I OVERCAME THE DESPERATION I FELT AFTER STEPPING DOWN FROM CONGRESS, AND I'M STILL IN THE FIGHT.
On Nov. 6, 2018, I was elected to Congress; at 31, I was one of the youngest women ever elected to the House of Representatives. One year later, I was sitting on a train to New York to meet with my lawyers about suing The Daily Mail for cyber exploitation - and I was no longer a member of Congress.
A few days earlier, on Oct. 31, 2019, I stepped up to the microphone to deliver my final speech on the house floor. It was the first time I had spoken publicly since my relationship with a campaign staffer was exposed, since naked photos of me - taken without my knowledge and distributed without my consent - had been posted online, since wild accusations from my estranged husband about a supposed affair with a congressional staffer (which I have repeatedly denied), since I had resigned my hard-fought seat in Congress. I had barely gotten used to giving such speeches. Over the past year I had awkwardly learned, with many fumbles, how to perform the ritual that so many had done before me: formally ask the speaker of the House for recognition, walk to the lectern and smoothly position it to the correct height, adjust the microphone so it isn't blocking your face and look at the clock so the C-Span cameras can see you. Talk slowly and fluidly. Breathe; the pauses you take feel much longer than they are.
That day, oddly, I didn't get nervous the way I normally did. I got every part of the routine right. I felt calm and strong as I began to speak, because I had to be. I needed to say something to the countless people who had put their faith in me. I needed to say something to the girls and young women who looked up to me, and also to those who didn't even know my name. I needed to make sure that my horrific experience did not frighten and discourage other women who will dare to take risks, dare to step into this light, dare to be powerful.
Many people have nightmares in which they're naked in public, trapped and trying to escape. In the days leading up to my resignation, my life was just like everyone's worst nightmare. Millions of people had seen pictures of me naked. Hundreds of journalists, commentators, politicians and public figures had written or spoken about my "downfall," the "choices" I made, the lessons young people should take from what happened to me, the impact it would have on politics moving forward, the responsibility I bore for all of it.
I read those articles with the acute sense that writers and readers alike must think I am already dead. I'm not, though sometimes I've wished to be. More than half of the victims of cyber exploitation (also known as revenge porn) contemplate suicide in the aftermath. Many have attempted, and some tragically have succeeded.
After the images came out, as I lay curled up in my bed with my mind in the darkest places it's ever been, countless texts and voice mails came from donors, friends, volunteers and voters sending love. But they couldn't drown out the horrible messages and calls from people who found my phone number on the internet.
Though staff members at my (now former) offices got tremendous support, they were also inundated with lewd and threatening messages. When a letter filled with suspicious powder arrived at one of my offices, staffers had to be evacuated. My hometown was filled with people who were worried about me, cared about me and wanted to see me, and yet my mom was followed by people in dark trucks with cameras, my sister's business was trolled and my dad drove around our hometown pulling down huge posters of his baby girl in a Nazi uniform with the text "#WifenSwappenSS."
Sitting on that train to New York a few days after my resignation had taken effect, reflecting on what my life had become, I realized that it was almost one year to the minute from when I received a voice mail from my predecessor, Steve Knight, to concede - when I found out I was going to be a congresswoman.
I was in the campaign headquarters the morning he called. The team had been working around the clock for months or longer - some people had been with the campaign for over a year - as we clawed our way to victory in a race that no one thought we could win. When I announced my candidacy, I was 29 years old, working at a homeless services nonprofit organization and had been driven to run for office because of the results of the 2016 presidential election. I was a complete unknown, a young bisexual woman with no political background or experience, no wealth, no Ivy League degree, trying to flip a district that had been held by Republicans for over two decades.
When I finished listening to the voice mail from my opponent, I turned around and told my team. Countless people across the country have witnessed that moment - Vice captured it as part of a documentary series called "She's Running." Most people on my team cried, but I didn't. I couldn't really tell you how I felt then. Shock isn't quite right - I had felt like we'd win for a long time - though it certainly felt surreal.
I was aware that my life was about to change substantially, but it had already changed so much that I felt like I was just shifting gears. I was excited. I felt ready for it. I knew I was a leader, that I represented my community, that I reflected the change that the country wanted and needed. I knew that I could be a voice for young people and women and people who had been left out for far too long. That I had to be.
Once I got to Washington, I was one of two people elected to represent the freshman class at the leadership table, and once I started sitting in meetings multiple times each week with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the other most powerful Democrats in the House, I knew I belonged there, too. I didn't feel awkward or unsure. I was completely confident. I felt like my district loved me (and the polling showed it) and I knew I was making a difference to so many people even just by showing them they could have a voice at the highest levels of power.
The job was hard - I made some missteps, there were plenty of things I could have done better, and I had so much to learn. But I was figuring it out fast. I was good at this. My future in Congress was limitless, and that mattered not only to me but to the people who believed in me.
My home life was another story. That day on the train to New York was also five months to the day from when I moved out of my house and told my husband, who I had been with since I was 16 years old, that I wanted a divorce. It wasn't the first time I had tried to leave; the last time was less than a month before the election, and when I tried, he made it clear to me that if I left, he would ruin me. I knew he could, so I went back to him and finished the campaign. But, after five months on the job and with the toxicity of our relationship growing worse, I knew I had to finally leave once and for all.
In June, my dad came with me to my house. I got my things, moved in with my mom, and didn't look back. The fear that my husband would ruin me hung over me every day. I knew the risk when I left, but I thought I didn't have a choice, and despite the threat, I felt better than I had in years.
The day that my communications director ran into my office and showed me the nudes and private text messages that had been published on a right-wing website called Red State, everything came crashing down. I believe my husband is the source of the images. (He has reportedly denied this; his father said in an interview that his son believed he had been hacked. My husband and his lawyer did not respond to requests from the Times for comment.) At first, I was in denial. I couldn't accept that the future I had imagined as a leader in Congress - the job I loved and knew I was making a difference by being in - was over.
I was thinking about all of this as I went to see my lawyers. Suddenly, the train stopped. We sat there for a long time, wondering what had happened. Then someone announced that a person had jumped in front of the train, and died. My thoughts shifted to the person on the tracks while we waited for the police to investigate and for the coroner to arrive. I knew the despair that can lead someone to that place all too well. I had been there just a week before.
People have speculated that Speaker Pelosi or the party leadership asked me to resign because of the photos and the allegations about me. That could not be further from the truth. In fact, one of the most difficult moments during my resignation process was my phone call to the Speaker, a woman I admire more than anyone and who I had come to love. She told me I didn't have to do this, that the country needed me and that she wished I hadn't made this decision, but she respected me and what I felt I needed to do. I told her what I told everyone else when I announced my resignation: that it was the right thing to do.
I knew it was the best decision for me, my family, my staff, my colleagues, my community. But that didn't make it any easier, and in the days that followed, I was overwhelmed by everything - by how many people had seen my naked body, by the comments, the articles, the millions of opinions, the texts, the calls. I would start shaking, crying, throwing up. It was hard to talk to my family because I knew they were going through so much, too. I didn't want to talk to my friends because I was humiliated and didn't want to hear more pity and didn't know what to say. Many of my staff members had been with me for years, and we were, for better or worse, very close; now I feared that they all hated me.
I didn't leave my apartment. I felt so alone and didn't know what to do.
It was two days after I announced my resignation. I don't even know how I spent the day. I was probably reading articles about myself that I shouldn't have been reading, ignoring more text messages and calls, falling in and out of restless sleep. But when it got dark I drew a bath, lit candles and brought over a bottle of wine.
I laid there and thought about what I'd lost. The people on my team and in my life who had been hurt and had done nothing wrong. Everyone I'd let down, everyone who worked for me, who campaigned for me, who believed in me. The future I thought was in store for me that was instantly and irrevocably gone. My own mistakes had led me there, but there were other things at play. And those pictures - no one should have ever seen them.
How could I ever face anyone again knowing what they'd seen? Knowing what they knew?
The bath water had gone cold. The wine bottle was empty. Suddenly and with total clarity, I just wanted it all to be over. I got up and looked for the box cutter. I couldn't find it. A part of my brain was saying: "Stop it, this is stupid. You're not going to do it. Go drain the bathtub and get yourself together." But I felt like I was out of my body, like it was moving without me, and I got the paring knife and got back into the cold bath.
I stared at the veins in my wrists. They were so thin. They were green in the candlelight. I started tracing them with the edge of the knife, lightly at first, then pushing harder and harder. The knife was duller than I thought. It surprised me how hard I had to push simply to scratch the surface. Fine red lines started to appear, and I knew that if I pushed just a tiny bit harder I would start to bleed. I thought about the people I had already let down so much. What would this do to my parents? To my brother and sister?
And then I thought about my supporters. I thought about the high school students who had told me how I inspired them. I thought about the Girl Scouts whose troops I'd visited who told me they wanted to grow up to be like me, and how their parents would explain this to them, and what it would do to them. And I realized I couldn't do it. I ran the campaign knowing it was bigger than me and what I wanted, and it still is. I don't get to quit. I have to keep going forward, and be part of the fight to create the change that those young girls are counting on.
The next day, I wrote my final speech. My roommate, Lauren Underwood, the youngest black woman ever elected to Congress and my best friend in Washington, gave me a goodbye party with my freshman colleagues. I spent the evening with history-makers, change-makers, majority-makers, role models and heroes to millions. Some great men, but mostly women. Women who will be remembered forever. But that night, they were just my friends.
At the end of the evening, I sat uncomfortably on a bar stool and cried as my friends went around the room and said the nicest things - things I needed to hear. Each and every one of them told me that I wasn't done. Alex - "A.O.C.," as people like to call her - said I was a warrior and always would be.
So the next day I put on my battle uniform: a red dress suit that my mom had bought me. I put on my war paint: bright red lipstick. I stepped up to that lectern and told the world that although my time in Congress was over, I wasn't done - I was just moving to another battlefield. I closed my speech, saying: "We will not stand down. We will not be broken. We will not be silenced. We will rise, and we will make tomorrow better than today. … I yield the balance of my time for now, but not forever." I meant that not just for myself, but for all of us.
I don't know exactly what's ahead for me, and I know there's a lot more pain ahead. But I'm in the fight, and I'm glad it's not all over after all.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
© 2019 The New York Times Company