I went out on Thursday with a man I hadn’t seen since April 2015. Four hours into our date, he grabbed a coarse handful of my hair and yanked it so hard it felt like my skull was going to come with it. I felt carnival ride level whiplash, and instinctively felt like I should vomit. It was a familiar reaction, one I could chalk up to the three beers I drank earlier and the fog of physical pain coming from someone I was kissing three hours earlier.
I immediately began to sob, panicking because I was in a vulnerable position around someone who still had my hair in his hand, and realizing this wasn’t the first time I was in this position.
He let go, but slowly, and shushed me like I was an ill-behaved toddler in the middle of a movie theatre. He held me while I cried, then started kissing me again. My hair was back in his fist ten minutes later.
The next day I was sick in my bed, alone, unable to move or go to work. I chalked it up to a bad hangover, but saw $6 on my vanity. I had $40 the night before, didn’t bring a debit card, and realized that only added up to less than a handful of beers with tip. I’ve drank more and felt fine the next day. I remembered how much I drank. I didn’t get out of control.
A handful of my friends texted me that morning asking me how it went, and I borderline gushed. “Oh, he was just as affectionate as I remember. We talked about his job working with dogs and how we both had close family members get sick this year. He held my hand when we left from bar to bar. He laughed at my jokes. He kissed me in front of other people.”
They were all happy for me. “One weird thing,” I mentioned, “I sobbed when we were together. He comforted me when it happened, but I’m not sure why I did it!”
A lot of my friends said that perhaps I had been triggered just by being around someone from that period of my life. When we first met, in January or February of 2015, I had been raped by the first boy I dated out of college 6 months earlier, trying to recover from something I wouldn’t admit happened.
I thought so, too. I slept on and off. Did some work. Ate a bowl of carbohydrates. Continued to feel sick. Fell asleep for four hours, and when I woke up, I started to ache again. My headache didn’t go away after 3 painkillers and an entire pitcher of water. I started to remember my hair in his hand.
I almost didn’t write this because I was too embarrassed. Embarrassed that I put myself in another situation with someone who could hurt me when the last two men I’ve dated were healthy semi-relationships. Embarrassed that literally hours before I had just told my friends about how exciting it was to actually feel excited about a date again for the first time since May. Embarrassed that I couldn’t piece together what exactly happened because my subconscious didn’t want to admit to a lapse in judgment. Embarrassed because my pain could easily be dismissed for irresponsible drunkenness.
My gut had been shaky the week before I went out with him. We had talked all week, him sending me videos of puppies, talking about how he had no male friends because he only got along with women, him agreeing with me that a lot of men had an excess of aggression and a lack of empathy. Something felt off, but everything feels off when you’re a sexual assault survivor going on a date. Every bone in my body screams “What if?” every time I sit down next to a man. I don’t know how to tell the difference between the instinctive fear I have of men and the true red flags thrown at me like a drunk throwing darts.
I didn’t listen, and I was hurt, so now it feels like my fault. It feels like my fault because I had 3 or 4 beers and was tipsy around someone who later pulled my hair out of my skull. It feels like my fault because I should know better than to go out with an ex fling from a period in my life when I was making abhorrent dating decisions. It feels like my fault because my memory couldn’t even conjure up what happened until hours later; in a courtroom, they will tell you this means I am lying.
Trauma emerges in unexpected patterns I can’t control. Giving up that control is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I can’t guarantee that every man I go out on a date with isn’t going to rip my hair out of my skull. I can’t guarantee that what happened to me isn’t going to happen again. I’ve had fantasies lately of getting comically strong—probably because the masses at my gym are all barbell people who have legs like thick tree trunks. I could be fighting off every person that comes through me, but that wouldn’t save me, either. We cannot be saved from this.
I’ve spent today entirely alone, and no one is swooping in to help, because no one can help. That is the most isolating part of surviving years of abuse and assault. We believe so much in the potential of men to be better and greater. I believed that about Billy despite our not exactly storybook dating history. I believed we can all be better. I’m not even sure if I can be.