October 2016. I was a young reporter and writer with nothing but the ultimate dedication that comes with being a bright-eyed, early 20-something. I already landed a writing job right out of college and I was working on stories that inspired me. Within the first few months, I had already compiled a hefty portfolio of news stories about federal and state legislation and voter statistics and cultural pieces on Asian American representation in film and the wage gap: all things that I deeply cared about.
When you’re young and believe in your agency, the world is your oyster, especially if you’re a woman of color because you have so many institutions fighting against you. A woman of color who believes in herself is a force to be reckoned with. She understands that opportunities are scarce and fairness is never guaranteed, but she moves onward and upward. She unabashedly follows her truth and fully utilizes her talents to serve the world and her heart. Nothing is impossible. Nothing can stop her.
Like most people, I’d gone through a lot of pain in my life: deaths in the family, body-image issues, parents’ divorce, heartbreak from shitty boyfriends, etc. I somehow got through all of that and managed to find a place in the world with strength and self-assurance. I worked really hard to get where I was.
October 2016. Midnight. Burbank. Gas station. Stranger. Gun.
The vile details aren’t worth recounting. Cannibalizing my experience on print does nothing useful. No one needs to see the imagery that I know. Evil is evil, and that’s all you need to know.
It’s funny how years and years of finding self-love and discovering who you are can be overturned in the matter of one night by one person. It’s kind of fascinating how one awful event shadowed over and stalled 22 years worth of learning and development. The threat of death, the coercion, the invasion of my domain. Months of emotional suppression go by. I drown myself in work, my friends and my boyfriend and resort to other means of diversion. Uncomfortable feelings start trickling in? Down a beer, maybe two…two becomes three, three becomes four. Vivid imagery of that fateful night? Binge eat. Start to question your worth? Buy a new dress, some new shoes, makeup. Social media told the story of a girl who goes to concerts, goes on adventures with her friends and goes on fabulous dates with her boyfriend. People who know ask me how I’m doing. I say I’m doing well. Can’t you tell from my smiling selfies on Instagram? Can’t you tell I’m happy? They smile, nod and question no further. I fool myself into thinking everything is okay. It was just one night, one incident, after all.
Then, like a tight coil that had been pushed back so far suddenly springs and projects forth shame, guilt, disgust, hate. The reaction that had been subdued for so long makes its way, introducing me to things like triggers, panic attacks, flashbacks and, ultimately, self-harm. I denied it, then I attacked myself for it. How was I, a perceived strong woman, to let something affect me so powerfully? Soon after, not only was I ashamed for what happened to me that night, but I became ashamed of my feelings. My power was stripped away. I was weak. In the mirror, all I saw was an ugly, powerless, fearful fool who got herself into an awful mess because she deserved it. She deserved it. She deserved it. I…deserved it.
Last week, I read a fantastic piece by Jia Tolentino in The New Yorker on Harvey Weinstein about how abusers are able to compromise their victims.
She writes, “If you have ever experienced sexual assault or harassment, you know that one of the cruellest things about these acts is the way that they entangle, and attempt to contaminate, all of the best things about you. If you’re sweet and friendly, you’ll think that it’s your fault for accommodating the situation. If you’re tough, well, you might as well decide that it’s no big deal. If you’re a gentle person, then he knew you were weak.”
For that single moment, all the strength I’ve developed, all the smarts I’d fortified with age and experience and all the skills I’d learned to be invulnerable were gone. I wasn’t a woman with agency, I was an object to be controlled. A means to an awful, selfish end. I wanted for it to be no big deal, but it is a big deal. I was slowly slipping away from the shore.
Life had no more purpose. To live every day in shame and fear wasn’t worth it. There was no more control over my life. What happened to me? I thought I was a determined young woman who lets nothing get in her way? A strong, woke individual that serves a purpose in this world? My power and voice were stripped away. I lost my agency. I lost safety. I buried myself away and stopped taking care of myself, hoping no one would notice. Of course, people did but I didn’t want pity. When it got severe, I forced insentience. People really began to notice.
I saw the faces of the people I hurt through my self-neglect. I wasn’t just hurting myself but the people around me. The fear that I saw on the faces of people that loved me scared the shit out of me. There cannot be any more casualties in this war that’s waging inside of me. I go gung-ho on treatment, finding programs dedicated to trauma victims. I see a therapist. I get medicated. I attend group therapy sessions for sexual assault survivors. My insurance plan is less than ideal but I know these are all things I need. I make sure to communicate with my support system, a small but amazing group of close loved ones to whom I can confide. I make sure my safety plan is on my person at all times. I learn the difference between “I deserved it” and “I feel like I deserved it.” I learn that thoughts that go through our minds are like data on a computer and they aren’t permanent and not all of them are necessarily true. I undergo a major lifestyle change. Everything should be good now, right?
Wrong. I have slip-ups. For days and weeks at a time, obstructions occur in my treatment. The blame trickles in, followed by guilt, anger, shame and the rest of the gang.
Recovery, I learned, isn’t linear. It isn’t 1-(800) number you call and some magical regimen that takes away the trauma and its effects show up at your doorstep in 5-7 business days. Recovery is trial and error and everyone’s trauma is different. It ebbs and flows. It undulates. There were days I thought I was better for good. I’m eating healthier, I’m becoming more social again, I perform better at work. Then something triggering happens, and then comes the familiar descent into the rabbit hole. I detach. I isolate. I yearn for the end. Then the next week, I’m seeing a new therapist. I text my friends that I’m sorry I haven’t responded and, God bless their patience, they take me back. I take a new SSRI. Then the cycle begins again in the next few weeks. And that’s OK.
The thing about depression, anxiety and trauma work is that nothing is ever going to be the end all be all solution. It’s not something to be totally, 100% cured. It’s something to be managed, regulated and controlled. You hope to reach a point where you’re aware of the challenges you face and hope that the tools you’ve learned from recovery are there to anchor you and life you up from the darkness. Accepting that was the first step in moving forward, accepting that it’s not always going to be sunshine. Being gentle with myself was the second step. I took the driver’s seat of my life again and made the decision to keep going. It’s the hardest thing I’ve had to do and, right at this moment, I’m not sure that I’ve reaped the rewards of my efforts, but I’m still here and that says something.
October 2017. I’m still a young reporter and writer. I’m weathered. I’m tired. I’m rebuilding relationships. Adult responsibilities are gradually easier. The dedication I once had as a writer and the ambition I once had as a story-teller are slowly making a comeback. It’s not perfect and I hit road bumps. Most days feel like I’m neck deep in water, my head tilted back so I’m able to breathe, albeit uncomfortably. But that’s OK.
Today, I’m OK. Tomorrow, I might not be OK. And that’s OK.
(Thank you, Tarana Burke.)