One morning I woke up, and my teeth were not clenched anymore. My face wasn’t twisted by nightmares. I had grieved for more than a year, and I felt cleansed.
I could shelve books beside men in the stacks, and I no longer wanted to punch them. I no longer imagined a knife in my hand, blood dribbling out of wounds I inflicted. Instead, I began to think quite ordinary thoughts. It took no effort at all. One day I stood beside a man in a down jacket and wondered who he loved and if he had children and whether he understood what so many of the women around him have been through.
* * *
Without the rage and the grief, I hardly knew myself. My entire life I had clasped anger over my heart like cold steel, so I did not have to feel the fear of my father, of Top, of the men who had passed through my life.
Stripped of that, what was left?
Who was I?
* * *
And so I went back to school.
I started with a life planning class. My old teenage yearning to be a teacher had never died. It had just been pressed into the earth and covered over with soil, like a seed. It was time to let it sprout.
I decided to teach English as a Second Language (ESL). At age 19, before my life completely fell apart, I had taught a community ESL class and loved it. I still wanted to support students with that kind of determination and motivation, and I was good at it. But most masters programs required a year of foreign language credits.
So I began a Russian class at City University. Twice a week in the evenings, seven students met for two and a half hours. It was a small group of men and women, ranging in age from 19 to 65, and I had not been so happy since my high school French class. I climbed on desks and cracked jokes and generally annoyed my extremely tolerant teacher.
I felt 17 again.
The way 17 should have felt the first time around.
Everything seemed possible.
* * *
Without the rage and the sorrow, the flashbacks and nightmares, I was so much lighter. Life had a different flavor, of rain-darkened earth instead of heat-forged iron. Loamy as a potato, sweet as fresh mown grass. I could plant anything in that soil now, my fingers dusted with dirt, and it would grow.
So I decided to try dating.
* * *
The biggest obstacle for me was trust. On the dating scene, gender norms require women to blindly trust men they do not know.
For the trauma survivor, it is not possible. A crucial part of the healing process is learning to distinguish between who is trustworthy and who is not—and only awarding trust to those who are worthy.
A dating site profile and a few messages is no way to tell if a person is safe enough to meet.
My control over my body had been taken from me nine times, and nine times men I cared about had violated my trust.
Now, I was supposed to type up a profile, post it publicly, allow myself to be looked at online 24 hours a day, appear as alluring and attractive as possible, and wait.
The waiting was the worst of all because it was powerless. I had worked so hard to have agency over my own life.
Now, once again, I wasn’t supposed to have any.
In online dating, it is uncouth for a woman to send the first message to a man. Many men, I have been told, read it as desperate. Or pathetic.
A woman who knows what she wants and asks for it is, apparently, a big turnoff. A lot of men are so uncomfortable with female assertiveness and consent, so steeped in rape culture, that anything but passivity is undesirable.
The setup of the entire game frightened me. Each time I did receive a message, I felt like a man was trying to assert dominance, trying to make choices for me that were rightfully mine. Dating sites left me feeling that men required control before even considering a relationship with me.
Which would never feel safe to me.
So I sought out and messaged men first.
Not one man I messaged ever responded.
* * *
So I gave up on dating. I had asked out a couple men I already knew. I had even gone on something like a date, but the man talked of only himself the entire time.
I had been through enough. My past has not equipped me to play the games that women are expected to play. Most days I am not comfortable in extremely feminine clothing. I am frustrated when men try to assert control or impress others. I don’t like being looked at. I say exactly what I mean. I find being chased or pursued in any form extremely threatening. I am not competitive and am annoyed by people who are. And I give a very wide berth to anyone similar to the men who assaulted me—narcissistic, self-righteous, overconfident in their worldview, and indifferent to others’ experiences and suffering.
I decided I would just make friends with men, when good ones came along, and I would continue healing that way.
* * *
And that is how I met Josh.
A friend from my writing group began tagging us both in online posts about anti-racism, and I noticed he always had intelligent, thoughtful things to say that somehow steered clear of preaching. He was humble. But he also wasn’t afraid to say what he thought, and what he thought was feminist and anti-racist.
I knew better than to think that what someone says is aligned with what they do. My friend knew him through their theater work together. So I friended him online. He was single. He loved film. He posted reviews of everything from blockbusters to art house, and he wasn’t snobby about it. Again, that humility. His primary focus in his reviews was two-pronged: How does this depict people of color? And how does this portray women?
I shot him a message, and he responded.
It blew my mind.
He didn’t feel that he needed to be the one who decided when and how and where we interacted. I got to set boundaries for my own well-being from the start, and he accepted them.
We chatted back and forth about art and feminism and anti-racism for a month. We shared glimpses into our pasts. His father was a Christian preacher who had been comfortable with his mother heading the household much of the time. His mother was strong and willful and spoke her mind.
I suggested we meet. He said yes.
He was comfortable with me initiating. Comfortable with me asking. Comfortable with answering, then asking back. He was comfortable with my comfort.
I had not known it was possible.
“I’d like to hang out again,” I said on our first date. He said yes. Again.
“How about next week?” He asked on our second date.
“May I hug you?” I asked on our third date.
It was breathtaking, the kind of clarity he could withstand. The things I could say to him, and that he received. When eventually he tried to kiss me, I nuzzled against his chest and listened to his heart. I felt safe with him, but not in such a public space.
“Not here,” I said. “My place.” I stretched out my hand. “Would you like to?”
And he said yes.
* * *
My marriage with Josh is the closing chapter of my healing process. The final pages, written in the safety and security of mutual respect and openness and tenderness with each other’s feelings. With him, I can assert what I want and need and feel without penalty.
I marvel at it, and at him.
And he entrusts me with his own vulnerability.
I have never known trust like this.
* * *
I remember the six-year-old girl who used to wander the neighborhood. When her mother wasn’t looking, she scrambled up the fence and out into other yards, other lives. Ria gave me oatmeal raisin cookies. The Berghams invited me to play with their children. Further down the street, my best friend, Nathan, and I would play trucks in his backyard and have peanut butter sandwiches for lunch.
I always believed there was something beyond the violence and fear. And now, my life is full of moments that are remarkable for their freedom. I am not afraid anymore.
And in place of terror, there is joy.
Life with Josh holds so many feelings I never knew. It is like discovering the spectrum when before, I thought there was only light.
All because that little girl pushed aside the curtain, believing there had to be something else. Believing that trauma and abuse and misogyny were nothing more than a cage. She could always fly out. She knew, the way children always do, that life was only waiting for her to be ready.
And then she was.
She opened the door and stepped out into the sun.
And she flew.