ENOUGH is a Rumpus series devoted to creating a dedicated space for essays, poetry, fiction, comics, and artwork by women and non-binary people that engage with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence.
The series will run every Tuesday afternoon. Each week we will highlight different voices and stories.
A Drama Queer Navigates Trauma
“It’s just,” my mother gasps, “it’s just… You’re such a drama queen.”
She doubles up with laughter. Her open palm displays a small white capsule, about half the size of a fingernail, as she meets the gimlet-eyed stare I’ve borrowed from Danielle, unreciprocated love of my sixteen year-old life and star of our 1950s slasher high school play.
I train my stare on the pill, then back on her wet eyes. I channel Danielle as a cashmere-clad coed at a mountain resort, clubbing her classmate to death with one end of a ski.
“No,” I say, thrilling to the steel in my voice as I project, like Danielle, from the diaphragm. I envision the hem of a poodle skirt grazing my ankles as I sashay from the still-twitching body I’ve just plied with arsenic. “I won’t take it. I won’t.”
I’m annoyed with her for breaking character in our off-off-Broadway adaptation of Psychologist Forces Medication on Troubled Daughter. And it’s a bit rich to be a called a drama queen by a woman who got her Amanda Wingfield up only two weeks ago, bawling, “You’re tortured! You’re tortured,” when I finally confessed to the string of intrusive thoughts that, as befitted the daughter of a Southern woman, I’d coquettishly termed “my worries.”
“But I like my brain,” I whined as the psychiatrist confirmed my mother’s and my own suspicions— I had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder—and wrote out a prescription for Lexapro. (This was a lie; I’d have done anything not to feel the way I did. Except take SSRIs, apparently.) “I like your brain, too,” my mother replied. (Acting had never been her forte.)
I can’t help it. I start laughing, too, not because I find the situation particularly funny, but out of a curious sensation that will soon become as routine as the feathery heft of pill on tongue: real anger tempered by shame at the risibly feminine theatrics of it, a toddler weaving in the high heels of big-girl rage.
There’s no point in refusing it now. More funny-farm Falstaff than Cleopatra with aspic, I take my final bow and swallow.
“I feel like I’m raping you.”
I’m caterwauling like a porny polecat as my girlfriend fish-flops on top of me in the dorm room bed. I say “girlfriend,” because that is what he, a trans man, called himself at the time.
There they are: I feel, words damning in the mouth of a victim but absolving in that of a perpetrator. Feeling, not deed. He is not raping me; he merely feels like he is because my beer-bloated delivery is unconvincing. Is it the bald-faced simulation of pleasure or just the flimsiness of the performance that is so insulting? In either case, roweling his groin into mine is not the sin at play.
(Does he stop? I don’t remember. I’m too high to think.)
What does it matter that I felt like I was being raped, if he felt that he was not raping me? What does a drama queen know about rape anyway?
Our relationship is good theater: a push-me-pull-you farce of self-harm soliloquies. He tells me over the phone that he is cutting himself right now because I slept with a boy; I stick my finger down my throat because he kisses a girl in front of me. We are never not drunk. He burns a symbolic number into his thigh; I throw an alarm clock at the floor. He moves into my room without asking, dogging me to all my appointments with friends; I never have a minute alone. I etch a paisley-shaped ravine into my calf with a razor; tenderly, he soaks the wound in gin and binds it with duct tape. He cries when I tell him I masturbate.
One day, I’ve had enough of the two-way street of abuse and I tell him I want out. He convinces me to stay for just four more months before I go to Spain in the spring to study abroad, insisting that bad things will happen to him if I leave now. I’m terrified he will commit suicide, and so I submit.
Night after night I drink myself into character: as the curtain falls on my consciousness, it opens on him pumping away to a sweet baying denouement on my zippered jeans. It’s a sound I once found beautiful.
(Even now, writing this, I hear my mother’s voice paddle through the scrim of weed smoke and liquor-mist: don’t be lurid.)
Night after night I swallow the pill. It feels like nothing going down.
I can feel the diagnosis coming, a bodily portent like the flash of heat before a first kiss or the ass-clench that augurs one of my mother’s tirades.
“You have borderline personality disorder.”
You’re too pretty to be a psychologist, is my first thought. My second thought has no words: it is, startlingly, relief—an elixir pure as Xanax, syruping every cell. “Oh,” is all I say, and she blinks her surprise.
You’re not supposed to react that way to a personality disorder diagnosis. My mother is a child psychologist; I know about BPD. Rude waiters have it. People who stand too close to her in the checkout line have it. Health insurance companies are reluctant to cover it. Those who have it are, overwhelmingly, women—drama queens who conscript friends and family into the staged repetition of past trauma.
The first person to suggest I have BPD is Sierra, whom I dated off and on the month before this appointment. I’ve been sleeping on an air mattress in her kitchen ever since my roommate kicked me out of our apartment in the Irish Channel of New Orleans, following a night I drank a fifth of whiskey and cannoned myself into traffic. Sierra’s apartment is above a live music bar in the Quarter that doubles as grandfather clock: I can predict the arrival of early afternoon by the opening bars of House of the Rising Sun, dusk by Hey Joe, and nightfall by Brick House. Time has no meaning in that kitchen, where I lie embalmed in crusty bed sheets and watch the fattest roaches I’ve ever seen chuff across the floor like walker-bound dowager aunts.
Sierra’s room reminds me of an art installation I saw once in Shanghai, whose name translated into something like Consequences: a dirty fish tank where an implausibly live fish pickled in a ponderous fug of neglect to prove a point about climate change. She spends her days as an island in the center of a behemoth mattress, sleeping or playing RPGs which— as she archly says—is the source of her skill in bed.
Sierra sees more of me than anyone that month. She takes me to the river and listens to me cry because the night sky is so clear I feel like I can touch Orion’s belt. Over Bloody Marys in the live music bar, which is the only place I feel safe, I bite into Tabasco-coated hunks of celery and talk and talk, as Sierra—whose stepfather beat her as a teen—reassures me I am, in fact, crazy.
“You seem functional when people meet you, but once they get to know you they realize you’re kind of broken,” says Sierra, who hasn’t had a job in six years.
I call my parents to tell them the news and my mother tells me I couldn’t possibly have BPD, because I have never experienced trauma.
When you’re a drama queer, self-harm is its own kind of private cry-wolf bacchanal. It becomes a useful camera obscura onto which you can project a vision of suffering staged to your liking, without disturbing the rotting sediment of excuses—ever more recondite—that you use to pave over the reality of what happened to you.
I loved him. He had been assaulted himself, not long before our evening shows began. He was mentally ill; I was no angel. It was not his job to read my mind. We had an agreement. I thought, at the time, he was a woman; wouldn’t telling be an indictment of queer relationships that would prove my homophobic parents right? Didn’t this happen to everyone?
I was defective, I told lovers offended by my silence during sex. I wasn’t assaulted; I was just born wrong, I assured girlfriends when my vaginismus made oral sex impossible. My body is a battleground, I said, and that was just the way it was.
I mostly ignored #MeToo. I felt guilty at even the thought of publishing those words; I was still, after all, Facebook friends with my ex, whom I had forgiven years ago. I did not want to detract from the movement’s focus on the violence of cisgender heterosexual men.
Then, in early 2018, I read Babe.net’s Aziz Ansari article. I read Cat People. My gut reaction to the national conversation we were having about not only consent but plain old down-home bad sex was not of empathy, but derision: Worse things have happened to me, I sneered. Then it dawned on me: Oh God, worse things have happened to me.
What do you do when your assailant is not an assailant, but an open wound pressing itself against you?
How do you tell your mother when she says, after you’ve come out to her as gay, that you have no moral compass?
How do you write about this when you harbor no ill will toward your abuser (if he was an abuser?) who himself was the victim of (worse?) sexual violence? When you inflicted a much sharper hell on yourself in the years that followed by having sex you never wanted with men?
How do you know what is real when you have a diagnosis that others innately distrust? When your childish palate for sturm und drang becomes plaited into the reenactments of very real pain?
This is what I am still learning to do.
I remember that I did not have sex on my own terms for almost a decade and I mourn the time lost.
I have started moaning during sex—loudly—though it often sounds as forced and silly to my own ears as my souped-up crusade against Big Pharma.
I try to have sex with purpose, sex that I enjoy with people I desire and like. I do not always succeed.
I’ve accepted the role my machinations have played in hurting people I loved fiercely. I feel very real guilt and grief and horror at their loss, none of which I need to play up for effect.
I take pills.
I try to remember that, alien though it may feel, this queer story and I are still part of #MeToo.
I’d like to end by saying that I’ve fretted my hour upon the stage. That the veil has lifted and that I can—drunk on my own impunity as a capital-S Survivor and clear-eyed about the difference between trauma and high drama—charge full-tilt into a brave new world of sexual freedom.
But writing, too, is a performance. I will never know what role I played in my ex’s version of those nightly productions. The word “assault” still falters on my tongue. The curtain has not yet been drawn.
Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.
ENOUGH is a Rumpus original series devoted to creating a dedicated space for work by women and non-binary people that engages with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence. We believe that while this subject matter is especially timely now, it is also timeless. We want to make sure that this conversation doesn’t stop—not until our laws and societal norms reflect real change. You can submit to ENOUGH here.
Many names appearing in these stories have been changed.
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