For the past few days, restlessness has overcome me and I now know that it is time for me to start spilling; I can no longer balance this hurt in my body. Your writing has helped me shift into a phase of healing that brought a certainty that I would be back. I was not a chispa – sizzling oil, frizzing and burning, no. Yo me estaba ahogando en un vaso de agua – I was drowning in a cup of water, a speck in that cup of water and sexism an ocean. Our situations may not have been the same and yes being woke requires rest, but just being a woman, that requires taking out the pilas.
Weeks ago, I was just beginning what I thought was a period of surrender — that is, until I read “Staying Woke Requires Rest.” I had lost faith in life, until your words transformed my perspective on my period of surrender into a sabbatical. As you explained how taking a break from everything you were involved in helped your life fall into place, I felt hope. Your words became my friends reassuring me that not only is it okay that I want to rest, but that I NEED to. “Heal because when you come back from this darkness and this abyss you are going to be unstoppable. When you gain your strength, and cry this change and oppression out of your system no one will be able to stand in your way.” Your writing brought me peace from the guilt we are taught to feel when we want to listen to our bodies.
I am recovering from sexism, its carvings, its isolation, its depression, its restraints, and its hopelessness.
One night after class, as a professor and I were walking and talking about a text we were reading for class, the professor quickly takes his hand and digs it into my hair. He closes his hand in my afro to feel my scalp and curls. At that point we were no longer walking. It was not violent, the way he grabbed my hair, but tender, too tender, and sexual. “You have such beautiful hair,” he said.
I wish that it had not been until the moment that he had caressed my hair that I recognized how his behavior had always, all along, been inappropriate. Under the guise of mentor and eccentric professor, he masked his predatory behavior. I had rationalized his praise to be appreciation for my work. I hated myself for not being able to recognize this violation. I should have realized it when he taught his rape-culture perpetuating theory of “rape as potential” in class. Or when he asked, “Can I tell you something? I always read your papers first.” Or when he said, “I don’t just tell you these things because you are pretty.” Or, “Those who love the arts are not only smarter but love better and have greater sex. I can testify to that.” Or when he would teach in class that, “Women are victims because they want to be…. women are in accord with abuse,” and then say, “Liner is still fighting with this notion,” and as I refuted his bullshit he would tell me, “Don’t be a victim of your gender.” Could I have really recognized it right away, when manipulation and predatory behavior occurs so insidiously and not so insidiously as the norm characteristics of masculinity? How could I have noticed?
Months later after the semester had ended, I bumped into the professor again. In those encounters I met words that would now never leave my mind. He said, watching and smiling at me, “I know our relationship is complex and that’s a good thing. We can talk about it in my office some other time. I love your hair… You seduce me.”
You seduce me…you seduce me…our relationship…our relationship…don’t be a victim of your gender…don’t be a victim of your gender…echo in my head like a tambourine vibrating in my body. His words remind me of when my brother had said, “Dad found out about what we were doing.” As if I was in accordance with all of this abuse, like I had wanted to be raped. All of this echoing in my mind, in my body. I began to relive my trauma more acutely every day and everyone and everything sharpened that trauma like knives.
Bueno-oo is something Dominicans say when they do not know what to say. It means basically you’re fucked and that you have to figure it out on your own. I got a lot of bueno-oo reactions after sharing what I was going through. “I just don’t want one person to stop you from completing your goals,” my sister wrote to me when I texted her that I was thinking of taking a break from school. How many more people have to abuse me for it to be ok to leave, I thought. Sister, don’t you understand that it’s not just one person? It’s a system, it’s a cycle, institutions, words like yours. It’s patriarchy and sexism that I am hurting from, and so much more. My mind and body are telling me I am no longer here and I want to leave. And in different words, people with good intentions were emphasizing the abuser’s rhetoric, asking me stop being a victim of my gender, saying, “You got this,” and, “It’s your last semester, just finish.”
I could not keep up the pace of ignoring. Studying something so absolutely personal as gender studies stung. Apart from the paranoia of bumping into the professor again, working at the school’s Women’s Center left me vulnerable. The exposure to students’ stories on gender-based violence, watching my sister protect her abuser, and watching all of these people begin the stages of processing those traumas (And somehow people still think that cases of sexual violence are anomalies!), I folded deeper into myself.
I felt raw. Interacting, commuting, just being outside, all became exhausting. “I am coming home every day and crying” was not just an expression; I was literally holding in tears while I walked from the train to my apartment and as soon as I was inside, I spilled. How could no one tell I was spilling? Watching days pass outside my kitchen window, getting up to lie down again. Not wanting to go outside, scared to be outside, sad to be inside. “You can cry all you need to cry,” my counselor would say, “as long as you keep breathing.” But I did not want to keep breathing. Today, I wanted to wake up and I wonder if I were already dead, would I have regretted not being alive to feel today…
My mind had convinced herself that all she’s worth is her vagina. From the cab driver who had asked me if I wanted him to be my daddy, to the professor sexually harassing me, to some boy who did not want to meet me because I had my period, how could I not be convinced that my life only existed in connection to this hole between my legs? It is amazing after twenty two years of trying to love your body, it can turn into the most disgusting part of you. Again. But with new reasons to hate it.
So you see, when people would ask me to shake it off and finish his papers, I would be livid. Everything I mentioned above would flicker in my mind with just one word that I attempted to type. How could I make those around me understand that it would kill me to write papers on trauma, on the voice, on how women learn to speak through silence, or on the way the body remembers trauma, when my own body was remembering?
I was honestly relieved when my counselor suggested that I was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Now I have one term that can encompass all of this pain. This one medical term would absolve me from having to justify my pain to those that would say, “I know it was bad, but I didn’t know it was THAT bad.” But most importantly, recognizing that I was suffering from PTSD helped me shed the blame I was suffocating myself with for not ‘pushing through.’
I left school, a place that I made my escape from the toxicity of my home. I created a space where I was empowered, made healthy connections, and healed safely from years of sexual abuse by my brother and cousin. I needed to leave the campus because the new home I created had now become my old toxic home. I was no longer safe, again living with my abuser, hyper vigilant of his next steps. The lawyer and the Title IX Coordinator became my parents, dismissing the abuse as children’s curiosity. They defended the professor, like my parents defended my brother and cousin, at the expense of my body, of my pain, of my life.
I had to leave. I had to press pause on my life. Press pause on my life because even if I could, going to class, finishing the semester, and pushing through as the entire world suggested would mean sacrificing my body, my emotions, and justifying the abuser’s behavior. At some point, I felt like he had won, that I had given up, but then I realized that this pause, that this sabbatical, is how I am fighting. Thanks to you, my counselor, my roommate, and true friends who remind me that with this pause I am fighting. That my writing is fighting. Like Mujeres Creando said, it is time to move from nausea to vomiting. I am moving from nausea, this writing is the emetic urging me to vomit all of this poison.
For a long time, I could only text hearts to my friends because I had no voice or fight in me to explain all of this hurt. My tears stop spilling when I receive emails and texts from friends asking if I am okay. Thanks to the people who always managed to keep my soul intact by reminding me of things my mind did not know my heart was feeling. Thanks to those who created room for my pain when I knew they were feeling like shit too. My roommate who has been there every single moment I spilled, for letting me live here without paying, I am trying to find words to thank him.
During this sabbatical I have spent a lot of time reading Cisneros, Adichie, Anzaldúa, Kaur, protesting, trying this yoga thing, saying yes to invites, running, watching my dog play, redefining family with my roommate, and trying with all my might to find my voice.
I do not know where I am going from here, but I at least know I am going. I am healing slowly, patiently, lovingly, painfully. There will be more difficult decisions to make as I go through the trial process. I know that all of the pain I mentioned, I will feel again because healing is not linear, but this sabbatical from life is my trench giving me time to heal.
This break is productive. And I no longer need to justify my pain to think so. How can I ever regret taking care of myself?
I will be “strong, present, and intentional” in my healing. I’ll be back. When I return I will continue to remind the Other to rest so that we create the time when the Other no longer needs to recover from sexism.
At this moment my life depended on your sabbatical. I want to be so strong that even my pauses create movements. Thank you.
A woke hermana resting,