My parents are drinkers.
This isn’t the beginning of a post about how alcoholism ruined my childhood. It didn’t. I just mean that booze has been an ever-present part of my life from day one. As kids, my sister and I would reach for a sip of Mom’s pop and she’d shoo us away. “There’s wobbly juice in that,” she said. “You can have some when you’re older.”
And so we did. We drink just about every day. Most evenings, it’s whiskey and Netflix. Sometimes we sneak a shot of it into our morning coffee. If it’s nice outside and we’ve had a rough morning, a 1 p.m beer in the sunshine might be in order. It’s just what we do.
So that’s why–when I found myself hiding handles of vodka behind boxes of neglected student loan bills in my bedroom closet–I knew I had a problem.
It was the summer of 2013. I’d just returned home from the Pacific Northwest, where I’d lived in a tent while working on an organic farm north of Seattle, Washington. I’d planned for my trip the way coupled people plan for a wedding: I’d saved money for a year, meticulously thought out the logistics of travel, and shipped my tent and other supplies ahead of me, so as not to incur extra baggage fees at the airport.
But when my six weeks were up, I came back to Michigan feeling deflated. For whatever reason, it just hadn’t been the experience I thought it would be. Maybe that was my own fault; I’d given myself unrealistic expectations. This would be The Thing That Would Change My Life— the thing that would finally pull me out of the slump I’d been in for so long. The fresh air would do so much for me, I’d thought. It would help me to heal after the sexual assault I’d experienced earlier that year. It would tell me what the hell to do next.
But everything was gray. I just hadn’t connected with anyone out west, or felt as if I’d learned anything meaningful.
My best friend, meanwhile, was getting married. Now was not the time to confront all the little weird demon creatures that lived inside my head. So I put a smile on my face and sang a love song in front of Sarah and Kevin’s family and friends, who were gathered for the wedding ceremony on the shore of Lake Superior.
Back home in Detroit, I holed up in my room at my parents’ house, avoiding people who wanted to know how life on the farm had been. I didn’t have a job; I’d quit mine when I’d left for Washington. I was 24, and my college days were over. I had no idea what my next step would be.
I know how terribly Lena Dunham this sounds. It’s like a fucking Onion article, right? Privileged Suburban White Girl Feels Sad and Has Too Much Time on Her Hands.
But that’s exactly why this story is so bland and thus, hard to write. It’s not very interesting. But I can’t help it. Like I said, everything was gray. Depression is vodka. It tastes like nothing, looks as natural as water, and will fuck you right up.
But if you’re going to continue to search for the root of the problem, I can give you this:
In January, I’d been sexually assaulted by a former college classmate. We’d met as undergrads, and he’d since moved on to an MFA program on the east coast. We’d been friends for five years, so I decided to hop on a plane and visit him. He raped me as his girlfriend slept downstairs.
Afterward, I immediately told my mom what had happened. Not because I wanted to, but because I lived with her and knew she’d be alarmed if I crawled into bed for several days. Which is exactly what I intended to do. I thought it best to get the inevitable conversation with her over with so I could be left in peace to handle the aftermath.
So began several months of dealing with my assault on other people’s terms.
I saw a therapist. I performed in my school’s production of the Vagina Monologues. And, in March, I blogged about what had happened to me. As a writer and gender studies major, I figured I had a responsibility to do so. I never mentioned the guy by name, but we had a lot of mutual friends, many of whom figured out right away who I was talking about.
Most were supportive. One in particular, a woman I will call Kate, sent me an email saying that she was stunned and very sorry. She told me she would end her eight-year friendship with my assailant, and immediately deleted him on Facebook. That was, I admit, exactly what I had expected her to do. She was more than twenty years my senior, a self-proclaimed feminist and liberal, and English professor.
But three months later, in mid-June, she re-added him and deleted me.
I tried not to let it affect me. It was Facebook, after all, not real life.
But I couldn’t shake the message she sent me by doing that. I don’t believe you.
And the timing couldn’t have been worse. I was already depressed, because I knew my time was up. It had been several months since my assault, and it was time to move on. The semester was over. I needed to find a job. But I also knew something no one else did: I’d handled the aftermath on an intellectual level only, going through the motions of what I thought I was supposed to do in order to appear like I had my shit together. Emotionally, I hadn’t even scratched he surface. There was so much I still needed to work through. And then Kate threw this at me, and I just wasn’t strong enough to grab and dispose of it before it soiled anything good that was left.
I continued to go through the motions, sort of. I applied for jobs. And I landed interviews, lots of them. But no one hired me. To this day I maintain that they knew. They knew I didn’t want it, that I didn’t care, that I spent my days in my underwear watching shitty sitcoms and spending the last of my student loan refund on cheap vodka, drinking just to get drunk.
Publicly, I tried to be honest about how I felt without scaring everyone off. On Facebook one day I wrote:
You have been way too lazy lately. No more booze or embarrassing sitcoms for you. It’s time to stop living in squalor and reconnect with what makes your brain and heart feel alive again.
Since you already feel intellectually dead anyway, you might as well start with the mindless work of cleaning the house. Once that’s done, switch modes. Convince your body that you still care about it. Ride your bike until your muscles start screaming profanities at you. Then go home and give your brain a workout. Read something, write something. Tell someone you love them. Anything that’ll force you to actively interact with the world in some kind of meaningful way.
And finally, sleep. Then rinse (literally, take a goddamn shower—depression has made you smell like overripe bananas), and repeat.
But privately, my thoughts were darker. “I don’t want to be here,” I wrote in my journal on July 13th. “I don’t want to do this.”
As documented in earlier posts, I have struggled with depression and anxiety for years.
But this was different. It was worse.
Let’s clear something up. It is incredibly hard to admit you’re suicidal—to say it out loud. That’s because, even though you might not give a shit about yourself anymore, you still know that people love you. Which means that if you tell them that you want to die, you will scare them, and make them feel bad. And why the hell would you want to make anyone feel as badly as you already do?
But by October, things had gotten so bad that I no longer trusted myself to get behind the wheel of a car, for fear that I would willfully crash it into something.
Luckily for me, I had a friend who lived nearby and had been where I was. She started coming over all the time. Her visits felt like interventions. Because they were interventions.
I knew how dark and gross I was. I’d pushed everyone else away, and assumed all my old college friends were afraid of me, or put off by the monster I’d become. It was nice to know that someone wasn’t. And that, really, was all it took—someone to make me feel heard, to validate all I’d felt and experienced that year.
After a few conversations with this particular friend, I started to feel strong enough to reach out to other people. I never actually told any of them that I was suicidal. But I did say that I felt like shit and couldn’t live that way anymore.
Just saying it out loud, and knowing that people heard what I had to say (read: not just what I said because I thought it’s what people wanted of me), was exactly the boost I needed, and I was finally able to start moving on with my life.
I’m still haunted by Kate’s actions. It took me a year and a half, but I finally worked up the nerve to talk to her about it. In December of 2014, I sent her the following email, to which she never responded:
I don’t know what Matthew said to you. And frankly, I don’t care. He assaulted me; he ignored my boundaries. And if you choose to be friends with him knowing that information, then you cannot rightfully call yourself a feminist or an ally. By revoking your support of me, you hurt me even more badly than he did.
I know that that’s a harsh accusation. But it’s the reality I’ve lived with since January of last year. Matthew didn’t make me suicidal. There’s no forgiving what he did; ending my friendship with him was easy.
It was infinitely harder to lose yours.
While you’re certainly not the only person who chose not to believe me, you’re the only one who made it abundantly clear that you’d changed your mind about whose side you were on.
And that’s what hurt the most. When I decided to speak out about it, I expected people to be asshats. I expected people to back away quietly, to ignore what I said. And who could blame them, really? It’s a difficult topic to confront.
But I confronted it anyway because writing is how I handle everything. Everyone is different; not all rape survivors heal by writing or speaking or sharing. But since I do, I went for it. And as a fellow writer, I thought you understood that (especially when–right after I outed Matthew on my blog–you sent me such a beautiful email voicing your support).
Ultimately, I hoped that my speaking out would help to keep others safe.
What you did completely undermined that. If people like you, who are smart and pay attention to important things, can be swayed by people like Matthew, then I’ve experienced a lot of pain for nothing. You’d been friends with him for a long time at that point. But so had I. The one thought I had in that terrifying moment was that my only witness was his cat.
What you did only reinforces that sense of isolation.
I totally lost faith in academia right around the time I was assaulted. There are a lot of reasons for that, but one is that I realized it wasn’t a safe space for me anymore. What would you do if a student approached you and said she’d been raped? Believe her only if her assailant was a stranger to you?
That leaves a lot–most, in fact–of survivors in the dark.
While you hurt me worse than Matthew did, his act was unforgivable, and yours is not. He will never hear from me again, but I had to write to you. You’re better than that. You’re better than him. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t have bothered to reach out to you.
I’m not asking for an explanation. But I am asking you to listen, and to understand. That’s all I ever asked of you in the first place.
In February of this year, transgender actress and activist Laverne Cox (of Orange is the New Black fame) spoke at the college I’d attended. I hadn’t set foot on that campus in years. And since my assault, I hadn’t particularly wanted to. It scared me. I figured it’d be triggering. There were too many people I just didn’t want to risk running into.
But there was no way in hell I would miss this.
So I went. I was terrified, but I went. And it was incredible. A friend of mine, who is a transgender woman, introduced her. And afterward I wound up at a bar I’d frequented in college, with a bunch of old friends and acquaintances. The evening had pulled us together in such a way that we skipped right over the pleasantries and bullshit and dove straight into a conversation we’d all needed to have for a long time. About safety, about peace, about acceptance.
One old acquaintance said to me, “I feel like things here have gotten better since we left. Like it’s a little safer than it used to be, and easier to be yourself and speak your truth.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I think so, I hope so.”