Not much surprises me anymore.
I guess you could say, due to my history, I have come to expect the unexpected, perhaps even anticipate it. Ever-watchful and hyper-vigilant, always waiting for the other shoe to drop, I do not get caught off guard or shocked easily. And when I do it usually has more to do with my own anxiety or lack of attention than any outrageous or astonishing circumstances. Always prepared for the worst, but hoping for the best, it is difficult to throw me off my game for too long, as even the biggest bombshells typically have very little impact on my overall sensibilities anymore. It is easy enough to catch a fastball if you are ready for it.
This week, however, an unanticipated message completely spun me out. Sent me spiralling deep down into an abyss I have gratefully managed to avoid falling back in for quite some time. I managed to crawl out relatively quickly, shake it off and get my bearings, but whoa—I have to admit, while in the midst of it all, I worried for a second that I might not make it out. Darkness can be oddly soothing. Yet, here I am, bathed in light once again. Mind full blown, but still standing, feet planted firmly on the path to healing. A little worse for wear, a bit bent, but nowhere near broken. Never broken.
On the Day of the Dead, in the small hours, I was haunted by my own ghost.
A childhood friend wrote to sadly inform me that she had recently ended a relationship with my rapist. They had a child together, and he had abused her, too. She had read a blog post I had written and deduced it was him. I had never told her what had happened between us, because there is no way that I could have predicted the future; still, guilt gripped me by the guts and squeezed as hard as it could.
Blindsided, I felt hot bile rise up from the bottom of my belly and threaten to choke me. I read the words staring back from the screen in black and white, over and over, and for a moment or two, I was seventeen again. In that room with him. Pinned under him. Violated by him. I closed my computer and paced the office for hours, triggered, reeling from flashback after flashback, turning it all over in my mind, the old and new knowledge of him.
I had no idea what I was supposed to do with the information.
I will admit, I entertained a few revenge fantasies, permitted my mind to go where my body never would. Imagined, for a moment, that I might actually be capable of making him finally face the consequences of his brutal actions. I got extremely angry, threw a book, and slammed the door. Bang! Scratched a few new hives on my left arm. Then I buried my face in my hands and sobbed, sobbed, sobbed. I crawled into bed that night wondering if I would ever be able to scrub my soul clean enough to not feel so dirty every time I thought of him. I did not sleep a wink.
The next morning, I activated the Phone Tree. Think “Practical Magic,” the brilliant film based on the even-more-brilliant novel by Alice Hoffman, and you will know exactly what I mean. My support network, one by one, showed up to hold my hand, to listen sympathetically and offer advice, and to make me laugh, which I needed desperately, probably more than anything else in the universe right at that moment. Laughter is like little bursts of light. It dissipates darkness in much the same way.
Later, I recalled the words of a trusted advisor, who has often reminded me to watch for the Ultimate Test within every warrior’s lesson. The test that arrives just when we think we have it all figured out, throws everything we believe we have learned in our faces to see how we will respond, and determines precisely where we will go from here. If we fail at the challenge, nobody loses, we simply stay put and continue trying until we get it right. (Hint: we get it right when we listen to our hearts). But if we have managed to successfully incorporate what we have learned into our daily lives and behave accordingly, we may be permitted to level up in this game called Life.
This was my Ultimate Test. I could feel it in my bones.
For more than twenty years, I have tortured myself, wondering if he had—or would—hurt anyone else. I held my breath and myself accountable for his potential crimes. Now I know the truth. Of course he would. He did. Because I never reported the incident, I carried the crushing weight of guilt and the burden of a responsibility that was not mine around for two decades, believing that I was responsible for anyone else he abused subsequently. But it was never my fault. I was a girl just trying to survive the only way I knew how, and I had nothing at all to do with his choices. In reality, the only one responsible for making sure he never assaulted any woman again was himself. Him. And he failed.
I do not know precisely what to do. My words may turn out to be the only gift I have to offer. Still, if words are all I have, after so many wasted years spent suffering through the damage done by this particular individual, this is what I need to tell my sweet, beautiful friend: Do not carry hate in your heart (or he wins). Allow your anger to propel you forward until you arrive at a place where you can use your damage to make a difference in the world. And forgive yourself for how you survived. None of it was your fault, honey. Not one bit.
The boy who raped me is now a full-grown man. I am no longer the defenseless girl I used to be. Far stronger than I was, I am an empowered woman living life on my terms. Braver than he will ever be. And wise enough to understand this is not my battle. Our fight is over. I won.
Today, I say a prayer for his child, and for my old friend: May hope fill your heart, and the branches of your Phone Tree extend far and wide. You will get through this, I promise. For any past or future victims. For my own sons & daughters, and their sons & daughters, and their sons & daughters, and theirs. For your sons & daughters, and their sons & daughters, and their sons & daughters, and theirs. For the world they will inherit. For the world we will leave behind. For the girl I was, for the woman I am, and for the woman I will become. And for him, my rapist, who is probably the most damaged and broken of all.
I am not big enough for forgiveness. Not in this case. So I will not pretend to be. All I can do is let it go, cut the cords between our souls, and keep moving forward. As the Enlightened One, Buddha, so famously said, “Our enemies are our greatest teachers.” I suppose you could say I am leaving one of my greatest instructors behind.
It is time for this warrior to level up.
(Arwen at 17)
*This post first appeared on Living the Dream blog*