By Leta Stagno (Guest Contributor)
“The bravest thing I ever did was continuing my life when I wanted to die.”
– Juliette Lewis
I wish I could say being born Armenian meant there was something inherently different about me biologically; that my ancestry caused redeeming and admirable characteristics like bravery and strength and altruism to be woven into my genetic code. I wish I could say that just the sheer fact that my ancestors were Armenian conditioned me to be the dynamic mesh of character traits that I am. But it didn’t. Had I experienced a severe cultural disconnect as a child, had I been raised with different moral ideals, had I grown up ignorant of my mother’s culture, a lot of my admirable (and not so admirable) qualities that I had so unwittingly attributed to my heritage would no longer define me, or exist within me at all. Brutal honesty, impossible stubbornness, loquacious tendencies- all personality traits I had attributed to my mother’s Armenian nature, all of which I had, without thought, assumed I had been born with. And yet, now, I’m acutely aware that had I been raised apart from my mother, had she not been such an integral and vital part of my upbringing, I may have turned out to be a very different person.
I think the only inherent trait I can directly attribute to my Armenian genetics is the unwavering determination to survive. While this is a basic biological trait, all species on earth are programmed with some genetic marker for self-preservation, something caused a genomic augmentation within Armenian DNA. Somehow the chromosomal allele mutated and adapted, making the will to survive an indestructible and distinctive factor woven within my interlocking ladders of nucleotides. Because of this genetic mutation, Armenians are an intrinsically hardy people. We are hard to kill, especially in spirit- a people that refuse to die. Where others would be motivated by hope, we are motivated by pride and the singular driving force of bitterness or spite is enough to fuel us to a near impossible end. We survive, we push through, we continue on through insurmountable odds and immeasurable strife. We are brave even in the face of death, vengeful to a fault, determined and unyielding.
And these are the qualities that kept me alive.
The problem with society today is that we always believe that bad things will never happen to us. Television and film have desensitized us, numbed us to the real horrors of the world. Things that should cause us to live in constant states of paranoia do the exact opposite; we sleep easier at night believing we are immune to the catastrophe around us.
So I grew up believing I was safe.
I spent my whole life hearing that I was strong; that I was strong-minded and strong-willed and that I was more than capable of taking care of myself. So I grew up both pitying abuse victims and sympathizing for them, but I was incapable of empathizing for them. I sighed deeply and judgmentally with the rest of the world when Rihanna confessed to still loving Chris Brown after he had beaten her. I saw her inability to disconnect from and resent her abuser as a sign of weakness, I saw her as frail and pathetic- what kind of woman is incapable of leaving the man who hit her? Even as a teenager I was bold and forthcoming- I was upfront and honest about what I wanted. I never backed down without a fight, I was never afraid to make enemies. So I never thought it would happen to me.
You hear it over and over again, the story about the frog in the boiling pot. It states that if you put a frog in boiling water it will instantly jump out, cognizant of the danger and pain it faces imminently; however, if you put a frog in a pot of tepid water and then slowly increase the temperature until it is boiling, the frog will remain there until it dies, indifferent to its own demise. The moral of this story is the same justification given to victims of abuse for why they stay with their abuser. So when I was 19 and sat in my own pot of tepid water, by the time my flesh was charring from the scalding waves of my reality, it was too late.
All I can remember is that he was striking. My god, he was beautiful. And I was just a teenager, still shedding the skins of my over-extended awkward phase. I was both deeply unaware and uncomfortable with my new found sex appeal, like a child trapped within an adult body. He was grossly flattering, to such an extent that would now set off red flags, but then it felt like a real-life manifestation of my favorite romance novel. I think my naivety was part of my allure; the idea that he could be the first to break me was enticing to him.
It started off perfect, my tepid water bliss. I was smart, I was beautiful, I was wonderful. He built me up into some ethereal goddess. He was excessively dedicated and exceedingly attentive. I fell asleep to goodnight texts and woke up to good morning messages. I was his princess, his baby, his perfect girl. Until I wasn’t. I wish I could say I don’t remember the exact details of how it first happened. I wish I could say it was all one giant, horrible blur. But if there’s anything in my past I can recall with near crystal clear accuracy, it was the first time. I also wish I could say it was the last.
I already mentioned I have always been argumentative. I hate hearing I’m wrong, I hate people thinking I’m wrong. But I know when to bite my tongue. So for weeks, I bit down-hard. But as I grew more comfortable and as I felt safer, I became more vocal. I voiced my opinion, I spoke my mind, and for a short while it was fine. It was refreshing to be able to say things and know someone wanted to listen.
But one day, I said the wrong thing. We were alone in a parking lot, talking about something unimportant when he asked me if I would go home with him. I turned my head and laughed, jokingly proclaiming, “Never in your wildest dreams.”
There are still days where I have to fight myself to remember that it wasn’t my fault, that I couldn’t have known that a lighthearted, flirtatious joke would end with a hand wrapped around my throat and me gasping for air. I could never have known that I would discover what it feels to know I’m going to die with hot tears streaming down my face while I choked up pleas for my life at 11:30 at night in a movie theater parking lot.
It was over quickly. I was more stunned than injured as I collapsed onto the pavement and sucked in more air than necessary. He crouched down while I kneeled on all fours, like a wounded animal at his mercy, and he tucked my hair behind my ear while he whispered, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to.”
“I’m sorry” was always his phrase of choice. Sometimes he would say, “I can’t help it”, others, “I wasn’t always like this”. At a certain point I think he just started to run out of things to say and would just resign himself to wiping the tears off my face. I spent more of my relationship wearing scarves and layering foundation, covering up hand marks where other girls would have covered up hickeys, than I spent happy.
But I couldn’t leave. It wasn’t because I loved him or because I was afraid he would hurt me if I left, it was because he did to me what most abusers do to their victims, he made me feel worthless to everyone but him. When the physical abuse started, so did the verbal abuse. I was fat and no one else would ever want to be with someone like me. I was grossly unattractive. I was a dumb slut who was a waste of everyone’s time. But he professed that he had somehow found it in his heart to see past all those things and still want to be with me. So I stopped waking up to good morning text messages and instead woke up to pictures of me where he would critique every flaw and say he was the only person who could learn to live with them. He valiantly confessed I should pity him for not only putting up with me but for the fact that he had been so damaged by his previous relationship that it was obvious justification for destroying me. I lived every day in abject misery, incapable of escaping because I wholeheartedly believed that what he told me was true.
I don’t remember when it was that I realized my relationship was going to kill me. Whether it be the eating disorder, the violent physical abuse, or such severe mental atrophy that I would eventually choose to give up entirely, I knew that I was going to die. It’s a sobering thought, to feel yourself on the precipice between life and death, aware that you are the only one capable of saving yourself.
Albert Camus wrote multiple philosophical books on the idea that the hardest decision we make as humans is choosing between living and killing ourselves. For years we have scoffed at this idea, a generation that sees mental illness as more a personal weakness than a debilitating disease. For almost my whole life I too fell victim to the negative stigma, I saw suicide victims as both gravely sad and terribly tragic, but also selfishly frail. So when I too was caught in Camus’s philosophical net, torn between continuing my life and dying, I finally understood what I had been so ignorant of before.
The thing about wanting to die is that it makes you explicitly aware of exactly everything you’re living for. And that made me exceptionally angry. I was so young and so brimming with potential; my future was blindingly bright and all I could think about was how badly I never wanted to see it. So where before I had been possessed with a crippling sense of worthlessness, I was now filled with seething bitterness.
I didn’t decide to end the relationship that was slowly killing me because I woke up one day with a new found self-worth. I didn’t choose to continue my life because I saw through the haze of lies and manipulation meant to trap me. I didn’t realize I could do better. Instead, I woke up one day pissed the fuck off.
I don’t know if the fact that I’m only half Armenian is to blame for the fact that my genetic coding to “proceed through all costs” kicked in a little later than expected, but it did. Where other abuse victims can say they chose to leave through new found self-love or through support from friends and family, I chose to do so because my ancestors didn’t break their backs for centuries so their most privileged descendant could be ruined at the hands of a ridiculously insignificant man. So it was also pride. I was bitter and vengeful and full of spite. And it was also shame, to be a living member of a generation that was never meant to exist, to have grown up among stories of such immense courage and bravery and resilience and yet somehow, through all of my gifts and privilege, still manage to possess enough inherent frailty to let the empty words and actions of an emptier man erase my family’s history. How my ancestors must have wept from their unmarked graves while I let him treat me with the same physical brutality that they had died to show me I could overcome.
And thus I overcame it. Like an alcoholic weans himself from the poison in his cup, I slowly went through remission, gradually and painfully removing myself from the source of my misery. I less and less let myself fall victim to both his words and his fists. I saw myself more as what I could be and less of what I was in that moment. I acknowledged my own mental and physical willpower and I left my abuser, battered and bruised and broken but stronger than ever.
Because this is not a sob story. This is not a tale of tragedy, of immense grief, of loss and suffering; it’s a story of survival. Because that’s all I did, I survived. And while it would be wrong of me to say that the only reason that I did was because my ancestry can be traced back to a small country in Eastern Europe, it would be just as incorrect to say that my heritage had nothing to do with my ability to remove myself from chains I had watched being formed. I am no hero but I am also no victim, I’m just a girl who used her courageous ancestry as a source of strength in a time of dire need. I’m just a girl who already had markers for persistence pre-programmed within her genome and who just needed a catalyst to drive them out of dormancy. I’m just a girl who was lucky enough to be born Armenian.
Leta Stagno is a graduate student currently pursuing a Masters in Biology. Originally from Florida, she now divides her time between her old home in Fort Lauderdale and her new one in Chicago. She enjoys baking and writes love notes with cooking utensils and oven mitts.