Last weekend, someone spoke an ugliness into my life that devastated me. It came without warning or context or escalation. I don’t know if the words exploded from festering malice or a skewed sense of humor. I don’t know whether they were aimed at me personally, for something I did or for who I am, or if they expressed more general rage and defiance. I don’t even know whether they were intentional, an autocorrect fail, or meant for someone else but they landed on me by accident.
Before I continue, I need to acknowledge that the very fact that these words wounded me so deeply speaks to my privilege. Many people face far worse ugliness on a regular basis. I’ve heard appalling stories from friends, colleagues, students, and neighbors about the hatred they have encountered because of their sexual orientation, their appearance, their race, the race of their partners and/or children, their disability, and/or their religion. I’m white, cis, straight, Christian, and physically healthy, so here in the Bible belt, all I usually have to deal with is sexism. And even in those situations, I can often respond in ways other women cannot. (I just started Brittney Cooper‘s Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower. Can’t recommend it enough.)
So while no one should hear the words that were expressed to me, I am aware that many people do hear them, or experience equivalent behavior, far too often, and that even having the time and space to grapple with them is a luxury not everyone shares.
I have a dread of being ambushed. I suppose most people do, but part of my trauma work of the past few years has been intentionally trying to ease up on the hypervigilance. This is also where my fledgling trust in God factors in: figuring out what trust looks like and how it’s even possible to trust a God who has (depending on your theology) caused, willed, or at least allowed all of the collective and personal horrors that human beings have experienced.
There are many, many books about God’s role in pain and suffering and evil, but I have come to believe that these are questions no one else can answer for me. Some people reject God because they cannot reconcile divine goodness with human suffering. Some blindly accept whatever they’re told by their pastors. Some cling to certainty because they find doubt too terrifying. Some revert to platitudes. I scream. I rage. I question. I throw temper tantrums to rival any two-year-old’s.
And in my most sanguine moments, I return to the epiphany I had on the day my youngest nephew was born, as I drove to meet him through a steep canyon where bighorn sheep danced down boulders to the river: Suffering and pain exist. Denying God doesn’t obliterate the bad things in life or protect us from terrible experiences, any more than believing in God shields us. But choosing to trust in God, for me, means holding out hope that the suffering has meaning, that it isn’t just random or purposeless, that there will — someday, somehow, in ways I can’t even imagine — be a redemptive purpose for every thorn and every blade and every drop of blood.
But it’s easier to remind myself of that when I am not staring at a wound that’s oozing pus and feeling the venom race through my veins.
Like almost everyone I know, I was terribly on edge last weekend. Back in March, I naively assumed that two weeks, or even six, of lockdown would control the pandemic, and then we could go back to our regularly scheduled lives. But we don’t know when or if that will be possible. For teachers and students and parents, this semester is awful in ways we can’t figure out how to alleviate (and in many cases, we lack the agency to make changes even if we knew what changes might help). Many college students went home last week because their parents feared post-election violence — not something I remember ever happening before. Wildfires still rage out West. The Gulf Coast keeps being pummeled by hurricanes.
In the midst of that, within the personal and intimate space of my soul, I thought I was trusting God. At least I was trying. I took a break from social media, read for fun, laughed at the dog, remembered to breathe, even managed to calm myself when I woke from sleep into panic.
But those ugly words fell like a guillotine, out of the blue, into an unguarded moment when all I’d felt was excitement about spending a holiday I like with people I love.
I don’t think context would have made them sting less, but the ambush aspect made them worse. It sent me reeling down the interstate. I tried to talk about other things with my friends but kept spiraling back. Even as I sat in their living room, while the kids ate Halloween candy and we all watched an episode of Monk, the words churned in the back of my mind.
And as I drove home Sunday afternoon, the ugliness and the loathing and the annihilation crashed into me. I used to say that the veins in my wrists throbbed when I had the urge to cut. This time they felt like steel, like they were slicing through my skin from the inside out. Every slight, every unreturned text, every lie, every time a student has shouted at me, every time a man has spoken with condescension or lust, every person who could have intervened but chose not to, every time someone has let me know I don’t belong or I don’t matter or I’m unwanted — all of it pummeled me. I hated myself so much I could barely breathe.
Why do people keep treating me like shit? Why do they say such ugly things? What is it about me that inspires awfulness? What the hell is wrong with me?
A small, lucid part of my brain told me that what I was experiencing was a final paroxysm of a lot of very old rage and pain and self-loathing that have had a profound hold on me and don’t want to let go. That the hateful words tore the cover off this deep reservoir so that light and healing could reach into the darkest, murkiest, most weed-choked places.
But it hurt like hell, and I didn’t think I could get through.
I didn’t dare let on to anyone just how bad things were on Sunday. As it was, my mom wanted me to check myself into the hospital. She stayed on the phone with me as I howled and sobbed and basically lost my mind. As all the hatred from years and years and years washed over me, I curled up like a fetus and wondered if death was the only way I would ever stop feeling so anguished and so alone.
But as I thrashed on my tear-drenched pillow Sunday night, I realized that out of the wreckage that had been my day, there was one triumph: I had not cut myself. I did not give in to those urges. I vowed in January of 2019 that I would never do that again, and I have not.
Monday was a little better: I sat in the sun at the botanic gardens, then I walked the labyrinth and meditated. I spent the afternoon trying to advocate for myself, with mixed results. But mixed results mean some people listened. I came away frustrated but also aware that others were fighting for me. And that’s new. I’ve always felt like I’m on my own, like I have to fight for myself because no one else cares enough to get involved. This time people got involved.
As I walked the dog that evening, I wondered if I’d ever stop feeling so brutally alone, like I inhabit an island no one else has ever quite reached. I used to walk through the neighborhoods behind my college campus, looking at the cozy lights and warmth inside the houses as I, alone in the rain, stepped on water-logged leaves. I thought someday I would belong in a place like that, in a home, with people, part of a circle.
But I’ve never made it inside. I don’t feel like I belong anywhere, like I’m part of anything except for fleeting moments that quickly evaporate. I am always and ever that solitary figure in the rain, in the dark, in the shadows.
But as I thought this on Monday, something my counselor said months ago came into my head: “Feelings aren’t facts.” I feel alone, but am I?
I thought of the friends who risked COVID-19 exposure to open their home to me, who listened to me spiral and fed me dinner and took me on a drive to see killer clowns. Who have been there for me in so many, many ways in the years that I’ve known them.
And my mother and aunt, who both spent hours on the phone trying to talk me out of the darkness, who called me on the lies I was telling myself. And the friends who texted and comforted me and got angry on my behalf, and the people who stuck out their necks to fight for me.
Maybe I felt alone, but I realized I wasn’t alone.
And more: The person who spoke the ugliness communicated to me that I was nothing, that I didn’t matter. But I didn’t accept that message. Without even consciously realizing the implications, I woke up Monday determined to stand up for myself. People, most of them men, have been telling me terrible things about myself since I was thirteen years old, but I’m not letting them get away with it anymore.
I remember exactly where I was standing in the park when these realizations hit me, the precise spot on the path, the view of a street lamp and a bench and naked branches pressing gently against the lavender sky. The bench beckoned, so I sat down inside the circle of light and exchanged greetings with people who passed by, and I felt, I felt, like I belonged. Like I was part of something, with other humans. Like I was no longer missing out on the warmth and the smiles and the acceptance and the love.