Trigger warning: Child sexual assault and abuse, trauma
It’s around the time of year where the memory is creeping up again. Waves of heat. Clouds of dust. Graduation caps and gowns and parents piling their child’s goods into the backs of SUVs and U-Haul trucks.
I remember last year, this same time, sitting in the third row of risers on the stage of my high school auditorium. I squinted into the camera as I was handed my diploma. I accepted the rose that came with it. I was so nervous, so emotional. I couldn’t imagine leaving again. I never thought I’d make it to high school graduation. I never thought that high school graduation would mean the things that it did.
Ends of the year have always been difficult for me because they mark all the times in my life I had to leave things behind. Sometimes, ends of the year have meant being forcibly separated from my family, forced into an institution, or sent to a place I knew would abuse me as a person with a disability. I have lived in five different places in the past five years, all of them a variety of medical, behavioral, and educational institutions.
Throughout my late middle and high school years, my unexplained health issues—the GI issues, the weakness, the heart trouble, the weight loss—became a burden to my parents. I was repeatedly institutionalized in psychiatric facilities. The longest was for three months, the shortest for nine days. I learned quickly that my status as disabled designated me to many in those institutions as sub-human. It cost me my childhood.
I was 13 the first time I was institutionalized. On the first day, a staff member took me into the exam room to perform a strip search. I refused to take my clothes off. She threw a tissue box at me for crying. I weighed 70 pounds. My heart rate was 33 beats per a minute. I worried if I fought too hard, exerted too much energy, my heart would stop. And I would die.
The second time she took me into the exam room, seven days later, she told me to take off my clothes again. She made me lie naked on the table. As she touched me, she laughed at my crying. When I was asked five years later during a police investigation why she touched me the ways she did, I didn’t have the answer. After all, rape by a woman, in English, where sexual assault is defined in many states as penetration by the sex organ for the purpose of sexual gratification, does not have language.
You can’t go home
I learned throughout my adolescence that my voice didn’t matter. I learned in the days and months following that first hospitalization that my disability label was meant to continuously invalidate my voice. Some 86% percent of incarcerated women have experienced sexual abuse in their lifetimes. I cannot even find statistics on the rape and abuse of institutionalized children because no one has ever cared enough to talk about the abuse of youth, once locked away, who become the liability of the state.
When I returned home, I stopped talking to my parents. I ran away on a regular basis. My dad would call me and tell me if I did not come back, I would be arrested. He’d chase after me. When it became clear I would not return, he would use my empathy to get me back to him. After an hour or so or running, he would collapse onto the street and moan, pretending to have a heart attack. I’d stop in my tracks and run back to comfort him. He knew I could run from violence, but I could not run from someone else’s pain.
In April of that year, my dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and said because he was dying, and I had given him nothing in return with my silence, I had to show that I loved him. He’d lock me in the car or bathroom with him for several hours and not let me out until I told him I was sorry. When my words weren’t enough he began popping the lock of my bedroom door and coming into my room right when I’d get out of the shower. The institution made me believe the ways he treated me were okay. I did not realize what happened those nights was sexual abuse until after I left home, six years year later.
A different kind of homelessness
At 19, I am now an unaccompanied homeless youth, as defined by the Federal Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) definition of homelessness based on the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA). Unaccompanied homeless youth is defined as a youth, without fixed or stable housing, who is not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian. For me, it means last year, after high school graduation, I fled my family home to a shelter. For the first time in five years, I disclosed in detail what happened to me at a local rape crisis center.
Ends of the year are difficult for me because they mean the school doors close and the streets open and my body remembers what it’s like to be completely alone. Many people don’t understand the definition of unaccompanied homeless youth, much less the ways it puts an edge to words like endings. They don’t understand that the “unaccompanied” is just as significant as the “homeless” is just as significant as the “youth.” Even though I rarely reveal my identity as such, people at school have prodded me around breaks with, “Well if you don’t go home to your parents, then where DO you go?”
Let me explain. The unaccompanied doesn’t come from the complete absence of people in my life. I had many people by my side when I became homeless: my former teachers, a school social worker, a youth worker from a shelter necessary to my survival. I am grateful for these people. Unaccompanied comes from the absence of people who will love you unconditionally; the absence of a stable, human constant in your life.
The homelessness does not mean I have no roof over my head. Both the HUD definitions and the RHYA definitions have, for a long time, defined homelessness beyond rooflessness. Definitions of homelessness include those who couch surf, double-up with relatives, and live in a shelter. Homelessness is defined as lack of stable, permanent residence. Unfortunately, stereotypes of homelessness as street homelessness are the only thing, in their visibility, that many pay attention to. I have not lived in a stable place without fear of rooflessness for the past 12 months, but I say I am formerly homeless because it takes too much energy to explain to others the precarity of endings.
The reality is that the homelessness lasts as long as I am afraid of being pushed out onto the streets again when the school doors close. The unaccompanied lasts until I find—if I find—a family.
The life within words
If there was a constant, however non-human, that kept the ground stable, it’s been creative writing. After that first hospitalization, I never stayed long enough in one place to form the trust needed for human connection. Paper was not human, but it was the bridge, the time capsule, that kept visible the trauma I felt society wanted silent. Writing was preservation. In the months, then years after my sexual assault, I felt comforted in knowing I would leave something behind in my own voice. I was tired of who had been allowed to write the story.
In eighth grade, when I returned from the hospital, I wrote 500 pages. I wrote all that had happened in the months before the assault. I wrote about the things that had been happening in my home to silence it. I told myself, once it became clear no one would believe me or listen, that I would kill myself once I reached the end of the story. As I wrote, though, I discovered something: By trying to write toward an ending, new stories kept coming. The more I wrote, the more I realized I couldn’t stop. Writing was, and still is, my lifeline. As long as I keep living, there will be no end of the story to tell.
Creative writing saved my life. It taught me I could leave evidence of harm even when those who perpetrated set out to erase that harm. When I began sharing my personal experiences as fiction, it taught me I could make public my grief without risking my secret. Later, it taught me that my experiences could be thrown onto the table for judgment without the experiences being attached to my body. And eventually, when the fiction was called too cliché to be “real,” having my words on paper first gave me the courage to step out and say the fiction was nonfiction and had happened to me.
Shaping an identity
Last autumn, I finally began sharing my writing about my experiences with childhood sexual abuse publicly and won a scholarship for my creative work to go to a sociology conference in Georgia. There, my personal story became my public testimony. My public testimony became my first experience finding a community of others in search of family.
Trauma has come to ripple into every facet of my identity. I identify now as asexual. For me, it means I cringe at the idea of sex and romance. Intimacy is about emotional understanding, not physical touch.
I don’t search for partners, but I find myself, still, in an unwanted search for family. I am afraid I bother too many people, and I push myself away when I become too close to those old enough to be my mother, honest enough for me to trust them, present enough to temporarily fill a hole that cannot be filled. My asexuality is about my relationship to trauma, and about a paralyzing, deeply rooted fear that if I love anyone and believe that I am loved, I will be hurt when I realize the love of a family is irreplaceable. Sometimes, it feels contradictory in a world that tells you your lack of sexual desire, too, means brokenness.
The people who have helped me the most in the past six years have been my teachers, both the formal and informal. I am grateful for the language, understanding, and sense of community these people have given me. My education has been lifesaving.
The power of stories
In the past five years, learning, and applying what I’ve learned to my trauma, despite the constantly changing landscape, is something that stays. In October of this year, I became involved with an organization called The Voices and Faces Project, whose mission is to change public discourse on sexual violence by sharing stories. In April, I took that mission upon myself and shared my story at the Capitol for Take Back the Night, and then in writing about the abuses of institutionalized children for Rooted in Rights. I can’t say it has healed me but writing and speaking have given me a purpose and a ground when I often feel, with so much pushing away and leaving, unneeded anywhere.
It’s that time of the year again. The time of year where the doors close, and the people who have accompanied me for the year vanish behind institutional boundaries. My legs shake when I step outside of my last class for the semester because I know it’s time to leave again. But for the first time in six years, my moving does not mean leaving the city. This time, I move less than a mile away into an apartment, the first place with a kitchen and a bedroom and a bathroom I can temporarily call my own.
Last summer, on that final day of wandering between friends’ and strangers’ houses before I found shelter, I sat on the train and put my head against the tinted window. The whole city whizzed back at me. I imagined I could see the past moving inside the billboards, could see the staff member from the hospital who taught me how little she thought I was worth, the nights I’d spent running, the locked bedroom and institutional doors, the pushing away.
Home does not exist when the people around you, the family that did not choose to raise you, tells you your survival means nothing. They will tell you, once you turned out to be a contradiction to the image of a child they wanted, that they wished you were never born. I have been told, many times in my life, that because of my circumstances I am not important, and I have nothing worthy to say.
But they got it wrong. They did. Survival is always a story.
If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse or violence in the home, please reach out to any of the following local, LGBTQ-inclusive resources:
• Domestic Abuse Intervention Services
abuseintervention.org – 608-251-4445 or
• Dane County Rape Crisis Center
thercc.org – (Eng.) 608-251-7273, (Esp.) 608-258-2567
• Briarpatch Youth Services
youthsos.org – (608) 251-1126