An Open Letter to an Unnamed Individual
I've spoken his name more times in the past two and a half weeks than in the previous seven years combined.
I learned early on, in what I'll call "the grieving process," that most would not understand my grief and in their own discomfort, they would seek to re-frame the relationship in a way that they could understand so that they could minimize the loss, invalidate my suffering and not be present with me in the trauma of Tim's death and the pain of that loss.
Silence was preferable to misunderstanding. Silence was preferable to having to explain that, "No, there was nothing sexual about the relationship. No there was nothing romantic about the relationship." Silence was preferable to having to explain, "Yes, there was a deep emotional intimacy in the relationship. Yes, Tim loved me. Yes, I love Tim. You cannot put a time limit on when love blooms in a relationship."
So, I did not speak his name. I did not write his name. I did not talk about him at all except when absolutely necessary, and then only in the vaguest of terms, sharing as little information as possible and never ever speaking his name.
During my first last year of seminary, I took a class on Jesus's Death and Meaning Making in the New Testament. That may not have been the exact title of the class, but it's close enough and the name says it all. The first century community found ways to make meaning out of Jesus's death, the results being the New Testament.
This was the semester I left school, taking a two year medical leave of absence.
There is this oral tradition surrounding these texts. A handing down of stories before they were written down and collected as our canon. There is power in telling stories and perhaps the most important words I ever heard Hal Taussig speak concerning these stories and how meaning was made are these: Just because it didn't happen doesn't mean it isn't True.
This is still true today as faith communities interpret texts in their own contexts to create meaning for themselves and their place in the world. This is still true today as we seek to interpret and make meaning of our own experiences as a way of orienting our own selves in the world.
I never speak Tim's name, I don't even write it, because I have no idea how to do so. Words fail me.
I wonder if this is because, in part, I've been conditioned by the responses of those early encounters which sought to minimize and invalidate my grief based on the brevity of my relationship with Tim. It's safer not to talk about it because people are dismissive; because I do not talk about it, I cannot find the words to explain.
As something of a wordsmith, I use words to define my experience with exceptional nuance; I use words to orient myself in a space. In moments of trauma, whether something triggers the trauma of Tim's death or my physical safety is threatened, I lose my words. I cannot speak. This inability to speak about my experience, to have literally no words in my head to even begin to think about it, let alone to try to explain it, leaves me disoriented, unable to self-stabilize, my equilibrium gone.
It is this sense of having lost my equilibrium, of being adrift, disconnected from all that allows me to understand myself, as much if not more than the anxiety which accompanies the triggered trauma, that leaves me feeling under constant threat, terrified, vulnerable to death.
I know, in part, that this sense of being adrift, disconnected, disoriented is related to the circumstances in my life at the time of Tim's death. At that point I was adrift, disconnected, disoriented from my own life. I had lost all equilibrium. My horizon was gone and I was having trouble orienting myself and understanding who I was in the world when it seemed that every means by which I understood myself to exist had been systematically stripped away.
Within a few weeks of the semester's start, my father had abandoned our family and all of the roles and rules were up in the air. I did not know what it meant that my parents were married but he had moved 1000 miles away and started a new life with a whole new family - a chance to for a do-over, it seemed to me. As though he couldn't live with the consequences of how he had raised us and this was his chance to invest in another family and get it right.
But what did that say about us? About our resilience and the work we had done and the strides we had made? What did it mean that after everything he put our family through with his addictions and abuse and the healing I had done through years of work that suddenly it wasn't good enough? He just called it quits and picked up a new life with a new, ready-made family somewhere else.
My understanding of who I was in the context of this family no longer seemed valid, because the family as I understood it no longer existed.
At this point, I had been attending a church, non-denominational, for two years. I had developed several close relationships with various members of the church. I wasn't a huge fan of the pastor, but I loved my community. I loved worshiping with them. I loved doing life with them.
Then, one Sunday the pastor decided he didn't want to be a pastor anymore. We had no pool of candidates or options for pulpit supply. "The rent on this building is paid up for the next two weeks," he told us. "This is my last sermon. My family and I have already transitioned to attending another church here in town." The church essentially stopped existing in that moment.
Because this community had ceased to exist, I lost my identity as a member of this community.
A man who had been pursuing me romantically, who had told me that he loved me, who had asked me to marry him, slept with another woman.
Because the church and community of which I had been a part on Sundays was relatively small (50 people), I had been attending small group activities at a larger church that was part of the same association of churches. This is how I had met the man who said that he loved me. When I spoke to the church leadership about what this man had done, I was blamed for it. I was told, "That's just the way he is. If you got hurt, it's your fault because you didn't guard your heart."
When I told the pastor's wife that I felt her response was inappropriate and that a church which holds to conservative sexual mores probably shouldn't have a man who behaves this way in a position of leadership when so many of the young men in the church looked up to him and viewed him as a role model for engaging in faith and relationships and how to treat women, I was kicked out of my small group and blacklisted in church. I had begun attending this church's Sunday evening services not long before my first church shut down. After speaking to the pastor's wife, I was pointedly ignored at all future services and told explicitly that I was not welcome at church social events.
Having grown up being told by the church that virginity was the greatest thing a woman had to offer and determined to hold onto it until marriage, having been devastated by this man's faithlessness and my own sense of futility in continuing to believe in the possibility of there being any men out there who weren't just like my father, and having been treated with such complete disregard when I expressed my concerns to the leadership, I just threw in the towel. Why hold onto something when the promise that it's the key to a happy, healthy, harmonious marriage is clearly a load of crap?
So, after significant consideration about how and when and to whom and boundaries and expectations and limits and acceptable behaviors and environment, and having written out these stipulations so I could articulate them and not forget anything, I gave away my virginity. Immediately I started experiencing flashbacks to a rape that occurred when I was fifteen, and which I had repressed. I had always told myself the abusive situation from eleven years before had stopped just short of rape.
And so in this, I lost a large portion of my identity in being a) perfect (i.e. a virgin) and b) not a rape victim.
These things all happened within the first two weeks of school. My first consensual sexual encounter happened the night before my first one-on-one meeting with Tim, my CPE supervisor. In that first session, we talked about ALL of it.
Tim offered to walk the journey with me. Tim was the only person in my life who was fully present with me during that time. Tim was the only person in my life who loved me unconditionally. Tim neither wanted anything from me nor wanted anything for me. Tim was simply present, a witness as I struggled to create a new life for myself separate from all of the ways I had previously understood myself to function, from the persons I had previously understood myself to be.
I tried to steadily hold onto something, anything during this time. I was still attending school and had made an appointment with a psychiatrist as the first step to finding a therapist. The way things worked at Columbia, you would meet with a psychiatrist who would determine any medical reasons for your symptoms, prescribe medications as appropriate and then refer you to a therapist if necessary.
Classes had been in session for three weeks when I came to the realization that I was in way over my head and made the appointment. It was going to be two weeks before they could get me in for the intake. It was the soonest anyone could meet with me unless I wanted to go to the ER.
Now five weeks into the semester, I met with the psychiatrist who prescribed an SNRI for the anxiety and a barbiturate to help me sleep. She also agreed that my issues were not strictly biological and therapy would be appropriate. The earliest they could get me in for an intake session before then assigning me to the therapist who would be my primary contact was four more weeks.
As a result of all of these things going on, I dropped out of school. I simply couldn't manage everything. Thus, I lost another large portion of my identity - I was no longer a student.
So, I started to build a new sense of identity in the only area of my life where there was any sense of stability and continuity. I was Tim's intern. And he let everyone know it. It didn't matter where we were in the hospital on a given day. If we happened to be in the same place and anyone greeted "Father Tim" he'd say hello and then he'd introduce me. "This is M," he would say, "and she's my intern." Always, there was enormous pride and validation and joy in his voice. It felt almost proprietary. Of all the CPE applicants, he had chosen me; and he knew that in spite of the fact that all the other places and ways of existing in my life had ceased, I belonged here.
A week before my therapy intake evaluation, I was brutally raped by a stranger. The attack lasted hours.
I never reported it. What would be the point? I didn't want anyone to touch me and I did not want to answer 1001 intrusive questions about what I had done to invite the assault. I dropped out of CPE. Then, I quietly curled up in my bed and left it only to shower repeatedly and meet with Tim who was still willing to walk with me. Tim, who was still claiming me as his intern.
This pattern of scrubbing my skin raw and curling up in bed continued until six days after the attack when the man to whom I had given my virginity called and I agreed to have sex with him one last time, because really, I didn't want my rape to be the last sexual experience I had.
The next morning was my intake appointment and joy of all joys, they could get me in to see the therapist who would be assigned to my care in another six weeks. That was my only option. Take it or leave it. I scheduled the appointment, because, really, what else was I going to do?
Later that night, Tim Fauvell died. Three days later, I was taken to the emergency room myself for a medical crisis that nearly ended in my own death.
Though I'm well aware of magical thinking, and though I'm well aware that it simply isn't true, and though I'm well aware of just how crazy a belief it is, I know that Tim died because I had sex the night before. God was punishing me for screwing up. Again. And I survived my own medical crisis days later so that I could continue living with the knowledge that I was the guilty party.
It's my fault.
Even though I know that isn't true.
So, in moments of lucidity, when I can ask the question, "Why did this happen?" and not come up with the answer, "God was punishing me," I fall back on the only real answer there is: The circumstances were conducive to the outcome.
The problem with this answer is that it isn't an answer at all. It explains how it happened. It doesn't tell me why. It's an answer that does nothing to create meaning.
Humans have always made meaning of their experiences. We still do it today. "For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, 'This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.' In the same way, after supper, he took the cup, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink of it, in remembrance of me.' For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
Just because it didn't happen, doesn't mean it isn't True.
Just because it didn't happen, doesn't mean it isn't True.
The circumstances being conducive to the outcome is an insufficient answer because it does not make meaning out of Tim's death. I cannot make meaning out of Tim's death because to do so would mean being guilty for real; not in the magical thinking "God is punishing me" kind of way. Rather I would be guilty in the "My life has changed and been shaped in these ways as a result of these experiences and those experiences have value" kind of way. I would be guilty in the "I'm grateful for the relationship I had with Tim and I'm grateful for the discovery of new ways of being the world because this is what it means" kind of way.
I had no trouble making meaning of Tim's role in my life. But how can I possibly make meaning of his death? He death meant yet another loss of identity. It also meant another opportunity to discover facets of myself, my resilience, my abilities, new relationships with people I met in the aftermath. If I benefit from Tim's death in these discoveries, then surely I am culpable.
More magical thinking, I'm aware; however, this is where I'm stuck.
And I never speak Tim's name because doing so is a reminder that he was alive then and is not now. Speaking Tim's name means feeling that loss when I'd rather not. Speaking his name invites questions that I simply don't have answers for.
Because every single thing in this world that reminds me of Tim's death puts me squarely back in that space I was in when I was told that Tim had died: disconnected, adrift, disoriented, having lost all sense of equilibrium; under constant threat, terrified, vulnerable to death.
And above all else, more terrifying than the rest, I am without words. Unable to even think, let alone speak. Nothing but painfully resounding silence in my brain as utter panic sets in.
Seven years of therapy and I've addressed all of the issues that were present in my life at the time of Tim's death. Tim's death itself, though, is something I haven't even begun to touch. I had thought if I didn't even try to speak of it, if I didn't let myself think about it, if I held onto the knowledge that the circumstances were conducive to the outcome, if I simply didn't allow myself to feel anything about it, that it meant that I had grieved and healed and was ready to move on.
Then, CPE. Again. And day one of orientation and the trauma of Tim's death was triggered. Tim was there and I couldn't ignore this truth any longer. I have not grieved. I have not healed. I have not moved on. I have not made meaning of Tim's death. No longer was I remaining silent about Tim to avoid feeling the pain of that loss; rather, I had lost my words completely: disconnected, adrift, disoriented, having lost all sense of equilibrium; under constant threat, terrified, vulnerable to death.
I tried to say all of this to you but words failed me.
I tell you now because I'm starting to find those words - to be able to speak Tim's name and to write it - even if I still have no idea how to make meaning of his death. I tell you now because it was my interaction with you that brought into clear and sharp focus for me the truth that I have not grieved or healed or moved on. I tell you now because you are the person who showed me that I am stuck and I do not want to be. I tell you now because I unfairly made you the focal point of my experience of being under threat, terrified, vulnerable to death; I am sorry for that.
Words still fail me. Still, I try.
I tell you now because you are a powerful and effective teacher. I tell you now because painful though the lesson was, I am grateful to you for teaching me.