The coffee maker bequeathed its little “ding,” letting me know that the pot was ready for consuming. I never let myself drink the coffee before the entire pot is ready; it always tastes different if you do, less full bodied. I poured myself a cup, adding cream and sugar, just the way I liked it. I went outside to my apartment balcony and sat in the teal high-backed lawn chair that I bought for that singular purpose. I found it relaxing to sit outside enjoying the sounds of the morning while sipping my first cup of the day. Today, though, I couldn’t enjoy the birds singing in the spring air. To be honest, I didn’t even hear them.
There are times in life when we are thrust into positions we never imagined for ourselves. I kept staring inside at the apartment; looking at furniture, pictures on the wall, and the possessions of two people. But I was the only person left in the apartment.
The feelings that welled up inside me over the next few weeks were like old friends; fear, shame, guilt. The fear that I would be alone, once again, without someone to call my love; patriarchal gender norms at their finest! The shame of giving up on yet another relationship; this wasn’t the first time I ran away from a partner. There was also the guilt of wondering what I did wrong.
I met Bertin in the spring of 2011. In 2010, I went through a rather irregular divorce, after which I moved to California. We decided to do what was best for our two children, which included trying to make the divorce as easy as possible. Bertin was pretty much the exact opposite of my ex-husband: unpredictable, irresponsible, and unstoppable. He was everything that I wanted to be; everything that I pretended I could be.
Our fights were like two storms coming together. I was the tornado, tearing through life, creating a path of destruction and pain. Bertin was a volcano, quiet until suddenly he burst through with the power to demolish anything in his path. Needless to say, we were not a good combination. We met in a whirlwind. A swirl of time in which it all seemed to stand still. And each day we were together the storms tried to tear each other apart, but those storms were us! We moved from San Diego to Los Angeles, then from Los Angeles to Minnesota. We broke up and came back together three times during the two years we were together. He went on a trip to see his family in San Diego.
I remember dropping him off at the airport. I drove my green two-door Mitsubishi. I picked the car out of the lot, not for gas mileage or durability. I picked it because it had a sunroof, and I always wanted one. Bertin and I ate breakfast at our favorite diner. It was a tiny family owned restaurant that was only open for breakfast and lunch in Monticello. I always got their pancakes, amazingly large and fluffy, with hash browns and bacon; Bertin got the corned beef hash with eggs, which was his favorite from our first visit. We drove to the airport holding hands the entire time. His smooth fingers rubbed in the space between my thumb and forefinger. We chatted as though it was any other day. He never lived away from his family, which was something I could easily understand. I kissed him goodbye; thinking that I would be seeing him in just one week. But a month later, he was still making excuses as to why he wasn’t coming back home.
Everything in my life seemed to be a tumultuous affair; my relationship with Bertin, my family life growing up, my twelve-year marriage to Gerard, and my friendships. They all seemed to be situated around common factors; fear, shame, and guilt. But, I didn’t realize how they fit together, until the day I stood in that apartment surrounded by Bertin’s things.
When I look back now, I realize that these emotions were in control of me during most of my life. During that time, though, they just seemed normal. I hardly knew anything else. And so, I sat there in my empty apartment, all alone, and I finally decided that I had to do something drastic. I had to make myself whole. I needed to find a way to live more.
I sat down for the first time in my life and tried to really figure it out. I turned to some of the things that have always been a part of my life, books. I love to read. There have been times in my life when books were a substantial escape for me. Sometimes I would read up to five books in a single week. I began reading Elizabeth Gilbert and Alexandra Stoddard. Both authors wrote about taking deep looks within yourself. Sometimes you might not like what you see, and that’s okay, but you have to look. I didn’t see someone strong inside myself, although that’s the kind of woman I have always thought myself to be. I found someone who spent the last thirty-some years running.
I was sexually abused for twelve years of my childhood. It started when I was five years old, and continued until I was seventeen. There were three men who abused me during the most vulnerable years of my life. Sometimes, even now, I look at a sentence like that and have a hard time believing it.
Those years of abuse were tremendously hidden, in a number of ways. First, no one within my family knew about the abuse. Second, I hid the abuse deep within me during most of my life. Once a year, I would have a remarkable breakdown; the only time that I would let out the pain. Usually this would result in sobbing for a couple of days, with no one to console me. After a few days I would pack it all away, within its neat little box where I believed the effects of my abuse needed to live. I lived nineteen years with constant emotional roller coasters. During that time, I tried numerous depression medications to try to solve the adversity that was my life. But medications for depression are for changing the neurotransmitters in our brain that affect our emotions. My own depression wasn’t just in my brain; it thrummed through my blood and hid in the deepest reaches of my soul.
I finally began to understand that my abuse was harming me in ways that I couldn’t even begin to fathom. I could no longer push aside these emotions and memories. I knew that I had to confront them if I ever wanted to be happy.
Health insurance is woefully lacking in assistance for those that need any sort of counseling services. I was stuck in an expensive lease that I was paying for by myself. I definitely did not have the money for the eighty-five dollars an hour that some of the clinics were charging.
I used to work with a woman, Samantha, who I knew was a licensed counselor. I was hoping that she would have some ideas for low cost assistance. She knew that the Central Minnesota Sexual Assault Center had advocates and counselors on hand, and that they provided free services within our area. I snuck out to my parent’s garage one particularly hard day, when I was feeling the creeping emotions pulling me deep into their embrace, and I dialed the phone number that Samantha had given me.
“Central Minnesota Sexual Assault Center, how can I help you?” The woman on the other side of the telephone asked.
“I’m not really sure,” I said, “I think that I need to talk to someone.”
“What would you like to talk to someone about,” she asked. “I need to know a little information so that I can get you to the right person who can help you.”
Here it was, truth time. Whatever I said here would mean that more than a small handful of people would become people that knew about my shame. I took a deep breath, but my voice came out in the tiniest of whispers.
“I was sexually abused as a child, and I am having a really hard time right now. I’m sorry, I don’t know what else to say.” The tears were already falling down my face, and I could feel myself sliding into the all too common frame of mind that hit me once a year.
“Thank you for sharing with me” she said, “I am going to get you on the line with one of our advocates.”
A few moments later I was talking with someone who helped me find a little bit of calm that day. She also told me some other options for future help. I could call the advocate hotline any time I wanted, and I set up a meeting to meet one of the centers counselors at a church nearby my apartment.
I will always remember the first time I met with Julie. I was terrified; shaking the entire time. It was so rare for me to say the words out loud. What would she think of me? One of the men who abused me was my dad. In some ways I hate him, but in other ways I love him. He has always been a part of my life; my family’s lives; my children’s lives! How fucked up would she think I was? However, Julie put me completely at ease. We didn’t have to talk about it right away, if even ever. She was there to listen to me. Whatever I wanted to say.
We did end up talking about my abuse that day and once a week thereafter. But what she taught me about myself was so much more. She helped me find confidence; the confidence to believe myself and to trust myself. She helped me find the dedication to follow through with confronting the things that were to become known as my triggering events. Instead of hiding them, trying to pack them away in those neat little boxes, I could let them out. Visit the memories, and find a way out of them. She reminded me that five-year-old Emmy was still a part of me and she was scared!
One of the things that has helped me the most is a picture of myself in my phone. I was five years old, and the picture was from when I was in Kindergarten. I am wearing a blue button up shirt with little red flowers on it. I remember the shirt was cotton; it was always crisp but smelled of Downey fabric softener. I had three colors of yarn in my pigtails: red, white, and blue. I always loved it when my mom did my hair; these were some of the last happy years of my life. When I am triggering, it’s important to remind myself that that small child is safe. I will look at the picture and remind her, “You are safe. You are loved.”
Julie and I also talked about ways to develop and maintain healthy relationships. I found great importance in the idea of having healthy relationships with everyone in my life. I learned to find boundaries within my relationships.
From those counseling sessions emerged someone I never thought I would see; a person who was happy and adjusted. Someone who realized when she needed to slow down and look at situations with deeper analysis. I found myself.
There are a number of relationships in my life that I have had to re-evaluate. Each person that has crossed into my path has had to be scrutinized; a decision to be made. I think that too often we do not want to take a hard look at the people in their lives. We see everyone as a blessing; someone who loves us needs to be cherished.
But, sometimes, a person is not good for us. It isn’t that there is something wrong with us, or them. When we deconstruct something we are able to look at it with a different lens and dig deep into the meanings behind them.
In this instance, I was deconstructing the relationships that comprised my life. I had to look at them from another lens, and not just the lens of social acceptance that I was raised to accept as normal. That was the lens that allowed five year old me to not say anything about being touched sexually for twelve years. By looking at this new lens I was able to see the complexities in my life that had me thinking these events as almost normal. And as I looked back, I realized that I did think of those things as normal. There was a time in my life when I assumed that this is what daddies did with their daughters.
Stay tuned for Part 2 in Emmy's Story, coming next Tuesday!
Emmy Phillips is a senior at SCSU in the English Rhetoric program. She was sexually abused for twelve years of her childhood, starting at the age of five. It has taken a lot of work to be where she is today, and she is proud to say that she is a survivor. Some days are really easy, but some are really hard. Her dedication to helping survivors has culminated in the completion of sexual assault advocacy training, and is now ready to volunteer to help others through painful times. Wherever you are in your journey; never be ashamed of your story, because it will inspire others.