Helen Renfrew

Helen’s Story

You don’t know me.  You’ve seen me at Rotary, or Chamber, or book club.  Our kids went to the same school or played sports together.  We bump into each other at Fred Meyer, went to high school or worked on a committee together.  We’ve worked in the same industry for more than 20 years.  But you don’t know me.  It’s not your fault; it’s mine.  I come from a family that prioritized making sure everything looked okay on the outside.  A family that hid our secrets. A family of people who kept quiet, who didn’t tell. Silence was expected, just like it has always been in the society in which we live. There are really so many things we don’t talk about.  I’ve decided that’s a problem. 

When we keep things in the dark and don’t talk about them, others can claim ignorance when they are cruel or insensitive.  When we “protect” others from the daily struggles of our lived reality, we do them and ourselves a disservice.  We also perpetuate a system that allows our children, our women, and those who are vulnerable and need help the most to be victimized over and over again.  If we don’t talk about it, we can’t fix it.  Right?  I mean, who does the silence really serve?  The perpetrator, the predator, the powerful – and those who don’t want to look too closely behind the curtain, because then they may have to acknowledge some hard truths.  It’s not that they don’t hear us, not that they don’t know or suspect; it’s that the topic makes them uncomfortable or that they just don’t care. 

My life got a little overwhelming toward the end of last year, so in January I went to see my primary care physician (PCP in insurance-talk) and, for the first time in my life, started taking an antidepressant. Before going to the doctor, I tried to do some meditating – being present, breathing.  The book said, just for a minute.  Breathe and be present for a minute.  I couldn’t.  I could not sit quietly with myself and breathe for a minute - just 60 seconds. So I got a prescription, and decided that I should probably try to get in to see a counselor, because that can’t be normal, right?  I mean people should be able to breathe for 60 seconds without freaking out. (okay – yeah – there were obviously more reasons why I needed to be in therapy, but this was a surface one that was easy to deal with, so let’s focus there, shall we?)

For the sake of honesty, there was a little more to that “go get Prozac” experience.  I’m sick a lot – like, a lot. My immune system isn’t very good at its job.  It tends to not go after invading bugs, but it does like to over react to my actual body.  I’m gluten intolerant and have seasonal and environmental allergies. I catch every flu and cold virus that moves through. I’d been reading about chronic inflammation, and thought – hey, yeah, I think I’ve got that.  On a parallel path, I checked out the ACE test – Adverse Childhood Experiences - because of the research done regarding chronic inflammation and auto-immune disorders in people with childhood trauma.  I came in at a solid 7, which, if looked at slightly squinty-eyed, could actually be a 7½.  So I asked my PCP what he thought about the validity of that study and the future health ramifications that could be impacted by early trauma.  Then he gave me Prozac and a referral to behavioral health (not really that abruptly – he was wonderful, asked great questions, and had a very caring demeanor…but the ultimate result was the Prozac and referral).

It was the time of the Cosby trial, the Nassar trial, the Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer accusations, #MeToo, #TimesUp, #WhyIdidntReport.  Women - courageous women, bold women, strong women - were speaking up. They were using their voices and reclaiming their power. They hadn’t been able to control what happened to their bodies, but they were able to control how and when their stories were going to be told. They were breaking the silence, and for everyone that spoke up, 10, 15, 50, 100 more women (and men) were able to use those voices as springboards. I watched; I listened; I scrolled; I stalked.

Later this year, some different not-so-fun physical symptoms appeared.  My first therapy appointment was scheduled for July, right about the same time that I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA). My plan to deal with trauma so as to avoid negative health consequences was implemented just a bit too late. (I know, I know, that’s not exactly how it works…). That first therapy appointment was fun – after not talking about so many things for so very long, I spent 90 minutes word-vomiting the darkest parts of my entire life story at this poor woman. 

No breaks, no pauses, no commas, just bunches of run-on sentences, tremors, and gasps instead of breaths, finished with, “oh, yeah, and now I have this chronic auto-immune disease that might cripple me.” I think she was afraid to let me leave her office alone that day, but I came back for my appointment the next week, and the one after that, and we started trying to deal with the things that I stuffed into this poisonous black box I had slammed a lid on and stuck behind a screen in the corner of my mind. We were making progress…slowly.  After the initial word-vomit I was having problems talking about those things again, and when she suggested writing them down, I went into a full-blown panic attack at the thought of attaching written words to the images in my head and the feelings in my body and making those things “real.” 

Fast forward to September: the woman in Anchorage who was strangled until she passed out and then masturbated on, Ashley Johnson-Barr in Kotzebue, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. And Facebook, and Twitter, and newspaper articles, and the Senate committee, and the press conferences, and the hate, and dismissive comments, and politically-motivated disbelief, and conspiracy theories. Finally, a very hurtful meme posted on Facebook by someone I love. Someone who didn’t know my story, because I hadn’t told him my story.  Someone had once said to me, about a different male relative, “We can’t really blame (name) for his statements make from ignorance. No one ever told him.”

I decided to start telling my story inside my immediate family. And do you know what? The guilt, shame, terror, embarrassment, overwhelming need to be silent, and panicky dissociative symptoms were all suddenly burned away by an OVERWHELMING, RIGHTEOUS RAGE! How DARE people disbelieve; how DARE they mock; how DARE they look the other way. If this hasn’t happened to you, don’t you EVEN say that spotty memories indicate that someone is lying or misremembering.  AND if this has happened to you, (first of all, what in the hell is wrong with you for not standing in solidarity with others who have been victimized?), don’t you DARE assume that if someone’s experience and memories don’t match yours, then their story is invalid. FUCK ALL OF THESE PEOPLE!!!

I was bubbling with intent and a focused energy.  I wasn’t going to stay quiet any more.  I could talk about this. Talk? Hell, I was going to WEAPONIZE my story…rent the Carlson Center, scream it from the stage, convince others to tell their stories. There were a few other people I needed to tell first, but then I was going to start gathering a posse of angry, badass women and pour a little TRUTH all over this town/state/country.  Um… okay, I may have gone a little overboard at first, but, really, that’s kind of what I do. My next therapy appointment was interesting. And I think my therapist may have been as worried about me at this one as she was after my first. Eventually, I figured out that maybe the Carlson Center wouldn’t be my first step in this process. Other people may not be where I am right now, and public expression could be exactly what they don’t need. Damn the horses and full speed ahead isn’t actually a well-thought-out plan, and my tendency to steamroll over others could do more harm than good.   

So, this is where I’m starting.  My name is Helen.  I am a mother, sister, daughter, aunt, cousin, partner, friend.  I am a successful professional, and for the most part people wouldn’t think of me as damaged, broken, an addict, or a victim.

The first time I was raped, I was 10 years old.  It was the culminating action after years of molestation by my uncle. I don’t know how old I was when it started…I don’t actually have very many memories of my life before 10.  After he attacked me that afternoon with a knife at my throat, I very carefully walked down the stairs to the kitchen of my grandparent’s farm house.  I couldn’t hide the pain, tears, or blood and I told whoever was in that kitchen what happened (to this day I couldn’t tell you which of my aunts were there).  It stopped – for me.  He continued to prey on others, in our family and outside of our family, for decades. I live with that guilt every day – yes, I know it’s irrational, and yet, there it is.

The second time I was raped, I was 14. I went to a party with one of my friends, her boyfriend, and his friend (oh, let’s call him “Perp”).  There would be pot there and my intention was to try it for the first time, but I was a bit worried and asked the others that I was going with to please keep an eye on me, to make sure I was okay and nothing bad happened. They all agreed.  After a couple drags, I couldn’t seem to shut up.  I was uncomfortable with the fact that I couldn’t control myself enough to stop talking, so I walked away from the group and found “Perp.” I told him that I didn’t like how I was feeling and needed to be away from the group and the smoke.

He took me downstairs and propped me against a wall covered in wood paneling. He left me there for a bit, then came back, pushed me down on the floor (with that wall up against my right side) and raped me.  I said no. I begged him to stop. I reminded him that he promised he would watch over me to make sure nothing bad happened to me…I kept talking, constantly, through it all, but I couldn’t make him stop.  The next memory I have is being in the living room of my house, with my back pressed against the door, thankful that no one was awake, and planning to tell my mom that I came home early because I was sick.  I don’t know where the party house was. I don’t remember who else was there. I have no idea how I got home. Sounds a bit like Dr. Ford’s testimony, doesn’t it?

Statistics say that one in three women will be sexually assaulted. Think about that.  One in three. Indigenous women and women of color are even more at risk. In no way am I dismissing the one in six men who are sexually assaulted in their life time – and I stand in solidarity with them as well. Statistically, women who have been assaulted once are more likely to be assaulted again. There are more than 2,500 rape kits in Anchorage, going back years, that haven’t even been tested. Women who do speak up are traumatized all over again by the justice system, the press, and social media. This is who we are. This happens every day in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Our country, our society, allows this to happen. What kind of disregard must our culture have for women, if they can be so regularly viewed as and used as objects. The sanctity of my physical body has been violated – I have been ENTERED without my consent. Let that picture roll around in your head.  

What can we do to protect our daughters and our sons? What needs to happen before women are no longer considered complicit in their own trauma?  What was she wearing? Was she drunk? Was she high? Was she in a dangerous neighborhood? Was she alone? Was she flirting? How can we make it her fault and not the fault of the man who attacked her (or him)? Predators are predators. They are to blame.  Not the children, not the women, not the men that they attack. Without a complete shift in the way we view these crimes, in the way that our culture values humans, people, women, children, it’s not going to get better. Incest, rape, molestation – they’ve been going on for generation after generation after generation. We are failing our children when ultimately our very first job is to protect them. Silence feeds this crisis. We can’t fix it until we talk about it. I’m ready to talk about it.

Are you? I’ll listen.