Me Too.

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#metoo

Why the fuck is anyone surprised?  Women, femmes and non-binary folks ALL experience sexual harassment and/or sexual assault.   Feminists and women have been talking about this for literally decades.  There have been a number of different twitter and social media campaigns which have gone viral in the past year or two alone.

Honestly, this was the first time it really got to me.  I was so triggered last night that I couldn’t sleep.  I was suddenly terrified that my ex would show up at my house and kill me.  This has been a fear of mine for years and it escalates during any times of transition and whenever media stories about women being murdered as a result of domestic violence hit the press.  I was lying there at midnight my heart racing, jumping at every sound.  My logical mind told me that I was safe, but my PTSD mind/body/heart was screaming that I was in danger.

And I was angry.

I’m angry because I have no faith that me tweeting or posting #metoo on social media will protect me.  Of course me too!  Of course!  I’ve been blamed for not telling anyone about being abused.  Then I was blamed for how I told people.  Then it seemed I was blamed for telling at all.  I wasn’t believed.  I wasn’t believed by SO many people and institutions.  Sometimes I feel blamed for not recovering more quickly, for being “cynical” or for struggling with PTSD.

Both of the times I experienced intimate partner violence, people could have known.  There were signs.  I was desperately sick.  In and out of hospital.  Trying to kill myself.  Self harming on a regular basis and starving myself.  It wasn’t a mystery that something was seriously wrong.

All the signs add up.  I had literally every possible coping mechanism and reaction to experiencing violence from disassociation, to depression, from shame to self hatred. When I finally talked about it, there was no logical reason to question my story.  But of course the stigma of mental illness clouded the picture.  Some people didn’t believe me because they thought I was mentally ill.  They were wrong.  I was mentally ill because #metoo.

Women, femme and non-binary people struggle with so many negative, and in many cases life long, impacts as a result of sexual assault and harassment.  In some ways, I feel like I’ve lost a good portion of my life.  It’s actually too painful to fully acknowledge and grieve the things (and parts of myself) I’ve lost as a direct result of violence.

I don’t want to keep talking about it.  I don’t even always want to tell the stories in this blog.

#metoo rubbed me the wrong way.

I want to see #ididit  or #ignoredit.  I want to see perpetrators get on social media and admit to the sexual assault and harassment they have done.  I want to see men, especially cis men, get online and talk about how they failed to intervene, how they participated in, and benefited from, rape culture.

Because make no mistake, #metoo, is about rape culture.  But it is time to stop placing the responsibility for changing rape culture on the survivors.  It’s time for men to step up and hold each other accountable.  It’s time for men to mentor young boys, teach them about consent culture and tell that that sexual assault and harassment is not cool, not okay and clearly illegal.    It’s time for criminal courts to sentence rapists to REAL punishments.  It’s time for police forces to actually take reports of sexual assault seriously, for officers to believe survivors and investigate the crimes competently and efficiently.  It’s time to take the work of ending gender based violence out of the sexual assault centres which support survivors, and into classrooms, homes, court rooms, and everywhere in our society.   Ending gender based violence is going to take an overhauling of the entire criminal justice, policing and education systems.

We need real accountability for perpetrators.  Women, feminists and sexual assault support workers have been doing this work for too long, unsupported by society.  We get labeled “radical” or “hostile” or experience other put downs.  We get further punished for speaking up against this violence within a society that profits from, and even praises violence against women.

We need to believe survivors.  We need to create safer spaces for those who can’t yet disclose to come forward when they are ready.  We need to create a safe place to land for survivors.   We need to create a consent culture and a society which fully supports survivors.

AND in parallel we need the help of MEN and the system (which was largely designed by white, affluent men) to hold perpetrators accountable.

One survivor is too many!  We shouldn’t need to scroll through pages and pages of folks posting #metoo to realize the magnitude of this problem.   We already know the magnitude, we need to stop pretending that we don’t.  We need an end to victim blaming and a realization that sexual assault and harassment is SO common and SO wide spread, that I don’t know a single woman or gender non-conforming person who couldn’t post #metoo if they had that option.

But they shouldn’t have to.

End gender based violence.   End violence against women.

Enough is enough.

Complex feelings.

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I’m going to talk about something that people who have not experienced prolonged interpersonal abuse rarely understand, and people who have survived it immediately relate to.   The technical psychology term for it is “trauma bonding” but what it refers to, in simple terms, is the complex and multi-faceted feelings a victim has for their abuser.

It’s very hard for me to talk to people in my life about this.  Well meaning people who want to help and who actually care about me a lot, don’t understand this.  This is why it is so important to support survivors of violence by listening to them, validating them and meeting them where THEY are at.  Make sure you clearly understand where they are at, before you begin projecting what you think they should be feeling or where you think they should be at.   If you don’t listen closely, and validate the complexity of the situation, the survivor will shut down and stop sharing with you.  This is not about you.  It was never about you.  If you didn’t live through it, you don’t get a say in how the survivor “should” be feeling.

I’ve known my ex-partner for 17 years, 1 month and 25 days.  We’ve been in a type of relationship for more than half my life.  We were together for 13 years and have been separated/divorced for 4 years, 1.5 months.  Even though we separated we have been (in theory) sharing responsibility for our two children.  In that way, we were still bonded and in a relationship, even though it was at a distance, non-communicative and unproductive.  It was still a type of co-parenting situation, even if we didn’t actually make any real decisions together.

This represents a large portion of my life and a tangled web of complex emotions.

My ex-partner is moving to the other side of the country in 3 weeks.  He’s leaving.  The house we lived in has been sold.  An everything-must-go yard sale planned.  My kids have brought the majority of their possessions here.

And he hasn’t even communicated this with me directly.   Everything I know, I’ve learned through my children.  After over 17 years, he is leaving without even telling me, let alone consulting me or gathering input from me.  Without discussing how this might impact my children, or quite frankly me.

He’s never been one for consent.

Quite honestly, there have been many times over the past four years where I wished for this outcome.  I wished for him to move away, leave us be.  I wished to not be afraid every time I saw a car like his.  I wished to not worry about running into him at the grocery store.  I wished for him not to emotionally abuse the children and I wished not to have to pick up the pieces of that on a weekly basis.  I wished to never see him again.  I didn’t really wish harm on him, I just wished he would move away and let us heal.

I wished for it.  But I didn’t believe he would actually abandon his kids.  I didn’t actually believe he cared so very little about them, that after 4 years of fighting for custody, he would just walk away.

And because I wished for it, people expect me to be happy.  People are congratulating me.  People are thrilled and excited for me.   From the outside, this looks like a dream come true to them.

But honestly, it isn’t.  Not at all.  I’m going through a complex mix of grief, loss, abandonment, fear, anger, anxiety and confusion.  I’m having to face the fact that what I actually wanted is never, and was never, going to happen.

What I actually wanted, was for things to calm down.  I wanted to co-parent, cooperatively, but at a distance.  I wanted us to continue to raise these kids, in separate houses, but working together in their best interest.  I wanted a truce.  I wanted the abuse to end.  I wanted to leave, but I wanted to leave to stop the abuse, not to cut off all contact with him.  I wanted the right to stop the abuse, without sacrificing the entire relationship.  I thought the common bond of sharing children together would continue.  I thought I would be able to talk with him about issues directly related to the children.  I didn’t think we’d be friends, but I had hoped we could co-parent.  I wanted to have a choice.

I never signed up to be a solo parent.  This is not something I feel like celebrating.  I can’t celebrate because I’m grieving.

Truly this is not what I wanted.  I don’t hate him.  I don’t love him, I don’t think I ever did, but I don’t hate him.  I feel deeply sad and disappointed.  I am having trouble trusting and connecting with anyone.  I feel responsible.

And I understand completely that survivors have a complex relationship with their past abusers.  I understand it when people say that they still love the person who raped them.  I have so much compassion for people who have to parent with someone they don’t trust.  Abuse is not simple.  The feelings aren’t simple and survivors need the space to feel accepted for all their confused feelings.

It’s not their fault if they still care about their abuser.  It’s not their fault if they get confused and think it is their own fault.  It’s not their fault if they hope it will get better. It’s not their fault if they dream of reconciliation despite all evidence that the abuser can’t change.   Don’t be disappointed in them.  They can’t help it.  The psychology term for it is trauma bonding, but quite simply they are tormented by self-blame and confusion.

Gaslighting and the cycle of abuse means the survivor feels responsible.

In my case, the abuser has quite literally blamed every aspect of this process, including the abuse and his decision to move, on me.  He told the kids it is my fault he is leaving, because he has “nothing here.”

So, even though you can probably clearly see that it isn’t my fault, I feel responsible.

Even though I intellectually know that it isn’t my fault,  I still feel devastated.  Even though I know intellectually we are better off without his abuse, I’m still scared to be responsible for the kids on my own.

It’s okay to want someone gone, then mourn the overwhelming sense of abandonment.

It’s okay to have whatever feelings you have.  This isn’t a clear situation.  The abuse was designed to confuse you, and that confusion remains long after you leave.

But it’s pretty hard to open up, cry and receive comfort, when you don’t feel entitled to these feelings and when you feel you SHOULD be happy, because it’s what YOU wanted and what people expect.

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Slide credit: Soni McCarty, LMHC 

 

 

Vulnerability Hangover.

I’ve been feeling generally better over the last month.  I cut my hair short and have been expressing my gender in more neutral and androgynous ways.  It feels lighter and more authentic.  I waited a long time to cut my hair and I don’t regret it.  It’s a pixie style cut and since I got it I’ve felt less self conscious and physically awkward.  I’ve had some days where I felt more confident, less hesitant and less full of self doubt.  It’s felt good.

Since getting custody of my children, after a four year long court battle, there have been slow positive changes.  My kids are happily settled into new schools.  I get to spend more time with them.  Their mental health is generally more stable.

It’s Fall, the leaves have started changing and the world around looks beautiful.

But today I woke up with an intense and familiar feeling: that I’m taking up too much space.  The desire to take up less space is tightly bound together with my battle with anorexia.  The feeling of wanting to disappear or be invisible means that I’m more comfortable when my weight is lower.  I feel internal pressure to be thin, thinner or eat less, not because I care so much what I look like, but because the sensation of taking up too much space becomes unbearable.  I don’t feel like I deserve to eat enough to take up my full amount of space. Restricting food and controlling weight symbolically feels like taking up less space.  I’m not sure how to describe the feeling.  Worthless? Shameful? Self critical?  Useless?  Annoying?

I could go on, but I think you get the point.  It feels awful.

Over time I’ve noticed that there is a pattern to the days I feel this intense desire to take up less space, hide or disappear.  Days when my body feels wrong, too big…too much!  These feelings are linked to trauma and abuse, to my boundaries being crossed and to me pushing myself, challenging myself to do more (i.e take up space).

I posted on facebook today about feeling like I was taking up too much space.  Someone I know referred to it as a “vulnerability hangover” and they were exactly right.

Yesterday, I took on a piece of very personal advocacy work.  I attended a mediation meeting with an organization that has not played a positive role in my family’s lives.  I was scared.  I felt alone.  I felt threatened and scared.  And yes, I felt incredibly vulnerable.  I’m not able to write very much about the meeting, because it was confidential.  But it lasted many hours and I left feeling disassociated and numb.  I wasn’t upset, but I wasn’t fully present either.   I didn’t really want to talk about it.  I just wanted to sleep.

I woke up this morning and I felt like I was taking up too much space.  I wanted to hide and disappear.  I felt like crying through most of the day.  I felt irritable and angry over tiny things.  I felt stupid and useless.  I felt like I wasn’t going to be able to do a good job at anything.  I was doubting my abilities.

The familiar feeling of not being important was racing through my head.  Feeling like nobody likes me, that people merely tolerate my annoying presence.  Like a buzzing fly which someone feels too guilty to swat dead.  I felt too big.  Too much.

It was incredibly helpful for this person, who I don’t even know that well, to point out that the strong feelings were likely related to how vulnerable I was yesterday.  How exposed I felt.

So, today I have a vulnerability hangover.  It feels awful.

But I’m hoping that the advocacy was worth it.  That it was more effective and healthier than staying silent.  I’m hoping it makes a difference in another family’s lives.

I spoke my truth.  It was risky and terrifying, but I did it.  I wanted to run away, but I didn’t.  I faced some fears and came out the other side in one piece.

Just hungover.

Leaving. Living.

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It started to go off the rails quite soon after I told him I was leaving.  Gradually, as the reality of the magnitude of what I was doing sunk in for him, the angrier he became.  When I told him I’d hired a lawyer and wanted to discuss what it would look like to divide our finances he got angry.  When I explained how child support might work and that I’d been informed about my rights he got angry.

He tried to convince me that we could put the money for the children into an account that we’d both have access to.  That I could buy the things they needed from there.  I explained calmly that child support didn’t work that way, that he’d have to pay me and that I could legally use the money for anything related to caring for the children.  He was furious.  I tried to explain that child support wasn’t just for the children’s clothes and activities, but for anything related to their care.  That I could use it for things like utilities bills (so they had heat and electricity) or repairs to the car (if the brakes were broken and it was unsafe for them) etc.   He got angrier.  We fought.  I was so hurt because I felt like he didn’t trust me to manage money, even though I’d been paying our bills and managing household finances for our entire marriage.  I didn’t understand at that point, that the issue was power and control.  I wanted him to trust me.  I kept trying to explain.  He got very angry.  I thought he might hit me, but he just yelled at me to drop it, to walk away.  We were in the basement of our house, near the stairs.  He wanted me to go upstairs to let him calm down (he’d been sleeping in the basement as we were separated within the same house).   A part of me knew I should go upstairs, but I was so hurt and so upset and I needed him to understand.   He was full of rage and I was afraid and crying.

When I didn’t go upstairs he got angrier.  He smashed his head through the drywall of the basement wall.  I didn’t understand why he would destroy his own property.   I was the one leaving, this would soon be his house, not ours.  Why damage it?

I was really scared at this point and I wanted to leave.  I told him I wanted to take the children to my parents’ house until he calmed down.  I needed to calm down as well.  I couldn’t stop crying and shaking.   I went up to the main floor, but he blocked my way to the upstairs, blocking me from the kids.  He told me I could go to my parents’ but I couldn’t take the kids.  I kept trying to get by him and he kept holding me back.  I told him I was going to call the police.  At this point we were upstairs, near my older daughter’s bedroom.   He snarled at me “if  you call the police I will tell them you are mentally ill and hysterical and they won’t believe you.  They will believe me.”

Defeated, I knew he was right.  I was too afraid to call.  I grabbed my medication and some things and ran out to my car, locked myself in and sobbed.  It was late.  Maybe midnight.  I cried and cried.  I called a friend who’d told me that I could call him if I had to leave in an emergency.  He didn’t pick up.  I was too afraid to tell my parents.  I wasn’t willing to leave my kids.

I remember him coming out to the car.  Asking me, through the glass, to come into the house.  Eventually he went back inside the house.  I cried in the car for a long time before realizing I was out of options.  I went back into the house, went upstairs and went to sleep.

I could have run with the kids while he was sleeping.  But I was too afraid.  We lived together, separately for a few more weeks after that night.    More recently, I learned that my daughter heard us fighting and me crying and she was afraid.   She never told me at the time.

He took the kids to visit his mother.  I packed my belongings and moved them to my parents garage.   I tried to make the house look as nice as possible before the children returned, so they wouldn’t be afraid.  I finished staining the new fence.  I  hung pictures of his family in place of the ones I took down.  I spent hours looking through my photo albums, taking out all the ones of his family that I thought he’d want to keep before packing the albums.  I left our wedding album on the bookshelf.  I spent 10 days mostly alone, slowly taking apart my life and putting it into boxes.

When he came back from the trip he was cold.  He was a white hot, cold rage.  His eyes were changed.  I knew on some level he was dangerous, but I still wanted to believe it would be okay.  I wanted to believe we could separate, and co-parent peacefully in two separate houses.

When he came back there were 3 nights until the day I took possession of my new place.  He told me he would be sleeping in our bedroom now and I could sleep downstairs.  I didn’t argue.  I slept on the couch and lying numb and afraid in my daughter’s bed.  I remember having a terrible nightmare on the last night I spent in that house.  It was 4 years ago tonight.  I dreamed that one of my friends died.  It was horrible and sad and I woke up crying.

I woke up and he was gone.  The kids had a medical appointment and then we were supposed to go to my parents’ house for the night.  I packed up some last things, the children’s clothing and left them by the front door for my Dad to pick up while we were at the appointment.   I got an email from him telling me that the plan had changed, that he wouldn’t allow me to take the children.  He insisted he would come to get them later in the day, that he didn’t want them exposed to the move and my new house empty.  He said the kids would stay with him most of the time until school started.  I didn’t agree, I tried to negotiate with him. I remember lying curled up on the floor of my childhood bedroom, crying, sobbing on the phone with him trying to convince him to allow the children to stay with me that night.  I’d already been away from them 10 days and they were confused and upset.

My Dad tried to pick up the kids things and he wouldn’t allow him into the house.  He was angry and like an animal.  My Dad asked him to calm down but he wouldn’t listen.  He allowed my Dad to take the things that belonged to me, but not the children’s clothing.

Before dinner, he showed up at my parents’ house.  He wanted the kids.  We were standing on the front porch and I was asking him to let the kids stay with me.  He dragged them away from me.  They were crying, especially my older child.  He took them anyway.  Took them out to dinner to try to bribe them into being okay with what had happened.

I remember lying on the floor of the bedroom, sobbing.  Trying to reach my lawyer.  Trying to get advice about what to do.  Feeling defeated, less than 12 hours after leaving him.  It already felt like too much.  I was scared and I knew that I’d been living in a dream world for the past 6 weeks, thinking we could live separately and co-parent.

But it would take me another few months, until October of that year, before I truly realized the depths he would go to to take my kids away.  It would be a few more months until I  realized it was hopeless and there was no chance of a reconciliation, common ground, shared parenting or co-operation.

I spent a few more months telling people that it was “just sexual abuse” and that he was basically a good guy.  I spent a few more months believing that it was about sex.  I spent a few more months believing before someone told me that abuse was about power and control, and that I had to stop making excuses for him and acknowledge the severity of what was happening.

Every year since then I’ve spent the last few days of August re-living every moment of those last few weeks I spent in my old life.  I might have already written this exact blog post last year.  Every year I struggle.   Every year I feel hopeless.  Every year I’m forced to confront the reality that my marriage was abusive, that my ex-husband was very definitely NOT “basically a good guy.”

This year, I received the verdict of the four year long custody battle and family law trial only a few weeks before the anniversary of the leaving.

It took me a year to plan to leave and to execute that plan.  It took me 4 more years to get custody of my children.

It took 5 years to leave him.  5 years.

I feel like a chapter in my life has closed.  The court verdict drew a line after the last sentence on the final page of the book of my leaving.   The book closed.  I got free.  For a moment I breathed out and my entire body has almost collapsed with the exhaustion of the fight finally ending.  I had to hold it together for 5 years.  I had to be sane for 5 years.  I had to cope.  I had to go to work.  I had to act normally, when inside I felt like I was being torn apart with the grief of knowing my children were being abused and I couldn’t stop it.  I felt like my brain shattered into a million pieces during the last few days of court when my children’s psychological records were disclosed, against their wishes and the wishes of their psychologist, to their father. I felt like I would not survive the anxiety of waiting over 8 months for the verdict of the trial.

But I did survive.  I’m not the same person I was 5 years ago.  I’m not the same person I was a year ago.  This has changed me.  It has fundamentally shifted any belief I had in the world being a fair and just place.  It has created a dark, sad, hopeless place inside of me that I don’t know how to soothe.

And almost as soon as I breathed out.  Almost as soon as the chapter book closed, with the verdict in my favour…before I had a chance to rest or come to a full stop…while I was still almost immobile with exhaustion…

It carried on.  A new book opened.  A book full of empty blank pages.  I have no idea what the future holds.  I know that it contains more struggles and more fear.  I know that my kids are still not safe, that he will still emotionally abuse them when he has access to them.  I know that I will continue to have to fight for my trans daughter’s right to exist safely.  I know that I will need to fight every day to hold onto hope and to see the good in the world.

The leaving has ended.

I just don’t know what the living has in store for us.

What to do when PTSD tells you that the entire world is unsafe?

I don’t know what to do when PTSD tells me that the entire world is  unsafe.

Trust no one.  Trust no one.  Trust no one.

Everyone will let me down.  Nobody understands me.  It’s not safe to trust.  It’s not safe to open up.  The system is broken.  Nobody believes me.

Maybe it’s me.  Maybe I’m the common link.  Maybe I’m so deeply flawed that people are better off away from me.  Maybe I deserved to be abused.  Maybe I’m the real abuser.  Maybe I’m broken and selfish.  Maybe I am controlling.  Maybe I am incapable of loving someone.

PTSD lies a lot.

PTSD makes me push people away over tiny mistakes.  PTSD makes me feel like a small vulnerable child, when someone says one harsh word.  PTSD makes me freeze in a conflict or do anything to get out of it, even if that course of action doesn’t make long term sense.

PTSD at its root tells me that the world is unsafe.  PTSD tells me that I’m unsafe and that I’ll never be safe.

It also tells me that situations are either perfectly safe or completely unsafe and dangerous.

PTSD doesn’t find a middle ground easily.

I need to get safe and grounded before the middle ground reappears.

When I’m triggered it’s all or nothing.  All the fear.  All the self criticism.  Pushing people completely away.  Feeling hopeless and that nothing has meaning.

PTSD makes me feel like trust is completely destroyed when someone makes a mistake that hurts me.  PTSD tells me that person can no longer be trusted because they will only hurt me again.  PTSD tells me that I’m safer alone.  Or that others are safer away from me.

PTSD is not a realistic judge of anything.  It doesn’t accurately assess danger.  It doesn’t accurately assess me.  It doesn’t analyze situations clearly.  It doesn’t forgive.  It doesn’t forget.  It never forgets ANYTHING that makes me feel unsafe.  And it all gets tied together in a giant clump of tangled unsafe, danger.

On the other hand, PTSD tends to forget the good times, the moments of safety.  The moments of laughter.  The moments when life has so much meaning it hurts.  It forgets the perfect moments, or tells me they are worthless because they ended.

I’m not a perfectionist.  PTSD is a perfectionist.  I’m not a control freak.  PTSD is a control freak.   I’m not a judgmental person.  PTSD is judgmental.

PTSD changes me into a person I don’t even like.

I know people have limits and boundaries and are fallible.  I know I have limits and flaws.  I know that life has good times and bad.  I know that it’s important to be grateful and see the joy in little things.

I know.

But I don’t believe.  PTSD doesn’t let me believe.  PTSD doesn’t want to risk losing the good things, so it doesn’t want to get attached to them.  PTSD is always expecting the next crisis, the next drama, the next danger, the next heart break and the next pain.  PTSD is a child cowering in the corner waiting to be hit. PTSD doesn’t let me “just calm down” or “just smile.”

I’m always waiting to be abused again.  I’m always expecting to be hurt again.

Deep down inside I’m scared that I deserve it.  That I’m not a good person.

PTSD makes me believe that I’m not a good person and that I don’t deserve happiness and health.

PTSD makes me neglect my health, because “what’s the point anyways?”

PTSD tells me that nobody believes me.

PTSD is the combined voice of all the people who have abused and hurt me over the course of my life.  PTSD isn’t me.  It’s not my voice.  It’s not random and it’s not a character flaw.   It’s the cumulative result of years of gaslighting, emotional, physical and sexual violence.  It’s the result of a broken system, systemic/institutionalized abuse which did not validate my experiences.  It’s the result of the psychiatric system, the legal system, the police, child protection and violations of trust by people in authority.

PTSD is the reason I’ve spent more than half of my life not really caring about living (at best) or actively wanting to die (at worst).

Sometimes when I’m triggered it’s not just Ana (my angry teenager) who is on the scene.  It’s a much younger child, almost pre-verbal.  All that younger part wants is to be wrapped in warm quilts and be held.   She wants her hair stroked as she cries.  She wants to be cradled and rocked and shushed.  Gently and patiently, like a parent with an infant.   That part isn’t angry like Ana,  she’s just a deep well of unmet needs.  She just wants to be safe.  This inner child has been around a lot the past few weeks.

I just want to be safe.

But I’m an adult.  And I have to take care of my needs myself now.

You are fine…until you aren’t. Life with PTSD.

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Today was a rough PTSD day.  Sometimes that’s the way it is with PTSD, you are fine, fine, fine…until you aren’t.  And then you real aren’t!  Nights like this I love my medication so hard.  Nights like this I don’t even consider the choice of going off psychiatric medication.  Nights like this I know that I’ve been staying up too late, not listening to my body, pushing myself further than I can reasonably go, ignoring early warning signs and just generally not trusting my own inner wisdom about what I can handle.

I dropped the kids off with their Dad this morning.  That’s always difficult.  It always lowers my capacity and PTSD coping bar by easily 50% by 9AM.

I had a difficult phone call at work.  Had to support someone around a type of abuse experience that I find triggering.  I dealt with it well, but it lowered my capacity bar by another chunk.

I met a friend for coffee this evening.  There was a traffic mess and the person was late.  While I was waiting, a car with a souped up muffler purposefully back fired it, reving the engine suddenly right in front of me.  I was looking at my phone and the loud noise and vibration startled me a LOT.  Before my heart stopped racing, the car back fired again.  I jumped again.  I almost burst into tears.  My PTSD coping bar was now at 0-5%.

This level of startle response is NOT a warning sign of PTSD issues for me, it’s one of the clear signs that I’ve been ignoring warning signals for a while.  When I feel like crying after being startled in an otherwise safe situation, PTSD is on the scene in a major way.  It’s time to get safe, do some grounding, probably get home and away from crowds.

But I didn’t listen.  I had plans to see a show later and I knew it was no longer the right choice.  The sign said there were “loud noises and flashing lights.”  The self aware voice inside me said “Not tonight.  This isn’t going to work tonight”  but I ignored it.  I pushed myself.  I tried to be “normal.” I tried to have a full PTSD tank, when it was really running on fumes.

The person I was meeting there was in a different space, relaxed and ready to enjoy the show.

I needed some help to get grounded and attempt the experience.

I didn’t get it.

I was already inside the show.  There were strobe type flashing lights which I know can trigger migraines for me.  My anxiety got worse.  I started to feel trapped and afraid.  I didn’t know what to expect and my anxiety was escalating.  I knew a panic attack was coming.  Generally, there’s a tiny bit of warning before it goes to 100km panic.  I have a few moments where I’m thinking clearly enough to know I need to exit.  I need to get outside NOW.  I need to be outside 5 minutes ago.

I can feel my chest tighten.  My breathing is coming faster.  I can feel the panic rising and rising like a tsunami wave of fear.  I start to walk as fast as I can without running.  I don’t know how to get out.  I just keep walking forward, sliding past people.   Mentally I know that if the tears start before I get outside then I’ll need help to get out.  I don’t want to ask a stranger for help.  I don’t want to slow down.  I know I need to get outside NOW.  My chest is painful, the tears are in my eyes.  The dizziness is starting. I feel like it’s taking forever to find the door in the darkness.  I feel embarrassed.  I feel ashamed.  I feel afraid.

My hands are on the door, I can see the outside and then I’m out.

I’m hyperventilating now.  Walking as fast as I can.  Crying and breathing in choked breaths.  So dizzy.  I want to slow down, catch my breath, but my feet keep going forward.  I’m downtown, in the dark, alone.  I pick up my phone and dial a friend.  He picks up.  I’m sobbing now, into the phone not able to speak.   He’s asking me what’s wrong.  I’m still walking, trying to catch my breath, manage to blurt out “I’m having a panic attack!”   He knows I’ll be okay, I’m not in physical danger, just emotional.  He speaks in a soothing voice, encouraging me to breathe, until the tears subside enough for me to speak.  I’m gradually slowing my breathing now.  It’s taking a focused effort, but I’m doing it. My chest hurts so much it feels like it might explode or collapse or both.

I walk around for 20 minutes before I’m calm enough to drive home.  The panic subsides but I know it’s only a tiny distance away.  I’m not sure if it will stay away, or return, out of control, taking me back down into tears.

I get home safely.  Take my pills as soon as I’m in the door.  I know that within 45 minutes I’ll feel calmer, so I start typing this as I wait.

I’ve noticed that abelism towards mental illness looks like this:

Folks can understand the triggers I have which are directly linked to the violence.  They understand how to be careful with sex.  They understand why I can’t fall asleep unless I’m alone.  They understand aspects of PTSD.  But they don’t REALLY understand.   A lot of people don’t understand that any situation where I don’t know what is happening, feel out of control, feel a sense of danger or feel that my environment is too unpredictable can be a trigger and can remind me of the feelings of being abused.

They don’t understand that in the moments when a panic attack is happening, the danger is real to me.  Logic doesn’t stop the fear.  Intellectual reasoning doesn’t stop the fear.  Being impatient with the person doesn’t stop the fear. The only way to stop the fear is to be believed and validated and gently helped through grounding techniques like breathing (or whatever the person finds helpful).  Or when it’s really bad, just holding space for the person until the panic attack ends.

In those moments of panic, telling someone to “just calm down” is like telling a person who uses a wheel chair to “just walk.”  In those moments of panic, PTSD is a disability.  It’s a real physical and physiological reaction based on experienced trauma that has changed a person’s brain.  Just as a wheel chair can help some folks with physical limitations get around,  grounding skills can be a vehicle to help someone with PTSD get around.  Without these skills and coping techniques many things just aren’t accessible or possible.

Someone having a panic attack or flashbacks isn’t doing it on purpose.  They aren’t misbehaving.  They aren’t lazy or controlling or seeking attention.  Their brain is literally misfiring.  The person is experiencing a safe situation as an extremely dangerous one.  If the panic attack and flashbacks are happening at the same time, the person might not be fully present in the moment, they might be in the past or mentally re-experiencing the time of the original trauma or abuse.

A lot of the time PTSD is an invisible disability.   A lot of the time when I tell people I’m not okay or I’m struggling it’s not visible on the outside.

Panic attacks can be visible or invisible.  For me the scariest ones are the visible ones, where I know I’m acting erratically, because then I feel shame AND panic.  These scary ones are most likely to happen when I’ve missed too much sleep and when I’ve been ignoring early warning signs and pushed myself too far.

Another thing about panic attacks and flashbacks is that when you have them, you start to be afraid of having them again.  I’ve learned to live with flashbacks and anxiety, but when I have severe panic attacks with flashbacks the physiological hyper arousal can take 5-7 days to fully diminish.

If someone you know experiences flashbacks or panic attacks, a compassionate response can be extremely beneficial.  I know it’s hard to be patient all the time.  Nobody is perfect, but your response in these moments of high anxiety can make all the difference.  Even if it doesn’t fully relieve the anxiety, it can reduce the guilt and shame and fears of rejection.  Some people with PTSD, myself included, have a deeply held internal belief that they are freaks or crazy.  Treating someone compassionately can help counteract this negative internal PTSD dialogue.

I’m going to bed.  Hopefully I can sleep this off.

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Closets are for clothes.

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I was an adult when I acknowledged my feelings of attraction to women and gender non-conforming folks.  I was in my mid 30s before I began coming out as bisexual and then finally queer.  Some people I know STILL assume I’m straight.  I’ve been told over and over that I “don’t look queer” (whatever that even means!!).  Some people think I “just like rainbows!”  That makes me laugh.   As time goes on, I make more and more slow steps into the realm of “coming out” and living as my own queer self.  I even have a gay agenda! (my agenda is literally decorated with rainbows).

At the end of the day, I don’t fit into a binary of sexual identity.  I’m neither gay nor straight.  I identify as queer which to me means I’m open to dating anyone who isn’t an abuser, but my preference is to date women and gender non-conforming folks.  My primary sexual attraction is to those who are not cis-gender men.

Yes, I was married to a man.  Yes, I dated men throughout most of my life.  No, that doesn’t mean I’m straight.  And for the record, if I date a man again I STILL won’t be straight.  I’m not heterosexual when I date men or gay when I date women.  I’m queer and I’m always queer.  The rainbow pins on my bag, and rainbow jewelry is not just “because I like rainbows.”  It’s a symbol of identity and pride.

Heterosexual people are really fond of assuming everyone is straight.  I call this the straight agenda!  We are surrounded every day with images and representation that teach us that heterosexuality is “normal” and ” neutral” and people who identify as gay, bi, pan or queer are “other” and “different.”

I identify as queer because I reject this binary.

I still struggle with being openly “out.”   It’s new to me, I’m self conscious and I feel different.   I think I fought it internally for a long time because I didn’t want to feel different in another way. Recent political events and news worldwide makes it difficult to be proud and confident as an out queer person.  I see other gay, trans and queer people being discriminated against and even killed worldwide and it impacts me.  It makes me more afraid to be out.

As part of my journey of recovery and healing from violence, I’ve been reflecting on and exploring my sexuality and also my gender identity.   I realize that as a child and teenager I didn’t know any openly gay women.  I didn’t know any trans folks (as far as I know).  As I’ve grown up, I’ve learned that many people I knew as a youth identify as trans, queer, gay etc. adults, but as a youth I only knew a few gay male friends.

I didn’t even know that being gay/queer was an option for me.  

But now I do. and whether I was born this way, or grew up this way as a result of trauma, this is me.  I’m here and I’m queer.

Most people in my life don’t know that I’ve also been exploring my gender identity.  I’m still very much “in the closet” about this journey.  It’s much more recent and my reflection on it came about after speaking to and listening to many gender non-conforming folks and finding elements in common with their experiences.

I experience body dysphoria and have since I was 9 years old.  I’ve come to realize that this isn’t entirely related to anorexia or to sexual abuse.   I’ve engaged in self harm in ways that don’t always make sense.  I won’t get into that here, but I’ve come to reflect on the connection, not just with coping with trauma, but with my gender and gender identity.

After a lot of refection and some discussion in counseling, I’m now most comfortable as identifying as:

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What does this mean?  It means that like my sexuality, my gender does not fit neatly into a binary.

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I’m still exploring exactly what this means for me.  It has more to do with my gender identity (how I feel inside and how I relate to myself) than it does with my gender expression  (how I present my gender to the outside world).

So this is me.  I’m coming out of the closet again.  I’m queer and gender queer.

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I’m on a journey of self discovery and healing.  I hope you can wish me well.

Sexual Harassment. I’m done.

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For the record, street harassment and sexual harassment in public spaces is not cool.  Existing in public does not equal consent.  Being a femme person trying to live your life does not equal consent.  Wearing shorts or a short skirt to stay cool in the summer does not equal consent.  Children are not sexual objects.  Everyone just keep your sexual thoughts INSIDE your head, unless you are with another consenting adult. I can guarantee that very few women interpret cat-calling as a compliment.  Sexual harassment and street harassment is sexual violence because there is NO consent.

I’m feeling triggered and angry today.

Friends and acquaintances often ask me if I’m a recovering addict.  They ask me because I don’t drink and being around people who are drinking makes me extremely uncomfortable.  Generally I will avoid social situations where excessive alcohol consumption will occur.  I’m not an alcoholic and I’ve never had an addiction issue.  I find substance use/misuse extremely triggering and unappealing.   To me the idea of being out of control or having my personality altered by a substance is terrifying.  Since I was a teenager, and friends first started drinking at parties, I was uncomfortable.  I never liked the way people changed when they drank.  It scared me and I wanted no part in it.  The way people behave unpredictably when they use substances scared me also.  I’m not 100% sure why alcohol is such a trigger for me, but it has been for as much of my life as I can remember.  That’s why I don’t drink, not because I’m a recovering addict, but because I’m terrified of being out of control.  Well, that and Ana won’t let me waste precious calories on alcohol!  And the practical voice inside me has no interest in spending money on it!

A few weeks ago I was walking to the market with my two daughters.  They are tweens, still children.  As we crossed the road at 9:45AM, an intoxicated man hauling beer kegs back to the store, began cat-calling at us.  “Nice legs” he yelled, while making sexual noises.  My older daughter turned to look and he shouted “Yeah, I’m talking to you.”   We kept walking quickly across the street.  There were people all around and nobody did or said anything.  I could hear the man cat-calling others as we walked in the other direction.  This situation made me so angry.  Who cat-calls at children?  Street harassment can be ugly and it makes most people feel uncomfortable at best, and unsafe at worst.

Yesterday, I volunteered at a festival.  It was to raise money for a good cause.  I was a greeter and had various tasks, including searching bags for alcohol.  This was not the type of event I would normally attend.  I don’t like mass gatherings.  I don’t like spaces where lots of people are together and consuming alcohol and drugs.  But I wanted to help out, so I showed up.

In the space of a few hours, I was sexually harassed not once but FOUR times.  Yes.  FOUR times.  By the end, I was done.  I felt shaky and dizzy and I just wanted to go home.   I had trouble sleeping last night.  I had body memories and I felt agitated and afraid.  Today I mostly isolated myself, having no interest in interacting with other people.

While I was volunteering, two men hit on me.  One of them touched my arm while he was doing it.  A third man made sexual comments to me.  And a fourth suddenly and unexpectedly grabbed me and hugged me extremely hard, crushing me before walking away.

It seemed like these men decided that my very presence in the space constituted consent.  But I consented to volunteering, not to being sexually harassed.

I blamed myself.  I felt like it was my fault because I wore a short athletic skirt to the festival.  Normally I wouldn’t wear something like that, but it was hot and I rode my bike there.  I felt like if I’d dressed differently I wouldn’t have been harassed.

I blamed myself and felt shame and guilt because I didn’t fight back.  I didn’t tell the men that their attentions were unwanted.  I didn’t scream at them, I didn’t run away.  The people who verbally harassed me, I actually politely went along with it.  Then tried to get away quickly.  The person who hugged me, I froze. I did nothing at all.  Generally, I feel that with unpredictable people it is better NOT to aggravate them, better not to defend yourself, better just to let it happen, then try to get away quickly.   But this is always my pattern.  And I hate myself for it.

I want to be the person who fights back.  I want to be the person who screams “No, you creep!” at the top of my lungs.  I want to punch the person harassing me.

But everything inside me tells me not to make a scene.

Everything inside me tells me that freezing or playing nice is the safest choice.

Everything inside me tells me that I’m stupid, that I’m overreacting, that I’m making a big deal over nothing, that these things happen to women ALL the time, that it was meant as a compliment, that nothing REALLY bad happened…I minimize and discount and shame myself.

But it does impact me.  Because I have PTSD, it impacts me a lot.  It makes me afraid to go to crowded places.  It increases my inability to trust others.  It makes me feel unsafe.  It brings back memories and body memories and puts me on edge.  It makes me feel dizzy and nauseous and stressed out.

Street harassment may fall at the “less serious” end of the sexual violence continuum.  It’s not as serious as rape or domestic violence which ends in murder.   But it’s still not okay.  It’s still violence.  It’s still happening without consent.  And if you have already survived more “serious” violence, it can also be extremely triggering.

So if you are impacted by street harassment, please know you are not alone.  It’s not your fault.  It’s okay if you feel…whatever you feel.  It’s okay to react however you react.  It’s THEM.  It’s not you.

And if you are reading this and you are someone who engages in the street harassment and cat-calling of others.  Please stop.  Please don’t touch strangers without their explicit verbal consent.

We don’t consider it a compliment.  We consider it sexual violence.

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4 years out…still trapped

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Photo credit: http://www.katewmak.com/

This week marks the 4 year anniversary of the separation from my ex.  Four years since the night I told him it was over and I was leaving.  Four years since I made the biggest and most difficult decision of my life.  6 weeks later, I moved into my own home and started my new life as a single mother of two.

If I had known back then how difficult leaving would be, I would probably be dead.  If I had known 4 years ago that the court process would still be ongoing.  If I had known he was going to abuse my children and I would be helpless to prevent it.  If I had known that after four years, I would still be caught, living my life trying to prevent him from hurting us.

If I had known these things I would have stayed.  If I had known that leaving would become a marathon of epic proportions, with no end in sight, I would have ended my life.

In the past four years I have endured all of my worst fears.  I have had to face the fact that my absolute worst fear (my own children experiencing abuse) has not only occurred, but is ongoing and society refuses to step in to stop it.  I live with things I thought I could not survive and I live with them daily.

I’ve had to survive things that no person should have to survive and so have my children.  Leaving didn’t save me.  It didn’t save them.  It didn’t cure my PTSD because I’m still being abused by him.

Some days, even recently, I have wanted to give up.  When I started to feel as suicidal, as hopeless, as trapped and as depressed as when I was living with him, it felt unbearable.  Many days feel unbearable, but each day I survive.  I have to survive to create a safe home for my children.

It’s crucial to help people and support them in exiting abusive situations, but we have to stop perpetuating the destructive myth that “just leaving” is the solution.  We have to stop perpetuating the myth that “just leaving” will solve all the problems.  If your abuser is the parent of your children, you can never “just leave” because you are forced to interact with them on a regular basis until your children are adults and possibly longer.

Of course I had to leave.  I wouldn’t have survived there much longer.

Of course it’s better for my children to have a happy, healthy mother 50% of the time rather than a dead mother 100% of the time.

Of course I made the right decision, the only decision.

Of course there are a number of things in my life that have improved since leaving and I’m grateful for them.

But that doesn’t make it any less painful to look back over 4 years of struggling to fully extricate myself from narcissistic abuse.  4 years of betrayals and incompetence by every major social program I’ve interacted with (CAS, legal, court, police, hospital, school).

So let’s support domestic abuse survivors to leave, but let’s also support them for as long as it takes after.  Let’s recognize and acknowledge that the abuse does not end the moment she walks out the door.  Let’s support survivors who regularly doubt whether or not they should have left, because the legal process is so traumatic and inaccessible.  Let’s support survivors who have to co-parent with narcissits.

Create a community of support circling the survivor and keep it in place for as long as she needs it.  Because she will need it, especially at the times she feels as bad, or worse than she did in the relationship.

So this week I mark 4 years down, a life time of healing to go!

Body distortions.

I’ve struggle with distorted perceptions of my body since I was 9 years old. I vividly remember the first time I felt hatred towards my body.  I was 9 and I was sitting on the floor in the upstairs hall of my parents’ house.  I must have been getting ready to get into the shower.  I was sitting with my legs out in front of me and all I could think about was how fat and ugly my stomach was.  I thought it looked disgusting.

I remember during my years as a dancer how much I envied the other girls who were thinner and had more delicate frames.  I was always cast in the role of the boy in the group choreography and I assumed this was because I was the largest, tallest and least delicate.  Intellectually I knew some of the girls were younger and hadn’t gone through puberty yet, but emotionally it hurt.  I didn’t want to be in the boys costume, pants, vest and button up shirt. I wanted the flowing dress.  The main reason was because I assumed my body shape was to blame.

I remember feeling slightly more confident in my body for a few years, at the beginning of high school.  My style changed fairly dramatically over the years, from dresses, to jeans and baggy sweatshirts, to grunge plaid shirts and doc marten boots, to short kilts and boots, to hippy long skirts…in high school I wore skirts and dresses the majority of the time and I never felt comfortable in shorts.

When I was sexually abused, I started linking my female body with being assaulted.  I wanted to take up less space.  I wanted to disappear so I couldn’t be abused.  I changed my style again, and stopped wearing skirts and dresses and more feminine items, expect for special occasions.

It took many years for me to make the link between being abused and hating my body.  I believed all the negative thoughts Ana was screaming at me.  I believed I was fat, even when I was deathly thin.  I saw things that weren’t there.  I struggled with body dysmorphia and distorted body image, never seeing myself as others saw me.  I became so used to this that I stopped questioning why it happened.  I became increasingly invested in hating my body and blaming my body for being abused.  I forged an even stronger link by engaging in severe self harm for many years and abusing my body by overdosing and attempting suicide.  All my destructive behaviours distracted away from the root causes of my eating disorder and self harm.

I remember the moment the link became crystal clear to me.  Up until that moment it was a complete mystery to me how my view of my body could change so drastically from day-to-day.  One day I might see myself as thin, or even worry about my weight and health and the next day I’d wake up feeling obese, disgusting and unwilling to eat.  I had a hard time intellectually believing that it was impossible for my body to change that much over night.  I tried to control the dysphoria by altering my eating habits and/or exercise.

Around 2011-2012, during the years leading up to me leaving my ex-husband, I had a sudden realization.  My weight was low towards the end of 2011, partly due to the ECT treatments and lack of appetite and partly due to Ana and depression.   I remember feeling like I’d lost too much weight.  I remember feeling concerned about how low my weight was (this was during the brief time period I owned a scale).  I went to sleep one night and my ex-husband touched me sexually when I was asleep and drugged.  Quite likely after I’d said no while awake.  I remember us fighting about it in the morning.  I went into the en suite bathroom and got ready to shower.  I remember and overwhelming feeling of being fat. I hated my stomach. I felt massive and ugly.  I wanted to harm myself and restrict food.  I felt disgusting and shameful.

Then a light bulb went off in my mind.

Wait a minute, just yesterday you felt you were too thin.  Just yesterday you were worried about your weight being low. It’s impossible that you have gained that much weight over night.  These self-destructive thoughts are linked to being assaulted and to the argument.  You feel fat and dirty and shameful BECAUSE of what happened.  It has nothing to do with your weight.  Your weight hasn’t changed.

Things started to shift for me after that realization.  I suddenly had a clear intellectual understanding that I needed to try living alone before giving up and completing suicide.  I realized that I hadn’t truly “tried everything” to recover because I hadn’t tried removing myself from my marriage.  I think this realization saved my life.  I began to slowly get stronger, to seek different types of help (from a rape crisis centre) and to talk to a few trusted folks about what was happening in my marriage.

It took me a full year to get strong enough to leave.  But the leaving started with that realization.  For a moment, I stopped blaming my body and myself and started blaming my abuser for my ill-health.

In the last two days I’ve had some incredibly frustrating text interchanges with my ex-husband.  Trying to co-ordinate co-parenting with a narcissist is impossible.  It is like pushing a spiky boulder up an icy hill, where you are blamed for the ice, the spikes and for not succeeding in getting the boulder up the hill.

Yesterday, Ana was screaming at me.  Ana did NOT want me to eat.  Ana was telling me I was fat and I’d gained too much weight.  Ana was telling me to hurt myself.  Ana was making me paranoid that my ex could see things on my computer, or hear things we were talking about at my house.  Ana was activated and was not letting me rest.  Noises startled me, I had a hard time relaxing to sleep.

All of this happened because of a 5 minute text exchange with him.

Co-parenting with an abuser is enough to make anyone miserable.  But I need to remember that my body is not to blame.  In fact, the healthier I am, the stronger I can be at resisting his abuse.  I need to be healthy to take care of my kids and protect them as much as possible from his lies.  Ana tells me to hurt myself, to shrink myself, that it’s my fault.  But Ana lies.

I’m willing to bet that if you have an abusive voice in your head, it is lying to you too.  Ana never makes us stronger.  We are not to blame for the abusive patterns of another person.

I read a quote once…

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This was certainly true in my case.  I realized that hurting myself was not the way out.  There was another way, a sometimes more difficult way, but a more productive one!

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