**Content warning: The following text describes sexual assault, violence, and substance abuse and can be disturbing and/or triggering for some readers. Please find resources listed at the bottom of the article.**
I was in my grandmother’s bathroom when I first collapsed. I couldn’t breathe, my hands became clammy, my vision foggy. Everywhere I looked, I was surrounded by a thousand pairs of nonexistent eyes, watching my every move. But I was still in high–school, and I was still doing well. The eyes I imagined are now all on Locust.
I never wanted to turn to treatment. I had seen my friends, my roommates go through it—I watched and felt as their personalities shifted, and as the failures of their medication vibrated through their lives. But on that day, I armed myself with a stolen bottle of pills. The war I started was, it turns out, against myself.
When a group of guys first passed me around in a dark, sweaty, loud basement, I thought it was because I was a freshman, and they found me easy to take advantage of. But the hands they ran across my chest were heavy, like pounds of stones—I couldn’t breathe, and more than anything, I wanted to go home. And, as soon as I realized that I could carry it in my back pocket, home took the shape of a white bar.
Under the black lights and the sparkling white clothes, Xanax was as debilitating as it was invigorating. It doesn’t last for very long, I found. Soon after, all I could feel was something constantly crawling out of my mind, and for the next couple of months alcohol and sweat got the best of me. The party scene became what I constantly yearned for—pop a pill, drink, and then pop another one. I could talk to anybody, I could say anything, I could do anything. But I remembered nothing.
I only ever had one sober experience with a boy. I remember the skin of his fingers intertwined with mine, and how he’d squeeze when he got scared, and how he was so nervous that he told me the wrong date for his birthday. I remember the way he’d smile with his teeth and it would reach his eyes, and not a single camera could ever capture it the way I saw it. Yet I could never commit to him.
My drug abuse never stopped, and he never found out about it. I was still blacking out, but this time, when I’d wake up, he’d be on top of me, doing as he pleased. When he’d leave, I would still feel him roaming my body, leaving unwanted kisses here and there.
We were still complete strangers, each living in our own realities that never quite lined up. I took advantage of his kindness, and he took advantage of my body. I’d ask for his forgiveness, but I never forgave him. In the end, it was violent. Later on, he’d tell me he could not control himself around me.
I tried to move past it, to think about the future. Every guy who would get near set me off in a panic, and I turned to other substances to disappear. I still wonder if I imagined the whole thing. I felt so weak, like a broken toy you couldn’t play with anymore.
But Xanax never let me go. It wrapped its arms around me, rocked me back and forth. Much like the boy, it played games with me. When I didn’t have it, I wanted it desperately; when I held on to it, I wanted it gone.
It took me a long time to realize the truth of my state. I’d forgotten how it felt to be normal, attached to reality. Coming to terms with my assaults, from the blackouts to the violent screams, I was stuck in the past like it was my own grave, complete with a ceiling lined with lights, polka–dotted walls, and a fur–layered bed—marks of youth turned to ruins wrapped in black. I buried myself in my own grief.
I could no longer sleep in my own room, but I was terrified of the world. Panic attacks came in waves, and if I held my breath long enough, I’d pray they’d wash me away. I kept expecting other people to save me from myself. But this was my fight, and I thought I’d won it when I gave up on Xanax.
I tried to use time to scrape away the remaining traces of longing, yet each dark horizon left me quivering for a taste of the feeling of nothing—and nobody, not even I, could stop the trembling of my lips as I longed to escape the lingering memories of unwanted hands.
The first date night that I went to, I left alone. I remember the champagne—lots of it—and the pouring rain that I walked in when I left my date. I felt numb, and that was the feeling I’d been chasing all along. I didn’t even notice that my shoes made my ankles bleed.
That night, I tried to commit suicide.
The world terrified me. At night, footsteps scared me, even though I knew they were just my roommate’s. I tried to put myself back out there: I started seeing this guy I’d met, but when we tried to hook up, I had a panic attack. He asked me what I was afraid of. I looked up at him and said, “you.” That was the end of it.
I took up too many clubs and enrolled in too many classes. I just wanted to fill up my time. If I was busy, I wasn’t thinking about what had happened around me. That summer, too, was full of fear and isolation—yet on my resume, I looked absolutely fantastic. The girl who does it all.
I let Xanax take the lead again, and I only got lost. It doesn’t let you say goodbye—it chokes you until you cannot say no to it. It makes you think that you can’t do it on your own, and I hoped it would erase the words of the unrequited, and the shallow echoes of hurt bodies in the dark.
But the next morning, I woke up completely naked, alone, covered in hickeys and bruises. I found myself somewhere I never thought I’d be, going around in circles.
I’ve been thinking too much of it, too much of the lack of sunshine that warms the air, too much of the tired feeling of highway moans. I patiently wait for the seasons to keep changing, for the people on Locust to keep passing, until I could one day trust that I would find comfort in myself and stop longing for the artificial sense of “okay” that Xanax would trick me into. I still can’t decide if my enemies are made of flesh and bone, or chemical compounds that I’ll never understand. I fear them both equally.
Sometimes, this world is scary, isolating, and alone. Don’t try to traverse it on drugs. I searched for feeling, and I searched for meaning, I would go out and party, and I would try to forget the sick reality of what I had gone through. Instead, all I had were dark dancefloor makeouts, and the hands that I don’t remember.
Can you feel the weight of my burdens when I walk into a room? I’m a daughter, I’m a sister, I’m a friend—I’ll smile at you on Locust and I’ll share my notes with you in class. But tell me, do you know?
This is not a survivor story. I’m barely living.
The HELP Line: 215-898-HELP: A 24–hour–a–day phone number for members of the Penn community who seek help in navigating Penn's resources for health and wellness.
Counseling and Psychological Services: 215-898-7021 (active 24/7): The counseling center for the University of Pennsylvania.
Student Health Service: 215-746-3535: Student Health Service can provide medical evaluations and treatment to victims/survivors of sexual and relationship violence regardless of whether they make a report or seek additional resources. Both male and female providers can perform examinations, discuss testing and treatment of sexually transmissible infections, provide emergency contraception if necessary and arrange for referrals and follow up.
Reach–A–Peer Hotline: 215-573-2727 (every day from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m.), A peer hotline to provide peer support, information, and referrals to Penn students.