Trigger warning: some discussion of sexual assault and details of rape.
I have a smart girl’s belief in my own abilities coupled with a smart girl’s deep and abiding sense that I am not good enough. I have always thought that I could become good at anything if I were to give it my whole attention and effort. But I rarely do that. I don’t want to fail. I don’t want to undermine that abiding belief in my ability to do anything because it gives me hope.
Hope and anxiety.
The smart girl’s lament.
I hear it often from clients that they are scared to try something new. Scared to step into the unknown and take a chance because what if it doesn’t work out.
The cognitive dissonance of believing you could, but doubting that you should, can be hard to manage and paralyzing even in the face of deep seated goals and desires. It appears confident while being deeply insecure.
I question my worth all the time.
My parents were convinced that I could do anything and should do great things. The Spiderman creed was instilled in me – from those with great abilities, great things are expected. I know that I was given a number of intellectual abilities and that I SHOULD do something with them. So anything that I do feels like not enough.
In school those great things were easy to find – excel in classes, study hard and learn well. Outside, it’s harder. When you worry that you’re not enough for others in relationships you become desperate to please and willing to accept far less than you’re worth. I know what I want from friends and loved ones, but who am I to ask people to meet my needs. To have expectations of others. Won’t that make me a burden?
If I rock the boat, will it be too much and will this person I like no longer like me? How do you set boundaries or say no when you’re convinced that having expectations or needs of others makes you a burden?
I met someone one night in Washington, DC. A man whose name I remember to this day but don’t say. At the time I lived with a roommate in a two bedroom basement apartment, rented to us by a (we didn’t know this at the time) man on the sex offender registry who lived in the house upstairs. The apartment was cute and comfortable, but decidedly non-smoking. My roommate and I smoked occasionally. SO, we would go down the street and around the corner – as we clearly agreed on the rental application that we didn’t smoke and we didn’t….IN the apartment. One Friday night, we were down the street having a cigarette when we met a group of three men leaving a house party farther up the block.
We started talking. They came in for a drink and we ended up going out with them. One of them, who was about my age, was clearly interested in me and we ended up making out later that night. We didn’t take off any clothing – mostly just kissed at a bar. On the whole, it was a pretty chaste first meeting.
I liked him. I found him smart and interesting and interested in his job.
We agreed to go out again and exchanged numbers. I was leaving in a week for a job in Paris for the summer, so we knew that any future dates would have to be brief and then broken up by a 3 month break. But I liked him.
He called three days later and I was excited to see his number, even though it was 10PM on Monday night. He said he had been at a concert and wanted to stop in and see me, maybe watch a movie.
I knew what that meant, I knew about booty calls, the pre-Netflix version of Netflix and chill. But I also believed that he wanted to see me – that it was a date.
When he arrived, I thought he seemed sweaty and not himself (as far as I knew from our ONE meeting). I realized after later when looking back that he was probably on something from the concert. My roommate and I had a male friend from college staying at our apartment for the week, he was going to be sleeping on an inflatable mattress in the living room, so I introduced them and we hung out for a few minutes before heading back into my bedroom to watch a movie.
I know I was clear that I did not want to have sex. I did want to kiss and hook up. But I know I said clearly that we weren’t having sex.
We had sex. I know I said during that I didn’t want to.
But we had sex. I didn’t scream. I didn’t fight. I remember lying there and feeling numb. I do remember asking him during what he was doing. I don’t remember an answer.
We had sex.
After, he got out of bed. He looked at me and said, “you liked it” and then got dressed and left. I never heard from him again.
I asked myself, did I like it?
I struggled for the next two days with the idea that he told me a liked it. Did I? I din’t think that I did. I didn’t feel good about it. I didn’t think about it as a rape, but I did engage in some pretty harsh self-judgment about letting him in. I was pretty mean about “what did you think would happen?” kind of thoughts.
I did see a doctor for an emergency HIV test before I left for Paris that week and then again when I took another one six months later. He didn’t use a condom and I didn’t know him. Not really. As a result, the recommended protocol at the time was one HIV test followed by another six months later. Luckily, both were negative.
I didn’t talk to my roommate or any of our friends about what happened. I think I told them that I just didn’t know what the point of seeing him again was when I was leaving. Never mind that he didn’t call me anyway.
I kept asking, “did I like it?”
I went to Paris and hid for two months. Baggy clothing, dinners in my apartment. I watched French reality television and tried to remember how to feel comfortable and confident meeting people.
Now, on top of my smart girl anxiety, I also worried that I was too naive and uninformed to know what to expect of people I would meet. So, I didn’t meet anyone apart from people at work. I ate lunch alone in a park, reading a book and wearing headphones to discourage approach. I worked in the basement instead of the communal intern office as often as possible.
I didn’t believe anymore that I was so smart. I had lost the magical belief that I could handle anything. I didn’t believe anymore that I was extraordinary. This thing that happens to so many happened to me. I was ordinary and powerless against it.
And I walked.
I walked to work every day. I walked home from work every day. Almost an hour each way. I watched the repeated dramas that occur in French neighborhoods – the old men who met every evening in a park I passed to play pétanque (a form of French lawn bowling), the baker and the butcher with shops next door to each other who shared an afternoon glass of tea in front of their stores around the same time as I was walking home.
I took a break from my own life and watched other people’s lives, both in my physical reality and those on television. It took me out of my head and distracted me from my self-judgement.
I realized that I didn’t like it. Even more, I realized that liking it wasn’t the point when I said no, clearly and distinctly before and during.
When I came home from Paris, I was able to tell my roommate about what happened. To say the words, “he raped me.” And to feel they were true and that it wasn’t my fault. It took months, but it wasn’t my fault. I said no. I was clear. It wasn’t my fault.
Sex is complicated and messy even when we’re clear. To realize that it’s often not clear. To believe that I was violated is to accept that I’m not magically able to manage and control everything. Control is a false magic. It isn’t real. I did the best that I could, given the emotional and self esteem resources available to me at that time, to assert my needs under the specific circumstances of that night. Doing the best I could doesn’t mean doing the objectively best that anyone could given infinite time to think and react. Given infinite time, self esteem, confidence, power there are a number of things I could have done, but I didn’t do them. Because it happened fast, because I couldn’t think, because I was still worried about being too much, because, because, because.
I spent about a month reliving what happened and thinking of things I could have done to change the outcome. There are so many. So many I would do today if I had it to do over again because today I’ve already thought of them. Today I have better self esteem and boundaries. Today I’ve learned how to assert myself.
Rape shouldn’t be the price of learning those lessons. It doesn’t make me dumb that I didn’t know how to react at the time and it doesn’t make me any less smart that I failed at keeping myself safe from what did happen. Because we can’t keep ourselves safe from everything.
We can’t control everything.
Even magic can be defeated.
But the beauty of life is that we do get to try again. We have to cope with our failures – which is a thing I learned from this whole story. Failure is part of life. There are no clear standards of success and no clear benchmarks for doing well. We can only do the best that we can under the circumstances that we find ourselves in. Ordinary is beautiful and soothing and healing. Extraordinary isn’t a requirement.
Doing our best is.
The smart girl in me still mostly believes that. Sometimes she gets anxious that she’s not enough. When she gets loudest, I try something new to keep her feeling like she’s still pushing.
But mostly being happy is magic. Being enough is magic.