“What are you doing?! You’re changing in the bathroom!! With the toilets! You don’t change near the toilets! You change out in the locker room. Out here! Not in there. What is wrong with you?!”
As I made my way to the pool through the women’s locker room this morning, I froze in my tracks. My breath caught in my chest and my legs went numb because my heart stopped beating. A fitness class had ended and as I rounded the corner to get to the pool entryway I nearly bumped into a queue of women waiting for the toilets. Paralyzed, I held my breath to listen to the tirade taking place. The hair on my arms stood up but I didn’t move. I waited to make sure I wasn’t misunderstanding something.
I wasn’t. A tall older woman in the middle of the line continued yelling at a woman in a bathroom stall. I peeked past the front of the line. There are four toilets in the locker room. At the bottom of one of them I could see a small changing station that had been set up. Clean clothes, dirty clothes, sneakers, shoes, towels, socks, crumpled up undies and bare feet were splayed on the floor of toilet number three.
I stood in disbelief. Watching. Listening to the waiting woman’s snarky comments. And then, without hesitation, I clearly spoke: “Wait a minute! Hold on! What are you saying? You can’t talk to her like that. You don’t even know her. You don’t know anything about her. You’re just being mean. That’s mean. She can change wherever she wants to change!”
The woman turned her face and without making eye contact snapped, “No! She can’t. She has to change in the locker room! She’s disgusting and she’s holding up the line. She has to change in the changing area.”
“But she doesn’t. Maybe that’s too uncomfortable for her. Maybe she’s more comfortable changing in private instead of out in the open! Your language is cruel. You are being unkind! Have some compassion.”
Her facial expressions clearly indicated that she didn’t agree but the eyes of the other women waiting looked at me and smiled, “Thank you.”
I took my trembling self to the pool deck. Shakily shoved in my earplugs, yanked on my cap and goggles and tried to swim. I was at war with myself. Angry that I hadn’t said more and scared that I’d said anything at all. Speaking up is a frightening thing to do. Not only is there an element of risk involved but it also requires that we expose ourselves and make ourselves vulnerable. A part of me wanted to hide because I was afraid of having spoken up. But a bigger part of me regretted that I hadn’t said more.
I wished I’d said, “Bravo Woman Behind The Closed Door! You found a way to navigate the discomfort of a public locker room — with no private changing rooms — and STILL get yourself to the gym. And shame on you Shamer-Woman! Can you imagine if your nastiness kept this woman from ever coming back? She is taking care of herself in a way that makes sense to her. Just like you are taking care of yourself in a way that makes sense to you. Both of you are hiding. You’re just hiding in different ways. Don’t judge each other. Support and help each other. Let’s take care of each other so none of us has to hide.”
The pedophile reads my blog. He hides in the shadows and reads; watching like he always watched me. Knowing that he lurks within the safe space of my blog creeps me out in so many ways. It is confusing. It perplexes me and at first it even scared me. A few days ago, I walked into our bike room and interrupted Rob on his difficult ride. “Maybe I should have used a pseudonym.” I barely whispered. My eyes wide and frightened searched his face. “Maybe I made a mistake when we decided I’d use our names.” Rob stopped mid pedal stroke. He took off his headphones, caught his breath and looked directly into my eyes with sweat pouring down his face and clearly stated, “No. No, Jess. That’s hiding and you won’t heal if you hide. You did the right thing. It is the right thing to do. You deserve to heal.”
Today, I’m not scared. Today, I think this — I think that the pedophile thought if I knew he read my words I’d be quiet. That his presence would scare me so much, I’d stop writing the truth and I would go back to hiding. I think he thought he could scare me into keeping the secret. But he’s wrong. When I was a child, he would stare me down and skulk in the shadows. His menacing gaze threatening me, reminding me not to tell. Terrifying me so much that I never whispered a word. Not even to my own father.
But here’s the thing. Are you listening, Pedophile? Of course you are … No one likes a bully. Bullies are self-loathing, broken people who prey on the vulnerability of others to bolster their own self-esteem. I see you watching. I know you’re here. We all know you’re here. Each and every one of us knows you are here and we all see you. And even with your threatening presence, I will never be silent about the truth. People will keep reading my writing because they want to see me in the light — not hiding. You disgust me. You repulse me and your poison took up way too much space. I refuse to hold it for you anymore. You are uninvited. I am not a child. You have no power over me.
The world can be brutal. We do our best to navigate our human frailty. Our vulnerability and our fears. But in doing so, we have to be true to our hearts, to ourselves and to each other. There is no room for bullies and the best way to quiet a bully is to rally together and to call it as we see it.
To the invited, thank you for being here. With me. In the light. I’m sending love, strength and courage your way.