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"I think I remember saying no": The sexual assaults were harder to get over than my drinking

I knew the assaults I couldn't remember weren't my fault. But for years I felt accountable.


Abby Higgs
October 19, 2015 4:00AM (UTC)

When the therapist said, “I want to warn you, some of the questions I’ll be asking today are incredibly personal,” I wasn’t alarmed. I was intrigued. Go on, I thought.

“Try to be as thorough as you possibly can,” she said, pulling herself up to a metal desk across the room. She tucked strands of short brown hair behind each ear, pursed her lips, and studied papers on a clipboard. “Your name won’t be associated with anything,” she said, looking up to make eye contact with me. She had super-skinny eyebrows and delicate pointed features. I thought she was pretty. She continued, “And as far as we’re concerned, you’re just an anonymous test subject.”

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I also thought she was sort of mean.

At least that last little disclaimer was. I felt like I was doing her a favor by offering up my own personal life experiences as a recovering alcoholic for the good of a medical research study. One that focused on the long-term attentional effects of alcoholism. With 15 years of drinking under my belt and an attention span my ex-girlfriend claimed was comparable to that of a bee, I was more than a well-qualified participant. And I thought the therapist should be a little more grateful.

But I shrugged it off and told her I was ready whenever she was.

At first her questions were mundane. And my answers were a repetition of the same information I’d been telling every doctor and researcher affiliated with the study up to this point: that I was 18 years old when I started drinking alcoholically; that, toward the end, even though I was five feet tall and 115 pounds, I could put away an average of 18 to 22 beers each night.

Then we spent half an hour discussing my former cigarette-smoking habit.

This isn’t so bad, I thought.

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“It’s going to get tougher,” the therapist said, reading my thoughts.

I shrugged. No big deal.

“Were you ever arrested for an alcohol-related offense?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“What were the charges?”

“Driving under the influence.”

“Have you ever physically assaulted someone while under the influence of alcohol?”

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“Once. I punched a friend.”

“Were you arrested?”

“No.”

“Were you ever physically assaulted while under the influence of alcohol?”

“Yes,” I said, giggling a little. “My friend punched me back.”

“Were you ever sexually assaulted?”

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I stopped giggling. I shook my head no. “Yes,” I said.

“You’re saying you were sexually assaulted, correct?”

“No,” I said. “I was.”

“You were?”

I nodded again. “I was,” I said, quieter this time.

“More than once?”

“Yes.”

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“And each time were you under the influence?”

“Yes.”

“How many times were you sexually assaulted?”

“I don’t know. Once for sure. But probably more than that.”

“Would you care to tell me about them?”

“I guess,” I said. I sat up straight on the couch for a moment, and then slumped back down a little and stared at my knees. “I’ll try.”

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___

When you come out of a 15-year-long drunken haze, you don’t emerge with the mental wherewithal and fortitude to immediately face your past, especially if it’s replete with hazy memories, blackouts, mysterious injuries, and innumerable hospitalizations. On paper, the litany of bad experiences I actually could recall read like an early-sobriety sequel to "Reefer Madness" – dramatic, hyperbolic and full of shock value. But even these memories were mild, really – a one-night stand here, a stolen 20-dollar bill there; I wasn’t capable of venturing deep into my psyche yet.

But once I became a semi-functional sober member of society, I actually tried remembering some of the bad experiences from my past and found them just as murky as ever.

The truth is, I don’t know the exact number of times I was sexually assaulted. It’s hard to quantify when I’m not sure what qualifies. Is it assault when you don’t remember all of what happened? When you’re only pretty sure you told him to stop? And whose fault is it really when, time and again, you put yourself in the same situation?

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These were not questions I could ask just anybody. I was too ashamed to go to my female friends for support. My reputation as a “handful” had surfaced early in my drinking career. I was constantly beckoning the few girlfriends I had for their help – I was broke, or I was lost; I was sick or I was sad; the list went on. And no matter what my plight of the day might be, I was sure to be drunk.

Talking to my guy friends about it was out of the question too. They’d think I was overreacting or making it all up, that I was being some over-dramatic headcase on a rampant crusade to frame some dude after a bout of lousy sex. Perhaps this was, in retrospect, an unfair sweeping generalization to make about the men in my life. But since men were the problem, I figured avoiding them altogether was probably the best solution.

Really, there was one concern more pressing than not knowing who to talk to: It was the fear that, when or if I did find someone in whom I could confide, they might tell me to stop drinking.

___

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“I blacked out a lot,” I told the therapist.

She wrote something down on her clipboard. “Did that scare you?”

“Yes,” I said. “Sometimes I’d come out of a blackout not knowing where I was or how I got there.”

I told her about how I’d once come to holding a broken coffee mug in my hand. “I have no idea how it broke,” I said. I looked down to find my hand in my lap mimicking the act of holding a mug, improvising its handle, its weight. “Every once in a while, I think about that broken mug,” I said. “But no matter how many times I’ve tried to remember, I can’t figure out how it broke. Or how it got into my hand. It’s like a half-memory.”

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___

I had a lot of these half-memories. Consequences with the actions erased and forgotten. The broken mug was one of the more benign examples. There had been busted eyeglasses, lost shoes, toaster ovens smoking from having been on for way too long.

And then there were the two mornings I woke up feeling as though I’d come to mid-death rattle. Bruises all over my body – around my mouth, inside my arms and thighs; I could feel fresh open scrapes burning inside my vagina. The word “pulverized” came to mind.

These two mornings were the result of huge chunks of time lost to drinking. Entire evenings. I had passed out cold. Something I did often. Instead of vomiting, my body would just shut down when it couldn’t take any more alcohol. I’d been picked up and carried around by friends and strangers countless times. In fact, it was not an uncommon mode of transportation for me to take home.

On both of these mornings, I woke up completely alone, one time in my bed without clothes on, the other time on an acquaintance’s couch fully dressed.

A decade and several hundred thousand drinks later, these mornings still rank pretty high up on my scale of “scary things for which I have no explanation whatsoever.” Because I never figured out how I’d been pulverized.

After these incidents, I tried to do some “clandestine research” about women who’d experienced multiple sexual assaults, just in case I fit the bill. I didn’t have a computer of my own at the time, so I went to the lab at school. It was there that I first came across the term “rape revictimization.” The words looked sinister on the computer screen in front of me. I remember glancing around the computer lab at the time, certain that I was being watched by other students, that my search history was being recorded. But no one made eye contact; no one even looked away from their computer monitors. Slowly, I turned my attention back to my research. There the words were again: “rape revictimization” – fairly simplistic in their etymological construct: Rape: the act of sexual violation. Revictimization: To become a victim again. Rape revictimization: To become a victim of sexual violation again.

My face got hot. I flicked off the computer and walked briskly out of the lab, thinking, No, that’s not me. That’s way too dramatic to apply to me. I wasn’t even sure I’d been victimized, let alone “revictimized.” Besides, I knew plenty of “revictims” – women who lingered on their traumatic experiences, making everyone around them crazy with the repetitious talk, the neediness, the inability to move the hell on. That wasn’t me. Not at all.

___

You look flustered,” the therapist said.

I nodded. “I am.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t know about all these experiences,” I said. “The assaults. I mean, I know one was an assault. But the others? Well… probably? But I don’t know for sure.”

“Why won’t you say ‘rape’?” she asked.

I shrugged. “Because assault sounds better.”

The therapist narrowed her eyes at me. I couldn’t tell if it was a look of confusion or one of intrigue. Either way, it made me uncomfortable, but I kept talking. “Look,” I said, “when I was in college, I slept with a lot of dudes. I wasn’t out of the closet yet. And I had sex with these guys willingly.” I sat back up defiantly on the couch again – my arms crossed, chin jutted out. Defiance has always been  my default temperament in times of stress. “But there were a few times – not many, but a few – that were questionable. That’s all.”

I couldn’t think of any better way to put it. Everything from context to consent to the memories themselves was confined by blurred edges, lacking definition. “There was one time I was pretty sure I said no,” I said. “But I was so fucked up. Maybe I didn’t. It’s hard to explain.”

  “Just try,” the therapist said.

___

The very first time I ever woke up covered in bruises and scrapes, so hung over that I couldn’t narrow in on a single thought and hold it for longer than a few seconds, was 14 years ago, on the morning after I met Grendel. I never knew the guy’s first name, so I just call him Grendel. The night before was my first Saturday away at college. I had crashed my bike in front of Grendel’s house on the way home from a party. Though it had been early evening, I was already wasted and terribly lost. I catapulted myself like The Sunday Times onto his front steps. A handful of kids who’d been talking on the lawn came to help me up, carefully running with cups of beer in their hands, moving like children in an egg-balancing race. One guy, a big husky dude with dark, unkempt hair, offered to let me clean up inside. This was Grendel.

From the bicycle crash on, my memories from that night exist only in flashes and distorted images, like people you think you see in your peripheral vision they move, but when you turn to look at them directly, they’re gone. They probably hadn’t even been there in the first place.

Amid the blacked-out abyss of that night, I remember Grendel’s basement. It had a bar and a pool table. And I remember that his bedroom was down there too. It had a waterbed. But then, the edges of those memories fade inward. Everything’s out of focus. Time jumps.

It didn’t take long for Grendel and I to wind up on his bed. He tried to go down on me, but I didn’t like it. I told him no. So we kissed some more and he climbed on top of me. I think I told him no again. Or maybe I squirmed? But then we were lying there face to face. A light from the closet behind his head obscured his features. He was backlit. I couldn’t see his mouth. I couldn’t see his nose or eyes. All I could feel was him almost inside of me. Was he hesitating?

Was I stopping him?

I think I remember saying no.

But I can’t hear myself saying it. I can still see the basement, the pool table, the closet light, the waterbed. I can see his silhouette. But I can’t hear myself saying no.

I used to try to put myself back in that moment on Grendel’s waterbed, when I was underneath him. I tried to remember his face from that position – a practice that also made me skeptical of the experience itself. What victim of sexual assault would ever do that?

More than anything, I wanted to remember what Grendel looked like. But I never, ever could. So I spent the rest of my time at college suspicious of every big husky boy with dark, unkempt hair.

___

“I remember so little about that night,” I said to the therapist. “But why would I feel so strongly that I’d said no if I hadn’t?”

The therapist’s eyes grew softer, kinder. We sat in silence for a moment. Then she spoke. “Reactions to trauma are complex,” she said. “Adding substances to the mix almost guarantees recall confusion.” She put her clipboard down. “But that doesn’t mean you didn’t say no. Not at all.”

I nodded. “Ok,” I said. “Ok.”

Another moment of silence. Then, quietly, the therapist asked. “You said there was another time? One you’re more certain of?”

I nodded. “There was another time. It was definitely an assault.”

“Would you care to talk about it?”

“Ok,” I said again. “Ok.”

___

The guy had been a friend of mine. A sort-of friend. A dude I got drunk with a lot for about a month, at least. One morning we started hanging out early, drinking vodka for breakfast. We had it for lunch too. Called it “vodka sandwiches.” And that’s it; the rest of the day is lost to me. I sort of remember being in a car at one point. My car. But I wasn’t driving. Some kid was. I think I kissed my friend in the backseat. Where had we been going? And how old was that kid?

By early afternoon I was black-out wasted. And by about 7 in the evening I was unconscious on my couch, which is where I woke up around midnight to find my friend on top of me, telling me he knew I wasn’t a lesbian, he just knew it. I screamed before passing back out again. Later when I came to, it was still nighttime, probably 2 or 3 a.m., and I was alone. I saw my underwear on the floor across the room, torn in half. When I stood up to get it, the pain in my groin jolted me sideways and I staggered before falling back onto the couch. I stayed there a while. Then, once I composed myself, I got up, slowly, and stumbled to the bathroom, where I took a bunch of pills to go back to sleep.

I never pressed charges against my friend, though it was the one time I actually considered doing so. But only briefly. It didn’t take me long to run through the logistics of my experience to realize that the huge blank spots, my behavior beforehand, my own sex and drinking history, and the amount of alcohol I’d consumed that day were all going to be used against me. I’d read and heard enough horrifying accounts of how the authorities reacted to rape to understand that I would be the focus of an investigation first, then my friend would.

So, instead of going to the police, I kept the whole experience to myself and actually managed not to think about it, for the most part. But I kept drinking.

Now I wonder: If I’d at least told someone – not necessarily the police, but someone – would I have started to heal sooner? Had I kept drinking to forget all that shit ever happened? Or was all that shit responsible for my unappeasable need to stay fucked up?

___

“I know there’s no answers to these stupid questions,” I told the therapist. “I’ve always known that. Still, I can’t help but ask them.”

“Well,” she said, “it’s only human nature to want reasons for things, to want answers. Though trying to be a little kinder to yourself might make addressing the issues less difficult.”

I shrugged. That had never been an easy task for me – handling myself with care. Self-destruction is an alcoholic’s best friend. You learn to trust it because it’s one of the only conduits left linking you back to your body – all the mystery bruises polka-dotted across your skin, all the missing fingernails and the bloody knuckles. You start to find yourself rationalizing these injuries as appropriate punitive measures for the behavior in which you’d engaged the night before: “You deserve that busted bottom lip. If you hadn’t had 21 cans of Coors Light last night, you wouldn’t have stumbled face-first into a wall. Dummy.”

Even your rationalizations for being self-destructive are self-destructive.

___

The therapist and I sat in silence again. I picked at the minuscule threads on my jeans and my socks. Then I pulled at different parts of the rubber on the bottom of my shoe.

The therapist cleared her throat. “Abby, none of those assaults were your fault,” she said.

I didn’t look up from my nitpicking. I shrugged again. A part of me knew that the sexual assaults weren’t my fault. But another part of me wasn’t sure where my accountability ended in each experience and the accountability of my attackers began. Some might say that, as an alcoholic, not even my drinking was my fault. While I liked this rationale, I also felt like it was a bit of a cop-out. Others might say I shouldn’t have put myself in those situations in the first place. I agreed with this argument too. Mostly. I knew I shouldn’t have put myself in those situations, but there was little, if any, logic to my actions when I drank, as is often the case with most drunk people, alcoholic or no.

Still others might say that I’d been asking for it, which sure as hell hadn’t been the case. But it’s not like I could counter this accusation with “No, here’s the definitive line that should not have been crossed.”

And that was just it: there was no definitive line anywhere in my drinking and sexual assault history. Not with Grendel. Not with the Vodka Sandwich guy. The ambiguity bothered me so much that I found it easier to discount everything: The whole “I’m not really an alcoholic because I’m not homeless, not dying, not broke” pattern of thinking became “I hadn’t been sexually victimized because I’m not sure I’d said ‘no’ clearly enough, plus I don’t remember everything and I’d been drinking.” If I tacked the word “again” onto the end of that sentence, I had my excuse for doubting I’d been sexually revictimized.

And there was that term again. In my mind, I could still see it on the computer screen at school: “Rape revictimization.” Immediately, it conjured in me a sort of panic. My heart beat faster; I could hear it clicking in my ears. My face got hot. Over a decade later, I still hated the sight of those words – real or imagined – and the semantics involved. Rape revictimization: To become a victim of sexual violation again. To become powerless. Again. To be an unfortunate end result of a horrible action. Again. To be preyed upon. Again.

But as I sat in the therapist’s office, my face hot, my heartbeat like a tiny train chugging in the tunnels of my ears, I allowed the term to exist in my presence a little while longer. Because I felt safe. So I looked at the words in my mind as they sat there, quivering on the imaginary monitor of an old eMac desktop. I thought about the women I considered emotionally stunted and how they couldn’t seem to let their traumatic experiences go. I considered the idea that these women might be more than their victimhood, their traumas. Because I was more than that. I was more than what Vodka Sandwich guy had done to me. Than what Grendel had done to me. Than what the disease of alcoholism had done to me. I considered that my judgment of those women over a decade ago might have been wholly inaccurate. I deduced out of fear – of similarity, of the hugeness that comes with admitting I had serious problems in my life, of being equated to these problems, of my own suppositions. Were you to ask me 10 years ago what I thought of alcoholism, I would’ve said, “That’s a problem people who can’t get their shit together have. Losers who aren’t capable of controlling their own lives have alcoholism.”

Meanwhile, I was probably covered in cuts and scrapes and, depending on the time of day, quite possibly drunk.

So maybe those women were not hysterical victims then. Maybe I was not, in fact, some stoic but secretly suffering anti-hero keeping all my sexual assault experiences under wraps. Maybe I could even try to relate to women who were vocal about their suffering and their pasts. I suspect we have a lot in common, I thought. I could learn from them. Even become one of them. Become a woman who talks.


Abby Higgs

MORE FROM Abby Higgs


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