Healer, Heal Thyself.

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Do you ever have the feeling that you are a complete and utter fraud?

I’ve been feeling this way recently, more than usual, as I’ve been reflecting on how little of the advice I share with others that I actually follow myself.   Am I a fraud, if I truly believe what I’m telling other people, but can’t internalize it or believe it for myself?

How is it possible that everyone around me deserves health, happiness and recovery but I somehow feel undeserving of even simple things?

Someone close to me commented on one of my scars this week.  It was a passing comment, about noticing a scar on my hand that he hadn’t noticed before.  To him it was a neutral comment, just noticing, no judgment.  I told him that scar had been there since around 2002, it wasn’t new.  That was the end of the conversation for him, but I started talking about and reflecting on the amount of harm I’ve done to myself over the past 20 years.

Until 2009, I hid all my scars, all of the time, from everyone.  Even when I was home alone I would wear long sleeves and pants.  I was so ashamed of my cuts and scars that I didn’t even want to look at them myself.  In the summer, I was perpetually hot, avoiding swimming, making excuses to stay in the air conditioning.  My life was being seriously limited by my self destruction.

From 2009 on, I gradually began experimenting with uncovering my scars.  I wore t-shirts or skirts when I was hot, and started to swim again.  I still kept a cardigan or long sleeved shirt with me at all times, so I could cover up around people who didn’t know about my habit, or for situations like interviews where I didn’t want to be judged.  I used to have so much anxiety about people seeing my scars and I would imagine all sorts of scenarios where people around me judged me as crazy.  I even thought that CAS would come to take away my  kids because if someone saw my scars they would report me as an unfit mother. Over time, I  became accustomed to uncovering my scars.  I came to a place of a bit more acceptance (plus I got tired of being hot all summer!).  This was a process and today, the only time I purposefully cover my scars is when I’m helping other women at work.  I’m afraid that my scars might trigger others, especially those who are working on their own healing.

I still feel sad though, every spring when the warm weather returns and shorts, t-shirts and summer dresses flood the shopping malls.  I feel sad because in the summer I can’t hide under my clothes.  In the warm weather, I often feel exhausted when interacting with people because I am intensely aware of the visibility of my scars.  It gets a little bit easier each summer, and I think about it less and less often, to the point where there are times that I almost forget about the scars. Almost.

I can’t really forget about them. I can’t forget about them because they represent a huge, unnameable, unspeakable history of trauma and pain.  And at some points I feel crushed by the weight of the realization that I have been my own worst abuser.

I am my own most dangerous and most unrelenting abuser.

It’s difficult to know how to even approach talking about, thinking about or grieving the trauma I’ve inflicted on myself.  It’s not something others discuss or disclose to me either.  We talk about the hurt caused by other people in our lives, the betrayals, the injuries and the abuse.  We talk about being hurt and being damaged.  But how do I start a conversation or healing process around the trauma that I perpetuated?  How do I heal from situations where I was both the abuser and the survivor, simultaneously in one person, in one experience, in one breath?

My experience of surviving sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of perpetrators, is directly linked to my “decisions” to cope by self harming in various ways.  Before I was sexually abused I didn’t have anorexia, depression, PTSD, or obsessive compulsive tendencies and I did not cut or physically harm myself in response to stress.   Before I was sexually abused, I considered myself a “normal” person.  I didn’t have a mental illness, I didn’t have dangerous coping techniques, I wasn’t a psychiatric survivor or  a survivor of violence.   When I look at my scars, I see both the abuse I survived and the abuse I perpetuated.  The scars are an ever present reminder that I have survived, but they are also like a road map of the destruction and self destruction that has woven through my adult life.

Yes, my scars tell a story, but I’m not sure it’s a story that I want to hear.  I’m not sure it’s a story that I want to tell either.

But sometimes I do want to tell my story.  That’s part of why this blog was created.  There just isn’t a lot of space in our busy, day to day lives, to talk about the story my scars tell.  The person who was with me during the majority of those years (my ex-husband) is no longer available or safe for me to contact.  I don’t have anyone to share my memories of those dark years with.  The people who know me now weren’t there with me in the emergency room while my cuts were being stitched.  The people in my life now, weren’t there with me when I tried, multiple times, to end my life.   Except for a few, the people in my day to day life, didn’t know me when I almost starved myself to death.  People see me differently now.  They see me as a whole person, a mostly well person, a successful person, a good mother, a co-worker, a friend…sometimes I feel like a fraud because I can’t, or don’t know how to, talk about these aspects of my past.

And sometimes I want to talk about them.  I really want to talk about what things were like “before.”   Before I left my ex-husband.  Before I stopped utilizing the psychiatric system.  Before I decided to stay alive.

That “before” person is still me.  I’m just not sure how to heal that “before” me and this current me simultaneously.  I’m not sure how to forgive myself, or to have sympathy or empathy for the me that wanted to die.  I’m not sure how to look at my scars without feeling sadness for the fact that I permanently disfigured my body before I turned 25.  I don’t know how to grieve my smooth, scar free skin…I barely even remember what I looked like before I started cutting.

There are days when I accept my scars.  They are a part of me, they do tell a story and they do represent survival.  But there are days when I hate them.  I hate being different.  I hate having a visible mental illness.  I hate feeling ugly.  I hate worrying about what others will think when they see them.  I hate hating myself SO much that self harm feels like a reasonable solution.

Sometimes I look back on the past and wonder what my life would be like if I’d chosen a different way of coping.  Or if I’d never been abused.  Or if I’d told someone about the abuse.   How different would my life be if I’d never picked up a blade, never wished to end it all?

It’s an interesting dilemma, because there are some parts of my survivor self that I like and I wouldn’t want to change.  If I hadn’t had these experiences I would have chosen a different career path.  I wouldn’t have had my children at a young age.  I wouldn’t be as passionate about social justice and advocacy.  I wouldn’t know the majority of my current friends.

My life would be very different.  I don’t even want to change the past.  It did make me the person I am today and I’m okay with that.   What I do want to change is how much I still judge myself, berate myself and hate myself for my past choices.  I want to learn to do more than accept my scars.  I want to do more than tolerate my body, in an uneasy, fragile truce.

Intellectually, I know that I deserve more than surviving.  Intellectually, I know that a deeper level of healing is possible.  I’ve seen people around me heal and recover from unimaginable horrors.  I’ve seen people build a sense of self confidence from the rubble of their lives.  I know it is possible and that self-love and self acceptance are attainable goals.

But emotionally, I just don’t feel it.  And that makes me sad, and maybe right now, the first step in healing self-hatred is just simply grieving the loss of that 15 year old healthy self.

 Note: The illustration was drawn by me around 2004

 

Everything in my life was preparing me for this.

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January 5, 2016

A night I will never forget.

One symptom of obsessive compulsive disorders is strange intrusive thoughts that are worrying or scary, but not particularly realistic or likely to happen.  I have quite a number of these strange thoughts, which I rarely share with others.  I worry that people will think I’m crazy or bizarre, and I feel ashamed or embarrassed to admit them.   One of my OCD recurring thoughts involves a terrible fear that while I’m driving someone will step out in front of my car, or push someone in front of my car, or a car around me.  Essentially, that I will unintentionally kill someone with my car or witness someone being hit by a car and dying.

I think of it whenever I drive and I’m often quite vigilant, keeping an eye on pedestrians and looking carefully at people on curbs, bicycles and around blind corners.  Generally this level of hyper vigilance is unpleasant, stressful and unnecessary.  I get startled easily when I drive, especially when my PTSD is triggered. I’m very alert, and in reality,  I’m a very safe driver.

That night, my OCD saved a life.

I was supposed to be at a work meeting, but instead I was driving down a busy road in the city where I live.  It was dark, rush hour, and I was heading to a meeting with my lawyer.  I was driving over a bridge which crosses over a railway track when I saw the thing my OCD brain had been looking for for years.

There was a young woman standing on the edge of the railing.  Clinging onto it, in a shaky, desperate way.  A young woman about to jump to potential death.  A young suicidal woman.

I slammed on the brakes, ignoring the traffic, jumped out of the car into the cold winter night and walked very slowly towards the young woman.

My internal dialogue went something like this:

If this woman jumps to her death you are going to witness it.  You are going to be traumatized and you are going to be impacted by witnessing her death.  This is going to be awful.   But you have to try to help her, you can’t do nothing.  You have all the skills you need to help her.  You have the training, you have the work experience, you have the life experience, you are the only one here and this is the only chance she has.  You have to try. You can do this.”

All that happened in the split second it took for me to walk closer enough to speak to her.

She was crying, shaking, trembling and balanced just barely on the railing.  Sometimes holding on, sometimes standing up and trying to let go. I spoke to her gently.  I told her I wasn’t going to call the police.  I told her I was a support worker and that I just wanted to talk to her.  I asked her to step down off the railing just for a moment to talk to me.  I reassured her that I wasn’t going to call anyone or do anything, just talk to her.  I told her my name, I told her where I worked.

She got down from the railing and back onto the railing a few times.  I kept talking to her gently and reassuring her.   Eventually I was standing quite close to her.  I told her that I’d felt suicidal before, that I was sorry she felt SO bad that she wanted to hurt herself, I reminded her that I just wanted to talk to her.   I have no idea how much time went by, but I think it was only a matter of minutes.

Finally she got down and turned towards me.

“I’m cold” she said.

And I knew I’d made the connection.  The immediate danger was over.   We both breathed.  I asked her if she would come with me into my car so we could talk and I could drive her off the bridge.    We walked to the car and as I got into the drivers seat the world reappeared.  I was suddenly aware that my car was blocking a lane of traffic, cars were honking and passing and drivers were annoyed.  I had tuned it out completely and was only aware of the young woman.

I also became aware that literally not one of those cars had stopped, offered to help or called for help.  I felt the desperation of that poor woman, knowing that nobody in the world cared about her.

We sat in the car for a second, shivering and I could see her panic again.

“I’m not supposed to get into the car with strangers”

Luckily, I had my business card and a pamphlet from my workplace in the front seat.  I reassured her that I was just trying to help her and I just wanted to drive her off the bridge so we could talk.  She agreed and we drove down to a gas station which was just a moment away.

We talked for a little while.  I told her a little bit about myself, the work I do helping abused women.  I asked her if what was making her so upset that day had anything to do with that and she nodded.  I asked her if she’d felt that way before and she said yes.  I asked her if there was anywhere I could take her, a friend’s house, the hospital and she said  maybe just to the mall nearby where she could catch the bus.

I could tell the immediacy of the crisis had passed for her.  She seemed exhausted.

I drove her to the parking lot of the mall and we talked a little more.  I invited her to call my organization for help anytime in the future.  I thanked her for trusting me and for coming down from the bridge.  Before she got out of the car she told me:

“If you had been a man, I would have jumped.  If you had called the police I would have jumped”

She thanked me for saving her. I asked her if she would tell me her name.   She said she wasn’t in the habit of getting into the car with people she doesn’t know.  I told her under the circumstances I thought it was the lesser of two evils.  We both laughed for a moment, she hugged me, told me her first name, and then she was gone.

The second the door of the car shut I burst into tears.  My whole body was shaking.  The reaction of shock hit me once she left, and all the fear, tension and emotion of the past 45 minutes washed over me.

But I wasn’t just crying for that young woman.  I knew that I couldn’t control what might happen to her after she left my car.  I knew I’d done my best and that my best had been enough.

I was crying for Darlene, for Irene, for Lexi…and for my dearest Marian.

Why was I there, at that moment, on a bridge with this complete stranger?  But I didn’t get to say goodbye to so many of the friends I loved?

I felt an amazing sense of love and wonder at having saved a life, amazement at the randomness that I was there at that exact time, and that it was me and not someone else.  It didn’t seem random at all.  It seemed like everything that had happened to me in my life had lead me to that exact moment.  Trained me and given me the exact skills I needed to talk that woman off the ledge.   It felt like a moment of spirituality, connection and higher power.

But my sense of wonder in saving that young woman, didn’t erase the sorrow that I wasn’t there to save my friends.  Or even to say goodbye.  They are gone now, but I hope that woman from the bridge is still okay.

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.