How the Hardest Year of My Life Changed Me for the Better

Written by BlackbirdGo February 18, 2019
The People

TW: Mentions of Sexual Assault, Suicidal Ideation

On May 4, 2017, I awoke with a start in a beautiful but unfamiliar apartment on the Lower East Side of New York City. In the immediate distance, I could hear an NPR radio news report detailing one of the earlier scandals in Donald J. Trump’s presidency, although two years and seemingly dozens of numbing revelations later, I cannot remember which one this was. I was naked in a comfortable bed—the mattress was a luxurious, queen-sized memory foam fixture that was much nicer than my springy, uncomfortable full-size uptown—and, despite the distinct sensation of weakness and pain coursing through my body, I didn’t want to leave that spot. I had a flight that evening. The day was going to be stressful, as travel days always were. Moreover, the reality of what had transpired in the twenty-four hours prior had not registered yet.

I had not recalled that only twenty-four hours ago, I’d ended an eleven-hour stint in a New York City jail cell located under the 59th Street Station. I had not recalled that, following a brief court appearance that established there had been some mistake and that I was free to go, I’d rushed to my apartment to pack for a flight that I would narrowly miss because the commute from Uptown to JFK always took longer than expected. Because I’d left the courthouse so late in the day, I had to return to the police station to recover my plastic-bagged items (that were now damaged), travel to my apartment, pack my things, and make the expensive, lengthy journey across an eighteen-mile stretch that seemed to last forever. I did not recall that, following that, I rebooked my flight, commuted back down to my office in Soho where I parked my luggage and resolved to make it out to Reno (my destination) another time. I’d take it all with a grain of salt. Bad shit happened, yes. But such was life. I could deal.

I did not recall that I left my office in SoHo to meet with some of my New York friends—the small group of four or five people that I knew in the city whose company I enjoyed and who were not burdened with the weight of a lifetime of knowing me prior to my becoming an urbanite—at a concert where I drank one or two cheap beers because I had no intention of dealing with a hangover when I had to make the commute to Queens the next day, then fly for six hours across the country to crash at some hotel, then wake up for work immediately after. I did not recall that, following the show and the dissolution of our get-together—while I was still quite sober—I would walk with a friend to Tropical 128, a tiki bar and pool hall near Little Italy where we would wander for a while, having another drink or two and ultimately deciding that we weren’t feeling the night. My friend would tell me that he was taking an Uber back to Brooklyn. I, someone with a much longer commute, decided I’d get a sparkling water with lime juice to keep my wits about me before boarding the train back uptown.

Unfortunately, I never boarded.

Instead, I (stupidly, I can’t help but think now because even at the time I knew better) accepted a drink from a stranger who’d seen me drinking alone and wondered if I wanted company. I didn’t, really, but I was alone and drinks don’t come cheap in the city. I figured I had nothing to lose. I could score a free drink and go about my business.

The incidents that followed aren’t clear; there was an Uber transaction that was abandoned. I’d tried to take a rideshare home but didn’t end up there—something I wouldn’t do under normal circumstances because I hate to waste money unless I’m really enjoying it.

I remember a cab. I remember winding up in bed with the person who’d purchased the drink and passing out. I remember their proceeding to initiate intercourse despite my saying that I didn’t want to do anything, that I wasn’t feeling well or in the right state of mind, and that I most certainly did not want to have unprotected sex. That last part I remember most of all, because it is something that I have long been serious about to the point of absolutism. It was not something I would debate with anyone. Unfortunately, I was in no condition to argue. In no time, in fact, I was unconscious.

When these memories reoccurred to me like flashbulbs pulsing in a dark expanse, disorienting me, I quickly scrambled out of the bed, threw on my clothes, accidentally broke my belt buckle, and rushed out of the room in search of answers. I was greeted by an empty apartment building instead—an Airbnb, I think. I scoured the place for any sign of the person’s identity, any possible clue to what had happened to me and how I could reach them—or do anything. There was nothing. I went cold, grabbed my things, exited the suite, took a photo of the door number on the way out, and walked out of the building, writing down the apartment number. I walked down Elizabeth Street toward my office, simultaneously scrolling through Google in search of help. I found the Emergency PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) hotline and phoned the doctor who was on call for the weekend, as the city’s sexual health clinics were closed for the weekend and I didn’t have insurance yet.

I explained to him what had happened. He asked me if I was sure I needed PEP—a 30-day antiretroviral cocktail meant to prevent seroconversion in the event of HIV exposure—given how little I knew about what happened to me. I told him that I thought the risk level warranted it. He told me that he could not prescribe the whole course over the phone but that he would make sure I got the first three doses from a nearby pharmacy. From there, it would be up to me to deal with the matter with the help of a Primary Care Physician that I didn’t have. I got the meds. I took them. I watched Ariana Grande perform at her benefit concert for the victims of the Manchester Arena bombing on my computer while I waited for the appropriate time to go to JFK. I called my mom because I needed to hear her voice but resolved to act as though everything was normal. I did not mention the jail time stint. I certainly did not mention that I may have been sexually assaulted. I just asked her what she was cooking that day and told her about my travel plans.

I needed to keep it together. So, I did.

I took that flight to Reno. I took the medication, which immediately and vehemently disagreed with my body—I don’t know why to this day, but I presume that my perpetual sense of intense anxiety contributed to that. I spent every waking hour of every day with the memory of what had happened, and what might precipitate from it, looming over me. I said nothing to anyone about it because I didn’t want anyone to think that my mental health was a liability in work, in my studies, or my personal life. I certainly didn’t tell my good friends at the time. I didn’t want to think about how our relationship might change if they knew that I might be in serious trouble. I wanted things to be as normal as possible, and I operated under the delusion that they appeared to be to everyone else, even if I was mired in a sense of never-ending crisis.

The year that followed all of this was remarkable in that enforced normalcy—and secrecy—ruled much of my life while chaos thrashed within me. More often than I’d like, that chaos lashed out, taking control of me through drinking benders and dodginess. I lost interest in sex or a social life, spending most of my days working and studying obsessively, never leaving my apartment if I could avoid it, and letting the entirety of “The Twilight Zone,” then “Dynasty,” then “Star Trek: Voyager” play in the background while I tried to not feel anything. I abruptly ended a variety of friendships, became increasingly unreliable in my coursework at the university where I was pursuing my doctoral degree, and became dodgier than usual with even my closest acquaintances. A friend of mine would observe one night, while I was laying down on a rare night that I’d made it out of my house, that I seemed sad. I said I wasn’t sad about anything. Then he said that it was more than that. I seemed far, far away. That, I was. I thought I had to be to survive.

At some point, when my clothes were piled too many miles high and too many of my relationships had suffered and I could not withstand the physical effects of my post-traumatic stress (I realize only in hindsight that this was what I was going through)—which sometimes stopped me from being able to get through a day and meant long nights spent catching up on work that I had to pause because an episode of spiraling had claimed hours of my life—I knew I had to do something.

I decided, for whatever reason, that I needed to get help from someone. I had to tell someone other than the doctors that I often saw in secret—first when I had to go through the course of PEP, which, I believe, contributed to my eventual “negative” HIV test and next when I had to investigate a cluster of small tumors that had appeared throughout my body shortly after I’d begun that medication (in hindsight, some had existed prior to this and were of concern to me, but I’d buried my fear about that too). I went to the sexual health clinic in Harlem and asked one of the doctors what I could do to get crisis-related help even though it had been months since the initial incident. The doctor told me, gently, that I could always have come in for help, to try and relax, and that I would be set up with a counselor that day.

Sitting in that old building with its dingy lighting and sterile smell might have felt horrible under any other circumstances. At the time, however, it was far better than the rooms I’d occupied in my mind, and I needed to get out before I drank myself to death, or threw myself in front of a train, or locked myself in my bedroom and never ventured out again except to work in a fear-paralyzed daze.

I met my counselor as the doctor had told me I would. She was a short, brown-haired woman named Elizabeth who was soft-spoken and friendly. I hated our therapy sessions at first because I felt like she was not pulling teeth or trying to “fix” me enough. I longed to be directed in methods to mend, systematically, what had been broken in me; she did not offer me that but, instead, asked me to probe my own thoughts and fears. She encouraged me to challenge my problematic patterns.

“Why do you think it is that you’re so scared of being sick now?”

I didn’t know. It seemed like doors would be shut on me. That I would be further rejected from society, which was a cut too deep for me, someone who already felt ostracized for many reasons and relied on my competence, my desirability, my “perfection” to be taken seriously because I lacked anything else. I didn’t want to lose what little power I had.

“Why are you afraid of meeting people? Was it always this way?”

Yes—but now more so. I quoted Anne Sexton’s “Noon Walk on the Asylum Lawn” to Elizabeth.

The sky breaks.
It sags and breathes upon my face.
In the presence of mine enemies, mine enemies
The world is full of enemies.
There is no safe place.

“Why do you think it is you come back here every week when you tell me that everything’s fine? That there’s nothing bothering you and everything’s looking up?”

Maybe I just needed a friend. Maybe I just wanted to keep saying it—that everything was fine—until it was.

“Do you think what happened to you is your fault? Do you feel like everything is your fault?”

Yes. And that’s why I needed to be in control. Of my therapy. Of my emotions. That’s all I wanted back. Some semblance of control over myself. I wanted to stop being overtaken by the fear.

“You don’t have to be in control of everything. It’s okay to just be. It’s okay to feel and to not be responsible for it all. You might feel better.”

Sounded fake, but OK. I tried it. It kind of worked, although not flawlessly. I became better at telling my truth to some people. I was more inclined to ask for help when I needed it from my advisors at university and to take things a little bit slower where putting pressure on myself was concerned. I never told my mom what happened (I still can’t bear that thought of burdening her with this) and tried not to get too into the weeds about things like this with my friends… but, at least, with time, I learned to give myself a break and feel the fear, or the regret, or the need to withdraw without making a judgment about my weakness or stupidity. I began to be more mindful about doing things for my mind and body that felt good—if not because it was a good practice, then because it helped me stave off the fear of everyone and everything that the world might do to me, which I would otherwise offset with drinking and denial.

It was a sunny day in spring nearly a year later—a year made up at first of fear, then honest, difficult self-work, and, finally, hope—that I concluded my sessions with Elizabeth. She was a woman I barely knew, who I had resisted, who I had thought of as a pretty useless counselor despite returning to her week after week after week and slowly finding myself feeling like I could be “me” again, or something like it. I remember wanting to cry, both from joy at a new freedom I was discovering and with sorrow over a relationship that was concluding, as she explained to me that we’d reached our final counseling session but that she felt confident that my life going forward would be much happier because she’d seen me change so much since the beginning, when I could hardly admit to anything I felt, relying on hard facts and harsh judgments about myself to work through what had happened to me and what a mess my life felt like in general. I thanked her for her time, wanted to hug her or to ask her if I could see her again someday, but that felt like… I was projecting a relationship onto her that was not necessarily real. This was not my friend. This was a professional who’d helped me to help myself. It was well enough that our time together should end there, indefinitely suspended in the amber of a positive note.

As I am no expert in therapy or any method of counseling, I cannot tell anyone exactly how it was that the act of getting psychological intervention from a professional helped me to live a much healthier, happier life after the fact. I cannot tell you how this experience helped me to be more patient with myself, to accept that sometimes manifestations of post-traumatic stress might take hours of my time away or cause me to withdraw in situations where I might have thrived once upon a time.

What I can say is that is that I am deeply fortunate to live primarily in a state where affordable psychological help is much more widely available than it is elsewhere and that, even in my darkest moments, there was some part of me that wanted to save myself from whatever place I was going in my life as fear and despair seemed to run through my veins with the same beating force as my blood. I can also say that I know better now than to believe that the world consists only of enemies and that maybe all of my secrecy had been unnecessary after all. Perhaps people might have helped—like Elizabeth did—if they knew what I’d been going through. Maybe they would have understood. If not, I suppose that now I can say, as a changed person, that, even if others could not be understanding of my circumstances, fear, and pain, I am fortunate in that I can now be more understanding of myself.

As I continue along the path of healing—something I imagine will last a lifetime—I think that is the most important lesson. We should be more patient with ourselves, gentler, and more open to sharing in compassion. In the end: we need that from one another and ourselves. Desperately.

Disclaimer: Keep out of reach of children. For use only by adults 21 years of age and older.