2008 was an eventful year for me: I turned thirteen, got my first period, talked to my crush without blushing (too hard), and discovered a truth.
I had my first panic attack on a Friday evening. I don’t know how long it was until I remembered where I was: alone in the living room and sweating. My arms were hugging my knees and my head was in between my legs. I blinked rapidly, separating my wet lashes from each other as I tried to focus my vision. I heard the end credits of Law and Order: SVU before I saw the words rolling on the TV screen.
I understood the victims of this fictional crime show because I was a real victim myself.
I didn’t know what to do with such news. Who could I trust? The thought of telling my parents left me shaking, like someone had dumped a bucket of ice water over my head. I remembered watching the faces of grandparents, parents, siblings, spouses, and friends on my favorite crime show, the way they morphed into anguished expressions and succumbed to grief at the news of their loved one’s truth. I remembered seeing the way that kind of truth can tear people apart, families apart.
I couldn’t tell them. I couldn’t tell anyone. I didn’t know if I could.
But I wasn’t doing myself any favors by keeping it a secret. It was eating me from the inside out, haunting my dreams and lurking in the shadows. That was when I started to drink coffee, to hide my fatigue, and wear makeup, to hide the dark circles under my eyes. I thought I was handling it so well until my fit of laughter at a joke turned into crying in the middle of a seventh grade Algebra study group. I tried to play it off as exhaustion, but I just couldn’t stop crying. They knew I was lying when I panicked at their offer to call my mom. So I told them.
Statistics say that one out of five girls were victims of childhood sexual abuse, but I think they’re wrong. Wrapped in the arms of four girls, only one out of the five of us had escaped childhood unscathed. They cried with me in solidarity.
Lesson 1: Truths and secrets, although feel synonymous, are not synonyms.
I only shared my truth with friends, and every time I was warmly surprised by the acceptance I received. And what surprised me even more were the number of people who shared their own similar truths with me. I felt lighter, knowing that I wasn’t alone, and empowered to the point of being careless.
“I think you’re lying. You’re just making this up to get attention.” I looked away from her, someone I had thought was my friend. My cheeks were heating up, stinging as if she had slapped me.
The idea of someone not believing me never crossed my mind until then. I didn’t think I was lying, but I stopped telling people because I wasn’t sure. This doubt festered along the inner lining of my skin and I didn’t trust myself for a while. Was she right? Did I make it up? Was it just a bad dream that just felt too real?
Instead, I focused my energy onto other things like graduating from high school and getting the fuck out of dodge.
College will be better, I remember repeating to myself. I wish I could say that that was the last time someone reacted that way, making me feel so small.
Lesson 2: Other people’s reaction are never a reflection of you, but a reflection of them.
I moved across the country in 2013, and for the first time I felt like I could breathe.
My first college friend was a girl that lived down the hall and shared a Monday-Wednesday-Friday morning class with me. We ate lunch together after class three times a week and it was during those times that our friendship began. She seemed so open and carefree, quick to laugh and be silly. I thought I had found a best friend when she let me be silly with her, too.
“What?” My step faltered. I was startled, tightening my grip on my bags of groceries as I tried to steady myself. I looked over to my right to find I already had her full attention.
“You have to call them right now. You have to tell your parents and the police—”
“No—what—I can’t,” I choked out, my eyes wide. Her intent stare scared me, and her insistence was suffocating. I blinked rapidly and could feel my chest tightening.
“You have to call them and the police, like right now—” She hovered over me and I felt like I was going to fall. It was getting harder and harder to breathe. It was almost like she was ignoring me, continuing her speech.
“I just can’t,” I said, running away and leaving her behind. By the time she had caught up with me, I'd shut down. I ignored her and her attempts of trying to “save me” until I reached my room.
Lesson 3: Healing can only happen when you are ready, and on your own terms.
On a Wednesday in April of 2017, I made my thesis advisor teary-eyed. He was the Senior Writer in Residence, and a successful writer and poet with a career comprised of a long list of accomplishments that while admirable was not why I chose him to be my mentor. An elderly man with snow-white hair, a kind smile, and a sharp wit that I had grown fond of over the last two courses I had with him, I always looked forward to our bi-weekly one-on-one meetings to discuss the progress of my thesis How Do You Love.
I was an English major—Writing, Literature, and Publishing to be exact—with a concentration in creative nonfiction. How Do You Love was a collection of personal essays that began as one thing but grew into something else entirely over the past three months.
I was uncharacteristically nervous when I walked into his office for our second to last meeting. I had given him a draft of the concluding piece of my thesis the last time I saw him and I didn’t know what the purpose of my thesis was until then—5,000 words later. The writing process left me shaking, forced me to put into words things that I never thought I ever could and I was afraid of what it meant.
I fidgeted in my seat as I waited on the other side of his mahogany desk for him to say something.
“Thank you for sharing that. You’re so brave,” he began with this far away look. “And so young. I couldn’t talk about what happened to me until I was in my forties.”
If I was a better student I would have done better research on my professors, and if I had, I would have known that his first memoir Half the House was about childhood sexual abuse as well. But I didn’t know that until then, when I felt the same warm feelings of understanding and acceptance that I felt the first time I told my truth nine years ago. It was this feeling of connectedness between two people that made me want to be a writer.
Lesson 4: Art is the most cathartic form of expression, and the most powerful way to connect with others. Art can heal.
The #MeToo movement blew up across social media on a Monday in October 2017.
I was on my way out of a therapy session the following Tuesday evening, checking my phone for the first time in an hour. My eyebrows furrowed as I read through missed text messages from a friend:
“I'm really upset by this whole "me too" thing on Facebook. I love what it represents and that people are getting support by sharing their stories, by every time I go on it just reminds me about what happened to me and it's not something I wanna talk about. And then I feel guilty because I'm not contributing, but I don't want everyone knowing what I've been through or even hinting at it, ya know? I feel weird that I'm more comfortable hiding it than using it to promote change, but I don't feel like I can publicly announce it on social media. And I don't want to see reminders all the time. It's overwhelming and I understand that that's the point—so men will know how we feel and what a problem it is. But to me it just feels like it's shoving the memories in my face."
Her reaction to what was going on surprised me and gave me a new perspective—or an old one, reminding me of where I once was and how long it took me to get to where I was now. What it took for me to be where I was now.
“Hey, I get it. And I'm sorry that I've upset you, because I also posted it as a status, and we truly don't mean any harm. To a certain degree I acknowledge it's selfish and insensitive, but I also think it it's a double edged sword that while it hurts people (like yourself) it's also a way for other people to heal. And I don't blame you for feeling uncomfortable. It doesn't make you weak or less of a victim. It doesn't mean you're letting your abuser off the hook. It just means you're healing at your own time. You're okay, I still love you, and I'm always here if you need to vent or talk about anything."
Lesson 5: This isn’t just about me.
It’s been ten years since I spoke my truth for the first time, and in those ten years I’ve grown so much and have had the opportunity to help others grow.
This project is driven by all the lessons I’ve learned and an effort to reconcile two big ideas: one’s journey towards reclaiming their own autonomy while acknowledging being a part of something greater.
AutonomoUs is about celebrating the beautiful resilience of humanity. AutonomoUs is dedicated to exploring, expressing, and sharing what it means to be human.