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.

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Not my art.  Taken from Pinterest online

You are fine…until you aren’t. Life with PTSD.

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Today was a rough PTSD day.  Sometimes that’s the way it is with PTSD, you are fine, fine, fine…until you aren’t.  And then you real aren’t!  Nights like this I love my medication so hard.  Nights like this I don’t even consider the choice of going off psychiatric medication.  Nights like this I know that I’ve been staying up too late, not listening to my body, pushing myself further than I can reasonably go, ignoring early warning signs and just generally not trusting my own inner wisdom about what I can handle.

I dropped the kids off with their Dad this morning.  That’s always difficult.  It always lowers my capacity and PTSD coping bar by easily 50% by 9AM.

I had a difficult phone call at work.  Had to support someone around a type of abuse experience that I find triggering.  I dealt with it well, but it lowered my capacity bar by another chunk.

I met a friend for coffee this evening.  There was a traffic mess and the person was late.  While I was waiting, a car with a souped up muffler purposefully back fired it, reving the engine suddenly right in front of me.  I was looking at my phone and the loud noise and vibration startled me a LOT.  Before my heart stopped racing, the car back fired again.  I jumped again.  I almost burst into tears.  My PTSD coping bar was now at 0-5%.

This level of startle response is NOT a warning sign of PTSD issues for me, it’s one of the clear signs that I’ve been ignoring warning signals for a while.  When I feel like crying after being startled in an otherwise safe situation, PTSD is on the scene in a major way.  It’s time to get safe, do some grounding, probably get home and away from crowds.

But I didn’t listen.  I had plans to see a show later and I knew it was no longer the right choice.  The sign said there were “loud noises and flashing lights.”  The self aware voice inside me said “Not tonight.  This isn’t going to work tonight”  but I ignored it.  I pushed myself.  I tried to be “normal.” I tried to have a full PTSD tank, when it was really running on fumes.

The person I was meeting there was in a different space, relaxed and ready to enjoy the show.

I needed some help to get grounded and attempt the experience.

I didn’t get it.

I was already inside the show.  There were strobe type flashing lights which I know can trigger migraines for me.  My anxiety got worse.  I started to feel trapped and afraid.  I didn’t know what to expect and my anxiety was escalating.  I knew a panic attack was coming.  Generally, there’s a tiny bit of warning before it goes to 100km panic.  I have a few moments where I’m thinking clearly enough to know I need to exit.  I need to get outside NOW.  I need to be outside 5 minutes ago.

I can feel my chest tighten.  My breathing is coming faster.  I can feel the panic rising and rising like a tsunami wave of fear.  I start to walk as fast as I can without running.  I don’t know how to get out.  I just keep walking forward, sliding past people.   Mentally I know that if the tears start before I get outside then I’ll need help to get out.  I don’t want to ask a stranger for help.  I don’t want to slow down.  I know I need to get outside NOW.  My chest is painful, the tears are in my eyes.  The dizziness is starting. I feel like it’s taking forever to find the door in the darkness.  I feel embarrassed.  I feel ashamed.  I feel afraid.

My hands are on the door, I can see the outside and then I’m out.

I’m hyperventilating now.  Walking as fast as I can.  Crying and breathing in choked breaths.  So dizzy.  I want to slow down, catch my breath, but my feet keep going forward.  I’m downtown, in the dark, alone.  I pick up my phone and dial a friend.  He picks up.  I’m sobbing now, into the phone not able to speak.   He’s asking me what’s wrong.  I’m still walking, trying to catch my breath, manage to blurt out “I’m having a panic attack!”   He knows I’ll be okay, I’m not in physical danger, just emotional.  He speaks in a soothing voice, encouraging me to breathe, until the tears subside enough for me to speak.  I’m gradually slowing my breathing now.  It’s taking a focused effort, but I’m doing it. My chest hurts so much it feels like it might explode or collapse or both.

I walk around for 20 minutes before I’m calm enough to drive home.  The panic subsides but I know it’s only a tiny distance away.  I’m not sure if it will stay away, or return, out of control, taking me back down into tears.

I get home safely.  Take my pills as soon as I’m in the door.  I know that within 45 minutes I’ll feel calmer, so I start typing this as I wait.

I’ve noticed that abelism towards mental illness looks like this:

Folks can understand the triggers I have which are directly linked to the violence.  They understand how to be careful with sex.  They understand why I can’t fall asleep unless I’m alone.  They understand aspects of PTSD.  But they don’t REALLY understand.   A lot of people don’t understand that any situation where I don’t know what is happening, feel out of control, feel a sense of danger or feel that my environment is too unpredictable can be a trigger and can remind me of the feelings of being abused.

They don’t understand that in the moments when a panic attack is happening, the danger is real to me.  Logic doesn’t stop the fear.  Intellectual reasoning doesn’t stop the fear.  Being impatient with the person doesn’t stop the fear. The only way to stop the fear is to be believed and validated and gently helped through grounding techniques like breathing (or whatever the person finds helpful).  Or when it’s really bad, just holding space for the person until the panic attack ends.

In those moments of panic, telling someone to “just calm down” is like telling a person who uses a wheel chair to “just walk.”  In those moments of panic, PTSD is a disability.  It’s a real physical and physiological reaction based on experienced trauma that has changed a person’s brain.  Just as a wheel chair can help some folks with physical limitations get around,  grounding skills can be a vehicle to help someone with PTSD get around.  Without these skills and coping techniques many things just aren’t accessible or possible.

Someone having a panic attack or flashbacks isn’t doing it on purpose.  They aren’t misbehaving.  They aren’t lazy or controlling or seeking attention.  Their brain is literally misfiring.  The person is experiencing a safe situation as an extremely dangerous one.  If the panic attack and flashbacks are happening at the same time, the person might not be fully present in the moment, they might be in the past or mentally re-experiencing the time of the original trauma or abuse.

A lot of the time PTSD is an invisible disability.   A lot of the time when I tell people I’m not okay or I’m struggling it’s not visible on the outside.

Panic attacks can be visible or invisible.  For me the scariest ones are the visible ones, where I know I’m acting erratically, because then I feel shame AND panic.  These scary ones are most likely to happen when I’ve missed too much sleep and when I’ve been ignoring early warning signs and pushed myself too far.

Another thing about panic attacks and flashbacks is that when you have them, you start to be afraid of having them again.  I’ve learned to live with flashbacks and anxiety, but when I have severe panic attacks with flashbacks the physiological hyper arousal can take 5-7 days to fully diminish.

If someone you know experiences flashbacks or panic attacks, a compassionate response can be extremely beneficial.  I know it’s hard to be patient all the time.  Nobody is perfect, but your response in these moments of high anxiety can make all the difference.  Even if it doesn’t fully relieve the anxiety, it can reduce the guilt and shame and fears of rejection.  Some people with PTSD, myself included, have a deeply held internal belief that they are freaks or crazy.  Treating someone compassionately can help counteract this negative internal PTSD dialogue.

I’m going to bed.  Hopefully I can sleep this off.

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Sexual Harassment. I’m done.

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

I’m feeling triggered and angry today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How to ask for help? If mental illness was treated like physical illness…

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Photo credit Hyperbole and A Half Blog

I’ve been struggling recently with trying to figure out how exactly to ask for help.  How do you even tell people around you that you are not okay when you are struggling with an invisible mental health disability?  How do you tell people that the disability which you live with daily and generally “manage” is currently in a crisis state?  How do you tell people that you are struggling with thoughts of harming yourself?  How do you tell people that you need help because you are suicidal?  How do you even bring up the topic of suicide?

It’s not easy.  Half the time I drop the topic casually into conversation the person I’m talking to thinks I’m joking.  They might even laugh, then awkwardly realize I’m not laughing and say “Oh wait, were you serious?” and when I say “Kinda” I hear…

<crickets>

That’s right…nothing.

A lot of the time when I disclose thoughts about harming myself I hear:

<crickets>

Or people keep talking.  Or they assume this is normal for me and say “that’s too bad” and move on with the conversation.

I’ve learned that most people don’t know how to handle disclosures of thoughts of suicide.

If I walked up to you right now with a serious physical medical emergency, for example signs of a heart attack and said “I need help, I think I’m having a heart attack”  I can pretty much guarantee the response would not be:

<crickets>

Someone would do first aid, they’d call 911.  They’d drive me to the hospital.  They’d stay with me.  I’d get flowers and cards, meals delivered.   I’d get time off work, more cards.  People would visit me at home as I recovered.  Friends and family would be so glad I survived the heart attack, they’d offer to help with child care and housework and cooking.

People KNOW how to help with a medical health emergency.  So why do they respond with

<crickets>

to disclosures of thoughts suicide, self harm or other signs of a mental health emergency?

Why is it so hard for me even to disclose the struggle?  Why is there SO much stigma?

I’m afraid to ask for help because of the risk of two things

  1. The person will overreact (call 911, police, hospital, panic, lock up dangerous items)
  2. The person will under react (see <crickets>)

What I really need when I ask for help is for someone to:

  1. Believe me that I’m actually suicidal and that things actually feel THAT BAD
  2. Trust me that I’m not actually going to do anything dangerous, but that I need some help in the moment to achieve that
  3. Listen to me.  Validate my feelings.   Let me know that they can hear I’m in pain.
  4. Remind me that I might be experiencing flashbacks, triggers or emotional flashbacks and that they are real, but I might not be seeing things completely clearly and I might need time to get safe and get grounded
  5. Keep me company (text, phone, go for coffee, take a walk, cuddles)
  6. Remind me that people care about me and that I’m not a bad person.
  7. After validating my feelings, offer some hope that things will improve one day and that I have the strength to carry on until then.  Remind me of some of my strengths (but be realistic, don’t go over the top with praise)

I really believe that you can help people around you who might be struggling with suicidal thoughts.  You can help them by listening to them, believing them and keeping them company.  You can also offer to do some of the same things you would for someone who is physically ill.   Offer to help with child care, meal preparation, cleaning, picking up groceries, running errands, drop by for a visit (ask first), call to check in, text to say hi, send a thinking of you card, send flowers etc.   In my own experience, the worst thing you can do is…

<crickets>

I wanted to share my favourite  blog Hyperbole and a Half and their post about depression:

http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.ca/2013/05/depression-part-two.html

Rape Culture.

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

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

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

I’m triggered for a number of reasons.

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

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

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

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

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

Calories on Restaurant Menus: a Rant.

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When Ana and I first started hanging out together, I used to go to the bulk food store and buy candy.  Specifically, gum drops and red licorice bits.   I used to drink diet coke and eat twizzlers licorice from the 7-11 on my way home.  I used candy and diet pop as a replacement for proper nutrition.  I would bring exactly 5 gum drops to school and I would eat them slowly, while sipping diet coke and pretend it was a meal.  Those gums drops and the occasional licorice were some of the only treats allowed into my strict food rituals.  I loved that candy.

Then one day, the bulk food store started posting nutritional information on the lids of their bins.

And I never ate those gum drops again.  In fact, I stopped eating candy.  I mostly stopped shopping at bulk food stores!  Something that had been considered “safe” was suddenly off limits and forbidden.  The only reason?  Because I now knew exactly how many calories were in that licorice piece and 5 gum drops.  I was devastated and angry.  Why did the store need to post the caloric content of the gum drops?  Why?!?

When I was an inpatient receiving treatment for anorexia, I was encouraged not to read food labels, not to look at calories.  I was encouraged to eat based on my body’s cues, or even mechanically an appropriate amount to sustain health.

For the most part, I did this for years.  When my children were diagnosed with severe and life threatening food allergies, I was forced to confront food labels.  I was forced to read all the ingredients and check carefully for potential allergens.  I struggled with this, because again my eyes could not avoid seeing the nutritional information, calories and fat in the items I was consuming.  But I did it for my kids health and safety.

Recently, the government has decided that it is mandatory to post nutritional information and caloric content right up on the menus of all restaurants.

I was furious!  This is so incredibly triggering for many people with eating disorders.

I absolutely did not want to know exactly how many calories were in the Starbucks cookie I was having for a snack.  I did not want to know how many calories were in my caramel latte.  I just did not want this information.  I don’t want it!  I will never want it.  Because once I know it, I can’t “unknow” it!  This information is not useful to my life.  It does not make me healthier or happier.

On a good day, the information won’t change the choices I make.  But on a bad day, a day when Ana is in the driver’s seat…

Suddenly I’m struggling over deciding what snack to choose at Starbucks.  Suddenly I’m ordering a black coffee, rather than that cinnamon latte.

On a bad day, nutritional information and caloric content listed in large ominous letters on the menu in front of me, can put a dark cloud over my enjoyment of that snack or meal.

I understand that nutritional information must be available at restaurants.  It should be available for those with food allergies or sensitivities or religious dietary restrictions.  It should be there for those with diabetes.  It should be there for viewing ON REQUEST!  But does the caloric intake of my Starbucks beverage REALLY need to be right in my face as I attempt to order?

I think the answer is no.  I go to Starbucks for a break.   I go there to relax.  I go there to treat myself and rest from the stress of my life.  I don’t go there to have an extended and upsetting debate with Ana.

I just want to drink my coffee in peace!

I feel like an imposter.

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Some days I don’t feel like I belong.  I feel like an imposter in my own life, or like my life doesn’t belong to me.  It’s a disorienting feeling and very difficult to describe to others. When I’m depressed or coping with PTSD symptoms I often feel like I’m faking it.  Like I’m pretending to be something I am not, or I am not what I am supposed to be.  I don’t fit in anywhere, even within my own life,which I struggle to believe is actually MINE.

During the workday, I help abused women.  I’m a counselor, a support worker, a health care professional, a peer supporter, and I help others.  I believe that I am good at most aspects of my job, especially those related to support work.  I have slowly developed some confidence that I can help other women.  That my experiences may have some meaning because they have given me the skills to deeply connect with others who are living with abuse, trauma and the impacts of violence.

But it’s incredibly disorienting when I leave work and am forced to deal with abuse, trauma and the impacts of violence in my own life.  Sometimes I feel confused, sometimes I feel like my life can’t really be this bad, this difficult, this out of my control.

Sometimes I feel like I’m living inside a public service announcement for domestic violence awareness.  How can I truly help others, when my own life is still being impacted by an abusive ex-partner?  How can I truly help myself?  How can I separate the past from the present, the triggers from the actual risks?   How do I stop this terrible helpless, disoriented, exhausted feeling?  Can I be a good support worker if I can’t solve the problems in my own life?  If I don’t follow my own excellent advice?

Last week I was at a doctor’s appointment with my children and my ex-partner.  It was very difficult and very triggering.  The doctor was asking the kids questions that they obviously couldn’t honestly answer with their father sitting in the room.  I felt a deep sense of pain and discomfort.  I wanted to tell the truth to the doctor about what my kids are struggling with, but I knew that if I said too much it could have impacts on my kids’ safety with their father.

The doctor asked questions about “do you feel safe?” and “do you have thoughts about harming yourself?”  On one hand, I was glad to see that this doctor was asking mental health and abuse screening questions.  On the other hand, I felt panicky and unsafe because the situation was so impossible.

I remember a time years ago, when I went with my then husband to the emergency room for a migraine.  The triage nurse asked me “do you feel safe in your home?”   The question made me pause, stop and think.  I knew that I didn’t feel safe in my home, but I also knew that answering honestly would cause something to happen.  My husband was sitting only a few feet away.  I didn’t know exactly what the “something” would be.  I hesitated for a second and answered “yes,” the only real possibility in that moment.

But I was thankful that the question was asked, because on a different day, or for a different woman that question could have been the permission and the space needed to disclose domestic violence or sexual abuse.

Health care professionals MUST ask these difficult questions.  They must ask their patients about thoughts of self harm, thoughts of suicide and experiences of violence.  They must ask if their patients feel safe at home.  These questions are vital and open a potentially life saving door.

But if the professional doesn’t have a clear plan as to how to handle a disclosure, they can do more harm than good.

Don’t ask a question you don’t want to know, or aren’t prepared to know, the answer to.

Don’t ask if someone feels safe, unless you are prepared to help them find safety if the answer is no.

Don’t ask someone if they feel suicidal unless you are prepared to support them, connect and hold space for them.

Don’t ask about abuse unless you are willing and able to support, believe and validate that potential disclosure.

Please, don’t ask questions unless you are willing to help or do what is needed to find help.

Sometimes it’s not enough just to believe someone.  Sometimes that person might need concrete help and support.  Health care professionals need enough time and enough resources to provide this help.  They shouldn’t be rushed in their jobs, they should be given adequate time and privacy to complete interviews.  They should have training in trauma informed care.  They should have resource lists, with shelter numbers, sexual assault centres and other options available.  And they should receive specific training around handling disclosures related to violence.

It was so triggering for me to be in a situation where these questions were asked in front of my abuser.  Where I knew my children didn’t have the ability to speak freely.  This situation was not conducive to health.  When in doubt, children could be interviewed alone.  Or if the doctor sense there is something complex going on, they should follow up. In a timely manner!

I know this doctor could sense the tension.  I did get the impression that she believed and could tell that I was afraid.  I didn’t feel like she did harm or had ill intent.  But I’m still constantly frustrated how many adults, doctors and counselors “believe” my children, and “believe” me, but have either no power, or no will to actually intervene to influence change.  The systems that have the power to intervene don’t believe (or are too slow) and the systems that do believe, ultimately have little power to impact the situation.

It means something to be believed.  But if the dangerous situation is allowed to continue indefinitely, it makes it difficult for survivors to trust.  It makes it difficult to feel safe and supported, anywhere.  It makes it more and more difficult to continue to disclose and continue to ask for help.  It makes me feel crazy.  It makes me feel like an imposter in my own life.  Where nothing makes sense and what I know to be right and fair and good is not able to transpire.  Where I can’t effectively protect myself or my children.  Where I help others by day, and feel panic, helplessness and fear each night.

 

Sick Days.

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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.

Depression meets PTSD. Crash.

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I’ve realized over the past three years that depression is often more of a secondary problem for me.  It’s very situational and very linked to PTSD.  By the time depression flares up, it generally means that I’ve been coping with PTSD triggers for too long and I’ve started to crash into exhaustion.  Depression sometimes means feeling literally nothing, while PTSD can mean feeling everything and things that are from the past vaulted into the present, clear as day.   This can be a confusing progression.

Lately it’s hard to tease out whether I have a whole host of mental health diagnosis or just one (PTSD) causing a host of symptoms.

Abuse triggers can lead to negative feelings about my body which can then trigger my good friend Ana…yes, PTSD comes first and anorexia is a symptom.   For me anorexia is mainly a series of obsessive compulsive thoughts and behaviours which are linked to extreme anxiety around changing my food rituals.   So anorexia comes first, and OCD traits follow.

When I have a lot of PTSD symptoms and flashbacks, I start to have trouble sleeping and I have vivid nightmares.  Sometimes I wake in the middle of the night to a full panic attack.  Flashbacks can lead to panic attacks during the day as well, and also to anxiety in crowds and enclosed spaces.  So PTSD comes first, and anxiety and panic symptoms follow.

At the end of the line comes depression.  DEPRESSION.  It feels so heavy.  Depression to me leads from coping to constant suicidal and self harm ideation in what seems like mere seconds.  For me, suicidal thoughts are often the first real indicator that I’ve slipped into depression again.  This may seem backwards, but for me the most severe symptom tends to come right at the start, even if I’m depressed for only a few days.

When I’m depressed I feel like I’m walking through a thick soup of fog.  Every fibre of my being hurts and feels heavy and leaden.  Sometimes I have to lie down after just showering and getting dressed in the morning because I feel too exhausted to continue with the day.  When I’m depressed I have no energy.  I want to crawl into bed and hide.  Unfortunately, I’m a single parent and I have a full time job.   It’s not an option just to crash.

So I keep going, but the time crawls by.  I feel unsure if I can get through the day.  I feel unsure if I can stay safe, and resist the negative thoughts.  My self esteem crashes.  I start to feel a lot of feelings from the past.  Or maybe that is backwards, maybe I feel the feelings from the past and it triggers depression.

When I feel out of control of important aspects of my life, I am triggered and I think about suicide.  This is the way my life is.  It’s been this way since I was 17 years old.   It’s both normal to me, and completely terrifying every time it happens.

The depression always lifts and these days it lifts more quickly than it ever did in the past.  The lights come on again, I see the world clearly and not through a haze.  I feel connected and I feel like I am competent at some things.  When I’m depressed I feel alone and I feel utterly worthless.  I feel like a burden and a problem and someone that people I know put up with, rather than care about.  I have trouble making small talk.  I spend a lot of time silent.  I feel an immense amount of social anxiety and discomfort in social situations, especially those involving food.  Depression, anxiety, anorexia, PTSD….it’s a perfect storm of misery.  I’m caught in the middle of a storm of symptoms and I don’t know when they will abate.

Right now I’m triggered because I’m worried about my children.  I’m triggered because of the way my ex-husband treats my children and me.  I’m triggered because this is the time of year, 3 years ago, leading up to my physical separation from him, when things were at their most tense and scary.

I’m triggered today because my daughter told me that her father’s avatar/icon for me on his phone is a piece of raw meat.  Raw chicken.   The father of my two children sees me as nothing more than a piece of meat.

Fuck.

 

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.