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“What am I doing here?” she groaned as she slumped down further on the couch, her face in her hands. She didn’t want to look up at Julia’s half-concerned, half-disappointed face, but eventually, she relented.
Julia gave her a weak smile from the other side of the coffee table and beckoned for the young lady on her couch to sit up. God, she wished that Julia would let her have some wine during these tough conversations.
So what if you don’t drink? she thought. Is there some rule that I can’t be drinking?
Although she’d only known her for a few years, and Julia was only three years older, she did think of her as a second mother. Julia’s advice was almost always on point, and she had that nagging-yet-gentle tone down pat. And, unlike most of her friends, when someone talked to Julia they could tell that she was actually listening. She would often rest her head on her chin and watch your mouth move with a thoughtful look on her face, as she was doing now. After a pregnant pause, Julia finally answered the only question the redhaired girl had actually spoken.
“You’re here to talk. That’s it. There’s nothing wrong with needing to talk out issues like this.”
“I know,” the young woman responded. “I know I shouldn’t feel ashamed about this stuff. It’s just, well, I can’t talk to Bethany or Danielle or Chelsea or my mom about this stuff. I don’t — I don’t want them to think that I’m weak.”
Julia reached out and grabbed her hand, with that comforting smile. “You’re not weak because you experience something traumatic. That doesn’t make you a victim. You’re only a weak victim if you allow it to affect how you live your life going forward.”
She nodded, feeling slightly better for a moment. As she leaned back to readjust on Julia’s couch, a question that had been nagging her for weeks trickled out of her mouth. “Do you think I can get over him?”
Julia pursed her lips and fidgeted with her wire-thin glasses, considering the young lady’s words. “Of course you can get over him. And you should believe that you can and will. But you also shouldn’t beat yourself up for not being over him. It’s a process, and that process is different for everyone.”
“It’s just, I’m dating this guy who is amazing. Like, way better than I deserve. He’s so nice and kind. Like the kind of guy I always wanted to be with. That I imagined myself with. And yet, I’m fucking terrified. Every time I feel something for him, every time I want to let him in, Kenny just complicates everything. He’s like an unwanted guest in my mind and I can’t get rid of him.”
“Okay,” Julia responded slowly, “first, you know that you deserve this guy. You shouldn’t ever feel like you’re unworthy of anyone or anything because of someone else’s actions. Second, you cannot cling to past relationships when you start a new one. That is what victims do. Strong women learn from the past and make improvements going forward.”
“So I am a victim.”
“Only if you choose to be. And I know you can, and want to, use the past to empower you.”
“But it’s scary,” she said softly. “After Kenny…being in that position again –”
“Do you want to live the rest of your life in fear?” Julia asked pointedly.
“Do you think this guy is actually going to treat you like Kenny?”
Julia shrugged. “Then why put those past issues onto this relationship?”
They sat there in silence for a moment, perpendicular to Julia’s glass coffee table. She took the moment to look through the glass at the patterns in the carpet below. It was a shaggy, multi-colored weave that reminded her of a carpet in the house she grew up in as a child.
“How’s everything else?” Julia finally asked. “You eating okay, sleeping okay?”
“I think so,” the redhead responded before chuckling. “I’m kind of worried he might catch me talking in my sleep.”
Julia laughed as well. “Hopefully you don’t say something embarrassing.”
“Like about those dreams where I’m in my old high school but it’s an anime?”
“Oh God,” Julia cackled. “I still don’t know why you’d tell me that!”
“Isn’t that the whole point? For me to talk to you about this stuff?”
“Well yeah, but that shit is kind of weird.”
After the laughter quieted, Julia pressed on. “Have you been keeping the panic attacks under control? I know you had a close call after your first date and we said we’d keep an eye to make sure the new relationship wasn’t triggering anything.”
She shook her head, causing the red curls to whip past her face. “No, it’s been fine since then. He’s really such a sweet guy and I feel so bad that…”
Her words trailed off. Luckily Julia, as she almost always did, was able to finish the sentence for her. “That you might not be able to be the person he wants.”
“He’s been into me since the day we’ve met. And I’ve always liked him. And now we can actually be together and see if this works, but there’s this persistent Kenny problem. I’m afraid that I can’t get over him fast enough. And I’ll blow this. I’ll blow something great.”
Once again, Julia was there, sliding closer to the young woman who had tears in her eyes. She squeezed her hand. “You dated a guy, on-and-off, for almost five years, who emotionally and physically abused you. That is not something that someone deals with easily.”
She sniffled to keep tears back. “But sometimes when he like, playfully shoves me. Or teases me about being an idiot for thinking Bulbasaur is the best starter Pokemon or something, I flinch. I feel like he’s going to do what Kenny would do. I know he won’t, but I feel like he will.”
“You experienced an emotional trauma. Much like soldiers returning with PTSD, any sort of abuse brings with it triggers that you may not even be aware of. If you don’t tell him about it –”
She shook her head to cut Julia off. She wasn’t prepared to tell this boy, whom she liked a great deal, that when he slammed his fists on the table in anger after the Flyers scored a goal, she would flashback to see Kenny slamming his fists in front of her face and yelling at her. Or that she had to excuse herself to the bathroom, fighting back tears, after he teased her by saying “you’re so lucky I’m here,” because Kenny had always spat those words at her when they were fighting.
No one on the planet, except Julia and her mother, knew just how bad that relationship had been. And why she was still so fearful of getting hurt again.
“Leah, the fact is, you are a brave and strong person for getting through that experience at all. Unfortunately, just because it’s over that doesn’t mean it goes away. Abuse like that leaves scars, just like a physical injury. You can’t ignore it or get rid of it. You just learn to live with it as best you can.
“And this guy you’re talking about, he sounds like he’s amazing and supportive. So don’t put it on him that he might act like Kenny.”
Leah nodded, and Julia turned beside her on the couch to look at the nearby clock. “Okay, it looks like we’re out of time for this week. Do you want to meet again next week, same time, or maybe space it out to two weeks?”
“Let’s do same time next week,” she answered. “It’s been a rough couple of weeks.”
Julia nodded. “Okay, I’ll pencil you in for the same time next week. Are you good on your Prozac, or do you need another prescription?”
“I’m fine for now, thanks though.”
The two women stood, exchanging goodbyes before Dr. O’Brien opened the door to let Leah out and greet her 6:30 appointment..