Height as a Haven

TW: Sexual Assault and Bulimia

I have a complicated relationship with height. Growing up, my father’s side of the family towered over me. My grandfather and grandmother topped out at 6-foot-4 and 6-foot respectively. They passed their genes onto my father, who continuously perplexed my classmates. One day, in kindergarten, I remember my classmate Peter’s widened eyes and slacked jaw as he watched my father enter the building.

“Wow! Your dad is so tall.” He looked at me in awe.

“He’s 6-foot-3,” I replied, somewhat in wonder myself. He did not seem that tall to me, but Peter was the tallest kid in my class. And if the tallest kid in my class thought my dad was tall, he must have been a borderline giant.

I have always associated tallness with safety. After a scary dream, my dad would wrap his long arms around me and bury me in his chest. After our yearly apple picking trip, while making applesauce from scratch, my grandma could gracefully reach around behind me to grab the cinnamon. Afterward, while the applesauce cooled, I would steal my grandpa’s chair and drown within its cushions—only for him to give a disapproving nod and sit in the smaller chair next to me.

I never came close to my family’s height, somewhat due to a cruel trick of genes and a separate health issue. Although, in hindsight, maybe that was for the best.

The man who assaulted me made even my own family feel small. Due to Tufts’ lack of extraordinarily tall men, I will not share his actual height, but envision him taller than 6-foot-5. Like many men who defy the laws of nature, his height seemed entwined with his personality. Initially, it drew me to him and reminded me of home. His hugs grounded me when everything felt foreign freshman year, and tipping my chin up to make eye contact felt familiar. However, as our relationship progressed, he could not settle for just friendship.

Come sophomore year, his demeanor changed. His desire for more became unavoidable and he only wanted to see me after I had something to drink. Desperate to salvage what I failed to realize as an already failed relationship, I obliged. But I still tried to maintain some semblance of a boundary. 

I told him “No.”

I told him to leave, that I wanted to go to sleep. Instead, he waited. He watched me get ready for bed and then crawled into the space between me and the wall. Then he started to undress. His presence, his height, smothered me. For what felt like an eternity—while simultaneously an instant—my life plummeted into darkness. My entire body powered down, and I felt frozen while my brain just clicked off. So much for the fight, in flight or fight.

I cried myself to sleep for weeks. Overwhelmed by my own pain, my disordered eating habits, which I had kept a precarious lid on for most of my childhood, began to boil over. I hyper-fixated my newfound disgust for my body on my outward appearance and, less than two weeks later, plunged into the dark hole of bulimia.

Sure, I wanted to become skinnier, but, on a more twisted level, I just wanted to hurt myself. Wasn’t I to blame for what happened to me? Did I lead him on? Technically, we kissed before I said no. I was drunk and stupid. I should have known better. I should have fought. I mean, come on, I could have done something other than shut down. Anything.

One night, after forcing myself to puke until my head became dizzy, I passed out on the floor of my dorm bathroom. Waking up an unknown amount of time later in a fog on the cold, but surprisingly not sticky, tile floor, I felt completely and utterly alone. 

Roughly a month after my assault, I began therapy for bulimia. I still felt too much shame to share the root cause of my issues with my parents. Right as the clock struck the hour mark—signifying the end of our first therapy session—I unloaded everything I had held in. Mostly because I needed someone to know.

We talked for another hour about my assault. In a calming but vehement way, she helped me recognize that the blame fell solely on him and shut down every feeble attempt to blame myself. Slowly, she picked apart the tornado of emotions that had ripped apart my ability to think logically and validated my agony. For the first time in a long time, I felt heard. I felt safe again.

Slowly, I relearned how to love myself. Movie nights by myself, one-on-one time with the people who mattered most, and finding dumb reasons to laugh helped. Taking therapy seriously, learning intuitive eating, and gradually forgiving myself for my own self-hate helped more. Setbacks riddled my recovery, but eventually I graduated from seeing my therapist twice a week to once a week. My friends also gave me strength and indulged me in my daydreams of pounding his head in with a baseball bat. Not that I actually would, but everyone loves a good revenge fantasy.

The COVID-19 pandemic helped in its own way. I did not have to see him. As restrictions loosened and I started to bump into him around campus, it took a toll. My paranoia came back and I found myself always on edge. Deciding whether to avoid him became a split-second decision based on my own emotions that day. I had to reframe avoiding him as self-care instead of viewing myself as weak—like I initially did when I shut down that night. 

In addition, and this took over a year to admit to myself, a part of me still mourned the friendship I lost that day. 

Our movie nights, time spent mindlessly in the common room, and staircase chats played on replay in the back of my mind whenever I tried to convince myself he was the bad guy. I was not assaulted by a stranger, but by someone I thought I could trust with my life. Once, he even told me he would protect me from gross men. Too bad he failed to consider himself.

But even his own failings prevented me from completely despising him. While hating him in the direct aftermath of my assault felt right, with time, allowing myself to view him as an imperfect but not wholly horrible human helped more.

Sometimes I still wonder if he carries the fallout from that night like I do. I never reported him. Watching Tufts’ OEO system fail others discouraged me. I remember freshman year, a girl warned me not to use the service—it would just retraumatize and alienate me.

Two years have passed since the incident. Most days go by just fine. I sit in a somewhat imperfect, but improving, version of eating disorder recovery. Seeing him on campus has turned from a burning desire to flee to a dull desire to flip him off. 

One thing that still sticks with me is his height. If I see a tall person in my peripheral vision, I wince. People who tower over me intimidate me in a way I never felt before. On bad days, seeing someone tall on the street out of the corner of my eye suffocates me. On good days, it reminds me of a time I’d rather wish to forget.

I wish I could say I found a lesson in all of this—that this horrible situation had some twisted message buried below. Some people have told me this experience made me stronger, but I was strong before that night. In fact, the assault made me feel absolutely petrified. But I eventually realized I could either wither away into self hatred or make the choice every day to keep going. 

However, saved in a file on my computer sits a copy of all the texts from him admitting to assaulting me, begging me for forgiveness, then suggesting I delete his messages. I never look at it, but on days when I want to shift the blame back on myself, that little blue folder reminds me of the truth of what I have overcome.

I will probably carry this knee-jerk fear of tall men with me forever, a constant reminder of that night. Yet, I find safety in my family. My physics teacher used to always talk about how “an exception proves the rule.” I guess my family is mine. Even as I have grown to associate height with danger, they still remind me to take a deep breath and take that next step forward.

P.S. Please do not use this piece to question the extraordinarily tall men in your life. If I wanted people to know, I would have said his name. If this piece really caused you to wonder if your friend assaulted me, then you might want to reevaluate that friendship anyways.