Mk’s Story: Why didn’t I save myself

Mk’s Story: Why didn’t I save myself

I doubt very much that anyone aside from me will ever read this, but even with that I feel like writing this might help me work through things or at least begin to forgive myself for something that ultimately was not my fault. Maybe by the end of this, I’ll actually believe that last sentence, because despite all my education, my 30 years of life and all the research in the world, I look in the mirror with depressing regularity and wonder, “why didn’t I save myself?”

The whole saving people thing has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. When I was 5, I watched Power Rangers and aside from never liking that the girls never got leadership roles, I loved watching them save people even though there weren’t yet adults. I wanted to be a police officer when I grew up so I could help people, but my mother feared for my safety (as many mothers do) so I assured her I would do something safer. That didn’t stop me of course from aligning myself with superheroes who rose above difficult times or were called to answer the higher calling of protecting those who cannot protect themselves. Then the new Wonder Woman movie was released and I (and I think many other people) fell in love with Gal Gadot’s portrayal of the fearless warrior princess who left the guaranteed safety of her hidden island home, her people and chose instead to run head first into battles that the world of men had started for reasons she never did understand. I sobbed in the theater when I saw the movie and watched it frequently when I had bad depression episodes or anxiety attacks. I was still in grad school at the time and I was struggling for a few reasons: my grades were almost perfect, but like all things, that perfection came with a price tag. One of my dearest friends would listen to my struggles, offer her support and one day told me, “Wonder Woman would never put up with the stuff you are and she would want better for you.”

“I’m not Wonder Woman.” I told her smiling at the comparison to a woman I would do anything to be like.

“You are, but fine, Diana Prince wouldn’t put up with this either.” I could’ve tried to continue to insist that I was not Wonder Woman and I definitely wasn’t her slightly more human alter ego Diana Prince. In fact, if memory serves I tried to make this very point, but she wouldn’t hear it and from that day forward whenever I struggled, had hard days at school or work, or simply had something I needed to feel more confident about, she would send me quotes from the movie, GIFs from the movie and would refuse to call me by my actual name: in those moments I wasn’t me, I was Diana and sometimes it was just what I needed to get through that moment. All that to say, there was some truth in being compared to Wonder Woman because in the years that were to follow this nickname I would run head first into any dangerous situation my family and loved ones faced, problem was, I did not have Wonder Woman’s bulletproof cuffs, shield or sword. I had a can of pepper spray, a stubborn personality I come by honestly and the fierce loyalty I had been raised with. It was with these things I went into the year 2019 and much as I hate to admit it, despite my best efforts, it wasn’t enough.

The beginning of the year I was busy trying to secure interviews for my post-doctoral training year as I was in my final semester of graduate school. I had gotten a mix of offers and rejections for interviews and as we got into the end of January I had one last interview left and it was not to terribly far from home so I was cautiously optimistic. My best friend offered for me to stay with him at his house since he lived not far from the hospital I was interviewing with and it would spare me a hotel room. That morning, he and his spouse left for work and I left for my interview and that was the last normal thing that happened that day. I got to my interview early, something that is as much a part of who I am as my eye color. I sat in my car in the parking lot and scrolled though apps: Instagram, Facebook etc. And because I am a single person in the modern day of technology I opened one of the dating apps on my phone. Now, I have identified as a lesbian for years and while I was fairly secure in that identity, I was going through a period where I wanted to explore that part of my sexual orientation identity. Please don’t read that and think “wow, she really thought being with a guy would change her orientation”. That’s not what I believe: I do, however, believe that Kinsey had a point with his research and that in the years that followed his work, our research suggests that sexuality is a spectrum not a fixed facet of who we are. All that to say, I didn’t have the setting on the app set to just men or just women, but instead left it open.

I started talking to one man and explained I was not from the area and therefore was not looking for something that would be an ongoing relationship unless I got this job and moved to the area. We chatted until I had to go inside for my interview agreeing to meet up later in the day. I put my phone away in my briefcase, threw on my blazer and went into my interview which went fine, but I did not get a final offer from them. As I left the building though, I felt as though I had done my best and so I felt pretty good. I sent a message to the guy I had spoken to earlier and he sent me his address which was maybe 10 minutes from where I was. Because we both knew what it was we were looking for we laid down very clear expectations and limits around what we were both comfortable with and what we weren’t willing to do or try. I sent the address to a friend of mine with the same instructions we always gave each other: if I didn’t text her or call her in a previously set amount of time she would call my phone a certain number of times and if I failed to answer those messages or calls she would call the police, assuming that something had gone wrong and I was in a certain amount of danger. I drove to the house, went inside and left about 45 minutes later.

I won’t detail the things that happened because a part of me can’t bring myself to type it, another part of me can’t bear the thought of having someone else have that image in their head. I will loop back to what happened in that house later, but for the sake of all involved, just know, whatever you think happened…that is what happened.

As I walked to the car, I no real idea that I had just been assaulted because my brain was giving all the signals that would suggest that I was fine. In fact looking back on that moment, I struggled to understand why I didn’t start crying or having an intense emotional response the second I locked the doors of my car. Months later my therapist explained that there was in fact a reason and even a name for what I described as I left the house feeling borderline happy: shock.

My brain knew more than it was letting me in on so it made sure I was in the car, leaving the source of danger and back in a safe place before it allowed the frightening reality to slowly seep into my conscious thought. So I drove back to my friend’s home, grabbed lunch as I went and ate when I got to the house. I checked in with the friend who had the address of where I was and assured her I was safely back in my friend’s house. I then sat down on the couch and turned something mindless on TV, having every intention of working on my dissertation. The longer I sat there though, the worse I felt: I physically was hurting, my neck and face were slightly sore and the rest of my body wasn’t fairing much better. I tried to brush it off, but things unraveled from there.

As I tried to think about why I was in such pain, my brain chose this point to begin to clue me in as to what I had experienced. The best way I can explain it is this: have you ever watched a video of your first birthday party or something from the early years of your life? I assume you don’t remember a first-hand account of your first birthday or Christmas, but you’ve seen the video or pictures so you know it indeed happened. My brain was giving me clips of what had happened, segments at a time and I slowly, over the course of about two hours, my brain finally allowed me to see the whole picture it had tried to protect me from.

I spent a while trying to tell myself that I had consented to things and so therefore I had not been raped. I argued this point with myself for about 30 minutes before I was able to remember everything clearly, including the part where I made clear that I wanted things to stop and they hadn’t. In that moment I wanted to cry because I felt I was supposed to, but no tears came, but the self-blame showed up with startling speed.

“You have taken self-defense classes, why didn’t you literally fight him? Why didn’t you scream no, or scream fire because you know people would respond faster to that? Why didn’t you, at any point, put your arms up to protect yourself? Why did you go in the first place?”

You get the point: I took every victim blaming sentence and gave it to myself. Then my “training” kicked in and when I say training I mean that having lived my whole life as a woman I had been taught at several stages of my life as to what to do when you’ve been assaulted. Take a moment and think about how I’ve been conditioned to handle this event since roughly age 4 and no one has done anything to make it less needed. Ironically, as a child I was told that if anyone hurt me like that to tell someone so some justice could be sought, but as an adult, the media and justice system has sent me and most other people the opposite message of “you can tell someone, but they probably aren’t gonna believe you and if they do, you are the one who will look bad in court and your rapist will basically be thrown a parade”. With this and 20 seasons of Law and Order SVU under my belt I knew I had some decisions to make: go to the hospital or don’t, get a kit done or don’t, report it to the police or don’t. I looked at myself and remembered I hadn’t yet changed out of my clothes or showered, which meant that if I was going to get a kit done I was inside a very narrow window. I had to make these decisions alone and Olivia Benson was not here to help me.

After about 10 minutes I was about to grab my keys and go to the ER then I remembered that these things take hours and thinking about doing it didn’t make me feel any better or more hopeful and ultimately I didn’t go anywhere and my keys stayed on the table. I asked myself if I was sure about this, knowing I could always report it later if I chose to and the choice I made was to stay where I felt safe which was in that house. I shed the business attire I was still wearing and threw them as far from where I stood as possible, grabbed my PJ pants and oversized sleep shirt. I chose to take a shower because with the pain I was in I wanted to make sure I wasn’t needing to go to the ER for an injury. Somehow my injuries were reserved for places that were covered by almost all clothes I wear both at work and at home. Normally I take short showers, but I was in this one for close to 45 minutes which for me is double the time I usually take. As I got dressed I kept telling myself you have to look in the mirror and check. It had taken me this long to remember that there was a real threat of a bruise forming at my neck. I looked and aside from some redness there was no sign that someone’s hand had been there and that during that time I couldn’t breathe. When I sat back down on the couch I was so numb to everything that the only thing I could bring myself to do was lay back down on the blow up mattress my friend had set up for me, throw every blanket they had over me and let their dogs cuddle with me while something mindless played on the TV. I couldn’t focus on anything, I couldn’t get myself to cry, I just laid there for hours until my friend texted me that he was on his way home. I quickly got up, brushed my hair and grabbed my computer to give him the idea that all was fine. He came home, asked about the interview, I told him about it, forcing down everything else that happened. His spouse came home, we ate dinner and when everyone was asleep I was back in the fort of blankets not knowing what to do next.

At midnight, I finally reached out to RAINN and the rape crisis counselor I spoke to was unbelievably kind and helped me to understand why I didn’t fight back even though my brain was screaming at me to do so. I explained to her that I remembered thinking if I hit his nose the right way, it would break and I could fight him off, but I couldn’t lift my arms, literally could not get my body to respond to my brains commands to try and protect me. The woman explained that this was not uncommon and there was even a name for it: tonic immobility. Simply put: if your brain thinks that the only way to get you out of a situation alive is to have you play dead, it will make you do so. It overrides your decision making and you no longer get to call the shots. You can’t talk, move or any of the things that make it possible for you to try and protect yourself or fight off an attack of any kind. It is similar to the freeze option of fight, flight or freeze, but it is taken to a primal level: all animals who are considered prey animals have this as a default safety option should they ever be attacked. I forgot until that moment that humans usually aren’t considered prey…usually.

When I hung up with the rape crisis counselor I climbed back into bed and slept off and on for a few hours. My friend invited me to go get dinner with him and his spouse as they had dinner plans prior to my arrival. I thanked him, but assured him that I would be ok at home and I would get more writing done on my dissertation if the house was empty. I smiled the whole time he was home and we even laughed about things like normal, but inside I wanted so badly to tell him so that someone could hold onto me while I fell apart. Instead I kept that fake smile up until they left the house and then I fell apart all over again. I broke down and told 2 people, my two female cousins and the support they offered to me in those hours was something I can never replay them for and it kept me from lashing out against myself. I drove home the next day and I remember sitting in my car in the drive way of my home, trying to practice a good smile and perfect pitch in my voice so I did not give away that I was not alright. I successfully got inside and greeted my parents and siblings and made an excuse of wanting to wash my clothes from the weekend and get a shower in before dinner since I had to work the next day. As I did exactly that, reality hit me: I DID have to go to work the next day. How the hell was I going to do my job, which was literally helping people who were suffering, when I could barely hold myself together for a few hours at a time? I ran that question through my mind at dinner where I continued to present as “fine” to my family and I went to bed not knowing how I would handle things the next morning.

I got to work early the next morning, although I always did so that wasn’t strange. I waited in the car and tried to summon all my energy into pretending that something terrible hadn’t happened to me 48 hours earlier. I went through my day and no one seemed to notice anything off about me. I would duck into the bathroom more often than I needed to, to just give my brain a few minutes to rest before I went back to the act of pretending to be business as usual. One thing I did notice throughout the day, was how much physical pain my body was in: I couldn’t sit for long periods of time and I felt like I had been hit by a truck everywhere else. I used a co-workers desk for the day since they had a standing desk and when I was done for the day I all but ran for my car. I knew I needed to see a doctor, but I worked for the closest hospital and didn’t want to be seen by doctor I literally worked with. I managed to get an appointment at Planned Parenthood for the next day, but that meant missing work. I took one of 3 sick days I had (I was an intern so I didn’t have PTO) and I left for work the next morning at the usual time so my parents wouldn’t wonder why I stayed home. This lie never did sit well with me, but I did it to protect them…or so I told myself. I went to the appointment and the doctor could not have been nicer and she assured me that while I was in pain, I was not seriously injured and the pain should go away in about a week. She checked the painful spots on my face and neck to see if any lasting damage had come from the period of time when my rapist had me by my throat: she found no permanent damage here either. When the appointment was over I still needed to kill a few hours before I could “get home from work”. I went to local bookstore and sat in a fairly abandoned section and read for a few hours, trying again to pretend that everything was ok.

When I got in the car to go home, I texted a co-worker to see how things had gone that day at work. Mostly I was worried that me being out sick would have caused someone else to work later to cover my work load. She assured me that everything was fine and they were well staffed enough to make it work without me there for the day. Then she asked if I was feeling better. I looked at that text for a long time and wondered if I should tell her the truth. We were friends, having worked together for almost 8 months and we were always in the office early so we had extra time to become actual friends, not just work friends. I decided to tell her for two reasons: one, she was my friend and likely would have noticed something was up eventually and two, I felt like I was constantly trying not to scream it out to people which meant I needed to tell someone before I again began to internalize the fear and anger I felt. I cautiously typed back to her that I had thought about going to the ER, but managed to get a doctor appointment and they had assure me I would be ok in time. This, of course, told her that something more was going on than what I had said and she again asked me, with more capital letters and using my full name as opposed to my nickname, if I was ok. I told her that something had happened while I was out of town, dropped some other vague hints that it had been rape and then flat out begged her not to ask me to use “the R word” because I just couldn’t bring myself to say it or type it.

She of course understood instantly what I was trying to tell her and immediately apologized for me having experienced that and repeated her question if I was ok, this time knowing that I likely was not at all ok. I told her what the doctor had told me and that made her feel better (at least I hope it did), but now she was asking if I was mentally alright. I told her honestly that I wasn’t feel much of anything, just very flat, no interest in anything and I just wanted to go to bed and sleep the whole thing a way. Having gone to school for as long as I have and in my field, you make peace with the fact that 50% of your friend system is made up of mental health professionals so when you say you want to sleep anything away, they get nervous…rightfully so. She knew that I had a past of engaging in self harm when I was anxious and depressed so she asked flat out if I was having those thoughts or if felt like I was safe. I answered her honestly: that I felt safe in that I didn’t feel as though I was in danger of ending my life, but I certainly had urges to hurt myself. I assured her I was safe enough to be trusted to go home and not need to go to the hospital. We talked back and forth for a while and ended our conversation, saying we would see each other in the morning (she actually offered to come in early so we could talk without people around).

The next morning I did go in early and we talked for about an hour and it was nice to feel like I didn’t have to carry this around alone anymore: someone was willing to hear my story, believe me and help me through this time. We went through our respective days and for some reason it was a more difficult day and when I sat down to write my notes, I felt incredibly overwhelmed at the thought of doing anything. I wanted to curl up under my desk and just disappear, but I knew I didn’t have that option, so I wrote my notes, but it took me twice as long as normal and when I walked out of the building I knew I had roughly 2 minutes to make it to my car before I started crying. I didn’t make to the car, but thankfully it was just little stray tears, warning of something more profound about to come. I put on my sunglasses and walked faster to my car. Once I got to the parking garage I put my bag away and sat in the car, just looking at my steering wheel until I completely came undone a few seconds later. Thankfully, that day I had gotten to work early enough to choose what floor I wanted to park on and I chose the rooftop parking, so no one walking by saw the intern crying in her car (something that might have sparked some concern). When I had calmed down a little, I texted the co-worker who had been talking to me and asked her why, after everything, was I crying over paperwork. She quickly, though kindly, pointed out, “because you aren’t actually crying over paperwork”.

She was right. I wasn’t crying over paperwork I had done a million times. I was crying over something else and the paperwork just happened to zap the last of my reserve resolve and the dam broke wide open. I can say now, looking back, that it was not unlike a metaphor a teach from high school once told me. When you push feelings or emotions down it is like shoving a beach ball underwater. You can hold it under there for a while, maybe even a long time. However, you will use all your energy holding something down against a natural resistance that will win out in the end. Simply put: the harder you push, the harder it gets to hold and eventually that beach ball will pop out of the water, with or without your permission. I had held my feelings and my tears in for several days and I fell apart because I needed to or I likely would’ve suffered more than I already was.

In the months after that, I found a better therapist and she helped me get through the initial wave of mental health hell that came from the pain I was in, but she and I basically did the work that put a Band-Aid on a bullet hole.

Even today, most people in my life don’t know, at least not everything. I don’t fear not being believed: my friends and family are too open and loving for that to be the response. I just can’t bear to be the one who puts the image in their head of their daughter, niece or sister being hurt.

With the anniversary coming up in a matter of days I wrote this for a few reasons, not the least of which is because I am scared. I don’t know how I will feel. I don’t know if I will be too depressed to get out of bed, or if I will have an anxiety attack, dissociate or be suicidal. And not knowing is what scares me because it makes it hard to plan.

Earlier in this, I wrote about how my friend always calls me Diana or Wonder Woman and how I never felt as though I am worthy of that comparison. As I wrote this, I watch the movie again and I have two favorite parts. Of course, the No Man’s Land scene, but at the beginning of the film, when WW prepares to leave with Steve Trevor she is stopped by her mother who knows she cannot make her daughter stay as she feels she must go out and protect the world of man from their own destruction. The Queen holds her daughter’s head in her hands and lovingly cautions her daughter, “be careful in the world of men Diana, they do not deserve you”. I caption many pictures of my niece with that quote because I don’t want the world to ever hurt her, although I know it will and likely already has in some way. But I carry that scene with me now, more than ever before. Not because I think I am so great that people don’t deserve my love or anything like or and I am not afraid of men so it’s not that part of it either. That scene is the armor I wear because of the message behind the Queen’s words. What she says is “be careful in the world of men Diana, they do not deserve you”, but what I heard underneath that is the message of a mother fearing for her daughter: I hear, “you love everyone so deeply and you want to save everyone, but not everyone deserves your sacrifice and in the event you cannot save everyone, please save yourself”.

So while it hasn’t always been pretty, nevertheless, I saved myself.

Author

WYR

WYR

When You're Ready.org is a community for survivors of sexual violence to share their stories.

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