Thursday, May 26, 2016

An Autobiographical Reflection on Suffering

TW for sexual violence.....

It was Halloween, October 31, 2007.  I had just started my last year in seminary.

Seminary was a difficult time for me.  I didn’t really fit in at Union.  I was a conservative Evangelical, attending a conservative Evangelical church, going to a small group Monday nights and helping out at services twice on Sundays.  I was a student leader in an internationally known, conservative, Evangelical student ministry and was attending meetings and leading a bible study every Friday night.

Every morning I would get up at 4:30am and go running in Riverside Park.  I would return home, shower, eat breakfast, and have my morning devotional.  By 6:00am I was studying and doing homework.  I had classes in the morning, clinical hours at the hospital in the afternoons.  I was in bed every night by 8:00pm when I wasn’t at a small group or church or leading a bible study.

I was also depressed and feeling isolated.  My colleagues were going to dinner at the time I was going to bed.  They didn’t read their bibles or attend small groups.  They were liberals who supported pro-choice legislation and marriage equality.  Apart from attending the same school, we had nothing in common. 

I had good fellowship with the student ministry I was serving across the street, but I only saw them once a week, on Friday nights, when I was particularly exhausted at the end of a long week and wanted more than anything to just crawl into bed.  I was treated with suspicion at church in spite of my service and confession of faith because I attended that liberal “cemetery.”

This particular Wednesday night, I went out with some friends from the hospital after my clinical hours.  I had been recently developing a closer friendship with one of the unit assistants and counseling her on the inappropriateness of her living with her boyfriend – particularly as she considered herself to be a Christian.  This particular Wednesday night, we went to a local bar, for some drinks and revelry.  It’s like an Applebee’s – but with better food and karaoke set up in one corner.  I've never been one to drink much or often, so I stuck to club soda.  

A clarification:  That I was drinking club soda is not included to indicate that women who do choose to consume alcoholic beverages and who are assaulted have contributed, in anyway, to their victimization.  It is merely included as fact of the evening.

At the bar, there were a lot of people, wearing a lot of different costumes; it was Halloween, after all.  I went as a chaplain – last year of seminary, a CPE student; see how that works?  There was a man in the bar who was not unattractive, and who struck up a conversation with me. We talked for a bit, and decided some kissing might be a pleasant way to pass a few minutes.

Frankly, I prefer not to do my kissing in front of other people.  It's personal and intimate, and no one really wants to see me sucking face with a total stranger anyway, so we headed somewhere more private.

As I lived just up the street and he was visiting friends from out of town, we headed to my apartment.  I made clear up front that I was interested in kissing only.  He agreed that this was acceptable.

We made it back to my apartment, and I showed him to the restroom.  When he re-entered my room, he was stark naked and standing between me and the only door.

He proceeded to forcibly remove my clothing, shove me up against my bed, and force me to lean over the bed.  Using one hand to hold my torso down and yanking my hair back with the other to the point that my airway was constricted and I could barely breathe, he forced my legs apart and he raped me, penetrating every part of me.

When my dog, my five pound Yorkshire Terrier, Willy Wonka attacked this man, he stopped, let me up, grabbed my dog, and threw him into the wall across the room.  Willy Wonka slid down the wall, stood up, shook his head, and renewed his attack.

Seeing this man lunge for my dog again, I called Willy Wonka quietly to me and locked him in his kennel where he would be safe.

The attack continued, and I was pinned to the bed, on my back.  Blissfully, I could breathe again.  In theory.

In reality, I was crying so hard I could barely catch my breath, as I pleaded and begged this man to stop.  "No," I said.  "Please, no.  Not that.  Please, don't.  Please, stop.  I don't want to do that."

This is not suffering.

This is horrible.  This is horrifying.

This is violation.

This is violence and invalidation and pain.

This is hours of desperation to survive.

This is not suffering.

Suffering comes later.

Eventually, he left.

I am alone. 

Not even God can enter this place and touch my fear and pain and trauma.  God is as absent from this place as I am broken.

I sit in the shower crying, scrubbing my skin raw.  I crawl into bed, my skin and hair still wet.  I stare at a wall.  Willy Wonka curls up by my feet.  I hide from the world.  I try to hide from myself.

Rinse and repeat.

I called my best friend the next day.  I cried.  I told her it was a one-night stand.  Who would believe that I had been raped?  I had spent the evening in a bar, where I met a man, and a few hours later, invited him back to my apartment for some private kissing.  What did I think was going to happen?  Did I really expect that he would listen to me when I said kissing was all I was interested in?  He'd left the bar and his friends and traveled to my neighborhood.  Did I really think I had a right to expect that he wouldn't pressure me into sex, or take from me what I had clearly told him I would not give him?

A digression:  Rape culture tells women that if you go to a bar, meet a man, take him home for some casual kissing, and you are raped, it's your fault, because everyone knows that going home with a stranger is the equivalent of consent.  Except it is not consent.  Rape is never the victim's fault.

Rape culture convinces women to believe this lie.  I bought into for nearly a year.

Suffering comes the next day and every day for the next month as blood pools in the toilet every time I have a bowel movement.  Suffering comes every year for the next six years when, for two weeks every year – one week on either side of the anniversary – blood pools in the toilet every time I have a bowel movement.

Suffering comes six days later when I have consensual sex with the lawyer.  I did not want the assault to be the last time a man ever touched me.  I knew this would be the last time a man ever touched me.  I feel contaminated, tainted, dirty.

Suffering comes sixteen weeks later when I go to the doctor to be tested for sexually transmitted infections.  “Why did you wait so long?”  Most sexually transmitted infections can be cured.  Herpes cannot be.  It’s uncomfortable, but there’s nothing to be done about it.  HIV cannot be.  It’s deadly, but it takes eight weeks for the viral load to be detectable in the blood.

“It’s been longer than eight weeks.”  I couldn’t get out of bed.  I’ve been depressed.  “Because of this?”  No.  Because Tim’s death superseded this.  “Who was it?”  Somehow “Spiderman” seems like an inadequate response.  I hadn't gotten his name, and it's not as though he left a business card or phone number when he left.  I tell my doctor, honestly, that I do not know.  Why does no one believe I do not know who did this to me?

"Was it someone you met in a bar?  Someone who works at your school?  An acquaintance, perhaps?  This was date rape, wasn't it?"

A digression:  date rape is a bullshit made up term for the purposes of minimizing the horrifying experience of being violently sexually violated by someone you know, because it does not fit the cultural (mis)conception that rape is an act that is committed against a certain type of woman, committed by a certain type of perpetrator.  

Date rape is a bullshit made up term used to communicate to a woman that her experience of violation and assault isn't really rape because if she knew the man who assaulted her, she must have done something to indicate she was okay with it.  Something like inviting a man she'd recently met in a bar back to her apartment for a little bit of kissing in private after making clear the expectation that kissing was all that was going to happen.

Suffering comes a year later.  My therapist is on maternity leave and though I was confident I could manage for six weeks without an appointment, the first anniversary comes and I am overwhelmed.  I am bleeding.  I am terrified.

I make an appointment with the back-up therapist she’s given me a number for, her office mate.  “How do you know it was rape?”  I said no.  I begged him to stop.  I pleaded for him to stop.  I cried the whole time.  I said no.  “Maybe to him it was just rough sex.”  Why do I have to keep justifying the validity of my experience?

Suffering comes when I say the word “rape” because I am immediately in that space again, terrified, choking, hoping merely to survive.  I use the more generic term, stating vaguely that I’ve been sexually assaulted.  It softens the reality of the brutal attack on my body and lets me pretend that some part of me is not irreparably broken.

Suffering comes six and half years later when I try to do CPE again.  Being in a hospital ED is at times terrifying.  I talk to my supervisor.  His slow, southern drawl can be comforting.  I explain how I had been out with friends on Halloween.  I had been depressed for some weeks and was trying to find ways to connect with others.  We went to a bar in Washington Heights – a local joint.  “I bet you never made that mistake again.”  There were a lot of things I stopped doing after it happened.

Suffering comes when my family members and friends learn of this and become angry with the man who did this to me.  Why has it suddenly become my role to comfort and reassure them that I am okay?

Suffering comes seven years later when I meet my partner and I continue to have flashbacks. 

Suffering does not come when, early in my relationship, I ask my partner how he can be so okay with this and the fact that it impacts our relationship.  “It happened.  And it happens way too often.  It does no good to pretend otherwise or to punish you for the way it affects you.”

Suffering comes when my partner touches my hair during intimate moments and my neck and shoulders tense as terror floods my body, tears begin to pool at the corners of my eyes, and I silently remind myself that this is not the same.  My partner is touching my hair gently.  My partner is not pulling my hair.  My partner would never pull my hair.  My partner will not hurt me. My partner will not harm me.

Suffering comes when I say nothing to my partner in the moment because I do not want him to think he’s done something wrong. 

Suffering comes when I work through it alone, in the moment when I am least alone, because I do not want to let what happened then affect the life I am living now.

Suffering comes when I consider cutting off my hair because maybe then I can cut this memory out of my life – this memory that lives in my skin, muscle, sinew, bones.

Suffering comes when I miss the waist-length hair I had the day it happened and I remember that cutting it off once before did not work.

Suffering comes when, two weeks later, I finally work up the courage to ask my partner, “When you touch my hair in intimate moments, you would never pull my hair, right?”

Suffering comes again when he answers, “Of course not.  I just like feeling your hair between my fingers.” 

We are lying in bed; I am curled up against his side.  Though I prefer to rest my head directly on his chest, his chest hair often tickles my nose.  He refuses to shave the line of my profile into his chest hair.  I’ve asked.  The duvet rests between my cheek and his chest.  I am grateful because I know he will not feel the tears that roll down my cheek and fall to the cover.

“You know I want you to tell me if I ever do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable, right?”

Suffering comes when I tell him yes and know that I will not, when I realize that I will deal with this alone, just as I lived through it alone, just as I survived it alone, just as I have dealt with it alone since it happened.

Friday, May 6, 2016

The Hero's Journey

Every single day is drudgery.  There is comfort in the routine of it all, but little else.  I get up with the alarm.  I eat breakfast with David – scrambled eggs with ham and cheese.  On really exciting days, we use goat cheese and add fresh chives and sautéed mushrooms.  I clean up our breakfast dishes.  I shower.  I put on clothes.  At 8:00 every weekday morning I walk into my office, turn on my computer, load my programs, and spend the next eight and a half hours answering the phone.

During my morning break, I lift weights.  At lunch, David and I sit at the dining room table and eat our turkey sandwich.  We hold hands.  This is the highlight of my workday.  On my afternoon break, I holler to Harriet, “There’s lappage available!” listening to the thud as she lands on the bedroom floor and the sound of heavy paws making their way across the dining room to my chair.  I read my book while she settles in. 

At 4:30, I shut off my computer, leave my office, and read into the evening until either David or I get hungry enough to make dinner.  After dinner, I clean the kitchen and we settle in on the couch to watch Netflix.  Some days I think I might die from the boredom of it all.  I wonder if other people cry in the shower because they hate their working life so much.  I feel guilty because, after all, I have a job, a home, a partner who loves me but isn’t sure he wants to spend the rest of his life with me.

On Saturdays I bake bread.  I do laundry.  I clean bathrooms.  I hand wash the floors.  I fantasize about taking up drinking as a pastime.  I am much too responsible for that.  On Sundays I use the egg yolks leftover from baking bread to make Hollandaise sauce and I serve Eggs Benedict for breakfast.  I clean the kitchen.  I go to church.  I spend my Sunday afternoons reading and sometimes crying because I hate the thought of going into my office at 8:00 Monday morning.


“You should apply to CPE again,” David said to me one day.  I had refused over and over and over again when he’d brought it up before.  “You’d make an excellent chaplain.”

“How can you be so sure?” I asked him.

“You ask better questions than anyone I’ve ever met,” he tells me as he holds my hand.

I can’t do it.  I have failed twice before.


I go to work every single day and while I love David and while I recognize how extraordinary it is that I have even survived this long and come this far, I hate my life.

“You should apply to CPE again,” David said to me again one day.  “I know you said the UIHC isn’t doing a summer program, but you could apply to GMC.  That’s a doable drive.”

“Why don’t you want to spend your life with someone who does service work?” I ask him.  “I don’t care what the answer is.  Anything is acceptable.  Your reasons are your reasons and whatever they are, they’re okay.  But I want to understand.  Are you ashamed of my work?  Are you afraid your colleagues will judge you?  Does the idea of introducing your girlfriend who works in a call center to other college professors embarrass you?”

David takes my hand.  He has a habit of doing so when we talk about heavy stuff.  “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life waking up next to someone who is wasting their potential.  I can’t live with that.”

“What if I fail?” I ask him.

“It’s okay to fail.  It’s not okay to not try,” he replies.

“I’ve tried twice,” I remind him.  “I failed both times.  First when Tim died and then last summer, in Tennessee.  Maybe I’m just not cut out for it.”

“This time will be different.”

I applied for CPE.


“Hey, babe!” I yelled from my office.

“Yeah?” David answered.

“I got an interview.  March 18th.  10:00AM.”

“That’s fantastic!  How do you want to celebrate?” he asks with incredible enthusiasm.

I do not want to celebrate.  I want to throw up.  We go out for burgers.


“I wish the interview was sooner,” David says to me one morning.

“Why?” I ask him, thinking how much I’d prefer it were farther away.

“Because I want to know,” he enthuses.  The week trudges on.


I take the day off from work.  I drive sixty miles to the east.  I feel ambivalent.  I want my life to move forward.  I do not want to do this. 

I am early.  The cafeteria is open and I buy bad coffee and sit at a small table working on a crossword puzzle.  I have set the timer on my phone.  When it’s 9:55, I get up, pack my bag and make my way to the Spiritual Care office.  I introduce myself to the department secretary.  She announces my arrival.  I am interviewed.

‘Breathe,’ I say to myself over and over.  ‘This is anxiety.  It’s okay.  You can clarify the question if you’re not sure what he’s asking.’  I breathe.  Over and over and over again.  I breathe.  I ask clarifying questions when necessary.  I am in no hurry to answer the questions.  I search inside of myself for what is true.  I speak with intention and care, not rushing to get through it but pausing to explore what I am feeling.

“Do you have any questions for me?” the supervisor asks toward the end of the interview.

“This might be inappropriate to ask, and you can certainly tell me it’s none of my business, I’ll understand.  But what was it like,” my voice breaks.  I begin to tear up.  I clear my throat.  “What was it like to work at Columbia Presbyterian that year?”  The supervisor answers my question.  I know I am in the right place.  I want to finish CPE.  I want to be this supervisor’s student.


When I get my acceptance letter, I tell David.  We rejoice.  I am afraid, but I am convinced that this was providentially ordained.  It will not be easy, but I will not fail.  I send my response and my tuition deposit.  I pee in a cup and have blood drawn.  I quit my job and have no regrets.  I do not miss the paycheck.

At the same time, I wonder how I will make it through.  The companions I thought I would have will not be there.  My pastor just quit the church and I’ve been asked to serve as the interim.  It is scary and very alone behind the pulpit.  David will be gone for two of the ten weeks. 

I will be alone with the cats and my fears.  

My mornings are more harried while he is out of the state, while he is out of the country.  By the third day of his absence, I come to realize that I cannot do it all.  With the addition of cat cares in the morning before I leave the house, I can only have two of the following three things:  breakfast, coffee, a shower.  More often than not, I have coffee and a shower.  I am thankful for the hardboiled eggs two days a week.


My summer is fraught with fears and frustrations.  I do not know how to be angry.  I am filled with terror of one of my colleagues.  There are anxieties and defensiveness all around.  No one but me seems to want to be here.  I am the only one who isn’t required by an institution of higher learning or an ordination board to take CPE.  I can walk away at anytime and find something else to do with my life. 

This is worthwhile.  This is important.  This is transformative.  I pursue it doggedly and feel very alone in doing so.  This summer is all about saying goodbye to Tim.  It’s all about moving forward with my life.  It’s about completing what was left undone – not just CPE, but grieving.  I cry every single day.  I love my life.  I begin to learn to recognize and manage my anxiety.


Two weeks before the internship is over, I am in the backseat of a car, one of my fellows is in the front passenger’s seat, a resident is driving.  Someone cuts us off and a string of profanities bursts forth from my lips.  Everyone in the car indicates they feel some degree of road rage.  Mine has topped them all.  I’m not usually this angry.  My heart keeps racing.  I want to run away.  I can’t do it.  I can’t finish it.  It’s too much.

I’m driving home from my clinical site a week later.  I am going to finish the unit at the end of the week.  Suddenly I understand the anger and the fear.  I am going to finish my first unit of CPE on Friday.  And the people I started this journey with are not going to be there.  The people who are supposed to be there finished their CPE journeys eight years before.  Or, in the case of Tim, died.

When I get home, I sit on the floor of the shower, the hot water running over me.  I cry and I cry and I cry.  Death.  I have seen much of it over the course of the summer.  I feel like some part of me is dying, too.  Going forward isn’t all rainbows and daisies.  There are unforeseen costs.  I have to feel the pain of Tim’s death again and hope it doesn’t swallow me whole again or leave me staring at a wall for six months straight.


Graduation comes.  My parents come to the ceremony.  David cannot be there.  He is at a job conference in Chicago, looking for a position at a university that is within driving distance of a CPE center that offers supervisory training.  This limits his options.  He is willing to sacrifice various possibilities to make this happen.  Now that I know what I am doing with my life, David wants me to keep me in his.


After I complete my first full unit of CPE, I say goodbye to my cohort.  I tell my mentor and supervisor I will see them again.  I walk my parents to their car.  I go home.  The next day, I join David in Chicago for the rest of his conference and a few days more.  We enjoy the respite.  We dally in the calmness of these final summer days.  Life will be busy again soon enough.


The following week, I start my first CPE Residency.  A new cohort.  A new assignment.  Still more to learn.  I find myself more completely.  Somewhere deep inside, I find a kernel of truth that allows me to separate myself from the whole.  I discover my observing ego.  I find stillness in the center of my being. 

I know who I am.  I know what I believe.


Creation is the juncture where love and imagination intersect.

I am fortunate to love and be loved by a man who allows me to encourage him in the creation of his own life, who encourages me as I create my life, and who has invited me on the adventure of creating our life together.

I am imagining great things.