The Truth Behind the Quiet
It’s not easy to dig yourself out when you lie to cover up what this world has expected you to handle.
When I was four years old, I decided I was going to search for the end of the rainbow. I pulled on my Minnie Mouse rubber boots and the next thing I knew I was stuck in the mud. Stuck in the middle of a farmer’s field, unable to move. I screamed until my grandfather rescued me and cleaned up the mess I had made of myself. When I was sixteen years old, I decided I was going to start my undergraduate degree. No one in my family had ever found the end of the rainbow, never pursued a higher education. I thought I could be the first. By the fourth year, I was stuck again. This time my brain was the mud, but I didn’t scream and no one came to rescue me.
I wasn’t a student who fell through the cracks. I wasn’t overlooked. My issues didn’t go unnoticed. I belonged to an incredibly supportive — arguably the most supportive department on campus — group of academics who truly cared about not only my potential but also my well-being, and still it wasn’t enough for me to get it together. At the end of my third year, I had my first two incompletes on my record. By the end of fourth, I had racked it up to six. The same year I started to fall behind was the year I was officially diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. It was also the same year I had been left by the man I loved, and our reunion in senior year ended terribly: he raped me. After our final parting, every time I stepped on campus my stomach tightened up, my legs fell asleep, and I feared seeing him. Not only had I lost mind, I had lost control over my body and its health. I was treating my assault like a breakup, and breakups do not warrant extensions or special help. My attendance decreased, and my deadlines were pushed to their limits. In high school, everyone knew about my assault, but no one believed me. Classmates had ridiculed me, accused me of wanting attention. Their belief that your boyfriend could not rape you (especially if you were still in love with him) was an extension of how the larger world felt. In university, I loved yet another man who assaulted me, but this time I kept it to myself, the last thing I wanted was attention.
My Borderline meant I was a messy bitch who would cook your bunny for breakfast. Every popular depiction of the disorder presented an attractive, overtly sexualized young woman driven by anger and revenge. In my own reality, I was a very sad young woman who had been struggling since I was fifteen. The disorder plagued me with unstable moods, behaviors, and relationships. It was difficult to regulate my emotions and thoughts. My relationships were unstable. I was terrified of rejection, and feelings of abandonment could leave me feeling suicidal. I was constantly letting rejection get the best of me, and the false promises of love from the wrong man excuse ongoing abuse and toxic relationships. The first time it had happened was in high school, and now it was happening again in university. But why wasn’t I smarter this time round, how did I keep falling for abusive men? And how was it that the first assault had fuelled me to leave Manitoba, but the second is what broke me down and trapped me inside of Ontario?
It wasn’t that I had lost my passion for the program, or that I wasn’t smart enough to get a degree. I just needed a break. I needed time to heal, but I refused to entertain the idea of it. I was a first generation student who was supposed to have her bachelor’s degree at twenty years old. I was the girl who did three years of high school instead of four, because she already “knew” what she wanted to do with her life. I was determined, I told myself I was ready for something – and more importantly somewhere new. High school wasn’t challenging because of the work, it was challenging because I felt isolated in a town where I felt no support and found no opportunities. There was no easy way to tell my parents that I wasn’t graduating, so I didn’t. There was no easy way of telling them I had been raped, so I didn’t. I couldn’t finish my degree and I couldn’t fess up to it. A year of dodging my academic counsellor and my professors became two years of dodging my family and friends. As far as my parents were concerned, I had foolishly “forgotten” to sign up for graduation and my negligence meant I would have to wait until the next summer.
My friends couldn’t understand why I wasn’t leaving our dead-end university city. Why wasn’t I packing up and applying for jobs with them in Toronto? I was stuck in the city of my shortcomings and failures, my trauma and heartbreak, constantly reminded that I had forfeited my chances of reaching the end. The worst part was that no one knew why.
I wanted more out out of my degree than just a piece of very expensive paper, and of course the prospects of being hired somewhere that consisted of skyscrapers, rather than wheat fields. I think the problem was I didn’t see a Bachelor in Women’s Studies as just a degree, but rather an intense conversion process which would leave me reborn as a strong capable woman, who alongside others could really make a change. The most unrealistic expectation I had (of both the degree and of myself) was believing that feminism could be a preventative measure. That it could help me avoid making any mistakes in love again. I had been taught that the stigma of my illness wasn't my fault. I had been taught that my assault wasn't my fault. And yet, I kept quiet and continued to blame myself.
After a while, keeping quiet and pretending led to lying. University had “ended” and it was time for me to get a job. My resume said I had a degree. I ended up being hired on the basis of that degree. My employer never asked to see proof, and so I kept up the charade. It was a miserable job, and it was a miserable year. Without the degree I couldn’t get another job, without another job I couldn’t move, without another city to live in, the chances of love were slim. I was at a standstill with no progress in sight. Every one had expected so much from me. I was supposed to be out changing the world. I shouldn’t be photocopying papers, I thought. I felt as though I had squandered my potential. I was undeserving of the opportunities that had been presented to me. They should have been offered to another girl. A girl who wouldn’t have been broken, who wouldn’t forfeit so easily. Why couldn’t I have just written those papers? Why couldn’t I just get it done? What was wrong with me? I once believed I could find the end of the rainbow, now I couldn’t even find a glimmer of motivation.
Summer approached, and so did the next season of commencement ceremonies. I had submitted work for only two of my incomplete courses, four still remained. My mom booked her plane ticket to attend the ceremony. I knew I wasn’t graduating, but I kept convincing myself I’d magically get the remaining work in by the end of the week. I had failed again, and now my lie was going to cost my family money. I couldn’t hide it anymore. I couldn’t pretend to walk across a stage. I couldn’t hold a piece of paper that wasn’t mine. I finally broke down, called her, and confessed. Afterwards, my mother became one less person that I had to lie to. I was glad she knew the truth because she had been the person I hated lying to the most. She agreed to keep my secret, but the only support I could receive from her was support to finish the degree. No other dreams, no other pursuits could be entertained until I finished what I had started.
Eventually, my contract at work came to an end and it wasn’t renewed. I spent the first week of unemployment imitating The Bell Jar in my apartment. I cried. I chain smoked. I cried some more. How would I find another job? I had gotten lucky the last time, I didn’t have it in me to lie to another employer. So I went to campus instead. The feelings of anxiety rushed back, my legs were asleep and my stomach tightened before I even stepped off the bus. I was going to have to face my professors, the people I respected more than anyone else in my life, the people who had once had a mutual respect for me. Would my explanation, followed by an apology still be accepted? I worried that there was a time limit to genuineness, a time limit to redemption. I didn’t want their pity, I just wanted to be forgiven. I was nostalgic for the campus that had once felt like home – the first place in the world that truly felt like it was my home. I couldn’t allow it to be a place that was dominated with feelings of fear, anxiety, and guilt. I felt robbed by those feelings. I could no longer delay my search for happiness. I wasn’t the optimistic sixteen year old I was in my freshman year, but I wasn’t the broken and scared 20-year-old I was in my senior year either. I wasn’t sure who 22-year-old me was, but I knew she was someone who was capable of returning to the place where she had left so much unresolved. If I could survive my confession on the phone to my mother, I could survive this too.
To my surprise I got it. It was so reassuring that no one was ever mad at me, no one was ever disappointed. Everyone just wanted to see me get better and to see me succeed. Next came speaking to academic counselling and they provided me empathy and encouragement. My professors were going to let me clear up my incompletes, and my counsellor was going to accept my new grades. I was going to graduate. I told the truth, and was immediately forgiven. I came clean about my mess. I confessed my shame, my guilt, my fears — and not a single person blamed me for it.
I spent the next few months working harder than I had in years. My motivation returned, my passion for the work did too. My writing wasn’t rushed, my brain was no longer stuck. I came to realize that the person I had been waiting for forgiveness from was myself. I had put my life on pause, not because I wanted to sabotage it but because I had relied solely on myself to fix it. I didn’t need to finish my degree at 20. I accepted that maybe I was actually finishing on time – my own time. I now recognize that not every journey is linear, not every apology is to others. Sometimes you have to apologize to yourself. I’m walking across that stage this June, and all I want is to let you know.