2. Anger is a healthy emotional response—but it can also be a destructive one.
After acknowledging that I’d been abused, I was blisteringly angry for two years. That was OK at first—I needed it. Being angry made me vocal about what happened to me, and being vocal meant being proactive. I wrote zines and started discussions, and it felt like I was becoming stronger. This is why I advocate mosh pits, screaming into a microphone, punching pillows, and even breaking stuff as an outlet—you get to release a lot of the bilious, horrible feelings inside you.
However, if you live in a purely pissed off state for weeks on end (let alone years, like I did), it drains you. It keeps you on edge all the time. I pushed a lot of my friends away because they couldn’t handle being around someone who was constantly furious about everything—which was fair, because I rejected their every attempt to help me or lighten my life, and being around someone who is nothing but angry and negative is exhausting.
This is where therapy (which we’ll talk about a little bit later) and other methods of self-care, like meditation, were key for me. Meditation forced me to sit still and deal with the physical sensations of my anger, like the tightness in my shoulders and chest, and breathe through them. It also taught me the importance of quiet alone time, which calms me down and keeps me from lashing out at everyone around me.
3. Healing doesn’t mean “getting over it.”
Once, after reading something I’d written about having been sexually abused, a guy friend sent me a letter saying, “You need to get over this. You say you want your power back, but you’re never going to get it as long as you keep victimizing yourself.” He used the word victimizing and victimization OVER AND OVER, and while this pissed me off, it nagged at me, too. Didn’t he have a point? I had been through a year of therapy at that point—hadn’t I put myself through the ringer long enough? Shouldn’t I have gotten over all that anger and sadness?
But I wasn’t over it. I was still having nightmares. I was still anxious and angry. I was still freezing up in sexual situations. In an effort to do what that guy friend suggested, I treated the nightmares with sleeping pills and everything else with booze and self-harm. I threw myself into an unhealthy relationship with a fellow heavy drinker because the guy acted sweet and understanding when I told him about my history with Greg.
At 22, I was living in my hometown again, and one day, when I was on my way to school in the morning, Greg was standing at my train stop. He refused to look at me, so I managed to get to school without talking to him, but that night, I told my “understanding” boyfriend how scared and upset seeing Greg had made me. He said, “I thought you were over this. It happened a long time ago.” I went out to the garage, where my boyfriend couldn’t hear me, and called a friend I’d had since my old Riot Grrrl discussion-group days. She explained that I didn’t have to be “over it” to deal with it. Then she added, softly, “Steph, you’re not healthy. You’re cutting, and you drink a lot.” She was right. Insisting I was “over it” had only dug me into a deeper hole.
4. You will feel like you’re back at the beginning again sometimes—but you’re really moving on.
A few years later, after a long stint of hard work with a therapist who helped me understand some of the stuff in my past that had made me vulnerable to Greg’s manipulation—my low self-esteem, for example, and some family issues—I was generally happy and healthy. I felt like I’d cleared all of the major hurdles and could enter a relationship that was healthy instead of destructive. Even though I might be reminded of the abuse from time to time, I was certain that I would never feel as raw about it as I used to.
…And then I watched an episode of Degrassi: The Next Generation about a girl dealing with the aftermath of rape, and I totally broke down into full-on, body-shaking sobs. I repeatedly punched the couch, I was so angry. The emotions onscreen hit so close to home—the way the character blamed herself, her pain upon being blamed by others, and the rage that followed.
I went back into therapy. When I told my new therapist about Greg, she surprised me by linking that experience not just to incidents in my past, but also to a lot of my adult anxieties. “I see this pattern in a lot of trauma survivors,” she told me. “You have a fear of losing control because someone took away your sense of control, so you set high standards and a rigid routine for yourself. Then, when you feel that control slipping, you let go completely and binge-drink, binge-eat, or self-injure.”
Hot tears spilled down my face. She was completely spot-on—but I didn’t want her to be, because I did not want Greg to still have this power over me nearly 20 years later. I managed to choke this out, and she said, “He doesn’t have the power. You do, because you’re here. We can work on your fear of losing control and how you react.” That therapist changed my life. I’d always been scared of taking risks because of all of the elements I couldn’t control, but after seeing her, I was able to move to a whole new city, something I had long wanted but was too afraid to do. I hadn’t really returned to Start—I had passed Go, collected the rewards of making that lap, and moved forward.
5. Find the people who understand and are willing to listen, and let them in—and listen to them, too.
This has been the most important part of my healing process. Two of my friends—my bestie from high school, and one of the girls from that old discussion group—have also been through traumatic stuff, and they’re who I turn to first when I’m upset, because they understand how easy it is to go from happy to angry to numb because you got a whiff of aftershave that reminded you of your abuser. I trust them—and I listen to them when they tell me I need help.
Letting people who haven’t experienced trauma in, and who might inadvertently make me feel self-doubt or think they are being helpful somehow when they say, “I think it’s time to get over it”—that was a lot harder. But there are people who will listen. You can identify them based on your past interactions: They’re the ones who don’t interrupt your account of your sucky day to tell you what you should have done, and who ask you thoughtful questions when you’re done talking. They’re also the ones who open up to you about their own lives. Listen to them, and then, when you’re ready, tell them your story.
Emotional work can turn bad experiences into gold: Finding these people in my own life, really listening to their stories and telling them mine, made me a better, more empathetic friend.
I may be dealing with the fallout of my relationship with Greg for the rest of my life. But while he may never have faced what he did head-on and learned from it, I definitely did. I have a Post-it note above my desk that I wrote during my most recent period in therapy that says “The pen is mightier than the pain.” It’s a reminder that my voice will get me through anything, as long as I stay committed to doing the emotional work that I need to be happy. But it’s not just my voice—it’s my heart. It’s me. ♦