[The following blog contains mentions of physical and emotional abuse, as well as homophobia and transphobia.]
When I was eleven years old, my father made me start going to the gym that he and Mom had joined about a year earlier. They’d taken me there before and made me sit in the waiting area while they worked out, but as my father started realizing things about me that I hadn’t yet realized about myself, he started doing a lot of things to try to pull me away from me becoming my real self. (I want to say that he did a good job of concealing open homophobia and transphobia from me, but I was probably too stupid back then to notice those things; growing up in the eighties really messed with my head.) The gym alternated between men-only and women-only days (so you can imagine the kind of environment he wanted me in), and even though it had a rule stating that members had to be at least sixteen years old to join, the fact that I was already taller than two of the three trainers there meant that my father had a relatively easy time convincing them to make an exception for me.
The problem was that even though I had the height of a full-grown adult back then, I sure didn’t act like one. Although I took the safety concerns of the gym seriously, I kind of thought of the place as a playground. The reason my father kept taking me to that gym (before he had me join) was because he was too cheap to hire a sitter for me, and after he started his own business shortly after I turned eleven, he had the school bus drop me off at his business (in a seedy section of downtown Toledo) instead of our house. Since he always worked late nights, and I had a huge load of homework to do every weekend, that meant I hardly ever got to engage in anything even remotely related to play back then. The start of his business wasn’t the only factor in the sudden death of my childhood (we’ll talk more about how my school factored into those efforts another time), but it was a big one.
Because I still acted like a kid in some ways (you know, because I was a kid), I didn’t exactly make many friends at that gym. I don’t want to sound like I was some kind of perfect angel there, because I know I did some dumb things, but they were the kind of harmless dumb things that eleven-year-olds do. Still, another member of this gym decided he’d had enough of me one day, and he beat me up in the pool area, right in front of everyone. No one tried to stop him, he never faced any consequences afterward, and when my father (who hadn’t been in the pool area at the time) found out what had happened, he said I deserved it.
I wish this incident stood out more than it did, because then I could point to it as some aberration in my young life. Unfortunately, this was around the time that my father’s violence against me and Mom was hitting its peak, and even though I’d get beat up at school a lot more in the years that followed this episode, I was still enduring a lot of abuse there, physical and otherwise. This was the only time I was ever assaulted at that gym, but the location of the assault is the only thing that really stands out. Getting my ass kicked on a regular basis was just something I was used to at the time.
It’s that pattern of abuse — at home, at school, and elsewhere — that’s given me so many problems since then. It was bad enough that I was assaulted so regularly back then, but no one who beat me up ever faced real repercussions for what they did. (A high school teacher who beat me up — just because I suggested a story to the school paper that he didn’t like — got away with a verbal warning from the headmaster, and that’s the biggest consequence I can remember any of my assailants ever facing.) Not only was I getting beaten up so often that I couldn’t even think about counting the number of assaults I endured, but I kept getting messages from nearly everyone around me (especially my father) telling me that I deserved to get the crap kicked out of me. It’s impossible to hear that so often, especially at such a young age, and not have it leave a lasting impact on you.
Fast-forward to today, and I’m a successful writer and English teacher. All the efforts that my father, and that teacher and that guy at the gym and all those other people, made to hold me down just didn’t work. In spite of all they did, I succeeded. The thing is, people may say that “living well is the best revenge,” but sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. I’d just gotten out of the shower this past Friday night, and I was getting ready to watch the news, when memories of that assault at the gym shot right to the forefront of my mind, despite there being no obvious trigger for me to remember that episode. In an instant, I was plunged back into that mental space of being a pre-teen who was a literal punching bag to all the people around her, struggling to defend even the hint of a notion, in her own head, that she didn’t deserve to be treated that way.
There’s a constant stream of what-if scenarios racing through my brain at any given moment in my day, ranging from possible schedules for my afternoon to ideas for future short stories and novels. As a creative, this is a very useful thing to have. As a survivor of abuse who is clearly still traumatized by what I went through all those years ago, though, those what-ifs can be debilitating. Part of the reason I try to surround myself with positive energy (besides, you know, everything else going on in the world right now) is because my mind can go to some appallingly dark places, and when I’m forced to relive those horrific episodes from back then, that’s usually the start of my brain really going bad on me, and leading me to thoughts even worse than those memories.
Forgiveness is something I’m still struggling to learn. As awfully as I was treated by my father, and that teacher, and that guy at the gym, and all the classmates who beat me up back then, I want to be able to forgive them, but when all those assaults keep coming into my head unbidden, and I start reliving all those feelings, practicing forgiveness can be all but impossible. More to the point, I’m reminded every day I teach that many of my students have endured things far worse than I’ve suffered, and as much as I want to personally forgive the people who hurt me, I can’t forgive the people that allow this kind of abuse to persist (if not flourish) in today’s climate, especially when those people have become so much more powerful in the last few years.
I’m finishing the first draft of this blog about two hours after I was sidelined by memories of being beaten up at that gym, and all the things that led to me being at that gym in the first place. I’ve got a lot of student papers to look over this weekend, and I should probably do some meal prep for the next couple of weeks, especially since the bitter cold this weekend is probably going to keep me in my apartment until my Monday morning class. I hope that I’m not forced to relive any of those assaults for a long time, but if they can keep popping into my head out of nowhere, even though they happened more than thirty years ago, then I know that I can’t count on being able to go more than a few seconds without another bad memory knocking me for a loop. All I can do is hope that I can keep doing what I’ve been able to do in my life since then, and use those memories to give me fuel for my efforts to make sure that fewer young people have to go through what I went, and what I continue to go, through.