Representation Matters.

Today is the International Day of Trans Visibility and this morning I saw this piece of art in my social media feed.

56201130_10157428215713598_5544235667359268864_nIt was created by an artist Hannah Daisy @makedaisychains (photo credit to her.  https://www.patreon.com/hannahdaisy)

I felt deeply moved by the image and spent most of the day thinking about it.   Why did this image impact me so intensely?  As a non-binary person who has scars from self harm, I felt represented and valid in a way that I didn’t even realize I needed.  In this image, the arm with scars is just one in a series of different and unique arms raised in an empowered fist.   It is SO rare to see art that includes self harm scars that neither stigmatizes, sensationalizes nor glorifies self injury (and cutting specifically).  In this art piece, the self harm scars are matter of fact but are not the focus of the image.  The scars are shown as healed/healing and thus represent a hopeful message of recovery and life after self harm.  The image implies that recovery is possible, but also depicts the reality that mental illness is not always an invisible illness.  It shows that scars do not have to be hidden and can be accepted as part (but not the defining aspect) of a person.  This image does not show the person who self harmed as an object of pity or of revulsion.  It doesn’t make me feel sorry for the person, it makes me feel that they are a SURVIVOR.

As a person who has a multitude of scars from decades of self harm, I needed to see this. I needed the representation SO much. I needed the message that I’m not shameful, disgusting, broken, crazy, insane or violent.  I needed the message that my scars do not define me.  I needed the message that SOMEBODY out there, an artist, sees my scars as a sign of strength, resilience and SURVIVAL.  I don’t want to feel ashamed of my scars.  I don’t want to feel judged by society.  I don’t want to receive stares of pity or confusion on a summer day.  I want to choose my clothes based on what feels comfortable, not based on what will hide the scars and keep me safe from stigma.   Because there is an intense amount of societal stigma associated with self harming behaviour (and cutting in particular).  It is misunderstood, even by mental health providers.  It is often treated as a contagion, something that will spread like a virus to others.  It often leads to exclusion and intense self hatred/shame/guilt and isolation.  It is almost always portrayed as entirely undesirable and destructive, never acknowledged as a complex, coping mechanism that has often helped a person survive extremely difficult times when they had few other options to survive.   Self harm is almost always conflated with suicide, when often  people who self injure are doing so as a way to stay alive and to cope with hopeless, intense or overwhelming emotions.  (Self harm and suicide can go hand in hand, but not always).

I felt seen and I felt valid.  I can’t remember the last time a piece of art made me feel so  affirmed and understood.

Later in the day, I was scrolling through social media and saw the same image on another website.  But this time the image was altered:

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In the second image, the scars are censored.  They are replaced with what looks like the reflection of white lights or stars.   This second image made me feel erased, ashamed and frustrated.   I can understand that the website might not want to trigger folks and it might not want to be seen as “promoting” self harm behaviours.  I can understand why someone might think censoring the image was in the best interests of the public, but as a person who self harms, I completely disagree with the censoring.

I didn’t feel triggered by the first image, I felt REPRESENTED.  As I mentioned, I don’t believe the image in any way glorified or promoted self harm.  I saw the image as respectfully acknowledging the fact that many trans and gender diverse struggle, in a large part because of transphobia and lack of acceptance, with various types of self harming behaviours.   That doesn’t mean that we are weird, odd, crazy or broken. It means we are surviving.

What this censoring means to me?

It means that the people running the second website think I should hide my scars, that they are a bad influence on others or that they might make people uncomfortable.  It makes me feel that I should be invisible or deserve to be invisible. It makes me feel that self harm is SO terrible that it needs to be blotted out and erased, replaced with stars and light that won’t make anyone uncomfortable.

Does that mean that my existence makes you uncomfortable?

Should I be ashamed and hide myself away?

Is my mental health disability SO unpalatable to others that it needs to be censored?

If today is International Trans Day of Visibility, I think that means ALL trans and gender diverse folks deserve to be visible (if they want to be) and that includes trans folks with mental, physical and invisible disabilities.  We have to work from an intersectional perspective that does not erase the various lived experiences of people.  Representation DOES matter.  People with disabilities so often lack positive, affirming and realistic representations of ourselves in media, art and society.   Representations that neither treat us like inspirational stories nor tragedies.

Because we are SO much more than that.

Let’s Talk…

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So you want to talk about mental health and stigma?

Let’s talk about:
-how few mental health care services there are for children under 12
-how long the waiting lists are for any of our vastly inadequate publicly funded mental health services
-how Canada has a two-tired mental health system and those who are economically marginalized are often completely unable to access any long term mental health care
-how few mental health care services are truly trauma informed
-how people who cope through substance use, self harm, suicidal thoughts or other “negative” coping techniques are stigmatized, blamed and often thought to be manipulative or attention seeking
-lack of services for eating disorders and long wait lists which exclude everyone except the most ill
-abelism
-the capitalist idea that people’s worth is directly defined by how productive they are (which contributes to the stigma faced by mentally ill people who are not able to work)
-lack of affordable housing options which keep survivors of violence from being able to leave
-poverty: it’s not easy to recover from mental illness when you don’t have the money for food
-racism, colonialism, transphobia, homophobia, sexism, classism and oppression which impacts people’s ability to access services and to recover
-the idea that mentally ill people are lazy and need to just try harder or cheer up
-the fact that many treatments and medications actually make people worse and the fact that it is often an extremely difficult and painful process to find a medication that helps (and whether or not these medication are affordable)
-how few psychiatrists there are and how short their appointment times are
-the lack of publicly funded counseling services, especially ones that are not just brief, time limited sessions (which often aren’t enough for trauma survivors or those with a serious illness)
-how people with mental illness still face discrimination in the workplace
-the whole “but you don’t look sick” issue which feeds into stigma
-the fact that most people don’t qualify for services until their situation is severe, chronic and urgent
-the lack of preventative care for mental illness
-how the school system is not trauma informed and how children with mental illness are often viewed as “problems”
-sexual violence, violence and intimate partner violence:the majority of people living with severe mental illness have experienced violence
-how lonely and isolating it can be to live with a mental illness
-how people who are “high functioning” are often not viewed as having a real illness, but those who are not able to function adequately in society are viewed as lazy or crazy
-high rates of suicide for trans and gender diverse people, specifically those who are not affirmed, accepted and supported
-how difficult (if not impossible) our fragmented mental health care system is to navigate
-high rates of burnout for staff working in the system which is overworked, underfunded and under resourced
-lack of culturally appropriate care for Indigenous folks
-the problematic aspects of the DSM
-media stereotypes which present people with a mental illness as violent, unpredictable and scary monsters (most recently the movie Split)
-horrible stigma perpetuating “games” such as the asylum escape rooms
-stigmatizing use of language (using mental illness related words as casual descriptors)
-joking about suicide
-the silence and isolation that family members, caregivers and the person themselves faces because their illness is a mental illness not a physical one (nobody is bringing casseroles after you attempt suicide)
-how hard it is to be a parent with a mental illness and the fears that child protection might take away your children because you have a history of self harm
-how hard it is to ask for help or be honest about struggling with mental illness because of the fears of stigma and exclusion
-how little funding there is for ending gender based violence
-how people with mental illness can become criminalized due to interactions with the police

This isn’t just about ending stigma.
#letstalk

 

How to Heal when the World Wishes for Your Silence

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What do healing and recovery look like within a world that you feel wishes you did not exist?   What does it mean to speak up about being a survivor of sexual violence in a society that, despite everything, is still maintained by silencing victims and glorifying misogyny and violence?   What does it mean to be a person with scars, a visible psychiatric survivor who is struggling to meet the criteria of “normal” in a capitalistic world which glorifies busyness and productivity?  What does it mean to be a queer person trying to create self confidence and pride in a world which contains homophobic and transphobic violence and microaggressions all around?

How does one heal in a world which wishes for your silence?

I’ve been struggling a lot with intersecting experiences of mental health stigma, abelism, sexism, transphobia and queer/homophobia.

I’d like to be proud of myself or even to accept myself as I am.  I’d like to believe that being a survivor makes me strong and brave.  I’d like to believe that my scars make me unique rather than disgusting.  I’d like to believe that being queer is just as acceptable as being straight.  I’d like to believe that I’m not broken, dirty, shameful, guilty or weak.   I’d like to believe that I am not TOO MUCH to handle, not too sensitive, too radical, too depressed, too whiny, or too demanding.   I’d like to believe that I live in a world which fights for the rights of people who are different in various ways.

I’d like to believe that I’m okay, just as I am.

Recently I feel like there is no place for me in this world.  I don’t feel I’m living up to my potential.  I feel like a disappointment to those around me.  I feel like an inadequate parent and am consumed by guilt for not being able to protect my children from violence.  I’m currently unemployed and this makes me feel like I have no worth in society because I’m not being productive.   I don’t feel well enough to be working full time and taking care of my kids full time, but I’m having trouble finding a suitable part time or flexible job.  I feel lonely, isolated and full of self doubt.

Last week my daughter described experiencing sexual harassment on the school yard.  She’s not even in Junior high school yet.  She was walking across the yard towards her friends and was briefly alone when a boy she did not know yelled “Come here pussy” at her and then chased after her when she said “No” and started to run away.  The most disturbing aspect of the conversation was how she went on to describe various ways that she could get boys to leave her alone if they didn’t listen to her.  She talked about saying “I already have a boyfriend” and various other things she could say or do to protect herself.   She told me these strategies matter of fact, and it broke my heart to realize that such a very young girl already had a clear idea of being vigilant around boys and men  and had already concocted tactics to protect herself.

I don’t know how not to be broken-hearted about how little things have changed in the world since I was a child.  The media and the #metoo movement would have us believe that we are making progress in the fight against gender based violence.  I disagree.  I don’t think we are making much progress at all.  Generally, perpetrators of violence are still walking free with very few (if any consequences) and survivors of violence are still being held responsible for protecting themselves at every moment.

The only thing I can identify that has changed is that my daughter knew that this was wrong.  This was the second time she was sexually harassed at school this year and both times she told me about it.  She knows that without consent any type of sexual action is assault or harassment.  She knows that she has the right to protect herself, to run away and to say whatever she has to say to stay safe.  She knows that it isn’t her fault and she knows what consent means.

When I was younger, and until shockingly recently, I just assumed this was the way things were.  I didn’t understand the concept of consent.  I just assumed that I was the one who was wrong, strange or broken because I didn’t enjoy sex or sexual comments.  I thought I just had to get used to it, endure, zone out, and put up with it.  I didn’t even understand the concept that sex was something that was supposed to feel good and/or be enjoyable and collaborative.  I didn’t know that it was an option for me to be queer, bisexual, a lesbian or gender non-conforming.  I didn’t know women could be with other women.   In essence, I didn’t know enough to have the option to know myself or protect myself.  I didn’t know enough to even know how to begin telling anyone I was being abused because I didn’t have vocabulary to express it and I thought it was my fault.

I’m learning and unlearning these things as an adult in my 30s.  My own children knew more about consent, gender, sexuality and sex by the age of 10, then I did at the age of 30.

Things seem quite bleak lately.  It’s winter and I’m longing for the summer sunshine warming my skin.  My kids are struggling with the impacts of past abuse.  Schools and services are not trauma informed.  I’m watching my child experience stigma and lack of understanding around her mental health issues.  I’m struggling with the impact of past abuse.  There doesn’t seem to be much to look forward to.  I don’t see a clear path forward and I don’t have answers to many of my questions.  I feel overwhelmed, hopeless and anxious most of the time.  Almost everything online, in the news and social media triggers me and makes me feel more hopeless about ending gender based violence and oppression.

The one thing that seems to have improved is that my children have more tools that I did.  They have more knowledge and more understanding.  I might not have been able to protect them completely, but at least they know that violence is not normal and that it is not their fault.

 

Burn the systems to the ground.

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I don’t feel inclined to stay quiet and feel ashamed about this anymore. I’m struggling too much with the recent news and the state of the world for survivors. For others who have been through this, you are not alone. I talk about it to let others know that it isn’t their fault.

CW: sexual violence, systemic violence/oppression/disbelief
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Why am I triggered right now in the wake of the Kavanagh situation?

Why do I often wish I HAD stayed silent about my experiences of abuse and NEVER told a soul?

Because of the Children’s Aid Worker who asked me “Don’t you know how to protect yourself? Are you afraid for yourself or your children?” in a sneering, sarcastic voice

Because of the Judges who told me that my experiences of violence were irrelevant to family law, who implied I was lying because I hadn’t reported to the police, then accused me of making accusations to gain an advantage in court (after I reported)

Because of the OCL Social Worker who told me that I needed to get counseling for my anxiety and heavily implied that if I didn’t stop “coaching” my daughter to say bad things about her father that she’d have grave concerns about me creating conflict and that I’d lose custody.

Because of the OPS detective who closed my case TWICE without telling me and completely failed to investigate or take notes and then lied to cover himself.

Because of how traumatic it was to have my confidential psychiatric records photocopied and handed in an envelope to my abuser in a court room.

Because the trauma of testifying in court to get custody and protect my children was so intense that I barely remember the three days I spent doing it.

Because the trauma of listening to my psychiatrist speak about the abuse and its impacts in court was so much that I had to leave the courtroom crying due to the intensity of the flashbacks.

Because our family Doctor lied in court and then discharged me and my kids from her practice accusing me of being a bad parent with terrible boundaries as a result of the “parental conflict” that was being caused entirely by my ex. As a result my kids had no family Doctor for 18 months.

Because of the school principal who blatantly lied in court to support my ex saying she “didn’t recall” my daughter crying and screaming and refusing to leave with her father after a particularly stressful incident at home.

Because of the Children’s Aid Worker who told me that I should be “calmer and more neutral” about the transphobic behaviour of my ex.

Because of the Children’s Aid Workers who implied that if I didn’t stop reporting (and if other’s didn’t stop reporting) that they would get ME into trouble for making too many reports.

Because of the judge who clearly wrote in her final order that she didn’t believe I was abused.

I’m tired of the world implying that I’m “too crazy,” “too emotional,” “too sensitive,” “too angry,” “too anxious,” “too controlling,” “too whiny” “too radical” and just plain TOO MUCH when I talk about my experiences.

#whyIwishIhadnotreported  #whymetooisnotenough

 

On being a survivor.

It’s very difficult to know how to exist in a world where it is made clear at all levels of society, that perpetrators’ experiences and rights will always be prioritized over those of survivors (particularly women, children and gender non-conforming folks).

What happens if your perpetrators aren’t politicians or religious leaders, or people with power and status? Does anyone even care? Do those cases ever proceed to court or hearings? Do they get media coverage? Or are they, for the most part invisible, silenced even in cases where the victim DOES come forward, does report and does seek assistance?

How does it feel for survivors to turn on news or social media and be constantly bombarded with how little society values their pain and suffering?

How can any survivors ever really heal and feel safe in a world where their experiences are invalidated, discounted, silenced and disbelieved…not just once, not twice but OVER AND OVER AND OVER for the rest of their lives?

How to make sense of the level of victim blaming and responsibility placed on survivors, while those survivors simultaneously watch excuses be made for their perpetrators? Not just once, but daily and at all levels of society, nationally and internationally. How to understand that your perpetrators’ pasts were just the folly of youth, and his future is too bright to spoil, while you are grappling with severe PTSD on a daily basis as a result of the violence? How to understand that for him it was a “misunderstanding of consent” while you knew what you were doing and were responsible for staying with him?

How to exist when EVERY post about sexual violence reminds you of how your own experiences will NEVER be validated by official society (court, media, child protection) and that your perpetrators will continue to exist without meaningful consequences until the end of their lives?

How to exist when parental rights are prioritized over child protection and the rights of children?

These issues are not just happening in the USA. It’s easy to criticize America and feel morally superior as Canadians. But we have these problems here too. Survivors are not believed here too. Perpetrators have high level, successful jobs here too. Gender based violence is a society wide, structural, social problem here too.

There should be more stigma and consequences associated with being a rapist, than stigma and consequences associated with reporting/surviving rape. Until we not only BELIEVE survivors, but CARE about and prioritize survivors, not much will change.

Why are psychiatrists so ignorant about eating disorders?

ShameScale

I recently accompanied a friend to an intake appointment at our local eating disorder treatment centre.  The program operates out of a psychiatry program at a major hospital in our city.  It’s a medium sized city, and a fairly well known treatment program which is publicly funded and free to access.

I was completely disgusted by a good portion of what the Dr said.   Sadly, many of the things he said were things I have personally heard from other doctors.   I found it pretty triggering and it wasn’t even my appointment.

Let me share a few thoughts about what NOT to say to someone in recovery from an eating disorder (especially if you are a Dr who is supposed to be an expert!):

  1. Do NOT ask people about their history with traumatic events and then proceed to tell them that their abuse is connected to their eating disorder, but that your eating disorder program does not treat trauma.   This makes absolutely NO sense.  If aren’t willing to help someone address the roots of their coping techniques, don’t bother asking intensely personal information.  It comes across as invasive, asking questions for the sake of personal curiosity rather than to actually help someone.

Instead:  All eating disorder programs and specialists should be willing to help patients cope with the traumatic events they have survived.  If they hadn’t experienced those traumas they likely wouldn’t have turned to eating disordered ways of coping in the first place!  You don’t have to be a trauma expert, you just need to be trauma informed.  Validate!  Believe people!  Let them talk about the links between their traumas and their eating disordered behaviours.   I can almost guarantee that nobody will achieve lasting recovery without addressing the root causes of their problematic coping techniques.  Conversely, do not refuse to allow people with eating disorders to access PTSD services.  Do not forbid patients from discussing addictions either.

People don’t exist in boxes.  Someone often copes with PTSD, eating disorder AND addiction.  They shouldn’t be forced to lie about some things to access services for other related issues.   Services NEED to be intersectional or they are borderline useless and can further stigmatize vulnerable people.

2.  Do NOT shame people about their weight, body shape or the foods they eat.  People of ALL shapes, sizes, genders, races and socioeconomic statuses can suffer with eating disorders.  Do NOT promote restrictive eating by underestimating what a healthy amount of food is.  Do NOT set goal weights so low that someone will still be underweight when they finish treatment. Conversely do NOT assume that everyone who has a BMI over 25 is unhealthy.  Fat people can be healthy.   Encouraging someone who is fat to drastically restrict causes shame and further disordered eating.  All bodies look different, people can be healthy at different sizes.  The goal should be to reduce body shame and increase normalized eating.  This will NOT look identical for each person in recovery.  Do NOT place moral values on food such as labeling certain things as “junk” and “unsafe” or off limits.  Believe me, the person with an eating disorder has enough of these nasty thoughts in their head already.   This attitude needs to start with children from a very young age, where they can be taught that food is not something that makes them good or bad.  Our value as humans is not correlated in any way with the food choices we make.  All people have inherent worth or value, no matter their body shape, size or food choices.

Instead:  Promote body positivity within eating disorder treatment.  Do not assume that all recovered bodies will be a certain size.  Encourage people to gradually learn to return to intuitive eating, and trusting their bodies.   Explain that some people in recovery from restricting eating disorders may be extremely hungry while they restore their weight.  This is normal.   It’s okay to eat slightly more than your meal plan if you are genuinely hungry.   Focusing only on BMI, weight and portion sizes can turn into another type of obsessive compulsive eating behaviour.   Teach people that normalized eating can vary from day to day and that is okay.   You aren’t a bad person or shameful because you ate 3 cookies instead of 2.  You aren’t broken or weird if you are still hungry after a 1 cup serving of cereal.  Meal plans are important in early recovery, but they are NOT the be all and end all of treatment.     Don’t treat people who are thin as morally superior to people who are overweight.  Ideally, don’t make comments on people’s bodies at all.

3. Do NOT assume you can tell whether or not someone has an eating disorder based on their appearance.  If someone is struggling with disordered eating symptoms, they deserve care, help and compassion.  It makes NO sense to only provide services to the very sickest people who are basically on the verge of death.  By this point the health consequences can be severe and the behaviours are SO entrenched it can be extremely difficult to recover.  As with most illnesses and mental illnesses early intervention and prevention are KEY.   Providing services based on how medically unstable someone is only encourages people to compete to see who is the sickest.  It makes people who have larger bodies feel they don’t deserve help or aren’t sick enough to MATTER.  It perpetuates the stereotype that only young, white, rich VERY thin women can have eating disorders.  An eating disorder is a serious mental and physical illness and ALL people who suffer, regardless of race, gender, size etc deserve treatment.

Instead:  Stop using BMI alone as a measure of health.  The newest version of the DSM has removed BMI criteria from the anorexia criteria.  Doctors need to follow suit.  Even if someone is at a BMI of 19.5 or 20, or even higher, they can still be struggling with anorexia. Being weight restored or reaching a minimum BMI of 18.5 is NOT the only indicator of recovery.   Ideally body positivity should be encouraged and fostered at all stages of the recovery process.  Governments need to increase funding for eating disorder treatment to make it more readily accessible to folks who are at risk or at the early stages of illness.   Fight fatphobia and discrimination based on weight (and class) when you see it happening around you.

4. Do NOT make negative comments about food at ALL.  I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard people say things like “I’m so bad for eating this cake”  or even “I feel so guilty for eating a sandwich instead of a salad.”   Don’t promote fad diets.  Don’t promote cutting out whole food categories. Don’t promote the idea of “clean” eating as morally superior.  Don’t imply that eating a salad is virtuous and eating cake is dirty.  Just stop.  PLEASE.  People around you are listening.  Impressionable people. Young kids whose opinions about food are just forming.   Friends and family members who may be struggling with eating disorders themselves.   This may be controversial, but unless you have a food allergy, there is NO need to obsessively eliminate particular foods from your diet.  Everyone has preferences, but that is NOT the same as conferring MORAL value on food.

Instead:  Remember that food can serve many purposes including enjoyment, nourishment, connection (sharing a meal with friends and family), ritual, celebration etc.  but food’s purpose is NOT to cause shame and guilt.  Be vigilant about situations when food is given a moral value (good or bad, clean or dirty).  If you feel confident, let people around you know that judgmental comments about food are not welcome and can be triggering for those in eating disorder recovery and those who are predisposed to developing eating disorders.

We all deserve to have a positive relationship with our bodies and the food we eat.

I wish I didn’t care.

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Intellectually I know that it is counter productive and makes no sense to expect anything at all, anything even remotely approaching care or consideration, from my children’s father.  I know he is a narcissist and I know that he hates me.  I know that he will always be the victim in every situation and that I will always be wrong, bad, crazy or plain evil.  I know that it is unhealthy to expect anything else.  I know that the very definition of insanity would be expecting him to change.   In a way, it is easy to accept that he abhors me and probably wishes me dead.  I can accept that he wanted to be on the other side of the country to me and basically never speak to me again.  I’m okay with that.

What I’m not okay with is how completely he disregards the needs and feelings of his children.  I find myself entirely filled with rage, disgust and despair.   And I get disappointed, angry and upset EVERY SINGLE TIME he fails to meet even a minimum standard of decent parenting.

In March, my younger daughter scratched her eye on a school field trip.  It was luckily fairly minor and healed within a few days with antibiotic drops, but it was still her eye, and it was still scary.  I took her to the ER at the children’s hospital here and I notified her father about the injury and need to seek medical care.   I’m legally required to notify him of doctor’s appointments and medical information, but he never replies or acknowledges the information I send.   It makes me SO angry that a parent, living across the country, would not even text or call to check to make sure his kid was okay.

This week my daughter fell playing soccer and got a concussion.  Again, I took her to the ER and again I notified her father.  I sent him the handouts the Dr gave us and let him know how the injury occurred.  His child has a mild brain injury and he couldn’t even text or reply to the email to check on her?  Really?

I can’t imagine under any circumstances that I would not want to check to make sure my child was okay.   I would be on the phone or texting back the minute I got the email.  I’d be calling her myself to see how she was feeling.

An empathetic, kind person might even ask me how I was doing.  Thank me for taking her to get prompt medical attention.  Thank me for taking care of her during the recovery period.  Apologize for not being there.  React like a normal human and a loving parent.

It’s isolating being a solo parent.  It can be lonely and it can be scary when your child is sick or hurt.  It is a lot of responsibility making the decisions alone.   It’s hard caring for children without much of a break.   It’s bad enough if you are fully alone, or if the other parent is supportive but far away, but it is terrible when the other parent is absent, but not gone and completely working at cross purposes to co-parenting.

I find it very triggering.  I’m so angry and I just want to scream at him.  But he isn’t here and he won’t be here.  I don’t even know if he reads the emails I send, so there isn’t much point in screaming endlessly into a void.  On the other hand, I’m legally required to continue keeping him informed so I feel trapped.

Sending him a message about his child’s health and not getting a response makes me angry.  But if he replied I can almost guarantee that the response would upset me just as much, if not more.  It’s a lose-lose-lose situation.   And the worst part of it is that my kids can see just how little he cares.   He almost only ever engages with them on his terms.  He rarely directly answers their questions (if at all) and often gives roundabout confusing half-answers and suspects them of sneaking around (when they are just asking for a simple password!).   It is truly maddening.

We are all trying to get on with our lives.  A lot of positive things have happened over the last few months.  A greater sense of stability and normalcy has settled into our days.  I’ve been struggling to know exactly what to write about in this blog and what direction to take it in going forward.

For much more of our day to day lives we are freer now.  I can make decisions more easily and accomplish more in a shorter amount of time.  But weeks like this I still feel caged.  I rage at the legal system which has literally forced me to stay in regular contact with my abuser, no matter whether or not he actual responds (or even reads my messages).  I still don’t feel free because he still has some level of control over aspects of our lives.  I try to rise above and to think as little as possible about him and the harm he has caused, but it’s not always possible to block it out.

It’s difficult to move forward knowing that he will never face any legal consequences.  He was able to pick up, move to another province and more or less start over.  He still thinks that I’m “mental” and his mother still thinks that I belong in a mental hospital.  “Once a mental person, always a mental person” she told my daughter.

People who can repeatedly call a child’s mother “mental” to their own children are not good people.  He is not a good person.  I know that, but I’m still angry.  And I’m angry at myself for the strange twisted hope and disappointment I feel every time he fails, yet again to ACTUALLY CARE about any of us.

And the fact that I care SO MUCH means that I am an empathetic, kind, loving human who wants what most people want: connection.   My humanity allows me to be deeply hurt, but I would not trade it for his empty life.

13 years ago…my last admission at South Street

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Photo credit: http://www.lhsc.on.ca

For me, PTSD is extremely linked to anniversaries of dates.  January into February is a difficult time, with the memories of my last extended hospital stay in 2005 and my family law trial in 2016.  I often have flashbacks, memories and symptoms, and then notice the date and realize what is triggering them.

My last admission to South Street was in early January 2005.  I was there for about 5 weeks, my longest admission at that facility.  I was transferred in early February to the Regional Mental Health Care facility, the former London Psychiatric Hospital, where I stayed until sometime in March.  Since then, I’ve largely been free from in-patient admissions.

In my mind, I can walk through the buildings at South Street, especially the main building.  The large stone steps which led to the main entrance.  The single stall washroom off the lobby where I cut myself on a number of occasions, with sharps I brought back inside from walks.   The smell of institutional brown paper towel, and the cheap, strong soap found in hospitals everywhere still brings me back to South Street.  The smell of adhesive first aid tape and band aids, bring back the rusty smell of blood harden on towels during long emergency room waits.

Past the lobby was a small gift shop on the right side of the hall.  I would go down there to browse sometimes or to buy a magazine.   Just past the shop was a cafeteria.  It was more of a snack bar, I suppose they had meals there, but at that time I rarely ate more than a muffin or rice krispie square.  Being in the hospital was an excuse for Ana to get away with restricting more, when nobody was watching me eat or expecting me to do so.  I remember walking through the line style cafeteria.  I’m not sure what I bought, maybe cookies.   A little further, past the first set of elevators was a Tim Hortons kiosk.  It was small and didn’t carry a full selection of items.  It was open longer hours than the cafeteria, which shut at the end of the office hour work day.  I remember it being more dimly lit in the evenings.  There was a second set of elevators, the only ones which went all the way to the 7th and 8th floor: psychiatry.   If you kept walking to the rear of the building, there was a door to the “patio” which was where people went to smoke.   It was also the place where psych patients who had off unit privileges but not full privileges to leave the property, went to get fresh air.   The hallway split into a Y shape at this point.  To the left was the admitting department.  You could walk down a long hallway and exit there as well.

That last time I was admitted, I was a patient on the 7th floor.   There was an orderly who sat at a desk at the entrance to the inpatient unit, which was to the left side of the Y.  The stem of the Y had offices and the right hand side of the Y had other departments, like occupational therapy, and a patient dining room.   The hall was carpeted.   The carpet was dirty, even though it was vacuumed daily.   Patients and visitors had to sign in at the desk.   As a patient, passes off the unit were awarded in increments.  Maybe a 15 minute pass, lead to 30 minutes, led to 4 hours and then to an overnight pass.  Smokers were given 15 minute breaks at intervals throughout the day.  Visiting hours ended at 8pm and at that time the orderly went home and the door to the unit was locked.  Patients returning after 8pm had to ring a bell which alerted the nurses to let us in.  I remember coming back after an evening home, or out with my ex-husband.  The hospital was quiet, the main floor abandoned with the exception of security at the main entrance.  The elevator ride was quiet, the halls semi darkened.  It was easy to believe the building was haunted.  I would be buzzed back onto the unit, check in with the nurses to get my evening medication and then get ready for bed.

The rooms all had reinforced glass windows, many of them had metal grills covering them.  Some of them opened a tiny crack and others did not.   The hallway seemed impossibly long, with the nursing station 3/4 of the way towards the far end.  For all intents and purposes, it wasn’t all that safe.  The nurses were quite far away from most of the patient rooms.   They didn’t search us when we came back from passes.  It was quite easy to smuggle in anything.   On a different admission, I had a roommate who used cocaine and cut herself in our shared washroom. Another time, a patient who was supposed to be recovering from an eating disorder continually smuggled in laxatives which she took by the handful.   A third patient, being tube fed and struggling with bulimia would order large amounts of food and then purge.

It wasn’t exactly a safe place.

I spent a lot of time sleeping, resting and talking to other patients.  I filed out my menus and looked forward to the muffins and cereal at breakfast.   I ordered peanut butter and jam sandwiches for lunch.  The vegetarian and vegan options for dinner were largely inedible.  Sometimes I went home for dinner, sometimes I just didn’t eat.  The meals arrived at 8am, 12pm and 5pm on trays, covered with burgundy or dark blue coloured domes to keep the food hot.   There was a fridge with cheap Colt Ginger ale cans (regular and diet).   Sometimes I brought cereal from home.  I often went for a walk to the Tim Horton’s down the road where I would order caramel coffee cake and black coffee.   They don’t make that cake anymore, but you could order extra caramel sauce drizzled over it.

I coloured and read books.  I waited, sometimes what seemed like endlessly, for the doctor to arrive.  Sometimes the doctors checked in with you ever week day.   Sometimes they didn’t appear for days.  They appeared at unpredictable intervals.  Much of the time they spoke to us in our rooms, even in ward rooms with 4 beds, affording us little privacy.   If we were lucky we might get 15 minutes to talk to the Dr.    That last admission I had a very kind doctor.  He spoke to me in a private room.  It wasn’t his office, just a room for meeting with patients.  He believed me.  He talked about referring me to the mood disorders program at the RMHC.  He didn’t think I was borderline.   Sometimes there would be medical students or nursing students.  I liked them because they were allowed longer to talk to us.  It was lonely and there was little actual treatment in the hospital, aside from medication and medication adjustments.  The medical students gave each patient a physical exam within 24 hours of being admitted.  Even when I was in and out of South Street, I got the check up every time.  In reality, these 1st year medical students were just using us to practice doing physical exams.  But I didn’t mind.  I liked the attention and the chance to speak to someone.  The days were often long, and even the nurses were busy, assigned to multiple patients each shift.

Sometimes, if I was having a rough night, my nurse would bring me into a small room attached to the nursing station.  We would talk about how I was doing.  Mainly I talked about the urges I had to self harm.  Even in the hospital I generally harmed myself on an almost daily basis.   Looking back it’s hard to see exactly how I was helped by these admissions.  Once I even ended up needing stitches, while I was admitted.  I cut myself in the ground floor washroom, then went up to the 7th floor to confess.  A different medical student, maybe a psychiatry resident stitched it for me in my room.

In the sad, lonely state of mind I was in, there was something about the ritual of having my cuts sutured, that comforted me deeply.  I think it was a moment of literal relief to have something FIXED.  The inner trauma I was struggling with was coming back to the surface with frightening intensity.  I was in a new relationship that had rapidly become all consuming, emotionally and then sexually abusive.  I felt trapped.  I felt numb, depressed and hypomanic, agitated and anxious all at once.  I was in a frantic state which was triggered by SSRIs and other antidepressants.  I wasn’t thinking clearly for over 4 years.  I was afraid all the time, and yet I felt invincible in a way.  I knew only peripherally that my impulsive self harm and suicide attempts were extremely dangerous.  I both wanted to die, and felt like I was not at risk from the self harm.  I felt torn, tangled and pulled down, like I was drowning in trauma and suicidal thoughts.  I felt like a mechanical robot, and a wind up toy spinning out of control.

When I look back at myself during those 4 years, I barely recognize any aspects of my true self.  I was changed, and not in a positive way.

I was so young.  I was 20-24 years old.   I felt like a child, colouring, whining for help, begging for someone to SEE me.  I didn’t feel truly SEEN by anyone at that time.  I think I’d felt invisible and misunderstood for so long, that I actually was disappearing, even to myself.  I felt like I’d aged decades in a few short months.  I felt like a child trapped in the body of an older person.   My health was poor, due to medication side effects, self harm, self starvation and lack of structure and routine.  I became more and more socially isolated.  I lost connection with the “normal” world and I became a full time psych patient.  I filled out and inhabited the role of a sick person.  So much so that I no longer realized I was playing a role.  It became all I knew of ME.  I lost myself.   I lost myself in more ways that I can express in words.  I wanted to be rescued.  With all my heart I wanted to be rescued, but I learned to carefully shut people out.  I was also being isolated by my abusive partner.

That last winter in South Street, I was so suicidal I couldn’t leave the hospital alone.  I was perpetually compelled by thoughts of throwing myself in front of traffic on the busy road near the hospital.  I didn’t trust myself to walk anymore.  I knew all the train tracks that criss crossed the  neighbourhood, and all the shops which sold sharps I could use to harm myself.  I was a dead person walking.  I was more than half dead, I had more than one foot out the door of life.  I had 95% given up.

But somehow that last doctor who admitted me, he didn’t see my case as hopeless.  He didn’t see me as someone who was just “trying to get attention” or “manipulate the system”   I think he realized that it was possible the medication was making me worse.  I think he realized, and actually believed me that my next suicide attempt would be a completion.  He quietly talked to me, and quietly sent the referral to the specialist.  I didn’t have much hope, but I sensed that things were different.  Instead of lying to get myself discharged, I stayed there until the bed became available on the mood disorder unit.

5 weeks later, I was off all anti-depressants and on a new mood stabilizer.  The mood disorder specialist retrieved my life from the purgatory and hell of anti-depressant side effects, including medication induced hypomania.

Less than a year later, I was pregnant with my first child.

I never had another extended hospital admission.

South Street has been demolished for years now.  I visited the site last summer to see for myself that it was gone.

But South Street haunts my memories.  The images are so vivid, but in the faded colours of a worn down, dirty building.  Those years were brightly intense simultaneously to being muted and grey.

I expect they will be with me always.  But 13 years ago, I never imagined I would even get out alive.

No Need to Argue.

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“There’s no need to argue anymore. 
I gave all I could, but it left me so sore. 
And the thing that makes me mad, 
Is the one thing that I had, 

I knew, I knew, 
I’d lose you. 
You’ll always be special to me, 
Special to me, to me. 

And I remember all the things we once shared, 
Watching T.V. movies on the living room armchair. 
But they say it will work out fine. 
Was it all a waste of time. 

‘Cause I knew, I knew, 
I’d lose you. 
You’ll always be special to me, 
Special to me, to me. 

Will I forget in time, ah, 
You said I was on your mind? 
There’s no need to argue, 
No need to argue anymore. 
There’s no need to argue anymore. 

Special.”

-The Cranberries, No Need to Argue, 1994

My 15 year old self is crying inside me right now as I read the news of Dolores O’Riordan’s death.  The Cranberries WERE the soundtrack to my life for many years of my teenage life.  I still have their album No Need to Argue in my car, and their songs on my playlists.  I remember listening to their CDs with my friends, at parties, and on my Discman taking the bus to and from school.  It was THE music of that moment in time, for many teenagers I knew.

I saw them play live in Montreal,  August 30, 1996.  I was 15 and it was my first stadium concert experience.  I remember being taken a back by how absolutely tiny Dolores O’Riordan was.  Her voice was unique, powerful and occupied an immense space in my life.  But in front of me, she was dwarfed by her large guitar.

I attended the concert with X, my boyfriend at the time.  We used to listen to the cranberries together all the time that year.  That concert is one of the positive memories I have of our relationship which was largely abusive.

I remember being younger (maybe it was earlier in 1995) at a party at my friend’s place.  Those were THE parties.  Some of the best memories of my high school years.  Teenagers all throughout the house.  It was just before some people started drinking and doing drugs.  High school, the joy of a party, without the ending of the innocence of childhood, when peer pressure began leading to alcohol and complicating situations.

Everyone had dumped their coats at the bottom of the staircase.  I remember lying there with the person I was dating.  The cranberries CDs playing on repeat in the background.  It was warm and dark and I felt safe, happy and at ease.  I remember laughing and talking with him, content in the knowledge that we were in a safe place, surrounded by our friends.  Life felt simple in those moments.  I knew where I belonged.  I fit in and was a part of a larger shared experience of being a teenager at a particular point in time.

The cranberries were the soundtrack to those happy times with friends.  The cranberries were BELONGING.

And they were one of the soundtracks to the abuse that followed.  Their CDs on playing on his stereo, in the dark navy blue of his room, while he touched me and forced me to do things.  They on the beloved stereo system that I got for my 16th birthday, while he abused me on my bed and on the floor of my room.  We talked about the music, we listened to the new CD “To the Faithful Departed” together.   The sense of belonging was also departing from me, as I became increasingly tied to, and faithful, to him.  I no longer felt safe and happy.  I felt trapped, guilty, ashamed and alone.

In 1997, I had escaped from X.  But I was spiraling deeper and deeper into the isolation of anorexia.   I listened to the cranberries, on repeat, on my stereo.   I was alone in my own room at that point, listening and writing by candlelight.   Listening while I did my homework and long into the evening.  I was detached and slowly fading into invisibility.

The cranberries came with me throughout the rest of my life.  The iconic sounds of Zombie transport me back to 1995, every time I hear them.

The cranberries are simultaneously belonging and safety, along with abuse and isolation.  The cranberries represent what being a teenager meant to me.

Dolores O’Riordan, gone too soon, but her music never forgotten.

 

All mixed up.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a blog post.  Even tonight as I sit down to type this, I’m not clear on what I’m going to write about.

I’ve been focused on my children and my family for the last few months.  It’s been difficult to connect or find the energy to do much other than collapse on the couch to watch Netflix at the end of each busy day.  I have my children with me full time now.  Their father moved to another part of the country and they haven’t seen him since October.  He didn’t plan a visit for Christmas.

We are all of us coping with this abandonment in different ways.

For me, there has been an incredible amount of anger.

I don’t feel comfortable in the anger.  I don’t feel comfortable with how little patience I have and how quickly I snap at people or shut them out if they cross a line from support into offering advice.  I’ve isolated myself more than usual.

The anger is just barely covering a deep well of sadness and fear.  Sometimes I feel completely overwhelmed with the amount of trauma my small family has endured in the past few years.  I worry about the impact it will have on my children.  I worry about not having the right help for them.  I worry about not being patient enough.  I worry about being a solo parent, all the responsibility on me.  I worry about the lifelong impact of parental abandonment after years of emotional abuse and neglect.

I think about the research that has been done about adverse childhood experiences  (ACEs) in relation to trauma theory and the negative impact on health.  For those who might not be familiar with the research, here is a visual representation:

 

My kids have experienced emotional abuse and neglect and physical neglect at times.  I don’t know for certain about physical and sexual abuse.  I may never know.  They have a parent with a mental illness.  Their parents are divorced and their mother is a survivor of family violence.  There is a history of substance abuse on both sides of their family (though not with either parent).

I try not to think about it.  I try to think about the research on resilience which shows that if children have even one positive, consistent and stable adult in their life, it mitigates the impact of ACEs.   I try to believe.  I need to believe it is true in order to function on a daily basis, rather than fall into a pit of hopeless despair.

My older child was recently diagnosed with learning disabilities.  This did not come as a surprise to me.  For two years her father refused to consent for the testing to be re-done.  Earlier testing had been inconclusive for a number of reasons and it was recommended to be repeated.  He refused to agree.  He denied she had any learning issues and blamed me for instilling anxiety in both my children.

Yesterday, as I listened to the feedback from the psychologist.  I heard her saying again and again how different aspects of the test results, including some of the discrepancies between the recent and prior testing, could be linked to the impact of trauma on a developing brain.

Essentially, she was talking about the impact of ACEs on my child’s brain.

I felt numb.  What reaction is normal?  How can a caring parent just accept these things?  How to function and keep moving forward, filled with the knowledge that my kids have experienced trauma?

Intellectually, I know it isn’t my fault.  I know I’ve done the best I could.  But the dark voice inside tells me that it is my fault.  That I never should have had children.  That someone with a mental illness like mine should never have been a mother.  That I never should have had children with an abusive partner.  That I should have left him sooner.  That I should have stayed with him to protect the kids…

All the ways…all the blame.

I push it all down.   Try to keep busy.  Try to block out the thoughts and worries.  Turn on the TV.  Pick up my cell phone.  Browse the internet mindlessly for hours.

In the evening, I feel a sense of panic.  I’m a fraud.  I’m not capable.  I find myself thinking old thoughts, falling back into old thought patterns.  “I can escape my responsibilities by hurting myself”  and “It’s too hard.  I can’t do it. I’m a failure”  I think about self harm and suicide.  Then berate myself for how literally insane it is.  I can’t die.  I’m simultaneously gripped in a tight knot of constant fear and terror about dying and leaving my kids alone with their father, and desperate to escape from a life that often feels TOO painful to endure.   I think about suicide and actively wish I was not alive, while at the same time worrying about getting sick or having an accident, and the consequences on my children if I’m not here 100% of the time and 100% functional.

It’s exhausting.  I honestly want to sleep and watch TV, curled in warm blankets, for many days.  I want to escape from SO much responsibility.  But I can’t.  I get up each day, and I function.  I do ALL the things.  I keep going, because I have to.

My mind is a bit all over the place recently.  Instead of having a certain set of trauma memories and flashbacks which bother me consistently, I have been experiencing mixed up flashes of a whole spread of my traumatic experiences.  Memories popping into my mind, unexpectedly, and me pushing them back down again.

I started a new job, teaching a course at the university I went to during the years before my separation.  Going back to the campus brought back memories of those two years, when I was so unwell, cutting myself and ending up in the emergency room on a regular basis.  I received ECT the week I completed my last semester.  I felt depressed and trapped and I hadn’t yet made the connection to my abusive marriage.  During those years, it was still JUST ME.  I felt like I’d exhausted every treatment option and I was ready to give up.  I wrote a post-it note suicide notes to my children but then went to the hospital and had my injuries treated.  I felt like I was falling into pieces and not able to put them together again.  I never felt calm or safe.  I had nightmares and woke up screaming and trying to escape from imagined abusers.

My brain also dredged up memories and flashbacks of the undergraduate professor who sexually assaulted me in my apartment, less than a year after my graduation.  It happened in December.  I sat frozen on my couch while he touched me.  I didn’t fight back, I didn’t say no.  I just froze and disassociated, my eyes fixed on his black and gold scarf.  I was powerless to stop him. The only reason it ended was that at some point he noticed that I was completely gone and even he didn’t want to touch a statue.  It took what felt like hours before I could even speak to ask him to leave.  I remember crying, but as a statue would cry, tears moving over a frozen face.

In a way, I feel safer now that my ex-husband doesn’t live in the city.  But I still tense up when I see a car like his.  I still get jumpy at night sometimes, thinking I hear someone in the house.  I still get anxious about something happening to the kids, even a minor injury, that he might get angry about.  I am in equal parts afraid he will respond to my mandatory email updates about the children, and furious that he ignores me so completely.  I feel at the same time invisible and caged.   I feel trapped in a cage.

The cage of abuse and trauma.  I don’t know how to escape and I don’t know how to release my children from the cage either.  When abuse has gone on for so long, the abuser doesn’t even have to be in the same city, or have contact with you, to control you with the fear of what MIGHT happen.  The bars of the cage are memories, fears, and what ifs.  The fear alone is enough to modulate our behaviour, even with little or no contact from him.

I’m tired.  I get tired of hearing myself say that I’m tired.  But I’m tired.  I’m always tired.

Yes, there are good days and things to be thankful for.  This post isn’t ungrateful or dismissive of the blessings in my life.  It’s more to say that no matter how bright the joys and how wonderful the blessing, I still feel caged.  I still wonder how it can be possible to “live a normal life”  or “be healed” or “recovered”  after so much trauma.

I know it’s possible.  I know that ACEs aren’t a death sentence.  I know that our family has a lot of support, a lot of strengths and a lot of STRENGTH.

But some days PTSD makes it hard to be optimistic.  Is a bird in a cage optimistic about escaping?  Or in captivity do they gradually stop singing and lose their vibrancy?  A bird doesn’t belong in a cage.

And neither do I.

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Not my art.  Taken from Pinterest online