Coming Out of the Dark

Trigger warning: this post deals with sexual assault and mentions suicide.

August 25th creeps up on me from behind every year, clamping its hand across my mouth and holding a knife to my back, forcing me to relive a horror almost three decades old.

On August 25, 1989, I died. 

The person I’d been died. Rather, she was murdered.  On August 25, 1989, I was sexually assaulted by a group of men in a university dorm room.  The 20-year-old girl I’d been was left for dead — not just by my attackers, but also by me. By the cops. By medical professionals. By people who couldn’t understand what had happened, and assumed it was my fault.

All these years later, I’m still trying to come back to life.

Twenty-nine years after the assault, I no longer think about it every single day. I know that even the most mundane of my choices and actions are still shaped by what happened that day, but it’s become unconscious; secondary and instinctual. Every August 25th, though, everything comes to the foreground, the feelings and memories as fresh as if they’d happened the night before. I wake up with it foremost in my head; the fear, the anguish, the sense of physical and emotional loss, can’t be shaken.

I’m still surprised that it happens like this — that every year, my brain recognizes a date that I try so hard to ignore, or genuinely forget in the rush of my life. This year, I went to bed on August 24th happy and peaceful. I’d spent the day working on my novel and making lovely summer memories with my kids and dog. I hadn’t given a thought to the date.

I woke up in hell.

From the moment my eyes opened, I felt my heart pounding: an anxiety attack, before I was even properly awake. Throughout the day, random images flashed through my consciousness, like slides on an old carousel projector:

A slash of late afternoon sunlight through the dorm room window. 

The clothes I was wearing that day. 

One of my shoes, abandoned in the middle of the room. 

A wooden chair knocked over.

A spilled glass of rum I’d never even wanted. 

A couple at the Elderhostel who, seeing me drugged and unable to speak in a hallway, with my clothing askew, called me a slut and walked on by. 

The boy who’d been part of the attack but who helped me back to my room, put me in bed and apologized. 

The coffee I’d gotten from Tim Horton’s the next morning, that I’d let go cold because I couldn’t deal with putting anything in my body. 

The nurse’s stern face at the hospital. 

My own bedroom in my parents’ house, the next night, looking so ridiculously innocent and normal that it made me angry to be there (a feeling I still get when I go there).

These are, in fact, almost the totality of the memories my brain lets me see. Even after 29 years, I’ve never had full recall of what happened that day — only snapshots and random sounds. Part of this is, I strongly believe, because the drink I was given had been drugged. The men were so insistent that I drink it – all of it. It’s also because of a head injury I got during the attack. One of the memories is of sitting in a bare wooden dorm chair, being pushed backward and hitting my head against the hard, tiled floor. I remember the sound as my skull knocked against the floor, the sensation of pain, the fear, the utter disbelief that this could be happening. Then, mercifully, I remember little until it was over. That I still only remember these vignettes is, I believe, my brain’s way of protecting me and keeping me alive, a built-in resilience which amazes me and for which I’ve been so grateful over the years.

That I remember little of the attack was, of course, a huge deal to the police, who didn’t believe anything had happened. Nor did the medical staff at the small town hospital my friends took me to the next day. I remember a nurse saying, “You must have been drinking”. I remember the doctor asking what I’d been wearing. I remember being told to go home and sleep it off, and to be more careful next time.

“Next time”. The very idea that there would be a next time caused me to vomit. That caused further looks of disproval and judgment from the medical staff, who (I felt) were more interested in cleaning up my sickness than they were in what had happened to me.

The police contacted me at my summer job because a report had been filed by the university. I didn’t want to file a report myself. I wanted to forget it, not re-live it, and in 1989 women were treated horribly at sexual assault trials (little has changed). And I didn’t want my family to know. I thought my parents would be so upset. I thought they’d be angry at me. It was my mistake, I thought (already internalizing the cues the world was giving me); it was my secret to keep.

The police officer took my account of what had happened. My memory of it, just a few days after it had happened, was even more full of holes than it is now. I knew he didn’t believe me. He said, “If you don’t remember anyone having sex with you, how can you be sure it happened?”

I thought to myself: four men. Blood. Pain. Bruises. Being unable to wear my pants comfortably. This constant feeling that I want to vomit, shower, purge myself…end myself. 

To the police officer, though, I said nothing. I couldn’t tell him names. I couldn’t remember faces, or what people were wearing. I had no answers for him. I had no proof that would matter to the world.

I thought that maybe each year, my brain would allow me to know a little more about the details, when I was ready. Maybe I’m still not ready, because I still don’t remember. But I’ve come to realize that remembering the physicality of what happened is not what’s most important. A sexual assault isn’t about a sexual act, after all, even though that’s what the media and society will focus on. It’s an act of violence and terror that is just the starting point in tearing away one’s sense of humanity and power and sense of place in the world. It’s the beginning of a life that’s based on fear and survival. It’s a murder: the death of who you were before, the death of friendships, the death of possibility, the death of courage. Those young men killed me that afternoon, as sure as if they’d put a gun to my head and pulled the trigger.

I have been reborn, to be sure. I’ve built a life. But that life is so different from the one I’d envisioned for myself, before that afternoon, that it seems like it belongs to someone completely different — a twin I’d forgotten about, perhaps, or someone from a past life. 

I was 20. I’d been a journalism student, confident and excited about the future. After, I dropped out of school for a while. I floundered, trying to understand who I was now, when (in fact) I didn’t want to be anyone. I didn’t want to be. I drank too much. I got into a series of crap relationships. I stopped going to the gym, because I clearly remember my attackers commenting on my body and asking if I worked out. I lost most of my friends, and still have a hard time being close to people. I developed an eating disorder, turning my anger and loathing inward on myself. I treated myself with as little compassion, and as little respect, as I’d been treated. I ran away across the country and back again, trying to find myself. And I kept it all to myself, because I blamed myself. It was my fault this happened. If people knew who I really was, they wouldn’t like me, anyway. I feel like on a Wikipedia page for “lost potential” or “failure”, my photo should feature prominently.

On August 25th, I mourn. I mourn that young girl who, in moments of middle-aged weakness, I still judge as having made poor choices. I mourn who I might have been, and all the things I might have done, had my courage and very life essence not been taken away. I grieve for how I’ve treated myself, the friends I’ve lost, and how alone I’ve been.

I grieve, too, for my friends who found me that night. We’ve known each other since Grade 7, and are still bound awkwardly together by our own memories and experiences of what happened in that dorm room on August 25, 1989. For years, we didn’t speak of it. I didn’t speak to them, although they spoke to each other. And then years later, convinced I was losing my mind and making the whole thing up, I emailed one of them to ask if what I remembered was real. She filled in enough of the details to confirm it was real. It had happened. And she shared with me that my dear friends had their own struggles to deal with what had happened. They’d had their own feelings of guilt, anger, and confusion. They’d struggled to trust and to continue with ‘normal’ life. In my own pain, I hadn’t even considered theirs. We still haven’t talked about it face-to-face, at length. That will take a strength I’m not sure any of us has been able to muster. 

A few months after the assault, on December 6th, 1989, a man walked into a classroom at l’École Polytechnique in Montreal carrying a rifle and hunting knife. He separated the women from the men, and killed 14  women —  simply because they were women. I remember watching the news that night and seriously thinking about taking my life. That very day, I’d officially dropped out of journalism school (using a fake excuse, because I didn’t want to tell the avuncular director of the school what had really happened). My parents — who I still hadn’t told about the assault — thought I was flaky and irresponsible. My friends thought I was a loser who just wanted to spend her time drinking, not studying. I was utterly lost and couldn’t see a future. I didn’t want to continue in a world that was intent on destroying women, one by one.

The #metoo movement has brought back so many of these memories and feelings for me. It’s been difficult. But it’s also allowed me to start speaking my truth: this did happen, it’s affected me profoundly, and don’t you dare question it. Each time I hear the stories of Mollie Tibbetts, Reteah Parsons, and so many other women who’ve died as a result of sexual violence, I feel sick and weak. And then I see the marches, the women coming together to speak their truth, and I feel stronger. One story can make a difference. One thousand stories can spark a revolution. 

This August 25th was a lot like the twenty-eight that preceded it. Every nerve in my body was jangling from the moment I woke, like a jolt of electricity was flowing through me all day. Everything I did, from what I chose to eat for breakfast down to what I wore and where I went, was tied to memories; my actions were being directed by the ghost of who I was. I could not shake the grasp of the memories any more than I could shake the grasp of my attackers.

This August 25th was different in some important ways, too. I went to the gym — something I’ve only started doing this summer, with my 14-year-old daughter. It’s not about fitness, or weight loss, or any of the usual reasons. It’s about getting back my strength, literally and figuratively. It’s about not letting my attackers have something I once enjoyed so much. I’m reclaiming my power.

I was also extra kind to myself this August 25th. Typically, my inclination is to stay alone, hide, isolate, mourn. This time, I got out. I stayed close to people and things I love. I moved about in the world, not as a ghost, but as a grown, alive and very vulnerable-feeling woman. I ate ice cream with my kids. I spent time in nature. I sat on a beach. I watched the stars in the late summer sky.

I also opened a notebook and wrote something important: thoughts for a creative non-fiction book about this experience. I’d like to write about how the assault shaped my life, as well as how it affected the lives of my friends and others around me. I want to show how sexual assault isn’t an act against one person: it’s an act of violence and betrayal against society, and has far-reaching implications. Exploring it all in depth will take a courage I still need to find, but by next August 25th, I hope I’ll be stronger. 

Thirty years is a long time to hold on to a secret and self-loathing. Although I don’t keep what happened to me a secret any longer, each time I share a bit of what happened I panic. Will this affect how people think of me? Will it be used against me? What if the friends who abandoned me back then (and to whom, admittedly, I was pretty crappy) come back and laugh or say, once more, that I was lying? What if I get called a slut again? What if one of those men who attacked me read this blog and found me?

The fear is pervasive. I’ve let it hold me in, hold me down, for too long. Trauma kept inside is dangerous and erosive. Sharing stories like this might help someone else feel less alone. I don’t want anyone to feel the way I did — the way I have, for so many years. I know I am stronger now, and I need to keep building that strength. Speaking my truth is one way to build that muscle.

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The wolf and the trail of breadcrumbs

Over the past two years, I’ve shared a story at a few national conferences on digital health and patient engagement. It’s the story of how we first learned that Puck has Tourette Syndrome (TS), and the first time I realized how much energy and know-how it would take to navigate our health care system. It was a disempowering experience, but looking back, it pales in comparison to the messes we’ve encountered in trying to access care in the mental health system.

When Puck was eight, he started having severe headaches. He’d already been diagnosed with severe learning disabilities a year earlier, but he’d never really had any physical health issues. Our family doctor believed his headaches were migraines. She recommended getting some blood tests, and she suggested a CT scan just to rule out anything else.

We got the CT scan within a week. A few days later, on the Thursday afternoon before Easter, my doctor phoned me. (You know that’s never good: it’s usually the office manager or receptionist who phones, not the actual doctor.) She told me that  ‘something suspicious’ had shown up on the scan of Puck’s brain, and that while we shouldn’t assume the worst, we should prepare for it. 

There have been few times in my life when I felt as weak as at that moment.

The doctor said she’d send a requisition for the next available MRI, so that we could get a better idea of what was on Puck’s brain. All we could do was wait.

Weeks went by. Every time Puck got a headache, I imagined a ticking bomb in his head. I waited to hear about our MRI appointment. At work, I phoned my home answering machine every hour, hoping there’d be a message. There was nothing. After almost three weeks, I phoned my doctor’s office. The receptionist put me on hold for a long time, and then came back and said, “Oh sorry – we actually forgot to send that requisition. We’ll do it right now.”

And so, we waited some more. 

At the time this was happening, I’d recently finished working as the senior policy advisor to Nova Scotia’s Minister of Health and Wellness. I knew first-hand about the challenges with the health system. I read the frustrated letters from people who couldn’t access the care they needed in a timely manner. Almost weekly, the Minister and I spoke with people who were upset they couldn’t access specialized treatments or drugs they needed (or believed would help). I had thought that most people’s frustration with our health care system came from needing something extra; something more than our health system could reasonably offer. But now, going through this myself, I knew it was about the whole system: the lack of coordination, the lack of empathy, the lack of timely access to even the most routine care. 

Don’t get me wrong: I am a huge supporter of our Canadian health care system. But I believe many of the problems we face are not a Canada-only problem. So much of people’s frustration with any health system comes from the complete lack of compassion and information – the lack of patient connection to the decisions and communication about our care. Those are problems found in most systems, whether universal or insurance-based. Information IS power. It gives you a sense of control over a very out-of-control situation, and that goes a long way to giving someone peace of mind. Not knowing where we were in the system, or if anyone was even paying attention, was a horrible, powerless feeling that only compounded the powerlessness you feel when dealing with a sick child. 

Around this time, I complained about the whole MRI situation to a physician I knew through my work. She told me she might be able to help. She said her clinic used a personal health record, and that she’d be willing to take Puck on as a patient. I didn’t see how a health record on a computer could possibly help, but I was willing to try anything. So she helped me set up Puck’s record, sent him for loads more blood tests, and sent an MRI requisition to all of Nova Scotia’s then nine health districts to try to get us in faster, somewhere.

Puck had the blood tests the next day. Two days after that, I got a notification on my phone that the test results had arrived. I could go online and see all of them, in detail. I’m not a medical professional, and I can’t interpret medical tests. But each result came with an indication of what was considered a normal range, so I could see where Puck’s results fell. The doctor had also sent a note explaining which test results indicated a need for follow-up. Finally, I had information. It might not be the ‘smoking gun’ that would tell us what was causing Puck’s headaches, but it was, at least, a piece of the puzzle. I could look at those test results, and know what things I could STOP worrying about. For a parent with a vivid imagination and not a lot of information, that was powerful. Being able to access health information online was a huge step in addressing the power imbalance that exists between health professionals and patients.

We managed to get an MRI in another part of the province with a shorter wait. The doctor had also arranged an appointment with a neurologist at the children’s hospital (in a brighter, far more cheery part of the hospital than the mental health ER we later became too acquainted with). The neurologist was a delight. He played soccer with Puck in the hallway, put him at ease, and told us, happily, that the ‘suspicious thing’ on Puck’s brain was nothing to be concerned about – it was just an enlarged space between blood vessels. The headaches were, indeed, migraines. 

However, through all the testing and family history he did, he discovered that Puck has Tourette Syndrome. Incidentally, I was diagnosed with OCD at the same time – the two often go hand-in-hand, and I’d been living with manageable symptoms at the lower end of a spectrum my whole life. (My partner told the neurologist my symptoms made me ‘mildly annoying to live with’. I told him they made me ‘quirky’.)

 As it turns out, these things were all part of a long trail of breadcrumbs that we’re still following for Puck – a trail that now includes learning disabilities and severe mood disorders. I suspect we’ll soon be adding new breadcrumbs to the trail. Every time I think I’ve got the trail figured out, the signposts disappear, or the trail stops altogether – or the Big Bad Wolf, in the guise of the health care system, comes along and gobbles up the trail, leaving us lost and alone.

There is no easy way for parents to navigate complex health systems. Throw in both physical and mental health systems — which, after all, are not integrated and are two completely different experiences — and it’s twice as confusing and time-consuming to navigate. As a parent, you have to know who to talk to, and you need to know how to speak their language. 

I know how lucky I am. I had connections I could call on for help. I knew the language. Most parents don’t have that. I remember sitting and waiting, as Puck was motionless inside the MRI machine. I was so anxious, so terrified of what they might find. Seeing him stuck in there broke my heart, and I had a premonition that it was only the beginning of many such heartbreaks, as our journey through the health system unfolded. I remember, too, thinking of all the parents who couldn’t follow the breadcrumbs. Maybe they didn’t know who to turn to for answers, or they didn’t even think you should question your doctor. My heart broke for those parents…the ones who are still waiting by the phone, waiting for an appointment for a test that might give them answers, even though the requisition was lost weeks ago or sent to the wrong fax number. 

We have a right to expect that our information will be handled in the most efficient and compassionate way possible (are fax machines really that efficient, these days?). Parents with children experiencing a health crisis – whether that’s physical or mental – are in crisis, too. The system shouldn’t add further burden to these families asking them to create their own trails, alone.

We’ll never get back where we were before we started on this journey. And with this huge wolf following behind, eating the breadcrumbs…how will we ever find the trail that takes us where we need to go?

The Leap

Sometimes the universe gives us a nudge. This summer, it’s been hurrying me along with a finger in the back, steering me in a certain direction. 

These summer days have been long, heavy, and wickedly humid. The sun is too hot outside; indoors, I move about in a perpetual twilight, with the shades drawn to keep out the heat. The weather isn’t the only thing that’s intense. There is an electricity in the air that transcends summer thunderstorms. It’s so much lighter and livelier than the oppressive heat. Have you felt it? It’s an energy. It’s like magic.

Something magical has happened to me this summer. I’ve revisited old ways of exploring my intuition and connection to the world.  I’ve tapped into a well of creativity I didn’t know was still there. I’ve surrounded myself with like-minded creative people who see there are different ways of doing things and different definitions of success. There are signs and serendipity everywhere — in forgotten songs I randomly hear; old friends who once again drift into my sphere; shooting stars; the peace I feel while writing. 

A few weeks ago, I wrote here about my need to take a deep dive into life — to leave safety and complacency on the dock, and jump in and see what the water holds for me.

I have taken the leap.

I am going to make my living by writing, as I’ve wanted to do since I was a child.

I feel naive and even a bit silly writing this. Who am I to think I can succeed at anything on my own, let alone this sort of endeavour?  

Well…who am I to think I can’t?

I was raised to believe things happen a certain way when it comes to careers and money: you go to school. You do well. And then you get a job…and you STAY at the job, because a job is safety. A job is identity. A job is status, and your future.

I started down that road. There were many wonderful opportunities, and I was ‘successful’. But somewhere along the road, a nagging little doubt crept into my thoughts: “Is this really what I’m supposed to be doing? Is this it? Is this who I am? Still, I stayed. That’s what we do, isn’t it? It felt too late to change paths. It would be too risky. I had a pension, security. I had responsibilities. I was climbing the ladder. A person can’t just jump off and start again. 

Then, I was pushed off the ladder. It felt like the end of the world, but as is so often the case, it was a gift. It’s been three years since my very good job with the government ended abruptly, and I took my first wobbly steps as a consultant. First, I worked under the umbrella of a wise and established mentor. Then, I left to take a contract with a non-profit. 

It was always meant to be something temporary: once Puck’s issues got sorted, I would go back to a straight 9-5 office job. I would figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I would find security. I was looking only at what I’d given up — all those traditional notions about status, bonuses and job titles. 

I realized last year, though, that I couldn’t get back on that ladder. Puck’s issues weren’t going to magically go away. We would always need more flexibility than a traditional office job offers. The magic, such as it is, would have to come from me. I would have to make it for myself.

I spent a while feeling very sorry for myself about this. I compared my path to those of friends’. I looked at social media posts with envy,  comparing my own situation to their seemingly interesting and secure jobs. I saw only what I didn’t have.

This summer, I flipped that thought: I started looking at what I do have. I have freedom, and I have honesty.  The flexibility that is a necessity is also a gift. Through all the struggle we’ve been through, I’ve had to have a hard look at what is important to me, how I define myself, and how I define success. And for me, success means being creative. It means being content. It means telling the stories inside me, and helping others tell theirs. 

I’ve spent the summer revisiting a novel I began many years ago. Rewriting and discussing it with a trusted writing coach has brought me joy I haven’t known in any ‘professional’ work setting. It’s given me the courage to take the leap.

So how am I taking this leap? Well, I’ll be helping people tell their stories. All kinds of stories, in all kinds of contexts. That might include:

  • editing personal or professional writing;fullsizeoutput_289a
  • researching and writing documents;
  • preparing grant proposals;
  • creating content for blog posts or websites;
  • creating newsletters and communications materials;
  • writing articles;
  • writing your cover letter or polishing your CV;
  • presenting to groups small or large about mental health, digital health, and the history of social work in Canada.

Thanks to Danielle Crowell, I have a beautiful website that highlights work I’ve done (https://www.michellehebertboyd.com). Please share it with anyone you think might be interested, and keep me in mind for your writing and editing projects.  I have researched and written documents for government departments and national agencies. I have helped small non-profits create policies and communications materials. I have helped individuals edit work submissions, blog posts, and manuscripts. I can’t wait to see what other stories I can help bring into the world.

I am not brave, by the way. This is as much a leap of necessity and faith as it is an act of courage. I have to trust that the work will come, and have to accept that I may not be as financially secure as I was brought up to believe I must be. Ultimately, though, I have to believe that work isn’t just about making a living and getting to retirement; work is about creating a life.

This seems like a radical idea. I hope you’ll join me in it. Let’s create together.