CW: sexual violence
“Have you ever experienced Trauma?”
The words reverberate around the small room where I sit across from my new therapist. I’d just summarized my laundry list of diagnoses from previous mental health professionals. She looks at me, head tilted and brows furrowed, waiting.
I try to formulate an answer. Trauma? No, I wasn’t abused as a kid. I haven’t been in a war zone. I have great family, and great friends. Some stuff has happened, sure, but there wasn’t anything that qualified as real Trauma, with a capital “T.” Yet here I was, in yet another therapist’s office because I couldn’t deal with the overwhelming fear, the obsessive thoughts, the suicidal ideation, and the detachment from my own body.
Fragmented memories from my 21 years of life start drifting into my mind like daydreams.
That one time during recess in kindergarten. Three first grade boys pin me up against the portable, suspending me in the air by the collar of my puffy purple jacket. I’m confused and scared, unsure what they want from me. Are they going to hit me? I don’t have any money. I remember them laughing. I remember them saying no one would believe me if I told on them. I remember thinking, everyone gets bullied sometimes.
In fourth grade, at my friend’s house for a play-date. She suggests we play a game called “boyfriend and girlfriend.” I say sure. She kisses me and rubs her hands on my body. I grab a piece of paper on a nearby table and put it between our mouths. She says no, it’s better without paper, let’s not use it. I drop the paper silently and she replaces her mouth on mine. She was always the boyfriend, and I was always the girlfriend.
Age 11, Thanksgiving. My sister returns home from her first few months of college. We exchange tearful hugs and excitement, and my sister goes to see my mom. My dad laughs uncomfortably and raises his eyebrows at me. He mutters, “Wow, she sure has put on some weight, huh?”
Age 12, sixth grade. A boy in my class tells me he bets I can’t touch my elbows together behind my back. I think to myself, my strong, flexible shoulders from years of gymnastics will totally prove him wrong. I try it. His friends erupt in laughter as their eyes consume my chest.
The locker room before practice, age 13. An older girl says how gross it is if you don’t shave off all of your pubic hair. “Boys won’t sleep with you if you don’t shave,” she says.
In California, age 14, at the reception after my grandmother’s memorial service. I walk past my uncle. He’s had 8 beers that afternoon, with a ninth cracked open and perspiring in his hands. He grins, peering at me through his sunglasses. He says, “You’ve got nice, perky oranges.”
Age 15, kneeling on my bathroom floor, toilet bowl white and shiny in front of me. The shower water runs loudly. If I could just get all the bad out, I’d be clean. I’d be pure. I’d be good. A finger down my throat. Why isn’t this working? A toothbrush. Lots of coughing. I hope the shower is loud enough to cover me. Tears sting my eyes. Is this blood from my fingers or my throat? I make a mental note to trim my nails.
The first Harris party, my first year at Grinnell. Having not partied in high school, I’m not used to being this drunk. I dance near the edge of the crowd for a couple of minutes, and laugh a lot. It’s really dark. A guy comes up behind me, grabbing my hips and pulling me into him. We dance. His hands start creeping up underneath my tight black skirt, touching me eagerly over my underwear. This is moving faster than boys did at my high school, I think. He spins me around and aims his face at mine. I dodge my head to look the other way. I tell him my name, and ask for his. He places wet, hard kisses on my neck. Then his lips are on mine, his tongue forcing into my mouth. I realize I don’t even know what he looks like. I haven’t worn that black skirt since.
Age 19, my second year at Grinnell. A senior from my sociology class is in my room after we’d danced at a Harris party. I’d drunk a lot that night. How did we get to my room? He kisses me. I kiss him back. He takes off my clothes. A sinking, guilty feeling creeps into my stomach as he puts his mouth on me. I’m supposed to want this, right? I better make it seem like I’m enjoying this. An obligation to reciprocate; I’d be a bitch and a tease if I don’t. Then I wake up on top of him, having passed out. He rolls out from underneath me and leaves. I text him the next day, apologizing for being sloppy. I must’ve wanted it on some deeper level, I think to myself. My roommate isn’t speaking to me because I hadn’t answered my phone when I’d locked her out of our room the night before. I feel so dirty. I run to the bathroom and vomit. It’s not from the alcohol.
A friend’s beach house, age 20. On a couch with a guy I hardly know. It’s 4am and my friends are asleep in the next room. His hands tug at my waistband, but I push them away. He tries again. I murmur, “Hey…stop. I’m seeing a guy at school who I really care about.” “So? He doesn’t have to know,” he replies calmly, smirking. He shoves his hand down my underwear. I don’t do anything.
Age 21, this past summer, before my senior year at Grinnell. Two friends are asking me about the guy who’d slept over last night. “It was fun,” I say. “He was really respectful and kind; we talked about consent. I think I enjoyed it. But I did that disassociating thing again while we were hooking up, and afterwards I couldn’t sleep at all.” My friends look at me with sad eyes. My head starts feeling dizzy. My breathing gets shallow. Oh shit. Fuck. Not now. I sink down to the floor and try to pull myself back into my body, to slow my breathing, but it doesn’t work. My fight or flight response has short-circuited, and I’m flying to the door, desperate to get out. To just get away, out of my skin. Who is making those awful screaming noises? I fumble at the lock on the door with violently shaking hands. Why can’t I open this fucking door? I realize that sound is me. The door finally flies open and I collapse into the grass, tears and snot mixing with the dirt I’ve smashed my face into. You’re safe. You’re safe. You’re safe. These words feel false but I repeat them anyway, until they sound like jumbled sounds.
* * * * * *
Have we really come to the point where transgressions on our bodies and minds are this normalized, internalized, and even expected? As if it’s just part of being a woman (or any person, for that matter) in society? And we wonder why rates of eating disorders are at an all-time high, why young people struggle with self-esteem, why people who we thought were “smarter than that” may stay in partnerships with their abusers.
Bodily violations don’t have to fall under the category of sexual assault, or Trauma with a capital “T,” to have the power to shape our relationships with our bodies, our sexualities, and other people, or to teach us on a visceral, instinctual level that our bodies and psyches are not safe.
The fact that the Title IX office didn’t validate your experience with disciplinary action for your abuser doesn’t mean you aren’t hurt. You don’t have to identify as a victim-survivor, to be diagnosed with PTSD, or to have even reported anything to be justified in feeling that damage was done. The reality that violations of our bodies and minds happen every day does not diminish the pain you feel. The fact that your body responded while your soul cried out, or that you didn’t actually “say ‘no,’” does not mean you wanted it. The fact that worse things have happened to other people does not mean that what happened to you was okay. You are not being dramatic.
* * * * *
“Have you ever experienced Trauma?”
“No,” I say to the therapist. “Nothing that really counts.”