(trigger warning: sexual assault/abuse)
I have lived four and a half full, beautiful lives since he hurt me, so why is he so hard to shake from my memory? I still don’t understand. I can’t seem to remember what I gave my best friend for her birthday that February, or if I went to Maine or Miami that week in May after school ended. But I do remember his crimson—no, blood—red collared shirt. It was polyester—couldn’t have cost more than $19.99. Some details blur into the distance; others have stuck with me for many moons. I remember certain bits from that January night as vividly as I remember the important bits of your life that are meant to stick to your subconscious. Like the moment Nanu died in the same room where we’d watch early 2000s Bollywood re-runs on ZeeTV. Or the day I tripped and rode bicycles for hours with my partner by that lake in Florida, six months into falling in love —I think one of the happiest days of my youth. Did he do this so I’d clearly remember him—insignificant, vile him—four, five, six, seven years since then?
That shirt, though. No one wears a red that bold and bright. Beet red. I should have registered it as an omen. I wasn’t attracted to him at all. I had rejected his aggressive advances repeatedly several times before. So why’d I let him—a man ten years older than me, man bun and face peppered with adult acne and all—buy me a drink? Because I felt like I had to accept because we worked together? Because I couldn’t afford or legally buy a $15 cocktail? You know the one, with exotic fruit and herb pairings. Gin and tonic with pomegranate, mango, lime and mint. I wish I had more self-love than a cleverly named $15 cocktail. I wish I could grab my younger brown body by the shoulders, shake her up, and tell her she is worth so, so, so, so, so much more than what men and this whole damn world have made her believe thus far. That she doesn’t owe her time or presence to anyone who she doesn’t want to give it to. That she’s a pearl, an embodiment of mother earth, a free, brown spirit, a sunflower growing and reaching her golden petals to the holy sun.
I could write about waking up naked and alone the next afternoon in my bed, with almost no memory of the night after he gave me that cocktail, with heavy and bruised legs, endless questions and rivers of shame to swim through for the next few years. About the deep pit of pain in my stomach, the knowing that I would never be the same person after this. About how at one point he left me on the street, in the snow—passed out, a debilitated piece of putty at his mercy. About the tears that poured out of me the minute I woke up. About immediately showering for two, three, four hours to get the feeling of his fingertips off my skin. About feeling like a small part of me had died that night and was left in another dimension—a dimension I only visit in lucid dreaming. About how I actually could have died from the amount of drugs and drinks he fed to my small frame. About not knowing that I could alternate crying and sleeping for 72 hours straight. About his sinister look of satisfaction in seeing the girl that had once rejected him, now helpless and defenseless under his power. About how the next few days were hospital beds and police desks, smirks, denial and unkind faces. A lost, quickly abandoned case. But I won’t delve any further.
This isn’t the part of the story that’s yours to have.
My heart was a clenched fist for months after. There was the depression, of course, the kind that would leave me debilitated in bed for a couple days, eating nothing but Ben & Jerry’s and bananas. The kind of depression that made me invisible and cut ties with my friends for a couple months. And then fits of tears that would come like a Delhi monsoon. Sure, I would forget for a couple days—July came and I could get lost in a sundress, lightning bugs, or a Murakami book under a tree—but then the anger would bubble over and I’d explode. The kind of anger that jolted me up at 7:00 am for a two mile run with my teeth clenched the whole time, even though I never really liked running before. I just wanted to let my limbs feel free and light, to escape this heavy shell of a body for a bit. Men fundamentally didn’t feel safe anymore. Not the men in my family, in my circle of friends, at work, at school, at the store or on the street. This wasn’t the first time a man had deeply betrayed me, but I promised myself it would be the last.
I have also survived sexually, emotionally, and physically abusive relationships. I had viewed that kind of treatment from others as normal for so long, and was buried under so many layers of shame, confusion, cultural stigmas, manipulation and unhealthy coping mechanisms that I couldn’t verbalize or understand the scope of what I had survived as woman. During all those years, when I should have had anger towards my abusers and when my sense of self-protection should have kicked in, I instead harbored a deep lack of self-love and would react by abusing and hurting myself even more.
But something about the severity and the timing of my assault really woke me up and made me want to radically shift the way I approached my relationship to self and others. I started educating myself on feminism and racial politics and sought out therapy for the first time. The social worker who was assigned to my case was an angel who worked tirelessly with me for two years and honestly changed my life. She helped me learn to cradle my insides like a baby girl, to tell her, finally, that she deserved protection. I really try to protect her now. I learned to meditate, to breathe, to give every inch of the parts of me that still felt alive to my music. I fell over and over again, slipping back into a space colored with fear and anxiety–I still do–but music and therapy ground me and connect me to the vision of manifesting the best version of my life.
My life is so vibrant now. My soul feels free as fuck these days. I wrote an album this year that helped me work through and gain some closure on this part of my life. I have a beautiful support system with both men and women who I trust. Music, spirituality, access to therapy, and the privilege to educate myself has led me down a really incredible path, and I’m very grateful. I have deep empathy for people who went through similar traumas with little to no access to resources for healing and education, and I think the bulk of the work aiding sexual assault and trauma survivors needs to be directed towards the healing of those communities. Cultural stigmas, class, access to shelter, therapy, work and education are all layers of people’s lives that intersect deeply with trauma, and I know how infinitely harder it would have been for me to heal if I didn’t have access to support systems and resources.
I carried a lot of anger, self-hate, and sadness over the years from these traumas and abusive relationships, but they no longer color my everyday existence as intensely as they once did. I still have mountains of panic attacks to overcome where my body freezes, my heart races, I feel like I can’t breathe and that I’m so close to passing out—or worse, dying. I can’t be in crowded or dark places or any kind of bars. I still have days where a flush of tears come to me like a random summer storm. But I also have a lot more room in my life now to meditate on joy and beauty, and to revel in the brilliance that the universe and this short life offers. Even though my world often didn’t feel safe, I’m working through my trauma and know the fears will ease over time. I truly think they can. So many of my fears have already started to vanish and been replaced with love.
I think I am a survivor in the most beautiful sense of the word. As I’ve told this story a hundred times over since that January, I learned that more than half of my friends are sexual assault survivors or survivors of their own traumas. We held these stories in quiet and secrecy for years, feeling alienated from others, blaming ourselves, harboring fear and anxiety in our bodies. We denied ourselves pure connection, validation, healing and love. We were told by our loved ones and peers to not share these stories with others, so we don’t get branded as a “victim” for the rest of our lives and have people look at us in a different way or doubt our story or deny our experiences. Up until now, these same fears held me from telling my story to the people who listen to my music. If you do listen to my music and have experienced similar traumas, I hope you can maybe feel seen and less alone. I was afraid for so long of being seen a different way if my story was out there, but I trust that my audience will see me first as an artist, a woman, a singer, a big, bold, kind spirit, and a survivor after all that. I am choosing not to hide this part of me anymore. My vision was cloudy, but I’m lucid now. I feel free.
(dedicated to Maria)