Still I Rise
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you
Why are you best with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room
Just like moons and suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries.
Does my haughtiness offend you
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got cold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history's shame
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind the nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that may ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Currently, I am reading a book, Lucky, by Alice Sebold. She is the author of The Lovely Bones. This particular book is a memoir, an actual account of a moment in her life; a moment that redefined her life forever. I am slightly addicted to this factual telling of her story. Her voice, brave and full of truth, speaks to me. Reading this book is a journey. It is a search for my own personal answers, satisfaction, and meaning. In short, it is a cathartic moment that is hard to process, yet needed.
On the last day of the spring semester of 1980, Alice Sebold was brutally attacked, raped, and sodomized by a stranger in a campus park. She reported the attack. She took all of the correct steps to help find and prosecute her attacker. The next day her mother picked her up to take her home for the summer.
Young Alice and a younger version of me brand similar scars. It is my time to tell my story. I need a voice; I have a long overdue story to tell.
On the second Saturday of February 1996, I went on a date with an older man that I found intriguing. I liked him. I assumed he liked me seeing we had been on several dates prior to that dreaded evening. However, when I awoke from a drug induced knock-out, one that was not provoked by me, to find my body bruised, beaten, lacerated, soar, dying, damaged, invaded, and temporarily soul-less, I wondered if I would ever allow myself to "like" another man. I wondered if I would ever allow myself to like me again. My mother was not there to take me home; it was the way that I engineered it. No one would know for a very long time.
On that brilliantly beautiful, sunny Sunday, (isn't it funny that I could still find beauty in that morning) I awoke from a groggy dream of violence. As I began to move around I realized that I was a literal physical mess. My body hurt. My brain hurt. I was drenched in sweat and tears. Adrenaline kicked in, and I knew that I was in a bad place, a bad moment; I needed to find safe ground. A monster lay naked beside me. I hated him. It took a few piercing moments to realize exactly why I hated him. I grabbed my tattered clothing, covered myself as best as I could, careful not to wake the monster that was asleep beside me, and crept silently, shamefully back to my own dorm room. It was the longest "walk of shame" that I had ever or would ever encounter in my life. Thankfully, campus was quiet that morning except for the small sobs that escaped my swollen and bruised throat. At that exact moment, I hurt physically, emotionally, and mentally more than I could have expected my body and mind to endure. My spirit was nonexistent. (I believe that it was at this moment in my life when I might have given up on God, for he/she had given up on me. It will take years of my life to reconcile this spiritual argument.)
I returned to my dorm room to find all of the other girls not there. It had been a suitcase weekend. One silent prayer answered. I shed my clothing, wrapped them in a tattered, old bath towel, and shoved them deep in to the trashcan, which I later took to the dumpster myself. It was instinctive to hide the evidence of my shame. I was not thinking; I was operating.
I placed my body, my mind was not there, into the shower, and proceeded to scold myself physically with scorching water and what felt like a Brillo pad. I was attempting to cleanse what was left of me. The shower turned pink from the damage done. I could feel him all over me. His hands, his arms, the weight of his body, his finger nails, his penis, his mouth, the struggle. I threw up in the shower until I was nothing but a heaving convulsion. I couldn't stop. I sank to the floor of the shower until I realized that the injuries to my legs, inner thighs, and genitals could no longer take the strain I was putting on them. I was a girl trying to hold the weight of rape on her back. I was alone. I was ashamed. I was scared. I was sick. I collapsed in the shower and let the purity of water soak me. There wasn't enough purity to erase the marks left on my being. I crawled to a hunched position and stopped.
I dried off. I dressed in sweats and a turtle neck shirt. My friends and I, twenty four hours prior to this moment had called maintenance to complain that our heating unit was stuck on high. We had been spending most of our time in shorts and sports bras with the windows open. It felt like August in that room even though it was only February. With the shame of my battered body, I dressed to cloak who I had become inside and out. In short, it physically felt like the deepest level of Dante's Hell. I took a handful of Advil and chased it with a beer, smoked a cigarette, and then crawled into bed to attempt to sleep off what I was hoping was just a bad night terror. It wasn't. Shock wears off; what was to emerge and be left standing was but a shadow of who I ever thought I would become. These things didn't happen to nice, suburban girls like me. Only animalistic strangers did this to other people, not a man that I would willingly go out with. Denial is a great gift in the early stages. It helps you sleep at night. However, even denial wears off after a bit.
It was during my first attempts at sleep that episodic moments of the previous night began to connect themselves. Dinner at a local eatery. A bar in Sunny Side. A fight broke out there. He moved me out of the way so that I wouldn't get hurt. A party on Grant Street. Throughout this whole course of events I had consumed one beer at each of the locations. 3. For a college freshman at WVU that is an appetizer. At the party I remembered that I had to use the restroom. His home was across the street. He offered to escort me there to use the restroom and avoid waiting in a line at the house party.
We went to his home. I used the restroom and walked out; he gave me a beer in a glass; we began to chitchat about going back to the party. This is where the details begin to become fuzzy. Almost like a movie dream sequence. I remember bits and pieces of a violent struggle. I remember fighting hard with every ounce of strength that my body could muster under those conditions. I remember digging my perfectly manicured nails in the flesh of his back and coming back again and again to create paths of blood. It couldn't stop him; he was stronger. He was twenty seven and a former Marine returning to school on the GI Bill. I was an 18 year old girl sporting an athletic, but mere 129 lb frame. I was no match for his years and stature. He got what he wanted. Unfortunately and perhaps thankfully, my brain protects me from the finite details that take place in between each struggle and the moment of penetration. Though I don't remember all of it, I know that it happened; I still bare the scar.
Later on that Sunday, my friends returned from boyfriends' house, parents' homes, where ever they may have been. I was roused from my nightmarish coma to hear the commotion in the other room. The girls used our room as a common living area. It was our meeting place. It is where we shared our deepest darkest secrets and girlish giggles and tears. I could not share this with them. I could hardly share it with myself. Instead I listened to them tell tale of their fabulous weekends. Finally, Melonie asked me why I was so quiet and dressed in sweats and a turtle neck when the room was the same temperature of molten lava. I lied. I don't remember exactly what excuse I used, I believe it was something about a bad hangover and food poisoning that had left me with a temperature. Either way, I was not known for dishonesty, it sufficed the crowd. They asked how my date had gone. I told them in short, that he was just not that into me and he didn't want to see me again. They were furious that someone would not want to continue to date their best friend. Imagine what they would have done or been like had I told the truth at that moment. It was all too much to handle.
I lived in silence for a year. I kept my mouth shut for fear of what saying it out loud might do. I continued to hate God for those months. I began to see men as objects, for that is how I had been viewed on that night. I either dismissed them or learned to control them. My behavior by my friends, though they found it typically not me, accepted it. I turned into a diva. I would never let a man control or own my body. I made them my puppets and learned to work them they way that I found fit. I became defiant with my family and offered no excuse for my actions. I would go weeks at a time not talking to friends and family back home. I wasn't the same girl that they loved and loved them back. I became deviant in all other areas of my life. If I could make myself bad then I did that, he did not. The mind of a soul-less woman will create such illogical obstacles that it is sickening with later reflection. However, 10 years later, I can still empathize with that young girl and the decisions that she made during those 12 months.
On two separate occasions during that 12 month period I ran into our former military hero. The first time was at a local bar. I didn't realize he was there. He knew I was. He sent a beer and shot to me from across the bar. I slammed the shot before realizing who had sent it. Eye contact was made. I shuttered. I left and vomited in an alley.
The second sighting was worse. I was in the same bar a month or so later. He and his buddies walked in. I watched him. I watched him for what felt like hours; it was only minutes. I couldn't take my eyes off of this monster. He approached me, I froze in hatred. Not fear. Hatred. I glared. He thought I was flirting. Not once was a word uttered between the two of us. He approached me. He grabbed me by the hair and kissed me. I did not return his advance. Instead I got a grasp on my chair, pushed him forward and with every bit of my pent up secret punched the thing in front of me. His 6 foot 4 inch frame fell flat on his ass in the midst of bar scum. The bouncer, being a friend of mine, didn't ask questions, he simply escorted him from the bar and was told to never return. It was a small victory. This was the last time I saw him.
The following September, I met a man with who I would eventually fall deeply, madly, truly in love. For a time my love was reciprocated. He began to share his inner thoughts, dreams, fears, and shame with me. I always held back. He knew I was damaged some how and would press me to let him in. I wouldn't. I didn't know how. It was the first of his cheating moments; he found warmth in the arms and body of others who would let him in. I couldn't blame him.
On a drunken evening, a year to the day, I confided in a friend that I was keeping a dreadful secret that was hurting my relationships with everyone, friends, family, and the love of my life. I shared. I shared in evil detail. I sobbed. I vomited. I drank vodka.
Courtney convinced me that in order to start repairing the strain that had been placed between me and my girlfriends that I needed to share my story with them. She placed phone calls. In the middle of the night cabs were called and my best friends were summoned in a drunken haste to report to her apartment for an emergency meeting. She explained that one of us was hurt. My friends left their lovers. Left their half finished beers. Despite the past year, they dropped what they were doing to come and hold my hand while I admitted to the ugliest shame I could have ever admitted uttering. They held me. They loved me unconditionally. They got pissed. "God hath no fury like a group of college co-eds scorned." We drank heavily. We passed out in a heap on her floor that night amongst beer cans, empty liquor bottles, tissues, and tears. It was the beginning of liberation for the power and glory of women is truly amazing.
Eventually, I told my boyfriend. He reacted strongly. He was supportive, but supportive in a very masculine way. He tried his best. He stopped seeing the other woman. He taught me to love again. He taught me to like myself. He taught me a lot. For THAT I am grateful. The rest...is a separate narrative.
It would take longer to repair the destruction the rape and the secret had done to my parents and me. For some reason, on a winter night years later, I placed a phone call to my parents. I had not talked to them in a few weeks. My mom answered.
"Mom there is something I need to talk to you about."
"What is it Heather? Did you call to randomly yell at us again?"
"No mom. I really need you to listen."
"Fine. Go ahead." She was put out.
"Mom, February of 1996, I was date raped by the Marine. I needed to tell you this. I had to tell you this. I am sorry. I feel ugly." I came right out with it. No sugar coating in this family unit.
Silence. A long silence. A silence that last eternity.
A muffled sob. A sigh.
"Your father and I have spent 3 years trying to figure out what happened to you during that winter to make you hate everyone so much. Did you report it?"
"I couldn't. I was scared, alone, and ashamed. I thought maybe that I deserved it."
"Heather! What were you are you thinking?!"
"Mom, are you going to tell my Dad?"
"Your father and I don't keep things from each other about you and Bryn."
"Mom, please don't." I am a Daddy's girl. I didn't want him to know.
"I can't make that promise to you."
"Mom I can't talk anymore about this right now. I'll call you back later to finish this conversation."
We have yet to finish that conversation. I have yet to ask her to ask me about it. She has yet to ask about it without my prompting. My mother and I are a weird dichotomy. To this day, I don't know if my father knows or not.
It would take even longer to reconcile and attempt to heal the relationship with myself. A horrid break up with the boyfriend forced me to face a few of my own personal demons. The main issue being my inability to deal appropriately with nonsexual intimacy. He once again found comfort in the arms of the former woman. With ugly words, sobs, and pleading arguments, we separated. I felt empty again. I needed something, and strength was the only idea that I could grasp. I need to borrow someone's strength.
At the time, I was taking a course on campus on Human Sexuality. It was a well designed course. However the instructor was a campus minister. Seeing that I had been arguing with God for several years, I wasnt trusting of her at first. One day after class she engaged me in a conversation. She was amazing. Smart, witty, down to earth, and she had the one element that I needed to tap into...strength.
I had an impromptu meeting with her at her office at the Campus Ministry Office. I barged into her office in hysterics. She recognized me from her class. Without words, she moved from behind her desk and embraced me. I muttered the words, "I am desperately searching for some strength. I think you may be the strongest woman I have ever met. Do you mind if I borrowed a little bit of yours?" She chuckled and told me together we would go on a journey to help me find my own. Over a period of time, I confided in her. I was honest with her. I told her EVERYTHING, all of the horrid details. The break up. The rape. The destruction I was causing myself and my family. She helped me learn to heal myself. She helped me find purpose again. She finally said the words that I didnt even know that I needed to hear. "Not all of this ugliness is your fault. You did not ask to be raped. You did not ask to fall in love with the wrong man. You did not ask to lose faith in who you are. It is your job to work on rebuilding yourself appropriately." She helped me find the tools to do just that. I learned to heal.
I still hold on to some shame, however, today my shame is different. As an adult I realize that I SHOULD have reported it. It was my job and duty to report it. It is the ONLY regret that I have about my life. However, that young girl of 18 felt that she couldn't. It is hard to reconcile that she and I are the same person. I have been relatively open with the events of that night. Not so much the emotional aftermath as the factual details. When asked about it by friends, I am honest. I rarely bring it up first unless I am having a moment where I feel secure and that the individual in front of me needs to know. Those moments are few and far between, yet they are suffocatingly powerful. I am having one of those moments now. Perhaps it is redemption for not doing what I should have done 10 years prior. We can't rewrite history. Telling my story is powerful and cathartic. It is an education to others. Education makes more informed people and safer choices will hopefully come from that education. That is what I have left to rely on, that and my conversations with God. Thankfully, she and I were able to come to an agreement on a few things.
I have always noticed patterns. Things come in threes. Several months ago I saw a billboard that is sponsored by one of the local Rape Crisis Centers. "There are three words that all victims of rape need to hear...YOU WILL HEAL." I wept in the car that day. A friend asked if I was interested in becoming a rape crisis counselor. I declined at the moment; having had a fragile moment. I cried on the way home for not feeling strong enough. Last night I read a book about a young girl who was raped in a college park on the last day of the spring semester by a man she didn't know. The next day her mother picked her up to take her home for the summer. A year later, she watched her attacker be taken away to jail for 25 plus years. I cried in her hurt, her pain, her victory, and then I decided to finally cry for my own 18 year old damaged girl.