No matter how strong and courageous on the outside that I appear, how much wilderness experience that I gain under my boots, or how many oceans I paddle, my deep-rooted fear, vulnerability, and lack of trust on the inside have continually brought me to my knees. More than thirty years after the abuse has stopped I can still end up a weak, fearful, tear soaked heap of snot, bones, and flesh. How do I get past this? Where is that hidden paragraph buried deep within the pages of a book that will somehow make everything alright, and put this dreaded demon to rest? I find it so difficult to accept the idea that the relief I seek lies somewhere within myself. How can I possibly find comfort in the memory of that dark room filled with terror and helplessness?
My childhood did not have the foundation of playful innocence, but was founded upon incest. My innate ability to trust was shattered in one brief moment when I was raped by a brother five years older than me. I was ten;way too young to lose my innocence. He had talked me into going streaking and we ran up into the woods and back down the hill towards the barn. I followed behind him as best I could but he quickly outran me. He waited inside the barn for me to catch up. I thought that it was protective of him to wait for me. I was so wrong with that impression. He told me to lay down on a scrap piece of plywood that had been leaning up against the wall. He then reached for an old moth covered can of Chevron 10-W-30 that had been there for years. Dad had always kept it there to top of the oil in the tiller. This time that old oil can would serve a different purpose. My brother poured it onto my crotch for lubrication, to make things easier. How thoughtful. It didn’t make it easier. It made me dirty, cheaper, more horrified. When it was over, I didn’t quite understand what had just happened. How could I, I was only ten. I was aware that something very profound had just happened, and that it would forever change my life. On what seemed like a long slow walk from the barn back up to the house I felt the weight of the world on my back. Since then, I have never carried a weight heavier than that which had been placed upon my shoulders. Not even a backpack stuffed with a week’s worth of gear has compared to that weight.
The horror did not stop with that day in the barn. It continued for close to seven years. That same brother, and later a “friend” of the family would sneak into my bedroom late at night. It was one or the other, fortunately, never both at once. It would start with the sound of the doorknob to my room turning slowly, deliberately, trying to be quiet. To me, it sounded like the shrill call of a siren. To this day, the sound of springs compressing and crunching inside a cylinder of metal can send me into a moment of absolute terror. The deeds that were performed on my body, while they whispered “this is for your own good” were tame compared to the rape that had occurred in the barn. But, I never could understand how being frozen with fear and unable to move, stuck in between the natural fight or flight response was for my own good. I was too small to fight off them off, and my short legs were no match to run from them. It was at my expense that my brother and his friend would change from being boys, to becoming men who were experienced.
I also learned from that experience. I had rolled over once in my sleep and kicked my brother in the face. He immediately stopped performing the oral stimulation on me and left my room, never to return. I didn’t mean to kick him, it was an accident, I was a good little girl who never meant any harm. But at that moment I learned that if I could become strong then I might be able to fight them off. I re-arranged my bedroom and turned my old wood and metal bookshelves into a weight bench. I used two shiny chrome metal bars that I tied together with a couple of belts as my barbell. I would wait until everyone had gone to bed so that I could “pump iron.” I could never let anyone know what I was doing. Girls don’t lift weights, they wear pink dresses and thin open toed shoes. I became stronger, my chest muscles grew, my biceps were larger than the other girls in my class. The notion that girls should be weak and submissive did not apply to me. Neither did trusting in a man to take care of me. I secretly read my brothers boy scout manuals, how to make shelter and build fire might be useful if I could ever bring my short legs to run up into the woods and hide from them.
I had no-one to turn to but myself. Rape will do that to a person. Somehow, we are the ones to blame. We did something to bring this upon ourselves. It is our fault, never theirs. I believe that as women we are somehow wired to feel shame. Just as most men are wired to feel a sense of entitlement to do whatever they damn well please.
I never did fight them off, nor did I bring myself to run. I was stuck. Countless times I lied quietly in my bed and wished that it would soon be over. I had become stronger, I had taught myself that the woods behind the house were not a forbidden and mysterious place, but they served as a possible refuge. I probably would not have been able to start a fire, or build a shelter, but I knew for certain that if I were to ever run into those dark woods that I could hide. I knew that I could be still while they searched for me. It had become natural for me to lie quietly in the dark even with my heart pounding with overwhelming fear surging through my body.
At times, months would go by when neither of them would sneak into my room. I innocently assumed that the horror had ended, that it was just a phase that every child goes through. But, inevitably whenever I believed this, it would start all over again. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized that this situation is unique, and thank God not every child has to experience this nightmare.
I have not only been robbed of my childhood, but I have been forced to live a life of fear. It is not constant and at times, may seem to completely go away. But when I least expect it, that fear rushes back into my mind. I become stuck in fighting for my life or running for my life. There are many triggers that bring on this paralyzing sensation. Something as simple as someone standing too close to me in a checkout line will make me “edgy” for days. Sitting with my back to anything other than a wall can also bring it on. Daily stress is becoming a culprit. The worse the stress the harder it is to fall asleep. As I try to reach that deep sleep I become aware of being vulnerable. I jerk myself awake repeatedly, until I am too exhausted to continue this agonizing process.
I am amazed at how this experience has affected me. How I react to others is influenced by that dreaded day in the barn and those countless nights where I should have been able to trust someone. Trust, now there’s the catch. Who do I trust, when can I trust them? How long before they realize that I am not at all strong and courageous, and then they begin to come after me?
I find it incredible that I have ended up working two careers that have been dominated by the presence of men. How wonderful that the universe can continue to give me the opportunity to deal with men and their incredible urge to mass produce. I guess that I have in many ways not tried to beat them, but have become like them. I am rough around the edges, and could make a sailor blush. If I am accepted by them, perhaps I won’t be hurt by them. Perhaps not. I do not hate them. I’m angry, but I do not hate them. I see them differently than most women. I know what they are capable of. It is not their fault, it is their natural instinct, and it is not for me to judge them. I have learned to work with them, but I have not learned to trust them. I do not know when they will turn on me again. As I age, I am not as strong, or as stealth in the woods as I once was. Because of my waning abilities, my fear that I could once control has come back.
Fortunately not everyone has had to come to terms with abuse. But living with abuse is similar to living with grief. Eventually, everyone will lose someone close to them. With abuse, as with grief there is no such thing as having the courage to heal, you never heal. But it’s having the courage to keep living, to keep going despite the pain of losing someone close, or the fear of the next attack. The pain associated with loss subsides into a dull ache. The fear associated with abuse ebbs. Sometimes these powerful emotions come raging back like a flash flood leaving you wiped out, barren and raw. It is up to each of us to pick ourselves up, and begin living again.
When living with such deep emotions there is no magic pill, or hidden paragraph in a dusty book to help us get through until the floodwaters recede. Forming our own paragraphs, writing our own story is healing. It doesn’t take away the fear, nor does it take away the pain. But, writing can help to make sense of it all and give us some peace with our own unique set of circumstances. None of us are immune, we all have some demon in our lives that we each will have to come to terms with. We can share in each other’s stories, learn from them, and gain strength to continue on.