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?

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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.

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.

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

The Minutia. Barriers after Leaving: A rant.

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I’ve written quite a few posts about the struggles of leaving an abusive relationship.  Those posts were mainly focused on the large barriers, things directly related to the abuse and fear.  Today (4 years, 2.5 months) after leaving, I’m still facing minute and incredibly frustrating barriers.  This is a rant about jumping through fucking ridiculous hoops.  Hoops that would be frustrating after any separation, but downright impossible and dangerous after leaving an abusive situation.

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Four years ago, when I physically separated from my ex-husband, my cell phone was registered on a bill that was in his name.  We had all our cable/tv/phone services under one bill which was in his name.  Thus, even though I was living in my own home, the bill and all the information about my cell usage was sent to him.  I wanted as much distance as possible from him.  I didn’t want him to know if I called my doctor or a crisis line, or which of my friends I was in regular contact with.  I called the cell phone company and, even though my name was an authorized contact on the file, they would not consent to transferring my cell phone to my own bill without his consent.   He was the account holder.  They required him to call in.  I asked him to make the call.  He ignored me.  I asked him again, he refused.  I called the company multiple times, I begged, I cried,  I explained that I needed to keep my cell number because I’d sent out job application and resumes.  I told them about the divorce, the abuse, and I cried again.  They absolutely WOULD NOT release the phone number and contract to me without his consent.

I contacted him and told him that if he didn’t release the phone to me by X date, I would return the phone to him and he would be responsible for paying it to the end of the contract.  That date came, he still had not cooperated.  I wiped the SIM card, dropped the phone off at his place and got myself a new phone.

I lost my address, my home phone number and my cell phone number.  I’m certain he would not have passed on any mail, or messages to me.  I have no idea what I might have missed in those months following the separation. My home phone had recorded voice messages from Marian, which I had saved.  When she died, I knew they were gone and I wouldn’t hear her voice again.  I had to re-do my resume, contact doctors, schools etc. and give them not only my new address but my new cell phone number too.

It was frustrating.  It didn’t seem logical.  I felt the power of his control over my life.  He knew I wanted to keep my phone number, so he refused to give it to me.  He would have had to pay out the end of the contract, but he was willing to take a financial hit just to punish me.

***

I need to renew my kids passports. I already delayed doing this for over a year, waiting to get custody, so I could put my address on the forms.  Ideally, they want both parents to sign the forms.  Do you think he would sign them? No.  Of course not!  He said that he forgot.  Then he started ignoring my emails.  So now I will have to bring the court order and divorce papers to the passport office and plead my case.  Maybe they will issue the passports, maybe they won’t.  But I will have to stand there and dredge up this embarrassing awful story about how we are separated, how he moved out of the city and I can’t contact him.  I will have to take my chances on whether or not the person working that day will process the forms with only one signature, or not.  And if they won’t?  Either we won’t be able to travel, or my lawyer will have to try to get him to sign.  But if he won’t sign?  Then what?  Go back to court, just to get a passport renewed.  Sigh.

***

About 18 months ago, I received extended health benefits through my place of employment.  I was so pleased and felt so good about being independent and self sufficient.  I was proud of my ability to work, after many years of being disabled by the violence and ensuring mental illness.

But my good feelings quickly diminished when I learned that I could not put my children’s health claims through my own insurance without claiming through his insurance first.  The rules are that the person whose birthday falls first in the year is the primary insurance, which made mine the secondary.  Since we were divorced, I was not an authorized contact on his insurance.  This meant that in order to submit extended health claims (psychologist, dentist etc) through my plan, I had to submit the claims through his plan first.  Which meant I needed his signature.

FUCK.

In 18 months, he was never once willing to coordinate the benefits.  All I needed was for him to submit the claims through his plan, then provide me with documentation about which portion was not covered.  I could then submit it through my  plan.  With the plans combined, most of the kids expenses would have been fully covered.

But he wouldn’t do it.  Absolutely just refused, ignored and at the same time, told the kids consistently that they didn’t need counseling.  He told them not to trust the counselor and that it was a waste of money, too expensive and it wouldn’t help because I was the crazy one.

So I wasn’t able to use the extended benefits.  I paid for my kids expenses on my own.  Legally we were supposed to be splitting the costs in proportion to our salaries, but that would require even more communication and the more he knew I wanted it, the less he would cooperate.

I’m extremely lucky, I’m in a position where I can pay for my kids extended health care.  But imagine how deep of an impact this would have on someone without a full time job.

The abuse, power and control can continue, financially and administratively for as long as the abuser wants.   There should be protections, that in cases of abuse, rules can be bent or made more flexible.  There should be recognition that continued contact with the abuser is mentally damaging to the survivor at best, and physically dangerous at worst.

***

Fast forward again, to today, years after leaving.   My children’s father quit his job and moved to another part of the country.  Thus his insurance is no longer active.

But I STILL haven’t been able to use my own insurance.  I went to the pharmacy yesterday and his insurance was still on file.

Today, I spent probably 30 minutes on the phone with the provincial drug benefit.  They said they can’t reactive the coverage for my kids, unless they have a letter from Dad’s insurance company saying the insurance was terminated.

FUCK.

There is no way in hell I could get that letter.  I’m not an authorized person on the file for his drug plan.  They won’t talk to me.  If I email him, to ask him, he will ignore me.  He’s in another part of the country.

The frustration is immense.  I wanted to burst into tears and hang up the phone.

Luckily, there is another option, the pharmacy can write a letter to the drug benefit company explaining that the coverage through Dad was terminated.  So I spent another 10 minutes on the phone with them.  I’m hoping it will be sorted out within 1-2 weeks.

These are “minor’ frustrations.  Administrative hoops.  But for a survivor of violence, these hoops are a continuation of the power and control wielded by the abuser.  These phone calls and details can trigger me, make me feel powerless, angry or hopeless.  And they are still continuing 4 years after separation.

No, survivors can’t JUST LEAVE!

I’m writing this, partially to vent, but  partially to share details about WHY leaving is so hard.  WHY people stay in abusive relationship.  WHY the impact lasts for so long.  It’s not just the major stuff.  It’s the giant toppling pile of minute barriers which unite to form a wall of frustration.

It takes a lot of strength to keep climbing the wall.

If you are a survivor, I believe you.  I’m sorry you have to go through this.

If you know a survivor.  Believe them.  Give them a hug and tell them you are sorry for what they are going through.  Offer a helping hand. Let them vent, even if it was “a long time ago.”

The impact of intimate partner violence is long lasting.  Today, November 15th, SHINE the light on violence against women.  We all need to be a part of the solution.  We all need to work to end domestic violence.

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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