Boxes

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(Content warning: this post contains descriptions of hoarding, anxiety, self-harm, and abuse.) 

My earliest memory is from when we were rich. I’m a toddler looking up in wonder at sky-high shelves piled with plush animals, pink Barbie furniture, Disney princess faces.

I think: if all that fell down on me, I’d drown.

I remember tiptoeing barefooted through the corridor in my grandparents’ house, shoulders narrowed, shying away from spiders suspended over the unpacked boxes that line the hall. At the end, I find my grandma using her kitchen shears to clip a red cardboard heart from an empty spaghetti box. She extends the heart to me; a gift. “It made me think of you.”

One night, after I’ve learned at school about stop drop and roll, I decide that I should keep my favorite things in one basket, so I can find them all fast in case of fire. As I hold up each toy and try to judge who makes the cut, it occurs to me that I can’t sleep in bed with any of them this way. I give up and lie in bed awake, trying not to think of flames.

Before we move, my mom asks me to sort through my toys and choose some to give away. This won’t be hard, I decide. I’m growing up, and I don’t play with lots anymore. Other, littler kids can love my old friends better. I toss aside a big bristly teddy I’ve never looked at twice. My mom picks him up and tells me about the distant aunt who gave him to me, about how excited and bursting with love she was when she heard I’d soon be born. When my mom walks away, I sheepishly move the teddy into the pile of toys to keep.


In the new house, I can’t explain why I now find myself tucking trash behind my mattress, in my nightstand. At school, after lunch, I throw scraps out in pairs so they won’t get lonely. My mom packs me juice in a flavor I don’t like, and though I try to push it on my friends, no one wants it. I cry when I throw it away, because the words little hug are written on the bottle. I just don’t want to hurt anyone.

My new dad comes out of my bedroom and looks at me. He says to my mom, “There’s something disgusting in the drawer. Tell her to clean it up.” I think about how he used to bring me gifts, and how maybe now he doesn’t because he knows I don’t take care of my things. I go in, heart pounding, and look in the drawer. He’s right. Why had I left it there?


I get older. I tie a too-small belt around my waist and tighten it. I tell myself I can only take it off when I’ve cleaned up my room. I buy a pack of razor blades and cut myself once for every thirty minutes I put off cleaning or homework. Carelessly, I drop a blade in my blanket and put my knee down on it. In the middle of the night, I wake my parents to tell them I think I need stitches. The next day, all the blades and scissors and safety razors are gone from my room, and mostly, I’m mad that someone went through my stuff without permission.


I am in my college apartment, where I live with my boyfriend. The sink overflows with dishes, the stove is coated in baked-on slime, and the fridge festers with mold. The carpet is gritty, and the bathroom has never been scrubbed. The closet is stacked waist-high with junk, his and mine, intertwined. He slams me against the wall in time with his words. I can hear the punctuation. “You. Lazy. Filthy. Whore.”

Outwardly, I cry and apologize. Inwardly, I agree.

After I leave him, my next partner has a calm talk with me in the car, about whether I can keep up with cleaning the cat box. I punch my thighs and slam myself into the door. I had one shot at starting over, and I fucked it up again.


I see a therapist. I tell her, “I think I’m a hoarder.”

“Hoarder?” She makes a face like she doesn’t believe me.

I recount to her the story of my grandma and the heart on the spaghetti box. I think how I might still have it somewhere. I tell her I’m not that bad anymore, but it’s still a struggle. I’ve never neglected my own pets, but before I throw out boxes from cat litter, food, flea meds, I kiss the cats printed on them goodbye.

She says my grandma may have taught me some bad habits, but she also taught me about love. I can’t bring myself to disagree.


I have my first panic attack, then my second, then third. The smoke detector goes off when the oven gets too hot, and I tremble for the rest of the day. The smoke detector runs out of batteries, and I keep snapping awake during the night, heart racing, sure I’ve heard the hiss of something, somewhere, going up in flames. I begin to wonder if it wouldn’t be easier to get the fire over with. I could start over one last time, in a new place. I know I’m just lazy. I could pull through; I could keep it clean.

I begin to drink every morning. It keeps me calm, and it helps me focus. After a few shots, I can clean a room without stopping. I don’t get distracted and end up across the house, in front of the computer, with a dirty dish still in my hand.

I see a doctor and I tell him this. I leave with a prescription, and I take my dose the next morning. I scoop the litter, do the dishes, scrub the kitchen counter. I mop the floors. I pull everything out of each closet and cabinet and rearrange it in ways that make sense. I put out the decorative baskets and pictures I bought after moving in, back when I was sure I’d finally buckle down and keep a place clean. I still have too many stuffed animals, but I put them neatly away. For the first time since childhood, I hang up my clothes.


Days later, it still works. Once I decide to get something done, I’m suddenly capable of doing it. I think, “I’m going to hang up my dress”, and I do. I see crumbs on the floor and it’s no big deal to wipe them up. I stroll through my clean house, fantasizing about telling my parents. I won’t, though. I don’t trust these pills long-term.

After a while, an uncomfortable feeling settles into my bones. I can’t find anything to put off, or to beat myself up about.

I open the linen closet. Here, I keep boxes of memories, holdovers from the early days that haven’t been lost or thrown out in fits of self-hatred or rage. There are more of these at my parents’ house. I know I have to deal with them eventually.

I choose a box and I rifle through it. I try to muster up the urge to handle it like I’ve handled every other cluttered corner of this house, and I’m surprised by how easy it’d be to sever my attachment to some of the stuff. There are little kids’ building blocks and decks of cards and sheets of yellowed stickers that I don’t even remember owning. This is how I’ve handled my hoard over the years: I get angry enough to discard it, or I put it away until I can pretend not to care.

At the bottom, I find something. It’s a yellow plush star with a smile face and ragged blue fabric stuck to the back. I remember clipping it off a pair of slippers I’d gotten for my birthday when I was nine, the same year I got caught with something disgusting in my drawer. I remember how I had begged not to be given toys anymore, so I wouldn’t feel obligated to hold onto them for my whole life. I remember trudging around in the slippers, loving them, fearing the day I’d wear them to tatters and have to throw them away.

I remember how a smiling moon once shone up from the toe of the other foot, opposite the star. I look through the box, and I can’t find it. I picture it buried in the dump, with insects nesting on its happy cloth face. I picture it falling into an incinerator.

I put the box away, but I keep the star out. I hold the stupid dirty thing to my chest, and I cry.


Hoarding disorder is a serious condition marked by excessive attachment to objects and/or animals. In my experience, it can be exacerbated by additional illnesses such as depression or ADHD. If you or someone you love may have a hoarding problem but can’t access medical or mental health services, you can start where I did and find support at Squalor Survivors and Stepping Out of Squalor.

Cee’s Share Your World

I always have trouble figuring out what’s important enough to include on an “about me” page, so instead, I’m going to try participating in Cee’s Share Your World challenge, where every Monday the excellent photography blogger Cee Neuner asks four different personal questions.

What is your favorite smell? What memory does it remind you of?

I can’t pick between two different smells, but they both evoke the same set of memories. Gasoline makes me think of the parking lot tram at Disney, and the smell of water indoors (it’s probably mildew, to tell you the truth) always reminds me of the rides. Weirdly, I’m not the only one who adores mildewy-water-ride-smell.

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Funny, relevant story: When you walk through the Disney parks, if you keep your eyes on the ground, you’ll see manhole covers marked “gasoline” now and then. I’m assuming they lead to tanks that power the rides, but as a tiny kid, I used to assume there was a big lake of gas running beneath the whole place. Back then, you could smoke anywhere in the parks, and I was horrified at the idea that someone could drop their cigarette in the wrong place and blow us all to pieces!

Name a song or two which are included on the soundtrack to your life?

Ever since I swiped my parents’ copy of Aerosmith’s second album, the song “Seasons of Wither” has been my all-time favorite. It may not be about me, but I couldn’t leave it off my soundtrack.

Picking a second one is harder, but it’s probably one of my loved tracks on last.fm. Or maybe I should pay some homage to who I was around age fourteen and count what I considered to be my theme song around then. Such cheery lyrics, right?

Do you play video/computer game?  Which one(s) or most recent? 

I’ve been a casual gamer since the day my dad brought out his old NES to show the family. (Honestly, though, I was too nervous to pick up the controller for a couple weeks.) You had to stick a rag into the console along with the game cartridge to get it to work, but I think that thing even outlasted our first PlayStation.

In the future, on Tuesdays, I’m toying with the idea of posting about the games I play and the fandoms surrounding them. I love the Silent Hill series with all my heart, and I couldn’t be more excited for the sequel everyone’s talking about. I also play World of Warcraft nearly every day, and there’s a lot to say about the community surrounding any MMO, let alone one that has gone a long way to help me figure out who I am.

Which of Snow White’s 7 dwarfs describes you best?  Plus what would the 8th dwarf’s name be?

The more I draw on memories to come up with blog posts, the more I realize I’m an absolute Disney nerd at heart. Maybe it was inevitable after growing up in Florida. (And on that note, if the characters lived anywhere around here, the eighth would be Sweaty). Anyway, I’d have to be Sleepy. I don’t know anyone else who can literally sleep for twelve hours straight if no one interrupts.

Fond as I am of Disney, sometimes I do look back at the older films and wonder what they were thinking!? Dwarves are a fantasy staple, and they turn up in plenty of media I love (see above), but I do get tired of seeing them portrayed as a separate race from humans, or as comic relief. Even some of the actors who play them feel the same.

Bonus question:  What are you grateful for from last week, and what are you looking forward to in the week coming up?

I picked up my blogging pace last week and I’m grateful that it helped me get to know some wonderful new people, most notably Kiran and others who I met through them. This week, my partner’s birthday is coming up! We’re not big on celebrating, but I’m looking forward to a peaceful evening together at home.

“You’re ugly, but…”

Untitled “You have such a kind soul!”

I’m ten years old. I’m walking through the mall with my grandma. A lady stops us, flashes me an eager smile, and tells me that I’m ugly, but I have a kind soul.

She doesn’t come right out and put it in those words, you’re ugly. Instead, she says something like despite how you may look on the outside, but I’m not dumb. I know what she means.

She goes on chattering, waving her hands around, talking about the light shining from within me. My grandma is nodding politely along with her, indulging her, so I do the same. I know this stranger thinks she has paid me a compliment, but I can’t bring myself to take it that way.

I am ten years oldI still want to grow up to be a princess. Beauty is important to me. Even in the books I love to read, the Animorphs series and the Baby-Sitters Club, the protagonists are plain and unstylish at worst. I am fatter than the girl in Blubber. I’ve checked.

I would like to be plain. I would like to not be fat, I would like to not have a disability that contributes to my fatness. Every night I fall asleep praying that I will wake up living in some other, better body in some other, better world. I try my hardest not to picture a future where I will never be lovely and thin, but here in front of me is this stranger telling me that I’m doomed.

But it’s supposed to be okay, because I have a kind soul. (What ten year old cares about kind souls!?)

After a while, my grandma drags me away from the stranger’s side. She gives a poised, neutral nod and says, “Wasn’t that nice of her to say?”

I shrug. I go to the food court, and out of anxiety and shame, I order one kids’ meal and one adult meal and ask the cashier to hide them in the same bag.This isn’t the first time I’ve doubled up on food and it won’t be the last, although in another year, I’ll decide to take the matter of my body into my own hands, and I’ll stop eating all meals but dinner.

And in three years, when I’m finally approaching thinness, I’ll be at the butt end of another backhanded compliment here at the mall when a car packed with teenage boys passes me, all of them hanging out the windows and howling at me at the top of their lungs. That’s when I’ll discover that there’s no winning, there’s no correct body to have. I’ll wilt a little inside as my grandma attempts to handle the situation with the same adamant grace: “My, they certainly did like you, didn’t they?”

I try not to let this stuff stick with me, but it does, even now that I’m an adult who just isn’t interested in the pretty princess life anymore.

The stranger could have chosen to act like my favorite teacher, who encouraged me to be talkative and creative. I still remember how reacted when I turned up to talent show rehearsals in glittery silver sandals. He said, “Now that’s a pair of stage shoes if I ever saw one!”

The stranger could have chosen to act like the nicest nurse at the children’s hospital where I got my monthly checkups. When I had to have blood drawn, she held my hand and told me it was okay to feel afraid. Unlike so many others, she saw past my weight and height and treated me like the scared child I was.

The stranger could have chosen to act like my physical therapist, who complimented my determination, motivation, and accomplishments. Even though it was part of his job to help me stay in shape, he never commented either positively or negatively on my body. 

But instead, the stranger chose to underline my appearance, as if my other good qualities were only useful as a way to make up for how I looked. I’m sure it was an honest mistake on her part, but I felt like someone had pulled a mask off my face and gasped in horror at what they saw.

Sixteen years down the road, I’m more comfortable in my own skin. I can take a compliment without turning it over and over in my mind, looking for the dirty side. I can brush off strangers the way my grandma once did, can look down my nose at them even from five feet tall.

That ten year old, though? She isn’t gone. Her legs still tremble in fear when strangers approaches her. She still tries to reach for food neither of us really want to eat, and she still looks in the mirror and sees herself fat, frizzy-headed, big-nosed, and unacceptable.

This isn’t the fault of a single stranger, by any stretch. I don’t blame her. But I do wish that instead of adding to the chorus of negative voices, she’d have been one of the few people who helped teach me how to take care of a frightened inner child who can’t calm down and won’t go away.

As Many Olives As Possible, Please

UntitledWhen I was very young, I was lucky enough to have a pair of grandparents who wanted to show me the finer things in life (and who, for a while longer at least, could afford it).

I remember getting new flowery dresses and wearing them to church on Easter Sunday. I remember attending the local ballet’s performance of The Nutcracker every winter. We’d pile into their Cadillac, they’d play 1940s hits on cassette, and my grandpa would sing along as he drove, while my grandma let me sneak sprays of her Norell perfume and swipes of pale pink Estée Lauder lipstick from her purse. I loved all this, loved everything my mom had hated growing up. The whole family used to take one look at me and say, “I guess it skipped a generation.”

I’m no longer so keen on church or “proper” ladylike behavior. I tend to avoid makeup that comes in subtle shades, or that can’t be picked up at the drugstore. I do wish we still had that old black 1986 Cadillac in the family, but there’s one legacy from my grandparents that I’ve been able to hold onto with no trouble: my absolute adoration for dirty martinis.

My grandma rarely drank outside of fine restaurants, hotel bars, and functions that I probably shouldn’t have accompanied her to, given my age. But one way or another, I always ended up sitting beside her, swinging my short legs, while she ordered a martini. Dry, extra olives, always made with gin. When the drink arrived, she’d discreetly pluck out the plastic sword (why it was always a plastic sword, I don’t know) and hand me the olives, one by one.

So, that’s how I developed a taste for gin around age four. Later on, my first real experience with alcohol was a bottle of gin I “borrowed” from my grandma’s pantry. I mixed a little into a glass of cranberry juice and was so underwhelmed by the experience that I didn’t drink again for years, until I started dating an occasional drinker.

I began ordering martinis in restaurants for the nostalgia factor. I started with sweet, fruity ones, thinking they’d be better for a new drinker, but I couldn’t see the appeal. I tried saying “just a plain martini, please” and kept ending up with vodka and lemon. At last, I literally had to Google “martini with olives and gin” to figure out how to phrase my request, and even then, I ran into stumbling blocks.

Waiter: Would you like that on the rocks, or up?

Me: Up? What is up? *looks at the ceiling*

After drinking so many martinis that weren’t quite what I’d wanted, I was afraid that the real thing would be underwhelming, or even worse, undrinkable. As it turns out, while I may no longer agree with my grandparents’ standards of quality in other areas, I believe wholeheartedly that very good liquor makes for a very good drink.

I may not have grown up to be what my grandparents desired or expected, but I still toast them when I have my favorite drink. There’s nothing wrong with sometimes just being what I imagine my grandma envisioned: someone who dances slow, lets her partner lead, allows her long, painted nails tap out the beat of the music against the curve of her martini glass.

(I doubt my grandma quite pictured the rainbow glitter on my nails, or the transmasculine partner in whose arms my nonbinary self rests, but I’ll be a proper lady in my own way, thank you much.)

10 Years, 10 Questions

Though I’m slightly behind the times here, I figured I might as well add my answers into the 10 Years, 10 Questions project. I’ve been posting plenty about WoW lately, and maybe I’ll even meet a few interesting players this way.

1. Why did you start playing Warcraft?

After having lots of fun playing a free MMO with my ex, we both let friends convince us to try WoW out. I bought the battle chest, my current partner upgraded it for me as a Christmas gift, and I was hooked.

2. What was the first ever character you rolled?

A Forsaken priestess named Llyse on Ravenholdt-US. Unfortunately, she’s spending her undeath eternally trapped at level one on my first trial account. The first character I got out of the starting area was an Orc warrior, and my first to level cap was a Blood Elf hunter.

3. Which factors determined your faction choice in game?

All the cool kids (a.k.a. my friends) played Horde. There was never any question.

4. What has been your most memorable moment in Warcraft and why?

When my RP partner’s character asked mine for his hand in marriage. Not kidding, no shame, and yes, they were both blood elf men at the time. I told everyone, even random others on the server, and I wore my Gold Eternium Band into battlegrounds until some Tauren yelled at me.

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5. What is your favourite aspect of the game and has this always been the case?

While I have a huge soft spot in my heart for RP of all kinds, I play mainly for the PvP. You can RP anywhere (and the WoW community isn’t always accepting of diversity, beyond elves such as the lovely gentlemen above). But random battlegrounds are my number one way to de-stress, and nothing beats managing to fall into the rhythm of teamwork with a group of players you’ve never even met before.

6. Do you have an area in game that you always return to?

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It’s no longer accessible without the use of glitches, but the hidden zone Quel’thalas is my absolute favorite place. Everything there can be found elsewhere in the game, but somehow, the lack of NPCs and the view of the sea make it such a peaceful place to watch the sunrise.

7. How long have you /played and has that been continuous?

My current account became active on December 3, 2008, not long after Wrath of the Lich King released. Other than a couple month-long breaks every year, I “quit” at the end of 2010 (and promptly came back in April).

8. Admit it: do you read quest text or not?

Rarely. I like the lore, but I hate questing so much that I’m usually trying to get through it as quickly as possible. I did read most of the quest text in Northrend, and I enjoyed it.

9. Are there any regrets from your time in game?

(Potentially triggering content ahead)

I regret starting the game with someone who was abusive, and who sometimes hurt me for making mistakes in WoW. For a long time, I’d have panic attacks going into unfamiliar instances. To this day I still avoid questing and 5 man content when possible. I hate that the bad memories overshadow the good, especially when it comes to the guild and friends we shared.

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We still had fun together. My ex no longer plays, and has been out of my life for a long time, but I hope with all my heart that like me, he has gotten help and moved on.

10. What effect has Warcraft had on your life outside gaming?

World of Warcraft gave me a place to have fun and make friends at a time when I feared for my safety every day and wasn’t allowed to seek relief elsewhere. It also helped connect me with the friend-turned-lover (see 1 and 4) who got me out of that dangerous place.

These days, the game helps me manage my PTSD. Battlegrounds and raids provide a controlled environment where I can expose myself to tense situations, make mistakes, set goals, and learn at my own pace without fear of consequences. RP helps too; playing a character who has been through trauma can be incredibly therapeutic in processing my own.

Maybe most importantly, WoW has taught me that I can’t look at someone’s avatar or in-game actions and assume I know what they’ve been through or where they’re headed. A little kindness and understanding can go a long way. We’re all in this together, and we’re all human, too.

…or orcs, or elves, or sentient panda bears, or. Well. You get the idea.

 

Nineteen

Content warning: this post contains graphic descriptions of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.

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I just played through the text-based game Nineteen by Kiran Oliver. It hit me hard and took me right back to that part of my life, when I felt lucky. When I was so sure that, with a little hard work on my end, everything would turn out just fine.

The week before I turned nineteen, my first winter break from college began, and I left on a Disney vacation with my family. I remember holding my boyfriend’s hands outside my dorm, both of us crying. It was like a fairy tale, like a dream, to be so in love that we could hardly stand the thought of being apart for a few days. 

I was still learning the ins and outs of love, romance, and sex, which frustrated him. I loved how patient he was with me when I got something wrong. I’d never known how to dress, and he spoke so gently when I made a mistake. He’d say “You look different than usual”, and I’d go change. No one else I knew would have cared enough to correct me like that. I never told him no, even when I liked what I was wearing. I wanted so badly to be right for him.

After a while, I got into the rhythm of talking with my family, wandering through the parks, enjoying myself. But my boyfriend, who didn’t have a good relationship with his family at all, kept calling me sounding so sad. I turned nineteen in the Magic Kingdom on an unusually cold, gloomy Florida day, warming one hand on my phone and the other in my pocket, listening to him cry while my family waited in line for rides. I felt terrible that I’d left him alone.

I vowed to be better to him in the coming year. He’d had an awful life. He’d been sick lately, and I’d had to help talk him down from suicide when his ex cheated on him. And I — fat, awkward, disabled — was hardly a catch.

When we returned to school, he took a class I’d already completed the previous semester. I offered to help him with the online quizzes and work on the papers with him; it’d be easy for me. But when I struggled to quickly choose the right answers for the first quiz, he began to panic and begged me to just sit down at his computer and take it myself. I did, of course. He looked so helpless and scared. From then on I logged into his class and did it myself.

His own birthday came right on the edge of spring. Although he could barely stand my procrastination habit, I hadn’t found the time to slip out and buy a gift. I slept over in his dorm every night by then, and when I wasn’t in class, he liked to read together, or have me sit with him and play video games. (I was lucky to have a lover who was a reader and gamer, like me!) So on the day he turned nineteen, I woke hours early and walked four miles to buy him a book and a cake mix, which I baked in the communal dorm kitchen. He was surprised and so grateful, and we were happy.

I loved playing games with him, and watching him play. I had left my game consoles back home, and my laptop wasn’t powerful enough to run most PC games. I had a casual interest in Second Life, but dropped it when he’d tease me about liking my second life more than my first. I’d been a volunteer moderator for Gaia Online since high school, but I found it harder and harder to put in enough uninterrupted time, and eventually I got kicked from my position. Although I hated keeping secrets from my boyfriend, I pretended I had quit. I knew he’d rightfully blame me for putting off my work.

Near summer, I spent a day in my dorm doing chores, homework, and laundry. I chatted on the phone with my mom while working, and halfway through, the call from my boyfriend came in. I wrapped it up and called my boyfriend back. He asked why I hadn’t answered right away, and I told him.

His response floored me. He demanded to know why my mom was more important than him. He said my lack of response had worried him, that he was on his way to my room right now.

I had never meant to make him feel that way. I knew he had trust issues; I knew I was somehow in the wrong. I told him it was just a mistake, that I didn’t think he’d mind if I waited a couple minutes to call.

He told me, “If this keeps happening, we’re through.” And he hung up.

I shocked myself by flinging my phone across the room in frustration. Why couldn’t I properly get across my side of the situation? Why didn’t he understand? For a second, I thought — after this, would it be so bad if we broke up?

But I couldn’t give up on our relationship after one little argument. That would be childish. So I ran out of my dorm, met him at the corner, and begged for forgiveness.

That summer, our dorm leases expired, and he asked me to move in with him. I’d have to cover the cost until he felt well enough to get a job, but I could do it easily, between my scholarships and disability income. Campus life stressed him out, and he said he’d be much more relaxed if we had a place of our own. We’d have more time and freedom to have sex, so he wouldn’t have to nudge me into it whenever he could.

For a week between the dorms shutting down and our apartment opening, I lived at home. I spent a lot of time alone, pacing around, dwelling on my thoughts. I loved my boyfriend, but I’d lost trust for him somewhere along the line. I wanted to ask my mom whether I should back out of living with him before it was too late, but how could I possibly phrase it? She’d laugh at me if I told her that he got mad when I put things off or ignored his needs.

We moved into a clean, spacious second-floor apartment with a balcony that overlooked a lake. There was plenty of parking and a bus stop a half mile away. Our first night, equipped only with a mattress and a few bags of clothing, he hugged me and whispered contentedly against my ear, “We have a home.”

I poured myself into making it work. Cleaning was hard, especially since he didn’t like me to spend money on supplies, but I discovered that I enjoyed cooking and could use it to lift his spirits. When the school year started and he asked me to pick up a few more classes for him, I knew it was a lot to ask, but I didn’t want to turn him down while things were going so well.

But I fell behind. I got distracted. I let the sink fill up with dishes, let food in the fridge grow mold. I was years away from getting diagnosed with ADD, and all I knew was that family, teachers, and friends had called me lazy all my life. One more voice in the chorus couldn’t be wrong.

One day, my boyfriend came to the kitchen for cereal, and all the bowls were in the sink, dirty.

This had happened before. Like always, I said I’d wash one for him right away, but this dirty bowl was the last straw.

He said, “You had plenty of time to do them today. I left you alone for hours.” 

My heart started to race. I knew he was about to call me lazy, or accuse me of not caring about him. I apologized and promised I’d do better next time, keeping eye contact, so he’d know I was honest.

“You always say that.” This was new. He had lost his patience. “Lazy fucking bitch. You always break your promises. You say you’ll do better, and then you just put it off again.”

Then, for the first time, he slapped me. His palm connected with my cheek, and I heard the sharp noise before I felt it. I didn’t react for several moments after it happened. I touched my face, wondering if it would be like in the movies, where a thin stream of blood trickles out of the woman’s mouth after she is slapped, because her teeth cut the inside of her cheek. But despite the hot, tingling pain that rose to the surface of my skin, there was no blood, so I knew it wasn’t that bad.

If I remember correctly, what he did after slapping me was shake his head and ask bitterly, “Why did you make me do that?” Then he walked away.

I followed, and to my surprise, he immediately apologized and swore never to hurt me again. I thought about leaving him anyway. I could tell he felt guilty enough for having done it that he wouldn’t have tried to stop me if I’d left.

But I loved him. I thought about how he hadn’t really hurt me, hadn’t beaten me up. I’d seen men slap hysterical women countless times in stories, where it’s always just the thing that snaps her back to reality. I thought about how really, I could have done the dishes earlier instead of painting my nails or browsing the internet.

I stayed.

And that winter, when I turned twenty, I went to see my family for only a weekend. I lied about the bruise on my arm and said I’d fallen while riding the bus. I huddled under layers of coats and blankets and spent the whole time on the phone with my boyfriend, listening to him tell me about how hopeless he felt, how he’d spent hours staring blankly at the ceiling, how he couldn’t believe I cared about him when I wasn’t there. I had left him premade meals, I had written dozens of love notes and hidden them away, I would return with gifts for him from my whole family. 

I was no longer a child. I was sure that anyone I asked for help would ask me how I let it get so bad, or tell me to try talking to him. In the same way I was different from the slapped woman in movies, he was different from the textbook abuser. He didn’t cheat on me or get drunk. He only hurt me when I’d done something really wrong. When I behaved, he did too.

And, if I locked myself in my old bedroom and refused to go home to him, he knew where to find me.

 


 

 

I’ve written before about how my characters help me through hard times.

I used one character to experience the pain with me, and another to fight toward independence. After leaving my ex, I had to start out exploring the rest of the world slowly. So I created an avatar I could used to engage with others online, through gaming on an RP server. This gave me what I lacked elsewhere in my life: enough space to set boundaries.

I’ve made plenty of missteps along the way, especially with separating my identity and feelings from the first character I made to help me navigate life after abuse. We still have a lot in common (such as gender identity, as you can see from the difference between the screenshot below and the one above), but I’m better at avoiding entanglement with both real people and fictional ones these days.

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The character is an elf, and according to World of Warcraft lore, he’ll live hundreds of years at least. Still, I remember an in-character conversation I got into, early on while playing him. Someone asked how old he was, and almost without thinking, I replied, “Nineteen.”

Nineteen. I could have escaped (mostly) unscathed when I was nineteen. You’re never too old to change your life, but however unconsciously, I wanted my character to have the best possible shot at it.

I played the game Nineteen, and I discovered that its creator, too, went through abuse, struggled with their gender identity, had a disability. I looked through their blog and almost wept. They and I have even played on the same WoW server, as characters who aren’t always accepted by a community that touts itself as welcoming. It’s rare that with my particular set of experiences, I’m able to feel a little less alone.

So, thank you, Kiran. For surviving being nineteen, and for speaking out about what it was like. You’ve inspired me to do the same.

Meet Malice

Content warning: this post contains discussion of death and descriptions of physical violence.

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Malice the computer, one of the few possessions I’ve ever named, is a small purple netbook that has been my NaNoWriMo companion for four years and counting. He’s also the last gift my grandma ever gave me.

His namesake, Malice the fictional character, is a sixteen-year-old drag queen who may have saved my sanity.

In September 2010, I had two thoughts on my mind: outlining my upcoming NaNoWriMo novel, and carefully plotting an escape from my abusive boyfriend. During the five years I spent with my ex, my stories and characters were often my only solace, and I wasn’t about to abandon them just because an event my whole future could hinge on was coming up. I needed them more than ever.

Though unaware of it on a conscious level, I modeled Malice’s story to parallel my own. When he was born, his mom called him Andrew. When he asked to wear the girls’ uniform at his private middle school, his request was met with punishment and shame. When he sought sympathy from friends, they couldn’t understand. He found comfort in watching performers, older ones who wore their makeup thick and dressed in bright costume-like clothing. He chose Malice as a stage name for himself — exactly the kind of name I thought would appeal to an angry, femme, misfit teen. But in the end, no one in his life could help him feel safe expressing himself.

And so, like me, he ran.

He’d been hurt too. Unlike the character whose story ran parallel to his, he’d developed a hard, uncaring mask to protect himself from the outside world, and in the final days of my relationship, I found that I needed to borrow it. Despite my careful efforts, my ex somehow sensed that all wasn’t well, and he took it out on me. I remember being shoved against the closet door, smashed over the head with a desk lamp, and for once, I didn’t apologize or cry. I shut my eyes and thought what Malice would think: He’s in the wrong, not me. I know what’s best for myself, and I’ll be out of here soon.

I left my ex in October, and in November, I threw myself into writing Malice’s story. He fled home, jumped a train south, and wandered through an abandoned seaside town hoping to find his absentee father (who, in his secret fantasies, was loving and accepting). 

That’s how far I’d gotten by the time I got a call asking me to get to the hospital as soon as I could, because my grandmother was dying.

I arrived on the eleventh. In the hospital room, my mom gave me the laptop my grandma had bought me for Christmas, which we all knew she wouldn’t live to see. Its petite size and bright plum color factored into why I named it after my favorite character, but really, I knew that again, I’d need his strength.

That night and the next I spent in a chair by my grandmother’s bed, watching over her, trying to work up the focus and will to type.

Malice the character and Malice the computer were there with me when I woke from a restless night to find that she was gone. They came with me to the city where she was buried, and waited in the car while my brothers sang and cried at her grave.

Those months, from September to November 2010, might have been the hardest of my life so far. Everything was changing. Nothing was reliable. All I had to hold onto was Malice.

Malice the computer has been through a lot more with me since then. He’s moved houses four times, including once across the country and back. He has sustained a handful of battle scars, such as a quite appropriate smear of glitter nail polish by the touchpad. He’s the bright spot of color that helps friends pick me out of the crowd when we get together to write. He’s even been to Disney World.

He has his flaws — his speakers broke the first week I used him, and his wireless card has never worked — but he has outlasted any other computer I’ve ever known. Even aside from our trauma bonding, I’ve grown quite attached to him.

As for Malice, the character? He’s still around. His original story hits too close to home to be considered for publication, though you might see excerpts turn up in The Darling Graveyard someday. But he’s there, his fierce little essence scattered across worlds. Sometimes he reverts to his birth name and finds that he likes dressing as a man, if no one’s trying to force it. Sometimes she transitions to living full-time as a woman. Malice has been to college, been onstage, been at the front of a foreign language classroom, been the star cellist of an orchestra.

And he’s turned up in World of Warcraft too, which is about the only thing I do that Malice the computer can’t handle. Desktops do have some uses.

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Maybe I’m not very good at writing fiction, because I can’t draw boundaries around my characters. I can torture them or kill them off in one story, but in the end, I want them to be free to move to another and find happiness. They’re important to me. They help me realize that it’s okay to live the way I want to, and I’m not ready to give up that connection.

This November, Malice the character is slated to star as a noblewoman-turned-pirate in the next installation of my fantasy series. Malice the computer will be toted around to countless meetups, subjected to days on end of frantic typing, and by December, will be home to at least another 50,000 words.

We’ll live. We’ve been through worse together, but wish us luck.