Surviving in the Shadows
My body is a place I visit. I am there now, hooking the nail of my index finger in between my thumbnail and the bed of skin around it. I pluck at the flesh until the skin frays and chords of pain ripple outward and up, all the way to my wrist. Proof of life. Within days, that same gory, wounded flesh will be shiny, smooth, new.
My body is miraculous. Self-healing. Maybe if I inhabited her more often, I too would know how to perform such cellular miracles. Maybe I could make myself shiny and new. Instead, I remain frayed.
I was 14 when I met the man who would rape me. He liked to hang out with groups of young girls in places our parents didn’t know about. We met at a rave. The wrongness of his adulthood was lost among the throng of sweaty, grinning kandi kidz wearing cat ears and clattering, plastic-beaded bracelets, the throbbing electronica and the MDMA. If he had been less handsome, maybe my friends and I would have known to be wary, but he had blue Prince Charming eyes and long sand-colored hair like Kurt Cobain. He was goofy and loved drugs as much as we did. Best of all, he didn’t treat us like children.
His violence started slowly. It began in ways I could relish, a dark secret something I called love. Quick, painful sex in the garage or at the park, my bare back scraping against tree trunks or pebbles in the dirt. But by the time I was 17, and ensnared by teenage obsession, he was strangling me to the point of seizure, beating me until I literally saw stars, raping me whenever he pleased. Sometimes there was a weapon involved. Sometimes just a glance was enough. Sometimes he didn’t touch me at all—just sat on a chair watching me while I lay in bed, slowly sharpening his pocket knife for hours.
Eventually I would get away for good. But not before learning how to disinhabit my body so well that it became second nature.
I felt deeply alone when I was a teenage girl living under the fist of that man. In the decade since, I have learned I was anything but. There are so many women like me. I don’t just mean women who have been hurt. I mean poor women, common women, other women who feel alone and unheard. Women who are not celebrities, not famous, not particularly noteworthy—at least not in the sense that lands us on the front pages of the New Yorker or the cover of TIME.
It’s not for lack of trying: I’ve sent pitches major outlets, and so have other women like me. But mine isn’t a story bedecked with celebrity and the intrigue of household names. It’s the story of a young girl who fell prey to an older man while living with her single mom, a Cuban refugee-turned-citizen, in Seattle. It’s a story about the way growing into adulthood under the tattoo of fists can slowly stunt a person’s ability to thrive. It’s a story that reaches forward 10 years, to where I live now, in Florida, struggling to make ends meet because working as an underpaid freelance writer is the only way I’ve managed to eek out any income at all around my post-traumatic stress disorder.
The sexual assault of normal, not-famous women with normal, not-famous assailants is too common to be newsworthy.
But it’s not just a lack of press that makes me feel like I live in the shadow of other survivors. In the moment that it’s happening, all of who you are falls away. You dissociate. You give your body over to your survival instinct and you tuck every other part of your being into a place that can’t be touched. This happens no matter who you are, whom you know, how much money you have—but when it’s over, poor women find ourselves not only less able to retaliate, but also less able to recover.
Survivors need help getting ourselves back from that place of hiding. In this society, that help is expensive.
“When you’re traumatized, you try to avoid certain sensations,” explains Bessel van der Kolk, a Boston-based psychiatrist, author and researcher who specializes in PTSD. “The more you protect yourself against [the trauma], the more power it gets. You need to go to the places in your body that are the triggers and slowly reconquer those parts of your body, so they belong to you and not your rapist.”
When I first read Van der Kolk’s book, The Body Keeps the Score, I remember being shocked by one of his case studies—a patient who was unable to feel parts of her own body when they were touched, but not seen. He ascribes this phenomenon to a state of dissociation held in the bodies of trauma survivors; bodies that require as much intensive, intentional treatment as the mind.
Van der Kolk advocates for trauma-informed somatic-based therapy, like yoga and massage: “If you go to a [conventional] yoga class, they mainly focus on how to get a firmer butt,” he tells me over the phone. “You may get quite traumatized by the uncontrolled opening up of body postures, hip opening and things like that, so it’s good to find somebody who does traum-centered yoga.”
It’s not easy for those without money to access these kinds of specialty treatments. There are a scattering of programs geared toward poor survivors of sexual trauma—Van der Kolk’s own clinic in Boston accepts Medicaid, and similar programs exist in Baltimore, Los Angeles and San Francisco. But as a whole, it’s nearly impossible to access specialized treatment for sexual assault without good health insurance or cash-on-hand.
“If you have a lot of money, you can find all the various ways to heal from trauma,” Van der Kolk admits, “but if you’re poor, you have to really luck out.” At one point, he makes a more blunt observation: “If you’re poor, you’re fucked in our society.”
I have never been able to access this level of treatment—as until recently, the only insurance I’ve had has been Medicaid. My coverage extended only to talk therapy. It didn’t provide me with access to somatic therapy. It didn’t allow me to utilize EMDR, a treatment Van der Kolk recommends as well that reprograms traumatic memories.
When I attempted suicide in 2016—a response to the abuse I experienced at the hands of my ex-boyfriend and the years of trauma symptoms that extended beyond it—I was referred to a clinic that specialized in therapy for survivors of sexual assault, but when I showed up for my appointment, they sent me to the generalized clinic in the basement below. That’s the experience my insurance granted me.
In 2017, the clamor of Hollywood stars rising up against sexual harassment and violence felt like a bellow heard around the globe. The floodgates opened: Rapists and abusers were outed across industries, from politics to film, from journalism to comedy; the celebrity outcry that launched the #MeToo movement’s viral moment even gave other women the courage to stand up and tell their stores, and blazed a long overdue trail to long-lasting reform.
But women like me have been relegated to the shadows of this great and luminous uprising. I’ve spoken with other “common” survivors who have struggled to get their stories heard—people like non-binary writer Dominic Bradley, who has pitched their sexual assault account to feminist and literary magazines alike but faced rejection. (I’ve pitched two of the same outlets, with the same results.)
“The biggest obstacle to safety is money,” Amy Goldberg, executive director and co-founder of the Anchor Fund in D.C., tells me. She thinks that not enough people understand how difficult it is for survivors of physical and sexual abuse to access basic safety, and describes how something as simple as a bus pass or an apartment application fee—costs which her organization helps provide to low-income abuse survivors—can be the difference between a poor person becoming a survivor or continuing to be victimized.
That’s not something you hear about in celebrity accounts. It’s not something you hear about very often at all. And I fear that until the stories of poor, regular and working-class survivors become visible, our needs will remain invisible too.
Elizabeth Brico is a freelance writer forever from the Pacific Northwest. Her work, which often focuses on mental health, addiction and social justice, has appeared in Vice, Vox, Talk Poverty, Filter Magazine, Politico Magazine, Undark, Ozy and The Fix, among others. She is a 2019 Reimagining Communities fellow with the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls and a 2019 reporting fellow with talkpoverty.org.
Co-published with Ms. Magazine.