Consent

Trigger Warning Ahead: Discussions of Assault

Ay Vamos” starts playing and my chest seizes.

It’s the kind of visceral response that the wrong song at the wrong time can only trigger.

Songs are time capsules with melody and I’m instantly transported back in the end of 2014. The eve of things. The tide pulling back. The tornado sirens to what 2015 was going to bring.

“I hate this time of year,” I mumble to myself. I try to bring myself back — back into my body, back to the present moment. But my breath is shallow. I feel like there’s a vice grip on my chest. All of my training abandons me when it’s my turn to be the patient.

Eleven months in to EMDR therapy, and my therapist feels we are ready to switch tracks. Work less on individual memories and more on the parts that make up me — my protector parts, the younger versions of me, the parts that are vulnerable and scared and carry unfathomable burdens.

But we only get a few sessions in before a series of memories seem to keep popping up, making cameo appearances in ways I wasn’t expecting. A ground zero that I had been deliberately driving past.

The first time I roll my eyes and say, “basically assaulted,” my therapist gently recommends that we switch gears for a moment and to work with these memories instead.

And I agree, and already I can feel the tide starting to pull back. The tornado warning has started to blare. I am on the eve of something.

The memories span, but we start with the one that happened at the beginning of 2015. As everything was going wrong.

“How true does the phrase: ‘I did not deserve what happened,’ feel?”

“You know, intellectually it feels true, but there’s something that keeps pushing back.”

“What is that part of you trying to say, with this pushback?”

“…that I had kept coming back, kept asking him when I could come by. That he made me feel special. That it wasn’t assault if that was how I was willing to behave.”

But what did you consent to?”

I can feel something starting to crack, like something that had been locked up is finally getting a chance to break free. Perhaps this is why I keep looking back on that time — not because of all that went wrong, but what had been left unfinished.

I kept looking back because the sheer injustice was still singing its siren song. Because I had taken away only part of the story, and the key to my healing was the missing details.

It was not about reckoning with the wreck so much as it was about how there were still parts of me that were buried under the debris — namely the sweet, timid girl who just wanted to help. Who thought she could trust the director, the good Christian family man, twelve years her senior.

I hate this time of year. Ever since my father collapsed, days after Thanksgiving, and the alcohol withdrawal from just a few days in the hospital created seizures so intense he spent two weeks in the ICU, this time has never been a messenger for good things.

If something truly, catastrophically bad is going to happen, it happens in the last two months of the year, as the darkness takes over the days and the air bites your lungs. I cannot remember a year since my father’s collapse where this wasn’t that case.

Something new seizes in my chest as I recall this. Yes, my father’s collapse, which signaled the final months of his life. The event that happened at the end of 2014.

And what happened the second you talked about this situation publicly? Who started upping the ante? Who started telling you to stick around after hours, after no one else was in the office?

There is a fight going on in my therapist’s office. One between the wiser side of me, the hurting parts of me, and my therapist.

What did you consent to?”

(My wiser side is screaming: “You know she is right!”)

“I should’ve known that was what was going to happen next.”

“What did you consent to?”

“I had plenty of time to stop it.”

What did you consent to?”

“But he made me feel special.”

“If a 17 year old had a 29 year old teacher who was grooming her, would you say it was her fault because he made her feel special?”

“What did you consent to?”

(My wiser side: “You know the answer! You know it!”)

I already knew this song and dance. What this side of me is trying to do by blaming me. There is protection in pointing out all the ways you probably deserved it — that maybe you even wanted it. And, if not that, here are all the ways you could have prevented it.

There is a false sense of protection because you are creating a false sense of control. Maybe something terrible happened, but that was on you. How scary it becomes, to lose that. To realize you deserved better. That you were a victim. That you didn’t stand a fucking chance.

“But I kept coming back.”

“He spent six months grooming you. He was strategic in every thing he did. You were trauma bonded by then.”

“But I kept vying for his attention.”

“Would you blame a victim of cult abuse because they were vying for the leader’s attention?”

“No.”

“All the women who came before. Those who came after. The college student who filed a harassment complaint the same time all of this was happening. Why are you the only one who deserved what happened?”

“…I don’t know.”

“Now: what did you consent to?”

The end of 2021 brought Taylor Swift’s 10-minute version of “All Too Well”, as well as the emotional injustice done to her in 2012. Conversations about how this song could never have been released then, a decade ago. Given how the world had viewed her — viewed women, especially women in nuanced situations — she would’ve been dragged. She would’ve been seen as crazy.

“You tell anyone and I’ll stop at nothing until everyone thinks you’re crazy…”

And I kept quiet. Even when friends asked. Even when those who knew his behavioral patterns intervened. I was petrified. I knew all it would take is one revealed email where I eagerly asked to come by. One eye-witness account of me sitting in the chair by his desk like an obedient lap dog. The narrative of the crazy girl would win out. And the only person who would feel the consequences was the one who had been dealing with them all along.

2015 wasn’t that different from 2012. Even 2016, even with the Me Too movement. Perhaps, right now, in 2021, this is truly the first time there has been a tone shift, that a woman could step forward with her story and not be immediately scrutinized, immediately invalidated because of any detail that didn’t seem cut and dry.

Perhaps now is the first time reckoning can come in the form of a 14-minute music video and a red scarf and holding men accountable.

“If it was consensual, why would he have to apologize?”

“I don’t know.”

“If it was consensual, why did he threaten you into silence?”

“Because an affair would’ve ruined his marriage?”

“Do you think normal adulterers threaten their mistresses?”

“Maybe.”

“What did you consent to?”

This year’s darkness has a different flavor to it. It is one that feels less like suffocating night and more a quiet place for seeds to take root. 

Under the snow lays groundwork for something bigger. Like tulip bulbs planted just before the first frost. I am watching the groundwork being laid out. Beautiful things are forming, the same way a caterpillar becomes a butterfly.

And just like the process of metamorphosis, right now it feels like the things have to be completely destroyed and melted down.

“What did you consent to?”

“…”

(Wise me: “SAY IT.”)

“What did you consent to?”

(Wise me: “YOU KNOW THE ANSWER.”)

“Did you consent to that?”

“…no.”

And with that, the primal wail of someone who has just received the most devastating news of their life. The kind of sorrow that has no real descriptor. The cry of suffering of someone who will spend the evening sobbing in her shower — not unlike in the aftermath of that very event we had been working on in therapy. The only difference is I don’t feel numb between my legs. I just feel excruciating pain all over.

I keep likening EMDR therapy to breaking a bone in order to reset it, but perhaps this has been more like popping a dislocated shoulder back in place.

In order to fix a dislocated shoulder, the movement must be swift and violent. Anything less and you risk creating more damage. And the initial yank will be monstrous. But once the shoulder is back in place, then you can attend to the muscles and make sure they heal properly around it.

The shoulder is finally back in its socket, after years of being dislocated. And the muscles can finally — finally — start to heal.

I had spent years willing my shoulder muscles to stop re-injuring themselves. Years where I assumed it was normal for one arm to be lower than the other, and that certain movements were basically impossible.

Everything shifts into focus after the undeniable pain of something popping back into its proper place.

One of the unfortunate side effects of realizing the full extent of things is realizing the true role other people have played, and realizing the only way forward is to cut that cord, that even the echoes of retraumatizing must be silenced off.

And in that cutting of the cord, I am, unfortunately, retraumatized anyway. Remembering all these trauma bonds by proxy, how horrifically messed up certain situations were. Remember holding space for the very people who enabled him. Telling myself that they didn’t know all the details does not change the fact that these people know who he is, knew what hell he had put me through, and knew I wasn’t the only one. There is no yarn I can spin to change the deep betrayal of it all.

There is a song with the lyrics: “I’ve been losing friends and finding peace. Honestly that sounds like a fair trade to me.” Perhaps, in the light of healing, that trade favors the one finding peace.

I am finally making off like a bandit, after years of feeling stolen from.

I hate this time of year, for the simple fact that it has been the battle ground of so many heavy hitting things. That the glare of the Christmas lights only heightened how dark its surroundings are.

And this is a new heavy hit. One nearly seven years in the making. But this year, it’s different. I don’t have that same dread.

I am watching the person I know that I can be show up more and more. I am watching my educational path pave itself out more and more concretely. I am watching my dreams and plans slowly start to shift in place. It’s been a mix of hard work and luck and unfathomable support.

This is the groundwork. These are the tulips ready to bloom. This is the butterfly ready to burst from its chrysalis.

I am preparing to go decorate my best friend’s Christmas tree, and I feel a heaviness in my chest.

“Where were you, last year, when you went to her house, and decorated the Christmas tree?” a part of me asks. “What was happening, then? What specific details can you recall? What specific details of the present day can you admit? Do you see the parallels?”

I do. And the fact that I do only creates bigger heaviness in the heart. But the fact that the script is different this time lightens things. I remember how I was at the end of 2020. I remember the patterns I played out, just like it had for years at that point. But I also remember who I am today. The girl — the woman — who has kicked and clawed and scratched her way to where she is now. Who embraces exactly the vibrant force she is, and all that she brings to the table. The girl who once crumbled is the woman who stands firm. The pattern has been broken, even if it cracked my heart a bit in the process.

If nothing else, it has been a litmus test for this incredible woman. This confident, self-reassuring, brave, amazing woman, who has nothing but love for all the younger parts of her. The parts that didn’t stand a chance. The parts that didn’t get a chance. Because she is their chance. She is an incredible, vivacious person, who continues to love both who she is and what she is becoming.

And no one gets access to her without her consent.

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