NYC260 cover image See all stories from issue #260, January/February 2018

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I Can Heal
Denial didn’t help, but writing did
Anonymous
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We sat together on his bed, behind a closed door with the curtains pulled. We had never been alone in his bedroom before, and the intimacy made me uncomfortable. The only light in the room emanated from the cartoon playing on his computer screen. He was my best friend, yet being alone with him in the darkness, I felt strangely vulnerable.

His parents were in the living room, a world away from us behind his bedroom door. I’d been to his house a few times, but with other friends. This felt different. I ran my hands up and down my thighs nervously, biting the inside of my cheek as I checked my watch.

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“When are they getting here? Did they respond to your messages?” I asked, referring to the two female friends he told me he had also invited over. He shrugged and hopped off the bed, pulling out a bottle of vodka from underneath his desk.

“Why don’t we drink a little before they get here?”

I’d had alcohol before, but never anything as strong as vodka and never more than a couple sips. I was hesitant, but this was my best friend. I trusted him. Nothing could go wrong with just a couple sips, right?

Sip after sip after sip. When I checked my phone to see the time, I also saw several missed calls from my parents.

“I better go,” I slurred, but when I stood up, the ground seemed to spin under me and I fell backwards onto the bed. Suddenly his lips were on mine, his hands roaming my body. I tried to push him off me with all my strength, the word “no” leaving my mouth. My word was slow and unsteady, but it was said, over and over. He didn’t stop.

I became paralyzed with fear. I closed my eyes so that I couldn’t see him. When I opened them, I saw myself. It felt like I was a ghost above my own body, watching everything happen. I thought maybe I had died. I didn’t recognize the girl on that bed, silently crying.

Afterward, he pulled on his clothes, unlocked his bedroom door, and sat at his computer, ignoring me. On my way out, I heard his parents watching television in the living room. They didn’t acknowledge my departure. I walked to the train quickly, shivering every time a gust of cold air hit me.

A Stranger in My Own Body

When I got home, I felt numb from the inside out. I felt like a stranger in my own body. Every breath I took felt unnatural, as if I were pulling air into a foreign body. I couldn’t understand what had just happened to me.

My parents pulled me into the living room to lecture me about being so late, pointing to the clock. In the back of my head, I realized it was dark out—I rarely came home in the dark. Their words sounded like gibberish.

“Are you even listening?” my mother demanded. I looked up to meet her eyes. I was so tired. I nodded.

“Do I tell her?” I asked myself, emotions beginning to build inside of me. My chest felt tight. How could I? I wasn’t allowed to be alone with a boy in his room even, with his parents home.

“Just go to your room,” she sighed.

In the bathroom, I splashed cold water on my face before looking in the mirror. My image seemed distorted. “I’m fine,” I told my reflection. I didn’t believe my own words but I said them over and over. “I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m fine.”

I crawled into bed, repeating my mantra. “I’m fine.”

The Next Day

image by YC-Art Dept

The next day at school, when I walked into our computer science class, he was sitting in his usual seat next to mine. He looked up and gave me a smile. How could he smile at me after what he’d done? My hands wouldn’t stop shaking as I took my seat. I felt ashamed and scared just to be near him.

“I have the worst hangover from last night,” he whispered as the teacher started his lesson. I kept my head down—I didn’t want to look up and see his face. I clenched my eyes shut in an attempt to hold back my tears.

For the rest of the class, I couldn’t hear a word the teacher said. All I could hear was my heart pounding against my chest. When the bell finally rang, I ran out of the room and into the bathroom. I locked myself inside a stall and cried.

That was the first painful day of many as I struggled to understand what had happened to me and how to cope with it.

A Stark Change in Me

I could barely bring myself to attend school and be in the same building as him. Most days I skipped computer science to avoid him, even though it was my favorite subject. When I did go, I kept my head down and didn’t talk. He messaged me, but eventually gave up because I never replied.

I avoided him so he didn’t get the chance to approach me in real life. In class, we had no chance to talk. I walked away if I saw him outside of class.

My other friends noticed we had drifted apart, but when they saw how uncomfortable I got when they questioned me, they stopped.

If any of my teachers noticed the stark change in my demeanor—from the eager-to-learn and loud student who showed up to class every day with a smile on her face to the silent girl slumped in the back with red-rimmed eyes—they kept it to themselves. It felt like the world was suddenly a pool filled with Olympic athletes while I was struggling not to drown and no one noticed.

I was careful to act normal in front of my family so they wouldn’t suspect anything. I didn’t want to talk about what had happened with anybody. I felt like it was my fault for staying there. It was my fault for not fighting back enough. It was my fault for being hurt. I was ashamed. I wanted to pretend like nothing had happened. Maybe it would all go away then.

Afraid to Reach Out

I started pushing away my friends and hanging out with new people, who smoked weed. Smoking helped take my mind off the pain simmering inside me, if only for a couple hours. It allowed me to feel happy for the first time in months. But my once-a-week habit soon spiraled out of control, and I would smoke more than twice a day if I could.

Soon, even being high didn’t help. It didn’t keep away the darkness growing inside of me. It just made things worse. Cutting class to smoke brought my once-spectacular grades lower than they’d ever been. And I still didn’t have the courage to face the boy who had assaulted me. Teachers who used to praise me now had disappointment in their eyes.

My mom noticed I was drifting away from her, staying out late and struggling to get out of bed in the morning. “If there’s anyone I can tell, it’s her,” I thought to myself. “She’ll help me.”

“I think I’m depressed,” I told my mom hesitantly.

“If you think that excuses your grades, you’re wrong,” she scoffed. I suddenly felt very small under her gaze, a failure. When she saw my face fall and tears begin to well in my eyes, her expression shifted to something more comforting.

“You won’t feel sad if you get your grades up, OK?” I nodded.

I wanted to tell someone, anyone, what had happened. But I was deadly afraid of hearing my own thoughts mirrored back at me: It’s your fault. You should have known. You shouldn’t have been there. You should have been more careful.

image by YC-Art Dept

My Life Matters

Months after the assault, it was still fresh in my memory. Pretending it didn’t happen wasn’t working. I decided I was going to end my life on my own terms to escape the pain.

One day on the way home from school, I stood on the edge of the curb and inhaled deeply as I patiently awaited a speeding bus. It was coming toward me faster and faster. All I had to do was take one step forward, and hopefully that would be the end. I did it. I stepped forward and closed my eyes. Then I felt someone pull the collar of my shirt and jerk me back onto the sidewalk. The driver honked the horn loudly as the bus sped by. The piercing sound echoed in my head.

My mouth felt strangely dry as I looked at the man who had just saved my life. He was staring at me, horrified. When he opened his mouth to say something, my mind whirred back into action and I bolted down the street.

My feet hit the pavement until my knees shook from exhaustion and I could feel my heart in my throat. I collapsed on the sidewalk as I tried to regain my breath and stop the world from spinning. When I could finally breathe again, I looked up and examined where I had run. The sidewalk was eerily empty and the green leaves of trees blocked the evening sky. Car after car drove past me without giving a second glance. I put my face in my hands and sobbed.

When I got home, what had happened hurt too badly to think about. I sat down at the dinner table and ate with my family like any other night. When I was asked about my day, I mumbled a simple “not much” in between bites of mashed potato. I remember the meal I ate that night—steak, mashed potatoes, and roasted red peppers—because I know if my day had gone differently, I wouldn’t have been there to eat it. It seemed like the world had suddenly become more vivid.

I had been saved for a reason. I realized that my life mattered. But at the same time, I didn’t want to be haunted by what happened for the rest of my life.

Writing and Healing

For the first time in months, I was able to force myself to remember the pain, fear, and loneliness that I felt during the assault. Now I knew I had to tell someone. But how? Even with the event behind me, I was unable to say my assailant’s name out loud. So I started to write. I wrote every day in my journal, reflecting, analyzing, and accepting what had happened.

Writing about it helped me realize I had no reason to be ashamed. What happened to me wasn’t my fault. I couldn’t verbalize the shame I had felt after the assault, but seeing my own feelings on paper made me see I had no reason to feel that way. He was the only one at fault.

I thought about how if this had happened to another girl, I wouldn’t blame her. She would be a victim—just like I was. When I finally grasped this, I felt ready to tell my parents and let them know why I was acting so unlike me. But I decided to start with someone who wasn’t as important to me. I needed to take a smaller step on my journey to recovery.

I shared my writing with an adult I knew I could trust and who would understand and help me—my English teacher. We talked and agreed we should tell my guidance counselor. I talked openly with her about what had happened. It took a lot of crying but I felt much better.

All the pain poured out of me in just one day. The only bad thing about being open about what had happened was that I was forced to talk to the police and decide if I wanted to take legal action. After thinking it over, I decided not to press charges and move forward with my life.

Courage to Tell My Parents

Talking to my teacher and guidance counselor gave me the courage to tell my parents. I was scared of what they would think of me—for disobeying them, for allowing myself to get hurt. But my parents still loved and accepted me. They reinforced the fact that it wasn’t my fault.

The atmosphere in the house felt weird and tense for a week—they treated me like I was a fragile doll, asking how I felt, afraid to repeat their mistake of not communicating with me enough. But now that I had told them, I felt much happier. I stopped smoking and reconnected with my old friends. Everything felt like it was going to be fine.

But when I see him, it still hurts. Since the assault happened outside of school, the school could not take disciplinary action. Sometimes our eyes meet in the stairway or across a hallway. It makes my chest tighten and I feel like I can’t breathe.

Seeing him at prom felt like a punch to my stomach. I had been waiting in line to get a drink when he passed me, talking happily with one of his friends. I pretended not to see him, but I could feel his eyes on me. All I wanted to do was run away. But I took a deep breath and reminded myself I was no longer that girl frozen in fear in a bedroom, tears running down her face, hating herself more with every second. I loved myself—I was beautiful and confident and strong. He couldn’t hurt me anymore. I kept my head up, got my drink and walked away.

(NYC-2018-01-05)