“Tell me where you feel it.” commands the psychologist.
I place my hand on my chest, right at the top of my sternum.
“In here,” I reply.
“What does it feel like?”
“Um… it just feels very tight,” I answer. I could tell her it feels like my chest is being compressed, compounded and then split in two, but it is our first appointment and I don’t want to sound too melodramatic when we’re only 15 minutes into the session.
“Okay, okay,” she says. “And now think of when you feel that tightness in your chest. Do you feel this sensation often?”
I think of moments when I’m paralysed and cannot breathe. Moments when I thought I saw his face whilst shopping in the grocery store. The sudden panic rushing to my eyes, pulsing and blurring my vison.
“Argh sometimes, I guess.”
“Okay if you’re ready, I would like you to go through the whole story with me.”
She’s the fourth psychologist I’ve been to and I don’t really want to tell this story again. Usually, I can recount it without a hint of emotion, effortless, as if the story belongs to someone who is not me. But this time I can tell she is listening.
“Umm sure,” my voice croaks. My eyes are burning. Sadness swells deep within my belly, turbulent and rising.
Avoiding eye contact, I share my story and let my gaze fall on the trees dancing silently out the window, their leaves illuminated in the afternoon sun.
I tell her the moment when I abruptly became present, realising this body is mine and I was no longer in control.
At first the word is only a whisper, defeated and afraid. But by the fifth time it is clear, and he finally stops and rolls over. As I lay there in the darkness, exposed and paralysed, I convince myself it is not what it seems. Thoughts mutter to themselves and conclude I was drunk, and it was my fault for getting myself into this situation. I tell him I want to leave but he is annoyed. He says I can find my own way out. So, I dress myself, and stumble through an apartment building I cannot remember entering. I catch the eyes of some other drunk college guys in the foyer and do not let myself cry until I’m out the door and far out of sight.
The psychologist’s gaze never leaves mine. Her head is slightly tilted, and her eyes are welling with tears. I can feel my face is flushed and puffy.
“Okay, how does your chest feel now?” she asks.
I sigh, “Still tight but a lot better than it did before. I guess it feels lighter.”
“Good,” she smiles warmly and continues to ask questions.
What she doesn’t know yet is this is only one story. It may be the most difficult to tell, but it is not the first time a guy has tried to take advantage of me while I was drunk. I was good at saying no, but they always pushed for more.
I wish I could go back, shake my younger self and warn her of the world of men. So sheltered and soft, she was never afraid. I remember in high school, a friend of mine said her worst fear was being raped. I looked at her, shocked, it was not a fear that had previously occurred to me. She too now has a story. I can confidently say more than half of my female friends have had an experience of being sexually harassed or assaulted. I’m 22 years old.
“Did you tell anyone what happened at the time?” asks the psychologist.
“Um… no, it took me at least six months to even process and accept everything. The morning after it happened, when my friends asked how my night was, I was too embarrassed to tell them the truth and just played it cool. I think it was nearly a year later when I finally told someone what happened.”
“Why were you embarrassed?”
Without hesitation, I answer, “Because I’d convinced myself it was all in my head. I doubted even my own memories. It was easier to pretend it didn’t happen. I guess, I also felt ashamed I let myself get into that situation; I felt so dirty.”
She tells me this is a common way to react to an experience like mine. I already know this. I’ve seen it when my friends have confided in me about their experiences. As quickly as it pours out of them, they hastily reseal it and box it away.
One time a friend laughed after she told me her story – laughed! She told me not to worry as she was probably just overreacting. I caught her eye and sharply said no. I told her to trust that uncomfortable feeling and validate it. And then I watched swallow her story whole.
I too once believed this would be enough. It is so much easier to dissociate yourself from these experiences; to fold and tuck them away neatly inside each shelf within your chest. But my chest is becoming heavy, and sometimes it is difficult to breathe. And then I realise these sheets are dirty, even though I’ve convinced myself they are clean.
I remember one train ride home I decided I would write down every time a man had disrespected me. Some were so minor I had not ever questioned them before. However, as I began to write, the stories flowed from my pen, page after page. I realised I was only seven when I had my first experience.
Squeals of delight rang out as bare feet of children sprinted across the freshly mowed lawn in a game of tip. It was December, and our bus driver was hosting the end of year barbeque for everyone on the Billeroy bus. Billeroy was the name of our dirt road, which ‘Pickles’ our bus driver drove down every day to drive us to school. Our house was roughly 40 kilometres out of town, and we weren’t the last family to get on the bus. Sometimes his wife would join on the afternoon trips and bring a jar full of hard-boiled lollies. This is how it is in country towns. The smell of sausages wafted from the other side of the weatherboard house, where the parents were sitting and idly chatting. I was never a very fast runner and an easy target for a boy in high school, probably around thirteen. I remember him catching me and falling onto my back. He fell with me and positioned his body on top of mine, with his hands pinned to each side of me. I can still vividly remember the intense look in his eyes as he swayed his body from side to side, until his friend told him to get off me. I was frozen and too young to understand, but it terrified me.
I think I’ll tell the psychologist this story another day. She tells me she would like to see me again and I nod. I want to hug her but that feels unprofessional. We schedule another appointment and I walk out the door.
Outside the air is cooling as the sun slips over the horizon. I put in headphones and listen to music to ease my mind. I can’t tell if I feel better or worse after the appointment. Everything inside of me feels stirred and restless.
I was once in a conversation with a few guys about the #metoo movement and the issues it was raising. One of the guys was angry. He said he’s now afraid to go out and flirt with a girl at the bar because if he does one thing wrong, she could say he sexually harassed or assaulted her, and he would end up in jail.
We were camping out at Mullumbimby in a khaki tent before a festival. I let my eyes drift to watch the shadows dance across the canvas. The silence held the space between us, and I tried to bite my tongue in attempt not to spit fire.
How terrifying it must be to be conscious of your actions, when women are afraid we’ll be raped.
Two years ago, I saw the #metoo hashtag appear for the first time in a close friend’s Facebook post. As I read the status, a hesitant voice buried deep inside of me stirred and cried out, Oh, me too. But I could not bring myself to share the hashtag or comment #metoo. Instead, I simply liked the post and commented how proud I was of her, and the voice inside of me grew faint.
I now understand the power of sharing these stories. The heat of the movement may have cooled, but is has ignited a fire deep in my belly that is inextinguishable.
As I type each word, I can feel an undercurrent fighting against my fingers, but if you’re reading this, I guess I won.
There is an inferno inside of me
I feel it burning
I am no longer afraid
to spit fire
from wandering eyes – please
sorry – give us a smile
such natural feminine hues
cannot be buried
it can only be burned
Let this blaze
ignite your body
and the ashes
be all that remains
of the unwelcomed visitor
Tired eyes, hear our cries
deafening and fierce
We are no longer afraid
to spit fire