Me & a friend in a friend’s messy apartment on-campus freshman year.
I’m a writer. I tell stories. Real stories fictionalized. In telling these stories, I’ve neglected to tell my own. Really tell it. Details and all.
I’ve been clear and open about being a survivor of sexual assault twice, as well as stalking. Only recently have I opened up about my relationship with an emotionally abusive ex-boyfriend. Like many survivors, yesterday was difficult. Watching Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testify was impossible. Just thinking about it had me in tears on and off. Then, last night I happened to catch a replay of Judge Kavanaugh’s anger-laden statement. I was only able to take about thirty seconds of it, wanting to throw the remote at the TV until I changed the channel. I thought he would trigger memories from one of the assaults, but what he triggered was all the times my ex yelled at me, berated me, called me stupid, and raged if he thought I was being too familiar with another man, even if that man happened to be a good friend of ours. I knew then that I couldn’t just say I had been assaulted or abused anymore.
I have a story to tell and I’m going to tell it.
Raw and unedited.
My first year of college I lived in an all-woman dorm. It wasn’t by choice. It was the only one available when it was my turn at the top of the waitlist. This meant no men were allowed in the dorm after the front desk closed and the doors locked. Did residents sneak men in after dark? Yes. Did men sneak in on their own? Absolutely.
One of the women in my unit that I befriended took me and some of our neighbors to a party one night. It with either right before school started or the first weekend after. It was there I met a lot of athletes. One of them would be the one I adopted as a big brother (along with his own brother) and leaned on for support later on. One of them would become my assailant.
The would-be assailant was friendly and on the football team. I would say we were acquaintances. He was always nice, asked how I was when I’d run into him around the dorms or cafeteria. I never ran into him elsewhere on campus. One time we were riding the same elevator and one of his teammates that I already knew happened to be on the elevator. He introduced us not knowing we already knew each other. His teammate and I had a good snicker because it wasn’t the first time someone had introduced us when no introductions were necessary.
One weekend in September, I think it was the third or fourth week of school (we had started in August), my roommate left for the weekend. It wasn’t the first time she had gone elsewhere for the weekend. The first time she did, I locked myself out of our room in the middle of the night when I went to use the bathroom. So, that weekend, I left my door unlocked before going to bed to avoid a repeat of having to go get my RA in the middle of the night in my pajamas.
Sometime after falling asleep, I was awoken by someone standing in my doorway backlit by the fluorescent lights coming from the unit lounge right outside my room.
It was him.
And I wasn’t really awake.
I was in that groggy state of being between asleep and awake. The state where you can’t make yourself move or to fully wake.
I asked him how he got in and I’m pretty sure my words were slurred.
He had found an unlocked door.
He came inside my room, closing the door and sitting in my desk chair that was next to my bed. He left the light off.
I don’t remember what we talked about, but I remember there was some kind of small talk.
I just wanted to go back to sleep. I remember telling him I was sleepy but I don’t remember if I told him to leave so I could sleep.
I don’t even remember how the assault started, but I remember how slimy his saliva felt as his tongue traveled from breast to breast. And later, how it seemed to become slimier in the shower.
I remember thinking, what is happening?
But I couldn’t vocalized anything. I was paralyzed. Like a victim in a thriller who was injected with a paralytic and can’t move or speak. They can only watch the horror being done to them.
That was me.
There was no jolting fully awake as soon as he touched me.
There was no fighting him off.
There was no screaming for help, hoping one of my neighbors would hear.
I was mute and unable to move.
We are so conditioned to talking about fight or flight, we never talk about freezing like a deer in headlights. It happens. It happened to me.
After a few minutes, he pulled my nightshirt back down and left. He said something before leaving but I don’t remember what.
I laid there in shock, covered in slime that was drying. I understood what victims meant by feeling dirty. I wanted to wash him off of me.
Once I was fully awake, I grabbed my shower caddy, towel, and a change of clothes before heading to the bathroom.
I stayed in the shower until the water was cold. By the time I was dressed again, I still felt dirty. Upon leaving the bathroom, I ran into one of my neighbors. He was in her room watching TV with her.
I’m supposed to report it, yeah? I’m supposed to tell someone after it happens, yeah?
I told her what he did. Quietly, so he couldn’t hear while furtively glancing towards her open door to make sure he wasn’t exiting her room while I talked to her.
“He’s been with me and hasn’t tried anything. Why didn’t you scream for help?”
As if it was MY fault I didn’t scream. As if what happened to me didn’t really happen because he didn’t do it to her.
She crushed me in that moment, telling me that she didn’t believe me with that one statement and one question.
I was already not thinking straight, not only because of the assault, but because I had been asleep. Anyone who knows me, knows I’m not fully functional after waking up. Let alone waking up in the middle of the night after little sleep.
I don’t know how I fell asleep after that, knowing both of them were in the next room. I did lock my door after that.
After that night, things with my neighbor weren’t the same. I didn’t want to be near her. I spent as much time out of my room and the dorm in general as I could. My room wasn’t safe. My dorm wasn’t safe. I felt safer walking the campus at night than I did in my own room.
Remember the guy I mentioned that I would adopt as my big brother later on? I spent a lot of time at his apartment with his roommates, his brother, and his neighbors.
I kept the assault to myself. I dated other guys but never for long. One of them decided in the middle of making out that he was going to take out his penis. I didn’t realize he did it until he guided my hand to it. I didn’t want to touch it. I didn’t want anything to do with it. I ran out of his apartment and never looked back.
I still went to parties. Sometimes I was sober and sometimes I was drunk. It was usually when I was sober that a guy would say something like they wanted to get me drunk so they could “do me”. I made sure to stay sober if that happened, maintaining an awareness of my surroundings. Thankfully, none of my friends ever pressured me to drink. Ever. They always respected my choice when I didn’t want to drink.
At one particular party that was winding down, one of the guys I knew was really drunk and close to passing out when friends were egging him on to go out and find a girl. He lifted a droopy hand and pointed to me, “I want her.”
“I don’t want you,” was my immediate rejection.
After the assault, I didn’t worry about hurting the feelings of random men when I rejected them. Especially when they were drunk and only looking for one thing.
I found myself in the middle of a depression. By the spring semester I had the worst case of insomnia I’ve experienced. I didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning and had to force myself to go to classes and work. I wasn’t eating much which took a physical toll on me. When I realized what was going on, I stopped drinking altogether to make sure I wasn’t self-medicating. There were times my big brothers had to drag me out to parties because I had withdrawn from socializing as much.
It wasn’t until I met someone that I really liked and was hesitant to ask out that I finally broke down and told my big brother in between tears while we sat on the concrete stairs of his apartment building.
He hugged me, held me, told me I was safe. He softly encouraged me to at least report it to the football coach, but my experience with telling my neighbor had me holding firm in not doing so. If she could be part of the reason my spirit was wrecked when I knew her, I knew telling a powerful man on campus would be worse. Even if the coach believed me, there would be men involved in an investigation. Complete strangers. It took me long enough to open up to the person I trusted most on campus. Laying myself bare to people with power that I know nothing about was unquestionably the wrong thing for me to do, especially since I was just pulling myself out of the depression. Why sink myself further into something that was sucking my soul dry?
He respected my decision and didn’t push me. Instead, he kept me close and encouraged me to ask the guy out. To live again.
And so I did. We went out. We held hands. We kissed. Because we were friends first and I wanted a relationship, I told him what happened to me. I set boundaries and he respected them. Then we broke up before finals.
Fast forward a couple of years and a guy that was in two of my psychology classes one semester. One of those classes was a seminar class where we met in a room no bigger than a conference room and sat around a big table. The other class was in the main lecture hall in Gartley Hall. It was in that class that he had acquired my phone number for a group project. He wasted no time in using it to hit on me instead. He would call multiple times a day, sometimes drunk. It didn’t matter how many times I told him I didn’t want to go out with him. He kept calling. He kept trying to sit next to me in our classes.
I started screening my calls. This was back when Caller ID cost extra on a landline and required a phone with a digital readout. I didn’t have the money for that. I let the answering machine pick it up and would wait to hear who it was. One of my uncles asked me direct if and why I was screening my calls after I had done this a few times with him. I told him what was going on and said he’d come and break the guy’s arms and legs. The immediate image I had was of the guy in a wheelchair in full casts on both legs and both arms. I told him no. For whatever reason, despite what he was doing to me, I didn’t want him harmed.
This guy had made me alter my behavior for a second time. Not only was I screening my calls, I was walking around campus in broad daylight with my keys between my fingers in one hand and an umbrella in the other, whether there were clouds crowning Tantalus or not. I made a point to go to class late so he couldn’t sit by me—this was difficult because I’m habitually on time and even many of my attempts to be late still had me arriving on time. I avoided Manoa Gardens because I knew he hung out there between and after classes.
The nightmares I once had after the assault returned. The new nightmares included my assailant and my stalker, stoking my fears that I’d run into them between classes and work on campus.
In the midst of it all, I really didn’t want to get involved in a relationship. There were a couple of almost relationships that happened and then fizzled out. While I had my own hang ups, they had their own shit they were dealing with as well.
The stalker eventually left me alone and after that semester I never had him in another psychology class but I did see him now and then in Gartley Hall.
During college, a friend I’ve known since we were kids, she lived across the street from some of my relatives, got me going to church regularly with her and her friends, some of whom I knew from going to the beach and traveling around the island with them before stepping foot in their church.
Church wasn’t a new thing for me. I grew up in churches, sang in choirs and worship teams, and taught Bible Study, Sunday School, and worked in the nursery.
It was after graduation when I started dating one of the guys in our circle. It threw everyone off but I thought they had adjusted to the relationship. Until friends took us aside separately telling us God told them we shouldn’t be together.
Unless you’re my boss and signing my paychecks, I don’t like people telling me what to do. It makes me dig my heels in. It pissed us both off and was the beginning of us pulling away from the church.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but he was already controlling me through gaslighting and emotional abuse. My brain was insulating me as I was making adjustments based on his behavior. My friends would all tell you that I’m a strong woman. Even my church friends at the time would’ve told you that I’m a warrior. What is difficult for many to understand is that the tactics of emotional abuse are so insidious that even in the middle of it when it was the worst and I was thinking about breaking up with him, I didn’t think of it as emotional abuse.
If I did something he didn’t like he’d call me “stupid”. The first time it happened we had a big fight and then I shut down. I was a college graduate, for fuck’s sake.
He hated that I had a talent for grasping a brand new melody, including lyrics, while listening to a song for the first time. He hated it so much that not only did he call me stupid one time while I was singing along to a song we were both hearing for the first time in his car, he told me to stop. He knew I loved singing. I used to sing all the time. He took that joy away from me. I never sang again with him in the car to anything. I still rarely sing in the car.
He was beyond jealous of other men who were friendly with me, even our own mutual friends or men I was friends with before I knew him. He walked in on me and some other male friends doing a massage train, lined up massaging the shoulders of the person in front of. He wasted no time in berating me as soon as were alone.
The worst fight happened after I woke up from a nap one afternoon. He was sitting at my desk in my apartment, his mouth drawn into a scowl—I’ll never forget that look. He had one of my poetry journals in front of him. I had never let him read them before. In fact, it was rare for me to allow anyone to read my poetry journals. I didn’t even have time to let it set in that he had gone through my things, invading my privacy. He went on a tirade about a particular poem about a guy from my past, one that took me a long time to get over. I can’t tell you which poem it was that he took umbrage to because I wrote many poems about this person.
According to my now ex, I wasn’t allowed to have the feelings I did for anyone, even if they were in my past. I don’t remember how the fight ended but I’m pretty sure it went along the lines of me doing something to show him how much I loved him and stroked his ego. This was something I learned to do the longer we were together, appease him to end the fight even if I knew deep down that I was right and he was wrong.
He was the only man to truly coerce me into sex. The only one who kept with the “c’mon” when I’d say no. The only one to keep pawing at me after I said no. The only one still trying to undress me after I said no. Eventually I gave in just to get it over with. I was tired of fending him off. I regretting giving in as soon as it was over. I hated myself for a long time after that. I didn’t trust myself for a long time after that.
Throughout our time together, he had a problem with following through on things he’d tell me he’d do for me, especially when it was giving me a ride home from work or to somewhere. I didn’t have a car. I couldn’t afford it. There were months I couldn’t even afford a bus pass. So, when I was expecting a ride from him and he would be late, if he showed at all, it was time I lost in which I could’ve ridden the bus and already been home by the time he’d show up. It got worse towards the end and it was something I couldn’t hide from my co-workers at the Y, they’d see me waiting for him and while they all left work, turning down their offers for a ride because he would’ve been pissed if I had accepted.
It was this behavior that I focused on at the end, mostly because I still hadn’t accepted all the other behaviors as abusive. I labeled this one as not respecting me or my time. It was true on the surface level. The lack of respect for me went deeper but I still didn’t see how deep it was. One day, after returning to the Y from spending the weekend with my co-workers and other YMCA leaders across the island to prepare for the summer program, I was waiting for him to pick me up. I paged him several times with no response. One of my co-workers I was good friends with brought up that if he was going to do this to me all the time, maybe I shouldn’t be with him. It wasn’t the first time he suggested it and it wasn’t the first time I had thought about breaking up with him. I waited two hours that day. I took The Bus (not a capitalization error, that’s what it’s called) home—sleeping bag and other gear in tow. By the time I got home I was irritable, which turned into pissed when his excuse turned out to be: I was biking with the guys and forgot. I told him I needed him to follow through on what he says he’s going to do and to respect my time. “I can’t change,” was his aggravated defensive response. That’s all I needed. I broke up with him on the spot, over the phone. He changed his tune as soon as the words were out of my mouth and the water works started.
It might seem heartless to break up with someone over the phone, but looking back and being able to acknowledge the abuse and the suffering I went through I think I knew deep down it was the only safe way to do it. But it took me decades to get from “he wasn’t respectful of me and my time” to “he was abusive”. Even in talking with our mutual friends after the breakup for two decades, I still protected him, not willing to damage how they saw him beyond saying, “I learned my own worth.”
My assailant contributed to an episode of depression, making me feel ashamed for not locking my door, not fighting back, not yelling for help. He stole my joy and spark. My stalker further altered how prepared for danger even in the daytime, how I protected myself. My ex changed my entire being. I didn’t recognize myself in the end. Outwardly, everyone saw the same Debi but inside I was hollow from not being allowed to be myself and express myself with my friends the way I always had. The shame of allowing someone to change me so fundamentally is was kept me from being open and honest about the relationship. We had mutual friends, still do. He knew my family and I knew his. I was protecting myself without knowing it by not admitting to the abuse. It wasn’t like I didn’t have the support system either. I had a lot of friends, aunties, and uncles who would’ve done anything for me.
Shame is a liar.
My second assault happened at work when I was doing direct care at a psychiatric residential treatment facility and one of the kids literally grabbed me by the pussy in the middle of a physical management. He had made many threats to sexually assault and rape the female staff. Before he actually grabbed me, he told me he was going to. It was one of the repeated threats he always made. There was a lot going on that night and it felt like an eternity before my co-worker returned who was getting the time out room cleared out so we could take him there. Two other co-workers eventually took over because there were problems with whoever was in the time out room. I stayed late that night documenting every detail I could in the incident report, returning after not much sleep for Treatment Team. My boss was on fire when I arrived. During the meeting she was adamant that we discharge him to a higher level of care. She had copied the incident report and gave them to the therapist, psychiatrist, nurse, and clinical director. I remember the hesitation and hedging from the therapist who seemed more concerned about the boy than myself and the safety of everyone else—she wasn’t a bad therapist at all and I get why she was hemming and hawing, but it was hurtful at the time. I also remember how fierce my boss was because I just didn’t have it in me to advocate like that in that moment. I was exhausted as well as embarrassed. This wasn’t like the assault in college when no one saw what happened. I had witnesses—co-workers and other kids who walked by. And then I had to talk about it with other co-workers who weren’t there. It’s not easy. It’s as hard as I imagined it would be back when I chose not to report the first one.
The team eventually agreed to discharge him to a psychiatric hospital and the news about what happened to me spread like wildfire. I lost count of how many other women came to me and said, “He did that to me too.” I went through his chart, reading past incident reports to see if they had documented it and they hadn’t. I admit to being angry that they didn’t. If they had, it wouldn’t have happened to me. But I never voiced that anger because it wouldn’t have done any of us any good. They aren’t the ones who assaulted me, he did.
I did have a choice whether or not to file charges against him and I chose the latter. My rationale was that he would get more help if he stayed in the care of mental health professionals than he would if he went into juvenile justice.
Later that year, with a new boss and new co-workers I was supervising, one of them, a man, wanted out of extra shifts he had signed up for. He discovered that picking up shifts on one of the least restrictive units we had was a piece of cake. He came to me asking me to cover those shifts and I told him if he wanted out, he needed to find coverage since he signed up for them on his own. He did the equivalent of “I’m telling Mommy and Daddy” and I told him to go ahead because our boss would tell him the same thing. Instead of asking other people if they wanted the shifts he signed up for, he came to me a couple of days later, this time with one of the kids in tow. I saw it for what it was, a way to manipulate me. I sent the kid away because there was no reason for him to be involved in the conversation, which went much the way the first one did. I reported this verbally and in writing to my boss because I knew where it was going. The next time he approached me, I was in the staff office getting ready to leave. There was only one door. He came in behind me and stood in front of the door, giving me a lecture on how I’m a “power and control” personality. I should’ve been scared. He had me blocked in and he was twice my size. If I he hadn’t pissed me off I would’ve been. I remember telling him that I’m not a power and control personality and pointed out who was blocking the exit. “If people are going to bully me, I will assert myself.” Because that’s what he was trying to do, bully me into giving him what he wanted. He had to let me out when I told him Chaz was waiting outside for me, we were going out of town. I don’t know if he would’ve had that not been the case. While Chaz was driving, I left my boss a detailed voice message about what had just happened and told him he’d have it in writing by the time I returned to work.
What I didn’t recognize back then that I do now is that the guy was a danger to myself. His attempts to coerce and bully me through verbal tactics and physical intimidation was clear. I might not have been scared in the moment but it doesn’t change the intent of his actions. He still didn’t get what he wanted nor did he find people to cover the shifts he didn’t want anymore. However, he transferred to a lesser restrictive unit. Looking back, he should’ve been fired. But nope. I wasn’t hurt so no harm done, yeah?
I’ve gone on with life. There have been many smaller incidents, too numerous to detail. Incidents many women experience on a daily basis. Strangers demanding a smile. Strangers catcalling as I walk by on the street. Strangers who are pleasant and smiling but then turn on a dime calling me a bitch when I don’t give them what they want.
What happened yesterday is what many have experienced—women and men. The reason we don’t report are many, we some of those reasons live and in HD yesterday. Victims don’t owe anyone a reason why and yet we give them when we come forward and say, “Me too.” Many abuse victims recoiled in horror as Kavanaugh launched into his angry, bitter tirade at being held to account for past behavior, painting himself a victim while demeaning the pain and trauma victims live with around the world. As soon as I saw him crying, it threw me right back to my ex trying to manipulate me over the phone and I had to change the channel.
We don’t experience trauma the same way and our brains will code memories differently. Some people might remember every single detail. Others won’t. Our brains will protect us from memories that are too difficult to bear.
We might move forward in our lives, dealing with and accepting what happened to us in the past. The trauma remains. It will always remain. We might go years without thinking about it and then a smell, a texture, a taste, a sound, a word, an object will flood us with trauma echo and we’re reliving it all over again.
This is my story.
The bird is out of her cage, singing and soaring.