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Responses to trauma.

Art by Nicole Dallis

Note: this article contains discussion of pedophilia and sexual assault.

I was eight years old when my uncle said to me, “Come here, sit on my lap.” We were alone in my bedroom, white curtains drawn so that I could see the empty night sky from my window. I thought it was weird, briefly, because my mother told me I was too old to do things like sit on her lap and be carried around. But I didn’t question it much, and I was sick of all my teachers telling me that third grade was the ‘donkey’s bridge’ where everything starts getting serious, so I sat on his lap. 

It was then that I felt something hard press against me. I wish I hadn’t asked what it was. Maybe if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have had to look at it and touch it. Again. And again. And again. 

Afterwards, everything made me flinch. It didn’t matter where I was, or who I was with. I visited my father overseas and jerked every time he tried to hug me. My volleyball coach tried to show me how to execute an upper-hand serve and I snatched my hand away and dropped the ball. My left-handed fifth grade deskmate accidentally touched me and I instinctively elbowed him. I don’t know when I realised that the assault affected my everyday life in such a way, but I remember repressing it. I could go weeks or months without thinking about it sometimes. But it always came back. 

A little while after it stopped, something horrific occured to me: I had gotten too old to be a target. But this did not bring any kind of relief, only a new kind of terror. Who was next? I had younger female cousins, but none of them had any contact with him. He was married to my auntie and they had two sons, but what if they ever had a daughter? He had another niece who was four years younger than me. Would he turn to her? What could I do?

Nothing. I could do nothing but write about it in my diary. I would leave it open on my desk hoping someone would read it. And then my grandmother did. She went to my aunt, instead of my mother, and my aunt called me and asked me if it was her husband. She didn’t talk to me for months after I told her that it was. It has been eight years, and she has never mentioned it. She had another child with him, a daughter.

In the years since, I’ve come to realise that I feel a twisted need for male validation despite the horrors of years past. I used to think that if I kissed boys and did other sexual things, I could reclaim my body and finally let go. Move on. I thought that choosing it gave me agency, but all I ever felt afterward was earthworms crawling all over me and dirt in my lungs. Maybe if I try again, I told myself, it will be different. So I got drunk and let the alcohol take over my body and make me do things, hoping that the liquor would take away the memories and make me ‘whole’ again, like working out an injured muscle. But the memories came back every time. 

I met my first—and only—boyfriend when I was sixteen. I was so excited, even though I knew I was using him to rewrite an unchangeable history. But I didn’t care as long as it worked. The first time he kissed me, I didn’t want to throw up, and for a while, everything was fine. And then one day he came up behind me and put his arms around my waist, and something hard pressed against me. Suddenly, I was eight and nine and ten and eleven years old again; I was in my bedroom, baby pink walls closing around me, I was in a bathroom, pushed up against cold tiles and trying not to cry. I was every moment I had repressed, every moment I had felt powerless in my life. 

I went to my best friend’s house after school that day. “It’s ridiculous they made you go to school on a Saturday,” she said through a mouthful of mango ice cream. “I want to break up with my boyfriend,” I replied. 

When I was seventeen, I entered into a self-imposed dry spell that has lasted to this day. I realised that choosing a situation did not give me power over it, and didn’t necessarily make me safer. The only thing I felt when a man touched me was nausea, like I was choking. So I stayed away from men, from any sort of physical intimacy, stayed in my head where the only people who touched me were respectful, asked for consent, and bore the faces of my favourite fictional men. I’ve begun to wonder if I am asexual, because the idea of sexual activity repulses me so thoroughly. Yet, I still yearn for love. 

I have had a hard time separating my self-worth from my sexuality and physical appearance. If body-hugging red jumpsuits and low-cut pink sweaters were all that anyone ever saw, how could I be liked for anything else? When I gained weight, when I stopped wearing revealing clothing, when I stopped trying to call attention to myself, the compliments stopped. It was a difficult thing to navigate; because I did not want to be looked at or touched, but I did not want to be ignored either.

I have spent what feels like many lifetimes just struggling. I have taught myself over and over again that I am worth more and deserve more. I am worth more than this sickening experience. I deserve more than people who can’t see past what my bra size is. I deserve more than the fear I am forced to endure at the prospect of physical intimacy. I deserve more than feeling uncomfortable in my own body. And sometimes, I am okay; I go on dates, and hug my father, and rest my head on a male friend’s shoulder.

But I am still hiding. Hiding from him, hiding from my memories, hiding from everything horrible that has stemmed from it and irrevocably changed the way I live my life. I hate that I think I will never trust anyone enough to let them be physically intimate with me. I hate that I will never want to bring a child into this world with so much pain. But most of all, I hate that there are some things that are forever tainted.