EMDR (or Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) is a type of psychotherapy often used to treat PTSD. A lot of veterans and sexual assault survivors partake in this kind of therapy for “severe trauma that remains unresolved”. It helps you reprocess the disturbing imagery associated with your trauma. I’ve been doing EMDR on and off since January to help me work through my past of more than one sexual assault, the most recent being particularly violent and terrifying.
I walked into my therapist’s office already prepared to start EMDR, but told her we needed to talk beforehand because more capital T things had happened. “Things” - I give it a name that can be discarded. Things. Things that can be thrown away. Things that I can use to prop the hood of my car up and then throw in a fucking ditch. Things that I can use as both a projectile and blunt object when I need to protect myself from more capital T Things.
That week, a customer at work physically threatened me because another person who was not me told him something incorrect. The following day, I was told this attack was my fault and a “customer service issue”, instead of it being, you know, “an attack”. Then, a few days later, a complete stranger verbally assaulted me at a gas station while I was pumping gas. When I refused to take this strange man’s unwarranted bullshit, he charged me, spit on my face, spit in my girlfriend’s face, and then put a lit cigarette out on my body. Several people saw & did nothing. I saw the look on his face as his fist was raised above my head, the moment when he decided he would not actually hit me. It was not the first time I had seen this look, and it will not be the last.
My therapist put her head in her hands. She didn’t talk for a minute. I didn’t either, but I laughed. What else can I do? I laughed. “I was so ready to be hit”, I said. “I’ve been ready to be hit for a long time.” One thing that we do in EMDR is bring an image to mind of the thing that’s disturbing. I didn’t have an image of that man at the gas station. I didn’t have an image of the man at work. I didn’t have an image of my rapist, of the police who refused to collect his semen as evidence, who looked me right in the eye and told me, “we won’t find him, we never do. You’re just a statistic”. I had an image of all of them. A big, black, sticky, ball of them, like they had all fallen down a hill and into a vat of tar, and now they were all stuck together - but they could move, they could reach, and they were coming right at me.
“It’s different this time”, I said. “I’ve never felt fear like this”. My therapist asks me to think of a word or phrase describing how this image makes me feel. "I’m afraid and I’m going to die”. I’m supposed to close my eyes and hold the disturbing image in my head while I repeat, in my head, the words about how it makes me feel. While I do this, she taps on the tops of my left and right hand one after another for a short amount of time but it never feels short. We do sessions of this, I stop, take a deep breath, talk about it if I need to, then continue. In my head I’m repeating “I’m afraid and I’m going to die”.
Each session changes slightly. I get stronger, but I’m still scared. The scared part of me is a psychotic dog on the end of a leash. I can’t control it. It’s a toddler flailing uncontrollably. I can’t keep it still. I keep thinking, “what if I let go?” I’m afraid and I’m going to die. I’m afraid and I’m going to die. I’m afraid and I’m going to die and I’m fucking furious. I’m afraid and I’m going to die and I’m fucking furious and I’m stronger than you think I am. I’m afraid and I’m going to die and this is not my voice.
Wait, what? We stop. “It’s not my voice”, I say. “It’s not just my voice”. She looks at me and she knows. “It’s not”, she says. “You probably even know some of them. It’s all of us. It’s not just you”.
How many other women have felt this way? How many other women have repeated this in their heads, under the fist of a stranger, of a partner, of a monster, or just walking down a dark street alone, how many women have been there, never saying it aloud, repeating it like a spell, like a prayer, like a plea? How many of us carry fear in our purses, carry it with both hands as we struggle to open our car doors. How many of us are so desensitized to the targets on our backs that fear is just daily minutiae, a wallet in our back pockets creating a noticeable outline that molds to the denim & never goes away? How many women?
“The fear, the dog on the end of the leash, what if it’s a voice? What if it just needs to be heard? What if I let it go?” So I said it out loud. I let it go. “I’m afraid and I’m going to die” and I laughed. I laughed. “I’m so fucking pissed off. I’m afraid and I’m fucking sick of it. I want to be done. I want to be fucking DONE”.
The adrenaline had been pumping long enough to make me feel strong. Physically, I felt like I could lift a car over my head. I felt like I could push his body off of mine. I felt like I could break every finger he had wrapped around my neck, like opening latches on a door, to look out, and walk through. I felt loud, like I could be heard, because there wasn’t a hand the size of my head wrapped around my neck anymore. I wanted to be heard. I wanted them to be heard, because it wasn’t just my voice. I want them to feel strong like I did. I want them to break every fucking finger that’s wrapped around their necks, walk through the door, and fucking SHOUT.
I could write this on paper and know that it exists and put it in a drawer or sleep with it under my pillow like a gun, because it is a gun, because it IS dangerous, because men who don’t want to hear it treat it like a weapon. Telling your story cuts to the bone. When you name your pain it becomes a missile that lights 5 signal flares around the person who hurt you. If they try to keep you quiet, tell them, "You don't own your mistreatment of me. It is my story to tell". Every word of your story is a piece of armor. Your voice is a weapon. Arm yourself.