Keeping a Handle on the Trigger

I haven’t written in while. It’s not that life has been quiet but that it’s racing past me. School has started for the year, and I can’t believe the summer is over. Vacations and work and counseling and memories and still taking days one at a time.

I am moving forward, healing, having more positive days than bad. But I’ve learned over the past months that it doesn’t matter how good my day is or how peaceful I feel or how long it’s been since I felt sad, I am still susceptible to the trauma of my past. It hides in words and faces and actions and tones and songs and voices. And, often, it’s only a breath away from being triggered.

I recently discovered the irretrievable loss of several documents as the result of my computer crashing last spring. I thought I’d managed to save all my files. It was frustrating and saddening. A friend tried to ease my disappointment by offering some advice: he told me to learn from what happened. He suggested I take a “lesson” from it. It was a harmless suggestion, merely encouragement to choose a different perspective. But it felt more like a slap that night.

I argued that I’d done nothing wrong, that I’d saved my documents, and that my computer had crashed on its own. He tried to explain it again, that he wasn’t accusing, but he used the word “lesson” a second time. I felt the shame go through me hot and fast and knew “lesson” was the word that had triggered it. I told my friend to stop using the word, shouted it. I needed to get away from the word and the feelings it caused. I needed to stop the physical reaction.

I started crying and I couldn’t breathe. I was shaking, panicking, afraid of I didn’t know what. The shame felt heavy and demoralizing. My friend became angry that I’d yelled, but I fought the urge to apologize. I focused on what was happening inside me, on stopping it before it was out of control.

Preventing, stopping, and coping with emotional and physical reactions to shame is something my counselor and I had been talking about less than a week before this happened. My assignment as I left that day had been to think about how I react to triggers, what triggers me, and how I calm down after being triggered. So how to manage my shame reaction that night was already something I’d been thinking about, and I realized through all the emotions, that I already had the skills and resources to calm myself down.

I started taking deep breaths, counting through them, a technique called box breathing. In for four, hold for four, out for four, and hold for four more. Repeat. And some time ago, I’d put together a shame first aid kit, with things to remind me that I’m lovable and a good person and worthy: a letter I wrote to myself saying these exact things, pictures of people who love me unconditionally, a rose quartz to remind me to love myself. There were also things for soothing and calming: lavender scented soap, notecards with breathing exercises, something soft to touch.

I pulled my first aid kit out that night and used it to calm myself down. I read the letter and did the breathing and looked at my friends’ faces and I relaxed. Then reason took over again: I’d done nothing wrong—I had nothing to be ashamed of. What my friend had said was just words.

After I was thinking rationally, I considered why the word “lesson” had triggered the reaction it did. It was simple: remarking that someone should “learn her lesson” is shame speak. Someone somewhere used those words to shame me.

I still didn’t apologize to my friend, but instead I explained what happed. I told him that when I shouted, I was feeling traumatized and attacked, and that I did what I needed to do to protect myself, to stop the panic and shame from breaking me down any further. I did what I’ve been slowly training myself to do. I understood that I was having a trauma reaction, and I identified the cause and got away from it. Then I used breathing and self-encouragement and loving myself to calm down, and I did it on my own. No one needed to remind me or guide me or encourage me. I took care of myself. A little less than a year ago, a trauma reaction took three days to overcome. This time, it took me thirty minutes.

I’m learning. I’m healing. I don’t do it gracefully, not yet at least. I shouted at one of my closest friends. I cried. I needed my shame first aid kit. But I did get through it.

I’ve grown from the experience. And even more importantly, I recognize what I’ve accomplished personally over the last year and a half. I know without a doubt today that I’m worthy, that I’m a good person, that I’m lovable. I know I deserve to have good, happy things in my life. I know that when the bad days find me, when the triggers are beyond my control, when I feel broken, I have everything I need to come back and be stronger than before. I believe everyone does.

If you’re doubting or afraid or ashamed, take a few deep breaths.  Look inside of you. Love yourself. Recognize that you’ve come this far. You did it. You are strong too.

Please Come Back to Facebook

No matter how you feel about it, Facebook is at the center of the social media universe. According to Pew Research, 76% of American Internet users were on Facebook in 2015. Currently, approximately 40% of world Internet users have Facebook accounts. We use it, our friends use it, our parents, our kids, our coworkers, our religious leaders, our politicians. It’s used to socialize, promote businesses, promote ourselves, inform, make plans, send invitations.

It’s also used to bully, berate, defame, prey, rant, and shame. It’s a platform for racism, sexism, heterosexism, and every other -ism in the dictionary. It has widened our social horizons, but it has also diminished our ability to interact with other humans face to face. While it feeds the basic human need to connect with others, it also nurtures isolation, and I think this is a key reason bullying, racism, etc., are so easy to pursue on Facebook.

These days, I barely use Facebook, and most of the time my account is deactivated. It’s a personal choice I made last fall for my own peace of mind. In fact, just removing Facebook from my life reduced the amount of stimuli I had to deal with, which reduced some stress. But there was more to it. And it’s all rising to the surface again this week as I’ve been pressured by several friends to end my Facebook abstinence. And so I want to explain.

This isn’t the first time I’ve deactivated my Facebook account. I’ve taken several two- to three-month hiatuses over the years. I used the time to finish my thesis and work on big projects at the office and at home. Time is the key word here. Facebook eats time for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and midnight snacks. I would guess the main reason anyone might take a break from Facebook is time. But for me, this current hiatus goes deeper.

When I deactivated my account last fall, I was newly separated and divorced, working full-time, parenting two middle schoolers, working on severe anxiety with my counselor, and trying to make ends meet. I was sad, anxious, depressed, and harassed. I knew just walking away from Facebook would bring my stress levels down. But I resisted it for a while.

Facebook Messenger was how I communicated with friends and family, and how would I know of my ex-husband posted something about the kids, or worse, about me. What if something big happened or if my friends didn’t know how to reach me any other way? I feared isolating myself and losing touch.

Then I realized that some of these things I was using to justify staying were actually making my life more stressful. And in the end, it was three of these triggers that sent me flying for the “deactivate” option, the same three triggers that came immediately to mind this week.

  1. My sister was madly posting anti-divorce memes and quotes, and making judgmental statements on a regular basis and more often than usual since my separation.
  2. My ex-husband was posting shirtless selfies for no-shave November on at least a weekly basis, the sight of which made me uneasy.
  3. My Facebook feed was filled with pictures of amazing, happy couples, and looking at them made me feel beyond sad. Especially those of a particular friend whom I had developed feelings for in recent months.

Feeling angry and hurt, disgusted and sad weren’t worth it. I needed to take care of myself. I left Facebook to ease mind, and it helped. I knew I was missing out on some things. I’d hear, “Did you see that cool story on Facebook?” Or, “Did you get my message?” And I’d have to remind family members I didn’t see their announcements because I’m not on Facebook. But most of my friends easily made the adjustment. They found other ways to message with me, or they called me.

And the longer I was away, the more I realized I didn’t actually miss it. I didn’t need all the minute updates of friends’ and family members’ lives. I didn’t need the stress of happy couples. I didn’t need the stress of other people’s anger or judgment. I didn’t need to see my ex-husband—or anyone else—exposing himself to the world.

Since I’ve been asked to return to Facebook again this week, I’ve had to reconsider these things I don’t need or miss. Are the things I want, the things I do miss worth the anxiety or shame or sadness I could experience going back? Am I taking care of myself if I return to a situation I already know will cause a great deal of stress?

It’s possible my sister won’t post divorce things anymore. It’s not November, so my ex likely won’t be posting pictures of his beard (and chest). But my friends are still in love, and there will always be judgment and always be stressors.

People are isolated, anonymous, so it’s easier to share one’s opinion—to force one’s opinion on one’s friends, colleagues, acquaintances, etc. It’s easier to share pictures of our bodies or our private relationships because we don’t see who’s looking at them. We speak freely on Facebook because we don’t see who we’re hurting.

But at the same time, I know I can’t expect my family, friends, and acquaintances to protect me from their lives. I can’t judge what they post. I can’t assume it’s about me. I can’t ask them to be more careful for my sake. I can’t ask them not to share their happiness with me. Rather than it being about what they do or don’t do, it’s about me. It’s about knowing what I can cope with, what I can guard myself against, what I can accept. It’s about knowing my boundaries and when I need to walk away. It’s about knowing me.

So I’m back to my decision. Do I reactivate my Facebook account because a few friends want to socialize with me in that way? Am I ready to place myself within an environment I know will cause me stress?

No, I’m not. My anxiety is still too high and the sadness is too deep. I’m still traumatized by the past. I am still susceptible to being shamed.

I know I can’t avoid the social media world forever. But I can choose to give myself a little more time, to take care of myself until I’m stronger and steadier emotionally  and until I’m ready to face courageously the challenges that await.

Lousy with Deep Red Roses

In my haste to minimize my belongings, I didn’t see the brick wall coming. I opened the box: photo albums and picture frames. Easy. Save the pictures, give away the frames and albums.

And then it was there staring at me: my wedding album. White and pearly with the words “our wedding” written in calligraphy on the cover.

Apprehension filled my chest, but I can be brave when I need to be, and I opened the cover and stared at my 20-year-old face. I was an ugly bride. My hair was half-grown out and awkward, and the hair stylist curled it, sprayed it, and then ratted it to fit around the veil. No one helped me with my makeup, and I didn’t have a manicure, though all my bride’s maids did. And though the wedding dress is a beaded work of art and the bouquet is lousy with deep red roses, it’s all overshadowed by half-hearted smiles and sad eyes.

It doesn’t even occur to me to look at my stomach, though it’s all I could think about that day. I was five months pregnant with my daughter. It’s impossible to tell. The wedding dress fit perfectly without a single adjustment. Swollen breasts and stomach made the dress fit when it had been too big three months before. The only indication something is off is the shame I can see covering me from head to toe. It stained everything that day, from the glow of wedding candles to the matching white-gold rings we put on each other’s fingers.

I felt my shame acutely that day. I wonder now if anyone knew the torture inside me. Did anyone know how much pain I was in? Probably not. But I cried as I walked down the aisle with my parents, and it wasn’t the first time I’d cried that day.

I thought everyone was so kind to me. Friends and family circled and fussed and asked how I was doing. I didn’t understand it. I was overwhelmed by their goodness because I believed I was unworthy of it. I was so ashamed, so completely undeserving of anything good. And even now, it’s difficult to discern their unconditional love from the memory of feeling like a burden.

Most of the pictures I stacked and set aside out of sight for my kids to look at some day. It might be fun to look back and laugh at mom and dad and grandmas and grandpas. But a few pictures I saved for me. My dad looks so handsome, and he’s smiling at me. My mom is too. She’s so beautiful and happy. And there’s one with my grandparents, all four them.

I touched the picture of my mom’s parents. They’ve been gone a long time now, my grandfather dying just thirteen months after my wedding. My dad’s dad is gone too. And I cried and wished my ex-husband wasn’t standing next to me in the center of the picture. It was a battle between sentiment and disgust, but I chose to save the picture.

It was the first time I overlooked the sick feeling I get when I look at pictures of the man I now know took advantage of me. And it was love that conquered that feeling. No matter what, my grandparents always thought the best of me. I love them so much, and when I looked at their faces in that photo and remembered that, my ex-husband quickly faded.

This doesn’t surprise me, now that I think about it. I can’t stand to look at myself in these pictures, but I’ve rescued the ones with my mom, dad, sister, and grandparents. I saved a picture of the wedding cake with the flowers a now passed friend grew just for my wedding. I can look past all the hurt I felt that day and all the sorrow I feel for it now for the people I love, and that’s something worth knowing. But what about me?

I don’t feel the shame anymore, but I remember it vividly. I remember a scared young woman who was desperate to be told “you are worthy.” I feel pity and sympathy for her. I want to hug her and tell her the truth about herself.

I’m a little angry no one told me I didn’t have to get married to earn my worthiness back or to make things right, that I was never unworthy and things were never wrong in to begin with. I’m so sad for all the lies I believed back then, about myself, about the man I married, about right and wrong.

But I also feel a little less unworthy about that day. People were kind because they were happy for me, and they loved me. I won’t say I deserved it, but I was worthy of it, if only because I loved them and they loved me.

The bad feelings don’t miraculously go away just because I feel love and a little worthiness. There’s still a heavy weight in my chest and a darkness to my day that won’t be penetrated by either 40-watt bulbs or afternoon sunlight. My wedding day is still a difficult memory and it still makes me sad. But I’ve faced down one of the challenges that awaited me since I left my husband last August: the wedding album. I won’t have to do it again.

And there is something else that I know after today. I will not be that forlorn woman again. I will speak my heart and I will search for the truth. I will trust in my goodness and overcome my shame.

I Bring Myself Flowers

Today would have been my 15th wedding anniversary.

I remember my wedding day in emotions and moments that flash like snapped photos. Waking up with my sister beside me. My hair ratted and pinned in a way I both hated and felt I deserved. Getting dressed with my closest friends all around me. Laughing, smiling.

Shame.

My grandmother annoying the photographer by stealing his flash. My grandfather, who’d I’d lose in a year, watching with joy.

Guilt.

Crying as my parents walked me down the aisle and not knowing why. Wondering if everyone knew I was pregnant, if everyone despised me for it. Crying through the beginning of the ceremony and the pastor trying to calm me down.

Sadness.

A rose falling from my bouquet with a resounding, mic’d thud. Laughing, finally. Tulle catching on fire after we’d left the church. Being overwhelmed in the reception line.

Embarrassment.

A cake decorated by a dear friend. Kissing my bridesmaid and not understanding why she was sad. Thinking everyone was being so kind to me and that I didn’t deserve it, not even on my wedding day, and especially not because I was five months pregnant.

Shame.

Not wanting to have sex with my new husband on our wedding night and not understanding why. A foot of snow overnight. Pizza for breakfast. Finding out my bridesmaids’ sadness was because their grandfather died on my wedding day and feeling somehow responsible because it was my growing belly that made that day what it was.

Shame lies at the center of even what should have been one of the happiest days of my life. I have never remembered it as such. There was happiness that day, but every minute of it was tainted. I didn’t believe I deserved a single good thing that happened to me that day. I didn’t believe that my friend should have grown flowers to decorate my wedding cake and reception. I didn’t think that friends should come help decorate the church and reception hall. I didn’t think I deserved to look beautiful. Or feel beautiful.  I was ashamed of every part of my body, and I thought it was a just punishment.

I was hurt that friends had chosen not to come because of my “delicate situation,” and sad that everything was so rushed that my best friend couldn’t be there because he was on the other side of the world at the time. I was embarrassed that everyone knew I was pregnant and so grateful people were nice to me anyway.

Today has been a difficult day. The memories, the emotions, the sadness of what today might have been mixed with the relief for what it is no longer.

The night a friend called me out for still feeling ashamed about getting pregnant before I was married, it changed my entire perspective, almost in an instant. So many things happened in that moment: I realized he was right; I still felt shame. I’d just managed to lie about it, even to myself, for years. I also realized how much in life I’d missed out on because of that shame. And I realized that my entire marriage had been based on shame and that I no longer wanted to be married. I wanted my life back; I wanted to be myself again.

Today reminds me of how much my world has been overshadowed by shame. It made me believe I didn’t even deserve to be loved or treated well. It made me believe I added nothing to this world, that I was worthless.

So what I can do tonight is combat that shame with the goodness I now know I have.

I am loved. By my kids and my friends; they have acknowledged me and my struggles, and they love all of me. And I deserve that love, not because of anything good I’ve done, but because I live and breathe.

I am strong. After more than a decade, I have survived the steady beating of shame against my soul and still come out whole. Bruised and scarred and hurting, but still standing.

I am brave. Courage is being afraid of something and facing it anyway. Fear has never stopped me. Not when I was unmarried and pregnant, and not when I left my marriage six months ago, alone and against the will of even my own sister.

I am good. I am kind and loving and I care about people. There are good things about me that no one can take away. And I deserve just as much as anyone else to find joy, be loved, and make peace with myself.

I love myself. For so long I didn’t think I deserved even my own love, but I’ve learned that I do. And now I love and take care of myself. I bring myself flowers and take myself out for coffee. I am kind to myself.

I am me. As the shame is peeled away layer by thick, painful layer, I am finding beneath an amazing woman. She’s funny and interesting and worthy of good things, and she has amazing dreams for the future. She’s going to be okay.

It is these things that have taught me that shame cannot hold me. It cannot prevent me from living a good life. Not anymore.

Today is sad day because it marks the going dark of something I thought would be a part of my life forever. But it is a happy day too because, though I’m marking what was and what might have been, I’m acknowledging what is. I’ve come so far, accomplished so much, and I have the entire future ahead of me.

Five Months

Five months ago I turned paperwork over to the judge and he finalized my divorce. My husband—now ex-husband—having read none of the papers I’d given him the month before, was surprised when I called him. I felt free.

Today, though, five months feels nothing like restitution for the sixteen years I gave him, the years he spent trying to make me less than I was. There is still a lot of healing to get through. He took so much from me and left me with only shame, an entire world of it. I would like there to be a way to give it back to him—not turn it back on him, but to package it up and hand it to him.

“And here’s your wandering hands and cursed dick and blaming and accusations and lies. I think that’s everything. Oh, wait. Here’s your controlling nature and your pouty lip and your hot temper and your cruel family. Good riddance.”

And then it would rain, downpour a warm shower, and I’d stand in it and let it wash from me fingerprints I’ve of yet been unable to erase, let it cleanse the scar tissue so that, though it remains as a memory of my hard-fought battle, it doesn’t burn like the wounds are still fresh and raw.

I want him out of my life completely, but it seems I’ll need to come to terms with him being part of it because of the kids. It will be something I need to learn to cope with—long after the kids are grown, when five months turns to five years and five to ten and twenty. It’ll be a journey in itself.

But he can’t touch me again, and I can find comfort in that. I can make peace with the history he represents, and relegate my life with him to nothing but a moment. I can accept those sixteen years by honoring my memory in that time. The fire inside me never went out, no matter who tried to douse it or how. I kept it alive. I had the strength then and I have it now. Nothing will ever stop me again.

Five months freer, five months more independent, five months wiser, five months stronger, five months braver. Five months spent growing and healing and learning. Five months knowing I am good and loveable.

I am me—five months better than I’ve ever been before.

Silver Lining

A friend told me today about the elaborate plans he had for him and his girlfriend this weekend: a tango lesson and dinner at an uber fancy restaurant. It sounds nice, but it took me a little while to realize why this particular date was a big deal, and it took me a little longer to figure out why it made me uncomfortable. It’s Valentine’s Day this weekend, for starters. Which reminds me that I’m newly divorced, not dating, and looking back on a marriage that makes me slightly ill to remember.

It’s not that I didn’t know it was Valentine’s Day. I’ve been thinking about something nice I could do for my kids. I’ve also been thinking about some of the Valentine’s Days I shared with my ex-husband—before he was my ex. We were a couple almost sixteen years, so there were fifteen Valentine’s Days. The first one, in particular, keeps replaying in my head. We were dating. I was pregnant.

I wrote out quotes and Bible verses about love, cut them out, borrowed a key from my ex-husband’s roommate, and taped the verses, etc., around his place while he was at class. It took time and care and dedication, the kind of effort and love I put into so many of the gifts I gave him. Now all of that seems bitter and a waste, and I find myself nursing self-hatred and shame  for how much I cared, how much I loved, how stupid and blind I feel I was.

My friend apologized later today, realizing that I’m probably having a tough time with regards to “love” and that maybe I didn’t want to hear about his wonderful plans. I told him not to worry about it, and I meant it. I was already stuck in a whirlpool, spiraling downward toward where I might drown. The sadness I felt at his joy really had nothing to do with him at all, but he did give it some life.

Two days ago I was talking to my counselor about going through boxes and cleaning out old things, trying to get rid of the stockpile of useless junk I took with me when I moved into my own apartment—I’m striving for minimalism. I told her how exhausting it was to come face to face with reminders of the relationship I’d shared with my ex-husband. Pictures, a ring he gave me, movie ticket stubs. I told her I didn’t know what to do with everything.

You see, I have this fear that I will wake up one day and remember good things from my marriage, and that at that time, I’ll want keepsakes from those good things but won’t have any left. So I think that I need to keep things. But since I don’t know what times I’ll remember as good, I think I need to keep it all or I’ll regret throwing things away. But throwing away is what I want to do right now, with all of it. Or burn it. Or smash it.

My counselor looked me in the eyes after I told her of this fear of regret, and she told me what it turns out I already knew, deep inside: because of what my ex-husband did to me, my memory of my marriage is forever changed. I can’t go back. I might remember good times, but my relationship with my ex-husband will always be tainted. And the things that I fear might be meaningful, they aren’t going to be. They’re painful memories now, and they’ll stay that way. I knew that she was right, and the truth made me angry and frustrated with myself.

I find that I’m ashamed of how much I put into dating my ex-husband, how much I put into our marriage. I find that I’m ashamed I loved him after he hurt me so much and that I wasted sixteen years of my life on him. I want more than anything to go back and change things, to have a redo so that I don’t have to feel the anger and sadness and pain inside me right now. At the height of this fantasy of mine, I go back to my nineteen-year-old self and tell me to walk away, or I tie me up and drag me away if I won’t listen. I keep accusing myself of having been stupid. I keep muttering “what ifs”: what if I’d never met him; what if I’d gone to a different college; what if I’d broken up with him; what if I’d left my marriage sooner?

I know this is not the correct method for healing. Logically, I know I can’t get lost in hoping for things that aren’t possible. Those sixteen years are gone. I loved him the best I knew how. And now we’re divorced and I have a new life ahead of me. I need to move on. When I can shut down the shame, I know that new life is what I should be focusing on. When I can’t, the past swallows me whole. I know all of these things, and yet I’m still very sad and still blindly wish I could change things.

This is not something I can fix with advice from my counselor or unconditional love from my grandma. It’s not something that will heal because of sheer willpower. I hurt. I have regrets. I’m angry and I’m sad. These things aren’t going away anytime soon. So I think what I need to do right now, tonight, is to allow myself to feel all of this, to tell the truth about the way I feel and about the things I want. I can’t face them or deal with them until I admit they’re there. It wasn’t until I confessed to my counselor about my fears that I understood my marriage would never be good again. And it wasn’t until I understood that that I could be honest with myself about how I see my marriage now.

It’s all a process, like writing a book. You write a little and then delete most, if not all, of what you wrote, and then you write something better. You take three steps toward healing, stumble back two or three or even fall on your ass, but then you get up, dust yourself off, and take four steps forward again. Inch by inch, fall after fall, I know I’m moving toward healing. It’s exhausting. But I know if I can accept what exists inside me, allow me to be me, and be honest about it all, I’m already better off than I ever was in the sixteen years I was in love.

My friend didn’t know that sharing his Valentine’s date plans would make me sad, that they’d make me think more about what this “holiday” means to me this year compared with the past so many. But he didn’t know there would be a silver lining either, that his words would loosen my tongue and give me the wherewithal to be honest. For that, I am grateful.

Secrets

We all keep secrets. Sometimes we keep them from ourselves. I’m an expert at this.

I think it must have been something I learned to do. I think it must have taken some time to learn. But I don’t remember a beginning. I don’t remember the first time I lied to myself. I don’t remember developing the skills I needed to hide the truth. I only remember realizing I’d been doing it. For years. For more than a decade.

When I was 19 I was raped.

The man was someone I knew, someone I loved, someone I thought loved me. But it turns out I was raped by a man who lied to me.

I didn’t know what was happening to me was rape. Yes, I felt violated and ashamed. Yes, I told him no (I told him again and again) and he did it anyway. But I loved this man and he loved me. So it wasn’t “rape,” not that terrible thing we talked about in health class, that thing that was “about power and not love.”

Instead, I believed that what happened to me was completely about lust. The sin of lust, to be specific. My sin. Each time I was raped, I begged God to forgive me for me for what I’d done. You have to understand that at this time my beliefs in good behavior and purity had been twisted by my church upbringing into a sick belief in a need for perfection.

I believed with all my heart that what had happened was my fault, that I could have, should have prevented it, was perhaps even the cause of it. I prayed over and over again for cleansing. I thought the dirtiness I felt was my own guilt. I know now it was violation, a coat of hell I’m still trying to scrape off my skin.

I felt completely worthless while I was dating this man. I was sinning; I was causing the man I loved to sin. I apologized to him. I told him I would try not to let it happen again. I thought I was lucky this man still loved me after what I’d done. My greatest fear was that he’d stop.

I told no one.

Until about a year ago. “You were raped,” my best friend told me. “No,” I told him, “it was never not consensual.”

This is where the lying comes in. Even as I explained what had happened, even as I described hands touching skin I didn’t want touched, sexuality forced upon me, fear and shame and not wanting it to happen, I told my friend it was my fault, that I’d been guilty of sex before marriage. I told him the shame I felt was my own fault because I’d sinned. I deserved that shame. And the disgust I remembered was with myself, not this man.

I believed it. I told my friend the man I’d now been married to for fourteen years was a good man. It didn’t matter that when we were dating he was a senior and I was a freshman, that he had taken advantage of my innocence and inexperience, that he hadn’t been considerate of my feelings or my boundaries; he’d married (worthless) me and was a good father and a good husband. The sex was my fault because he was a good man and I was bad.

“You were raped.”

The words sunk in as I tried to unravel my shame last spring. My friend told me I was worthy, told me I had a right to say no to anything, even sex, even if the man loved me, even if I loved him, even if I was married to him.

I found a way to share the blame I felt with my husband, at least fifty-fifty.

And then I found out this man had lied to me to make me trust him while we were dating. I discovered he lied a lot. Enough that I knew I couldn’t trust him anymore. I divorced him.

I’d been angry for years that my husband never felt the shame or remorse I felt for the sins we’d committed before we were married. He told me he’d made peace. But as spring turned to summer, I was suddenly disturbed and suspicious of his lack of emotion.

I was raped.

I started to own the words before I believed them. Yes, I remembered being violated. Yes, I remembered saying no. Yes, I remembered being touched in ways that made me sick. But I thought I was mistaken, that the last thing I wanted to do was accuse an innocent man, even if he was my ex-husband, of rape because my memory was false and I’d said yes when I thought I’d said no. I couldn’t blame him if I was wrong and had actually wanted what happened to me.

I spoke the words I was trying to own in a very small circle—to my two best friends, my counselor, the man I was dating—I denied it to myself, refusing to let go of the blame. And then I found proof.

Sixteen summers ago I kept a journal, a record of the year I was 19. It was explicit:

“I had sex with him last night. I told him no, but he didn’t stop.”

I was raped.

It hit like a wave, at the same time filling my lungs and pulling me so deep I could no longer see the light above the surface. The secret was out. I couldn’t deny it to myself anymore. It’s impossible to argue with a first-hand account. The man I married raped me.

I’m still drowning. The sadness I feel is profound, consuming. I can understand why I kept it from myself, told myself it was my fault. Because realizing someone I loved and trusted violated me so completely is so much harder to accept than a mistake I made.

I understand that honesty is the first step to healing. And the honesty of this should lift my shame and free me from guilt, and maybe it has. But the void that remains is deep and dark. The man I once loved more than anyone else betrayed me. That image of a “good man” is now no different than Dorian Gray’s painting. And, worse, memories I once refused to remember are flooding back in all their truth. I was raped.

My friends keep telling me it’s not my fault, and I need to hear those words over and over again. I need to know I’m worthy and loved and braver than I ever knew. I need to know there’s goodness left in this world, a light at the end of the darkness, and even though my secret is out, I still deserve some of that goodness.

Be brave. Tell your secrets. Tell the truth. Even to yourself. It’s difficult and painful, I know. But honesty is so much better than living a lie. It’s so much better than losing yourself in a lie. It’ll be okay. You’ll survive. And best of all, you’ll no longer be alone.