I testify today, because I still can.
I don’t know where to start. It feel like I never do, because it’s the type of story that begs not to be told, that burns your throat and your eyes on the way out. In the end I never do, because no matter how much I read and I learn, all those feelings I know are not fair keep getting the best of me in the end: the shame, the guilt, the fear.
This time, however, I decide to start in the middle, a particularly tricky place, though maybe not as tricky as that beginning. I’m learning that the beginning never has and never will stop happening within me, a fictitiously inherent part of what makes me, me.
I find myself sitting in a hospital bed. It’s always the same story with me. It begins at the breaking point, unendingly, sitting in a bed: in empty hours that melt into each other as I stare at the wall. In people escorting me to the bathroom, a cart carrying countless pills arriving five times a day on the dot.
Tests, all kinds of them: blood, urine, liver function, somebody grabbing my arm without my permission at 6 a.m to write down my blood pressure. Calls to Alonso at 9 in the morning from a public phone, painting coloring books, visits from my mom, reading “Rayuela” (and hating Cortázar), waiting without patience for the soap on at 7 p.m. Looking out the tiny bathroom window at the people down in the street, bustling like ants. Wanting to be one of the ants again.
When Nacho Alpízar declares in the middle of a party in a mocking tone that I’m completely crazy, psych-ward crazy, crazy for real, his words ring with a little truth. It doesn’t stop him from being an ass, but they still ring with some truth.
However we, Nacho and I, were taught between testimonies not to judge others. We leave that power to God, who judges us worthy of love despite it all. There are days where I don’t know what I believe in, or if I believe anything at all. But confusion notwithstanding, and despite not knowing who I am I think I know what my testimony is, and how it all began to lead me to that hospital bed.
It always starts with two messy pigtails. With a sweaty fringe that gets in your eyes with the sun, untied laces and scraped knees. It always starts where it should never start: there’s a certain value to innocence that is lost slowly, allowed to bloom at its own pace, little by little. The cost of stolen innocence, the one that’s lost too soon, is one that none of us knows how to pay. I’m still trying to crunch the numbers, the numbers of a debt that isn’t mine, and negotiating with myself to get out of bed and pay the dues on days when my eyelids feel heavy with past lives.
It was with messy pigtails that I began to spiral at unsurmountable speeds. It’s almost as if a life out of control looks for the comfort of chaos and calls it a home. I belong here, despite not being from here; it’s all I’ve ever known.
It takes almost more bravery than I possess to state the obvious: with messy pigtails, scraped knees, with no understanding of what was happening and why it made me feel a shame so intense that I felt the need to shower three times a day to try to get it off, and didn’t allow me to look my mom in the eyes if I had it in my mind.
I was only five at the beginning. My dad was suddenly and involuntarily gone, and my mom found herself too depressed to do much except lock herself in her room. It was in these times of newfound freedom, with my mother’s door permanently locked and with hopes of seeing my dad walk in through the front door still alive that a man, still in his teens, approached me.
A man I was supposed to trust, and so it goes. Long blurry hours, stretched through weeks that melted into months followed this initial approach, locked in a room, listening to his voice and feeling his warm breath uncomfortably tickling my ear: telling me to relax, he wanted it wet, it felt so good, it would only hurt a minute.
I wonder in vain if he knew he was lying as he said the pain would last only a minute. Tickles and heavy hands and touches in places where it felt uncomfortable and heads forced down and the pain. Other things that, even now, my arms shake too hard to describe. I don’t want to describe them.
It’s not hard to talk about in the way other things are hard to talk about. I think about it sometimes, in detail. Everything that went down invades my mind the same way he invaded my body: without consent.
I think about it at times, on purpose, to see if it still hurts, and there are days where I find it doesn’t. I can see it in my mind’s eye in an almost cold, scientific way. Like if I focused hard enough, maybe it wasn’t something that happened to me. Despite being able to see, feel and smell it so clearly, my mind rebels against the notion of putting it into words. It would make it personal, tangible, real. It’s safer unworded in my mind.
I can’t say that everything I am is a result of this one repetitive event. No one is. Many bad things have happened, and not everything I am is bad, despite the constant voice in my head that whispers I am.
I can say, however, that when I arrived at the hospital in an overdosed haze, sleepless nights weighing on my eyes, lack of food making me weak, and while sitting in a wheelchair I told my psychiatrist everything I had stored for so many years, she looked at me and wondered how I hadn’t ended up there sooner.
She asked me if I wasn’t angry. Angry at my dad for leaving and my mom for not taking care of me and above all else with the person who did what he did, for having done what he did. Anger is too simple a feeling to describe what I felt.
I was furious, naturally. Furious, but that wasn’t the emotion in the forefront of my mind. I was exhausted. I was filled to the brim with hatred, not for him but for me, for being the person all these things had made me: a person with a system full of more pills than it could process, with arms cut up in desperation to get out of my own skin, with more shame than I knew what to do with and with the omnipresent possibility of not being able to go on anymore. Exhausted of looking back and feeling sick to my stomach and looking ahead to see nothing except myself, carrying what I considered to be my own dead weight.
That day I was admitted to the psychiatric ward of the hospital. In the beds next to mine you could find women who came and went, most of whom had suffered some degree of sexual violence, all meticulously recorded in their medical records.
The sweetest old lady I had ever met had been raped so many times, by so many different men, that she had stopped bothering to count them. Once freed of the situation, she found herself still mentally trapped in a cycle of abuse that lead her to work in prostitution, the only thing she thought she could do. Old habits die hard.
I saw them and I saw myself, sometimes as if I was outside of myself, as if the person I am were a complete stranger. Where does my self end and where does all that I am that is not mine, that comes from the actions of those around me, begin?
I want to know this, to know who I am, and most importantly, I want to be mine again. There is no amount of tears, pills, days with no food, or cuts that can alleviate the pain of belonging outside myself.
It’s something that’s hard to understand, impossible to explain. I know my impulses; they’re my own. But I could never find rhyme or reason to them. I don’t know what makes me, what makes us, react the way we do, facing destruction with self-destruction, when all evidence suggests the logical response would be to save ourselves. In the practice, logic has no place in this discussion.
There will always be those who see us as weak. Always those who don’t understand and find themselves unable to empathize or feel compassion. There will always be uncles who ask that five-year-old why she can’t be happier or easier to deal with, like our cousins, and why we’re so nervous: it’s only a hug.
There might always be Nachos, mocking our pain publicly at parties, trivializing years of struggle and trauma and making a joke out of others’ pain. There will be those who think jokes about rape are genuinely funny, those pesky feminists who just can’t take a joke. But we are so many, and it shatters my heart just to think about it. In that place that some people and even we can perceive as weakness lies our strength.
That empathy, the understanding, the sisterhood and above all else the bravery to keep raising our voices even when the words are begging not to come out. To tell our story is to break the taboo, to give light to all other victims who are afraid and to reassure them that they are not alone, and silence is only good for the oppressor.
I’m not sure how to give this a proper closing. The world can be a pretty scary place. I remember this one time when I was little that my mom forced me to go to this mass in which the priest read a passage of the bible in which, in the height of his suffering, Jesus looks to the skies and exclaims “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
I remember feeling a cold so intense that I thought I would never feel warm again. I got home and lay on the bathroom floor, crying as though hypnotized, in my mind the phrase “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” on repeat like a broken record, like a string of rosaries all prayed one after the other.
I talk about it now because today I know that I haven’t been abandoned or forsaken. I know I am not alone. By my side are millions of women brave enough to put a stop to this cycle of suffering in silence, who raise their voices and say “Me too.”
I have absolute confidence in the fact that I will fight every day to reduce the amount of women who have to feel this shame that isn’t theirs so intensely. It belongs to someone else, that shame, and I will not remain silent while there are other five-year-olds lying on the bathroom floor wondering why God abandoned them. Alienated. Ashamed of something that is not their fault.
The author is a student of communications in the University of Costa Rica. She’s a big fan of breakfast and making jokes inappropriately soon after a traumatic event.