There is a locked box that I keep in the back of my head. It’s full of all the things he ever said or did to me. I keep it there, pushed in the back, because it’s not the kind of thing that you can just throw away. Once you get a box like that, all you can do is keep it. It’s yours. For good or ill, that’s just the way it is.
I keep it locked, but I don’t have any of the keys to it. Sometimes others seem to find them. They say something or do something and all the sudden it’s there, a small brass bit of metal turning in a rusted lock. Every time it happens I fall to pieces. Every time, I spend days or weeks fighting off the demons that spring free. I expend every ounce of my energy to beat back the shadows, throwing all my weight into shutting that lid again. I swear anew, every single time, that next time it won’t take me as long. Next time it won’t hurt so much.
Next time it will be easier because I’ll be stronger.
That’s a nice narrative, right? The idea that you get stronger with each thing that tries to knock you down. It’s not wrong, either. I am stronger. There are things that I do now that would have seemed incomprehensible to my younger self. Still, once that box opens, it’s always the same story. Pain, doubt, fear. A loneliness that chokes me and a surety that even were it to be relieved, I would find no air to save me.
Again and again I close that box, and once it’s closed it’s locked. Latched so that I can’t get at what’s within, though I’ve never much complained. Why would I want to? That’s what the box is for. To keep it all away from me. I close it and I shore up my defenses, trying to make it so that even if someone finds another key, they’ll never get near the box. It’s a plan that hasn’t worked yet, but still I keep trying.
But this time has been different. On a lot of levels, this time has been different than any of the other cycles before. It’s been worse, it’s been better, and it’s made me think about things that I normally wouldn’t have.
I’m speaking in a lot of abstract metaphors here, but they illustrate the way I feel about a complicated issue with an efficiency that I can appreciate.
I think the metaphors only do me so many favors, though, and they probably do you absolutely none, and so I should try to do away with them. They, like many other things I’ve used over the years, are nothing more than a safety net. A way to keep me from typing out the truth, because the truth is heavy, and it hurts, and it fills me with a fear that is difficult to express.
Perhaps this time I should speak it. Perhaps this time I should leave that box open and start getting to know these demons that come from within.
There are many terrible things that happened to me in my life. Truly, it would take a novel to recount them all, and I’ll spare you that trudge. However, there is one stretch of time that I can point to without hesitation as having been horrific. It’s the one I point to whenever anyone asks what it is that fucked me up, because it was, to me, the worst of it. It was four years of my life, which seems like it should be insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but it is those years that I keep stuffed in that locked box.
When I was seventeen and reeling from the negative effects of a sexual assault, I stumbled my way into a relationship with a boy twice my size and one year younger. I, in the pain and lack of confidence I had won from previous traumas, had chosen him because I felt he was the least likely to reject me. That it would be safe to pursue him because he would not turn me down.
I was not wrong on that count.
It took six months before the first rape occurred. It was not obvious, it was not a banner waved above my head in letters I could understand. It was two hours of coercion followed by a violent encounter, which I was assured was just “rough sex”. After, I was kissed on the forehead and told how much I was loved. That was all that mattered, right? The love. I was not rejected. I stuffed everything other than that down into a place I couldn’t see. Might as well try to focus on the good. On the love.
I’ve always been an optimist.
He raped me somewhere in the neighborhood of 72 times. I did the math once. It’s an average, of course, because I wasn’t counting at the time. But that’s the general ballpark, give or take a dozen. In between those rapes, he made sure that I doubted the very basic threads of reality. There was not a thought that passed through my head that was not thrown into the fires of his scorn.
Anything that I made or did was never good enough, was always lacking. I had no evidence to the contrary, and he made sure I knew it, too. I mean, if it was any good, wouldn’t other people have been impressed with it by now? That was always the end of the argument. I could not produce anyone else that cared, and therefore conceded my defeat.
Once, after he had been drinking, he admitted to me that if he ever got the chance to cheat on me that he would take it. When I burst into tears, he acted surprised. How could I begrudge him this? After all, we were going to be together forever. He had never dated anyone before me, so it was selfish of me to expect him to not take the chance to be with someone else just for a night. I apologized for getting upset.
Once, when I did not do the dishes, he held a pillow over my face until I blacked out. In the resulting argument, I somehow found myself apologizing for both invoking the anger and then not being strong enough to withstand it.
He was clever and careful. He never hit me, and he never left bruises anywhere that anyone could see. If the middle of my back was black and blue, well, that was because “we” liked rough sex. That’s all it was. He didn’t choke me, he just held pillows to my face. That was just a “joke”. I only passed out the once, after all. He wasn’t hitting me. That was what abuse was, to me. A punch in the face. If he never hit me, then all was well. Everything was fine.
For four years I was made very small. I was whittled away until I did not exist outside of the flinching, withered mess that I had become. I would say or do whatever it took to avoid his anger, fully believing the lies that if I could just get it right then all would be well. We could be happy if I were not such a horrible, awful person who upset him so deeply.
If I could just be less difficult to love.
It makes me shake just to write all of that. I have that box open right now, and I’m looking over all the contents, and it just…it all feels like so much. How do I explain how you go from a sad teenager barely understanding the world to a meek puppet that couldn’t even remember what her personality felt like? It is impossible to describe the steps it took to go through all of that. All I can do is recount the horrors, my eyes wide and the voice behind the words numb and distant. I have vain hopes that saying them out loud will make them hurt a little bit less this time, but that hasn’t proved true yet.
That’s the real problem and power of the box. No matter how strong I get, when someone manages to pry it open, the pain is still just as sharp. I break down and become the small, unimaginably scared girl that bled and cried for four years while everyone who should have saved me backed away slowly.
As much as that box haunts me, it motivates me, too. After all, my survival of that despite the abandonment made me determined to become someone kind and caring and vigilant. My philosophy is that I try to be the type of person that would have saved me. Sometimes it takes everything I have to do that, sometimes it amounts to me sticking my hand in a hornet’s nest knowing damn well it’s going to sting, but I do it anyways. Just in case it’s needed.
But then someone will say something that catches me off guard, and another key appears. That’s what happened this time. I was proud of something and someone else sought to point out how I shouldn’t be, and that was all it took. I spiraled down a deep, dark hole that doesn’t seem to have a bottom.
As I said above, this time was different. This time it hurt so much worse than I expected. It was like every scar from those four years was ripped open and re-inflicted all at once, and I lost touch with every ounce of strength I thought I had gained. He was there again, whispering the truth, and I just knew that it was right.
No one loved me. Everyone that I cared about could barely tolerate me. Nothing that I had created was worth anyone’s time.
I was alone in the dark and I could feel it.
It took me a few days, but I finally found some stable footing. In those few days, I felt mountains of pain and withered beneath it. I was suicidal, I was fatalistic. I was not eating, I was not sleeping. I – most telling of all – was not talking to anyone about it. I kept my jaw clenched and my fingers firmly in place, refusing to reach out for help. In this hellish state, I had convinced myself that my sadness was too much of a burden for anyone to bear. That if I told them I was sad, I would be met with exasperation. Again? Aren’t you over this stuff already? How many times do we have to cheer you up?
I had a moment while crying alone in my car where I was wondering why this hurt so badly. I was handling this worse than I had handled being rape. How was it that a few stressful events could be worse than that? But then it hit me. It’s because I was feeling it. I was not pushing reality away, I was not refusing to face the demons. I was not going numb and losing a sense of myself. That’s why it was killing me.
That was the start of the upturn. I pulled myself up with that knowledge, proud of myself for figuring that much out. Now I find myself standing here, hands on my hips, trying to figure out what to do next.
The box is not closed. I can tell because I still feel alone, I still feel like nothing I do is good. I still feel like everything I say to my friends will be annoying to them, that they will prefer that I just remain quiet and go away. That if I write something to distract myself it won’t be worth sharing, because no one cares about my writing anyways.
That I am unlovable, will always be unlovable. That even if I can fool people into loving me for a while, eventually that will be poisoned.
I can see these things for what they are – ghosts of an abusive relationship that form the building blocks upon which my PTSD rests. They are the gifts he gave me, the remnants that he left behind before he took his own life years later, and I cannot give them back. Logically they can’t be right, and I know this, but that doesn’t make them quiet. They’re still there.
And this time I’m looking them full in the face. I’m not just brushing them aside and putting them back in the box, because I’m tired of fighting this same battle every time someone wants to knock me down. I’m tired of feeling powerless as I watch someone unlock this cycle with an unkind phrase, making me feel small and meek all over again. I’m tired.
That begs the question, though: what the hell do I do instead?
For the longest time I’ve considered this box and these demons “my problem”. This PTSD thing, well, that’s my burden to bear. When it gets bad I shut myself away and deal with it, because that’s what I’ve always had to do. I have gotten very, very good at being my own hero. I’m proud of that, too. I would never want to diminish the accomplishment of doing that for myself as many times as I have.
I’m at a point in my life now, though, where that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case anymore. Maybe being my own hero is the reason these demons keep coming back. I’ve fought them forever and managed to survive, but perhaps…perhaps survival isn’t enough anymore, and I sense that.
I think that’s why it was so bad this time. I think that’s the crossroads I am at. I can be my own hero, I can choose to hold all of this in and lock it away once more. I can make the decision to fight this battle until the end of my days, no matter how often it repeats. I’m certainly strong enough for it. I’ve proven that much.
Or…I can take these feelings and these words, and I can pour them across the page. I can use what little platform I have and put them out there, into the universe, so that they become real for more than just myself. I can start sharing all the gears and cogs that whir away inside my head, revealing a little bit of what it is that makes me tick.
I have always believed that I am difficult – if not impossible – to love. I believed that being myself, being my full self, would be too much for others to bear. But…I think I’m done with that narrative. I think I’m done worrying whether others will be strong enough to love me.
After all, I am strong enough to love myself. I loved myself enough to live through my childhood. Through the alcoholism of my parents and the unkindness of other children. Through the molestation and the abandonment. I loved myself enough to live through my adolescence. Through the violence and the confusion. Through the cruelty my father developed and the numbness of everyone else. I loved myself enough to survive that abusive relationship. I loved myself enough to live through the years after.
I loved myself enough to keep moving forward even when it only looked like more darkness.
If I am strong enough to love myself, then I should believe that others will be strong enough to do so, as well.
So, I type this out. I type out truths that I hesitate to tell people for fear that they will be “too much”, and I put them out into the world. I will not put them back in that box. I will not let someone else have the power of wielding another hidden key. These are my demons, and I accept them. These are my fears, and I can see them.
This is me. This is a part of me. I will love them until they hurt no more.
At the end of the day, that’s the message I always want to peddle. That’s the example that I always want to set. That no matter what, no matter how hard it gets, no matter how much it hurts, love will be the answer. Love, compassion, and acceptance. That’s what I will always fight for. For myself, for my friends, and for everyone else that I can.
I will love, and I will live in the world bravely, no longer carrying that little locked box.