1: unlawful sexual activity and usually sexual intercourse carried out forcibly or under threat of injury against a person's will or with a person who is [...] incapable of valid consent because of mental illness, mental deficiency, intoxication, unconsciousness, or deception.
2: an outrageous violation
It isn’t simple, this thing called healing. I am curled up in a ball on the bathroom floor of my boyfriend’s apartment. One half of me, the animal half, is doing what animals do when they panic. Sweating, shaking, cringing away from the danger this creature inside of me is certain lurks somewhere nearby. The other half is doing calculations like a machine, running through symptoms and assigning labels as if this, somehow, will make it stop.
Heart rate is at 170 BPM. Tremors in hands and legs, general disorientation, and breathing is labored. This is a PTSD-induced panic attack and will last between ten to twenty-five minutes.
Meanwhile I am flying apart, a supernova boxed in by builder-grade walls and cold tile. My boyfriend comes in, wondering why I’ve been gone for such a long time — one part of me registers that he’s never seen me like this before. I am unsure of whether that part is the animal or the machine.
No one has seen me like this before.
I am an ouroboros eating her own tail, an uncertainty perched on the razor’s edge between past and present.
It has been seven years since I was raped. In all that time, I have managed to hide every episode, learned to hold back panic attacks like a dam until I can let go and endure the flood privately. Maybe if no one else sees them, they won’t really exist. They’ll be like bad dreams that you’ve almost forgotten by the time you wake up in the morning.
Now the dream has invaded my waking life, and I am helpless to do anything about it. I cringe away from the man I love, and he stops in his tracks, taking me in for a long moment before firm realization enters his eyes.
“Baby, what’s wrong? Talk to me. I love you.”
He’s in front of me, and I want to run. There is nowhere to run. So instead I sit very still as he pulls me against his chest and lets me do what I need to do. We are a lifeboat in a stormy sea, two survivors waiting until the weather calms and we can head for dry land. My ten-to-twenty-five minutes of eternity pass, and my lover waits with me and listens as I try, clumsily, to explain the intricacies of panic attacks and PTSD episodes, trauma and the steel links it can forge with the body. He already knew that I had been raped, and this is just one more small piece in the puzzle that is healing. And so he keeps me safe and lets me talk, and when morning comes we are both firmly back on dry land together.
I can’t remember if I was afraid of the forest before it happened. Probably not, because I grew up playing in the woods every day. I used to think of it as a kingdom, and I was a Queen finding secrets in every tree-hollow and treasure on every trail. I used to pick up feathers and carry them around like talismans, as if the hawks and blue-jays had left them just for me.
After I was violated in a grove of trees on my family’s Appalachian property, I carried back very different talismans.
Animals instinctively know when it’s time to hibernate. It’s built into their DNA, part of the survival mechanism that keeps them alive in the face of harsh, often inhospitable environments. Their bodies know what to do when the world grows cold and the plants begin to die.
I used to think that humans had severed this bodily knowing from the ‘logical’ kind most of us experience each day. After all, most of being a functional person involves learning to ignore the body.
We learn to push our physical urges aside and focus on our work, our studies, our reality. Isn’t that what makes us human in the first place?
It turns out that the truth isn’t nearly so simple. My body knew what to do after that cold November day, and my mind was too shocked to do anything besides follow suit. And so I did what animals do; I went into hibernation and waited quietly for the season to change. I did this for seven years and two months. I let the world pass by around me and I slept, falling into a blank slumber punctuated only by those drifting nightmares with edges made of mist.
I don’t know how to explain to people that those years were blank for me. They saw me go on, saw me finish high school and then college, watched me write books and publish them, listened to me talk and, sometimes, felt me in their beds. There is a gulf between experience and understanding, and I lived in that space for a long time.
When I started to wake up, I was disoriented. The world looked so different from how I had remembered it, and I wasn’t sure how I had gotten to where I was, how my life had managed to place itself in the precise order I now found it in. I was twenty-two and standing at forty different crossroads all at once. I had decisions to make. Somehow, while I was sleeping, I had turned into a woman. And now I was expected to do what women are supposed to and make a life for myself.
I didn’t have the slightest idea of how to begin living again.
It is Spring and I’m sitting in my psychologist’s office, absentmindedly turning a smooth stone over and over in my hands. It has “strength” engraved on the grey surface. I am talking about my weakness and stroking the letters with my thumb, only distantly aware of the irony contained in this small and drifting moment.
“My boyfriend saw me have a panic attack,” I am telling my doctor, the woman who is trying to build a bridge between that abyss of experience and the knowing of it. “I think he handled it well.”
“Good. Well, not good that you had a panic attack, but good that he was there for you. How are you feeling right now?”
As usual, words are unraveling out of my mouth without catching on anything substantial. It’s easy to take refuge in the hollows of acronyms and symptom lists. Easier still to build them up in front of me like a wall, keeping out the...well, the everything, I am starting to realize. Being alive.
I squeeze the stone and run my hands along the fabric of the sofa beneath me, trying to focus on the tingling of friction against my palms. I am a ship with only one sailor, a vessel trying desperately to drop anchor and dock in a safe harbor where I can learn to build a life. That’s what harbors are. Places to both end and begin again.
I stop, and realization puts a pause in my mouth where words were coiled up just a second ago. “I think it’s time for me to go back to where it happened. To the actual place, I mean.”
My bridge-builder looks at me for a moment. “If you feel like you’re ready, then that’s what you should do. Let’s talk about putting some strategies in place...”
Birth is an alarming experience. Everyone knows it’s not supposed to be easy, and if it is, well, that usually means there’s something wrong. Death is a contrast because it’s the easiest thing in the world.
Dying is just letting go, loosening your grip and letting the stone drop back into the bowl.
Living is the opposite. Life is the act of grasping, of making choices and then trying to hold onto them with every ounce of strength you possess. When you’re born, you are reaching out for the first time to see what your hands will connect with. It is an act of blind faith that will remain with you for the rest of your time on this Earth.
When I decided to be born for the second time, I was no more ready for it than I had been for the first. I was reaching out and seeing if my hands would find anything to hold onto.
I am standing at the trailhead that leads toward my harbor. The world is alive and smells like soil, like things pushing up and out of the ground as they reach for what they both hope and know will be there when they break free. I am repeating the strategies that will keep me awake when all I want to do is go back to sleep.
This is not the season for sleeping. The forest is telling me that this, right now, is the season for putting down roots and daring to grow. I can see the small fingers of daffodils and crocuses baring their skin to the sun.
As I walk up the path and toward the grove, I anchor myself the way I know I’m supposed to. I look, I listen, I inhale the scent of a waking world and I let the taste of it rest against my tongue. I stop to touch the gnarled roots of rhododendrons and stroke the tips of pine needles, letting sap stick to my fingers and kiss my palms.
At first, I don’t even notice that I’ve arrived. I’ve been too wrapped up in the forest around me - I’m holding a hawk feather and brushing it against my wrists, letting goosebumps rise where the sensation rests. I found this talisman resting in the center of the trail and for a moment, I wondered if I should leave it behind.
Instead I’d bent down and picked it up; I had made a choice, and now I was holding onto it as I gazed out at the place where my journey had begun all those seasons ago.
I wait to feel panic, and I stop to listen for the hum of my machine-mind as it gears up to produce answers and labels for me to hide behind. Instead there is only stillness, the sound of a breeze hushing through the long-needled canopy above my head. That stillness is the sound of pieces fitting together. It is the sound of the first stone being laid down, the cornerstone of a bridge that will span the greatest expanses of my life.
I allow myself to drift slowly down to the forest floor, and this time my actions aren’t a precursor to sleep, but instead to something else entirely. I bare my body one piece at a time and let it put down roots into the soil of a living Earth. I finally moor the small vessel that is me, and I begin to look around at the harbor I can now call home.
I breathe in deeply, and then I make my choice. It is time to stop eating my own tail. I am ready to let life bloom over my tongue once again.
The world smells like fall, and somewhere outside of this room the animals are growing both urgent and restive all at once.
I lay quiet in my beloved’s arms, and he is a tangle of warm possibilities all around me. It is midnight and the world is sleeping, but I am not. Instead I am smiling into the dark and letting the silence unravel into poetry inside of me, an ecstatic unfurling of words that make sense for the first time in years.
I am reaching out, and I am making choices.
I am twenty-three years old, and I am awake.