By Beth Andrix Monaghan
Featured Art: Mom, by John Schriner
During my daughter Izzy’s third-birthday party, I was singing “Happy Birthday” when pain clenched my abdomen. At first it felt like a menstrual cramp, but it progressed to constrictions that made me want to lie down on the floor. I forced a smile, reminded myself that I felt close to pretty in my orange-and-white-flowered maternity shirt, and served the cake. Later, at the hospital, they stopped my preterm contractions with an injection and sent me home on bed rest. I was twenty weeks along.
The contractions continued in lesser degrees over the second half of my pregnancy. I spent hours lying on my left side, a position that the nurses on my OB’s triage line said would calm down the cramping. But new problems arose. I kept showing my husband, Patrick, the spot on my right side just below my ribs where I felt like something was ripping inside my stomach. My OB said it was probably just a ligament.
Then, at thirty-four weeks, Patrick and I were walking on the Boston Common when I dropped to the ground in a ball.
“Do you want to go home?” Patrick asked.
“No,” I said. “I’m fine.”
“You don’t seem fine.”
Three years earlier, I’d needed a C-section with Izzy because she was positioned feetfirst (breech). During this second pregnancy, I had everything invested in a normal birth. The doctors call that a VBAC, for vaginal birth after C-section, and it was my best shot at healing from decades of painful sex. A former OB-GYN, after trying lots of treatments and tests, said I might need to just “stretch everything out down there.” The problem with a VBAC: there was a 1 percent chance my uterus would rupture. I signed away any liability to my current OB on the required forms because I needed to believe in her optimism. “You’re a good candidate. You’re doing great,” she always said.
I saw this VBAC as my path to wellness, which I needed so desperately that I convinced myself I was wrong about the warning signs coming from within my own body. This wasn’t unusual for me. In fact, it was the only way I knew how to be. I’d spent most of my life trying to escape my own experience, in part by trying to find the person whose approval, love, or wisdom could redeem me.
Jesus was coming back for us. A Hebrew scholar in our church had predicted the date, and I was terrified I wasn’t going to be taken to heaven with all the believers. My church’s mission was to convert as many people as possible before he returned. This is either the Rapture or Armageddon, depending on your preference for light or dark, but we called it the Second Coming. It was a pretty simple equation. If you were good, you got to go to heaven with Jesus. If you were bad, you had to stay on Earth with the sinners.
My family lived in a bubble above the sinful world. If we blocked out temptations, the unspoken argument ran, we’d be saved. And then we’d be safe. I internalized this as a mandate for perfect thoughts and actions. There was one catch for me: At age ten, I wasn’t perfect. God knew everything, including the things in my heart.
“You take off your clothes and lie of top of each other. That’s what people do when they love each other,” a twelve-year-old boy in my neighborhood had convinced me to “make love” with him. We were in the closet in our basement and he was on top, which he explained was the missionary position. I knew this was wrong, but he was a bully who kind of had my back, and I mistook his confidence for wisdom.
I wanted him to like me, so I lay down and dug my fingers into the coarse carpet, staring into the lightbulb that hung overhead. His body felt warm on mine, and his penis rubbed up and down my leg and stomach. I was monitoring my mother’s footsteps going back and forth across the floor upstairs, willing her not to come down and find us.
We didn’t technically have sex, but I believed we had. After it happened again, this time in his bedroom, I worried I’d be found out because I thought I was pregnant. I didn’t know it was a physical impossibility at my age. I paced the concrete slab under our deck, trying to figure out what to do. Clotheslines were strung between the columns that supported the deck above, and sheets and cloth diapers were hanging there to dry. I walked in between them, letting their wet coolness glide against my arms, wanting to remain hidden there forever.
Eventually, my stomach didn’t grow and I figured I could keep this sin to myself. If God forgave me, I wouldn’t have to tell my parents. I wanted so badly to be saved, I confused it with being loved, and to get there all I had to do was believe.
When I went to church and was swept up in the music, it felt like faith, which was a regular Sunday-morning relief. I swayed with the praise team, who played guitars and sang with their closed eyes lifted heavenward. I didn’t need the words projected onto the wall in the middle-school gymnasium, “Shine, Jesus, shine, flood the nation with grace and mercy, send forth your word, Lord, and let there be light.” I knew them and the harmonies by heart.
It was an easy thing to do, mistaking music for faith. I’m pretty sure Bruce Springsteen touched the hand of God the last time Patrick and I saw him perform at Gillette Stadium. He played his soul onto the stage for four hours straight, bringing us together under the halo of his electric energy. That’s a different kind of faith, though, because you can get lost in the music without losing yourself. My fate was being determined by the Billy Graham kind instead.
My dad got tickets for one of Graham’s crusades. On the way there in the backseat, I prayed silently for Jesus to come into my heart, promising I’d be good from now on. At the civic center, I hoped to feel Jesus’s presence as I stepped into the tide of people pouring down from the stands to join Graham on the floor for a mass conversion.
That night Graham said, “You and I deserve death and hell and judgment. You can fall into the bottomless pit of sin and degradation. You can’t get away from God. Our sins put him on the cross, and you participated. Are you sure he’s your Lord and Savior?”
While I was desperate to believe, I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t hear God’s voice or feel his spirit within me, like the people at my church said they could. My prayers for forgiveness from this terrible secret felt unanswered. Either Graham was wrong or I was beyond saving. I was leaning heavily toward the latter.
I pursued other redeemers. By the time I was thirteen, I was into Sylvia Plath, who countered Graham with lines like “Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.” That felt much better. Anger. Agency. I used to be able to recite that poem, “Lady Lazarus,” by heart. Plath’s willingness to look at the darkness was confident and alive. I wanted to know how it felt to see like that.
Then I met a group of older guys one evening after my jazz band concert at the mall. We were performing outside of the water bed store between Caldor and J.C. Penney. Normally, I played the flute, but the fingerings for saxophone were the same so I doubled in the jazz band. The older guys were there to see a friend of mine play, which made the concert suddenly exciting. I kept glancing to see if they were paying attention. They were.
Afterward, I got introduced and we walked around the mall together. I wrote in my journal, “They’re really nice. They have long hair and everyone looked at us. They were going to take me home but my dad said I had to go with him.” I felt interesting under the attention from these boys/men who were four years older. They should not have taken a second look at me, but they did, and I soared inside. I began dating one of them, and then another a couple years later.
They could pass for twenty-one so there was always alcohol. Drinking with them made me feel mature. I took it as their trust in my ability to handle it, overlooking the fact that I was often sitting in a car, downing shots of Bukoff vodka and chasing them with grape drink that we purchased from Xtra Mart. When I drank too much, I’d make myself puke so I could come back for more. If someone noticed, I told them I was fine, because it felt uncool to get sick.
We went to punk concerts in the student union at the nearby university. It always felt safer to me to hang close to the back of those small, dark rooms packed with bodies. The older guys, on the other hand, disappeared into the pit up front. I did my best to belong there. I wore black dresses and black tights, and tinted my brown hair purple.
One night, with no concert to attend, I was with one of these older guys I dated. I’ll call him Derek. We were drunk and found an unlocked door to a classroom building at the university. We tiptoed down the hall to a large lecture hall where Derek drew on the chalkboard and played professor while I meandered up the aisles and into the rows of seats. When I joined him up front, he kissed me and we fell onto the table where we had sex.
A few years later, unaware, I walked into the same room to take my SATs. As I pulled my No. 2 pencils out of my bag and turned around to face the front, the room swirled. I managed to remain seated, but that flare of shame made focus impossible. I’d end up retaking the test because of my low score.
I had sex in all sorts of places with Derek: under the monkey bars at my elementary-school playground, in a cemetery, and on the toilet in his bathroom. To be with him, I believed I had to sleep with him, so I gave him my virginity and convinced myself it was a nonevent. I didn’t tell him that he was my first, or that I was worried about not using condoms. I trusted him to always pull out. To be found cool enough for him to keep me required a nonchalance about some dangerous things. For that, there was alcohol to lull my apprehensions closer to silent acquiescence.
At a concert one weekend I got so drunk that I visibly hurt myself. I tumbled out of the car we were drinking in and tripped over the curb. My face caught me and oozed for days. On Monday, my guidance counselor, who also went to my church, called me into his office. He wanted to contact my parents.
“Is anyone at home hurting you?” he asked. “Do you feel safe there?”
“No, my parents would never hurt me. I tripped getting onto a carousel at a fair. Truly. It’s fine,” I’d learned how specificity makes the lie believable, and I was beginning to feel pathological.
There was a long list of truths that no one knew. That I’d been sneaking out at night for years. That the police had found us once at 1 a.m., taken me home and then sat outside with the lights on to make sure I wasn’t coming back out (somehow no one woke up). That I knew how to drive and was often the designated driver. That I knew how to make a bowl for smoking marijuana out of an apple and a bong out of a plastic bottle. That I knew the “right” dosage for psychedelic mushrooms. And that I forged my mother’s signature so I could skip my freshman morning classes a few times a week and be with Derek.
I wanted a savior. Derek wanted a playmate. He wasn’t caught up in fidelity. “It’s just sex,” he would say about sleeping with other people. I think I put the same amount of effort into believing this statement as I did into trying to believe in Jesus, but I couldn’t. At some point, faith has to line up with experience. Finally, I said no to him and ended it.
Not long after, I was at a party at an apartment near the university. There were people I somewhat knew in tie-dye shirts, smoking in the living room. When Derek arrived, I’d gotten so drunk that the room was spinning. He suggested a shower to sober up, and I was relieved. Someone to take care of me. I followed him to the bathroom, where he helped me get in. I felt the water on my chest and turned around to find him with me. That’s my last full memory of that night. I recall only snippets of what happened next. Being laid down. My back pushed up against the hard shower bottom. Being turned over so my knees knocked against the sides of the tub.
The next morning, in the bathroom I shared with my family, I found bruises splayed across my knees, then craned my neck in the mirror to see them also circling my vertebrae. I looked at the white towels with yellow flowers and green leaves hanging behind me, and the faux-crystal flowers that affixed the mirror to the wall. Everything was familiar, except for me. I traced the bruises with my fingers, barely touching them. Then I vomited in the toilet and took the hottest shower I could stand, but you can’t wash off that kind of thing. Still, I pretended to be fine and told no one.
I came close to a confession once. I sat on my bedspread working up my courage. When I went out into the dining room and found my mother preparing dinner, everything felt so normal that as I opened my mouth to speak, nothing came out. I wasn’t allowed to use the words “crap” or “sucks” at home. How would I introduce sex and drugs into this atmosphere? How would my parents ever forgive me?
Instead, I swapped my black clothes for florals and khakis, mimicking the style of the more popular girls. I focused on school and got a job at a gift shop. In exchange for my closest approximation of normalcy, I traded the “flawed” pieces of myself that had driven me to the shameful things I’d done. I simply reentered the cadence of my family.
For a long time, it felt easier to believe we had just been wild, rebellious kids. After all, I willfully chose to be with Derek. In my early forties, I began writing essays with a focus elsewhere—motherhood, entrepreneurship—but, no matter the topic, I always ended up on Derek, or the effects of him. After reading one of these, my writing partner, Stuart, suggested that I might have some unresolved trauma. “These experiences you’re writing about sound like PTSD,” he said.
I keyed PTSD into my browser, followed it to sexual assault, and then to something called Rape Trauma Syndrome. I was reading about my own symptoms. Hypervigilance. Flashbacks. Heightened feelings of self-blame and guilt. Fear of being touched. Dissociation from one’s body. Poor health in general. Pretends everything is fine.
Pretending helped me ignore the overwhelming evidence that I wasn’t fine. If my husband wasn’t home, I couldn’t take a shower or fall asleep without blockading the door. I got a license to carry mace and often kept it under my pillow. I took self-defense classes. While I had to admit that I was scared a lot of the time, I also reasoned that it was normal for women feel this way because we operate under a continual, low-grade fear of rape.
Being normal required serious containment strategies. By the time I reached adulthood and started working, I had episodes where migraines plagued half the days of many months. I’d pop an Excedrin Migraine and two Cokes so I could go to meetings and carry on conversations with my head pounding.
My physical symptoms were things I apologized for and promised to solve, especially when they involved other people. In my early twenties, a female boss rescued me after the internet bubble burst and I was laid off from my dream job at a top venture capital firm. My self-worth was riding on this new boss’s approval, and I worked seventy-hour weeks to get it. Until migraines started keeping me out sick.
I worked with a masseuse and a chiropractor, who helped a little. On my way back from option number three, an acupuncturist, I was on the phone with my boss, explaining that I needed to be out again. She said, “You have to figure out these headaches!”
I received this comment as exasperation and spilled out assurances: “I have an MRI scheduled. It’s next week. I promise I’ll get this solved. I’ll be okay soon.” See? I wanted to say. It might not be my fault. But the scan was clean. My migraines had no medical cause.
Sex took a similar trajectory. I found doctors who specialized in vulvodynia, a word for vaginal pain that has no cause. On the medical forms, I was confronted with the problem: “Can you participate in comfortable, enjoyable sexual activity?” “No.” The truth was that sex often felt like a knife was cutting me open. I avoided it until my guilt was too much to bear. On those occasions, when my husband asked me if I was okay afterward, I always told him I was fine.
Some specialists believe vulvodynia is a nerve condition. The most recent research, though, shows a high correlation with sexual trauma. Of course, vulvodynia could also be caused by an STD. I’ve been tested for herpes six times and syphilis once, just for fun. I was certain that decades ago, I’d contracted some dormant disease that was now rearing its head. The tests kept coming back negative, but I was waiting for the day they’d read the opposite. I was petrified that I’d infect Patrick, the one who’d never hurt me. It felt inevitable, that judgment.
A physical therapist tried to relax my pelvic floor while I winced and she coached me to breathe into it. A doctor who specialized in vulvodynia gave me lidocaine to numb the pain and had me try a few tricyclic antidepressants and then Neurontin (which normally treats seizures). They made me feel underwater and nauseous; plus, they didn’t work. Then she wanted to surgically remove an entire layer of vaginal skin and let a healthy layer regrow. I wanted to be healed now, which was a lot more like my childhood wish to be saved from myself than the way healing actually works.
The day I knew there was no medical solution, I was in the stirrups at my OB-GYN’s office. She’d brought in three colleagues, who had books out and were comparing my vagina to their photos. All I could see were the tops of their heads as they conferred. In a follow-up appointment, I could tell that my doctor was giving up when she told me I probably just needed to have kids to stretch out my vagina. I’d had my eyes on a vaginal birth since that day. My VBAC with Clara was my last chance to fix my body and mend my soul.
I remember Clara’s birth in a few scenes. In the first, I am finally pushing after twenty-four hours of labor, when my abdomen seizes in a contraction that pulls my entire body into itself. Then I’m on the operating table and the medical team is calling up units of blood. In another, a nurse is standing over me, counting my breaths because my oxygen levels keep dropping when I fall asleep. In the last one, I wake in a panic because I think my stomach is seizing up again. I press the emergency call button, and two nurses rush in. I’m hyperventilating and ask for Xanax in my IV. They bring it to me in pills and send in a social worker, who asks how often I take Xanax. I tell her, “Only when I think I might die.”
Despite all of this, there was no vaginal birth. I had an emergency C-section because my uterus ruptured. Something had been ripping. The next morning, on the first day of my five-day hospital stay, the doctor who delivered Clara put her hand on my arm and said, “We saved your uterus. The tear was the size of a quarter, and I was able to repair it. But you shouldn’t try to do this again.”
During my yearlong recovery, I was angry with myself for not having spoken up more about my pregnancy pains. Would my doctors have rightly convinced me to go with the calm order of a scheduled C-section? They couldn’t have gotten through without knowing my true motivation, and pretending to be fine had become my way of being. I was a long way from granting myself permission to feel unwell.
Clara’s birth brought my head and heart in contact with my body, which by this time was standing in front of me with a flashing red light, demanding to be heard. How could a person like me, a CEO with employees and two children, have waited this long to ask for help? It was easy, really. The things I did to protect myself when I was young became habits I carried into adulthood. I found a therapist.
In the years since then, the best thing I have done for myself is to commit to a yoga and meditation practice. During one of the early months, I curled into child’s pose and wept into my yoga mat every day. I took it as my body’s way of releasing trauma it had been carrying for too long.
What my yoga teacher Jurian says about moments of challenge: We’re invited to be kind to the “tender parts” of ourselves and to move from where we are. Because “if you go too far, you’ll give up.” Modify, she is saying. “The parts of your body that are sore and exhausted are part of your family. When we take time to listen to them, they tell us what our bodies need. Use props. Adjust. Why would you deny yourself the opportunity to feel better in this moment?”
I always imagined that healing would restore me to the time before. I wanted to go back before sex hurt, before I got migraines, before I thought it was normal to lug furniture in front of doors, but mostly before I let boys/men do what they wanted with my body. It would be such a relief if divine or human intervention could get me there. But no one could save me from myself, because if I had to be saved, I’d never feel whole. I had to learn how to claim my experience so it didn’t claim me.
On my nineteenth wedding anniversary with Patrick, I was scheduled to testify at the Massachusetts State House in favor of the Roe Act, which would remove parental consent from our state’s abortion laws. I was there in the capacity of a CEO who had a mostly younger, female employee base, but I was also there for a more personal reason: to stop pretending.
In the hearing room, groups of teenage church girls sauntered past me, wearing red pro-life shirts and glaring at the people in the pink pro-choice shirts. I wanted to at least resent them for their opposition. Instead, I felt a well of maternal care. I wanted to first shake them awake and then pull them into a hug while I told them about the ways the world can go so wrong for girls.
When I was called up, I was trembling and the legislators looked tired. They’d been there since noon, and it was nearing 5:30 p.m. I watched them half-listening as I began with the facts about my female staff, many of whom were just beginning to wonder if they should have children. I slowed my pace as I got to the line that would introduce the things I was terrified to speak out loud: “I also understand this in a deeply personal way. . . .” A few looked up and made eye contact. I kept going:
“When I was in elementary school, I was molested by a boy in my neighborhood and naively believed I was pregnant, even though it was impossible for that to be true. I told no one, because I grew up in a loving but conservative faith community that believed premarital sex was a sin.
“When I was fifteen and still struggling with that, I ended up [in a dangerous sexual relationship]. I was relieved when I wasn’t pregnant, because that meant I could also keep this to myself. I know what it feels like to feel violated and without agency. So I can understand how a girl could find herself afraid and unable to confide in a trusted adult.”
Now they were all focused squarely on me. I didn’t want to need anything from this panel except their vote in favor of the Roe Act, but I did. Even after years of therapy, yoga, and meditation, I sometimes struggle to break that habit of needing someone with authority to convince me that my experience is real, and that I am worthy even so. This fluttered in my chest as I came to a close: “I have been graced by luck. I’ve been able to choose my own destiny. I am here today for the teenagers and women who can’t.”
As I concluded, I looked up and the woman who chaired the committee had tears in the corners of her eyes as she mouthed the words “thank you.” I left the podium and walked up the aisle and out into the corridor, where I burst into tears. Patrick pulled me into a hug and said, “I’ve never been prouder of you in my life.” I felt my younger self come into rhythm with my adult self, and we walked out of that room together.
Beth Andrix Monaghan is the founder and CEO of Inkhouse, a communications firm focused on storytelling. A frequent advocate for gender and racial equity in the workplace, her work has been published by Forbes, Fortune, Thrive, Entrepreneur, PR Week, and Business Insider, among others. Her personal essays appear in the book “Wide Awake. Every Day.,” and she has published two compilations of employee essays: “Hindsight 2020” and “Aren’t We Lucky?” Find her on Twitter at @bamonaghan.