She was my solace during those nightmarish times. When I was with her I didn’t have to think about the sexual abuse that I was enduring from my brother E and from my sister SY. In our imagination’s my friend K and I could escape to far away places. The places that K and I would envision were endless and beautiful. She was my best friend growing up.
We met at such a young age. If I remember correctly, we were just babies when we met. In my memory, we instantly connected and were inseparable from then on out. I can’t count all the times we had sleepovers with each other. My favorite times were when we would spend time at K’s house. By being at her house I could escape from the abuse. I didn’t need to be around my estranged adoptive family while being with her. Also, K’s family always welcomed me with open arms. Even though I was quiet and didn’t have much to say, they didn’t judge me for that. I am grateful for the love and warmth K’s family provided for me then.
Somehow K and I had an infinite amount of toys between the two of us. From Barbies, Beanie Babies, My Little Ponies [the original ones], and more. Whenever we would spend time with each other our toys would end up covering the whole entire room. The stories that we came up with while playing with our toys were very real in our minds. The stories were filled with romance, comedy and sometimes sadness.
I remember the time K and I pretended to be deer. We pranced around like young fawns in the woods on my adoptive family’s property and ran around for hours. Then there was that one Halloween where we laughed uncontrollably till our bellies hurt. We spent the rest of that evening making fun of a candy name. When we went through the candy we had gathered from that night, we both spotted out one chocolate brand in particular. We thought the name was the most hilarious thing in the world. I remember we kept on repeating the candy’s name to each other over and over again in a silly, mechanical like voice. Like wind up robots we would say on command “Krackle!” We could never keep a straight face or suppress our laughs. So, we giggled nonstop with each other. It brings a smile to my face just thinking about it.
There are so many memories that I have with K that it would take years to go through all of them. We created a special space with each other. And that space protected me from the pain I was experiencing as a child. That special space never crossed over into my world once I returned to reality and was away from K. I was living in an extremely toxic and abusive environment and I felt like I could never talk to her about it. She didn’t know about the racism and injustices I experienced on a daily basis while living in Virginia. And she didn’t seem to know about the abuse I went through from my estranged adoptive family.
Our friendship seemed to be able to weather any storm. And looking back on it, I know that I took that for granted. K and I never attended the same school while growing up, but we always found time to catch up with one another. When I left for New York to attend Musical Theatre school and she went off to college to study Marine Biology, while also having many other experiences, we both still knew that we would pick up where we left off when we would be able to see each other again. I thought that we didn’t need to chat with each other everyday. And I didn’t try to confide in her about serious issues until things got really horrible. I didn’t want to ruin our special world that we created together. And maybe K didn’t want to either.
After I opened up to K about all the abuse I had been through, from my brother E and sister SY. From the past men in my life and from my estranged adoptive parents, it seemed like she saw, especially my estranged adoptive family as still being lovely people. And that was far from the truth about my adoptive family. It caused me extreme heartache and pain having to struggle to get K to understand. While my estranged adoptive family was minimizing the abuse I went through, I needed K to be on my side. When it seemed like she wasn’t understanding my pain or empathizing, it slowly started to wear on me. In a way I started to drift away from her because of that.
When I moved back up to Jersey City, K came up to visit me for my birthday that summer. I think I was turning 24 or 25. I wanted to have an enjoyable time with her, but it was difficult. It almost seemed like she resented me for having a separate life from our friendship. And being in a relationship with Garrett and not solely paying attention to her seemed to be problematic. I didn’t know how to confront K about it. And when I did we got into a huge argument over the phone. I felt like she didn’t care. I felt like I was being judge because I wasn’t the “old Bernadette” she once knew. I regret not knowing how to handle situations and I wish I knew more about myself back then. Maybe if I knew more then, I could have been able to convey what was going on in my mind and heart. And maybe K would have been able to understand me and empathized.
I needed K to be more for me and that wasn’t fair. Even though we had known each other for years and were best friends, my estranged adoptive parents needed to be the ones to protect me. Not K. My adoptive parents needed to give me support and love and take responsibility for the abuse that happened underneath their roof, but they never did and probably never will. So, I put that responsibility on K. I was hoping that she could be there for me the way that my estranged adoptive family decided not to be. Even though we aren’t blood related, K and I always thought of each other as being true sisters. And it was a hard blow when I felt like our friendship was falling apart.
There were plenty of moments where I probably wasn’t there for K and maybe she needed me to be. She also went through trauma as a child and I know I never tried to talk to her about it. We never talked about the awful things in the world. I don’t think that was intentional. We loved being happy around one another and basking in that joy. Besides dance, K was the only other joy from my childhood that was giving me hope to keep on going.
I don’t know why things ended. After our fight on the phone and the back and forth of “who wasn’t there for who” I decided to send K an email. I sent an email to her expressing why it was difficult dealing with my estranged family. And I told her a bit more about the abuse I went through. When I didn’t hear back from her for about a week, I got upset and I sent her a very short, nasty email. The email said something along the lines of “Well, I guess you don’t care at all. So, I guess I wish you well in life.” And K responded back saying about the same thing. I was crushed, but I’m sure K was too.
I didn’t try reaching out to K at all until I got a letter from her during Christmas time. The letter she sent me via mail moved me. She took the time to write to me with her beautiful, flawless handwriting and expressed how much she loved me. After reading her letter, it made me realize how much I missed her. So, I got back in touch with her and we scheduled a phone call to chat. I thought the phone call we would have together would address serious issues. That we would discuss the tense situations we had experienced with each other prior, but I don’t think that really ended up happening.
During the conversation, I remember asking K about the first email I sent speaking of the abuse I went through as a child. K said to me that she never received that email. So, reluctantly, I decided to leave it at that and shrugged it off. I still wanted to talk to her about how things went while she came up to see me during my birthday that past year though. I brought up the experience over the summer and the other tense situations we had with each other and I felt like she was dodging and dismissing my feelings the whole time.
After the phone call, K and I left on okay terms. We never said anything mean to one another or even insinuated that the friendship was over. I realized though after talking with K that I needed to deal with more pressing matters. Like finally getting my estranged adoptive mother out of my life. With the stress from that I never tried contacting K again. At that point in my life it was too hard having to put in effort into my friendships. I didn’t even know where I stood with the people who considered me a friend or a part of their lives. I did that with my friend “S.” S would sometimes call when he would be visiting New York. He would leave me sweet messages on my birthday, but I would never pick up the phone. I knew that I was still holding onto a situation between me and him from the past. I felt like I never got to fully say what I wanted and needed to and that weighed on me. I didn’t want to be a burden to S or have him call off the friendship first. So, it was just easier for me to disappear from both of their lives. Which, I felt like they both ultimately wanted anyway.
Whether my past friends who were (and I’m sure still are) overall loving and caring people, at points during our friendship dismissed or didn’t want to acknowledge the hurt I went through, I know at the end of the day that they didn’t really mean to do any harm towards me. Sometimes people don’t want to admit that they hurt someone who they love, because that’s hard and painful to deal with. When you have to truly look at yourself and realize that you may have hurt someone you love, it is one of the hardest obstacles to go through. I personally struggle with it. I know that I have hurt many people in my life, but it has been important for me to acknowledge if I hurt someone. And try to work along with them so the relationship can grow stronger.
I have always wondered if any of my past relationships with people can be salvaged. Or if I’m just foolish for even trying or fantasying having a better, stronger relationship with people from my past now. I have tried it with a few people, but it never worked out. I think it didn’t work out because those people didn’t like the fact that I’m different. I confront serious issues and I do challenge people now. Most people who I have encountered don’t like that about me. I haven’t tried reaching back out to the people who I really loved…love. Mainly because it’s frightening. I know that I might get rejected or hear nothing back from them. Then there is the possibility of going through the same thing like I did with other people. Where I would let them in again, but then they ultimately wouldn’t like the person who I am today. I’m not that quiet “I’ll do whatever you want” young girl anymore. And I don’t let people walk over me. I’m proud of that.
K and S, if you read this I still love you. That has never changed. I have changed though. I am different, but I can truly tell you it’s a good different. It’s a good different for me, because I have acknowledged the truth that I thought I had to suppress for years. My estranged adoptive family wanted me to keep quiet about the abuse for forever and I fought against that. I still have to with my estranged adoptive mother. I have respect for myself now. Maybe, it’s a waste of time to write this. Yet, I still wanted and needed to write to you both and try. I want you both to know the whole truth that I couldn’t fully express back then. Back then I didn’t fully know myself or even really understand the abuse that I was going through. You both may look over this writing and not care about what I have to say. And that’s okay. I understand. I still love you both though. And that’s one thing I know I really don’t and won’t change at all.
I don’t know why I thought that going back to the place where I got abused for years was a good idea. Or why I thought that it would bring me any solace. I guess I wanted to see if my estranged adoptive family could live up to my hopes and expectation. I wanted them to prove to me that I was wrong in my assumptions about their selfishness towards the abuse I went through. I wanted them to show me that they valued my life and well being more than they valued the idea of what a family “should be.” I had come to realize that to them, Family means hiding the truth and being complacent in the face of trauma. I wanted them to show me that they understood that I had been abused as a child. That they understood what that meant for the future. That it would mean that our family dynamic would forever be changed after the abuse. And that we all needed to work through it together as a family. And that the responsibility shouldn’t have been solely placed on me, because ultimately I had zero control as a child. The responsibility should have been placed on the parents who created a secretive, gross, sexually tense environment for all of us children to live in. In spite of all of that, I went back to Virginia to give them all a second chance.
I cried myself to sleep practically every night that I was down in Virginia. I would always fall asleep with my stuffed animal Rabbi and Garrett’s bear Wiggly. I was disappointed in myself for making the decision to be away from Garrett. I immediately regretted leaving him. I made the decision to go back to the place that was my personal hell on earth. Just skyping with Garrett and talking to him on the phone wasn’t enough, but I wanted to stay strong in my decision in trying to give my estranged adoptive family a second chance. While being down in Virginia, I struggled with the way that I looked. I despised my face and the cystic acne that covered it. J made it worse by looking at me with disgust. And she would occasionally sneak in and pick at my skin without me noticing. When J would do that it would automatically transport me back to when I was thirteen years old, when she would prod and pick at my skin whenever I had a zit on my back or face. It was hard looking at myself in the mirror and seeing all the scars that had been leftover from J.
I spent most of my early mornings running up and down the long, rocky driveway to get in some exercise. I would make a point to get up around 5 a.m. so no one could see me running. It would always be me running alone in the dark. And I always listened to the same song “The Warrior” by Scandal and Patty Smyth. I remember having this sheet of notebook paper where I wrote down affirmations of telling myself to “Keep going and not to give up” and I pasted it onto one of the walls in the bedroom I was staying in so I could look at it everyday. I got inspired by Tracy Chapman’s song “Crossroads,” because I literally felt like I was at a crossroads in my life. After my very short morning runs, I would head back inside just before F and J would wake up. Then I would quickly run upstairs to avoid them to wash my face from the sweat and grime. I would then go back to my room and miraculously fall back asleep for a few hours. I don’t think I ever had breakfast while staying there. As a matter of fact I lost a lot of weight. Not just because of the depression, but because I wasn’t getting fed well. The options of food were month old frost bitten bbq chicken or some type of sludge from the early 90’s from the freezer.
During my time in Virginia, I went through two therapists. The first therapist was, well let’s just say she shouldn’t have been a therapist at all. When I spoke to her about my trauma growing up in a predominantly white community and how that effected me as a black woman, her response was “Well, I’m not black. So, I can’t help you with that.” The last session I had with her, she made me wait for her for more than thirty minutes. On that particular day I didn’t have time to waste. J and F had made plans to leave town for the weekend. So, I needed to make sure I got my hour of therapy in before they had to leave. Once thirty minutes rolled around I was just about to leave the therapist’s office, until she nonchalantly came walking in and said “Oh my goodness! I’m so sorry for having to make you wait. You must want to kill me.” [I was currently having many suicidal thoughts. So, to have someone who was suppose to help me through my trauma causally bring up death and killing that way, it made me realize how awful she is at her job] I only got thirty minutes of my session. And I still had to pay for the full hour that I never got. I didn’t go back to her again.
F was very persistent on continuing to minimize my abuse and trauma. I remember this memory very well. My sister SY and her fiancé at the time were at the house. They were both outside chatting and laughing. I don’t remember about what. SY had a laugh that would reverberate off the walls. So, even if the joke wasn’t that funny, it was still hilarious to SY. While they were outside I was once again desperately trying to tell F about my pain and feelings towards being sexually abused by E as a child. Whenever I spoke with him he had this need to argue semantics. He would focus on tiny details of my story, scrutinizing word choices, or descriptions of my feelings, and entirely ignore what I was trying to tell me about the abuse I went through. He sat on the couch while I sat across from him in the tattered up chair. As is desperately tried for what felt like the hundredth time to get him to understand the pain my abuse had caused, and his unwillingness to listen and try to understand continued to cause, F suddenly looked me directly in the eyes. He stopped the conversation in its tracks and said in the most condescending voice I have ever heard in my life [and as a black woman, I have heard a lot of condescending voices, but never like this] “Bernadette, don’t be retarded!”
It’s like time stopped in that moment. I dashed upstairs like I was running away from a monster. I remember as soon as I got into my bedroom that I sat down on the bed with a blank stare as tears ran down my face. I felt shattered after what F said to me. “Don’t be retarded” kept on replaying in my head. Years of talking, sharing my feelings, trying to get him to understand, and that was his entire takeaway. That I was retarded. Downstairs I think I heard SY ask F “What did you do?” F ended up leaving the house in the dumpy red truck that was always filled to the brim with trash. SY eventually came upstairs to see how I was doing. In that moment she consoled me, and for a second I thought she remembered the abuse that she went through too as a child. She hugged me and cried with me and told me “Its okay.” I believed her. I can’t even describe the feeling that I felt when she hugged me. Even though it was awkward, I felt like we shared something meaningful.
After F called me retarded he got drunk again. He probably left his truck off in the middle of some random part of town again, but Garrett wasn’t around this time to retrieve it. I told J what F had said and I don’t think she ever confronted him for what he did. She always liked playing the martyr and victim. She always acted like she couldn’t do anything or had any power over how the family treated me. From then on in, I ate my dinners upstairs in my bedroom. I felt like a prisoner. It was extremely lonely sitting and crying into my food.
Fall was coming around the bend and I felt hopeful for some reason. Probably because the changing of the leafs seemed to signify something new. SY was making preparations with her fiancé for their wedding. She urged me to attend the wedding, but since I knew that SY had literally invited every extended family member, I told her that I didn’t feel comfortable being around that many people, but that I wished her and her fiancé well. Maybe it was selfish of me not to attend the wedding, but I didn’t want to be surrounded by that many people. I didn’t want so many people to see me vulnerable and judge me for it. I do feel like SY held some resentment towards me for not attending her wedding.
The evening before the wedding everyone from my aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews came over to the house to congratulate and celebrate with SY and her fiancé. It was an odd, isolating experience hearing everyone downstairs being joyous while I sat alone upstairs in my room. I think I ended up video chatting with Garrett while this was going on to block out the jubilant laughter. Then J came upstairs to the bedroom with my eldest sister A, and A’s daughter. I hadn’t seen A for awhile and when I saw her daughter, she looked so much older than I had remembered. I can’t remember if A asked or if J did, but they asked me if I wanted to hold her daughter. I shook my head yes and as soon as A’s daughter was wrapped in my arms, an overwhelming sadness rushed through my entire being. I held on to her hoping that I wouldn’t have to let her go. I prayed in that moment. And I don’t even believe in any higher being out there, but I still prayed hoping that something would hear me. I prayed that she would never have to endure what I had been through with that family. That she wouldn’t have to be suppressed or hide the truth about anything in fear of being judged or shamed.
The wedding passed by and I continued to isolate myself from everyone. I would get the occasional email from my friend “S” and some other people I knew. My best friend while I was a child growing up in Virginia was living at home at the time with her parents and younger sister. Let’s call her “K.” She knew of me being back in Virginia and would ask me to spend time with her. I still wasn’t ready yet and I had a feeling that I wouldn’t be able to talk to her about the serious trauma I was going through and had been through. [I will leave that for my next blog post though.]
On days where I felt the most depressed, J would continue to pretend to be there for me by saying “We’re in this together Bernadette.” Yet, she never brought up or spoke to me about the abuse. And she never took responsibility for the part that she played for not protecting me as a child. Even though she saw and knew about the abuse for years. The only person I could confide in was Garrett. And he was miles away. Garrett would sometimes visit when he could get time off work. The first time he came down he brought our dog Abby with him so I could watch her. Garrett didn’t have the time to be working a full time job while also taking care of Abby. So, I told him that I would watch her. It was honestly a relief to have Abby by my side again. I felt protected with her around.
After some time of having trouble finding another therapist, I fortunately stumbled upon one. She is a woman of color. When I walked into the therapy room and saw that she had brown skin, even if a little lighter than mine, it felt too good to be true. She was the best therapist I ever had. She was empathetic towards what I was going through. And she never rushed me with my thoughts or emotions. She seemed to understand that I was in a problematic, complicated position. Having to live in a place where I got abused for years and having to be let down time and time again by the two people who were suppose to protect me and raise me while they minimized my experience was traumatizing. My therapist saw that, but she wanted to give me solutions to work through the pain. And I think she was hoping for a better outcome for me. I asked my estranged adoptive mother J if she would be willing to do therapy with me too, but she never took up the offer while I lived in Virginia. J would only drive me to the therapy sessions and then back home afterwards. During the sessions my therapist would ask me every now and then to try and write out letters addressed to F. The purpose of this was to give myself time to collect my feelings and thoughts and have them written down on paper to clearly see. During this time I wasn’t speaking to my estranged adoptive father F. And one day my therapist recommended physically giving one of the letters I wrote to him. To see how he would respond. I was skeptical and I was hesitant to put myself through the possibility of more trauma, but I got up the courage to do it anyway.
The letter that I wrote to F addressed my feelings about being abused and how it was difficult dealing with all that responsibility. I wrote about what I needed from him and J as parents. And that I felt like I wasn’t getting what I needed. That all the truth I was trying to share with them was being minimized and dismissed. I can’t remember if I physically went up to F and handed him the letter, but it was either that or I left it on his insanely messy work table that was full of camera parts and junk. It might have been that very day or the next, but F came up to my room and had a piece of paper in his hands. He came in and asked me “Can we talk?” I immediately thought to myself “Oh my goodness! The letter that I wrote to him worked?”
He held tightly onto the paper that was in his hands. I thought it was something that he wrote, but I was still inclined to ask him anyway “What’s that piece of paper you have in your hands?” He insinuated that it was something he wrote in response to my letter. That it was something that he put a lot of effort and thought into. He insisted that I couldn’t look at it though. I naively shrugged it off and continued to think that the piece of paper he held in his hands was something that he wrote himself. The conversation we had was triggering and frustrating to no end. He interrogated me with questions about why I felt the way I did and why I was so “revengeful” towards my brother “E.” I felt bombarded, confused, ashamed and upset. Then out of the blue I said to him “Maybe it’s hard for you to connect to anything that I’m saying because you also went through something traumatic in your childhood.” I said it more like a question because I sincerely wanted to know if that could be the case. In the past when F would speak about his family, his father and the relationship he had with his older brother in particular, it sounded extremely unhealthy. Violent. After I said that to F, he looked at me with raised eyebrows and then not even a second later he laughed directly in my face. It took every fiber of my being not to loose complete control. I yelled at him “Get the fuck out!! Get out!!!” F continued to laugh menacingly and he said before he left the room “Well, we’ll try again another time.” I respond back saying “No! No we won’t!”
I felt trapped. I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t want to abandon all hope on F and the rest of the family, but after the incident with F everything was coming more to light. The following day when I was alone at the home by myself, curiousty got the better of me and I decided to go over to F’s junk hoard. I had a sinking feeling that the piece of paper he held in his hands the other day wasn’t his own writing. After I scoured up and down through the refuse on his desk, I saw it. I saw the letter that my therapist advised me to try to write to him. I saw it and it broke my heart seeing all the red pen marks written all over it. He graded my letter and questioned every sentence I wrote. He had put no thought into writing out a response of his own. He had instead used my letter as an opportunity to scrutinize and diminish my feelings. Why did I think he would have taken the time to truly understand me? I felt like a fool. After subjecting myself to his cruel scrutiny, I laid the letter back down on his desk hoping to never see it again.
The relationship I had with the rest of the family was fading too. I couldn’t speak to A about the abuse. She just ignored me. The same with my oldest brother N. He did offer once for me to visit him in Florida when he heard of one of my many suicide attempts. Yet, he told me that he wouldn’t be around that much to hangout. So, it would just be me, alone. I said no to his offer. I thought we were on good terms until the conversation of what to get F and J for their anniversary came into the picture. I think it was mainly N and A’s idea, but they wanted us all to pitch in for something “special.” And by us all, I mean us all. So, that included my brother E who sexually abused me. I remember N called me up and asked me “Is it okay if E be a part of the anniversary gift for mom and dad?” I felt like I couldn’t say no. It seemed more like a command. Like all those times that E coerced me to do something sexual for him. So I said to N “Yeah…that’s fine.” I later told my estranged adoptive mother J my feelings about it. That I was sorry to give away the surprise, but that I didn’t feel comfortable with E being a part of the gift. N got upset with me and said “You lied to me.” Just because I “ruined” the anniversary gift surprise. I think that was the last I heard from him. The fact that he even had the audacity to ask me if it was “okay” for E to be a part of the present, shows the lack of awareness they have.
My sister SY soon after shut me out as well. There were a couple times where I would ask her if it was okay to call her. I think that particular day she was about to get off work and she texted me that we could chat afterwards. We chatted on the phone for awhile. Well, I chatted on the phone to her about how F was acting and how upsetting it was dealing with him. SY, with what she probably considered good intentions. proceed to tell me that all that needs to be done is for her to talk with him. The issue with SY and F and even with J is that there were never anyconstructive conversations between them. SY was abused by her birth mother as a baby. Her birth mother ingested alcohol and drugs and who knows what else during her pregnancy, and SY suffered throughout her life with some cognitive and behavioral impairments as a result. So, SY’s emotions could and would normally be all over the place. “Conversations” with F and J would result in F and J minimizing her emotions. They would not listen or care about SY’s feelings and she would inevitably start yelling. Knowing all of this, I gently told her “SY, I don’t think that’s going to work.” She immediately started to yell at me and told me “You’re a selfish bitch Bernadette!” And then she hung up on me. I was surprised and caught off guard. SY soon after sent me a text saying “You owe me an apology for what you did.”
At this point I wanted to give up completely but my only saving graces were my friend from back home “K”, Garrett and my dog Abby. I was starting to feel more comfortable about my acne and started spending more time with K. It helped alleviate the pain I was feeling when I was with her, but I couldn’t even talk to her about the abuse. Which hurt. She couldn’t even be on my side when I spoke of F and the rest of the family and how they were treating me. I guess I was no better than them though, because one day I finally succumbed to their toxicity.
Remembering this day is one of the hardest ones. I feel ashamed, but I need to speak about it. There were moments where I would try to be alone upstairs without my dog Abby. In those moments I would try to sort through my emotions, especially after a huge falling out. That particular day Abby was downstairs in the living room. Well, I thought she was. Apparently, without me knowing, F had tied Abby outside to a tree. I’m guessing she had probably been outside for awhile. I feel ashamed that I didn’t know and that I didn’t check on her. When Garrett and I had both lived down in Virginia with F and J, we told F numerous times “Don’t leave Abby outside without watching her. And don’t leave her on a leash because she will just chew through it.” Which, when we were both there, Abby had done that a few times because F decided to take her outside, but not watch her. Well, F did it again even though he knew this fact.
While I was upstairs and writing down my thoughts, I heard F yell in the distance for Abby. “Abby! Abby! Where are you?” My heart sank and I fumbled over my feet while trying to get outside to see what was going on. When I got outside I saw F pacing back and forth. Then I saw the chewed-through leash tied around the base of the tree, but there was no Abby. I put two and two together. I looked at F and demanded “What did you do??!” He shrugged and casually said “She got loose. She’s fine.” F and J live in the country side near many winding roads. I can’t even count how many dead animals I had seen on the road or roadside over the years. I yelled at F “We need to find her now!!” I dashed to the car and urged F to hurry up. F nonchalantly and slowly walked over to the car. With my heart almost literally out in my hands I texted Garrett to let him know what was happening. One of my fears of losing Abby too was coming true, I thought. The whole time I scolded F for what he had done, but he kept on minimizing the situation. After about thirty minutes of driving back and forth I saw Abby off in the distance mere inches from the road. I grabbed a hold of her so tightly and helped her into the back of the car. The anger I felt towards F kept on boiling higher.
When J got back home later in the afternoon towards early evening, I told her what had happened. And how upset I was with F and that she needed to talk to him and tell him that what he did was irresponsible. J stood there for a second and didn’t say much except for the same damn sentence she would always repeat in serious situations “You have me. We’re in this together Bernadette.” My anger wasn’t letting up and in that moment I saw nothing but darkness. F entered the room and with a smirk on his face he said “She’s just a dog. She’s the one who ran away anyway.” She’s just a dog!? I thought. In that instant I couldn’t help but think of myself. That’s how F and J treated their children, like animals. That I in particular meant nothing to them. That J and F couldn’t even look after a dog! [And I was starting to see that’s how it was with all the pets that had been in their “care”. From all the cat shit laying around the house and not being cleaned up until it was piled up high. And many other questionable things.] That they both let me get sexually abused for years and knew. And after opening up about the abuse I was being treated like it was my fault. So, in that darkness I was experiencing, I hit F. I hit him hard over the head. “How could you?!” I yelled through my tears. And for once J spoke up, but not for me. She stood up for F and told me to “Stop hitting him!” I looked at J and I stopped hitting F. I couldn’t believe that this was when J finally decided to stand up for something and someone. Even though I had been verbally, mentally, and emotionally abused by the family for months and was sexually abused by E for years, J NEVER stood up for me. Yet, it was so easy for her to stand up to me and tell me I was doing something wrong. Feeling disgusted with myself I ran upstairs and slammed the bedroom door.
I will always feel ashamed and guilty for hitting F. For succumbing to my trauma. I don’t know if he will ever feel any remorse for how he treated me though.
I was realizing that it was time to leave Virginia. Nothing productive was coming from me staying there. I wasn’t getting the family support that I needed so desperately. So, I made the decision to give myself two more months until I would move back to Jersey with Garrett. Around late November I decided to take a trip up to see Garrett. For some reason at the last minute I got a call from some random person in charge of the bus ride over to DC saying “Oh, actually miss you need to take this other bus, etc etc.” I started to go into a panic. I was worried that I wasn’t going to be able to see Garrett. In a hurry before it was time to get going and leave for the bus [whichever one I needed to take] I quickly asked J “What am I suppose to do??! I don’t know which bus to take. Please talk to this woman on the phone who spoke with me and help me out. I don’t know what to do mom.” J took my cellphone and spoke with the lady on the other line. I guess I was being too frantic. And out of nowhere J forcefully with a firm grip grabbed my thigh and smacked it hard and told me to “STOP!” For some reason I had a flashback of J treating me this way before. It seemed very familiar and it took me up until now to know why that moment seemed so familiar. Even though, I thought that the transportation up to Jersey City wasn’t going to be figured out, it eventually got sorted out and I got to see Garrett thankfully.
After coming back to Virginia, it was approaching Christmas time again and I was grateful that F and J would be gone for the holidays. And that the rest of the family would be gone too. Garrett came down to Virginia to spend the holidays with me. We were feeling hopeful and full of love to be around each other again. It had been a while since we last saw each other. Maybe about a month and Garrett noticed how much weight I had lost since then. He treated me with care and gentleness. He knew from all the phone calls and Skype secessions that I had been enduring a lot while living in Virginia. So, we both wanted to make our Christmas as special as possible. We took a long walk through the woods with Abby. And during the evening we munched on shortbread cookies, the kind that are shaped like Scotty dogs. We held each other closely and watched White Christmas while we ate spaghetti for dinner. During dinner time though, like every special moment we have together, it was rudely interrupted by two texts. One from SY and the other from F. Both texts saying the same thing. “I know a lot has happened, but Merry Christmas. You just need to move past this and we can be a family again.” It was difficult not to feel like the moment I had with Garrett was ruined by those two texts. Garrett held me as I wept in his arms from my family’s lack of empathy towards me.
Garrett and I spent New Years together up in Jersey. I guess it was kind of a trial run for me to see how it would go. I stayed up there for a week and it was beautiful. I felt loved and it was wonderful to be around him again. It felt healthy. After the week was up, I was determined on the train ride back to make it my last train ride. As soon as I got to Virginia, I started making preparations to move away.
The day that I left Virginia I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my heart, but it also felt heartbreaking. I don’t know if I even said goodbye to F. I don’t even think I said goodbye to SY even though she lived in the same state and knew of me leaving. I said goodbye to my friend K even though we had plans of seeing each other again soon. I said goodbye to J, even though I could feel something odd about her. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it though. And I felt this twinge of resentment towards her that I hadn’t felt since I was a child. I said goodbye to the old, worn down cats who seemed to nod their heads at me as I left. I said goodbye to the woods that helped me feel safe all those years, with their comforting branches hovering above my head. I even said goodbye to the broken down house. The house that was my hell on earth. The place where I got abused. I took one glance up at the bathroom where I predominantly got sexually abused by E for years and I never looked back. I turned my back to that place knowing that I would never come back again. That I would never see that “house” again. And it felt glorious knowing that fact.
That summer after the wedding, panic attacks seemed to become the norm in my daily life. At the time I didn’t realize what was going on with my body. It was like I was living outside of myself. I would periodically feel a shoot of shock from fear. And then my body would completely shut down. If you have never had a panic attack before [Which I hope no one ever has to endure] it’s like everything goes blank. You can’t see anything. You can’t hear anything and it seems like your world is ending. I wonder if that’s what death is like.
Garrett had enough sense to know what was going on with my body though, but my estranged adoptive parents didn’t know what to do with me. One evening my adoptive mother J put a massage mechanism onto my body which enveloped the entirety of my chest. The mechanism had numerous sticky like patches that adhere to the skin. J did this to see if it would help me at all. I’m sure she also did it in hopes to shut me up from continuing to talk about the abuse and the truth. The mechanism around my chest out of nowhere began to pulsate and squeeze tightly around my heart. Which was excruciatingly painful. J thought this would help me, but it of course made things worse. [She was a professional at making things worse for me] That evening I remember being curled up on the bed screaming from the pain. Garrett sat down beside me while he held my hand and told me quietly “Everything is going to be okay Bernadette. You are okay. I got you.” From my screams, J and my adoptive father F finally ran upstairs to see what was going on. Garrett tried to tell them both what was happening and what I needed, but it was like they tuned him out. I obviously had zero idea what was going on, but I remember F laughing at me while I was crying in pain and said “Yeah, that mustn’t be fun.” J grabbed her cellphone and called my general doctor at the time. My doctor advised J to rush me to the emergency room right away.
The emergency room wasn’t an unfamiliar place at that point. That summer I had been to the emergency room at least three times. And every time I never wanted to go. To sit in a cold, sickly room that seemed to invoke the feeling of doom wasn’t a place I wanted to be. I wanted to be held by J and F. I needed their comfort and love, but J rushed me to the emergency room that evening anyway. Garrett held me close to his body as we sat in the back of the car. J would periodically check to see what was going on. Then within minutes I felt like I could breathe again. We were almost at the hospital and J insisted that we still go in anyway. I told her “No, I don’t want to.” Garrett backed me up and even though J was reluctant to drive away from the hospital she put the car in reverse and headed back home.
That summer consisted of many fights with F and J still. F seemed to be drinking more frequently, especially whenever I talked about the abuse. There was one evening where he went off drinking after we got into a fight and he left his car in the middle of nowhere. And he ended up drunkenly walking all the way back home. Garrett had to retrieve his car the next day which was extremely humiliating. Garrett still made attempts to talk to F and J about what I needed from them as parents. I was never present for those conversations, because I knew that I would just fly off the handle because of their incompetence and lack of empathy. Garrett tells me now about the conversations he tried to have with them, especially with F. He would tell them that it was important for them to listen to my feelings and the abuse I endured. To not be selfish with their feelings and hold onto their preconceptions of what my life was like growing up. When Garrett spoke to both of them, they wanted to rate my abuse on a scale. Since I didn’t get penetrated by my brother E it was like they ranked my abuse on a scale of a three rather than a ten. At every turn J and F minimized the abuse I went through so they could continue to ignore the truth and live their delusional, idyllic lives. The selfishness that they both have within them about upholding lies to make themselves look like “good, responsible parents” is revolting.
Surprisingly, I still wanted to give F a chance though. Even though I had been away from the city and the theatre life, I still wanted to give acting a shot. With F being a professional photographer [Well, not really a professional photographer, since he quickly gave up on that dream] I asked him if he could do my headshots for me. I said to him “It could just be the two of us. Like old times.” I was hoping by doing this that it would rekindle the relationship I thought we had while I was a child. F seemed thrilled by this idea and said that he would do it. When the time came around to do the headshots, I found out the day of the shoot that he booked a studio including another photographer helping him. So, it wouldn’t just be the two of us. I remember immediately crying and trying to express to him why it hurt me so much that it couldn’t be just the two of us. His reasoning was “Well, Bernadette I don’t know how to do lighting the way that you want it done.” Even though in the past he always did my headshots for acting. He was capable of doing photographs in natural and artificial lighting. I knew he just didn’t want to be alone with me. The photoshoot was awkward to say the least. To have another person in the room seeing my vulnerability, from my persistent cystic acne, to me crying, it wasn’t in the slightest enjoyable. And F and I never got a moment to connect the way that I was hoping to.
I knew that I needed to get away from J and F. It was getting to the point where none of my attempts to get them to understand my feelings was helping. Garrett ended up suggesting that we go spend a couple weeks with his family down in Florida. Now, I had never officially spent more than a few hours with his parents and his brother when they came to visit us when we lived up in New York. So, the thought of spending two weeks with his family, who I barely knew was a tad daunting. Yet, I was desperate. So, I told Garrett “Yes! Let’s do it. Let’s go spend time with your family.” It took a total of 13 hours I think to arrive down in Fort Myers. It was a long and grueling ride, but Garrett was a trooper for driving us all the way down there. Our dog Abby was with us too during this trip. We arrived around the late evening so everyone was asleep by that time, but we let ourselves in. The next morning I was greeted with open arms. I felt awkward and didn’t know what to say. And I really wanted to make a good impression on his parents and his brother.
The first week was the happiest I had been for a long time. We did a lot of swimming. A lot of playing board games, without yelling or dramatics [Which was different than what I had experienced with my estranged adoptive family. Whenever I played board games with my estranged family I was always made to feel shame for loosing or messing up.] And most importantly I got to relax with Garrett’s family. Relaxing was unfamiliar to me. The concept of enjoying time and doing absolutely nothing was bizarre, but I slowly became accustomed to the idea.
Unfortunately, that relaxation came to halt by the second week. My body started to feel severe pain all over and I had no clue why. Looking back on it now, I was going through trauma and anxiety and my body was reacting off of that. My body was pinching all over and aching. We tried everything from warm baths, cold compresses, breathing, but nothing was working. At one point after contacting my estranged mother J, she once again advised me to have Garrett take me to the emergency room. Garrett finally had had enough of going back and forth with the emergency room that he told me “No! We aren’t going to do that this time Bernadette!” Out of fear, I got upset with Garrett. And we got into a huge argument while his family was around. For the rest of the time we spent down in Florida, I avoided being around Garrett’s family. I reverted into the room where we were staying and I cried pretty much non stop. I felt ashamed for how I acted. I felt ashamed that I wasn’t doing well and that his family had to see me like this. I regret the morning that we left to leave for Virginia that I didn’t even have the decency to say goodbye to them.
The ride back to Virginia from Florida seemed never ending. The pain was at it’s worse and my body seemed to have a mind of it’s own. No matter how hard I tried to calm my mind down, the pain wouldn’t subside. As soon as we got back to Virginia, J rushed me to the emergency room. The nurses at the hospital hooked me up to an IV and checked my vitals, but once again the doctor who looked at me had nothing of importance to say and sent me off without any answers.
For the rest of the summer we spent it by finding a solution for my panic attacks. I think at that point I was prescribed an anxiety medication. While all of this was happening, in the background, Garrett drove up to Jersey City with his mom to find a place for us to live. We were both exhausted from living with F and J. And we were tired of living in the middle of nowhere. We thought that Jersey would be a good middle ground of both quiet and being close to Manhattan for the hectic, city life we missed. I was grateful for Garrett’s family and for him for taking the time to find a place for us to live while I couldn’t physically be there with them. Garrett and his mom ended up finding a place for us to live in Jersey City. And once my medical issues seemed to be handled, Garrett came back down to Virginia to pick me up to drive me to our new place in Jersey.
Unfortunately, I was only in our new place in Jersey for a week. My depression was at an all time low. Even though Garrett would try his best to pick up my spirits, I hated myself. My cystic acne was rampant and I still hadn’t found a decent dermatologist to help me out with a solution. Then on top of that, I hated the emotions I was feeling. Having to constantly remember the trauma and feeling like I didn’t have a family was almost literally breaking my heart. Towards the end of the week, I was in touch with J. I would speak to her on the phone about my depression and then out of the blue she persuaded me to come back to Virginia, since I wasn’t doing so well. By that time Garrett got very ill. The type of ill where you can’t even fall asleep or walk properly. I was not in the place to even comfort him or help him through his sickness. So, feeling like I would become a burden and he would leave me because of my depression, I told him that I needed to go back to Virginia to figure things out with my adoptive family. I felt like I was letting him down and I could see the pain in his eyes. I knew that he wanted to tell me to stay. That everything was going to be alright with just the two of us, but his illness was making it difficult to convey that. But besides him not feeling well, Garrett slowly went to our bedroom and pulled out his childhood stuff animal bear Wiggly. He said to me “Take him with you.” I quickly grabbed my childhood plushie rabbit Rabbi and tried to give it to him, but Garrett pushed it away and said “No Bernadette. Let them both protect you while your away. Hold onto Wiggly. It will be like I’m there with you.”
I remember we stayed up the whole entire evening until morning before I left. Garrett couldn’t sleep because of being sick. And I couldn’t sleep because of the guilt I felt for leaving him. Leaving him and going back to Virginia is one of the worst decisions I have made in my life. The next morning Garrett slowly helped me down three flights of steps as best as he could to the taxi. I held onto Garrett as tightly as possibly. In that moment I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want to let him go, but I was frightened that everything was going to fall apart with us if I stayed. So, I left first. We kissed each other goodbye. And as I got into the taxi, we watched each other until the taxi faded around the corner towards the city.
I remember the taxi driver looking back at me through the rear view mirror asking me “Do you plan on coming back to Jersey miss?” It was hard to hold back the tears, but I quietly told him “Yes. I will be back. I’ll be back.” Once I arrived to Manhattan to the 34th bus terminal, I was starting to realize how weak my body had gotten. From just having one suitcase on hand that was filled with just clothes, I was finding it difficult to lift it up by myself onto the sidewalk. The whole bus ride down to Virginia to meet F and J was miserable. I don’t remember a moment where I wasn’t crying. Once I got to the destination where F and J were, it was evening at that point. They looked at me in a way like I was pathetic. Almost like a patient. They led me into the back of the car. I think they asked me “How was the ride?” I didn’t have anything to say except for a heavy sigh and a silent sob. J handed me a tissue and a homemade, very smashed peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And I slowly munched on it until I drifted off to sleep with Wiggly and Rabbi close beside me. When I fell asleep I dreamt of being next to Garrett again.
After I opened up about being sexually abused, my estranged adoptive family would always tell me “We’re here for you Bernadette” And “You can talk to us anytime about the abuse.” I’m not sure why everysingle one of them besides “E” told me that. They never followed through with that promise.
As soon as Garrett and I moved down to Virginia that’s when I started to notice that everything was slowly spiraling down in my life. While Garrett and I were waiting to officially move into our new apartment in Asheville where my sister “A” lives, I spent most of my time writing. Garrett was still doing freelance work, so we worked opposite one another. Me on the bed writing away about my feelings and him working at his desk on animation. Just like I write here on my blog, I wanted to start opening up about what I was experiencing. I wasn’t going to therapy at the time and I needed something tangible to share my feelings through. Unfortunately, when I started writing about the lack of support I was getting from my family I was quickly met with disdain from them. I remember my sister “SY”saying to me one day “Don’t write lies about my family.” It was as if I was a complete stranger. She spoke of me as if I was intruding into their happy, content lives.
All of them quickly turned on me and told me to “Be quiet.” I was posting most of my writing on social media for others to see. And I did want other people to see. I mainly wanted my estranged family to see. Yet, it was more important to them to preserve their image of being “Good people, who did absolutelynothing wrong.” They seemed to almost seamlessly disregarded the truth and my well being. There were numerous attempts on my part to get support from my estranged adoptive mother “J”. I wanted her to take responsibility for what she had seen happen to me as a child. I wanted her to back me up. I wanted her to let the rest of the family know that writing was something that I needed to do for myself to heal. And to speak the truth. But the theme of pushing serious issues and the truth underneath the rug was very prevalent for the rest of the time they were a part of my life. It was like anything I said to J didn’t matter or hold any importance. She would always shrug it off and say things like “Let it be Bernadette. You have me. And we’ll get through this.” It was hard to believe her whenever she would say that, because she was never really there for me. So, to appease the family I stopped writing.
While down in Virginia my emotions were all over the place. At one point my estranged father “F” allegedly spoke to my brother “E”. He apparently talked with him over the phone and “confronted” him about the abuse. E out of the blue sent me a lame attempt of an apology via Facebook. He messaged me apologizing for what he did to me while growing up. Strangely enough, he was the only person from my estranged family who wished me “to be happy.” When I asked F about what they had spoked about on the phone he said to me “You don’t need to know Bernadette.” I was constantly surprised by the lack of care from my estranged family that came with every passing day. It was like my presence was a problem. I was a problem for them. There were many days and nights where I would get into yelling matches with F and J would always sit on the sidelines saying nothing. She didn’t stand up for me once. The many cruel things that my estranged adoptive family said to me during the last few years with them have stuck with me ever since.
It always started with me trying to get them to understand. I remember F saying to me one evening “It was a three age year difference Bernadette. It doesn’t matter that it happened.” I stormed off upstairs to my childhood bedroom after he said that to me. And he retorted back saying “Come back in twenty years!!” J didn’t say anything to defend or protect me except for saying “Oh F.” Another incident involving F was when he told me that he could “Forgive the “E” now for what he did to me.” When I think about what F said I can’t help but be sarcastic and laugh. Of course it would be easy for someone who didn’t take responsibility as a parent or didn’t experience the sexual abuse themselves to “forgive” the person who did the abusing. The relationship with my estranged father was disenigrating at a snail’s pace. Garrett would always try his best to be an advocate for me when I couldn’t. He would rally the family together and try to get them to understand what I was going through by mediating, but they never listened. They were reluctant to be there for me the way that I needed them to be. All of the responsibility was put on me and they made it clear that I needed to handle it on my own. I wasn’t unfamiliar with that concept to be honest. Handling traumatizing incidences on my own was something that I knew how to do from the very beginning. I knew though that if F and J wanted to claim that they were “good parents who cared” that they needed to do more and take responsibility for what had happened to me as a child.
There were several suicide attempts on my side throughout that year. I was scared out of mind to physically hurt myself though. I was only doing it in hopes to get my family’s attention, but that never did anything. There were unfortunately many fights with Garrett too. I had this nagging voice that wouldn’t stop telling me that he was going to end up leaving me too, like the rest of them. I’m sure that’s why I would snap and lash out at him. I desperately didn’t want anyone else to abandon me. So, in those moments where I felt like the world was ending I thought I needed to protect myself first. I regret not knowing how to control my emotions then. And most of all, I regret taking it out on the only person who was showing me love and empathy.
After a few draining months of living in Virginia we finally moved down to Asheville. I remember Garrett ended up going down to Florida first before moving into our new place. At that point it was maybe a week before Christmas and he wanted to spend some time with his family. So, I was left to my own devices with F and J to move some of our belongings into our new place. Our apartment was incredibly tiny, but cute. We lived in a very scenic area. From the only window in our apartment you could see the most beautiful trees. It was refreshing to be surrounded by the abundance of never ending nature again. When I looked at the trees outside it made me think that I made the right decision moving away from the city.
Once Garrett arrived in Asheville I remember being relieved to be around him again. The prior Christmas brought me so much pain and I desperately wanted Garrett to be there with me during this Christmas. I needed to create new, and more joyful memories to save the idea of that holiday. His father [my now father] helped us move the rest of our furniture into our new place. I remember we ended up picking up KFC that evening to eat and played some games on the Wii U, which was one of the happiest moments I remember having while down in Asheville.
Christmas ended up going by in a flash as it usually does. There was still this pit of sadness though within me that I couldn’t seem to shake off. I noticed that I was sleeping more, probably because of the depression. Garrett was working for Apple customer service from home during the day, which he despised. And I didn’t have a job. I felt like I couldn’t keep one. So, I took care of my newborn niece while “A” and “P” had to work. My niece looked so precious and delicate that I felt like if I touched her that at any moment she would fade away. There were moments where I thought she stopped breathing and I would then frantically run around to check to see if she was doing okay. I always felt like I was doing something wrong. But every time she had to be picked up by either P or A she was still intact and was fine.
The best way to describe Asheville was that it was a sack of gloom and sadness. The beauty that is Asheville from it’s small town charm and scenic views was something that Garrett and I couldn’t value or truly enjoy. There was absolutely nothing to do. I had zero friends around besides Garrett. There were times where my friend “S” would call me up from Berlin though and that brought me some happiness. But there were moments of racism too, which I wasn’t unfamiliar with after growing up in Virginia. And I was constantly depressed while living down there. I was still struggling to cultivate a genuine relationship with the rest of my estranged family. There were moments where I felt like I was getting close to my sister A, but she would always retract away. Whether she was solely focused on her newborn [as she should have been] it seemed like whenever I spoke that she would tune me out. Garrett continued to reach out to the rest of the family. He even wrote up an email one time while living down there addressed to them writing about what I needed support-wise from them. After Garrett sent off the email everyone rallied together and piggybacked off of what my sister “A” wrote back to us. They basically said that “They didn’t understand and couldn’t be there the way that I needed them to be, because it was too painful for them.” I didn’t understand. After they had all told me “We’re here for you” I didn’t understand the change of heart. I think that’s when my rage started to grow.
Garrett and I really tried to make Asheville work for the six to seven months while we lived there. We had some good moments together though. Like when we stopped along a road side and pulled over to watch a quiet stream. And we sat down together on top of the car hood to have a picnic. Or when we went hiking. But we knew deep down that Asheville wasn’t for us. And there definitely wasn’t any chance that my sister A was going to come around to being supportive. So, we decided to move away.
Before we moved away, there was this never ending discussion about who was allowed to attend my eldest brother “N’s” wedding that coming summer. Him and his now wife were planning a destination wedding that would be in Florida. Everyone knew about how I felt about my brother “E” since he abused me for years as a child, but for some reason they played along with the idea of him attending the wedding too. I immediately opposed that insensitive thought and told them “I won’t go if he ends up going!” There was for some reason a lot of back and forth with this. All the while Garrett would try and persuade me not to go to the wedding. That it wouldn’t be worth it. And we could just spend time with one another while everyone would be away. I didn’t listen to him. And when I think back on it, I should have listened to him. Everything in regards to who would be attending the wedding got sorted out eventually and me and Garrett departed for the wedding from Asheville. [There were some technicalities about how that all happened since we already moved away from Asheville before the wedding. So, we had to drive all the way back down from Virginia to Asheville since we purchased our tickets before we moved away.]
I was strangely excited to be around family again despite the fact that they hadn’t been supportive at all. As Garrett and I sat on the plane down to Florida we realized that this was our first trip together. And we wanted to make the best out of it. When we finally arrived my estranged mother “J” and my other sister “SY” and her boyfriend at the time picked us up at the airport. As we rode in the car with the windows rolled down the strong smell of the salty ocean hit me with optimism. I thought “This is going to be it. This is when they will start being supportive. I know it.” I can’t remember how long we stayed down in Florida for. I remember my estranged family stayed all in one house along with a family friend. While my brother N stayed in a extravagant ocean side house along with his very heterosexual buddies and his wife’s girlfriends. At one point we all met up to run through the rehearsal. That was the first I had seen my brother N for awhile and I was hoping that he would give me a big hug. And tell me reassuringly that “Everything was going to be okay.” After the rehearsal he went up to my sister A and her husband P and gave them a huge welcoming hug. He proceeded to give my estranged mother and father J and F a hug. He did the same for my other sister SY and her boyfriend, but as soon as he saw me and Garrett he walked away. It felt like I was dreaming in that moment. That couldn’t have just happened. Being so blatantly shunned like that. Garrett saw it very clearly and comforted me as we walked behind the rest of the family.
We tried to create happy moments together during the wedding, but it was difficult. Anytime we would try to have a pleasant moment together it would quickly get intruded by my estranged family.
The night of the wedding where everyone was dancing and eating to their hearts content [Well, maybe not eating because the food was equivalent to a pile of dog mush] it was starting to get late. So, Garrett and I decided to head back to the beach house. We strolled along the beach before heading back and as we held hands we watched the moon in the night sky. In that moment everything seemed peaceful. The pain from my estranged family had subsided and I felt at ease. When Garrett and I got back to the beach house we settled down and watched some cartoons in our bedroom. It had to be only a few minutes after the fact that I got a frantic call from my sister SY and then her boyfriend too. SY frantically told me over the phone “Bernadette! You need to call “N” right now!” I asked her “Why do I need to do that? It’s his wedding night.” There was a lot of mumbling on the other side of the line that I wasn’t sure what was really going on. SY finally said “F is drunk and is being weird and we can’t find him!” Months before my estranged mother had told me that my father F had “stopped drinking.” My estranged father had been known in the past to be nasty and frustrating while he drank and it was becoming a problem so he needed to stop. Apparently he didn’t actually stop drinking.
I remember feeling embarrassed having to call up my brother N on his wedding night. I felt like I was being intrusive, but I called him up anyway. I asked him “N, have you seen F? Apparently he has been drinking and no one can seem to find him.” N was obviously drunk too, so I couldn’t get much out of him. After the phone call SY and her boyfriend rushed into our bedroom telling us to go find F. I wasn’t sure why me and Garrett had to go find him. Why all the responsibility had once again been put on me to solve family issues. I asked SY “Doesn’t mom know where he is? They should be together.” SY and her boyfriend were also drunk off their asses. Which wasn’t surprising. So, they weren’t of any help either. In fear of my estranged father getting into some mess I urged Garrett to join me to find him. So, we went out into the dark to find my drunk father.
Garrett and I ran side by side into the night hoping that my estranged father was okay. Even though I was still immensely hurt by him, by all the cruel things he had said to me while living in Virginia, I wanted him to be alright. After what seemed like hours, we ran into my estranged mother J and my eldest sister’s husband P. They both hung their heads down low and I wasn’t sure as to why. My mother J looked ashamed, which was a look I had remembered seeing quite a lot while growing up. She wore that face whenever my father F was acting childish or did something foolish. I went up to my mother J and asked “Where’s dad?! Is he okay??” She said nothing and off in the distance I could vaguely see a shadow moving around side to side hiding behind numerous objects. Like a car or a trash can. I asked J “Is that him??” She responded by shaking her head yes. Seeing the embarrassment and sadness on J’s face, I called for F to get back into the house and to stop acting like a child! F’s stubborness is even worse when he’s drunk so, he continued to hide behind things. J told me “Just let him be.” After everyone went back inside, I lingered outside waiting for F to have a change of heart, but I eventually realized that wasn’t going to happen.
The next morning everyone acted like what F did had never happened. J still had a look of sadness across her face and I asked her “Are you doing okay?” I can’t remember what she said, but I’m sure it was along the lines of acting like she couldn’t do anything and had zero control over how F acts. Feeling enraged by F’s actions, as soon as he entered the kitchen where me, Garrett and J were I confronted him. I told him to apologize for the way that he acted last night. I probably even asked him if he was sorry for being an inconvenience and drinking senselessly again. His response was “What are you talking about?” Whether he remembered what he did or not he took no ownership for his actions.
I felt like this whole trip was a waste of time. And it only confirmed to me more that I was the onlyone who had to be responsible and face serious issues. And that I was the onlyone in that “family” who was willing to be honest and not hide from the truth. I remember the last day in Florida before we back to Virginia. We had a goodbye lunch with my brother N. I didn’t care for meaningless conversations that the rest of the family were having during lunch. It all seemed put on. No one was talking about the truth or talking about anything of substance. Maybe it was selfish of me to think that they would give a damn about anything real. To care about anything that happened while growing up in that home. The lunch ended with everyone saying goodbye to my brother N. As soon as I got up to N he didn’t hug me like everyone else, he just pat me on the head like I was a dog and called me by an old nickname that I hated growing up. “Bye crunch!” he said. And I thought to myself “Yeah…bye.”
Christmas use to be my favorite holiday. It still is to be honest, but after I told my estranged adoptive father “F” about being sexually abused as a child that Christmas, there was a distinct shift in how it used to be. It hadn’t been as joyful as I had remembered it to be. I remember F making a joke after I opened up to him about the abuse. As tears covered my face and snot streamed from my nose, I thought to myself that he should have had a more vulnerable reaction to the news I gave him. I was worried for so long that he was going to be furious at my brother “E” for what he did. So worried that I thought that he would possibly hurt him, but his reaction was as if I was giving him the weather forecast. I remember F getting me a cold wash cloth to wipe down my face. Then we sat down on the couch and watched a film together. I remember Steve Martin being the lead in it. And he was taking care of a young girl. Possibly adopted her? Maybe F was trying to relate on some level or show that he cared by watching this particular film with me. I don’t know. I realize now though, that he already knew before I told him that I got sexually abused by my brother E. And that my estranged adoptive mother “J” had pretended to me the whole time that F knew nothing about the abuse. I was so angry after that Christmas.
F and J drove me back to New York after the holidays with my dog Abby. I remember them helping me move the rest of my belongings from Washington Heights into Garrett’s place in Bed-study. The whole time I vividly remember being annoyed and agitated with them. They stayed around the apartment in Bed-study for one night since, they couldn’t afford to stay in a hotel. I remember J telling me that she was “exhausted” and wanted to share the bed with me. There was only one bed to sleep in and I didn’t want her or F intruding into the happiness I shared with Garrett. I reluctantly let her sleep in bed with me though. I couldn’t wait for them to leave the next morning and I kept on wishing that night that they would just disappear. I wanted time to grieve by myself after the reaction I got from F. I wanted to be alone with Abby while I waited for Garrett to get back to New York. I knew that Garrett would understand and be there for me, unlike them.
That year was emotionally dark. In 2013 I met my anger and depression head on. So often I would sit in silence with Garrett not knowing what to say. It would literally be hours of the two of us sitting. I would blankly stare at the walls surrounding me. Maybe I was hoping that if I stared long enough into the walls that all the pain would go away. Garrett would always patiently wait on me to share how I was feeling. Most of the time nothing came out of my mouth. I didn’t know exactly how I felt during that time and I wasn’t sure how to process my feelings. Therapy unfortunately wasn’t helping me at all. Anytime I tried reaching out to F or J, I was met with nothingness. F would frequently ask me “What do you want me to do Bernadette?” I would yell at him over the phone like a child in need “To be a parent!” “To take responsibility!” “Talk to E about what he did to me and start family therapy.” F just didn’t get it. Neither did J, but she seamlessly played the martyr the whole time. Trying to talk to my eldest sister “A”wasn’t helpful either. So, the only person I had to confide in was Garrett.
There were many days where Garrett would frantically run home from work to help me through a panic attack. And nights where he would sit beside me, while I curled up and sobbed from cutting myself with razors. I didn’t know what to do anymore.
That year I was also trying to figure out how to make acting a full-time career. I had a couple of gigs that year. The first one during the beginning of 2013 was for a children’s show. Alumni from Circle in The Square theatre school would occasionally perform in the children’s show every year and I was asked to be a part of it. I can’t express how meaningful that show was for me. It was only the four of us performing. Having to wake up super early to make it to rehearsals on time. And laughing endlessly during the process of finding different voices for the various characters we played was valuable. And my castmates were genuinely good people. We didn’t care about being “The Star” of the show. We were doing it because we loved seeing the reaction from the children as they watched us perform. Making a kid laugh or smile brought me some joy during that trying year.
[Circle in The Square Children’s show]
Unfortunately, after that positive one, the rest of the experiences I had that involved theatre were extremely negative and disheartening. One company in particular “Red Shirt Entertainment” it was called at the time, made me feel like a complete failure as an actor and as a person. The director of the company Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj took advantage of me. And I’m sure he did this to many other actors too. I was apart of his “workshop” group where he picked a handful of actors to dote on. He promised that he would help us into the theatre world and that we would be “seen” by many well known producers and directors. Me and some other aspiring actors put up with his never-ending ramblings. And all the while still performed his self involved shows. Many of his unpaid “readings” showcased on human misery, like The Holocaust and the genocide in Rwanda. I was passionate about the work though so I continued to do it.
I put my trust in Rajendra and felt like I could be open about my personal grief to him. I desperately wanted to connect with the work on a more vulnerable level that we were practicing during the workshop classes. So, I decided to open up to him about the abuse I went through as a child. I remember him saying to me once I told him “My daughter’s thank you for your vulnerability. Thank you for speaking your truth and telling me.” I left his office that day thinking that he cared about my current situation. Then literally a week later, I got an email from his assistant saying that I was kicked out of the workshop group.
I wasn’t making any money when it came to acting. My manager at the time would consistently send me to auditions that didn’t suit my age range or ethnic background. Or when it did “fit”, it would be to fit the stereotype narrative that many young Black women have to play. Token Black girl, slave, “hood rat”, prostitute…you get the gist. Every time I left an audition I would never hear anything back.
The last show I ended up performing in New York was a show called “Lesbian Love Octagon.” It felt like a win once I got the news that I got a part in the show. I didn’t care that it wasn’t a lead part. Being apart of the ensemble was enough for me. There were moments where I felt uncomfortable though. And I felt like I was a part of unnecessary drama. That experience left me feeling hopeless about acting. I still wanted to keep on trying though for F and J. I wanted to keep on pursuing the dream that they had dreamed for me of becoming a well known actress.
[Lesbian Love Octagon]
Throughout the year I continued to struggle with my depression. Trying to keep a steady job was difficult too. I went through so many jobs that year. I worked at a Crate and Barrel. The one that’s located in Soho. It seemed like a good situation at the time. And I was getting decent hours of work at the start. Unfortunately, that didn’t last for long. I ended up getting sexually harassed by two male coworkers around my age during my time there. I can’t remember how many times I started to call in sick after that. One day the head of the department called me in to chat and asked me “Why are you calling in sick so often?” Reluctantly I told her why. That I felt uncomfortable about coming into work with those two men who had been harassing me. Those two men inappropriately commented on my figure whenever I had a shift. And would follow me around while I was trying to work. The head of the department insinuated that the problem would be handled and that I had nothing to worry about. So, I eventually ended up speaking with a mediator that they brought in. I went over the events to her of the harassment I had experienced. Then after speaking with her a week went by and my hours were then cut to working only one day a week. I ended up quitting of course. For the longest time I couldn’t step foot in that Crate and Barrel. Even if I desperately needed to use the restroom. I would hold it in until I found another place that allowed customers to use the restroom without paying first.
Nothing was working out and the depression was getting worse. I was on medication then, but it was costly since the out of state insurance I had at the time was horrendous. And well, America and decent health insurance doesn’t exist. I felt like such a burden to Garrett. Not being able to hold a steady job and constantly having breakdowns, I felt like he was going to abandon me too. That year, I told my two other siblings of the sexual abuse I experienced as a child. I reached out to my other brother “N” hoping that he would show his protective side. He had nothing to say to me over the phone though. Then I reached out to my other sister “SY” hoping that she would remember the abuse she afflicted onto me and that she also experienced from “E”. I don’t think she understood. E and SY were known as the “adopted drug/alcohol abused babies” of the family. And SY never seemed to understand fully anything I relayed to her, even if she did care. I think she was too far gone to remember anything happening to her during that time.
What made me move away from New York was the last job I had. It was a dog walking job. I had been around animals most of my childhood and I felt like it be a good fit for me since I wouldn’t have to interact with people that much. But, just like the other jobs I had that year it ended badly. The owner of Hoochie Poochie [Such an idiotic name for a dog walking company now that I think about it] was insane. Let’s call her “H.” One of the other dog walkers of the company warned me about H’s temper. And told me to “Watch out for it” and “Not to do anything wrong by her.” I laughed it off and didn’t think anything of it.
The dog walking job was stressful. I was working in the upper east and west side of Manhattan. Where some of the most wealthy people live. Most of the dog owners were approachable and nice though.
The situation that left me fearful for my own life was when I decided to take a shift during the weekend. I normally had worked hours during the weekday, but I got a call from H that weekend asking “Can you cover for someone today?” I decided to pick up the shift, because I needed the money. Even though it was very last minute. I was spending that day with Garrett. So, I asked H “Can my boyfriend come along?” I got permission from her and she said “That’s okay, but he has to wait outside of the apartments while you go in.” I nodded my head in response, even though she couldn’t see. Garrett stayed outside while I went apartment to apartment to pick up the dogs. Hoochie Poochie had or has a bizarre policy of “Entering into anyone’s apartment. Even if they don’t answer the door.” H said to me “Some owners will even leave there door’s unlocked. And you can go right in.” I thought that was ridiculous and extremely unsafe, but I didn’t question it in fear that she would get upset with me.
I was given a set of three keys that day. And H had texted me the three addresses of the buildings I needed to go to. Thinking that they were all correct, I went to pick up the second dog. As soon as I arrived to the second address, a couple who lived in the building were just heading inside. They held the door open for me since I had another dog in hand. They smiled at me and said “Hello” and left it at that. I followed the instructions given to me by H and went to the third floor of the building. I knocked on the door three times and even rang the bell of the apartment number given to me. I should have known then that something was wrong, but following the company’s policy of “Entering anybody’s apartment” I did as I was told to. The door was unlocked like H had said. But I still called out to see if anyone was home. I did this, but heard nothing back. So, I went in. Immediately I was met by a tall, very white British man. He started to yell and asked me “WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN MY HOME!!?” I was confused and scared. I meekly asked him “Do you have a dog? I work for Hoochie Poochie.” [God, what a stupid name] The man was furious and threateningly said “I’m calling the police!” Realizing that I was in the wrong place, I tried leaving. But he held me back and asked for my ID and phone. He ordered “Call your manager now! I want to speak with her!” So, I gave him my ID and phone in fear that he was actually going to call the cops on me.
The assistant of Hoochie Poochie answered and the man said to her “This woman who works for you broke into my apartment! And is currently sneering at me.” [I was crying at that point.] He continued to yell into the phone “She better get fired! She needs to be fired!” Then he hung up the phone. Feeling ashamed I quietly asked for my ID and phone back. Thinking that he was going to hold them ransom, he threw my ID and phone into my face and slammed the door on me. I immediately ran to the elevator with the other dog in hand as tears rushed down my face. As soon as I made it outside, Garrett frantically asked “What happened?!!” Having trouble catching my breath I told him what had happened. Then I called H up. H was not apologetic for her mix up. She casually said “Oh, yeah. That isn’t the right address.” And then proceed to give me the correct one. I finished that shift that day.
After that incident I continued to work there for about another week. Then one day while I was working and walking four dogs, I realized that my phone was off. It was off for about thirty minutes. And I realized I hadn’t heard H’s texts. So, just as soon as I realized that and was about to call her, H came storming into the dog park that I was at. When she came up to me she started to belittle me and told me “You messed up! You really messed up! You need to apologize! And think about what you did! And then you can have your shifts back!” She then asked for the keys I was given for that day back. She then grabbed the dogs aggressively and left. I tried reaching back out to her like she had asked. Apologizing for the mistake I had made. She then sent me a rude email saying that I was a “liar” and that I had been “fired.”
I didn’t want to make New York work anymore after that. Everything felt like it was falling apart. And my acting career wasn’t going anywhere either. I desperately asked Garrett one day “Can we move away? Please??” I just couldn’t take it anymore. Remembering what my sister “A” had told me about Asheville and how she painted it out to be this idyllic place to live, Garrett and I started to make plans to move down there right away. I honestly thought that moving away from New York was the right idea. I thought giving myself a few months in Virginia before we moved down to Asheville where my sister A and her husband “P” live was the right idea. I thought being close to family was going to cure my depression. That I would somehow then get the support I needed and deserved, but that’s not how this story goes.
[Me and Garrett being two cuties packing up our belongings and leaving New York]
I was starting to feel happy. I don’t know if I ever had experienced or felt happiness before meeting Garrett. But whenever I was with him, I knew I was undeniably happy through my entire being. We shared our first kiss right in Madison Square Park on a cool evening. And after that kiss it was like we were inseparable. At times I felt like I was being selfish for wanting to spend every waking second with him. Yet Garrett kept on showing me kindness and love in a way that I had never experienced before. The first time we made love he asked me “Is this okay with you?” and “What would you like?” I felt confused and out of my element. Before that I had never been asked those questions. It was just expected of me to serve the other person’s needs sexually. The answer to Garrett’s question of “What I would like?” I didn’t know how to answer. I honestly didn’t know what I liked or what brought me pleasure. It felt sweet and innocent. And I craved more of that innocent, sweet love. I didn’t feel dirty or shameful anymore after making love, like I had in the past with other men. As time went by we kept on getting closer. So close that it felt like it was time to tell him my secret about being sexually abused when I was a child.
In the past when I would tell people about the sexual abuse I went through as a child the responses were varied. Most of the time I was met with interrogation or disbelief. Many people from my past interrogated me with never ending questions asking “Why did the abuse happen to you in the first place?” So, I was relieved when Garrett responded compassionately towards me when I told him about it. He was maybe the only other person at that time besides my friend “S” who didn’t question me about the abuse. From then on I knew that I could trust Garrett and I felt like I had someone to confined in, or at least feel loved by.
Being engulfed in so much joy and happiness with Garrett made me forget what time was. Before I knew it I was going to be turning 22. It was June 13th, 2012. I know that Garrett would have spent the day with me on my birthday if he could have, but he was preoccupied with work. And my estranged adoptive parents “F” and “J” wouldn’t be arriving to New York until later in the afternoon that day. I recall spending most of the day by myself. I remember going to a nearby restaurant by my apartment in Astoria that sold the most amazing cheesecake and an array of desserts. I decided that day to treat myself to breakfast. I remember it being gloomy outside, possibly raining that day. And I remember just sitting at a table all by myself. I longingly watched couples share a meal together and families chuckle with one another about inside jokes. Even though I was doing something special for myself on my birthday, I felt sad and couldn’t help but cry about the fact that I was alone. Once F and J showed up I put on my “Everything is fine” face. A part of me felt glad to see them, but the other half was extremely annoyed at J. Whenever J and I would talk on the phone and interacted in person it was as if I had never opened up to her about the sexual abuse at all. The time they spent with me on my birthday that year was unmemoriable. I just remember being frustrated and hurt. And as soon as they left to go back to Harrisonburg I was left feeling unsatisfied and unloved.
There are too many events that happened during 2012 into 2013. I was still trying to make acting a full time career, but I wasn’t booking anything and I was disappointed with myself. Since, I wasn’t booking acting work I spent most of my time that year working part time jobs. And the free time I did have was spent mainly with Garrett. Being around Garrett helped me cope with the depression I was feeling at that time.
During 2012 I opened up to my sister “A” about the sexual abuse. I always looked up to her since she was the oldest of the siblings and honestly the most studious. I was hoping that I would get some support since I wasn’t getting the comfort or reassurance I needed from J. My eldest sister responded with guilt and expressed her hurt of “Not being there for me” and “Not knowing about the abuse.” We shared a cry with each other over the phone. I left the conversation feeling like she understood and cared about what I had gone through growing up. And I thought she was now going to be there for me to maybe feel less guilty. I felt like I was getting closer to her. More than when we had growing up. And that feeling felt nice. I didn’t feel so scared anymore.
In 2012 I also started going to therapy. I never wanted to go to my therapy sessions. My therapist was fine and there were moments where she genuinely seemed to care about what I was going through. I was reluctant and skeptical of the work though. And it was difficult to open about the abuse.
There were a couple of months in that year where I was frantically looking for a place to live. Once my lease was up at the end of July going into August, I unfortunately had to put most of my belongings into storage since I still hadn’t found a place to live yet and was couch hopping. Then without prompting, Garrett graciously offered to let me stay with him until I found a place to live. I can’t deny that it was what I wanted in the first place, but I did feel like a burden to him at times.
I remember when Garrett and I thought that he would have to move away from New York and go back to Florida where he grew up. Garrett, just like me, didn’t know how his career in animation was going to pan out. And since the work wasn’t steady, he didn’t know if New York would work out. At that point I still hadn’t confessed my love to him and felt conflicted if I should or not. I wrote about the hurt I was feeling towards him possibly moving away. And how desperately I wanted for him to stay and know my true feelings for him. Yet, I felt like if I confessed my love that it would make him run away even faster. And I didn’t want the happiness that I was feeling with him to end. I only shared my true feelings about Garrett to my journal. So only I could see it.
I think it was around September or possibly October. One evening Garrett and I sat on his bed waiting for the pizza we ordered to arrive. I remember him looking at me seriously and he said to me “I have something to tell you.” Thinking that it had something to do with him leaving and or worse news than him leaving, I prepared myself. After bracing myself he gently said “I love you Bernadette.” When Garrett told me that he “loved me” I had an out of body experience. I had had those out of body experiences in the past, but they were always negative. This one wasn’t. I could instantly feel my face flushing and I think I almost yelled back to him “I love you too!” Then we hugged each other tightly for a long time. It seemed like such a simple moment, but it is one of my favorite memories that I have with him. Thankfully, later that month Garrett found out that he wouldn’t have to move away from New York. He was still going to have consistent animation work. So, he decided to stay. He tells me now that he mainly stayed for me.
After living a few glorious months with Garrett, I eventually found a place to live in Washington Heights. I didn’t stay in that apartment long though. Maybe a total of three months I think. By that time I was working a total of three jobs. A hostess in the evening, retail for a bath and body shop and a nanny. And a Saturday morning shift internship at Alvin Ailey. I felt worn out and felt like all the money I was making was either being spent towards rent, food and or voice lessons. I remember helping Garrett move out of his apartment in Greenpoint into a place in Bedstuy before hurricane Sandy landed that year. Luckily, I wasn’t going to be staying in New York the weekend that Sandy hit and was going to be attending a cousin’s wedding in Philadelphia.
I spent that weekend away with my eldest sister “A” and her husband “P” and my estranged adoptive parents F and J. And the rest of J’s side of the family. The wedding was stunning. And I couldn’t hold back the tears as I watched my cousin give his vows to his now wife. It made me think of Garrett and how happy I was being with him. The rest of the weekend was spent with F and J. I felt strange around the both of them. And I didn’t know how to keep on putting on a facade in front of F. Pretending that everything was okay. And J never asked me how I was feeling or doing that whole entire time.
After the wedding and going into the end of November into December, I could slowly see and feel myself crumbling away. The therapy sessions made me feel like I was feeding myself lies. With the electrical stimulus therapy that was given to me, I was being told that “I have a supportive family and friends.” Yet in reality that was far from the truth. I really didn’t feel like I had many friends or at least ones that I was close to. And A and J were the only ones who knew of the abuse from my “family”. Even though I told A and J, I felt like I didn’t exist to either of them. I didn’t have a supportive family and I was being fed this idea or maybe naive “hope” that they were or would be supportive. The only person who I felt like I could confide in at all was Garrett.
Before Christmas came Garrett asked me to move in with him. We both knew it would happen eventually, but I was surprised and relieved that he asked first. After feeling depressed from the lack of support from family, I felt joyful to finally be living with Garrett. To finally have someone to come home to. We both had to say goodbye to each other right before Christmas came though. Since we would both be visiting our families for the holidays. His in Florida. Mine [if I could even call them family] in Virginia. I didn’t want to say goodbye to him. Even if it was for a short while. So, we both decided that I would take Abby [our dog] so we could feel closer to one another while we were apart. Garrett briefly met F and J since they had to come to New York to pick me and Abby up for the long drive down to VA. I was extremely embarrassed that Garrett had to meet them because they are an embarrassment. And F in particular, had a way of shaming me. And making me look like a fool in front of strangers. He seemed tickled by the thought of me being embarrassed by his antics. I guess he did this to come off as being “cool” or to be the one in control.
As we drove away from New York and I could see the tall buildings fade away in the distance my heart started to break. I didn’t want to be away from Garrett, even though I knew it wouldn’t be for long. I just remember holding Abby close and crying as I laid my head on her body as we sat in the back of the car. That Christmas that year, would be the Christmas that shaped many of my Christmases afterwards.
[When I met him it was as if he already knew me. He could see everything through my sad eyes. Even though he didn’t know what I had gone through exactly, he still took the time to see that I was hurting. He saw that I was longing for someone to protect and love me. He was able to see something in me that the other men never even took a glance at. Unlike the other men, he never took advantage of me. He saw the beauty within me. He was in awe of my intelligence and explorative nature. Which many others had dismissed. He saw me completely. As Bernadette. For that I will always be grateful.]
A month had passed by after the whole ordeal with the few deplorable men that I had encountered and I was feeling shaken up and lost. During quiet moments that I had to myself, my mind would wander off and I would be transported back to those haunting situations I had with the men. The looming ghost that was my trauma would remind me of the abuse I went through as a child. All of this wasn’t helping my state of mind. Yet, I wasn’t quite sure how to shut it off and keep out the negative memories. I still couldn’t confide in my adoptive mother “J” about the trauma and even though I wanted to, I couldn’t. She wasn’t present enough to care. So, I did what I was accustomed to and continued to shut off my emotions and put on a “I’m happy and nothing is even the slightest bit wrong with me” face. And so with that I started focusing on auditioning again.
By sheer chance, one of my fellow classmates from theater school reached out to me and told me that he was producing a children’s show out in Connecticut and wanted me to audition for it. I thought to myself, “Why the hell not? I have nothing to loose and I need a distraction right about now.” Also, I figured I would have a better chance of booking the gig since I already knew someone who was working on the show. In short, I got the gig. It was refreshing to be acting again and I genuinely enjoyed my castmates. While the show was in rehearsals, I would every now and then check OkCupid hoping that my track record with men would somehow change. One evening after coming back from a long day of rehearsals, I started scrolling through the various pictures of possibilities on Okcupid. With every click and scroll the same two types of men kept on showing up. Either they projected their cockiness by wearing the most knock-off designer brand sunglasses they could find. Or they came off as creepy and possibly psychotic. (Don’t ask me how I knew that they were creepy or psychotic. You just know.) I was starting to get bored. But, almost instantantly my scrolling came to a halt.
I remember sizing up his profile picture and thinking to myself “Is this guy for real? He looks like Tarzan!” In the photo his dreads laid past his shoulders and he had this cheeky look on his face like he was going to start trouble. I think the baseball bat he was holding was adding to his mischievous “I’m gonna smash something” look. And he didn’t seem self conscious about flaunting his exceptional figure. I remember saying out loud “He’s mine.” For some reason I found the joke I had made to myself hilarious and I began to chuckle. But as I continued to scroll through his profile more, the deceleration I had made about him “being mine” was starting to become less and less of a joke. I was adamantly serious. As I was being drawn in by his eyes and demeanor I started to feel frightened. Not because of him, but the very thought of falling for yet another guy who could possibly treat me like the past men I had encountered made me feel unsure. Yet, I thought to myself “How could he be terrible like all the others if he likes David Bowie and The Labyrinth?” Two things I am extremely passionate and entheusiastic about. So, I went off that logic.
I kept on deleting and rewriting everything that I was trying to say to him. I kept on doing that for at least twenty minutes. I remember wanting to sound intelligent and witty, but I had zero clue how to begin to come off as if I knew what I was talking about. I didn’t have any good puns to come up with that mentioned Bowie or The Labyrinth. My insecurities were starting to get the best of me. I felt like he was out of my league and that I had zero right to even send him a message just saying “Hi.” I didn’t know ANYTHING about this guy, but I desperately wanted him to notice me over any other woman or man that had been messaging him. Finally, after going back and forth I settled on a message to send to him. When I sent the message I told myself “Bernadette, don’t have ANY expectations.” I was content with the idea of never getting a response back from him. But to my surprise, my assumptions were wrong this time.
I wish I could remember what we had said to each other during that period of time of getting to know one another. I think we bonded over the common interest in David Bowie and The Labryinth. And that brings a smile to my face just thinking about it now. I remember thinking that he was biracial because of his dreadlocks, but I was very wrong in that assumption. I guess I should have realized that white people often sport dreadlocks too. I think we messaged each other back and forth for about a week and had talked on the phone once while he was walking his dog Abby. (Well, our dog now. I distinctly remember that he was walking Abby while talking to me.) Until we finally decided to meet each other in person.
On the day that we decided to meet up, for some reason it slipped my mine that it was St. Patrick’s Day. How I could overlook that detail I don’t know, but I truly felt idiotic. Unknowingly, I even wore green that day. So, no unwanted pinches or off-hand comments towards me happened to me that day. The way over to meeting him for our date I had to dodge numerous pitfalls and traps, such as vomit and spilled beer. Normally, I am on time or way too early for every meeting. But unfortunately, on that day I was running late. After side stepping and pushing my way through crowds of people I remember seeing him off in the distance waiting on one of the staircases at the High Line. I don’t think he saw me, but I definitely saw him. I watched his head sway from side to side surveillancing the crowd of people to find me. While the bagpipes noisily played below I finally decided to walk over towards him and I said “Hello, Garrett?” The way he smiled and looked at me was something that I had never experienced before. For a split second, everyone else around us turned into blobs of blur and the annoying same old tune being played by the bagpipes below stopped. It truly felt like we were the only two people. He responded with “Bernadette?”
We spent that evening getting to know one another. I remember us getting a slice of pizza at a pizzeria a couple blocks away from the High Line. (A few years ago we even tried going back to the place where we had gotten pizza on our first date, but sadly we could never find it.) My hands felt tingly while being around him. I probably felt that way due to the anxiousness I was feeling. I felt uncertain and nervous and wasn’t sure what to say or even ask, but Garrett had no problem carrying on the conversation for the two of us. I liked that. I remember there being a slight pause during one of our conversations while we were eating pizza. And I remember we both ended up bobbing our heads up and down to the music in the background to dissuade the awkwardness. As we bobbed our heads up and down at the same moment it felt as if we were in a romantic comedy.
When the evening was coming to a close we decided to get something sweet. We scoured the Chelsea area up and down the blocks to find a dessert place. We sat down for a few minutes at a French restaurant, but it wasn’t our final destination. I laugh at myself now at the memory of trying to take a sip of water from an empty glass at the table we sat at. I was really hoping that Garrett didn’t see me make a complete fool of myself, because I was too nervous to notice that our cups hadn’t even been filled with water yet. We ultimately decided that the restaurant was far more pricey than what we wanted to pay so we continued on our search. We eventually stumbled upon a storefront that sold cupcakes. “Billy’s” it was called. I honestly don’t know if they’re still around or not.
While waiting in line to order the cupcakes we wanted, a voice in my mind kept on repeating to me “He doesn’t like you.”And I felt like I was doing something wrong. That he didn’t like me at all and that he was just going to ghost me the next day. There was never a moment during our date where he tried to come on to me. There was never trying to sneak in a kiss. No touching me inappropriately. And there never was a moment where I had to serve his needs. So, I came to the resolve that he didn’t like me. I told myself “Well Bernadette, you better enjoy the rest of the evening with him, because this will be the last time you’ll see him.”
But as soon as I thought that, I felt a hand on my thigh. It wasn’t the same like it had been in the past with the other men. It felt different. It felt loving and innocent. I realized that I had become accustomed to being treated poorly by men and being seen only as an object. And that what I was experiencing with Garrett was unfamiliar and new. As we got on the train and rode it together for a few stops till we had to say our goodbyes, I remember feeling a twinge of sheer happiness. I couldn’t remember the last time I genuinely had felt that way. With all the negativity that had been consuming my life for months, it was nice to have a day where all of that faded away.
When it came time for us to part ways, I prepared myself for him to go in for a kiss, but it never came. I was surprised, relieved and ecstatic when his arms wrapped tightly around me for a hug goodbye. As he got off the train and waved back to me in the distance, I remember sitting there by myself on the train. I remember quietly smiling to myself and thinking “He hugged me…he hugged me.” That momentarily hug was better than any “passionate” kiss I had received in the past from other men. It was better than anything I had experienced with any man. It was better because I knew in that moment that someone finally actually genuinely cared about me.
I was living in Astoria in a cramped shoebox of a room. I was living with two other people who I met through Circle connections. This was before Astoria got ridiculously expensive and unattainable. It was the start of 2011. The new year was beginning and I was unreasonably optimistic about my acting career. I spent most of my days looking for part-time jobs and auditioning. After some time “hitting the pavement” as they call it, I was able to get a part-time job at a Bareburger. The one that use to be located in the lower East Village. Where you would see the strangest of characters, like the old man who would ALWAYS try to schmooze up the hostesses and talk non-stop for hours. Besides the characters though, I enjoyed my job as a hostess there. Being able to people watch and occasionally read a play here and there was a nice perk of the job. Yet, I was craving the chance to get another performing gig. After auditioning numerous times and never hearing anything back, that sinking feeling [that most actors start to feel inevitably] of not getting another gig was smacking me right in the face. That rude and toxic voice in my head would tell me, “You’re not good enough Bernadette…you’ll never amount to anything.” I was starting to think that maybe the first show I got after graduating was just pure luck and that I would never get another gig.
I was also still trying to ignore my inner struggles and not coping with the sexual abuse. I desperately wanted J to reach out to me and discuss with me how we were going to deal with the abuse I dealt with as a child. Whether that meant doing family therapy together, or simply talking about the abuse to one another. I needed her to show me that she was willing to put in the effort. I fervently needed her to step in and be the responsible parent and protect me, unlike how she neglected to do so before. But just as I was ignoring my pain, she had decided to ignore me. So, I looked to the opposite sex for the comfort and protection I was seeking. There was a string of bad apples. Men, [IF I can even call them that] that I went through.
There was Aidan Sank, my musical theatre classmate from Circle. We continued to have sexual encounters after graduating from school. I wouldn’t even classify what we were doing as friends with benefits, because we were never friendly towards one another while attending school. Even after being slightly traumatized by him the first time, I still decided to seek out comfort in him. Unfortunately, it was the same old thing. The sex and foreplay were not enjoyable and it lacked substance. It was like I was settling for week-old bread rather than taking the time to walk a few more blocks down the street to the bakery shop to get a nice, hearty, fresh baguette. He never seemed to care about me or tried to really get to know me. Yet, in a way, I wasn’t interested in his life either. His life from my perspective seemed to be very privileged and predictable. A young Jewish boy living off his parent’s money, having the luxury to live in a nice apartment near 50th and Broadway. His life was the complete opposite of mine. I think he knew the difference between us class-wise and he took advantage of it. I wanted him to show me a caring, loving, vulnerable side, but I had to settle with his somewhat physically abusive and arrogant personality. I didn’t expect him to act any differently towards me though. After we got what we wanted [or more accurately put, what he got sexually] I always left his place disappointed and with at least one of my eyes swollen and irritated from his semen. These sexual encounters with Aidan continued for a couple of months until I decided enough was enough. I remember once I broke things off with him [whatever it was we were doing] that he asked me in a condescending tone “Are you sure? This is the last time you’ll get to be with me.” After he said that to me the first thought that came into my head was “Yeah. You were only able to sustain having an erection during sex for 40 seconds. Of course, I’m sure.” I didn’t have the guts to tell him this at the time. So, I left it with a simple “Yes. I’m sure.” And that was that.
The second guy was Gary Hope, possibly better known and recognized as the Drill Sgt. from one of the Halls commercials. I remember meeting Gary while I was waiting to maybe be seen at an open call for a series of summer shows. Since I wasn’t Equity there was never any guarantee at these open calls that I would be seen by the directors and assistants. I despised that about open calls and only being EMC/Non-Equity. It was around early afternoon when I met Gary. After sitting in the waiting room since 8 in the morning, I could feel myself dozing off. The lack of food and water compiled with exhaustion was starting to hit me hard. Then all of a sudden an intrusive, booming voice asked me “How are you doing?” I remember quickly jerking my head back to wake myself up and checked myself to see if any remnants of droll were lingering on my face. When I came back to reality I remember thinking, “Why is this old man who could easily be my father or even grandfather talking to me?” Yet, he seemed very gentle, innocent, and kind. Admittedly it was a nice change of pace to this hopeless day to have someone there to talk to and to pass the time. He seemed to genuinely be interested in me and my acting pursuits. He took it upon himself to offer his knowledge on the acting business. He spoke about his acting experience and told me to be “hopeful” that I would get a chance to audition that day. After a few hours of talking and the auditioning day was coming to an end, my name was called out of the blue to be seen. I quickly jumped up in line with the other EMC/Non-Equity actors. Gary gave me this “I told you would be seen” look. I smiled at him and just before he left he asked for my number. He wished me well and left insinuating that he could be my theatre mentor and help me with acting. With my hopes being answered and wondering how he knew that I would be seen, I naively believed his “theatre mentor speech”.
Our first outing together, which I thought was just an outing with my new theatre mentor, was to see the film “The Artist.” I had already seen the film before with someone who I was more interested in at the time, but I decided to watch it again anyway with Gary. I remember being taken aback by how tall he was and really started to notice the age gap between us. I guess I didn’t realize how tall he was and how old he was when we first met. I guess because of the exhaustion I was dealing with during the day I first met him that I overlooked a lot of things. [I never found out how old he actually was.] He was the type of person who needed to be the center of attention. So, while the film was playing he would be rude, obnoxious and embarrassing. He had to comment out-loud on everything about the film and the rest of the filmgoers were not happy about it. It truly was embarrassing and I periodically would crouch further down into my seat to pretend like I didn’t know him at all. After the film, he walked me to the train and just before the train pulled into the R 49th station, he leaned over and asked “Can I kiss you?” I guess I shook my head yes in fear that he might beat the crap out of me since he had mentioned earlier that he used to box professionally. After he kissed me and I got on the train I immediately felt confused, and that I had been duped into something that I wasn’t even remotely interested in. I was a people pleaser though and I wanted to please him.
Gary would periodically shower me with gifts whenever I met up with him and would say “I just want to spoil you rotten.” One of the many things that I remember about him is his fingernails and how unkempt they were. His nails looked as if he had been scraping his hands through a pile of dirt. The crusty black gunk seemed to be tattooed underneath his nails. Even though he frequently spoke of going to some of the bathhouses located in Manhattan he always smelled of cigarettes and musk.
Around the fifth outing with him [or as he would call it, “date”] I realized that I needed to escape his grasp. I was realizing that regardless of his smooth talk about the theatre business and the “connections” that he had, that he zero intention about helping my acting career. He only wanted me romantically and sexually. Realizing this, I told myself that there is no way in hell that I am going to be involved sexually with this old man. So, that evening it was set in my mind to make it the last outing with him. Gary took me to his apartment that evening and I will unfortunately always remember that evening in specific detail. It was one of the most bizarre experiences that I have ever had in my life. His apartment was a hoarder’s paradise. Magazines and papers were stacked high to the ceiling. To be honest, it seemed like a fire hazard. For some reason, there was a claw-footed bathtub smack dab in the middle of his “kitchen”. The bathtub was oddly a storage place for his books. He had numerous vintage dresses that he said he “bought for me” hanging in his closet. He kept on pulling out dresses one by one to show me and would hold them against my body to see how they would look on me. While he was giving me the never-ending tour of his place I asked him “Where is the bathroom located?” He showed me to the restroom and just as soon as I closed the bathroom door and sat down on the toilet, I was smothered by countless images of naked women on the bathroom walls. The images were pornographic. The women on the walls oddly looked as if they were screaming for help. As I glimpsed up and down the walls, I was starting to feel more and more uncomfortable. I quickly finished using the restroom and cautiously went back to where Gary was. He was sitting on his mattress waiting for me. We spent most of the evening sitting on his mattress that lay on the faded wooden floor. I remember his bedroom almost looking cave-like. The tiny space that he called a bedroom was poorly lit and was engulfed by sheer maroon curtains. Diagonally from his mattress sat a tiny TV and VCR. He passionately showed me old films that he adored. He would periodically ask for a kiss from me and would afterward grab his cigarette to smoke. I distinctly remember holding my breath while he smoked. I was instantly reminded of my childhood growing up and how I use to avoid my grandmother’s second-hand smoke while she living with us. After some time passed by, Gary longingly said to me “I would like for you to stay over.” I tried to come up with an excuse quickly and told him that I needed to go back to my place and get some sleep for work tomorrow. Gary had this sneaky way of being insistent and not taking “no” for an answer. So, he ignored what I had said to him and he continued to jabber on about himself and about nothing of importance. To my surprise, I realized that it was 2:00 in the morning. I finally said to him urgently “I REALLY need to leave Gary…I’m sorry.” I could tell that he was disappointed, but in that moment as he put me into the cab and sadly waved goodbye, I honestly didn’t care about disappointing him. After some time I occasionally would see Gary from afar when I would go to auditions or do temp work at the Alvin Ailey Dance Studio. Anytime I saw him without him knowing that I was watching, he would be smooth-talking yet another young woman around my age.
Lastly, there was Alessandro Martinelli or his alias Ale Martins. I don’t hate many people. I can’t even say that I completely hate the people I grew up with, but I do hate Alessandro Martinelli. I created a profile on OkCupid, because I was curious and wanted to meet new people. Not in a sexual way, but I actually wanted to find a long-term relationship or friendship. Most of the men who messaged me on OkCupid were gross and were only interested in what I could give them sexually. If I remember correctly, OkCupid had this option where you could be matched up with other people depending on what your interest were. Alessandro matched up with me. After browsing his profile and being enamored with his looks, his Italian accent and his interest in playing the guitar, I decided to message him. I don’t remember how many times we messaged each other before we decided to meet in person, but I was already infatuated with him. I remember meeting him on a sunny day in the middle of Central Park towards the east side. Even though he was wearing sunglasses, I immediately knew it was him. He seemed ecstatic to meet me. I remember us both looking at one another, trying to take in everything and I recall how well he dressed. While we walked through Central Park, I began to notice how nervous I was and how difficult it was to find things to talk about. Regardless of the somewhat awkward silences, it didn’t seem to bother him and he continued to talk to me. Alessandro, had this effortless way of being cool and it made me even more so infatuated with him. After some time we finally came upon the Belvedere Castle. We both decided to check out the castle since neither one of us had seen it. While walking through the castle, I would periodically wish to myself for him to take off his sunglasses. For some reason, I desperately wanted to see his eyes. We eventually came to a stop and looked out towards the view of the park from the castle. After a moment had passed, he looked at me and said “You look beautiful in the sunlight.” I was stunned by his candor and felt my face flushing. He then proceed to take off his sunglasses and asked me “May I kiss you?” I thought to myself in that second “I have only known this guy for maybe 30 minutes and he already wants to kiss me?” A part of me did want him to kiss me, but I felt uncertain since I hardly knew anything about him. Even though the uncertainty was present, seeing his eyes for the first time drew me in closer and I succumbed and let him kiss me. The moment when Alessandro kissed me seemed to be too perfect. It was like we were both in a film. There we were standing together up on a castle looking over the park and sharing a romantic kiss. I eventually learned that it was too perfect to be true.
After that kiss it seemed like that’s all that he wanted from me. I remember both of us sitting down on bench after leaving the castle. Alessandro started to make moves towards me and pulled me in closer to his body. I felt extremely uncomfortable while he was grabbing my thighs and kissing me fiercely while onlookers watched from afar. It did feel exciting though. Yet, all the while there was a voice in the back of my head checking in and asking me, “Are you sure you really want to be doing this Bernadette?” After making out for a long period of time he asked me “Would you like to go back to my place and watch a movie?” He said to me “It’s not too far away from here. It’s only a couple of blocks.” He painted this innocent, idyllic picture and I was so naive back then. I actually thought that we were going to watch a movie and just get to know one another. Oh, Bernadette.
Alessandro walked me back to his place on the upper east side. It was if I had walked into another realm. Everything on the upper east side of Manhattan seemed to be cleaner and nicer. Even the occasional dog shit on the sidewalk seemed to glisten in the light. As soon as we got into his apartment the rest is like a blur. I remember him being extremely passionate as soon as we got inside his apartment. I kept on thinking while he was touching me “This can’t be happening. Should I be doing this? Does this mean I’m a slut now?” Then out of nowhere, J’s voice came into my head and I remembered what she had told me frequently “Bernadette, it’s okay to date numerous men and explore different things sexually.” So, I let Alessandro continue to touch me.
I realized that after a while my pants were completely off. Alessandro then gently whispered into my ear “I would like very much to not wear a condom.” I was cut off guard for a second but rapidly replied back saying “You have to. Please. I would appreciate it if you would.” He reluctantly listened to me the first time we had sex, but very quickly dismissed what I had asked of him the other times we had engaged in sex. Every time I left Alessandro’s place I felt disgusting. I remember him taking pictures of my vagina early one morning. He was studying in New York to be a doctor and he told me that he needed to take pictures of my vagina because he was doing it for “research.” I hesitantly followed his instructions as he told me “Open your legs wider and hold the lips open.” Once I followed his instructions he began to snap numerous photos of my vagina while commenting on how “beautiful” it looked. That morning he had to leave early for classes and told me “You can stay as long as you like.” When he kissed me goodbye and closed the apartment door I waited for about ten minutes or so to make sure he was in fact gone. I needed to search his apartment for the camera he took photos of my vagina on. I needed to delete them. While searching for the camera the clicking sound that it made every time he took a photo of my vagina played in my head. After meticulously going through his things, I found the camera snuggled behind his underwear drawer. I slowly took out the camera, as to not disturb the order of his boxers and turned it on. At that moment as I turned on the camera I felt dread like I have never felt before. My body went completely numb. As the blank screen flashed back at me reading “No Memory Card” I felt my heart sink. He knew that I was going to look for his camera and delete the images. He knew.
I eventually found out later on that Alessandro was sleeping with other women too. When I found out I wasn’t even surprised. All I knew was that I needed to end things with him and ask him if he had been tested for STDs. I remember texting him one day and asked him straight forward “Have you been tested?” His response was cruel and cold. He said “I don’t know if this is an American thing, but this is completely inappropriate! How dare you ask me this!” On the verge of tears and a panic attack, I responded with “I have every right to know since we had unprotected sex. You have been seeing other women too and you never told me about it.” I never got an apology from him or recognition that he did anything wrong. I remember going to my general doctor at the time and feeling so ashamed that I wanted to get tested for as many things as I possibly could. I felt like my doctor was judging me as he asked “How many people have you been with?” Luckily, all the results came back negative. Yet, knowing that I was clean didn’t take away all the shame and disgust I felt towards myself. I tried talking about the abuse and experiences I had with men with J, but once again she didn’t seem to care.
Despite these experiences I had with men, I continued to audition for shows. I even kept my account open on OkCupid. I was hanging on to some hope that there would be one person out there who would show me decency. Who would treat me like I mattered. I wanted to be proved wrong in my belief that all men were complete trash goblins. Fortunately, I was proved wrong. That’s when I met you.
Going into the second year at Circle seemed different somehow than the first year. A part of me was starting to realize that the “family” I grew up with wasn’t the “perfect” family that they made themselves out to be. I tried to ignore that realization and continued to put on a happy face for everyone around me. Yet, on the inside I was slowly unraveling. It was vital for me to keep some composure though, because at any second it did feel like I was going to loose everything.
There were minuscule moments where I was able to connect to the work at Circle and in those moments I actually felt proud of myself. I felt like maybe I could do this acting thing for a living. F and J would occasionally come up to New York to visit me. The whole time I was around them though I would pretend to be alright. We would do the usual when they would come up to see me. Sight see and go out to dinner. Yet, in the back of my mind I kept on thinking about that past Christmas when I told J about being sexually abused as a child. J never tried to bring up what happened or checked to see how I was doing emotionally. It was like she completely forgot it ever happened. I thought she was the only one who knew besides the people I told at Circle. The facade I put on for F and J was also pretending that my experience at Circle was an enjoyable one.
The faculty at Circle often told us that it was a “safe space,” but that sentiment never translated over into reality. I often experienced shame based tactics from certain teachers. Some of the teachers would invoke techniques to elicit a particular emotion out of us so we could perform well. They treated acting like you had to suffer for it. I have always thought that is the most bullshit concept ever. You shouldn’t have to “suffer for your art.” I do not agree with the way that I was forced into talking about being sexually abused. There are ways to see if someone is hurting and has been through trauma without interrogating them. I definitely didn’t appreciate the discrepancy in how I was treated [because I was the only black girl in my year] compared to my white and or passing classmates. When I would try to express my feelings about shortening my name into a nickname, a teacher made me feel ashamed for wanting to be called by my full name by saying, “Oh? Okay then. I was just trying to show you that I have fondness for you, but it’s your journey I guess.” On top of that, I was still getting bullied by one of my classmates. Since, I felt from that past summer that things became awkward between me and S, I started to spend more time with two other of my classmates. Let’s call her C and him E. In both of those friendships, even though they were there for me at times and we had enjoyable moments, I felt very used by them. It was a one sided relationship with the two of them. I was always meant to go along with what they wanted and be their personal therapist or listener. All the while they disregarded what I wanted and never seemed to care about what I had to say.
[Me and C at Central Park]
[Musical Theatre Class. E was sitting beside me and A is behind me in the light blue shirt]
I still couldn’t comprehend fully the abuse I went through so, I continued to put myself into questionable and harmful situations while attending school. I remember a classmate treating me poorly while we were rehearsing a scene at his apartment. Let’s call him A. While rehearsing the scene, it quickly escalated to A shoving me around and having me give him a blow job. I distinctly remember being pushed against the exposed brick in his apartment and I remember how much my head hurt afterwards. At the end, when A ejaculated, all of his semen got into my eyes. Even though he noticed that my eyes were swollen he didn’t offer to get me a cab home. So, I carefully walked to the train station alone. As I was walking to the station I was trying so hard not to walk into anything, because it was difficult to see from his semen that got into my eyes. On top of that, I kept on trying to hide my face. I was concerned that everyone at the Times Square train station secretly knew what happened to me and were judging me for it.
Towards the later half of the second year, I unfortunately got involved with one of the other students attending the program. His name is Peter Trojgaard. He was apart of the straight acting program and was about eleven years older than me. I’m sure he still would be adamant and say that I initiated things with him, but it was most certainly the other way around. You don’t just say, “I shouldn’t do this” and then kiss a girl without having some intentions to start some kind of relationship whether that be sexual or not. [This actually happened. Even after the relationship, he continued to deny it and insinuated that I pursued him.] It was one of the most toxic relationships I have had in my life. He constantly made me question my worth all the while putting his toxicity and past trauma on me too. He would ask me questions like, “If I was jealous?” while he would be talking to other women. Even though it didn’t bother me at the time, he would always get intensely furious if I talked to another guy that wasn’t him. Over time it did wear on me and I eventually gave in to his toxicity. I slowly started to feel jealous of the things that he would do and say. He seemed to get a strange pleasure from staring at other women and grossly commenting on their figures. He would comment and say things like, “Wow, she has amazing breasts” while I would be right beside him. He treated me like I had zero worth. Even through the abuse that he was putting on me daily, I wanted to be there for him. The “relationship” lasted about three months.
While the year was winding down, me and the rest of the second year students were starting to work on pieces for the end of the year performances. That ranged from the musical cabaret, scene night, the dance recital and then the full length plays and musical that would be showcased. Managers and agents would come to view the work of the graduating students and would sometimes choose students to be a part of their agency or management. I remember doing a dance with “S” for the end of the year dance recital. Looking back on it now, it’s interesting which song S ended up choosing for us to dance to. “First love” by Adele. The song is about a first love and the two lovers inevitably ending the relationship. Being able to perform with S and connect like that, was meaningful. During the second year, I felt like the friendship between us was ending. When in truth, it hadn’t ended at all. While dancing with him, all the memories from the first year when I first met him started to flood in. Me and S had great memories with each other. All the evenings we spent laughing. I can remember his exuberant laugh echoing off the walls. His laugh sometimes sounded like a donkey dying. His never ending love for peanut butter. All the talks we had. The tears. S was the first person who really tried to see me and I will be forever grateful for that.
[Me and S performing dance photo taken by Lauren Enrech]
When scene night came along, me and E were preparing a piece that we had worked on throughout the year. It was the first piece of work while attending Circle that I really felt close to. The piece was from Ariel Dorfman’s play “Death and the Maiden.” I instantly related with the character’s struggle with being sexually abused and not knowing how to cope with the pain and aftermath. On the evening of scene night, I remember E coming up to me just as soon as we were about to go on stage. I thought that he was going to come up to me and give me a hug. I thought that he was going to have some comforting words of encouragement like, “We got this Bernadette!” but as we were both surrounded by the darkness from the backstage, he whispered to me in a chilling voice, “Remember what he did to you? He fucked you.” Then E started to almost too comfortably take on the character of the brother who sexually abused me for all those years. I guess he was trying to get me into character and have me feel frightened and upset. If that was his intention, then he definitely succeeded. I think I resented him after that for putting me in that position and treating me that way. I thought that I could trust him, apparently I couldn’t trust him at all.
[Cabaret end of the year musical photo taken by Lauren Enrech]
After the musical showcase, dance recital and scene night, I ended up auditioning for the full length shows. I was disappointed with the parts that I was given. In both the Shakespeare play and musical I was put into roles that were “suited” for me based on my skin color. I felt like my whole experience and hard work at Circle had completely gone to waste. Once again, I was being shown that the institution of Circle in the Square and in the rest of the theatre world, that they were only ever going to cater to white people. So, I watched from a distance while my fellow white and or passing classmates excelled and were given the chance to be seen. After the first performance of the musical, I headed out of the theatre to greet the audience to see who came to see the show. All of my fellow classmates were hugging friends and family while I stood awkwardly off to the side. Seeing all the different families reminded me of the lack of the one that I had. I think tears were about to form into my eyes, until one of my favorite teachers at Circle came up to me. Jackie or formally known as Jacqueline Brookes, may she rest in peace. For some reason I remember being intimidated by her. I think from past teachers and experiences I had, I assumed that she would think I was stupid and a waste of time. She gently pulled me aside and looked at me downhearted and said, “I really wish I could have heard you sing.” Having that quick, but very sincere moment with her made me feel seen and valued. She knew that I deserved better than what they had given me. Just having one person with privilege see the differences when it comes to white and black treatment, gave me the strength to keep on acting.
[2011 Graduating class]
While the end of the year performances were going on, the toxic relationship I was in with Peter was coming to an end. I remember him breaking up with me after my 21st birthday. He came over to my place in Washington Heights. The whole entire time that he was talking, he tried to place the blame on me. I remember him sitting on the edge of my bed crying and saying, “You didn’t pay attention to me at all during your birthday.” Besides the fact that I just turned 21 and was somewhat drunk by “C’s” convincing, my eldest sister and her fiance were visiting me for my birthday. So, I was probably preoccupied with numbing the pain I was going through and trying to enjoy one night. One night where I could just forget it all. Where I could forget the abuse and the lack of family I had. He also decided to inform me that “He didn’t love me.” To be honest I didn’t love him either. At that point I had only known him for a few months and the whole time I was dealing with him being abusive towards me. So, why would I love him? I guess he assumed that I did. Regardless of not loving him, I still cared because I knew about his trauma. Even though he treated me like complete garbage, I still wanted to be there for him. He left me that evening asking if we could “Still be friends?” I replied with a simple “Yes.” Then just before he left, he forcefully grabbed my butt and said, “I needed to get one more squeeze in.” I continued to be friends with him for at least a year or so, until I quite frankly got tired of his abuse and shit.
I ended up spending most of the summer of 2011 up in New York auditioning. It was like I had to keep myself busy and distracted so I wouldn’t stop and think about the abuse. J kept on being persistent with her pursuit of sending me “inspirational” quotes. J continued to not check and see how I was doing emotionally and that bothered me. I wanted to see that she cared about what I was going through, but I never got any sign that she did.
After auditioning a few times, I went to an open call for the musical Dreamgirls. When I went into the auditioning room it was refreshing to see other women who looked like me. I felt extremely uncomfortable and nervous. Yet, the audition process was unlike anything I had experienced before. I distinctly remember the director of the show giving all of the women who auditioned that day a big group hug afterwards. After the audition, a few weeks went by. I came to terms with the idea that I most likely wasn’t going to hear back from them. Then one day as I was walking through Times Square, my cellphone started ringing. I didn’t recognize the number so, I assumed that the person on the other line had the wrong number. When I answered the phone the words that were uttered to me were, ” Is this Bernadette?” I replied with a cautious, “Yes.” They replied back asking, “Would you like to be in the cast for Dreamgirls?” I think I almost dropped my phone in that moment out of shock. I had to try so hard not to immediately scream out loud, so I kept it on the inside until the phone call was over. I thought to myself “I did it.” I really did it! I would be doing Dreamgirls and performing down in Hilton Head,Georgia for a few months.
[Some of my cast mates from Dreamgirls]
[Woof, that wig looks like a hott mess]
Even though I felt extremely proud about getting a gig so quickly after graduating, I was still avoiding the fact that I hadn’t told F about the sexual abuse I went through as a child. I know there were moments where I wanted to tell him, but I was too fearful to how he might react. There was a point where I was concerned that he was going to hurt the brother who abused me. So, I decided to keep on being silent.
I ended up finishing the gig for Dreamgirls by the end of November. The experience went by too quickly and before I knew it, I was back in Virginia spending a month down there for Christmas. While I was down in Virginia, I continued to avoid the pain I was feeling. I just wanted my life to be okay. I wanted things to be normal. So, another Christmas went by and then New Year’s past. Once, the New Year was over, I hopped back on a bus to New York so I could start working towards my life as an actor. In just a matter of a few months I would finally meet my best friend. I never knew that he was going to play such a significant role in my life.
I remember that hideous, vintage, floral couch in the living room. It was either falling apart at the seams or one of the legs was falling off, then it had to be glued back on every fucking time it did. I sat there on the couch waiting to tell J about what happened to me as a child. At that point I felt like the brother [let’s call him E] who did most of the abusing was the only one necessary to bring up. I left the fact that the sister who abused me too out of this particular story [let’s call her SY for now]. Perhaps I was trying to give SY the benefit of the doubt? Along with giving SY a pass, I didn’t have the awareness at the time to bring up all the grotesque and perverted things J and F did to me during my childhood too. J was standing by the wood fire stove in the living room as I was about to tell her my “secret”. I told her reluctantly that I got abused by E as a child and that the memories of the abuse came up while I was at Circle. When I look back on this memory the causal way that J reacted makes me sick to my stomach. I remember her looking directly at me and quite simply responding with, “I figured that was going on.”
Why did I find that response so comforting at the time? I should have known after she said “That she figured that was going on” that was a red flag to question why she never did anything to stop it. There were so many red flags, but I kept myself blinded from them because I felt alone and I needed support. For so long I told myself that I needed the family I grew up with to survive. It was much later that I realized I had been on my own and dealing with the pain from the abuse for years without their help.
While I was back in Harrisonburg for the Christmas break I was trying to find ways to forget about the abuse. I would try to distract myself so I wouldn’t have to think about opening up about being sexually abused as a child. I was so shocked by J’s response to telling her I had been sexually abused that I had to seek out comfort elsewhere, because I certainly wasn’t getting it from her. I remember touching base with a guy friend at the time [let’s call him Z]. We went to the same high school and did theatre with one another and he was still living in Harrisonburg. I was looking for someone to spend time with and I thought our friendship was very straight forward. Just friends, nothing more than that. One evening I decided to have him over. I remember laying out my plans for the evening to him saying that “We could bake Christmas cookies and watch Lord of the Rings.” Thinking that it would be a relaxed and innocent evening with a friend, I was honestly looking forward to spending time with him. J and F weren’t around that evening. As a matter of fact they left the house minutes after Z arrived. After J and F left, me and Z went to my bedroom to watch Lord of the Rings. Everything seemed to be going smoothly, until he started to make moves on me. I remember feeling uncomfortable while kissing him and knew that this couldn’t be leading anywhere good. He then proceeded to finger me. While he was fingering me I kept on imagining that I was somewhere else. I remember thinking to myself, “This can’t be happening now. Why is this happening?” I could feel the sharpness of his nails scrape at my insides. The pain from him fingering me left me bleeding everywhere. I was mortified and helped Z clean his bloody hands. After we washed his hands, I told him that I wanted to take a shower and that I would be back after taking one. While I was washing up I remember feeling filthy and disgusted with myself. I kept on scrubbing at my skin until I was “clean” enough. When I got back to my bedroom I tried to pretend like Z wasn’t there and what just happened between us didn’t happen. Trying to keep myself preoccupied by what Frodo was doing in the film, Z said “Turn around Bernadette.” I could feel this cold chill creep up my back and as soon as I turned around I noticed that he had his penis out waiting for something. Waiting for me to please him. He looked at me and said, “You owe me.” I wanted to disappear. I never spoke to him after that.
When I got back to New York after the Christmas break I felt completely numb. I remember telling my classmates about the situation I had with Z and their response seemed to be, “Well, of course that would happen to you.” I don’t know if any of them believed me. The later half of the first year at Circle seemed like it didn’t happen at all. I was never mentally present during any of the classes. I honestly don’t have any clue how I ended up passing and was accepted into the second year. Maybe the faculty felt sorry for me? There were many moments where I would be in my classes and blankly stared at the walls until the class would be over. J wasn’t helping me through the process of opening up either. Every now and then she would send me condescending inspirational quotes that would say things like, “Know your worth” and that would be it. It was like I was stuck in the middle of the sea floating and not knowing where I would go next. J never initiated any in-depth conversations about the abuse I dealt with as a child. So I tried to get through it on my own.
After the first year at Circle I went back to Harrisonburg for the summer. I think as much as I wanted to stay in New York, I couldn’t. My lease was ending and I didn’t have any other means of housing up there. To cope while I was back in Harrisonburg, in that place where I got abused, I immersed myself completely into the work that we had to prepare for the second year at Circle. That whole first year at Circle I remember being laughed at by some of the students because my singing voice wasn’t good or “black” enough. So I spent hours everyday practicing vocal exercises and learning new songs to bring back to show that I did belong there. That the faculty didn’t make a mistake for accepting me into the second year. I remember going over Chekhov’s work and being dizzy from the humidity of that summer and wondering, “When will this summer end? When will it be time to head back to New York?”
That summer I invited my friend “S” to stay for a week. I remember counting down the days till I would be able to see him. I missed being around him and feeling that comfort and protection that I wasn’t receiving from J. When S came down to visit me I thought everything was going to be swell and that the pain I was feeling after opening up about being abused would somehow subside, at least for a while if not at all. Yet negative situations seemed to keep on following me. While S was down visiting me one of ex-boyfriends wanted to meet him. In the back of my mind I had an inkling that maybe this wasn’t a good idea. That maybe it would be best to say to my ex, “Well, actually me and S are busy and won’t have time to meet up with you.” My ex was known to be sneaky, grossly sexual and quite honestly a pathological liar. Regardless that I knew this about my ex, I still let him meet up with me and S. I later ended up finding out that S and my ex decided to engage sexually one evening when my ex convinced my adoptive mother J for him to spend the night. I think my ex told J that he could sleep on the couch. And J happily agreed to that idea. I don’t know the exact details. S stayed in my adoptive parent’s bedroom. And even though my bedroom was almost literally above their’s, I didn’t know what happened between S and my ex. When I confronted S the next day, if I remember correctly he chuckled about it. And for some reason that bothered me.
When S left to go back to New York I waited a week or so to talk to him on the phone about what happened. I remember that I tried to convey what I was feeling to him, but I was constantly fumbling over my words. When I think back on it, I didn’t really fully understand why the situation between S and my ex made me so upset. While talking to S about what happened, it seemed like it was my fault for bringing it up in the first place. And that I shouldn’t have been upset by what happened. I realize now that knowing that S and my ex also did something sexual in a room where I often got sexual abused as a child and where my adoptive mother saw me get abused, but did nothing, caused me extreme pain. After that, I felt like I somehow created that toxic space. I felt so guilty for bringing S into it and I didn’t know how to express that to him. That “home” that I grew up in seemed to breed toxicity. S was the only person at that time who I could confide in. And he made me feel protected after sharing the abuse I went through. After the phone call I remember crying for hours and not knowing what to do. I felt like things were going to be different between us after that. Even though I was hurting over what happened I still continued to work on what needed to be done to prepare for the second year at Circle. I needed to. I needed to be okay and get through this no matter what.