It’s a Friday night, it’s late, I’m coming home from a long and exciting and exhausting and beautiful day. I get out of the tube into the night, walk down the corner of my street, and all of a sudden I feel happy. Fully and deeply happy. Like when your heart is light but your feet are firmly in touch with the ground. Like when you sense the people and the lights and the air and the scents around you but you’re not drowning. Like when you can feel yourself and the world around you, and the difference and the connection, and how together it all makes sense.
I started my day with contributing to a new sexual abuse survivor community hashtag on twitter: #everydaytriggers. The idea is to share how the aftermath of the abuse still affects us every day. The little things that can throw us into a world of violence, in a heartbeat, without warning, when we just wanna sit in the sun and sip on our latte, like everyone else – triggers, you know. Mine was: ‘Christmas – when it starts hitting the shops I know I’m in for 3 months of merry trigger fireworks’.
I spent half of my day on a child protection conference and the other half listening to young people telling me about their troubles. And in the end I sat at the Thames, chatting with a friend about our experiences of sexual abuse, over a beer and half a pack of cigarettes.
Actually ‘friend’ is a bit of a weird word to describe someone who I only just met last week for the very first time. But I simply don’t know any other word which could capture the level of closeness that I felt. While we were watching the sun going down over the river and the sparkling lights of London’s skyline rising up into the night, we finished each others sentences, knowing that also the unspoken words would be heard and understood.
Am I crazy for counting this as one of my happiest days?
Maybe I am. I know a lot about craziness. But only recently started learning a lot about happiness. And I still struggle to make sense of the relationship between the two.
Crazy seems easy. Crazy moved into my life a long long time ago. Crazy would first visit, then move in, then go to bed with me, eventually also to school. Until I didn’t sleep any more and dropped out of school. But crazy lived in my body and in my mind, and followed me everywhere, until I realized I simply had become crazy myself. The professionals agreed and wrote me a list of diagnoses, all ending on some sort of -disorder.
In my hand a list of all the things broken, so many that I didn’t know where to start with the repairs. Wondering if there is anything left of me, a little bit of human being, a healthy option hidden somewhere under all the disorder. A little space I could use as a hideaway while I’d send the rest of me off to repairs. Wondering how you can even repair things that had never been allowed to grow into existence. How do you fix something that was never really there…?
For the mental health professionals my crazy was measurable, in symptoms and numbers. How many flashbacks in one day, how many nightmares per week, how many cuts on my arms, how deep, how often, how many suicidal thoughts, how many kilograms on the scale, how many dinners not eaten, … Even my thoughts became numbers. Do you think you are always doing everything wrong? Do you blame yourself for what happened to you? Do you agree or disagree? Completely, not at all, or a little? On a scale from zero to six? I fill out the same questionnaire several times, with different pens in different colours. To match the complexity of my mind and show the contradictions in my thoughts.
But what I really wanted to say is:
I am drowning in the blackest of all nights. I am loosing the ability to feel the surface of the earth and stumble into an endless nothing. I am falling and I am scared that there will be no ground. This wave that has kept me up and running, it broke, right over my head. And I know it’s just a question of time until the sky will fall down too. Because that’s what was supposed to happen when I was 9 years old, when I told my secret, the only one that I was never allowed to tell. And now I have waited so long that it is making me crazy and I just want the sky to finally breath out, and fall. So that I too can stop holding my breath, and breath out, for one last time, before I end.
Happiness, back then, was a concept a little too big for my crazy mind. So I went with the professionals on that one, they should know, I thought, they studied it after all. And it seemed simple: Decrease the numbers. Less flashbacks, less panic attacks, less nightmares. The fresh cuts on my arms better approach the zero. Over the cigarettes we debated as I argued that they stood in negative correlation to flashbacks. Only the numbers on the scale, they were supposed to go up, in a nice and steady curve, of blue ink.
All these symptoms will never go completely, they said. But they can significantly decrease, they said. When they said ‘after years of therapy’, for a moment, I lost every last bit of hope that had been hiding in some remote place of my mind. But I am smart, I thought, I learn everything in half the time, maybe even therapy has some corners I can cut. And still, I knew what significantly means. It means that the amount of flashbacks I will have after ‘years of therapy’ is not the same as the amount I had before. It actually only means to calculate that you can say with a certainty of 95% that 5 per week is not the same as 15 per week. Not that I’m happy. Not that I feel like a human being. Not that I can feel the surface of the earth or actually walk on it with my head held high.
I tried it anyway, therapy, outpatient, inpatient, CBT, psychodynamic, on and off. It helped me functioning, it contained my crazy for a while, it calmed me down sometimes. But in the end, even when I had a degree and a life, I still had no idea how I could convince myself to ever feel part of this world. Because flashbacks had never been my problem. My problem was that I felt like an alien in a world full of humans. Because I was still keeping my secret. Because I was still holding my breath. Because I was still waiting for the sky to fall down on me anytime.
Because all the therapy in the world could never change what had happened. Because I didn’t want to make peace with it, or take responsibility for it, for something I had never asked for, for a mess that I hadn’t created. I didn’t want to spend my years in therapy – the same years that others were spending growing up, studying, partying, falling in and out of love – just to end up as broken as always, just with some new patches to make it less visible.
Because there was no therapy that offered the option to default to an un-abused version of me. No chance to know how it feels like to be a child and a teenager and a young woman without fearing that the sky will fall down. How it feels to walk through your life without running from a wave. To learn something in sex education that you haven’t already experienced before you started school. To associate Sundays with laziness and Christmas with warmth and childhood with fun. To not visualise a big bright red exclamation mark hovering over your head whenever others talk about ‘those people’. To not have an invisible wall of glass between yourself and the people around you. To chose to just not think about sexual abuse whenever you don’t want to. To talk about your life and your self without carefully cutting out more than half of it every time. To never have learned how to say ‘I’m fine’ absolutely convincingly while you actually want to die. And to truly understand how there possibly can be a connection between sex and love – and that you can have both with the same person.
This is the most frustrating thing about any form of therapy: That we all know too well that there is no default option. That we can’t ever be un-raped. Even if all the numbers went down to zero, even if I was free of symptoms, this would still not make me feel happy, or normal, or human. This is why, if we don’t want to give up, we have to find a third way. And maybe, if it doesn’t exist, we have to create one for ourselves. Because we still have a right to experience happiness.
I don’t know everything about it. Maybe not even much. But I know that it has nothing to do with numbers, that it doesn’t live in the same reality as symptoms, and that it often hides in the most unlikely places. I know that for me it started with the very thing I was most afraid of:
Telling my secret again and again and again. Fearing that this time the sky will finally fall, learning that it doesn’t. Every time. Again. I started speaking through words that would pour out of my head onto the paper that I never would give anyone to read. I spoke through fictional characters in the protection of the bright lights of theatre stages. I spoke to the few people in my life who had managed to come as close to me as you can get to alien that is falling down a rabbit hole. And finally I spoke to other people who felt like aliens too, and together, step by step, we became human again.
Many of us still have ‘symptoms’ and flashbacks – obviously, otherwise we wouldn’t need a twitter hashtag for it – but we all live our lives, we have a life, and now we also have each other.
And we speak. We do the most radical thing that any survivor of sexual abuse can do, we meet in the middle of our very real lives and talk about it. About the secrets, about the craziness, about the skies that are falling and the waves that are breaking, and all the different forms of running that we ever tried out to escape it. It makes me stronger every day, and happier. I speak more and more, almost public, to all kinds of people, in all kinds of situations. And in a strange way I enjoy the speaking. I enjoy the strength and the urgency and the power it has. I enjoy the community of beautiful people around me who understand even the most silently unspoken word. I enjoy that together we have found a way to turn shame into pride, anger into activism, and isolation into belonging. Alchemy, it seems, feels very magic.
I don’t live in numbers anymore. I didn’t count a single calorie in the last five years, I don’t even own a scale. But I own a body and I allow myself to live in it. What is left of ‘symptoms’ doesn’t define my life – they make sense now and became part of my unique way of functioning and struggling. And this life, I can live it now, and I feel like I have finally found a space in this world. A space for my ambitions as well as my craziness, my joy as well as well as my sadness. And with the community of other survivors I have found a space where we can share even the absolutest darkest sadness, and the depth of fear that only people who have themselves been to this other world can understand. And we can have a beer together and start a twitter hashtag about it.
I have found a kind of happiness that I never knew existed. A happiness that doesn’t depend on fixing anything. It can’t be measured – but I can feel it and it is truly my own.
I can feel it on days like this, when my biggest most horrible secret is a part of my life, I am part of the world, and when I start thinking that the sky will never fall and that it might finally be OK.
When I can walk home through the night, feel the surface of the earth, with my head held high, feel the air on my skin, breathe it in and breathe it out, and all of a sudden become overwhelmed with happiness.