There are many challenging things about being an abuse survivor. The broken relationships, the false accusations, the inappropriate questions, and the unavoidable awkwardness of trying to help a normal happy person understand your abnormal unhappy past. But for me personally, nothing is more frustrating than discovering a weakness inside myself. A blind spot. A behavioral pattern resultant from years of abuse that I never realized I had.
You know those socially awkward people who clearly don’t know they’re socially awkward? I feel like that. Except I am foolish and don’t realize I’m foolish. I am vulnerable and can’t perceive how, until it comes crashing down on me in a heap of humiliation and dismay.
I’ll give you an example. When I was a child and all through my teen years, my dad used to say sexual things to me. Most of it was stupid and petty. For example, when I was 12 or 13, he called my first pair of low-heeled sandals, “strappy-ass shoes.”
“Hurry up, we’ll be late for church! Are you going to wear your strappy-ass shoes?”
That was normal.
Other times I’d be getting out of the car, or bending over to pick something up, and he’d “compliment” my developing cleavage. When I was older and began to date boys, he’d remind me, “Men only see you as a piece of meat.”
I became very used to sexual harassment. I learned to laugh at dad’s comments, pretend I was unbothered, and smooth things over. I’d smile and change the subject, but never once did I dare ask him not to say those things. If I did, I feared I’d trigger his violent side. Nobody challenged dad without a fight.
For 20 years, that survival tactic served me well and likely spared me from untold suffering. However, it also became a learned behavior. Unfortunately, learned behaviors are very difficult to let go of. They’re like nervous ticks. Knee-jerk reactions. Mental muscle memory.
It’s like when you arrive at work, and your colleague says, “Hey! How are you doing?” And even though you’re stressed from traffic, you’ll say, “I’m good! How are you?” And even if they’re having an awful morning, they reply, “Good!” Because that’s what you’re supposed to say. It’s what you’re expected to do. It’s how you’re programmed to respond. And if you say something else, like, “Actually, I’m doing terribly. Let me tell you about all the things bothering me right now,” people will think you’re weird.
Recently, I was contacted by a Rabbi who seemed interested in my book. He talked about how he counsels survivors and his own experiences shepherding a congregation. I viewed our relationship as professional and platonic, and was hopeful for some opportunity to serve his community. One evening, he private messaged me on Twitter under the pretense of seeing how I was doing. Before I knew it, he began telling me about his temptations to cheat on his wife. He suggested that if we sexted he wouldn’t need to cheat. He suggested that as an abuse survivor, sexting with a father-figure might alleviate some of my sorrow.
I knew this was wrong. I was disgusted and angry.
Nevertheless, although I couldn’t logically fear violence from this man (he was, after all, an avatar in my inbox, not a looming aggressor within arm’s reach), my survival tactic kicked in like riding a bicycle. My learned behavior played out like a dusty old record stuck on repeat. At first, I didn’t believe what I was reading. Then he became more explicit, and I understood. I felt shaken, confused, humiliated, and angry. But I laughed and told him there had been a misunderstanding. I pretended I was unbothered and tried to smooth things over. I was friendly and changed the subject, but at no point during the conversation did it occur to me to dare tell him what a pig he was being.
That idea was dangerous. That idea was crazy. I feared being gaslighted; told that his misbehavior was all in my imagination. I feared being told I was a damaged, hysterical, unbalanced abuse victim who mistook normal conversation for perversion. I ended the conversation and hid my phone.
That night, I couldn’t sleep. I played and replayed the conversation in my head, trying to understand what I’d done wrong, and what was wrong with me. How had I given him – a friendly family Rabbi – the impression that I was that kind of woman? Why hadn’t I immediately blocked him or called him out? Why had I awkwardly changed the subject rather than defend myself? And what would happen if he took screenshots of those messages, published them, and told everyone, “See? She didn’t say ‘no.’ She made excuses for me. She said she knew I meant no harm. She said she couldn’t talk right now, and had to finish washing the dishes. But she didn’t say ‘no.’ She might as well have asked for it.”
After all, that’s what my abuser probably would have said. That’s what I’d been taught to expect when I complained about sexual harassment and perversion. Would people believe him? What would they think? Would they understand? Could they forgive me?
The emotional logic in my head felt like a Rube Goldberg machine; indirect, overcomplicated, inefficient, and rather silly.
Now, I am not usually a coward. I can discuss theology with Ph.D’s, calmly explain the Gospel to irate atheists, and I’ve blocked more trolls than Legolas, but when a weird man on the other side of the country started sexting me, I froze like dumb animal. And it’s not intentional. It’s not consciously done. It’s an involuntary instinctual reaction to a very specific brand of sexual harassment which my father acclimated me to over the course of 20 years. What’s frustrating is, that’s still partially my normal. It’s what I’m accustomed to. Perverse words don’t shock or upset me, because I’m used to them.
Now, it’s really hard to become unused to something you’re already used to. I’m not sure it can even be done. However, here are a few things I’m doing to untrigger this survival reaction:
1. Surround Myself with Good Men
As I become more and more used to being treated honorably and with respect by good men, it’s my hope that I’ll notice more immediately and consciously when dishonorable men treat me poorly. Unfortunately, really all this practice can teach me is how I should be treated. It can’t teach me how to react when I’m treated badly.
2. Practice Responding to Sexual Harassment
As I mentioned before, it’s rare a man sends me an inappropriate message or makes a rude comment. Usually, guys are respectful of me. And that’s wonderful. However, it also means I don’t get a lot of practice standing up for myself. So, I’ve been writing down some of my dad’s old comments and a few fresh offenses, and coming up with responses.
“Don’t talk to me like that.”
“I don’t feel comfortable with this conversation.”
“How would your wife feel if she heard you?”
“My husband can see your messages.”
The day after the Rabbi propositioned me, I made screen captures of our entire conversation and reported him to his colleagues and superiors. They responded with dismay, said they were taking the situation very seriously, and apologized. I blocked the Rabbi, and he has not contacted me again. I felt sad for his wife and children. I regretted having to be the messenger who broke the news that the man they love and trusted is a cheater. What I thought was a professional relationship had quickly turned weird and imploded. Hopefully next time, I’ll see the red flags. Hopefully next time I won’t fear the fallout, or lack the courage to demand respect.
But, oh, these blind spots. The things I think I’ve recovered from still leave layers of invisible bruises deep in my mind. They affect my thoughts, my feelings, my ability to interact and communicate, and my very personality. I do not want a character that is sculpted by abuse. I do not want a mind that’s muddied by another person’s sin. I long to be a rock, smoothed by rough currents yet strong and solid. I long to be a shoreline that can never be broken no matter how many storms batter its banks.