The smell of cheap beer, vomit, and sweat lingers in the air. As I lean up, I wince at an unfamiliar pain. I try to focus my eyes on the blurry reality around me. Steering wheel, dashboard, windshield, parking lot: I’m in my car. Did I fall asleep here? How did I get to my car? I was drinking a beer…now I’m here. I feel a draft on my upper thigh and look down and see my bare legs. My shorts and panties are on the floorboard; it’s still dark out. I look for my keys and find them on the passenger seat. I lift my seat up and move closer to the steering wheel so I can reach the clutch. I want to be home.
In the shower, I try to wash away every ounce of pain, humiliation, and irresponsibility that I’m feeling. I scrub so hard that I’m raw and red, but I feel numb. Why did I go out alone? Did I take my eyes off of my beer? How could I be so stupid? I’m an avid Law and Order SVU watcher: I should know better. I finally check my phone. I made a few calls but none were answered, probably because of the time. Why was I making calls? Was this before or after? I should call the cops—no. You were irresponsible. They will ask questions. I’m not ready. I’ll sleep and then shower again. I’ll call them later.
I barely move as I call into work. “I’m very sick and I can’t make it in today.” “Very sick”—an understatement. I slide my phone across my bed as far as I can without moving anything but my arm. An entire day goes by and I sleep through it. I open my eyes to darkness in my room and outside. My limbs and skin are numb, but I am nauseated. I fall back asleep. A crack of light through my curtains wakes me. Lying on my stomach, I reach for my phone to call my friend. I need her help. Placing the phone between my ear and the pillow, I listen to it ring. She answers quickly. “Hey, are you okay? I saw I missed your call the other night and I tried calling you back but you didn’t answer.”
I respond in a low dry voice. “I need a favor. I need a morning after pill.”
I could tell she was confused and worried by the pause and then shaky reply. “Sure. I’m on my way.”
I wake again to a knock on my door. I peel my phone off of my face and use what energy I have to crawl out of bed. As soon as I open the door and see a small brown bag in her hand, I collapse with enough tears to fill a bath. She picks me up and helps me to the bed. She asks if I want to talk; I respond with more tears, so she covers me with her concern and love and we lay there in the silence surrounded by my sadness and shame.
An hour or so passes and I finally find some words. I whisper, “Could you get me a glass of water?” She obliges. I sit up in the bed as she helps me read over the directions of the morning after pill; I pray it hasn’t been too long for it to work. As I swallow my idea of the pill-form of shame, I look up to my friend with concern. Eyes on my eyes, hand on my hand, she asks me to tell her what happened. I explain that I have no memory except when I woke up and the pain that I felt confirming that someone or something entered me without me remembering. I also don’t remember giving any consent.
“Why didn’t you call the cops?”
I respond with the unfortunately typical answer. “It was my fault. I shouldn’t have gone out alone, and I especially should have paid closer attention to my drink and surroundings.” She urges me to go to the doctor. “I feel violated enough already. What’s done is done and all I can do is hope that I didn’t contract anything.” Looking back, I realize what an irresponsible decision that was, but thankfully, I was lucky.
The first week after was comprised of horrible cramps, spotting, and nausea. The side effects of the pill made forgetting what happened even harder than it was already. I had to start driving a different way home from work because passing by the parking lot I woke up in made me want to crawl into bed and stay there. I had to constantly remind myself that I was lucky considering my circumstance and the circumstances of others like me. I was thankful to be alive, but not thankful to live with this.
The next week the side effects had subsided for the most part, but then I started feeling paranoid. I felt like everywhere I went, including work, I was being watched and followed. I started carrying a knife with me when I left my house. While I was driving I left the knife open on the seat by my leg. On the days I wore shorts, I could feel the cold blade of the knife on my thigh and this brought me comfort. I would spend anytime I was outside of my house in fear, and anytime inside my house drinking. Although I had a decent number of friends, they couldn’t understand. They wouldn’t believe I was being watched. Staying home was my best choice, and I was safe there.
After quitting my job, a couple more weeks went by, and I stopped receiving messages from my friends inviting me out. I suppose they were tired of being disappointed by my decline of any and all invites, and frankly I was relieved because I was running out of excuses to stay in. As time went on my loneliness became my safety. As long as I was alone, at home, I had nothing to fear.
One day as I was mindlessly scrolling on Facebook, I came across an article about a woman who had been sexually assaulted and chose to keep it to herself. A month afterwards, she took her own life because she had become so reclusive that she felt as though not existing would be better. She left a note for her family explaining the assault and how she couldn’t bring herself to talk about it in fear of embarrassing them. In that moment, it was like I could feel the article reach out and slap me in the face. My cheeks flushed red and my heart beat faster than it had in weeks. I looked up from my phone at my messy apartment. I could see dirty laundry, dirty dishes, filth in every corner. I hadn’t heard from anyone in weeks, and I realized that this bothered me. I realized I had to get out of there, or I’d be like the woman in the article.
I jumped in the shower and cleaned what felt like months of sadness from myself. I put on real pants, and even a nice shirt. I cleaned up the dishes and started the laundry. I picked up my phone and made a call to my therapist and set up an appointment for the following day. Next I called my friend to meet for coffee, and to my delight, she said yes. As I stepped outside, I felt the warmth of the sun on my face. I drove with the windows down.
I could tell in that moment, I was going to be okay.