Medusa is a priestess
Medusa is a monster
Medusa is a weapon
Roman poet Ovid’s version of the Medusa myth tells the tale of a pretty, popular, teenage girl. All the boys love her and all the girls want to be her. She’s even a priestess in Athena’s temple – a very respectable and coveted position for a young lady. Medusa is living the dream. In fact, Medusa is so perfect that she catches the eye of Poseidon, the infamous god of the sea. He approaches her and tells her that she is so beautiful that he simply must have her. Feeling very uncomfortable, Medusa refuses, reminding Poseidon that she is a priestess and is forbidden to engage in intercourse. He pleads with her once more but Medusa says no.
Later that evening, when Medusa is all alone in the temple, Poseidon shows up once again. This time he doesn’t ask for what he wants. He rapes Medusa on sacred ground. When Athena finds out she is wild with rage. Not at Poseidon – at Medusa. For not only had Medusa broken her vow of chastity, but she had sex inside the temple. Never mind that it wasn’t consensual. Not one for being a merciful goddess, Athena punishes Medusa by turning her so ugly that anyone who looks at her will turn to stone. Her hair is now made of snakes; her face is grossly contorted. Medusa is no longer human, she is a monster.
Medusa ends up living in a cave as a gorgon (the only mortal of the three). She is angry – at Athena, at men, at the world. She earns a reputation as a fearsome and horrific monster by luring men into her cave and turning them to stone- their looks of terror permanently carved on their faces. Their bodies now a monument to what Medusa is capable of. After many years the well-loved Greek hero Perseus shows up on a mission to slay Medusa. Supplied with various tools given to him by the Gods, he sets out to kill her. Using a mirror that sees around corners, given to him by Athena herself, he gets behind Medusa and chops off her head. With the mirror held in front of her, the last thing Medusa sees before she dies is her own reflection.
There is much rejoicing – the monster is slain. But even decapitated, Medusa’s head still holds great powers. Perseus puts it on a stick and uses it as a weapon in battle. When he becomes too old to fight, he gives Medusa’s head to Athena who uses it in her breastplate as protection. Athena is forever aided by the powers of the child she destroyed. Medusa remains a victim.
I am a priestess
I am a monster
I am a weapon
I was 12 years old when I was first diagnosed with a mental illness – depression. It was heavy weight to bear at such a young age but there was a light at the end of the tunnel – high school. That was my ticket to happiness. At least, that’s what the movies had told me. Maybe I would be the popular girl in school. Maybe I would be the weird arty kid and a cute boy, one who liked Bukowski and Kerouac, would fall in love with me. I was going to have sleepovers with friends. We were going to talk about boys and pep rallies and college choices. All I had to do was wait two more years and I would be living the Taylor Swift circa 2008 dream. The years were awful, and passed slowly but at least I had high school. Finally, I graduated eighth grade. Acting was my passion, and I had auditioned and gotten into a performing arts high school. My time had arrived.
The school play that year was Romeo and Juliet. I worked harder than I ever worked for that audition. I was cast as Juliet’s understudy and got one show to play Juliet. As a freshman! I was ecstatic. My high school dream was coming true. I was finally going to be ok.
I was 14 when I was sexually assaulted. Just weeks into rehearsal. I withdrew into myself. Those weeks are a blur to me now. I’ve blocked out most of it – PTSD. I only really know what other people have told me. It’s strange hearing stories about yourself that you don’t remember. It’s as if you aren’t real, just a character in a play. Or a myth. I know that I isolated myself from everyone I knew. I know that my family was worried about me. I know that the seniors didn’t like me. But there is one memory I still have. I re-live it sometimes. The night I played Juliet they made me wear a horrible wig. “Juliet can’t have short hair”. It was huge and curly and made me look ridiculous. I vividly remember crying before going onstage. I hid behind a set piece so no one saw me. Places were called. The show started. I stepped backstage, waited for my cue, and avoided eye contact with everyone around me. I felt like a monster.
Soon after I started having hallucinations – both auditory and visual. It would be years before I told anyone about them. I didn’t want to be sick. I wanted to be a normal, cool, teenage girl. I spent the next few years wanting to be angry – something I was never good at. I wanted to be the “cool” standoffish girl who didn’t care about anything. I wanted to say mean things and have people still like me. Leather jacket, band shirt, black eyeliner, Rizzo from Grease- your run of the mill badass. This was a lovely dream except for one tiny problem – I am not a badass. I will never be a badass. I don’t know how to be mean in a “cool” way. Just in a mean way. So instead of being angry at the world, I became angry with myself. I hid myself in my room. I started cutting. Sometimes I would bang my head against the bathroom wall until a big red bump appeared, just because I felt I deserved it. I would be mean in a “funny” way to my male friends in ways that weren’t funny at all. I wanted boys to love me and hate me at the same time. This only isolated me further. I would lash out for attention in class and with friends, and then recoil and feel guilty when I received it. I would fake dramatic phone calls in front of people. I would slyly show people the cuts on my wrists and then pretend like I didn’t want them to see. I would write Facebook statuses alluding to suicide and then tell people I didn’t want to talk about it (Hey, it was 2010). Some of my friends starting avoiding me. I was “too dramatic”. My closest friends became very worried about me. They were worried I was going to do something stupid. This made me happy and guilty at the same time. I had a deep need for people to care and also a deep need to push them away. I remember one of my friends texting me “I just don’t want you to fucking kill yourself”, I replied “I can’t, I have rehearsal”.
Soon, I was diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder and slowly things began to get better. I began to forget. Those years, those feelings, melted away. My psychotic symptoms quieted. I became nicer to the boys I knew. I got into a good college. It was going to be great – finally I would be able to experience the rites of passage I had seen in the movies. I had it all planned out. But illness doesn’t care about plans. Illness only cares about itself. My psychotic symptoms returned. I had constant nightmares about being raped. Comments about my body scared me. Attention from men sent me into paranoid episodes. I didn’t know why – I didn’t remember what had happened to me the year I played Juliet. It felt like my body was being controlled by someone else. Like it was being used as a weapon against me. Two years and three weeks into college I had a psychotic break and had to leave school. My body had been fighting against me for eight years, I decided it was finally time to fight back.
I started attending psychoanalysis four times a week. I worked hard. I remembered my sexual assault. I went through hell. Pieces of my life started to make sense. They ached and throbbed – but they fit together. Around this time, I read Ovid’s version of the Medusa myth and freaked out. I never related to a story so much before. I felt her inside me. I became obsessed – I wanted everyone to know her story. Eventually, I got myself together enough to move to Chicago. Once there, my new psychiatrist had questions about my bipolar diagnosis and sent me for specialized neuropsychiatric testing. After nine years of various therapies and treatments, I was given two new (and hopefully correct) diagnoses – Major Depression with Psychotic Features and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
My meds were changed and I started to feel better – like myself for the first time in years. I became more comfortable with myself as a woman – and this showed in how I began to dress. Horrifyingly, but not surprisingly, I began to get unwanted attention from strange men. A cab driver told me he would show up at my house, told me I would be his girlfriend, told me I was “too pretty to not have cash on me” (I’m still trying to figure that last one out). Another man came up to me and started the conversation with “You look young” before asking me for money. I felt my femininity being weaponized against me. I started to cover up again. I knew Medusa – I didn’t want my head on a stick. I needed to learn to how to wield my “weapon” for my benefit – not for the benefit of others.
A few months into living in Chicago I became obsessed with the idea of getting a tattoo of Medusa with her head reattached. “Reattaching Medusa’s head” became synonymous with getting my life back together. I told all of my friends about it. When asked questions that got too personal I would often answer by telling the story of Medusa. People understood. She served as a translator for many conversations. I was beyond excited for my tattoo. It was going to be my tribute to Medusa. I was going to give her the justice she never received. I researched local tattoo artists, picked the one best for the job, and made the appointment. The day finally came. But when the artist showed me her drawing something was wrong – the stitches that I had asked for weren’t there. Her head wasn’t attached. The artist explained to me that with the placement I had chosen, Medusa’s shoulders wouldn’t fit. The stitches just wouldn’t look right. But, if I really wanted the stitches, she could figure something out.
Sitting there, a lightbulb went off in my head. A seismic shift happened in my brain.
I told her, “Sever it”.
I finally realized – it is too late for Medusa. She has been dead for thousands of years. She is a mythical character. But it is not too late for me. No one has cut off my head yet. I will not be weaponized for someone else’s gain. I have my tattoo. I love it. But now it serves as a reminder rather than a memorial. It reminds me of what the world does to victims and of how hard I have to fight. Poseidon isn’t winning this time. I am. My hair is made of snakes but I am still making eye contact. No one has turned to stone so far. I am not as ugly as I once thought. I am learning how to talk to men. To make contact without fear. To stand up for myself. How to keep my head fully on my shoulders.
I am not Medusa. I know this. But I feel her with me. She serves as a warning, a reminder, an inspiration. Stories and myths are there to comfort and teach us. To learn things about ourselves. To speak for us when words fail. Medusa carried me for months. She spoke for me when I couldn’t. But now it’s my turn to speak for her, to tell her story. Her truth. If there is one thing to learn from her, I believe it is simply to do what she was unable to. Destroy the Poseidons. Educate the Athenas. Question the Perseuses. Believe the Medusas. I try to do this every day. And little by little, I am making progress. By speaking out, and believing and telling my truth I am doing Medusa’s work. My work. By living, not just existing, I am proving the Poseidons, Athenas, and Perseuses wrong. I am doing just fine outside of a cave. Other people enjoy my company. I enjoy theirs. My trauma does not define me.
I am not a monster.
I never was.