I Know Why Victims Don’t Report

I’m in physical therapy twice a week for lingering issues from having shingles.

Twice a week, I lay down on a black table with an oval shape cut out of it for my face to rest in. I deep breathe as tears burn my eyes while the physical therapist dry needles my shoulder blade trying to wake up dead muscles and nerves.

When I took ballet, I was taught early on about finding a spot across the room to focus intently on while learning to pirouette. You focus on that spot and as your body twirls around, you don’t turn your head until the very last second, and then you refocus immediately on that same spot. I could keep spinning indefinitely, as long as I didn’t lose sight of that spot.

So when I lay down on the table at physical therapy, I find one spot on the floor and focus with all my might. But that’s not the only reason I have to deep breathe, focus on one spot, and meditate while I lay face down and dig my fingernails into the palms of my hands.

The carpet on the floor that I stare at twice a week has the same exact pattern and texture as the couch in my grandparent’s Florida room.

The same couch I focused on while my grandfather would pin me down and rape me on the ground in between the exercise bike and the couch while the television blared next to us.

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I just read a thread on Twitter where a female creative was talking about a bad experience she had with men in a creative space. I am being intentionally vague here, for her safety. In this space, she stood up to these men who argued what consent is. These men argued that according to rules of consent, they raped women.

As I started reading the replies, people called her out for not naming names. And for not naming who had assaulted her. 

Okay, so where to start with this?

One, I talk about my abuse and my assault. I’m not everyone, nor am I every victim. I, and I alone, made that choice. Talking about my abuse and assault gives me control of a situation I had no control in. When I don’t talk about it, shame takes over and I refuse to feel shame for the monstrous actions of someone else.

Here’s the thing — I named who hurt me and guess what? Nothing happened. Not a damn thing. There’s no such thing as a perfect victim. I was a blonde hair, innocent little girl and still people didn’t believe me.

My bladder does not work the way a normal human’s bladder should work, I have to buy industrial KY jelly for the catheters I use daily and I have to pay for a prescription for bladder medicine monthly because of what that man did to me.

And yet, people still do not believe me.

There were witnesses. My grandmother got mad at my grandfather one time because he ejaculated in my hair and didn’t realize it. She was mad because she didn’t want to clean it out of my hair because she didn’t have time to do that and finish making Baked Alaskan for dessert.

And yet, people still do not believe me.

I write about my experiences, even though I know that every single time I do, I will receive hate mail. I get rape threats and hate mail blaming me for every victim that came after me. I get hate mail for not handling my abuse and assault ‘correctly’. As if there is a place on this planet where a trauma like that can be handled ‘correctly’ by a victim. Did I survive? Yes. Then I handled it correctly. Did you survive? Yes? Then you handled it correctly. Hard stop.

Stop putting the responsibility on the victim. If a victim chooses to name their assailant, then that needs to be their choice, not yours.

Let me repeat that for you: If a victim chooses to name their assailant, then that needs to be their choice, not yours.

If you take that away from a victim, you are taking one more thing about what happened out of their control.

Stop asking why they didn’t say anything. There are five million examples and counting of why victims don’t disclose. Even now, as a woman in my forties, members of my extended family have tried to taunt me about the abuse. The abuse they could have, but chose not to stop. 

Don’t bully a survivor into telling the world who their abuser/rapist was. It’s not on the survivor to defend herself and make sure she is safe. Maybe start with believing them. I know why people don’t report — it’s because they don’t think they will be believed.

After the #metoo movement started, I had written an essay for a website that has around 7 million followers. I normally don’t read the comments on pieces I’ve written, as history has taught me that I can’t continue to write what I need to write if I read the nastiness. My husband and I had gone to dinner in New Orleans with another couple on the day it was published. I made the mistake on the hour drive home to open up my email. I was grateful for the darkness outside, so no one else could see the tears stream down my face for the rest of the trip home.

I decided shortly after to focus on writing my book and not on freelancing for the year. I need the break from writing about the worst experiences of my life and the emotional labor that would follow. I had been talking about my experiences for almost twenty years through writing, working, and giving speeches. It felt like since people were willing and starting to share their experiences, it was time for their voices to be heard.

Then, people that I know started chastising me for not speaking up more about it. So many of them were disappointed, they said, and were outraged and wanted for the masses to be vocal about the problem.

I was tired. Bone tired. Some of these people are the same ones who would be uncomfortable and change the subject when they asked what I was working on, or wouldn’t show up to an advocacy event I invited them to, or would tell me I needed to ‘get over it’. 

Where were these people for the last twenty years? Now it’s a five alarm fire for them and I’ve been telling them about the smoke for years. 

All of these conversations would end with people telling me how I should tell my story. How I should do this or that. I am so sick and tired of people telling survivors how to tell their stories. Telling my story thousands of times over the years is thousands of hours of emotional labor and it is exhausting because I have to tell the story on the defense. People want to hear the story in a way they can control through victim blaming questions and statements, as if to further separate the possibility of them being in same the situation by placing blame on something I did or didn’t do. People want to control my story in order to make themselves comfortable.

I am not here to be controlled.

My story, my terms.

I’ve been telling my story for over twenty years. When I want, how I want. I do it because there are little girls out there, like I was, who will tell someone and they will not be believed. I want those little girls to know that there are people like me, paving the way for them to tell their story if they so choose.

And if those little girls grow up and choose to tell their story, it won’t be because I pushed them to. It will be their choice. And I will believe them.

The Shape Shifting Ghost of Trauma

Every year before my birthday, I try to go to bed early, because my anxiety gnaws on me until I can’t take feeling like a caged animal anymore and I just want to rip the bandaid off of the next morning.

Last night, however, I decided to stay up and face the day at midnight. I ran the laundry, tried unsuccessfully to read and generally tried to distract myself until the clock struck midnight.

I sat on my couch and meditated for ten minutes before crawling into bed. Eric groggily rolled over and kissed my forehead as he said, ‘Happy birthday.’ The tears I didn’t know would come, silently stream down my face as I bury my body into his.

They’re tears of exhaustion and sadness and grief. Inexplicable grief. The exhaustion of a constantly shapeshifting ghost of trauma and its hall of mirrors of which I can never seem to escape. The stifling feelings seep in like a fog, subtly at first, where it’s hard to notice. And then all at once, the fog is so thick I can’t see.

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Today marks 25 years since I was raped. It is also my 42nd birthday.

This year, as it has been for most of you, has been one of the most difficult I’ve ever experienced. I started the year with a terrible case of the shingles, for which I am still in physical therapy with no end in sight. I am currently recovering from a kidney stone. I have struggled with kidney and bladder issues for years because of scar tissue from the sexual abuse I endured from childhood.

My birthday has always been my personal barometer. The only way I know how to live with the baggage that comes with extreme trauma is to be open and vulnerable about what I experienced. There are no support groups for my level of trauma, no peers to talk to about it, only a therapist and a trauma specialist. Because of this, I have to talk about it because if I don’t, I feel the shame creep up my face until it’s on fire and I refuse to feel shame for someone else’s actions.

Every year, in the season of my birthday, I make myself busy, busy with something I feel is meaningful. I’ve never stopped going to therapy, but therapy for me has changed over the years. Initially, it was for acute trauma and trying to manage my anorexia enough to keep me out of the hospital. Then it morphed into therapy on trust and healthy relationships. I knew I would never have a healthy marriage and children if I didn’t. Then again it changed, into how to parent without being driven by fear of their safety. Now I go on an as needed basis, except for the three months before my birthday. Sometimes it’s once a week, sometimes monthly.

This year, because I am recovering from shingles and the pandemic, I don’t have a distraction. I don’t have a project. I’m just…here.

The root of my struggle with anorexia was and continues to be control. I started starving myself when I was seven, searching for control in a situation of abuse. I’ve been in recovery for twenty years; I wake up every day and actively make a choice to fuel my body and not starve myself. Twice in the last five years, I’ve almost relapsed. Both times, my team of providers helps me fall back onto what I call my ‘default plan’ — a plan in place so ingrained in the very fabric of my being, it’s a comfort to lean into it.

This summer, when the fog crept in earlier than normal, my therapist looked and me and ask, ‘Have you ever noticed that the only thing we’ve discussed over the years are things out of your control?’

I laughed, because until that point, I’m not sure I recognized that. I simply continued therapy because I wanted to be the healthiest person I could be. But that simple statement brought an epiphany — there are things I have control over (and don’t condescendingly say how to react and handle the situation because I’ve been gracefully ‘handling’ it for years). I was infuriated the shingles were bad enough to go to physical therapy twice a week. The answer the universe was trying to show me is to value my sleep. When I got the kidney stone, I was dehydrated. The lesson the universe was trying to tell me is to take care of myself before others because I can’t pour from an empty cup. In the simplest terms — I need hydration and sleep.

It sounds so simple, but I can feel a transformational shift. I don’t know that I’ll ever celebrate my birthday like a ‘normal’ human, or that it will get easier. My trauma is the petulant child in the room, demanding my attention while I try to ignore it. But this year, instead of trying to please a petulant child while holding my grief at a distance as my inner peace struggles to regain footing, my trauma, grief, and peace are sitting together, cohabitating with each other. They have settled into the core of me and I am able to breathe.

Laundry, Bleach and a Pandemic

I’m not even sure where to start. I’ve taken off almost the entirety of the last year to finish a manuscript and haven’t written on my blog since last May. But I felt the need to sort through my thoughts, and I’ve had a lot of friends reach out and ask how things are in the midst of the pandemic. So, I’ll probably start parking a lot of my thoughts here, and I’m going to start with the basics.

My husband, a physician double board certified in Hospital Medicine and Medical Informatics, wears dress clothes to work on days he doesn’t see patients. Two weeks ago, he switched to wearing scrubs instead of dress clothes for these days. 

He would come home from work, take his shoes off at the garage door, strip off his scrubs and put them into the washing machine (which is right by the garage door). He then would get in the shower and scrub head to toe with antibacterial soap. I would wash his scrubs with bleach on the sanitary cycle and dry them on the antibacterial cycle, a total of 5 hours a day. During this initial time, he was not seeing patients.

Medical Informatics is basically medical data. This man runs on black and white facts. He is unflappable. I had a high risk delivery with our first son and was close to stroking out and dying in front of him in the OR and he didn’t blink. The ongoing joke is that I was ‘a little bit sick’.

At the beginning of last week, we started having logistical conversations about COVID-19 and what would happen when he started seeing patients (his normal workload). We made a plan and the middle of last week, I went to Target.

I picked up a 90 day supply of my medications and the ones our youngest son takes (shoutout to the CVS pharmacy in Target because they are amazing and some of my most favorite people). Why a 90 day supply you might wonder? If my husband is exposed at work and quarantined, our family will quarantine and forgo essential trips and our insurance does not allow for prescription delivery. 

I bought a plastic container to hold his shoes when he gets out of his car. I bought an inexpensive set of sheets for the guest room that can be repeatedly bleached and sanitized. And I bought this $8 laundry basket that can be thrown out when this is over.

On Thursday of last week, I removed everything from the guest bathroom that can’t be sprayed with the Clorox Healthcare spray. 

On Friday afternoon, my husband showered and put on his scrubs in the master bathroom. He and I then listened to our youngest get choked up over his fears that he was going to go to work, get sick and die. My husband then hugged me for the last time indefinitely, as he was now going on service and would be treating patients.

After he left for work, I put the new sheets on the guest bed. I moved all of his toiletries into the guest bathroom. I pulled his scrubs, undershirts, underwear and socks out of his closet and moved them into the guest room.

The routine we set in place last week is even more stringent. And even more time consuming. I laughed yesterday that I am in extreme exposure therapy for my OCD. 

For the first time in 17 years, my husband and I are sleeping in separate beds. We are not physically touching. We looked at the calendar last night. Based on his schedule, the first time he will be able to hug me or touch me will be April 27. At the earliest.

I am regularly talking to other doctors and wives across the country. They are scared, angry, and preparing for the train wreck they can see that others are refusing to acknowledge.

There are not enough masks, gloves or PPE’s (full gown protection) for the health care staff because people are hoarding and stealing them. There are not enough ventilators for the upcoming needs. There is a video making its round in healthcare circles on how to add tubes to a ventilator to accommodate additional patients in an emergency. Doctors in Italy are having to make decisions on who will live and who will die because there is not enough ventilators. 

Health care workers here are worrying about this and yet I am watching people selfishly whine about not being able to go to parades and block parties. People complaining that they feel fine. People arrogantly believing that they know more than scientists, doctors and nurses about what is coming. 

The arrogance is what is the most terrifying out of everything to me. Eric and I have traveled a lot, and when we’ve been in Europe, we’ve gotten a lot of comments like, ‘Americans are usually so much more arrogant than other visitors.’ They meant it as a compliment, that they didn’t think we were arrogant, but those comments have always stuck with me.

In this case, arrogance is going to kill people we love. It is going to kill doctors, nurses, the custodial and food staff at the hospitals. 

I am angry. Angry that people are choosing to blatantly ignore what needs to be done for the collective greater good of saving millions of lives. I am worried about small businesses and people’s financial situation and how at risk millions of Americans are at losing everything. 

But most of all, I am angry that people believe that social distancing is more of a sacrifice than that of my husband’s life and those of his colleagues. 

Please, stay home. Please, practice social distancing. Please believe the scientists, doctors, epidemiologists, mathematicians and every other person who have literally been studying their entire lives for this moment in time. 

Please.