*Trigger Warning: Today’s story contains a person’s experiences with trauma as a result of an assault. This may be triggering to readers with similar experiences + we encourage you to engage in self-care as you read this story. If you or someone you know is struggling with the trauma of an assault, please visit BTWF’s Get Help page for support.
I spent my entire life trying to outrun my past. I had moved to LA not only to pursue dreams of becoming a storyteller, but also to garner some space. A week before moving, I had come out to my mom in a grocery store parking lot and a few months before that, had gone through a rather complicated reunion with my birth family. It wasn’t the fairytale I had subconsciously been pining for my entire life. Life at home was overwhelming to say the least. So I packed a suitcase, hopped on a plane, headed West and started seeking out that space for myself. I found a second family in the creative and queer community around me and began to come out of my shell. Out here, I could be as gay as I wanted to and hardly anyone batted an eye. Queer open mic poetry nights at Akbar, dance classes and exploring the city filled my schedule. Things were going really well.
And then one night, while walking downtown to a friend’s house, I was attacked and assaulted by a man who proclaimed I was his long lost child. As an adoptee, those words were something I had been wanting to hear my entire life. All those once special daydreams came crashing down and shattered onto the sidewalk in the form of a nightmare. The ghosts I had so meticulously run away from found their way into the mind of a man who seemed to be running away from his own. I watched people look at me, see what was happening, and walk away.
Afterwards, there were so many pieces of myself I had lost that were replaced with a pit of panic, making it frightening and at times impossible to go out in public. Many details of that night were carefully washed away into the subconscious, but the one that was burned into the forefront was the hymn he sang to me of a lost child. Therapy jargon barely penetrated the thick wall of defenses and confusion I built around me. The more I tried to forget about that night, the stronger the nightmares became. Activities that once brought me joy fell flat; I began associating being sober with panic attacks and evaded sobriety like the plague. Bravery was no longer a trait I knew in myself to be true. How could I possibly be brave when I froze, when others say they would have pushed him away? Everything in my brain was telling me it was my fault. The alienation that trauma causes creeps in slowly until it becomes all consuming. I felt awful that when out with friends, my mind was worlds away, fighting battles invisible even to me. I desperately wanted to be present for them – none of us had made it thus far unscathed – but I was pouring from an empty cup. I knew I needed help.
On nights where I thought the morning would never come, I turned to the one person I knew understood the vicious rewiring that my brain underwent. Someone named Lady Gaga. I could just turn on her music, watch one of her interviews and feel less alone. All it takes is just one person to tell you what you are feeling on the inside is valid, to give yourself permission to start on your mental health journey. And on a journey I went, Gaga as my guide. I recognized I needed to redefine what bravery looked like. Bravery didn’t just come in grand acts of valor but could be found in small acts of kindness. Bravery could be the act of getting dressed and ready for the day, or practicing the drums and piano. Slowly, after practicing little bites of bravery, I found myself being able to turn to helpful skills and behaviors when staring down the barrel of a panic attack.
The first shift I noticed was that I was starting to have the courage to let people know my boundaries. The first time I told someone confidently, “You know what, I’m not a big fan of hugs, but we can high five instead,” I nearly cried. I felt like I finally unfroze. I had taken, as Gaga would say, a big ol’ bite of bravery. Next I started building up the confidence to walk in public again. Grocery stores and Griffith Park became my training ground. It was here I learned to slowly rewire my brain to not perceive everything and everyone as a threat. Gradually, it became a little easier, and in moments when the panic began to creep in, I could sing the chorus of “Free Woman” quietly in my head and remember all the agency I possess over my body. With the four year anniversary of the assault rounding the corner, I was ready to take an even bigger bite of bravery. I decided to travel to Las Vegas on my own to see Lady Gaga perform her ever famous Jazz & Piano residency.
Instead of hiding away in my room, I got on a plane, navigated through a city on my own and turned a week that previously held all of its power over me, and I took it back. Sitting in that theater, smiling and enjoying music, life and those around me, I felt my freedom come back. Right before Lady Gaga sang “Born This Way,” I handed her a letter I wrote thanking her for the part she played in my healing over the past four years. To my surprise, she read it out loud for the entire audience to hear. I looked back and saw a sea of people cheering, crying, and witnessing my story. They didn’t walk away this time. I could see so many others had their own stories that had brought them here. I wasn’t alone, and neither were they.
When we share our stories, we empower others and ourselves to take that first bite of bravery.