Body distortions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then a light bulb went off in my mind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I read a quote once…

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

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the truth is hard.

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

Time together

Alone with thy soul

There is always my body.

 

I smile at nothing

But desire

Fire craving winter.

 

Take when you want.

I could never

Disdain it enough

to break your heart.

 

the truth is hard.

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

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

Less than 1 month into the relationship with X:

May 2, 1996

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

May 7, 1996

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Trusting my younger self.

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

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

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

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

February 21, 2001

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 26, 2001

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

April 4, 2001

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

Maybe I was never my own worst enemy.

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

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

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

The roots of an abusive relationship.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 8, 2001

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

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

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

Perfectly normal.

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

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

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

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

But why didn’t you report it?

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I wanted to write a short post about why survivors of sexual assault don’t report and often don’t tell anyone.  More specifically, why I didn’t.  There are as many reasons not to report and/or tell as there are different survivors.

To distinguish the terms, reporting means telling someone in authority, for example the police, law enforcement or people in a position of power.  Telling, could mean talking to a friend, a family member, a doctor, counselor, religious leader etc.   Reporting is often done to accomplish some goal related to punishing the perpetrator or holding him accountable.  Telling is often done for the benefit of the survivor, finding support, discussing options, being believed and validated.

It can be very dangerous to mix these two concepts.  Because the people you might report to (the police for example) are not likely to, nor is it fully their job to, support the survivor.  In my opinion, it should be their job to BELIEVE the survivor, but even this cannot be guaranteed.

Some women choose to tell, but not to report.  And some survivors neither tell, nor report.  It’s important to remember that this choice should always be made by the survivor and she should not be pressured into reporting.  Sometimes the question “why didn’t you report it?” can feel extremely judgmental and can shut someone down even further.

Let’s talk about some of the reasons women, and folks in general, tend to stay silent when they experience sexual violence

  1. Real or perceived stigma associated with being a survivor of sexual violence.   We live in a rape culture society that tends to blame the victim and most survivors instinctively know this.   In many situations, there is also a great deal of internalized sexism, internalized judgment and internalized guilt and shame related to being abused which created a sense of stigma that might not have actually existed.
  2.  Fears of not being believed.  Many people stay silent, to avoid giving other people the power to judge whether they are telling the truth of not.
  3. Fears related to what they were doing at the time of the assault.  For example if the woman was drinking, if she was out late at night, if she willingly went to the perpetrators house etc.   Many survivors assume that because they consented to one thing, it means they automatically deserve the assault that happened, or that they will not be believed because they “put themselves in the vulnerable position” or were “asking for it”
  4. Fears related to oppression.  A woman may feel afraid to come forward if she is marginalized in any way, for example a Woman of Colour, a person with a disability, a person with a mental illness, a queer person, a trans person, a sex worker or someone using substances.  These folks may feel they will not be believed due to their experiences of oppression.
  5. Not recognizing what has happened as sexual assault.  When people are abused, it isn’t always immediately clear to the survivor that what happened was assault.  This is especially true when survivors are children or when abuse happens in a relationship context.  Often abusers are very kind and meet the survivors needs in some ways, while simultaneously being abusive in other ways.  This confuses the survivor and leaves her struggling to understand and define her own reality.  Also, some people (children for example) literally lack the vocabulary to define what they have experienced.
  6. Not having the option to tell.  For example, not knowing that reporting is an option, or not having a safe person to tell.  Or not trusting anyone enough to tell them.

This list is not exhaustive, but is meant to illustrate some of the complexities related to this topic.

When I was abused as a child and teenager, I neither told nor reported.  I didn’t tell anyone because of a combination of the reasons above.  I didn’t have the words, I was confused about my relationship with the abuser, I didn’t know reporting was an option and most of all I feared judgment and had deeply internalized shame and guilt about what had happened.  I blamed myself.

As an adult, I didn’t report because I was confused about my relationship, because I minimized the abuse as “not that bad,” because I disassociated and coped with self harm, because I had a mental health diagnosis I feared that I would not be believed, because I had children with the abuser and other reasons.

When I was assaulted single times by perpetrators I was not in close relationships with, I didn’t tell because I was ashamed.  Because I felt like it was my fault because I agreed to go with them.  I didn’t want to face the stigma with people I knew and because I worried people would not believe me or would judge me.

In the end, in all the situations I have faced, I have eventually either told, and in some cases, told and reported.  Reporting sometimes felt necessary for various reasons, including protecting other potential victims and attempting to receive external validation within systems, that the abuse actually did occur.

This blog is a way of telling my story and encouraging, or showing, others that telling is an option.  There may be a stigma attached to surviving sexual violence, but there are also communities of survivors and allies out there who will believe and who will validate.  There are safe people.  There are people who believe survivors.

Believing a survivor may seem like something trivial, but it makes all the difference.  Believe me!

P.S I mainly use the word “woman” and the pronoun “she” when describing survivors because the majority of survivors are women and gender non-conforming folks, and the majority of perpetrators are cis-men.   But I want to validate that survivors and perpetrators can both be any sex and/or gender.

Wash your mouth out

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When I was being sexually abused I soon learned that pleasing the other person, quickly and in the ways they preferred, would mean that I would be safer.  I found it more upsetting to be touched against my will, than to touch the other person.  At least I felt I had a marginal amount of control over the non-consensual sex.  This is one of the impacts of surviving sexual violence that has been hardest to recover from.

My earliest sexual experiences taught me that my own needs were irrelevant, unimportant and that my body existed to please others.  In the present, I struggle to internalize the idea that I have rights, likes, dislikes and the right to say both yes and no in intimate situations.  I keep living out what I learned: pleasing the other person is best the way to stay safe.  I have a lot of guilt, shame and disgust which I direct towards myself, focusing the hatred on my physical body which at some level I blame for the abuse.

When I was 15-16 and being abused by X, I remember such intense shame.  I felt like it was my fault that the abuse was happening, that I was guilty and that my body was to blame.

I remember one late afternoon or evening.  I believe it was in the summer, because it was not dark outside yet.  I was 15.  I was in X’s room.  His room was always dark, the blinds always closed.   His family was home, which only increased my level of shame as I imagined his parents thinking what a terrible, slutty girl I was.   I remember him standing naked at the foot of his bed.  There was music playing.  There was always music playing, giving the impression of teenagers making out, but in reality, disguising the dark tone of the abuse.   I don’t remember how we got there, or how I got home after.  I do remember that my shirt was off, I think I was still wearing either a skirt or underwear.   He was kissing me, he had his hands on the sides of my head.  Then his hands moved more to the top of my head, pushing me down onto my knees and holding me there.   His hands were forceful.  I didn’t try to fight, but I imagined that if I did, his hands would only have held me tighter.  I knew what he was wordlessly “asking” for.  Something I’d never done before, but something I’d heard about from older, more experienced cousins and friends.  I knew the word for it, but it wasn’t something I was even remotely interested in.

I remember his hands on my head.  I remember feeling choked and struggling to breath.  I remember the salty taste, and stumbling quickly to the bathroom.   The bathroom was brighter, ordinary.  A different world.  I remember feeling shaky.   I stood in front of the white sink.  I spat and rinsed my mouth with water.  I can’t remember if I cried silently, or if I was beyond crying and only filled with disgust and shame.

I couldn’t think of how to cleanse myself.  I remember seeing a plain white bar of soap beside the sink.  In desperation, I grabbed it and put it in my mouth, literally trying to wash his taste from my memory.  Washing myself clean, spitting the soapy taste back into the sink.

I don’t think it worked.  I’m not sure it’s possible to wash away the dirt of being raped.   The memory stayed with me, even 20 years later it is vivid as if it were yesterday.

The saddest thing is that teenage me internalized it all.  Never told a soul.  Blamed myself and didn’t spend a lot of time considering X’s responsibility.

I remember going back to his room.   It happened again and again over the months that followed.  He didn’t have to hold me down every time.  I knew what was expected and I did it.  It’s so important for people who have not lived through sexual violence to understand that just because a person doesn’t fight back, it doesn’t mean there is consent.

Consent is a state of mind.  Consent is active.  Consent involves desire, curiosity, wanting, love, interest, participation… Consent is between two people.  There is a matching process, a parallel course, desires intertwined, questions and answers.

Abuse is the absence of these things.  Abuse is a teenage girl mechanically going through the motions so it will be over more quickly.  The violence isn’t always overt (hitting, holding down),  sometimes the violence exists merely in the absence of consent.

Without consent, it’s not sex.  It’s abuse.   It’s just that simple.

It’s a long journey back.

Innocent Until Proven Guilty.

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I’m feeling frustrated today about how survivors of sexual violence and abuse survivors in general have to constantly justify their existence to everyone on this planet, especially to people in authority.

We have a legal system which states that perpetrators are innocent until proven guilty.

But what about survivors?  Where are our rights to be considered innocent until proven guilty?

Why is it when a survivor comes forward and says “He raped me,” she is often met with doubt, blame, judgment, disbelief and then faced with barrier after barrier to being believed and getting support?

Doesn’t this strike you as wrong?

I’m here to suggest a radical position.  Our legal system can still consider perpetrators innocent until proven guilty, while at the same time survivors can be believed, validated, treated with respect and not accused of fabricating.

It’s very unlikely that a survivor would make up claims of abuse, especially considering the lack of support and validation in our society.

A few years ago my psychiatrist told me something I’ve been thinking about this week.  During the session I had been speaking a lot about my negative self esteem, my guilt, my shame, my body hatred, my struggles with anorexia and so on.  He asked me a question “If you were guilty of committing sexual abuse how long would you go to jail for?”   I answered him “Probably I wouldn’t go to jail, and if I did it would be for less than a year.”

He looked at me and said “You’ve been punishing yourself for more than 15 years for crimes you didn’t even commit.  Even if you were as guilty as you say you feel, you would have been out of jail long ago.  Stop punishing yourself.  Even criminals wouldn’t receive a 15 year sentence!”

It was a good point and I thought about it some.  I haven’t thought about it again until this week.

Honestly, my doctor was missing something in his analysis.  Maybe survivors, myself included, would have an easier time recovering and forgiving themselves, if they did not have to spend years justifying their experience and trying to convince others that the abuse really happened.

Maybe if women weren’t labelled as crazy or mentally ill.  Maybe if police treated women who report with respect and investigated their concerns quickly, thoroughly and with dignity for the survivor.  Maybe if the legal system wasn’t founded on white patriarchy.  Maybe if sexual assault conviction rates were higher.  Maybe if sentences for assault charges took into account the amount of harm that was done to the survivor.  Maybe if our society didn’t worry about “how it will impact his career” and instead considered “how it will impact the rest of her life.”

Because make no mistake.  Sexual assault impacts people’s lives.  It is not a crime that lasts for “just a few minutes”  it lives on in people for years, maybe forever.  The impact IS that voice inside the survivor which whispers “it’s your fault, you are dirty, you should be ashamed, nobody will believe you.”

Maybe we punish ourselves because there is no other option in a society that doesn’t validate what actually happened.  Maybe we doubt ourselves because society blames the victim.

I think that a large portion of the guilt and shame carried around by people like me was caused, not just by the perpetrator, but by a set of systems which are designed to blame us.

At this point in my life, I feel I have suffered an equal amount of trauma at the hands of systems that were supposedly designed to help me, as I ever did at the hands of my abusers.   This is a part of rape culture that we need to be talking about.

It was “just” sexual abuse…

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I’ve been thinking about the barriers I faced in coming forward about being sexually abused, as a child and as an adult.  For people who have not experience sexual abuse, the most immediate response to someone disclosing is often: “why didn’t you tell someone?”  or “why didn’t you tell someone sooner?” or my personal favourite “why didn’t you fight back/scream/run?”

The reality is I didn’t even realize I was being abused until long after the abusers had intertwined their lives with mine.

The reality is that abuse in relationships does always not look the way you might expect it to.

The reality is that I spent a long time, as an adult, in counseling, volunteering at a women’s centre etc…stating to other reasonable adults “it was ‘just’ sexual abuse.”  I made all sorts of excuses for why it didn’t count, why it wasn’t important, why it wasn’t real abuse, why I didn’t deserve help, why other people had it worse off, why I was making a big deal over nothing, why I didn’t want to tell anyone and ruin his life etc.

Because they never hit me, it wasn’t abuse.  Because they didn’t threaten to kill me, it wasn’t abuse.  Because I said yes some of the time, it wasn’t abuse.

I was (and am) pretty mean to myself and a lot of my perceptions were just plain wrong.

I think it takes a lot of strength and courage to really come face to face with the fact that your romantic relationship is unhealthy, abusive and actively making you sick.  It’s not something that comes easily, turning your back on the father of your children.

I told myself the abuse didn’t count.  I knew I felt uncomfortable, I knew it very early on in both relationships.  I saw the red flags, but somehow I interpreted them differently.  I wanted to believe that things weren’t really that bad.  I wanted to believe I could help the abusers change.  That they were depressed, that they needed me.  That their needs were more important than my own.  I wanted to believe that love would be enough.

I did start to talk about the abuse.  I did tell people.  In some ways, I wasn’t really challenged by those people.  I think many of them instinctively knew I wasn’t ready to leave.  They knew I needed time to come to the realization that it was abuse and that I needed to get out.  For the most part they didn’t push me.  I was still ambivalent about the abuser and I still wanted things to “work out.”

One day someone I volunteered with called me out.  I mentioned something about it being “just” sexual abuse.  She challenged me.  She sat there and said “what you are saying doesn’t make sense.  It’s not ‘just’ sexual abuse.”  I think it was the first time someone had openly called me out on my own denial.  This was in the month or 2 leading up to my decision to leave.

At the time I left him I still believed it was “just” sexual abuse.  I told almost nobody why I was leaving.  I thought that moving would solve the problem, because since it was “just” sexual abuse I would be safe.

I was wrong.  Sexual assault is not about sex.   It’s about power and control.  It’s about a level of narcissism that exists in this world that allows one person to disregard the consent of another person.  Within any type of relationship it’s about manipulation, it’s about gaslighting, it’s about making the victim feel crazy, worthless, broken, damaged, and most of all dependent on the abuser.   The sex is a tool of control.  It rarely happens in isolation.  Emotional abuse, psychological abuse, physical abuse, threats, coercion…it’s all part of the same package.  Even if the package is wrapped in a disguise that makes you believe that sex is the only issue and that otherwise the person is “basically a good guy.”

At the end of the day, if someone doesn’t respect your consent sexually, they don’t respect you.  They aren’t “basically a good person.”  They are a person who does not value your basic right to say yes or no in a given situation.  They are a person who puts their own needs before yours, and possibly even denies your needs are real, valid or even exist.

It’s a long road back from that place.  The place where you question whether your needs are reasonable, valid or even exist.  It’s a long way back from the place where you believe that your consent is not relevant, where your needs are not relevant.  Where you are blamed for not wanting to consent, even in a situation where there is no trust, no safety and almost no relationship left.

I’m writing this to tell you:

  1. if you have been abused, it’s never “just” anything.  Your experience is valid and real.  If you are uncomfortable, afraid, hurt, feeling crazy then trust yourself.  It’s abuse.
  2.  if you have been abused and even if you have not, please remember that there is no specific way an abuse survivor looks, copes or experiences violence.  There may be no physical marks, there may be denial, there may be almost no signs at all.  Trust yourself, if you have the feeling something isn’t right in your relationship or in the relationship of someone you care about, reach out.  Get help, talk it over, ask gentle questions, be there to support yourself or the person you care about.
  3. believe the survivor.  If you are the survivor, believe yourself
  4. if you still blame yourself, or the person you care about is blaming themselves, tell them it is not their fault.  Repeat step 3.  Repeat step 3 again.  Repeat it again and again and again.

I believe you.  It’s not your fault.  It counts.  It’s is real.  You deserve support.

 

Don’t look at me.

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One of my clearest memories of the abuse with X, is also one of the memories which triggers the most flashbacks.

It’s the reason I don’t like to be looked at, why I sometimes wish I was invisible, why I have hated my body for 20 years, and linked to why I started down the road to anorexia.

It was evening, that time between the brightness of day and the deep darkness of night.  We were in his room, listening to music and…I don’t know what words to describe it with…if it had been consensual I would describe it as “fooling around” or “making out”  but in this case those words don’t have an accurate feel.  We were alone in his room, in the dark and he was abusing me.  Sarah McLaughlin was playing on the CD player “hold on, hold on to yourself, for this is going to hurt like hell…

I remember the blinds were dark,  maybe navy blue, they were shut, but a small amount of light came in between the cracks.  The head of the bed was directly to the right of the window.  I remember the bedspread being navy as well.  There was a dark mood to the space.  So often when we were in his room, his family was home.  Technically if I had screamed, yelled, or run away, someone would have heard.  We were rarely completely alone.  But I felt so much shame, I blamed myself, I felt dirty and I felt like it was my fault.  It never really occurred to me to tell his parents, I felt they would blame me, or not believe me, that they would tell my parents, that somehow I’d be in trouble.  So I learned to disassociate, I stayed quiet, I did what he wanted.   Sometimes I said no, but I never fought back or physically resisted.  I learned quickly that my “no” meant nothing to him.

That evening, he wanted to look at me.  He made me take off my clothes, except my underwear which I always stubbornly refused to remove.  I was afraid to get pregnant and I somehow felt like keeping them on would protect me.

He made me stand across the room from him.  He lay, semi-reclined, on his bed, staring at me.  Just staring.  I felt like an object.  I felt like this one moment solidified the sense of shame that had been growing and building inside me, like dark twisty vines blocking out all the light of my once bright self esteem.  I crossed my arms across my chest, trying to hide myself from his prying eyes.  I felt his actions were motivated by lust. I didn’t feel loved or cared for.  I felt afraid and I felt ashamed.   I don’t know how long I stood there for, but it felt like an eternity before I was able to hide under the duvet again.  I don’t really remember what happened before or after.  I only remember those moments of exposure.

Years later, much more recently, I was dating someone.  The first time I took my clothes off, in my own room, safe and because I wanted to.  He looked at me, and I had flashbacks so intense that I almost passed out.  I had to sit down, suddenly on the bed.  The room was spinning, my heart was racing, I was so dizzy I felt blackness around the edges of my eyes.  And I was trembling, shaking really.    It took a few minutes of lying down for my body to return to a normal state.   This is what PTSD means to me.  The rapid trip between enjoying a sexual moment and being almost paralyzed with extreme physical symptoms.  The panic/flashback is often followed by tears, physical pain and nausea.  I sometimes have difficultly talking or expressing what is happening.

Because of this I have to take time to educate people who are going to be close to me. So they know what is needed to help in those moments when it’s difficult for me to help myself.  It’s important for others to realize that in the midst of a flashback I can’t consent, I can’t think, I can’t communicate clearly, and I need help getting grounded, or I need the space to do so myself.

I often wonder, if people who commit acts of sexual violence realize the impact they are having on the victim’s life.  I wonder, if abusers knew that years later mere reminders of the abuse could have such severe consequences.  I wonder if people would stop and reconsider pushing past “no.”  I wonder if all the law makers, judges, police and lawyers had to live with PTSD related to sexual violence for just one day, they would reconsider letting the majority of reported abusers walk free.

The abuse may only last a few moments, but the impacts can last a life time.

P.S.  Please feel free to share this blog if you are enjoying it!

The leaving.

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When I was 19 years old, I made the biggest mistake of my life.

This mistake potentially changed the entire course of my life until my children are adults and possibly longer.  I was a teenager.  I was in fragile recovery from anorexia and depression and had not yet been correctly diagnosed with PTSD.  I was living in a city away from my family and the majority of my close friends.  I was happy that year, doing well and enjoying life. I had taken up swing dancing and I loved it.  I’d made some friends and we often went out dancing together.  Shortly before my 20th birthday I met him.  He proposed to me after 3 months.  It was one of the worst moments of my life.  I remember physically shaking, thinking frantically in my head “oh my god, this can’t be happening, why is this happening, why is he doing this, why, what should I do, what will I say, why is this happening right now!!!”  In the moment I didn’t want to break up with him, so I said yes.  I honestly figured I had lots of time to get out of the promise, but life didn’t turn out that way.

Thirteen years passed.

Three years ago this week I made the biggest and most complicated decision of my life.

Ironically, the things that ended my marriage came together in a culmination of empowerment and decision for me.  I’d been battling with thoughts of leaving for over a year, slowly gaining strength, processing the ideas and planning.

The soul crushing depression I’d been living with for a few years slowly began to lift about a year before I left him.  I began to see options for myself.

For many years I had seriously considered suicide.  After trying ECT (electro-convulsive therapy) and slews of meds, I believed I had exhausted all options for treatment resistant depression. I was ready to give up and only my children held me to this world.  I had irrational, almost psychotic thoughts, in the depths of that depression.   But in my mind, when I was thinking more clearly, I told myself that suicide was only an option for those who had literally tried everything, people who had no other option.  Sometime in summer 2012 I realized that wasn’t my situation:  there was something I hadn’t tried.

I hadn’t tried moving. Living in my own house away from my partner.  I hadn’t tried starting over, changing my environment, removing myself from the ongoing sexual abuse which I knew was both triggering me and traumatizing me in equal measure.

In 2012, I was experiencing terribly severe migraines which at times left me unable to function.  I remember throwing up in the parking lot of a restaurant on my daughter’s birthday.  I went to the ER at times to receive IV pain meds.  Around that time I began taking a medication called Topimax for the migraines.  And suddenly, my depression lightened.  My obsessive compulsive suicidal and self destructive thoughts relented almost immediately.  I never self harmed in a way that required medical attention again. My migraines improved.  I began to see colours again.  I noticed the world around me.  I began to re-emerge into the world of the living.  And I started to consider my options for leaving my partner

As I grew stronger over the course of the next year, I started talking to more people in my life about the abuse.  I chose very carefully.  I told people who didn’t live in my city.  I told counselors and doctors who were sworn to keep confidentiality.  I was careful, but I started to talk.

I had some good friends who began to tell me that what I was experiencing was not okay.  Friends encouraged me to leave, to tell my parents, to get more counseling and they empowered me.  I started volunteering at a women’s organization. It happened gradually, slowly, almost imperceptibly.

In the end, the last time we had sex was the end of that marriage.  I made the decision the next day and told him a few days later.  That night he initiated sexual touching while I was asleep and drugged.  I woke up with him touching my breasts.  Maybe he had been touching me for a while before I fully responded.  On that occasion I woke up and was lucid enough to respond.  Because he had been touching me (without consent), I said yes to sleeping with him.  I verbally said yes.  We had sex and I felt disgusted.   Even though I said yes to the sex, I knew in my mind that I had not consented to the touching. I knew if he had asked me when I was wide awake I would have said no.   I realized that even IF I said yes, I still wouldn’t feel safe, comfortable or at all okay.  I knew it was over.  I knew that would be the last time.  So many times, when I was lying awake at night after being assaulted, I thought to myself “this could be the last time, I could get up and walk away” but I never did.  I was always afraid and I didn’t want to leave my kids.

There are a lot of reasons why people who are being abused do not leave.

And at the end of the day, it only takes one reason to decide to leave.

Leaving an abusive relationship can’t be rushed or forced.  The person being abused has to hit a breaking point and decide that “enough is enough” and that point is different for each individual survivor.

This happened three years ago, but anniversaries are always difficult for me.  I feel it all again.  I have more nightmares, more anxiety and lower self esteem.  I don’t believe in myself.  I have difficulty trusting. I hate my body so intensely that I struggle to look in mirrors or wear certain clothes. I don’t feel safe or relaxed anywhere.  I return to the automatic living, zombie like state.  I have trouble remembering things and difficulty concentrating.  I sometimes wonder if it has been worth the fight.  The suicidal thoughts creep in suddenly, ambushing me in my day to day life.

But at the end of the day, I have to remember that there were only 2 options left for me:

  1. Leaving
  2. Suicide

As difficult as my life is, and as much pain as I’m in, I believe I made the right choice.

I’m still alive.