The Box - Cristina Corrigan
There is a box I carry with me every day. If you have experienced capital T Trauma in your life, the kind that leaves you raw, shattered, exposed, you are familiar with the one I have. You may even have your own special box or fanny pack or tupperware where you carry your Trauma. It never leaves your side. I run through my mental checklist before I leave the house: keys, wallet, sunglasses, box. Even on the 8-mile bike ride with my partner at dusk when we both forgot our phones and I got a flat halfway through, I still had my box. As we pushed our bikes home in the last of the orange and red sunlight coming over the horizon, I told him, "you can leave me somewhere safe and ride the good bike home and get the car." Not sure why I said that. The box looked up at me and caught my eye so as to remind me that nowhere is safe. And he never would have left me anyways.
The box has taken various forms. I wish it were small. An origami box, made of rice paper printed with flowers, folded so tight and neat that the Trauma cannot spill out like water finding the leak in a bucket. It would be so tiny that I could fit it in the pocket of my jeans, only remembering it was there when emptying them to do laundry.
Some days it is lead, thick, my arms and legs shaking to keep us both upright. My body and mind are exhausted once I drop into bed at night. The box falls down next to me and pops open. The Trauma billows out and dances around on the pillow. No amount of exhaustion keeps its movement from waking me. We stay awake reminiscing.
For a while I lived inside the box where the fire burns black. The smoke fills my lungs, swims through my veins, drowns me. The Trauma is denser inside the box. Its gravity becomes so strong that I cannot lift my head to search for an exit. The world does not exist outside the box. There is no light, no joy, no laughter. It is a vacuum. Eventually a friend bumped into the box, not seeing it was there. She noticed I was inside and lifted me out.
Today I carry a cardboard box. “Master Bedroom” is scribbled on the side. It is a little dusty and you can see water stains creeping up the sides from being moved around with me. The 4 pieces that cross over each other to form the lid are soft from being opened and closed so many times. It sits in the corner, an unremarkable part of my landscape that I hardly notice it. But then someone will walk too close behind me or I will hear men shouting on TV or someone touches my arm while chatting, and my box pulls up beside me, forever my shadow. It stiffens my spine and sucks the air from my lungs. A wave moves through my body and my fingers tingle. In these moments I notice the box and think, I really need to get around to unpacking.
When my therapist asked me why I did not try to leave the box somewhere, I locked eyes with the box in my lap, it quietly shaking its head. The reality is that it lives within me. Trauma sits in the pit of my stomach, rolling around inside me while on a first date or when a male colleague invites me into his office to discuss work. It never occurred to me to put it down, that it is even a choice I could make. But in the moment that I was challenged to try to leave the box, I felt my pulse race, my breathing grew shallow, the world closing around me. I was terrified to be without it.
My box holds more than just my capital T Trauma. You may be more familiar with lower-case t trauma, that leaves you questioning if it actually happened and if it was really a big deal, but still leaves you shaken. It is traumatizing to simply live in the world as a female-presenting person. I was 13 years old the first time I was sexualized by an adult man, my first trauma. I walked around with it in my hands, unsure of what to do with it and unprepared for the experiences that would follow. Like every person who walked past the carts at Target because they “only needed toothpaste,” my arms quickly became full. I looked around and put them in the first box I found, a purple Caboodle with a tube of Lip Smackers and a bottle of nail polish I stole from my sister.
Beyond my continuing trauma, I found that the box was a good place to store other things too. Within a few weeks of getting my driver’s license at 16, I developed a multi-step process on the exact right spot to stop in a line of cars at an intersection to avoid harassment from men in adjacent cars. I put these rules in my box and brought it with me each time I left the house for safekeeping.
When I entered my twenties, I decided the Caboodle was too childish. I was an adult who enjoys nightlife, has her very own student loan debt, and travels to faraway places. I upgraded to a train case. Originally part of a vintage luggage set, it had a Tiffany-blue shell with satin lining. I told myself I chose it because it was sophisticated to carry with me when in reality, I needed it and it was a cheap find at an estate sale.
My train case looked small but it was mighty. It was roomy enough to hold the first time a man grabbed my bum at a bar in college (and the second time and the third time and...), next to the phrase, “text me when you get home.” I pretended that the box did not restrict me while keeping it at the forefront of my mind. I consulted it when deciding which apartment to rent, or whether to talk to this boy at the bar who might try to feel me up later. Surely if I listen to the box, eventually strangers will stop following me for multiple city blocks? Then again, the box forgot to warn me that sometimes you find more danger at home rather than on the walk at night by yourself.
My burden or yours?
My box has continued to evolve alongside me, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. After the train case was when I found myself engulfed in the fire box. I am grateful that during this time after my Trauma, I had somewhere to go that was far away from the source and where my physical needs were managed by others. They wrapped me in the security of my childhood bedroom, created a healing circle of my favorite meals, and encouraged me to take my daily constitutional. But even though I was protected, I never felt that way. I would lay awake at night, staring at the ceiling from my youth, cowering whenever the shadows moved. My alert system only ever saw a fire or a jaguar when it was just a branch moving in the wind.
It was during this period while living inside the box that I started therapy. The anguish was so overwhelming that it hurt to breathe. I just wanted to feel safe again in my body. The months then years ticked by. With the help of my therapist and my closest confidants, my resilience grew so that I could stand once more, and I could move the Trauma into the box rather than it inhabiting every atom of my being. Every so often, I would notice that the box keeping me company had taken a different shape, usually a little smaller and a little lighter.
Still, it lives as my anchor, continuously threatening to pull me under the surface once again, while simultaneously keeping me grounded on solid land. Therapy gave me the clarity to recognize how much I was holding in the box and to question why I have it in the first place. There were obvious experiences that I stored in there, but was surprised to find in my box the map I keep of well-lit sidewalks for nighttime dog-walking sitting next to the bruise left on my chin by the man who said he loved me. I was categorizing these threats of violence, prevention of violence, and actual violence as all belonging to my box, but never asked whether I wanted to keep it all, or whether it belonged to me in the first place. I just kept getting new boxes that could hold everything.
I was so accustomed to my burdensome box that I could not see that it is a tool, a weapon, that our culture has given me. It is the venom-tipped dagger meant for protection that ends up poisoning me instead. My box is in on the secret. It lets me think that I consented, that I actively chose these rules that restrict me. The box stores the rules next to my Trauma to remind me how rule-breakers are punished. It is in my hands if I want to allow my box to keep me safe by living within its narrow borders. Society uses the box to blame me for what happens in the end. The shame is built-in. I should not have been drinking or I should not have been taking the train at that hour or I should not have trusted him or I should not have been a woman who wanted to exist in the world.
Our society is more concerned with who gets raped rather than who does the raping. This obsession with the length of her skirt tricks women into believing that we have control over the situation because that is easier to swallow rather than the reality that society has made a victim out of all of us. If we are too tired from carrying around this weight, we will not have the strength to demand that we are given an equal share of this world. Men do not walk home at night with their keys between their knuckles. Why does my box tell me this is the only way for me to stay safe? We cannot prevent acts that we do not commit ourselves.
After emptying my box and sorting through decades of hoarding, I do my best to only pack the necessities. I try to recognize if this rule my box is giving me is from a place of genuine concern for my safety, or if it is just another way society attempts to control my body and what I do with it. I would rather not have my box, but I do not know how to live without it anymore. While it puts limits on me, the unfortunate reality is my box does prevent uncomfortable experiences from happening more than they already do. I am in my 30s now and still stop at the same spot at an intersection as I did when I was 16 in order to avoid harassment. If I get too comfortable and slip, I hear the man in the car next to me shouting to get my attention or see him blow kisses my way.
This is not the final destination for me and my box. This journey feels never ending for me. I am constantly unpacking and repacking my box. In a couple years of therapy I cannot unlearn a lifetime of conditioning to be passive and accepting of all the daily injustices. So the saying goes, “nothing is certain except death and taxes,” and my box. My Trauma, unfortunately, refuses to be left behind. Five years after my last Trauma, I still find myself struggling to make eye contact with strangers and acquaintances, men in particular. Everytime I notice, my box taps my shoulder to remind me why I still feel so vulnerable, to remind me that new Trauma is always a possibility. That bodily autonomy and safety are not luxuries to which I am entitled. How many intersections do you pass through everyday? That is how many times the box buckled into my passenger seat rattles and shakes to remind me that even in my own vehicle, I am not safe from leering eyes and drooling mouths.
For now, I try to find the balance in which battle I feel like fighting today. Society would prefer that I perform for its false idols, modesty and submissiveness, because it cannot keep its hands to itself. Would I prefer to wear a crop top and risk its wandering hands because it’s hot and I look cute? Some days I choose authenticity and ignore the withering look from my box for daring to show any skin. Other days the box feels heavier and I surrender, grabbing my oversized men’s sweatpants because I do not have the energy to resist. I say a prayer of forgiveness to myself for capitulating, and wonder if a music box might be less judgmental.
Cristina Corrigan was born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago, and now lives in the city with her two rescue dogs and partner. She has called many cities and continents home at different points, living a seemingly new life in each one. All her different lives inform how she looks at the world and makes her more grateful for the home she has built today. Cristina hopes that others may see their experiences reflected in her stories, and that they feel a little less alone for a few moments.