Musings on July 4th: Life does come back.

One of my favorite pieces was written by one of my all-time favorite humans, Jamie Tworkowski, about this holiday 7 years ago. I visit this one often on the 4th, and different sentiments stand out to me at different times.Today it is this: “Perhaps you have to have a little bit of hope to believe that beauty can be found, to believe that life does come back, that something can surprise you. And maybe they’re somehow related. Maybe wonder feeds hope and hope feeds wonder. You see something beautiful and it reminds you that it’s possible to see something beautiful.”

2 years ago, I posted this with a different reflection. 2 years ago, I posted my first copy of this book, before Jamie added a few stories in a new edition and then his words and my name in my copy, before he hugged me and told me he was proud to call me a friend. 2 years ago, I had white gauze wrapped around my wrist, and I didn’t feel compelled to crop it out of my Instagram photo; my friends had already seen the blood and had been putting me back together again. I was in the midst of trying to know what hope was, and trying to believe that it could surprise me. I was scaring my friends and I was scaring myself, and I don’t know still who I am more sorry for. I was in the business of dark and twisties, of fighting for a life I still wasn’t sure that I wanted.

Jamie was right. Life does come back. Maybe this is as good a post as any to reflect on how I’m 6+ months free of self-injury. Back in January, I found myself thinking how disappointing the first cut of the year has always felt, like a permanent shattering of the clean slate. So I vowed to myself that I simply wouldn’t make it. I would keep the slate. I feel like I’ve reached something I haven’t ever reached before. It was something I think I always wanted, but I was never quite sure it really existed. Maybe that’s the hope I had dreamed of. I really do like the way it feels. 

“It’s too easy to forget, to believe the black night sky is always only black,” Jamie wrote. On a night where it is filled with color, perhaps it’s nice to simply notice. Things change. We change. It gets better (and sometimes worse, but then better again). We are born to break, but also born to mend. We are born to know beauty, and also to be it and become it and learn to recognize it, in July skies with our friends and in quiet spaces with ourselves. 

Tonight, I hope you felt the fireworks. I hope you noticed. I hope you felt free and I hope you knew how lovely it is to just be alive. ❤️

Hold On.

There’s a scar on my right forearm, a little closer to my elbow than to my wrist, and it runs parallel to a smaller scar with a smaller story. It’s a scar that has found a home in my skin since the last time I’ve actually sat down to write, and perhaps that speaks volumes about where I am these days. It’s a scar that my eyes catch sight of at least a hundred times a day, or so it feels like. No matter what I’m doing, it’s there in the corners of my focus. And I haven’t yet decided quite how I feel about it.

I don’t remember the exact day that I made this particular mark on my skin. I know that I chose a spot much higher up than I would normally self-harm on, partially because I was tired of rinsing blood from the inside of my bracelets. If I’m being honest though, I know that primarily, I chose that spot because it was noticeable. I wanted someone to notice that I was aching, and aching so badly that I would need to slice into my own skin. The thing is, I suppose I neglected to take into account the very difference in skin from my wrist up to a smoother, fleshier area of my arm. It ended up being a cut that scared me. It was long, deep, and it stung like a mother fucker. I made the wound just before heading to work, so I cleaned it up as best I could and went on my way. No one mentioned it that night, and I relished in the throbbing that felt like a sad, warped form of release. Cutting that day seemed like a question. The silence of the people around me while my skin screamed triumphantly in discomfort, was the answer.

In the weeks since I made that particular cut, I’ve had two pointed conversations about it. Once, my mom asked if there was something on my arm. She was likely to have had numerous chances to see the cut in various stages of healing, but the first time she noticed it, it was definitely just a scar. An afterthought. It was actually looking very similar to a burn on my left hand that I had gotten from taking cupcakes out of the oven a little bit haphazardly. I busied myself with something that would hide it, and I lied through my teeth: “Oh, I burned myself on a bread tray at work. Hey, should I water your plants while I’m up?” Later that same evening, I recounted the story to a friend, who confessed that she had, in fact, noticed the cut in its early days. “Oh yeah, I saw it. I remember thinking ‘ooh, Rianne, that’s a little high up.. Yikes,’ but I wasn’t going to say anything about it. I figured I would take your lead.” Perhaps that was an opportunity for me, to scream, to shout, to cry, to beg for help. To admit that I’m not doing okay and that it feels like my very world is crushing me. To share that I feel like I can’t take care of the hard stuff, let alone myself. To look someone in the eye and tell the truth about how tired and wobbly and dark and twisty I feel. And yet, I kept quiet. I let out an easy little laugh and changed the subject. I swallowed my pain, and I let it be just that. My pain.

I would call these past few weeks, these past few months, among the hardest of my life. Life is made up of seasons, and this particular one has been a long, hard winter. I have been busying myself with nothing but work and my mom’s care, and isolating myself from my friends. I have steered clear of theatre. I have shied away from texts that might lead to real contact with real people. I have used the easy excuses – I have to work, I don’t have the money, I’m just so tired, – and while they are true, they are just that. They’re excuses. At any point in this season, I have had the power to change my own course. That’s one of the hardest things to admit. At any point, I could change my own course. Depression lies when it tells me (and when it tells you) that it’s impossible to find friends, to find hope, to find change. Depression lies when it suggests that being alone is better. Depression lies when it steals your energy and turns you into someone you hate. But you know what feels good and right and true? Knowing that the simple task of admitting my pain is enough to melt the iceberg in my throat. I type these words through blurry eyes, and I think I know now why I put this blog off for so long.

I was afraid of feeling it.

I still am.

This week is National Suicide Prevention Week, and in years prior, I have hung signs and created Instagram challenges and fundraisers and I have shouted community and love to anyone who would listen. I have felt like a strong, genuine voice. I have felt like a beacon of hope. This year, if I’m honest, I feel like shit. I’m tired and sad, and again, bogged down with work and my mom’s care. But beyond that, sometimes it feels like a lie. How do I preach the things I haven’t been living? How do I inspire others to seek counseling, or at least the ear of a friend, when I can’t even get out of bed? How do I tell the people around me that their lives matter, when I’m taking my own life and slashing it apart with a razor blade?

And it occurs to me, time and time again, that when I allow it to be, my voice is my power. When it comes down to brass tacks, I am still who I have always been and I still believe what I have believed. Perhaps there is strength in being soft, in being honest even when it’s broken, even when it’s quiet. I’ve been telling myself over and over because it feels right and it feels true: Sorrow is an injury, but it is not a death sentence. Minds change and seasons change, and even I know that I will not wear this pain forever. That’s where hope comes in. Hope stays real. Hope is the small, unwavering light that continues to wake me up in the morning, even when I think I don’t want to. There is hope here. There is still life here.

Perhaps that’s what the scar means. It is a testament to my lonely season. It is a real life analogy of the pain I took into my own hands and carried on my own. It looks healed, but it isn’t non existent. It isn’t nothing now. It is still there, a constant, every day reminder of a hurt too big for me to handle. It moves and changes and lives and survives with me. It lives. It doesn’t hurt the way it used to, but I haven’t yet forgotten it’s sting.

And so I say what I have always said, what I have always believed to be true. People need other people. We need friends who will check up on us, who will root for us when we are up and carry us when we are down. We need hands to hold while we walk through our dark seasons, hands who will find the hidden light switches and candles along the way. Beyond that, there is a degree of honesty that I think we could all afford to learn a little bit better. Perhaps it isn’t always best to take someone else’s lead. There will be times when it is okay to pull your friends aside and ask them about how they’re doing, ask them about how they’ve been acting, ask them about that cut on their arm. A few minutes of discomfort is a small price to pay to ensure that our friends and family stay alive, that they know their worth in this world. Some of us are good at asking for help, and some of us simply aren’t. It doesn’t mean we don’t need it. It might mean that we’re fiercely independent and we don’t know how to need. It may be that we’re nervous and scared and we don’t know who or how to ask. It may be something else entirely. I can’t speak for everyone.

But I can speak for this. Loving your friends is always worth it. Loving them when they’re messy is worth it too. There are almost always indicators that someone is struggling, and it is always worth it to speak up now, rather than in a hospital room or at a funeral. If you notice that your friends are checked out, or acting differently, or talking about wanting to harm themselves – look closer. Ask the hard questions. Wait to hear the hard answers. And remind them what’s true at the base of it all: life is worth living.

I look at my scar, how it finds its home in the hodge podge of old war wounds on my arm, and I know that waiting to be noticed in our pain is not all there is. We have to be willing to occasionally swallow our own vulnerability and let at least one person know that we are reaching our limit of pain. We all lead busy lives, and though it is not ideal, sometimes we just don’t live in a way that allows us to notice the details concerning our friends when they are hurting. We have to learn to be so brave as to speak up. It is one thing to preach over and over that people need other people. It is another thing to take action for our own wellbeing. We have to choose to speak up. We have to choose love. A check is no good unless you take it to the bank. Take it there. 

And that’s advice for me, too. Ask for help if you need help. If counseling is something you need and have access to, I wholeheartedly recommend it. If you aren’t in a situation where it’s accessible, resources like 1-800-273-TALK or texting TWLOHA to 741741 have proven to be very valuable in desperate moments. Make sure you get outside at least once a day. Remember to eat something. Remember to drink something. And if all you can do is go back to bed, then maybe change your sheets or make yourself a playlist to fall asleep to. Keep yourself safe. You don’t have to move mountains. Just keeping yourself alive is a job important enough.

That’s the goal, at the end of the day. Keep living. Hope to be surprised. Love your friends fiercely enough that they believe life is worth living, too. Lean on each other when it gets hard to bear. Your friends really do love you, and they really do need you. Learn to believe it, even if you think it isn’t true.

I Believe by Christina Perri played while I was writing this, and I was struck with a phrase contained in the song. It’s what I’ve been trying to write this whole night.

“I wish that you could see your scars turn into beauty. I believe that today it’s okay to be not okay. Hold on, hold on.”

I am only one broken person trying to break gracefully enough that I can still be a voice for those who break like me. I am not doing okay right now, and I could use a little checking in. But there is work to be done and conversations to be had and songs to be sung. I’ll be here waiting for that, always learning and relearning how to hold and be held, need and be needed on this journey. I hope for change, I hope for peace, and I hope that God hears all of my prayers.

And the music plays. Hold on. Hold on.

(Disclaimer: You can ask me about my scars. It’s uncomfy, it’s weird, and it’s allowed. Mental illness is real, and it is okay that this has happened to me. Join the conversation. Let’s talk.)

A Letter to Myself (and my PTSD) at 16

Hi there, sweet girl.

I see you. I know you feel invisible, but I see you. I see long hair and big blue eyes, big enough to match the big heart that still beats in spite of itself. You’re still alive, you know. They didn’t take that away from you. I know you’re begging the very floor you’re laying on to swallow you whole, and you stare at the ceiling above you praying that it crashes in, but listen to me. You’re still here. And I know you’ll roll your eyes at this, you’ll deny it, you’ll want anything else – but girlfriend, here is an okay place to be. It’s okay. 

But hey, I’m not going to discount what is actually real and true: right here and right now, nothing is okay. I’m sorry. I’m sorry that they hurt you and you probably hurt you a little bit too, and I’m sorry that it still hurts. You deserved better. You hear that? You did. You deserved better. I know that you’re acutely aware of every place he ever struck you, like old war wounds on rainy days. I know that you lay on the floor because it is the absolute lowest place to lay your head. I know that it is also because your bed has become a crime scene, the very last place where he tried to steal the air from your lungs so that you couldn’t cry when he stole your body from you, too. They stitched you up where his fist tore you apart, but they couldn’t stitch up the parts of you that still feel broken. They did put a label on it though. Four letters: PTSD. You wear your diagnosis like a bandage, and you wait for the healing to come. Baby, it’s not going to come today or tomorrow or even next year, and I’m so sorry. You can wrap words and pills and therapy all around and over what hurts, but none of it is going to stop the bleeding.

You know, I know that you hate your body now. It was once a home to hope and love and growth and life, and now it has become a graveyard. It is a home to death, to destruction, to pain, to loss. You’re scared to feel so haunted in your own skin. You trace your scars with your ever-shaking hands, you run your tongue over the chip in your tooth, and you wonder if this body will ever feel like yours again. You don’t look too closely in the mirror; you don’t want to see the pain in your own eyes. The dead nothingness that you find when you accidentally steal a glance is even worse. Showers are torture. Something that was once a comfort has become a chore. You haven’t been able to touch your own breasts since he did. They are more than foreign; they are dirty. And you try and you try, but you can never quite scrub him out of your skin. He’s always there, in everything you do, and you still wake up with his hands around your neck. You scream and you scream, and by the time you realize he isn’t there, you’re too scared to breathe normally anyway. He’s still won. He’s still got you.

You can’t tell anyone, even still. How do you begin that conversation? How do you invite someone into your graveyard to see the haunted bits and pieces that are left? You don’t want to scare them. You don’t want them to be haunted, too. And perhaps, even worse, you can’t handle the rejection. The first time you told anyone about the abuse, they told you that you were exaggerating. Then, you were lying. Then it just became a downer. You’re too intense. You’re not fun anymore. No, no, the risk of opening up is too big to take. You can’t handle people running away, not again. Not anymore. No, it’s easier to keep to yourself. The broken thing will build itself up in silence. The ghosts will live in the shell where they were brought to life, and death. They will howl and you will bear it. You’ve born worse, haven’t you?

But look. I get to write to you about what you feel and think and say and don’t say, because guess what? You survive it. You do. He didn’t get you for good. He didn’t win for life. You make new friends and you don’t hide the fact that you’re a little broken. They’re actually a little broken, too. You cautiously tiptoe onto stages that feel like new homes, and you aren’t scared to be what you are, for the first time. You learn to love the chip in your tooth because it means resilience. You cut your hair off and wear it curly, because he liked it straight and long, and you finally get to choose what makes you happy. You start to read books again, write poetry again, and get good grades again. You sleep through the night sometimes, and even better, you sleep in your own bed. You let a boy kiss you, and you don’t scream or cry. You plant flowers, and they live. You live. You realize that you’ve been doing it all along.

But I can’t sugarcoat it to you, because it wouldn’t be fair. You will still hurt. You will hurt a lot. You’ll cry a lot, too. You’ll cry in the bathroom at school when the police question you straight through all 3 lunch periods. You’ll cry on anniversaries of events that your brain won’t ever let you forget. You’ll cry the first (and second, and third) time a boy that you trust and may even love tries to do more than just kiss you. You’ll cry the first time you let him. You’ll cry in your friends’ cars, for the same reasons as you’ve been crying for years, but it’ll still hurt your chest and your soul and you won’t be able to stop. You’ll cry when you sneak away during rehearsal to slice your skin open again. You’ll cry on the good therapist’s couch, and on the bad one’s, too. And somehow, you still won’t drown. You’ll feel like you’re going under. You’ll be pulled up by friends and medication and musicals and counseling sessions and Taylor Swift albums, and then dragged back down by panic attacks and hurtful words and flashbacks and nightmares. 

And he’s going to pull you back under, too. He’s going to come back. I wish I could warn you of that more than anything else. He is going to come for you one more time. He’ll break your bones, but he won’t break your spirit. You’ll think that he does, though. You’ll come home from school, worn out and defeated. You’ll relapse, hard, and you’ll try to die once or twice. You’ll see him nearly every night when you try to sleep, even though he’s locked up. You’ll know he can’t come for you, and you’ll double, no, triple check the locks on every door just in case. You’ll jump and panic when anyone touches your neck. You’ll have a hard time letting anyone in. You’ll feel bogged down by your abuse-learned behaviors. And you know what? You might be like this forever.

You know what else?

That just might be okay.

You’ll fall in love with metaphors, particularly one where you view life as a dance. Sometimes, it will be more difficult. Sometimes it will be a lot of work. Sometimes it will be lighthearted and fun. Other times it will be melancholy and dark. Occasionally you will dance a solo, but you’ll live for the group numbers. Many a great dance is not danced alone. And so you will lean on others. You will sometimes lead, and many times, follow. You will leap and twirl and sometimes fall. But you will get up. You will go on.

There’s so much life left to dance, my friend. Just wait. You’ll learn how to breathe again. There will be graduations and weddings and shows and wine nights and new jobs and good concerts and precious tea parties. There will be car accidents and a boy who decides he doesn’t want you, and you will lose friends and you will screw up and almost lose a job and you will take all the pills you can find, and then shake and cry while your friend holds you and talks you through the night. And the night will pass. There will be a morning. You’ll plant pink roses at her grave, and you’ll blow out candles surrounded by people who love you. You’ll cry on stage, and for once, your tears have a place where they belong. Your friends will learn your triggers, and they’ll know where to touch you and when, they’ll sit with you in emergency rooms and at coffee shops and in their cars late at night. They’ll say the right things, and sometimes the wrong things, because they’re human too. You’ll do the same. You’ll have the privilege of holding them sometimes. You’ll learn about what helps you cope, and you’ll learn about what will always ache, and you’ll write about it. You’ll decide that you’re pretty good at that. You’ll give and take and break and mend and hurt and celebrate and live. You’re going to live.

I know it’s a lot to think about while you’re at your lowest, but I just need you to please, please believe that there is a place for you beyond this floor. There are so many places and people and surprises left to find. Your past, your pain, your PTSD – they are crucial parts of your being, but they are not all of your being. They don’t dictate your art or your laugh or your future. I’m so excited for you to learn about coping and surviving. I’m so excited for you to discover theatre and writing and friendship, how much healing they bring to you. You don’t know much about being tough and scrappy yet, but you don’t have to know it to be a warrior already. You’re here for a reason. You’re brave and ballsy. You’re loving and loved. Learn to believe it.

Oh sweet girl, you just can’t even fathom yet the pain that is to come.

But you can’t imagine the joy, either. It’s worth it. Okay? It is.

Keep dancing. Keep going. Get up.

Go on.

With love and hope and the hug I wish I could give you right now,
You at 23

For Nights When I Feel Too Much

There are many, many things in life that I have never been good at. Math has never come easily for me. I still don’t know how to properly hold a bat. I’m clueless about the inner workings of cars and I still know very little about taxes. Even the things I know I don’t particularly suck at, I sometimes have trouble accepting the compliment on. I have pretty, loopy handwriting. I can carry a tune. I don’t like doing it, but I can talk on the phone with people skills that will make your eyes roll. But those things are just bits and pieces that don’t always come together the way they should. The letters aren’t always right. The notes sometimes come out wrong. Occasionally, I will stutter. But if there’s any one thing I think I’ve always been good at, it is feeling, and feeling deeply. I seem to have been born with enough emotion for 20 people, and that power breaks and mends my heart over and over on a daily basis.

Today, my heart is broken. And it is broken in a way I don’t think I’ve felt before. It’s a way I can’t fix, or even patch up. I guess that scares me. I guess sometimes I get ahead of myself. I get cocky. I think I have a handle on the inner workings – good, bad, ugly, pathetic, chaotic, wild, what have you – of mental health, my own in particular. Recently, I’ve been sucker-punched with the knowledge that I actually have very little knowledge of any of it at all. My bad mental stuff feels like an iceberg. I just got down to the parts that were so hidden, I didn’t think that they existed at all. But those parts have the power to consume. They have the power to kill.

And so here I sit, with a head full of thoughts and memories and images and nightmares too dark to pull to the light. There’s no way to write them so that they wax poetic. There’s also no way to drown them, and believe me, today I’ve tried razor blades and a few pills and tears and tears and tears. I feel like I’ve cried a small ocean today, and it still hasn’t melted the iceberg. Perhaps if I can’t drown the vampires, nor melt away the scary things, nor swim somewhere safer than here, I can just float. I can just tread water. I can just feel it, the deep, the dark, and the ugly, because feeling has always been my strong suit.

I feel small. I feel helpless. I feel ashamed. I feel deeply, horrifically sad. I feel purely exhausted. I feel lost. I feel confused. I feel overwhelmed. I feel like I’m horrible. I feel terribly and supremely afraid.

And I feel like a hypocrite. I write so many pretty words about taking care of one’s self and giving yourself some grace. I enforce the need to be present, fight to present, don’t let yourself be small. I talk about the importance of reaching out and finding help, be it with people or therapy or medication. I remind the people who read these words to let themselves rest, to believe in tomorrow’s, to stay alive in case it gets better. Today it all feels like a lie. I just don’t know how to take that advice in my own most broken season. I have always wanted to write for me and people like me, but where do you go when your words have the power to smooth over but not to save?

Where do you go when maybe you’re too helpless to help or be helped? 

What do you do when you feel too much to possibly let go?

What if feeling, the one thing I’ve always done with gusto, is the most debilitating trait I have right now? What if it’s also the thing keeping me alive?

I’ve always professed to not have all of the answers, but today I have even fewer. My soul used to feel like a home and today it is a prison. I can’t stop crying, and I don’t even have a reason for all of my tears. They are just here, ever-present reminders of a heart that’s too full to carry it all. 

Where does that leave me? I don’t know. Sadness is an injury, and today it is throbbing. I guess I’ll just feel it. I guess that’s all I’ve ever had. I feel too much and I feel too hard, and I’ve felt my way through scary places before. That counts for something, right?

I guess I’ll feel my way through again, tearfully, bitterly, confusedly, brokenly.

I will feel and feel and feel, and the stars may collapse and I may sob for them, but I’m still here.

It is only a quiet whimper today, but I am still here.

The Painfully Honest One About Rape.

I woke up this morning and promptly threw up. 

I woke up two hours before my alarm. I woke up panicked and crying. I woke up, not because I was sick, but because I was afraid. I woke up because in those minutes as a person, unprotected, in sleep, he was on me and all over me again.

I think I should write about it.

The thing is, it is drastically hard to write about rape and abuse in general without heavily employing the use of metaphor. We blur over the ugliest details with the prettier words, as if by alluding to the way he killed the flowers in my soul will make easier the way he also fucked me brutally enough that I required internal stitches. I don’t want to make excuses for him. I don’t want to make excuses for me. What happened, happened. I used to hate the way it changed people’s ideas of who I am. You can see it in their eyes, how different you become once you become someone stolen, broken, dirty, someone with a shame so horrifying in its realism, you become too intense to love lightly. I hated the way my abuse defined me. It scares people. It makes me hardened. And I get it, I do. For those who don’t have to deal with it, it’s much simpler to put up a wall and run from it. The wobbly thing is fragile and needs to be taken care of, but if you don’t have to, then I can understand shying away from it. I wish I could, too. 

But since I can’t, this is what happened.

It was the end of March, 2009, and I had loved him. I had loved him so much, and perhaps that blurs the line between yes and no, not for me, but for the police I told after the first few times it had happened. They told me that it wasn’t a matter of police attention to settle disputes in teenage relationships. They told me to figure it out. And by then, I had already bleached my blood out of my carpet. I had already bitten through my lip once while complying – “shut the fuck up and be good, and I won’t kill you.” I had already been reduced to bruises littering my thighs and my neck, shadows where he had been and the light couldn’t quite reach me anymore. 

But the last time, it is the last time I see in my dreams more than the rest. A few days before, he had grabbed me by my hair and smashed my face into the wall, over and over, until my screaming became nothing but a scared whimper. No one could hear me. No one even cared. I implored him to “Please, please stop. Please listen.” I could already feel the dull ache in my jaw turning into a rhythmic throbbing and he told me, “Shut the fuck up, bitch,” as he grabbed me by the neck, held me, choked me, against the wall until my vision was black, fuzzy with sparkles at the edges. Then he threw me into a bookshelf, and as my eye collided, hard, with the corner, I passed out.

My jaw was still green, purple in places, but not to be compared with the deep burgundy that had taken over my right eye. I wore glasses instead of contacts, and I was told I was lucky to only have severe optical nerve damage, because I could have lost my vision. I didn’t feel lucky. My headache was constant, and my life was in shambles. He hadn’t left my side at the hospital, telling them that I had passed out and fallen out of the car. I heard his voice crack when he exclaimed, “She just hit the pavement so hard.” And so it was standard. He remained in control of everything. No one looked too closely, and I felt hopeless. No one could see me, and I felt myself becoming invisible to myself too.

The details of the fight that day are hardly important. What is important is that I begged him to let me use the bathroom without him. I begged him to let me out of his sight for 2 minutes. He reluctantly agreed, and told me I’d better not try to escape, because he’d surely find me quickly. I promised, and off I went. I still remember looking at myself in my own bathroom mirror as I dialed 911. I hated who I saw there. I hated her lack of control. I hated her puffy eyes and the deep sadness there. I hated her for looking like the broken, battered girls you see in posters and not in real life. And when they answered, I kept eye contact with myself as I whispered, “I am about to walk back in to my bedroom, and I don’t know if he’ll beat me or rape me this time, but I can’t do it anymore. Please come. The back door is unlocked.”

I don’t consider myself to be a particularly brave person, but I consider what I did that day to be among the bravest things I have ever done. I knew that an end was in sight, but I knew that the end could only be achieved correctly if I walked back into the fire. And as I did, I knew this one would be the worst. I opened the door, and he caught me by the wrist. “Took you long enough, bitch. I came here to fuck you, and I’m not waiting all day.” I opened my mouth to protest, and he slapped me across the jaw, effectively shutting me up. He twisted my wrists in one hand, and I tried to kick him in the back of the knees. He laughed as he fought me into bed. He actually laughed. I am not weak. I am not small. I am not a bad fighter. And yet, he always made me seem like a helpless puppy, my punches back proving useless, my attempts feeble, at best.

I had been wearing an oversized t-shirt and yoga pants. I resisted losing my shirt for a while, but he dug his nails into my neck, shook me, and I complied. I didn’t want to lose consciousness. I didn’t want to die. I can still feel his hand, sweaty, over my mouth. That same hand came back to cover my mouth when I cried out again, and it was wet with my blood. He pinned me down almost easily, beating me in height, weight, and insanity. Plus, he had no problem choking me, pulling my hair, biting my nipples, twisting my arms, and literally manipulating and forcing a fist inside me – the reason for the blood, and the stitches I would receive later. The whole time, he made me repeat after him: “I deserve this. I am useless. I owe this to you. I am a stupid bitch. I love it. I love you.” He spit in my mouth. He twisted the skin of my inner thighs. He laughed.

And then.

The door opened, and he struck me across the face. They pulled him off of me, out of me, and he was shirtless, his pants around his ankles. In one fell swoop, one cop pulled his jeans up, and one cuffed him. I felt frozen, but I shook so hard it scared me. I sort of collapsed into myself, and the cop who had so easily re-clothed him (albeit not before I got a good look at his dick, hard and stained with my blood) was wrapping me in my purple sheets. They read him his rights, and I sobbed. He protested angrily, and I offered teary apologies and pathetic “I love you”s. He had been what I had for a long, long time. Seeing him go, even in that circumstance, was among the hardest things I had done.

My purple sheets were retained for evidence. For as long as I live, I will never have purple sheets ever again. My shirt and yoga pants, as well as my bloodied underwear were taken too. I hardly understood the need to make a rape kit, as there was hard proof of what had happened, but I did what I was told, and cried when I needed to. They took DNA samples and stitched me up. They stood me up for pictures, of my face, my neck, my wrists, any place where his hands had left marks. They questioned me in excruciating detail, coming up with a statement that I signed with a trembling hand. At that time, I didn’t realize how few rapists are actually convicted. I didn’t realize how important every last detail of my experience – the timeline, what I wore, what was said – was, until I was asked to repeat them over and over. I didn’t realize there was still a chance that he could make any of this go away.

He wasn’t able to, but that isn’t the point.

The point is that so many other people go through events like what I went through and they are made out to be the bad guy, while the real bad guy goes free. We, as victims of violence, of pure evil, are left to feel dirty and ashamed. We find ourselves questioning if it was actually our fault. Did we not fight hard enough? Did we not yell “no” loud enough? And the people around us are sympathetic at first, but are quick to disappear. Every eye feels judgmental or threatening. It becomes a chore, deciding whether or not to let people know what happened to you. They inevitably look at you differently. You become this ruined, hollowed ghost. No one wants to love where abuse lived first. No one wants to voluntarily run into the fire I was forced to sprint through. People are scared of ghosts, and so we build our haunted houses up in silence. We hurt for the showers that never quite scrubbed them out of our skin, and the nights we can’t rest peacefully while plagued by nightmares, and the panic attacks that paralyze us in the fear that they’re coming to get us, and the stigma that says that stealing our body meant stealing even an ounce of our souls. 

He didn’t get to take me from me, not really. What I went through was harrowing and brutal, but it did not diminish my being. Perhaps it sharpened it. I still awake to the human condition, flawed and scary and full of evil. But I recognize the ability I have, to fill this space with hope, compassion, healing, and the one thing he couldn’t give me most of all – love. I want to pour honesty, I want to be a voice for victims like me. I want to do so with warmth where he was cold, and forgiveness where there was condemnation, I want to scream that I was stifled and silenced and shot down, and I refuse to be quiet anymore. Does rape make you uncomfortable? Good. It should. But pretending it doesn’t happen only does a disservice to those of us who were doubted and ridiculed and beaten down already. It happens. It happens to your friends and sisters and brothers and coworkers and parents and children and teachers and bosses. And it happened to me. I will talk about it, because someone needs to. I will talk about it, because this is real.

Perhaps there will come a day when I don’t wake up, choking on the vomit that comes when I am smothered by him in my nightmares. And perhaps there won’t. Either way, there is still life here. Messy, beautiful, hopeful, tragic, chaotic, resilient, tough and scrappy life, yelling from the rooftops that he hurt me and sometimes it still hurts, but I am still here.

I am still here.

You are, too.

May we wake from nightmares to see the sun, to find light and love filling the broken places, making things new again. May we never surrender. May we believe in the promise of a love that does not bruise. May we live to tell our stories with grace, so that we may close a chapter and begin a better one.

May we write down our most painful stories, and may they set us free.

(Need help? Call 800.656.HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.)

People Need Other People.

    “People need other people. You need yours. They need you. Learn to believe it even if you think it isn’t true.”

    These words have been looping in my brain for the past few days, and I think they’re words I need to talk about. It is easy to buy into the lie that we are alone in our pain. It is easy to create a space where we can isolate ourselves in the mess and the fear and the questions. It’s easy to get so stuck in our sad solitude that we forget there’s a tribe cheering for us just on the other side of the darkness. 

    We just have to choose the other side. 

    I am a sucker for getting comfortable in my depression. I pull the covers over my head and I convince myself that I’m not worthy of care or patience or hope or love. I remind myself that my friends are so good; they’re worth more than my quiet, tear-filled days and my panicked, self-destructive nights. I tell myself I’m keeping them safe from the ugly things, the ugliest one of all being the monster in my brain. And I tell myself that I deserve my loneliness and my unhappiness over and over, until it feels carved in each wound on my arm and I’m too tired to do anything but believe it. 

    A friend told me once, simply and poignantly, “you don’t have to choose the pain, my love.” I wanted to fight back, to yell that this isn’t my choice, that I didn’t pick my vampires and my broken heart and my broken head. But sometimes it hits me to realize that I am choosing it. Of course I didn’t choose to be mentally ill. No one who walks this road set out on this path intentionally. But I do have the privilege to choose what I fight with, and sometimes, I have to admit that I choose pain. I choose it when I take handfuls of pills at once and laugh it off like it’s fine. I choose it when I convince myself that my friends don’t want to take my frantic, sobbing phone calls when I have no words to describe what I’ve been seeing. I choose it when I sink razor blades into my skin and call the warm stinging a comfort.

    I would like to start making better choices.

    “People need other people” is a lovely idea, but it doesn’t do any good to just accept these words as pretty and not actively do something with them. We have to learn how to be so brave as to raise a hand for help on the harder days, no matter if the cry comes out as a whimper or a yell. We have to be so hopeful as to believe that someone will hear us, and more than that, that someone will listen. We have to be so realistic as to know and accept that we are not for everyone, and there will be plenty who are not capable of giving us the help we need, maybe only on one or two given days, but maybe for any time at all. 

    And that’s important. I don’t think people talk about that enough. It is not enough to simply walk into counseling, or a coffee shop with a friend, or what have you. They can’t all just wave a magic wand over what hurts and ease the pain. They aren’t all a good fit. I went to a bible study once where, upon revealing a little bit of my struggle with self-injury, the leader of this particular study ran her hands over my scars and told me she felt Satan working inside of me. Moreso, I’ve been to church activities where I’ve been told over and over, “You just need to accept Christ. You just need to pray harder. He’ll mend what’s broken if you just believe.” Now call me crazy, but I don’t think simply praying is going to fix the chemical imbalances in my brain, nor will it erase the trauma and memories that have shaped my existence here. Telling me that I’m not loving God enough, and therefore, making me feel like I deserve my sadness because I’m not putting in enough work, doesn’t feel like the right way to bring me to the church. I am not hugely religious, nor am I very wise when it comes down to Christianity, but I do believe that God works in love, and I believe that love isn’t something that makes someone continuously not feel worthy. That God-love is a nice, warm idea to focus on some days, but if I’m being honest, it doesn’t fulfill me on most days. So I turn to something tangible: people, medication, therapy. But even then, it’s not always right on the first try, or even the second or third. And when asking for help is already so terrifying, that’s hugely discouraging. I had a counselor once who misspelled my name so frequently that I questioned whether it was a quiz in overcoming my occasional dissociation, or whether she just really didn’t give a shit. I stopped showing up, and that gave me my answer. She never called me again. The first time I reported being raped, I was told that I was “exaggerating”. I was told that I must be “unclear on what rape really means”. Apparently being held down, hit, and choked while someone basically masturbated with my body didn’t count as an actual rape, because the someone was my boyfriend. I could give a million examples of times when I let myself be so vulnerable to ask for help and the help was less than ideal, but I think you get it. You and me, all of us, we do need other people. But we need the right people. We need shoulders to cry on, eyes that won’t be afraid to keep looking at us when the story gets ugly, and hands that will hold us through the nights when we can’t stop shaking and we don’t think we want to live anymore. We need people who inspire us to live anyway. And we need to be those people for our friends, too. Perhaps it is miraculously brave to ask for help, and perhaps it is just as brave to offer it. Perhaps we are not for everyone, but we find who we are for when we bear our naked souls in all of their fragility and step into the stories of people who are not so unlike us, not really. 

    We have to keep trying. We have to keep going. We have to live and love openly, until we find our people. It will be difficult and it will be scary, but I’m finding that so many of the best things start out that way. I’ve met with at least 5 counselors, and I finally found one who cheers for me when I drop f-bombs with a certain kind of authority. She spells my name correctly, thinks Taylor Swift is a boss babe, and calls me out on my bullshit when I need it. I haven’t accepted a church for good yet, but I let myself sing in a church choir a few times, and I found myself tearing up at the overwhelming sense of belonging I felt, vocalizing the word of the Lord with people who hardly knew me but wanted me there. That’s a start. I have a small circle of people who I’m getting better at not being afraid to shoot a text to when I’m deeply sad and I don’t feel like I can keep myself safe. Sometimes they agree with me that I’m totally a mess, and sometimes they remind me how stubborn I am, but they always echo over and over that I am loved and I am needed. I dive into their words and make myself at home in the beauty of them, and I think about the horrific and utterly unthinkable pain I would feel if they left me, how it must be comparable to how they’d feel if I left them. It seems inconceivable some days, but I think it has to make sense. I think it’s something I have to learn to believe, even when I think it isn’t true.

    I want to choose friendship. I want to choose laughter. I want to choose faith. I want to choose honesty, even when it comes with vulnerability. I want to choose to get help, even when it seems uncomfortably hard and annoying and pathetic. I want to choose to find people who accept me on the hard days and celebrate with me on the good days. I want to choose to keep going. I want to want to choose these things. I want to choose love. Love is always the only thing that really wins. Love is what lasts. Love beats pain, and I think it’s worth getting out of my bed and my head and my fear and my mess to go find some.

    Today, I made reasonably good choices. I did my laundry, I took my meds, and I went outside. Perhaps bigger and better, I called a suicide hotline and admitted the things I’m scared to tell my friends, that it’s still bad and I’m still bad and I’m scared of how badly I still want to die. Then I hung out with my dogs. I Face Swapped with my Taylor Swift cutout and a $20 bill and sent the pictures to my friends because they made me laugh. I wore a cardigan I really like. I made plans to get coffee with a good pal on Sunday. I picked out a dress I feel pretty in to wear to work tomorrow. And I wrote this blog, maybe for me, but also for the people like me, who just as genuinely and surely need other people, too.

    I don’t think I will ever truly be good at asking for help. I’ve been struggling over this blog just because I’m scared to admit that I still need a lot of it. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to just pick up the phone and call a friend for support without mulling it over for at least half an hour first. I don’t think I’ll ever wholeheartedly accept that people exist who do want to be around me and know me and like me or even love me. I will always question it, but I will always believe it anyway, because I know I’m not the only one in need, not the only one who needs to believe it. And so we all need together, and we need each other. And we go on that way. It is a brokenly brilliant way to go. And it is the choice I make, to lean on and be leaned upon. 

    I don’t choose the pain today. Today, I choose to need.

    Be quiet. Be good.

    I remember the first time I sat alone in my room and cried for absolutely no reason. I was probably around 6, and I curled up against the wall by my closet, praying no one would hear me. Nothing catastrophic was happening. I had just had breakfast and I was in my own bedroom, safe at home on a weekend. But the world felt big and scary, and I was just, in that moment, confusingly and horrifically sad.

    If there’s anything that was engrained deeply in my head when I was young, it was the ever-present reminder, “be quiet, be good.” I was a doe-eyed little girl, the shortest in my class, and constantly buried in a book. I was shy, but moreso, I was quiet because I was always observing. They told me I was smart, and I liked that. I was reading chapter books while the other kids scrawled vowels with their chewed up pencils. And the response was nearly always the same: “that Rianne, she’s going to go places.” It quickly became “she’s going to take me places.” I can hardly remember a time when I didn’t feel like a world that wasn’t my own was resting on my shoulders. If someone yelled at me? Be quiet, be good. If someone hit me? Be quiet, be good. If I felt angry or sad or tired or stressed? Nope. No time for that. You’re fine. Be quiet, be good. I was always told that I had to be someone for everyone else. I was who held the most potential. I was who could conceivably be what everyone else never got to be. The rest of my family floated around in different realms of anxiety or depression or anger issues or sickness I was too little to understand. But what I understood was this: I was not allowed to be sad. It simply wouldn’t do. I had to be a light for us all, and my job was to be quiet and be good.

    I really don’t think anyone knew how sad I was. They didn’t want to see it, so it wasn’t there.

    So I went on. I won school spelling bees, and was rewarded with shopping trips for my county spelling bees. A winner must look the part. I won art contests, and spent my reward money on new books. I got glasses, and was reminded that “all the smart girls have glasses”. I brought home all A’s, and the one time I brought home a B in Math, I was quickly and harshly reminded that good girls don’t get anything but A’s. When my grandma died, I held in my tears until I was in the backseat alone. Even then, when I had accidentally let a sob sneak through, it was “quiet, we need your strength even more now.” And I couldn’t muster up the courage to say that I just didn’t think I had much left. I was tired of the yelling and the slamming doors and the constant arguing and the expectations I couldn’t quite reach. If no one else could reach them, why was it up to me to climb up and get a piece for everyone else?

    I feel horrible telling these stories. I know that these feelings go hand-in-hand with the act of having a toxic family, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t accompanied by guilt. I was a very loved little girl. It’s just that a lot was expected of me, and no one noticed that I was breaking under pressure. And I had been conditioned to not speak up about any of it. Everyone else had real problems, and I did not. 

    The first time I took a razor to my wrist, I was nearly 14. It was the 3 year anniversary of my grandma’s passing, and I was sad beyond measure. I know it was a day of broken dishes. I know I had a fresh bruise as a result. But I don’t know where I got the idea. I do know that, as soon as I saw the bright beads of blood take form on the inside of my arm, I felt like I could breathe a sigh of relief. I had pain. I had pain that mattered. I had pain that was mine.

    And no one would have seen it, had I not sort of wanted to be seen. I adopted this cutting thing as a sort of coping mechanism. I stabbed myself with thumbtacks. I pushed broken glass into my skin. It was mesmerizing, and it was thrilling. I quickly found that tearing a razor apart and keeping the blades with me was the best way to achieve the results I wanted, and so I did just that. I got caught when I was running the thin metal across my arm under my desk. One look at my arm, and anyone knew what I was doing. But it had taken months for anyone to see.

    When I was 14, I was diagnosed with depression, which later was reclassified as bipolar II. Basically, that means that I go through deep depressive spells, but I also have occasional bursts of hypomania. In between my highs and low lows, I do get to feel normal sometimes, but really, what is normal? In the past few years, I’ve also been diagnosed with severe complex PTSD and mild OCD. And regardless of any letters spelled out on a doctor’s clipboard, I think it’s really just nice to have permission to just be – to not be quiet or good, but to be real, and honest.

    I think it would be easy to blame my childhood for a lot of things. I’m still a stubborn perfectionist who likes books more than people. I’m still quiet, I still pay close attention to details, and I’m still a wallflower. I still give a lot of myself to people, over and over and over. But those are not all bad traits. I push myself and I work hard and I try to be good enough for myself, not anyone else. I just try to be healthier and more authentic about it. I let people see me cry. I talk about being sad. I changed my major from the one they told me to take to the one I actually wanted. I cut the long hair I was always supposed to have, and I’ve kept it short because I like it. I talk back. In situations that have called for it, I’ve hit back. I’ve spent a long time being stifled and shamed and silenced. Quiet does not actually equal good, and it was never okay to make me think I was bad if I spoke up.

    I wish for a different world for that 6 year old hiding and crying, knowing that she would get in trouble if she showed her tears. I wish I could scoop her up and hold her and absorb some of her hurt. I guess maybe I’m doing that, just by growing up and taking her with me. I can’t go back and change what they asked of me and took from me and silenced from me, but I can speak up now. 

    Don’t let anyone tell you that who you are, down to your core, isn’t enough. Don’t ever believe people blinded by their own fears and insecurities and pasts, who are so threatened by you that they have to tear you down. Don’t ever make yourself small so someone else can be bigger. Do not set fire to yourself to keep someone else warm. If someone isn’t loving you the way you deserve, be it family or friend or significant other, you have every right to negotiate for change. You have every right to be exactly the person you are in any given moment. If people can’t see or accept or understand who and what you are, they are the problem. Not you. Do not settle. Do not feel responsible. Do not be quiet. 

    But do be good. Because you are. You always were.

    You were enough. I’m sorry they couldn’t see it. Scream it now until they can’t help but hear you. You are good. You are good. You are good.

    You are worthy, in your pain, in your joy, and in your honest self.