I’m not a pro at this. I’m not here to give advice. I’m just saying that sometimes I look at people who’ve had it easier than I did for their first 30 years on this planet—people who have the education, the financial stability, the family—and who think they have all that because they’re awesome.
Not because they got lucky.
And I kind of hate them.
Only sometimes. And it’s a hate that’s more frustration and resentment. But still. I don’t like that about myself.
It’s not their fault they’re lucky and don’t even know it. Looked at from a certain angle, it’s kind of beautiful. It’s the same sort of people who can’t imagine that my parents could love me and abuse me at the same time, and that love in such a situation is never enough. Or that my soft-spoken ex-husband could threaten, stalk, and ultimately rape me. The people who still need to believe that one day my abusers will see the light and we’ll all reconcile and we can sing “Kumbaya” around a campfire, and everything will be great. It’s kind of hopeful that there are actually people out there who have never been abused, who haven’t crossed paths with destructive narcissists, who have never been raped or physically brutalized by other human beings—and so honestly cannot imagine that people like my abusers actually exist.
But I’m not always able to look at such people through that lens. Sometimes I look at lucky people, and I just feel angry. They didn’t survive 30 years of abuse and assault. Their parents didn’t torment, abuse, and assault them until they fled into the arms of another abuser. They didn’t turn to a college mentor who then preyed on them. They didn’t invest in too many friendships with people who at best mocked them and at worst assaulted them, all because they didn’t know anything better was possible. And they didn’t survive decades of high levels of cortisol and other stress hormones resulting from abuse and assault. And they aren’t coping now with chronic physical illnesses and the PTSD that so often follow adverse experiences in our formative years.
They didn’t go through all that.
And the world celebrates their achievements because what? They were safe enough and secure enough to be able to lead a perfectly normal life?
You see how easy it is to become bitter after trauma and chronic illness reshape your life. This isn’t who I want to be.
* * *
Recently, I had the chance to listen to a young man of color talk about his path through college and into a career. His story was inspiring and hopeful, and he certainly faced his share of obstacles, obstacles that I as a white woman will never confront. But I had a hard time listening through the buzz of my own thoughts, my mind too busy pointing out the absences—his freedom from the trauma of domestic abuse, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. And in those absences, the space it gave him to move forward. Opportunity cost is real.
I listened to him list off the mentors and clubs and community support he found. And I could only think of how, at age 18, in my first quarter of college, I was asked to leave my Mormon ward (the congregation I’d grown up in) so that I wouldn’t be a “temptation to the married men.” To this day, I don’t know what that means.
On Sundays, I attended my classes, spoke to my Sunday school teachers, and sat dutifully in my family pew. The men at church never saw me outside those three hours of worship and scripture study. I had spent the previous year serving as president of the Young Women’s organization in my ward, and my confidence had blossomed under the guidance of a dozen women in my religious community. I had given speeches on stages at regional events. I had planned and hosted multiple events, selected girls to fill other positions, and mentored my peers. And suddenly, the women who had mentored me in that role wouldn’t so much as speak to me. I was shunned. I was shown the door and pushed out, and I never heard from anyone in that ward again. It tanked my confidence.
While for this young man, each mentor of his remained someone he grabbed lunch with or could call in a pinch. He spoke fondly of the advice they gave, the encouragement they offered. Each achievement of his added to a burgeoning career. He was not only able to retain what he had built, but add to it.
For me in my late teens and early twenties, each major achievement got knocked down a few months later by some fresh instance of abuse, and I had to rebuild my confidence and opportunities from scratch while fighting to distance myself from the person who had abused me. It was exhausting.
As a college sophomore, I won a scholarship to a writing conference and attended with a growing sense of possibility—only to be sexually assaulted a few months later by a man who had hired me as private tutor. Shame overtook the new sense of confidence I had begun to recover after my rejection from the Mormon Church.
The summer of that year, I entered a poetry contest and was awarded a publishing contract. My father sexually assaulted me within the month, and I moved out, dropped out of college, and drained my hard-won savings while working as a busgirl at a restaurant. When I did eventually return to college on my father’s dime, I was too ashamed to do anything other than keep my head down. From a student who had once sat in the front row and participated in every discussion, I retreated to the back of the classroom and spoke as little as possible. When professors offered me opportunities I once would have jumped at—working on graduate-level research, attending conferences—I politely turned them down.
After graduation, once I moved out of my father’s house, I began to rebuild once again. I applied for a promotion at work and began studying for the GRE and the LSAT. And then an ex stalked me for months and a long-time mentor disclosed that he wanted sex from me. My plans fell apart when I became afraid to leave my apartment or answer the phone.
The young man who shared his story had his own hurts, which cut deeply. But at 23, he has a degree and a career and a vast network of professional and personal connections that were all rooting for and supporting him. There was no tit-for-tat expectation that eventually, at some point, he would give them sex. His confidence had grown, without physical attacks from those closest to him when he entered the public arena and succeeded there, until he really believed he could do anything.
My point is not that I’ve suffered. We all suffer plenty. My point is that men systematically and routinely undermined my education and career during my most formative years. And this changed the trajectory of my life.
* * *
The truth, I have to admit, is very simple. My anger is just another facet of my sadness.
I am still grieving the chances I didn’t have. The safety I didn’t know. The family who loved me, but not enough to put my well-being ahead of their own selfish, destructive impulses. The mentors who believed in me, but not when our community turned on me or when it became clear that I harbored no attraction to them. The opportunities that trauma had left me too scared to take.
“It’s like you’re an orphan,” one of my healthcare providers said to me last year when I admitted I have no idea about the state of my parents’ or my brother’s health. And I wanted to be angry at her, but only because it stung so much.
It stung because it was true.
* * *
And so, if I have any hope of letting go of my rage over the many chances I never got, and the ways that other people get to blithely go about their lives never knowing their luck, I have to grieve. I have to go on mourning. Maybe this is where I still am in my healing process. Maybe it’s a stage I have to revisit now and again. I don’t know.
But as I grow older, I better understand just what it costs for children, adolescents, and twentysomethings to be abused, harassed, and assaulted by those they turn to for guidance, support, and connection.
My story is not an epic tragedy. But the fact that my experience is so common, that around 50% of children suffer abuse—that is a tragedy. And while there’s not a damn thing I can do about my own past but grieve it, my story shouldn’t have to be anybody else’s.
No one should have to wrestle with resenting people born into happy, loving families and communities. The happy, lucky people who annoy me sometimes? That’s what we all should have a fair shot at.