Thursday, October 15, 2009

"Hey-- I have something I want to tell you..."

Dear Readers,

I have a dilemma. When I become closer to new friends I make, I want to tell them about this part of my life. I want to share my story with them and help them see why this is an issue I am so passionate about.

I, however, am awkward. :(

I don't really know the best way to tell people. I feel like this isn't something I should just blurt out, so I try to preface it with "I have something I want to share with you." Isn't that an awkward phrase, in all its incarnations? I certainly think so. It's even worse if it's a set-up meeting, like if I email someone to say "I'd like to sit down and talk with you at some point." And then we meet up, and maybe they follow me somewhere, and they sit down awkwardly, wondering why kind of bad news this might be. To make matters worse, I'm usually never upset when I tell people-- I'm usually in a very calm, normal, even cheerful kind of mood. How's that for cognitive dissonance?

So what I've been doing lately is starting by asking if they remember how I took a year and a half off during my senior year. They pretty much all do, since I'm, y'know, a member of the class of 2008. The reason I've always given to people at first is that I was burnt out and having a change of heart with what I wanted to do after I graduated so I took some time off to work and get re-energized and re-organized. And so now I tell them that I also took the time off for medical leave, for post-traumatic stress disorder. This is usually when I start to see a look of increasing cognition in their eyes, the knowledge that I'm about to reveal something awful that happened to me at some point. And that's when I say I was raped. I usually only mention the occurrence my senior spring; I used to tell people it wasn't the first time, that I've been sexually assaulted in the context of a relationship before, but I've stopped doing so for several reasons: I've forgiven him, because I understand that it wasn't malicious, and because it doesn't usually help with the inherent uncomfortableness of telling someone to add an "And by the way, that wasn't the first time..."

So yeah. Now there's an awkward silence. There's always an awkward silence. This is when I add that it happened at my fraternity house, by a brother of my own fraternity. Aaaaand then I run out of things to say, so I fidget, and feel bad that I'm saying this all so matter-of-factly, and I muse about how it would probably have been easier had I been crying or somehow visibly upset because then they can give me a hug and not feel so awkward and useless as they stand there and try to figure out how to react.

For me, it's like telling someone about some events that happened at some point to someone-- not even really a story, because when I tell stories, I usually try to project and inflect and use my tone and body language to convey nuances of the story that my words overlook. But I don't know what nuances there are in this story, in my story. There is an event. There are some additional details. And there is awkward silence. What else is there? What more can I add? What else can I say?

I feel like I'm going about and doing this all wrong. Maybe I shouldn't make it so scripted, so set apart from the happenings of daily life. Maybe I shouldn't make a distinct decision to tell them at all, and just say it when it feels right. But I don't think there will ever be an appropriate moment to just suddenly inform someone that I was raped, at least not in any way that isn't antagonistic-- e.g. if someone makes a particularly tasteless rape joke and I feel like smashing the mood and grinding it to pieces beneath my heavy black femmenazi steel-toed boots. I just don't know. This is something I want to share with people. This is something I want them to know so they can be conscious of not just what I'm dealing with but really more of the issue in general. I want them to realize that rape is not something that happens somewhere out there to other people, not something that befalls women who may or may not have deserved it, not something that is wielded about gratuitously by angry butch feminists who burn bras and threaten to topple male society. Rape is real, and it does happen to people you know. That is part of what I want to say.

But they, these people I am telling, they are my friends. Most of them will be as sensitive and caring as they know how to be; they don't deserve to be the full target of my anger at other people who insist on denying and disbelieving. I feel like there has to be a way for me to drop the weight of this revelation on them without crushing them unduly. How can I make this a dialogue? How can I tell my story but also invite them to share their thoughts and impressions with me?

One thing I learned recently is that a reason TMI ("too much information") makes conversations so awkward is that the receiver of the information feels compelled to reciprocate. It puts the listener on the spot, and that's not my intention at all. To address this, what I've been doing is wringing my hands awkwardly  and trying, haltingly, to reassure them that they don't need to reveal something of equal magnitude to me, that they don't have to reveal anything at all. And then they look like they feel bad because they're listening but they don't know what to say, and I feel helpless because I don't know how to fix this situation.

I always wonder what they're thinking when I tell them. I'm sure many factors come into play, such as how out of the blue this conversation was, how well they know me, how much they've already guessed. I always wonder how odd it is for them to hear this from someone who is so calm and detached from their words, from someone who doesn't herself understand why telling people has become an emotionless recitation of short sentences and a puzzling array of silences around which to navigate. I don't know where my emotions are. I don't know if they are buried or simply not there. Maybe last year I cleaned the store all out and it hasn't restocked. Sometimes I think about crying, but I can't, because it's not thinking about the event anymore that makes me sad or angry or any kind of emotional (other than panicky, sometimes). It's thinking about the aftermath, and that's a can of worms I try not to open up on the first date with someone who didn't realize what they were getting into when they agreed to listen to me. Whenever I talk about the aftermath, the emotions bubble up and out and overflow everywhere, into my words, my voice, my tears, but it's like a floodgate opening, all at once and sudden and intensely drowning. But not the telling of the events of March 25-26. I don't have the emotions for those; I lost the tape for the audio book and can only show you the pictures and sentences on the page.

How can I make this better? Believe it or not, this is not a rhetorical question-- I do want your input. If I told you about this in person, do you remember how I did it? Is there anything I could have said or done to make it less awkward? Could I have made it more of a dialogue between us somehow? If I never had the chance to tell you in person and you found out through some online means, can you imagine a conversation we might have that would work out well?

Now that it's been a year and a half later, I'm not just telling people because I need an outlet to share my pain. I want to tell people so they understand my intense drive to try to fix the world for rape survivors. I want to tell people so I can show them this blog and ask them to show others to spread the word. I want to tell people because this is part of who I am and I am not ashamed of it. There's so much I want that I don't know how to achieve. Please share some insight with me-- I'd appreciate it!

Awkward in Amsterdam
(...except I'm not really in Amsterdam.)


  1. Your story, and mine, and any survivor's, is scary. Frighteningly so. We've lived through, (and hopefully) faced, got therapy for, and are actively dealing with whatever terrible things have happened to us. Most people don't ever see, for real, the things we've experienced first hand. These traumatic events are, well, traumatic. Most people don't know how to deal with traumatic events when they hear about them, just as we didn't when those events happened to us.

    Which explains the silence.

    At first, I think it's enough to say to someone that we have our issues and sometimes need help and understanding. Everyone can relate to that. "Hey friend, I need a hug" or "I'm having a terrible day" is something most people can process and know how to work with, without knowing all of the details.

    There is a point where some times where people do need to know the details. Romantic relationships. Very close friends. Those are the people who will have to deal with your reactions to your strongest
    triggers, so they are the ones who need to know the what and when. Let them know what you need from them-- throw them a rope that they can grab onto to help you.

    It's taken us a lot to deal with these things, it likely will take a little for our friends to deal with hearing about them.

  2. When I bring up something awkward, I start out with "There's something I need to tell you, and not fun, but I need you to know. And you can ask me about it afterward, but I need you to know this."

    And then say it, and then answer questions I feel comfortable answering, and then give them some time to think about it. I sometimes ask them about it maybe a week or so later, to see if they've thought of anything else they wanted to ask, and just kind of check in.

  3. Email your blog to those with whom you want to share your experience. Give them time to digest the information, and allow them to make the next move.

  4. As the teller of a personal story, I think you have some right to let the listener know how s/he should be reacting at this point. If a friend told me something this important, I wouldn't really know what to say (and, in fact, I've said the absolute wrong thing in a similar situation). I would want to know how you want me to feel.

    Are you telling me this story to be sure I'm still your friend? Of course I'm your friend. Are you asking if I have had similar experiences? Not me personally, but if I had, I might open up to you at this point. Do you just want me to know an important part of your life but don't need any reaction beyond a hug and a smoothie? Let me know. If you are telling me a painful story, it means you've had a big event in your life, and it's not up to you to make me feel okay with it. I want to know how I can help, or what you expect from me as your friend.

    If your friend is at a loss, go ahead and give hir a script - "I'm not telling you this so that you'll feel sorry for me, I just want to share a part of my life. I (will answer questions/prefer not to talk about it), so let me know how you're feeling. Now let's go get a smoothie."