050: The Gift
Content Warning: This post contains information about sexual abuse, mental illness, self-harm, suicidal ideation, and queer experiences, which may be triggering to some survivors.
"The Gift," Lynne Marie Meyer
I was freshly turned six years old when I discovered the truth about Santa Claus. I was in my parents’ bedroom, hiding away from the chaos of the Christmas party my parents were hosting. Being naturally shy and much younger than all but one of my cousins, I appreciated the quiet that I found behind closed doors. For some reason, I took a peek under their bed, and found a stash of presents marked “from Santa”. I don’t remember being bothered by my realization. What I do remember is that this was also the night that the abuse started.
My oldest brother is 11 years older than me. My abuser was a friend of his, and the same age. He’d also gone into the bedroom, ostensibly to rest away a headache. I didn’t mind the intrusion. In fact, I welcomed it. This was a trusted member of my family-by-choice. My parents had a fondness for unofficially “adopting” my brothers’ friends; my oldest brother was “son #1”, the next brother was “son #2”, and then the various friends were sons #3, #4, and so on. My abuser fell into this category. As far as my family was concerned, he was one of us. And so, I trusted him.
I can also admit that I loved him. As children are prone to do, I’d developed quite the crush of sorts on him. He was funny, rather charming when he wanted to be, and unlike my teenaged brothers, really seemed to enjoy spending time with me. Little six year old me found it flattering to have the attentions of a 17 year old. When I realized he felt unwell, of course I wanted to make him feel better. When what he asked for was a kiss, I thought nothing of it, assuming it would be on the cheek. When instead he suddenly thrust his tongue into my mouth, I thought… well, the truth is, I didn’t know what to think.
This was the 1970s, and literally no one had ever spoken to me about such matters. I had no frame of reference whatsoever to understand what was happening, or how to navigate the incredibly complicated emotions that were coursing through me. It was flattering -- a first kiss! -- but wrong, and I knew it. He capitalized on my ambivalence, of course, and I was told to keep it “our secret”.
Over the next three years, the abuse continued, and escalated. When the first rape happened, I couldn’t tell you; I also can’t tell you exactly how many there were. By the time I was 11, I’d pushed the worst of the details to the deepest recesses of my mind. Every time I looked at the necklace he’d given me -- a faux-ruby heart shaped pendant -- I felt inexplicably uneasy. I became suicidally depressed, but couldn’t exactly explain why. I knew something had happened, could remember portions of it, but because the specifics were gone, I felt that I was a fraud. And because I didn’t speak up at the time it was happening, because the parts I did remember were tinged with pleasure, I was terrified that if I did say anything, my parents would find out that I was no longer a virgin and label me a whore.
More than once, I tried to kill myself (notably, never doing so badly enough to even warrant my family’s realizing it; I was unconsciously calling out for attention and failing badly). My grades plummeted. By the time I was in high school, I was skipping school every day. Me! The girl who loved learning more than anything else, the girl who was skipped a grade in elementary school, the girl who always scored at the top of her class! But I couldn’t be there anymore. I couldn’t be anywhere anymore. Everywhere I went, there he was. And everywhere I went, there I was. As much as I tried to escape myself, I couldn’t.
At some point, I admitted to my confused and concerned parents one part of what happened, an incident that had never fully left my mind. Though they have yet to understand or admit the severity of that assault (even today they regard it as something that should have been minimally impactful on my life), they were more outraged than they let on at the time. I found out later that they'd relayed the information to my brother, who apparently gave my abuser quite the beating. After years of enduring his presence almost daily, even his accompanying us on out out-of-state vacations, I had some relief: My abuser was finally banished from my home. His name was never mentioned again, and neither was what he had done. This silence did not help me. In fact, it made the pain, depression, and internalized shame worse.
One day, for a reason I don’t remember, a friend voluntarily checked herself into a mental hospital for a brief period. I asked to go with her. My parents agreed. I’d hoped this would help, but how could it when I wasn’t even able to tell the truth to myself let alone a therapist? The doctors slapped a diagnosis on me that I knew wasn’t accurate, and put me on pills that at least helped to manage the depression I was experiencing. I pushed the memories of the rapes further and further away. After a while, I started to function again.
By the time I started college, I actually thought that I’d healed. I was in school, doing well academically again, and although I was still extremely shy and had no social life to speak of apart from a few close friends, it seemed that life was pretty good.
And then, I started dating. Or at least, I’ll call it dating. It really wasn’t. While it was always consensual, it was also exploitive. In my mind, I was still a virgin (since what happened before wasn’t by choice, it didn’t count somehow), and so at age 20 when I made the decision to engage in sexual activity, I initially felt empowered and that I was reclaiming part of my identity. Yet, again and again I found myself agreeing to things that made me uncomfortable, and allowed him to treat me with a staggering amount of disrespect. After the third date, he decided that he would no longer kiss me. He’d still sleep with me, mind you, but he wouldn’t kiss me. My 44-year old self would kick someone to the curb for that, but back then, I accepted it and kept sleeping with him.
This unhealthy arrangement lasted, on and off, for a few years. I broke it off finally around the time that I got accepted into my second Master’s program and was headed out of state to the school of my dreams. Once again, I thought I’d put my past behind me; I was away from home and living on my own for the first time, making new friends, and pursuing my scholarly passions. Once again, the presence of a man in my life would prove me wrong.
I hesitate to even call what developed a “relationship”. It was brief and intense and sexual, and ended badly and awkwardly -- partly because of him, and partly because of me. Being with him, coupled with the stress of grad school, triggered every last one of the unresolved issues from my childhood. I didn’t realize it at the time, and I couldn’t see any of it for what it was. The last year of my program was a struggle. It was nearly impossible to focus, and for the first time in ages, I started getting sick. I was worn out in body, mind, and spirit. Graduation was a relief, but felt like a hollow victory. I had no idea what to do next. All I wanted to do was crawl into a hole somewhere and hide from the world.
For the next few years, that’s basically what I did. I took odd jobs to pay the bills, and all the while fell deeper and deeper into the shadows.
I found myself again in a relationship. Like the others, it was less than healthy. But unlike the others, it lasted for years and marked the first time in my life I could actually say that I both gave and felt love, however imperfect. As much as I may have hoped that would save me, it couldn’t. Eventually, the PTSD hit me full force.
Flashbacks and nightmares brought forth long-forgotten details; I suddenly knew why I loathed the color pink (the color of the sheets on the bed the morning he first raped me), why as a child I was both drawn to and terrified of the basement, why I hate the smell of alcohol and being around people who have had too much to drink. Then the somatic symptoms started. Insomnia, headaches, pains that froze in my tracks as my body seared from the memory of attacks from long ago.
No one understood, least of all me. Turning to my partner was in vain. At the time, I couldn’t understand his apparent unwillingness -- his utter inability, really -- to offer even a modicum of support. What I now know, long after his death from cancer, is that he too was a survivor. He was much older than I was, a man who had come of age in the late 1960s, when there was even less support for male victims of rape than there is now. His was of coping was to tell a different story, to reinvent his past and himself and to pretend that nothing had happened. But it did happen, to a child barely 10 years old when he was taken into the foster care system. My recovery, and my bringing to conscious light the details of my own past, was far too painful for him to contend with.
With virtually no income at this point, since I could barely work, it took me a long time to find a counselor I could afford. I did find one, though, and with her I started making progress. She was good, but there turned out to be someone else who, in many very important ways, was better.
Her name was Buffy.
I know, I know. You're probably thinking really? Yes, really. Buffy the Vampire Slayer saved my life.
She was one of the best gifts that my partner gave me during the seven years that he and I were together. He had been a fan of the show since it debuted in 1997 (the very year that my grad-school relationship triggered the onset of my PTSD). By the time he got me into the program, it was season three. Tuesday quickly became my favorite day of the week.
The vampires and demons that she fought each week were perfect metaphors for the ones plaguing my nightmares. Her every victory over the forces of darkness gave me hope that I could do the same.
Without my consciously realizing it, in Buffy I began to see myself. I began to redefine a woman’s capacity for power, even in the face of uncertainty and fear. When my demons tried to convince me to end it all, Buffy made me feel brave enough to go on.
This is a show that celebrates the strength of women, perhaps most vividly exemplified in the final season’s episode “Chosen”. One scene in particular brought me to tears -- healing, powerful, tears -- as I watched girls and women finding their strength and fighting back.
And somewhere along the way, as all of this unfolded season after season, it transformed my understanding of women and womanhood and in the process undid decades of internalized misogyny. I had spent decades of my life angry at myself for being, in my eyes, weak. For allowing the rapes to happen. For not fighting back. For not telling. I’d also been angry at my mother, for her weakness. For not seeing what was happening. For not stopping it. For leaving me in his presence for so many years and never hearing my stifled cries for rescue. As the stay-at-home parent, she was the one I’d seen as the person who was supposed to know what was happening in our home -- but didn’t. As I grew up, I rejected seemingly feminine things. My strength and my survival rested in embracing “masculine” ways of being.
In season 4, the character Willow falls in love with another woman. Their relationship becomes one of the most beloved of the entire series, and became a favorite of my subconscious. At first, I thought this was just another example of a metaphor at work in my psyche. I was dreaming of making love to Buffy because I was reclaiming my power.
It would take me a while to come to terms with the fact, but I did eventually realize that this was not a metaphor. It was the authentic me emerging. I love men, but I also love women. I just never knew it before because I was unable to love myself.
So many people falsely think that being abused makes people turn gay. In my case, it made me think I was straight. All those unhealthy relationships were me trying to work out the issues of my past according to the only framework I knew and could perceive. Heterosexuality was assumed by everyone and everything around me; I was almost in high school before I even heard the word “lesbian”. Given my attraction to men, I knew that label didn’t fit me. It wasn’t until the late 90s that I heard of bisexuality, and when I did it was because I met someone who was brave enough to out themselves to me as bi. That was the final gift, the final piece of the puzzle. It made sense to me. That fit. The first time I kissed a woman, I knew it in my bones. I had come home to myself, decades after my abuser made me forget who I was.
I was whole.
It’s been thirteen years since Buffy went off the air. Today, I’m married to my best friend, a man I love deeply, authentically, and who knows and supports me in all facets of my being. I’m still bisexual, finally happy, and a survivor who has found her peace.
About the art:
I'm a big fan of Lynne as a human being. So when she reached out to share her story, I was pretty excited because I knew it would be full of heart, courage, and expert wording. And Lynne delivered JUST THAT!
Lynne actually contributed this story at the beginning of April, but I felt it covered ALL THREE of our first topics, sexual assault awareness, mental health and queer pride, so I asked Lynne if she would be comfortable if I pushed it to the end of May to serve as a transitional piece for the project.
Clearly, she obliged with that idea. So here we are!
Lynne loves Buffy, so I wanted to use a quote from Buffy, and Lynne chose this quote from the episode featured above. I asked what colors Lynne liked and she said shades of purples, so I through in red and blue, you know, because they make purple...so yeah! Had fun splattering this one, too! Lots of dynamic colors.
I am glad Lynne wanted to share her powerful story, and I'm thankful I got to create this piece for her.