The Healy family settled onto the couch as the opening scene to their chosen movie started playing. MJ was snuggled up to Steve on the couch, Frankie sprawled on the floor with pillows, and Nick sat under a blanket on the arm chair.
This was their Friday routine now, even though it wasn’t one of MJ’s famous mandatory family activities. Every Friday since MJ had left rehab, they would order pizza- something the old MJ never would have done- and park themselves on the couch to watch a movie. What had started as a seemingly one-time thing quickly turned into the highlight of MJ’s week. Before her overdose, they rarely spent time together during the week, much less a Friday- Steve was always working late, Nick was off at study group or a party, and God only knows how Frankie was spending her free time.
As the movie played, MJ let her mind wander. So much had changed since her overdose. Steve had cut back on his hours at the firm so he could spend more time with her and the kids. Nick still spent most of his time studying, but instead of staying in his room, he would bring his books down to the kitchen table to keep MJ company while she cooked. Frankie was still as bold and outspoken as ever, but even she had started making an effort to stay home a few nights of the week, so they could all eat dinner together.
And MJ was different, too. Years and years of suppressing her emotions made it hard for her to open up to anyone, but she was slowly starting to trust herself enough to talk to Steve about some of the things she had been feeling. She still kept a lot of her emotions from the kids- they had been through enough, and in her mind, part of being a mom was making sure your kids aren’t worried about you- but both Nick and Frankie had recently seen MJ cry, something neither of them had ever seen before.
It had been hard. Really hard. And MJ knew that it would continue to be hard for a long while. Everyone says that the first year of recovery is the hardest, and MJ had discovered that she was no exception to the rule. She still had withdrawal symptoms- her hands shook and she was nauseous often- but she was working through them, day by day.
For MJ,t hough, the hardest part of recovery was confronting her past. Nearly a year of being on drugs had made it so she never had to think about what had happened to her, and now she was being forced to talk about it once a week at therapy. Even her and Steve’s couples counselor had spent a few sessions on it, most of which ended with MJ in tears while Steve sat and tried to process what he was hearing. He was so used to the MJ that never slowed down, who was never sad and who certainly didn’t have past sexual trauma, that seeing her cry still felt foreign to him. Still, he supported her every step of the way, rubbing her back while she cried and checking in on her often to make sure she wasn’t overexerting herself.
MJ turned her attention back to the movie, the plot of which she couldn’t quite follow. None of them had seen it before, it was just the first thing that had come up on Netflix. As far as she could tell, the movie was about a young woman trying to escape some warzone. MJ didn’t really know why they were watching it, although she assumed it was Frankie’s pick- while MJ and Nick loved an action movie, Frankie was always looking for something that was based on a true story. Always the activist, that one, MJ thought.
When she turned her attention back to the movie, though, MJ’s heart quickened and she took a sharp inhale.
It was a rape scene.
It was nothing graphic, nothing was shown in detail but…
It was happening.
And it had happened to MJ.
And now MJ was watching it.
For a split second, MJ saw herself in the movie, saw herself back in that bedroom with-
MJ closed her eyes and held her breath, willing the panic rising from her belly to subside. When that didn’t work, she opened her eyes, finding that the movie had been turned off and her entire family was staring at her with concern in their eyes.
For some reason, that only made MJ’s panic grow. She quickly got up from the couch and started toward the stairs, not wanting her family to see the panic attack she knew she was about to have.
She ran up the stairs, vaguely hearing Steve call after her. MJ got as far as the bathroom she shared with Steve before slamming the door behind her and falling to her knees. Shifting, she leaned her back against the shower door and tried to remember the breathing patterns her therapist had taught her.
In for six hold for four out for six. In for six hold for four out for six.
The phrase repeated in her head, but she couldn’t will her body to slow down. Her heart was beating so fast that if she tried to breathe deeply, she just coughed instead. She was crying now too, tears running down her face and leaving marks on her grey sweater.
MJ closed her eyes and tried to force herself to calm down, in for six hold for four out for six, but it wasn’t working and it was too much and her vision was blurry and her whole body was shaking and she couldn’t stop and and her vision was getting fuzzy and she was starting to black out and she was going to die there on the bathroom floor and-
And then Steve was there, kneeling in front of her, saying “MJ? Sweetheart, can you open your eyes and look at me?”
And MJ tried to open her eyes but her body was shaking so hard she couldn’t do it.
“Oh, Mary Jane, honey”, Steve whispered as he sat next to MJ on the floor.
Hearing him say that only made MJ cry harder. Before her overdose, Steve had only called her Mary Jane when they were first married.
“MJ, honey, can you try and take a deep breath for me?” Steve said gently, putting a hand on MJ’s bent knee.
His touch calmed MJ a little, and she managed to take a deep breath before returning to hyperventilating.
“Great, sweetie, can you take another one?” Steve probed again.
It went like this for a while- MJ taking a deep breath and then going back to shallow ones, while Steve encouraged her to keep calming down. What felt like an eternity later, MJ was finally breathing regularly, but her body was exhausted and she fell over into Steve, who helped her lay down with her head in his lap.
He tentatively ran a hand through MJ’s hair, trying to still her body, which was still shaking.
They sat like that for a few minutes, Steve rubbing MJ’s back while she cried into his lap. Eventually, MJ’s sobs turned into the occasional sniffle, and her body stopped shaking.
“Mary Jane, hon, do you want to go to bed?” Steve asked softly.
He felt MJ nod, but when she didn’t move, he shifted to scoop her up, bridal style, and carried her into their bedroom, setting her down on the bed gently. He quickly went into her dresser to find pajamas, and when he turned back to his wife, she was sitting up, staring at her lap. He handed her flannel pajama pants and she took them, but just held them like she had never seen them before.
Steve realized that while MJ’s body had started recovering from the panic attack, her brain was still foggy, and so he helped her change into pajamas, something he had never done in their 25 years of marriage.
He helped MJ crawl under the covers, tucking her in securly before moving to sit on his side of the bed. MJ was curled up in a ball facing away from him, but as he sat down, he placed a hand on her back, rubbing slow circles through the covers.
“I’m sorry” .
It was so quiet Steve almost missed it.
“I’m sorry”, MJ repeated, a little louder this time.
Steve got up and walked around the bed, kneeling on the floor so he was eye level with his wife. MJ avoided eye contact while Steve pushed her hair from her face.
“MJ, look at me” Steve said. “Please, honey”, he said, softer this time.
MJ finally looked at him, tears welling in her eyes.
“MJ, I need you to hear this, okay? You never have to apologize for what you’re feeling. Ever. You have… you have been through so much, sweetheart, and it’s okay to have a lot of feelings about it. You never, ever have to apologize to me for that. Or anyone, really. Do you understand?”
MJ paused, then nodded slowly.
Steve leaned to press a kiss to her forehead, then said, “I’m going to tell the kids they can finish the movie and clean up downstairs, and then I’ll be back, alright?”
MJ nodded again.
Steve padded down the stairs, and as he entered the living room, he found Nick pacing and Frankie biting her nails.
“What happened? Is mom okay?” Frankie pounced on Steve as soon as he was within earshot.
“She’s fine” Steve replied, “Just… she was upset. About the movie, I think. I think it was…” he trailed off.
“Oh my god, I can’t believe I picked that movie, I had no idea that-” Frankie started before her dad cut her off.
“Frankie, it’s not your fault. You didn’t know. It’s not your fault”.
Frankie nodded and Steve continued. “Why don’t you guys watch something else, and clean up down here. I think mom and I are just going to go to bed”.
With that, Steve made his way back upstairs to their bedroom, where MJ was still curled up on her side. Steve quickly changed into pajamas and joined his wife under the covers, grabbing his book from his bedside table.
“Want me to read it out loud?” he asked.
MJ nodded, still facing opposite him.
Steve started. “The Cold War was perhaps the most turbulent time in history. Although no direct war was ever fought between the United States and the Soviet Union, the conflict between them affected the entire world. Beginning in 1947 with…”
As he continued to read, MJ rolled towards him, and Steve placed a hand on her back, holding the book in his other. She closed her eyes as Steve droned on about the Cold War. MJ wasn’t really a fan of history, but Steve’s voice was calming, and it didn’t take much brain power to listen to him read.
As Steve finished the first chapter of the book, he glanced down at MJ, who was now asleep. She looked exhausted, he noticed, and he made a mental note to ask her if she had been sleeping, or if nightmares were keeping her awake.
He turned off the lamp beside the bed and settled down next to MJ, slinging a protective arm over her as she shifted in her sleep. Hopefully, if he kept his arm there, he would wake up if MJ woke up with a nightmare, so he could calm her down and remind her that she was safe.
Because she was safe. If Steve only did one thing for the rest of his life, it was making sure his family was safe. He might not have been there for MJ in the past, but he’d made it his goal to be there for her every step of the way. Nothing would stop him from protecting MJ, even if sometimes she needed protecting from herself.
Just as he was drifting off, Steve felt MJ shift closer to him, pressing her body against his. He smiled, knowing that she was finally trusting him enough to be this close to him. They fell asleep like that, snuggled up together, until the sun rose and morning came.