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.

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