“You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.” – Benjamin Mee, We Bought a Zoo.
There are only 3 people in this universe that know the entire, full story, with details, of what happened to me 20 years ago this year. One of those people is a dear, fellow widowed friend, whose very presence in my life makes me feel safe and protected and heard. The other is my incredible therapist and grief-counselor. And the other is my beautiful, but forever dead husband. And now, today, in just a few minutes when I hit that “publish” button after writing this, however many of you read it, will also know too. The details surrounding what happened will still remain in the confines of these above 3 people, for now, but the rest of it must be said out loud. Or typed out loud. Finally. Today. Before this election happens.
My hands are shaking, and each individual finger is shaking, as I type this. I’m pretty sure my eyeballs are sweating, and the inside of my throat has the texture of 900 cotton balls, sitting stagnant.. Every time I try to breathe in and out with purpose, it feels as if I have swallowed a nail. I’m absolutely terrified of the varied and shocked reactions that will certainly come from many friends, family members, and lots of total strangers on the internet. There will be judgments, assumptions, people who just will never understand, and probably even some cruel and horrific comments. Some people might even accuse me of using my trauma to further my political opinion or “agenda.” But those people would be very wrong. Despite the title, and despite the topic, this is NOT a political piece. It is a piece about the human heart, and about preserving and protecting our collective soul as a nation. Which is why I genuinely feel that I have a responsibility, as a female, a voter, and a human being, to type the following truths, through my very shaky fingers, and to express the importance of how those truths pertain to the upcoming election. Despite all my many fears, today feels like the exact right day, to let free this caged and horrific monster of a secret. So here goes …
20 years ago this year, in 1996, while living in my first NYC apartment and just 2 years out of college, I was raped. It happened inside my apartment, while I was sleeping, in the middle of the night. It happened by the hands of someone whom I was dating for a few months, and had just broken up with a week prior. In my post-break-up haze and innocent ignorance, I had forgotten that I’d recently given him an extra key to my place. Or, to put that more clearly, I had forgotten to get it back when I ended our relationship.
Things between us were a whirlwind from the start. It all happened so fast, and it shouldn’t have happened at all. He wasn’t my type. He was very quiet, kind of mousy and small-framed, and a rather serious, humorless, business man on Wall Street. A little bit possessive, a lot entitled. The only thing I saw back then, however, was that he was interested in ME. Everything else, I was blind to. We had almost nothing in common, but he made me feel wanted and pretty and sexy, and I was insecure, frumpy, and awkward. He would say things like: “Your eyes are going to get me into trouble one day”, or “I can’t control myself around you. You just give off this vibe that makes me want to do things.” I was too young and too inexperienced and too green to know that what he was saying, was a form of control, and dangerous. A few months into the relationship, he had casually asked me one day if he could have an extra key, just temporarily, so he could get into my apartment while I was still at work, and surprise me with a romantic dinner. I gave him the key, the dinner never happened. A couple weeks later, a series of events took place within a few hours, that opened my eyes to the reality that I had been dating a pathological liar, and someone who was quite possibly psychotic. So I had a very hard conversation with him, where I ended things between us. He said he understood, but he walked away with a cold and unfeeling look in his eyes. And, unbeknownst to me at the time, he still had my key.
Four days later. My roommate had gone away for a week to visit family, so I was alone in the apartment. Apparently I had told him this weeks before, or he knew of it, or something. I don’t recall. I went to sleep that night sometime around 2 a.m. or so. The next thing I remember is lying in my bed, with a long t-shirt and underwear on, and my eyes opening to the sound of a key in the door, then a hand clasped over my mouth, and a sweaty body lying over my own. As I slowly realized what was happening, I tried to scream, but it came out silent. I think I kept screaming, but everything sort of went white, and I was only half awake. He was holding something over my mouth and nose. A rag or something, with it pressed up into my nostrils. It smelled like chlorine or alcohol rub, and I was in and out of consciousness. My insides were begging to get up from under him, but my legs felt paralyzed, like jello. And then it got a lot worse. He took a lighter, holding it onto different parts of me for a few seconds at a time, creating fear and scarring and skin irritations that are still there today, and emotional scarring that will last even longer. I don’t know why he was burning me, but he was burning me in slow motion, placing the fire for just a second or two at a time, underneath my breasts, on my hips, and around my labia area. I felt like I kept falling asleep, and so I would wake up in the middle of this horror, over and over again. I don’t know how to accurately describe what that is like, to keep waking up, literally, in the midst of hell on earth in full attack. Somewhere in between fog and half awake, he took my key, the one that he used to break into my home with, and he shoved it into me violently, over and over and over. I kicked and I yelled and I cried, and noises came out of me that didn’t sound human, but it all felt quiet and muffled and ignored. I was invisible forever, and nobody could see me.
He started talking as he held me down and forced himself into me. I will never forget lying there, tears sitting still on my cheeks, half-seeing my floor lamp and focusing my eyes on it, trying to form a plan to grab it and hit him on the head with it. He saw my stare, and he moved the lamp so that it was out of my reach. He took my one escape plan. And then he raped me and he stole every piece of my soul with his violence and his illness and his blackness. He said that I was nothing. That I was a fat worthless pig. I was a bitch and a whore and he had been lying to me for months and sleeping with his ex and living with her off and on. And how dare I break things off with him, when I should be honored and grateful that someone like him, would even sleep with someone like me. That I should be dead, and that he would leave me for dead in my own apartment and nobody would care, but that I wasn’t even worth killing, so instead, he would just leave me torn up and bleeding and broken everywhere, forever. That if I told the police or anyone at all, he would come back and find me and actually kill me. He said that if I told anyone, he would find my family and harm them or kill them. He told me these things as he was choking me and hurting me. I don’t know how long it went on, because time became meaningless, and it just kept happening. I remember wondering when he was going to end my life. I think he got off on the promise, the threat of doing so, because it just kept going. And then he spit on me. He SPIT on me. Like I wasn’t even a human being. Like I was this pile of trash that he was forcing himself onto and into. I was this “thing” where he could dump his liquid sickness, his disease and his evil. And in that moment, I died. I just died. I lost the person that I was before that night, and I didn’t know how to get her back again. She was gone, and nothing would ever be the same again.
In the days and weeks and months and years that followed, I told NOBODY, except for when I tried reaching out on a rape hotline, and it was a total disaster. When I told the person on the phone what happened, they implied that it was my own fault for giving him my key, and that because he used that key to get in, it was never a break-in at all. Nobody was interested in helping me. Nobody said things that didn’t sound condescending or like they were somehow blaming me for what happened. I stopped looking for help, I became silent, I told nobody. I became a different person. A dark one. A person my friends or myself did not recognize. There was emptiness in my eyes. I spiraled and gained almost 100 pounds and acted in destructive ways with more horrible men that I met in destructive places, and put myself in more horrid situations that were dangerous or just plain stupid, because somewhere inside, I thought that is what I was worth. My life felt pointless, and his threats to kill me or hurt my family stuck with me and kept me from speaking out loud. I felt useless and stupid and non-human and humiliated and like I was made of all things bad. My life was spinning out of control. I didn’t even know who I was, and I was fatter than ever. Over 300 pounds. Probably more. 350. I was sick in every way that you can be sick. I just wanted to disappear.
And then one night, in the darkest of darkest places in my life, I met the beautiful man that would become my husband. Don Edward Shepherd. He made me feel safe and protected and loved from the minute he typed hello in the 1980’s Music Chat Room on AOL, and he made it his life’s purpose to take care of me in all the ways that you take care of someone’s soul when you love them the way that he loved me. Something about him, his heart, his patience, his energy – made me know I was safe with him, and I could tell him what had happened to me. So I did. And when I was done, he said: “You’re safe with me. I’m not going anywhere. I’m not going to leave you or abandon you. You’re safe and you’ll always be safe with me, from now on. ” This became his mantra with me. No matter how many times I warned him to run away from me, no matter how fucked up I felt or was, he wouldn’t go away. He refused to leave me. He told me I was beautiful, worthy, smart, sexy, and that one day, I would feel like me again. But until I did, he would just have to keep reminding me.
Our relationship was beautiful, our marriage, a love story. We were 4 years and 9 months into our amazing and precious life together, and we were so unbelievably, nauseatingly happy. And then, on an ordinary Wednesday, July 13th, 2011, my husband left for work, and never came home. And for the second time in my life, I was jarred awake to the most horrific thing a person could ever imagine – in this case, a ringing phone over and over and over, that would lead me to the news that this beautiful man who saved my life everyday that he was in it, was unfairly and forever dead. And me? Well, I was dead too. Again. And creating a different version of myself has taken years, and will be something I keep doing for the rest of my life. My safe place, my sense of safety in the world, was stolen from me. Twice. I cannot imagine it being stolen from me a third time, by having a Commander in Chief, who makes me feel uneasy, and unsafe.
When a woman is sexually assaulted or raped, there are many reasons why she might not come forward, why she might not tell a soul. There are so many valid reasons why a person might not say one damn thing for a year, or five years, or ten, or even twenty, like me. It is terrifying. It is embarrassing. Sometimes your job is at stake. Or your reputation. Or there are fears, such as your rapist threatening you or your loved ones. Or you stayed silent for too long, and so now it feels almost pointless to mention it, because people will question you or make you feel even dumber for your decisions. Or the person who assaulted you is famous, and you are not. Nobody will believe you over them, nobody will care. And when these thoughts are reinforced by the very people who are supposed to be helping you, that is what leads to hopelessness and darkness and feeling like the loop of hell will never end. When society’s first reaction to a victim coming forward is doubt, accusations, and pointing fingers back in her direction – you come to a place where you almost assume that saying it out loud will only lead to more awfulness.
When the Republican candidate for President of the United States, is accused of sexual assault by multiple women, just weeks before one of the biggest elections in our time, and the victims are met with these same type of judgments and questions from the public about “why are you coming out about this NOW?” – it becomes easy to ask yourself where this country and this society places the value of females, and our voices. It becomes easy to feel invisible once again, powerless once again, and violated once again. When people question the truth of the fact that a Presidential candidate who refers to women as “pigs”, “disgusting”, and as objects that he can just kiss by force or “grab them by the pussy”, can and does in fact bring back very specific moments of a victim’s own personal rape or assault, it becomes easy to lose faith in the empathy and compassion of mankind. When that same Presidential candidate’s reaction to the accusations is not to apoligize, but to comment and further insult these women with: “look at her”, implying that said victim is not attractive enough for him to sexually abuse, this reinforces the idea that rape and assault have anything at all to do with sex or with being “attracted to” a person. They don’t. They have nothing to do with that, and everything to do with the need to have power over someone, and to make someone feel small and insignificant, while under the spell of that power. When the male candidate who is running for President, speaks about women with such absolute carelessness, disgust, and aloofness, it is easy to not only worry for what this orange lunatic might do in a place of power with access to that nuke button, but also what he might do to the collective souls and hearts and spirits of females in this country. Not to mention the men in this country, and the boys and girls who are growing up and looking at our next President as a role model, or something to aspire to. Having a President who refers to a woman as “piggy”, or rates women with numbers according to the size of their chest, seems like something out of The Twilight Zone.
So why did all these women come out now, so close to the election, with these allegations on Trump? For the exact same reason I wrote this blog piece, 20 YEARS after this horror happened to me. Because it was eating at my soul not to write it. Because him saying “grab em by the pussy” DID, in fact, bring up all that trauma from two decades ago, and I couldn’t just let it sit there, like a nail in my throat. Because we cannot have someone of this ridiculous and insane character, in our Oval Office. Because this very dangerous person, in many more ways than one, is just weeks away from either being our next President, or going back to whatever wacky universe he lived in before. Because, we, as Americans, have the choice to either create a chain of hatred, violence, and sexism – or a chain of love, empathy, and compassion. Because our First Lady was right in her speech, when she said: “Enough is enough.” Because when a Presidential Candidate doesn’t stand up for me and who I am and what I hold dear, then it’s time for me to stand up against him and speak my truth. And I hope I am not the only one who will do so. For I truly believe that when we have the courage to tell our story, our deepest and darkest story, it gives others permission to do the same. Maybe if everyone who is reading this who has also been through a sexual assault or trauma, would be brave enough to speak up and say something in the comments or in their own blogs, then we could use our collective voices as an instrument of power. We could show people that this is not a joke, or casual “locker room talk”, but an actual and very damaging thing that is happening to women, every day, all the time. We could demand to be heard and demand to be seen, and for society to stop making us appear invisible. We could share this piece all over the internet, and we could keep adding our own stories to it, creating a gigantic wave of powerful truths, that demonstrate what beautiful strength humans are capable of, when faced with adversity.
As I said at the start of this blog, this is not a political piece. It is a piece about the human heart. It is about the power of what can happen when we make a decision to move toward light, or toward darkness. Donald Trump represents everything dark and bad and frightening in our world. He comes from a place of divisiveness and anger and temper tantrums on Twitter. If he is leading our country, then that tone is being set for every single one of us, on a minute to minute basis. We will become a country of ugliness. We will destroy ourselves. We will suffer a Soul Apocalypse. Why am I telling my story today, right now, before this election? Because if I wait any longer, it just might be too late. We might find that we suddenly have a man in charge, who doesn’t wish to hear our voices, and who refuses to listen. And he will continue to ignore us, until we slowly disappear into nothing. That kind of regime terrifies me, and I’m quite sure I am not alone in that terror.
I am only one person, and my story is just one small story. But if you tell your story, then we are two people, and then three, and four, and ten and eleven, and on and on and on. My story is your story, and your story is my story. Whenever we connect as humans, we usually come to find that our similarities are greater than our differences. And as we sit inside of that knowledge, that our collective stories can help change the world, we have to know that we deserve so much more than Donald Trump. We have to know that hate grows more hate, and love grows more love. And just 20 seconds of insane courage, will always bring something great.
When you vote on November 8th, please keep all of the above in your heart, and bring that 20 seconds of insane courage with you to the polls.
Thank you for reading, and thank you to anyone who joins me in telling their story, or in sharing mine.