From Victim to Survivor
Sometimes we have no idea how things will affect us, no idea about the million ways in which one event can influence our lives. When I ran out of the driveway that day, across the street and to our house, I had no idea that the hard part was still to come.
We had moved into the new house in spring, and by the time summer rolled around I had become best friends with the girl who lived across the street. Nora was two years younger than me -- 12 years old to my 14 -- but we got along great. Soon, I was spending most of my time at her house. Not only because she was the one with the Play Station, but also because she had a gorgeous older brother and a father who always had time for us.
Nora's father was always around. He played basketball with us in the afternoon, helped us with our homework when we got stuck and fixed us hot dogs when we wandered into the kitchen searching for a snack. With the start of summer vacation I practically moved into Nora's house. As the days wore on, I noticed that Nora's father was going out of his way to spend time with me. It was subtle, at first, but two situations weren't so subtle.
I came over one afternoon and Nora's father greeted me at the door. Nora had gone shopping with her mother, he told me. I told him thanks, I'd come back later then -- but he held my arm and asked me to sit down on the stairs with him. Why didn't I stay to talk for a little? Reluctantly, I sat down. He wanted to know if there were any boys I was interested in, if I had a boyfriend, what I did with him, what I'd done with guys in general. I gave him monosyllabic answers, waiting for a chance to get up and leave without seeming impolite. After all, he was just taking an interest in my life, right? Then why did I feel so uncomfortable?
Eventually I got away. I did not come back to look for Nora later that day.
Then, on the day of her mother's birthday. I'd been over all day and when the mother got home from work, she asked me to leave so they could have a family dinner for her birthday. I'd had no plans of staying, anyway, as I would've felt like an intruder, so I wished her a happy birthday and walked out the door.
As I walked across the yard to the street, I could hear him yelling at his wife through the open kitchen window. He called her rude for having sent me home; he would have wanted me to stay.
The same things continued to happen throughout the summer. One time, Nora's father turned up on my parent's doorstep to convince them to let me spend a weekend at the family's lake house. I'd lied to the father, telling him my parents wouldn't let me go, because I was afraid to spend 24 hours in his presence. I ended up going along. He talked me into putting on my bikini and checking out the water, then proceeded to stare at me as I did so. That night, I asked Nora's mother to drive me home early because I wasn't feeling well.
The whole thing exploded one sunny afternoon, when I was at Nora's house, playing basketball in the driveway with her and a few other kids from the neighborhood. Her father came out to watch us, settling on a lawn chair by the garage. At one point I got thirsty, so I left the game to grab a drink and settled on a lawn chair next to Nora's father to take a breather. We were a mere couple of feet from the spot where his children were playing basketball.
He looked at me and asked me what sort of things turn me on. I think I was still trying to process what he'd just said when he went on.
"My wife likes it when I tickle her," he told me. "Are you ticklish? She is. Right here" ... and with those words he reached out and touched my breast. He cupped it with his hand, smiled at me, kept talking, but I didn't hear him anymore. I was staring across the driveway, where Nora and the others were playing basketball, unaware of what was happening. I don't know how long I sat there like that until I finally managed to set my drink down, get up, and walk away.
I never told my mother about it. A few weeks prior to that, a school friend and I had reported a boy from our class who'd chased us and tried to touch our breasts. We had waited outside of the office while he was in there. When he walked out, he'd grinned at us. He got neither a suspension nor a detention. I had joined my friend in reporting him against my mother's will. She'd told me not to make such a big deal out of nothing.
I tried to forget it and move on. I never went over to Nora's house again. She came over to see me and tried to find out what was going on. I went through an internal battle over whether or not to tell her. What if he was doing the same thing to her and I could help her? What if he wasn't and I would just end up destroying her wonderful relationship with her father? In the end, I said nothing and Nora eventually stopped coming to see me.
After the summer I started high school. Over the course of the year I slipped into depression, started questioning my sexuality, began to self-injure. I dated, but every time a guy wanted to do more than hold hands I freaked out and ran. This continued all throughout high school. I did not understand why that was happening. My struggle did not become clear to me until years later, when, halfway through my first year at college, I had a breakdown.
I'd been feeling more depressed than usual, was self-injuring more frequently. My boyfriend and I were on a relationship break that I did not quite understand his motivations for and I was feeling out of place at my university. A close male friend of mine offered to come and stay with me for a while to cheer me up. I knew that he was attracted to me, but I was feeling frustrated and needy and I accepted his offer, to hell with the consequences. I picked Tom up at the train station a couple of weeks later and things went great until they didn't.
Tom had a drug problem, and three days into his visit, he broke his promise to be clean while he was staying with me. I didn't notice at first. Maybe I just didn't want to. That night, things got heated. We had done a lot of things up until then, but we hadn't had sex. I'd never let a guy get close enough for that, not even my boyfriend, because the mere thought scared me more than anything. And so when things got too close for comfort, I tried to stop Tom. That was when I realized what he'd done. But by then, it was too late. He was on some other plane of existence, and he was strong. He would not let go of me. He was so much stronger than me.
Afterwards I locked myself in the bathroom. When I returned, he was passed out on the bed. I joined him there and tried to sleep, by the time I had to leave in the morning he was still out cold. I had an important final to take, afterwards I had lunch with a friend. By the time I got back that afternoon, I had convinced myself that nothing had happened. He was a friend, after all, surely he hadn't meant to hurt me. I went inside, determined to act normal, but things were tense regardless and by the next morning it culminated into one big scream fest. I didn't tell him what I was really upset about: he was convinced (and remains so to this day) that he had done nothing wrong. The next day I kicked him out.
A couple of weeks after, I had become so afraid of what I could do to myself if left to my own devices that I called a crisis hotline in the middle of the night and was referred to a counseling center for rape victims. Finally, I was going to get help. Still, I think I called and postponed my appointment at least two or three times, and when I finally went I was ready to turn around again at the door. Thankfully, I didn't. The counselor I talked to was possibly the most wonderful, patient, understanding counselor I could have ever hoped to come across. She listened to me and she did not judge. She just let me talk. And so that's what I did - for the first time in my life I talked about everything that had happened. Through her subtle questioning the matter of Nora's father came to light and I started to connect it to my recurrent nightmares, that feeling of fear and disgust when men came too close to me, my habit of freaking out at the thought of intimacy. Everything started to make sense.
My boyfriend and I ended our break and tried to fix our relationship. I told him about what had happened in the meantime, in what was probably the most difficult and emotional conversation I have ever had. He supported me throughout my therapy with patience and understanding. With his help, that of my counselor and the support of my friends, I started to get better. I stopped being a victim and started being a survivor.
A year and a half ago, I quit cutting myself.
Two months after that, I went to see my therapist for the last time. A year ago I told my parents. They were shocked that I hadn't told them at the time and felt guilty for having appeared so unapproachable.
I still get triggered, sometimes. The other day I nearly ran out of the grocery store because the guy in line in front of me reminded me of Tom. But for the most part, I do okay. I know this will never go away completely. It's part of me, part of my history, like the scars on my arms. That's okay - I like the person I have become. I'm strong, I know how to take care of myself and I know who I am. I'm a survivor.