(or: how soccer saved my soul)
I’ve always had a thing for families of choice, for rag-tag groups of misfits bound together first by circumstance and then by shared love and understanding. Be it in fiction or in real life, these self-made families have always resonated deeply with me, and ever since I struck out on my own, I’ve found myself drawn into them. From the outcast band of Japanese-speaking nerds in the north woods of Minnesota to the loud, scrappy supporters group in the suburbs of Chicago, my families of choice have always been there to support me and guide me and help me grow.
Except for one. I was 19, and I’d just moved to Chicago from Madison, from a homey little city of organic co-ops and college students to a big, brilliant, terrifying metropolis. I got a job working at a music venue on the south side, and fell in with the group of people I thought would be my next family-of-choice. They were dirty, drunk, and crude, but over the first six months I worked there, I came to love them for all their faults, because it seemed like they loved me for mine. I trusted them, and I was happy to go into work every day. You can probably tell from the ominous tone of this paragraph that that state of affairs changed.
There’s no easy way to put this. In February of 2009, just 9 days after my 20th birthday, I was raped.
I guess the term is date-raped, really, but that seems like it’s somehow less bad, somehow more forgivable. But it is easier to say, so I say it.
It’s closer to the truth of the situation, anyway. It was someone I knew, someone I had been sleeping with consensually, and someone I trusted, not only as a co-worker but as a friend.
He kept feeding me shots, sneaking me drinks. It wasn’t unusual for him to do this, but that night he didn’t stop. One shot turned into six or seven, one jack-and-coke turned into nine or ten. By the end of the night, when the show was over, when all but the last four of us had cleared out, I could barely stand up, could barely form words. He took me down to the green room, with it’s plush couches, and I must have blacked out for a while, because the next thing I knew, he was on top of me. I tried to push him off, I remember telling him to stop. He didn’t. And then he let his friends take turns.
I tried to rationalize it, tried to convince myself that I had wanted it, consented to it. The version of the story I told my roommate at the time was heavily edited, made out to seem like I had been a willing participant in the act, if not the location. The wonders of modern technology - namely, my twitter archive - provide a clear picture of how deep a lie that was. “Well, today was a cry-in-the-shower sort of morning,” I tweeted.
Two days later: “don’t want to go in to work. don’t want to deal with this.”
A few hours after that, “I dress defensively, a psychological suit of armor.”
I kept working there for a few months after that. I spent my days at work glued to my desk, headphones on, getting my work done and getting the fuck out as quickly as possible. I didn’t talk about it to anyone, not even my boss, who was a mentor and older brother to me, and he never asked, despite it being clear that something was wrong.
In April, I was fired suddenly, by one of the men who had raped me. I was destroyed by it, in shock. All the emotions I had been repressing came tumbling out of me. First he deprives me of my dignity, and now he’s taking my livelihood? The job where I had worked hard and never done anything wrong, except apparently for being young and female and too drunk to fight back. I screamed at him, and cried, but in the end I left. I knew it wasn’t a fight I would win, and some part of me knew it wasn’t a job worth fighting for. I left, and I retreated into myself.
I spent the next few months sleeping intermittently, alternately drugging myself awake with prescription amphetamines or drinking myself to sleep. It wasn’t pretty.
I went home for the summer, regained the ability to sleep like a human being and talk to other people, and came back in the fall to start college. I didn’t stop drinking, and I didn’t seek out families of choice anymore. I got a studio, and kept to myself. I had friends, mostly people I had known before, outside of work, and made new friends at school. I kept a barrier up though, letting them close enough to make me feel like part of something, but not so close that they could hurt me. It was staggeringly lonely.
A lot happened in the next few years. I made new friends, lost some old ones, cultivated new interests. I had my first long-term relationship since high school, which ended up burning itself out rather dramatically, but it was the closest I’d gotten to emotional vulnerability in a while. Lost a baby I didn’t know I was having until it was gone. I moved apartments once or twice, and I adopted a cat. I had good semesters and bad semesters, a handful of short-term jobs, and a growing collection of empty alcohol bottles and black-out nights. I kept my secrets locked up tight. I surrounded myself with people and experiences, but through it all, I kept myself at a distance, numbed with booze and reckless abandon.
And then I found the Chicago Fire, and I found Section 8.
A couple friends I had known for years brought me initially, a late season game in 2011, and at first I was hesitant. It seemed a little overwhelming, and I wasn’t sure how well I would fit in. But before the first half was even over, I could feel something stirring inside me that I hadn’t felt in three years - I felt like I was home.
The feeling grew the more time I spent in the section, with every game I went to and friend I made. I got more involved, slowly but surely, and I put myself out there. Still on the defensive, yes, but opening up. And for every part of myself that I put out, I received nothing but acceptance and enthusiastic love in return. This crazy, loud, wild, fiercely passionate mob of brilliant, diverse, and proud people swept me up and welcomed me in and gave me a strength I hadn’t realized I had lost. I stopped drinking for a while, got my shit in order, and remembered how to be happy. After every 90 minutes spent screaming and singing and cheering, shoulder-to-shoulder in the sweaty riot of the Harlem End, I emerged sharper, stronger, and more determined. I was part of something bigger than myself, needed in a way I hadn’t been, and it gave my life a new clarity and purpose.
I’m not saying the Section is perfect. As I became more involved, I came to know more of the inter-group squabbling, the petty politics of popularity and the more serious politics of our mission. I encountered lingering sexism and racism and homophobia, but I was pleased to see those thoroughly denounced and stamped out.
My early outspokenness and strong opinions may have made me a few enemies, but I’ve found far more friends. In loving the team, and the sport, I’ve found something I had thought I’d lost - the ability to feel again. To trust, and to expose myself to hurt, and to be there for other people, to care about their hurts. I’ve found a family again - a big, fucked up, beautiful family that I chose to love, to be a part of. I’ve got brothers (the best brothers a little fuck-up like me could ask for) and sisters and cousins and uncles. I haven’t met them all yet, but they’re part of my family all the same - even the ones I don’t like very much - because that’s how Section 8 works. That’s how it should work, anyway, and more often than not it does.
More important even than the thawing out of my frozen heart, Section 8 has, unknowingly perhaps, helped me deal with my triggers, the lingering trauma of my rape. For a long time, I didn’t like to be touched, especially not by men. A casual hand on my shoulder was enough to make me tense up, fight-or-flight response on a hair trigger. I didn’t like to touch others, either, lest they think that gave them some sort of permission to my personal space. But the Section, with it’s environment of casual touches and bear-hugs, of jumping and jostling and goal celebrations, has calmed that fear in me. I can hug a man I’ve never met before and not be afraid, because The Fire just scored a goal, because I trust him not to hurt me, and if he tries, I trust that my Section family will have my back.
It comes and goes, of course. Some days are better than others, and some things haven’t changed - the smell of cheap whiskey and menthol cigarettes, for example, still makes my heart race and my hands shake - but trusting the support of the friends and family I’ve found within the Section has let me confront that fear - that weakness - head on and start to move past it. And that means more than any words could ever express.
Someone told me once that Section 8 is the family you find when you’ve lost everything else. When you’re at your lowest, when you’ve been broken into a thousand jagged pieces, it’s Section 8 that picks you back up, puts you back together.
That stuck with me. I didn’t realize how broken I was, how low, until Section 8 lifted me up and made me whole again. And I know I’m not the only one who has found this to be true.
This is why, no matter what, I am always - and will always - be so loudly and emotionally involved in Section 8. Why I will spend my nights at the bar waxing poetic about how much the Section means, how it needs to be greater than petty squabbling and politics, because it’s more than that. It needs to be inclusive, welcoming, and safe for everyone, no matter where they come from, or who they are, or how long they’ve been a fan. And by and large, it is. But it can be so much more, we can be so much more.
It’s not just a grand ideal. For me, it’s personal. I found a home in Section 8. I found confidence and love and a sense of safety I sorely missed. I had been living half a life, going through the motions with a giant gaping hole inside of me. Section 8 filled that emptiness. I’m not exaggerating when I say that for all intents and purposes, Section 8 brought me back to life. Or at the very least, gave me a reason to give a shit again.
And everyone deserves to have that.