(CN: Harassment, self-harm)
“You can’t just walk around like you’re God’s gift, cuz you ain’t.”
The voice is strong and cruel enough to cut through the fog of my self-loathing and tear-soaked worry. I glance up and realize this thing has been said to me, by a guy standing on the porch of his building, just to my left off the sidewalk.
I’m too broken today, too lost and fragile, to do anything but nod mutely and keep walking, a little faster now.
I think back, replaying the last few moments and focusing on my surroundings instead of the thoughts inside my head. “Hey, beautiful,” he’d said, and I guess that must also have been directed at me, though I didn’t notice at the time.
I can piece the narrative together now. He “complimented” me, and I “ignored” him, so then he lashed out and insulted me.
Today, the insult strikes me deep. You ain’t God’s gift. You ain’t. You can’t just walk around.
I know. The cruel voice confirms what my heart was already telling me. Tears slip down my cheeks. This isn’t supposed to be a big deal. I’m supposed to walk this sort of harassment off. Maybe not even see it as harassment.
Today, I can’t. I can’t just walk around.
I’ve been thinking about cutting myself for about three months, toying with the thought the way I sometimes press at a scab or a bruise. It hurts, but I also can’t seem to quit that imagery.
It’s been more than a decade since I actually cut myself. I trust myself not to turn thought into action. I go to therapy. I’m so much more aware of how my brain works and what I can do about it.
Still, the thoughts have been ever-present lately. They’re wearing me down. I barely have energy to do anything. It feels like a miracle that I get dressed, that I eat. I know that not everyone can when their brain is working this way. I tell myself I’m lucky I’m so functional, that I can still work a little even though I miss all my deadlines.
I’m fighting with someone dear to me. I don’t want to share the details here, but the fight has turned nasty and impossible and deep. Nothing I do is right, no matter how hard I try to come up with something helpful. I can’t do what this person wants of me. They are telling me how hurt they are, and I feel like a villain. A villain who ought to go away. Who ain’t God’s gift to anything or anyone. Who ought to die, or at least be physically maimed. It can hurt so much when it feels like your insides don’t match your outsides. I want to hurt this body so my pain can show. You can’t just walk around.
Today, I feel so delicate, like a page that’s so old it’ll crumble if you breathe on it. I need to do something good, something safe. I ask my partner if I can meet them at the train station. I put on clothes and let myself out the door and start to walk there, partly because I’ve cried so much lately that I don’t feel I can see well enough to be a safe driver.
I try to keep it together, to look around at the world. I know it’s important for me to remember that things exist outside my brain. The sun still shines. The grass still gets overgrown. Whenever my attention slips, though, I’m back to the old, evil treadmill: Why can’t I fix things with this person? Why can’t I just do what they want? Why can’t I just be good enough? I want to hurt, I want to hurt, I want to hurt. I see the razor blade in my mind. I remember how I used it, those handful of times I crossed the line. What was going on when I did that? Was I finding courage or losing courage?
“You can’t just walk around like you’re God’s gift, cuz you ain’t.”
I know. I know. I’m so sorry. I know.
I’ve written essays about harassment before. I’ve written about the ways it makes me feel unsafe and exhausted. I’ve tried to explain how it isn’t a compliment even when it uses words that overlap with compliments.
But this is the worst I’ve been hurt by harassment that I can recall. This is worse than the time a guy groped and harassed me at my favorite movie theater, leaving me nervous about returning there to this day, despite knowing that’s illogical. This is worse than the time a guy interrupted me while I was trying to comfort my crying girlfriend, so he could hit on us. This is worse than the time a guy followed me with his car while I tried to run away, and I had to plunge through overgrown bushes to escape him, and then when I called the police later they asked me what I was doing walking on that road at that time of day.
The reason it hurt so badly, I think, was entitlement. Right then, I didn’t feel entitled to live, to breathe, to be in the world without being hurt. I needed a little entitlement. I needed it to be okay that I couldn’t satisfy the person I was fighting with, to see that I still deserved to exist and be loved even if I wasn’t what someone else wanted me to be.
If I had been walking around like I was God’s gift, that would have been a huge victory for me.
That insult, though… What that guy said to me was an effort to take down someone he saw as entitled. “You can’t just walk around like you’re God’s gift, cuz you ain’t.” What was I doing that seemed so entitled to him? Walking down the sidewalk? Breathing? Having breasts? Not responding to his demand for my attention?
I felt guilty, even, when I realized the insult (and the “compliment”) were for me. Had I hurt his feelings by being so lost in my depression?
I’ve learned enough now to know better than that, at least. That guy felt entitled to my attention. That was the entitlement. He said, “Hey, beautiful,” and thought I owed him something for that. I was supposed to look at him, at least, or say thank you, or somehow respond.
How dare I think I can walk past him without paying that tax of attention? Who said I had any right to get so caught up in my own thoughts that I wound up walking down the street without being available to every person around me? Who gave me the right to have my own mind, my own private problems, my misery when someone else wants me to be sexual and fun.
And I can’t help thinking these things go together a bit. I want to believe it’s okay for me to breathe, to walk, to be, to not always do what someone else wants. But I go outside, desperate and hurting, running to my partner for comfort, and get told, “You can’t just walk around like you’re God’s gift. Cuz you ain’t.”
(About a week after this happened to me, I found out about the new National Street Harassment Hotline. From the website:
A growing body of research shows that street harassment negatively impacts women emotionally. It can be traumatic for them, especially for survivors of sexual abuse. “Mild” street harassment can escalate into physical harassment without warning and many women and some men have an underlying fear that verbal harassment will become physical.
I would add that people of all genders can feel this way, and trans and nonbinary people can also be particularly vulnerable.
Anyway, if I’d known about this then, I probably would have called the number that day. I thought I’d leave this link here in case anyone else needs it.)