All too often, survivors of sexual assault are silenced — their voices lost to victim blaming rhetoric, harassment, and the interest of “public relations.” Those suffering from eating disorders, too, are silenced — their very humanity quieted by an internal and invisible force. EROC is honored to work with survivors choosing to use their voices in different capacities to counter these forces and shatter the silence of shame. We are so grateful to Alex for this powerful, honest account of what it means to survive, to recover, and to step outside of silence.
*Content Warning: This testimony includes accounts of both sexual assault and eating disorders*
By: Alexandra Tennant
I developed a habit of baking pies regularly the exact same year I stopped eating. It was unusual for a college sophomore on a meal plan to own the necessary tools to make a pie, let alone take the time to buy and assemble the ingredients in a communal dormitory kitchen. However it is textbook for those suffering from eating disorders to often make food they would otherwise never eat and pawn it off onto others.
I kept my pie pans and rolling pins safely under my bed. That fall I experimented with gruyere cheese in crusts and walnut glazes on hand picked New England apples. That fall I experimented with how long I could go without eating. I don’t remember the first time I purged, but I do remember my head cool against the surface of the bathroom floor tile, my face sweating from the effort, my insides aching from the physical turmoil and heavy guilt. That fall I stopped crying, as if it took too much energy reserved for other important functions to exude the effort. I’d try, straining my eyes until they prickled with dryness, but I wouldn’t yield to sobs for nearly a whole year. I was numb, confusing it for contentedness, rather than the vice grip of depression.
I remember the burn of bile in my throat one fall day, as I poured water over cranberries to soak. I wore dresses more frequently then, mostly because my jeans betrayed harsher angles. Long skirts covered the black and blue and yellow splotches that ran up and down my legs. I loved those bruises. I was fascinated by how easily encouraged they were to show up at slightest of pressure, a brutal signifier of my depravation. I hid the hard corners of my hands in pie dough that morning.
I don’t know why he was there. I usually baked alone. Maybe he wandered in, he was the type to wander. We took a freshman seminar together, and I had found him insightful and intuitive. He sat down, and he picked at the blueberries. We talked about books mostly, feeding off on the new infatuation of undergraduate academia, drunk on reading words with fading adolescent clarity. He stayed for hours, eating forkfuls of the sweet oatmeal crumb I planned on putting on top of the berries.
Attraction didn’t occur to me; I wasn’t responding on that level. My sex drive was in hibernation, starved by my taciturn heart and caloric deprivation. That fall I spent a lot of time fashioning fantasies with strangers, as if to prove that I wasn’t incapable of feeling something.
I felt somewhat aware of the unusualness of his company. We hadn’t had a conversation since our seminar ended two semesters ago. I felt safe from infatuation. He had just recently ended a serious relationship, and I thought it was nice for him to be in unpressured company, eating candied berries and leftover pastry in the languid hours only college students have to do nothing but talk and eat.
When the pies were done, he left, and I felt disoriented, like I had just spent hours staring at the ceiling. I lost a lot of memories to how little I was eating then, so I couldn’t decipher if his visitation induced this confusion, or it was simply another day I spent drifting through what felt like a permanent caffeine-high.
Some affected by eating disorders refrain from alcohol, but I loved drinking on an empty stomach. I loved the sudden and drastic drunkenness after two beers. I loved how I slipped away from myself for a few hours, letting someone prettier, funnier and more confident than myself play for a while.
Just a few days after the morning spent over pie crusts, after several of those alias beers, he and I ran into each other at a party. I was immediately aware of his presence in the corner of the room as I entered, him lingering in half-darkness, me curious about his gaze on me. I don’t remember if we talked at the party for a long while or not, throwing gestures at surrounding friends, involving acquaintances in dialogues about hometowns. I don’t remember if the party was broken up, or if we just found ourselves outside, trailing off together, drinks still in hand. I don’t remember if he suggested his place, or if we just ended up there. I don’t remember why we ended up in his room, but I remember his roommate leaving. I do remember my long breathless rant about East of Eden being cut short by his hand on my waist.
I remember my chest tightening, wait.
Several hours later my friends, high and trilling with glee, picked me up from his place. I laughed with them, giggling madly at my scandalous behavior. I didn’t do one-night-stands very often at this point in my life, and the satisfaction of participating in college culture blossomed in my abdomen. We fell asleep in my friend’s bed, all three of us, sighing about the magic of our freedom.
The next morning I woke up around dawn. I left my friends without saying goodbye. Dread was damp on my skin, horror fast around my throat. Guilt swamped me; for having sex with someone I didn’t know too well, for getting too drunk. It occurred to me that I might not have had sex with him if I hadn’t been so drunk. Panic struck me when some parts of the night weren’t coming back at all. I was confused. I didn’t believe in passing judgment on the choices of sexual enjoyment, but my guilt, or my doubt, seemed to believe otherwise. I spent months avoiding him, shame and embarrassment peeling off me in layers.
Nine or ten months later, I sat on the porch of a friend, drinking coffee. It was summer, and I had been in therapy for a couple of months. The morning was thick with a weird tension, me staring into my coffee cup, my friend shifting in silence. Our mutual friend had told us a few days ago that she was dating him.
Of course my friends knew, but we had just chalked up my guilt to the immense pressure women are forced to bear when it comes to our sexual liberation. I hadn’t spoken to him since the time he showed up at my dorm, asking me if he had taken advantage of me. I couldn’t remember if he had, so I told him he hadn’t.
On my friend’s porch, she broke the silence gently, asking me about that night for the first time since the fall. Maybe it was the clarity of psychological help, or maybe it was that I had eaten breakfast that morning, and my brain was finally armed with lipids to lift memories out of deep wells, or maybe it was the reality that a close friend was in a relationship with him, or maybe it was all of those things together that helped that night came back to me. It would take many more months to make a clear, full picture, but eventually I’d be able to confidently tell myself the truth: I had said no.
I remember the lights going off after he kissed me the first time, and I remember wishing they were still on. I remember being on the top bunk of his twin XL. His mouth on mine made me feel as disoriented as that morning in the kitchen, but his touch soothed my aching, deprived body.
I remember the same sentence I said to him that I had said to many men before, after other parties, on other nights. “I don’t want to have sex tonight.”
I remember it landing poorly, like a ping pong ball into a still pool of water, disturbing the surface, bobbing with too much buoyancy. I remember the condom going on anyway.
I remember the confusion, having said the words, then watching them have no impact at all. I remember a disjointed sadness, feeling separate from myself. I had no more control over my body in this moment than I did in the face of my raging, parasitic sickness.
I remember feeling obligated to enjoy it, to catch up, to be where he was. It was happening, and I didn’t know what else to do but to try and be okay that we were having sex. I had never been the kind of person who felt confident in repeating herself, and fighting didn’t even occur to me
My friends picked me up that night at his place because he kicked me out. I laughed at myself because I was raw with embarrassment. I woke up with dread on my skin because I had been raped.
When my friend entered a relationship with him, I compartmentalized him as something different that my assaulter. Eventually, overcoming my eating disorder and learning how to survive with chronic depression was prioritized over dealing with it. In my world, it happened, everyone in my friend group, including his then girlfriend, knew what had happened, and we all moved on with our lives. I began to eat again, and I was okay.
I am okay. I don’t carry the weight with me every day, but rather in moments. I still don’t feel comfortable with the word rape. I have to define the word to myself several times before I realize that just because my rape wasn’t violent, it was still a violation.
I can’t color the outside of my sexual boundaries because it feels too much like throwing a ball into the void. I’m in a healthy relationship, and we have a healthy sex life. Sometimes we hit walls, or spaces where there should be walls, but I haven’t given myself the power to say that there’s a boundary there. Ball. Void.
I relapse like clockwork, every fall. Each year is different. Last fall it was for a solid ten days, but the fall before it lasted until Christmastime. I still tend to bake more during my relapses.
I look back on those years when no one said anything. Maybe we didn’t believe in the power of our bodies or our words enough to know what the right thing was to say. I even saw him from afar last spring at a college reunion, and in panic I fled to a corner until a stranger approached me and asked me what was wrong. I said nothing.
I don’t want anything else from this but to heal from that silence. To heal with the people I was closest to at that time. To build back the damage I did to my body, and to empower others and myself as the pillars of strength that we are, and to not be defined by the weeds of ailments that might decorate us. I don’t want justice, as cyclical and systematic as that might be, but I don’t. I just want growth.
If you have words of encouragement or questions regarding this piece, please email EROC at email@example.com