color key — blue: mental health; yellow: relationships; green: relationship to self; red: abuse; black: suicide. contrast of light and dark correlates with bright and somber tones of voice.
Breaking The Looking Glass
Breaking The Looking Glass
Breaking The Looking Glass
Breaking The Looking Glass
“If you are silent about your pain, they will kill you and say you enjoyed it.” - Zora Neale Hurtson
In April of 2006, I received my first letter. A package of band-aids anonymously mailed to my dorm suite somehow made it to my college mailbox — someone had found my dorm number in the early days of Facebook, but not my mailing address. Shout out to the USPS for finding me. My first year of college.
I asked around — I had recently had a very hilarious trip-and-fall in broad daylight that left me a little banged up. Was someone trying to rub it in that I’m a klutz? No one knew what I was talking about. I shrugged it off as some weird but harmless joke I didn’t get.
A month later.
I had decided a few months earlier that this school was not for me. I had applied to transfer to another school. I got in! A week after, I made the announcement to friends and family, I got another letter. This one left no room for interpretation. I was not welcome at my new school, my reputation preceded me. I was a “freak.”
from: (college) welcome committee
NO CUTTERS ALLOWED.
YOUR FRIENDS LAUGH BEHIND YOUR BACK.
SO DO WE.
YOUR BOYFRIEND LIES.
YOU HAVE NO FRIENDS HERE.
YOU ARE A JOKE.
Panic. Shame. Silence. I only told my best friend and my boyfriend. They were at a loss, as was I.
Over two years, I would receive four more letters, including one on my birthday, and several anonymous emails threatening to spread my secret. Threatening that everyone already knew. Threatening they knew more about me — that they would tell if I didn’t quiet down (on my now defunct emo blog? in real life? I don’t think it mattered).
What was my secret? It seems so embarrassingly small now. But at the time, it was my world. It was ME. I was a cutter.
It started in high school. I now know I have PMDD (Pre-Menstrual Dysphoric Disorder), but throughout puberty and adolescence, my emotions, particularly my anxiety and depression, would cycle so quickly and unpredictably, I never knew what the source was. I convinced myself that I was emotionally incapable of being “normal,” “happy,” or “socially talented.” I would often feel suicidal for “no reason.” It was a chore to get out of bed most days in high school. Cutting was my last resort — when the walls were closing in, it helped me feel in control of my pain and ironically, in control of my self-compassion — it was the only time I would allow myself to cry, to sit, and breathe deeply and sob until I was numb and exhausted. I told a few friends, mostly because I was so desperately sad and scared that what I was doing would escalate. I think, like most teenagers (people?), no one I told knew what to do with it. So, I floundered and floated. I blogged. About everything — my feelings, my depression, my relationships, my frustrations. Everything except that I cut.
I found a great therapist at the counseling center my first year of college. She started me on my journey toward bravery, toward self-compassion. That story is for a different time, but I blogged on several platforms through the journey. So, of course, my social media presence became very specific — very emotional — very analytical, though relatively anonymous, about my relationships, people I observed and experienced directly or vicariously. I didn’t blog about the cutting, that was too much and it was clear that this secret would “ruin” me. It’s okay to be an emo college kid who keeps to herself — it’s not okay to be the freak cutting herself in the co-ed bathroom.
It’s always been ironic to me that the letters started on the tail end of a six year depression fog. When they came, they were such a punch in the gut. It was salt in the wound of a girl who was barely learning how to deal with daily stress, how to dismantle nineteen years of perfectionism and self-isolation, much less deal with this new type of assault. Violence. I still have to let that sink in. I can now say I have PTSD. That I was emotionally abused by someone who still doesn’t have a face.
Each letter in the mail followed an almost comical formula — red watercolor paint smears, a stack of band-aids, magazine letters cut out with mocking, mean threats and insults — usually calling me a freak, referencing some Facebook or blog post (meaning they were “watching me), and confirming my worst fear — that everyone already knew what a messed up loser I was. The emails were worse. I still can’t talk about those — mostly because that is where my story gets wound up in others’ stories. That’s not just my story to tell.
I don’t know exactly what made this person stop. I have some ideas of who they are, but in the last several years, I have been able to make my peace with dying never knowing exactly who tried to orchestrate my emotional death.
This person wanted to silence me. And they largely succeeded, for many years. I have been practicing, albeit in the most tentative ways, to be more vulnerable with friends, even acquaintances. Like a lot of people, I’ve made sure to tie it up with a bow, “and then I loved myself, and all was well.” But most don’t get in the grit and grime and messiness of the middle parts. It is sanitized. And I know for me, that’s because, to really talk about it, to share the blow by blow, means to relive it. To call up the panic, the fear. To feel the electricity course through my veins. To feel the fight, flight, freeze impulses cycle through me in seconds.
We rarely share our defining moments. I mean, some of us will talk in global terms about our experience — that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve talked about being stalked, bullied, harassed. I’ve even talked about self-injuring. But I haven’t even come close to describing the level of psychological terror I felt as I opened each letter. The hard swallow I still do every time I open the mail. The sinking heart skip I feel when something is hand-addressed. How I am always waiting for someone to twist my words, twist my identity, make it ugly, and publicly shame me for it.
It is still so hard to tell this story in full because I am ashamed. I am ashamed of admitting that I was so weak, and sometimes still am, that I would prefer physical harm to sitting with my emotions like a good girl. That I would scar a body that was meant for others — men. I was even ashamed that maybe I had legitimately pissed a friend off in the early days of blogging about my relationship/friendship anxieties – that I had proven I really was a navel-gazing, self-involved brat, and this was my punishment. I am still terrified that I stupidly, carelessly made enough of a frenemy that they knew exactly what a fuck-up I was and that they would tell everyone I knew.
I still don't know if I was willingly vulnerable with this person who stalked and harassed me for years. Someone must have broken my confidence at some point — but was my stalker a wolf in the weeds who heard secondhand or were they a former friend?
When you own your stories, no one can use them to hurt you. I am tired of blaming myself for this part of my story. I am so proud to say that I can now count my recovery from self-injury in years, not days or weeks. But it’s still a daily mindful practice not to internalize the shame and mental abuse of those letters — not to mentally cut myself. I have had to become less ashamed of the dark parts of me, largely because the secret is already "out" among those who want to harm me — they shot their shot, and I survived. I am open now about my journey with depression and social anxiety and my belief in therapy. And still, this experience has made me trigger-happy. I still leap into relationships too quickly, over-share, panic, and isolate.
I am still stone cold afraid this story makes me the fuck up. So I am telling the midnight circle first.
My kind mind reminds me that I have no reason to be ashamed. The person who did this to me is the only guilty one. The person who did this to me was in more pain than I was or ever will be. And I have reached a point where I can wish them peace in the same breath as I wish for peace for myself.
I can now see this for what it was: I was attacked by a ghost for being an emotional, expressive young woman.
I am tired of feeling in my most shameful moments that I am blowing this out of proportion. I’ve kept these letters in a box under my bed as tokens because some days I convince myself that it never happened — that it was all a figment of my imagination and neediness to be a Pretty Sad Girl. But even as I write those words I can hear them as my tormentor’s words; the implicit shame carried by those letters was meant to make me lock my own cage. But no more. This is real.
I am sometimes depressed, lonely, and anxious. Years ago, I used to cut myself. I was stalked, harassed, and emotionally abused over several years by a phantom, with my shame about self-injury as the primary gun aimed at me. I have PTSD. Part of my stalker’s mission was to gaslight me — to make me believe I deserved to be ashamed and quiet about all this. I sometimes convince myself that I dreamt it all, that it’s not real.
Protest has always been how I coped. First through blogging, even in coded language, about my experience through the years of panic, anxiety, waiting for more. This story, typed out, is part of my way out of wonderland. Of breaking the looking glass so that I can’t ever go back to wondering if this happened to me.
This happened to me. I survived.