Friday, February 28, 2014

When I Started Really Talking About Sexual Assault

I used to be like those girls in the movies. Slightly scared, physically distant, a little sad. I was a girl with a secret. And if I met someone, and I trusted them more than anybody in the world, then I would confide my deep dark secret: I was a victim of sexual abuse and assault. My confidant and I would cry together in the moment, knowing that we were never to talk about it again.

I didn't talk about these experiences because if I did, it meant I was a VICTIM. You showed you were okay, you were strong, by never ever talking about these things. Women who talked about their sexual abuse were whiners, in need of attention, stuck in the past.

When the uncle who had sexually abused me as a child was released from prison (for his second rape conviction, unrelated to my abuse), I didn't say anything, because I was okay. Everything was cool, I was an adult now. We were all happy to have my uncle back and hoped he would stay clean. But I started isolating myself. I stopped taking out the trash or doing laundry and my home became a fortress of junk that I would hide inside. I would sit in bed eating boxes of mint oreos all day long. I gained 20 pounds the first month.

I couldn't say that I didn't want him at my birthday party. I had no choice but to sit across from him at family gatherings. I brought him Christmas presents and left early. Rather than say, "I don't want this person in my world" I removed myself. Because the only other option was to yell "child molester!" at the dinner table. The only other option led to my grandma crying, my mom knowing that she failed to protect me, and my uncle being cut out of the family.

The fact that I was willing to keep such a dark secret was obvious to predators. I was an easier target, someone who hadn't said anything in the past and wouldn't say anything in the future. This cycle repeated itself with my mom's boyfriends, and later with my own boyfriends.

I eventually solved the boyfriend problem by only dating guys so obviously unsuitable that I'd never dream in confiding in them. Men that I could keep at a cold difference and then toss away when I started to feel exposed. But a few years ago I found myself crying over a pretty long relationship with a guy that I hadn't even liked. I didn't like talking to him, I didn't like sleeping with him, I didn't like his face. And when it was over, I was crying because that was the closest to intimacy I had gotten in years.

I realized, finally, that I was doing things that didn't make sense to me. I realized that I wasn't in control. And I started talking.

When I started talking about sexual abuse I was very scared. I was breaking the illusion of cold, detached, self-controlled grownup lady that I had worked so hard to cultivate. I started with my closest friends, just putting it into convos about childhood where it felt the most appropriate. I was prepared for drama. I was prepared for uncomfortable silence. But the reaction I got completely stunned me. This is the reaction I got from most people:

"Yeah, I kinda figured something like that had happened to you. Something like that happened to me"

That was it. Conversation over. Big secret wasn't that big of a secret. Nobody cried. Nobody looked at me differently. I was able to breathe a little easier.

I was able to realize that I really am okay, but it doesn't mean I'm unaffected.  I like to think of it as like a bad car accident in which my arm was injured. I have a scar. My arm moves different. I can walk around pretending that the accident never happened. Everyone trying not to look at the scar. Thinking that there must be something wrong with my brain that prevents me from lifting heavy objects. Or I can say, "I was in this accident. This is my arm now. It's part of me, but it isn't who I am. I need to find a new way to lift this load."

When I was able to talk to other people about what happened to me, I was able to say that I don't want my uncle around. Just like that. I could just say it. It didn't have to be a big production. Nobody had to pick sides. I was able to say, "I don't feel safe when he's around and I have a right to feel safe. Please don't bring him around me and don't talk about him." If people didn't respect that I was able to remove myself from the situation without a moment of guilt. Because once I was able to admit to myself how much it affected me, I was able to see how perfectly fine it was for me to not want to be around him.

I was also able to recognize the ways in which it has affected my personal relationships. I can see when I'm surrounding myself with spectacularly broken people and I can stop and say, "I'm protecting myself right now. What am I protecting myself from?" Sometimes I realize the threat isn't real and I don't need to protect myself. Other times I decide that even though the threat isn't real, I really don't feel like summoning the strength to change my behavior. But regardless of what I decide, I know that it's a choice I'm making. I can't describe how much better that feels than floating around as someone who mysteriously finds herself in the worst possible relationships.

I have been surprised by all the little benefits that I've received from this new openness.

  • I'm a hugger now. I never was. I'm able to better recognize platonic affection and now I'm all about hugs. 
  • I'm asking for things I want. I'm a little less preoccupied with keeping what I have safe. I'm now slowly asking for more from my relationships. This is still a real struggle for me, but I'm getting better.
  • I don't have sex with people I don't want to have sex with anymore. Sex is mine now. 
  • My oldest son is in puberty right now, and I'm realizing that even though he's becoming a grown man, he's not a threat. I've raised a good son and he's going to be a good adult. 
  • Now that I'm better aware of my boundaries and what I need to do to feel safe, I'm travelling more. 

I'm sharing this all with you because one of the things that has become obvious to me as I've become more open with my experiences with sexual assault is how very common it is. I'd estimate that at least 75% of my female friends have experienced sexual abuse or assault in their lives - and we aren't talking about it. Now that I'm honest with myself I can see it in my friends. When I see a friend struggling, trying to put into words why she is acting the way that she is, I offer up "well, this is what I do when I don't feel safe, and this is why." and their story pours out of them. The relief to just be able to say, "Ok, what I'm doing is making sense now that I can see the whole picture. I'm not alone. I'm not crazy." is palpable. My friends have been able to help me as well. They've been able to see when I'm reacting to past hurts and not the present situation and they've brought that to my attention. They've been able to kindly let me know when it seems like I really am not handling things well myself and need some extra help.

You aren't alone. You aren't crazy. You aren't defective. You have nothing to be ashamed of. Everything you are doing has a reason, and it's a good reason. You can talk about it and figure out if that's something you want to keep doing. You don't have to say anything if you don't want to. But know that there are so many of us struggling with learning how to lift those heavy loads again. It's a lot easier if we can do this together.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

My Grandpa the Feminist

Today would have been my grandpa Robert Hawley's 81st birthday. He passed away last October and I miss him a bunch. Everyone's grandpa is special and mine was so very special.

In his younger years, BobBob was not the best dad. He was cranky and impatient and he really didn't want a lot of kids running around disturbing his time with his wife. But as he got older he softened, and he was able to show love to his grandkids that he didn't know how to show to his children. My siblings, cousin and I didn't have a dad around, so he was all we had. He was crafty and funny and really enjoyed just hanging out with us.

But my BobBob wasn't just a cool old dude. He was the most feminist person in my life growing up. A lot of his views on women seemed to stem from his love of his wife of 63 years. She was his tutor in high school when they met and he was won over by her sharp wit and no-nonsense attitude. He would tell stories at length about the tricks she used to pull on him when they were younger and the fights they used to get into. His life was dedicated to loving and supporting her. A successful senior manager at Boeing, he rarely talked about his accomplishments, but he would go on at length about his wife's career. My grandma had a long commute so he would rush home every day to make sure that he had dinner ready for her when she got home. "Your grandma is going to be home soon and I want her to be able to relax. Go play!" he would yell as he would put together a dish from the Graham Kerr cookbook.
My Grandparents on their 50th Anniversary

BobBob never called me pretty. I don't think it's because he didn't think I was pretty. It just honestly didn't matter to him. He called me smart. He called me funny. He called me talented. The only time he ever commented on my physical appearance was his regular complaint that I refused to shave my head, because I had such a "perfectly round head." Any time I would cut my hair he would wink and say, "that's a good start."

I cannot overstate how amazing it is for girls to have a parental figure who never uses "pretty" in your life. Who never comments on your clothing. Who never comments on your weight. All that mattered to Bob Bob was what I had to talk about, what I was thinking of, what new things I had learned.

We talked for hours about anything in the world. As a tall, chubby, brown, nerdy girl who didn't know how to be "cute" and had absolutely no idea of "cool" - I didn't fit in anywhere in the Seattle suburbs that I grew up in. But when I was hanging out with Bob Bob, I could slouch. I didn't have to comb my hair. I could speak my opinion without seeming like a know-it-all. Actually scratch that - I could be a know-it-all, and it was fine. He would always say, "What do you think about this?" and he would listen intently and treat my responses like they were coming from one of his peers, not a little girl. He was my safe place, which not many girls get growing up. We spend a lot of time talking about what we need to do to help girls succeed in the world, but I feel like my grandpa is a good example of the importance of the things you don't do. Sometimes it's as simple as not commenting on a girl's looks, as not responding to her thoughts differently, of not interjecting your own notions of what a girl or woman should be. That freedom, to just be myself, he created it by trusting and valuing who I really was.

BobBob dove head first in to all of my interests. He never tried to steer me in any direction, he just followed my lead and did his best to help me succeed. When I changed my mind at a moment's notice as kids do, he never took it personally and was just as excited about my new ventures. When I showed an interest in Architecture, he built me a drafting table and showed me how to draw. I spent 6 months of 1991 building fantasy houses. I was excited when Tiger Woods made his debut so he got out the golf clubs and took my brother Aham and I to the driving range. He tried not to seem disappointed by my absolute lack of hand-eye coordination. I loved Barbies so he built me a 2 story Barbie house - with carpeting, working lights and doorbell, and a working vacuum. When I showed my love of Politics in Middle School, he started looking up articles on current events for us to talk about. He dug up my dad's thesis for his PhD in PoliSci for me to read.

When I got pregnant right before I turned 19 and then got engaged, he was disappointed. "I guess maybe she won't run the world now." He said. It crushed me. It was the most heartbreaking moment of my life. I thought that he thought I'd thrown my life away by having a baby. I distanced myself from him, partially because I felt that he had given up on me, and also because I didn't want him to see how unhappy I was at home. My husband was controlling and manipulative, and he was suffering from severe depression. I had quit school to take on a second job to support us. My focus had become about keeping the peace and protecting my son from his dad's anger. I felt like I had let everyone down.

We went for a walk together a few days after I had left my husband. We were talking about current events and out of the blue he patted me on the shoulder.

"I know this is a tough time for you kiddo. Divorce is hard. But you are strong. You can do this and you can raise your son. But with him, you - you stopped doing what you wanted. I didn't like that. I feel like you let him stop you from being who you are. You can do this now. You can raise this boy and you can go to college and you can run the world. And maybe you'll meet someone better someday or maybe not, but don't let anyone else ever stop you from doing anything, ok?"

I took those words with me to college, and they helped keep me awake through long nights of studying for finals when I had to take a kid to kindergarten in the morning. They helped me when I was struggling to pay bills and daycare and tuition all at once. And when I graduated, even though his mind had started to slip by then, I've never seen him so proud. He bawled like a baby and took a billion pictures. I'm going to owe him for the rest of my life.

I saw him for the last time when my grandparents flew in to town for Christmas and BobBob's 80th birthday. He didn't remember who I was but he knew I was important to him, so I still got hugs and smiles. We had two weeks with him. The day before he and my grandma left for Kansas he was crying. He was confused. His son wasn't there so he thought he was dead.
"No Bob, we're at Joma's house." my grandma said.
"No we aren't" he insisted.
"Yes we are" my mom insisted.
"Really?" he said, his voice hopeful, "well where is she?"
I was in the bedroom and they called me out. I walked into the living room. He looked at me and for the first time in two weeks he remembered who I was.

"Oh hell, where did you come from?" He said and he grabbed me into a hug and stared crying. "Where have you been? Where are you living now? How is work going? I bet you are just running the world aren't you."

Sunday, December 29, 2013

New Year's Resolutions

Hello friends! It's time to look at the last year and set goals for the bright shiny year ahead of us!

For someone who hates to-do's and can't manage a goal as simple as "be less than 20 minutes late to work this week" I actually do really well with New Year's resolutions. I try not to set too many and I really try to make them count. 2013 was a wonderful year in a lot of ways and I'm excited to bring in a whole new year of opportunity! Let's get started shall we?

Goal 1: Buy a House
This is the big one, the grandmother of all goals. I am going to buy my first house this year. If you follow  this blog you probably know that better money management has been something I have been working on for years now. I was in quite the hole 2 years ago and I really felt like shit about it. My credit score was around 450, my wages were being garnished for defaulted student loans, and as a single parent I was falling further and further in debt trying to cover basic living expenses. I've been slowly chipping away at the debt, being a little more responsible with each raise, cutting out discretionary purchases. And I hunkered down and entered in a repayment plan on my loans to get them rehabilitated - at over $800 a month. I'm proud to say that my student loans are now in good standing and I have a decent credit score for the first time in my adult life. So now, before I celebrate by spending all my money on shit I don't need, I need to shift focus in saving for a down payment. This has been a dream of mine for so long and I can't believe its so close to becoming a reality.

Goal 2: Resist the Urge to Chop Off all my Hair
Every 6 months or so I chop off all my hair. Is this because I like my hair short? No. It's because of 3 things: 1) I'm bored 2) Because I always wanted one of those doll heads where you could cut off all the hair and it would magically grow back but that doesn't exist and my friends won't let me cut off their hair and my hair will non-magically grow back so it will have to do. 3) I'm afraid of becoming attached to any part of my "beauty." But you guys, it takes HELLA long to grow out my hair and it's easier to play with when I have more of it. So I'm going to stay away from the scissors this year.

Goal 3: I'm Not the Woman who Sleeps with Fucked Up People Anymore
Hey, do we have nothing in common? Do you have serious emotional issues that you refuse to acknowledge? You would have been my dream sexy partner, until now. The hardworking, charming, responsible adult always lusting over complete assholes with zero conversation skills - that's not who I am anymore. I know that a lot of my friends have gotten a lot of laughs about this over the years, and I laughed right along with them - because it kept the focus off of me and on the unfortunate souls I was dating. But here's the truth: I'm terrified of intimacy. I date people I have nothing in common with, people I don't like, people who don't like me, because I am absolutely terrified of ever needing someone and ever letting anybody see how completely messed up I can be. So it's not really funny; it's sad and it's mean to lie to the people in my life like that. And I'm not going to do it anymore.

Goal 4: Change My Name
Ok I've been totally ashamed to admit this, but did you know that my license still reads Ijeoma Jacobson? I have been divorced for 11 YEARS people. Even worse, I didn't even change my name to Jacobson until 3 weeks before I filed for divorce because I dreaded the thought of taking that name so much. So why does my license still say Jacobson? Why am I still hyphenating my tax returns a decade after my divorce? Because I'M TOO LAZY TO TAKE MY NAME CHANGE FORM (SIGNED OFF BY THE JUDGE IN 2002) TO THE DAMN DMV. How rediculous is that? I swear, I really am a grownup.

Well that's it friends! My big goals for 2014. I hope you all have a wonderful year full of love and laughter and adventure.