I recently had the opportunity to be alone. By myself. No family. Just me and the house. Wow. What a treat. And then I went to a bar. Ok, I didn’t actually go to a bar, I went to a restaurant when it was crowded and they stuck me in the bar for a few minutes until a table opened. But in that time I met a guy who seemed a little tipsy. Under other circumstances I would have thought he was attractive. We’ll call him On-the-make Bob, and even though he didn’t make a formal pass at me, I felt uneasy with the way he looked at me. I became conscious that I was wearing a low cut top and suddenly felt a little naked. I flashed my wedding ring but he didn’t shut up. Other people were at the bar. One woman even seemed to realize Bob was a little creepy and asked about my husband. I was totally safe. Before long I got my table and got away from the guy. He had done and said nothing wrong, but I felt vulnerable for some reason.
My meal passed without incident and I went home and got in bed.
That’s when the demons hit. I didn’t sleep all night. It was a true “dark night of the soul” where, in a sleep-deprived state, I imagined one of my long-time nightmares of being naked with strangers – naked men – around me and their very presence sending shoots of terror through me.
It was a very long night. I missed my husband terribly and would have gone for a midnight cuddle.
Wrestling the demons
In the morning I got up bleary-eyed and did some yoga. (I used to take yoga regularly and my yoga teacher had taught us some simple meditations to calm our nerves.) I began the poses as my nerves were still jumpy from sleeplessness and I wanted to figure out what the hell that night was all about. I mean, On-the-make Bob didn’t do anything! He might not have been on the make at all. Maybe I even made up his interest to flatter myself, but I really wanted to know why I’d been so upset that I couldn’t sleep.
In my meditative state I got beyond stupid Bob and spent more time with the emotions that had kept sleep away. I began to put the pieces together and I tripped over something that I usually remember to forget.
(Warning: Jessie gets vulnerable and mildly graphic.)
I am a victim of sexual abuse.
I don’t actually recall the event. I was about 7 and he was about 13. I was walking home from the candy store through a field – it was a common shortcut all the kids took, but not that day. That day I was alone and he was walking down the path towards me. That’s the last thing I actually remember – until my memory reappears at home with my mom and telling her something, feeling very ashamed. And I remember the police station with my mom and dad there. What I remember most was my shoes. They were loafers. And a bunch of pictures of boys. I picked one. I can actually still see his face in the picture. I think I knew him from the neighborhood. I recall that he was a bully.
Beyond that, I only know what my mother has told me in later years as she’s tried to get me to talk about it. That he pushed me into the grass. That he took down my pants and felt me, pressing his finger into my vagina. That he showed me his penis and told me to touch it. That he told me he’d kill me if I screamed or told anybody. And finally, that the police did eventually bring him in and charge him with some kind of misdemeanor.
But that’s all hearsay. For all I know he actually raped me and that’s the story I told my mom. I was 7. I didn’t even know the word “rape.” I honestly don’t know. I can’t remember anything after seeing him walking at me on the path and feeling my anxiety rise.
In my adult meditation, struggling to identify what had spooked me so about On-the-make Bob, I managed to reach a distinct feeling of helplessness and vulnerability associated with being naked. This tracks with a general anxiety I’ve always had about nudity, especially around men I don’t know – and I realized that even though I do feel deeply ashamed about my body, possibly stemming from this incident – it turns out my deepest fear wasn’t that I would be so ugly that men would never want to touch me, but that I wouldn’t be ugly enough. My real fear of being naked is that a strange man might actually want to touch me. When I let this fear surface in the meditation I suddenly felt a sweaty hand over my mouth and tried to send out silent screams for someone to save me. I could almost access that 7-year old’s terror, total helplessness and desperate sadness when no one came. My meditation ended with many, many tears.
But the tears released something important and I felt better. I crawled back into bed and took a nice nap to get my bearings and – though I was a little uneasy the rest of the day – I slept 11 hours the next night and gave my husband a huge hug when I got home. I am so grateful for my husband, sons and friends who have given me such a happy adult life that this memory so rarely surfaces.
I’m so not alone
I’m writing this for myself – to help the tears expunge the pain – but I’m also writing it for the hundreds of thousands of us who live with these secrets, most of them more memorable and horrible than mine. At least I am blessed with a blank memory. Knowing how even the thought of it has haunted me, I have to believe my brain simply tried to spare me the actual memory of terror and pain. As a result I have a healthy sex life and this event seems to come back to me in small doses like this that I can manage. I also think this explains my lack of interest in BDSM (though I know other women who actually feel drawn to it to help them process such memories.)
But the fact is that 33% of women in our country have experienced sexual abuse, 44% of us under the age of 18. That means that one out of every three women (or girls!) you encounter in your daily life has some version of the story above. It’s like breast cancer – which is at 12% – in some ways, but not in others. All our lives are touched by it, but many of us don’t even realize it because so many women – like me – try to forget the shame and don’t talk about it. (When I let my husband read this post he said he couldn’t remember me ever talking about it in our 20+ year marriage.) Sixty percent of us who’ve experienced abuse still don’t even report it and 15 out of 16 rapists don’t spend a night in jail.
And the saddest part is, unlike breast cancer, this scourge on a third of the female population is preventable by men choosing to be responsible adults instead of bully-predators, and it’s preventable by parents and society raising their boys to be those responsible adults and stop tolerating bullying of any kind. I know there are lots of “reasons” why this doesn’t happen (including the fact that way too many bullies are raising bullies), but when I read about situations like the 11 year old girl gang raped by 18 boys and men in a Texas town, and then practically blamed by the media for her own rape, I just want to be sick. It’s no wonder so many of us don’t go to the cops. When will our culture turn the corner on this issue? When will victims feel safe coming forward?
So for every woman who’s got a story about abuse, please know that you are not alone. You are SO not alone. And most importantly, it’s not your fault. Feel free to share your story in comments if telling it will help you heal (anonymous comments always welcome.)
I love you all.