Shadow of Death

I was floating in a pool, my eyes rising above and then below the water line.  I remember a figure looming over the side of the pool, stooping down to look at me.  Next, I was in an ambulance, being told to keep my eyes open, but wanting more than anything to close them as I squinted against the sun.  I felt tired.  I was two years old and just wanted to go to sleep.  I remember being hooked up to all sorts of monitors in the hospital. My first memory.  Nearly drowning.

For a long time, I thought I wasn’t afraid of death, that it didn’t affect me.  I thought because I had experienced so much loss at such a young age, I was immune to grief.  My mother died when I was five years old, my gradfather when I was six.  Both of my grandmothers died when I was in middle school.  At some point in my coming of age, I began to take pride in my ability to absorb death and keep moving forward.  Funerals did not make me sad.  I was fine.

Simultaneously, though, my fear of my own death ran wild.  I developed nighttime anxiety.  I had trouble falling asleep and experienced what I can now identify as panic attacks.  I was convinced that I was going to be murdered.  Any sound in the house startled me.  I developed strange obsessive rituals to protect myself.  I pulled my blankets all the way up to my chin, reasoning that a murderer couldn’t get to me if I was covered up.  I made elaborate plans to hide in my closet or escape out the window if needed.  I also developed a fear of flying.  I first got on an airplane at 8 months old, so air travel wasn’t new to me.  Sometime in my teenage  years, though, I became convinced that the planes I traveled on would fall out of the sky to a firey death.  I was also afraid of swallowing pills – afraid I would choke on them.  I hid the vitamins I was supposed to take in a container in my bathroom so I wouldn’t risk suffocation.

My indifference toward grief was somehow counter-balanced by my obsession with keeping myself alive.  For the past decade or more, I felt shame for these obsessions.  I had never experienced anything life threatening, I thought, so why was I so afraid?  I lived in a safe area.  We had never had a break-in.  I had never so much as been in a bad car accident.  Why was it that I was experiencing such paralyzing fear of scenarios with which I had never come into contact?

Two weeks ago, my grandfather died.  He was sick for a long time and hadn’t been verbal for around a year, so in some ways I had been mourning him for a while.  I was asked to give a eulogy at his service, and I was glad to write and speak about him for my family.  However, as I looked around at my grieving family, I realized I was the only one not overcome with emotion.  Maybe part of it had to do with my need to keep it together in order to speak, but I know it was more than that.  Somehow, I had come to compartmentalize my relationship with death.  I could deal with the loss of others, but I had never learned to reconcile my own mortality.  And how could I, if my first memory is nearly drowning in a pool?

I am still learning to hold these things together.  I feel more sadness about leaving the ones I love behind when I die than I do about losing them.  I’m not sure what to make of that, other than to love them well while I can.  If loss has taught me one thing, it’s that living with secrets only brings about regret.  I am still frightened of my own mortality and pain, but the only way I have managed to release the fear is to know that I have no control.  I can try as hard as I want, but I still won’t always be able to protect myself or the ones I love.  So, all I can do is love them well, so that when I’m gone, they’ll know they were cared for.

He Doesn’t Hit You But…

*tw: emotional abuse*

EDIT: The image for this post features a man of color and a white woman.  This image in no way indicates a correlation between abuse and race.  The featured image was chosen for other reasons by the author and should not be taken to imply that men of color are more likely to abuse their partners.

Several years ago, a popular hashtag cropped up that provided a space for people who had endured abusive relationships to share about their experiences.  Survivors of emotional and verbal abuse, primarily women, took to Twitter to increase visibility for the types of abuse they had endured.  “#HeDoesntHitYouBut his words create bruises just as punches would.”  “#HeDoesntHitYouBut treats you like property.”  “#HeDoesntHitYouBut he uses breaking up with you as a constant threat.”

At the time, I didn’t say much about it, but I sat back and watched friends and strangers validate my own experiences.  It was through this hashtag that I realized the truth of things I had experienced.

In the beginning, he was charming.  I was young and still figuring out who I was.  I was blown away by the fact that a boy I had just met was interested in me.  I was pretty dorky in high school and was still growing accustomed to the fact that men might pay attention to me.  I was naive and had unrealistic expectations of what romance should look like.  We fell in love over a summer, and it wasn’t until we entered our first few months of long distance that things started to shift.

I would call him and he wouldn’t answer.  While I knew I couldn’t expect him to be available every time I called, I would sometimes go three or four days without a call or text from him.  I would start to get worried and would contact one of his friends or roommates in a desperate attempt to make sure he was okay.  They were never very helpful, and eventually he would reach back out to me.  He would give some sort of flimsy excuse about why he had been off the grid, and I would blindly accept his explanation.  I wanted him to think I was “chill” and not clingy, and grilling him on where he had been seemed like a definitive way to drive him away.  He would disappear like this intermittently during our first year of long distance.  Eventually, it stopped.  Even after years of being with him, though, I never got a clear answer on his disappearances.

His flightiness was only the beginning.  Eventually, he tried to control what I wore and who I spent time with.  I wasn’t allowed to wear leggings or yoga pants outside my house because other men might look at me.  If he saw a picture of me in work out pants on Facebook, he would call me and question me about whether I had worn them outside the house and why.  I wasn’t allowed to wear too much make up.  Sometimes, I wasn’t allowed to wear any make up.  I initially thought this was romantic.  I thought it was evidence that he thought I was naturally beautiful, and maybe that was true, but controlling what I put on my body was not the proper way to show me.

Arguing with him was impossible.  Sometimes I would bring up things that were bothering me about him or about our relationship.  He would always claim I was making it up or exaggerating.  He would say I was attacking him and turn my concern back onto me, claiming I was the one who was flawed.  We would never resolve the initial things I brought up and I would leave the conversation feeling like a terrible girlfriend.  There were times when these arguments would get heated.  I’m not an aggressive or angry person.  I very rarely yell or snap at people, but with him, I did.  Often over the phone, we would yell and I would hang up with him and throw my phone across the room in exasperation.

Things continued to worsen when I moved to a different city.  I made new friends that he had never met and that concerned him.  Any time I claimed to be alone studying with a male friend, he would be noticeably suspicious or even blatantly angry.  I wanted to spend time with the new friends I was making, but if I told him I wanted to get together with friends instead of visiting him, he would always get angry or at least annoyed.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of this relationship was that he cut me off from my family.  My parents never liked him, which, obviously, as an 18 year old, made me even more defiant.  However, he gradually convinced me that my parents weren’t the people I thought they were.  By the end of the relationship there was a noticeable distance between my parents and myself.  He had convinced me, over a period of years, to be completely on his side, mistrusting my family.  He manipulated me into believing that he knew what was best for me better than my parents did, so I trusted the things that he told me about them.  It was a vicious cycle.

He was never physically violent with me, and I’m grateful for that.  There were times when I worried about it, especially when he got angry.  Still, I know that plenty of people experience violence and abuse in relationships much more severe that what I catalog here.  But if you’ve experienced this sort of gaslighting and manipulation, I want you to know that you’re not alone.  If you are reading this and wondering about the state of your own relationship, don’t hesitate to reach out to me or someone you trust.  Because this isn’t just about me.  It’s about equipping others to leave unhealthy relationships, and healing in the aftermath. It’s about recognizing the signs before it’s too late. It’s about teaching (not exclusively but especially) our men deeper empathy and compassion.  Even the strongest among us can be emotionally abused, and the first step toward stopping it is realizing that it’s happening.

I Am Afraid of Men

TW: sexual assault, emotional abuse

I can’t say when it all started, exactly.  When I’m on the train, when I’m walking down the sidewalk, when I’m in a store – I am always on guard.  I put on my “resting bitch face” and my sunglasses and my headphones so no one will bother me.  I feel much safer when I’m surrounded by only women.  This doesn’t mean I hate men.  I love my father, I love my partner, I love my male friends.  I am not afraid of them because I know them.  They have proven to me that they are trustworthy.  But sometimes, even the men who find their way into my inner circle are not trustworthy.

I was emotionally abused for years by a previous partner.  He told me what I could or couldn’t wear.  He expressed an irrational, jealous rage if I ever spent time alone with a male friend.  When I went to seminary and developed into a budding feminist, he told me my views were wrong.  He yelled at me for taking naps when I was tired instead of spending time with him.  He used guilt to control me.  At first, though, he was charming.  But after a few months of sweeping me off my feet, he became distant and inaccessible while also needing to know everything about what I was doing so he could keep tabs on me.  Our relationship went through cycles of growth, but he always returned to his controlling patterns.  He taught me that relationship does not mean I should not be afraid.

I was sexually assaulted by a friend.  I’ve written about this experience before, but it’s important to emphasize that this didn’t happen to me in a dark, damp alleyway with a scruffy stranger.  Like many women, I was assaulted by someone I knew.  We had a budding friendship and I was developing feelings for him, but he still took advantage of me when I was vulnerable.  He taught me that friendship does not mean I should not be afraid.

If I haven’t even been able to trust the men closest to me, it is not wonder that I feel afraid to walk down the street.  I feel my body tense and my heart race each time I pass a man on the sidewalk, bracing myself for catcalling.  When I get on the train, I look for a seat next to a woman.  When I enter a public restroom, I look around to make sure there are no men lurking in the corners, waiting for an unsuspecting woman to enter.

I work at a social service agency, and we primarily serve men.  Whenever I have to walk through our lobby, with rows of men waiting to receive services, I clench my jaw and ball up my fists.  I worry about being grabbed.  Instead, I usually get comments about my body or asked for my name followed by a “mmm” or a “damn”.  While we are currently working to improve what safety looks like in our organization, for the reasons I mentioned as well as several others, it wasn’t until this week that I came to the realization that I am constantly afraid.  I am afraid in my workplace.  I am afraid on public transit.  I am afraid walking to my apartment, even in the daytime.  I often create scenarios in my head so that I have a plan prepared if something bad were to happen.

All of this fear is exhausting.  Being in a spaces with only female-identifying individuals is like letting out a breath I’ve been holding in.  I don’t worry about my body.  I don’t worry that my smile will be misinterpreted.  I want to feel this way all the time.  I don’t want to hold all this fear in my body.  But until men can prove to me that they are not a threat, I continue to clench my teeth and ball up my fists.  We are learning every day about more reasons to fear men.  For the past few months, it seems like every morning there is a new name to add to the list of famous sexual harassers.  It’s hard to face a world of men when I hold my own sexual trauma and constantly hear about the trauma of others.

But I don’t want to feel this way.  We don’t want to feel this way.  Women do not want to be afraid all the time.  So, men, prove us wrong.  Be kind.  Be vulnerable.  Show sensitivity.  Do not be defensive.  Open yourself to the possibility that you don’t know everything.  Listen to what we have to say.  Do not assume we owe you anything.  Do not say something to a woman you don’t know that you wouldn’t say to a man.  Stop catcalling.  Make sure your coworkers are being fairly compensated.  Be confident enough in your sense of self that you do not see a strong woman as a competitor to be squashed.  Be our partners, not our hunters.

Disclaimer: This piece deals with gender in a binary way.  I apologize to those who are trans, genderqueer, and nonbinary.  You have a place in this conversation too, but I cannot speak to your experiences of gender, so I have not included them here.  Please speak your own truths to better inform all of us.

New York

“I came here to see it…”
they say she is a city full of
all those good things
opportunity
success
adventure
love

bright lights
mean I can learn to
be bright again too

“…with new eyes…”
like reading your same favorite book
the same time again each year
and realizing how different you are
each time you encounter it
I am a new creature now
in a way I wasn’t
last time I saw her
this time I need this wildness
my body craves her streets
her crowded subways
her tall towers packed together
her old and new juxtaposed

“…and feel it.”
she taught me that I can still do this
that my tenacity is still intact
that I can move beyond merely enduring
that I can get drunk on wine
with my parents and take a
late night walk through the West Village
that I can write my phone number
on a napkin and slide it across
the bar to a British man
that I can take a cab through
the city alone and confidently
get where I’m going

“It’s up to you, New York.”
she was the climax
of a summer of adventures
to remember where my core is
among all this debris
because New York knows
what it’s like to try to
find yourself again
among debris
and rise from it in the most
poetic and heart wrenching of ways