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:

allyship

Or this amazing post by blogger Mia McKenzie:

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

 

 

 

Tone Policing.

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Photo Credit: Robot Hugs

I sometimes feel like I should earn a medal, or level up in my feminism, when I try to talk about anti-oppression with people who don’t understand what privilege means.  I’m so fucking tired of being told to be “more neutral” or “less angry” when talking about the oppression I face, or while attempting to work in allyship with other groups who experience oppressions I do not experience.

Please stop TONE POLICING!

Let’s be honest, no problem has ever been solved by telling a person to “calm down!”

Tone policing is focusing on the feeling tone of the individual expressing their viewpoint, rather than on the facts or content of their experience.

Yesterday I read a newspaper article about a man in my city who was convicted of sexually assaulting a 17 year old employee in his shop.  I frequented that shop regularly and knew the man.  I’d spoken to him while ordering and talked about my life, his family and the weather.  I thought he was a “nice guy.”

I was wrong.

When I read the article I experienced a lot of feelings.  Anger, sadness, betrayal, disgust, frustration and more.  As a woman, and a survivor of sexual assault, the story impacted me personally.  I felt anger at misogyny. I felt rage at sexism.  I felt disgust at the rape culture that perpetuates stories like this one (and my own).  I felt sadness for his victim. I felt betrayal and frustration because in a small way I had trusted this man.  I felt an intense feeling that NOBODY can be trusted.

And in that moment I felt like ALL MEN were part of the problem.  I felt like ALL MEN were responsible.  I felt like ALL MEN could not be trusted.   I was very angry and I didn’t want to calm down.

While I was angry, I texted with a male friend.  I told him about the news paper article and my feelings.   I said in anger related to the story: “men are pigs.”

And that started an EXPLOSION of justifying and defensiveness and “not all men” and comparing me to the worst type of discriminating, bigoted people.

To me it felt like tone policing.  It felt like being told to CALM DOWN about sexual violence.  And I didn’t like it.

Of course I know that not all men are abusers.  Of course I know that women can also perpetuate violence.  Of course I know that many men are allies to women and some could be called feminists.

But I also know that a ridiculously high percentage of sexual assaults are perpetrated by cisgender men…probably as high as 98-99% of sexual assaults.  I also know that the vast majority of victims of those assaults are women and gender non-conforming folks. These are facts.  I have never been sexually assaulted by a woman or gender non-conforming person.  That’s a fact.  Thus, when issues related to violence perpetrated by men come up…my lived experience, plus my factual understanding leads me to see men as the problem.

Unless you are actively working to be part of the solution to misogyny, you are part of the problem.  Men can’t just claim to be feminists.  Men can’t just absolve themselves of their male privilege.  Men have to work in allyship with women.  They must actively unlearn their male privilege.

I know that not ALL men benefit from male privilege.  And that not ALL men experience the same amount of privilege.  I know that men experience violence too. I know…

But I’m still angry.  I still have my feelings.  I still had intense feelings about that newspaper article and I didn’t want to be told to calm down.  It wasn’t the moment to start the “not all men” argument with me.  I didn’t care.

Because sexism and misogyny are responsible for the majority of the trauma in my life.

I won’t calm down.  Let me express my anger, then work to be part of the solution rather than justifying why you aren’t part of the problem.

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Sexual Harassment. I’m done.

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

I’m feeling triggered and angry today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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4 years out…still trapped

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Body distortions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then a light bulb went off in my mind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I read a quote once…

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

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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…

the truth is hard.

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I owned a set of fridge poetry magnets when I was 15.  They were stuck on the fridge in the house where I lived with my parents.  When I was 15, I wrote this poem with fridge magnets about being sexually abused:

Time together

Alone with thy soul

There is always my body.

 

I smile at nothing

But desire

Fire craving winter.

 

Take when you want.

I could never

Disdain it enough

to break your heart.

 

the truth is hard.

In my 15 year old mind it was clear what the poem was about.  It was direct, it wasn’t even thinly veiled.  The double meaning of the word “hard” was intentional.  To me it was a message, it was a cry for help.  It was an attempt to communicate that all was not well.

Reading back to my journal from 1996, it was clear that I knew something was wrong.  I can hear myself trying to justify X’s actions, trying to defend him, trying to believe that everything would be alright.  I can hear myself blaming myself for not being comfortable.

Less than 1 month into the relationship with X:

May 2, 1996

He moves very quickly though, and is very persuasive when he wants to be.  That worries me a little bit, because he’s very forceful. I think that if I said no and meant it he would respect my choice…X turns into this totally different person when we are alone. He talked me into going under the covers.  At first I felt really uncomfortable…he can be so different, his different personalities are very drastic.  Like Dr. Jekell and Mr. Hyde…it worries me a little…the intensity of it scares me.

May 7, 1996

I’m not sure I understand X. He can’t seem to behave in public. He always wants to be physical with me, even when it isn’t appropriate.  I’m going to have to tell him that holding hands and kissing are OK in public, but anything farther isn’t.  He also doesn’t always stop right away when I ask him to. It’s as if he doesn’t believe I actually want him to.  Then he apologizes a lot after and seems to feel guilty, but he does it again…I’m sure after I talk to him he’ll act more appropriate.”

I wrote a lot about how it was my fault that I wasn’t comfortable.  I wrote about being too worried about other people’s opinions of me. I wrote about being seen as “Ms. Perfect” and struggling to live up to those ideals, especially when I didn’t see myself as perfect at all.  I wrote about the sexual relationship as a conflicted way to challenge people’s ideas that I was perfect, but really I was filled with guilt and shame about what was happening.  I couldn’t possibly be “Ms. Perfect” because if people really knew what was going on between X and I in private, they would be ashamed of me and hate me, the way I hated myself.

Looking back on it, I blamed myself for the abusive behavior of another person.  I thought that I was doing something wrong.  I thought his parents would hate me, my parents would hate me, my friends would hate me, and that generally everyone would think of me as a slut if they knew the truth.

So I didn’t tell anyone.  I didn’t tell anyone for 5 years after the abuse ended.  When we broke up, we started being “friends” and I fell into the deep abyss of anorexia.  The whole trauma which set this into motion was essentially erased, my hurt abused self was replaced by a frail skeletal figure, drifting though the halls of our high school, detached from everyone.  In order to make the abuse disappear, I tried to disappear.  I almost succeeded.

5 years later when I met my ex-husband, I fell into the same patterns.  I convinced myself it was my fault.  It was my issue that I wasn’t comfortable with the sexual stuff.  If I tried harder and was less depressed he would change his behaviour.  I blamed myself a thousand times more than my abusers every blamed me.  I abused myself a thousand times more than all of my abusers combined.  This is what trauma does to a young person.   By the time I even considered talking about the abuse, I was already caught in a second abusive relationship.  I never really had a chance to heal.

It wasn’t my fault.  I believe that abusers see vulnerable people like me a mile away.  They see us and they target us.  They know that we are less likely to fight back.  They know they can exploit our tendency to blame ourselves. They know they can build empires of abusive lies on the backs of our low self esteem and desire to please.

It wasn’t that I didn’t know I was uncomfortable.  It wasn’t that I didn’t know I wanted the sexual abuse to stop.  It wasn’t that I didn’t recognize that my boundaries were being pushed past and ignored.

It was that I blamed myself for the transgressions.  This was due to a mixture of the abusers gaslighting and confusing me, and my own lack of self confidence and self esteem.  My desire to please others was pre-existing and abusers knew they could use it to their advantage.

I didn’t scream or fight back because I believed it was my fault.  I felt so much shame, that I didn’t want to create a fuss.  I wanted to disappear and be invisible.  I turned to anorexia as a coping technique and a way to take up less space.  I tried to shrink my guilt and shame.  I tried to decrease the dirty feeling, by decreasing the size of my body.

I blamed my body because in my teenage mind, if I didn’t have a body I wouldn’t have been sexually abused.

 

 

 

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):

February 21, 2001

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.

Rape Culture.

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Rape culture is so pervasive and it starts impacting children in primary school.  I felt extremely triggered by something my younger daughter shared with me last week after school.  It’s been bothering me all weekend for a number of reasons.  I find rape culture upsetting.  Sometimes I just want to scream, cry and shout about gender based violence and fight against it.  Other times I’m exhausted, burnt out, spent from trauma and secondary trauma and I want to curl up in bed and hide from the world.  Just take it.  Just let it all happen.  Just zone out and give up.  Because I can’t fight rape culture alone.  It’s too big and I’m just one individual person.

My daughter is in primary school.  She told me that the boys in her class were pinning girls up against the wall and humping them.  She told me that the girls were squirming and trying to get away and that they did not like it. The teachers did nothing.  I asked my daughter if the boys did this to her.  She told me they didn’t because they don’t fully see her as a girl yet (she’s transgender).   I asked her if she told the teacher and she told me “No, because the teachers tell me to stay out of other people’s business”

My daughter knows that this behaviour is wrong.  She was upset about it which is why she told me.  We talked about consent.  We talked about bystander intervention and the difference between tattling and telling to get help.  She told me she might talk to a teacher she trusts on Monday.

I’m triggered for a number of reasons.

This type of behaviour shows just how young the messages of “boys will be boys” and “boys chase girls because they like them” etc.  are ingrained, in students, and teachers don’t question them.  My daughter consistently tells me that teachers don’t intervene in situations like this, instead telling the kids to sort it out themselves.  This tells me that the school isn’t teaching consent culture, nor are they valuing bystander intervention, nor are they clearly teaching and demonstrating the difference between tattling and telling.  These are important skills in combating rape culture, preventing sexual violence and helping stop sexual assault in situations where risks occur (i.e bystander intervention).

Though I was very glad my daughter hadn’t experienced this unwanted behaviour, it also drove home a very clear message that women and feminine presenting folks are the main targets of rape culture.  Because my daughter socially transitioned this year, her friends still perceive her as a boy, thus they do not target her for this type of sexualized bullying.  She exists in an in between space, not perpetrating the violence and not yet suffering it either.  Though she does experience some bullying related to being trans or being different, because the kids don’t yet perceive her as a “real girl,”  she is not yet a target for the unwanted sexual bullying.

All of this is extremely upsetting for me.  I’m angry that the school isn’t being more proactive in protecting these female students.  I’m angry that the school isn’t being more proactive in teaching the male students that sexual bullying is not acceptable.  Rape culture takes root during these early years.  It’s far too late to begin education in consent culture in high school.  It’s important to teach school age children that “no means no,”  that games should stop if both people aren’t having fun, that chasing girls isn’t cool unless everyone has agreed on the game, and that humping people against a wall is assault, not a joke.

As adults, role models, mentors, parents and teachers, we can root out rape culture.  We can fight it at the roots by doing primary prevention.  Teaching consent culture to young boys and masculine folks.  Teaching bystander intervention to all kids.  Teaching young girls and women to build each other up, support each other and look out for each other.

I can be a radical feminist.  I can be a social justice advocate.  I can fight to end gender based violence until my last breath.   But very little will change, if young boys are being implicitly taught that humping young girls against a school yard wall is acceptable behaviour and young girls are being taught that nobody will stop it from happening.