All mental health care, all health care, needs to be TRAUMA INFORMED CARE.

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I’m feeling frustrated about the barriers to receiving high quality, publicly funded, trauma informed mental health care.  Especially the barriers faced by trans and gender non-conforming folks.

I know that I’m blessed to live in a country that has free universal health care, but we still have a two-tiered system.  Psychological care, social work and counseling that happens outside hospital settings is fee-for-service.  There are many barriers for those without finances or work place insurance in terms of accessing mental health care.  Based on my own experiences, I believe that medication alone should almost never be the first line of treatment for mental illness, and that medication should never be used without corresponding counseling of some type.   This does not mean that I’m anti-medication or anti-choice or even fully anti-psychiatry.  It just means that I see mental health as more than just a chemical imbalance in the brain.  It means that I know that supportive, validating counseling can be helpful in treating most illnesses.  I highly value feminist based counseling, intersectional approaches, peer support models and any type of counseling where the patient has a say in what happens and is treated like the expert in their own lives.

I’m personally quite negatively biased against cognitive behavioural therapy.  That does not mean that I don’t think it has a place, or that it can never be useful.  I believe it can be helpful with certain types of issues, such as OCD.   But CBT leaves a LOT to be desired in relation to trauma therapy.  It focuses too much on the individual thoughts, feelings and behaviours and too little on trauma, societal oppression and practical barriers.

When I was younger, and I first entered into the mental health care system, my parents found a clinic and doctors that supposedly were experts in the field of eating disorders.  Now, maybe they were good doctors, but I can say with absolute certainty that they were not trauma informed.  I don’t really remember every being asked exactly WHY I had developed anorexia, or if anything had happened to me.

I’m not an expert, by any means, but I know that young people rarely (if ever) develop eating disorders and self harm just on a whim, out of the blue.  Generally eating disorders are symptoms of a larger problem, generally eating behaviours are coping techniques to deal with something.

I was a smart teenager.  I knew to some extent why I wasn’t eating.  I had learned that it was an effective way to zone out, feel lighter, feel empty and take up less space.  I became addicted to that feeling of zoning out, it helped me cope with the sexual abuse I was experiencing.  It wasn’t about my looks, it wasn’t about losing weight and it wasn’t about existential angst (per se).   I’m not sure if anyone actually ever asked me why I wasn’t eating.  And after a certain amount of time had passed, it became irrelevant to everyone.  Nobody cared why, they only cared about me eating so I wouldn’t die.  I didn’t believe I could die.   I’m not sure I REALLY cared if I died. I think I did at that time, but I certainly didn’t care by the time I started taking anti-depressants.  I pretty much welcomed the idea of death and started to think about suicide at 17.

These psychologists I went to see worked from a CBT model.  I remember being 16 and sitting in the psychologist’s office while he drew diagrams of how thoughts impacted feelings which impacted behaviours which further influenced thoughts and feelings.  I quickly picked up on the pattern of it.  I realized that a very specific set of responses were the desired outcome.  I followed the pattern and started saying what he wanted to hear.  I didn’t internalize any of it.  It became a game to me, not a game to manipulate or hurt anyone, but a test to see if I said what was expected if I’d be allowed to go back to school and stop missing music class for the appointments (which to me appeared pointless).

Fairly soon after that, I became physically starved to the point my brain wasn’t really working rationally anymore.  The physical side effects of the disease confused my brain and the restricting and exercising became obsessive to the point of OCD.  The behaviour self perpetuated and I lost track of why I started doing it.  I lost track of what happened to me.  I lost track of the abuse.  I lost track of everything.  I felt panicky most of the time.  I was always cold.

When someone is that sick, no type of therapy is going to work.  Eating is the only treatment.  I went to an inpatient program, started the process of weight restoration and my mind gradually cleared.  I don’t remember being asked in treatment why I starved myself to the point of near death.  I think people were relieved that I was eating and that I returned to some level of semi-normalcy.   I was still thin.  I still had strange eating habits and anxiety around food.  I still avoided eating with most people.  But I was well enough to “pass” as recovered.

I began to recover some memories around the age of 18.  But they weren’t concrete at first.  They were flashbacks, physical reactions, nightmares.  I remember talking about it indirectly to my boyfriend at the end of high school.  Telling him that something had happened with my last boyfriend.  I don’t remember if I shared many details.  I think the idea was only slightly formed in my head.   I didn’t connect the dots and fully disclose until I was 20.

Then I was thrust into the psychiatric, medical model.  I was drugged and drugged and drugged more.  The worse I got, the more drugs were given.  I was medicated to the point I could barely stay awake during the day time. I felt foggy.  I gained weight.   I was diagnosed with PTSD, but I still didn’t receive trauma informed care.

I did an inpatient program for PTSD.  It helped a LOT.  I learned a lot.  But I couldn’t fully actualize the learning because I was on too much medication and I was in an abusive unhealthy relationship.  I knew by then that the trauma piece was at the centre of my struggles, but I didn’t fully comprehend that my current situation was a major factor.

All this to say, that my life story is a testament to the perils of practicing medicine without considering the impact of trauma on physical and mental health.

I’m so passionate about looking at the roots of why people cope in the ways they do.  What societal circumstances and traumas caused them to cope in the ways they do?

Now I’m a parent.  My children struggle with anxiety.  My younger child is transgender.  She has secrets.  There are things she won’t talk about to anyone.  She struggles with focusing sometimes.  I see a lot of signs of trauma and of the impacts of things she has lived through.  Experiencing transphobia in and of itself is trauma.  Being misgendered, people using her old name, being treated as less than a real girl, being told that her mom is crazy for “forcing her” to be a girl….I could go on, but it’s a lot.  A lot for a child.  Rejection by a parental figure is one of the clearest predictors of mental illness in trans children and youth.  Acceptance is the highest predictor of mental health.

Again.  It’s not rocket science.  Of course a child will feel safer if they are accepted.

Now I’m the one trying to find the doctors, trying to access the care, trying to get referrals, wait on lists, be taken seriously.  20 years later, I’m still fighting to find a mental health care provider who truly understands the impact of trauma on a child and who is willing to practice trans positive, trauma informed care.  I don’t want her forced into CBT.  I don’t want her to be medicated.  I want someone to help her feel safe enough to express what is on her mind.  I want someone to hear why SHE uses the coping she does.  I don’t want doctors to guess and assume.  I don’t want them to misdiagnose her as well as mis-gendering her.

She deserves to be heard.  I don’t want her to be writing a post like this in 20 years.

Kids will say what they think adults want to hear.  They may do it consciously, or unconsciously or for their own reasons.  They do it to please, to stay safe, to feel a sense of control and many other reasons.  It takes a special type of doctor or counselor to help a child feel safe enough to tell their truth.   Because after enough time hiding, even she will be confused about what her truth is.

Mental health care for children should be free.  The practitioners should be trauma informed.  There should be enough funding that kids can access the care they need without lengthy wait lists.  There should not be a two tiered system where those who can pay can access things those in poverty cannot.  Poverty is a risk factor as it is, without it also limiting access to care.  Ideally there should be a system that is easier to navigate, where parents don’t feel they are fighting and advocating to the point of exhaustion.

Mental health care is a right, not a privilege.

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Photo: https://makingmomentsmeaningful.blog/2017/04/13/trauma-informed-care-values-youth-worker-values/

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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Living Outside the Binary.

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There have been an enormous number of changes in my life over the past 3 months.  I haven’t been blogging as much, but I hope to create some new posts about those changes soon.

I’ve been reflecting a great deal recently on how much society wants to squish people into binary boxes and categories.  Either/or.  Society doesn’t promote the shades of grey, the spectrum, the people living at the intersections of multiple gradient scales and who do not fix neatly into categories.

It’s quite difficult at times, being a person who doesn’t identify with many binary categories.   I sometimes feel invisible, different, crazy, or like my identities are not real or valid.  In some situations, I don’t even feel safe or comfortable challenging the binary norms which are coercively placed on me.

In terms of sexual orientation,  I’m non-binary.  I identify as queer, which means I’m not exclusively heterosexual or gay.  I’m open to relationships and dating with people of any gender.  I don’t fit neatly into a box.

In terms of gender identity, I’m non-binary.  I identify as genderqueer, which means I do not feel exclusively like a man or woman, but something else.   A different place on a spectrum, and outside the realm of female or male

In terms of sexuality, I’m non-binary.  I identify as demisexual, which means I’m on the asexual spectrum.  Not entirely interested in sex, but not completely disinterested in it either.

In terms of my health/disability status, I’m non-binary.  I identify as having both physical and mental health disabilities.  But I don’t “look sick” and I am extremely “high functioning” despite the level of symptoms I experience daily.  I’m able to work, but I don’t always have the energy to do all the things.  Some days I feel pretty good and others I feel barely functional.

The reality is, I think a huge number of people identify as non-binary in some ways.  Maybe you haven’t explicitly thought of it this way, but very few people exist solely in all the normative, expected boxes and categories.  No person has just one single identity.  Life happens at the intersections of our identities.

I’ve experienced some level of not being believed or validated for my identities.  I’ve felt not queer enough to fit in with gay people, but not straight enough to exist comfortable in heteronormative spaces.   I feel too feminine to be non-binary.  I feel like I’m “lazy” if my symptoms cause me to struggle on a given day.  I feel like I SHOULD be something very specific and it’s definitely not what I am.

The worst part of it is how I don’t consistently believe and validate myself.  Internalized oppression is something I struggle with constantly.  I tell myself that I’m not “queer enough” or that I don’t “look non-binary enough.”  I tell myself that I’m not functioning well enough to be normal, but I’m way too “able” to identify as disabled.  I put myself down.  I tell myself I don’t belong. I tell myself that folks won’t believe me.  I tell myself that one day I’ll be found out, and that others think I’m a fake or a fraud, or lying to get attention or to gain an advantage.

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Internalized oppression leads me to gaslight myself.  Internalized oppression means I don’t often accept myself.  Some of the worst pressures to fix into the neat clean boxes of normal society comes from my own internal critic!

I don’t believe in binary systems.  I don’t believe the messages of ableism, homophobia, transphobia and patriarchy.   On one level I don’t believe them or believe in them, and yet I put so much pressure on myself to “pass” as “normal” when I don’t even know what normal means.

I don’t actually want to be normal.  I want to be myself.  I want to be accepted as the person I am.   On one hand, I love the fact that I’m diverse and have experiences that can exist on a rainbow spectrum, rather than in black and white boxes.  But at the same time, I feel pressure to confirm, to choose, to fit in, to pick sides.

I’m not going to fit neatly into boxes.  It’s not possible.  I would have to deny so many aspects of myself that I wouldn’t be me.  I would have to compromise my own deeply held truths, just to be fully seen by society as valid.  I reject that option.

Instead, I’m creating communities and groups of friends who do accept me as I am.  People who do see me as valid, just the way I am.  People who aren’t trying to place me into categories that don’t fit, like uncomfortable outgrown clothing.

The spectrum is beautiful.  I like to think this is part of the symbolism behind the rainbow pride flag.  We are all part of a spectrum, like the light spectrum which creates a beautiful rainbow. Without each individual colour, the spectrum would be incomplete and neither the bright light or the rainbow would exist.  Spectrums are all around us and within us.

Embrace the non-binary.  Embrace the intersections.  They are beautiful and valid.

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Demisexuality. How did I not know about this?

 

I was scrolling through my facebook feed earlier this week, reading articles, checking out the news of the day when I came across a term that I was not familiar with: demisexual.

I clicked on the article to learn more, and my mind was blown WIDE open.  I decided to write this blog post in case others out there were not aware of this orientation.

I always felt different from others around me in relation to sexuality.  In my early 30s I began to think that I might be asexual.  At that time, I thought that I might not ever have another sexual relationship and I was okay with that.  At that time, I was also in the process of leaving an abusive marriage, one that no longer had any real intimacy for me.

After leaving my ex, I discovered that I wasn’t asexual, I just preferred consensual sexual interactions!  But I still had reason to believe that I wasn’t “just like” other people I knew.  I rarely thought about sex, and I rarely felt sexual attraction to anyone of any gender.  Within the context of a relationship, when I felt safe and comfortable, I was able to enjoy sex, but I couldn’t relate to the concept of a “sex drive.”

There were other signs that I was different.  My co-workers sometimes shared stories about sex with their partners and I felt uncomfortable.  In fact, thinking about sexual acts generally filled me with a sense of disgust and abhorrence.  I didn’t have any desire to experiment or try new things.  I really felt that I COULD live without sex if I had to.  I yearned for cuddles and physical closeness, but I never felt a strong need for sex itself.

I learned this week that there is a term for my experience “demisexual” or “grey-asexual/grace.”

I shared what I’d read with a friend of mine, along with my great surprise and pleasure at discovering the term.  She told me “oh, I thought you knew! I thought that was how you identified!”  I laughed out loud, apparently this was obvious to other people! It made complete sense to me too, I just lacked any language to describe it, thus I thought I was the only one!

It turns out there is a whole community of folks who identify with the spectrum between sexual and asexual.  I just didn’t know about it!

I’m pretty happy.  I’m actually really okay with my orientation.

It makes sense now why I couldn’t understand casual sex and why poly relationships or open relationships didn’t appeal to me.  For me, sexual attraction only exists within the context of an intimate relationship and I rarely experience sexual attraction to anyone who is not my sexual partner.  I don’t have any interest in watching porn.  I don’t even want to think about porn.  And though I want to support my friends, I rarely enjoy listening to them talk about their own sex lives.

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I’m not a freak.  I’m just a demisexual!

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 

 

 

Leaving. Living.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It took 5 years to leave him.  5 years.

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

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

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

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

The leaving has ended.

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

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!