Part of my resolutions this year have included bettering myself; digging deep, uprooting those problems and fears that have taken home in the pits of my stomach and starving them of their fuel. Along with the more standard resolutions (reading more books, spending less time on my phone, working out consistently and trying to eat healthier), I made it a point at the turn of the decade to find a therapist that actually worked for me.
I was always turned off by the idea of therapy. Ashamed by it in a way like I think many of us are. It’s human nature to want to be perfect, to compare ourselves to those around us. With the influence of social media, it’s almost impossible not to see other people’s lives, seemingly so happy, and wonder, what’s the trick? There isn’t a trick. It’s staged because we want people to think we are perfect.
Maybe if they think we’re perfect, we’ll start to think we’re perfect, too.
It’s true what they say about getting help. It doesn’t happen unless you want it to happen. People can vouch for you, push you, do all of the background work to set you up for success but if you’re not ready, it’s a waste of everyone’s time. I refused it for years.
When my parents were getting divorced, my mom found a few therapists for me to talk to. I remember refusing to even look at them, surrounding myself with toys and crayons on the floor until the hour was up. Jump ahead to high school, I apparently had sessions with a few different therapists and none of them were helpful. I had severe anxiety at the time and don’t remember much of these appointments, just their different colored doors, scented waiting rooms and prescriptions from psychiatrists. College came and went and I filtered through the system of provided care because it was “free” and maybe this would be the right time for me. It never was.
But this year, and whether it’s the turn of the decade or finally feeling like I’m ready to heal, I decided it was my time. The first, and really only thing, we have talked about is vulnerability. More specifically, my problems with being vulnerable. When I reached out to the therapist I see now, I told her I needed help with relationships. It is very hard for me to open up to people and maintain relationships, both familial, romantic and platonic. It’s always been hard for me to keep people around because I get to this point where I throw my walls up and it’s damn near impossible to break them down. If you’re someone who knows me personally, think about it; I’m sure there’s very little that you truly know about me.
It’s instinctive by nature that I am the way that I am. We dove in head first during the first session and I want to use this post to reflect and share what I have learned throughout this process so far in terms of my own fear of being vulnerable.
Before I get into this discussion, I want to preface that I have forgiven my past and those involved in my trauma. I have forgiven myself for those I hurt while I was hurting and in no way do I write this with a vengeful heart. My trauma is my trauma. It can be downplayed and denied by those involved, but it will never change the way I was made to feel about myself and the severity of what I endured. I have forgiven but I have not forgotten and part of this process for me, unfortunately, involves digging up everything I have buried in my heart that my mind refused to remember and accept it as the trauma it genuinely was.
When I told my therapist about what I went through in high school, she explained it as a trauma. She told me, the body holds on to trauma in a way your mind doesn’t. Basically, the defense I put up is a product of how I was treated and the way I reacted in those moments that has been forever ingrained in me. Undoing that is one of the harder things I have done in my life.
I asked her, how can it be a trauma when I wasn’t physically hurt? And she validated what I went through by telling me that I wasn’t sensitive, I didn’t overreact and it was real. My emotions were real. My sadness was real. My suicidal thoughts were real. My pain was real. My experience was real.
I won’t bore you with the details. Simply put, I was badly bullied by a group of guys and girls that I considered my friends. When you think of the popular kids in high school, you think of the jocks and the cheerleaders who are nice to everyone and super inclusive. When I think of the popular kids at my high school, we were partiers and we were mean. I say “we” because collectively, this was the group I fell into by circumstance and the group that I couldn’t escape. And trust me, I had my mean streaks as well, I can’t excuse that, but it undoubtedly was a product of the way I was treated. I became conditioned to think I was inherently mean. There were a lot of people in our friend group that didn’t have a mean bone in their body but they got clumped into this awful perception in my head because although they didn’t do anything to harm me, they didn’t do anything to help me either.
Despite this being a group of maybe 20 people, there are really only three or four names in my head that stand out the most and I link them to a few specific situations that I remember more vividly than my first kiss or even graduation. These are the memories that come rushing towards me at full speed when I think of high school or even when I am walking through the stop & shop in my home town. These are the people I will never forgive and the people I have made myself forget because they don’t deserve the space in my head.
For years, I was made to question myself. I was called sensitive if I overreacted to something someone said to me. I was brought into situations just to be made fun of. I was targeted and tricked and used as a pawn, thrown back and forth across a chess board in an attempt to win the affections of the queen until I became a shell of myself.
My breaking point came one February during my senior year of high school. My ex and I had just broken up and I was devastated beyond comprehension. To think I felt like a shell of myself when we were together, I felt even more unfamiliar in my own skin after we had broken up. My friends knew how I felt and I had isolated myself so much in an attempt to heal. Their words ricocheted off of me like bullets against armor yet their lack of compassion never wavered. I was invited out one night to a party down the street and although against my better judgement, I decided to go.
You need this, they told me. You need to be surrounded by friends and get him off your mind.
I told myself I’d try but they had to promise they wouldn’t invite him or any of his friends. They agreed and I reluctantly trudged down my driveway into the awaiting car. We made our way through the silent streets, listening to music and passing drinks back and forth until we pulled up to my friends house.
It started out as a decent night. Music, dancing, drinking games. I was planning on sleeping over but by 10 p.m., right as more people started to arrive, I hit a wall. I wanted to go home but my ride was drunk. The girl whose house it was told me I could sleep in her bed. I thanked her and apologized for the turn in my mood. She gave me a hug and told me I tried my best, next time would be easier.
I climbed into her bed and cried myself to sleep only to wake up to the sound of shouting. A couple in my friend group had found me asleep in her bed and they weren’t happy. Clearly drunk, they told me they were sleeping there, they had already asked and how dare I be in the bed that they were going to share. I had no idea. The last thing on my mind were everyone’s sleeping arrangements. I was just happy to be asleep and away from my thoughts.
I told them I had permission to sleep in here and they would have to find somewhere else. To my absolute shock, they started spitting on me until I left the room. I have never felt so disrespected by another person in my entire life, I couldn’t even process what was happening. Had I not been half asleep, I probably would have done some serious damage to the girls’ face but lucky for them both, I broke down and locked myself in the bathroom, hysterical. It was midnight by now, I couldn’t call my mom without worrying her and one by one, each drunken person I mistakenly had called a friend knocked on the door, trying to coax me out or at least, begging me to let them in.
I had bottled up so much anger and sadness at this point, it poured out of me like the liquor they dumped down their throats. I was enraged. Word after word tumbled out of my mouth, a swear here, an insult there. You’re not my friends, I shouted at them. You only want to know what happened. You don’t care about me.
I don’t remember who got through to me but the only memory I have after my breakdown was sitting in the passengers seat of someone’s car. I don’t know who drove me home. I don’t know what time it was. But I swore to myself in that moment that no matter how alone I would feel, I would never go back to them.
I held steady on this promise, reminding myself that I graduated in a few months. If I could hold out for a few more months, this would all be over. I would never have to see them again.
Weeks turned into months. People reached out here and there saying they missed me, asking me to join them at parties and sit with them at lunch, apologizing for “whatever we did to hurt you,” as if they had no idea what they had done.
I was lucky enough to befriend a teacher who took me under her wing. She created an independent study for me my senior year that was really just yearbook. I designed the entire yearbook myself, collected photos from my peers, put together articles. She gave me my own office and a key. Whenever I was feeling overwhelmed, she’d let me work through lunch and other periods, as long as I kept the door open and unlocked. It became my safe haven. A few friends knew I was there, they’d join me for lunch occasionally but I had found my place and my creativity and I threw my emotions into creating a masterpiece for my class and myself. I made no effort to reconnect but I also made no effort to make new friends.
I was still in the group message but back then, you couldn’t take yourself out of groups like you can now. I’m sure they had other groups without me but they still kept up in this one occasionally. I barely engaged and one night, when I wasn’t responding despite their direct messages to me, it started to get bad again. Taunting and low blows, personal insecurities and jokes about my feelings. Anything to draw a response out of me.
I remember sitting in my moms bed watching a new episode of Grey’s Anatomy, my dog curled at my feet and all I could think was that this was never going to stop. I have never wanted to die like I did in that moment. And it’s unfortunate that the only way I was able to get them to stop harassing me was by threatening suicide. Not reminding them that I was a human being, not asking them politely to leave me alone, not begging them with whatever energy I had left to stop.
It was with the words, “If you message me one more time, I will kill myself,” that finally produced the response I had been looking for. They pondered back and forth, wondering if I was serious and in that moment, I was. But I looked at my mom half asleep next to me, laughing at a joke on the television and my dog snoring by my feet and told myself that I had to live for them.
When I shared these experiences with my therapist, she asked me how I survived. I don’t normally cry in front of strangers, or anyone for that matter, but this simple sentence produced such an emotional response in me that I broke down. I couldn’t muster a single word for at least five minutes of internal agony. And when I finally looked up at her, I told her that without the encouragement of my mom and the way my dog seemed to know when I was sad, I wouldn’t be here.
When I finally went to college, I had trouble making friends at all. In fact, there are only a handful of people from my time at Roger Williams that I truly consider friends and I don’t think I ever shared this part of myself with them. I didn’t really speak much to anyone from high school after that. I made it a point to block everyone from my social media because any insight into my new life felt like a threat or something they could use against me.
I was made to believe I wasn’t a victim. Years have passed and still, I am conditioned to think I am a bad person, that I deserved what happened to me. I was said to be victimizing myself which is when someone basically thinks they’re a victim of a situation because they can’t take responsibility for their actions.
My therapist asked me, well why do you think they treated you like that? To which I responded, I don’t know, I must have done something and she said, do you think there could be no reason at all?
Validation is a drug in itself. Reliving and trying to understand this trauma, I have learned that I was a victim and I was a target. I learned that I wasn’t any more sensitive than the next person. I learned that my reactions – my extreme upset, resistance and attempt at standing up for myself – were what drove their meanness. I learned that I am not inherently mean and that my sharp tongue and short temper were my only protection.
Those short four years have affected me more than I care to admit. To admit that this had an impact on me at all, let alone a lingering one, would be admitting they won. It’s hard for me to think that people have good intentions and it’s even harder to open up to those that I consider the closest to me. I have walls up that I am so desperately trying to scale from the other side in an attempt to let go of all of this tension and distrust but it has been hard and painful.
Part of my recovery process is recognizing what happened to me and recognizing that it was as severe as I remember it. Vulnerability is something that I have continued to struggle with but it’s something I want to feel. I know it’ll take time but I am finally in a place where I feel like I can dedicate these sessions to breaking down those mental barriers and relearning that people can be good.
If you can take anything away from this, I hope it’s the knowledge that despite the obstacles in your past, time will wait for your recovery. You are not defined by your trauma. But your trauma will not subside if you don’t face it.
Thank you for reading, I know it was a long one.