CW: This essay discusses sexual abuse and trauma . For survivor support, contact RAINN for confidential online and phone support, https://www.rainn.org/get-help.
By Kit Rempala
One of the most beautiful and terrifying things about trauma is its relativity. It changes from person to person. My therapist says trauma is a defense mechanism – it shields us from the exiled emotions which well up to the surface every time our minds touch upon the permanent bruise which houses memory of the initiator. She says defense mechanisms are not our weakness; they are powerful tools that indicate just how strong we are in the face of adversity. She says although the initiators and their actions are not a part of us, the defense mechanisms – the traumas – are a part of us. And no part of us is bad, or defines us.
But what do we do when cases of trauma are not so clear-cut?
I should have known. I should have listened to my friends. I should have listened to my instincts. I believe in the core, primal, animalistic intelligence preserved in the human condition – the one that, when it prompts us to “Run!” is usually correct. I’m a smart woman. I am college-educated, I come from a well-adjusted upbringing in an upper-middle-class home, and I very rarely question my own judgments. And then there are other times…
I met “D” when I was nineteen. I had scarcely dated, and so I jumped at the opportunity for another’s attention, to feel desirable and wanted. He seemed like a nice enough guy: polite and witty. But even on our first date my neighbor’s dog growled at him as we walked to his car. I shrank away from his hulking form in the passenger’s seat, and again during the movie, and again on the way home. When I kissed him goodnight my apprehension was eclipsed by his powerfulness, the way he pulled me so tightly to him and pressed his lips so hard against mine. It made me feel small in a way I never had being 5’11” tall. My body shook, but not with the butterflies from a new connection.
One of the next times I saw him he exerted his masculinity by picking me up, hoisting me over his shoulder, and walking with me like that. It was humiliating to hang there as his friends laughed at my powerlessness, although later he assured me it was all in good fun. A few days later he showed up at my house, unannounced, standing on my front porch, coaxing me to come out. But I couldn’t bring myself to open the door. Something inside of me warned me that those 2” of wood were there for a reason. I told him I was too sick to come out, and broke things off with him over the phone before leaving for a month-long trip to Europe.
But he never let go, insisting there were no hard feelings and we should be friends. I hesitantly agreed. When I returned home I became involved in a tumultuous 3-year relationship, throughout which D remained in my life. I called him my best friend. I trusted him. But slowly, things changed.
It started off casually: joking, mild flirting. D insisted it was good for my self-esteem. It made me uncomfortable, but that nagging voice inside of me said, “His intentions are good. He’s your friend. Don’t be picky.” Then my relationship with my ex dissolved completely. D maintained that he had no romantic interest in me, but the flirting became more aggressive. He slipped allusions to sex with me into every conversation. He prodded me to flirt back, to send him photos of myself in my underwear or nude. When I questioned it, he laughed it off as a joke. When I became irritated with the constant barrage, he chastised me, insinuating I was lippy, prude, a bad friend, abnormal, or had sexuality issues. “I want to show you what a healthy sex life looks like,” he would say, prompting me to be intimate with him. Although I turned him down, he persisted.
I began avoiding seeing him in person. His constant solicitations to come over, to engage in sex, to stay the night, became undeterrable. I exhausted the gamut of excuses: I’m too shy to hang out in person – I prefer texting, I’m busy, I’m sick, my car is at the mechanic, my dog doesn’t like men so I can’t have men over… When none of my politer attempts to turn him down resonated with him, I resorted to flat-out “NO”s, which also failed to meet his deaf ears.
When I could avoid him no longer, I would agree to a movie night. But beside me on the sofa his hands would find me: touching my arm or shoulder or neck or hair, playing with the fabric of my clothes. I became nauseated at the sound of his breath becoming quick and uneven as his fingers felt their way over me, knowing it was because he was excited by the slightest touch to my body. If I inched away from him he pulled me back. He would lift me onto his lap despite my protests, holding me there as if I were a child. My body would stiffen against his. My heart and lungs would constrict as I felt his eyes crawling over me.
Alone with him I felt trapped. My mind raced thinking up excuses to leave. I denied his requests that I drink with him and spend the night. I became acquainted with the routine of his touching and brushing off my polite insistence that he stop. “You don’t have to do that,” I’d say, shrugging his hands off my shoulders. “I’m too warm,” I’d say, pulling away from his arm death-gripped around me. “This is a new sweater,” I’d say, taking his hands off my clothes. Finally, it turned to, “Okay, D, that’s enough,” and, “No, D,” and, “Let’s just watch the movie, okay?” His response?
“You’re a pretty girl. You’re sexy. What I do is a compliment. This is how things are. This is what guys do to pretty girls. I’m not going to stop, because I’m a guy and you can’t blame guys for doing ‘guy’ things like this.”
Then the groping began. His hands would travel to my buttocks or dive down the neck of my shirt and into my bra. When we said goodbye, he would beg for a kiss and then force his tongue into my mouth until I reciprocated. And, after years of saying “no” and being unheard, I learned to just let it happen. The faster I let it happen, the faster it was over, and again came a long, safe period of being able to avoid him. But it always got worse.
It was winter. I had sunk into a depression that caused my eating disorder (anorexia) to crescendo. I was at the lowest point in my life: self-esteem and weight alike. He invited me over. The movie played while his unsettling breath and quivering hands enveloped me. He pressured me to “fool around” with him. First, I said “no.” I told him I was tired. I confessed I felt vulnerable, that I missed my ex. I told him I was worried my anorexia had reduced not just my physicality (I was 5’11” tall and around 100 lbs.; he was 6’2” and more than twice my weight) but my mental capacity. I wasn’t in a healthy place to be making decisions. I didn’t want to do something I’d regret. I said I wasn’t sure it was a good idea.
But again came the reasoning, the insinuation that I needed this in order to be healthy and whole again, that he was helping, that this was good, that I would like it, that it was normal… I tried again to say “no,” but the insistence continued, as it had day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year… His words rang through my head: “I’m not going to stop.”
I’ve asked myself why I didn’t just yell and make it clear as day. I’ve asked myself why I didn’t leave the apartment. I’ve asked myself why I didn’t end the friendship. But there, in that moment, with anorexia and an anxiety disorder and depression buzzing in my mind – I froze. My world shrank. My options disappeared. My mind, body, and spirit shook. I felt no matter where I went, he and his coercions would find me. I was desperate for it all to stop. I was terrified of what would happen if I told him, “no.”
So I said “yes.” It wasn’t enthusiastic. It wasn’t even certain. It was a plain and hollow “yes.” He took me into his bedroom and pulled off my clothes. I forced myself to smile as he kissed me, touched my naked body with his large and unforgiving hands. He ushered me to touch him, and I did. I laid there stiff as a board, barely participating, internally begging for it to be over. His hand went between my legs and I was so tight with fear he could hardly penetrate me – but he did anyway, his dry fingers burning against my flesh. I cried out and he removed them, sliding his head between my thighs instead. My legs squeezed against his head so tightly, trying to close, trying to keep him out. He insisted it was because “I liked it.” I didn’t like it. I didn’t want it. When it was over I said I should be getting home, but he wanted me to stay. He played a video game for about an hour and then took me into the bedroom and did it again. I left, and cried the whole drive home.
My mom sensed something was amiss the next day. But, embarrassed, I told her it was just an awkward experience between friends. I convinced myself I had wanted it, that it wasn’t as bad as I remembered it, that I wasn’t a victim… I remained friends with him to maintain my delusion that nothing horrible had happened.
Then one night he invited me to see a play. I wore turtleneck and tights to deter him from getting under my clothes. The venue was over an hour from my house. The whole drive he spoke of sex and sang songs with filthy lyrics. I felt like his captive object. During the play his hands hovered over my body, and during intermission I stayed in my seat so I could be alone for a few moments, to breathe freely without his presence at my side.
When he dropped me off he parked in the driveway of my darkened house. I tried to thank him and get out of the car, but he wouldn’t let me go without a kiss. And, as the years had taught me to do, I easily reciprocated to his tongue in my mouth despite my stomach flipping over inside. When I reached for the door handle a second time, his paw-like hand went down my sweater and into my bra, and – once again – I numbly let it happen.
I was leaving for the third time when his other hand went up my skirt and groped at my genitals, at which point some small thing buried deep in the pit of my stomach suddenly flared, and I yelled out. His hands retreated – and he LAUGHED. Something broke inside me. It cracked open with the flimsiness of an eggshell and through the numbness swam a flood of anger. I scrambled from the car as he, still laughing, said, “Hey, I’ve gotta get you over to my place again sometime soon. You’re starting to give me blue-balls over here.” Quaking with this newfound freedom, I spat, “Get a girlfriend!” And he replied, “Nah, I’ve got you…”
I slammed the car door and went inside. I microwaved a cup of soup and sat on the couch still shaking. I couldn’t let myself cry until the next day.
In the weeks after I felt sick. I was suddenly conscious of everything I had numbed for the past four years. I could not shake the feeling of his presence, of his blue eyes digging into me. I flitted between self-pity and self-hatred, neither one feeling completely right or wrong.
As I began to speak publicly about my experience, my story was met with mixed remarks. Some implied I had no right to my trauma, that I was being overly-dramatic: that I was confabulating and accentuating the insidiousness of the situation, that I was making myself into a victim to stave off “morning-after remorse.” They insisted I was being unfair to D for blocking him out of my life: that I owed him an explanation. They insisted what had happened was my own fault: that I was asking for it, that I shouldn’t have flirted back when he told me to, that I shouldn’t have sent him the pictures when he asked for them. They insisted that what happened to me was consensual, because I had eventually said “yes.”
And I believed them. I blamed myself. I felt unentitled to the trauma I was experiencing. I no longer trusted myself to make decisions. I no longer thought of myself as a smart woman. I felt small, I felt alone, and I felt helpless.
It was a long time before I realized what D had been doing was conditioning me toward submission. He may not have hit me or called me names, but he was always “there.” Like a shadow over my shoulder he texted me morning and night, keeping tabs on me, wanting to know every detail of every day of my life. In person he was physically imposing: looming over me, exerting his strength by picking me up and moving me, touching me as if to say, “I’m doing this because I can.” It was intimidation. It was power. It was control. And he was always just nice enough, just good enough of a friend, to convince me not to break off contact – to guilt me whenever I didn’t acquiesce to him.
He had taken advantage of my timidity, my good nature, my guilt-prone personality, my insecurities, my mental disorder, my weakened mind and body. He used what made me good or vulnerable to train me into accepting behavior from him that I would accept from no one else. He numbed me to his pursuits with his constant ignoring of my attempts to say “no.” He forced me into a hopeless place where I accepted that he wouldn’t give up until he got what he wanted. He trained me to learn that I got what I wanted from him (silence, boundaries) only by giving him what he wanted from me (my body). He used years of conditioning, controlling, harassment and intimidation to wear me down. Until I said “yes.”
But since when does ONE “yes” negate the hundreds of times I said, “no”? How does it constitute consent when I not only told him no, but that I was unsure, that I was hesitant, that I was vulnerable, that I wasn’t in a good place emotionally, that my mental capacity was depleted by anorexia? How does it negate the way I FEEL about the situation, negate the hatred and sickening anxiety I feel whenever I picture his face or hear his name, negate the way my body reacted so fearfully that night in his apartment? If it is possible for police to interrogate an innocent man into confessing to a crime he did not commit, is it not possible for a man to harass a woman to the point of agreeing to something she does not want to do?
But the lines were maddeningly blurred. The texting conversations read as though all was well. There was no gun to my head when I sent him those pictures. There was nothing physically keeping me from leaving his apartment, or saying no again, or ending the friendship altogether. All that was present is the consistent apprehension I have felt in his presence since that night my neighbor’s dog growled at him on the sidewalk. What remains is that tightness in my chest, the instinct to run, the feeling that I have no other options when he’s around. And the body doesn’t lie.
When my intuitions warned me about D, I convinced myself I was making mountains out of every negative molehill he possessed. I told myself a good friend accepts others’ imperfections and forgives. I let the good aspects of our friendship overshadow every red flag that waved violently in my mind. I learned to be mild and subservient to the more important needs of a man who intimidated me.
I will never get back those 4+ years that I devoted D. Each day I am grateful that I never sent him any pictures worse than me in a sports bra or a bikini up at my lake house. Each day I am thankful that my body seized up that night, and that I was not violated to a more extreme extent than I was. Each day is a battle between empowerment and shame, between the voices from opposing sides that call either support or condemnation. I fear him finding me again. I shorten his name to “D,” not out of respect for privacy but out of fear for repercussions should he somehow end up reading it. Each day I tell myself I learned something from the experience. But what haunts me is that things like this can happen, even to smart women, even in a society that preaches mutual respect and combats rape culture – that somewhere out there is a man who doesn’t realize they he made me into a victim.
I struggle every day with whether I am entitled to my trauma. That’s the beautiful and terrifying thing about traumas: they are relative. Whether I’m entitled or not, it has taught me the power inherent in all of us to put ourselves back together and move on, and that some doors exist to never be reopened.
Kit is a student, philosopher-in-training, budding writer of poetry and short (non)fiction, art enthusiast, and animal/nature lover. As an eating disorder survivor, she strives to imbue whomever she can with strength, love, and awareness to combat the stigmas associated with struggles in mental health. She spends her days drinking coffee and dancing to strange music in her hometown in Illinois. You can find her on Twitter at @The_Kit_Effect.