Trauma Work

Several months ago, I shared an episode about a book, Trauma Stewardship, that I found on a community support reading list. It’s a straightforward and empathetic introduction to trauma-informed work, especially for professions that serve the most vulnerable in our communities. I spent a lot of time with that book, and it motivated me to do better with myself. I want to make cities safer, healthier, and more sustainable, and that work begins with understanding trauma and recognizing how my own trauma gets in the way of serving my community.

That is a big ask of course and certainly is not something that happens overnight, but this is where I am starting. If the topics of sexual abuse and assault are challenging for you, I recommend you scroll through.

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It took me months to get to a point that I identified myself as a survivor and not a victim. Anyone who has survived abuse, assault, or trauma knows how difficult it is to wrestle with the vocabulary of pain. There is no easy way to talk about the trauma or the healing or all the messy crap that happens along the way. It took me months to change my vocabulary from ‘rape victim’ to ‘survivor’.

Three years ago, I was raped. My abuser, whom I will call Michael, was (at the time) my fiancé. I met him at a coffee shop when I was almost 19. He was a 25-year-old construction worker that wrote poetry and read Sartre. I thought he was charming. He thought I was clever. We were both going through chaotic life events and that was enough; he let me stay with him for a few weeks while I was between apartments and the attachment grew.

I wish I had seen all the red flags. I wish the first night he got drunk and yelled at me, that I had left and never come back. I wish I never tolerated his insults and baseless criticism. I wish I had trusted my gut but abusers are especially good at manipulation. Even when mutual friends warned me about his behavior, I stayed because I believed he was an honest man. He was rough around the edges, but I saw the best in him and thought a little time and a lot of love would reveal a heart of gold.

We were together for two years. He proposed to me after a year and a half on New Year’s Eve with his mother’s anniversary ring. It was outwardly perfect.

I don’t know the exact statistics for abusers and alcoholism, but I do know that Michael was both. It was hard for me to differentiate at first. I noticed his abusive behaviors the most when he drank. The first time he screamed at me he was drunk. When we would go out for the night, after a few beers his tone would loosen up and he would get more careless. One time when he was drunk, he told me he fantasized about killing homeless people for fun because ‘no one would miss them’. Another time, he threatened to show me his ex-girlfriend’s nudes because he suspected I had invited another man to the apartment. His overt abuses while drunk convinced me that he was an alcoholic and that removing the alcohol would help repair our relationship.

I asked him to quit drinking. There was always a reason that he should not, would not, or could not. I do not know if I can count the number of times that he drove us home after a night of drinking, insisting that 4 or 5 beers had not impaired his driving abilities.

I sometimes wonder, if alcohol had been removed from the equation would I have noticed his abusive behaviors sooner. The covert abuse, in many ways, was worse than being raped. As time goes on the flashbacks to that night have become less severe, but the cruel manipulation and emotional sabotage stand out more clearly. The ways he found to subliminally chip away at my self-worth could fill a book. There was never a time that I was good enough for him. There was always something wrong with me. Bad haircut. Lost too much weight. Bought the wrong brand of toilet paper. Too young. I was never going to be good enough for him. He made me feel so small.

Michael prided himself on being an honest man. He told me constantly that I was so lucky to have a fiancé that would never lie to me. It was important to him that I believed everything he said was truth. When he told me things, I trusted him.

A few months before Michael raped me, I had found irrefutable evidence that he had lied to me. That was the point that the façade began to fall away. Beneath the alcohol, the mental illness, the tragic backstory, he was a liar. He abused me in so many ways but catching him in a lie wasn’t enough to make me leave. I wish it had been enough. I wish I hadn’t given him another second chance. I didn’t give the ring back until after the physical abuse.

Michael was (and probably still is) an alcoholic. He got drunk that day. He was annoyed with me for something and retaliated with inebriation. He got drunk and mean. That night he raped me.

After it happened, it took weeks for me to build up the courage to confront him. When I was able to talk to him about it, the first thing he told me was that he was afraid that my allegation might ruin his chances of running for office one day. There might have been an apology tossed in between fears that his reputation might be ruined if people knew that he raped me. If he had said sorry, I know it wasn’t sincere.

I reflect on that conversation now and can see just how pathetic and spineless of a person he is. I cared so much for him and his opinion when at best Michael saw me as disposable. It was easy for him to not care about raping me because he didn’t care about me in the first place.

It’s been hard for me to swallow that pill. To know that you can love someone that much and they can still hurt you in the worst ways. To know that sometimes bad people do bad things to you and there are no consequences for them. To know that people like him are out there in the world and sometimes there is no justice for the survivors or the victims.

Healing from trauma is a process that in some ways never really ends. I’ll never forget what Michael did to me, but I have let go of the pain and the bitterness and the shame that burdened my heart for so long. He may never change. He may never feel regret. He may continue being a horrible, abusive alcoholic. The one thing that he will never have is power over me.

I am a survivor of rape. I am a survivor of abuse. These things do not diminish me. I live boldly and beautifully because I am not afraid.

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To fellow survivors, thank you for your strength, I’m proud of you.

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Take care and stay curious!

EM

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