Backyard Politics How Do We Overcome Trauma?
I categorized the sexual assault under things that were my fault. “It was not that bad,” I told myself. “Others have been through worse.”
This is Backyard Politics, a column by Christine Hyung-Oak Lee that sees the world through the lens of urban farming and agriculture.
My first kiss was an assault. It was without permission. I know this, now.
The first time is a template for things to come. The first time defines the boundaries of expectations. Our expectations, in turn, inform subsequent exploration.
How, then, do we overcome traumatic first experiences?
The first time I was kissed, I was eighteen years old and a freshman in college. A man had walked me home from a party at which we had all been drinking. At the party, I was not having fun. I did not want to be drunk anymore; I made it clear that I was ready to leave. And the friend with whom I attended the party—the friend who had promised to walk me home—wanted to stay longer. He directed me to his friend, who walked me back the six blocks. A friend of a friend, I thought, would be trustworthy.
When we got to my dorm room, this young man followed me inside. (In my earlier tellings, I call him a “boy,” but that gives him too much sympathy.) I was drunk and confused as to why he followed me in. He held onto my arm. This feels important to say, as I was previously not holding on to him in any way. I said I was tired, hoping he would take a hint.
In my room, the only comfortable place on which to sit was my extra-long twin bed. He followed me onto my bed. I said I was going to sleep, hoping that would be a bigger hint that he would take. And that was when he put his arms around me and began kissing me.
I had never been kissed before. His tongue parted my lips and explored my mouth. It felt like a creature invading my body.
I turned my head. He followed my lips. I wondered where my roommate was. His cold hands found their way beneath my sweatshirt. His body was very heavy and pinned me down.
They say that under duress, people enact either flight or fight. But I played dead.
I was afraid he’d attempt to have sex with me. “I’m a virgin,” I told him.
“Oh, then we won’t do that tonight.”
So he had originally intended to fuck me.
In a gracious deus ex machina, my roommate came home that very minute. A moment too late, but not a moment too soon, either. It was enough of an interruption for the boy—the man—to excuse himself, knowing the opportunity had passed.
When I made clear the next day to my friend that I’d been assaulted, he asked his friend about what had happened. The man, I heard, went ballistic. Said I was lying. Said he’d never do such a thing. Said I’d been asking for it.
“He was really upset,” said my friend. “He’s a good guy,” said my friend.
I’d never been kissed before. I wouldn’t even know for what I’d be asking. But maybe, I thought, it was somehow my fault. Like so many times in which I’ve been gaslit, I categorized it under things that were my fault.
Other things I told myself: “It was not that bad.” “I wasn’t raped.” “Others have been through worse.”
I did not talk to that friend again for fifteen years. I excised the whole incident out of my life. Made up another first kiss story. I told myself it never happened.
The first time I had sex, I was still in that freshman year of college, eighteen years old. Late by many people’s standards, early by others’. I hadn’t planned on losing my virginity. By then, I had a boyfriend. He and I hadn’t discussed having sex—and if we had, I would have said I didn’t want to lose my virginity, not for a long time to come. And, in hindsight, not with him.
But things got heated. My body responded to intimacy—we were kissing and groping each other, then rubbing each other, then rubbing against each other—and I was okay with that. We had done that all before. My boyfriend, who himself was not a virgin, who didn’t ask for consent, who knew I embraced my virginity, decided my body’s response—yes, I was wet—trumped all. And before I knew it, he was inside of me.
“Remember this moment forever,” he said. And I thought what he said was creepy, even then.
I did remember that moment forever. I remember turning my head out the seventh-floor window, the hills shrouded by fog. I remember the unsteady feeling of walking on air. I was dissociating. My mind was leaving the room and leaving my body as if his body had pushed me aside from myself.
I saw all my promises being erased. And I was not the one erasing them. Or had I? Had I allowed this to happen? I swept it under things that were my fault.
Instead of telling myself I did not deserve to be dismissed, I told myself I was not deserving of love. I told myself I was not deserving of a trusting relationship. My mother once told me, “When you have a white handkerchief and it gets dirty, it will never be as white as it was when new.” I had been irrevocably stained. I felt ruined. I was angry, mostly at myself. And I began to punish myself and others.
I was angry, mostly at myself. And I began to punish myself and others.
I proceeded to cheat on every boyfriend I had. I put up a facade ten layers thick, burying my vulnerability and thus impeding true connection with any other. I would never be broken again. I would break others.
For the next twenty years, I would retell the loss of my virginity as a joke—that “I lost my virginity by accident.”
Humor, they say, is one key to resilience and overcoming trauma.
And refusing to take the blame is another key to overcoming such setbacks. “Accident,” I said. I did not ask for it. It happened.
Self-destruction, they say, is a consequence of trauma. An unwillingness to be vulnerable, they say, another.
As a beekeeper, one of the most frequent questions people ask me is, “Don’t you get stung?”
The implication here: Why would you still keep bees if you get stung? As if the sting is enough to repel someone from beekeeping. Because of course, of course , beekeepers get stung.
Yes, I have been stung. Simultaneous stings, on several occasions. One time, I had my phone in my pocket when an AMBER alert went off with a huge buzz. This caused the bees lounging on my leg to sting me through my pants. The layers of meaning here do not escape me; one crisis can lead to another, even if smaller, crisis.
The first time I was stung was in a swimming pool. I saw the bee struggling, both treading water and trying to fly. My childhood instinct was to save it from certain death, and so I scooped it up to set it on dry land. I did not consider that I would be harmed for helping another. I did not consider that the bee saw me as a threat in its stressed state—and so I was stunned when it stung me. It was a searing pain like lemon poured into a wound. I examined the bee, calm and dying as my finger swelled.
Just as I did not walk away from bees after my first sting, I did not walk away from beekeeping after multiple stings. I understood that the bees, which have their own response to trauma, sting in defense.
And the pleasure of my bees outweighs the sting. These pleasures include:
1. Opening a hive and releasing the heavy scent of wax and honey and propolis amid the woodsmoke, a smell beyond any Diptyque candle’s capability
2. Seeing the order within the hive, the perfectly aligned hexagonal cells, and the pattern of brood, and honey prioritizing warmth and food source
3. Examining the guts of something without causing irreparable harm
4. Understanding a bee’s life cycle and its impact on human civilization
5. Receiving lessons from the life of my bees
These pleasures are why the pain of beekeeping is acceptable to me. But here is what nature and beekeeping have taught me, too: Everything is vulnerable. The bees must be continually monitored for varroa mites. They must be monitored to measure a queen’s health. They must be monitored to mitigate swarming.
A high mite count will cause a colony to collapse within days. The absence of a queen, or the presence of a failing queen, will put a colony’s existence in jeopardy. A colony that has run out of space will leave in a swarm—an act of reproduction that is natural, but one that, in an urban environment, makes honey bees a nuisance. They should not be nuisances.
Over the years, I have lost hives. Each time, it was because I did not see their vulnerability. I have seen hives rebound, mostly because I spotted their vulnerability in time and managed them back to health.
A traumatized hive will act accordingly , becoming more defensive. And I have learned to see past its agitated state and investigate the root causes of its aggression. Has it been attacked by a skunk in the nighttime? Is it under stress because of a nectar dearth?
Accepting vulnerability is part of healing. That, sometimes, we have no power. That we must succumb to our emotions and feelings. And then rebuild ourselves.
We must succumb to our emotions and feelings. And then rebuild ourselves.
I will never forget that first kiss. Or the first time I had sex.
Or the time a boyfriend raped me. He sodomized me. I remember telling him No . I had learned to fight. I still remember the morning after, showering and using peppermint Dr. Bronner’s soap, the sting of it searing my wounds.
The next morning, he said, “I don’t know what came over me.”
I didn’t, either.
I then cheated on him. I was a stained handkerchief. Two weeks later, I told him what I’d done. I felt no guilt. He showed no anger. Instead he said, “Maybe we should see other people.”
I said no thanks. And we broke up.
I felt a deep rage. He felt deep guilt.
The world thought I was heartbroken over him. I didn’t leave my apartment for a month. I buried my feet into the shag carpet until I felt myself take root. A month later, that ex-boyfriend emailed me a phone number for a therapist.
“For your depression,” he said.
And so I went. For my “depression.” Not my rape, to which I did not admit for over fifteen years.
Twenty years later, I told him, “You raped me.” I had never said those words aloud before.
“Yes,” he said, “I did. And for that, I’m sorry.”
We were in a crowded indoor mall. I was meeting him to tell him I was going to write about what he did, which I did .
It is odd to keep in touch with your rapist. To be on polite terms.
First times are the first of many times. They are a starting point, not the end. A handkerchief will inevitably be stained. And it takes on the marks of an individual’s life, each one unique in its patterns.
Many kisses have followed that first. Each one has transformed my relationship with intimacy, some more than others. Each first kiss has been different. The shape of the lips. The height of the person. The scent of their neck. The texture of their hair. A mustache. The temperature of their mouth. Each one, too, a stained handkerchief.
I requested my last first kiss from a friend. My marriage had fallen apart. New Year’s was looming. “Will you,” I asked them, “kiss me at midnight?”
I thought asking for a kiss was the least romantic thing ever. But when the time came, I was still surprised. While it was a quick kiss, somewhere between platonic and deep wanting, it awoke awareness. And eventually, it began a loving relationship that still exists to this day.
I have no control—not over another human’s behavior. I have no control over the men who never asked me for consent. I have no control over the husband who decided to leave me in my first year of motherhood. If I have no control, it is not my fault, either.
Admitting I have no control means giving up my power. Admitting that I am vulnerable. And I do not feel comfortable with vulnerability. Beekeeping has helped me become more comfortable with a lack of control. It is not my fault that the fog never lifts. It is not my fault that the bees are cranky. It is what it is. And neither am I a victim.
Thirty-five years later, after that very first bee sting, I stick my hands into a hive of bees, inhaling its scent, aware that the hive is vulnerable to my care, and I am vulnerable to its stings. I wave my stained handkerchief in surrender.