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I have vivid memories from very young ages of freezing in response to stress.

I remember staying at my Nana’s house while my parents were away.  One time she got sick.  It was just her and I in the house together.  She was in the bathroom upstairs throwing up loudly. I was terrified and I hid under the dinning room table.  I remember just being frozen there and being afraid.  I don’t remember anything before or after.

Pretty much my whole life since then I’ve had a phobia and very strong panic reactions when I hear other people throwing up.  Even watching it on TV bothers me.  I did get over it to a certain extent when my kids were young, but it still makes me irrationally afraid.  Even though I know intellectually that there is nothing to be afraid of, a part of me is still that little child, hiding under the table, not understanding what was happening to her Nana, or if she was okay.

Another time I was visiting extended family.  I was about 5 years old.  My Aunt and Uncle were going through a separation and he was abusive.  I remember standing on the landing of their house.  I remember hearing yelling and standing there frozen and afraid.   As with the first memory, I don’t remember much before or after.  I don’t really remember their house, I only remember the landing of the staircase.

I went to a school in a fairly central part of town for Grade 1-4.  My first experience with sexual abuse happened at that school.  It was either spring of Grade 1 or fall of Grade 2.  I know because the grass was still green and I wasn’t wearing a coat.  My best friend S and I were playing imagination games together as we usually did at recess.  We used to imagine we were characters from books we’d read.  Her favourite was Anne of Green Gables.  At that time mine was Laura Ingells Wilder from the Little House series.   We had vivid imaginations and we became the characters from the books we read.

The school had a massive play yard with different sections.  Part of the yard was a large L shaped field, the furthest away from the school, pavement and climbers.  The yard monitors rarely strayed far from the pavement and climbers.   S and I were right at the edge of the yard, by the fence.  There was a small grassy hill there and on the other side of the fence was a place large enough to park a few cars.  We could see the main road just on the other side of that parking space.

S and I were playing, deep in our imagination that day.  I remember it being warm and sunny and there were dandelions outside.  Suddenly a car pulled up parallel to the chain link fence.  It was a four door sedan, I think it was burgandy or dark brown.  The door of the car opened and a man stepped out.   He was white and had dark curly hair.  I think he was wearing jeans.  The man walked up to the fence, about 4 metres down from where we were sitting on the grassy hill.  There was some weeds and tall grass on his side of the fence, the parking area was unused and mainly abandoned.

I didn’t fully understand what happened next until I was much older.  And I certainly had no idea what it meant.  What I do remember is that I was afraid and I froze.  I think we both froze.

The dark haired man undid his belt, unzipped his pants and started touching himself.   His eyes were fixed on us, staring at us with a strange look on his face.  It wasn’t a look I recognized, or one I liked.   This was a stranger, the type of stranger our parents had warned us about, but we didn’t know what to do other than wait silently.

When the man finished, he zipped up his pants, did up his belt and walked over to his car.  He looked at us the entire time.  The car was parked parallel to where we were playing.  He got into the car and he rolled down the window.  It was the 1980s and he had to crank it open.  The car started, but before he drove away he looked at us one last time.  His hands made the shape of a camera in front of his face, one finger clicking the imaginary button.  It felt like he had captured us.  Captured a part of us for himself, and I knew that it wasn’t right.  I felt dirty and afraid.

As soon as the car pulled away the spell was broken.  S and I ran back to the paved area and to safety.  I don’t remember what happened after.  I don’t remember ever speaking to her about what happened.

What happened next?  S went home and told her mother who called the school.  The school sent home a note saying to be alert for a suspicious person and the description was there.

To be honest I don’t remember talking about it to anyone.  I don’t remember anyone talking to me.  I don’t know if I did talk to someone and I just don’t remember, but I’m almost positive I didn’t tell my parents.

Even at the age of 6 or 7 I felt ashamed and I felt I had done something wrong.  Maybe we shouldn’t have been playing there, so far away from the other kids.  Maybe we would be the ones to get in trouble.

S and I talked about this a few years ago.  It turns out she wrote a story about it at one point in her adult life.  It comforted me to know that she still remembered and that it had impacted her too.

It feels strange to write about this now, something that happened nearly 30 years ago.  What I find interesting is that my tendency to freeze as a way of coping was formed early in my life.  When I was abused as a teenager and an adult I coped in the very same way.  The first time I actually fought back physically I was 33 years old.

I don’t know exactly what makes some people fight, some people flee and some people just freeze.  I don’t know what was different about S and I, that she went home and told her mother and I don’t remember telling anyone.   This was a pattern that continued later in my life as well.  I just didn’t tell.  I froze,  I blamed myself, and I stayed silent.

Part of writing this blog is about breaking that silence.  I want other people to know they are not alone.  That they didn’t do anything wrong, even if they didn’t fight back or ask for help.

We all did the best we could to survive.

You’ve washed your hands clean of this

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2003

I graduated from my undergraduate degree in June of 2003.  While I was completing my degree I took a number of classes taught by the same professor.  Let’s call him Professor L.  Towards the end of my degree and certainly over the summer that followed Professor L and I became friends.  I didn’t think much about it, I was engaged, clearly unavailable, he was my teacher.  We used to talk about ethics and academic topics.  I visited his house once or twice and he came for dinner with my finance and me at our house.  Over the summer I helped him with some research projects.   In the Fall he was out of town for a few months for work.  We would email back and forth.  He’d send me poetry.

I was 23 years old and he was 45, almost twice my age.  I was fairly naive and I overlooked some obvious red flags.

About a week before Christmas, December 2003, we had plans to meet and go shopping for Christmas gifts together.  He was back from his trip and we hadn’t seen each other in a while.  He came by my apartment to pick me up and when he arrived he said he was tired. He asked if he could come inside to rest for a few minutes.  I hesitated, I felt uncomfortable, I wasn’t sure…but I trusted this man I’d known for almost 4 years and I let him in.

Looking back on that day, I wish I had listened to my body’s signals and said no.

Professor L came inside and we sat on the couch in the living room.  He sat down very close beside me.  I felt nervous, anxious to go out and go shopping as we had planned.  It was the first time we’d been alone in my apartment together.

To be honest I don’t remember exactly what happened next.  I know he began stroking my arm.  He asked if he could see my scars, he asked me if I wanted him to touch the scars.  I still have flashbacks 13 years later if someone touches the scars on my arms or asks to touch them.

I was wearing a black long sleeved shirt, it was one of my favourites that I’d purchased on a trip to New York in 2002.  It was soft and beautiful.  After that day I shoved it in a drawer and I never wore it again.  I couldn’t bring myself to put it back on and eventually I donated it to charity, even though I still loved it I didn’t love the memories of him touching me while I wore it.

He was wearing a black scarf with gold flecks in it.  The gold made a design or pattern on the black scarf.  I remember staring at that scarf until the gold spots blurred together.  That scarf became the focus for my disassociation.

I didn’t say no. I didn’t say stop. I froze and I disassociated.  And I’m lucky because it could have been a lot worse, I could have been raped and I wouldn’t have resisted because I checked out.

I remember him stroking my arm and then touching my breasts.  I think he kissed me, but I mostly remember the touching.

I don’t know how much time went by, but at some point he realized that I was gone, that I wasn’t participating or responding, even when he spoke to me directly.  He got up and went to the bathroom.

I remember crying softly.  I don’t remember how much time went by, it seemed like hours but it probably was less than 20 minutes.  I sat curled up on the couch crying and unable to speak.  He spoke to me and tried to make things better and I didn’t respond.

Eventually I came back to reality and I asked him to leave.  He left.  I was so relieved.  I knew I’d been incredibly lucky to escape.  I was terrified knowing that I couldn’t have defended myself.  I felt like my body had betrayed me by disassociating rather than fighting back.

I couldn’t understand what had just happened? Why did he do this?  He knew I was in a serious relationship, I was 20 years younger than him, I never asked him to touch me, I didn’t invite him into the house…

I spoke to him by email.  I was crushed, I thought he was my friend, but I realized that I might have to end the friendship.  I asked him to take responsibility for what he had done.  I knew it was premeditated because he invited himself in.  But he wouldn’t admit it was planned.  A few months later I cut off contact with him because he was never accountable for assaulting me.

I remember going home for Christmas that year.  I was so triggered by what happened.  I remember crying.  I remember moving the bed in my room up against the wall so I would feel safer at night.

The worst part about what happened was that Professor L was the person I planned to use for reference letters to get jobs or to get into graduate school.  I hated the idea that I would have to ask him for a reference letter.  I felt like he would write a good letter only because he thought of me sexually.   It made me feel used and sick in ways I can’t even describe.

I went to the University and I told the academic counselor that I would need reference letters but I wasn’t comfortable contacting Professor L myself.  They were understanding but said that likely nothing could be done about his behaviour because I was no longer a student, so we were essentially just two adults.  That wasn’t entirely true because he still had power over me in terms of being my academic reference.

In 2008, I applied to go back to school for my Masters degree.  Professor L mailed the reference letter to me and I didn’t have to speak to him.  When I received the letter, I got immediately upset.  I remember leaving the house after the kids were asleep and walking to meet my friend.  I was holding the letter, crying and shaking, having flashbacks to the assault, just because I was touching a letter that he had also touched.  It was awful.  My friend helped me calm down and I was able to send the reference letter in.

I got into Grad school.  No thanks to Professor L.

Silence means no.