Advocacy, Journal

Reclaiming My Narrative, Finally

Minor trigger warnings for harassment, self-harm, and disordered eating.

I didn’t know it was called solihiya, I recall now, thinking of the woven pattern that was an accent piece in that room. For all the memories I’ve both repressed and dwelled in for so long, that visual is constantly rather vivid to me. It’s strange—I was so enraptured by it, I could still remember standing still for a moment, letting my eyes try to figure out the intricate weave.

I didn’t know it then, but it was going to be the last innocent memory I was going to have for a while.

In that room, with the beautiful solihiya accents, a stranger took advantage of me—and failed.

See, the codicil is there because it’s my way of reclaiming this narrative, finally, after all these years of wrestling with shame, helplessness, so many what-ifs and maybe-I-should-haves, self-hatred, guilt, and fear of judgment—all completely misplaced, so I’ve eventually learned.

It took a while to get here, and even at this point it’s not always smooth sailing. There are still days when it hits hard, and the knee-jerk reaction to that is more often than not, a bit harsh: It happened a long time ago, get over it already. Often, it comes from myself, especially when the year flies by and suddenly the weeks lead into the date it happened all that time back.

It had been September.

For years and years, I always felt off whenever this month rolled around—still do, if writing this is anything to go by. Yet for all the unwanted memories and the breakdowns it brought, there was something so comforting about it, like a warm blanket draped over my shoulders. Later on, I would learn there was actually a name for what I would go through: anniversary reactions. 

In my isolation, it became a steady companion. Besides, on the rare times I actually talked to people about The Incident and how this month was always hard on me, I felt I wasn’t being taken seriously. I remember a September evening one year, in an attempt to seek comfort with a good friend who I had opened my heart to, he told me to just stop thinking about it. I never did. I just stopped talking to him about it.

Sometimes I imagined how things would have been different if I followed his advice, maybe even before he gave it to me. God, if only it were so easy. Because sometimes I definitely felt I might have been pandering to the existence of my anniversary reactions. 

But that’s the thing about trauma—it’s entirely personal. No one else but yourself can comprehend what the hell you’re going through. And while no one can dictate the pace you heal from it (or if you even do), you can’t also fault people for how they deal with you dealing with it, even if it hurts to feel like you’re being invalidated or brushed aside.

It’s certainly terrifying now, the prospect of my words being read by so many other people, not knowing how they—you—would react. And yet there’s something freeing to relinquish control instead of keeping a tight lid on those who are in the know. It’s ultimately what’s stopping me from hitting the delete key on everything I’ve written so far.

It has, after all, been years of keeping everything to myself. In a way, it’s a form of denial.

It didn’t count, I told myself as I scrubbed myself in the shower afterwards, hoping the water would wash everything away (it didn’t).

It didn’t count, I told myself as I smoked and choked on my first cigarette, an elegantly thin Capri.

It didn’t count, I told myself as I held a blade against my wrist, sharp scratches against my skin.

It didn’t count, I told myself as the hairstylist took the first cut, close to my ears, long hair gone and feeling something.

It didn’t count, I told myself as I felt the thrill of starving myself, of knowing I finally had control over my body.

It didn’t count, I told myself, because I stopped it from getting too far. It didn’t count as sexual harassment because technically, nothing happened. 

But for every single excuse I made for it, every denial I made, it didn’t stop me from feeling like a victim.

It had been September.

The details are jumbled now. I can’t tell the actual incident apart from the nightmares that have haunted me afterwards, and the subsequent reimaginings that had me taking control of the situation in idealized ways, doing the right thing.

What I do remember vividly is how I felt and what was going through my head, a cacophony of tell him to stop and you brought this upon yourself in so many different ways, all while I laid there stilled, terrified as a stranger’s hands wandered to places they shouldn’t be, not knowing what to do.

But one thing I never gave myself actual credit for was how, at some point, I finally said stop, managed to put my clothes back on, and bolted the hell out of there.

It’s strange to look back on it now, all these years of being fixated about how it didn’t count because I stopped it before it went too far and worrying about people possibly saying, “That’s it? Big deal! Other actual victims had it worse.” 

I had fought back—so why didn’t I feel empowered by it?

Instead I was consumed with helplessness, too focused on my inability to stop my assailant sooner, ashamed that I had literally frozen in place instead of fighting back right away. I felt I failed the teachings of women empowerment that my alma mater had been incessantly drilled into me since I was six. I was less of a student from that school, less of a woman, less of a human being.

It was this mindset that led to my dangerous path of self-destruction. I sought ways to punish myself that I still feel mental repercussions to this day, that if I did anything wrong, I had to suffer for my mistake. 

And for a while, I thought I was healing—that is, if “healing” meant recklessly embarking on an illicit affair because someone actually made me feel good about myself that it erased, I thought then, all the bad things that had happened to me. In retrospect, I was easily manipulated into a twisted sense of acceptance while all the issues I’ve had yet to work on and the issues he came with were swept under a rug. 

Of course, everything came to blows spectacularly, and while the fallout was—to put it inelegantly—nasty shit, it gave me some of life’s best lessons. But now there were so many habits and things I also had to unlearn, most of them having to do with my now thoroughly fucked self-worth.

I had let myself be taken advantage of. Again.

Again, again, again, again, again

And again came the helplessness: If I didn’t encourage his advances to begin with, if only I wasn’t selfish enough to set aside the fact he was married, if I hadn’t let it go on as long as it did, if I paid attention to all the red flags and the sirens and all the alarms, if I actually listened to my friends…

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the last time I was taken advantage of. It happens fairly enough, sometimes in the form of the simplest microaggressions in which you don’t realize what was happening until it was too late. There’s also no telling where it comes from, which makes it even more devastating when it’s caused by someone or something you once thought meant a lot to you.

That feeling of helplessness—that cuts really deep, can be traumatic, even. It manifests differently for everyone. In my case, I’ve become quite the anxious person especially in recent years, always wary with every twist and turn, afraid of going to certain places and being alone, blood running cold and palpitations developing in fear when I see or hear things about people who have taken advantage of me.  

And I’ve hated it. I hated that these people have a lot of power over me, and I hated that I allowed them that. I hate that this is actually still the case, even up to this very day if we’re being completely honest.

In Brazilian jiu-jitsu, there’s a move called a technical stand-up. It’s a technique that allows anyone to get back up on their feet after they’ve been knocked down, in a safe manner that also protects them from further blows—an arm and a leg are primed to parry, while the landing puts one immediately in a defensive stance. 

Coach Mark Lawrence Bautista teaching STC College Students the technical stand-up

The first time I executed a technical stand-up properly, I figured out that it isn’t just about picking yourself back up, but how you do it. It was a very empowering realization, one that was life-changing because who knew that a slight change in how you position your body can make such a profound difference?

In a sentimental twist of fate, I happened to be on that gym mat because I was inspired by a friend who was a fighter. She had battled and won against cancer, she was an outspoken advocate for women’s rights, and she fought bravely against her own assailant until her dying breath.

It had been September, too. 

Sometimes, I can still hear her voice in my head. I even do right now as I’m writing this. Hey, Maxi, I hope you’re doing great. We miss you. I miss you.

Her story has always struck me. A girl who fought back because she was brave, without thinking twice about it. I admired that about her—it seemed like it came so naturally, all the way until the very end. With her mom’s permission and support, I thought it would be a fitting tribute to hold a self-defense workshop in her honor. 

Little did I know that in the midst of putting it together, I would find the feeling of empowerment and the path to finally healing, both of which have evaded me for so long.

Learning self-defense was exhilarating. Just like the technical stand-up, it was amazing to know what knowing even the most basic moves meant for a person’s safety. It became a driving force and further fuel to the fire—that more people need to learn how to protect themselves, especially in the dangerous world that we live in. It was one way to take the reins and be in control instead of getting lost in the dangers of helplessness.

We called it The Fair Advantage—a play on the phrase unfair advantage and making it empowering. It wasn’t just against the fair sex (although the unfortunate reality is that women are often victims), but anyone who is at a disadvantage, regardless of gender and status in life.

During the workshops, people would come up to me and tell their stories: A girl who was almost date-raped by the guy she was seeing, a young professional preyed upon by a co-worker, a mother worried about her child who was bullied in school… and it moved me how they could easily share these things to a stranger while I buried my own experience in a grave of shame and guilt. 

Even though I went through my own harrowing tale of harassment and being taken advantage of, the concept of these things happening in the world remained abstract to me, as if I was somehow disconnected from it. But it started to hit differently knowing that it’s really happened to people I know, to hear it from them directly.

It was equal parts heartbreaking yet inspiring—the way they were talking about their experiences, they sounded resigned. But I saw their eyes light up as they learned some basic moves, glowing with newfound knowledge I knew they were going to take to heart. No, they would never be able to do over what they went through nor erase the accompanying trauma, but at least now they know what to do to prevent similar incidents from happening again. 

Gradually, it began to dawn on me the sheer importance of what we were actually doing. Beyond a wonderful tribute to a fallen friend, it was about being equipped with the right set of skills to take control over a situation that has us at a disadvantage, to be able to turn the tides around and be able to defend ourselves. My business partner and co-organizer said it best, “There’s a major difference between not knowing, and knowing even just a little.”

While everyone at the workshop was exploring the power they can actually wield, I was also going through a poignant moment of self-reflection, of discovering a different perspective.

I mulled over this while munching on a pizza at a friend’s nearby house after the very first workshop, still reeling from the stories I’ve heard. I didn’t say anything to my companions then, but through the high of the workshop’s success and the exhaustion that came after, my own incident was scratching the surface from being repressed for so long, going beyond my usual anniversary reaction—it had been September. 

This time around, I wanted to face it with a new mindset.

And I learned: That guy didn’t take advantage of me. He failed, because I fought back.

I’m reclaiming the narrative and it’s a lot more empowering now, same as it is to have all these thoughts sorted out. I’ll be the first to say it’s still a work in progress—there’s too many years of self-destructive behavior and thinking to work through—but it’s a significant step in the right direction. 

Inevitably—though not to seek them out—there will always be other situations and instances that will put me at a disadvantage. But just like all the people who have learned basic self-defense through The Fair Advantage, I now know that I can handle it.

After all, it’s not just picking yourself back up. It’s how you do it.

Tomorrow marks a year since The Fair Advantage was first launched, which coincides with Maxi’s death anniversary. We had gathered some of her friends and family for the pioneer workshop, facilitated by 90/Eight BJJ, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu studio run by an amazing and passionate group of people, themselves also strong proponents for self-defense.

Our endeavors are humble at best—we struggle with accommodating large groups of people because our instructors want to make sure each participant learns safely and effectively. As much as I want to change the entire world (or Cebu, for a start), our non-profit pocket workshops for college students of St. Theresa’s College and hoteliers from Quest Hotel & Conference Center Cebu, as well as Maxi’s friends and family, were already significant achievements. 

Earlier this year, before COVID-19 happened, we were privileged to partner with Marco Polo Plaza Cebu for the International Women’s Day. Through their support, we were able to open the workshops to the public for the first time. It was amazing to see people from all walks of life come in, each with their own stories and reasons for wanting to learn self-defense. 

We also had incredible support coming from all directions, most notably from Kuros, an American brand that believes every woman has the right to defend themselves. Through their partnership with local influencer Clare Inso, we were able to provide the participants of The Fair Advantage with pepper spray.

Of course, The Fair Advantage wouldn’t have existed if not for Sun Cellular, whose support of me as one of their brand ambassadors in Cebu also led to support and encouragement to pursue something that meant a lot personally.

The pandemic has set back several of our workshops and events this year, and while it’s a bit saddening to see the opportunities pass us by in favor of flattening the curve, this isn’t something I won’t be giving up on.

Once it’s safe to head out, we’ll change the world by giving its citizens the fair advantage they deserve.

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