[CW: assault, abuse, suicide]
I don’t remember the last time I had an easy spring. I know the difficulty with this time of year started well before the quarter system was ever a factor in my life, although that certainly doesn’t help.
It’s hard to believe 2007 was a full decade ago, but here we are, ten years later. I was in the military, still at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina. It was after I was injured and pulled from training, but before there was a plan as to what to do with me. I was in extreme pain every day, I wasn’t allowed contact with family or friends except for limited periods of time on weekends, and I had a psychologically abusive command. Needless to say, I wasn’t doing well.
This time in 2008 wasn’t as bad, but it wasn’t a picnic, either. My relationship with my then-fiancé was falling apart and I was finally understanding how severe the memory loss caused by the military really was. I got what became my last accounting job, but I had to write down absolutely everything in the notebook I used during training, including the location of office supplies and the names of the people I saw every day, because I simply couldn’t remember. My desk was littered with Post-Its. If it wasn’t on a sticky note, it didn’t exist.
In June of 2009, I gave notice at that job. It was killing me, emotionally and physically. I left it because I realized my stress level was so high, I was getting migraines every three weeks. It was like clockwork. Needing to go home, trying not to throw up on the bus, needing silence and darkness and begging for sleep even though I wasn’t remotely tired. Those kinds of migraines. I was so overworked and felt like such a failure that I was seriously considering ending my life. Then, whatever was left of my sense of self-preservation kicked in and I remembered the deal I’d already made with myself: if it’s my circumstances that are making me miserable, I’m not the problem, and therefore punishing myself isn’t the solution. So I didn’t. I quit my job instead.
Fast-forward a year to spring 2010. I was back in school, taking Calculus II and Statistics and Botany and I don’t recall what else, but I had a lot of units. Too many. It was the end of that semester when it became apparent I could no longer compensate well enough for my ADHD on my own and I needed to go on medication. I survived it, but I didn’t do my best work, and again, I was very stressed.
Spring of 2011, I failed Zoology. Although that was a blessing in disguise because I got another semester with Nick as my professor when I repeated it, at the time it was becoming very clear to me I wasn’t managing my life well, nor had I been for some time. The worst part was I didn’t really know how to fix it, other than it being clear something needed to change.
We won’t talk about 2012, nor 2013, but take my word for it. They were bad.
Then we have spring 2014, which makes most of the others look like cakewalks. It was near the end of my second year at Davis, having transferred in the fall of 2012. This was the spring that resulted in me failing all of my classes because I stopped showing up midway through the quarter. Instead, I essentially sat in my apartment and drank for three months, generally leaving only to see my campus psychologist and to buy more scotch. It was not a pretty time.
Part of what made 2014 so awful was how long everything dragged on. It wasn’t simply one, or two, or even three events. It was this steady pummeling that refused to let up. Towards the end of May that year, roughly halfway through what became my three months of binge drinking, I thought perhaps I might be able to start functioning again. I knew the quarter wasn’t really salvageable, but I figured I could at least get myself together enough to submit some paperwork to the campus registrar and possibly lessen the impact of everything on my academic record.
On May 29th, I went to an outdoor potluck. It was there I met the person who became an integral part of my life for the next two and a half years. Later on, at an after-party, I was sexually assaulted by someone else. It wasn’t the first time I’ve been assaulted, but the context made it particularly terrible. This was supposed to be a pro-consent environment. Ask first. Don’t assume. Even worse was that during the casual group conversation at the potluck, I’d been going on about parts of my body I did not like touched. I was very, very clear about that, and I was very clear about what sorts of people did and did not have access to my body. This person did not. Yet that night, pinned below him on that couch, there he was, assuming himself over me and in me, doing the very things I’d said earlier I hated. I almost wish I hadn’t been sober. But I was.
It was because of the “ask first” mentality that I knew without a shadow of a doubt what he was doing was wrong. Unlike in mainstream society, there was none of this ridiculousness about expecting it’s permissible to do things to people until they say no. The rules are, you don’t do it unless you ask, and you wait for a clear, positive response. It was what gave me the courage to talk about it at the time and is also partially why I am able to be as open about it as I am now.
Paradoxically, that also did its own form of damage. I was telling him to stop, I should never have had to tell him to stop in the first place, and yet I couldn’t make it stop. At least previously, I could delude myself (mostly) into thinking it was partially my fault for not being forceful enough about saying no or about fighting someone off. I didn’t have to face the cold reality that I really, truly, did not have control. I could pretend I did. Even if that meant blaming myself for things I never wanted to happen. That wasn’t an option with this one.
Anniversaries are tricky. My Facebook memories for this time last year keep showing me all of the things I posted about Brock Turner, the Stanford rapist. While I haven’t, thus far, shared any of them, it’s been a steady theme over the past several days in the history of my feed. It’s not lost on me that the news about his pitiful sentencing broke just days after my annual reminder of my assault.
What I was not expecting was the head-trip brought on this year by no longer being with my aforementioned partner. Make no mistake: in the time we were together, he left permanent marks on me I never would have consented to (had I been given the opportunity), he lied to me repeatedly, he manipulated me to the point that I was terrified of telling him no or upsetting him, he hit me out of anger, and he did everything he could to make me feel like what happened was my fault. He caused me so much harm it would take hours to explain all of it. Indeed, he was almost always the primary topic of conversation with my therapist, both during our relationship and for some months after.
But he was also the first person who was there for me after being assaulted. I managed to make a post about it on another social media site, which he saw when he got up the next morning. We had swapped numbers the prior evening and he texted me to see how I was. We went out for coffee. Whether or not he was white-knighting and using this as an opportunity to get close to me while I was vulnerable, I can’t say. But he listened to me talk. He believed me. He made sure the person who assaulted me was gone from the community, instantly. For the next two years, he was there for me on that day.
Spring 2015, Nick died. In the eight weeks that followed, outside of necessary communication at campus, I spoke to approximately four people. My father was one of them. This partner was another. While in that time he also nearly managed to destroy my relationship with my best friend, he was still there for me. I had two tracks: School and Go Away. I couldn’t even make small talk with classmates who wanted to chat while waiting for office hours. Material questions were fine, but as soon as they asked me about what other courses I was taking or why I chose my major, I stopped talking completely. It wasn’t even a matter of not wanting to interact; I simply couldn’t. The words disappeared. I felt nothing but body-wracking grief and pain. The moment I wasn’t focused on schoolwork, that became my entire existence. He was the only one who could bring me out of that and keep me distracted from it, if only for a little while.
Spring of the next year, 2016, he and I had split up, now for the second time. We had an argument in which I stood up for myself and he simply stopped talking to me. Given the depth and intensity of our connection, it was torturous, but I also knew by that time he was not good for me. I still wanted him, but at least intellectually I knew. Which was why when he came crawling back, three months to the day he’d disappeared from my life, I knew it was a terrible idea to let him in again. But I was in immense pain and I needed to know what happened and why he’d done it. I needed to believe, even for a little bit, that things could be okay once more. And so he was again there for me on May 29th, the date that marked both our two year anniversary and the second anniversary of the assault.
He wasn’t here this year though. My feelings around this are complicated. I am so very thankful he is no longer in my life in any capacity. What he did to me should never happen to anyone. Until very recently, I lived in fear that I was going to stumble through a good portion of the rest of my days, always at risk of finding yet another version of him.
I was talking to a very close friend when I said I can’t do that again. I can’t go through it and I can’t spend the immeasurable amount of time and energy fixing the kind of damage people like him cause. I can’t put my support network through it, either. But in that conversation, my friend told me I would never be with someone like him again. She said it with such utter confidence that it hit me: the people who truly know me have more faith in my ability to make good decisions for myself than I do. It made me wonder what they were seeing that I wasn’t. So I started looking.
I realized very quickly she – and others – are right. I can trust my judgment. I can trust my observations and evaluate for myself what is and is not acceptable. Of course, I still tend to check things with others for reasonability. We are social creatures after all, and I am surrounded by some very strong, sensible people. These are the people who were there throughout the years of awfulness. They are the ones who provided countless, much-needed sanity checks and who validated my perceptions through the gaslighting, the double-speak, and the attempts to make me feel wrong for simply being a person and having needs. So when they tell me I’m ready, I believe them. Because I am.
In keeping with tradition, this spring has been one continually raging dumpster fire. So many things have happened over the past few months I can’t keep track of them all. Medical, physical, academic, interpersonal, administrative — pick one and I’ve had a minimum of three explosions in it. It would be easier to list the areas that haven’t been repeatedly blown up than the ones that have.
That’s not to say decent things haven’t also happened. There are many times I’ve been incredibly happy. I’ve had two outdoor climbing trips where for several hours, everything in the world outside of my breath and my gear and the rock face ceased to exist. I’ve gone indoor skydiving, and aerial is a continual source of renewal. I’ve had parties and shows and nights out with friends. There’s been a lot of good. There’s just been a significant amount of life-derailing awfulness too.
In less than two weeks, I’m graduating. It’s bittersweet. The day of my commencement is inseparable from the discrimination I’ve faced at campus, both relating to the ceremony itself, as well as throughout the duration of my time at this university. Rather than finishing strong and being truly done, I’m taking incompletes in two of my classes, which means I’ll have some work to take care of after graduation. But I also have professors willing to work with me and who understand life rarely happens according to plan. I’m immensely grateful for that.
I don’t know what things will be like in a year. This is a huge transitional period for me and very little is staying the same. My life will be radically different from now; that is guaranteed. Although looking back, every year has been like that, truthfully.
Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. Through all of this, I have been continually learning and challenging myself to move beyond where I was before. I am not the person I was a decade ago. I am not the person I was a year ago, or six months ago, or even three months ago. The one constant in my life is my refusal to stagnate in my personal development. I learn more about myself, the world, and how I want to be in this world every day.
I can write emails now. I can message my doctors, not just once but repeatedly. I can advocate for myself. I can ask for help when I don’t know what to do. I can set limits and boundaries. I can acknowledge my own needs without shame or apology. I can say no.
Growth tends to come with a high cost. It’s exhausting. It’s painful. It’s isolating. You tend to lose people. You spend a lot of time on unstable ground. You lose your sense of what is absolute and concrete and that can be terrifying. But you gain so much more in the end, if you’re willing to do it. I can’t look back at my history, history that includes even today, and not see the incredible amount of work I’ve put in and the level of self-development I’ve achieved.
I never thought of myself as resilient. Turns out, I am.