It’s been over a year since my first installment of Letters To A Stranger, a project that deep down I think I’ve wanted to do my entire life. In the last twelve months I’ve answered two letters, the only two that ever appeared in my inbox. Until a few days ago when this letter arrived:
This letter is years in the making. Its first version was born when I was 18. It was amended when I was 22 or 23. Now I wish to add perspective only age and experience can bring.
I woke up vomiting down the front of my shirt. Tequila. To-kill-ya. Dammit. The people I was drinking with in a dorm room yelled at me to get out. I had just moved into my freshman dorm and wasn’t adjusting well. I was looking for something to do, and as usual, drinking was the most appealing option. I hadn’t known the people I was with for more than a few months if I had to guess, and there were some friends visiting at this “party,” too. I recall stumbling down the stairs and back to my dorm. A guy walked me to my building. When I came to he was raping me. I do not know his name, nor do I recall his face. My body still remembers his crime.
Fast forward. I’m 22 or 23 – same difference to me. I had been out to the bars and went to someone’s house for an “afterbar.” I was excited to be spending time with a particularly attractive guy that I’d met a few times. I never would have taken him for a rapist. I got very drunk and at one point was forced to my knees. This man’s penis was forced down my thrown as tears ran down my face while gagging racked my body. My body still remembers his crime.
Here I sit, heart pounding. No one – NO ONE – I am close to knows both of these events happened to me. No one knows that twice in my life my body was treated like a carnival ride – free to anyone with access. No one knows the shame and disgust that rise in my throat now, many years later, as I recall these events. No one knows how angry I am that they occurred. No one knows.
Society would have me believe that I’m making this shit up. I was drunk and stupid, and I should have made better choices. With our paltry prosecution rates of rapists, society would have me believe these men did nothing wrong. They did nothing more than take what was in front of them. They were “being boys.” But Society is SO FUCKING WRONG!
I am a woman you know. I have a successful career. I have incredible people I get to call family. I enjoy loving, fulfilling relationships with female and male friends. And this is my secret. Our sick society wants this to be my secret. I just can’t let this letter live within me any longer. It has festered alone too long. And my body is ready to be rid of these crimes perpetrated against it.
I might believe these criminals were the reason I couldn’t tell you how many men I’ve slept with. I might tell you these criminals were the reason I have an STD that I will have for life or the reason I had several others over the years. I might believe these criminals were the reason I kept drinking for so long. I might try to tell you these criminals weren’t at fault for assaulting me. I might try to admit that it was my fault for being a dumb, drunk girl trusting the world wouldn’t trample her genitals and sexuality into submission. I might… But I don’t believe that for a moment.
The truth is I pushed. I screamed. I cried. I FOUGHT. I did not submit. And I will not submit today. Today I am sending this letter as a battle cry for those of us who have been wounded by others’ violent crimes. Today I am owning my survivorship and grieving for the years I kept this secret. But I will not lie down. I will not play dead. I am alive and vital and beautiful and powerful beyond even my belief.
So – those criminals took nothing from me. They are the reason for NOTHING! They do not, and will not, have any power in my life. I claim full responsibility for any mistake I’ve made since those criminals tried to defile me as long as they get zero credit for any piece of my life.
I do not write this letter for condolences or pity or any weird hero worship so many survivors receive. I write this letter as a testament to survival and a flourishing spirit that would not be taken down by those criminals. I write this letter to unburden my soul. I write this letter to encourage people to understand they likely know someone with emotional weight of sexual assault in his or her past.
I’ve read and re-read this letter a million times, it seems, waiting for the perfect words to form in my brain and spill out onto this screen, my fingers flicking these keys with fervor, prose pouring out of me in waves, washing you clean. Though you didn’t ask for a response in your letter, you didn’t cry out in need for absolution or advice, I can’t not offer you this:
When I was in middle school one of my friends did 500 sit-ups a day. Every. Single Day. 500! I asked her if it was hard and she simply looked at me, not missing a single beat, and replied matter-of-factly without a hint of condescension or annoyance, “of course it’s hard. But it get’s easier, you know.” We were twelve, maybe thirteen, but her wisdom has stuck with me for the two decades since and came to me in a dream the night after receiving your letter. Suddenly, as I wrote this story out on a piece of paper to another young woman who was, in fact, looking for advice, what I needed you to know became wonderfully clear.
Of course it’s hard. Of course the things that have happened to you and the crimes committed to you have made things hard. Of course dealing with society’s treatment of victims and seeming tolerance of their oppressors is hard. Of course fighting like hell to have a semblance of resolution or forgiveness or normalcy following your assaults is hard. It’s the hardest thing and I’m so proud of you for battling. For pushing and persevering and believing that, absofuckinglutely, you are powerful and beautiful beyond measure. Even more so, I’m proud as hell of you for sharing your story with me, with my readers, with any who may stumble upon this post so that they may have a beacon to turn to when things get hard.
Those criminals did take something from you, though, Woman. They took something from every single one of us when they preyed upon you, and your beautiful and brave fight back is what saves each of us a little more. It is our collective salve, the balm to wounds that are otherwise untended. Aching, deep, raw. Keep talking. Keep lifting up others through the power of your story. Be ready to hear thanks and have people look to you as a pillar. Not because they worship or pity you, but because there is so much strength in having the courage to LIVE YOUR TRUTH OUT LOUD, and everyone wants to touch that. To put their hands on the belly of your bravery and feel it kick. It’s not hero worship to thank a beacon for casting it’s light upon the stony shore so that we may better see the dangers that lie before us.
I speak a lot about beauty; on this blog, on Instagram, in real life. A few years ago I launched a portrait project aimed at changing the way we see ourselves – and our flaws – and helping us to re-examine our own definitions of beauty. I carry the principles of the Beauty Collective with me daily and often talk about them with women during – or after – photo shoots. And yet. AND YET. Here I am, the lifter-upper-of others, the champion for self worth and self love, struggling with who I think I am based on what I look like. Not daily, but often enough. I am a walking contradiction. While I’m relentlessly championing others and helping to propel women to a place of acceptance – a place where they can honor their imperfections and put away their insecurities – I am here, quietly putting way too much value on my exterior. My cover. My dust-jacket. I place a pretty significant portion of my self worth on what my scale and my mirror collectively tell me, and as such the shape or softness of my body often leaves me feeling less than. Inadequate. Not enough.
A year ago I hired a fitness coach and embarked on a whirlwind, intense, life-changing fitness journey. My body changed. My mind changed. My self worth was on a roller-coaster of crazy and, despite my amazing coach, supportive friends and family, and my own best intentions, I lost control of what matters. Of what’s most important. Of the ability to see beyond my exterior – shiny or otherwise. I fell into a shame spiral and I’m finally – finally!– coming out the other side of it. In the process of doing so, I was presented with an incredible opportunity to collaborate with my dear friend Joanne and her friends over at BiffIt Gear to design a tank that reminds us all that we are beautiful.
#RelentlesslyBeautiful is a call to action for women to rise up and challenge society’s definition(s) of beauty. Joanne, BiffIt Gear, and I believe that it is our responsibility to continuously challenge one another as individuals, to push each other towards a better life, and to share our journeys with one another. The purpose of #relentlesslybeautiful is to continue a movement we have all been fighting – even though some of us maybe didn’t know or recognize it. It’s to become stronger – together – so that we can uplift, elevate, and empower each other. It isn’t just for – or about – grown women, but also for the generations we lead. It’s for the little women in our lives.
For those of you who know me, you know I’ve struggled – and still struggle – with depression, and it’s a story that is close to my girl, Joanne, too. Which is why I’m extra excited to announce that all proceeds from the sale of these shirts will be donated to the incredible movement and organization that is To Write Love On Her Arms. TWLOHA is dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression.
I don’t know if I’ll ever get to the place where self love and acceptance are easy, natural, and real. Where it is so much a part of me that it’s visceral. But I do know that I’m on that path. I’m putting one foot in front of the other and I am learning how to see myself differently, and to treat myself with grace and kindness. I’m a work in progress, but it’s work worth doing.
It’s true that through self-discovery we often uncover parts of ourselves we didn’t want to see – or believe – existed, and upon unearthing them we must face the challenges they bring. Some are more easily overcome than others, but there isn’t a mountain out there that isn’t worth climbing. The landscapes of our lives – and our bodies – are beautiful, and it’s up to us – it’s up to me, too – to embrace them. To tie our shoes and walk on. Forward.
Whoever “They” are – those endless voices that guide our lives, whisper relentlessly into our souls – wherever they reside and whatever their fleeting and false import, They dropped the ball recently. They missed the mark. They let me down. They’ve let us all down.
While I was growing my eldest womb fruit, and preparing to embark on the most daunting journey of my life, They told me how to diaper (disposables are for the lazy!) and feed (breast is best!) and sleep (baby loves her back!) and restrain (five point harness until they’re 20!), the growing human within me, once she finally made her debut into this world. They set me up for a few solid years of feeling like I was the worst mom ever. It was awesome. It was relentless. It was ruining me. But in their finite wisdom, They missed a few important things about what was about to happen to me.
They didn’t tell me that the love I had for my children would open me in such a beautiful and miraculous and essential way. That my heart would so often feel as though it was breaking in the most poetic and profound way. Not because it was being destroyed, no, but because it was growing. Shedding its old skin to make room for a newer, bigger version that would walk around outside of my body for the rest of my life. They didn’t tell me that I would forget who I was – that I would look in the mirror, scraggly hair and deep grooves in my forehead, and not recognize myself. They forget to mention that I would hate my post-baby body – the soft skin and saggy breasts – while simultaneously reveling in its strength and resilience. Or that I would only lose my identiy long enough to finally go out and find myself – the very self that I had been looking for the whole of my life but couldn’t ever reach because I didn’t yet know the story I was made to write with my life. They didn’t tell me that the guilt that accompanied motherhood would be crushing, no matter how tightly I screwed my head on, or how much wine I drank after bedtime. They failed to mention that it would encompass me, at times so wholly that I wouldn’t be able to see a way through it. That I would spend so much time reading blogs and staring at social media and never-quite-measuring-up to the ideals thrust upon me. She babywears; my kid hates the Ergo. She makes her own baby food; I’m fine with store bought because – sanity. She uses disposable diapers and has chickens and no TV in her house and her hair IS ALWAYS PERFECT AND OH MY GOD I’M THE WORST MOM EVER.
They didn’t tell me that I would never measure up, no matter how hard I tried, until I finally let go of all the bullshit noise that I was holding onto. Until I not only stopped judging other moms, but also stopped judging and berating and criticizing myself. I had to realize, once and for all, that just because another mom does something different than I would, or did, or could, she’s not by default a better mom than me. She’s simply different. The same way her kids are different than my kids and her life is different than my life. I had to tell myself, firmly, finally, that we are all in this together. This mom job can feel really isolating and lonely, but we aren’t islands. We are doing this alongside the strongest and most beautiful and powerful and wonderful women on the planet. Each of us convinced we are doing it wrong. So this year, for Valentine’s Day, I’m going to give myself the gift of love. Of acceptance. Of believing wholeheartedly and with a knowing so deep I can feel it in my bones that I am doing the best I can, and that is all I should ever expect of myself.
I don’t care what They say, or forgot to say, anymore. What matters is what’s real. What’s now. What’s true.The truth is that is that motherhood is the most wonderful and difficult and mind-numbing-and-blowing-all-at-the-same-time thing I have ever done with my wild and precious life. It’s not something I ever planned on – or life goaled for myself – but here, now, in the throes of a job I wasn’t even sure I wanted, I’m finding myself. The self I had no idea I had lost. A woman who is courageous and funny. Kind and stern. Comforting and nurturing and engaging and determined.
My kids didn’t teach me how to be a mom, that came as natural as breathing. What they’ve taught me is so much greater than that. Because of them I’ve finally learned how to be Athena.
No matter what They say, that is the true magic of parenthood.