Trauma Survival is Messy: Can We Have Good Memories of Our Abusers?
I love baseball. My four favorite words in the English language are “pitchers and catchers report” — a phrase I hear in February, which just barely edges out the “Opening Day” of April. I look forward to today every year with an anticipation that can only be rivaled by children lying awake listening for reindeer on the roof.
And then Opening Day arrives…and like a bolt of lightning I’m struck with every conceivable feeling at once: loss, love, nostalgia, fear, joy, sadness, anger. I used to spend Opening Day with my ex (and 40,000 other people) at Wrigley Field. I loved going to games with him. Even when things were bad between us (most of the time), baseball season meant the return of neutral territory. Baseball on television, baseball to talk about, baseball at the parks. I was a White Sox fan who also rooted for the Cubs in the hope that my life would be easier because my long-suffering Cubs fan boyfriend would be less explosive if they won.
My conflicted feelings about my ex have grown more complicated over the past two years and they converged today, conspiring to turn me into a distracted emotional mess. I’ve finally come to understand that all non-consensual sex — even in the absence of restraint, even when it’s “just” coercion — is rape. Which means it was rape when he came home extra drunk (we were both drunk a lot in those days) from the bar where we worked at 8am and I didn’t want to, but I gave in because I was too tired to fight. It was rape when he used my fear of being alone and my very real economic distress to pre-empt my “no.” Any time I didn’t want to and “let it happen,” I didn’t consent and I was violated.
Perhaps it’s fitting that April is not just the start of the baseball season, but also Sexual Assault Awareness Month, highlighting an issue that affects one in five women and one in fifteen men. I have a lot of company in Camp Sexual Trauma, which is one reason it remains frustrating to shoulder the expectations made of survivors.
Trauma survivors of all sorts are supposed to either be entirely in pieces — a temporary allowance immediately following an attack or event — or all better. I was already broken when my ex and I were together, so I couldn’t have been expected to notice the occasional smaller pieces created by this one part of our relationship. So, processing it all now in the safety of good medical care, therapy, friendships, love, and support is a bit of an out of body experience. I’m neither whole nor broken and most people don’t know how to react to that. As my good friend, the writer, activist, and speaker Wagatwe Wanjuki explains it, there’s this “weird pressure to perform as the ‘happy, successful survivor.’” When you are mostly fine as I am– having resolved my anger mostly through pitying him (his life’s been no picnic) and not being particularly prone to regret–you can even convince yourself that you’re all better.
But there is no “all better” for trauma survivors, so we continue to be caught off guard by the things around us. Worse yet for those of us who experienced violence and abuse in the context of a relationship, there is no allowance for residual positive feelings either. We aren’t allowed to be a mess forever, but we’re suspect if we allow ourselves some measure of good from those years. And we’re already suspect for staying; people typically don’t need much encouragement to pile on the doubt. I got hate mail and rape threats for almost a year following my HuffPost piece on how I came to realize what happened to me was rape. The fight in the now hidden comments was between the theory that no one could consume the amount of alcohol I described in the piece (half our typical daily intake, respectively), so I was lying about everything and “shut up, that doesn’t matter, she could have just left so it’s not rape.”
So how do I talk about those years at all? Am I supposed to forfeit the entirety of 2005-2011? When I’m asked why I love baseball or how I learned to cook, am I supposed to shrink and dodge the question because my ex was instrumental in both of those things? Can I not talk about my first Bulls game, how I got into hockey because he explained the rules to me, or visit any of the places back home where I’ll run into people who know or knew us both? I suppose the poetry of e. e. cummings is completely off limits and that is really too bad.
This internal conflict lead me to start having nightmares a few weeks ago. I’m in my first healthy romantic relationship (I’m 36) and have a real community of people who care about me in my life as well as a rockstar therapist. “Doc,” as I affectionately call my therapist, and I worked through the nightmares and determined that my ex was featuring heavily because I was trying to reclaim the good memories from our time together now that I don’t need to protect myself with impenetrable armor. Thinking happy thoughts about memories with him no longer feels like I’m trying to justify a reconciliation (not gonna happen) or indulging my sorrow about having to decide between being with him and being alone.
We had catches phrases and silly moments — lots of them. We had inside jokes about everything from soup to laundry. We went bowling and out to dinner. He was an incredible gift giver. Despite the tumultuousness of our relationship and the sort- of-on-sort-of-off years that followed it, I often felt safer in his apartment than anywhere else because I was allowed to hide and be broken there. I don’t want to erase seven years of my life and I shouldn’t have to just because bystanders can’t understand that trauma victims — like all human beings — are capable of holding simultaneous, conflicting feelings and thoughts.
I feel indescribably lucky to be involved with someone who would no sooner tell me which memories I’m allowed to reflect on than he would try to fix me. I’m learning so much about how to be kind to myself from him. I have the space to be whole and strong one day and shattered the next; I am not expected to be more or less than I am. And so, this year on Opening Day, I am granting myself the same space.