Letting My Past Define Me

In this past year and a half or so, as I’ve made a conscious decision to own my past and admit that yes, I was sexually assaulted a very long time ago, I’ve found mostly silence in response. Not from everyone—there are a fair number of people who have made it clear they’re willing to listen and talk if I need to (which I rarely do, but it’s nice to know they’re out there!). But a fair number of people have also clammed up and said nothing at all, which left me feeling somewhat lonely and awkward, but also with the realization that for some people, even my relatively vague references to something happening were simply too much information. And that’s fine. I understand that some people don’t want to touch that with a ten-foot pole. Or maybe they think I don’t want to touch it with a ten-foot pole. For a long time, society has suggested we shouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole, although the #metoo movement is starting to make that less so.

But the one response that really did hurt me was from a person who has been through a similar situation. This was right around the presidential election, and I had commented that I simply could not vote for a man who, in his own words, joked about grabbing women without their consent. It was a perfectly civilized disagreement all in all—she replied that she could vote for him because “I don’t let my past define me.” At the time, I replied something along the lines of, “I respect everyone’s right to vote for the candidate of their choosing…and I’m sure you’re not implying that I let my past define me!” But really, that was how it came across. My unwillingness to vote for the person who is now our president was a sign that I was letting my past define me.

It bothered me for a long time. But then I realized that my past does help define me, and that’s actually not a bad thing. At least, not in my view. Because I think we’re all defined by our past—the good parts and the bad parts. Every significant experience we have—and even some of the insignificant ones—make us the person we ultimately become. And while I think all of us would gladly throw away some of the negative experiences in our past, we obviously can’t do that, and maybe the best we can do is understand that they may have changed who we are.

There’s a lot that goes into making us who we are. I grew up with two parents who very much valued hard work, and that influenced my attitude toward work. I would say that I’m a very hard worker, and I can thank my parents for that.

I would also say that I’m a kind person, and that too came from my parents as well as my sister, who is very kindhearted.

I value knowledge but not necessarily grades, and I think that came from my dad. He was much the same.

I write when I have feelings to work out, and undoubtedly that comes from growing up with a mom who writes from her heart.

Sometimes what shapes us is a matter of opposite reactions, too. I’m a travel-loving thrill-seeker, and I think that’s because my family really didn’t travel at all when I was growing up, and I longed to see more than just our town. I’m also incredibly low-maintenance in terms of appearance, and that probably partly stems from growing up with a sister who spent two hours every morning doing her hair and makeup before school. (I couldn’t imagine giving up precious sleep for that!)

And our less than favorable traits are shaped by our experience, too, I think. Patience is something I struggle with, and I’m pretty sure that piece came from my dad, who was a very quick-thinker. Much to my husband’s chagrin, I also hate talking out arguments or disagreements, and I’m sure that’s probably because I grew up in a family where we didn’t talk about everything. (We were stoic sorts…Chris is far more warm-fuzzy than I am.)

So I am defined by all of this—it all makes up who I am. And then you factor in assault at a very young age…

I am not a trusting person until I get to know people very well. I’m sorry to say, if you’re a man it will be far, far harder to gain my trust. And I really, truly am sorry for that. I can now, as an adult, admit it: I am afraid of men. I try not to be, but it’s a struggle.

I give women the benefit of the doubt far more easily than men. Again, I apologize. This is not a good trait of mine, but what can I say? I’m pretty sure you can see how I’d be inclined that way. Especially because the assault that happened early in my life was not the only time I was put in a very bad situation by a male.

I am suspicious of men in traditionally female-inhabited positions, like camp counselors, kindergarten teachers, and so on. And yes, I know how very sexist of me this is. I strive not to be sexist, racist, ableist, or anything else like that. But yet I can’t fully change it. Case in point: The director of Theo’s summer camp last year was a man. I met him and told Chris, “He seems nice enough. I don’t think he’s a pervert.” Chris laughed and said, “Why would you assume he’s a pervert?!” Because to him, why would you assume that? But to me, it’s a natural assumption.

The assault in my past, though, defines me in positive ways, too. For example, I would consider myself a very self-reliant person. Before Chris, I lived on my own and intended to continue doing so for my whole life. I never felt like I needed someone. (I wanted Chris, which is why I married him. I didn’t need him, but I very much wanted him in my life. And I still very much want him in my life. He is incredible.) I think my self-reliance came early because I did not successfully tell anyone about the assault, so it was something I had to deal with on my own. I don’t think I consciously realized that I was becoming self-reliant—in fact, I’m sure I didn’t. I was too young to even understand what that was. But in hindsight, I think dealing with a very difficult situation on my own was one of the things that helped make me a very independent, self-reliant person.

On a similar note, I think being assaulted is how I came to be married to Chris. If I hadn’t been assaulted, I assume I probably would’ve dated before age 31. After all, most people do. And I’m a nice, decent person, so I assume I probably would have. But I didn’t, because I was terrified and definitely gave off a “don’t come near me” vibe to the opposite sex. But then Chris came along and was so wonderfully non-threatening and so much my other half in every possible way. I sometimes think, “Wow. What if I had dated before him and met someone else and married them? There’s no way they would’ve been as good as he is! I would’ve missed out on such an amazing guy!” Seriously. How many people do you see get married young, and it turns out not to work? I’m sure I might have done the same, given half the chance. So in that sense, I consider myself lucky that I was too afraid of everyone before Chris to even open myself up to dating.

Another big piece of me is that I don’t fear new places and situations, and I think that is partly because one of the most awful moments of my life happened in a place that was supposedly safe—and obviously it wasn’t. So I don’t really fear the unknown, because even the known isn’t necessarily safe. I guess that could’ve gone the other way—I could have ended up fearing everything! But in my case, I think it kind of reversed and made me shrug and think, “Whatever. Something bad could happen, but bad things happen even when you’re supposedly safe, so…” (Mind you, I hate being in situations with a lot of people I don’t know, but it doesn’t have to do with it being a new situation—it has more to do with me being much more comfortable around small groups than large groups. And also, you know, I’m sort of afraid of half the population just based on their gender, so there’s that. I do pretty well in large groups of women. Throw men in the mix, and I’m a whole lot more nervous.)

More than anything, I think being assaulted made me incredibly determined. I don’t give up. I push and push and push. And I realized a while back that I do so because my way of coping is to be better than the person (people, really) who put me in a bad situation long ago. Instead of feeling shame, I needed to feel strong. I needed to feel like they hadn’t ruined my life. I needed to feel like my life had gone on to be not only good, but better than I could’ve imagined. Because that is how I win this battle. And yes, I do see it as a battle. It wasn’t a fair fight years ago, but it certainly is now.

My therapist and I got in an argument last week because I don’t want to tell her the details about what happened years ago. It’s not because I think she’ll judge me; it’s because thinking of saying the words out loud literally makes my stomach turn. I feel sick. I don’t want to feel sick. And we’re doing EMDR therapy, so technically, I don’t have to tell her anything—it’s more about processing emotion in my own brain.

“Why would I want to be able to talk about this?” I demanded. “NO ONE wants to hear me talk about it, and I don’t want to say it! So why should I?”

“Because this is a part of your past that will always be a part of you,” she replied. “And for you to be able to make it a part that doesn’t affect you as badly, you need to be able to strip out the emotion and talk about it. Even if you never do talk about it again—even if you never tell another living soul—you need to be able to.”

She makes a valid point, and I still haven’t decided whether I’m going to go along with her on it. But I also realized that she’s right—this part of my past will always be a part of me. So yes, I suppose it does, in some ways, define me. And I think I’m okay with that. Would I take it away if I could? Absolutely. Without a second thought. But I can’t, so I might as well just accept it and recognize the part it plays in who I am.

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