in the dark. Once, at my cousin’s bar mitzvah, she molested me under her fancy fur coat for three hours straight, in synagogue. My mother sat on my other side and noticed I kept stroking the fur coat. My mother made everything sexual. She accused me of stroking the coat in a masturbatory fashion, said that I loved it. She giggled and breathed in my ear as if we were girlfriends of the same age—younger than her and much older than me.
When I was seven or so, my grandmother came over for a special brunch. It might have been Valentine’s Day or my mother’s birthday. I didn’t feel well and didn’t eat much. After the meal, when my parents were cleaning in the kitchen, I wanted to lie on the couch. She made me lie on top of her, facing up, so she could put her hands along my front. We were under an afghan she had knitted. I was freezing and I wanted to sleep but she wouldn’t stop touching me. Finally, my father came into the room and somehow noticed that I was sick. He took my temperature and it was high enough to call the doctor on a weekend. “She’s burning up,” he said. “Didn’t you notice she had a fever?”
She kept saying she was cold but her body was so hot.
The summer I was nine, she and one of her friends took me on a cross-country road trip to Williamsburg, Virginia. We all shared a double hotel room along the way. At first, I’d go to sleep on a cot until her friend fell asleep, and then I’d get in my grandmother’s bed. By the time we were on our way back, she told me not to bother with the cot. By the time we were on our way back, I had an eczema rash all over my face and cried every morning. She called it homesickness.
A few weeks after I returned, my stomach started hurting. It got worse, day by day, cramping in my abdomen that soon extended to my lower back. Sometimes it hurt so badly I doubled over. When I told my mother, she said, as she always did, “Sometimes people don’t feel well. Just deal with it.” But then one night it got so bad that I was crying in my bed. They took me to the ER, where the doctors took X-rays and told them I had a blocked bowel. I was impacted so badly that my organs were being pushed around. When my brother asked my father what was wrong with me, he told him I was full of shit. My mother got it into her head that I did it to myself by eating too many bananas.
When I was ten, I told my parents I wanted my grandmother to stop touching me. They thought I meant the way she was always clawing at my arms and legs. Getting her to stop that sounded better than nothing, so I begged them to talk to her, but they said I had to be the one to do it because she wouldn’t listen to them. My father was very excited for me to tell her off. He gleefully goaded me on until I got up enough courage.
And then, one night at a family dinner, maybe Rosh Hoshanna or Yom Kippur, when she wouldn’t stop grabbing my arm, I shouted “Stop petting me!”
Everyone froze. In my memory, my grandmother’s eyes bulged out like in a cartoon. My mother screamed at me to leave the table.
And then we didn’t see my grandmother for several months because, my father said, my grandmother and I were spending too much time together and getting on each other’s nerves. And then my brother and I were old enough to stay by ourselves on Saturday nights, so there were no more sleepovers. Eventually my parents got a divorce. When I got old enough, I moved far away. I had as little contact as possible with my grandmother; I often forgot she existed for months on end, until she’d call me, livid, demanding to know whether I still loved her. When I was 30, or 31, or 29, or 32, my grandmother died. The passage of time doesn’t stay clear for me.
When I’ve tried to talk to him about this as an adult, my father says it was my responsibility to fight her off. He says I should have kicked. He has accused me of making it up. He has accused me of liking it. My mother believes me, except for when she doesn’t.
Neither of my parents speak to me these days. I don’t know why.
- Jennifer, age 40
I never self-identified myself as a victim of abuse. How can you when you don’t have the memories of it? Sure, most 6-year-olds don’t seek out porn and try masturbating to it. And sure, most young girls aren’t obsessed with reading about stories of child molestation. And it’s probably strange that I slept fully clothed for as far back as I can remember, always feeling safer with clothes wrapped tight around me. And yeah, most of the guys I dated wondered if I had been abused.
But these are just clues, the effects of the unseen that pull on me all the time like the moon pulls on the oceans, creating tides. There is no big event, no smoking gun in my mind, which I am grateful for but which leaves me with constant self-doubt, totally alone, adrift and unsure. No club to be a part of, no name to attach to my grief. Did something actually happen to me? I can’t say for sure. There was just a time in my life as a child when I was happy, and then there was a time, after, when I was simply broken. This kind of broken only attracts the kind of people you don’t want to attract. But I didn’t know any better. I was desperate for approval from men—my father was not around much and my step dad was verbally and emotionally abusive—so I would eagerly lap up any attention that anyone gave.
This did not mean I was able to be excited about or mentally present for any kind of physical touch. From my very first kiss at the age of 14 to a man much older who thought I was even younger that I was, who got me drunk on wine coolers until I couldn’t stand, all through my teens and the vast majority of my twenties, I had to be drunk in order to allow men to touch me. And even then, I never wanted it. But could I say no? No. I would lay there, always wanting it to be OVER OVER OVER but unable to say no. Unable to say anything. At least they were paying me some attention at all, and having sex is what you’re supposed to do. I was supposed to enjoy it, to want it, I wanted to want it, I wanted to be like other people. I wanted to have healthy relationships. But I couldn’t, and I didn’t understand why. All I knew is that sex made me feel scared and weird and uncomfortable. So instead I mostly had one night stands, desperate for attention and to feel wanted and pretty, but unable to go through the grief of it all twice and still pretend to be normal.
Later on, I got a little better, and began dating these men, not all of them bad, and simply avoided sex as much as I could, still always sleeping fully clothed, jeans, socks and all. Once a month or so I couldn’t come up with an excuse and we’d have sex and my body would lay there and I would go somewhere else in my mind, hating myself for being such a freak and hating my boyfriend for wanting to have sex with me in the first place.
What do you call the kind of trauma that results from having what on the surface seems like consensual sex? This is a sneaky kind of trauma, one that feels entirely of your own doing, because you’re the one not enjoying it, you’re the one knowing what is ruining the relationship without being able to put it all into words why you are filled with such pain. It fills you with a self-loathing that you can’t pinpoint, because you don’t realize that it is a part of a bigger picture, part of a world where girls are sexualized and victimized and taught to be submissive to men. I never once tried to think about myself, what I wanted, as if that were an okay thing to imagine. I focused on the needs of the men around me, because that is who felt important. I still do today, although to a lesser extent. I am working on doing things that I want to do, and trying really, really hard to ignore the voices that tell me to do the things I don’t want to do. In the last few years I have been able to enjoy sex—the unknown wounds that cut so fine and so deep are slowly, slowly healing. I now sleep in a bra and panties and love to spoon, where before I felt trapped and unable to breathe. I am now with a good man, a man who is also broken and understands what it means to be broken and what it means to need to go slow.
There is hope for me yet, and hope for you yet. Wounds can heal. We can begin to trust again, we can begin to be happy again. Stay strong. I love you, unconditionally. I believe you, it’s not your fault.
- BJ, age 32
Note: The attached picture was taken in Dubai, in March of 2013. I was walking around this really cool old quarter, and a local man saw me taking pictures and beckoned me to follow him, to show me this mural which he figured I would like. I did, and I took this photo, but what you don’t see is the kiss that he stole from me in exchange. I felt violated, but also numb. Every woman’s life is peppered with these kinds of wounds.
Please do! We would love to hear from you, and I’m sure your story would make a lot of people feel less alone. <3 <3 <3 - Lindy
“You certainly came to the right place. All of us here know that rape can be multi-faced, sinister and unexpected. The media often tells the narrative of the scary man coming out of the bushes because it’s more thrilling, more criminal and easy to place blame on some spooky monster. They don’t like it when it could be your friend, your coworker or your own family member; but statistically most people are raped by those who we already know, that is actually the vast majority of rape cases! Please know that your are not alone in the slightest. I was also abused by a man I dated, it wasn’t long after we started dating but I thought he was a normal guy. Rape is defined as lack of consent. Our society sometimes tells girlfriends and wives that we couldn’t possibly be raped by our husband or boyfriend and the underlying psychology there is basically because we are seen as controlled or owned by them (like property!) and so with that logic they can do whatever they want with you. THAT IS FALSE. YOU ARE NO ONE’S PROPERTY. You are your own person, your boyfriend harmed you and took something from you through conniving manipulation. I am just thankful he is out of your life. Surround yourself by people who view you as your own person, who do not try to just take from you. Do away with the toxic ones. You deserve to be free of this past experience and to move on and I’m confident you will. You are brave for sharing this here and just remember you can NEVER be owned by another person. You own your body and yourself and it’s never ok for someone to do what he did. Fly free from his ghost, it doesn’t serve you any longer." - Katrin
“Please, please seek help; you don’t have to feel this way. I was diagnosed with Panic and Anxiety Disorder in my early 20s. I can say now after therapy, and at one point medication, I only have about two anxiety attacks per year and when I do, I’m able to frame them and understand them and put them in perspective immediately. You are not a terrible person. Please take care of yourself. There are many people that can help you to feel better." - JM
“Anxiety is actually a disorder and is not about being a good or a bad person at all! In fact, it often means that you care a lot but that your brain goes into overdrive. It’s just like being sick with a fever in a way. I’ve been on medication for anxiety for a number of years and I also exercise and read and meditate to help myself calm down when these things happen. It’s certainly not easy or fun when I have an attack. Those of us with anxiety aren’t terrible at all, we just have some chemicals in our brains that are a tad imbalanced but there’s nothing you did that made that happen. I bet you’re an amazing person. Remember this isn’t your fault it’s like having any other medical thing happen, it’s just happening in your brain organ." - Katrin
“I have the anxiety. The suggestion to get medical advice is a good one - anxiety is a very treatable condition! I also like to practice mindfulness - then over time I can notice when my anxiety is playing up, and tell it to fuck off into the sea. It’s a process and takes time, but with practice it can get better. Oh, and your anxiety is not your fault." - Margaret
“I just want to echo my sisters, here, and say that anxiety is a medical condition, not a judgment on your character! We don’t think people with allergies are “bad” because they’re sneezing all Spring, right? Nobody blames folks with deafness for being so lazy about hearing. There are therapies and medications that can help you. I have anxiety, and I know it can make you feel awful and weird, but the stigma around mental illness is such bullshit. You aren’t terrible. You sound like a thoughtful, sensitive person. The Affordable Care Act has made mental health coverage mandatory for most insurance companies. That means if you have health insurance, it will probably cover visits to a counselor, therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist. Your family doctor can give you recommendations, as can the customer service phone number on the back of your health insurance card, and your local low-income clinic if you’re uninsured. Good luck, and please feel free to keep us updated on your progress!" - Stefanie
“I also have an anxiety disorder. Meds have been very helpful for me, and so have regular exercise, and attempting to regulate my sleep and breathing. Since all of these are so intertwined, I’ve found that practicing yoga/meditation, even just in my own room, has really, really helped. (And I was not someone who did these things much before) I now have much more control over my own breathing and state of mind. I wish you luck in finding the tool/tools that help you best. None of this makes you or I bad people, it just means we need to seek out tools to make our lives easier. I believe (IN) you (sooo much) and it is not your fault!" - Alex
By Karen Craigo
I’m sorry for the things you weren’t told. I’m sorry that the first time you had sex, you didn’t know sex was a thing. Had you been aware that there was something you might want to treasure or save, a seal that could only be broken once, you’d probably scoff at the notion it was a treasure. It wasn’t.
You’d take some care, though, I think, about who you let break the seal. You’d want a special person. You’d want more than the back of a mud-runner. You always thought those big trucks were kind of ridiculous anyhow, and this was years before you thought seriously in terms of symbols—how a mud-runner exists to tear up ground, plow through the landscape no matter what was in the way. A mud-runner demands its own road, and makes it.
That’s bad symbolism for first sex. I think I would have chosen better.
So there you were, convinced you had nothing to lose, nothing to protect, whispers all around, and you began to understand you were a certain kind of girl. You had a boyfriend then, older, from another school. He drove. You know his real name, and you’d tell anyone who would listen, but let’s agree to call him Jim.
At first, things with Jim are fine. You try to be in love. There is sex. There are presents and kindnesses. You go to school dances where you’re the youngest girl in the room.
Jim, though, is jealous—just by nature, not because of anything you’ve done. Oh, he’ll try to blame you—you looked at one guy, you talked to another, you wore the wrong thing. This translates into hard hands on your arm, purple fingermarks left behind.
You don’t even remember now how you became a thing someone would shake. Or how you turned into something to punch in out-of-sight places. And there were slaps. Hard fucks. Hair pulled; hair pulled out, in bunches.
Even now, you think someone should have noticed this about you—that you wore punishment tattoos on your biceps, that you had a black eye. You think someone should have mentioned when you weren’t in school because this guy, this Jim, picked you up at your bus stop and took you home. He did terrifying things to you there. His mother watched TV in the next room.
Once you got in trouble for skipping school. “This isn’t like you,” Mom said. She was disappointed, mad.
Look, it’s been thirty years, and you still feel betrayed. I want to skip ahead past the worst parts, the sexual torture, the violence, the intimidation you’ve tried to forget. Let me tell you how you get away.
One day you go to your bus stop early. Your brother’s car is parked there. You duck your head to hide. You’ve brought with you a small bat, sort of a club—you didn’t consider your rifle, and this is the only other weapon you could find.
As you hide there, you hear his car pull up and idle in the drive. You hear the bus come and you hear it go. He must be confused, this guy you’re calling Jim because it rhymes with his real name.
You’ve made arrangements with a high-schooler to pick you up, and you see his car approaching in the rear-view mirror. For some reason, he’s not slowing—he has forgotten you—so you jump out of your hiding place, you scream that person’s name. There are brake lights.
On the way to school you will come to understand that you were astonishing and fierce, a Valkyrie. But running for your life made you weird. The people in the car rehash it, how you cocked back your bat on the run; there was no doubt you would have swung. You ran down the centerline, climbed in the waiting car, and you were off—you were safe. You could be schooled.
That was the beginning of how it ended—it was your way out, one of many you could have chosen. You never talked to anyone about it. You owned your weirdness and began not to care.
It’s better that way—to be weird, but to heal. To live odd and unbroken. All your life, your oddness will be your armor. There are terrible things in this world, and you will refuse to go along with any of them.
By the way, you’re a writer now. Tell your stories. Someone may need to hear them.
I treasure you.
- Karen Craigo, age 45
“I’m thankful your sister came outside. I think the question you have can only be answered by you regarding what your intent really was. I think from time to time, especially if we suffer from, or are prone to depression, we wonder what it would be like to not exist or cease existing, but that is very different from actively trying to end our lives. If you feel as such again, I hope you will find a trusted friend or family member to reach out to. The feeling you describe - indifference to living or dying, can be brought about by extreme stress, losses, change of life, or maturing. The important thing to know is that it can and will pass, but getting help and seeking a trusted listener can help you to avoid feeling isolated and numb. Please take care of yourself." - JM
“I think that what ‘counts’ is that you’re here and you’ve reached out to share this with someone. Regardless of the language you use to describe what happened it sounds like you’re going through a time where you’re questioning a lot of things, including your own life. I’m not gonna go all sunshine and rainbows on you; sometimes life really sucks. But you never have to be alone, even if sometimes it feels like you are. It is awesome that you wrote to let us know that you’re in a rough space. If you don’t feel like you’re able to physically talk with another person about it, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has a Lifeline Crisis Chat service that is open from 2pm-2am (Eastern Standard Time) in addition to their 24/7 hotline. I hope that in whatever way you can, you’ll keep telling your story and feel supported. If you’d like to share more of your story, we are here." - CJ
“Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in labeling things. Listening to you, I feel that what you call it isn’t as important as what is underlying that feeling. The fact that you are questioning whether or not your lack of action or desires count as ‘attempted suicide’ leads me to believe that for one reason or another, you have a real hurt, and that you understand the gravity of that hurt. And no matter what you decide to call that, it’s important and valid.
What is important is that you figure out what is hurting you if you don’t know, and acknowledge it. Even though you sound as if you have a lot of clarity, this is rarely easy to do for anyone, and you may need assistance. Please do not hesitate to seek it—from family or friends or professionals as needed. Thank you so so much for talking to us." - Hanif