It was late July, the hottest part of a dry California summer, and there was a piranha in the lake. I was ten. This manmade lake at the center of our neighborhood was filled with murky, gray water and had a metallic-like smell. I wondered how anything managed to stay alive in such hostile conditions. Nevertheless, something did, and reporters from the Modesto Bee and KCRA3 crowded around the edge of the water, ignoring the fluttering yellow caution tape, and snapped pictures for their upcoming headlines: "Everybody Out of the Lake!" and "The Amazon in Modesto?" Even after Sacramento Fish and Game experts confirmed that the piranha was actually a pacu—similar in appearance to a piranha but a feaster of fruit, not flesh—the lake remained off-limits and the caution tape was replaced by a chain-link fence.
The summer of the piranha was the summer I began having flashbacks involving a neighbor girl two years older. Was she a friend like the pacu or an enemy like the piranha? I wasn't sure how to tell the difference. She went to public school while I was homeschooled. I'd be starting fifth grade soon, my homeroom the kitchen table as it had always been, and she'd be starting seventh grade at a local junior high.
"You don't go to real school," she said. "And besides, I'm older, so you have to do what I say."
It was what she told me when she pressed me against a tree in my backyard and tugged down my pants—I'm showing you how to have sex. It was what she told me before gripping my face and swirling her tongue in my mouth until I choked—French kissing, duh. It was what she told me before stripping me naked on my bedroom floor so she could climb on top of me, grinding her pubic bone against mine until I cried—Doesn't it feel good?
She was seven. I was five. Then she was eight and I was six. Then nine and seven.
Friends don't tell, she reminded me each time. And if you do tell, you're dead. After we stopped playing together, we remained neighbors on the same street for many years.
"This whole thing is so unreal," Mom said while cooking dinner. She was talking about the lake and we were having fish. Salmon with a side of green beans, rice, and kimchi.
"What does that mean?" I asked. "What does it mean when something is unreal?"
I knew people used that word as an expression of surprise, but at ten years old I didn't know if there were times when I was supposed to take what they were saying literally. Could other people differentiate between levels of real and unreal that I could not? I didn't understand the memories flooding back with such intensity I was afraid they'd sweep me away—memories triggered by a boy at church who leaned over and whispered "sex" in my ear before laughing and running away. My body went ice-cold as a movie of my neighbor and me played in my head. I didn't know what to call what I was remembering. I only knew that it scared me.
"Unreal," Mom continued, "is when something is so weird or strange, it's like it can't possibly be true, but it is. Like piranhas, er, pacus, or whatever it is in the lake."
Can't possibly be true but it is, I repeated in my head. Can't possibly be true but it is.
After dinner, I went to my room and opened my copy of The Complete Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook. Dad had brought it home from a garage sale last year as a joke, but since then it had become my Bible. I learned how to escape from a swarm of killer bees and how to outsmart a charging rhino. I learned how to jump from a moving train and how to escape quicksand. I learned how to treat frostbite and how to survive a riptide. I wanted to be prepared for any and all emergencies. I wanted to know how to save myself and how to save my family. I flipped to the chapter titled "How to Cross a Piranha-Infested River." It warned readers not to "cross if you have an open wound... and to avoid crossing the river at night." The most disturbing part of the chapter came at the end: "When driving cattle across a river suspected of containing piranhas, farmers will sometimes sacrifice a sick or injured animal downstream before letting the herd enter the water." I imagined a cow, its wide, panic-stricken eyes rolling crazily while its flesh was torn from its body piece by piece.
Stop crying. You can't go home until you stop crying. A memory of me kneeling on her bedroom floor while she pressed her thumbs into the sides of my cheekbones overwhelmed me, the suffocating weight of her body on top of mine. I squeezed my eyes shut and shook my head, as if doing so could shake the memories out of my brain and onto the floor where I could stomp them like I would a spider. There was nothing in my Handbook about what to do for the guilt gnawing at my skin, wringing my stomach, pounding the base of my skull. I felt what happened was my fault, like I had let her do those things to me. Like the weakling left to drown in the river, I hadn't been strong enough to make her stop.
After several nightmare-filled nights, I finally decided to tell my mom. My Handbook may have failed me, but I knew my mom would know what to do. But when I told her that a neighbor girl had been touching me, she was more concerned with those who hadn't. "Did her father ever touch you?" Mom asked. She hugged me against her chest and calmed slightly when I said no. My encounter had been with a pacu, not a piranha. I didn't understand then why my mother asked me about my neighbor's father. It did not occur to me that he could have harmed me in the way his daughter had and that escaping his touch was a reason to be grateful. See, nothing happened, I tried to convince myself as an adult. And then when I could no longer believe the lie—See, it could have been worse.
I didn't tell my mother many details about the abuse. I was ashamed and did not want her to hate me. "It wasn't your fault," Mom tried to reassure me with tears in her own eyes. I was afraid if she knew more, she'd change her mind and tell me I was disgusting. So I stayed quiet, and we never put a name to what had happened. My father never acknowledged anything either. I took his silence to mean that what I had done was so awful it literally could not be spoken of. Shame permeated our house. It was during this time that I first thought my family would be better off without me.
"Should we maybe invite her to church?" I asked quietly. It had been three weeks since I first told my secret. I lay in bed, and Mom stood by the door, ready to turn off the light after kissing me goodnight. She marched back to my bedside and knelt down beside me. Her face was so close to mine, I could feel her breath.
"Why would you want to do that." An accusation, not a question. Her eyes smoldered with a ferocity so hot that I was sure if I brushed against her skin, I'd burn.
"Jesus says to forgive, doesn't he?" I faltered. What I really meant to say was, I don't know how to make sense of this. Please, help me.
"Jesus also says an eye for an eye," Mom spat back.
He didn't, but that wasn't the point. Mom was angry. I knew she was angry at the neighbor girl, but I also felt like she was angry with me. After an awkward silence, we agreed that neither one of us would be comfortable with them at our church, that Dad wouldn't be either, and that what I suggested was a terrible idea. Mom walked back to the door and turned off the light. The next day, I made sure the shutters on my bedroom window stayed closed, but because we lived in the same neighborhood, I felt like she could still see me and I became afraid to leave the house. I was afraid I'd see her or her family, that I'd hear the whir of their garage door opening or see the flicker of their porch light turning on. I was afraid I'd run into them at the mailbox or while I was taking out the trash. Even after they moved away, I felt trapped.
Real or unreal? I no longer knew. It was a question that would follow me into adulthood—a question that even now makes me doubt everything, unsure of who and what I can trust. I often feel as though I am living in another reality no one else can see or understand, a reality skewed just enough to feel constantly disorienting.
According to the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, derealization is defined as "experiences of unreality or detachment with respect to surroundings (e.g., individuals or objects are experienced as unreal, dreamlike, foggy, lifeless, or visually distorted)."
"Derealization is often a symptom of PTSD," my psychiatrist told me.
The DSM weighed heavy on my lap and was opened to the section titled "Post-traumatic Stress Disorder: Diagnostic Criteria." I felt a wash of understanding and then a tidal wave of rage. The words grew bigger, then smaller, bigger, then smaller. I had the sudden urge to throw the book at my psychiatrist's head.
I was twenty-five when I received my PTSD diagnosis, and before then, I spent years in and out of therapy feeling ashamed for having the symptoms of one who had experienced sexual trauma. I felt as though what happened to me couldn't possibly count because my perpetrator was also a child. It was hard to think of a little girl who once hugged me and let me ride in her Barbie Jeep as an abuser. Understanding that there must've been someone bigger behind all of this—that an adult, or perhaps an even older child, took away her innocence before she took away mine—makes me feel as though I have no right to feel hurt, to feel sad, to feel angry. I am still learning to combat these feelings of self-blame, but I understand now that my perpetrator's age does not negate my own experience.
The uncomfortable truth is that children do abuse other children. There is a difference between "I'll show you mine if you show me yours" and a situation in which one child is overpowered by the other. I was shocked to learn from Defend Innocence, an organization dedicated to the prevention of child sex abuse, that nearly half of children who are sexually abused are victimized by older or more powerful children, but I was not shocked to learn that for the victim, the trauma is the same as if the assault were perpetrated by an adult. I understand now that there is no one mold an experience must fit in order to be valid and am finally allowing myself to grieve what was stolen from me. I am learning to replace it could have been worse with it happened.
My family has since moved out of my childhood town, but the infamous piranha lake still remains a snapshot in time. For years after the fence went up, there was talk of filling in the lake and using the land for additional houses or an apartment complex. Then, there was talk of turning the area into a community park. But the town can't seem to decide what to do with the space, or even what to make of it, so the fence stays up and people stay away. I try to imagine what the area might look like as a park. Maybe, in some parallel universe, it already is. Instead of a murky lake surrounded by dead land—lush green grass and tall trees. A tire swing, a slide—a garden of flowers. There's no need for a survival guide there. It's a safe place to play.