PHOTO BY ASHLEY BATZ
When I went to therapy during college, I hated it. It wasn’t because of my therapist or the concept of therapy itself — it was me. I smiled too much, I apologized too much. I told her the things I understood to be logically true, but none of me could believe what I was saying. Yeah, sure: my friends loved me, my family missed me, I was doing well in school, yadda yadda yadda.
I was really bad at it.
But I never even wanted to go to therapy, and it’s hard to be good at something when you don’t feel ready to do it. Therapy was part of the action plan set up by my college, and it felt like I had no choice. After I reported my sexual assault to campus security, I was shuffled over to the wellness center to talk to someone about how I was feeling.
How was I feeling? It was something like when you spend the whole day at the pool, and then when you get back, you feel like you can still hear the water in your ears, and your skin is stiff with sunburn. Physically, that was how I felt. But mentally, it was hard a lot harder to describe. I wanted to be angry, but I mostly felt apologetic. I wanted to be sad, but I mostly felt scared.
After class, I would walk around campus until it was nighttime — a collegiate ghost in a puffy Land’s End coat. I began showering more, hoping to rub off enough of my old skin that I’d eventually be brand new. I dyed my hair a lot, blonde and black and red. The circles under my eyes grew into permanent fixtures, a sign of heavy aging on an 18-year-old girl. My friends would come into my room on the days when I couldn’t get out of bed, carrying mac and cheese on a styrofoam plate. “You have to eat,” they’d urge me, and I would try.
College wasn’t the first time I had issues with food — I started skipping meals when I was in middle school so that I could stay a size four. But this was different; it wasn’t intentional. It’s not like I didn’t want to eat, it was more like it wasn’t occurring to me when I should be. The instinct was gone. Three meals a day — how hard was that? Dogs could do that. I told my therapist that I knew I would get better, but it felt like I was lying to her. Maybe I’d get better, but wasn’t there also a possibility I wouldn’t?
As the years stacked on top of 2010, the distance between my trauma grew, but I couldn’t shake it entirely. Was I allowed to still be feeling this shitty? Was I allowed to still be processing this? No one had given me a checklist to follow, and so I bounced between different moods, different places, and different jobs. I was simultaneously busy and lazy, working 12-14 hours, but then going home and locking up.
How could I go out? When I walked by myself — even in the morning, to work — men would approach me, telling me to smile, to not look so sad. I listened to them, trying to raise up my eyebrows so the smile would seem genuine enough that they would leave me alone. When I got to the train, I sat at the edge of my seat, ready to bolt away in case one of those sweaty arms bumping into me on the Blue Line might belong to him. And after a year of public transit, I started taking Ubers, and drivers would ask me to go out with them while they were dropping me off in front of my house, their eyes lingering on the numbers etched on my door.
Even in places where I knew I was safe, I felt myself spread thin after a few hours of being away from home. Was I still interesting to be around? Was I still making people laugh? I often left with a belly full of resentment toward the people I loved — a mix of jealousy and judgment. They weren’t good enough, or I wasn’t good enough, or maybe it was both. I hated my thin friends for their little shoulders and delicate chins; I hated my fat friends for having bigger breasts and thicker hair. “I feel like I’m always talking about me,” they would say, a nudge to get me to spill something out. In response, I would laugh, roll my eyes and shrug. “I’m just getting boring in my old age.”
It was true: Depression was boring. I drank and smoked, and on days when things felt too heavy, I cut the tops of my thighs with a steak knife I kept in a drawer under my bed. I had gained so much weight in such a short time. When I went to the doctor, he talked to me about my blood pressure, and about my anxiety. I was prescribed an antidepressant, but it just hollowed me out more. How could I try to feel good about myself, when I was still working up the gumption to even get out of bed in the morning?
Then my husband (my fiancé at the time) began a new job in the suburbs, and the commute back and forth was too much to deal with; he was tired and strung out, so we moved to make things easier for him. In the suburbs — away from the stack of part-time jobs, bar parties, and catcallers — I felt like I could finally breathe.
Now I sleep in more, clean more, take the time to do my nails. I save money, I spend a lot of nights in, and I am learning how to drive. These are notably boring things, but they’re things I couldn’t do before I created some space for myself. Space I needed to heal.
Slowly, I let the memories seep back in. When I remembered my trauma, I let myself linger on it, and let it settle. Thinking about what had happened still made me shake, but I started being able to weave something into my memories: understanding. I finally got what had happened in the weeks before, in the time after. I don’t know if it took a few days or a few months, but I don’t think about him every day now.
Instead, I think about me.
I think about the things I like about myself, like how I’m a good wife and a good mother (to two cats). I finally figured out how to do my eyebrows (sort of). I like the way I dress and my witchy tattoos. I like that I’m so much more apathetic than I used to be, that I don’t bounce around between extreme emotions. The part of me that kept secrets so as not to step on anyone’s toes has been wiped away, and in its place grows an honesty that borders on being a bit too much. And I like that when my friends ask me how I’m doing, I tell them.
“How are you so confident?” is a question I get asked a lot now. It feels like people are split on why they want to know — it’s either genuine interest or genuine disbelief. I mean, they’re asking because I’m fat, right? Or because I laugh too loudly? “How are you so confident?” always feels like “How are you so confident, considering you?”
In response, I usually give some non-answer, and then make a joke to keeps things light. It’s too hard to define in light conversation: There is no neatly packaged answer to share. If you want to know about how I am the person in front of you, I’m going to need a few hours (at least). Who I am is a conscious effort. Who I am has taken a lot of work.
After all, there are still days when I eat too much or not at all. Days when I pinch the fat under my chin until it’s sore, and days when I lock myself in the bathroom at work when talking to people leaves me wilted. And days when — no matter how much I don’t want to — I can’t stop thinking about him, about his life now, if he’s happy.
So, am I confident? Confidence has always seemed like a thing for determined people, for people who are fearless or brave — something for heroines in YA novels. I’m still working on those parts of myself, but they come more readily now. My husband jokes that he can’t go anywhere with me because I always end up lassoed into conversations with strangers. “They’re drawn to you,” he says, and maybe it’s as simple as that. I remember how far I leaned my shoulders in when I walked in the city, and I know that I’m not quickly shuffling past everyone anymore — I’m letting people see me.
It’s been six years since my assault, and I still don’t want to go to therapy. But the reason is different this time: It isn’t because I feel overwhelmed or scared — it’s because I feel good.
By: Hale Goetz