How to accept a compliment.

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I went to the dance tonight to celebrate the end of an almost 4 year long legal process.  A 4 year long ordeal of leaving my ex-husband.

I danced.  I felt happy.  I enjoyed the music.  I smiled.  I forgot about my problems.  I lost myself in the moves, the beat and my dance partners.  It was a good night.  Swing dancing is an amazing healer.

Friends and strangers alike knew I was celebrating tonight.  Swing dance events usually include a birthday jam, a song where those who are celebrating something or visiting from out of town get “jammed” inside a dance circle.

Tonight, I celebrated freedom and victory with a jam I’ve waited for for almost 17 years.  It felt incredible.

After the dance, someone I’ve danced with over the years came up to me and started talking.  He told me that 3.5 years ago when I started coming to the dance I looked like “someone coming out of a long illness.”  He went on to explain that I looked healthier now and that I’d changed for the better.  He said that I had been much thinner and looked fragile.

It was a genuine compliment.  He was right.  I was coming out of a long illness and a long abusive relationship.  I was going out as a single adult for the first time since I was a teenager.  He was also right that I was thinner then.  I’ve gained about 10-15 pounds from the low end of the weight I’d been hovering around for about 3 years.  He’s probably right that I look healthier.  I am healthier mentally.

But as anyone who battles an eating disorder knows, compliments can be treacherous.  Any comment about a person’s weight, size, shape or healthiness can be interpreted by the eating disorder voice as an insult.

I tried to be present as he gave me this kind feedback about my health.

But inside my head Ana was screaming at me to get away from the conversation.  Ana was telling me…”he thinks you are fat.”  She was telling me “it’s so obvious you’ve gained weight even a stranger can notice.”  She was telling me “you are fat. you are disgusting.  you have no self control. you are weak. you are shameful.  you are ugly.”  She was having a yelling match in my head as this shy man struggled to explain what he’d noticed.

I’m trying to sit with the compliment.

Factually it is true, I have gained weight.  No, I’m not comfortable with it.  Yes, I’m constantly thinking about restricting and exercising and ways to lose weight.  Yes, I put myself down far more than anyone would realize.

But honestly F#@K Ana.

That man wasn’t telling me I looked fat.  That man was telling me that I look healthier after escaping from an abusive relationship that almost killed me.  He was telling me I looked more alive and happier.  He was complimenting me, even if Ana couldn’t understand.

People in recovery from eating disorders might always interpret compliments about their health or their body in a negative light.  Generally it’s safer NOT to talk about a person’s weight or size.  It can be a trigger and very uncomfortable, especially in early stages of recovery.

But for tonight, I’m happy that I’m still alive.   My body is okay.  It allowed me to dance for almost 3 hours tonight, despite my chronic pain issues.  My body has been through so much.  It’s okay to give Ana a break once in a while and just appreciate the steps I’ve taken towards health and recovery.

Your body is okay too. Whatever your shape or size.  You are beautiful and strong and you deserve to love yourself.

Banish body shame.  It’s okay to accept the compliment.  You are worth it ❤

How not to be an ally…

 

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Photo credit and further awesome information:
https://decolonizeallthethings.com/2014/03/03/how-to-be-an-ally-not-an-asshole/

I’ve seen various posts and articles online written about “how to be an ally” or “how not to be an ally” to marginalized groups.  I thought I’d contribute my thoughts to this debate.  Many people are no longer fond of the word ally.  I find it problematic in certain circumstances but potentially useful in others.  These are my own thoughts on being an ally and I am not attempting to speak for anyone or any group of people.

First, I think of the word ally as a verb, not a noun.  Ally is an active state, not a static one.  In order to be an ally, you must be continually working, learning, unlearning, listening to and magnifying the voices of people and/or groups you hope to work in allyship with.

I’m going to give some examples of how NOT to be an ally.  I’ve recently experienced issues with men calling themselves allies to women and declaring themselves feminists, without ever actually asking if they are working together with or supporting women.

1.Do not independently declare yourself an ally.

Generally, I consider myself an ally only when the person or group I’m working with considers me an ally.  In other words, my actions on their own don’t constitute being an ally unless the person or group I’m working with considers those actions positive, supportive or productive.  If you think you are being incredibly helpful, but the person you are trying to ally with thinks you are being a privileged idiot, then you aren’t an ally.  It’s not possible to be an ally in isolation.

2. Do not speak over or speak for marginalized people or groups and label that “being an ally”

If you are a man, working to end sexism, it is not your job to speak for women or about women’s experiences.  Speaking for women is not feminism.  Ways to speak out as an ally to women might include calling out male friends/coworkers/acquaintances on sexist behaviour, starting discussions with male friends about ways to reduce toxic masculinity, stepping in as a bystander to prevent street harassment by telling men this behaviour is not cool and so on.

3. Do not attempt to explain an oppression that you do not experience to those who do experience it.  In other words, no mansplaining, whitesplaining etc!

If you are in a position of privilege with respect to an experience do NOT try to explain that experience to the person who is being oppressed.   White folks, do not try to explain racism to People of Colour!  They experience it every day.  Men, do not try to explain sexism to women!  They experience it every day.  Don’t argue that a woman couldn’t possibly be experiencing sexism in a given circumstance.  If she feels something was sexist, that is her experience and it needs to be validated and believed. Instead, stop and listen to the experiences of marginalized groups.  This includes reading articles, books and consuming art or media created by marginalized groups and groups you are not a member of.   For men, this includes talking to your male friends about unlearning male privilege.  This includes white folks talking with other white folks about deconstructing white supremacy.

4. Do not ask the person experiencing a certain oppression to spend large amounts of emotional labor explaining their oppression (or even worse your privilege) to you.

This is why the internet and libraries exist.  Do your homework. Educate yourself.  Spend time reflecting on your privilege.  This does not mean it is always inappropriate to talk about oppression you don’t experience with someone who does experience it.  But please don’t expect that person to hold your hand and walk you through 101 level knowledge of their own oppression.  This also applies to asking 101 level questions about systemic oppression or systems the perpetuate oppression.  Do your research first.  It can be okay to ask a friend specific questions about their personal experience with oppression or specific ways they would like you to act as an ally, but respect their right to say no to these questions.  It’s not their job to educate you and they may not have the emotional energy to answer the questions at that moment.  Remember, that person is likely experiencing that oppression on a daily basis and this can be exhausting.  A man needs to respect that a woman may not have the energy to explain her experiences of sexism to him.  As a white person I need to respect that a Person of Colour may not have the energy to explain their experiences of racism to me.   Don’t expect people experiencing oppression to take care of your feelings related to your privilege.  Being an ally is not about you.

5. Do not lump all people experiencing an oppression together and expect their experiences to be homogeneous.  Diversity exists within marginalized groups.

An example of how not to be an ally to women:

Well, even feminists don’t all agree on what feminism is!  How do you expect men to listen to women if you can’t even agree yourselves?

Stop.  Just don’t do this.

There are as many different types of feminism as there are women on Earth.  Not ALL women agree on every aspect of every type of feminism.  That does NOT mean that feminism is inherently flawed or that women need to just “get it together” before men can work to end sexism.   It also does not mean that sexism does not exist. The same goes for other types of oppression.  People do not exist in boxes and are not single story, monoliths.  A trans woman of Colour who identifies as queer, will experience sexism and oppression in a different way to a white, cis-gender straight woman.  Some folks are facing multiple types of oppression and that is their lived reality.  It’s important to respect people’s diverse identities and experiences while acting as an ally.

6.  Do not expect a cookie, pat on the back or gold star. 

Do the work of allyship and unlearning privilege because it’s the right thing to do. Being a good person and working to end oppression isn’t a badge of honor.  You don’t get a reward for not being a racist.  Men don’t get praised for NOT being a toxic, sexist animal.  Doing the bare minimum of not being a shitty person isn’t enough.  Also, don’t go around proclaiming yourself ally of the year.   Being an ally is not about you, it’s about working to end oppression.

For more information about allyship and anti-o work, please check out this amazing resource The Anti-Oppression Network:

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Or this amazing post by blogger Mia McKenzie:

https://www.bgdblog.org/2013/06/20136178-ways-not-to-be-an-ally/

 

 

 

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.

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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Another abandoned hospital.

I visited another hospital where I spent time as a patient.  This is the now abandoned Regional Mental Health Care Centre, otherwise known as the LPH, or prior to that the Asylum for the Insane.  There has been a psychiatric hospital on this site since 1870.

I walked around the large property.   Back in the late 1870s, asylums were located on large properties where patients lived and worked.  This property included a farm and a separate chapel.  For a time, there was a type of treatment known as “moral therapy” which included involving the patients in activities such as farming asylum land.  This site also witnessed many tragic and scary “cures”, like surgeries and electroshock treatments.

When I was a patient at the Regional Mental Health Centre, the facility was already operating at a much reduced patient capacity.  It has now been closed altogether and patients relocated to a modern, newly built site.

This site was creepy then and it is even more creepy now that it is abandoned.  I felt the energy around the property to be cool and sinister, despite the beautiful sunny day.

When I was a patient, we used to go for walks around the property.  There are long tree lined roads, which provide shade.   There was also the abandoned insane asylum.  The new building stands in it’s shadow.

This is what the building looks like today.  10+ years ago, it was even more run down.  The ceiling was falling in.  The glass in the windows was shattered in many places.  At night it was frightening.  I imagined ghosts and spirits of dead patients haunting the property.   On this visit I noticed that the city has added a new roof and boarded up all the windows.  Today, the building looks more like a museum.   The chapel and barns have also been boarded over and trees and grass are beginning to reclaim the entire site.

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It’s strange to think that the hospitals where I was treated are now torn down and abandoned.  I wonder what will happen to the brand new build in another 50-75 years time?

The time I spent at this hospital was a turning point in my recovery.  The mood disorder specialist who treated me recognized that I was being made sicker by the psychiatric drug cocktail I was on.  He changed all my medication, and within 5 weeks I was released from the hospital a significantly more stable person.  This marked the end of the 4 years I spent in and out of hospital.  It marked the beginning of the next chapter in my life.  It allowed me to become a parent.  My mood disorder specialist followed me closely during both my pregnancies and postpartum periods.  Without him, I would probably be dead and I certainly would not be a mother of two healthy children.

I have mixed feelings walking around the site.  I’ve always been fascinated by the history of medicine in general, but more specifically the history of psychiatry.  I feel captivated by the old building, while at the same time frightened and ill at ease.  I feel thankful that I was able to get the care I needed to begin my recovery.  But I feel unsettled that I had to spend time in a place like this.

Mystery.

I’ve spent time over the past few weeks reflecting on the roots of my abusive relationships.  What I try very hard NOT to think about is the answer to questions like these:

Was any of it ACTUALLY real?  Was there every REALLY any love between us?  Were they lying to me from the start?  Were the entire relationships just elaborate gaslighting schemes design to facilitate abuse?

It’s quite painful to cope with the potential truth that my entire marriage was abusive. It’s sometimes too difficult to believe this.  It’s too difficult to hold that truth in my mind for more than a few moments.  If none of it was real, the loss becomes immense.  I can’t go back in time and re-live my children’s first  years with a non-abusive partner.  I might never know what it feels like to parent a child with someone I truly love and respect.  I won’t get my 20’s back.

Sometimes I search my memory, grasping for pure memories.  Moments that weren’t tinged with discomfort or abuse.  I try to find some moments to hold onto that feel REAL, where we were both happy, genuine and authentic.

Sadly, I can’t find very many.  I remember a lot of distance.  I remember a lot of me questioning myself, changing myself, adapting myself, trying to fit in with what I thought I should be.  I remember me hurting myself, starving myself, judging myself, disassociating, making excuses for him, and blaming myself.

I remember being alone.  I felt alone. I was alone.  I remember the isolation and desperation of post-partum depression and the loneliness of parenting two young children without much help.

I wonder if I ever really knew the man I was married to for a decade.  Today, I can accept that I never did.

I can remember one genuine moment.  It was in the hospital, after my first child was born.  We were tired and happy.  New parents.  It was the first night after her birth, before he went home to sleep for a while.  We were singing a ridiculous Hugh Laurie song that we’d both found amusing over the weeks before the birth.  I remember laughing a bit, holding the baby in my arms.  I think that was real.

But maybe it will always just be a mystery…

Trusting my younger self.

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I’ve been reading through my journal from the first year of the relationship with my abusive ex-husband.  I’ve been reflecting on how I was gaslighted and how, in a way, I gaslighted myself.  I used the same coping techniques I did when I was abused at age 15. I found myself in another abusive relationship and I immediately began self harming, restricting food, and thinking about suicide.  As a distraction it worked, just as it had when I was a child.  I did what I needed to do to survive. I turned to creative (if self destructive) coping techniques that got me through very difficult situations.  But my inner self, my younger self did know something was wrong.  There was a part of me, healthy me, which was separate from “the voice” or “Ana.”  That part of me knew that my new relationship was deeply and integrally connected to my relapse and worsening psychiatric symptoms.  My wise younger inner self knew that I was in trouble, but she asked for help in ways that distracted and confused other people, even her own healthy self.

This is a concept that is often very difficult for those who have not survived abuse to understand.  It can be challenging to understand that the survivor will do whatever it takes to survive, even if those coping techniques may look like self destructive behaviours from the outside.  The survivor may feel she has limited or no options.  For various reasons she has been conditioned not to scream, tell, ask for help, run away, fight back etc…or maybe she tried those things and they didn’t work. So instead she turned to disassociation, self harm and eating disorders as a way to modulate and live with the abuse and all the symptoms of PTSD.

I was conditioned, maybe almost from birth, not to make a fuss.  I was conditioned, maybe almost from birth, to be a “good girl.”  I internalized this in a way that led me to blame myself for the abusive behaviours of others.  If I was being hurt it was because I wasn’t a “good girl” and if I wasn’t a “good girl,” then I must be a bad girl, maybe a very bad, shameful, dirty and disgusting girl.  Thus, Ana/”the voice” was born.  There was a part of me that split off and became self abusive and self critical.  A younger self, a part that never ages or matures.  A 15 year old frozen in time.

This is how I described “the voice” when I was 20 years old (ironically the description came right after mentioning intimacy with my ex):

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My body feels too big and uncomfortable right now.  I know it’s because I’ve been eating more normally and feeling hungry.  The sensation of hunger is not an easy one for me.  It is frightening. Like I feel afraid of losing control of myself. And yet I know that the E.D is out of control. It is a part of me that often deceives and betrays me. I know that in the end, though it feels comfortable, it cannot be trusted.  The voice which tells me not to eat, tells me to cut my skin, to smash my head against a wall, to step out in front of traffic all sorts of dangerous hurtful things.  It speaks to me in persuasive ways.  It is a part of me and yet foreign.  My ally and my enemy, my strength and my destruction. But after so many years it is the way I know.  A method of ridding myself of unwanted feelings”

When I was 20 I was able to recognize some of the signs of abusive behaviour in my ex. I was able to identify that I felt afraid.  But I didn’t draw the right conclusions from there. I blamed myself, I thought I needed to work on my depression, my recovery, get better at coping with anger etc.  My younger self tried to problem solve by changing herself, just as she had at age 15.  Just as she had for her entire life.

March 12, 2001  [written after being asked to swing dance with and dancing with a friend, a man I’d briefly dated]

So the evening was going well until one crucial moment…asked me to dance.  I figured one dance wouldn’t hurt and I didn’t think [he] would mind…but [he] did get upset and left the room.  I followed after the song was over. [He] got angry at me saying that I couldn’t stand up for myself and say NO.  He totally misunderstood and overreacted.  I got terribly upset and started crying totally uncontrollably…I was so disappointed that my night was ruined.  I felt so much like hurting I became filled with intense suicidal thoughts. I hate feeling my independence threatened by a relationship. I want the freedom to choose who is in my life.  When [he] gets angry it just terrifies me and makes me want to hurt, with him is when I feel the strongest feelings

My younger self clearly articulated that she felt uncomfortable with being controlled and with the jealous behaviour.  She clearly made a link between the angry jealous behaviour of her boyfriend and the suicidal and self harm impulses.  My younger self was wise on a deeper level, and yet she stayed with that man for 13 years.  It’s difficult to make sense of.  My adult self wants to travel back in time to that night, to go back to the dance with my friends, to tell him in no uncertain terms to F*#K OFF and leave me alone.  My adult self wants to protect that younger me, give her the strength to listen to her instincts and fight back rather than turning to a downward spiral of self destruction that would lead to 4 years in and out of psychiatric hospitals.

The next day, March 12, 2001 I was admitted to the hospital.  I wrote in my journal again, but made no link between the previous evening and my suicidal obsessive thoughts.  The self destruction worked as a distraction from his controlling behaviour.  The hospital was a place to get away from him.  The routine and the process of hospitalization was an escape.  I would feel safer in the hospital for a few hours or a few days, then I’d realize that the hospital wasn’t a solution and I’d want to be home.

I think what I really wanted was to be safe.  What I needed to be safe was to exit the abusive relationship in those early stages, when I still had the chance.

Because within a few short weeks I was already beginning to convince myself it was my depression and PTSD causing the issues in our relationship:

March 26, 2001

“The things that I thought were stable and unchanging have become uncomfortable. I can’t tell if it’s my depression pushing [him] away or actually me. It’s so hard to face that possibility. I want things between us to be simple again. I miss how easy we used to be together.  Now I feel distant from our relationship”

April 4, 2001

“I don’t feel as easy around [him] lately. Mind you I haven’t felt easy around anyone lately. I feel withdrawn, like I have built up the walls around me for protection from the storm.  But this is so ineffective because my storm is coming mainly from within. I don’t know how to protect myself from myself. I really am my own worst enemy”

Maybe I was never my own worst enemy.

Maybe the storm was never “mainly” from within.  Maybe I was confused and living with emotional abuse and gaslighting.  Maybe I bought into blaming myself as a coping technique, as a way to survive, and as a way to feel more in control of a scary situation.  I blamed myself and my mental illness rather than facing the reality that I was in an abusive relationship.  It was “easier” to seek help through psychiatry than it was to leave the relationship.

Looking back it all seems clear.  But my 20 year old self had less wisdom, less experience, less resources and less knowledge.  My 20 year old self did the best she could.  She did try to express herself, she just didn’t have the skills to listen to herself or to ask for the type of help she truly needed.  And those around her weren’t able to interpret her self destructive behaviours as, not a cry for attention or a manipulation, but a message.  A red flag waving, signalling that all was not well.  Help was needed, but psychiatry wasn’t the correct tool for the task.

Unfortunately, my younger self wouldn’t cross the threshold of a rape crisis centre for another 12 years.

The roots of an abusive relationship.

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Through some parts of my youth I kept diaries.  Never entirely consistently, but consistently for periods of time, especially when I was in treatment or in hospital.  I’ve been thinking back to this time of year in 2001.  My first year with my abusive ex husband.  My first year in psychiatric care.  My first year engaging in severe self harm.  My first psychiatric admissions (aside from eating disorder treatment).  My first suicide attempts. It’s interesting how all these “firsts” coincided so neatly in time with my new relationship.  At the time I thought it was because memories of the abuse I survived as a teenager were triggered and surfaced when I became sexually active.   That was part of it.  But there was more to it than that.  There was subtle abuse in my relationship with my ex husband that started very early on.  The seeds of gaslighting and emotional abuse were being planted.

It started with showering me with affection and attention.  It started with making me feel special and loved, almost to the point of making me uncomfortable.  It started with planning for the life we’d have together, the kids we’d have, the marriage…within months of meeting me (I was 19!).  It started with gifts, cards, flowers, spending all our time together.  It started with gradually isolating me from my other friends and social outlets.

Then some lies started.  And the lies were repeated so often I believed them to be true.

These lies were focused around my mental health problems and their link to my feelings about his abusive  behaviours.   He would tell me that it was because of my PTSD that I was uncomfortable with something.  He would tell me that a “normal woman” would be okay with it.  He would make me feel guilty, tell me that he felt like there were three people in the relationship: me, him and X.  He made me feel like I was CHOOSING to have flashbacks, like I was CHOOSING to think about X rather than him.  Almost like X was someone I never quite got over, a lost lover, rather than an abuser who had traumatized me to the point I often had flashbacks during any type of intimacy.  Over time, the lies were repeated to the point that I felt crazy.  I felt like I was to blame for the problems with intimacy in our relationship.  We even sought out support from a sex therapist to talk about this.  I had blood tests and was checked to ensure my hormone levels were normal.  I was completely manipulated into believing that the issues in the relationship were entirely my fault.

Today, in 2017, I realize I like some types of sex just fine.  I just prefer consent to be a factor in that sex!  In other words, I like sex, but I don’t like sexual abuse!  It turns out, I’m not physically broken.  I have PTSD.  I have flashbacks, but with a safe, trusted and patient partner I can be okay.  But because of the lasting impacts of gaslighting, I struggle with saying no. I struggle with blaming myself for anything that might go wrong. I struggle with identifying and communicating what I want or enjoy.  And I still fall back into patterns of believing that I’m crazy.

When I left my ex husband, I mainly remembered and talked about the sexual abuse that happened in the last 5-6 years of our marriage.  These were the incidents I felt most comfortable labeling “sexual assault” and “rape.”  When asked, I couldn’t really describe when the sexual abuse started.  I couldn’t really remember the first time.  I couldn’t really say when things started to go wrong.

But reading back in my diary from 2001, the first year we were together, there are so many red flags.  I can hear my 20 year old self trying to convince herself that things were okay.  I can hear my 20 year old self trying to believe that she loved this man she barely knew. I can hear my 20 year old self trying to rationalize that things would be better with him when SHE was better, when SHE stopped cutting, when SHE stopping being so depressed.  I can hear her trying to convince herself it was the right choice, and I feel deeply sad for her.

June 8, 2001

“The evening went well until the car ride home.  Before getting in the car I was feeling panic starting. [He] tried to kiss me but I pulled away.  He got offended.  I tried to explain but he got angry and said he felt stifled like he couldn’t be spontaneous.  He said I only make love to him out of duty.  I got really upset and started crying and I couldn’t breathe. It was like a panic attack and I couldn’t stop hyperventilating. I just was so very scared.  I’m terrified of being with [him], but I do love him too.  It’s such a dilemma all the time. I feel like it would be easier for me to get better without the strong feelings of a relationship.  But on the other hand [he] is my support.  I don’t know.  It’s so tough right now.  I’m so scared of my life and everything in it”

Looking back on the things I wrote, I realize that I was barely more than a child myself. Just turned 20 years old.  I had just disclosed the abuse from my childhood, just started counseling.   I was talking about abuse I’d kept inside for 5 years.  I was in full PTSD crisis mode, complete with flashbacks, hyper vigilance, anxiety and nightmares.  I was on psychiatric medication cocktails for the first time.  I was self harming almost daily and had recently attempted suicide.

It was perfectly normal that I didn’t always want to be intimate with someone.

Perfectly normal.

Today, I choose to forgive my 20 year old self for not knowing this.  I choose to forgive her for not knowing that she was having normal coping reactions to trauma and that she was not crazy.  I choose to forgive her for being tricked into a situation where, instead of healing and support, she found gaslighting, confusion, entrapment and more sexual abuse.

I know I’ll wake up tomorrow, or the next day and feel confused again.  I’ll wonder if the abuse was my fault.  I’ll think that I’m exaggerating or that I’m making things up.  I’ll start to feel the thoughts creep in that I’m not normal.  I’ll start to wish that I had died all those years ago when I attempted suicide.  I’ll start to believe his lies again, because a long term emotionally abusive relationship includes an element of near brainwashing which can take years of healing, therapy, patience, self love and self forgiveness to recover from.

But just for today, I want 20 year old me to know that her reactions were normal.  That she was allowed to say no to that kiss for any reason.  She was especially allowed to say no to that kiss when she was triggered.  She had the right to say no without consequence, without anger, without bullying and blaming.  She had the right to have needs and preferences and anxieties.

It wasn’t her fault that he didn’t understand consent.

Gaslighting. Part 2. The lasting impact.

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This might be a disjointed post, but that mirrors the state of mind I’m in when I’m experiencing the impacts of gaslighting.  Gaslighting is a term for prolonged emotional and psychological abuse which is designed to make the victim doubt their own perceptions of reality.  It’s a particularly harmful type of abuse and the impacts of it can last for years after the abusive relationship ends.  The lasting impacts of gaslighting can be invisible or vague to the outside eye, but are extremely powerful and terrifying to the survivor.

Much gaslighting and emotional abuse is perpetrated by sociopaths and various types of narcissists.  These folks lack empathy.  They lack the ability to understand the feelings of others.  They can exhibit levels of cruelty that are difficult to fathom, but they often “pass” as normal, functional human beings.  They often have good jobs, and often live ordinary lives.  They can often appear to be quite charming, especially in short controlled (always by them) interactions.  The cracks in their normalcy only begin to become evident when you get to know them over longer periods of time, then the signs of missing empathy and humanity begin to peek through.  But by that time you are quite likely hooked, trapped and unable to escape.  For those that have only short interactions with the sociopath/abuser, they may continue to think that he is a basically “good person,”  model employee, good father etc.   This can add levels to the gaslighting, because the victim/survivor has difficulty being believed, when her abuser has so much “street cred” as a decent person.

My abuser regularly spreads lies about me.  He tells anyone who will listen how crazy I am.  He also tells people in the community, including people who interact with my children, how crazy I am.  He tells them how I never took care of my children, how I never bonded or attached to them (they were both raised with me as a stay home mom, exclusively breastfed etc), he even lies and says they were in daycare from birth!   He tells people what a good caring person he is, how sad it is that despite his love, he just wasn’t able to cure my severe mental illness and the marriage ended.  These are the type of lies he tells to others.

While we were together, he used my PTSD against me.  Basically saying that it was because I was crazy (from being abused as a teenager) that I didn’t like what he was doing (abusing me) and that any “normal woman” would be okay with it.  He used me being “crazy” as a trick to keep me trapped for years in the relationship.  When I tried to get away he threatened me saying that the police wouldn’t believe me because I was “crazy.”

All this is emotional abuse.  It’s all gaslighting.  It all made me and makes me doubt my own reality.

Being abused over a long period of time is complex.  Because the abuser is also someone you are in a relationship with.  You never really know when the abuse will happen and when things will be “fine.”  You never know when you’ll sleep through the night and when you’ll wake to be assaulted.  You never really know…

Thus for many survivors (myself included) waiting can be a huge trigger.

One way that I try to cope with ongoing fears of abuse is by never upsetting anyone.  This means that I worry a great deal that anything I say or do, or don’t say or don’t do, or might say or might do, or might not say or might not do…might have terrible consequences for me or someone I care about.

Gaslighting has conditioned me to believe that everything is my fault. That I’m potentially to blame for everything around me.  And it has made me unable to adequately determine what is and is not my fault.  It has left me with very poor conflict management skills.  In a conflict situation, I freeze.  I say or do whatever I think will get me out of the situation quickly.  I say or do whatever I think will be safest in that moment, which isn’t necessarily the best option long term.  My PTSD brain kicks in and I don’t behave in a rational thought through manner.  I don’t have control over this.  I’m not being passive aggressive.  I’m not being manipulative. I freeze.  Or I’m trying to stay safe.  Even if there is no ACTUAL danger, in my  mind there is.

Gaslighting and triggers related to gaslighting leave me doubting myself in every possible way.

I can go to work, give a presentation, feel good about myself, feel I did an adequate job and then go home.  An hour after arriving home I can be completely convinced that I made a horrible mistake, said something offensive, said something my coworkers would not have said, said something that could cause irreversible harm to someone, embarrassed myself, brought shame on my organization, made all my coworkers hate me etc…

It’s an extreme reaction!

I’ve spent entire weekends ready to quit my job, convinced that a single email I sent has ruined everything I’ve worked for in 4 years.  That everyone will hate me and want me fired.

These are trivial examples, but they illustrate the impacts of gaslighting that still remain in my brain.  I literally doubt reality ALL the time.  I somehow think I’ve done something wrong, even when I have done nothing at all.

I need a lot of reassurance.  This isn’t entirely because I lack confidence or skills.  It’s because I can, at a moments notice, begin to doubt everything I knew to be true a few minutes early.   I can get to a place where I even doubt I was abused.  I can believe that maybe I’m exaggerating.  Maybe I made things up.   I need reassurance about things most people consider self evident.  I know it’s frustrating for those around me.  I know it doesn’t always make sense.  I know you wish I could just love myself.  But I can’t.  I need your patience and reassurance.  I need to hear that you believe me.  I need to hear that it’s not my fault.  And I’ll need to hear it again tomorrow.

These are the lasting impacts of emotional abuse perpetrated by a narcissistic abuser.