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When your trauma has long since defined you, how do you let go?

· trauma,abuse,depression,eating disorder,skin hunger

Content note for emotional abuse, eating disorder, depression, suicide, self harm, and trauma.

A few weeks ago, one of the writers I follow on Twitter put out a call for participants in a study she's doing. Her PhD thesis work is on anorexia and skin hunger, the phenomenon of craving sensual (but not sexual) touch, from cuddling to hand-holding. I signed up for it, and we set our time to talk for today.

I knew, going into this, that I was going to be talking about my college abuser. Even now, I hesitate to write his name—even though I said it dozens of times during the interview! Even now, I hesitate to write about him at all, even though I published a piece in The Washington Post about him. Even though I've been open about my story.

But to talk about my eating disorder is, necessarily, to talk about him. He was at the root of it, a poisoned well that buried the veins of self-hatred deeper into me. That's not to say that he's to blame, of course. Once, I would have said that I'm to blame for it. Now, I believe that it's not a matter of blame: it just was.
I dreamt about him last night. He usually comes to me in dreams on nights where I haven't been thinking about him, or about our past, times when I haven't tried to recount the memories that elude me. I don't know what triggered his slip into my dream last night; perhaps it was in preparation for the interview this morning. When I woke, I could still feel the glare of his gaze burnt into me. Now, I don't remember why.
When 10:30 rolled around, I had my headphones in. I was sweeping the floor, a sure way to keep myself busy but also engaged. I need to do things with my hands for long conversations. In classes, I used to play with little round magnets called BuckeyBalls. Doing something physical removes me from my head and into my body.
And I needed to be in my body if I was going to talk about it. I needed to remember my cracked lips, the way my skin stretches over my knuckles, the feeling of my calloused feet on the ground. If I was going to talk about my body, my eating, my history, I needed to remember it.
The funny thing about recounting trauma is that it doesn't always trigger you—right away. I felt totally fine until I hung up the phone, when I sat down and rocked myself and cried. When, aptly enough, I desperately craved a hug, someone stroking my hair, someone holding my hand.
To walk through everything I told her would make for a long and uninteresting Telegram. Briefly, what was supposed to be a discussion of the history of my eating disorder turned into a (long) summary of the relationship that had led to it. But I found myself able to talk about it, able to recount details that were already known to me in some light. Then-girl meets boy. Then-girl falls for boy. Then-girl sets her life by boy. Talking about it didn't bring up memories I'd long forgotten, just temporarily so. I told her how our relationship had solidified over a January night, when, for some reason, I'd spent some time with him. I told her about the 17,000 text messages we exchanged over the month of August 2010. I told her how we walked across the Midway and he'd gotten angry that I hadn't told him of my suicidal ideations, even though I was telling him then. I told her of his final words to me, the text message that sat me down and had me write a goodbye letter. If we're going to resolve this, let's do before I leave on Wednesday.
I told her that I resented that he hadn't run to me when I sent him a goodbye text, that he hadn't appreciated me taking him to Alinea, that he dodged my attempts to make our relationship healthier. I told her of the dishonest thing I did, like look through his text messages, how I still feel deep shame at my inability to trust and the proof that further fueled my paranoia. I told her how, twenty minutes into our first session, my psychiatrist told me that he was the root of my mental illness.
But the thing that made me tear up, the thing that choked me, was telling her about my mother's grief when my grandmother died, about how she mourned the loss of the woman who had abused her for her whole life. Maybe those unshed tears were actually for me, the grieving I've done in the last two and a half years since leaving him. And that grief isn't because I regret it, but because I don't. It's not because I still love him, but because I don't. It's because I'm grieving the person I was all those years: the person I lost, the person I became, and the person I've had to live with ever since.
I doubt most people realize that they're in a codependent relationship while it was happening; I certainly didn't, and he wasn't even the first person I'd been in one with. And while I became a sliver of my former self—less vibrant, less interesting, less enjoyable to spend time with—I also miss that person I was, because it's still me. In my fourth year of college, I began to say that I finally felt like my old self again. The truth was that I had changed, and none of my selves was any less true than the last. But the loss of the person I was when I was with him is especially acute to me, because there's so much of them that I don't remember. That person that I'd been, the person I can't even summon up: how much would I be able to tell them if I met them now?
Would I have been able to save myself?
Would I have been able to stop myself from picking cutting back up? From keeping suicide at bay only by telling myself of how it would destroy my mother? If I could hold my former self, cuddle them, give them the skin-to-skin contact they so desperately crave, might I have stopped them from writing the goodbye notes on their netbook? The notes were so short because in the moment where I needed words the most, they failed me. I apologized to my parents. I apologized to my mother for dying exactly one week after her mother did.
How desperately lonely I'd been in those days, and how desperately alone I felt. How desperately alone I needed to be, to find myself, yet I couldn't abide the thought. It wasn't that being by myself meant I'd pick up the razor or do something else to harm myself. It was that being by myself meant living with the person I'd become. It meant confronting the things that I knew to be true, even when I tried not to see them.
Those five years built me, destroyed me, created the foundations of me today, tore down the foundations that had made me then. To say I regret them is to say that I regret who I am today, to say that I wish I'd never met my husband, to say that I wish I'd never experienced the incredible pain that came with being intwined with a person that both loved and hated you. If I regret something, it's that I didn't double major in English, not that I went through the relationship that I did. The pain it caused me has wound itself deeply into the fabric of my personhood. I thought I was over it, but grief comes in waves. I'll be fine tomorrow, and the next day, but maybe something will remind me of it in five weeks. Five years. I don't believe that time heals all wounds, but that it gives us the space and distance to cope.
So I cope. I told my story, spared no relevant detail that I could remember, no matter how poorly it reflected on me. I spent today reading the second series in a trilogy instead of working. I sit and write these words, forgiving myself for the tightness in my throat, the prickling behind my eyes. Trauma settles so deep into us that it changes our DNA, changes the chances our children have, our grandchildren. But maybe change is okay, Maybe change means I'm healing.
Maybe change means that one day, I'll be able to say his name.

This was originally featured as a Tuesday Telegram on September 12, 2017. Join us every other Tuesday at Don't forget that I'm also on Facebook and Twitter, and if you liked this and got a dollar a month to spare, please chip into my Patreon.