(Editor’s Note: Some of the scenarios described below can be upsetting. Please take caution when reading.)
When I was 5 years old, I was “caught” in a closet kissing a boy my mother told me was my best friend. Our parents told us we couldn’t do that, but how do you punish a child for that kind of thing? Afterward, I heard them laughing in the other room that he played rough but only because he liked me so much. “He’ll probably grow up into a ladies man,” they joked. And that was that. But before that kiss, they didn’t know he pushed me into the closet because I said I didn’t think my mommy would want me to.
That child was only a year older than me, so it’s hard to really blame him. But I was lectured for something I didn’t agree to, and I grew up thinking I was to blame for something I didn’t want to do.
Three years later I was in the same position but with a much older man, one who couldn’t claim ignorance and knew better than to get caught. My parents didn’t lecture me because they didn’t know, and I’d learned not to tell. Because he said I was lovely and that he wasn’t trying to hurt me. Because he said if you love someone you can’t tell them no or they might stop loving you in return. And when he kept coming back for me and cornering me alone in my own house, I eventually stopped saying no altogether. And when he was done with me he would apologize but say I made him feel good. As if that fixed it. As if that made my 8-year-old brain feel OK with the fact that he abused me before I even knew what that term meant. Before I ever got to understand that sex is so beautiful when it’s done with someone you love. When it’s done with your consent.
Over the years I subconsciously learned that my body didn’t belong to me. I had to greet my parents’ friends whether I wanted to or not. I had to sit next to guys in class whether it ruined my concentration or not. I was into drama, and I had to hug male characters whether it gave me anxiety attacks or not. I had to do what was expected whether it was healthy or not.
So no wonder by the time I was fifteen, dating my very first boyfriend, I was so jumpy and anxious, I’d cringe if anyone so much as came near me. I loved him, but I wouldn’t let him near me. Couldn’t even let him sit next to me. For seven months that went on before I finally let him hold my hand, shaking like there was an earthquake inside of my bones. And the first time he hugged me, he asked permission.
He was the first person I ever told who listened with the intent of hearing why I was afraid and not with the intent of making it automatically go away. He told me he loved me anyway. And while I cried he took my wrists and kissed every scar I had so methodically covered with bracelets. And that was the last time I was afraid of him. Because he gave me the right to decline his touch without explanation, and in so doing, gave me an environment where I felt safe enough to accept it.
Eventually we broke each other’s hearts, and it hurt like hell but it was the kind of hurt people are supposed to experience. It was high school, where you care too deeply and think you have everything figured out when you don’t. But he was the first guy who ever hurt me without actually physically hurting me. He was the first guy I cried over who had never once touched me without my consent. It was the kind of hurt that matures you without wrecking you completely.
I learned a lot during and after that time. I learned a lot about asking for help when I needed it. I learned a lot about taking ownership of my story and recognizing the past as over and the future as something I could decide how to shape. In “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” author Stephen Chbosky put it this way, “You don’t get to choose where you come from but you can choose where you go from there.”
I can’t change the fact that I have a rather long history of both dealing with abuse and abusing myself. But at some point during that period I made a choice to believe that wasn’t where my story was going to end. It wasn’t that I woke up one day and decided to be better and then was instantly fixed. It was that I woke up one day and decided to fight for the kind of life I wanted to live instead of passively resigning myself to the kind of life I felt forced to live because of my past.
Time passed and healed things as it often does. I didn’t date again until college, but now I’m twenty and with a man who feels like home. He can wrap his arms around me freely because, with time, I’ve learned to view myself not as an object to be used, but as a person who deserves love just as much as anyone else. And every day he reminds me that another man’s unwanted touch says more about that man than it will ever say about me. And sometimes we talk about the future together and how we’ll raise our sons to be protectors and our daughters to be fearless. We’ll teach both that sometimes they’re going to feel stuck in dark places and lose some battles. But tomorrow is a new day, and yesterday’s demons don’t have to keep winning.
I used to view myself as damaged goods, and on bad days, sometimes I still do. But since I’m not something to be bought or sold in the first place, I’ve learned that feeling damaged doesn’t mean my body is on clearance. Hell no. I glued myself back together. And if I ever saw him again, I’d march right up to the man who abused me and say to his face, “**** you… But I forgive you.” Because I’ve learned how to end cycles before they end me.
I can’t treat my body like a battleground anymore. I can’t scream at my reflection anymore or self-destruct every time I see pieces of other people in my veins. I used to be so afraid. Now I tend to simply see myself as a work in progress and respect my own evolution. I am not quite beautiful. But I’m getting there. Growing into it. Breathing in grace every time I touch someone without panicking. Breathing out redemption every time I choose to write, sing, play, cook, scream, or run instead of hurting myself. I am a story still going, my friends, with many more chapters to be written.