I was sexually assaulted by an ex

This is the piece that preceded the “Why I Stayed” post. I shared it in a note on facebook but then I lost the nerve to post it publicly.

It’s taken me a long time to be able to type these words:

I was sexually assaulted.

It took me a long time to be able to call it what it was, even before I could say it aloud.

I’m the biggest feminist, supporter of women, of survivors, but when it came to myself I kept coming back to “I should’ve known better.” As though the world should not be presumed to be a safe place, as though those we have once cared about should never be trusted again once they’ve betrayed it.

I was sexually assaulted by an ex, and I should’ve known better.

Because dating someone means they have access to my body without my consent for the rest of my life? No, that’s silly, but that’s what I thought. She was my ex,that means it wasn’t sexual assault. I believe in marital rape – the idea that just by marrying someone, one does not grant them unlimited access to sex whenever they desire it – but I thought it was somehow less a violation because I had consented sometime in the past.

She– oh that’s another thing. Could it really be sexual assault if we are both women?

There are probably many people who say a woman can’t sexually assault another woman.But does an entire gender or sex, 50% of the population have unfettered access to me because we happen to both be female? No, that can’t be right. 50% of the population don’t have the right to touch me if I say no, but yet I couldn’t name it for the longest time.

I went over to her house of my own volition. So I must somehow be culpable. I had alcohol to drink. Because going to someone’s house and having alcohol means in itself that I consent to sexual activity. No, that’s not right. My brain knows these things don’t add up. That if someone else was saying them to me, I would be saying “No, you can go to someone’s house and that doesn’t mean you consent to sex just by showing up there.” I couldn’t say it to myself for a very longtime. None of these things, none of these things mean that no doesn’t mean NO.

I do know that.

The person I am now would not date her. I do know that, too. It’s everything that led up to that night that makes me feel culpable in what happened. I was instantly attracted to her when we met. She was good looking, physically, and she was smart, really smart. She was funny, a feminist, more butch than me, she was everything I was looking for in a partner. I should’ve been frightened when she showed me the bookcase she shattered one night when she was angry. She said she had left it there on the floor so I knew what I was getting into. I thought she was tortured and I could get her to see how amazing she was, because I could see it. Instead everything good had a scary flipside. The night we danced to “Brown eyed girl” over and over in her dining room, restarting it every time it ended; the night I locked myself in her bathroom contemplating whether or not I could crawl through the window to escape her rage.

You would think that would have been the end, but it wasn’t. My fear always evaporated in the daylight, when her smile was warm and my heart told me that I had misunderstood, overreacted, that it wouldn’t happen again. That the anger that erupted over me getting takeout from the wrong place was an isolated thing; that it wouldn’t happen again. Maybe I didn’t know that I deserved anything better than that. I hadn’t always been a good person, I had treated people badly, maybe I only deserved the laughter and fun and sex with the anger and fear attached. Maybe some of us don’t get one without the other.

You would think that all of that would have kept me from going over there that night, six months later. It should have. That’s probably why I felt responsible for so long, but the thing about abusive relationships is that we brainwash ourselves into believing that every act of violence, every outburst, every out of control situation is an isolated incident, a fluke.

Even when we stopped seeing each other socially, our paths still crossed. We had both attended a conference out of town, and I was still processing some of the things that had happened there when we spoke. I don’t know if she texted me or I texted her, it’s long enough ago that I simply cannot recall how we began talking that night. After a while, she asked if I would like to come over to talk in person, and so I went over to her house. I didn’t think that it was anything more than that. I had a girlfriend, a girlfriend that she knew, who I was in a committed monogamous relationship with. I actually thought that maybe we could salvage some sort of friendship, it was naïve looking back, but I still didn’t see the big picture clearly. I went to her house, and she made me a cocktail the way that she always did. We sat on her front stoop and we talked about the conference, until she said, “Where’s your girlfriend tonight?”

“At work.” I said.

“Does she know that you’re here?” She asked me.

“She trusts me.” I told her. And then she leaned in to kiss me. I pushed her away,with both hands. I said, “No. I didn’t come here for that.”

I dropped my hands and I turned away, I guess that I thought that would be enough.

Again,she said “Where is your girlfriend?” and then she kissed me.

I pushed her away and said “Stop it!” and she picked up the empty beer bottle at her feet and smashed it against the steps.

I don’t know if she wanted to intimidate me or just show me she was angry, but six months had given me the strength to stand up and walk away. I wasn’t scared of her anymore, she didn’t have any power over me. I got in my car and I drove away.

I told my girlfriend what had happened, and she was understanding. She believed that I hadn’t been asking for any of it. I told a couple people about it after it happened, people that I thought might be able to help. I wasn’t concerned for myself so much as I wanted to make sure that it didn’t happen to someone else.I had gotten strong, somewhere between the shattered bookcase and the broken beer bottle, but I wondered who would be on the stoop next and I didn’t want her to have to be strong. I wanted her to be safe.

As it turns out, no one knows what to do about this kind of thing. Not feminists, not people who are supposed to be doing something about all the shit that happens to women. No one knows what to do when a woman sexually assaults a woman who happens to have consensually dated her at some point. So I got tired and I got quiet. I got sick of always being the person who is making the fuss and causing the problem. I pushed it all into a tiny place inside me that stopped aching after a while, as long as I didn’t push on it. Eventually someone else got loud and spoke out about the woman who had done this to me,but I was still too wounded and felt too alone to care about whatever she had done to anybody else. No one really wanted to listen when it was me and I just didn’t have the strength to be anyone else’s advocate. Years went by and we all went on and you know the sickest part? She got away with it. What she did tome, what she did to the women after me and what I’m sure she will keep on doing because no one knows what the fuck to do about an adult female who preys on other adult females. No one really seems to know what to do with anyone that preys on other people, but doesn’t do it in a way that’s overt enough to make us feelgood about labeling them.

If you’ve gotten this far, you already read through my reasoning. Dating someone doesn’t give them unlimited rights to my body for the rest of my life. A woman doesn’t have the right to violate me because we happen to be the same gender or sex. Going to someone’s house and having a cocktail isn’t consenting to sex, or even to a kiss. I know these things and this is what I would say to my sister or my best friend or my daughter if I ever had one, this is what I would say to her if she experienced that. I still blame myself a little. My heart knows that it is rape culture though. I don’t remember what I was wearing that night, but it’s not relevant. Nothing we do or say gives ANYone the right to do something to us against our will, there is no implied consent. I lost a lot of my faith and my idealism during that time, but what I never lost is my voice. I will not be ashamed anymore. I did nothing wrong.

I define myself

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Why I stayed

When I was about fourteen years old, I was in an emotionally abusive relationship. It was my first “love” relationship, one that would set the stage for what I believed a love relationship should be. He controlled me as completely as he could. He implied to me that I was fat, I was 5’4 and 120 pounds. He would stand me up when we had plans, and be with other girls. We would break up, he would apologize, we would get back together, and it would all start again. It was during that time that I started purging. I didn’t binge, but when I ate something “bad” I would throw it up. I still have a very vivid memory of kneeling on the floor of the Wendy’s, my fingers down my throat, feeling out of control. Purging never made me feel in control and I hadn’t found restricting yet. My relationship with that boy ended the night I swallowed 100 pills like I was chugging a glass of water. A pregnancy test and a tube shoved down my nose as I fought the ER staff, I woke up the next morning in a hospital gown with an IV in my arm and a fresh start to my teenage life.

This is not that story, however. This is the story of what happened decades after I vowed that I would never allow myself to be abused again. This is the beginning of the story that ended in my sexual assault. I didn’t post that blog publicly, but I am going to post it now.

When I met her, I was instantly attracted. Everything about her was everything I thought that I was looking for – she was attractive, passionate about what she did, incredibly smart, and determined to change the world. I learned way too quickly she was also a heavy drinker, emotionally tortured, incredibly insecure and filled with an anger that was as directionless as it was intense. One of the first times that I visited her house, she pointed out a pile of wood in the hallway. She said it had been a bookcase, she had shattered it when she was angry, and she had purposely left it there so that I would “know what I was getting into.” I’ve asked myself hundreds of times why I didn’t leave that night and never look back. She took my staying as a tacit agreement that she could do whatever she wanted – and she did. I’ve decided that I thought she was exaggerating. I thought she had darkness inside her that she needed to get out, but I didn’t think it would ever be directed at me. I decided, as I have done way too many times in my life, that my love was all she needed to heal her. I decided that I could be the one to save her.

Why did I stay when it started to get worse, when I became afraid of her? Because my work, my future work, was tied up in her and our relationship. We had no boundaries between the work that we did and our personal relationship(s) and rejecting her seemed to mean giving up the work that I was doing which was very important to me at the time. Also, no one from the outside had any idea what was going on inside that house. She was really great at pretending to be this amazing person and very few people got to see the person she was when she didn’t have an audience. For some relationships, the highs are so high that they cancel out the lows in our minds. Sure, I locked myself in her bathroom once and contemplated going out the window, but I let the night we danced to brown eyed girl, over and over, restarting the song every time it ended cancel that out.

As afraid as I was of her, she never hit me. There was one night where she basically imprisoned me in her house and wouldn’t let me leave. I tried to get out the front door and she smashed my fingers in it as she closed it. I yanked it open, oblivious to the pain, and she picked up a glass from the coffee table and held it up like she was going to smash it into my face. That moment will be forever branded on my mind. That was the moment that I felt most helpless. That was the moment that I knew that I somehow was back in an abusive relationship after vowing never to allow myself to be treated that way again. That moment lasted hours it seemed, I can still close my eyes and feel the doorjam under my hand; I can still see her face contorted into rage so completely that she didn’t even look like the person that I loved. I will never know why in the split second that glass started to come down toward my face that she decided to throw it over my shoulder onto the front porch. Maybe there was a part of her that didn’t want to be that person either. That was the night I texted my best friend and asked her to call me and pretend that her infant son who had been ill was back in the hospital. For some reason I knew that I’d be able to leave, and she let me. I drove two blocks to a gas station parking lot and broke down. I called my friend and I sobbed “I’m out. I got out.”

But I didn’t get out. In the end it was essentially she who ended it. She decided to make out with one of my best friends, in my home, on my birthday, while I was passed out in the other room. The ultimate fuck-you. After that, there was no way it could continue, even I wouldn’t have let it but it didn’t matter because she had replaced me. I wish that I could say that I stood up to her, but that didn’t happen until much much later. Standing up to her was the one of the scariest things that I have ever done, and the night I confronted her after she assaulted me, I saw her for what she really is – small, scared, sad, and broken. She’s not so good at pretending that she can fool herself the way she fools most everyone else. She will never be good enough or smart enough or live up to her potential and she takes that out on the people who care about her instead of doing whatever work she needs to do to not hate herself. The hatred for herself bleeds over into hatred for anyone that can love her when she can’t love herself. Ultimately that is very very sad. In the end, I think that Why I stayed was that at that time, I still didn’t believe that I could have the good without the bad. I was punishing myself for all the mistakes that I had made, and I didn’t think that I could have love without pain & abuse. I thought that it was a trade-off, at least for me.

I’m incredibly grateful that I no longer believe that. It’s taken a lot of work but I have separated love from fear and pain and sadness. I know that I deserve a love that quenches my thirst for passion without putting me in danger. I know the difference between anger and passion now too. Most importantly, I learned to love myself. I really believe that I deserve a love that nurtures me, not one that destroys me. Love is not pain.

If you don’t love me, I’ll kill myself

The title of this post is a music reference, for those of you who for whatever reason don’t remember the 90s or aren’t into obscure tunes; it sounded so much more interesting than my working title “Emotional Blackmail.”

The first time I heard the term “emotional blackmail” I was a child. My mother told me she would not allow herself to be “emotionally blackmailed” by me. I can’t remember what I said or did that prompted it, nor do I know where she heard the term, probably from a book about parenting a difficult child. Out of the Fog, a website for people who have a loved one with a personality disorder, describes emotional blackmail as: “A system of threats and punishments used in an attempt to control someone’s behaviors.” As I’m sure you can imagine, growing up with an undiagnosed emotional sensitivity disorder (or personality disorder if you prefer, I find the clinical term too stigmatizing and prefer to use the phrase that Dr. Linehan mentioned when I saw her speak at the 2012 NAMI National Convention) was difficult both for me as well as my family members.*

I know I said and did many things that were manipulative as a teenager, I think that’s pretty common. Some teens are difficult and it’s hard to know where the line is between “teenager” and “has a diagnosable disorder”, it can be very blurry. What happens though when manipulative maladaptive behaviors aren’t something we grow out of? Some people – perhaps many people – grow into dysfunctional adults who use techniques like emotional blackmail and gaslighting to get their way, people who have no diagnosable disorder at all. It can be hard to know what to take seriously and what to dismiss, and it can be even more difficult to know exactly where the boundaries should be with someone who engages in these types of behaviors whether they are a friend, family member, partner, ex-partner, boss, etc.

One of the most extreme forms of emotional blackmail I have ever encountered is what I call “If you don’t love me, I’ll kill myself.” It happened after the alcoholic and I had broken up. As can happen with relationships, especially dysfunctional ones, a break-up had not stopped us from fighting with one another. I was trying to set and maintain clear boundaries, but that can be difficult for me as I did not grow up with boundaries and didn’t realize I even needed them until I was in my 20s. This particular day I was traveling for work (my job covers the whole state) and I happened to be driving back from the Gulf coast. My ex called me and we started to fight about one thing or another, I don’t even remember what at this point. She was baiting me with some secret mean thing that she had started to tell me but then said “no never mind” knowing it would drive me crazy. During the call, the man that I was working with to secure a mortgage called on the other line. I told her that I had to take the call, my mortgage broker was calling and it must be important. I switched over without giving her time to protest. During the twenty or so minute call with the mortgage broker, the alcoholic called me four times in quick succession. I did not answer, because it made no sense to. I had told her the call was important, in fact this was the middle of my workday and I was traveling for work!

When the call with the mortgage broker was concluded, I picked up the 5th call. I told her that it was inappropriate to call me multiple times like that, especially when she knew I was on an important call. I told her that there was really no point in us continuing to fight, because we had broken up, and then I terminated the call. Not the most mature thing to do but under the circumstances it seemed like the best way to not have to spend another half hour fighting with her on the phone. At some point in the hour and a half between that call and my arrival back home, she sent me a text message saying it didn’t matter anyway. She had taken a “bunch of pills” and was feeling “sleepy” now. Threats of suicide, whether the person is serious about attempting or not, can be a form of emotional blackmail. However, as a mental health professional who is trained in applied suicide intervention (ASIST) and mental health first aid I knew that one thing you should never do is not take someone seriously when they talk about suicide. There is no “boy who cried wolf” when it comes to suicide threats, because the 9th time may be the time they succeed or decide to actually go through with it. Whatever the reason someone decides to either threaten or attempt suicide, action has to be taken. It is possible however, to help the person while maintaining your boundaries.

In this case, I did try to call her, which I am sure was the intended response. I had refused to talk to her before, and now she had manipulated me into calling her. She did not pick up, and I realized that I had a choice. I could frantically continue calling her, violating my previous statement that I did not want to continue talking to her on the phone and validating the power that her threat had over me, or I could take action to make sure that help was given to her whether or not she needed or wanted it. In case you’re not familiar with my story, this ex lived over 1,000 miles away from me in New Mexico. As it happened, I had her mother’s (whom she was mostly estranged from) phone number in my cell phone. I texted her mother and told her that her daughter had told me that she had taken pills in order to kill herself, that I did not know whether or not it was true but that someone needed to get her help. Thankfully, her mother intervened, going to her house with one of her friends and knocking on the door. Apparently she did not answer at first but eventually they did get into contact with her. Her mother texted me to let me know that she was ok.

I do not know whether or not she did what she said she did, and really it doesn’t matter. Every life is important, every person deserves to live. Later, the alcoholic did accuse me of “bothering” her by sending her mother to her home, and claimed that she had been in serious condition, implying she would have died if intervention had not happened. I also do not know whether that is true or an exaggeration/outright lie (she was prone to lying.) I simply told her that because of my licensure with the state, I am a mandated reporter of suicidal or homicidal intentions expressed to me. Had I not been able to get in touch with her mother, I would’ve tried a friend and finally the local police. Truthfully, she has been slowly killing herself with her drug and alcohol abuse all these years, but that isn’t my responsibility. By telling me that she was in the process of attempting suicide, she made her possible impending death my responsibility.

Obviously her intention was not to be bothered by her mother. Whether or not she intended to die that day, the response she wanted from me was attention, perhaps guilt, quite possibly the guilt of feeling like she had ended her life because of me. Often emotional blackmail suicide threats have an attitude of “I’ll show them. They’ll be sorry when I’m gone.” The entire process was very emotionally draining for me, and in a lot of ways she did get what she wanted by upsetting me, forcing me to deal with her, and then acting as though I had somehow wronged her by asking her mother to intervene. Emotional abuse takes a toll on us whether we set boundaries with the person or not. In the end, I had to finally tell her that she had no place in my life. I did not want to be her friend because we were never friends in the first place. Anyone in the throes of addiction is much too self involved to be a friend to anyone else anyway. I wrote this post partially because I find blogging about these things to be freeing, the ability to let out what I am holding inside. This was one of the most extreme situations I’ve ever been in, and it was incredibly difficult to experience.

My final thought is this – don’t give in to emotional blackmail, it does no one any good. Think outside the box if someone’s life is at stake, but you don’t have to allow them to get whatever they are seeking from you. Also, take all suicide threats seriously. You can take measures to save someone’s life even if they don’t want it, and you can do it in a way that doesn’t compromise your boundaries. Read through the different types of emotional abuse on Out of the Fog too. Just because someone has a mental illness, a disorder, an addiction, etc it does not give them the right to treat you in a way that is abusive.

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* If you want to know more about BPD and my experience having an emotional sensitivity disorder, visit my “What is BPD?” post.