The World Doesn’t Wait For You To Heal: A Survivor’s Thoughts on "I MAY DESTROY YOU"
"...when someone is violated in such a personal manner, how they respond is equally as personal. In other words, there is no uniform way for all survivors to react."
*Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault
My phone buzzed with an incoming text from a friend: “Holy sh*t! Have you seen this? You’d be PERFECT for this show!” With the click of the link, the trailer for HBO’s I May Destroy You played on my phone, and with it, a new series obsession was formed.
Conceived, written by and starring Michaela Coel, the dark dramedy follows Arabella, a writer who struggles to piece things together after her sexual assault.* Now five episodes in, the show is both jarring and rooted, both funny and infuriating, perfectly capturing how disjointed you can feel after being violated while the world marches on.
For me, this rings especially true. You see, the reason this friend sent me the trailer is not because I’m a fan of Michaela (though I am!) nor because I love dark dramedies (though I do!). She sent this to me because she knew it’d be like watching a version of myself.
In 2017 I was in the middle of participating in a prestigious writing fellowship (ironically given by HBO) when I jumped into a relationship that started off as a whirlwind romance, became a toxic tornado, and ended in rape. This was compounded by the fact that it wasn’t my first assault, so it brought up all sorts of PTSD from childhood and adolescence that I wasn’t aware I had.
(Note: revictimization, the increased risk of sexual assault survivors of being assaulted in the future, is a common phenomenon.)
Around this time I’d also just been selected for the competitive Emergence Filmmakers grant, so though I felt dead inside, both the fellowship and filmmaking trains were moving full steam ahead. This set me squarely in the middle of a juxtaposition; while I was at one of my highest moments professionally, I was at one of my lowest moments personally.
During the day I took meetings with a smile plastered on my face as I met with managers, production companies and studio execs, also known as the “water bottle tour” that emerging writers take when being introduced to the town. Most of those meetings went really well, though afterwards I’d sometimes need a pain reliever for the pounding headache that would arise from all the mental strain required to keep it together. At night I was averaging two to three bottles of wine per week, a “socially acceptable” way to stave off an implosion.
On the networking front, friends and colleagues complimented me on how great I looked after losing weight. I’d thank them for noticing, never sharing the reason I’d dropped 15 lbs was because I was barely eating, my loss of appetite from depression catching up with me.
Speaking of the d-word, it’s not always worn on its sleeve, at least not in the ways most people think of. In the show, Arabella laughs and jokes as she takes selfies with her fans. Moreover, she makes excuses for Simon (her “friend” who convinces her to get lit but doesn’t bother to make sure she gets home safely), stuck on giving him the benefit of the doubt. Likewise, I went on a work retreat with my perpetrator, basking on a beach while I convinced myself he’d just gotten carried away. Another survivor I know made her rapist breakfast the next morning, pretending it never happened. My point is when someone is violated in such a personal manner, how they respond is equally as personal. In other words, there is no uniform way for all survivors to react. Arabella’s irreverent sense of humor vs. Kwame’s quiet contemplation is a great illustration of the spectrum of responses you can get.
On the darker side of recovery, there were the intrusive thoughts, flashbacks to moments I’d attempted to forget, but that my subconscious would bring to the surface at the most inopportune times. In the show, we see this frequently, as Arabella is triggered by certain sights and sounds, her body forcing her to reckon with what her mind would rather repress. There’s a saying in trauma therapy that “The body keeps the score” (coined by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk whose book of the same title is lauded in therapy circles for good reason) and it’s true. When your body is a crime scene you can attempt to silence your trauma, but at some point, its quiet prompts for help will grow into screams until you can no longer ignore it. This is conveyed so compellingly when Arabella goes to the station and the officer assigned to her case (played compassionately by Sarah Niles) helps her to finally admit to herself that she was raped. The weight of that word hits her and she immediately hides her face in her shirt, crying for the first time.
I recognized that as the heartbreaking, come-to-Jesus moment that many survivors have of finally calling a thing a thing.
And yet, as Arabella learns, deadlines don’t disappear while you deal with the aftermath of your assault. Unless you’re in the unbelievably privileged position of being able to afford to take a sabbatical while you process your trauma (and God bless you if you are), you still have an obligation to fulfill your responsibilities, whether that’s to your career, your family or otherwise. This is the aspect of the show that I’m most drawn to, as it so deftly shows the mental gymnastics you’re constantly performing in an effort to keep up and not get sucked into a spiral.
So, how do you stop yourself from spinning out? For me it’s been a combination of unpacking things in therapy, channeling my anger through boxing, clearing my mind through journaling, sharing my story on the stage and on the page, and reconnecting with my body through yoga and dance. I was lucky enough to join a support group where I could share in a safe space and for a few months, I leaned heavily on my friends. This was absolutely critical to my healing, so I can’t overstate how much of a lifeline having a support system can be! In my case, it was Tara and Aisha. For Arabella, it’s Terry and Kwame. My hope is that every survivor watching has their own version of this, friends who show up, even when they don’t know what to say. Friends who not only believe you but are willing to sit with you in your immense anger and grief. Friends who do their best to help you put the pieces back together, yet don’t rush you as you begin to heal.
“When you’re raped by a stranger, you doubt the world. When you’re raped by someone you know, you doubt yourself.” One of the crisis counselors shared this quote with the group and it’s stuck with me ever since. No matter which one applies, having shows like this on the air is incredibly validating and helps chip away at that doubt a little more.
Meet The Family
Brandi Nicole Payne is an artivist who splits her time between Memphis and Los Angeles. Her work has aired on television and screened at both regional and international film festivals. An HBO Writers Program Fellow, Emergence Filmmakers Grant recipient and proud member of RAINN's Speakers Bureau, her goal as an actor, writer and filmmaker is to use story to spark discussion, create community and help facilitate healing.