On being a survivor.

It’s very difficult to know how to exist in a world where it is made clear at all levels of society, that perpetrators’ experiences and rights will always be prioritized over those of survivors (particularly women, children and gender non-conforming folks).

What happens if your perpetrators aren’t politicians or religious leaders, or people with power and status? Does anyone even care? Do those cases ever proceed to court or hearings? Do they get media coverage? Or are they, for the most part invisible, silenced even in cases where the victim DOES come forward, does report and does seek assistance?

How does it feel for survivors to turn on news or social media and be constantly bombarded with how little society values their pain and suffering?

How can any survivors ever really heal and feel safe in a world where their experiences are invalidated, discounted, silenced and disbelieved…not just once, not twice but OVER AND OVER AND OVER for the rest of their lives?

How to make sense of the level of victim blaming and responsibility placed on survivors, while those survivors simultaneously watch excuses be made for their perpetrators? Not just once, but daily and at all levels of society, nationally and internationally. How to understand that your perpetrators’ pasts were just the folly of youth, and his future is too bright to spoil, while you are grappling with severe PTSD on a daily basis as a result of the violence? How to understand that for him it was a “misunderstanding of consent” while you knew what you were doing and were responsible for staying with him?

How to exist when EVERY post about sexual violence reminds you of how your own experiences will NEVER be validated by official society (court, media, child protection) and that your perpetrators will continue to exist without meaningful consequences until the end of their lives?

How to exist when parental rights are prioritized over child protection and the rights of children?

These issues are not just happening in the USA. It’s easy to criticize America and feel morally superior as Canadians. But we have these problems here too. Survivors are not believed here too. Perpetrators have high level, successful jobs here too. Gender based violence is a society wide, structural, social problem here too.

There should be more stigma and consequences associated with being a rapist, than stigma and consequences associated with reporting/surviving rape. Until we not only BELIEVE survivors, but CARE about and prioritize survivors, not much will change.

All mixed up.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a blog post.  Even tonight as I sit down to type this, I’m not clear on what I’m going to write about.

I’ve been focused on my children and my family for the last few months.  It’s been difficult to connect or find the energy to do much other than collapse on the couch to watch Netflix at the end of each busy day.  I have my children with me full time now.  Their father moved to another part of the country and they haven’t seen him since October.  He didn’t plan a visit for Christmas.

We are all of us coping with this abandonment in different ways.

For me, there has been an incredible amount of anger.

I don’t feel comfortable in the anger.  I don’t feel comfortable with how little patience I have and how quickly I snap at people or shut them out if they cross a line from support into offering advice.  I’ve isolated myself more than usual.

The anger is just barely covering a deep well of sadness and fear.  Sometimes I feel completely overwhelmed with the amount of trauma my small family has endured in the past few years.  I worry about the impact it will have on my children.  I worry about not having the right help for them.  I worry about not being patient enough.  I worry about being a solo parent, all the responsibility on me.  I worry about the lifelong impact of parental abandonment after years of emotional abuse and neglect.

I think about the research that has been done about adverse childhood experiences  (ACEs) in relation to trauma theory and the negative impact on health.  For those who might not be familiar with the research, here is a visual representation:

 

My kids have experienced emotional abuse and neglect and physical neglect at times.  I don’t know for certain about physical and sexual abuse.  I may never know.  They have a parent with a mental illness.  Their parents are divorced and their mother is a survivor of family violence.  There is a history of substance abuse on both sides of their family (though not with either parent).

I try not to think about it.  I try to think about the research on resilience which shows that if children have even one positive, consistent and stable adult in their life, it mitigates the impact of ACEs.   I try to believe.  I need to believe it is true in order to function on a daily basis, rather than fall into a pit of hopeless despair.

My older child was recently diagnosed with learning disabilities.  This did not come as a surprise to me.  For two years her father refused to consent for the testing to be re-done.  Earlier testing had been inconclusive for a number of reasons and it was recommended to be repeated.  He refused to agree.  He denied she had any learning issues and blamed me for instilling anxiety in both my children.

Yesterday, as I listened to the feedback from the psychologist.  I heard her saying again and again how different aspects of the test results, including some of the discrepancies between the recent and prior testing, could be linked to the impact of trauma on a developing brain.

Essentially, she was talking about the impact of ACEs on my child’s brain.

I felt numb.  What reaction is normal?  How can a caring parent just accept these things?  How to function and keep moving forward, filled with the knowledge that my kids have experienced trauma?

Intellectually, I know it isn’t my fault.  I know I’ve done the best I could.  But the dark voice inside tells me that it is my fault.  That I never should have had children.  That someone with a mental illness like mine should never have been a mother.  That I never should have had children with an abusive partner.  That I should have left him sooner.  That I should have stayed with him to protect the kids…

All the ways…all the blame.

I push it all down.   Try to keep busy.  Try to block out the thoughts and worries.  Turn on the TV.  Pick up my cell phone.  Browse the internet mindlessly for hours.

In the evening, I feel a sense of panic.  I’m a fraud.  I’m not capable.  I find myself thinking old thoughts, falling back into old thought patterns.  “I can escape my responsibilities by hurting myself”  and “It’s too hard.  I can’t do it. I’m a failure”  I think about self harm and suicide.  Then berate myself for how literally insane it is.  I can’t die.  I’m simultaneously gripped in a tight knot of constant fear and terror about dying and leaving my kids alone with their father, and desperate to escape from a life that often feels TOO painful to endure.   I think about suicide and actively wish I was not alive, while at the same time worrying about getting sick or having an accident, and the consequences on my children if I’m not here 100% of the time and 100% functional.

It’s exhausting.  I honestly want to sleep and watch TV, curled in warm blankets, for many days.  I want to escape from SO much responsibility.  But I can’t.  I get up each day, and I function.  I do ALL the things.  I keep going, because I have to.

My mind is a bit all over the place recently.  Instead of having a certain set of trauma memories and flashbacks which bother me consistently, I have been experiencing mixed up flashes of a whole spread of my traumatic experiences.  Memories popping into my mind, unexpectedly, and me pushing them back down again.

I started a new job, teaching a course at the university I went to during the years before my separation.  Going back to the campus brought back memories of those two years, when I was so unwell, cutting myself and ending up in the emergency room on a regular basis.  I received ECT the week I completed my last semester.  I felt depressed and trapped and I hadn’t yet made the connection to my abusive marriage.  During those years, it was still JUST ME.  I felt like I’d exhausted every treatment option and I was ready to give up.  I wrote a post-it note suicide notes to my children but then went to the hospital and had my injuries treated.  I felt like I was falling into pieces and not able to put them together again.  I never felt calm or safe.  I had nightmares and woke up screaming and trying to escape from imagined abusers.

My brain also dredged up memories and flashbacks of the undergraduate professor who sexually assaulted me in my apartment, less than a year after my graduation.  It happened in December.  I sat frozen on my couch while he touched me.  I didn’t fight back, I didn’t say no.  I just froze and disassociated, my eyes fixed on his black and gold scarf.  I was powerless to stop him. The only reason it ended was that at some point he noticed that I was completely gone and even he didn’t want to touch a statue.  It took what felt like hours before I could even speak to ask him to leave.  I remember crying, but as a statue would cry, tears moving over a frozen face.

In a way, I feel safer now that my ex-husband doesn’t live in the city.  But I still tense up when I see a car like his.  I still get jumpy at night sometimes, thinking I hear someone in the house.  I still get anxious about something happening to the kids, even a minor injury, that he might get angry about.  I am in equal parts afraid he will respond to my mandatory email updates about the children, and furious that he ignores me so completely.  I feel at the same time invisible and caged.   I feel trapped in a cage.

The cage of abuse and trauma.  I don’t know how to escape and I don’t know how to release my children from the cage either.  When abuse has gone on for so long, the abuser doesn’t even have to be in the same city, or have contact with you, to control you with the fear of what MIGHT happen.  The bars of the cage are memories, fears, and what ifs.  The fear alone is enough to modulate our behaviour, even with little or no contact from him.

I’m tired.  I get tired of hearing myself say that I’m tired.  But I’m tired.  I’m always tired.

Yes, there are good days and things to be thankful for.  This post isn’t ungrateful or dismissive of the blessings in my life.  It’s more to say that no matter how bright the joys and how wonderful the blessing, I still feel caged.  I still wonder how it can be possible to “live a normal life”  or “be healed” or “recovered”  after so much trauma.

I know it’s possible.  I know that ACEs aren’t a death sentence.  I know that our family has a lot of support, a lot of strengths and a lot of STRENGTH.

But some days PTSD makes it hard to be optimistic.  Is a bird in a cage optimistic about escaping?  Or in captivity do they gradually stop singing and lose their vibrancy?  A bird doesn’t belong in a cage.

And neither do I.

d197ea2ae65c38f81e506420871623c3

Not my art.  Taken from Pinterest online

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.

Leaving. Living.

thedoorisclosing-1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It took 5 years to leave him.  5 years.

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

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

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

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

The leaving has ended.

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

Trusting my younger self.

20170404_220110[1]

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.

Internalized Stigma.

 

20170314_165530[1]

Stigma causes me to make terrible choices.  Internalized stigma is dangerous to my health.  This is what I learned over the past few weeks.

Why do I feel so many complicated feelings about taking an anti-psychotic medication, but completely different feelings about taking arthritis medication?  The answer is internalized stigma.

Mental health stigma has taught me to be ashamed that I take psychiatric medication.  Internalized stigma causes me to think that I shouldn’t take the medication, that I should try to stop taking it as soon as possible, that I’m weak and somehow not good enough because I need medication to stay functional.  Basically, stigma lies.

Recently I started an alternative treatment which was helping me to sleep.  Because I was able to fall asleep, I decided to reduce my anti-psychotic medication.  I don’t need this!  I can function without it!  I’ll be fine as long as I’m still sleeping!  I feel okay!  What could go wrong?

As it turns out, a lot could go wrong.

Within a week of reducing my prescription medication, I was having multiple panic attacks a day, having paranoid thoughts, thinking that I was seeing my ex everywhere, afraid to leave the house and almost impulsively quit my job!

I was physically sick, dealing with a lot of triggers and somehow I thought it was going to be absolutely fine to reduce my psych meds!

I’m going to blame this on stigma.

I’m also going to blame stigma for how long it took me to realize that the change in medication was directly linked to my crisis state.

I mentioned it to my psychiatrist over the phone.  We talk very infrequently since I’ve been stable for the past few  years.  He told me to take the medication.  He told me that I have so much going on and so much stress that I don’t need to justify to anyone that I need the medication.  He said, just take it.  Just take it and don’t worry about it.

I thought about it and I realized he was right.  Why was I fighting so hard to reduce the dose of a medication that wasn’t causing me terrible side effects and, in fact, was reducing some of the most unpleasant PTSD symptoms (panic, paranoia, seeing things as a result of flashbacks)?  Why was  I judging myself so harshly?  Why was it more important to reduce the medication and not be “dependent” than it was to keep my job?

The answer was that it wasn’t more important.  That I didn’t need to judge myself.  That I needed the medication to keep the symptoms at bay.  Yes, the anti-psychotic medication (as it’s name implies) was ACTUALLY keeping me functional and not on the edge of psychosis!

I started on the higher dose that night.  Within 2 days I was back at work, within 4 days the panic attacks were reduced and almost back to “normal” levels.  Within a week, I’m feeling more hopeful and less terrified.

These pills help me.

Yes, I’ve had horrific experiences with psychiatry and psychiatric medications.  Yes, some of these drugs have made me worse and almost killed me.  Yes, there is a social stigma associated with anti-psychotic drugs.

But I’m going to work on not internalizing this stigma.  I’m going to work on accepting what is.  Accepting my current limitations.  Accepting that PTSD is a brain injury and it’s logical to take medication if it helps balance things out.

So next time I start talking about decreasing my medication, please remind me to re-read this post.  Please remind me that my health is more important than stigma.  That I’d rather be functioning and medicated, than in crisis and able to say that I don’t take any medication!  Remind me that going off my medication is NOT a good idea right now.  And maybe be gentle with yourself too…do what you need for your recovery.  Do what you need and don’t let judgment (by self or others) get in your way.  You are the expert in  your own healing.  Trust that.

 

Sick Days.

20170307_164945[1]

I’ve been home sick the past few days and sick on and off for a while now. It’s really difficult sometimes to separate physical and mental health symptoms.  Everything is all blurred together and it’s hard to tell when to push myself harder and when to rest.  This past week has been an explosion of physical and mental health struggles that are creating a storm of symptoms and have forced me to (uncharacteristically) stay in bed.

I haven’t met very many people who understand the complex intertwined experience of having both physical and mental health issues simultaneously.   Most doctors aren’t very trauma informed and also struggle to validate that both physical and mental health issues can occur simultaneously, and be either linked, not linked or both linked AND not linked to each other!

One of the things I’ve been coping with in the past few weeks is a urinary tract infection.   Obviously, an infection is caused by bacteria and isn’t a mental health issue.  But I was also really triggered in the past few weeks and this made me extremely reluctant to seek medical care.  I was afraid to go to a walk-in clinic, afraid to see a doctor, afraid to be examined.  This was linked both to past trauma around the medical system AND generally high levels of panic and anxiety related to stress with my ex and my kids experiencing abuse.   Thus I waited for over a week to go to the doctor, by that time my symptoms were much worse and I felt pretty awful physically.

This is an example of how physical and mental health issues can be both separate and linked at the same time.  The infection itself was physical, but my avoidance of the doctor was mental health and trauma related.   Of course you might also argue that my high levels of stress and anxiety also generally lower my immune system and make it harder for me to fight off infections.

By the end of last week I was on antibiotics, but I also developed a sinus cold.  I had a migraine related to receiving a nerve block to treat the migraines, but the sinus congestion put pressure on the nerves that were being treated.   My anxiety was causing panic attacks and making me afraid to leave the house for fear of running into my ex.

Thus again, my high levels of stress probably didn’t help any of these physical issues that I was dealing with.

When someone has an infection, generally they are advised to rest.  But resting is difficult when you are also struggling with severe anxiety and panic attacks.  My head gets filled with worries about work and what I’m missing and what people think about me being away and creating all sorts of worries and fears, many of which are not realistic.

Anxiety causes me to feel like a failure.  It causes me to feel like making a mistake is a terrible thing which can’t be recovered from.  It causes me to feel like everyone around me hates me and thinks I’m doing a terrible job.  Or worse, they think I’m faking being sick to avoid responsibilities.  A lot of my irrational worries centre around feeling like nobody believes me and that nobody likes me.

Experiencing abuse, and extending periods of emotional abuse, as well as abuse within systems, has lead me to fear and avoid conflict of any kind.  I want everyone to be happy all the time.  I get very anxious when there are disagreements and I’ll often apologize even when I’m not sure I have done anything wrong.   I’ll do what I can to avoid conflict, because when interpersonal conflict levels are high around me, my anxiety levels feel unbearable.  Because ongoing interpersonal conflict is a trigger.  I try to keep people around me happy because I want to feel safe and BE safe.

Unfortunately, in the real world, conflict is unavoidable.  Disagreements are part of life.  As the saying goes, you can’t please everyone all the time.

But I want to!  I need a lot of reassurance from people around me that I’m doing an adequate job.  I need reassurance that conflict isn’t dangerous.  I need reassurance that people believe me, that they believe I experienced abuse, that they believe I’m trying my best.  I need reassurance so badly because my internal dialogue is so self critical and judgmental.

I know it’s not the responsibility of those around me to constantly reassure me.  I know I’m an adult and I have to take responsibility for my own feelings and fears.  The difficult part is that while I’m experiencing ongoing abuse and conflict which is outside of my control, my self esteem is constantly being eroded and challenged.  I need reassurance because I haven’t yet learned to fully believe and reassure myself.

I believe this is very common for survivors who have experienced long periods of gaslighting or complex emotional abuse.    It’s hard to build up a stable sense of self when you are being confused, beaten down and made to feel like you are crazy and nobody will believe you.

Survivors need a lot of patience.  Sometimes you might get frustrated with me.  Sometimes you might feel like I’m being unreasonable.  Sometimes you might not understand why I’m SO upset over something SO little.   Please remember that it’s not little to me.  My reaction could be related to feeling triggered and that trigger is making me feel like a failure.   If you have the energy and patience to reassure a survivor, please do so.  She might need to hear thousands of times that you believe her and that you don’t think she is crazy.

I need to hear it a thousand times.  Especially on weeks like these where I feel crazy, broken and like a failure.

Being physically and emotionally sick at the same time isn’t a lot of fun.  Taking sick days when you are struggling with severe anxiety and PTSD isn’t fun.  It’s not relaxing.  It’s not “a break.”

I guess sometimes we have to carry on, try to move forward, even if we don’t believe or have faith that everything will work out for the best.

Can’t make everyone happy.

One of the ways I’ve coped with trauma in my life is to try to make everyone happy all the time.  When I was a child I thought my role was to “be nice” and to “be a good friend” and to take care of others, pay attention to my friends’ feelings, be considerate, be polite and do well in school always.  Essentially to be perfect all of the time.

I took this to such an extreme that I thought it was my responsibility to save, fix and adapt to my abusers.  Somewhere along the way I did not learn that it’s okay to be mean to protect myself.  It’s okay not to be nice to abusive people.  It’s okay to say NO, even to scream it and it’s not something to feel guilty for.  As an adult I STILL struggle with internalizing this.

I’ve spent the majority of my life trying to figure out what part of all my traumas is my fault.   What could I have done differently?  How could I have seen it coming?  Maybe if I’d been a better friend, she wouldn’t have died.  What if?  Maybe people are mad at me?  Maybe I made a horrible mistake at work and everyone blames me.   A good portion of my internal dialogue is convinced that somehow I’m a terrible mistake.  I’m not really a good person.  If only everyone could see!  Then they’d know the truth.

So as an adult, in most areas of my life I try to be the peacemaker.  I try to listen to everyone’s side of the story.  I try to minimize or avoid conflict at all cost.  I feel incredibly uncomfortable, even panicky when people around me are angry.  And if there is a conflict, you can bet it’s somehow my fault and I will feel guilty about it.

The irony, is I support survivors of violence every day.  I’ve told over a hundred or more women that what happened to them isn’t their fault.  I’ve told friends, I’ve told family members.  Heck, I’ve even told my abusers that things that happened to them weren’t their faults.  You were a child!   You couldn’t have known!   You did everything you could to protect yourself!   You aren’t to blame, he’s an abusive person.   You were in the wrong place and the wrong time.  You couldn’t have prevented it.  Your are doing what you can to take care of yourself.  It’s not your fault.  I believe you.

But at the end of the day, I treat myself with contempt and blame.  I feel like literally everything is my fault.  Always.  I try to depersonalize.  I know intellectually that most people aren’t even thinking about me, let alone blaming me for things that go wrong.  But deep down, I fear that I’m just a flawed person and I feel panicky when I realize I can’t keep everyone happy all the time with sacrificing myself.  And even if I do sacrifice myself, people around me have their own feelings and can be mad, hurt, angry and scared and there is not a connection to me.

A lot of women grew up with the message to “be good” and not to show anger.  Angry girls get labeled bitches.  Assertive girls get labeled bossy or rude.  Angry girls are judged.  People like calm, pretty, patient and loving girls.  We are surrounded by this covert and overt messaging from birth.  The labels put on us almost before we take our first breaths.

Why do so many girls and women feel such intense guilt and even shame around saying no?  Why do so many girls and women feel that anger is an unacceptable emotion and that they are bad for having it?  Why do I feel this way?  How do I make room for myself without feeling guilty?  How to say no without feeling afraid and ashamed?

These days, the world has become a scary place.  I’ve had to take breaks from social media and the news because I’m so devastated by the hatred and violence I see.  I feel the urge to isolate myself, connect less, spend more time alone.  Because I don’t feel very safe in the world anymore.  It’s rare that I feel truly safe.  As a survivor of violence, living with PTSD I feel scared most of the time.  But current events have triggered a different level of fear.

And sadness.  Because all the caring in the world can’t fix this mess.  I could be the best person in the world and I couldn’t make all my friends feel safe.  I want everyone to be in a bubble where they feel safe and protected.

I am a good person. I genuinely help people because I care about them and I want to.  It’s not because it’s an obligation or how I was raised.  It’s not just the expectation placed on me.  I think I was always this empathetic person. I always cared deeply, perhaps too deeply.  And it’s always hurt me.

But right now it hurts too much.  I just want to say NO MORE TRAUMA and hide from the world.  My brain feels overwhelmed with conflict.  I’m afraid about everything I do, that it will somehow make things worse.  When I’m alone at least I can think and I only have to monitor myself and my environment, not other people and their reactions.  Sometimes the guilt feels too much and I just don’t want to make a mistake or let someone down.  I’m also terribly afraid of being hurt or betrayed by someone else.  Sadly, this is a lonely way to live.  I just want to be in a bubble and feel safe and protected too.

Being lonely feels safer right now.  Because I can’t make everyone happy all of the time.  Sometimes I feel like I can’t make anyone happy, ever.

I can’t even make myself happy.

It’s rude to stare.

20161204_1228461

I’m not speaking for all people with disability here, there are my own opinions.  Trigger warning for description of self harm

I identify as a person with disabilities.  The thing is, that I live in an interesting position where some of the time I have the privilege of “passing” as a non-disabled person and some of the time, it’s obviously visible that I’m different, strange, mad, crazy, mentally ill, or whatever label people might want to put on my experience.

I experience my PTSD as a chronic disability rather than an illness.  It’s something I live with and cope with and I don’t expect it to suddenly be cured or disappear.  I don’t consider myself “sick” but I’m not really well either.

One of the ways in which I coped with having undiagnosed and improperly treated PTSD was to cut myself.  I cut myself for many years of my life.  Because I had severe adverse effects from psychiatric medications I cut myself deeply, chaotically and severely.  As a result I have visible scars over the majority of my body.   These scars are covered by long sleeves and long pants, but can be seen wearing any other type of clothing.

I have a number of close friends who also identify as having disabilities, and I work in a field where I have read, heard about and studied oppression related to disability.  What I want to talk about is the situation I encountered last night.  The one in which able-bodied, sane, or well people feel the need to STARE at, or comment on, disabled bodies.   The staring makes me feel instantly like a circus freak, instantly judged, instantly “less than” and instantly oppressed.

I was out at the dance last night and I’d invited along a woman I’ve met up with a few times.   It’s been winter weather so this was the first time she’d seen me in a short sleeved shirt.  I hadn’t mentioned the self harm to her.  I had mentioned my past abusive relationship.   When I arrived, I noticed her staring at my arms. I noticed her staring at them on and off over the course of the evening.  She never said anything about them, just looked at them awkwardly.

I was already struggling yesterday.  I was having a lot of body dysphoria and feeling self conscious and negative about my body.  I’d been at a party earlier and I was hot in my sweater but I didn’t want people looking at my arms, so I left it on.  Often I forget about my scars now, but some days I’m hyper sensitive because I don’t want to risk being under the “judgemental gaze” of able-bodied or sane folks.

Here’s what I wish folks would do when they notice my scars:

  1.  You’ve noticed my scars.  You are curious. I get it. But this isn’t about you.  Please don’t stare.  I’m not a circus freak.
  2. If you must ask questions about it, if possible wait until a quite private moment and then politely ask me what you want to know.
  3. If you absolutely have to know.  Please don’t stare.  I’d rather you ask me a question about what you want to know, even in a public place than continue to stare or sneak glances at me.  Believe me  I SEE YOU LOOKING AT THEM.  You aren’t getting away with looking at them subtly.  In general, people with visible disabilities are vigilant to noticing people staring at them.
  4. Remember, I’m still the same person I was before you noticed the scars. Nothing has really changed.  Your reaction to my scars is more about you, than it is about me.  If you are seeing the scars, it means I am comfortable showing them.  You are the one who is making the situation uncomfortable by awkwardly staring at me!

And here is a list of answers to some commonly asked questions about my scars.  Maybe this will help you to not ask these questions to other people who self injure, maybe it will help others understand a bit better.  To be fully honest, people rarely ask me questions about my scars.  I sometimes wish they did ask me.  I’d rather be asked questions than be stared at and be left wondering what the person was thinking.  But there are some common questions and questions I imagine folks have.

  1.  Do they hurt?  No, most of them don’t hurt.  There are a few that didn’t heal properly or weren’t stitched properly that do hurt.  Some of them itch or the skin pulls at times which can be uncomfortable.  For the most part they just feel the same as the rest of my skin.
  2.  Can I touch them? No!  That’s fucking creepy.  This is a trigger for me, because one of my abusers asked that question.  I don’t think it’s cool, cute, fun or sexy to have them touched specifically during intimacy.  Please just treat them as part of the rest of my skin.
  3. What happened to you?  They are scars from self inflicted injuries, mainly cutting.  I hurt myself as a way of coping with ongoing sexual and emotional abuse over a period of time in my life.  I also had serious adverse reactions to psychiatric medication, especially SSRI anti-depressants which gave me obsessive self destructive thoughts and impulses over a 4 year period of time.  I was told repeatedly that “doctors don’t give you medication to make you sick”
  4. Did you have to get stitches?  Yes.  Lots of them.
  5. Did it hurt?  Sometimes.  But a lot of the time when I was harming myself I was disassociating and I didn’t feel the pain.  A lot of the time I was doing it I was numb and detached and felt very little.  It hurt a lot AFTER and when it was healing, when the disassociation wore off.
  6.  Do you regret it? Sometimes.  It’s hard to remember a time when I didn’t have the scars.  To be honest the scars trigger me sometimes which is why I often used to hide them.  They bring back bad memories of times I’d rather forget.  But they are a part of me as well, a part of my story and a part of what I’ve survived.
  7.  What is the worst part about having self harm scars?  The worst part is the judgement I get when seeking non-psychiatric medical care.  So many times doctors have seen the scars and treated me differently.  They often make assumptions about me that are incorrect.  They assume I’m drug seeking, an addict, or that I’m unstable, lying, attention seeking, borderline etc.  I notice that doctors have the worst misconceptions about self harm.   Doctors often assume I’m LESS able than I actually am, and at times I struggle to receive appropriate medical care.  There is a great deal of stigma attached to having a mental health disability, especially related to self injury.

The take home message is simple:

Don’t stare at people whose bodies may be different than yours.

If you must ask questions, do so politely and privately if possible.  Ideally, don’t ask a lot of questions of complete strangers.  Questions as part of a friendship come across completely differently and can be more acceptable as a part of getting to know someone over time.

I notice you staring at me, and I don’t interpret it as polite concern.  I interpret it as intense othering.

I was just there for the dance.

Seeing things.

img_8702

It’s been a difficult week for so many of us, including women and gender non-conforming survivors of sexual violence.  I’m struggling with my PTSD symptoms.

Marian was the only one I could ever talk to about some of my more intense PTSD symptoms.  She was the only person I’ve ever met who I really felt completely understood what I was going through.  I never felt “crazy” when I talked to her.  I could call her, say what happened and every time she would know exactly what I was talking about because she’d experienced it too.

I’ve learned with symptoms of mental illness that there are some things that are more acceptable to talk about, and some things which are more highly stigmatized.  There are some symptoms which almost nobody ever talks about, for fear of being judged or experiencing discrimination or persecution.

In 2016, almost everyone knows someone who has struggled with depression, anxiety or who has issues related to food.  These are things we talk about.

People very rarely talk about suicidal thoughts, self harm, paranoia, delusions and seeing and hearing things that aren’t real.

It’s almost like there is a divide between the mental illness that society accepts and the mental illness that is forced to exist in the closet.

When PTSD is really acting up for me, I see things that aren’t there.

I’ve rarely told anyone about this because I know that most people won’t understand.  Marian understood.  I felt so accepted, like there was at least one other person in the world who experienced seeing things as a symptom of PTSD.

This week, there have been three separate occasions where I’ve “seen” my ex in public places.  It’s so hard to explain how this feels.   The first person was in the food court at the mall.  He had a coat, scarf and haircut similar to my ex, and even though I looked at him and my intellectual mind recognized it wasn’t him, I kept looking back over and over, convinced it was somehow him.  My heart was racing and I felt panicky.   It isn’t just the feeling of mistaking someone else for him.  I actually SEE him, in someone else.  Someone else is replaced by him for that moment and I’m afraid.

This happened again today when I was buying my coffee.  The person didn’t even look like my ex, but he became him for a moment.   My intellectual mind tries to reassure me that what I’m seeing isn’t real, but it feels real.  It happens with cars that look like his too.  Sometimes, I have to check and check again, sure that the car is his, even though intellectually I know it is not.

I’ve had this experience before, in the past, in the years leading up to me leaving my ex.  I would see X sometimes, when I was triggered.  I remember talking to Marian about it.

It’s an unsettling feeling.  Sometimes when I’m very stressed and have been sleeping poorly, I also see tricks of the light which aren’t there.   These experiences are all more illusions than actual hallucinations, but they are still disturbing and they signal to me that my brain is over-stressed, overtired and in need of relief.  My doctor assures me that none of these are psychotic symptoms, but they are symptoms of PTSD.

These experiences of “seeing things” are different that what happens during flashbacks.  They seem to happen just out of the blue when my brain is stressed.

During flashbacks, it also happens that my brain sees something from the past rather than what is in the present.  The person I’m with, “becomes” my abuser, I can’t trust what I’m seeing, my brain is mixing the past and the present into a mash up of confusion.

Nobody really talks about these things.  As a survivor it can be very isolating and it can make me afraid to speak out about the symptoms.  Sometimes I don’t know what is more terrifying: feeling crazy or worrying that people will perceive me as crazy.   I know, intellectually, somewhere deep inside, that I’m not actually crazy.  My brain is coping with trauma and it is doing what it needs to do to survive.  Sometimes this coping mimics, looks like, and produces symptoms of mental illness.  But often the symptoms are my brain letting me know that I need to reduce my stress.  If I don’t listen to the early warning signals, my brain escalates to more dramatic signals like suicidal thoughts and seeing things.

Learning to listen to my own inner voice is part of the healing journey.

Essentially,  I think society needs to talk about these stigmatized symptoms of PTSD and mental illness.  I think we need to break down the misconceptions and the misinformation and realize that for the most part, folks are just doing the best they can to cope.   When you are living it, all mental illness is terrifying.  It’s just a matter of degrees.  Sometimes the fear of stigma is what keeps people silent and stops them from reaching out for help.   Talking openly and without judgment heals.

I sometimes see things, but if Marian could understand, maybe you can to.