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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Me Too.

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#metoo

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

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

And I was angry.

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

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

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

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

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

#metoo rubbed me the wrong way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But they shouldn’t have to.

End gender based violence.   End violence against women.

Enough is enough.

Vulnerability Hangover.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just hungover.

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.

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!