As you might imagine from the title, this post carries a TRIGGER WARNING. Maybe no one else really should read this. But I need to write it.
I was going on more than three years of severe depression, with at most a few good weeks in between long spells of burning myself and warding off suicidal thoughts. I was in therapy about half that time, which had brought me to the realization that early sexual abuse had contributed to my willingness to be in an emotionally poisonous marriage. I had ended that marriage, which I thought meant I was “better.” So I was puzzled about why I still didn’t feel much better–and I did not recognize how vulnerable I was to other forms of abuse.
I got a new job and needed to move again, to another new city. The new job asked if I could come down a few weeks early for a day-long planning session with the team I’d be working with. It seemed like a good time to look for a place to live. But I was so extremely broke that I didn’t know how I could pay for a place to stay overnight. “Luckily” (I thought at the time) I had been meeting and talking to a lot of people online, one of whom lived in the city I was moving to. Stephen was a little flirtly, though in an admittedly creepy way. He often made comments about how much he liked S&M. Rather than pulling away, I was intrigued. That’s different, I thought, and he even has the nerve to talk about it openly. At the time, I literally had no ability to scan for danger.
So when we chatted online and he offered to help me look for a place to live, saying I could spend the night at his place, I was grateful. I drove down on Sunday so we could spend the afternoon apartment hunting and then I could go the team planning session at my new job on Monday morning.
As soon as he opened the door of his apartment, I had a bad feeling. The way he looked me, clearly assessing my body. The lonely look of his apartment, with plenty of elaborate computer gadgets but no decoration, no indication that he ever had friends over. But I shook it off. After all, he’d been so kind in his offer to help. I couldn’t be rude.
We drove around some that afternoon, checked a couple of places. I talked about my new job. He talked about meeting women online. I talked about the price of apartments. He talked about the ways in which “submissives” could manipulate the person dominating them. I had never heard anyone talk like that before. I didn’t want to seem naive or judgmental.
I agreed to go to dinner with him. At the restaurant, he behaved as if we were a couple, in a controlling sort of way. He was dressed all in black, with a leather jacket. The waitress eyed me curiously. I could tell we didn’t seem right together but kept pretending it was all fine.
I kept pretending things were fine when we went back to his house after dinner. I kept pretending it was normal and ok when he told me to take off my clothes so he could examine my body. I did what he said. Why not? I had long ago learned that this is what I was supposed to do.
But sometime not that much later it became not fine at all. He tied my hands. He beat me, with his hands, with a hairbrush, with a whip, with a stick. He grabbed my breasts and twisted the nipples until I screamed. He hit me over and over until I begged him to stop. He used me sexually until I fell asleep, exhausted. Then he woke me up to keep going. I had to ask permission to use the bathroom, and he gave me strict rules for how I could use the toilet. I kept moving but was in a trance. I can remember many of the things he did, but not everything and I don’t know in what order things happened. I remember wondering how his neighbors couldn’t hear me screaming, why no one came to the apartment. I was dizzy and confused. I was afraid of making him angry, so I did what he told me. Or more precisely, my body did what he told me to do. My mind had checked out.
He finally let me rest at about five in the morning. The alarm went off at seven. He pushed me out of bed, untied my hands and told me to get in the shower with him and wash him off. I had to override my horror to touch him, but I did it. Then I washed myself, but carefully, because everything hurt so much. I couldn’t let the water spray against my breasts. I was limping a bit. I pulled my clothes on gingerly. He told me to hurry up and leave, because he had to get to work.
So I left and drove my car to a nearby shopping center. I parked and stared at the nearly empty lot. I could barely breathe. What just happened to me? What had I done? I was an idiot! How could I let that happen! What kind of woman was I anyway? I was disgusting, an animal.
Somehow I went to the team meeting for my new job. I don’t remember anything about the content of the meeting. I do remember that it was hard to sit on a chair for several hours because I was so sore. I wore a pad because I was bleeding some, even though I didn’t have my period. My hands shook. I felt I was hearing everything that went on, but as though from far away, as if I were not really there.
When the meeting was over, I still had to drive a few hours to get back to the city where I was still living. I felt I couldn’t do it. I just wanted to curl up and disappear. Yet my children were waiting for me at home–again they were the reason I could not retreat from the world.
So I called my friend Gina and said only, “I’ve been assaulted.” I was too ashamed to tell her the details and about my own complicity. She heard the anguish in my voice and didn’t ask me to explain. Instead, she gave me a pep talk so I could drive home. “Listen to the radio,” she advised me, “and distract yourself for a couple of hours. Don’t think about it, just for a little while. And call me when you get home.”
I did what she suggested. I made it home, hugged my children, paid the babysitter, drove her home, bathed the kids, put them to bed. I was a robot, going through the motions. Then I called Gina back. She advised me to talk into a clinic or hospital and tell them I’d been assaulted. “That way you can get the morning after pill,” she said. “You don’t need to end up pregnant from this. And call your therapist for an emergency appointment. It took me about two days before I could do what she advised, but eventually I did. The doctor wasn’t very sympathetic, but my therapist was.
This experience haunted me for a long time. To me, it was my proof that no matter how much I had experienced abuse as a child, really I wanted it. I asked for it. I deserved it because I let it happen. I could forget about it for a while, but then I would read something in a book about a woman acquiescing to a sexual liaison she didn’t really want, and I’d spin off into new marathon of self-flagellation. Later I met my second husband, who is gentle and loving, and as much as I loved and trusted him, sometimes I’d dissociate when he touched me. (Sometimes I still do.)
I’m still somewhat ashamed of this experience–and nervous to let you all find out that I let this happen to me–but it no longer carried the same extreme pain it used to. A year or two ago, I never could have posted this, even anonymously. But recently I have come to realize that I let this happen because I had learned as a child to let things happen to me. I had learned that I didn’t deserve protection. I had learned to override my own instincts in favor of being agreeable to men. This experience was a natural outgrowth of experiencing child sexual abuse. It doesn’t mean I actually wanted to be violated. It doesn’t mean I deserved it. It doesn’t mean I was inherently filthy. It doesn’t mean it was acceptable for Stephen to hurt me like that. It means only that I needed to learn to trust myself, set some boundaries, and protect them. It just means I need to love and care for myself. I’m working on that.