Living in a Body That’s Been Raped

Living in a Body That’s Been Raped

Trigger warning: sexual abuse, rape, trauma, interpersonal relationship violence … #MeToo

I’d like to believe that my body is my own. But over and over again, that has seemed not to be the case. Behind doors or in public, in America or overseas, my efforts to protect myself, protect my body, have proven futile and gone ignored. It seems I walk with an invisible target sign on my forehead, on my back, on my legs, on my navel, on my breasts, on every part of my body—a target sign that went up the first time I was raped, and one that I haven’t been able to get rid of since that first time, one that predators recognize and close in on.

I wear headphones, even when the noise in my head is too loud for me to turn on music—to show men that I’m busy and can’t hear them (even though I always do). I read books on the train to show men that I’m occupied (even though they still interrupt me). I recently bought a fake wedding ring made of stainless steel and zirconia crystal, in hopes that men will leave me alone. I’ll let you know if that works.

I’m not sure what makes me so vulnerable, but I hate myself for it. Hate my body for it.

There was a time, I think, when I was beautiful. I didn’t feel beautiful at the time, runway-thin and -tall and -starved though I was, but looking back, I hadn’t known I’d already been raped too many times to count. I didn’t know it was possible to be raped by a boyfriend, over and over, didn’t know domestic violence could disguise itself as one-true-and-forever-love (as in, stop trying to escape), didn’t know that consenting to a relationship didn’t mean consenting to sex even the times when I protested, even when the pain made me cry—didn’t even know that sex wasn’t supposed to be painful, humiliating, degrading. Didn’t know that sex could be something other than something mean that men do to women. Didn’t know that sex wasn’t supposed to break me. Didn’t know the definition of the word “sadist” at that time.

I have a female body, don’t I? Essentially, a fuck-receptical. That’s what men seem to think of me.

I knew my body was disgusting, then. Even when I was asked to model runway, emaciated and bony. But when I see those photos, I seem to have been pretty. Once. Back then.

The photos after I turned twenty-seven are different. At that age I was forever changed by what was irrevocably rape by anyone’s definition—and that recognition flooded me and broke me. I was on a date with a mesmerizing man, a professor of theater (and theatrical he was). The warning signs, red flag after red flag, seem obvious to me now. Looking back, it seemed a rehearsal for him, one he’d completed over and over. How many young women had he lured upstairs before me to hear his guitar and see his astonishing library? He hadn’t been lying about the library—that was real. But my stomach turned when he offered me a gorgeous early edition of a classic, finally recognizing that his intent was transactional. The door was already closed.

I refused the book, but I consented to kissing. I hope to God that does not mean consenting to sex.

The moment I can pinpoint when I became ugly, was made ugly, was when he stripped me, even as I struggled to keep on my dress. I should have known better than to wear a loose dress, a piece of lace art far too easy to take off a woman. Take off me, specifically. Wearing something so easy to be stripped of, did that mean I asked for it? I hope to God not, but I still wonder. It still makes me sick. The moment he stole my dress, made it no longer my own, my body also became no longer my own. My body became ruined, or, to use the active voice, he ruined my body.

I recognized my ugliness as I watched him, seemingly from across the room, shove his hand inside me, even as I saw myself retreat, heard myself say no, stop, I don’t want to. Perhaps it was my mistake that my backward retreat was even closer to the bed, which he pushed me onto. I remember looking at my hand, after he had unzipped his slacks and pressed my hand to his erection—I looked at my hand after I pulled it back and saw it differently, saw how my knuckles were wider than my fingers, saw the blue veins on their backside. Had the lines on my palms always converged into rape?

What I do know is that I cannot stand the photos of myself from after that happened. They look like me, but they are of someone I can’t recognize—someone bad, dirty, ruined, raped. Was it kindness that, after he was finished doing what he wanted to me, he insisted on walking me through the snow and to the subway, even though I said I wanted to walk alone, and that he held my hand up to the turnstile, which finally barred him from me forever? Did that gesture negate the ugliness he’d given me?

The dress, of course, was ruined to me. My favorite dress. The dress I had worn to the Great Gatsby publishing party and won a prize in for “best-dressed.” He stole that from me.

The doctors put the weight back onto my body, and now I recognize it even less.

I try not to look in the mirror, avoid it as much as possible. Don’t want to see my body that’s been force-fed, plumped up, violated, and demoralized.

As a marathon runner, my body has always been strong. Couldn’t I have pushed with more conviction? Or was it truly too late? Why, after a certain point, did I give up my fight and freeze? Did my body betray me when I froze, or was it protecting me from something that could have been even worse?

How did the man at the top of the stairway that I climbed up the cliff on my way home, and the man who blocked the doorway in the hostel basement in London, know that my body was no longer my own? What makes me up for the taking?

I am disgusted whenever my body reminds me that my biology makes me a sexual being. When I get aroused, I run to the bathroom to clean myself.

But it is hard to shower when my boyfriend used to rape me in the shower. So much pain and fear. The anal rape was the worst, even as I begged him not to. I thought I might drown as I choked on the water. As my words were literally drowned back down, unable to escape through the glass door freckled with water drops. But it is hard to get clean without a shower where bad things happened, feel like they’re still happening. I’m between a rock and a hard spot, when showers are both necessary for hygiene and terrifying reminders of what’s been done. How can I ever get clean?

Sometimes I sleep in my day clothes, because I don’t like the feeling of my jeans being unzipped, of my shirt being taken off, even by me. When the air touches my bare skin, or I see my long legs and where they lead, I might be taken back to an experience I don’t want to have.

It is not easy to rest in a body that’s been raped, and not just because of the nightmares. Humans rest lying down, but they also have sex that way. I feel vulnerable and exposed on my back, like it’s happening again. I turn to my side to try to protect myself, to will the sensations away, but no—it happened from that angle, too. I squeeze my eyes tight to get rid of the memories, but that only seems to make them worse.

Bessel Van der Kolk wrote that the body keeps the score. That’s why it’s possible to relive a rape over and over. Why I can feel it still, even though I try to keep it in the past. I feel betrayed by my own body, that it won’t let me forget. That my brain pumps cortisol into every part of me and my amygdala screams danger, even when there is no danger here, even when I am safe in my locked apartment where I have a doting dog and a pair of gentle ring-necked doves and an art studio with professional-grade media. I have a pair of griffin statues to protect my front and back doors; and a friend gifted me black tourmalite crystal to further keep me safe—I’ll take these bits of magic. I have everything I need. I have worked hard to escape the poverty of my childhood. But having everything I need doesn’t seem to be enough for this body to heal.

It’s hard to look in the mirror. Not just at the weight that’s been put back on me, but even more so to see the private parts of me, the female parts, my hourglass silhouette and long hair that’s been pulled—all have been been claimed by predators.

Are boys ever taught not to catcall when they grow into men? Why do men feel free to comment on my body as I move through public? Does being in public mean that I am public? Even the well-meaning ones who tell me I “have a great smile” seem to be pointing out my vulnerabilities, my roots as a Californian who exudes warmth and an open-heartedness, which I cannot seem to shake from my demeanor. My smile has been bred into me, and I can’t drop this signature, hard as I try. It signals I’m fine. I’m friendly. Everything is fucking fine. Is this smile I can’t shed an invitation?

I don’t want to be a target. A deer with long legs stalked by hunters. I don’t show my legs anymore, because they are wider now and covered in grotesque scars that misshape the contour of my skin. When I took a broad knife to my inner thigh, I was safe from him.

Back then, the scars made me too flawed for runway. Today the scars make me too much of a spectacle to wear shorts or a swimsuit. Scars I plan to cover with tattoos. Scars carved under the influence of red wine, vodka, and tequila.

It is a privilege to meet western beauty standards. But God I hate being called beautiful. In my experience, those who find me beautiful have ill-intent. I’m not beautiful. I’ve been made ugly, and I wish that men could see that, see someone they could look away from, someone whose body they needn’t comment on or desire or take. Don’t people know I’ve been ruined? What will it take to stop them? What will it take for me to finally feel safe from the male gaze and how very far that gaze might go?

I live in a body that is terrified of sex, something healthy that most people can do. After three years of a mutual crush, I invited my neighbor over, who had been a cover model of color for the glossy pages of Brooks Brothers, Q, and more. Today he was a stunt man in film. And he, who could attract anyone, wanted me. But somehow he seemed to see me, really me, as a woman with a mind. He told me that he saw a woman’s body as a canvas to paint with pleasure and respect. I just wanted to have sex with someone I trusted, someone safe, someone I was attracted to, like a normal person.

But it was not long before I saw myself sob, retreat, sob and sob and sob. My body felt my ex-boyfriend. My hands looked the same as they had after the prestigious theater professor made them ugly.

He stopped. He stopped? Yes, he really stopped. I wasn’t used to that. He stopped and asked what was wrong and I sobbed and gasped onto his strong shoulder, because even though it was consensual, even though I had sought him out, even though I felt good, I could not separate pleasure from rape. And so he held me while I cried. I was a wreck for months, barely keeping up with my responsibilities, reliving all the violations of the past every day, every single day. I haven’t had sex since. That was nearly a year ago.

A body that’s been raped is a body on alert. Hyper-vigilant. Jumpy. Easily startled. In a world where professionals like me stand tall, it’s hard to resist pulling my shoulders inward to protect my heart. Worse than what’s been done to my body have been the injuries to my heart, to my spirit.

But spirits go on, find a way to manage, to heal, and—I’ve heard it’s been done—to even thrive. I want that for myself. For my body and for myself.

Please Help Defend Black Lives (I’ll send you art!): Taking care of our mental health without being bystanders

Update: I have received five commissions in support of Black Lives Matter–THANK YOU for the support! As this will keep me busy for a long while, I’m capping commissions for now, but I’ll let you know when I’m ready for more art.

Solidarity in my neighborhood

Dear Readers,

I have been struggling with feelings of helplessness, anger, and grief over the death of George Floyd (and many, many Black men and women who have been brutalized before him) and I feel that I have the responsibility to use my white privilege to help, while caring for my mental health at the same time.

I must acknowledge that I cannot compare my feelings of upset to what People of Color must be experiencing–their anguish is infinitely greater than mine, and incomprehensible to me. I also must acknowledge that I can walk by the police without fearing for my life–and this is a safety that we must fight for all Americans, particularly Black Americans to have.

In the face of loss of life, I struggle with feeling like I need, must care for my mental health and protect myself from consuming too much news and media, which can be very triggering for me; BUT this is also a privilege. Mental illnesses (such as depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, and so forth) are real disabilities, and I believe that access to quality, evidence-based health care should be a right and not a privilege.

HOWEVER.

This cannot be an oppression Olympics, and right now I personally absolutely believe that it is most important (my priority, our collective responsibility) to stand up against brutality, abuse, and disenfranchisement; as well as for the rights of People of Color, particularly Black Americans right now, who are our neighbors and friends and who, as humans with infinite value, must have protection, safety, rights, and EQUALITY. The hard truth is that it is not safe to be Black in this country.

I used to be the Editor of a leading journal on violence. It broke my heart. I poured hours and love into it. We wrote about topics like racial violence, gendered violence, gun violence, suicide, sexual violence, domestic violence, child abuse, white supremacy, border atrocities, hate crimes, and more. Yet it took a great emotional toll on me and could quite often be extremely triggering. When I lost my job due to my alcohol abuse, I was devastated to lose that journal. Now that I am writing about scientific research, I find that this is a better fit for me: to do my small part to help make the world a better place, while protecting my sensitivities and mental health, and minimizing triggers. These are all my causes, yet I find that trying to face every battle just hurts–YET it should hurt. I question whether it’s moral to take care of my mental health (my disability) by protecting myself from the pain, violence, and injustice in the media; I must admit that it is convenient to, in my privilege, not stand up for others, and that is not right. I do not want to be a bystander–I have been hurt so much by bystanders–and I must self-examine and act in order to not do that to others. I want to help in some small way. Yet, with PTSD, I also need to minimize triggers, and, as a recovering victim of violence, violence is a big trigger.

Here is what I’d like to do, but I need your help. So many have been supportive of my artwork over the years, and I’d like to create art in support of organizations fighting against brutality and for the rights and safety of Black people in America. So, if anyone would like me to sketch or paint you anything of your choosing, I will make you a picture and send it to you, and in return ask you to donate whatever you can or feel to one of the orgs linked in the article below. I can do acrylic, watercolor, pen, colored pencil, or simply pencil. Please take into consideration postage and materials (I only use professional-quality/level mediums), as well as the amount of time it takes to create a picture. (I’ll let you know what that ends up being.) Please be as generous as possible, but even small amounts help.

I especially love drawing animals, portraits, nature, and figure-drawing—but I can decently draw most anything. No buildings, city scapes, vehicles, etc. please (those stress me out).

Depending on the responses I get, it may take me a while to create these for you, but I will do them in order of requests. 

I’d like to do this again in the future for #MeToo, but for now I am only accepting requests that support #BlackLivesMatter and similar organizations. 

If any of you are creators in any way, I invite you to join me in creating to help, if that resonates with you. 

Being creative is an important part of my recovery and self-care, and if I can practice self-care while helping those with less privilege than me, then that is what I’ll do.

Thank you for your love and support. Now is not the time to be a bystander. Looking forward to hearing from you. 💜🙏💜

Please share!

WHERE TO DONATE

How to more safely protest in a pandemic

Solidarity in my neighborhood

Combating racism as a white ally must also be an inside job. Voting, protests, donations, speaking up, and listening are all excellent things to do–but I’m told I must also look inward. If you’re white and ready to take a hard look at yourself, here’s a read with journaling prompts: Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor

Below is an important video that will and should make you uncomfortable. TRIGGER WARNING for graphic photos and videos of violence and brutality.

I Am More Than What People Say

I’ve been called vain for having an eating disorder. I’ve been called immoral for struggling with alcohol abuse. I’ve been called selfish for having depression. I’ve been called unfriendly during periods of anxiety so severe it was difficult to follow a conversation. I’ve been told it’s my fault that I was sexually abused and raped. I’ve been told I’m playing the victim and “telling a big story” for having PTSD.

And, by well-meaning people, I’ve been told that all of these experiences are sins.

I know what too many people think about people like me. And I struggle with believing these things too, about myself—things I would never say to another person who shares these struggles.

It’s hard to speak compassionately to myself, so much have I internalized these stigmatized attitudes. I call myself “batshit crazy” on the regular. And I really struggle with feelings that all of this is my own fault, and that I am deeply flawed and irreparably broken in some way. That I am unlike “the humans,” who I so want to be a part of.

My eating disorder as refusal to accept the atonement

I was nineteen and had had yet another sleepless night, bent over the toilet and searching for newly uncovered bones in front of the mirror instead of studying for midterms, when I called my mom at five a.m. from a pay phone outside near my dormitory, my phone broken, and sobbed to her that I thought I had an eating disorder.

“I thought you were getting too thin,” she said.

She listened. She told me she loved me. She said all the things a mom should. She told me that “that Mary Kate girl went to a place.” That same week, she found a place for me to go inpatient to receive the treatment I desperately needed to save me from myself. My vitals were unstable. I’d been passing out. Three years into my eating disorder, I’d lost thirty pounds and grown two inches. My skin was pale, and I was covered in blue bruises. I couldn’t hide it anymore. I couldn’t care for myself. I couldn’t function.

My father visited right away. He was furious. Tuition had been paid. “Dropping out of school is the easy thing to do,” he said sternly, “but years from now, you’ll regret taking the easy way out.”

I had thought that his anger came down to tuition. But really, it came down to sin.

He took me to the bishop’s office at our church where he explained, “It seems my daughter is having a crisis.” He choked up as he said these words. It hurt to see my father wrecked with emotion because of my poor choices.

He explained to the bishop that I was a perfectionist, that I had an eating disorder because I wanted to be perfect. That was his understanding. Not incorrect; but it was so much more complicated than that.

The bishop listened carefully before concluding, “Only Jesus is perfect. If you are trying to be better than Jesus, then you have not accepted the atonement. You need to accept the atonement in order to get well.”

That was not all he had to say. He explained to me that eating disorders were selfish. He explained to me that I was sinning by disobeying the Word of Wisdom. He suggested I volunteer more (more than the hundreds of hours I’d already put in at the bird rehab, was now putting in in the aquarium classroom?), that I should join a team sport (even though I was already torturing myself daily on the elliptical at my university’s brand-new, multistory gym).

My father and the bishop that day anointed my head with oil, lay their hands upon my head, and gave me a blessing. They prayed (demanded?) that I would accept the atonement and accept that I did not need to be perfect, because Jesus Christ had already done that for me.

I held back sobs through the blessing. I saved them for when I was at last back in my dormitory, alone. 

Perhaps they assumed I was so moved by the Spirit that I was brought to tears.

But it was not the blessing I wanted. I did not receive my father’s blessing to go away to treatment.

With my mom’s help, right away I took a medical leave and went away to inpatient anyway, where I cried my way through meals for sixteen weeks as the weight came back on.

My mother and father took turns driving across the country to be with me during “family weeks.” When my father came, we did an exercise where we “traded” families, and we inpatients were each paired with someone else’s family. We were to tell each other what we really wished we could say to our own families, but had been holding back.

My dad and sister were paired with Callie. Callie was nineteen, like me, and we had the same unruly curly hair—hers blond, and mine brown. She had a big heart and a generous smile. My dad told her that if only she would stop behaving so selfishly, she would not have an eating disorder.

Seven years later, at the age of 26, Callie died of heart failure, leaving her husband and two beautiful blond sons behind.

It kills me that the words he’d really meant for me, he’d shared with her instead. I hope those words did not haunt her as they still do me.

I should add that the LDS church has since educated its leaders on mental health, and last year published a beautiful issue in The Ensign on body image and eating disorders to create more awareness.

My anxiety as lacking a sense of humor

After inpatient, it was time to find a job. I found one as a Pet Care Specialist at Petsmart.

During training, I was struggling with my concentration. I have always struggled with taking jokes literally (is it because autism also runs in my family?). I was new, and I was nervous. I remember we were in the dog food aisle. My manager made a joke that I did not understand. As I tried to turn the wheels in my head, he said, “You’re such a stick-in-the-mud.”

My alcoholism as moral failing

When I finally walked away from a seven-year abusive relationship in California, I traded my anorexia for alcohol overnight. I traded my “good girl” problem for a “bad” one.

Some years later in New York, I was looked over for a promotion in a man’s industry. I hated my new boss for about a week before we began to become close friends. He’d “stolen” my job, hadn’t he? As soon as he became my manager, I trained him up, gave away my most skilled duties, and, in my pride and disappointment, quit. Or rather, I applied for a better job in psychology textbooks and took a promotion as an Associate Editor outside my department.

But, it turned out, he wasn’t so bad. He even later agreed that that job should have been mine.

Actually, he was pretty cool. He was smart, insightful, and had a spirituality I admired. He was always there for me. We shared a lot together. We’d meet for dinner followed by fancy coffee and talk about our lives, our careers, shiba inus, and our latest nonfiction paperback reads. He even put up with my discussion of feminism. He started a Buddhist book club, and invited me. I learned a lot from him. He was there for every tearful call, and for many laughs, too. He was one of the few men I was able to trust.

There was a time, I like to think, that I was always there for him, too.

But as the years passed, my “always there” eventually became also always drunk. I carried a flask of vodka everywhere and took swigs in the bathroom, beginning in the morning, until I at last I could open a huge bottle in the privacy of my roach-infested studio apartment at night and drink straight from it. I hurt him badly, as he watched me lose weight and drink myself into destruction. He couldn’t handle my crises anymore. He was so often close to calling 9-1-1. I was leeching off him; I was draining. And as my addiction worsened, I became no longer a trusted friend, but a toxic one. For these harms I take full responsibility.

Fresh out of rehab and three months sober, he told me what perhaps he thought I’d been too fragile to hear earlier: what he really thought of people like me, alcoholics like me.

He told me that alcoholics were bad people. That they were selfish and destructive and didn’t care who they hurt. He said he had no sympathy for alcoholics—none, he emphasized. It was a choice, he said. He said that I didn’t deserve any compassion. But that he stuck around because he believed in me.

I let him down one too many times, when my second sponsor said I had to cancel our fancy dinner plans where we were to celebrate my 100th day sober. I was in a tight spot, as loyal to my sponsor as I was, and he couldn’t take it anymore. And I couldn’t blame him. 

I still hope to make amends with him.

But I can’t help but wonder if he was right about me. Am I nothing but a bad, destructive, selfish addict undeserving of any compassion? Certainly I ache and feel deep remorse about the people I have hurt. And certainly I made poor decisions. But also—certainly I did not know what disaster I was getting myself into until after I was already trapped in my addiction, my brain’s reward system hijacked by alcohol, my only solace during flashbacks and tears. Did my addiction make me as worthless as I felt? I was afraid it did.

My depression as self-centeredness

Depression runs in my family. So do eating disorders, anxiety, addiction, and autism. There is a strong genetic component to each of these diseases. “Genes load the gun; environment pulls the trigger,” so they say.

After I started my job at Banana Republic, I shared good news with that second sponsor of mine. I confided in her what I could not admit in the months prior; that I had been feeling suicidal, but that I now no longer was. I wanted her to be happy for me. I was being “vigorously honest,” wasn’t I? And this was good news, wasn’t it?

She reamed me. I quietly cried on the phone, and with great effort did not betray those tears in my voice. 

“That’s self-centered bullcrap!” she admonished me. She told me I was ungrateful. She told me I thought too much of myself. She said something about ego. Something about terminal uniqueness. She said I needed to pick up the phone whenever I felt that way, practice gratitude, and get over myself.

I quietly accepted her words and agreed. I ended the conversation as quickly as possible. I accepted her “direction,” as they say in AA.

I didn’t tell her how much I hated myself, already blamed myself. That I had been surviving on daily gratitude lists and hours of calls to my best friends, whom I could never hurt so profoundly as by taking my own life. That, despite my greatest efforts, I could not dispel the thoughts of self-annihilation, so intrusive were they.

My trauma as promiscuity and weak character

This one is hardest. I’m not ready to talk about the details.

My family doesn’t want me to write, to “tell a big story,” to tell any story. But I cannot help it; I must write. The words are in me, and I must write them out.

I’ve been called “experienced.” When I objected that “rape” and “sex” are not the same thing, my friend said, “Okay…?”

I’ve been asked why I didn’t leave sooner.

I’ve been told I wear too many dresses; that they make me stand out.

A dispatcher once told me I was wasting the police department’s time, after my friend pressured me to report an assault. “What do you expect us to do?” she asked.

I’ve been asked why I didn’t say no, and when I objected that I did say no, over and over I cried no, I had to concede that I eventually gave up, that I “let” bad things happen to me.

And I worry that they are right.

But, what would I say to a friend?

It’s not your fault. I’ve been there. Don’t listen to what they say; they are so, so wrong.

I love you. I’ll always be here for you. As adults, yes it is our responsibility to recover and seek professional help now, but we did not choose these experiences. I would never wish them on anyone, not on an enemy, not even on my abusers. You are so, so valuable. You are precious to me.

I know you feel alone, that these experiences are so isolating, personal, and devastating. But you are not alone. I am here when you want to problem-solve, and I am here when you just want to be listened to. We can come up with answers together, or we can simply “shoot the shit.”

What can I say to myself, in kindness?

My amazing therapist in rehab gave me an assignment: to write a daily affirmation in my journal, a different one each day. This proved difficult: to find statements I could get behind. Then she asked for more: she gave me a pad of sticky notes, and asked me to put up the most important ones on my mirror. To read them each day. 

Homework: Affirmations on sticky notes

Over time, they have become easier to write. I now practice this at home, in my large, sunny, pest-free apartment.

Yesterday, in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, we were assigned homework: to write a letter from our future selves to our current selves. This is tough. It’s hard to give myself compassion. It’s hard to believe in my future. It’s hard to believe in myself. But I will never give up.

Dear KC,

I know you are hurting right now, sometimes more than you can express. But you have come so far, and there is no reason why you will not go even farther. Please be strong; please remember you are loved; please remember you are valuable. Just as an infant has value simply for existing as a tiny miracle, without having walked or spoken yet, you are valuable because you, too, are alive. Your life has so much value. I know that sometimes you can’t see a way forward, but there is always a light at your feet, showing you just one step ahead. You don’t need to be able to see the next five steps or even the next two, as long as you can see just that one. Take that next step. Be brave. Do the next right thing—always do the next right thing. There will be slips and falls, maybe even relapses, but you’ve always gotten back up again and dusted yourself off and stood even taller. Continue to stand up, continue to stand tall. You’re okay. You’re going to be okay. You have resources, and so many people are cheering for you. I hope that you can cheer for yourself, too. For every person who doesn’t understand, there are close friends and family who love you and do understand. 

Love and compassion from,

Your future self

Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.”

Psalm 119:105, KJV

Guest Post: Doggie Twelve Steps

A guest post by Jen G.

Two peas in a pod: Lithy and Ginny

1. Admitted we were powerless over our addiction to treats and that our lives had become unmanageable.

2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves “our owners” could restore us to sanity.

3. Made a decision to turn our fur coat and paws over to the care of the groomer as we understood it was time for a bath.

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of all the times we begged and received without thanking, all the times we barked nonstop at nothing, and all the times we tore apart the house when our owners were gone.

5. Admitted to our owners, to ourselves the exact times and why we peed in the house.

6. Were ready to have our owners remove all these defects of character.

7. Humbly ask our owners, with our head down and sad puppy dog face, to remove our shortcomings.

8. Made a list of all the dogs we harmed at the dog park and became willing to sniff butts again with them.

9. Made direct amends to such canines whenever possible, except when to do so would cause another dog fight.

10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly heeled to our owners.

11. Sought through cuddling and licking to improve our conscious contact with our owners as we understood them, cuddling only for the knowledge of their will for us and the power to carry that out.

12. Having had been trained as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other puppies and to practice these tricks in all our affairs.

My Dog: My Light, My Mirror, My Oxytocin Fix, My Quarantine Companion—My Lifeline

Mutts, by Patrick McDonnell

Trigger warning: discussion of a suicide attempt. To skip, Please scroll down to subhead “The Day I Became a Dog Person.”

My dog found me a week after my second suicide attempt. I was only nine years old upon my first attempt.

I was twenty-six when I tried that second time. It was late at night, and I was hurting badly. Gratitude lists had been keeping me alive. Half marathons, too. As soon as I finished one exhilarating race, I’d put another on my calendar for the next month. I only had to stay alive till my next race. I could make gratitude lists till race day, and reconsider after that. And at the end of each race day, physically exhausted, overwhelmed head-to-toe with aching muscles, and loaded up on a runner’s high, I’d find a new race within driving distance. I was literally buying another month of life with my $110 registration. Surely I could make it another month. That amounted to just thirty gratitude lists and an e-shopping cart checkout.

When the half marathons no longer felt significant enough to live for, I began training for full marathons. But I trained improperly, and I trained recklessly, in self-punishing ways and with little regard for my body’s needs and limits. (All that would change later. My identity as an athlete would come to save my life, too, among so many other miracles.)

I divided life into manageable chunks like this to keep myself going—the daily gratitude lists and monthly races on repeat. Veggie omelettes in the mornings. Showers at night. These things worked for a year.

But my crisis escalated. The perfect storm and compounding triggers crashed together into a drunk, sobbing, dissociated, impulsive attempt to take my own life late one night. I was living alone in Los Angeles.

The physical pain from that attempt, although excruciating, did not even begin to approach my mental anguish. Yet, the next morning, a profound wave of relief washed over me like a strong California surf: I was still alive.

I was terrified to learn that I was actually capable of such an act of self-directed violence.

Without medical insurance, and pre- Affordable Healthcare Act, I tended my injuries myself—and thank God (for surely someone was looking out for me) that I’d had the wherewithal to abort the attempt when I regained consciousness; perform first-aid; and then tuck myself into bed. Wasted, I fell asleep amid a copper-like stench, and I prayed to a god I didn’t believe in that I would wake up.

The Day I Became a Dog Person

My secret haven in Los Feliz, Los Angeles, where there are so many hidden gems to discover. And: Meet my scruffy lil dog

“Dog people” like to say that we don’t rescue dogs; they rescue us. It’s not a sentiment I invented, but one I’ve seen realized in my own story.

It was the hottest week of the hottest summer Los Angeles had seen in years, during that first week of my body’s healing, while my mind was still in shock and incomprehension of what I’d just done to myself.

I first saw my new dog as I pulled into my driveway in Los Feliz—a magical neighborhood in L.A. full of ambient restaurants, independent bookstores, vintage theaters, secret staircases, and beautiful young talent with dazzling dreams of making it big it in the film industry. We were full of hope, and many of us were full of privilege.

But the hopes of my past became lost to me somewhere along the way. At twenty-six, I still held an awe for this wonderful world, but I did not see any future for myself in it. I did not relish being young. I wanted to die. With all my being, that’s what I wanted. My life had no value. That’s what I believed.

The dog was hunched by my apartment gate. She looked to be in real bad shape. I said some cruel words in my mind when I first laid eyes on that helpless, suffering, absolutely adorable creature: KC, ignore the strays.

For you see, I’d grown up in a home where we rescued animals, with an endlessly patient mother who taught us how to care for strays and find them homes. She taught me first aid for wildlife, too. But now, as an adult, I was no longer up for the heartbreak of trying to save the whole world. I couldn’t even take care of myself.

I parked my sporty little maroon car, cracked open the sunroof, and climbed the stairs to my second-floor apartment—more pain with each step. I kept my gaze resolutely in front of me. I could feel the dog watching me ignore her.

But once indoors, I looked out my window. Looking back—isn’t that what gets you every time? The little dog—a terrier mix of some sort, and oh so much scruff!—jumped through the gate bars and limped out of sight to the back parking lot, as if to say she belonged here as much as my car did.

In a heartbeat I was out my front door and rushing back down the stairs. This time, I didn’t notice the physical pain. That little dog needed someone to look out for her; and I needed someone to look out for me even more.

The mutt was splayed out on the hot asphalt not too far from my car. I advanced cautiously, testing her for both trust and aggression. When I slowly extended my hand to pet the wiry fur on her back, she, with great effort, turned to expose her belly. Her paws were bleeding.

“Oh, you want a tummy rub?” I obliged. I could tell she was grateful.

She didn’t display any signs of aggression, but it was still a calculated risk I took when I scooped her up, held her against my chest, and carried her upstairs into my air-conditioned apartment. I offered her water, but she, too exhausted, refused. Then she slept for hours beside my bookshelf. I named her after a classic author I greatly admired among the books there. When she awoke, she lapped up all the water with greed, clearly dehydrated. I bathed her four times in a row before the last of the fleas fell into the water. She patiently let me do this, gazing up at me with big, brown, trusting eyes.

My Mirror

Mutts, by Patrick McDonnell

That was nearly eight years ago. Our bond was instant and strong. We worked tirelessly together on her severe case of separation anxiety for a full year before she at last came to trust and fully understand that I would always come back for her.

Today we are both Californians-turned-New-Yorkers.

My dog has met my psychiatrist a few times. She likes him. Whenever I see him, he asks after her. It’s not just because he likes dogs; it’s also a clinical question. Dogs mirror their owners, confirms the research in study after study. When I am happy, she is oh-so eager to please. Tricks? YES! Schmackos? OH BOY!! When I am anxious, she doesn’t know what to do with herself. When I am depressed, she is lethargic. We have been all of these ways and more, together.

When she seems down, I notice that I am, too. I try to do something to make her happy, and this cheers me up, too.

She is a master at living in the present, and she is my daily teacher.

People love to hate on emotional assistance animals, or ESAs—our little cats and dogs that the law lets us fly with and keep in our otherwise-no-pets apartments. But those people don’t appreciate that mental illness is a real health condition. I don’t know what I’d do without my dog. I’ve been plagued by years of insomnia and night terrors, and I cannot sleep without my dog. I don’t have a fear of flying, but I’m single, and wherever I go, I need my well-mannered dog at my side.

I don’t abuse my privileges. I don’t bring her with me into restaurants, and so forth. But I need her to sleep with me. I need her when I’m home, and when I’m traveling, because I’ll have to sleep wherever it is that I’m going, and I never know when something will trigger me into panic in a bad way.

(I should add that a she’s the best-mannered pooch in airports, and after we board the plane she just quietly sleeps, unnoticed, in her bag under the seat in front of me.)

One remarkable thing she does to help me is not something I trained her for, but something completely spontaneous from within herself, something she innately knows I need.

When I collapse into tears my dog will just. not. have it. She immediately climbs into my lap and attacks my face with dog kisses until I calm. Under normal circumstances she is strictly not allowed to lick my face. But she ignores this rule whenever I cry.

Even more remarkable is her behavior when I dissociate. She is overall a quiet dog, except for when she’s feeling especially enthusiastic. But she’s not a nuisance. The neighbors have never complained. Occasionally she’s got a little ruff! in her, but infrequently.

But, sometimes I freeze. I can’t quite describe it. I’m not here. I’m not sure what I’m doing. I feel paralyzed. My mind doesn’t work. The memories feel real, happening, in this moment.

That’s when she starts barking at me.

Bark!

Bark!

Bark!

I sit or stand there blankly, trying to figure out what is happening.

Ruff! Mom! Mom, come back! Look at me! I’m here! You’re here, too!

With great effort, I come back to her. I scoop her up and stare into space. She ruffs! again until my attention is fully on her. Until I fully come back. First I calm; and then she calms.

It’s incredible. She only does this when I’m dissociated, which is not a safe state for me. And she always brings me back.

I call my pup many things. “My Welcoming Committee,” for example, as she always greets me with such enthusiasm whenever I enter the front door, whether after a long day at work or only after a quick run to the bodega. She wants me to know she’s happy to see me. I call her the President of the KC Fan Club, too.

I talk nonsense to her every day, and we never run out of novel conversations to have.

I also have a little poem I sing-song to her on the regular. It goes,

You are a happy dog,

You are small not tall,

You are very loved,

Both here and up aboved!

Wuv in the Time of Coronavirus

I’ve been working from home for nine weeks now. I’m fortunate to have job security, shelter, technology, and my health during this time when so many are going without so much.

I’m in a good routine. I talk to my friends and colleagues and treatment team daily. But the isolation is starting to wear on me. I find my spirits falling. I find the nighttime flashbacks intensifying, sometimes even spilling over into my days. When people ask me how I’m doing, I say, “I just want a hug.” The emojis aren’t cutting it.

And so I turn to my dog for my oxytocin fix, that incredible love hormone. I’ve read that “owners” and dogs (but really, who owns whom?) gain increased oxytocin levels the longer they gaze into each other’s eyes. This goes for physical contact, too. We cuddle, we cuddle, and we cuddle. I’m lucky to have her, especially now.

I’ve read in some sophisticated studies, too, that dogs truly prefer their “owner,” that is, the person with whom they have the strongest bond, over food. Yes—over food! If you don’t believe me, read Dog Is Love: Why and How Your Dog Loves You, by Clive D. L. Wynne, Ph.D. It will blow your mind and confirm what we dog lovers knew all along: that our dogs experience emotions toward humans that we can best approximate with the word “love.”

I tell my dog every day that I “woof” (wuv) her. Like I said, I have no shortage of nonsense I say to her.

On that day my dog found me and I carried her close to my heart upstairs, I held her tight and made her a promise: That I would stay alive always to care for her, that I would never leave her.

My wounds healed. And I have kept that promise. Even when I was unsure of how I could keep going, I remembered my promise to my dog: that I would live for as long as she needed me.

And she, too, has always cared for me. That’s just what we do for each other.

My mirror

For more on pooches, kitties, and mental health, here is a good article.

With Hope, Depression Can Lift

On April 7, 2019, I accepted a job at Banana Republic.

That simple job offer saved my life. 

Many things came together to save my life, but that was an important pivot.

I was thirty-three years old and repeating to myself, over and over, the same nine words: “The next thirty-three years cannot be like the last thirty-three.” [repeat, repeat]

It was a variation of words I’d been repeating for three years now.

“The next thirty-two years cannot…” and, 

“The next thirty-one years cannot…” 

—down to thirty, which was a birthday that had brimmed with hope: the beginning of a new decade. I’d been worrying for two years about what approaching thirty said about my age, and then when that birthday came, a wave of relief washed over me—my twenties were gone, and good riddance! My teens too! Even my childhood seemed not to matter.

For, you see, those added up to three decades of depression. “Cyclic” depression, my psychiatrist called it, because when I was at my worst, I could not shake thoughts of suicide; and when I was at my best, I was simply depressed. For as long as I could remember things had been this way, with no remission—relief, for me, was at the top of my depression. But it was still a depression.

At thirty I thought, too, perhaps I’d be more of a grown-up at work. I was climbing the publishing ladder quickly, with a promotion every one year instead of the two my first Editor had told me to aim for. I’d been the youngest Editor in my class—me, an Associate! Could I hit Publisher in another decade? I was on my way.

And then my world crashed down. As a Senior Editor of some world-famous journals, I lost nearly everything.

I’d already lost my sense of safety, my dignity, my health. But when I lost my job because I was drinking on it (I couldn’t stop; I shook when I didn’t drink; I feared was losing both my mind and my body.)—I lost my hope. My livelihood. My identity as someone who contributed. And, now without my health or my job, I lost my will to live.

I received a lot of help, extended by strangers who soon became my trusted helpers. 

But I couldn’t find a job.

That spring before Banana hired me, I was overtaken by something startling, something strange. I was planning my suicide.

I should explain. Suicidality was not a new experience. I’d been there a few times before—the “cycle,” so it seemed—but this was new. I’d always been planning, desperately, ways to stay alive. Gratitude lists. Lists of the people I loved, who loved me in return, whom I could not bear the thought of hurting so profoundly. A busy schedule. Cuddles with my dog, that little light who carried me through those dark days.

But this time was different. I wasn’t planning ways to stop the thoughts; I wasn’t desperately trying to put up safety barriers to protect me from myself. This time, I had given myself a deadline: My lease was up at the end of May. That gave me until the end of May—three months—to find a job (which seemed more hopeless by the day), or else there was nothing left to be done, but take my own life. I had been depressed for far too long. And I had too much pride to attempt anything non-lethal. There would be no waking up, at the end of May.

I was as honest as I could be. Crying in my psychiatrist’s office in March, newly sober, he asked me to please be hopeful, and I shook my head. Usually he appealed to my reason, analytical and peer-review-minded as I was, but today he knew he needed to speak to my emotions. 

He asked if I was thinking of hurting myself.

I looked at my lap and tried to answer, but the lace fabric kept my gaze and my lips wouldn’t move.

Finally, I said, “Not any time soon.” Surely he could understand what that meant.

He ended our session by asking me to pinky promise something. That I would not give up hope. I told him I couldn’t do it, but he insisted. You can’t break a pinky promise. I conceded. We pinky-promised, and he taught me a new trick, a tradition I’d never encountered before—you use your other hand to cut the promise, as if to seal it. This seemed to me the ultimate promise.

But damn it was hard to keep that promise.

I continued to fail interviews. Editing test after editing test. Before, I’d had confidence that I could “edit like nobody’s business,” but as I attempted new genres, I stood corrected: I could edit chemistry journals like nobody’s business. Everything was just so niche. I never should have left materials science, for, it seemed, there was nothing else I was qualified for.

I sobbed after each letdown. I couldn’t eat. My weight was dropping, and I periodically fainted. Newly sober, my anorexia barged forward with a vengeance. I couldn’t even bring myself to eat enough to have anything to purge. In food, it seemed, I rediscovered the only order I could create.

I applied to every Banana Republic in Manhattan. I marched in with my resume, edited to show strong sales skills, and a sparkling cover letter that was basically a love letter to the brand. And it was a sincere letter; I adored that brand.

I entered the store in nude heels, a black pencil skirt and matching blazer, and a white button-down shirt. I asked for the manager.

A tall, slim man met me and said, “You look too good to be here.” He got me an interview with another manager one week later, an inspiring and well-dressed woman, a fashion student at Parsons.

I sobbed the night of my Banana interview—again. I worried I’d said something racist by choosing the wrong words when I explained how inspiring my grandmothers were, disadvantaged as they were in their time. How could I bring up the marginalization of white women to a woman of color? How could I even speak of such a thing at an interview, my God? I got everything wrong. Not only had I failed yet another interview; I had hurt someone, too.

I cried long and hard sitting outside against my apartment building with my knees to my chest, cigarette (how many cigarettes had it been?) in my right hand. I didn’t know how I was going to bear even one more letdown. This had to be it.

My confidence thoroughly shattered, I wondered how I was ever going to keep my promise to my psychiatrist. I couldn’t face one more interview. So I broke my promise. My hope dried up.

The next week, I received a welcome email. I was the newest Brand Ambassador at Banana Republic.

I was staying in New York.

I was staying alive in New York.

“My sober job,” my sponsor, my therapist called it. My minimum wage, sober job. How eager I was to contribute!

I thought about that promise I had made. Perhaps I could keep it, after all.

The year that followed seemed nothing short of a miracle to me. Didn’t I disbelieve in miracles? I couldn’t anymore. There was someone looking out for me, someone helping me beyond human power. I don’t know who or what it was, but, for me, I was running out of time, and I was saved within just weeks of what was going to be the end.

Now we’re in May, 2020. I’m working at my dream job as a science journalist. I’m receiving good feedback from my manager.

Each month has gotten easier than the previous. I’ve cried a lot in therapy, I’ve worked hard to practice the “skills” we learn in our groups.

Around this last New Year, I noticed something strange, something novel. I felt different. What was this feeling?

The feeling was an absence—an absence of depression; I felt good enough. Sometimes I was even content. But, usually, I was satisfied with good enough.

I don’t think I meet the criteria for depression anymore. Something I never could have fathomed. I’d tried everything; I really had. Well, everything except for sobriety. Except for trauma work.

The trauma still kicks me at night. But if depression can change, I have a little hope that, perhaps, my PTSD can transform, too.

This month is the one-year anniversary of what could have been a tragedy, but turned out to be a gift. I am glad I am alive to see this month.

“Don’t Read Beauty Magazines,” They Told Me

I was nineteen, inpatient for my eating disorder, underweight, depressed, and in love with the novelty of big cities. Before inpatient, my parents had sent me off to university with a stern warning: that my values would be “challenged” by a big city.

They were right. And oh how I embraced those challenges. Those heartbreaking, liberating challenges.

Western treatment for eating disorders is as good as it can be. That I believe. I was usually treated with respect. But there really is no good way to do eating disorder treatment. It’s painful. Excruciating. They take away the eating disorder, your very life raft, and then what have you left, but a weight-restored, hollow version of your former self?

And God I wish it weren’t so heteronormative.

For my whole life, I wanted to be beautiful.

And for my whole life, I had admired and appreciated the beauty of other women. Long before I ever knew I was queer.

As a young inpatient, hurting and afraid, I formed deep bonds with the girls and women in treatment with me. And oh, weren’t we beautiful?

I sketched constantly in college. And now, taking medical leave from my sophomore year, I sketched endlessly in that locked-down building, too. With whatever medium I could find: sketchbooks, canvases, notebook paper; pencils, charcoal, acrylics, pen.

Gweneth Paltrow, by KC
The Goddess Athena, by KC
KC
KC
KC
KC

They tried to make our living area as comfortable and beautiful as possible. But something was amiss—artwork behind plastic instead of glass. Vinyl flowers in plastic vases, too. Windows we couldn’t open.

As seen on a Sussex Directories Inc site

We had a body image class, in which we were warned of the dangers of western beauty standards. It was true that many, maybe even most, images of women in popular media were photoshopped. It was true that, even before their photos were digitally manipulated, these models were held to near-impossible standards of thinness. It was even true that I had fallen into the trap of believing that beauty equated thinness. I could get behind that. Yet these slight women were beautiful. No question.

As seen on a Sussex Directories Inc site

I couldn’t argue with these lessons. But I was confused when they told me not to look at beauty magazines.

What, exactly, was meant by “Compare and despair”? What was so wrong about looking at other women?

Perhaps I compared plenty to my detriment. But I also loved the female form. I believe, now, that I have always loved women.

I sketched my peers. I was even half good. Looking back now, I remember their faces and figures so clearly.

L’s profile, By KC
L resting, by KC

They said we were beautiful after we gained weight. And we were. But I like to think, perhaps, we were beautiful all along, even when too thin—simply because we were women, simply because we had value. We weren’t just beautiful after; couldn’t we be beautiful always?

“Don’t read beauty magazines,” they pounded. “Compare and despair!”

I agreed. I internalized what they said.

But, after I was discharged, I found myself drawn to Vogue. Those women, those textured fabrics, those slim waistlines, those eyes. Were they not beautiful?

Womankind: Issue 21
Vogue
Vogue

They were beautiful.

In California, I relapsed. I became “the sick girl,” chronically underweight, with intermittent periods of unsightly emaciation. Yet oh, how I loved those beauty magazines.

I subscribed to Vogue.

I poured over each issue, longing to be beautiful, too. Could I be beautiful? I had the body, the height, the measurements of a runway model. Perhaps I could model.

But I was filled with guilt as I admired those glossy pages. That’s your eating disorder, they told me.

But was it?

Did I want to be them? Or did I simply want to be with them?

At twenty-one, I found myself in intensive outpatient for eating disorder treatment at my university.

(It was a “rough” program, a child psychiatrist told me years later, at the nonprofit where we both worked. She didn’t want to slander her peers, but her intonation, her carefully-chosen words, were clear. I relished being a peer, rather than a patient. Ha! I thought. I was justified in dropping out! I was cautious about self disclosure, but my boss had “outed” me one day as we sat with her and her teenaged son in a five-star restaurant, after a long day at an international psychiatry conference. I remember how good the wine was. I remember how I did not correct my boss when he said “panic disorder,” rather than “PTSD.”)

In intensive outpatient (IOP, or “I-HOP,” where we could never eat, was the running joke) I found Steph, or perhaps she found me. Steph was stunning, with the body of a figure skater. Big eyes—and even bigger during the times when she struggled to keep up her weight.

I loved her eyes. I loved her petite, toned, athletic build. She was studying ballet. She had a strength I admired—emotional and physical resilience both.

KC

I was twenty-one, old enough to buy liquor. She, two years younger, used to wait outside the grocery store in the California sunshine, in her miniskirt and sequined halter top, or in skinny jeans and a flowing blouse. Her hair was long. Her eyes were brown.

We fell in love over tequila and rum. We took shots. We danced.

We weren’t gay; we were just drunk, we agreed. It didn’t count.

But when we began to kiss sober, I think we realized that we weren’t exactly straight.

Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman on the red carpet

She told me about the men who had hurt her. We wondered if it was wrong, what we were doing—soft kisses, exploring one another’s bodies.

(During this time, my boyfriend was hurting me badly each night we spent together. I didn’t yet know the word “sadist,” and I didn’t yet know that sex was not supposed to be painful, dangerous, or degrading. I knew nothing of consent, and I didn’t know that it was possible to be “r*ped” [I still can’t use that word] within the context of a relationship. During that first romantic relationship with a man, I was filled with intense love—and overwhelming fear of what he might do to me next.)

You know something I loved about our nights together? I loved how we sat on her bedroom carpet talking about absolutely everything—music, my ballroom and her ballet, cat memes, sex, finals—with our legs stretched out before us. I studied how different our legs were—hers so muscular, and mine so long. So different from each other and yet, such a match. I loved the way our legs looked next to each other.

Perhaps it was wrong for us to drop out of IOP together. But you can’t tell me it was wrong for us to find beauty in one another.

My friendship with Steph was both joyful and heart-wrenching, as mutually devoted to our eating disorders as we were back then. But our love—that was real.

I studied Latin in Portland, Oregon my last semester, under a brilliant professor who loved classic rock—leaving Steph behind and disavowing my California heritage. I still regret the manner in which I left her. There I became obsessed with figure drawing. I poured over the art shelves at the legendary Powell’s Books just down the street from my university and my dream internship at an independent, literary publisher whose books won international awards.

Figure Drawing Workshop, Allan Kraayvanger

I hid the books. The figures were all nudes. I couldn’t let my family—still seeped in the homophobic religion of my youth—know that I found beauty in studying the proportions and angles and curves of the undressed female body.

I’m not sure what ever happened to those sketches.

In New York, I was determined to leave my eating disorder behind me. I would be seen as strong. I was never going to be that sick girl ever, ever again. It was time to be a professional. It was time to be intimidating in a man’s industry. I wore pencil dresses and blazers and stood, finally, at my full height, shedding my “tall girl’s slouch” and the traumas I wore in my posture. I was proud to look a man in the eye, as tall as any of them.

By now I knew I was queer. And, although I often still longed for that slight model’s figure I once possessed, I was determined to appear strong and athletic like the editors who were now my role models. And my role models were all female editors, I should note. They took me under their wings. They taught me. They believed in my potential.

And then I discovered Broadway.

Chicago: “All That Jazz”

New York is a city for dreamers. They can be found everywhere. I found them on Broadway.

It was the women’s numbers I put on repeat on my playlist. It was the women whose movies I watched on YouTube.

Hamilton: “The Schuyler Sisters”

And now I had a new desire: to look like a broadway star. A full and strong body.

Something Rotten: “Let Me Be Your Righthand Man”

Singing and dancing with all their hearts and strength, those women mesmerized me.

Fun Home: “Changing My Major to Joan”

I ran marathons. I wanted to be strong, like them.

One night, I hurt myself badly outside late at night, with a pocketknife I carried for protection, drunk and deep in flashbacks, while one of my best friends was resting in my Queens apartment. We had begged to be roommates in inpatient where I sketched her so often, and when we moved to the residential unit, our wish was granted. She confided in me then that she was bisexual. I confided in her what I could not tell my family: that I supported gay marriage.

That had been more than a decade ago.

“My God,” she said as we walked my dog the next morning. The sidewalk was splattered in red. “KC, your blood is everywhere.”

She asked if I needed stitches. I lied that I did not. I just needed to quit drinking, I cried. I couldn’t bear the memories for one more second. The assaults that had shattered my confidence and dignity, events that I never spoke of.

We went to the Frick Collection on the Upper Eastside. She went inside ahead of me, while I dutifully called my therapist from the sidewalk as my friend had asked me to.

Inside the stunning mansion, Flaming June was on tour, its first time outside of Europe. We were awe-struck, the both of us.

My leg was still throbbing from the previous night. The butterfly bandages were inadequate.

“Do you think it’s a masterpiece?” She asked me.

I thought hard. I studied the brushstrokes.

Flaming June, by Fredrick Leighton, hangs above my bed.

“I’m not sure,” I answered.

We discussed. We decided that, perhaps it was not the artist’s finest painting. Perhaps he had simply captured, with profound skill and emotion, the beauty of a girl dreaming in the sunshine. Perhaps it was as simple and profound as that.

We lingered at Vermeer’s Mistress and Maid. It seemed that real light was coming from the painting. The painting contained a full story, although it was a mystery. Just what was written in that letter? What did the mistress say to her maid? Did she read it alone, or did she need her confidante close by? Here was a masterpiece, we decided, although neither of us had an art education. But we were true to what we found beautiful, that day in the museum. We didn’t have to have a knowledge of art history to relate to what we saw.

Mistress and Maid, by Vermeer, hangs above my bed.

In the gift shop, she bought me a journal to help me heal: Vermeer’s masterpiece on the cover. She bought me a hand mirror with Flaming June on the back. That was years ago. I treasure both still today. Prints of both those portraits hang on the wall above my bed.

She pressed me to write in my new journal, to wander the galleries when I needed to feel safe.

I have kept both those promises.

On that day, she gave me more than a hand mirror and journal for me to record my thoughts: She gifted me an entire museum full of glittering galleries, with paintings playing with light and color in ways that their replications can never capture. She gifted me a haven.

Today, I read Vogue without guilt. I paint women with oils and acrylics. I can be strong and healthy, and I can love women at the same time. Desire does not have to equate envy.