There are two reasons I decided to see a therapist the winter of 2017.
The first: I detached from my body. The only way I know how to explain it is that I felt like a floating head; my brain severed from my heart. I was no longer aware of what my body looked like, or felt like. Curious, I know. I would look at myself in the mirror and think, Who is she? Why did I pick this body to live in?
The second reason is that I remembered being raped when I was 20. It came to me in abrupt flashes. I was just sitting on the couch, drinking coffee and reading a book. The memory made everything harder to swallow. I calculated. I had successfully kept my rape a secret from everyone who loves me for 16 years. But I still wasn’t ready to share. Sharing meant admitting I was a person most people didn’t even really know. What other secrets had I been keeping that I’d forgotten about? Naturally, I started with a professional, who didn’t know me at all.
Disclaimer: I never do this, write a disclaimer I mean. But before you read this, I want you to know that this blog post is disjointed. As an editor, I want to fix it. I read it back to myself and I want to move the paragraphs around to create a fluid thought, to carry you along with a clear story that has a beginning and an end, but that wouldn’t accurately depict how I have emotionally processed all of these things. So with this one, I’m offering a snapshot of what it’s looked like in my therapy sessions: bite-sized revelations that sometimes hit me hard and require a period of shelving until I’m ready to revisit. Some of these things I have never shared with anyone, until now.
When I was in high school, I felt invisible. I wasn’t. I was looked at all the time. I was asked on a daily basis why I dressed like that.
I felt reduced to the clothes I wore—something that was never fully in my control. The Old Testament was my handbook. I had sleeve-length and neckline limits. Maybe most girls did, I dunno. I also wasn’t allowed to wear pants. I wore skirts that always fell at or below my knee and often had sewn-closed slits. My favorite skirt was a pair of jeans that had been ripped apart and stitched back together to be a “real” jean skirt. It was the closest to what I thought my favorite outfit would be: a short-sleeve t-shirt and dirty, worn bluejeans.
Feeling invisible made me act invisible. I didn’t understand what I looked like to everyone else. All I knew was that I looked “weird”. I trapped myself behind my ribs. Curled up beside my heart, I wondered if I would ever get to express myself externally the way I thought of myself internally.
Boys didn’t seem to notice me much, but I did have two boyfriends—my first in 9th grade, my second in 12th—who both attended different high schools. I liked it that way. I didn’t want either of them to know who I was at my school. Quiet. Reserved. Shy, even. “Weird.” I thought they’d stop liking me.
And sex wasn’t a topic of discussion in our house. I learned the basics in health class and was taught at church that premarital sex was a sin worthy of eternal damnation. When I gave my virginity away at 17 and no one ever found out, except God, I learned the trapped me inside (the girl behind my ribs) could hold all my secrets. She was the only one who needed to know. She would keep me safe.
What I did with my body was my business.
The first man who came onto me was a co-worker. I was 18 and worked reception at an insurance company. He was the only other person in the lobby with me. He was much older than me, older than my parents, with a graying reddish beard spread thin across his face. He wore square glasses. Like most everyone in that office, he was friendly and I felt comfortable with him.
I didn’t know what was happening, or how it happened, when I found myself trapped in my chair at my desk with his legs spread wide around mine, his knees pushed up against the armrests.
His voice lowered as he moved his face closer to mine. His breath smelled. He told me how pretty I was and how sad he was that I was moving away but that he was glad he could finally tell me that he liked me. I didn’t know what to say. I don’t think I said anything. He asked me if I thought I could like him too, just for one night.
He backed away from me quickly when the elevator doors opened into the lobby and my mom stepped out. She worked upstairs. The next day he emailed me asking me to please not say anything. I told him I wouldn’t if he would never speak to me again. He has kept his end of the bargain.
I thought it was a fluke. A grown man had never done that to me before. I didn’t know being told I was pretty would feel so … gross.
Religion taught me that my body was meant to be covered. Showing too much skin was shameful, unladylike. If men saw my body and lusted, I would be to blame. I could not adorn myself with jewelry or wear makeup. My hair was kept long and uncut. The plainer, the better. In Alaska, hidden underneath an over-sized snowsuit with my hair tucked into a knitted hat, only my face exposed, a neighbor boy asked me if I was a boy because I didn’t look like any girl he’d ever seen. I’ve never felt very feminine since then.
When I left my parent’s home, I moved to Washington and decided to see what I’d look like in my imagined favorite outfit. I bought my first pair of jeans when I was 19 and cut 14 inches off my hair. The first time I was homesick enough to fly to Alaska for the weekend to visit my parents, I cried on the phone with my mom the night before because I had to confess that my hair was all gone.
I’ll never forget what she said. “It’s okay, Elizabeth. I knew you were going to cut your hair.”
She made it easier for me, and when she visited me in Washington, I felt comfortable enough to wear my jeans in front of her.
I thought jeans and cut hair would help me blend in with the other girls. I look at photos of myself in my early 20s and can tell you exactly who I was friends with based on my style. I was trying everything to fit in. That’s when I learned my personality was “weird”.
Maybe I was never meant to fit in.
I’ve always been a relatively average-sized woman. Sometimes thinner. Telling someone how skinny they are is just like telling someone how fat they are. I don’t feel reduced to the clothes I wear anymore, I often feel reduced to the size of the clothes I wear—made up, inaccurate numbers. When I go to the doctor and have to step on the scale, I close my eyes. I tell them not to tell me the number. I don’t want to know. Numbers induce stress .
Because I’m a small person, something I didn’t know I was until recently, a common compliment is that I’m cute or adorable. Those words make me feel like a 12-year old girl. I want to feel like a woman. But I’m also scared of what that feels like.
Some men tell me I’m hot. That’s just a temperature. Their tone always tells me what else they want to say and I usually don’t stick around to hear it. My ex-husband used to tell me I had weird knees. They’re my knees! What am I supposed to do about that?!
Weird is a trigger word for me.
Women have told me that if they only saw my thighs, they would think I was fatter than I am. When would that ever feel good to hear? Never. Until last summer, I wasn’t comfortable wearing shorts. Women have also said they’d give anything to have my small waist, but follow it up by telling me I need to eat more. I don’t have the greatest relationship with food. I’m not a stress eater. I developed an eating disorder in my early 20s, after a breakup, that I chronicled on my blog at the time. That was strange to re-read almost 20 years later. Another thing I had forgotten about until therapy.
It’s difficult not to define your body by the words other people use. Or become fearful of your body when it’s treated without respect.
My ass has been grabbed by a teenage boy while in a corn maze. I stopped attending youth group events … as a chaperone.
I’ve been catcalled walking from the parking lot into the grocery store. I try to park close to the doors so I don’t have to walk too far.
A man followed me home after church one night to see where I lived. He would leave flowers and sexually explicit notes on my doorstep. I moved and stopped attending that church.
I could go on. The days where nothing is said to me about my body, my looks are few.
I still struggle with not believing I do this to myself. I wear shorter skirts, jeans, and tank tops. I wear necklaces and earrings. Sometimes I even wear glittery eye makeup. And I am tattooed. I didn’t know women with tattoos were considered promiscuous.
I still have moments I wish for the invisibility I felt in high school. When it overwhelms me, I cover my tattoos in an effort to hide.
I came to an understanding at an early age that my male co-workers were the men I needed to protect myself the most from. Men who saw me almost every day. Men who were familiar to me. Men whose faces I could draw and emails I could share and voicemails I could playback.
I let one man use my bathroom in my apartment when he dropped me home after a show. We’d carpooled with a handful of our co-workers. He was engaged to a woman who sat 50 feet from me, but she was out of town. I didn’t think inviting him inside meant he would repeatedly try to corner me in my kitchen, in my living room while attempting to pin me against the back of my couch, or trap me in the hallway against the back of my front door while telling me he was beginning to think “no meant no”. He was a large man, over six feet tall. I stand at an average 5’4”.
I screamed loudly, over and over again. “NO DOES MEAN NO!”
He told me it was my fault. He told me I was a tease. He told me that wearing “fuck me boots” meant I wanted him. But I kept screaming.
It worked. He left. And just like my other co-worker, he contacted me the next day begging me to keep it to myself. I offered him the same as I had before, that I would say nothing if he promised to never speak to me again, and he accepted.
He’s married to the same woman he was engaged to then, and they have two beautiful daughters. I hope he teaches his girls how some men can be.
I recently switched to Aveeno lotion because I don’t want to use Lubriderm anymore. I still have two travel-sized bottles of Lubriderm but they are hidden from sight, behind the hand towels and spray bottles and Q-tips. I hate to waste the lotion. It’s good lotion for my tattoos.
The truth is I never really forgot about my rape. I just never allowed myself to call it what it is until now.
I was raped. I was raped.
I was raped.
A man whose face I can’t see clearly anymore forced himself inside of me with Lubriderm. It burned when I peed for days after. I didn’t know then that just because I’d had too much to drink and couldn’t keep my eyes open or speak coherent language or use my arm strength to push him off of me, it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t know then that what I was or was not wearing had nothing to do with it either.
I was embarrassed. Ashamed. I felt ugly. So I told no one.
When I became an ex-wife and sold my wedding rings—two simple bands I wore for the past 11 years that effectively identified me as a woman “not to be messed with”—I feared what I was opening myself up to. Being a single woman, “on the market” so to speak, has been an adjustment.
I find myself mostly unaware of the advances men make. When they are obvious, I usually get uncomfortable because, surprise surprise, I don’t trust men. The first man to ask me for my phone number had to spell it out for me multiple times because I didn’t understand what he meant. I didn’t think of myself as a woman that men would want to get to know. Now he’s one of my closest friends, and last night he watched two men serenade me with a dance routine and I didn’t even notice. I didn’t know they were doing it for me until they approached me later. I kinda wish I would’ve seen it. It’s not like that happens every day.
As a married woman, I believed I’d found my “other half” and I should count myself lucky. I willingly accepted the script that we were each other’s one and only. Someone told me my ex-husband has a girlfriend now. I knew this day would come, that I’d hear he’d found someone else, but I didn’t expect it to be so soon. I figured he’d get into a relationship before I did. I wasn’t happy in our marriage for a long time before I admitted it (thanks therapy), so there is no way he could’ve been happy either. I’m glad he’s found someone. I’ve come to understand there is no one person for anyone, and I’ll meet someone else that I want to have a relationship with eventually. Maybe I’ve already met them. But I don’t want to be a “one and only”—the expectation is too great for any person to handle and I don’t want to make that mistake again. My next relationship may last beyond my previous one, or it may not and I’ll meet another someone and try again.
All I know is that being single has reconnected me to my body.
When my friend Kim asked me to pose for a Goddess Portrait Series she is creating based on the chakras, I was elated but also really nervous. I was going to be the most naked I’ve ever been and people were going to look at my body and think things about my body. Things I would never know about. Nakedness is a new thing I’m learning to be comfortable with, and I still find ways to cover myself. My tattoos are my security blanket, my artistic armor. I trusted Kim’s vision though, and I wanted to see myself as a Goddess. Don’t I look beautiful? I feel beautiful. I’ve never felt that before. Beautiful is a word I hear so rarely as a descriptor, so when I do I soak it up and practice feeling it.
A young intern at the company I work for approached me on his last day and told me I am “intimidatingly beautiful”. He said he hadn’t spoken to me all summer because he was too nervous but he wanted to say something. He was kind in his offering and I accepted with a simple thank you. That is the moment I began my re-connection to my body. I carry those words in my pocket.
There are good men out there worthy of being trusted, and I feel lucky when I cross their paths. I have three very specific ones in mind. You know who you are.
These photos have completed the connection to my body, and myself. They remind me I am soft and strong. They remind me of my femininity. They remind me that my body doesn’t deserve to be sexualized, but that when it is, it’s not because of anything I’ve done. It’s not my fault.
The girl who used to hide behind my ribs and hold my secrets no longer lives there.
This is my new body, one free of the pain of assumptions and expectations that it look a certain way.
This is my new body, and I don’t need to be scared of it.
This is my new body, and it belongs to no one else.
This is my new body, one unaffected by past harms against it.
This is my body, and it is a good body for my soul.