On What I Could Have Done Differently

Today was the first day that I’ve felt normal since that Title IX meeting last Friday. This was the worst PTSD break that I’ve had in years, and I’m not sure why I was so affected at this time. Maybe, because it was the end of the semester, and I was already exhausted and overwhelmed. Maybe, because I immediately launched myself into some activism after the meeting rather than taking time to retreat and recuperate. Maybe because I’m trying to work on my book, and the book is an immense blessing, but also, a burden. Maybe because I hate conflict, and I had already scheduled a coffee date with a friend where we were going to talk about some pretty heavy stuff, and she wrote me to say that she thought we should reschedule for some time when I am not feeling so triggered, and although she had good reasons for feeling that way, I couldn’t help but think that the last thing I needed at this point in time was to be treated like a burden because of my trauma.

And then, I felt like a burden.

And then, that triggered me even more.

I don’t want to be a burden.

I have two friends  who I feel like I can be authentic with here in Athens, but we all have very busy lives, so, much of the time, I actually have no friends here who I feel like I can be authentic with.

I am exhausted by having to be on all the time.

After that awful Title IX meeting, my graduate director talked to me in his garden. I have been blessed with wonderful mentors in my life, and I am grateful for that.

At the end of our talk, he said, “Well, you look good, at least.” Meaning, that I did not look like someone in the midst of a PTSD break.

A couple of days later, another faculty member said the same thing.

I appreciated that my suffering wasn’t visible. I am a high-functioning sufferer of PTSD. I haven’t achieved what I’ve achieved by being a low functioning sufferer of PTSD.

Still, yesterday, when I called that childhood friend, the first thing she asked was “Are you okay?” And I responded with, “No,” then tears. She is one of the few people I don’t have to be on for, you see? But she is not here. She is in Mississippi.

I do not ask for help in this town. I reach out online. I reach out via social media. I write these blog posts. And people respond with love and support, but for the most part, they are not people with actual proximity to me.

I have a friend in this town. He is a very handsome man. Also, a bit of a flirt. My friends here ask me what is going on between us? When my parents were here, even my mother said, “Oh, I think I found one of X’s shirts! It’s hanging in Reed’s closet.” And when I told her that there was definitely no way that any of his shirts were in my house, she snickered.

I tell them all that he is just a friend. And he is. But he is also the person who I can call when I need to cry. He is the person who saw me break down after I read a passive aggressive email from Caleb. I cried ugly tears on his shoulder, and he let me use his shirt as a tissue. He is the person who shows up at my house in the afternoon with champagne, apples, white cheddar, baguette, and a blanket for a picnic. In some ways, he is like the best boyfriend I’ve ever had, but he is just a friend.

He is also the only person in this town who I don’t have to be on for. I don’t mind him seeing my brokenness, my messy house, my ugly tears.

And he is a man.

I am learning how to have healthy boundaries with men again. This friend-this man-recently got his Wilderness First Responder certification, and he joked, “This is exactly the kind of thing that you think is hot, but probably not as hot as the Wilderness EMT certification.”

I joked back, “If you became a Wilderness EMT, then I would have to fuck you right now.” And he said, “Ooh, I’d better get that certification.”

And I said, “You’d better not because that would ruin our friendship!”

And it is hard to convey tone here, but all of this was said with good cheer, and yes, it was a flirtation, but also, an establishing of boundaries.

Boundaries have not always been a struggle for me.

Last night, I was chatting online with a long-time friend, someone who was close to me when I met Caleb. I told her that I hadn’t thought of myself as someone who would become a domestic violence victim. She wrote back, “Oh yes. I knew you before and you had very healthy boundaries with most men who were interested in you. I remember several after parties where you shut many a man down for just looking at you wrong.”

And I was relieved to hear this, to learn that I hadn’t had victim written on my forehead.

In my heart, I wasn’t a victim either.

This week, that same friend found a letter that I had written to her when Caleb and I had the “marriage talk.” She wrote me and asked if I wanted to send it, or if I wanted her to burn it? I told her to send it. Then, she sent me a photo of the envelope. She wrote, “Just look at the stamp!”

noel's letter

This is why I write nonfiction. No one would believe this in a fictional story.


I got the letter on Thursday. It was my last teaching day of the semester. I read the letter immediately. I did not prepare myself. I did not do anything ritualistic. I did no self-care. I just read it.

I did not cry. I ate my lunch. I popped on to Facebook. Then, I saw that Prince had died, and I cried a little, but not very much.

Soon, I took a nap.

And I slept so hard, so feverishly. And I dreamed.

I dreamed that I was wearing a wedding dress. My brother was there, and I had received news that Reed had died.

Reed had died from eating too much rice.

When Caleb and I married, the wedding guests threw flower petals because my mother said that birds would eat the rice, which would then expand in their stomachs and kill them.


In this dream, I knew that Reed had died, but I felt nothing. My brother was distracted (looking for whatever it was that he had lost). Suddenly, I remembered something. I went to my brother, desperate, and I said, “Caleb didn’t talk to Reed on the phone last night, and now, he’ll never get to talk to him again. He’s going to be so brokenhearted.”

My brother took me into his arms and said something like, “Well, that’s Caleb’s problem” (which is what people usually say in real life when I express concern for Caleb, which I still often do).

Then, the dream-loss of my child hit me, and I wept. I wept tears that came all the way from my stomach. It was a  combination of weeping/keening, and I cried to my brother, “What am I going to do? I will not be able to go on.”

My brother said to me, “That is how I feel every day.”

And I woke up.

The problem with dreams is that they feel so real.

A friend once told me that, in dream interpretation, every character is some variation of ourselves.

I was the woman in the wedding dress.

I was the woman who only knew how to express her pain through the man she had once loved.

I was the woman who felt such unexpected grief that she didn’t know what to do with it.

I was my brother looking for something that had been lost.

I was my brother trying to comfort his grief-stricken sister. 

I was my brother who, every day, didn’t want to go on anymore.

I was Reed. Gone, forever.

I was also the bird.

I was the rice eater.

I gobbled up the hard, little kernels that would eventually destroy me.

When I read the letter I had sent to my friend, I was surprised by what I found. I had written, I love Caleb, but I don’t know what I want, and I feel more and more isolated from my social circle, just as I’m become more entrenched in Caleb’s, and it’s not making my decisions any easier.

I was shocked by the insight in those words. I was shocked by how much my past self had known. That self certainly hadn’t known what was coming, but she had known a lot.

Shortly after I wrote that letter, I discovered that I was pregnant. I wasn’t ready. I was on birth control, even.

Caleb held me while I wept, and he told me again that he wanted to marry me. I wanted to have an abortion, but he said that he thought our relationship wouldn’t be able to sustain that. I believed him, so I kept the baby.

And that baby became Reed.

And Reed is my greatest joy. The love of my life.

But it would be disingenuous of me to claim that I could have done anything else differently. The thing I could have done differently would have been to have had that abortion and moved on with my life–without Caleb, and without Reed. But, that is not the choice I made.

Given the choice again, I would still choose the years with Caleb because they also gave me Reed, but this is a difficult subject to talk about. How do I balance the needs I had at the time with my current joy in my child? It is not possible.

I will say this: When I see women in relationships that seem potentially abusive, the first thing I think is, “Do not get pregnant.”

I hope these words do not cause my own child suffering someday, but I believe that he knows how loved he is. He tells me that he knows how loved he is. My pregnancy was an accident, but he was never a mistake.

I do not believe there is anything else that I could have done differently. My friend also wrote to me last night that she was so surprised when I told her that I had been abused, that of our entire social circle, she would not have expected it to happen to me. She told me that she believed Caleb had groomed me “big time.”

And he did.

I was not a perfect victim.

He was the perfect perpetrator.

This is not the story of what I could have done differently.

This is the story of what he could have done differently.

It will always be the story of what he could have done differently.

He was the only one who could have changed the end of this story.