Potential trigger warning with respects to accounts of abuse, mental health and alcohol abuse. Please treat yourself kindly and proceed cautiously.
I’ve always been told that my vulnerability makes me strong, but sometimes I’ve been told to play my cards closer to my chest. Don’t give them something to talk about, or hold against you. As a writer, I can’t seem to comprehend keeping these stories to myself. It seems to go against the coding of my brain. I’ve always felt that if people judge me for what I write that that’s a them problem. If being vulnerable through creative expression keeps me from getting a job, or a promotion, or maintaining a friend, then I simply feel that’s a loss for the other party, not me. Because this is who I am. I’m a fleeting moment in time captured by a blinking cursor. I’m a conglomerate of commas and pronouns and similes and fragments. I’m not just one post on this blog. I am all of them. The reflection in these words is a kaleidoscope you can peer through to behold a distorted repeating pattern of me. The girl behind the screen.
And I have a story. A narrative, if you will. While I’ve given you glimpses of it here and there, I’m thinking now is the time to share it from start to finish. Why? To take control of what I’ve let control me for years. To cast it out into the open sea in hopes someone else can relate and be comforted by the fact that they are not alone in their humanness. Because we are all human. And we all have stories. And the stories are not always pretty. Some stories are very bleak, in fact. And perhaps in some way, I felt a sort of imposter syndrome in sharing my struggles, recognizing that so many people have faced worse demons than I. But I need to own that this is my story, and I cannot invalidate it. I’m not telling it to explain myself to you all, or for your understanding. I’m telling it to take control, like a long and satisfying breath that fills your lungs when you’ve felt as if you were suffocating for so long.
I suppose the story starts at a young age. I had a magical childhood, barefoot in the Berkshire Mountains of upstate New York, where the earthworms greeted me each Fall and the smell of the air was as crisp as a bite of a Macintosh apple. I had a big and loving family with two amazing parents, three older sisters and one older brother. My family took care of three mentally handicapped senior citizens who lived on the ground floor of the first home I can remember. I can remember when it was built. I played in the dirt piles and swung from the sides of the walls in the UHaul truck. My earliest memories are in that house, and they are both happy and unbothered as well as concerning. I can remember the feeling of loneliness, standing outside in the dead silence of winter and feeling incredibly small. I can remember the paralyzing fear of being alone in that house, of closing my eyes in the darkness at night. Despite all of the love in my family, being the youngest of five kids in a household of 12 with two working parents had an impact. I was 15 when I first got the flashes of images. The smells in my memory so poignant that it was as if they were real. What was wrong with me? Why was I having these thoughts? Was I sick? I went to my first love seeking comfort only to be told something was wrong with me. That I was disgusting for having those thoughts in my brain. It wasn’t until I went to college and heard a friend at the time recount her experience with sexual assault that I began to understand. Perhaps these weren’t intrusive thoughts that I should be ashamed of. Perhaps they were memories.
When I was fourteen, I met a boy. We were on a family vacation and the real world felt very far away. He was Brasilian. He was my first real kiss. My first love. The kind of love between two children that think they’re older than they are that the love, it just utterly consumes them. Every cell in my body now orbited around this boy, who lived 4,000 miles away in the heart of Rio de Janeiro. The majority of our relationship took place through a screen. We’d see each other two to three times a year, either him visiting me or vice versa.
Are you familiar with machismo? Google describes it as strong or aggressive masculine pride. In today’s day and age, we can give it more context. It is an outdated form of toxic masculinity that affixes sex and manhood and views women as property. It’s often associated with romance cultures, like Latin, Italian or Brasilian. So, at 14, I fell in love with a Brasilian. What should have been an exciting four years of high school, passing my crush in the halls and going to football games together, was spent at home behind a computer screen taking emotional beatings over and over and over again. I was a whore. I was stupid. My family didn’t care about me. I didn’t love him if I didn’t prove it. How did I prove it? My hair in braids looked too much like a girl he passed in an elevator and wanted to fuck, so I couldn’t be seen with braids. I was trying to impress others by wearing makeup and perfume, so I couldn’t. My body was too curvy and tempting, so I couldn’t show it off. In fact, I could only wear one pair of jeans that were two sizes too big for me and t-shirts long enough to swallow me up and cover my butt. And if I had to go somewhere where this attire wasn’t acceptable? He had to approve it. I had to call him before I left the house to show him on a video call what I looked like so he could approve me going out in public. And it was never good enough. I could be unwashed in a potato sack and he was never pleased. And it was always. my. fault. Eventually, I began to believe him. That it was always my fault. He convinced me. I was trying to get men’s attention. I was a whore. I didn’t love him if I didn’t do what he asked.
I had a close-knit group of friends before I met him made up of a group of boys and girls that lived in my neighborhood. The isolation started slowly. At first, I wasn’t allowed to talk to people at school that weren’t my friends. And then slowly, one by one, he found a reason that I couldn’t talk to my friends too. Can you imagine the pain of going to school every day and sitting by your closest friend in Spanish class only to one day have him scoot his chair up to your desk for a group assignment and be met with silence and no eye contact? To have him repeat your name. AJ. AJ, come on. To have that minute of silence where he realizes it’s his turn to be cut off, and he stares at you while you stare ahead at nothing. Feeling his eyes on your cheek. Begging you not to do this to him. And you do. And I did.
But even after all that sacrifice, it was never enough to prove my love to him. He needed more control. So I would keep a notebook paper and I would document between classes every single person I made eye contact with. Who I brushed by in the hallway. Who I spoke to. I would make it an entire seven hours in school with my eyes cast down and being absolutely untouched by anyone only to be accidentally brushed by in the hallway. Fourth block was always so busy in that damn hallway. And I would crack. I would go to the bathroom and sob because I knew that when I got home from school that day and told him a stranger had touched my body in a crowded hallway, it would be my fault. I was so spatially aware at all times. Always on the defense. It was as if I lived in fight or flight mode for four years of my life. People always ask, why did you do it? He was so far away, I don’t get it. But that’s what abuse is. He isolated me from my family and friends. He beat me down and stripped me of my identity. I was no one and nothing but his. That is why I did it.
He was taught from a very young age that sex was manhood, and he told me everything. There were no secrets. No walls. So I learned his perception of women in the world, and I assumed all men thought like this. So I began to believe him, that men were disgusting creatures that I must avoid at all costs. I was terrified of their eyes on me. Terrified of their thoughts. And yet when he told me he would go out and get sex from elsewhere if I didn’t open my body up to him how he pleased, I did it. Because if I didn’t, it meant I didn’t love him. If I didn’t, it meant his constant threat to leave me would be made good. I can remember times that I bared my body open to my computer screen, hiding my face because tears were slipping through my eyes. And tears weren’t sexy. I can remember the night of prom night, sleeping on a blow-up mattress in a crowded room full of classmates, and him forcing himself into my body despite my no’s. I can remember the hollow feeling inside my chest as he forced himself into me from behind while my face hung off the edge of the mattress and I stared into the darkness feeling lonely and full of malice. Did I think of this as sexual assault at the time? No. Of course not. Because I loved him. Because I was his.
I was 115 pounds in high school, and one time he told me that I was getting fat. So for three years, I didn’t touch sugar. No cake. No sweets. I would wake up at 5:30 in the morning and do P90-X in my garage on an old dusty TV. After school, I’d grab a granola bar and drive to the gym down the street from my house, where I’d spend three hours of my time working my body to the bone. The thought of him looking at women with that insatiable sexualized perspective he had kept me on the treadmill running for more than an hour a day. I was never good enough.
When I finally worked up the courage to break free, I was in my freshman year of college. Four years I’d spent in that hell, unknowing that I was in hell to begin with. And the world was suddenly new. I was on my own living in Atlanta with a fresh start. I dressed so modestly and spoke so modestly. People thought I was shy and a good girl. If only they’d known the things I’d done for him. After all this time, I cannot say I hate him. I recognize that in a way, his actions stemmed from conditioning. I cannot see a photo of his face without feeling a great sense of shame and embarrassment and exposure and vulnerability so strong it makes my stomach churn. But no, I don’t hate him. I don’t wish him harm. I just wish to forget him.
He’ll never comprehend the impact he had on me. The toxic jealously and behaviors I brought into my relationships after. The insecurity. The objectification of myself simply because it was what I knew. When my best friend’s boyfriend came to me when I was 19 and told me I was special and that he loved me? I entertained it, to say the least. Because someone wanted me. And the guilt and shame were so overwhelming after that that the only thing I could think to do was force myself into a relationship that did not fit me to prove that I could be loved. I discovered the bottle then, and discovered that once I started drinking I couldn’t stop. I’d get piss drunk to hide how much I hated myself, because being drunk was social. Being drunk made me feel like I could be liked. And then I’d go too far. Suddenly the alcohol would bring out the traumas buried in my soul, and I’d act out. I was a self-fulfilling prophecy with a chip on my shoulder. And the self-hate would hit me like a tidal wave. And I’d nurse my wounds in despair until the next night when I’d do it all over again. I swung from one pendulum of letting someone objectify me and being a modest little mouse to the other of objectifying myself and being loud and drunk and sexual. That was the first time I asked for help, when I no longer wanted to exist. And my therapist told me I was a bad person. The doctor put me on medicine that made me feel even crazier and I would spend the days on the black tar floor of my apartment feeling as if my soul was going to explode out of my body. They called it generalized anxiety and depression. To me, it was a diagnosis of “you’re broken and you can’t be fixed.”
It was only in 2020 that I realized this trauma around wanting to be loved and wanted began when I was five years old. When my inner child felt unseen. When a mentally handicapped seventy-year-old man forced me to touch him. When I was fourteen and the love of my life at the time tore me down and alienated me until I wasn’t sure who me was outside of the constant duty to prove my worth to him. My drinking problems and how I’d do the wrong things just to feel seen. It all came from this. And I’ll never sit here and victimize myself to write off my own wrong-doings. We can be victims of circumstance up to a certain point. At some point, we must take responsibility for our actions. If there’s one thing I’ve always been very good at it, it’s taking responsibility. Maybe, some would say, I’m too hard on myself. Maybe it wasn’t really all that bad. Maybe I’m even mis-remembering. My brain will do anything to invalidate my experience. But the truth is that I did bad things to people I love. I embarrassed myself. I stumbled and fell. I am not perfect. I will accept the consequences.
But I also got back up. I brushed off my knees. I have spent years curating who I want to be, and today I am proud of who that is. I’m over a year sober. I spent five years alone with myself learning to forgive myself. Love myself. Learn, unlearn and relearn lessons. I’ve fought tooth and nail for my healing journey and growth. This is me. This is my fucking story, and despite all of the things in my past that I’m embarrassed of or that have hindered me in some way, I know I wouldn’t be who I am today without them. I wouldn’t change a damn thing.
So how do I end this? What is my message to you all? Learn yourself. Understand why you do the things you do. Take responsibility. Fall on your sword. Give yourself grace. You are human. If you can forgive yourself, that is all you need. There is always more to learn. Ask others for their experiences. The love you seek is within you. Find it. Curate it. Nurture it. Forgive others. They are human too. We are all trying our best. Not all people will like you, and that is okay. Lean into love. Love is what makes this all worth it, but you have to love yourself too. People are beautiful if you take the time to truly know them. There is a special peace to be found in purpose and doing. Give yourself grace to be a beginner. You are resilient. You know how to be okay. Breath. Find your grounding. Practice patience. Things will change. People will leave. Accept it with grace. You will be okay. You were born worthy. Of love. Of kindness. Of forgiveness. You, my friend, are not alone. Take control of your story.
On my walk this morning, I decided to update this post to include an author’s note. I want to say that the boy I described is not the villain of my story. For some time, I thought I was the villain due to the trauma responses I habituated for years. But the truth is there is no villain in my story, there is only the opportunity to grow. That boy was not a bad person, and I recognize that he was young, in over his head and conditioned. I recognize that he has a story, lessons he has to learn and difficulties he has faced. He is human and on the journey we are all on. I believe he has the capacity to learn and be better, and it’s my sincerest hope that is the case. And to my parents, don’t feel as if you failed me in some way. It was never your job to protect me from the realities of life. I learned and grew from this, and your guiding, advice and unconditional love was there throughout. I have always known how much you love me, and you did the best you could with the situation. Give yourselves grace, and know that not a day goes by where I don’t know that I have you.