As our nation prepares to celebrate Independence Day, I am struck by the idea that there is more than one kind of independence. You can assert your independence by doing something on your own. And you can gain independence — liberation — from something or someone which has power over you.
This week, I hope you will join me in promoting both.
I’ve assembled a group of talented writers who have joined forces to create a series of posts written as letters to our younger, recently traumatized selves. As a survivor of sexual abuse, it has been important for me to speak the words out loud. Survivors of any form of sexual violence are often shamed or forced into silence by their attackers as well as a world that is not comfortable discussing such things out loud. I have often stood in that uncomfortable in-between space — a liaison between the survivors who have not yet recovered their voices and a world who has not yet learned how to listen to those voices. While this is important, we can do more than just lobby for legislation and call out organizations who belittle our existence and reinforce rape culture.
We — all of us, survivors and allies alike — can offer hope.
Today I am going to share my letter to my younger self (or perhaps the young selves out there who are just where I once was). And I ask you to share this and all the stories this week while using the hashtag #HopeLetters.
Dear Younger Self,
Sitting here looking at old photos of you is like looking at the story of someone outside myself. My memory of those days is pretty hazy some two decades later. I hardly recognize you. If it weren’t for that deep sadness in your watery blue eyes, I would not know you, or rather, myself.
The sadness. The anger setting your jaw so tight you could hardly breathe … That I remember. A sense-memory of a time that was almost out-of-time. A time set apart. A surreal time. It was the end of an era. As I look at these photos of a girl on the cusp of her 15th birthday, I feel the air leave my body involuntary. I’m gasping for air again. The pain takes my breath away.
Nine years is like an eternity to a kid in any circumstance, let alone a kid who was molested in a kind of laissez-faire on-again, off-again nightmare. Catch your breath. It’s really over this time. He’s never going to touch you again. In fact, in short order, you’re going to hold his fate in your hands. But we’ll get to that.
Here you are, so scared that even to think of the word makes you quiver. How do you tell anyone you are afraid without all the words coming tumbling out so fast that you can hardly hold your insides in anymore? It all wants to come flying out. And that frightens you to your core. Who will believe you? What will they do? What if they hate you as much as you’ve been taught to hate yourself? What if … What if they realize they could never love a disgusting, dirty, tainted whore like you?
You don’t have to tell me, honey. I already know. I am you. I understand you better than you understand yourself. Take a breath. Savor that breath. It’s life. Your life. You’ve fought like hell to be alive. Don’t quit now!
All this bubbling, blossoming womanhood overflowing your clothes. Unstoppable. You feel the stripes of the bullseye on your chest. Breasts, hips, thighs … a target for predators. So many predators. Creeps on the bus who want to feel you. Boys at school who want to claim your body as their possession. Too many. It gets hard to breathe.
And I know what you did. I know about the night with the knife. I know about the days you would spend walking down old frozen trails until you couldn’t feel your feet or your hands, and very nearly your heart. Your breath would come out so hard that it temporarily hung frozen in mid-air. Hours spent in the woods just to be alone, free. The darkness, the cold, the wildness of Alaska a salve to the flames of rage that were threatening to overtake you. Out there in a place and a time when you could let your screams free, to bounce and echo off the dead birch trees. It’s not like anyone was ever going to hear you. God knows you learned that the hard way.
But here you are, on the cusp of 15 and free. You don’t believe it, yet. The only thing you believe is that maybe God was never there listening to you cry yourself to sleep after the devil had his way. Where was God when you were begging for it all to end? Where was he when you pleaded that someone, anyone, would come into your life and love you. All of you. Even the hard, damaged, thread-bare edges of you. Because somehow, you still believed in love.
I’m going to tell you something that you will never believe: You are about to get everything you ever asked for. And so much more.
In less than a week you are going to meet a boy who is going to not just change your life, he’s going to turn it completely upside down, in the best possible way. His optimism and hope and, well, happiness, is going to be jarring and even uncomfortable. His spirit and his life will seem impossible, a fabrication, a trick of the light. But he is real. And the relationship that you have with him will not only save your life, it will define it for years and years to come.
I know faith is something in short supply for you right now. How could it not be? Nine years is a long time to be exiled in a kind of sustained torture-chamber. You’re still in shock. You’re still adjusting your eyes to the light of day and the lightness of happiness. You don’t trust it. Or anyone who has it.
And yet, there in your one sanctuary in the storm — the music room at school — you will finally start to find your breath. And he will be there, standing right there next to you, unafraid of the rage and the fear and the times it overtakes you like a toddler’s temper-tantrum, thrashing on the ground. God? That boy? Yes. Both.
You’re going to find a liberation for your choked voice in that band room. While I can’t promise that you will ever be a professional musician, the notes you breathe life into will set you free. In those moments when you lose yourself in music, you will allow yourself to consider happiness, love, and yes, hope, not just as abstract concepts, but as something that is for you. And in a song of despair, the conductor will point to you to actually scream on stage and the howling will shock everyone. And you will feel lighter.
My dear self, let me tell you with absolute certainty: You are so close to getting it! Don’t be afraid to reach out and grab it!
A time will come with courtrooms and lawyers and questions. Your abuser will come to fear you. He will fear that you will tell the truth, speaking it out loud and on the record. And the second you do, wherever it is that he has slithered off to, he will feel a chill up his spine. The jig will be up. And he will deal, rather than risk time in a courtroom (or worse). It won’t be as cathartic as you will hope. It will, in fact, be a bit anti-climactic. But what you will come to see is that no matter what The Law says or does, the fact that you were brave enough to answer the questions matters. And it will be the first time that you see your power manifested. Just for telling your story. Truth is powerful.
Let me tell you the secret truth that is actually right inside you, right this minute, even under all that pain — hope lives inside you. With or without that boy. With or without the approval of your friends or teachers or parents or the world at large. Like Pandora’s Box after all the evils are unleashed, there in the bottom is the Spirit of Hope.
Hope is powerful. It is the gateway to love and happiness and the lightness of being that you will feel upon releasing all that anger. And, it turns out, that boy will be there. With the grin that glints in his eyes, he will convince you to take a chance on that so-called trap called marriage. And that will be a big step for you. It will be a gamble on hope. And baby, you will win big!
Speaking of babies … Mind the gap between what you think you are capable of and what you are actually capable of. There’s a long journey there. You’re going to learn some terrible truths about what your physical body can handle. And that will feel like another trial. And you will swear off hope to protect your heart from the pain of circumstance. But that won’t work. It’s hard to let go of hope, once you’ve had a taste. And the reality is that while hardening your heart may have helped protect you from your abuser, it does the opposite later in life. Those old tricks to “protect” yourself actually box out possibility. It allows fear, an opportunistic bastard, to creep right back in. But when you start to believe that it costs too much to hope and believe and love and to take chances on un-sure bets — you lose. Don’t do it. That’s a real trap. Trust me on this.
Indeed, the biggest lesson of your life and the key that dismantles the whole damn tower of lies is this: YOU ARE STRENGTH PERSONIFIED. You are a fortress of strength. You are unbreakable. Look at all you survived! Look at all that fucking asshole tried to take from you all those nights in your bed. My God, look at your unconquerable spirit.
It’s like your favorite poem, Invictus, “Out of the night that covers me/Black as the pit from pole to pole/I thank whatever gods may be/For my unconquerable soul. …”
Guess what? That’s the Spirit of Hope, my love. That spirit sustained you when there were shades of dark night that no one has ever written about. That spirit let you believe that the boy with the unbelievable life who could get any girl he wanted would actually choose you, the real you. He will see you. He will know that you are not a whore, and that was just some lie that an evil asshole told you. And then, after patiently waiting for more than a decade, he will thrill at the chance to make a baby with you. And when he sees you mother the child you share, you will be able to feel his love for you without even looking at him.
God was listening. I promise. I wouldn’t lie to you.
And that’s not all. You are going to find a whole world of people who see you. Their eyes will burn when they hear your story. An angry lump will choke them as they struggle to find peace with your story. And many people will believe you. Many will hear your words and it will change them and when someone they love tells them a similar story, they will know what to say. They will remember that they already know a person who has that story. They will already know that this person they love is not alone. And they will know that they want to stand tall next to their loved one, and they will not flinch, because they know better. Because of you.
All this time you have been thinking that you are not brave and that you are so damaged that no one can ever love you or see you or hear you. And in this, you could not be more wrong. A lot of people are going to be there for you. Some you will see and some who quietly line up to stand behind you. Friends and some family (sadly not all) will see the light that comes radiating out of your heart. You will inspire countless people to reclaim their Spirit of Hope and dare to love, shedding their armor around their hearts. You will inspire other survivors to speak their stories out loud, without shame. And you will find an expansive, beautiful, powerful, strong community who are rising up and demanding dignity.
And perhaps the most unbelievable to you now is how truly blessed you will be. Your tightly wound Grinchy heart — it’s not your fault — will grow the more you believe in the Spirit of Hope. It will liberate you. You will not only dare to dream, but you will dream big. And you will have a partner in life who always says: Go for it! You will see joy personified as your child bounds into the room smiling at you. You will feel the stability of a peaceful, love-filled, safe home where the lights never get shut off because you can’t pay the bill. And you will have so much abundance in your life that you will learn how to give freely of yourself and of the things that you own (because one day you will finally see that material possessions are temporary and have no special powers to grant happiness).
I’m blowing your mind. I know. All this is unbelievable. I would not believe it if I had not lived it. Just remember to trust your instincts. Just like Dorothy in Oz, you don’t need to go looking for magic. You have the Spirit of Hope. It saved you from all that hell. Your strength is the legendary strength of survivors everywhere. We share it. And we wield it together.
For now, just breathe, my love. Breathe.
If you or anyone you know is in crisis, please seek help in your area or get help online from RAINN or by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE.