I woke up kicking him and shoving him away from me.
“Eden, it’s me! It’s just me, and you’re safe. You are safe, wake up!”
The voice, it sounded familiar.
It was Friday night, or rather, now early Saturday morning. The Guy and I were unwinding after the kids had gone to bed, by watching a movie and having a drink. We weren’t drinking excessively — not even close — but I was tired, and so was he, and at some point we had both fallen asleep in a pile of pillows that we had been using to cushion the floor; which was a much better option than our ridiculously uncomfortable sofa.
When the TV shut itself off and The Guy awoke just after 2am and realized what time it was, he gently shook me by the shoulders and tried to wake me up so that we could both make our way upstairs, and into a bed that would be much kinder to our backs than the floor was.
But my back was already screaming in pain, and I was disoriented just enough by the darkness of the room, my position on the floor, and a man leaning over me, that my half asleep, wine relaxed brain, didn’t immediately piece the entire scenario together.
Instead, it pulled what little information it knew, and it flashed me back to a time when I was 19, and I found myself groggy, in the dark, in pain, and with my ex-husband pushing my shoulders down into his futon.
And right then and there I "realized" that I was about to be raped again.
So I fought.
The Guy, who had so gently tried to wake me up, was now dodging my flailing limbs and ducking swings, as I was fighting for my life, and the right to retain control over my body.
Thankfully, since I was still half asleep, I never got up — I never moved from the spot where I had been laying — but every time he came close to me I would shove — or even kick — him away. It was defensiveness at its best, and him, not totally understanding what was going on, thought that I was having a bad dream and kept trying to wake me up by physically touching me.
But it was more than a bad dream, it was a PTSD flashback, and The Guy touching me was making everything worse. And only when he finally realized what was happening, and he began to say over, and over again, “Eden, it’s The Guy. You are safe, no one is hurting you. I’m not going to hurt you, you are safe,” did I finally hear his voice and allow my panic to subside.
For the next hour I laid on The Guy's shoulder and I sobbed tears so big that they soaked his entire left side and left him wiping makeup off my red, puffy face, while I recounted an experience so fragmented, that I’m sure much of it didn’t even make any sense.
“I said no" I sobbed in recollection of being nineteen years old and awoken by my ex. "I said no and he told me that it was fine, and he gave me a milkshake. I thought it was his way of apologizing for trying to force me. I didn’t know, I had no idea. I was watching a movie… and then I wasn’t… I think I was sleeping but I wasn’t really sleeping… I woke up… not all the way... but I don’t think that I was sleeping… but I didn’t really wake up. I was awake, but I couldn’t move. He kept pushing my shoulders down into the futon, and my head rolled to the side where the fish tank was. They watched me, the fish. They didn’t even help me, they just stared at me. And I don't know why I thought they could do anything, because I'm not crazy or anything and I know that they are just fish, but nothing was making any sense. I couldn't figure out what was going on, and nothing seemed real, but it was too real. It was all too real. I hate fish. I hate fish! They don’t even blink and it’s not normal and they just stare at you while you suffer and they know. They knew. I hate fish.”
“So that’s why you hate fish” he said as he tucked my tear soaked hair behind my ears.
“I hate fish! I hate them because they didn’t help me!” I cried. “I couldn’t even move, but I wasn’t sleeping, but maybe I was. I don’t know. I can’t remember anything. I thought maybe it was a dream, but the pain the next day… I don’t think it was a dream. I think it really happened… but I'm not sure because it didn't really feel like I was there. I don’t even know. I just remember the fish and I hate fish. They stare at you and I hate them.”
I hate fish.
And to this day I still don’t know exactly what happened. Logical thinking can build an extremely believable story line involving drugs and a milkshake (which is a very likely scenario), but from my own internal perspective — based upon my own fragmented memory — it’s just not that simple because there is so much of the event that my brain just simply refuses to process; things that it is desperately trying to protect me from accepting.
The only thing I walked away knowing for certain, is that I hate fish and their unblinking eyes.
Years later, I still hate fish, and I know that in the grand scheme of that experience, it is the least most important detail of what occurred, but it’s what my brain has fixated on. It’s what trauma has chosen to make that experience about, whether it makes sense or not.
It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but neither does trauma. Neither does literally fighting your sweet husband just because he tries to wake you up.
My life — although it has drastically changed for the better — is not an all or nothing type of deal. Lately I’ve had a lot of people say things to me such as “now that you’re married, you can finally move on,” and “now that your kids finally have a dad, they can really begin to heal.” I've also gotten quite a few emails from readers asking me since I'm married now, if I will stop talking about abuse, trauma, and recovery.
But the thing is, trauma never really goes away, even when it feels like your life has finally brought you to a place where it appears that trauma should no longer have a place in it.
My life is better, and my kid’s lives are better, but the arrival of a new husband and a new father, doesn't erase the existence of the old one, or the damage that was done.
I was better off when my ex left than when he was with us, but it didn’t change that in his departure I was grieving what should have been, and my children what they should have had. And just because I have a new husband now, it doesn’t mean that I’m not still traumatized, or that my children were never hurt.
Thankfully he respected my wishes and went upstairs to finish reorganizing his closet, but The Girl Child — who had overheard more than I had intended — misunderstood the situation in ways that an eight-year-old with abandonment issues might conclude.
She heard me tell him to leave me alone, and then she saw him go upstairs and begin to pull his clothes out of the closet. When she burst into tears that bordered an actual panic attack, my heart shattered into a million little pieces.
"Why do all my daddies leave me? Why don't any of them want to stay forever?" she sobbed.
I sat with her for a long time after that, desperately searching for the words to heal her heart and calm her soul, but the words to erase trauma simply don't exist.
Trauma, unfortunately, often never fully leaves us, it just changes form. Sometimes we do better at processing and storing it away, and other times it rears its ugly head. It's a sneaky little bitch that doesn’t always make sense, but if there is one thing that I can promise you, if there is one thing that I know for certain, it’s that it doesn’t bribe easily.
“If I give you this, will you go away?”
No it won’t.
I have a new husband, but it doesn't erase the fact that I was viciously hurt by my first one.
My children have a new father, but it doesn't change the fact that they were abandoned by their biological one.
And that is life. Things change, they evolve, and we grow, but our pasts don’t disappear just because we’ve changed our surroundings, and gained a better future.
It just means that their effect on our life might be different.
Recently I was asked to give a speech to the sheriff’s department of a local county, and in the days leading up to the event, the event organizer asked me if I would prefer to be introduced as a victim, or a survivor. After thinking about it long and hard, I asked them to introduce me as a victim.
What happened to me was not something that I chose, and not something that I could control, and although I make the daily — and constant — choice to continue to be a survivor, my status as a survivor rests heavily upon my unavoidable position as a victim.
I choose to be a survivor, but the abuse I suffered will always claim me as a victim.
And I know that it’s not always the most popular stance to take — because there seems to be the idea that there is weakness in being a victim, and power in being a survivor — but I just don’t see it that way. I don’t see the connection between victim and survivor as a permanent transition; I don't agree that if you are one, then you can’t be the other.
Rather, I think that it's interchangeable.
I am not a victim because I am weak, I am a victim because what was done to me was not my fault. My identity in being a victim is not held weakness or the status of my recovery, but rather it's held in claiming innocence in the abuse.
Being a victim is not my fault.
And being a victim allows me to relate to my past in a way that gives me permission to forgive my role in it.
To realize, that it is not my shame to bear.
But being a survivor, that’s all me. I did that. I chose that. I’m living that every, single day.
I survived, and I am a survivor, but I’m still a victim.
I got remarried, but I’m still traumatized.
I can be both. I am both.
So when I gave that speech — knowing that the audience was going to be filled with women who were either still trying to escape from abuse or struggling with what had happened to them — I didn't want my position at the podium to appear unattainable. I wanted to be viewed as someone that they could relate to in that very moment; because if anyone could understand how they were feeling, it was me. I didn't want to be "the woman that survived and moved on," I wanted to be "the woman, that just like you, has been victimized."
We talk so very much in this blog about healing from abuse, and finding a new path in life, but I just wanted to take a minute to remind everyone that it’s OK if you don’t feel completely healed 100% of the time.
I sure don't.
It’s OK if you don’t always feel like a survivor, because under it all, you were victimized, and you are still a victim. And I know that claiming the victim title doesn't always feel good, but you can't change what someone did to you, and as is the name of this blog, that is not your shame to bear.
In the groups that I lead, I see many women begin to heal from their abuse, claim the survivor title, and then when something happens that brings all their trauma to the surface, they become lost. “How can I be feeling this way if I survived? Didn’t I move on? Am I still just a victim, and not as much a survivor as I thought? Who am I?”
You are someone who was hurt, and even if you’ve come a long way since you were last victimized, it’s OK to acknowledge every now and again that you got hurt.
I got hurt. I got really, really hurt, and I’m doing a lot better, but I’m still hurt.
I can be a survivor, and still be a victim.
There's no shame in that.
Friday night, after I accidentally fought The Guy and spent an hour crying on his shoulder, I found myself apologizing over, and over again for what I had done. “I just don’t get it,” I kept saying. “I thought I had moved past all of this. I thought I was better than this." Eventually I fell asleep to him rubbing my back and unrelentingly reminding me that “this is not your fault. Someone did this to you, and I will not have you apologizing for something that is not your fault. You’ve come a long way, but you that doesn’t mean you didn’t get hurt,” and I woke up thinking about how many of you probably need to hear the same thing.
No matter how far you have come in your journey, please remember that being a survivor is a choice, and being a victim is not.
Most days, you may feel fine, and then a day comes along when you’re not, and that is OK. I am telling you, that it is alright.
You have not failed at healing.
You can choose to be a survivor, but there is no shame in also being a victim.
Allow yourself to feel proud in how strong you are for coming through it, but also allow yourself the right to grieve what was done to you.
Someone hurt you, and that doesn't just go away just because you found the strength to survive it.
Be kind to yourself, because not everyone always has been.