- what am I doing?
- why can’t anything work out?
- what’s happening to the world?
- what’s happening to me?
- who even cares about me?
- who knows anything about me anymore?
- if I died, how long would it take for someone to realize it?
- ugh what am I doing?
- am I doing the right thing?
- did I make the right choice?
- is this where I should be?
- what did this degree get me?
- why is everything so hard?
- when is it gonna stop?
- why do I feel this way?
- wait, I swear I was just happy, what happened?
- I thought this is what I wanted?
- was I wrong?
- what do I want?
- can they see me crying?
- can they see the dark in me?
- what am I doing?
- where did I go wrong?
- why is everyone moving in together and getting engaged?
- how long has it been since someone has loved me?
- how long has it been since someone has held me?
- has even touched me?
- what’s wrong with me?
- wtf is even real?
- why is everyone gone?
- how did I lose it all?
- why am I so alone?
- what am I doing?
- what more can I do?
- didn’t I play it all right?
- when can I get a break?
- why am I so tired?
- oh god, what am I gonna do?
- what should I do?
- when am I gonna have it together?
- why does money control everything?
- what if I’m never happy?
- what if I’m never fulfilled?
- what if none of this changes?
- what am I doing?
- what am I doing?
- what am I doing?
- is it just me?
- what am I doing?
- does anyone hear me?
- does anyone see me?
- what am I doing?
- oh my god, what am I doing?
I feel like I wouldn’t be myself if I didn’t have an existential crisis approximately every 6 weeks. This is probably because I’m a mix between a poet, a planner, an overachiever, a traveler, a pragmatic dreamer, a survivor of many things, a fighter of even more things — all this to say I live with a constant hunger. Sometimes I get really freaked out that I will never be fully happy, never stop playing out all these different options, scenarios, choices, lifestyles, never cease imagining my life in various sets of circumstances.
Current crisis? New York and I are fighting and I kinda wanna go on a break. I mean, we’ve had our problems for a while, but I thought they’d just go away. And now I’m wondering if maybe we should break up for real for real.
Okay, so I love New York. But I also hate New York. Honestly, most people I meet here feel the same way. I could go on and on about why (on paper) it’s the right place for me professionally, artistically, socially, etc. But there’s also a lot about it that I’m struggling with that I didn’t expect. New York does sometimes blow my mind, fill my heart, take my breath away. These moments are few and far in between, though, and although there are so many options, I mean options on options on options, I just don’t feel very fulfilled right now. So what does it matter how many opportunities and events and cool projects and people are here?
I’m gonna skip the part of explaining why I love New York because, well, it’s just so typical. I’m one among millions who’ve been dazzled by the concrete jungle. So I’ll say a little bit about what I’m struggling with. And that’s just it — it seems like everything feels like a struggle. And maybe some of this is because of certain professional and social circumstances that are less than ideal, but some of it is also location and the city’s culture. It’s funny, but even though I mentioned I have such a breadth and scope of opportunities and options, I feel extremely disengaged. Like I am going through the majority of my days starving for a connection to someone, to something. And it’s leaving my mind and my soul so malnourished.
I have done a lot of work on myself, yes. I understand that happiness and fulfillment are largely generated from the internal, but I also can’t deny that there’s only so much I can do. And I don’t want to mentally and emotionally alter myself to cope and be content with circumstances that are ultimately malleable, if I just have the courage and audacity to make changes.
To be completely honest — and this is not to say I haven’t had amazing opportunities, successes, moments of happiness and fulfillment — I feel that I struggle every day with three emotions: sadness, loneliness, and anxiety. Some times for just a moment, a well of tears brought to my eyes on the train and then it vanishes and I’m good, some times it looms over me and lasts a week. And this is nothing new, I am very used to feeling these things, it’s just more often than I’d like to live with and I’m missing a lot of the other people and things I used to have in my life to balance that out.
Part of what it comes down to is that I’ve realized that I’ve changed (yeah, yeah, blah blah blah everyone changes and transforms into weird little butterflies and shit). But really, I think what’s happening is that the lifestyle and the values I hold have shifted. This may be from my year abroad, leaving college, just generally growing up. I used to dream about making it in NYC (rolling my eyes at how cliché this is), I surely romanticized it and idealized it greatly. But this makes sense for someone who’s had some tough things to overcome and wanted an escape and craved independence in a place I could fully be myself. I still love this about New York. I used to fantasize about my life as this rough struggle where I overcome and work so hard and that relationship between fight and achievement never ends. I mean this is so much of who I am and how I think. But (lemme add three thousand buts and parentheses to this post) now, I’m thinking about all the ways my deep self-reliance and all of these behaviors have actually made me someone who rejects joy. I reject joy. I don’t see it as an option for myself. I duck and avoid it. It kinda scares me. And yet I crave it more than anything. I’ve had it and lost it. I’ve lost and lost and lost.
And so what would it mean for me to allow myself joy — at least from the sources I can control. Fully. Without hesitating. Without capping it. I want to give all of myself — my heart, my mind, my body — joy and fulfillment. I want to honor those three parts of myself equally. The past year in Spain and my last several months here in New York I’ve been trying to do this and have become much more self-aware and surely a lot better at it. And I feel like I’m plateauing.
Reflecting on some of my favorite places, experiences, activities, a good many happened in cities and a great deal also happened in nature. Since moving here I’ve said a million times how much I miss nature, but I also am afraid of getting bored not being in a big city the way I felt in Boston. So what would it feel like to move to a balanced place, in a city surrounded by and infused in nature?
I remember this one time in like January or February, I was going to a feminist art party in Brooklyn that I thought was gonna be so cool. As I walked up to the house, I passed a tree under which gathered a pile of leaves on the ground. And it hit me so hard. I hadn’t even seen leaves in so long. I am not joking when I say I started to cry. This one little exposure to nature really made me that emotional. And at the party, everyone was drinking and chatting and being so ‘artsy’ it all felt like performance, and I just leaned up against the counter and thought about a god damn tree.
Thinking about a lifestyle where I can be in a city and go to events and learn and work hard, while also being able to walk outside much more, lay in the grass, have year round warmth and sun, go to the beach on the weekend, hike in the mountains and forest in my free time, generally just be more active and see beautiful scenery, breathe cleaner air, have fresher produce and make better food. UGHH. I just. I want that lifestyle. I want it for myself and, in imagining my life to come, I want to share that with my friends, my future partner, everyone. So I’ve been thinking (daydreaming, mostly) about maybe making a move to San Francisco/Oakland soon. Who knows.
I am 23 but already feeling the quiet and rapid escape of time. It’s scary. I don’t want to waste the time I have right now (not twenty years down the line after decades of keeping my head down). I want to give myself that chance. I want to give myself every chance. I’m planning a trip to San Fran/Oakland to check it out and see how it feels. Maybe it’ll be super amazing, maybe it’ll be totally wrong.
So. This is an open invitation (to this trip and in general in life). Come with me. Let’s hike. Let’s feel the sand on our feet and the salt in our hair. Let’s sit in the sun and talk until we are silent and laugh again and ruminate on the gorgeous and complicated world we live in. I am tired of everything feeling like a struggle. Let’s go and just exist. For a moment. For a weekend. For all the precious time we can. Please, let’s just be. You and me.
and I begin to wonder where along the line you mistook my pride for easy.
Given the choice, I wouldn’t change any of it, and yet I do not wish this on you.
The same way my moms’ faces dropped, their eyes hitting the floor every time they saw I liked girls just as much as they did.
I don’t know how to tell you about the first moment I knew my ex was in love with me,
how we hugged each other goodnight for twenty minutes, her eyes staring out my dorm window into the full moon, and she cried quietly, her chin locked on my shoulder, and I didn’t have to say anything the whole time my arms whispering “I know. I know.”
There is nothing easy about loving like you are saying sorry over and over.
There is nothing easy about living like you are saying sorry over and over.
When you tell me to get over it, say “fuck that bitch” and shake your head at how I still answer every time she calls out to me, when you suggest I forget her, like I can lay down all the memories and the worry with my tongue between the legs of other women,
tell me how easy it could be, but,
the thing is, I don’t know how to fuck myself out of loving someone I survived with.
You chandelier your love delicate and diamond and all I know how to do is fear it’s untimely fall piercing my whole existence.
When was the last time you imagined your death?
And did it happen between cocktails and club beats?
I do not cackle into the moonlight of late nights, I exude joy the way I learned how to — star-like, silent but fucking miraculous and burning up the whole sky, my hips swinging, hands touching, dancing in the humid dark, alone together, all of us, moving to a rhythm I beg does not meet sneer and hate crime. Body rolling and side stepping my unwritten eulogy into the floor, as if to pray my body invisible and yet so visible in the flashing lights of the gay club.
And I wish this was easy.
I kiss girls and behind closed eyes think about what my face would look like dragged into the pavement.
I miss girls and behind closed eyes think about what my body would look like underneath the pavement, meaning:
Living and dying always looked similar to me. Meaning my love is the soil hiding underneath everything, meaning in the soles and of the soul and dirty and life giving, anyway. My love is the ground holding me up.
My love is so big it wraps around the Earth’s crust. I have magma for marrow,
my fast heart beat earthquakes me to remember how I wake to lay the ground out in front of me, to keep kissing and missing and losing and standing my ground.
I keep my feet dug into the cracks to remember where I come from and where I am going all at once.
I was born with a heavy and a dark and an endless longing.
This can be called many things
but it is never
So I wanted to start out with kind of a funny story. March 15th, 2017. It’s a Wednesday afternoon and I’m with the children I nanny part time in Manhattan, on a bus from school to their apartment. One of them asks me “hey, Marissa, guess what??” and I say “what?” “chicken butt!” she yells and all the elementary school children giggle and I’m like damn yo how did I fall for that one again? It’s sunny and I feel happy; I’m texting a girl making plans for a date that weekend. It’s been a hard couple of years, but today — I am alive.
I get a couple of phone calls from a blocked number and on the third try, I decide to answer. They ask “hello, is this Marissa Johnson?” and I’m all smiley like “yesss it is!” “Miss Johnson, this is the FBI.”
And I’m like, yeah, whatever, bout to hang up on your scammin ass. And then she starts spouting off some identifying information and my heart stops. I am overcome with this enormous, irrational feeling of guilt and racing anxiety. In one second I convince myself that I must have committed some serious crimes that I’ve forgotten about and it’s all catching up to me and everything I love is going to slip through my hands. She starts talking and I am just like OH FUCK, I have seen Scandal, I have seen Quantico, I am totally screwed.
“Marissa, The Spanish National Police have contacted us through the help of the US Embassy. They’d like to know if you’d be willing to come in to our office to do a photo line up of suspects in your sexual assault case in Madrid.” So I agree to do it and she says “I’ll just text you our address and confirm the date and time.” And I’m just like WTF the FBI texts? I text her back to confirm and she sends me a smiley emoji and I am just so baffled, my boo the FBI is texting me fucking smiley emojis.
And then I feel tears well up and I look over at the kids and it’s time to get off the bus and go play. I force a smile and fake joy through the rest of my shift. This is nothing new.
A week later, I go to the FBI, I do the photo line up, all the photos are dark and blurry, clearly taken off a cell phone, but one of them looks like it could be him, I initial the photo. I ask the two FBI agents what happens next. And they don’t even know, didn’t do their due diligence to ask Spain about the possibilities of what will happen. They have no answers for me whatsoever. Nothing. I explain to them how jarring it is to try to move on with my life and get a phone call a year later with no warning and to still have virtually no answers. But then again, this is what happens when a political system values bureaucracy and optics over human dignity. They get nervous and stumble on their words telling me I’m brave and thank you for coming, I can see they’re desperately uncomfortable, and so I do what I always do. I smile. I convince them of my admirable strength, I shrug it off, tell them I’m doing well, it’s really okay.
I am out in ten minutes. I go get my blood drawn to check on my reproductive health, I go pick up the kids, I get stared down by a man on the street licking his lips as he watches me walk by, I go home, I brainstorm with my roommate how to confront her boyfriend’s friend about his misogynistic comments the other day, most of my friends forget to ask me about the line up.
And it all just feels so exhaustingly woman.
I’ve gotten very good at concealing my emotions. I have learned that control is, in some instances the only way I will be taken seriously, and in others, how I keep everyone around me happy and comfortable. Maybe if I got paid for all the emotional labor I do for men (and women alike), it would make up for the wage gap.
Maybe most of us won’t get a call from the FBI in our lifetimes, but there is nothing unlikely or special about my story. In fact, it is all too common. When I got asked to come speak to you all today, I got nervous because what happened to me was not as bad as it could have been. It does not fit the very singular, horrific story our culture has about sexual assault. And I have spent a lot of time thinking this makes me undeserving of empathy, barred from identifying as a survivor, stupid for sometimes being afraid and paranoid, and silly that I even have a case still ongoing.
The DOJ defines sexual assault as:
“any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.”
In February, 2016, I was sexually assaulted coming home from work on the metro in Madrid, where I was spending my year, post-grad, teaching English. I’m not going to go into the details of my case that may surprise or disgust you, because I want to talk to you about some of the other, less talked about issues survivors deal with in the aftermath. I am angry at the person who did this to me, but I am even angrier for a lot of other reasons.
I was so angry (and still am) with the way I was treated by the police and all the other systems and institutions that were supposed to help me, who were supposed to know better. How I was treated after was worse than the actual assault. And I know that I’m not alone in that experience. I am angry that for all the friends I felt I’d always been there for and given so much to, many of them did not show up for me. I was angry that the only agency I’ve been given is to look at some photos rather than tackle this messed up system, that not once has anybody asked me what I want, that I still live in a world where I feel I am under the gaze and threat of sexualization and violence on a daily basis.
And this birthed a resentment in me, a resentment towards everyone involved in my case, towards a whole country, towards some of the people close to me, towards the world.
I realized that I have a sort of documentation of my feelings and thoughts, through my personal blog where I post a lot of my writing. And so I wanted to read some excerpts to you, because a lot of what I want to say today is in these posts and they work to tell more of the story than meets the eye:
February 9th, 2016 (a few days after)
Friends make us tea because warmth
is always good.
Bosses calculate their empathy
based on how much our traumas
will cost them.
It is all so costly.
There is too much sorry.
Always “I don’t know what to say.”
There’s the before and there’s the after and
sometimes we think they are the same but
then there is the remembering.
And it is all different.
The anger where there wasn’t before.
The heartbeat in our throats.
The clenched fists.
The third eye on the nape of our necks.
How the men all look the same, anyway.
Is it still paranoia if our fear has proven rational over and over?
How could we forget that as long as we have our bodies,
there is always more
to be taken from us.
February 22nd, 2016:
For the first time in my life, I was feeling good about my body. I cared for it more. I loved it more. I opened myself to feeling sexy and young and enjoying myself, to owning all of this, to wearing things I never thought a body like mine could wear, to not giving a shit about what anybody else thought. And then my body was used. And all that stuff started to fall away. But I’m not going to let it anymore. I refuse to shame myself for my body, for sometimes feeling crazy and paranoid and small and anonymous — all the things I’ve been most afraid of being my whole life.
And I hope, as survivors, as non-survivors, as people, we continue to support each other. Until we are all free.
So, here we are.
Learning how to love ourselves not despite our traumas, but wholly, with them.
Learning how to give ourselves after what’s been taken.
Learning how to be sexual and yet not sexualized.
Learning how to be a body that can feel its memories.
Learning how to exist alone and here and together and there.
Learning how to hold our own hands, to take care of ourselves the way we would each other.
Learning how to build back a dignity that isn’t going anywhere.
Learning how to stop apologizing.
Learning how to breathe and breathe and breathe ourselves into a better world.
May 10th, 2016
The truth is, your education doesn’t prepare you for your personal life. Your attitude doesn’t protect you from a fist. Your voice can’t always stop the violence from happening.
I’m not saying this to be depressing or hopeless. I do believe we have more power than we know; we are strong and loud and capable. I walked away thinking about all these small moments that go unaddressed every day. How I will remember this, add it to my growing folder of experiences of misogyny.
It’s been my first year out of the bubble of my women’s centered college, and I have experienced more violence, looks, and comments from men than I ever have before. And I’m not ashamed of saying it — I’m scared. Let’s not think our empowerment means it is shameful to be scared or sad or silent. Imagine all the little and big moments women experience throughout their lives and all the memories they collect. All the looks, comments, insults, catcalls, threats, and abuse we experience, from the street to our beds, reported and unreported, reportable and unreportable, noticed and unnoticed. What does it all add up to and where does it go? Because I am just trying to keep my head above them all, high enough to still see the sun. To still see the good. To still see myself.
And I can’t help but thinking.
Is this what it means to be a woman?
To be hunted and haunted?
To be prey of both men and our memories of them?
I refuse to believe gender violence is an inevitable, unchanging part of society. I do not accept it as a fact of our world. But I am also not naive enough to think it will disappear in my lifetime, to simply relish in “progress,” to trust a damn thing without one eye open. We are in some middle place, we are out on a bridge somewhere with fog too thick to see what lies ahead. I do not know where that is or how long the journey may be. I just know I’m going to keep walking.
Today, April 6th, 2017
This may not be the most beautiful or empowering thing I can say. I don’t think empowerment is something to be given, it exists within us. And we already know the truth. We can speak a better reality into existence, but first we must have the audacity to imagine it. So I just want to share three key things that I’ve learned:
- 1 – We need to figure out what we need and want (and not knowing just yet is okay)
- We often know how to support others and even prescribe self care to the people we care about and yet we don’t allow ourselves the same care. Think about what you want and need. You likely will not be asked, but if you want to fight for yourself, you need to know what you’re fighting for. We’ve all been taught the phrase “treat others the way you’d like to be treated” how about we also start teaching “treat yourself the way you’d treat others.”
- 2 – We must amplify the voices of those at the center of this issue and actively create spaces that allow for people to speak up and out.
- Take a moment and think about the last time you were truly moved by something, that something caught your attention, that you felt you deeply cared about something. How many of you thought of a story? Personal narrative straight from the mouths of those most directly impacted by an issue is deeply effective. Storytelling is one of our most powerful social justice tools, and we should center it as such.
- 3 – We better learn how to listen and fight alongside each other for our collective justice (and a justice that is not one single pathway).
- human dignity should be the nexus from which we design and execute all of our prevention and response work — for everyone involved
- according to Vera Institute of Justice’s latest report, policy and practice should be: survivor-centered, accountability-based (both on the perp and our society), safety-driven, and racially equitable and should be community led approaches. And I could not agree more.
The common theme among all of this is empathy. So what can a culture of empathy do?
- Empathy can make men care about women’s issues not because a woman is their daughter, their sister, their mother, their wife, but the way one should care about the oppression of other whole human beings. Shocker: Women’s existence is not only relational to men.
- Empathy can change our toxic ideas of American masculinity, and also allow men and others to come forward about their own experiences with sexual abuse and violence.
- Empathy can replace old and ineffective systems.
- Empathy can initiate new policies and programs by, for, and about survivors.
- Empathy can develop restorative justice programs, anger management and violence prevention programs for people of all genders.
- Empathy can make us all accountable to being better listeners, supporters, advocates, and change-makers, to name a few.
I could go on. I do not have all the answers. I am still out on that bridge somewhere, in between a disturbing reality and a daring future of magnificence and justice, but I am literally and metaphorically marching on, persisting on, anyway, with a whole lot of other amazing human beings.
To anyone and everyone who may be experiencing domestic or sexual abuse, whether it be in the past, the present, or the looming fear of it in the future, I just want to say — I see you. I hear you. And I am with you.
I am not what happened to me. I am not a tragedy; I am not America’s blind eye turned. Maybe some of the people in my life and the system and the president don’t care about me as much as I’d like them to but I care about myself. I will fight for myself. I love myself. And that is the most revolutionary thing I have ever done.
This is just a part of my story, my future will surely be a mosaic of joy, loss, successes, mistakes; just like all of us but always, always, the light will pour through the cracks and the colors alike and narrate our lives in vibrant survival. When shame and pain transform into power, we become the authors of our own lives.
I believe stories can change the world because they start by changing hearts and minds. And frankly, as with all oppressions, it is on all of us to listen, to create a culture of empathy. One voice can make a difference, yes, but a whole nation of listeners is unstoppable.