I am a survivor of childhood sexual assault.
But that’s not all that I am. I am a straight-A student. I am a wife, happily married. I am a good friend, a writer, a karaoke diva, and an activist. I think sometimes that I love life more than a lot of people I know. I say all this to emphasize that I am not defined solely by something traumatic that happened to me when I was a little girl.
It certainly shaped who I am, forever changed my life, and continues to affect my relationships with people and my perspective. I grew up fast, but it was the sort of growing that occurs when bones are broken and not properly set. I made bad decisions. I nearly failed out of high school. My senior year, I slept through every class before lunch because I could not sleep at night. While I got a perfect 5 on my AP English exam, I had the lowest grade in the class, and to this day I believe my D- was given out of pity. I did drugs. I did a lot of things I’m not proud of and would rather not elaborate upon. I was awful and thankless toward people who helped me along the way, because I felt the world owed me everything and more. I floundered through life feeling pretty sorry for myself for a long time.
But I did not break.
Yesterday an email conversation about Mackenzie Phillips made me think a lot about this. One dear friend suggested that, due to what happened to Mackenzie, she is irreparably broken. And you know, though I completely get where my friend was coming from, it still really struck a nerve with me, because I can’t write people off as permanently damaged, no matter what happens to them. I’ve been written off that way by a lot of people in my life, and so often I think, “if only they saw me now.”
Awful things happen to people, but I have to believe they can survive them and be whole again, because I feel like, from where I sit, I am a whole person. That said, I’m certainly not the person I might have been had I not gone through the multiple betrayals and violations I endured. But from where I sit, I’m not entirely sure I’d ever undo that past, as much as I would never want anything resembling it to be visited upon a single human being on Earth. It’s either in spite of or because of that past that the woman I am now is strong, independent, compassionate and loved. So loved. And I’ll never know which it is. I’ll never who I would be if I lived in some parallel universe where, at 11 years old, my life hadn’t changed forever.
I realize I can’t compare my experience to Phillips’s—how can any two people compare their experiences, however similar? Yet, while it does no good to quantify trauma or qualify its severity because trauma is trauma, part of me feels I can say with something resembling objectivity, “Thankfully what happened to me isn’t even in the same ballpark as what happened to Mackenzie Phillips.” For one thing, my stepfather did not shoot me up with drugs; he gave me martinis. And the dissimilarities only begin there. But that doesn’t make me feel better. It’s not a salve or a consolation, nor is it really productive in any way that I can see. It certainly doesn’t diminish the impact of the betrayal by people whose sole purpose should have been to protect me from harm, the years of depression and post-traumatic stress, the substance abuse, or the bridges I burned with people who cared about me. So while it could be easy to give in to the notion that I didn’t break because I didn’t have it as bad as this person or that person, I do know that one can survive all manner of trauma and be whole again. I may have doubted it many times, but I always knew I was not irreparably broken. When I got that close to the point of breaking and then didn’t actually break, I think I started, over the years, to doubt whether there even are limits for what we can survive emotionally. I don’t believe people must be irreparably broken because of something like this (though certainly people can and do break), and it’s probably the only thing resembling “faith” that I have. My faith is in people, and I don’t believe people are so fragile as all that.
Because I neither believe in god nor “souls” in the religious sense, it feels weird to use the phrase “human spirit,” but I’m at a loss for a better way to refer to what I see as a strong instinct within us all to survive, to be whole people, to heal and come out stronger on the other side of even the most horrific experiences. I must believe in it. For Mackenzie. For Jaycee Lee Duggard. For Elisabeth Fritzl. And for women like me, who have suffered abuse far less severe—there I go qualifying trauma again—than the years of unspeakable violence and damage done to those women I mentioned. I believe that the “human spirit,” or whatever you want to call it, is more resilient than most of us will ever have cause to discover.