First the Pain, Then the Rising

Life scared me into being small. It pushed me to be fearful, to be quiet and obedient, to never be “too much,” too intelligent, too driven, too ambitious, or too much of a leader. To take what I earned and worked for and “just be grateful.” To only speak when asked, to only act when prompted, and to settle for mediocrity when excellence and brilliance were my signals of virtue.

Life scared me into believing that my purpose on this earth was merely to exist. It led me into thinking that I was a singular cog within the capitalist machine that trudges on and on. It engrained into my mind that insignificance and replaceability were facts of this life, and that in spite of the depth of my heart and my mind, I would never have the capacities to create, reach, and impact the way I wished to.

Life scared me into believing that I am too weak, alone, and unprepared to deal with pain. That I was incapable of braving the storm and it somehow taught me that because I felt things so deeply and thought so deliberately, the world and all of its pain would be too much for me to handle. It made me believe that the heart beating inside of my chest and the mind functioning in my head like clockwork were not sufficient, that all I desired would forever be unattainable, and that the anguish, heartache, torment, grief, and suffering that reveals itself in abundance would ultimately defeat me.

I’ve always had BIG thoughts. BIG feelings. BIG connections. BIG ambitions. BIG dreams. BIG opinions. BIG words. A BIG aliveness within me that was waiting to prevail and to break through the confines and the cages that society urged me to create for myself.

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As I’ve grown, learned, and evolved, there is one truth that I have discovered and will forever cling to: that if I truly desire the things I believe myself to value and uphold, that I must not only be willing to face the storm, but that I embrace and move towards the pain it may bring. What I want most out of this life— fulfillment, love, vivacity, wholeness, compassion, impact, meaning— do not come to those who cower away from the pain. In fact, I’ve found that in the moments during which I felt most complete and human, pain has always been close by. I have learned to welcome the pain this life breeds for me and for those close to me, and I do my best every moment of everyday to inch closer and closer to the discomfort, for that is the source of growth. The deepest pains of my life have also been the ground from which I have evolved abundantly, loved most deeply, felt most wholly, and have succeeded in being most human. In spite of life’s relentless teachings that pain and sorrow may only beget more, boundless pain and sorrow, the end we reach after enduring such pain is anything but an end. Following the pain, learning how to navigate, cope, create, and feel our way through is the beginning of our journey towards becoming more human— of unraveling and untangling the cages and systems that have always inhibited us, the negating of the age-old teachings that push us into taming ourselves for the likeness of others and of society, the revolution and evolution into who we are truly meant to be.

I shied away from the BIG for longer than I care to admit. I believed my big feelings, big thoughts and insights, big wishes and dreams, big aspirations and intentions for inspiration, and big voice to be *too* big. I stayed in the cage that the world presented me with upon entering this life, and as I grew and began to better understand what womanhood and minoritization constitute in this nation, I enabled the tightening of my cage. As I came to understand the nature and function of a capitalist state, I felt the bars around me closing in more and more everyday. As I began to face pains and the inevitable tribulations of life and the human condition, I began to stiffen the bindings of the cages myself. I withdrew, scared of it all. I had tamed many of my big feelings, but the fear always remained, a haunting reminder that I could not shrink myself nearly enough to escape everything I so desperately wished to. I thought that avoidance would lead me to happiness or joy, or at the minimum, apathy. Perhaps the fear was so big that I would have rather felt nothing at all than the feelings I knew to be so powerful that they might kill me. I convinced myself that self-preservation was the highest virtue I could settle for, and I believed my survival to depend on my own withdrawal, my ability to anticipate the potential harms, pains, despairs, and anguish that life could have waiting for me right outside the confines of my own cages. So I withdrew. I settled for a small life, because the BIG seemed too much for me to cope with:

To feel nothing at all was less scary than feeling everything all at once.

How wrong was I?
As it turns out, the lessons that the world drilled into my mind were not, in fact, what I have found to be true. Not only that, but they were completely antithetical to what I actually want my life to be like— what I want ME to be like. But then again, how could I have ever expected the world that created and handed me the cages to be the same source of my freedom and wholeness? The past few years of this life for me have undoubtedly been the worst of my life. I’ve felt what I thought to be the greatest heartbreaks and griefs imaginable, I’ve lost more than I can properly put into words, I’ve failed miserably time and time again, and I’ve had my fair share of finding comfort in the darkness and anguish the harrowing realities of the world brought to me. What I didn’t expect, though, is that with the heartache came insight. With the loneliness came contemplation. With the loss came an emptiness now home to my most precious and beautiful memories. With the failure came reflection. With the grief came connection and humanness. And with the darkness ultimately came the arrival of a light breeding a transformation and strength I could have never seen, felt, or anticipated. If the lowest of my lows have taught me anything at all, it’s that no matter how fiercely I run away from pain and how extensively I try to shield myself from its impact, I will never run fast enough. I can never fully disappear. Pains and trials will always approach me faster than I can move away from them, and it will always find each of us, for it is what makes us most human.

 

 

It took me a long time to figure out that in this lifetime, trying so desperately to avoid the BIG-ness I knew deep down that I wanted was simply impossible to see or experience from within the confines of the cage I allowed myself to adopt and exist in. If I truly wished to seek the dreams I had conjured, speak with the strength I knew I had, write with the power and impact I wanted, and experience the fullest, most authentic and beautiful life I knew, pain was inevitable. It was the starting line, and a daunting one at that. But somewhere along the way, I got tired. I got tired of living a small life, having a small voice, settling for what the world told me I should be grateful for, and waiting for “the moment.” I had waited years and years for something extraordinary to wedge its way into the orbit of my restraints, and it never came. Because it never does. The moment that I was constantly waiting for would never come, because not only was I so conditioned to feel and see only the surface of everything this life offers, but I had not even granted myself the time, space, and freedom to grow into knowing exactly what moment I was actually waiting for. Much of my life has been spent waiting for these BIG moments that have never arrived, because I felt more comfortable in the waiting room of my cage than outside of it creating and existing in the moment I wanted to experience. Because all I allowed myself to feel and be was small, I was constantly anticipating the BIG to arrive— the euphoric joy, the greatest of tangible successes, the most brilliant of thoughts. The gift of time has provided me the necessary pain I needed not only in order to begin breaking free of my own bounds, but to begin being the BIG I had been impatiently waiting for.

Years ago, I never expected to be here. In grad school. Thinking these thoughts. Writing these words. Loving and losing. Growing with every step and breath I take, never knowing if the direction of my growth is in alignment with what I desire or value. What I do know is that now, having faced the pain and knowing that I will continue to walk towards it, is that my life is the most true, authentic, and beautiful it has ever been. I am here to keep becoming deeper, more true and real versions of myself time and time again. To be alive is to be in a perpetual state of revolution; some of it willful, some of it fateful.

The people I most admire in this life are many things, but resilient, courageous, intentional, empathetic, and human are my favorite things about them. I now know that no one gets to be those things without having first faced the storm, endured the pain, and learned to overcome. The overcoming, or rising, follows the conquering of the pain, and there is nothing more true and beautiful about this life or the human condition than this— that the same pain and deep suffering that makes us fall to our knees and falter more than we can imagine is what also grants us the freedom to evolve, to see the world through new eyes, to become all that we wish to be, and to grow into the people we are meant to be. You don’t get to be resilient, brave, courageous, insightful, or wise by shying away from the pain and avoiding all the heartbreak that comes your way. Only the brave are warriors, and that is the greatest sense of freedom I know.

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So now, whenever I sense the cage closing in on me and taunting me with its confines, I remember the pain, and then the rising. And as many wounds, aches, and troubles I may face in both embracing and being the BIG I always waited for, I remember how living a small life felt. I remember the roads and paths I could have taken that may have eased up my journey and made it more bearable. But then I remember the feelings; the ones that cannot be replaced, understood, or even felt inside such a small life. Untangling myself from the world’s expectations, definitions, and dividing lines will always be messy, and I know that it will inevitable leave me more open to harm and pain than if I were to choose the safety and preservation that accompanies societal boxes. But I’m tired of waiting for the big moments, and I refuse to allow this singular, ever-fleeting, precious life I have to shrink into anything less than magnificent. If I have one shot at this, I would rather risk feeling everything and living through it all than avoiding all I can and diminishing my human potential with every inhibition of freedom I procure. I would rather be “too much” than nothing at all. I would rather love so deeply and risk losing just as intensely. I would rather feel great joy and risk the great sorrow. I would rather feel inspired and enthusiastic and risk disappointments and frustrations just as large.

I would rather be vulnerable and leave myself open to the pain and suffering, for without it, the truth, authenticity, and beauty of this human life and in the rising would be lost.

 

 

Me Too.

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I was 16. He told me he loved me. I believed him.

I remember thinking in the moment that this wasn’t right, that this wasn’t how I should have felt. I remember thinking that the problem was me, who just didn’t want this and didn’t feel comfortable. Not in the slightest. I’ve never felt more unsafe or more uneasy than in that moment, for I knew what was coming. Had I done something to insinuate this was what I wanted? Did I give consent unknowingly?

No.

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He pushed me onto the floor and held me there, relentlessly telling me that this was what I wanted. More than that, he told me this is what he deserved. After all, he’d been waiting for three whole weeks since we began dating.

During those weeks, I found myself in agony, walking around school hand in hand, knowing the kinds of messages he would send after the final bell rang. I never anticipated how quickly things would change once we decided to move beyond a friendship, nor did I want things to turn out the way that they did. I now understand the patterns and signals of abuse more than I ever thought was necessary, and they scream at my past self everyday. How could I not predict it? How could I not understand the danger I was in? Those first weeks continue to haunt me all these years later.

I was only 16 when I found myself on an irreparable path of destruction and abuse, just like the ones I had always been warned about. I never thought it would be me. It couldn’t be. Growing up, you always hear stories about things like this and wonder if that could happen to you. Maybe if you’re careful enough, it won’t. Maybe if you’re smart enough, strong enough, confident enough, etc., it won’t happen to you. But the reality is, none of that matters. No measure of intelligence, strength, or confidence can serve as a proper shield against sexual assault or abuse, for it is so much deeper than that. It’s deeper than the movies you’re shown or the books you’re encouraged to read, it’s deeper than a manipulation of the physical body, and it’s far deeper than what my 16-year-old mind could understand and fathom at the time. I knew that I loved, but who knew how deeply that would complicate things?

He was my best friend, and I was his. I loved him, and that is what so heavily blinded me. We grew into what I believed to be a good relationship from the greatest friendship, something I never thought could go awry or cause such immense pain. From the start of our relationship, though, there was a great shift in dynamic. I remember feeling both confused and concerned that so early on, we were encountering frequent disagreements, many of which revolved around sex. I remember him asking me, not yet one full week into dating, if I was ready to take the “next step” of our relationship. I told him no, that I wasn’t comfortable and didn’t feel ready. I was young, and although I hadn’t yet begun to identify or address the ever-growing pit in my stomach upon having to say “no” and stand my ground, I was scared. I knew that wasn’t what I wanted, but I also knew that I loved.

In my heart and in my mind, I knew that I shouldn’t have had the concerns I did from the start, nor should I have ignored the red flags that were placed in the line of my vision time and time again. I understood that it wasn’t healthy or respectful for him to be asking me everyday whether or not I was ready, when I was finally going to consent and want that for our relationship, or attempting to guilt me into pleasing him by victimizing himself as he compared our relationship to those of our friends, many of which he claimed “had more fun” and “experimented more” than us. He told me that’s what he deserved, that he had done so much for me and always supported and loved me. So why, he asked, couldn’t I do this one thing for him? He would explain to me time and time again his position and would defend his aggression and persistence by self-aggrandizing, never failing to mention that he believed himself to always be the one who was forced to compromise, give up what he wanted, and put me first. He tried to persuade me every moment he could find, urging me to “just understand” what it was like to be him, a teenage boy in a 3-week sexless relationship. He pushed and pushed and pushed, always framing it as a transaction he was so justifiably owed. I owed him my body, and I owed him everything. He deserved it. Who was I to deny him?

Weeks later, when I found myself on the floor of his living room, arms pinned down, and clothes being torn off, it was all a blur. I felt everything and nothing all at once, somehow hoping the world could stop so that I could think straight. I told him no, but his hands continued to travel down my body, ultimately reaching the button on my jeans. He unbuttoned them, and again, I removed his hands. Twice. Thrice. My heart beat faster, and though I spent weeks convincing myself I wasn’t afraid of him, I was terrified. My blood ran cold, and I became paralyzed. I froze, and though I felt the tears welling behind my eyelids, I could not release them, nor could I speak. I held onto the guilt of freezing up for years. How could I have not been stronger? Spoken more? Fought back harder? Fighting or fleeing was not even an option in my mind. I couldn’t think, and thus I couldn’t move. The tears spilled down my cheeks as I lie there in silence, wondering how I had gotten here. What I had done to deserve this. What I could have been punished for. Why I was unable to even function.

It’s taken me 6 years to forgive the 16-year-old me in that moment, who found herself unable to even breathe, let alone continue to resist and fight after having done so consistently. I understand now that that was a trauma response, and both my body and mind were unable to do what I believed they should have. Still, it’s hard to swallow. I never imagined myself to be anything but a fighter, and it’s easy to assign roles and actions to yourself when the experience is yet to be lived. Should I ever find myself being sexually abused or assaulted, I would fight. Or I would run.

I did neither. I couldn’t.

I’ve found the grace to forgive myself for that moment, though I know I have nothing to apologize for or reconcile. I had neither abandoned what I knew and expressed were my feelings and intentions, nor did I fail to speak up and stand strong. And still. Years later, the lump is still in my throat. If not for that first time, for the remaining years of our relationship I allowed it to continue.

That may have been the first time I felt violated, but it certainly wasn’t the last. I never felt safe, and I never felt comfortable. I never felt whole, and I rarely felt appreciated, let alone loved and cherished. After initially pressuring and manipulating me into sex within the first weeks, the trend only worsened with time. He would push me to have sex with him everyday, and we would for months at a time, for he always threatened me with expectations and guilted me into believing I somehow needed to serve him and his insatiable desires. Everyday without fail, he would touch me without consent, in spite of my consistency in telling him “no.” He would continue, with an undeniable aggression and a look in his eyes that I will never forget. There I would end up–in his bed. As soon as he would finish, it was done and he never once cared to ask how I felt or if I was even okay. It became ostensibly clear to me that all he wanted was to get off, and that’s what he expected everyday. Soon enough, the problems moved far beyond solely unwanted sexual advances and assaults. He consistently held things that I had told him in confidence over my head and would threaten to blackmail me when things weren’t going the way he wanted or expected them to, and I was told from some of my close friends that he constantly reached out to them in order to complain about our sex life, my body, what I was or wasn’t giving him, etc. I never understood his behavior in general and the way in which he viewed our relationship and consequently treated me to be abusive at the time. I knew what he was doing during those years was not normal, but I couldn’t allow myself to believe I was a victim of abuse in the relationship, because somewhere along the way I had internalized his sick proposition that I did, in fact, owe him something. And that my love, companionship, encouragement, loyalty, and heart was not enough for him or any relationship I found myself in. I didn’t believe it to be possible for him to be abusing me because I had convinced myself that being in a relationship with him made that impossible. As a 16-year-old, I didn’t understand that being in a consensual relationship did not imply consensual sex. That being in a consensual relationship didn’t necessitate this kind of treatment, nor did it mean that I was so disposable that I owed him things. I thought that my love for him inherently counteracted and rectified the horrible things he said and did to me, and I thought and talked myself into believing that I could not have been mistreated, because I had decided to love him.

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I’ve never lost touch with the shame I felt throughout the entirety of the relationship, nor even now, years later, in telling all of this. I wasn’t able to get myself to tell a single soul until just last year when I explained my experiences to a few close friends, and I truly never thought I would be here, writing this post. Every word brings a kind of agony and pain so deeply-seeded in my experience, but simultaneously offers an odd release and catharsis. The truth really does set us free, and I’m only reminded of that more and more as I continue to lean into the discomfort and embrace the pains of the past in moving forward. Though (after years of studying and learning) I understand far more about what sexual and psychological abuse and assault look like, I continue to carry the burdens of guilt and to comprehend that the shame is not mine to bear. These moments and this time continues to appear in my mind as distant memories from time to time, and the anguish appears to be ever-present. Even so, I’ve never felt more in-touch with the things that happened to me as my mind continues to slowly unravel them, unpack things I had sown away for what I intended to be forever, and deepening my understanding of myself and what used to be. Accepting that these things happened to me was an internal war I waged for may years, and I used to feel ashamed for even pondering the thought. But the truth is that it did. Part of me thought that simply acknowledging the reality of what I’d been through would somehow make it impossible or more difficult to move beyond, or that it would delegate me as weak, a victim, or incapable in more ways than I could imagine. This was an unfair burden to place on myself, and I speak now in order to alleviate and prevent others in similar positions from doing the same. Remaining silent and postponing healing does not make you braver; it only deepens and intensifies the wounds that have been inflicted upon you and that you never deserved. Not speaking is not in itself an act of valiance or virtue; do not fall into believing that your protection of your abuser makes you more courageous than you have always been.

You are brave without protecting others. You are brave for protecting yourself. You are brave in speaking your truth. You are brave in living a life most authentic and beautiful to you. You are brave within your own mind and within your own life. You are brave all on your own.

You are brave.

You are brave.

You are brave.

This world and society has a way of indoctrinating into our minds that rape and sexual assault only happens in dark alleyways by a man with a weapon while walking alone at night, or that sexual abuse implies the weakness or ignorance on behalf of the victims. Realistically, abuse is everywhere. It is everywhere, and it is fervent and undeniable.

Every 73 seconds, a person is sexually assaulted. 1 out of every 6 women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime (14.8% completed, 2.8% attempted), and 9 out of every 10 victims of rape are female. About 1 in 33 men have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. Furthermore, 55% of sexual assaults happen at or near the victim’s hime, 15% occur in an open public place, and 12% occur at or near a relative’s house. In addition to the falsified narratives perpetuated through our being taught only about aggravated assaults in alleyways, what they fail to teach us is that our love or care for somebody does not negate the abusive way in which they behave in a relationship. You can know somebody, love somebody, and even be in a relationship with them, and there is still a high potential for abuse to occur. Do not abandon yourself so deeply into believing your experience is impossible. The body remembers even what the mind does not, and the pain and trauma is undeniable and often long-lasted. I gaslit my own experiences and pain for many years, and I’m only just beginning to come to terms and understand all that happened to me.

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“No” does not mean “convince me,” and neither does “I’m not sure,” “I don’t like that,” or “I’m not comfortable.” Only “yes” means “yes.” Endgame.

To anyone who has ever experienced this kind of pain or suffering, I am so deeply sorry. I hear you, I see you, I know your pain, and I believe you. Even if you never choose to speak, to write, or acknowledge the truth of what you have so bravely endured. You deserve to feel safe and validated, and if you struggle to find a space in which that is available to you, I will be that space. We will create it together.

All my love,

Kam ❤