Part Two of series that’ll be as long as I need it to be:
“Being vulnerable in the face of sexual assault (when you’re pretty sure it was your vulnerability that got you assaulted)”
Now that I’ve moved past the etymological implications and diversions of the word “vulnerable,” I need to get busy being vulnerable. Seems like the best way to be vulnerable would be to interact with people.
Of course, it was a “people” that assaulted me. There will have to be some work to do before I can go back to feeling my standard annoyance in crowds rather than dread.
Fear has a way of flattening. Going to a bar or a party is like one of those tactical ranges you see in cop shows. Two-dimensional cut-outs pop into view, and you have to decide RIGHT THEN AND THERE whether or not the old lady with the grocery bags is packing heat. Except I have to peer into the cut-out’s mind and figure out whether or not they’re not going to listen to me if I say no —either that night, or a few months down the road. I shouldn’t have to go all Minority Report just to grab a beer and be around people.
But not all people are that smirking loser, although sometimes it seems all people are smirking-loser-adjacent. Since I confronted what happened, it’s been very easy, too easy, to recall all his behaviors as threatening. Then it’s a quick step to concluding that every action by every person is a threat.
But, there must be literally dozens of people in Greater Columbus who are not him. And nothing like him. If not, I’m screwed anyways.
I am doing my best not to isolate. For instance, I am writing this in a coffee shop downtown. Of course, I’m at a table where my back is against the wall. I can face out to assess threats. However, if I make eye contact with someone more than five feet away, I attempt to smile. Sometimes people smile back. I assume they’re reacting positively because I’ve been practicing smiling at the gym. As I walk around the track, I consciously look forward and try not to shuffle.
I’ve also started volunteering for an organization that assists asylum-seekers as they pass thru Columbus. I’m not directly interacting with the folks because unless they want to know if something abierto or cerrado, I’m useless. I’m organizing supplies. This makes a very basic part of my brain happy. In every picture of me before the age of five where I’m smiling —both of them —I am stacking things.
When healing, go with your innate strengths…
stacking > talking
And to help me be around people and out of my head, I’ve enrolled in a beginning improv workshop. I’ve done improv before. It’s been really good for the brain when I’ve needed it to be. One trimester in undergrad at Witt, I had an improv class at 9am. Five days a week. I got solid A’s that term. Solid, no minuses. I also got into it when I was in Austin. Right after I came out in 2000, I felt unmoored. It was great to have someplace to go and be an idiot.
Yet, like a live action Highlights magazine for adults, this idiocy is “Fun with a Purpose.” The best part of improv is that you have to be a SMART idiot. Reconcile your Inner Goofus with your Inner Gallant. You can’t shut off your brain because the whole “yes, and” dynamic breaks down at “wuh?”
But you can’t let it race forward because no one wants to watch a guy on stage frantically contemplate every possible outcome and every possible backstory to every possible prompt.
“Here’s your soup?”
“Yes, and did I tell you about that time I tried to impress a girl in high school French club by making French onion soup, but I scalded my crotch when it spilled while I was driving to school with it on my lap? So, this soup could scar me psycho-sexually. I may have to send it back. Yet, I hate confrontation. Or, the soup could be delicious. Or it could be consommé. Or a bisque. Yada yada yada.”
…and NO SCENE!.
I’m hoping that reconnecting with improv slows my brain down somewhat.
For the past year or so, I’ve been exploring storytelling. I think I’m pretty good except for two things: First, I need to stop using “fuck” as a placeholder. Second, I need to realize that not every story needs every bit of detail and backstory. My desire to tell the listener EVERYTHING makes me a very frantic sight. In every photo from storytelling events that ends up on social media, I’m flapping my arms like footage of a doomed pre-Wright Brothers aero-jalopy.
Just how frantic I am became apparent at the first session. We had to pair off, and I was to tell a one minute story to my partner. I was going to relate a pleasant experience I had with a radio station out of Sioux Falls, SD a few days prior. But because the sexual assault and the PTSD occupies pretty much all prime brain estate, my story started thusly…
“Well first of all, you need to understand that I’m dealing with PTSD following an assault. So to blow off steam, I like to drive around the countryside listening to old American Top 40’s with Casey Kasem. I was streaming one from 1981 on a station from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Sunny 93.3, where it’s always sunny and in the 80s. So, there’s this ad for a place called Tire-Motive. I think it’s a mechanic…”
My partner stared back at me with a look I am well familiar with. It’s a look that says, “Wow, that’s a lot of words, many of them quite horrifying, yet you’re trying to be funny. Why are you doing this at me?” When I’m nervous, the words just keep coming and coming, weaving and weaving a protective barrier of too-personal words arranged in a darkly humorous pattern. Ask me about the weather, and you’re risking getting strangled by a macrame planter made of fibrous backstory and tangential wooden beads.
For the next part of the exercise, my partner was too repeat my story back to me. He also imitated my arm movements. I can assure you, it was horrifying. Is this how I seem to people?
What’s keeping me away from people is not really that I’m scared all of them will assault me. There’s literally not enough time for all of them to do so.
I’m the most scared of me and what I’ll do. What he did to me and what that’s done to my brain has knocked me completely off-kilter. It feels like I’m one second out of sync. When I do manage to connect to someone, I’m so grateful for that connection that I begin to spew. I want them to know everything. Not because I want to have a discussion about sexual assault or PTSD or even what a jerk my perpetrator continues to be out in the world. I WOULD LOVE TO NOT TALK ABOUT THAT! No, I want them to understand what now colors every thing I see, everything I do, everything I feel. Because without that important info, I’m sure that I must come across as hopelessly broken and weird.
Once they have the backstory, maybe broken and weird can pass for striving and complex.
Every interaction with people now involves a frantic calculus to determine how much info to provide.
Has what they just said indicated in any way that they want to hear about sexual assault? Because if you say “sexual assault,” they’ll assume it’s a gay thing, right? They’re picturing you naked now doing sex stuff, right? Someone picturing naked while they’re standing in front of you got you into this mess, didn’t it? Though, I never was completely naked that day. Still, why the fuck would anyone want to picture you naked? I mean the beard’s been looking good, and you’re dropping weight… but, still. There’s no way me naked could ever live up to what’s going on in their head right now. Do they know your sexual history? Do you want them to know? Is now the time to make that “psychosexual corn maze” quip? Is it ever? Do you need better material? What kind of sad human thinks of human interaction as needing “material?” If they know you’re queer, will they think you’re coming on to them? How do people even come on to another without freaking the other person out? Or should you just say assault? Leave a little mystery? Or maybe just say PTSD? Now will they think you were in the military then be disappointed when you say that you weren’t? How are they positioning their bodies? Open or closed? How are you? Are you crowding them because you know who crowds people? Yeah, the asshat who raped you crowds people! Are you allowed to use the word “raped?” It certainly is easier to conjugate than “sexually assaulted?” Do you really think the other person gives a shit about grammar? If they don’t care about grammar, why are you even talking with/to/at them? Are they smiling? Am you smiling? You do know you’re teeth are weird, right? Why did they look at your left hand? It’s doing that spectacles/testicles/wallet/watch thing again, right? They know! They know! You suck at math! Abort! Tell them everything! Now! Hurry!
And when that’s over, I get to wait for their reply.