It was the end of 2018 and over the course of about a week, I had several different experiences that left me feeling like I didn’t exist—not really, not in a way that other people could touch or feel or see.
First, I went on a camping trip with people that I knew through facebook (as you do) and during the trip one member of the group grabbed me in a way that made me feel like an object. It wasn’t sexual. It was matter-of-fact.
Second, I got my hair cut and felt like the stylist didn’t actually register my presence. At one point, she snipped my neck and didn’t say anything except to briefly dab at the spot. At the time, I couldn’t believe it had actually happened.
Third, I went to a community arts event and a man took my seat when I left the table to get more coffee. He ate the food I had left on my plate and I was left to sit on the outside of the group, staring at his back.
With the accumulation of these events, I could feel something building inside of me, pushing me to the edge of myself.
I thought about what I would say to the man who grabbed me. I took a picture of the tiny scab on my neck. I took a picture of my empty plate, once half-filled with buckwheat pancakes and a huge helping of Nutella, because Nutella is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.
I wondered if I should have said something in the moment: to the stylist, when she accidentally snipped my skin. To the man who took my seat and ate my food. To the man who grabbed me so suddenly, so unexpectedly that I froze.
I know I should have said something, but that doesn’t seem to mean anything in the moment.
I felt angry and also guilty for not speaking up, for not taking up more space. I needed to know, needed to figure out a way to take up more space so people wouldn’t treat me like I’m invisible.
Take a self defense class? Learn public speaking? Scream and yell at people who get in my personal space? Say, “Fuck this,” and only go places and spend time with people who actually see me?
But deep down I felt the futility of trying to make myself more visible, more alive to those around me.
In the first incident, I couldn’t help but wonder if this man would have treated me the same way if I were white, if I were “popular,” if he could see himself dating me.
At the core of it, I felt that he didn’t “see” me—that because I could do nothing for him and he wanted nothing from me, I basically didn’t exist, not fully.
But it went deeper than that. Yes, I had gone on this camping trip with no real expectations, but this was a group of people who all seemed to feel like they had finally found home in each other—a space of belonging and connection.
And instead of belonging, I got something else entirely.
And this is how I wound up crying uncontrollably at the end of the new Nicole Kidman movie, not because of the bleak ending but because I thought, “If I don’t feel safe with this group, I will never feel safe anywhere.”
There would never a place for me. A single moment of unwanted touch could disrupt this fantasy of community, love, friendship.
I knew I wanted to confront him about what happened, but I wasn’t sure how he might respond. For many reasons, I thought that he might not take it well and I had no real way of knowing.
So I did something I wouldn’t normally do, and I told someone else instead. I reached out to another person who went on the same camping trip and described what happened without going into detail.
He listened and offered emotional support. When I confessed that I felt like this meant I would never feel safe anywhere, he told me, “There absolutely should be a space for you. And it’s a failing that there’s not.”
I cried—loud audible sobs, not silent tears or anything contained like that. It felt healing and destroying, wonderful and terrible at the same time. I had been intellectualizing what happened and speaking in reasonable, rational terms about trauma and the ways in which people hurt us without ever intending to. I had been talking about it like it had happened to someone else, to their body, not mine. And all the pain just came rushing back—the pain of being unseen, of not belonging, of wanting and hoping for something that doesn’t even seem possible anymore.
Later, he added someone else who had been on the same trip to the chat for support and I felt like they were both on my side, that they were for me.
There was a moment when I had the thought, “How does anyone survive without the unconditional love and support of a group of people? How do people make it through a single day without this?”
I’ve been trying to write about this moment for like, at least a month, trying to capture how it felt to hear someone tell me that there is space for me and to feel loved and supported on the level of community.
I’ve struggled with writing this because I want to know and believe that the moment was real—I don’t want to lose it. I want to tell a different story about love and belonging in my life. I want things to be different. I want to have the hope that things can be different. I don’t want this experience to just fade away into memory, but that has mean reliving the good and the bad—the pain of feeling unseen and invisible and the incredible gift of being seen.
I feel grateful. I feel happy to be here.