21 June 2015

"About a Thousand Days Ago..."

More than anything else I have ever written, this is the one that has been the most difficult and taken the longest - to confront, to write, to share. What follows was first written almost a year ago, and shared in small increments with my inner circle.

TRIGGER WARNING: This post contains sensitive subject content, though it is discussed as ambiguously as possible as I could manage.

I was in elementary school. I want to say first grade, but I could be wrong about that. The guidance counselor came to class one day. She had a couple of puppets. She made one do the moonwalk dance. That was a big hit with my classmates. I laughed along because I knew it was the appropriate reaction, but I was oblivious to pop culture and had no idea what the moonwalk dance even was. I've never confessed that to anyone before, so that's our ice-breaker, Dear Reader.

I immediately liked the guidance counselor. Like most of the faculty at that school, I felt that she actually cared about us students and wanted us to have a good experience. I found it easy to talk with her. That hasn't always been the case for me over the years.

That day, her talk with us was about inappropriate touching. She gave us the standard talking points about the offender being to blame, not the victim; about the importance of reporting such an incident to our parents, teachers, or other trustworthy adults until we found one who would listen; and about owning our agency to tell someone "No". As tended to happen in the classroom, I had the sense that most of my classmates were partly absorbing what was being discussed and mostly just waiting for the clock to run down.

I remember when the talk was over that I quietly approached the counselor. I had something to discuss.

She arranged for me to visit her in her office, across the hallway from the main office. I'd only ever been sent to the main office once. I was summoned to the principal's office along with a few others. I was terrified as I walked down the corridor, wondering what I could possibly have done wrong. It turned out that I simply had an overdue library book. Due dates have loomed large for me ever since.

"You know what you were talking about in our class?" I would have begun. "About a thousand days ago, something happened." I paused and did the math in my head. I knew there were more than three hundred days in a year and I was backtracking in my mind. A thousand days was actually a reasonable estimate. Whether I was just procrastinating or trying to show off my math skills, I couldn't say. It was weird because I hadn't planned to start out that way at all. It's just what came to me. I was as surprised as she was that I was trying to work out how many days ago the incident had taken place. Brains, right? Whaddya gonna do?

Given how outspoken I've been about things like sexual violence, I don't think this post is going to be all that much of a surprise to anyone who's paid much attention to me over the years. It's probably been pretty obvious that something once happened, and everyone has been too polite/squeamish to ask.

I have had one policy since I came out from behind the anonymity of a screen name: I don't share things that involve and affect other people. That ties my hands about what I can share with you now, Dear Reader. Your imagination has already told you the nature of what I shared with the guidance counselor that morning. I will only say this much: What happened was with someone older that I should have been able to trust. My guidance counselor was the first person I ever told about the incident.

What struck me at the time, and stands out especially today, was how attentively she listened to me. If she was skeptical, she never let on about it. On the contrary, I felt certain that she did believe me. When I hear of survivors talking about not being believed, it upsets me to know that they were cheated out of at least that much. I just took it for granted that she would listen as she did. I was much older when I found out that I had been lucky in that respect.

The counselor initiated an investigation. She contacted my parents. I spoke with my mom about it. I don't remember anything from that conversation except wanting it to be over. The offender gave an entirely fabricated alternate account of events and insisted I simply had an overactive imagination. It was the early 1980's, so that's where the investigation ended. My guidance counselor was the one to tell me that's what came of the investigation, and that she was furious about it but that she had no authority to do anything else.

In some bizarre way, I felt as though the entire thing was resolved tidily; something happened, I complained, someone asked about it, a reply (lie) was presented and it was dropped. Life: 1, Travis: 0. Like most children, at one point or another I'd been admonished for being a sore loser, so I resolved that I would just move on. What else could be done, anyway?

Of course, what I had overlooked was that actually living with the experience - including the reporting, sharing, and investigation process - would continue the rest of my life. Whenever I hear of such things, the immediate reaction is usually bloodthirsty calls for the offender to be executed as cruelly as imaginable. Somehow, that would make things okay in the minds of a lot of people. I, on the other hand, have gone more than thirty years with no such punishment doled out in my name. It's taught me that vengeance ("justice", if it makes you feel better) isn't the path to healing. I've had to work on that on my own - and largely, I do mean on my own.

I've carried this for most of my life. I sandbagged every conversation I had in my youth about such things, denying that I knew anything more than anyone else. I would leave the room if a TV show or movie started to even talk about sex, much less sexual abuse. I agonized every time someone would use the term "rape" to refer to something as trivial as the convenience fee of their concert ticket. I took some odd solace in knowing that no one with my kind of experience would use such a word in such a way and that meant they had been spared. That was the only way I could get through those moments without lashing out.

It's hard to develop a healthy sense of self when you're made to feel defensive about your own body so young. I wouldn't even swim without a T-shirt into my adulthood. Everyone just assumed I was self-conscious because I was scrawny and I was fine letting them have that misconception. Every day for more than thirty years now, that childhood incident has been on my mind. It's often one of the first things I think of when I wake up and one of the last to cross my mind before I fall asleep.

The whole world is a trigger. At a group sleepover in the late 90's, a friend brought over a tape of several episodes of South Park. One episode was about a character who was upset that his father hadn’t molested him, satirizing how many people were finally starting to come forward about surviving such things. Anything I may have said or done the rest of that night was some kind of defense mechanism because I had retreated inside myself so far that I was oblivious to anything else. I freak out any time I see a lazy parent carelessly send a child to a public restroom unattended. I've never chosen to watch a single minute of that show since and I can't even stand to hear about it. I don't care how clever or poignant a specific bit is; I immediately go back to that night and how I shut down completely because keeping this to myself was the most important thing in the world.

I usually share personal things publicly because that's part of how I claim ownership over the experience and blah, blah, blah. It’s part of my "shoot the hostage" approach to bearing burdens. The truth is, I don't want ownership over this. I never did. I'm hopeful, I suppose, that somehow this will let me put some more distance between it and me. I don't know whether it can or will, but that's my hope.

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Ordinarily, I would be flattered to hear that someone read something I wrote and then began to open up about something in their own lives, but I beg you, Dear Reader: If you have a life experience like this one, please resist any sort of impulse to share that experience now. Take your time. YOU get to decide what, if anything, you ever share - with whom, when, why, where, and how. It took me three years to even talk about it in the first place and more than thirty to finally begin sharing it in waves with my inner circle.