My Darkest Night
We all have moments of great shame we hope to hide from those whose love and respect is important for us to keep. But I wonder what we are losing in our effort to hold onto that love.
If you feel more comfortable thinking of me as one of Columbia University’s “250 Greatest Columbians” (#122 💅🏻) just stop reading now because shit’s about to get dark.
I really thought I would take this particular day-in-the-life to my grave because…well…who could possibly love a girl like this? Who could respect a girl like this? But in time I’ve learned, I could love a girl like this. I could respect a girl like this. And so maybe you can love and respect a girl like this, too. And hell, maybe you are a girl like this…and okay…let me just spit it out.
November 17, 1990 was a Saturday, my sophomore year in college. But it wasn’t a typical Saturday for me. Typically, I would have been heading to the Columbia football game with my sorority sisters to see our friends play Brown University. But this particular Saturday, I got up early and took a Long Island Rail Road train to a nondescript stop in Nassau County I’d never been, despite being a native Long Islander. My friend, Dave, met me, grim-faced, at the train station. I got into his car cracking jokes to lighten the mood. But there really was no lightening the mood. Dave was giving me a ride to an abortion clinic. I was 18 years old and 8 weeks pregnant.
The father was this guy who had been my boyfriend that summer. A handsome, big, burly bouncer who was a former Marine and semi-pro football player. Totally my type. Still my type, tbh. Tailor-made for the little girl inside me who wanted a big strong guy on her side to keep her safe from the big strong guy who was molesting her for all those years. BBB (big burly bouncer) could’ve been sent from Central Casting. We were not at all suited for each other in any other way, but I wasn’t looking for great conversation at that time in my life. I just wanted to feel safe. Years later when I was a fashion editor, I ran into BBB in Manhattan walking his beat. He was a NYC police officer, so at least my judgement was spot on: BBB kept people safe. But one night when we were having sex while the iconic body-building documentary “Pumping Iron” was on in the background (I mean…for goodness sakes – I can’t make that up), BBB wasn’t safe enough. I found out I was pregnant right when I went back to college for my sophomore year.
To be really honest with you, in that moment I didn’t even consider that that this was a human life I was dealing with. I was willing to do whatever I needed to do to make this situation go away. I went right to the phone book (No internet remember), found the least expensive place ($250 if I remember correctly) and I made the appointment.
Sweet, sweet David lent me the $250 because he had a full-time job. I made sure BBB ultimately paid for it. In fact, you would think I was a mother-fuckin’ loan shark. In retrospect, it’s so interesting to witness how any warm feelings I had for BBB totally froze the moment I found out I was pregnant. I didn’t want to talk about it. I just wanted to end the pregnancy and get the money to pay Dave back. Life or death urgency, but totally transactional. The life or death in question was the life or death of the “Atoosa” I presented to my family: A virgin, at a top college, a respectable girl. Was I going to remain that girl? Or was I going fuck that all up and show myself as the dirty girl who was molested and introduced to sexuality at age 8. That’s how I thought of myself at the time (worthless filth) and that’s precisely what I wanted to keep hidden from my family. It’s the ONLY thing that was driving me. I didn’t for a moment consider the gravity of my decision. Or that I needed support, love or tenderness in making the decision. I operated as I did in all tough moments for the rest of my adult life. (Some of my former colleagues will remember how non-empathetic I was on 9/11 when we were shipping an issue of the magazine. Despite having lost two close friends myself, I called everyone on staff and reminded them we needed to be back at work ASAP. 😔 Not a proud moment.) My adopted form of armor was to be cold as ice.
The ice did briefly crack when we got to the clinic. I walked into the place on my own: I didn’t want Dave to come in with me. After all, he wasn’t the father. I didn’t need an audience for my shame. It’s so interesting how I can feel perfectly comfortable and righteous fighting for a woman’s right to choose. And yet feel completely humiliated and unworthy of love and support when I exercised that right myself. Today, I sit with that complexity. But as I was waiting at the window to get my paperwork from the receptionist, the only thing I felt was dizzy. I woke up flat on the floor, my head pounding and one of the nurses next to me with smelling salts. I had passed out. She walked away as soon as I opened my eyes and left me to get up on my own. I guess I wasn’t as impenetrable as I thought. But I recovered quickly – almost like a little ankle turn when you’re strutting down the street. I got up and didn’t make eye contact with anyone in the waiting room. See? No audience for my shame. Sweet Atoosa. So fucking scared. So scared her body gave out. So tough she got right back up. I send gentleness to that girl today. Gentleness. Softness. Rest. I send that to me. I send that to you. I send that to us as a community
The procedure was unremarkable except for the fact that it was remarkable. I mean…I walked in with a big fucking problem and when I walked out, it was all over. Disaster averted. Thank you, Next. But of course, reality is not that simple.
I was supposed to sing in a big show that evening with my acapella group, The Clefhangers. That was the clean part of my life. The other singers were smart and buttoned up. Unlike many of my other friends, they went to Barnard and Columbia because of their brains, not their brawn. As I sat on that train back to the city, I knew I wasn’t getting on that stage. There was too much static energy inside my head and my body. I really loved those nice, smart people, but that night I couldn’t be the version of me they were used to. That night, I needed to be an animal. So I left voice mail messages feigning illness. Someone else could surely sing my solos. But honestly? I really didn’t care. It’s sort of like stepping on someone’s toe when you’re dodging a bullet. The last think you think about is the collateral damage. Well, at least it was the last thing I thought about on that particular night.
Many years later, as a grown up, I apologized to my fellow singers for bagging out on a big show last minute. In fact, after that night, I dropped out of the group for good. But I still didn’t explain why. I guess now they know. They also deserve an apology for being considered capable of only accepting one version of me. I was projecting my fears onto them. The only person incapable of accepting me in my complexity at that time unfortunately was…me. I didn’t give anyone else a chance.
But I had other plans that evening anyway. It was the night of the Brown Out party: The annual bash Sigma Chi (the “football” fraternity) hosted after the home game against Brown. The guys had been brutalized that day, 0-17. I had been brutalized that day. That party was where I needed to be. And I knew the vibe would match my vibe: Fucked up losers. It did not disappoint.
“Do not put anything in your vagina,” the nurse had said.
I think she meant a tampon. I had every intention of making good on that when I went to the Brown Out that night.
I knew what I wanted. I knew who I wanted. “M” was feral like me. That night I didn’t want to be with any cultivated Ivy League kids. I generally didn’t relate to them and I needed a respite from aspiring to be like them. I needed a safe harbor. But I didn’t know how else to get that outside of offering myself up sexually. I remember looking down at him while we were having sex and wondering, “Do I smell like surgery?” I was not in my body.
Today “M” is such an important friend to me. Maybe the deep connection started when he unwittingly held me, a virtual stranger, on my darkest night. You know my thing with big, strong guys. On November 17, 1990, “M” was my big, strong guy. Over 30 years later, I told him the truth of what was going on for me that night. He met me with steadfast understanding, friendship and non-judgment. “M,” I know you’re reading this. It’s hard to tell this story knowing my family, former colleagues, other parents at school etc. are reading it. I can do it because of how you received me and held space when I first spoke the story out loud to you a few years ago. So much love, respect and gratitude to you, my dear friend and teacher. ❤️🙌🏼❤️
The details of that day and evening are a clear indication of where my physical and emotional well-being stood in my list of priorities back then: Last. Not even last: Non-existent. I never cried. I never asked for emotional support. I didn’t even follow the one directive the nurse gave me after the procedure.
Today, I make space for feelings. Today, I let my friends metaphorically carry me when my emotional load is too heavy. Today, I show my full self. Because there’s nothing I could have done…there’s nothing I can do… to make me unlovable. I am worthy of love and respect. We all are.
One day, a few years ago, one of my close fashion industry friends told me his friend had gone to college with me. “She says you were a skank.” I had no idea who this girl was. But I suspected she was a typical Columbia girl. Great pedigree. From a nice home. Maybe a fancy prep school. Of course, to her I was a skank. But then I realized, I was also stereotyping her. Just because she’s from an affluent or stable background, doesn’t mean she hasn’t struggled.
So by now you may be wondering, what’s the point of sharing my darkest night with you? I guess I just want us all to hold ourselves and each other gently as we journey through Earth School. Like, here I am: Some people would put me in a certain category in Manhattan. My kids go to fancy schools, I’m involved in my community, I have a somewhat public career. But I also got pregnant by a guy I didn’t love, had an abortion, got totally smashed and had a one-night stand with someone completely different within a few hours. I am not a bad person because of this and I’m not a good person because of the upstanding part of my profile. We are all very complex and if we can make space for that complexity within ourselves and each other, the world can be such a safer place to be our most authentic selves. And from that authentic foundation we can be our best selves, making more loving and thoughtful choices. When we judge ourselves and each other, the world feels dangerous….we are literally creating enemies within ourselves and our community.
Thank you for co-creating this space with me where I feel safe showing you my ugly and my beautiful. And please, do the same. No shame here, my sister. No shame here.
If you have a story you need help reframing, I’m here 24/7, as always at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The soundtrack of my 🤍🖤❤️ :