A Survivor’s Field Guide

I’m tired of writing about this. I pissed that this is still a topic I have to write about, but until sexual violence ends, I won’t shut up about it. You never think it will happen to you. You never think it will be you or your friend or your sister or that it was your mom. You think it’s that girl on Law & Order SVU, that this doesn’t happen in our humdrum lives. Then it does. These are notes in the wake of the worst moment of your life. A survivor’s field guide.

I know what it’s like to keep all of your abusers names a secret. There’s fear there. If I dared utter their names, if my tongue were so audacious, the retaliation would be swift and brutal. People would regale me with fables of my abuser’s potential, likening them to constellations —Orion’s belt, perhaps. They see my light and hope I’m nothing but a shooting star— a glow that disappears into the darkness with no trace. But when does Orion’s belt buckle? When does it stop? It took Bill Cosby decades to be tried. Same with R. Kelly. Reports bemoan how hard it is to be a man. The careers lost to the Me Too movement are almost as tragic as the women who’ve spent their lives attempting to heal from the abuse of men in power. If I sound angry, it is because I am. Anger is an appropriate and warranted response to the lack of education we have about consent and how society abandons victims in the process of healing. Anger is the cleansing fire that turns debris to ash and allows me to rebuild. It took me a long time to travel from denial to sorrow to anger. Most days, I’m quite happy. That happiness exists within my outrage, not despite it.

I’m not a professional. I’m not an expert. I’m just like most women I know—which is to say that I am normal, dynamic, complex, and a survivor of multiple assaults and harassment. I don’t think you “get over” being assaulted. I’ll never be un-abused. There’s no rewind to trauma. But something’s serve as inertia moving us forward. Here’s what I’ve found:

  • Giving myself grace: this one SUX. But there’s an emotional blowback to trauma. Emotional whiplash is real. This is our brains trying to re-calibrate in the wake of something that has reworked it. I’ve been a MESS for years of my life. My feelings whirled like a tempest, ruthlessly and with casualties. You need to be patient with yourself. Healing doesn’t happen over night, and it’s a much harder process when you’re against yourself.
  • Change of scenery– not everyone can cross an ocean like I did, but I think there’s something healing in going somewhere that doesn’t know your name. Locations without memories can feel like a fresh start. It can feel like freedom. When you run away from things, they catch up to you, but when you’re running toward something, you find yourself.
  • Speaking of that, rediscovering what nourishes me– people, things. After I traveled to London, I began writing again. The words lurched from my pen like ants from an anthill– swarming whole notebooks. I reminded myself that even if my brain felt different, it wasn’t wrong. Different shapes you. Different influences you. For better or worse, there’s a shift, and in moving with the shift, you can find good things.
  • Find good people– you cannot survive alone. You cannot lean on a single person throughout your grieving and healing process. It takes a village. It takes doctors and trauma workers and counselors and friends and family and nice people at the grocery door who hold the door open for you. It takes reaching out and asking to be loved louder. It takes brunches and hikes and processing. Rebuilding yourself is a herculean effort, and you are worth it. Your village will always believe you are worth it.
  • Get into nature.
  • Talking about it. The words emerge like newborn colts– wobbly and awkward. But they grow stronger. They grow less embarrassed. There’s nothing embarrassing about keeping myself whole.
  • I remember that somewhere in there is a little girl who had big dreams and unstoppable grit. I wanna be everything I dreamed of becoming as a child (besides Lindsay Lohan. I don’t want to be Lindsay Lohan). Baby Marisa’s ambition won’t be another post-assault casualty. And that doesn’t mean I have to be rich. That doesn’t mean I have to be pretty. It means I have to give this life all I’ve got. I must be kind. I must be greater than what eroded me for a while.
  • Make many dope playlists. Watch movies. Seek art that compels you. The more your emotions tether to things outside of that event, the less disassociated from the world you’ll be. The more integrated you’ll be. Walk toward what feeds you. Stay with what sustains you.
  • Time. Time and deep breaths. Nothing can subtract from the impact of what happened to you. But breathe through it. Nostrils wide and lungs expanded, oxygen reaching all the way to your diaphragm– repeat. This is going to be the cycle for years. I thought my sensitivity would be this barbed wire fence I’d always have to avoid– that everything would be a trigger. It was for a while. But six months ago, I went to the doctor. An old attending accompanied a young resident. They were both men. The old attending was invasive– inspecting my abdominal paid by jerking my shirt upward and my leggings to the point where my crotch was almost visible. I recognized that he was inappropriate. His conduct was incorrect, but it didn’t traumatize me anymore. I could separate his poor bedside manner from the history of invasive hands predating his. It felt like freedom.
  • Remember that there are billions of people the world over who are hurting like you are. You are not wrong. You are not dirty or damaged, and you are certainly not alone.
  • My determination to thrive is the biggest fuck you to my assailants.

I believe infinitely in the power of goofiness, of humor, in laughing your way through cavernous events only to hear your bellow echoed back to you—audible proof that your joy remains despite every thief dwarfed by its might. Cling to joy. Cling to silliness. I attribute a lot of my survival to my buffoonery. I don’t take myself very seriously. I take my traumas with the gravity they require. I believe in myself with everything I’ve got. And I’m human. I’m a ridiculous human at that. I allow myself to be damaged and aching AND still open to enjoying my life. There are some moments you’re imprisoned by. I know. My body has been caged by another body before— been weighted by a physical heft. That vulnerability never escapes me. But i refuse to live in that moment, even when that resolve is hard for my head to accept. PTSD is when your brain doesn’t know the carnage is over. It’s the highlight reel of nightmares on repeat. Somewhere in my gut, I breathe through it, just like I did when it happened. That breath will evolve into laughter. That breath will become kind words to my loved ones. That breath will be me singing. And right now, right now as I can still remember the smell of him and how is mouth tasted so sour like venom, that breath is how I make it out of the flashback.

I can’t protect you. No one can. I’m not an expert on these things. I’ve just been on a similar planet to yours, one where our bodies aren’t ours but we’re still inside them.

Although I can’t solve your pain, there’s a societal solution and responsibility here. We can all do better. Ask for consent. Listen to the signs. Read the room. I don’t give a flying fig newton how unsexy it is, I always ask someone I haven’t kissed before if it’s ok that I kiss them. I make sure I have my partner’s consent before engaging physically, and ask “is this ok”. Consent once isn’t an open invite for all other encounters. Boundaries and emotional geography should be an ongoing dialogue. Besides, It’s better to be unsexy than a rapist. I think we can all agree on that.

But you are not wrong. If you are drained, that’s not your fault. To endure takes so much out of you. Don’t fault yourself for being tired. Don’t feel like this is it. You are IT. You are not a shooting star but the sun– a light so indomitable that it rises after every night. Without fail.
I love you, Reader. I am holding space for you and all your hurt. I’m holding vigil for all the bodies that have been taken from us while we were still inside them. I’m angry for you. I’m enraged that someone violated you so intimately, and it breaks my heart because you don’t deserve this. You are not abandoned or forgotten. You matter. You matter so very much. The light you feel has gone will return. And while it is too painful to shine right now, I’m with you, praying for you light’s safe return.

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