[I couldn’t think of a fitting cover-image for this series, so here’s the Carbon Freeze chamber from Empire Strikes Back.]
The Cross I Bear
After the two sexual assaults happened to me, I started getting panic attacks when alone in a crowd, in any situation where I had to be romantic/sexual, any situation I perceived as stressful (even just talking to a school counselor or my boss sometimes) and when public speaking. I used to be decently good at the last one before, but that ended during a tenth grade history presentation when I just started hyperventilating in front of the whole class and couldn’t say a word. I remember all their shocked and pitying faces. I remember how, after it was over, not a soul even tried to comfort me, ask if I was okay…nothing supportive whatsoever. Instead it was all pretending it never happened and/or making fun of me for it afterwards (again, lovely girl that Jessie.)
In college I was forced to give an impromptu speech by one of my professors my first semester and the same thing happened, humiliating me in front of my new peers right out of the gate. I actually dropped out of some classes when I saw there was a speech required because I was so scared of publicly embarrassing myself again. For the times when that wasn’t an option, I got drunk, hoping the euphoric depressant would cancel out my panic response. It worked most of the time. Most. But all the same, getting tipsy literally first thing in the morning in some cases, only to just barely hold it together in time to finish the presentation, is really really not fun. I often felt like a disgusting vagabond drunkard in the process. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, not even BC himself. I really should have had one or two years to recuperate, pick myself up and get this under control through therapy, but that wasn’t an option.
In college, I was always good with people in a friendly context but never when the expectation of romance or making moves was placed upon me. As you can imagine, this massive trauma and confidence decimation completely obliterated any chances I had left in that department. I didn’t really date in college because the prospect of approaching anyone was completely terrifying to me (and I hadn’t accepted myself as trans yet so just falling back on “be yourself” wasn’t an option as I was already always wearing a mask with people.) I did work up the courage to approach women twice in college but both times as I started talking to them I began having panic attacks and had to excuse myself immediately after. I could just imagine how pleased my tormentors would be at the sight of me, which just further internalized all the horrible things they’d said and made me convince myself I wasn’t worthy of a relationship. I did, somehow, manage to enjoy a few flings but even these were somewhat uncomfortable because touch reminded me of the two incidents–they were my first experiences and what my mind kept relating everything else to. It was hard to work through the internalized feelings that no one would ever touch me except as a joke.
In general, once college came I just kind of reverted into my shell for awhile except around people I already knew or who instigated and made the effort to stay in contact with me. I was just depressed and absolutely shell-shocked, not to mention by my freshman year of college I was morbidly obese from eating through the pain in high school, so that also drove away prospects for companionship. Eventually though, I did lose the weight and replace that coping mechanism for other stuff. I had one or two people admit to having crushes on me years later, but even if they’d spoken up at the time, I was too insecure to have even believed anyone could have sincere feelings for me. I had one person actually make a move on me unexpectedly once and it set off a panic attack so I had to leave the room, ruining the moment and hurting her feelings.
I had another woman who always hit me up to hang out and was very sweet and caring anytime we did. I should have been more open towards her, I should have initiated more hangouts and made the most of them when we did. Instead, I somewhat held her at arms length, mostly because she was so beautiful and cool, to the point where I sincerely couldn’t understand why she’d ever want to hang around someone like me. It’s almost like I did so as a defensive measure since I “knew” she’d find a reason to cast me out sooner or later and I was trying to cushion the inevitable blow. But she didn’t, and we remained friends until she graduated. When I look back, she’s one of the sweetest people it’s ever been my pleasure to cross paths with in life.
Paradoxically, there was someone else whom I’ll dub Luna, that managed to tap into something within me, to the point where I felt like we did have a sincere emotional connection–a real one–and I didn’t want to let go. I won’t go into detail for privacy considerations but the gist of it is that Luna made me feel appreciated, necessary and important for the first time in my life. I equated those positive emotions with Luna alone and felt like I had to have her around, to have her like me, in order to feel good about myself. I became limerent for her because in my mind, she alone seemed to fill the hole of self-loathing and despair I’d been carrying for years by this point. As a result, I clung to her in such revolting desperation that I drove Luna away and made a fool of myself in the process. This is the incident which broke me, as it seemed like I’d briefly gotten a taste of genuine admiration before my greatest fear–that any prospective partner would sense my inner worthlessness and ultimately flee–was realized. She didn’t do anything wrong, she just tried to be my friend and distanced herself from an uncomfortable situation. I fucked up, because I was desperate for the kind of validation which she provided in our early interactions.
It took longer than I care to admit to get over that event, and if I’m being brutally honest I don’t think I’ve ever quite been the same person again since. There was some good to come out of it in that I learned a valuable lesson healthy attraction and self-acceptance without relying on idealized constructs of others. Plus it’s when Jove stepped in to help me and we grew very close. Since then, I’ve enjoyed more stable, realistic relationships and currently am in a very fulfilling one with a great person. But I lost that passionate “head over heels” reaction to attraction as well as my previously held idealized view of love from before. (Though, maybe that’s a good thing, who knows.)
I came out about what happened to my hometown friends in several separate instances during my second year of college. The reactions ranged from empathy, to anger at my tormentors to cold dismissal (“it probably wasn’t that bad”). I told a few friends in later years that BC bullied me if/when the topic of bullying, trauma or shitty people ever came up. I usually didn’t get into specifics because I didn’t feel like reliving the incident in-depth and putting a damper on the night. Two or three people refused to believe me, claiming BC was “nice to [them]” as if that settled the matter. The fact that they didn’t believe me really stung. But what hurt even more was the idea that my friends were somehow deserving of BC’s basic human decency yet I somehow wasn’t. It reaffirmed the idea that I specifically was shittier and more unworthy of compassion than anyone else in the world. Like, there was something inherently “wrong” with me and everyone else was able to pick up on it instantly.
It took a long time but talking about it with supportive people (mostly Jove, in the ultimate irony of my life) helped me cope and realize I didn’t have to be so ashamed. It took even longer but I eventually started dating and having more meaningful romantic encounters my tail end of college. I still do get panic attacks, especially with public speaking; even if things are better now, they’re still not nearly as good as they would be without the trauma occurring in the first place. It’s really hard not to be bitter about missing out on my prime years, not just as a woman but also as a confident person in general. It often feels like I’ve led a wasted life, and I sometimes get locked into a depressed haze for days at a time thinking about that. I can see looking back how I really missed out on what could have been some great relationships or more intimate friendships if I hadn’t been so damn insecure–if I hadn’t internalized what my bullies said about me. But can you blame me when that’s all I heard every day for my formative years? How would anyone turn out in those circumstances?
For awhile in college I started to have the occasional dream where I’d relive the bullying/sexual assault and then wake up. This happened several times a year. I figure it makes sense that a significant and traumatic event in my life should still be in my brain so of course it’d come up now and then.
Where things started really getting crazy was these last few years, when I began experiencing about a dream a month where I would see BC again. Sometimes I’d be doing casual activities like work out at the gym, or go on a date with my girlfriend or something else but he’d eventually show up. Sometimes he’d mock me, sometimes he’d give a forced and insincere apology. Either way I would jump on him, kneel on his chest and begin pounding his head with my fists. I’d wake up in various stages of the act. These were bonafide nightmares that disturbed me when I woke up and left me feeling a combination of angry, ashamed and unsettled at what I’d done in the dream for the entire day. I hated having this darkness in me–I try very hard in life to be positive, warm and easy-going with other people. To know there was such a repressed anger and resentment in me was more than I could stand sometimes.
There was one such dream so distressing that it caused me to finally write all these memories down and share them two years ago. It was a tough decision (admitting so much of your past failings and inner vulnerability is a big deal) but doing so did genuinely stop the nightmares. I had always found writing to be therapeutic before but this instance in particular it really worked wonders. I decided to share a version of this essay to Reddit hoping for some kind of advice or kind words to lift my spirit. Instead only one single poster, an ex-bully himself, reached out to offer a meaningful response. Everyone else seemed to think the whole thing was a big joke and left obnoxious comments. I half-expect the same response here.
The sad/scary part is, I bet it would give BC a good deal of perverse satisfaction if he knew what an incredible impact his actions have had on me, to where he’s literally become an embodiment of evil and pain in my subconsciousness. Seriously people, if you’re harassing someone or you see it happening–fucking stop it. Take like fifteen minutes to at least try to comfort the victim afterwards. Follow up and make them feel wanted. Do SOMETHING. Because it is genuinely unbelievable the impact that continued, malicious treatment can have on a person for years (literally a decade at this point for me) going forward. I expect I’ll still be dealing with repercussions of what BC did to me for the rest of my life.
So I guess the question that leaves us is…what now? How do you make peace with an experience like that going forward? And for me, I think the answer is…you don’t. Not directly. I know that’s not the feel good Hollywood answer but it’s the truth.
I’ve thought about the idea of forgiveness, but there are a few problems with that. One, there’s just the simple fact that BC couldn’t apologize even if he wanted to. I blocked him online long ago–I don’t want someone that brought so much suffering to my life to ever be part of it or take pleasure in my misfortune again. Besides that, I really can’t imagine someone as sadistic as he was to me, being capable of asking for forgiveness. That might sound contradictory to my philosophy up to this point but it’s my honest perspective at this time. And even if he were genuinely sorry, that doesn’t really change anything for me. That doesn’t take back the untold hours of dread and self-loathing he inflicted on me. That doesn’t undo all the years of panic attacks, nightmares and internalized feelings of unworthiness he put me through. That doesn’t let me relive those wasted years of regression when I should have been confidently branching out and comfortable meeting new people.
What’s BC going to do, take five seconds to say some cheap words, walk away feeling good about himself and forget he ever knew me? Buy me a beer or wine and pretend that cheap, one-off, impersonal gesture makes it okay? Accepting a phony “apology” like that would only make me feel more used and pathetic. No. I hate this idea of “you need to forgive everybody”/“forgiveness isn’t for them, it’s for you” nonsense. I think that does apply to the vast majority of things, especially one-time actions that were hurtful but could be explained as mistakes, moments of weakness or situations that can be rectified. However, I don’t think long-term, deliberate maliciousness which leaves a person severely traumatized can be waved away in the same manner. Maybe some victims might disagree with me and gladly forgive their transgressors in those circumstances, and that’s fantastic if it works for them. But I don’t think I could, at least not for the foreseeable future. For me personally, to see his face again in itself would invoke feelings of anger and anxiety.
If BC ever wants to make up for what he did, I’d like to see him do something that actually helps remedy the problem he was a part of. I’d like to see something that requires a commitment of time and care, not just empty words or thoughtless gifts. I’d like to see him, and all ex-bullies* devote time to speaking in schools against bullying. I’d like to see him volunteer helping victims of bullying and/or sexual assault. It’s too late to make what was done to me okay, but if he was willing to prevent others from going through what I did or help those who have suffered through it heal faster, BC would earn my acceptance at least.
*This is even assuming he is an ex-bully; he might still be bullying people at work, at home or elsewhere to this day for all I know. I certainly hope that’s not the case, but I don’t think the level of sadism which he personified just goes away.
Anyway, that’s about all I have to say on the subject. I guess this is my #MeToo story, just a year or two late.
Cassandra, it takes a lot of courage to tell such a powerful and personal story. Self evaluation is always difficult. I am flattered that you trusted me enough to share these experiences with me in the past. I hope I was able to show the sympathy and understanding you deserve. You are the kindest sweetest person I know, and I am so very proud and fortunate to have you as my best friend.