ENOUGH is a Rumpus series devoted to creating a dedicated space for essays, poetry, fiction, comics, and artwork by women, trans, and nonbinary people that engage with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence.
The series runs weekly, most often on Tuesday afternoons. Each week, we will highlight different voices and stories.
How the President Broke Up My Marriage
My husband was working late at the office. After I put the kids in bed, the evening was my own. I poured myself a glass of wine, pulled up Facebook, and had the first panic attack of my life. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood tape had just been leaked to the media.
It’s impossible for me to forget its contents. Trump was on a bus, bragging about having had sex with a woman. His language was grotesque. He spoke of maybe kissing a woman without asking her permission, about grabbing her by the pussy. Then, a woman showed up to greet Trump as he got off the bus. I wanted to reach into the screen and drag her to safety, and of course I couldn’t. Trump had already done whatever he wanted—to her and who knows how many others.
Millions of women across the world had visceral reactions to that tape, and so did I. It was sickening. I crossed my arms across my chest to keep from throwing up. Blood rushed and roared in my ears. I couldn’t see straight. What was this? I shut off my laptop to stop the video from replaying automatically. I couldn’t catch a breath. I had no idea what was happening to me. There was loud static in my brain.
An hour later, by the time my husband came home, I’d managed to pull myself together a little. While I made up a plate for his dinner, I tried to tell him something was wrong with me, that I thought I was having a panic attack because of the Access Hollywood tape. He laughed
uncertainly. “You’re not serious,” he said, and then he shook his head. “God, that guy is disgusting.” And then he changed the subject.
Static snapped and crackled in my brain the whole weekend. I kept forgetting to turn off bathroom faucets and kitchen stove burners. I’d feel a panic coming on and I’d clench my fists to stave it off. Food made me sick, so I didn’t eat. Coffee was all I could take. Every few minutes, the contents of the tape would flood back into my brains and…
The tape was a red herring, though. Something else happened that weekend that turned the initial trigger into a sustained state of panic that lasted nearly two months afterwards. It happened Saturday morning.
My husband and I were having sex. He wanted to try something new—a toy he had bought for me. But I didn’t want anything to do with it. “No,” I told him. “No, I don’t want to try that.”
He didn’t stop. I pushed his hands away from me, flung the toy two feet away, and said, “No, stop! That looks painful.”
He got the toy back and just kept right on going. “Hey, don’t worry, you’re going to love this.”
But it hurt. I told him it hurt. He didn’t seem to hear me. I wanted him to stop, and I didn’t know how to stop him. The moment felt surreal; there was no air, everything was loud, I was in pain, and he was still going. I burst into tears. That was when he stopped. He seemed surprised. “Aww, honey, it’s okay,” he said in a soothing voice, rolling onto me to comfort me. “Hey, you’re okay, right? Are you okay?”
I tried to stop crying. I felt silly. Embarrassed. “Sorry,” I said between sobs. “I’m sorry. It’s nothing. Sorry. I’m sorry. I’m such an idiot. Sorry.”
“Hey,” my husband whispered in my ear. “You’re so hot when you cry. You’re turning me on.”
I stopped crying at once. Kissed him. Told him to go on. Pretended to like it. So that I had really, literally, definitely been asking for it.
A few days later I went to see my new therapist, Dr. B. I had started seeing him just three weeks before, to work on my ADHD and practical disorganization. But this session was nothing like the first three.
I told him about seeing Trump’s tape and my panic following it. I had eaten nothing for the past six days. I was sleeping maybe two or three hours a night. I was barely getting through each day, messing up every little thing (dinners: burned; soccer practices: late) and driving my husband to frequent rages. Even my children had remarked on my blank stares. What the hell was this? And how was I supposed to stop it?
Dr. B asked me about my history. Had I ever been sexually assaulted?
“Not really,” I told him. I’d lived in India until I was thirteen, and I’d experienced a lot of street harassment there, but nothing big. Nothing major. Just men groping me on the bus sometimes, or in crowds. A flasher or two. Mostly, catcalling. One strange neighbor who would phone me when I was alone at home to say, “Madam, I want to have sex with you.” Nothing serious. Every girl I knew at the time was going through the same experiences. We used to giggle about it together, this creepy rite of passage into womanhood that had to be kept secret from our elders under pain of losing our childhood freedoms.
Dr. B frowned. “That doesn’t sound like nothing.” There was a pause.
Instead of protesting his statement, I found myself saying, “Well, there’s actually some stuff I’m not talking about yet.”
Dr. B nodded as if I’d said nothing out of the ordinary. “All of these things probably matter,” he said. “We often believe traumatic incidents in the past are forgotten, but they linger, and
they can be triggered at unexpected times.”
I was barely listening. My whole body was tense. I couldn’t believe I’d just said what I said.
“And of course,” Dr. B continued, “like you said, there are things we haven’t yet spoken about. We are still so early in this process. This is only our fourth session. Sharing sensitive matters takes trust, and trust takes time. It’s important that you find a pace that’s right for you.”
I found myself speaking almost involuntarily. “I don’t know. I trust you. It’s not even a big deal. It’s just… sometimes, like, I’m not into receiving oral sex, but my husband doesn’t understand that. It’s really not bad or anything, he just doesn’t realize that I really mean that I need him to stop, is all, but it’s weird, you know, that he doesn’t stop?” Jesus Christ. Why was I talking about this? I plucked at the stitching of the cushion on my lap and told myself I was going to keep my mouth shut from now till the end of forever—or at least until the end of this therapy session.
“And what do you believe he is trying to do?” Dr. B asked, in a neutral tone. “I don’t know, just, I mean, I don’t know, trying to make sure I have a good time?” He asked, “Does it feel violating?”
“No!” I exclaimed. “No! Really. It’s not like that. I don’t even know why I mentioned this. It’s really not that big a deal.” I shut my eyes, fending off another wave of panic. This was horrible. The room was so quiet that every outside sound—traffic, the white noise machine, a bug at the
window—was unbearably amplified. I wanted to sink right into the tan couch and cover my head with the cushion.
There was a long, long pause. Then Dr. B asked softly, “Is there more?”
I tried to look up at him, but I couldn’t. Somehow I was staggeringly, helplessly relieved that he had asked this question. I nodded, mute and miserable.
“Do you want to talk about it right now?”
I shook my head. My eyes were stuck to the rug on the floor. Oh god, make this stop so I can go back to my life and pretend nothing had ever happened. And, oh god, never let this stop, so I can use the help this stranger is offering to maybe make sense of my goddamned life.
Our focus in the next session stayed on my anxiety, lack of appetite, and sleep issues. I had concocted a masterful rationalization for avoiding any discussion about what my husband had done: it would be dishonest and unfair, I told myself, to talk about my marriage with my personal therapist while my husband and I were still in couples’ counseling. This space was for me. That space was for my marriage. The two had to remain separate.
Once or twice, Dr. B prodded in the general direction of the elephant in the room. I’d shake my head, and he’d let me be.
He went over some grounding techniques to calm myself during anxiety attacks. “Name the colors in the room out loud,” he said. “Try listing three faraway sounds and three nearby sounds.” I nodded. Then he wanted to teach me a breathing exercise, and he asked me to set aside the cushion on my lap. But the second I lifted it off my body, panic flooded through me. Nope. I pulled the cushion back onto myself and held on for dear life. No breathing exercise for me.
Dr. B shifted in his chair. “Suddenly I am very aware of my gender,” he said. “It’s not inconsequential. All the incidents and events you’ve been telling me about, like the street harassment in India, all the aggressors were male. It’s not always the case, but it frequently is. And that matters. We tend to carry that sort of fear in our bodies. It becomes almost hardwired into us; it’s purely neurological and physiological.”
I was still trying to recover from my panic and embarrassment. I didn’t understand what he was saying. It was confusing. “I don’t think you’re trying to attack me,” I said with a small laugh. “Sorry. I didn’t mean… I do feel safe here.”
“Well it’s just biological, though, this response,” he said. “I always make sure to mention my gender and other possibly relevant factors because it’s better to address it openly than to sweep it under the rug.”
What was he getting at? Was he going to tell me to switch to a female therapist? I felt sure I’d never be able to say to someone new any of the huge, risky things I’d disclosed here. I was suddenly desperate not to lose his help, not to have to start again elsewhere.
But Dr. B was talking about something else now, on a tangent about how our reflexes and responses were programmed into us, something about monkeys’ brains and cave people trying to distinguish between tigers and bushes. He went on for several minutes. By the end of that, I was feeling fine. My panic was gone. I told him so.
“So, my inane chatter helped you feel better?” he said, grinning. I laughed. “No, that was interesting! And it gave me something to focus on.”
We agreed that if I felt panic coming on, I’d try to use some of the calming techniques we had discussed. I left his office saner and more grounded than when I’d arrived.
Journal entry, October 21, 2016:
The first step is to call things by their name. What happened to me is…
I can’t. Honestly, I can’t. It doesn’t feel like it, I know he didn’t intend it, and I don’t care if it technically was… or… well… I do care. It does matter, damn it!
But I can’t do it. I can’t say the word. Since when am I such a coward?
When I next met with Dr. B, I was able to tell him what had happened on that Saturday morning three weeks ago. I drew an unreasonable amount of strength from when he’d asked me, “Is there more?” That question showed how closely he was listening to me, how much he understood about the predicament I was in. It gave me an opening to say what I needed to say. I was grateful, grateful, grateful. My words to him were halting and brief, my story was unformed and truncated. But at least I was speaking the unspeakable. I wasn’t alone with my burden anymore.
“And was that violating?” Dr. B asked when I had stopped.
“Yes,” I whispered. Silence. “But it was only this one time. Nothing like this has ever happened before.”
“You don’t have to minimize it if you don’t want to,” he said. “If it felt violating, then we can let that stand for itself.”
And so we did. It hung in the air, unnamed and more powerful. I looked at Dr. B helplessly. “I’m a feminist. I learned feminism at my mother’s knee. What am I doing? How could I let this happen to me?”
“You tell me,” Dr. B said. “Why do you think someone who has experienced a sexual violation might be tempted to blame themselves?”
“Just walk it through. Why might you be saying that to yourself that you let it happen? What are you looking for when you say that?”
“… I want to think I had control over it.”
“And I did! I could have stopped him. I don’t know why I didn’t. I should have told him to stop, like, for real, in the proper tone, instead of …” I buried my face in my hands.
“Is that what you’d say if a friend told you this story?” he asked gently.
“I don’t know. I don’t know anything. You must think I’m crazy for still staying with him and still loving him.”
There was silence for a beat or two. I sat on the couch soaking in shame and despair, knowing I was worthless, knowing I was embarrassing myself more and more by the minute.
“I’ll be honest,” Dr. B said, “There is a part of me that feels protective of you. I don’t want to see you harmed. But let’s leave what I feel outside the room. Out there is where my feelings belong. In here, what matters is you. We focus on how you feel and what you want to do. If you love him and you want to stay with him, then we’ll work out how to do that safely. This is your life.
It’s your story. You get to write it however you want.”
My story. My story, to write however I want. My story, for which I had no words, no courage to tell it truthfully.
“I can’t even name it!” I burst out. I feel like I’m standing at the top of the basement stairs in a horror movie, and everyone knows I shouldn’t go down there, but here I am, I’m going down. This can’t be happening to me!”
“Since when am I such a goddamn coward?” was the question that remained in my head for days afterward. There was no answer. How could I be so far gone as to lie to myself? If I was afraid of a word, then I did not recognize myself anymore. That wasn’t me. One thing I had always been able to do, I thought, was to look unflinchingly at the truth and name it, come what may. Simply by defining myself as the kind of person who does that, I found that I could do it.
Journal entry, October 24, 2016:
I can say it now. I can say that it was rape. He raped me. It’s not quite real yet but at least I can say it.
My husband raped me. He has been sexually assaulting me for years. It has always been assault. He will never see it that way, but it is true.
How is it that I’m forced to live two realities at once? At home, with him, I can never name it. Never speak my truth. It would be outrageous. For now, it feels to me that my relationship is inescapable. It may be a cop-out. It’s not technically true, obviously. But how can I possibly do that to the kids?
The weekend after that session, my husband and I took the kids to a fall festival. We picked pumpkins and went on hayrides. The three of them downed half a dozen apple cider donuts. I still couldn’t stomach any food; I had subsisted on coffee and a few crackers for more than three weeks. As we walked around the fields and found our way through the corn maze, my husband held my hand.
I thought, What kind of person holds hands with their rapist?
Dr. B. repeated my words back to me slowly and deliberately. “You thought, Who holds hands with their rapist?”
I felt like I’d been punched, hearing that word come out of his mouth. He held my gaze gently until I could no longer stand to look at him. It was horrifying, that word. Rape. My husband had raped me. For a moment everything in the universe fell away except for that sentence. My husband had raped me.
A hard voice spoke up in my head, asking, If rape doesn’t cross the line, what does? If rape isn’t enough to make you leave him, what is?
I can’t leave him.
“I have to leave him,” I said, in barely a whisper.
“And whose decision is that?” Dr. B asked.
I would own it. “Mine.”
Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.
ENOUGH is a Rumpus original series devoted to creating a dedicated space for work by women, trans, and nonbinary 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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