The streetlights are out on my block. I rarely stay out late, but it's getting dark earlier now, and aside from a sporadic flicker, that means I occasionally have to walk up the street to my home in darkness.
This makes me nervous. Sort of. It's difficult to tell because I am always nervous. Hypervigilance and panic attacks are two symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which I discovered was my main diagnosis by Googling the diagnostic codes on my therapy invoices.
Most days I wake up in a full-blown panic -- when I'm not awoken in the middle of the night with weird, painful muscle spasms courtesy of my constantly clenched jaw and nighttime tooth grinding. I take medicine for this, which helps for a while, until the edges of my anxiety start to bleed through the pharmaceutical walls and I know it's time to mess with my dosage again.
No, it would be more notable if I did not feel nervous. On such occasions, I have been known to take a long, deep breath and announce, "I feel good right now," and then do my best to sit quietly without unsettling the feeling.
Sometimes I will confide, to a friend or partner, that I am feeling panicky, and they will usually ask me, "Why?" or, "What about?" There is no why; the fear is, I think, biological, and also big and old enough to bleed all over everything like a leaking pen at the bottom of a handbag. But one thing that I know is there, that I feel pricking me in my primate amygdala when I ride an elevator alone with a man, or feel a particularly large one towering over me, or hear footsteps behind me on my darkened block, is the fear of being raped again.
Some people have noted that when writing about my own rapes, I refer to myself as a "victim" and not a survivor, the generally preferred term of the day. I understand the reasons for the switch, but I'm a writer and I choose words carefully to describe my state of mind. I still feel like a victim.
Rape doesn't have to ruin your life, doesn't have to destroy you. But it sure can. Let us not deny its capacity for destruction. This is a powerful weapon we're talking about, and like any weapon, it may maim, kill or leave its victims relatively unscathed.
My rape, in conjunction with its accomplice, the disease of addiction, did its best to kill me for the decade I ricocheted from potentially lethal substance to life-threatening scenario. Had I ended up, as I perhaps deserved to, chopped to pieces in a dumpster somewhere or ODed at some stranger's house on Avenue U or sprawled at the bottom of a flight of stairs at odd angles, rape could have counted me among its casualties. That I am alive is a trick of fate, an accident I will be grateful for on each future birthday I am blessed with.
And honestly, I'm not sure I'd survive it again.
A year or so after I first started processing my rapes in therapy, something happened to me that I haven't written about until now. I was still drinking, although I was beginning to realize I had a problem, and I was for the first time identifying those hazy adolescent experiences I'd pushed down and refused to deal with as sexual assault. I get it now, I thought. I'm processing this. I understand what happened here.
And then some men pushed me into their car as I walked down the street in still-lively Park Slope, Brooklyn on the way back from drinks with a friend. It was 10 or 11 at night and I was blackout drunk. They called to me as I walked (more likely stumbled) the block or two toward the bus stop, and when I got close enough, pulled me inside their vehicle and hit the gas. I am not sure exactly what happened in that car, although I have flashes of my head being pushed into the driver's lap.
When they eventually pulled back up to the bustling restaurant corner where they had grabbed me, and let me out, I screamed at them to give me money for a car ride home, which they did. In the moment, that felt like standing up for myself.
I resisted telling anyone -- my partner, my therapist -- what had happened for at least a week. I felt somehow that I, who was just starting to realize how much I'd been through, was entitled not to have to deal with this again. I felt confused, as if my sheer understanding of sexual assault should have protected me. How could this have happened again, now that I was looking out for it?
I know now that rape can strike anywhere and at any time and that even my comparatively safer lifestyle, my sobriety, is no guarantee of protection. You can never fully protect yourself from rape, no matter how comforting it may be to think, "Well I wouldn't have gone there/done this/worn that, so what happened to her will not happen to me."
No, I have to live with the possibility of rape. All of us do; we women have to carry it with us and feel it pulling at our necks like some heavy fucked-up bling.
But if we were to fully feel its presence, we'd never take another step. So here is what calms me, what gets me out the door each day: If I get raped again, I can kill myself.
The same morbid thought used to comfort me throughout the worst of my addiction. During the most degrading, low-botttom moments, when the morning light hit my wired, sleepless body or my hair dangled into a fetid bar toilet, when my dopamine finally crashed after 48 hours of what desperate, motley gathering could barely pass for a "party" -- then the thought of suicide was like a merciful angel. Thank God. Thank God, I can always kill myself.
And when I think of the clawing, mind-shattering work it took first to stop deadening the pain with substances, and then to face that grief so powerful it took only the tiniest tip of the iceberg to level me -- well, I just don't know if I could do it again.
I hope I never have to find out.
If it happens -- if the footfalls behind me one day turn out to bring danger instead of just another horror movie jump scare -- I can't promise that I'll be up to the task of surviving again. But I can promise you one thing: I'll kill him first if I can.