First of all, useful information:
That’s probably all I really needed to say, but ever since this and other rallies and events I have been keenly aware of being white and living in the south.
I am reminded of an article called ‘Schrödinger’s Rapist,’ a blog post well worth a read. It explains to men and male-presenting persons why as women and female-presenting persons the latter react the way we do when approached by the former. We don’t know who might be a rapist and in order to be safe we err on the side of caution. There is no way an unknown male-seeming person approaching me, for instance, can prove he is not a rapist, because rapists are frequently charming liars and rapists look like everyone and rapists’ goal is to rape, which they’re more likely to do if they don’t seem sketchy or creepy. Rapists know everything we do about what looks and seems like creepy behavior, and just as we educate one another about warning signs, they also catch on to this same information and drop those tactics and appearances. It’s like a really horrible cold war, and it’s similar with routinely abusive people.
So the last few days I’ve been thinking about my white skin, my living in the south, and the possibility that I may be Schrödinger’s White Supremacist when I encounter people of color. They have no way of knowing on sight whether I’m allied with torch-wielding hatemongers. I make an effort to smile and nod, to say hello if it’s appropriate, to be polite and avoid taking up too much room (whitespreading), but it doesn’t always feel appropriate to trespass on their attention when they’re going about their business of their lives. Hell, white people have taken up too much room and attention from others anyway.
I have an #Illgowithyou button I try to remember to wear everywhere I go. This button means that any transgender woman who needs to go to the bathroom can approach me and ask me to go with her to the women’s room (likewise, any genderfluid or gender-non-conforming individual who wants to use the women’s room) because when accompanied to the restroom they are much less likely to be subject to harassment and assault. Not every trans or genderfluid/non-conforming individual probably knows about this campaign, but in my home state of North Carolina with its infamous ‘bathroom bill’ HB2, it’s a way for me to use my cisgender privilege to help those even more at risk for harassment, rape, assault, and murder than me who just need to frakking pee.
What I would love is to wear my politics on my sleeve (or shirt) in a bigger way. But ideas for this, like wearing safety pins to show support for people of color, immigrants, and LGBTQIA+ individuals, can be seen as insulting to those very individuals because they too often represent white guilt not backed up by actual action.
I hear that. I do. Lip service sucks when it’s not backed up by action. And it’s unfortunate when these campaigns are started not by the groups they are supposed to benefit and do nothing for them.
Yet when I’m in a grocery store, I don’t want to make people of color and immigrants afraid of me just by existing with skin white as a dead fish’s underbelly. This may not be happening. But I’m also not keen on randomly interviewing strangers busy with their own lives to ask them if they live in fear and caution around everyone with white skin here in the South—and if this is a new thing or something that’s been going on a long time. I know whenever a person of color notices me and scrambles to get out of my way apologizing when they had every right to just be standing there selecting their food, it looks from the outside the way I have had to scramble out of the way of abusers and men for fear of attack or harassment.
I can’t erase what has been going on for a very long time, or be blind to it, or stick a safety pin on and think that solves everything. Or even a whole t-shirt.
Rachel Maddow has helpfully done several segments on the history of white supremacy in America showing that this shit has been going down for a long time and continues to go down with smaller or lower-profile eruptions of violence and murder reported all over the country for many years, and these segments can be seen on YouTube here and here. She masterfully tells true stories of the US’s history with white supremacy and gives context that I highly recommend. Adrienne Maree Brown wrote that “things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered. we must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.”
So no, a pin or t-shirt is not enough. Yet I would still like to be able to have something I can wear that communicates effectively and succinctly to anyone frightened by what’s going on right now that I will not attack them, I will not support anyone who does, and I will do what I can to support and defend those who are being targeted by white supremacists in this country.
I’m reminded of the heart-wrenching graphic novel ‘Maus’ by Art Spiegelman, depicting his grandfather’s stories of living as a Jew in Nazi-occupied Poland and surviving the death camps with his wife. The Nazis are depicted as cats, Poles as pigs, and Jews as rats. In the novel it’s difficult to tell which pigs are likely to turn them in as Jews, and which may be potential allies to help them hide and escape.
In real life, of course, it was even worse: almost all of these people were mainly white humans, and the distinctions even less clear. The population of black Germans were described as ‘barbaric, uncivilized, and criminal,’ excluded from employment and schooling, and many were subject to medical experimentation and brutality and murder, as well as forced sterilization of children, and some thrown into the concentration camps. The campaigns against black people are not as well-documented as those against Jewish people, nor have I uncovered much about people with other skin colors from other nationalities, but the insanely intense focus on ‘racial purity’ meant ethnic cleansing for anyone deemed ‘impure,’ including the disabled and the elderly regardless of skin color or ethnicity or faith.
My point is, though, that Germany and Poland were largely filled with white people suspicious of one another, and those who were identified as Jewish were made to wear Star of David armbands while those who were identified as homosexual were made to wear the Pink Triangle, and often live sequestered in ghettos and eventually concentration camps. Everyone else was a mystery—who would turn you over to people who would hurt, incarcerate, or kill you? Who would risk themselves to provide safety, shelter, food, assistance crossing the border?
The US isn’t Nazi Germany, not yet, and I hope there are enough people with power to keep it that way. Nevertheless, there is still a lot of violence against the oppressed. Many aren’t safe to walk certain streets, be certain places alone or with families, and fear that at any time there could be harassment or assault. I know this isn’t something new, either for people of color and immigrants or LGBTQIA+ individuals or for women who may be in any of the other categories as well.
I still sort of wish that, as part of my efforts to help, I could wear something when I go out that broadcasts loud and clear to both the oppressed and the hatemongers what side I’m on. That I am not now nor will I ever be in favor of white supremacists and neo-Nazis, that they do not speak to me, and that the strangers who pass me do not have to worry I will go berserk on them for just existing peacefully and going about their lives. Without being insulting or burdening others with a sense of my white guilt—which, like my genitals, are mine alone to come to grips with and keep out of other people’s faces.
When we shake hands we show that our hand holds no weapon. I’m open to suggestions about what I can do to show I have no violent angry beliefs and intentions to attack those who are not blindingly cracker-iffically white, cisgendered, US-citizen, Christian, and anything else I may have missed. I’m open to learning there is no solution but to take action to do what I can to lend what support I can.
This is part one of a five-part trilogy about story and my relationship to stories and storytelling. There’s a reason why it’s a five-part trilogy, and it’s part of my personal mythology and childhood solace. Don’t panic.
It’s easier to tell the truth in fiction. I knew this even as a kid. As an adult I know it’s also easier to tell it in comedy, song, and in other forms of art. It’s especially easier to express anger if you have catchy rhyme, melody, and meter—or self-deprecation, an ethic of punching up, an ability to check your shame at the door, a magical feel for timing and tone. It’s also, in each of these creative disciplines, extremely easy to get preachy, take yourself or your message too seriously or overidentify with it [point to self], and go overboard. But for the most part the arts have been has been a refuge and a bridge for many of who have things to say that are complicated, uncomfortable, or even impossible to face and take in straight-up, for both the communicator and the audience.
Sidney Rosen wrote: “Stories have been used as a way of transmitting cultural values, ethics, and morality. A bitter pill can be swallowed more easily when it is embedded in a sweet matrix. A straight moral preachment might be dismissed, but guidance and direction become acceptable when embedded in a story that is intriguing, amusing, and interestingly told.”
Terry Pratchett has written… well, more than I could ever hope to quote here about story itself, its power, its purposes, its role. In his Discworld novels he often refers to the force of stories as ‘narrativitum’ and we can observe it here in roundworld in children who know how the story will go regardless of any kind of monomyth or form. Cameron Jace wrote an oversimplified explanation of this noting that when kids hear ‘Once upon a time’ kids expect a happily ever after, and when they hear ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ they check for monsters under the bed.
Both Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett, two of my favorite authors—who also both happen to be prolific and British and white and recently deceased—have both related anecdotes of adults coming to them complaining that their books were too advanced, adult, or scary for children to understand or handle, while the child in question is right there disagreeing and saying that it is in fact the parent who can’t understand or handle it.
Jim Henson wrote, “As children, we all live in a world of imagination, of fantasy, and for some of us that world of make-believe continues into adulthood. Certainly I’ve lived my whole life through my imagination. But the world of imagination is there for all of us—a sense of play, of pretending, of wonder. It’s there with us as we live.
“As I’ve grown older, I’ve been attracted to fairy tales and folk tales, and the rich quality of these stories—grown richer as they have gone through generations and generations of telling and retelling. They’re important—for the flow of information, and energy, and entertainment from the storyteller to his listeners as the storyteller calls upon them to meet him halfway, to create the story in their own minds.
“It is our responsibility to keep telling these tales, to tell them in a way that they teach, and entertain, and give meaning to our lives. This is not merely an obligation, it’s something we must do because we love doing it.”
I think, and I’m by far not the first or only one to think this, that when we’re children imagination and story is our native language and most of us are unfortunately broken of it until we lose touch with it, that ‘forgetting how to fly to Neverland’ or getting to old to go to Narnia can be read as a metaphor for not only being saddled with adult responsibilities but also no longer being able to use our imaginations in the same way, navigate the same imagery and stories by childish instinct.
Neil Gaiman, I think—and I could be misattributing this—said something profound about fairy tales, the original dark, gruesome fairy and folk tales, the ones meant to disturb and unsettle and shake us and lodge creeping-flesh unforgotten in our adult minds—that their purpose is to teach us as children that there are real monsters and that they can be beaten.
For me one problem lies when we come to believe that monsters look a certain way, act a certain way, that they are somehow Other or Outside of humanity. I know sometimes children just ‘don’t like’ a certain relative or person for no reason apparent to adults, and sometimes that instinct turns out to be accurate, and sometimes not, so I’m not going to weigh in definitively on that. But I will say this: a lot of old, old, dark fairy tales refer in many unsubtle ways to child abuse and other kinds of human-on-human cruelty, with no monster or beast involved.
There was a book I read about child abuse that had a diagram to try to spell it out for adults that did not seem to be able to get that when you strike a child, it would be like you being struck by a giant four times your size. Jack and the Beanstalk. To say nothing of other big giant men watching us from the sky and meting out punishment, or the division of the served and the servile, once very aptly portrayed in British estates as those upstairs and those downstairs. Or, for more contemporary takes, the saying that you should never meet your heroes, seniority voices in any workplace or social circle being afforded more weight and validity and relevance, the dangers of putting people up on a pedestal, and the lyrics to Tal Bachman’s song ‘High Above Me.’
It makes a lot of sense that frighteningly erratic and unpredictable hierarchy literally above and larger than us is the metaphor we tend to religiously or monarchically or socially carry with us absolutely forever whenever anything bad happens to us that’s out of our control. Or, as Terry Pratchett puts it in a Discworld novel, the instinctive tendency of human beings to bend at the knees. He’s referring to kings, but we’ve historically blurred the lines of monarchs and gods and prostrated ourselves before both, often more so the more abusive they became, much like parents. Until we either rolled out the guillotine, or painted the room black and drew all the blinds and cranked the stereo and adopted the polar opposite of ideals and beliefs, or ran away and possibly died on the streets, depending on the situation.
Bear in mind that my point of view is this: I have problems with authority. I think a lot of our systems are broken and corrupt. I’m paranoid and cynical with good reason when failed by systems supposed to be in place that aren’t doing their job. I’m suspicious and neurotically critical of power structures especially where other people claim there aren’t any, i.e. socially. Plus I have a streak of a rebellious anarchist in me very similar to the Doctor on Doctor Who with a strong moral component; however, having been preyed upon nastily from birth in a free-for-all sort of atmosphere I’m decidedly strongly against a model of widespread anarchy because I’m well aware of the monstrosities humans commit when there are no consequences and there’s no oversight. Not that what we have is much better, since justice is a luxury and privilege that is often not afforded to those who need it most because money money money. Privilege means ‘private law’; I’m not making this up. One law for those with, one for those without. Or, to quote George Orwell from ‘Animal Farm,’ “Some animals are more equal than others.” That was the first book that made me cry, for about three days straight, when I was eight. I felt like there was no hope for the future and I was never really the same afterward.
Alfred Hitchcock’s film ‘Rope’ was based on a true story of two extremely intelligent young men who decided that because of their intelligence that laws ought not to apply to them, and as an intellectual exercise killed another young man. This is not a novel occurrence by any stretch of the imagination, but it typifies a specific kind of person that isn’t actually as rare as I would like—the person who honestly believes that laws don’t or shouldn’t apply to them, and yet is mentally competent enough to plan, execute, and conceal their crimes with mastery to avoid consequences.
On the milder, less homicidal side but also troubling to me and much more omnipresent, there’s also a whole spectrum of people I meet every day who believe that whatever boundaries I set shouldn’t apply to them for whatever reason. These reasons they will argue at length, creepily and angrily once they get me alone. Without exception these people are white, privileged, middle-class or upper-middle-class people, cisgender men and women both, of all ages and sexual orientations. People who do not like to be told ‘no.’
It doesn’t matter if I state up front how I want to be treated, that in itself is an offense to them, or a challenge. They make their own rules, just to rub my face in the fact that I don’t have seniority or resources or even social support to aid me in standing up to this harassment. I haven’t had any transgender or genderfluid harassers at this time, but this is not to say it’s not possible; we’re all human, and what’s happening to me is a human failing that just tends to show up more the more privileged someone is and the more they can get away with it and develop it into a habit or trait.
It’s the spoiled-child problem, only much scarier, because these are the adults at the top of their heaps making the rules and there is no one to intervene or curb their behavior when they have sufficient privilege to afford the best lawyers.
Anyway, the world isn’t safe. We can’t make the world safe. Trying to pretend the world is safe and shelter one’s children from dangerous stories or realities, we have the story of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, where the prince was kept sheltered in a walled-up palace, so he would never know or see suffering. Once he saw agedness and illness and began asking questions everything unraveled for that plan.
Or there’s Frances Hodgson Burnett’s ‘The Secret Garden,’ with the young boy kept shut up in his rooms, kept convinced by the house staff that he’s sick and hunchbacked and unable to leave, which reminds me of pretty much a thousand percent of the privileged New Age Hippies I spent most of my life around, in eternal search of the magic bullet cure of all their mysterious ailments while sterilizing their life of anything that makes them uncomfortable or upsets their worldview or demands that they take responsibility and actually admit being wrong about anything. And developing orthorexia and pill-popping unregulated unscientific supplements as a way to focus all that manic, frenetic energy into a never-ending self-righteous obsession and crusade they would attempt to rope others into by force feeding them different flavors of packing material amidst unstoppable diatribes not based in logic or science.
In case you’re wondering, my parents opted for largely having me parent myself, supplemented with a lot of isolation and brainwashing, that isolation meaning I only had access to people and places and things they either brought in or took me to that were serving their own interests, and then blaming me when things went wrong.
In the place where story, parenting, religion, and totalitarianism or anarchy overlap, here’s a quote from Salman Rushdie about our visceral human relationship to story and how it shapes our lives, perceptions, histories, cultures, destinies: “We need all of us, whatever our background, to constantly examine the stories inside which and with which we live. We all live in stories, so called grand narratives. Nation is a story. Family is a story. Religion is a story. Community is a story. We all live within and with these narratives. And it seems to me that a definition of any living vibrant society is that you constantly question those stories. That you constantly argue about the stories. In fact the arguing never stops. The argument itself is freedom. It's not that you come to a conclusion about it. And through that argument you change your mind sometimes. … And that's how societies grow. When you can't retell for yourself the stories of your life then you live in a prison. … Somebody else controls the story.”
The stories I sought out for myself stepped in and filled the aching soul of me where the ones I had told at me and brainwashed into me left me gagging and violated in ways I may never come to terms with, and that have certainly left me with hair-trigger rage responses to others’ perceived attempts to tell me about myself or my reality or rub out my sketches in the sand, drown out my words and rewrite what only I can tell about my life.
I read a lot of books as a child, and I still do. I had access to most of the episodes of Jim Henson’s Fraggle Rock from about age seven as well as the early Muppet Movies, many books of my own, and many other movies on tape I would watch over and over out in the woods where the television reception was often fuzzy at best.
Lewis Mehl-Madrona wrote a book that kindled my heart called ‘Healing the Mind through the Power of Story’ in which he talks about his Lakota background, and his schooling in traditional psychiatry and finding himself—I don’t know how he puts it, but missing something, lost, cut off from something, and he returns to the wisdom he was raised with, the story as medicine.
In my favorite series of books, ‘Otherland’ by Tad Williams, here’s what he writes about stories: “Stories are things people use to give the universe a shape. There is little difference between a folktale, a religious revelation, and a scientific theory.”
Later on: “They were a story that gave life order, that taught the universe how to speak the words that humans could understand. And what was anything, any human learning or belief, but just that? She could let chaos swallow her up, she realized, as the All-Devourer swallowed everything—even Grandfather Mantis, the spirit of first knowing—or she could shape chaos into something she could understand, as Porcupine had done, finding order where only hopelessness seemed to exist. She had to find her own story, and she could make it whatever shape she thought best.”
Still later: “…perhaps randomness itself is only a name for stories we have not recognized yet.
“Sometimes people need reasons for things, even when there are no reasons. That’s what makes people believe in conspiracies or religions—if there’s any difference. The world is just too complicated, so they need simple explanations.”
In Terry Pratchett’s novel ‘Raising Steam’ the History Monk Lu-Tze, one of the caretakers of time, states that “what we know is that the universe is a never-ending story that, happily, writes itself. The trouble with my brethren in Oi Dong is that they are fixated on the belief that the universe can be totally understood, in every particular jot and tittle.”
Story has been so many, many things to human beings. Story as a teaching tool, as a way of relating and engendering empathy, as a tool for building bridges between different people and cultures, for building and strengthening relationships—but also for revealing buried truths, breaking down destructive lies, unchaining and bringing justice to those wronged and harmed deeply by stories that were falsehoods and lies and bullshit and fantasy.
Story has cut both ways, revealing and hiding truths. Story can come from many perspectives and show many facets of a situation. Story can manipulate us, it can teach us, guide us, lead us, hypnotize us, brainwash us, unite us, destroy us, divide us. Stories are powerful and some are very damn boring, too. Most are more complicated than we give them credit for, and often art or drama or emotion insists on exaggeration of elements to show not just the facts of the story but the feel of it too.
And again, that cuts both ways—like in Stephen Colbert’s satirical show ‘The Colbert Report,’ where he lays down the mission statement of the show in the first episode, promising to ‘feel’ the news at his audience—he’s doing it to satirize real news shows that were doing the same thing while insisting in extreme over-the-top up-front statements that they were not doing that, insisting that they were speaking from a place of facts and truth and calm and reason when, if examined from such a place, it was blatantly obvious the tone and voice and story were entirely emotion-driven. It isn’t that there isn’t enough news in the world to sustain a twenty-four-hour news cycle. The monkeysphere theory suggests that what a watching and ad-revenue-driven audience is tuning in for is judged to be stories that appeal to them personally—i.e. stories that hit close to home either nationally or emotionally.
Story can be a good place to start getting information, but if I want to be a critical thinker, it takes digging deeper, searching further, paying attention, and being able to tell when I’m being manipulated or played or my entirely human buttons are being pushed in order to pay sharper attention to why, and who gains. Because story can teach and story can lie.
Stories—canonical stories—are the foundation of most religious teachings we have history for, although many oral-only traditions have been lost and corrupted or appropriated. This is unfortunate.
In an interview, Emma Watson asked Lin-Manuel Miranda, “Do you think that storytellers have a responsibility to drive us forward as a society to try to perceive things in new ways, and if you do, does this ever weigh heavily on you?” He replied, “No. I’ll tell you the way I think of it. I think storytellers can’t help it. I think your worldview affects what you see in the work and it affects what you make. …I really try not to think of writing as a burden at all. My job is to fall in love.”
Do you remember when you were a kid, and you were taught to keep your hands to yourself? Not to just grab other people or things belonging to them? (I really hope you were taught this as a kid.)
At some point in the growing-up process, this lesson may have stopped being reinforced. Especially for those of you now adults, and especially for the more privileged among you, you may have had to go after what you want. I get that, really I do. You’ve probably also had some conflicting messages, of getting what you want, and not encountering people saying ‘no’ to you strongly and consistently. Especially if you’ve been surrounded only by permissive people who say ‘yes’ to you—and let’s face it, who doesn’t like that, and dislike being told ‘no’ all the time? Most of us can remember being really angry at being denied and rejected what we want, and a sense of triumph when we overcome obstacles and resistance. Feels great, right? This is why improv feels so good, the first rule is ‘say yes.’ (I could write a whole article about privilege and improv and how this can undermine tolerance of being told “no” and social justice, but that’s another story for another time.)
The problem is, not everything in this world is here for you. (Us, actually—I’m white, too, and I’m learning this same lesson, or rather unlearning the sneaky underhanded implicit socialized lesson that the world is all just for us, particularly pernicious in the USA.) If you’ve visited museums it’s very clear you’re not supposed to touch the exhibits, and in stores, there are sometimes expensive things you’re not supposed to handle. And signs like ‘you break it, you bought it.’
If all the people you know and have ever known have never expressed any problems with you hugging or touching them, it’s way too easy to start to feel like those things are a given, that you’re entitled to them, and a relationship without those things means the other person is physically rejecting you. Ouch.
But here’s the thing: other people’s bodies, and their things, belong to them. You aren’t actually entitled to them.
I know this sounds like a no-brainer, and if I put things this way you can easily nod along and say, “sure, of course!” But there’s a huge gap between agreeing with what I’m saying and how, in practice, some white people are treating the physical boundaries of other people when they come up. Because when you go in for that hug, or pregnant belly touch, or feel of a black woman’s hair or head scarves, and we say “no,” or “please don’t,” or “I’m not a hugger,” or have a problem with you touching us—there’s often (if not always) an emotional response that happens a lot faster and is stronger than the logical intellectual process, and for some people it’s plugged right into the feelings of shame and rejection. Especially if that person has experienced a lot of painful shame and rejection that hasn’t been adequately dealt with. (I’m one of those, though my shame and rejection are triggered by different experiences, so I can sympathize—those feelings hurt in a very intense and immediate way.)
That’s a problem. And while it’s not the problem of we who said “no,” it becomes everyone’s problem really quickly because of what certain white people do and say after we set those boundaries.
White women, some (not all) of you are particularly bad at this. I know, astounding, but at least some (not all) white men are starting to understand why it may not be okay to feel up everyone and everything they want to touch, but a lot of white women have in my experience been some of the scariest and weirdest in their responses to me saying, “Don’t hug me.”
Case in point: earlier this year I said “I don’t like hugs. I’m not a hugger,” in mixed company, setting this boundary, and got from a white woman standing nearby (a white feminist at a social justice event, no less) a white-woman response I absolutely hate: “Well, I may just hug you anyway!”
I froze. I usually either do that, or my fear response ratchets up into a much stronger “no! I don’t like that!”, because what I’ve been told is that this person does not care about my physical boundaries and discomfort, and for their own physical gratification will grab me anyway. This by far was not the first white woman who had said this to me.
Later on, when she got me alone on a darkened city street, she came up to me and angrily bawled me out about how she felt ‘rejected’ and how ‘it was a joke’ (ugh, another typical white response I hate; MY BOUNDARIES ARE NOT A JOKE; please stop angrily saying ‘it was a joke!’ when you have hurt or frightened me and accept the unintended consequences of what you said because saying that only makes it worse like pouring salt on a wound and saying my pain is funny to you) and kept harping on her many ‘experiences of rejection.’
She sounded exactly like some of my past male stalkers. I did not know how to respond and keep myself safe. Especially since we were going into the same hostel, into a shared dorm room, and she would have access to me while I slept, which is always terrifying for me when someone is yelling at me. I mentioned I’d had lots of experiences of molestation, though I didn’t add that many of those experiences were at the hands of white women as well as white men. I did not want to escalate things, being in a strange city all by myself and about to sleep in the same room as this angry entitled person.
I’m still really upset about this. While she never made good on her ‘joke’ (threat) to hug me anyway, it deeply traumatized me to have to sleep every night in the room with her and be with her at that same event. And to know I didn’t have anyone to articulate it to whom I felt would understand. I knew I was dealing with someone who was completely absorbed by her own needs and feelings to the point where nothing I could say would get through to her about how unsafe she had become, irrevocably, for me.
To say it was a bad first impression was putting it mildly. I knew she had seniority in this group, was older than me, and more privileged in the sense of not being either disabled or so poor as to be homeless. The fact that she was a woman might have had her feeling, as many women do, that she was incapable of harassing another female, and that there’s nothing sexual about hugs or unwanted touch that isn’t explicitly sexual.
And that’s legally true. Hugs aren’t sexual and there’s a lot of unwanted touch that isn’t sexual. It’s not legally assault to hug someone no matter how much it bugs them.
But I have severe Complex PTSD. People who make jokes about my physical boundaries or disregarding them set off flashbacks for me. People who actually go that far and hug or fondle my clothes double ditto. Especially because a great many ‘friends’ who escalated into sexual abusers started out that way.
Hugs particularly feel like and remind me viscerally, intensely, of being restrained, and pushing someone else’s body against me. I don’t want that from someone unless I am sexually comfortable with them, and in private and actually giving them permission as part of a sexual relationship, and since I don’t want that at all right now from anyone, it’s absolutely my right to say, “no.”
Hugs mean something very different for me than for other people. They certainly feel different, and put me into a horrible nightmare place—not to mention demonstrating that my “no” and boundaries and physical comfort and feelings don’t matter to them—and for someone to do that to me in order to get their warm hug fuzzy physical gratification and not have a problem with how it is for me is a problem. I believe hugs and touch should be mutually enjoyed expressions of affection, and not one person getting their jollies while making the other person feel violated and used.
I also really don’t want to have to explain that to someone I just met. I don’t like disclosing all that to someone I don’t know. It’s a lot of sensitive information that could easily be used to hurt me a great deal more than just with a hug. It almost always leads to all kinds of levels of conversational and relational intimacy I don’t want—unsolicited advice (criticism), questions and pressure for additional details about the assault or my psychological care which is not anyone’s business, reciprocal confessions, presumptions of emotional intimacy I don’t want yet. I shouldn’t have to explain why I don’t want to be hugged, why I don’t want people feeling up my velvet clothes—which also means I’m being felt up, since I’m wearing them, hello! I’m not your pet or your teddy bear. “No” is a complete sentence and I don’t owe anyone any explanation for my boundaries. It doesn’t stop people asking “Why?” but it does make me very uncomfortable when they do, and uncertain where this is going, why they asked, if this is the opening volley of an argument.
Consent culture is about more than just men stopping when a woman says ‘no’ to sex. Building consent culture means people in everyday situations becoming comfortable with being told no, becoming comfortable with rejection, and not harassing someone for something that isn’t owed or due them. Especially when that something really clearly belongs to someone else, and especially when that something is someone else’s body, their hair, their clothes that they are wearing, their hair or headscarf. That’s something we all can work on—children, men, women, everyone.
And here’s the thing, white people. All the people I have this problem with are white. Definitely not the majority of you, but the ones who do have a problem with me telling them ‘no’ are really scary about it. They take it personally. They whine that ‘it’s only a joke.’ They harass me.
Other people stand by and don’t say a damn thing, or if I bring up the issue, try to minimize my feelings and minimize the behavior of the person who has turned my boundaries into an argument, or even try to play peacemaker, as if I’m actually an equal combatant in this argument. Especially because I’m triggered and getting more upset the more other people are pushing me, or siding with the aggressor, because they don’t understand my point of view, aren’t empathizing with me.
The less privileged people are, including white people, the more likely I find they are to be respectful of my boundaries, empathize with me, and share their own stories of their boundaries being violated. It sucks, but there it is. Privilege means ‘private law.’ For those who have been somewhat sheltered, who spend most of their time with people of similar levels of privilege, there’s not a lot of challenge to whatever is normalized, which can make it hard to understand and empathize with people who are different. As someone who grew up middle-class with almost entirely white middle-class privileged people, I know this very well. Anything that challenges this can evoke feelings of defensiveness and shame—and oh yes, I feel them all the time!—but to get past that, to really understand people who are different and accept those differences, requires overriding our strong emotions of shame and breathing through the defensiveness and not feeling blamed or attacked when people try to explain things to us. Even when said people are upset, as I previously mentioned I still am about this.
My core thesis is this: My body belongs to me and I don’t have to share it with anyone. I’m allowed to set physical boundaries. And not explain them.
But how am I to enforce them when privileged people don’t want to respect them, act like they are jokes or mere obstacles to be overcome to get what they want, to get the physical gratification they want even knowing that I don’t want it? Because them not feeling rejected is more important to them than not making me feel violated, and because they don’t feel that my feelings of feeling violated, of not being able to say “no” to them are valid?
If I can’t set this simple boundary of my body, my person, being mine to say what others are allowed to do to or with it, how am I to know what else this person will decide to do? If I can’t say “no” to this person without them reacting violently, that is really scary to me. I can get upset when I don’t understand why other people don’t get why now I have two problems: my boundaries being dismissed or violated, and being around someone who is now aggressive and entitled toward me, with whom I cannot safely say “no” without fear of them attacking or harassing me and possibly doing what they want anyway, maybe even harder and more intensely and thoroughly.
This creates a third problem: now everyone around me is on the side of the aggressor, either by minimizing my feelings and boundaries and refusing to see this as a problem, or by doing and saying nothing and expecting me to sort it out when I don’t have the power to do so because the other person will not take “no” for an answer and aggressively corners me alone and/or harasses me. I don’t know how far this will go. I have seen this escalate all the way to violent assault, more times than I care to think about.
This is a scary trend, and not just for me. People who aren’t good at hearing “no” or respecting boundaries, or who take rejection as a personal challenge, might be just a little pissy, or they might have a truly scary streak in them, and it may not be limited to me. Others who stand by and do and say nothing may find themselves on the unfortunate receiving end of this frightening behavior if they’re between such a person and what that person wants.
Wanting to see the best in everyone is a nice idea but can be dangerous; but neither is the solution seeing a potential assailant in everyone who gets in a tizzy over a boundary that rubs them the wrong way or triggers their feelings of shame and rejection. There has to be a happy medium. But as the target in these situations, and as someone the aggressor isn’t listening to, I can’t de-escalate this, and what I say and the boundaries I set already aren’t being respected. This, to me, is where I would want someone in authority who is cool-headed but understands this dynamic can step in and help support my boundaries without making the aggressor feel ganged up on or attacked—which only escalates things. But also not making me feel more unsafe and abandoned to the whims of the aggressor by telling me to work it out myself or minimize what’s going on. I can understand why most people would want to default to this, especially if it doesn’t seem like that big a deal to them, or seems like unnecessary drama. But I didn’t start the ‘drama’ part of it, and I can’t deal with it on my own.
This is right smack-dab in the middle of my biggest disability and this isn’t just a communication problem, this is an accessibility problem for me. I need safe spaces, and I need help to keep them safe. For someone as compromised as I am by my Complex-PTSD, I’m able to handle a whole lot. I can and do deal with triggers all day long. But one-on-one aggressive behavior, particularly in private, is over the red line, and for that I need external support and allies who get this, and understand that the solution is not to talk me out of my feelings, but to help me feel safe and supported. This means don’t tell me it’s nothing when someone’s already made me feel unsafe. It means help me find ways to feel safe and prevent future incidents with said person, and let me know that regardless of other people’s external assessments of the situation, I will have someone safe I can go to if I don’t feel safe.
White people, I know so many of you are super-cool with me not wanting to be touched and fondled like a life-sized stuffed animal, and recognize that I have a right to say “no hugs, can we fist-bump instead?” Can we hold each other accountable? When I have these experiences, and talk about them, can you understand? Can you help me get the word out that consent is awesome, but something we all need to work on as adults now that we don’t have parents or guardians or teachers telling us to keep our hands to ourselves?
I know it sounds super-tedious. For my part, and the part of other people who don’t like to be touched, we’re upfront about it. We tell people, and often wear clothes that explicitly say ‘touch me not,’ whether spelled out in words (as some of my clothes do) or in spikes. The problem comes from those people who take it as a challenge, who make jokes about it, who think it’s funny to ignore our boundaries and do it anyway, or those special people who have a special place in hell who decide we need to be ‘cured’ of how we feel by being touched and hugged a lot BY THEM. I don’t need to be CURED, I need to be RESPECTED. Because this ISN’T about the ‘healing power of touch’—this is about boundaries and me saying “no.” And boundaries, and “no,” are not things to ‘cure’ or ‘fix’ about someone because someone else finds them inconvenient or strange (read: in the way of them getting what they want, or in the way of someone conforming to social norms).
My not wanting these things, in other words, is not the problem. Other people not accepting my boundaries is the problem. If I said I don’t want alcohol, that would not be a problem to be cured. If I said I don’t want to watch a horror movie, it shouldn’t be acceptable for people to physically strap me to a chair, tape my eyes open and force me to watch it. It’s not okay to force something physically on someone they don’t want, no matter how many other people want and like it. This isn’t about any theoretical or actual other people not present and what they like or want or don’t.
This is about letting everyone say what we’re each comfortable with having or doing for ourselves and our bodies and letting us set that for ourselves as individuals. Can we agree that that’s important, regardless of whatever the thing is, whatever our own unique comfort zones are, regardless of what the social norms are? Can we stop allowing aggressive people to pathologize their targets’ discomfort with what they want to do to them, stop allowing them to make the problem be the boundary, and keep the focus on “no means no, and you need to either back off and settle down or leave”?
My problem is not that I have unusual boundaries, or that I have trouble articulating them. My problem is that when I encounter someone who won’t take “no” for an answer, who doesn’t show respect the boundaries I set, I don’t get understanding and support from other people to help protect me from the aggressor, or at least help me restore a sense of safety after I’ve experienced feeling unsafe with someone and then have to continue to be around them. My problem is that I’m alone and don’t have allies to help me out when things get heated and the other person only escalates no matter what I say. If it gets violent I can and will defend myself, but I don’t like getting to that point, but neither do I like capitulating and saying nothing just because I know no one’s in my corner and in my experience no one takes it seriously after an encounter like the one I described above, when I have few options to distance myself from someone I feel unsafe with because we’re in the same group. And/or sleeping in the same room.
I don’t like having to be around someone I can’t safely say “no” to. It doesn’t matter if they’re male or female. That “no” is a litmus test better than any other to tell me whether someone is safe to be around or not. It’s one that unfortunately a lot of people fail at in practice, even if we all agree in theory, because our emotions can get in the way of our ideals and values. If we want a consent culture, it’s not just the job of people to say “no,” it’s also incumbent on all of us to hear “no” better, and support those who say “no” to one another when these situations come up, regardless of what is being rejected and how we personally feel about it.
It’s not about the thing we say “no” to experiencing. It’s all about respecting the “no.” Without that respect for “no,” we have cruelty, oppression, rape culture, assault, harassment, abuse, exploitation—all the things we want less of.
…Although there’s also the way of perverting “no” where we reject other people’s boundaries or their identities, what they do in their own lives, their right to exist and live the way they want to. Which in a sense was what the woman did to me that night on that darkened street. She said “no” to my saying “no” to her. So context and critical thinking does matter. But it’s beyond me to write any more on the subject, this is long enough already, and I have to trust that people can work this out for themselves.
Anyway, thank you for reading. The nice thing about this blog is that I can write stuff down, and anyone reading can say “no” at any time by stopping. I’m not forcing these words on anyone.
TRIGGER WARNINGS for this post: discussions of suicide, captivity, cult abuse, PTSD symptoms, drugs & alcohol, self-harm, mention of sex slavery
“Fear is temporary. Love is slavery.” —Peter Harness & Steven Moffat, screenwriters ‘Doctor Who’ episode ‘The Pyramid at the End of the World’ (season 10 episode 7 by current-series reckoning)
When I was young anything seemed possible, and I knew what I wanted and could put it into words.
Alexithymia is a word meaning not being able to put words to your feelings, not being able to articulate your emotions using words. I think it’s the expression that’s blocked, not the perception of feeling, and knowing that there is a lot of feeling going on, but not being able to identify it. I believe it shows up sometimes as a symptom with some cases of autism and I know it’s something that shows up in survivors of long-term and particularly child abuse, if we’re abused out of talking about our feelings or having or expressing them at the age we need to be learning that skill set.
If there’s a word that means not being able to identify and articulate what I want, and having a sheer clammy-palm thick-throat every-muscle-clenched paranoid phobia of expressing to someone else what I want, I don’t know it. I know why I am that way, can point to and give some specific examples showing the shape of the whole of years of experiences that specifically trained me into that, but I cannot overcome those things. For example, gleefully showing others something I’m enjoying and having them take it away or outright steal it and physically assault me. Or letting others know what I want, and them using that knowledge to manipulate or taunt me for the entirety of our ‘relationship.’ (A word that covers all manner of sins, to paraphrase ‘Love Actually.’)
Another increasingly large reason for not being able to articulate what I want is because my life has been in a catastrophic nosedive since 2004, as more and more really horrible things happen to me, I lost more and more, became more and more nonfunctional physically and psychologically, and had more and more resources and options taken away until I am now stuck and sliding toward oblivion with no hope or help or relief in sight. I have one option left to survive and it’s looking less and less possible.
For instance, selling off everything I have of value, I was asked today, reasonably, “What are you looking to get for [thing]?” and I didn’t even understand the question. That was not a thing I was allowed to even conceptualize in my position. My position is: I will take what I am given and not complain or I will get NOTHING. Like: without health insurance, where I am, there is only one place I can afford go if I am sick, and if I get mistreated, there’s nothing I can do, nowhere else I can take my ‘business’ because I can’t qualify-for/afford-to pay for anything else, let alone anything better.
Spending three years in a personal hellhole that is the best of bad choices but is so triggering and horrible and uncomfortable and unhealthy for me personally in so many ways has taken its toll. I’ve been watching myself give up and have been powerless to do anything more than what I’m already doing. Spending years and years trying to convince others that I am disabled and need help and being told ‘no’ over and over again and trying harder and seeing more people and giving up all my privacy and secrets into evidence and still being told ‘no’ has made me crazier and crazier, and more and more paranoid that I am being personally persecuted, especially as I see others less unhinged than me sailing through the same process as me—and paranoid that anything I do to try to prove my case, and more importantly anything I do which other people can find on the internet, can and will be used (unofficially) by Social Security Disability people to judge me not disabled and a liar. Including this blog, which is in essence me posting a diary online. Any fool can keep a diary like this, and no one would ever pay me to write this, and clearly even if they did I don’t even do it regularly for my own relief of my own feelings and frustrations.
I happen to think that if I would rather commit suicide than be forced to work forty hours a week ever again, as I’ve only ever tried once before, that shouldn’t be seen as me bluffing or lying or just not trying hard enough, but as evidence that I cannot work for a living because working enough to make a living wage is so excruciating for me physically and psychologically that a merciful swift death is preferable. Here’s an exercise, gentle reader, if you balk at this explanation: just for right now, set aside all your preconceived ideas about suicide and imagine that I’m telling the truth and try to imagine what it feels like, what I’m telling you right now. Put yourself in ‘beginner’s mind.’
Imagine feeling that working full-time puts you constantly into flashbacks of living in captivity and abuse, feeling threatened and unsafe and constantly paranoid about what anyone around you might do at the drop of a hat, especially if you don’t quickly and without complaint not only do everything you’re asked to do but anticipate others’ needs and fulfill them with every waking, heart-pounding, desperate terrified moment. Lest you have, for instance, food privileges taken away, or get physically tortured with some bizarre cult ritual ‘for your own good.’
Imagine, too, that you’d also experience flashbacks to every other job, full-time or part-time, where this happened, and you remember (no matter how hard you try NOT to) always eventually cracking under the strain, sliding into extremes, taking drugs or drinking or mutilating yourself to stop the screaming of your terrified little child self in your skull, the one who would go and hide in the closet and stuff her face in a pillow and sob and sob and sob until sunup.
I get that Social Security is trying to keep people from ripping them off, but (a) the benefits are paltry and barely support a most impoverished existence, and (b) no one in their right mind who had any other option would go through everything I’ve been through for three years if they had any, any, ANY other choices. I have chased down every possibility I have seen, but every single time I hit my disability like a dog slamming into the end of its leash—I can’t. I really can’t.
And I’m so tired.
Back to the beginning of all this, I was saying that I can’t even articulate what I want, really. I want an ending. Happy may not be possible; it could be that only an ending is possible. I’ve lost my imaginary friend that showed up with an imaginary bang when I was fifteen and suicidal and took me into a vast world of my own imagination when I had nowhere else to escape to. I’ve lost my enjoyment of pretty much everything I used to enjoy. For four (or so) days a year I feel home, I feel safe, and wanted, and enough, and included, at ROOTS Week in Asheville, and they have blessed and humbled me with a subsidy to make up for my disability and poverty every year I have applied. In between I hole up and try to outlast, but every year more bad things happen and every year I’m not sure if I’ll survive to the next ROOTS Week.
How can a person have motivation, drive, stamina, when one is going nowhere, and has no more hope and no dreams anymore?
I try to think: what do I want?
What I want is guaranteed income that doesn’t depend on me doing something I can’t count on being able to do. I want income that doesn’t depend on the whims of one or a handful of people who might not be able to provide stability, especially in the face of getting nothing in return, when bad things happen to them in their lives as happen to us all.
I want to live in a place that is safe and mine alone—because I have learned the hard way over nearly 38 years on this planet that everyone I have ever lived with has eventually become increasingly unsafe—and not have to worry about it being taken away. I want to not have to do things that I can’t sustain in order for that to happen. I want to know that when I’m at my worst, my sickest, in the most pain, that it isn’t going to cost me my safety, home, health care, and my basic needs. I want to know that as I am right now, more nonfunctional than I’ve been in my life, I will still have a place to live, and a car, and not be hemorrhaging money every single day because I have no income.
I don’t want the moon. I don’t want someone else to have access to me while I sleep or when I am at my sickest and most vulnerable. I don’t want things. I don’t want some flash car with spinners or ludicrously expensive clothing or an entourage or fame or fortune. Just a car that will allow me to get food, medicine, treatment, to get away from unsafe places and situations, and deal with emergencies.
I want survival. I want a sustainable life that can hold me well as I am on my worst days as well as my best, rather than requiring me to be at my best (which I can only manage on rare occasions) forty hours a week and fifty-two weeks a year. I want privacy. I want to be able to tell people who mistreat me to go to hell rather than grit my teeth and endure it because I have no other options or choices.
When you’re the only game in town, it’s surprising what an asshole you can get away with being to the people who have to come to you, and there’s nothing they can do about it. And it’s surprising how many people sort of unconsciously loosen the belt, kick off their shoes, relax, and become the worst versions of themselves secure in the knowledge that they’re set for life in their bully pulpit. People who work with the hurting and needy can be extremely abusive. Not all of them are, but a surprising number are. In fact it’s the best place for an abuser to get their jollies on the job year-round, because (and here’s the thing that people don’t understand) to the bully and the abuser, it’s not abuse, it’s a curiously overwhelmingly satisfying way of interacting with other people, that makes the bully feel good.
Abuse and bullying seems to be almost never a conscious or malicious decision, and in fact abuse works best if the abuser really truly believes that they aren’t, and are too wrapped up in their own stuff to even want to consider the feelings or complaints of others as valid. This is the most frustrating thing about dealing with people who want to see all points of view as valid, who want to mediate disputes and groups that contain someone who is doing this. We want to believe the best of everyone even in the face of continual evidence that this is a dangerous approach to take in every single situation. Bullies and abusers are similar to addicts in this way; if they don’t want to admit they have a problem, if they don’t want to stop, the only way to protect oneself from the consequences of their behavior is to go no contact. To, in essence, take a terrible page from their book and stop trying to empathize with them.
I have spent too much of my life both empathizing with them and agonizing about the problems this causes in my life when it’s allowed to orbit their black-hole lives, as well as all the time I spent reading towering stacks of books and articles to try to understand what was going wrong.
I want a life where I can walk out on that and go somewhere else to get my needs met. Where I can put down the books and start reading my own heart and soul for a change and find out who the frak I am, without being defined by the gravity wells I get sucked so easily into. I want a life where I can walk on by and say, “Not interested,” without even adding, “…sorry.” Where I apologize to no one for being who and what I am, whatever that turns out to be. Which may be different every day as I figure it out, given the chance!
I want a life with choices and a future, that doesn’t cost me even more than I have already given, because I have given my all and gotten back hurt in return. I want a life that’s not crushingly claustrophobic and septic as this place has become, like a garbage compactor. Some place I can rest, really rest, and breathe, and stretch out, with room for dreams to grow again and not get smothered to death by despair, so I can find out if it will ever be possible for me to want things again other than ‘survive’ and ‘get the hell out, for good, and never come back.’
I want to find out if there is still a Kassi inside this paranoid, defensive, crazed cornered animal I’ve become in this wreck of a life that’s bleeding out all around me while I lie unconscious on every day’s pavement, stepped over and spat on by sneering, angry, upright people, my pockets regularly (metaphorically) searched and emptied because I can’t fight back, getting kicked for being in the path of people who needed an outlet who couldn’t retaliate or provide consequences for their cathartic casual abuse.
The people who care aren’t in a position to do anything about my problems. The people in a position to do something about my problems don’t care, or actively distrust and/or mistreat me. Because it doesn’t impact them at all if they ruin and end my life. I’m less than nothing to most people. Sometimes that can be liberating and freeing and sometimes it can be fatal.
These days I don’t even feel human, robbed of imagination and soul and desire and dreams and creativity, all the things that help define humanity. I’ve become walking dead, darting frantically from day to day, trying to hide from the enemy one more day, the enemy being the cost of living. Trying to steal one more day, but not being able to do anything with the days I steal.
Wondering what the point is, and feeling deep in me where culture planted it, the insidious ivy crumbling through every crack in my walls, that I am worthless and have not earned a right to survive and live because I cannot service other people to their satisfaction and pleasure enough that they would be willing to pay for me to live, with me feeling like a filthy sex slave to their every whim and rule and powerless to resist or defy any demand if I want to live.
I’m tired. I’m so fucking tired of waiting in terror for people who don’t give a shit about me to decide whether I get to live or die, and being powerless to do anything about it, and struggling just to survive month after month, year after year, losing my humanity and hope with no end in sight and no future.
I hope in a couple of days to start posting some other stuff I wanted to make videos about, concerning art and story. It will probably be less angry and hopeless than this. I had to stop making videos because I was tired of the hate, and could no longer manage the effort. I retreated to a more defensible position (this blog) which so far mostly only friends read, but making those videos left me with a lot I needed to get off my chest, and it took me a while to even be willing to communicate again at all.
I thank you for your patience, especially if you are reading this. <3 I know these words are not easy to read. It is, I hope, a process of moving back toward sharing more of all of me, not just the angry and defensive parts of me activated by all the nastiness in my real life mirrored so potently on YouTube.
One positive thing I want to share is that when I feel suicidal but cannot bear to talk to anyone, because my triggers are the fact that my life is inescapably horrible for reasons beyond my control, because I don’t want to live like this anymore, and nothing anyone says is going to change that or the things that are making it so, I go to this web page: https://www.metanoia.org/suicide/ and no matter how many times I have gone there over the years, by the time I have reached the bottom, I get through one more night. Why it works for me, I do not know, and it may not work for everyone. It has saved me many times.
Sometimes I want this: that if I don’t survive, that if I don’t make it out, that some of my words that I wrote or said might survive me, and might reach someone else who just needs those words to push through one more night, or push that one bit harder, and get out of their trap, out of what’s killing them, and survive. Or that they might then write or make something that passes it on to someone else who then manages to get out of their trap. More than one person I loved with all my heart died, but it’s because of them I’m still alive. The words and works of others long gone have helped me through those one-more-nights. They are the ropes I hang from and reach for now on the Cliffs of Insanity.
If I could live on words alone I would be the richest, happiest, fattest cross of Buddha and Neil DeGrasse Tyson that ever womaned on this Earth. Safe behind this keyboard (which I would name ‘Sleeps-Not’) I could feed the hungry and never want for anything again…
TRIGGER WARNINGS for this post: discussion of cult/child abuse, suicide, captivity
The Internet Age has made writers and pedants of us all. (Okay, not ‘all.’ Mainly me and a certain Cheeto-in-Chief Tweet-twit twat and the YouTube troll-trash as well as other sites’ equivalents.) A lifetime of trauma has stolen imagination, poetry, soul, musicality from me. It has highlighted that words on a page fall flat as sour notes without a point.
Behind them I feel roiling shapes, boiling water under a lid, except it’s blood and gore and the poison and sewage injected into me.
I write but it doesn’t sing out of me, or even bleed beautifully out of me, just runs from me like diarrhea or projectile vomiting onto the page, gangrenous oozing of necrotic traumas.
I kept hoping for such a long while that I could perform a pea-souper exorcism, that if I wrote and wrote and wrote all the arsenic out of me this fog would lift from me and I could return to Oz and Neverland and Wonderland and the greater lands of my imagination. But the more I poured the more the jug seemed bottomless, and the more it seemed life snuck up behind me every night and then more boldly during the day to top it up even as I poured.
I’m aware of how whiny and paranoid and unreadable all this is. I’m aware I’m getting nowhere except a downward spiral. I feel it, clawing at the sides and not even leaving grooves to make some sort of signature that Kassi was here. When I go there won’t be any words worth remembering, no poetry, no song, no story worth telling, just a gas that dissipates and dies and is well gone, something that wrinkles people’s noses and makes them quicken their step a little. I certainly would. I write at breakneck speed to get away from every single word as I type it, even though I’m running horrified toward words I also don’t want to be plunging among, a nightmare forest of thoughts without end.
If I stop I’m stuck, and start to sink into the ground, and that’s even more terrifying. So I get up and start run-writing again, knowing I’m getting nowhere but more trees in blackness and silence, wondering if there is even anywhere to go, or if in this zigging and zagging I’m covering the same ground over and over. Or maybe I’m on a forest moon, or nothing is real, and Strawberry Fields forever.
I write because I feel like I am running out of time and it doesn’t make sense to do anything else. There’s nothing else I really can do. I can’t do this for anyone else or to anyone else’s specifications or satisfaction. I write to try to get the crazy out of my head and onto the page in the hopes of lessening the pressure inside. I write because I need an outlet.
I despair of ever making sense to anyone. Maybe least of all myself.
I want to make sense. Hell, I want to write novels, I want to write songs, maybe even comedy. But I can’t, any more than I could sustain gainful employment, change the past, bring my dead husband back to life, ensure that those that hurt me would feel what they had done to me, or fly.
This is all I can do right now.
I remember hoping once, years ago, that if I wrote enough, purged enough out onto the page, I would come to an end of the hurting. That on the page I’d find answers or relief or both, and in the end I’d be reunited with my lover—my inspiration, my first and oldest and best and real one true love, for whom I saved myself and kept myself alive through a nightmare looking-glass childhood of torture and brainwashing and gaslighting and insanity and captivity—my stories.
That imagination which made life worth living, that made me put down the knife when I was fifteen. The thing that SSRIs take away from me, and the reason why I continually tell my med management nurse practitioner (who keeps suggesting them), “Why don’t you just hand me a revolver with one bullet in it and tell me to play Russian Roulette? It will have the same outcome.” Because even if I can’t write stories I still see beauty in the world, and SSRIs drain all that away, and I become extremely calm and uncaring, very very calm and unattached to life, and calmly begin the calm thinking and planning of all the rational and reasonable things that need doing so I can most efficiently dispatch my life.
And the thing about SSRIs is that when they’ve been in my system long enough that I get to that point, it takes them a long time to drain out after I stop. And every moment I’m still in that calm, relaxed, “Okay, I’m done with the world,” state which is EXTREMELY DANGEROUS. Also because I’m not stupid, I wouldn’t tell anyone. And because I’m already worried I’m going to run out of money and not be able to afford to survive, if I were to go on SSRIs now, I might not stop me.
Because I have no income, but I still have expenses. I live in the middle of nowhere and all I have are food stamps benefits. I have to have a car. I also have to pay for my psych meds because I can’t get Medicaid/Medicare/any USA health care benefits.
And no, I’m not going to go into why. There are lots of reasons why some people can’t get those benefits, and it’s frankly not my obligation to explain myself to everyone who demands and expects it, to share every personal detail of my life in order to ‘prove’ anything to anyone. I have precious little privacy as it is. Suffice to say I applied twice, got turned down for reasons I can’t do anything about, and after I applied the stupid fucking Medicaid/Medicare people were so incompetent that they fucked up my name in the Human Services file so now a name that is not mine and has never been mine is on my Food Stamps Benefits mailings and all my attempts to change it have failed. The employees at the Medicaid/Medicare eligibility office are not good at English and grossly incompetent at their jobs, making so many mistakes it gives me a headache, and the more I tried to sort them out the worse the mistakes got.
The point I’m circling back to now is that I thought if I could just scrub away all the bad words and anger and hate that got stuck in me, stuck like ingrown nails and hair because people would chastise me for feeling those things, for having these things happen and wanting and needing to talk about them—I thought if I could clean out those words and really scrub off the grime then underneath I would find the old beautiful places, the sinuous music and tones and syllables and stories and flow of feelings and images and places that used to dance. I would dream on the page, and be fully immersed in somewhere else.
These days it’s like I’m hung with marleys and marleys and marleys of chains, immured in this hell of Earth more with each passing expensive moment. Every moment more money draining away as I languish in limbo imposed by a system designed to care for the disabled but with vested financial interest in denying said benefits to those very disabled, and dragging out the process for enough years that the disabled in the worst shape with no one to care for or support them can and probably do often die.
So not only do I lose money every day I’m alive I am heaped with more words of stress and anger and anguish and bitching and moaning. Feeling helpless and captive and massive triggers for me, and there are no solutions that don’t offer a different kind of helplessness and captivity presided over by a friend who believes themselves to be benevolent enough to not interfere with me or make me feel in any way helpless or captive, but are completely unable to objectively assess how they will treat me once I am under their roof or wherever, and how they will gradually begin to treat me after that, as new rules crop up, new situations arrive, problems arise and their responses escalate out of proportion because they have nothing to lose and I have everything to lose.
And this cannot be conveyed to them because they have no visceral concept of the difference of power between us, nor how what they are doing and saying is changed by that dynamic in our relationship. They can’t see past their own emotions, and trying to get them to makes them even angrier, more defensive and scary-nasty. It is deeply unpleasant to be the one on the bottom having to continually remind the person at the top of their privilege and power, especially because of the response this provokes, the angry lashings-out that come from the shame this reminder invokes, and the resentment of the burden I feel having to tippy-toe around the feelings of the more powerful just to be treated with respect for my boundaries instead of dominated and violated just because I don’t have power and I resent that too.
No one wants to be captive, or have no choices. No one wants to be unable to leave. And no one who is in the other position can be relied on to never behave badly and realize they don’t stand to lose anything by it.
One of the worst things about being a victim of long-term abuse that begins before you even begin to start developing a sense of self and of others is that one winds up having one’s mind permanently stuck on concern and fear orbiting around others’ perceptions and intentions and erratic instability, and untrustworthiness when it comes to their presentation. One of the worst things about this is knowing how awful and paranoid and insane it sounds and feels, and that like thinking too much or scratching a rash or insect bite, it makes itself worse.
Yet at the same time floating through the world in a dissociated haze, my body keeps the score, my body remembers, and keeping my eyes closed makes me just as much a target for bad behavior as being obviously on guard for it. Being unspecific about what was done to me makes me sound completely paranoid, but at the same time, being explicit about what was done to me most often leads to complaints by others that I’m making them uncomfortable, or they skip straight to invalidating me in sociopathic total lack of empathy, the most common response. To which I say, it’s easy to say ‘that’s nothing’ if you’re not the one that was hurt. It doesn’t make the hurt go away, but it does make you an unfeeling asshole, and unfortunately in the majority when faced with a human in pain.
I want to express cathartically all the hurt and poison and pain and torture poured into me from birth that I was not owed and did not deserve and was not nothing. But I am insanely, angrily, frustratingly done with being invalidated by others. This was the appeal of art and story to me as a child, a way of telling the truth veiled in metaphor, in imagery, in code, in story. But now I have gotten to a point where the pain I have endured and am having to constantly endure on an ongoing basis is so screamingly intense I can’t code it. I can’t encrypt it. I have been surrounded by so many naysayers, and the curious thing about invalidation is that it does the opposite of what it’s intending to do: rather than shut sufferers up it makes them fester in silence, volcanoes waiting to explode, camels’ backs waiting for the last straw, all because someone just didn’t want to open their heart and listen, or even admit that the communication failure was their own.
I have done my fair share of dark things. I had a lot of teachers. To unsnarl the hideous tangle of nightmares of my life takes more strength and support than I have, and I fear I don’t have much time either. So even if they’ll never make sense I put words into lines and pour them out and hope they might lessen the painful pressure. Maybe someday sense will return. Or maybe not, and all this will just blow away with the rest of the internet’s nonsense. When specificity is grounds for attack and invalidation, is it any wonder I’m less than candid, even while it makes me sound like I’m jumping at shadows? When I fear what little I have being taken away for one wrong word, is it any wonder my words barely make sense at all?
This is a long one. Trigger warnings: I talk about cult and child abuse, sexual assault (mention only), abusive friendships, miscarriages, oppressed-identity-based violence, the Black Plague (yersinia pestis), the sneaky systemic ableism and victim-blaming engendered by the deliciousness of inspiration porn, giant naked mole rats, homelessness, addiction, being crushed to death as a metaphor, unconscious bias and taking responsibility instead of making excuses, and carrousels. I don’t know, maybe some people are freaked out by the painted horses with their wide huge teeth.
I. Well, Past Kassi, I could always say you didn’t know better, and that no one was harder on you than you, but it isn’t true. You were the child of abusers and of a cult. EVERYONE was harder on you than you. You simply did not have the postgraduate degrees and years of experience and amount of power and privilege and exhaustive breadth of culturally appropriated and New-Age-Borg-colonized and bastardized cultural practices to be as hard on yourself as the entire worldwide battalion of nutjobs that accrued around you like bacteria in a wound. I could say you were young and stupid and thought you knew everything, and you were a product of your upbringing and weren’t exposed to different, but you know you were, if only briefly. I could say that you learned to hold your nose and close your eyes and compromise in order to survive in the sewage that was what you had to endure, isolated from reality.
But I also now know that what builds resilience in the face of abuse is having just one reliable supportive adult, to love you, and I know as I was on my way to becoming me I sorely wanted someone I trusted who could actually explain to me specifically what the hell happened in my life and what made me this way and what the deal was.
Finding out hurts a lot. It makes sense to me that it’s so hard to, not just finding the information but sticking with the pursuit of it when it hurts and leaves me bereft and wondering if anything is or ever was real. Maybe a kid like you couldn’t have handled it, and definitely not all on your own in that cult. But again, I’m not going to make excuses for you. Too many people in your life, if they had a flag, it would just be a rectangular scrawled with a million excuses.
This that I’m writing isn’t everything. And it isn’t even really for you so much as for the you that’s still a part of me, and a way of saying the things I wish I’d been able to say to all the other people who hurt you and will hurt you over the years between you and me.
And for what they’re going to do to you, I at least am sorry. I’m sorry neither I nor anyone else could be there for you, to tell you that you’re okay and they’re mean, that no matter what they say you’re okay and they’re mean. I wish I could tell you that it’s all right here where I am, writing this letter to you, but it isn’t. And I don’t know if it ever will be. But I know more now than I did, and there are some things I want to write down, either to remember, or to purge out of me, so I can stop remembering so hard and so much. Or neither, and just leave a memorial.
II. Well, Dead Dad, you can’t hurt me anymore.
If I believed anything you hypnotized and brainwashed me into thinking anymore I’d believe that you had found a way to come back from the dead to possess first the Administrative Law Judge who stunned everyone helping my case through gross legal negligence and, as my lawyer put it, ‘played doctor’ to invalidate me and my therapists’ years of notes. I’d think that you’re currently possessing the President of the United States, because the way he talks and how he treats people reminds me frighteningly of you, especially if you’d had the money and privilege he’d had. He verbally presses like you in near-constant speechification at people, goes on long paranoiac rants, makes little sense, contradicts himself, and thinks he’s the greatest thing on earth.
III. Well, all the once-‘friends’ I left behind, some of you I dearly wish with all my heart and absent soul (which you violated and damaged) I had never met, some I knew far too long, some I made the mistake of forgiving even though you never changed your behavior, some I wish I’d never opened up to. What I hate most about all you did was you ruined my capacity to trust and love people who deserve more love and friendship and support from me so much more than you ever did or will.
You sucked me dry and it was never enough. You did some of the most horrible things to me, more horrible than even the worst intimate partner violence and even some of the sexual assaults I’ve suffered, because it went on and on and on and on and on and on in plain sight in every detail of how you treated me every single day I knew you whether I was there or not in all the things you did and said with other people, and I didn’t even get the decency of validation or support because it was ‘only’ friendship.
You found ways to trick my defenses, found my buttons and just pushed and held them down. You made me paranoid. You made me misanthropic and cynical. Before you I could get along with just about anyone. Now everyone I see is a potential threat, and the nicer they are to me, the more I see you, all of you, staring out of their eyes, calculating, beckoning me into their web of sin and blood hunger. I treated you the way I wanted to be treated, with love, attention, and respect; empathy, compassion, and humility. You treated me like a toilet, and the reward I got for putting up with your shit was more shit.
And with every breath, whether I complained or not, you condescendingly, patronizingly made sure I believed that the reason you did this was because I deserved it. You never insulted me, never called me any names. You didn’t have to. That was beneath you. Your schemes were so much grander, more satisfying and elaborate. Why lay down a snap-mousetrap when it was so much more creative and thrilling to create a Rube Goldberg machine to squash my will drawing all the friends and people around me into your schemes?
And yet I truly believe it was unpremeditated unconscious manslaughter. You did what felt good to you. What felt good to you was jokes at my expense, contempt, making me the whipping target of the group and laughing at my tears all the while saying, “It was only a joke!”
I finally see the joke. The joke is that you think it is a joke. The joke is that this feels fun and funny to you. The joke is that this is what gets you off in a particular friendship, and you are probably still that way to this day, and keep talking about all those friends who hauled off and ‘went crazy and threw a shoe at your car for no reason.’ The joke is that you don’t treat everyone this way, but you’re too busy thinking about you, you, you to ever notice or own your choices and their consequences. The joke is that you say you never get angry. In the same way the Eiffel Tower never gets to Paris.
When it comes to my writing, or any project or art or sharing of my ideas or talking, I find there is no practice, no development.
If I hold on to an idea too long it dies, like the real-life horror stories of Zahra Aboutalib of Casablanca, Morocco, and Huang Yijung of Huangjiaotan, China, who failed to give birth to their babies and just kept carrying dead fetuses in them for 49 and 27 years respectively. The bodies calcified into what are less than charmingly known as ‘stone babies’ in their mothers’ bodies, causing pain many decades later that eventually drove them to doctors armed with equipment to detect fetuses immured in maternal flesh, having never seen the living sun nor breathed oxygen.
If I try to share and develop an idea or something I’ve made it’s as though I’m carrying a fresh (and live) baby into the Center for Disease Control and ordering, “One of everything, please. Diseases, not vaccines.” The more public I am, the more it’s like I’m touring an undeveloped compromised immune system through the most hot, humid biochemical weapon factories and disease-ridden swamplands.
The internet, for example, reminds me of an issue of Neil Gaiman’s ‘Sandman’ depicting the era of the Black Plague, yersinia pestis in its oh-so-popular airborne variety, where doors of homes and buildings known to have someone with plague inside bore a brightly painted red ‘X’ on the outside (for the illiterate) and a proclamation in writing (for the not-illiterate) so that no one would go inside even to loot it for food or valuables lest they contract the plague and die. Infection and inevitable excruciating death wasn’t a possibility beyond that door; it was a certainty.
That is what the internet is for artists and survivors of trauma and oppression. It’s not a possibility, it’s a certainty. And the fewer allies and resources (or ‘people’) you have to help you deal with the plague of the human equivalent of Black Death, the more likely you are to be tracked down, cornered, and infected, or slashed to bits—to shift the metaphor to serial killers who know they can get away with it because they certainly have so far and know those whom no one will miss, be it killers of prostitutes, or abusers of the poor and homeless and disabled. And hell, it’s like that off the internet, too. The new person in the group. The homeless person. The disabled person. The obviously damaged and emotionally distressed person everyone will blame if someone hurts them and they get rightfully upset with the suddenly loudly innocent ‘victim’ of their anger.
When people of color or LGBTQIA+ people or Muslims or Jews or immigrants or Native American lands are assaulted and killed and drilled there’s an uprising, there are (and definitely should be!!) movements and hashtags and videos and assemblies and occupations. When the invisibly disabled and poor are assaulted and killed, our benefits cut—which is just as deadly to us but no one has to have blood on their hands and people can actually feel ennobled by their justifications about it, and actually have the frakking gall to tell each other and us this unconscionably-high-death-toll abuse is for our own good—there is a silence that is all the louder in comparison. It’s too big. It’s too ubiquitous and everyday an occurrence. Stepping over bodies in the street—dead or just sleeping? Everyone’s late for a meeting, talking on a mobile phone, minds on the fight with the significant other last night or the friend in hospital.
There’s this sort of fatalism about the suffering of the poor and disabled, ironically invisible because of our crushing, overwhelming numbers. There’s this defensive pointing at things being ostentatiously done for some of the visibly disabled, the pathetic and extremely specific breadcrumbs of programs that are specific to only one kind of disability, accessibility that only serves one particular kind of problem, and at that mostly only temporary and not global or 24/7 by any stretch of the imagination; opportunities and talks that only give amplification to the voice of someone everyone can see is disabled for show and tell.
Are we here to listen to them or stare at their wheelchairs and assistive equipment and bodies like a carnival sideshow disguised as an inspirational talk or moving commencement address and pretend we’re sophisticated and liberal and socially egalitarian? Using our applause of how they look and their story and their message of ‘disabled people can do anything abled people can!’ to make ourselves feel better about ourselves and our own challenges and feel like the problem of disability rests squarely on the shoulders of the disabled and is already dust-the-hands taken care of?
If it really is about the plight of the disabled then why is the vast majority of the severely disabled population (72-73%) not invited the vast majority of the time or included in plays and narratives and showcases about the disabled and our lives and stories and struggles and accomplishments? It seems like the real handicap resides in the eyes and ears and minds of the abled, as well as an inability or unwillingness to face their own limitations and biases. Because yeah, I get it, it’s uncomfortable and exhausting and frustrating to think that with so much work done to make concessions for the disabled, it’s not a drop in the bucket of what we need, and at any moment some disaster could befall you or a loved one and put you among our numbers and you would learn extremely rapidly just how true that is.
One can have as many disabled speakers as you like and still be practicing systemic socialized ableism if 100% of those speakers are visibly, obviously disabled. It’s contributing to the narrative that only disabilities that can be seen are valid, and that bias is so widespread that the invisibly disabled are harassed and assaulted and discriminated against and disallowed the accessibility we need by the population at large. It’s also, as my friend pointed out, promoting a very dangerous and oppressive narrative that the abled have no obligation to help the disabled, that all disabled people can just overcome their disabilities in order to become inspiration porn for abled people, and that any of the majority of us who don’t are failing not because of systemic unfairness and negligence and apathy and neglect by those with the privileges and resources to help us, but because we’re not trying forty times as hard as an abled person just to be functional and survive in the world.
Those inspirational talks turn disabled people into the some of the worst enemies of our struggle—it’s the equivalent of taking a slave of some sort (sex trafficking, child brides, cult members, the unjustly harshly imprisoned funneled there from an alarming one-strike-and-you’re-out school system, children in abusive or otherwise exploitive situations, people and especially immigrants and the impoverished stuck in exploitive jobs or relationships because they can’t go anywhere else, or the 45.8 million actual slaves worldwide: https://www.globalslaveryindex.org/ ) and having them give a talk about how their lack of freedom and self-determination never stopped them from having a full, rich, rewarding life and how much they love Big Brother and what a zip-a-dee-doo-dah day it is, hooray, clap and go home and feel noble and humble for having listened to this story and maybe once in a while complain less angrily when your coffee order is wrong.
My whole life I have watched all of us promoting and sharing and sanctioning and pay for inspirational talks by the disabled overcoming their disabilities to the exclusion of listening to any other story—and let’s face it, the world is rotten and life sucks so why wouldn’t we want to listen only to the uplifting ones, especially if we can’t personally rescue those in pain and complaining and put our discomfort and abled-guilt at hearing such stories to work doing something about it? I get it. Hell, I drank that Kool-aid too, even though I was deep in denial about my own disability and the pain I was living with because I had nothing to compare it with, so of course I blamed myself and felt like such a failure and waste of space that I should die.
Throughout history lots of other people have felt the same way about people too disabled to work, and the institutionalized disabled were the first mass killing by the Nazi Germans before they really started going to town rounding up and slaughtering undesirables. After all, why should the state be taking care of people who are essentially useless for building an empire and master race? Or the American Dream?
I understand why people only pay for and share and watch the talks about disabled people overcoming disability. But it’s victim-blaming in disguise, and letting people off the hook for feeling and being responsible through our choices for making the whole human race better, not just the bits that we like or that give us what we want. Humans aren’t vending machines. One’s worth is not and never should be a job, an earning capacity, what one is able to accomplish, value conferred externally by another person in a position of power to revoke it on an agreed-upon whim. Our worth as part of the human race should not be subject to obsolescence based on failures of the body, changing technology, or other external factors.
But, these talks aside, we have that narrative shoved into us since before birth, when people are trying to get their unborn zygotes into the right, and expensive, schools, to go to the best universities and get the best degrees and the highest-paying jobs and therefore have resources to have the best possible life, the most valuable life not just to others but for themselves. Paying more money for better degrees and better schools to get higher-paying jobs, suturing money and personal worth and value together in such a constant way that we don’t even ever notice or think or talk about it.
Americans don’t even notice that the first question we ask is almost always, “What do you do [for a living]?” I’ve been told that’s not the way in most of Europe, which I’d sure like, because I personally think it’s tacky. Some people hate their jobs, some have just been fired, some people can’t work, and it it’s a bad first question if you want to get to know someone. It is, on the sly, a good question if you’ve been trained to do it, and trained to seek out and associate mainly with people most similar to you, especially financially.
Basically, yes, I’m happy that disabled people triumphed over adversity, especially because it is so much harder for anyone disabled—that’s what disabled means, everything is harder. But the burden of doing that should not be entirely that of the disabled person, especially if they can’t do it (which many of us can’t, hence: disabled) and don’t have supporters. A lot of disabled people are abused by their carers, both privately and in institutions. We’re also abused and attacked a lot period, because disabled. This is the opposite of what needs to be happening, and disabled people talking about this and raising awareness isn’t showing up to balance out these decades of bootstrap-pulling speech-giving few.
Just as with the poor improving their circumstances and becoming fabulously successful (the ‘American Dream’), the disabled overcoming their disabilities is really rare. For every one you see far more of us are hidden from view because it’s taking all we’ve got just to try to survive.
Don’t let optimism and a desire to see the world as a just and fair place determine what you watch, hear, see about an issue you don’t personally have to deal with. I understand that culturally and socially and through media we have all gotten those same messages, and have gotten so addicted to optimism that we treat threats to it like a methamphetamine addict treats obstacles to their next fix.
And I’m saying to you right now: don’t do that. Remember what I am saying to you now the next time you catch yourself thinking what you’ve been raised and encouraged to think about what disability looks like and whether it’s scalable with enough pluck, and that braille books and a wheelchair ramp equals total accessibility for all disabled people and deserves abled people giving themselves a huge beaming pat on the back and golden award for being so thoughtful of the disabled.
Don’t get me wrong—leave the books and the ramp and YES, those are huge wins that the disabled and our advocates fought tooth and nail for. But it’s far from over, and complacency is our biggest enemy, complacency and rose-colored glasses and even an almost aggressive apathy when the real reality is glimpsed under the veneer of all our inspirational talks and self-congratulations for specific accessibility wins. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not expecting that anyone out there can fix everything. But the beginning of fixing things is taking your brain off autopilot and critically examining what you’ve been told and taught and shown. And then having conversations with other people, even if you don’t feel qualified or know much about disability. You can still ask questions. Like: “This speaker is inspiring and I feel inspired, but I wonder how many disabled people have been assaulted, hurt, killed, or died due to lack of what they need today, in my town, in this state/province, in this country, in the world. I wonder how many people do not have the option of overcoming their disability and need help and certain kinds of accessibility I take for granted, but can’t get their needs met.”
You don’t have to have the answers but don’t let anyone who doesn’t condescendingly, defensively, angrily, or patronizingly tell you that they do have all the answers. Ask more questions, because what they’re doing means that’s what they don’t want—closer examination of the whole picture. Even if they’re disabled, it doesn’t qualify them to speak for all disabilities and disabled people. They’re not representative of me, that’s for damn sure. Disabled people often can have even less in common with each other than any other two members of any oppressed group, not least because we can also belong to many other oppressed groups and there are more disabilities than you can possibly imagine.
Also, we’re not here to be ‘fixed’ with some idiotic miracle cure. This is another really harmful narrative, and one that people default to when they hear someone is disabled—trying to sell us on a ‘cure’ despite having known us only thirty seconds, not being a person who is treating us, not even being qualified to treat us, not knowing anything about our specific case and condition or the ‘cure’ they are proposing.
In short: disabled people try everything. We’re not stupid. If there was a cure, do you really think we’d go on holding on to something that endangers us and our survival and puts us through this conversation that was already old the first time I had it with a rich privileged asshole? Do you honestly think you know more about what I live with than I do? Do you think it’s appropriate to rearrange my life or dictate to me what to do after thirty seconds, you control freak who thinks of my disability like the hiccups? You insult my intelligence and my struggle and everything I have done living with disability. All because you have essentially a completely childish idiotic mindless idea that everything has a cure, or at the very least that disabled people aren’t giving their all because clearly if I was I’d be on stage giving speeches about how I overcame it.
What’s even more frustrating is this. For most people it’s as unconscious as asking ‘what do you do for a living?’, a knee-jerk response as automated as a telephone menu so as to sort me on a first meeting into how the other person will treat me. They won’t understand that I’m upset because I have had this stupid, insulting exchange thousands of times, and I still have never found a way of stopping it in its tracks, and every time I’m angrier that I have to go through this and not punch someone in the face, and then put up with this bewildered, frantic injured innocence when I’m upset that some abled person is telling me what to do as a disabled person. In addition to not knowing about my disability or being part of my treatment team, they don’t know what limitations I have, and one of them is not punching them in the face right now because I hate the world so much I want human life to just get wiped out and Earth to start over again with some other species, like naked mole rats or elephants or bees. Or maybe naked mole rat elephant bees: HUGE testicle-looking rats roaming the savannah in their swarms, pulling up trees by the roots with their tusk-teeth, serving their queen, pollinating flowers and making delicious amber-colored honey in honeycombs so huge they look like Tokyo apartment buildings.
I AM LOSING WHAT IS LEFT OF MY MIND.
I’m sort of okay with that, my brain hurts a lot.
Also, by over-serving and promoting a particular picture of disability as always and only something you can physically see, not only are we leaving out a lot of people, we’re actually putting them in danger, if they are getting threatened and harassed by strangers for using their valid handicapped parking placards (which happens UNBELIEVABLY often, especially if said handicapped person is a woman alone; the two factors increase her chances of harassment and harm exponentially to the max; I can only imagine that not being white would mean white assigned-male-at-birth guys would just come up and remove her kidneys right there in front of Wal-Mart).
[LENGTHY ASIDE] There’s a similar problem with our collectively promoted narrative of homelessness, and how we see and talk about homelessness and especially the only way the privileged ever interact with the homeless. This includes conflating homelessness with not having shelter. Historically and currently, a lot of homeless people congregate in shantytowns like the Hoovervilles made of discarded or stolen building materials of the Great Depression—and there was even one in Central Park!—and the tent towns of today that move around frequently to avoid the police and hold one another to codes of behavior to protect themselves and each other.
It’s also common and horrible to judge and deride someone who’s claiming homelessness who does have shelter, but very poor shelter that is unhealthy and importantly not theirs, and has no income but has expenses, and might be evicted without warning at any time or in some cases abused or taken advantage of or have other bad things happen to them because they have nowhere better, nowhere else to go.
There’s fear inherent in that that can’t be understood if you don’t live with it every day. It wears out your adrenals, your body, your capacity to withstand ordinary stressors, your will to live, your belief in anything, your capacity to thrive, your sense of your own worth and value, which is reinforced when privileged people treat you to unsolicited advice as if you’re not working hard enough. When nothing you do will end the fear and struggle for your survival it slowly eats away at you like a cancer and you, too, have been infected all along with the belief that if you’re poor, disabled, homeless, it’s because you’re not trying hard enough, and rare success stories get so much circulation and visibility that it pushes into you that you’re just not good enough and it’s your fault you’re suffering and afraid and unsafe.
Homeless shelters often have time limits, no privacy, very little room for belongings, inept and rude staff, and widespread theft, assault, and even the occasional murder. People who recommend homeless shelters never even think about what it would be like to live in a homeless shelter, know nothing about them, have never been to one or known anyone who has lived in one or even heard one being described before recommending it. That’s what really pisses me off. It’s like recommending eating a mushroom that you’ve only ever heard of, have never tried, never heard of anyone trying, never physically seen, and know nothing about other than the name and the fact that it’s a mushroom and people often eat mushrooms, so it’s right there in the name.
You are not a woodland guide qualified to advise people what mushrooms to eat, and you are not qualified to advise homeless people to go to shelters, nor addicts to go to 12-Step programs just because you’ve heard of them. Advice is like cooking (and mushrooms). Try it before giving it to others. Incidentally before you try it you should find out what’s in it first. And find out if the person you’re trying to feed is allergic to it, because as with food (and mushrooms), not everything is good for everyone.
Alcoholics Anonymous is only 5-15% effective (if total abstinence is the goal) for the 40% of alcoholics who actually wind up going. However AA has the advantage of being an extremely well-promoted cult—I mean, business—with government subsidization since you can be court-ordered into the program. It is not the only program out there for addiction recovery by any means but it’s the only one that has so much overwhelming power and press and so many evangelical converts dominating the conversation in popular culture and angrily shutting down any possibility of education about the program’s (many) flaws and failings, a more nuanced view of addiction and recovery that provides options for people for whom AA is not a miracle or even desirable cure, and actual good solid behavioral science and allowance for the differences in human psyches in pain for once.
Also, Housing First actually hit on the radical idea that rather than requiring homeless people to get sober before giving them housing, giving homeless people housing tends to lower alcohol and drug intake across the board. Shocker, I know, but people use chemicals to kill the pain of unimaginable stress, trauma, and danger when they have no other option. I hate pompous self-satisfied privileged people who see addiction as the CAUSE of all a person’s problems when sometimes it’s actually a symptom of problems that have proved to be beyond the person’s capacity to change or cope with in any way.
Homeless people who are drinking to deal with the unimaginable pain and humiliations of homelessness—as well as total lack of safety or certainty of not being mugged and raped and murdered every night—are not one sobriety away from turning a whole suffering life around, idiot privileged people. We don’t take the insulin away from the insulin-dependent diabetic so they’ll pull themselves up by their bootstraps. We don’t take the dialysis away from those in kidney failure and tell their kidneys that they’re lazy and it’s time to stop mooching off the state. Because that’s essentially murder, and I think one can get tried for murder if one does that. But if one takes away housing or benefits from the homeless and disabled and they die, one doesn’t.
Because first of all people don’t care, second of all it’s never considered a wrongful death or an upsetting loss of a valuable life (because a person can be human but not ‘valuable’), and third of all we persist in believing that the person who died more or less ‘let’ it happen and is actually the one at fault for not trying harder. Imagine if you were crushed to death in a garbage compactor someone had tossed you into because you weren’t considered worth keeping, and the people who tossed you in went off to a bar afterward, laughed, drank beers, went home, maybe had sex like bunnies, and slept like babies without a care in the world. Meanwhile your mangled corpse was fished out and your surviving relatives, harassed by the chore, decided what to do with your remains. The coroner noted on your death certificate that one of your causes of death was ‘didn’t try hard enough to fight back against compactor machinery.’ Meanwhile, back at the ranch, someone in work gloves is spraying out the inside of the compactor. No one ever has to have blood on their hands.
Thus the wheel turns, the undesirables are killed by systems and not people who are so far removed from the consequences of their choices they might as well be on a pleasure dome on the moon, everyone sleeps the sleep of either the well-paid or the dead dust. The problems solved themselves. No more homeless, disabled, and addicts cluttering up life with their fussing and complaining and needs and our irritatingly pointless life in which we did not provide for our abled cousins a single motivational talk about overcoming all our hardships to make abled people feel awesome about themselves and work harder to achieve their own dreams without another single thought for us and ours.
Poisons were poured into the undesirables and those without worth to those in charge, the worthless suffered, and we purged them as proxies for our sins, and the dahlias are coming up a treat with the new bonemeal in the raised beds by the children’s new swing set.
“Addictions are tragic expressions of unmet needs” is one of my favorite quotes from a book called ‘Over the Influence,’ a kind of sourcebook of information on addiction and recovery that’s approachable regardless of whether one wants to recover, is recovering, has recovered, doesn’t want to recover, is a layperson or friend or therapist or interested person.
It does have at least one wrong piece of information in it I happened to know more about than the authors, about Olney’s lesions being a side effect of prolonged nitrous oxide abuse—a very common misconception due to poor conclusions at the end of a scientific paper on an entirely different substance tested on lab rats, remarks were later retracted by the same scientist but unfortunately by this time, kind of like the misconceptions about lemmings, the morbidity and shock value of the statement had lodged in the minds and books and papers of others and is now taken as a fact even though it was never in any way proven and I and my old MRIs from before I lost my health insurance are living proof it’s wrong, wrong, wrong. However, even though other facts in the book may also be wrong, there are several things in it that were helpful and new to me that did give me access to resources and information I followed up on that helped me far more than any AA bullshit ever did for me or my family. AA actually harmed my family a GREAT deal but that’s another story for another time.
‘Over the Influence’ introduced to me the concepts of harm reduction, which work quite realistically on the actual ways by which humans change their behavior and also learn to scale rock walls—gradually, learning new ways of movement, learning how to be safe, starting where you are and going from there, progressing at a reasonable pace, allowing for falls and starting over, training your muscles and instincts and wearing new grooves and patterns of behavior to do something you haven’t been doing in order to reach the top alive.
…Where you will then have a sword battle with Inigo Montoya, but it’s okay, because if you make it there, you’ll definitely win. The plot demands it. Just spare his life so he can help you storm the castle later. [/END ASIDE]
None of this is news. Just as with child abuse it happens so constantly and silently we don’t see it or hear it anymore, too caught up in those identities that we think people can’t help being and are entitled to claim. There’s some part of us that’s infused every day with the idea that poverty and disability are shameful, are signs of weakness, can be overcome and worked around, or that family members should take care of their relatives, and that the poor and disabled should submit to this basic form of captivity, this relationship within which we have no freedom and never fails to include some form of abuse of power and which victimizes us at some point because we have nowhere to go.
It’s a relationship that devalues not just us but all of us, that says that if we are defective we must rely on the charity of others, an unreliable and dangerous prospect at best. Because these, contrary to all popular belief, are not unilaterally states of failure or of choice. Who would choose to live this way? It makes animals of us, so desperate to survive we do unspeakable things. These are states any person could and maybe eventually will experience, and should never be viewed as weaknesses or grounds to treat us as lesser. You never have to consciously think these words or any like them and can in fact believe that you consciously think all people are equal while still unthinkingly treating person as if they are less than you, to physically grasp them and move their body as if it is your right to do so, to talk down to them, to speak differently to them, to disinclude them, to listen to your own ideas instead of what they tell you, to defend yourself with phrases like ‘just kidding’ when you upset them or say ‘I’m sorry’ without actually amending your behavior or taking responsibility for the consequences.
We rarely, rarely consciously consider how we treat others or the differences between how we treat person A and person B. We’re too busy thinking about how others treat us. Also like with walking we learned how to relate to others so long ago that it’s something that happens without thinking. That means how we treat others falls under the control of our autopilot unconscious, which calls on some alarming sources and prejudices we’re not even aware we have, usually things we picked up while we were still young and impressionable and forming our relational styles.
We find ourselves irritated and giving advice we have no personal knowledge or experience of without conscious thought. And when called out for this we get even more defensive, self-involved, more reactive, and treat others even worse. We become the worst versions of ourselves when confronted with the consequences of what we do and say, and the information that we are not living by the values we consciously try to believe in, that we do not treat others equally or as our own equal.
Here’s the thing: you can’t. You can’t ever. Because you can’t ever know anyone as well as you know yourself. The best thing you can do is be humble because you know where all your bodies are buried, which of your closets have skeletons, which of your bats have belfries, and which of your jokers are short of a deck. The best you can do is notice when you’re getting angrily defensive and insecure and say to yourself, “Pooh, you are a bear of very little brain. Get over yourself and remember that time you rolled in black mud, floated up a tree with a blue party balloon, and sang ‘Paint it Black’ trying to trick some bees so you could steal some honey before they stung you because it turned out they liked Nirvana instead.”
This doesn’t mean be a gullible idiot. There is such a thing as idiot humility, just as there is idiot compassion and idiot empathy. Have eyes-open humility, and not humility that is done for show or shame. Have eyes-open compassion for those that deserve it. Eyes-open empathy likewise. And this includes you—earn your own compassion and empathy by striving, and accepting that you will make mistakes—but learning from them and aiming to do better next time.
Accepting that you will make mistakes doesn’t mean never growing from them, or insisting others always pardon them and getting pissed if they don’t, and then projecting your shame as a guilt-trip onto them. You earn forgiveness from them if you have wronged them by making amends and importantly NEVER AGAIN DOING THE THING THAT HURT THEM IN THE FIRST PLACE (because you can apologize or you can keep doing the behavior, but not both), but you aren’t guaranteed or owed or entitled to forgiveness and can’t manipulate it out of them.
That is the price of harming others. You don’t get to Jedi-handwave it away, any more than you can do it with the basic laws of physics. Look, I’ve been meaning to chat to you about this, just the two of us, so we don’t have to have an intervention, those things are emotionally violent. You need to know you’re not a Jedi. This is important. Please stop acting like one in your relationships to everyone and everything and get off your fluffy duff.
It’s time for taking responsibility for the consequences of your choices, regardless of your intentions, and that includes the times you’ve chosen to do nothing, to freeze because you were afraid of consequences and thought saying and doing nothing would get you off the hook, but bad things happened as a result of this choice.
You are a human (again: not a Jedi human, just a human human, this explains why you can’t move boxes around with your mind while you’re in a handstand and for the final time NO that is not a real lightsaber, it’s plastic and has a little chip inside that makes swooshy noises). You’re built with that marvelous capacity for taking responsibility and learning and growing and adapting and for some reason it’s not happening. It’s okay, we have all been there, we all do it, but when it goes on too long irresponsibility, empty apologies and excuses become an addiction and you can no longer learn from your mistakes and wind up making the same ones repeatedly and not even realizing that that wall will still be there every time you walk into it so stop getting mad at the wall and shift your trajectory.
You need to practice your responsibility-taking and learning from whoopsies while you still can. It’s more important than any muscle you’ll ever build in a gym, than any joke you’ll ever learn, than any other trait you’ll ever develop, because all good traits stem from taking responsibility for yourself—learning, compassion, humility, empathy, integrity, respect, critical thinking, cooking crêpes.
By the double-decker carrousel.
Where you can see the sun set.
Through the iron girders of the Eiffel Tower.
Bonsoir, gay Paris.
…No, that’s still not a lightsaber.
…All right, you can play for one more hour, and then it’s time to start your ‘Adult Human’ training again, okay? I know it’s not as glamorous as ‘Jedi’ right now. But you get better friends who won’t steal your action figures and sell them on eBay. Did you bring the other plastic sword… I mean, ‘lightsaber’? Oh good. Let’s do this!!
We protect many perpetrators and people who turn state’s evidence and testify, and even some domestic violence survivors. Why not rape survivors? Why not child abuse survivors? Why not victims who have to testify in court? Why not withhold their names from the press? So many perpetrators’ identities are kept anonymous to protect them, but not their targets, and this opens them up to revictimization and harassment in this culture.
Maybe there is more support out there, but I know for me personally when I start to speak up, I get a great deal of hate, much more than support, and the support is not substantial enough to help me feel safe and supported, no matter how much people care about me. And this is the problem. The haters and hate are more intense, wounding, overwhelming, and achieve the desired objectives—making the attacker feel strong and satisfied and shutting up the target.
This is the reality we need to come to grips with and start talking about solutions. Ways to steal that power, ways to publicly humiliate and ostracize attackers with overwhelming numbers and provide them with real consequences for what they do—since as insensitive and irrational as they are trying to talk out differences only feeds into them being the ones with the power and has no impact. Anyone who’s ever been on the receiving end or watched incredulously naïve stupid mediators underestimate the bully mindset knows this.
This is not about equal sides, because they are not equal. Survivors expressing their truth in public are not personally attacking the people who in response personally go after them. The issue is about protecting vulnerable and wounded people from secondary attackers, and acknowledging and validating the real damage of silencing those who need to speak and allowing bullies and abusers to control how we have these conversations, and how survivors wind up viewing the whole world as threatening because of the overwhelming and targeted hostile responses of such people. The issue is acknowledging there’s a problem, and not giving up just because it’s overwhelming, or saying ‘the internet will be the internet’ in the same way one used to say ‘boys will be boys’ to excuse borderline sociopathic behavior. People have been bullied into suicide through the medium of the internet when the overactive and overwhelming voices of hate are never checked and are in no way balanced by people standing up to and calling out that behavior and providing loving, supportive counterpoints.
And for artists? No wonder so many of them use pseudonyms. Social justice workers, same deal. We’re making work that disturbs the comfortable and comforts the disturbed and we’re frequently targeted for a lot of harassment and heckling and threatening and abuse from powerful and/or envious people.
I want protection for survivors and artists. I want it in realtime and in the private sector and in the press and in communities that should self-police and hold each other accountable, you Crucibles and witchhunts and schools with online bullying body counts. You are culpable when you stand by and do nothing. I want protection happening when and where incidents happen. I want people to be aware of these things, and when confrontations happen to not do nothing therefore being complicit in allowing evil to flourish unchecked, which evil then becomes more emboldened in finding no consequences to hate speech and action against certain targets. We need extreme, even graphic bystander de-training to shove right in the faces of the frozen the grisly consequences of silent complicity. This I say having survived my childhood ONLY by being frozen in place and making not a sound, moving not a muscle—when one is an adult, this is no longer excusable for reasons of survival. I may die in this hellhole in the woods but I will die with more integrity than someone who has unconsciously socially agreed to stand by and do nothing while cruelty is done. I stand by that choice to die rather than be a bystander.
How do you disentrain a bystander from their normal deer-headlight herd response? Their normal ‘freeze and then you won’t become a target too’ response to attacks, or ‘side with the more powerful or privileged or senior-belonging or calm party’ complex unconscious calculation people are so well-equipped to do in a split-second assessment? The one that said powerful parties are so good at gaming, loudly but not angrily, to conscript a roomful or entire social group full of and army of inadvertent conflict-phobic allies who will focus on uniting and silencing the weaker, upset, injured, wronged party?
And then feel self-satisfied, self-righteous, and like virtuous peacemakers doing so while their targets feel attacked on all sides and lie like hell just to get away from this secondary and more horrifying back-stabbing attack from the mindless easily bully-manipulated mob as they are retreating. So while these ‘peacemakers’ are bathing in the glow of their egos, the ostracized target is left even more angrily resenting them and knowing that this person has the emotional intelligence and empathy of a vulture. Which is why they let giant vicious merciless cats and sharks hang with them.
And we absolutely need to come to grips with the fact that people who bully and abuse and harass and threaten aren’t just good people at heart whose actions are misunderstandings. We need to stop letting them steer the conversation and make it about their intentions (which can’t be proved), their pain, their past, anything to dodge the reality of what they did and its consequences. We need to let go of wanting to believe the best of everyone, and let go of trying to make the argument about the content of the character and focus on what was done and the impact it has.
And, sadly, this includes people who chose to stand by and do and say nothing, accessories after the fact who did not live the values they came up in private afterward to profess to me. I get angry: I was out there in public getting harmed and you said and did nothing, and what do you want from me now, a cookie? A pat on the head? I appreciate your message of support, but it would have actually meant something and been real actual support if you had made it public so everyone else could hear too, and maybe even break through the headlight-hypnosis of others so they would join in. I know it’s scary to speak up in public when there are rabid hecklers who might turn on you too, but not half as scary as it is being me being out there as their sole focus, it means I proportionally get ALL the hate. I am tired of the secretive ‘yeah, I support you.’ If you support me, support me where other people can see and hear and read your words, don’t do it in such a cowardly way that I can tell is you making yourself feel better and wanting praise from me without actually risking becoming a target as well, and letting me take all the heat.
This has definitely been prompted by my disastrous vlog experiences. I suppose I never really expect to be alive next month, year, whatever, and so make poor long-term choices. I was inspired by long-running social justice bloggers, but they have solid fan bases and, importantly, support groups and they have income and futures. They’re not struggling just to survive, and hate speech against them triggers real responses from their fans.
I also always underestimate the number and intense motivation and pleasure of abusive people wandering around out there looking for a target, any target, the less powerful the better, and how many targets they can abuse in a day when they’re such miserably mean people they have no friends or family to take away time from their hobby of being complete and utter dicks to the most vulnerable and unprotected of the population because of the thrill of lack of consequences. And targeting the mentally ill and disabled is like shooting fish in a barrel and it’s as old as the first time an ape picked up a rock and hit an ape with tiger injuries with it, and then fled faster than the injured one could pursue.
I cry angrily whenever I see in a movie or TV some daughter’s father threatening her date or beating up or intimidating someone who hurt his little girl. I wanted that. I got the opposite.
In the animal kingdom mother animals will stand up to much larger animals to protect their young, suicidally put themselves in the path of gigantic predators without so much as a thought for their personal safety. Only human mothers can rationalize to themselves and justify not only allowing a known abuser or predator unfettered access to their child, but actually wind him up and throw the child under the bus just to get a break from the abuse herself.
Real friendship isn’t being there in the good times, it’s being there in the bad. And it isn’t talking people out of their anger or rationalizing the behavior of people who hurt them, or making over-the-top empty offers to go kneecap someone with a metal bat that are never actually meant (this actually just pisses me off more and highlights the actual cowardice in the lack of even an attempt at follow-through, or even just confronting someone who hurt your friend and telling them off, which is worth more than all the fake offers of physical violence in the world but clearly isn’t offered because they don’t want to be held to it). Real friendship is going to the mats for someone. It’s having someone’s back, standing up to someone who’s hurting a person you care about, risking your own actual self, making it clear through your actions that you value your friend enough to back them up against those who would hurt them.
It would have been nice if my parents would have protected me from people who would hurt me instead of being people who hurt me and exposing me to people who hurt me more, if they’d made sure I knew from day one I was worth protecting rather than a lumpy pet meant to emotionally parent them and provide an outlet for anger who could not fight back. But this would have required them to protect me from themselves, to value me enough not to hurt me themselves, have some self control even if not self-awareness and willingness to admit to themselves the impact of what they were doing to me over the massive mountains of self-delusion, pre-emptive defensive denial, and shame that I was bombarded and brainwashed with until I believed abuse was love of the ‘tough’ variety and not extremely vulgar selfishness.
It would have been nice if I’d had friends who didn’t think that my anger and grief and pain were terrible sins and threatening crimes, and bad things about me necessitated the sort of panicked over-response usually associated with someone catching fire. It would have been nice if I’d had friends who would have taken my side when people repeatedly and grossly hurt me, and stood up for me and didn’t leave me in the lurch every time things went bad, or turn into instant bystanders or accomplices as I was hurt in front of them. It would have been nice to have had friends who actually had backbone and courage and could model that for me, rather than being selfish and abusive themselves, friends who valued me enough to actually risk and invest in the friendship the way I did for them.
These are the people I am glad I left behind, although in their wake I am mistrustful and tend to withdraw from others, even those handful who have been nothing but the soul of kindness and validation and patience from the corners of the earth.
I did have one loving friend in amongst all the abuse, who taught me what it actually feels like to be loved. He’s dead now.
These days I’ve been hurt and used and dropped and disappointed and betrayed so much now I’m unsure of anyone and anything. There are people I love and feel loved by. I am saddened that there is a part of me with one foot instinctively poised to flee, a gift from those who left their marks on me. I know too well that life happens, shit happens, and it’s been riveted into me not to count on or take things for granted when it comes to other people. It never feels safe to. Not because they’re not a very rarified type of wonderful it is my great honor to know, it’s no reflection on them or anything they’ve ever said or done—it is the scars that run all the way through me, the cracked and straining shell that wraps all the way around me.
These things don’t protect me, though. I’m painfully aware nothing does, as if I always have fresh second-degree burns all over my body and a blinking target on every part of me visible to people with aggression and anger and dominance and bullying prowling for an outlet, visible in the way I move, the way my eyes dart, the way I sit with my back to the wall, the way I hurry from car to door and my eye contact is of the ‘I see you’ brief sort while my fists clench just in case this is the one moment that person snaps. Every stranger is a loaded, cocked gun with the safety off, concealed as a ‘normal’ quiet human right up until they fire, and suddenly I am facing a monster and all the other quiet humans are hurrying in all other directions. This is not my first time at this dance, and it’s always there beyond my door, no matter what the gathering or community or situation.
There are unexploded humans everywhere, and I am alone, no backup. I know the justice system is not just and predators have lifetimes of practice at charm and lying to authority and reversing victim and offender, especially if I have been made obviously upset and triggered by the attack and the other person appears totally calm because inside they’re singing with duping delight glee. I know if I am physically harmed no matter what hospitals assure me they will come after me to clean out my bank account and end my life for the price of saving it. This isn’t fantasy, this is reality, things I’ve seen happening or had happen to me, realities people who don’t have to live as I do want to insist aren’t true—but they are. It’s not just or fair. It is how life is for me and those like me and even worse for many others.
I’m a survivor. I once made art. Not only was there not protection for me and what I loved most of my life, nor demonstrations or mentions of the idea that I was worth protecting and fighting for, I never learned any skills or filters that would help me in later life to develop self-protection, other than hermiting away and being bitterly mistrustful. These are not happy nor successful forms of self-protection, only at shutting out life. But when I take them down and go out is when really bad things happen, and I can’t take any more bad things. After everything, after being broken so much, I’m too brittle and fragile to withstand one straw more.
“I’ll stand in front of you, I’ll take the force of the blow; protection.” —‘Protection’ by Massive Attack with Tracey Thorn
I feel viscerally different, damaged, ostracized, apart, and have all my life. Every time I was damaged and set apart, and every time I failed to relate, failed to make a connection, failed to relate and connect with others. I think what frustrates me so much is that with all the words I learn and write and say I run into the defenses, denials, delusions, and unwillingness to listen on the part of others. I put my faith all my life in the idea that if I read enough, learned enough, spoke enough, used enough words, or the right words, I would get through to people on a visceral level and be able to convey the feeling, the experience, and be understood.
There’s a quote I love, along the lines that being alone is not the absence of people but the absence of understanding, from a 17-year-old girl identified only as ‘Clara’ in Phyllis Chesler’s book ‘Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman.’ It really stuck with me. Because periodically I will descend into utter silence after I feel betrayed by the words I have dedicated my life to, in the hopes of getting through to people on the most important and vital things. I feel like I have failed or my words have failed, or I used too many or the wrong ones or I will never know the right ones or be succinct or persuasive enough. At some point I realized everyone has different ‘blocks,’ and there will never be a magic key that unlocks understanding for everyone. That it’s an eternal never-ending struggle, and one I may never win.
Then I think sometimes that the only people I may reach are those who have been through some of what I’ve been through, those who are where I was, and those are the most important ones, the ones on the brink of giving up, and those are the only ones that really matter. The ones with battle scars that show or don’t. I think of the end of one of the Avengers movies with all the superheroes lying or lounging in the shwarma restaurant, who can’t really relate to anyone other than each other, but don’t really need the words because hey, they were all there. Drama of shared experience. For me, no one was there with me, by my side, fighting the good fight, loving the good love. I have lived behind walls that have made me alone and striven for peace which I never have known.
I realize I can’t waste my time standing in the street yelling at people who won’t ever get it (although sometimes I still do!), when the real people I need to be thinking of are the ones who might become Avengers if they could hear me. I might never be a superhero, but I could lift others up out of the ashes of my rubble. If that’s what I can do, maybe that’s a way to forge some meaning out of basically the shit sandwich life handed me, and the painful process of trying to write about it and what I learned and found out and interpreted. And for those who have been knocked out of the sky and left bleeding alone on the ground, wondering if they would survive and never even dreaming of being normal again, let alone a superhero, they could interpret and take what was important to them and blow the rest of grains from their hands.
That would be enough. Someone did that for me, and I’m not a superhero, but I survived a bad moment, and another, and another. I survived many horrible things, because of things others wrote down after they came through, leaving little pebbles in a trail out behind them, to let me know I am not the only one to have been forced onto this dark path, and that someone made it out.
Even if I don’t, maybe someone will make it far enough to get out for good, using some of what I passed on, and what others who came before wrote about surviving. For now I think I’m going to try doing some blog posts again. I need an outlet. I have a lot to say, and need to stop shouting it at people who don’t want to hear, to stop worrying about what others want to hear, and think more about what I want to say. And let the audience take care of itself, people choosing to read it or don’t as they like.
Maybe it won’t always make sense. Still I am wearied by the weight of unsaid and unwritten words. I’m trying this for a bit now.
I feel I should have added to yesterday’s post that it started as a video, and also that I’m not in a good place right now (though I’m pretty sure that much was obvious).
I need an outlet, but I need a safe outlet, and one that doesn’t require a lot of effort and risk on my part. I’ve always needed more safe outlets than I’ve had, and often mistaken unsafe outlets for safe ones. There’s always been too much stress and pain, not enough support, and it’s taken its toll big-time. As resources evaporate and stresses pile up I find myself going downhill quickly physically and psychologically and every year unable to do alarmingly much less than the year before.
This place is really getting to me. I think my brain is molding and my heart is shriveling like a mummified raisin.
This is what it’s like when catastrophic cascades of disasters hit a person, and betrayals are de rigueur. It’s so much more than one person can bear, and much more than anyone can fix, either. In a first-world country, even with smart, resourceful people who know what they’re dealing with putting their heads together and doing everything they can, a life can slip through the cracks. The people who are supposed to care don’t; the systems that are supposed to work don’t; things aren’t what they appear to be; individuals with too much power wield it ineptly; loopholes become black holes.
With trauma as my lifelong companion I have never had a concept of a future for myself, but I don’t remember the last time I have despaired so deeply. I am doing all I can to hang on, availing myself of every resource available to me, but the bottom line is, it costs money to survive. I have lived for three and a half years with no income but what I scrounge from selling what little possessions I can do without that I still have. With all the experts who deal with people in my situation we have investigated every possible option to help sustain and support me and come up with bupkis.
People are in the majority profoundly unsympathetic if not openly hostile and eugenic toward a person who cannot earn a living. It’s so ingrained in us that not only are our lives largely defined by the job we spend most of our waking hours doing, but our worth as human beings and right to live is defined that way as well—what other people will pay for us. Our value is not intrinsic. It is determined by the capricious and mysterious Market.
In the end, as someone once said, we are for sale; now it’s just haggling over the price. What are you worth, really? If your job, wealth, possessions, were stripped from you, if your skills rendered obsolete by technology or your ability to work destroyed by illness or injury, would you be a worthless bag of mostly water?
When we talk about a human being’s worth, where do we draw the line? If some have no worth and therefore are not entitled to life, are there tiers of greater worth entitled to better life? What of those with borderline worth—are they entitled to a lesser quality of life, or can that life be threatened or revoked if they fall below a certain threshhold or as punishment for ‘bad’ behavior?
Or is this already happening? And is that a stupidly obvious question with a stupidly obvious answer?
Like I said, despair is running high ’round here these days.
I can’t do a proper update about what’s happening with regards to my life or SSDI right now. It’s not good and fills me with near-constant panic even without discussion of it. As nonfunctional as I was before it’s worse now, for several reasons. I’m doing everything I can to find a way to survive and that’s all I can.
I have a desperate sense of running out of time. I also realize that I’m not the right sort of person for this time and place, and not just because I’m more nuts than a baklava factory. I’m long-winded and I’ve spent so much time alone I’m aware I may be too idiosyncratic a lot of the time to make sense to anyone other than myself. This is because I’ve been hurt way too much too often, and many times in rapid strings of traumatic events by entire communities that have driven me deep into myself in self-defense and touchier than a porcupine on PCP.
It boils down to this. Through repeated disastrous experience I have learned I can’t work or live with other people. I still want to try to convey what doesn’t make sense to so many other people who haven’t been through what I’ve been through, even though it may be impossible unless you’ve been through what I have. The imaginary device I most wish that had been invented is the Point of View gun from the movie version of ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ because I think empathy is seriously on the wane as the human race expands and so do our monkeyspheres and our resources deplete and many get squeezed right out. For a while I thought the replicator would be the best thing to be invented until I realized people could use it to make things to hurt other people as easily as food, medicine, and vaccines. Personal opinion alert, though.
I have a theory that’s spongy and malleable, that there is a certain amount of shit up with which individuals can put over the course of their lifetime. This varies depending on the person, the resilience they gain in their developmental years, what resources they have for the upwith of putting throughout their life, and of course the amount of shit they are already withupputting. I feel I reached that point at least seven years ago. The increasing frequency and intensity of shit-up-with-putting is making me desperate and jagged and see an ever-foreshortened future and therefore muster less caring of the consequences of saying what’s on my mind. Plus that sense of running out of time. You’ve been forewarned.
I’m hardly by any stretch of imagination the holder of the most abrasive opinions out there but you are free to click away at any time and if you don’t and take offense, on your head be it. That is a self-inflicted wound and I have zero sympathy for any self-righteous sense you have to crusade or retaliate against me. Because, hey, you clicked it, you read/watched it, and then on top of that you invested time in responding meanly and unnecessarily because it’s not like this makes a damn bit of difference. Obviously you are doing so because it meets some secret nasty bullying need you won’t admit even to yourself to kick people on the ground. I am, as HRH Beyoncé Knowles would say, not sorry. Not one jot.
Right here I have the capacity to shut up people I don’t want to listen to without forcing them to listen to me in the way of verbal pressing my abusive father and others would do to those around them. I’m not forcing what I say on you. This is an outlet for me, and if you want to listen, hey, awesome, but if not, I have still done what I came here to do. All the shit I have listened to from other people, which I have had poisoning my insides and twisting me up, and I finally get a say. If you want a say make your own videos or blogs, or stand on a streetcorner and yell, and deal with the consequences. This speaker’s corner is mine. My silence serves no one and it also destroys me. I’m done with that.
Captivity is My #1 Trigger
Here’s something I have difficulty explaining to others. When I'm forced into repeated prolonged contact with other humans, apparently regardless of character, over which I have no control, I become suicidal in about a month, and start self-destructive behaviors almost right away. Like some captive animals can go psychotic and run around in figure eights for no reason. This doesn’t apply to art and social change events, for those of you who know what I’m talking about—those are voluntary things I choose and am occasionally privileged to be given stipends to attend, but am still limited in my participation by my disabilities and at which I have felt threatened more than once because of my lack of privilege and choices.
But all the standard treatments and ‘care’ for people with psychological problems are—guess what? Prolonged repeated contact with other humans over which I have no control, often where they have a lot of control over where I am when, what I do, what I eat and what goes into my body, when I sleep, who I’m with, what I do. Captivity. Plus they’re too expensive for me to afford and things that Social Security expects me to furnish to prove I’m crazy, which by nature of my particular crazy as well as not having money (being too disabled to work) I really can’t. Face to face encounters and particularly conversations are triggering, And any situation where someone else has the power to control where I am when and what I'm doing and exact punishment that impacts my daily needs and survival sends me into fight-or-flight. I know this about myself and it’s only gotten worse over the years, not better.
Ideally I’m a hermit but without the woods because woods are nightmare fodder for cult-raised me. Ideally I’m Emily Dickinson in the back room writing poetry. In reality there is yellow wallpaper with faces, and no one gives a shit because they have obligations of their own.
The reality of my antipathy to prolonged nonconsensual if objectively benign contact with others under circumstances completely out of my control means that for me employment, intensive treatment, cohabitation, and assisted living are all disastrously nightmarishly traumatic. Also most (but not all) communities or friendgroups or any social anything. I know this, but it's so unbelievable, improbable to other people, that it's just so much easier to think I'm lying or lazy rather than wound tighter than an E string all the time I'm in proximity to other humans, feeling more like prey than a member of the same species. Think of an abused shelter dog, okay? You don’t think they’re bonkers for being wound up and snappish. I’m like that but times many more decades of the more insidious psychological horrors humans can inflict on one another to make each other think we deserve it, and even do it to ourselves repeatedly even after being let out of captivity. We know this about human psychology but in order to live in harmony with others it’s one of the many things we can’t think too much about. We make enormous concessions for both the pain and pain-based relief-seeking behavior for veterans, and have sympathy and charities for them, but not for people who have been abused throughout their childhoods and never volunteered to be born into captivity of people who do not have to abide by the Geneva Conventions nor fear prosecution or even social stigmatization because of the overwhelming prevalence of child abuse, but more on this later.
For me, I look at human history, or even the news, and I see a very thin the line is that separates a human being from a sadistic or just uncaring selfish monster, and how very easy it is to slide right over into that under even the least amount of stress. And how much they look exactly like all the other human beings right up until they don’t, like when I set a boundary with them or tell them ‘no,’ or I’m between them and what they desire most, conscious or not. The only silver lining to me is that not every abuse survivor develops into an abuser, or else the majority of humans alive on the planet would be sociopaths.
Personally I don’t even make sense to myself anymore, if I ever did. In spite of years of searching for answers in myself and those around me. When people offer to take me in, give me opportunities or help support me I learn very quickly that like every other time no matter how many years of trust and love and friendship I may have built with the individuals in question, it tends to end so badly and traumatically that I’m left even more angry, spiky, paranoid, and less amicable for future possibilities. Knowing this doesn’t empower me to change it. It’s like reopening old wounds so they don’t close. What’s worse is that most people who hurt other people don’t do so out of malice or intentional bad will and hold up ‘I didn’t mean it’ as a ‘get out of consequences free’ card—what’s really happening is that people are self-absorbed, focused on something else entirely, usually to serve their own unconscious or conscious emotional agenda, and it impacts others badly, followed by a knee-jerk insincere non-apology like “I’m sorry that you feel that way,” (which is an insult) or “I’m sorry if/but…” (which is not an apology at all).
(What I actually want to hear when someone fraks up with me is ‘it won’t happen again.’ It’s far too easy to say ‘I’m sorry’ without thinking, a knee-jerk response. But sorry means making changes. Don’t say sorry, do sorry. Everyone’s actions, inactions, words and silence are choices, and we are all responsible for the consequences. And if you say to me ‘won’t happen again’ and it does, you’re gone. I give no second chances to people who have proved they either have no self-control or care about something else more than not frakking up with me in exactly the same predictable way again. I’m not interested in excuses, I’m interested in respect. I expect nothing more and I’ll accept nothing less. FYI.)
I’ve heard other YouTube bloggers talk about my own point of view I’m trying to explore here. A lot of us make our videos because we lack people around us we can get along with and share these things with, or our social skills aren’t great, or the things we have to say are contentious—especially things about social justice. We’re voices in the dark, alone and lost, hoping for an outlet or maybe even a connection. Sadly I think I lost my ability to connect, because of wolves in sheep’s clothing, and being bitten too many times, and hence why I have trust issues the size of the Greater Magellanic Cloud.
On that subject, I made a sweeping decision to moderate all comments on ALL my videos because of a comment I got telling me to kill myself because people with mental illness only hurt those around them. No matter how much I have ever hurt the people around me I do not tell either strangers or people I know to kill themselves.
I have listened to other people’s hurtful words enough. After everything I’ve been through every conversation I survive without pain is like being shot at without result. I feel shaky relief but not a warmth of connection. Some part of me winces every time someone looks at me and opens their mouth, every time I get an email, every time I get a piece of mail, because of just how bad the bad has been, and you can’t imagine how bad. It overwhelms the good like falling piano overwhelms a pedestrian passing underneath. This right here is my space, my place to have my say when people have refused to listen to me, and just as you don’t have to listen or watch these videos, I don’t have to listen to what people who take pleasure in abuse, arguments, and punching down want to say to me. The internet may grant the technology, but not the rights, to harassment via electronic means and I have had occasion to pull out the North Carolina General Statutes on this matter so often they’re saved to my computer. Freedom of speech includes freedom to accept the consequences of what you choose to say or write, and there are consequences. Or, as Terry Pratchett wrote, “Freedom without limits is just a word.” I have freedom of listening, and freedom of pressing charges.
It sucked to make the decision to moderate YouTube comments and then ignore them as stress I can’t deal with right now, because I know there are others out there who feel lost and alone like I do. Some have reached out and commented wonderful and inspiring words. I want to address you right now and say this: every time you leave an encouraging or inspiring comment with no sarcasm or condescension, no matter how short, even a smiley, it has meant all the world to me and I don’t want to stop you because those comments help me to keep going in the face of the much bigger and more destructive forces that threaten and shorten my survival. However, the comments that are nasty hurt worse than the good ones feel good. And there are few enough of the good ones that sometimes I don’t even go look at the comments.
I think most of the truly wonderful people in the world are too busy being wonderful to try to make up for the excess of nasty and selfish people who have plenty of time to run around loose in the world making meals of anyone and anything in reach. One would have to be related or closely tied to one of the good ones to have the attention of the wonderful ones, whereas the selfish and nasty have their radars on constantly for likely prey. In between are the people who are good, or try to be, but also desperate, and haunted, and I know. And I’m sorry. The loudest, most active people are the ones who represent the worst of what we can become. All I can say is that I search and listen hard for the calm voices and actions of the ones who are the best of what we can become. They’re not flawless, they’re human, but all things strive, and if you’re striving it’s important to have a direction.
I’m deeply sorry to those of you trying to make a connection with me and hoping for a response. Please understand that for me it’s like Russian Roulette to even look at comments, even moderated. For every one of you that’s kind there could be one or even several serious nasty hateful or sexual remarks that I superlatively don’t need. I get enough of that randomly just existing in the world from strangers because I’m an inviting target for a lot of reasons. Even though I am white as a dead fish’s underbelly, and make an effort to look well-dressed and stay away from places where it’s more likely I’ll get hassled, and I am well aware and appreciate that I would get a lot more hate and violence if I had other intersecting identity issues. I’ve got white privilege and I can pass for middle-class and abled and if that saves my life I use it, but it’s not a magic invincibility shield because I’m a woman and I’m alone and there are a lot of hateful predatory people out there who zero in on me just for that.
Besides which as I come out as invisibly disabled and poor in spite of how I look, I become a sort of emblem of exactly the sort of person many people find disposable, reprehensible, better off dead, and truly deeply wish would die, because I’m viewed as someone who is living off their tax dollars, their hard work, in spite of the fact that any one of them could at any moment suffer the same series of disasters that took me from privilege to poverty and total disability. I make a convenient scapegoat, the lowest of the low underdogs, because I’m seen as not even trying to live the American dream or pull myself up by my bootstraps by people who are not disabled and poor, so it’s easy to judge any misfortune I suffer as self-inflicted and deserved and as a result of some mindset or easily cured by some magic pill or scientifically-disproved voodoo EMDR finger-wagging. It sucks to live in a world like this.
WARNING: Unpopular Opinion Alert
I’m about to talk about some things a lot of people will take this the wrong way, but this comes out of experiences that are not nice but real things that happen in a not nice world. I want to preface all this by saying that hate crimes horrify me. They are targeted at so many different oppressed people and as long as any one of us are oppressed none of us are free. Even if I woke up tomorrow and had safety and benefits and security I would not stop advocating for those who don’t. These years of terror and misery will leave an indelible mark on me. I do what I can; unfortunately lately my fighting for my basic needs and speaking out about what I’m going through has eclipsed my capacity to do anything for anyone else.
People who are transgender and have different sexualities and skin colors and ethnicities and nationalities and religions than me are victims of hate crimes and violence. Words don’t express how unacceptable and angering I find this reality, and how deeply I feel that it’s incumbent on all of us to individually say and do things to change how we think, speak, and act to make a world where this stops happening. As well as rape, guys—I appreciate the desire to apologize on behalf of your gender, but rather than apologize to me, which will not fix the past, confront your bigoted and inappropriate friends and be open and vocal that this mindset and behavior is not acceptable to you. I know it’s scary but you’re in an amazing, marvelous, POWERFUL place to make a difference that I never can. And it’s that which would make me feel better, and heal not just me, but prevent others in the future from winding up in my position.
Now, LGBTQIA+ individuals, individuals of different colors of skin and different appearances and religions, also are entitled to a lot of well-earned pride in being bravely who they are in this world after so many eons of persecution and torture and worse. They’re entitled to express that pride when they find safe places to do so—and there are welcoming places, although I appreciate some countries are the antithesis of this and still revel in their persecution and murder. There are countries out there that do things to them that anger and scare the ever-loving frak out of me and I sob like a baby listening to interviews with people who remain in those countries and advocate for the rights of their people at the very real risk of the lives of themselves and their families. That’s a courage that humbles and kind of shames me. In the face of that, I doubt most of us could be that brave.
Now I come to the tough bit to say. The poor, the disabled, and the mentally ill even in the US and other first-world countries remain an almost universal target to kick while we’re down. This includes the homeless LGBTQIA+ youth and immigrants kicked out of any kind of shelter and turned down for benefits because of who they are and wind up in drugs and prostitution which makes me enraged all over again, and clearly the poor and disabled and mentally ill come in all colors and nationalities and religions, so there’s very clear overlap and intersection of all these identities.
The point is, we poor and disabled and mentally ill of any gender or sexual orientation or color or nationality or religion can’t fight back by virtue of our positions and limitations and physical exclusions from spaces and conversations about us, our needs and rights. As far as I know we don’t have pride days or events—not all-inclusive ones. Among other things, most of us wouldn’t be able to afford the time or get transport to participate and likely are too isolated and exhausted to even know such things exist because most of our time is taken up with survival and caring for ourselves and whatever family we may have. Events are usually for highly specific diseases and disabilities. In many unspoken, ignored ways we’re divided against each other, fighting over scraps of benefits that are never, ever enough, and looking down on people in the exact same situation but from a different neighborhood, with a different skin color, disability, you name it.
People with physical disabilities and specific kinds of illnesses sometimes get recognition, respect, opportunities and benefits others don’t, and people with mental illness get scapegoated in the media and in the public when mass shootings and violence occur. And just try to talk about this with anyone spearheading a difficult project to benefit just a fraction of the disabled and poor—and get evasion, defensiveness, ignoring the question, or if pressed outright hostility. And we who struggle to survive? How can we fight against the defensiveness of those who are fighting to arrange these programs and benefits and assistance, and insist that they’re wonderful and fair and progressive, when we’re left wanting? Who even cares? Who even listens? We seem ungrateful, because they have fought hard just to get any kind of program for some of the disabled and underprivileged going, so when a lot of us are left out and complaining it’s too much to hear about it.
But likewise, it’s too much to expect us to shut up and be grateful for programs and benefits and events that ignore us, make us invisible, pretend to serve a community when they don’t serve most of us at all. It’s too much to expect to make people feel they’re doing more for all of us than they actually are, and that a problem is solved that isn’t, while we pay the price with our health and safety and even lives, and especially our quality of life and our voice in what happens to us and how we get to live and be treated by others. So our protests and requests for help fall on exhausted and closed ears and people are lightning-quick to point to what they’ve already done, which have not helped many or even most us at all. Frustration and anger on all sides. Not productive.
It’s good to have more celebrities coming out and speaking about their mental illnesses, but these are people who aren’t so disabled by them that they cannot work to support themselves—obviously, if they are celebrities. There are a whole lot of us in the majority silent group too disabled to work, unrepresented and unsung and considered little more than human waste, or as early eugenicists put it, ‘life unworthy of life.’ At the risk of invoking Godwin’s law, the ‘euthanasia’ program was the Nazi’s first program of mass murder, targeting the institutionalized mentally and physically disabled living in Germany and German-annexed territories, predating the genocide of the Jews by approximately two years. There are links below for more information. We are often literally the first against the wall when revolution comes.
The US and UK and other countries aren’t doing anything so flagrant and obvious, but treating programs supplying basic needs to the disabled as disposable and subjecting the disabled to neglect and health care cuts is a passive but just as deadly form of eugenics and euthanasia. Adults of children dead from neglect are still legally culpable for the death of that child. Not doing something is a choice.
For example, there is video footage out there of Wang Yue, a two-year old who was run over by a truck in China, and eighteen people who walked past before someone stopped to hold the dying toddler in her arms. I’m not even close to kidding. And this is just because we have cameras everywhere now, so it’s not like this is a radically new thing in human behavior. I remember hearing about a local girl in North Carolina who had been run over several times before someone stopped their car and got out, but at that time video didn’t allow us as it does in the case of Wang Yue to identify the faces of those who stepped over the flailing body of the poor child, nor the plate of the truck that drove off. Many of those eighteen people in China, after the video went viral, got harangued for their bystander behavior, for failing to do anything. However, when the failure to do something is far removed from the cries and blood and eyes of the victim, it becomes easier and easier for people to do nothing, and never actually have to face the countless deaths that result from doing nothing, from yanking funding for people who need it to survive through no fault of their own, from prioritizing other things above the lives of dozens, hundreds, thousands, millions of people who are only not you by virtue of a stroke of disaster that could change your place in life at any time without warning. The further one is from the consequences of one’s actions, the easier it becomes to lie to oneself and do nothing, follow orders, look the other way.
My husband died of cancer contracted from a medicine proved in lab trials to cause cancer in rats. The FDA warned the drug manufacturers and strongly advised them to inform doctors not to administer it to children, to inform patients, and to take breaks from prescribing it to allow the body’s natural defenses to bounce back. Did the drug company do any of this? No. People died, including an eighteen-month-old baby from a heart attack after being treated with the medicine, which is no longer on the market. The drug company is still in business, suits settled out of court, no one in jail, and many people dead.
I remember there was so much scare talk about death panels with Obamacare. But with the slashing of health benefits for the poorest and those on Medicaid—where a lot of the disabled fall—this in essence condemns without trial or justice swaths of disabled poor people to death, to being unpeople, to being valueless as human beings and therefore unworthy of life, dignity, survival. And the instant we start deciding that certain arbitrary demographics are unworthy of life this should be a huge giant red flag for all of us, whether you have a loved one who is poor or disabled or not.
The fact that as severely disabled adults we are incapable of earning enough money to support ourselves does not constitute appropriate grounds for fatal abandonment and neglect and denial of our basic needs, or telling us to off ourselves or just go shut up and die already. I’m of the belief that communities and nations shall be judged by how we treat the least fortunate of our people, not the most; just as when you go out to dinner with someone you like you watch very carefully the way your date treats the waitstaff.
Because, and this is absolutely vital that you grasp this, every single human being on this planet can through no fault of their own and despite careful planning and best efforts, become disabled and destitute and desperate as I am, no matter how skilled or smart or possessed of degrees and wealth and back-up plans and loyal friends and family as you think you are. Grief is not the only thing that rewrites your address book; any disaster will at a stroke leave you gaspingly alone and stunned at who abandons you to your fate, especially since a lot of misfortune tends to cascade by causing additional problems until you’re stuck in a hole you cannot get out of and you are suddenly an unperson.
I wish I didn’t have to keep saying this, keep trying to prove that (1) I am not like the secure middle-class people I can pass as and often encounter, but (2) such people could become like me at any time. I was once like them, and I would not have believed it possible either, because it was much more comfortable to believe that all the things I did and believed in every day would protect me. Faith is something I found that one can wind up clinging to even after it has failed, as if I’m lying on the ground with shattered bones still trying to pull the cord on my parachute and convinced it will Control-Z undo the entire crash-landing. Here’s a hint: it won’t. We do not control our destiny and we can’t protect those we love as much as we think.
(And that shouldn’t be why we help those who can’t help themselves. But hey, if appealing to selfishness is the only way to get things done, I’m not above pandering. Whatever works. Look at me: this could be you. This could be your sibling, your child, your spouse, your friend. Bad things happen every day, many many bad things, and many of them to the same people.)
If you think I’m lying, take a look at history. You don’t even have to go that far. There are people living right now who have stories you would not believe could all have happened to the same person. I am a testament to the fact that a long string of extreme misfortunes can hit the same individual and I know at least six other people for whom this is also true. Misfortune is the fortune that never misses! …That’s my only joke so tip your waitstaff, because they can’t stand hearing me make that lame damn joke every time. Well, my only joke aside from the one about misanthropists. How many misanthropists does it take to screw in a light bulb? If it can’t be done by one person alone, that bulb is never getting changed.
Now let me talk about veterans. I was born to one, related to several others by birth and through marriage, have at times been friends with several across the Hieronymous-Edvard-Frieda hell of the last few years of my life. Some are the most gentle and loving people I have ever met. Some are absolute spamburgers injected with arsenic. People are people, and being a veteran, like being a psychological professional or doctor or childcare worker or rape helpline operator does not convey an exalted sainted status. One’s occupation does not determine the content of one’s character, only one’s actions and choices. To my personal intimate knowledge, in fact, many people in helping professions I have known go there specifically to have access to at-risk and vulnerable people to prey on. On the other hand, some veterans, like Erich Maria Remarque and Kurt Vonnegut and Ernest Hemingway, create literature that imbue their readers with bolts of soul. But I’m not here to pass judgment, especially since—gasp—I don’t actually like Hemingway’s writing. I seem to be missing an essential gene there. I digress.
Veterans with PTSD are often as massively screwed over and left homeless without benefits, addicted, sometimes suicidal, self-destructive, despairing as people like me. It is frakked up that our veterans are left to these fates, and I hate that. I know that while there are organizations out there to try to help them they often aren’t enough, and veterans I have known have to go in an yell at the tops of their lungs to get their basic needs met. Apropos of nothing, I’m somewhat related to a veteran with PTSD who is among the lucky and did get benefits and has a beautiful family, but I am sad to say that I have lost touch and that’s down to the fact that I cannot maintain relationships with people. That fact right there is the soul and center of why I can’t work.
Still, I often see and hear veterans get respect for their PTSD that others with PTSD most often don’t. This gets thrown in my face, and you know what? That is some bullshit. Like PTSD is only VALID if you’re a veteran, and this is bullshit, and everyone in the mental health profession knows this. Veterans do not have the monopoly on PTSD. And veterans with PTSD (i.e. people who could kill us with bare hands) should not be accorded an understanding when it comes to alcohol and drug use if by the same stroke we turn around and sanctimoniously blame the victims of long-term abuse and captivity by others for their alcohol and drug use and expect them to ‘get over it.’ Maybe this is because of some insecurity or alarm when human cruelty and sadism is too close to home. Like in the backyard of your peaceful little neighborhood, full of people on the local news saying, “But he seemed so nice!” with yellow police tape in the background.
PTSD is not about the specific facts of what happened to the sufferer. That’s not in the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual (DSM) with which mental health personnel diagnose mental illness. PTSD is about the symptoms and consequences the person suffers as a result of a traumatic event. War is by no means the only trauma that is valid. Veterans don’t have the monopoly on the evil that people do to one another by any stretch of the imagination. There are many horrors that humans can enact on one another that have nothing to do with combat, as well as natural disasters. There is nothing that humans do in combat that they’re not capable of doing on suburban soil and behind closed doors, and much worse. Additionally, the most effective way to legally capture someone and abrogate the rights of someone who can’t or won’t fight back enough to overcome an assailant for years is to biologically create a baby or have access to that child through family or a child care job. Children are the easiest the brainwash, threaten, convince, mold, train, use, and so forth.
Knowing what combat is like, or rape, or torture, or even prolonged cult abuse or child abuse of all kinds, has nothing to do with understanding the facts and validity of PTSD.
Don’t Compare Your Pain To Someone Else’s; You Have No Idea What Their Journey is About
I also know it’s extremely bad taste and insulting to assume you know the horrors someone else has personally experienced, not that that stops anyone of the multitudes I have met and wished would fall off the face of the earth. Seriously: if you want to make a connection with me, don’t EVER, EVER tell me you know what I feel like or what I’ve been through or you’ve lost the right to speak to me indefinitely. You aren’t me and that is not a valid way to make a connection with me. Stay with your own story. Don’t project and force your narrative on top of mine. Especially not as an excuse to throw an impromptu pity party for yourself. I resent attempts at emotional manipulation early on to force intimacy on the pretense that we’ve been through the same thing—there is no way in hell we have been through the same thing and it comes off as ignorant and condescending to me. It closes my heart to you as sure as sealing a fallout shelter with five-foot thick reinforced doors.
I am not you and you are not me and I don’t want us to be each other. I want respect for our differences as well as our similarities. Differences are not threats to friendship, but trying to force them to go away or pretend they don’t exist most certainly does threaten (and end) any hope of closeness.
People, please stop doing this. This is unfair to other people that you do it to, especially when they’re in the worst pain of their lives. I know it’s a habit we are socialized to and pick up, comparing our pain to each other’s and imagining what it would be like to be in their position, but that’s imagination, not visceral knowledge. You are making it up in your head, and that is not the same as reality. It is a choice, it is an act of will and it is limited by your point of view and your experiences and your imagination. Plus, the minute you stop imagining, the imaginary pain stops for you, but the other person goes through every moment of the day with their real pain and no off switch. When you confuse what you think with what someone else experiences you do yourself and them a grave disservice and insult.
Instead: Listen. And Listen. And then, Listen Some More. And Listening is Done with Mouth Closed. Listening is Loving. Listening is Respect.
Listening is so much more important than speaking when you are with someone who is in pain, especially pain that is unimaginable. You don’t have to speak, and saying the wrong thing is worse than saying nothing and just being there for them and asking what you can do. Your role is not to try to fix the unfixable, you will just break it more. Your role is to support the person in pain while they heal the way they need to, in the ways they want you to. They have already had agency and control taken from them by their traumatic experience so swooping in to ‘save’ them can very easily be not only wrong but retraumatizing.
Give survivors your respect, and the gift of finally being in the driver’s seat without being a damn backseat driver—where we are going may not be where you would go, but let us figure our where we need to go. Otherwise it just gets hypocritical later when you complain to us that we are ‘too needy’ or ‘too dependent’ after you swooped in with your savior complex and took over but then got tired or bored when things weren’t wrapped up after a ninety-minute movie-style plot with crescendo. Believe me, I have seen this over and over and OVER again, and I have even been on the other end of this, so I understand wanting to be the interventionist, but overriding someone’s agency is exactly how this trauma started for a lot of us in the first place. We want to be asked what we need, and then given what we need, not what you want to give us or decide we need for our own good. Or we want you to be honest, say you can’t do it, and hit the road and stop wasting our time.
I take offense at anyone claiming to know what I’ve been through who very obviously hasn’t had anything even close to the same set of traumas, which are numerous; or insist that because I haven’t been in combat I can’t actually have any kind of PTSD (much less Complex PTSD, and refuse to listen when I explain the difference). The actual diagnostic criteria for the disorder does not ever make mention of even serving time in the military, much less surviving a traumatic horrendous action during that time. That is ignorant crap and I’m not going to engage with these fact-resistant humans beyond this. It’s as pointless as arguing with someone who insists that two plus two equals orange. There’s no way to engage with that level of solipsistic reality. All I can hope is that people who haven’t had a lot of education about PTSD and are willing to listen might actually hear something of what I have to say here.
The Dirty Little Secret: Born into Captivity
Many non-veteran PTSD sufferers, especially Complex PTSD sufferers, get argued or talked over, their pain minimized or degraded or compared with that of veterans, and pushed into things they don’t want, like silence, humiliation, disregard, ignorance. And in my case and those of other child abuse survivors, invalidation of the fact that some survivors of child abuse had much more prolonged traumatic experiences of captivity that we didn’t even understand half the time, and if we happened to escape our captors the police would BRING US BACK.
Child abuse is a dirty little secret that hits too close to home for people because it is so rampant and is happening in middle class and upper class neighborhoods just as it is among the poor. Maybe next door or down the street, or to the kid with which yours is in school or playgroup. Behind the closed doors of those neighbors that seem so nice, but whose kids are always a little too quiet, or a little too eager to lash out about seemingly nothing. And there are survivors and perpetrators in every walk of life carrying shame, defensiveness, and denial that shuts down discussions of it with intense hatred and vitriol aimed at the brave survivors who want safety and justice and sometimes just to be heard.
We have battered women’s shelters. Battered children? Sometimes they wind up in foster care where they get more battered. That was told to me often enough to keep me from running away, horror stories of what foster parents and their other children had done to foster children, who always wound up in the criminal justice system at the end of the stories as inhuman monsters who tormented animals and humans alike just for the fun of it.
Abused children are well below the age of enlisting—we were born into captivity of people, i.e. parents or foster parents or other caregivers, legally allowed to do things to us that are banned by the Geneva conventions to be done to prisoners of war. We also don’t get medals or flags or stickers for surviving, we lucky few who do.
Those that don’t survive pass through the news cycle at a heartbreaking and overlooked rate if anyone even bothers to report it. We are expected to forgive—and even take care of—people who held us captive and tortured us physically and psychologically. And we are heaped with shame and scorn and silencing for our survival stories, disbelieved, mocked, denied the pain that shaped how we relate to people when we had zero rights and choices to determine what happened to us. Here, have some salty lemonade for your wounds. Just get over it already, it happened long ago. We are treated not just by ourselves but by society as if our pain is our own fault, as if our victimhood is a choice and a character flaw and a failing, and revictimized by people unwilling to accept that a lot of people are not just bad but criminally, abusively bad parents who screw up their children during crucial developmental years and we are never allowed our anger, catharsis, healing, or even the freedom to share our truths and stories without being attacked for them.
The Shapes We Grow Into
Not for all of us, it isn’t over, and it isn’t as simple as waggling your finger in unscientific unproven EMDR bullshit (seriously, rigorous repeat studies showed the finger is a placebo effect, and I personally have had a tone of EMDR that has done frak all for me) or taking a pill (again, I’ve had many kinds that have done frak all for me) to somehow rewrite your entire past and personality and all of your memories and how you know how to interact with others and the world.
For many of us that abuse shaped in a core way who we became in those years we were becoming human beings. For many of us it never stops happening because we were denied escape, denied fair hearing, denied validity, denied comfort, denied acknowledgement of our pain, denied choices we needed to make for our own healing rather than the comfort of other people and our abusers, denied even our own voices and anger we had every right to, denied knowledge and understanding of what we went through and the fact that we were not responsible. We were and still are denied the right to be who we are, wounds and anger and choices and all.
We got out of one prison only to be crammed into the prison of an us we were not, a silence and identity that was fashioned for us by the expectations and punishments and rejections of those around us while we burned with terrible emptiness and desire for an unconditional acceptance we have forever been denied—a feeling of being enough that is forever held out of reach, an acceptability in someone else’s eyes that never comes without giant spider webs of strings.
Recovery doesn’t come in a magic pill form when your entire development of who you are was twisted. Imagine those trees at the seaside that grow sideways because of high winds. You can’t transplant them to a place out of the wind, give them mulch and watch them turn into straight trees. At best new growth will begin to grow straight, if they don’t wither and die. If you spend the best part of two decades training any plant to grow a certain way you’re not going to do some magic follow-my-finger eye tricks and hey presto, the whole shape of the plant changes overnight. Think how hard it is to quit a habit like smoking. Now imagine it’s not just a habit but absolutely everything you’ve ever learned about thinking, speaking, walking, relating to everything and everyone in the world around you, every instinct you ever learned that warns you about danger. Your entire identity and way of existing in the world from the moment you wake until you go to sleep, never mind the dreams you find there.
Imagine trying to tame a wild animal—a really wild animal. We’re not talking a Hollywood movie moment overnight cure. The animal is never going to be completely tame. There will always be triggers and instincts, far below anything you can reach or even understand. You can live with that animal and earn its trust for years and still one day it may just maul you. We expect people to endure decades of abuse and with the flick of a finger or swallow of a pill turn into shiny happy people. Even while there are still people around us that, let’s be honest, enjoy pushing people’s buttons and claiming injured innocence when pushing the red one makes everything go boom.
Am I Relating or Comparing?
I read through ‘All Quiet on the Western Front.’ I can’t compare what I’ve been through to wartime. Especially after what I wrote above about that very thing being a really bad habit we’re trained to do that blocks true empathy and respect for people in pain. But even so I was raised the same way and I do have to take a long hard look at the strong emotional responses I had reading that book, and my own experiences of being raised brainwashed, used, as a young person, and harmed and lied to by those I trusted.
I like to hope what’s happening is relating deeply and profoundly to the human emotions of a character disenfranchised by all the world, knowing he would have no place in it after what he had been through, after what he had seen and survived, thinking the deluded adults far from the front talking of glory and going about their worldly concerns were so removed from any reality he could take part in. He had been taken and shaped into something else, something other—a weapon.
I was born and shaped into something else, something other—a survivor, a fighter, a paranoiac, someone who had to withdraw deep into herself to escape a world of horror where my body, my emotions, my mind, my beliefs, were all relentlessly forged into something that had no application in a world outside an increasingly insular and nonsensical cult. Someone with no trust in anything or anyone. I don’t even know what I am most of the time, and it changes day to day, and yet I’m expected to explain myself, often with no support, certainly with no familial support and often no friends I can really trust once I actually open up and tell the truth, not even fellow survivors, because they have the same problems and shame and anger and mistrust and paranoia and push-away reactions. They’re fighting just for themselves, as we learned to do from day one.
Is this hypocrisy given what I said earlier about ‘don’t presume to know what I’ve been through’?
Quite possibly at least partially that, because consistence has never really been a human trait, and recovery from any deeply ingrained habitual response to pain is a process full of setbacks, self-deception, hypocrisy, and guesswork, as I well know. I’ve turned it over and over in my mind.
Here’s what I hope might be at least partially true. PTSD can be likened to an infected wound, in that no matter how you sustained the wound, the infection is likely to show similar symptoms, with similar risks and similar treatments. With Complex PTSD, because the wounding went on and on without treatment there can be permanent damage to tissue or malformed bones and muscle. It does in a sense to the sufferer matter how and where the wounds were inflicted because that informs the treatment, both with physical wounds and trauma.
But in the end, treatment of the symptoms of PTSD and Complex PTSD are about what persists after the initial wound, hence the ‘post’ part. When I talk about reading a novel written by a combat veteran from the point of view of World War I trenches in Europe, and of feeling an eerie connection to the emotions and symptoms he’s ascribing to his protagonist, I hope I’m touching on the absolute and ultimate goal of language and communication: to try to erode the barrier that can never be erased between each of us, between who someone else is and what they experience and who I am and what I experience. The closest thing to the Point of View gun I mentioned earlier, and the function of art according to Lin-Manuel Miranda: to engender empathy.
All our striving with words and speech and art and almost everything we do sometimes I feel is just to communicate something that can’t ever be passed from one human to another. Namely, someone else’s feelings, or some equivalent made possible by enormous effort on the part of the speaker and the listener.
I’m not claiming I know what it’s like to be through combat—I mean, seriously, consider me, I’m a marshmallow. I would not make it through one day of basic training. I’m also not saying I don’t share some symptoms of PTSD with someone who has been inflicted with psychological wounds of combat, nor that they know what it’s like to have been through my particular trauma. Symptoms of PTSD, remember, aren’t contingent on the initial cause. I’m asking a lot of you, dear reader, to go beyond simplistic thinking, and understand that there’s no clear answer either for me or you or anyone else. We can never feel what it is like to be another person, to fully experience their pain.
This is not to say that all pain is equal, or that the many people who continually tell me ‘I know how you feel’ clearly don’t, as is evident from any length of time talking with them. They’re not willing to be wrong, they are competing in the Pain Olympics, and honestly they are not listening to me, only to themselves and demanding I listen to them. This happens more often than genuine connection.
People who have genuinely been through trauma don’t generally play ‘I know how you feel’ as an opening gambit when one of my many traumas comes up in conversation (and because most of my life has been traumatic or shaped by trauma it’s impossible to have many conversations without trauma eventually coming up). Those are people who want to force a connection so I have to listen to their bitching and feel sorry for them, while ignoring my anger at being strongarmed into an emotional intimacy I did not ask for and don’t want with a total stranger. I feel violated and disgusted and used and like a little emotional orphan has run up and grabbed my arm and declared I’m now their parent and have to take care of their needs while having none of my own that are valid or matter. It’s even more damning and disgusting when the person is, as is usually the case, far more privileged than I am, and not struggling to survive day in and day out, year in and year out, and having to put up with people like themselves wanting more, more, more from them that they never agreed to.
Which is not to say I’m not sympathetic to the struggles of others. What I’m not sympathetic to is the desperate perspective-absent neediness of people with no sense of perspective and a great deal of privilege. I know I have privilege—I’m white, cisgender, not sleeping on the street, and have access to mental health care. But privilege is a spectrum and it fills me with disgust when people not fighting for their lives try to claim solidarity with my pain, pain that in no way is equal to the trials they describe. Not all pain is equal. Not all struggles are equal. When one is spoiled with privilege it may seem the end of the world, whatever is happening to one, and from my perspective, it really isn’t.
Because I have been that person, thinking that one little tiny thing was the worst thing ever. And I was about five at the time, allegedly, and it was not having the right sheets on my bed. After that I learned what real pain actually was. I’m tired of the emotional orphans of the world expecting me to take care of their feelings with no reciprocal friendship and generosity. I was tired of that when my parents raised me to be that for them.
I am angry that it’s not possible to feel what it’s like to be me no matter how many words I pour out, no matter what I say or do. I am desperate for it to be possible. I feel I have spent my whole life searching for crumbs and pieces that I can relate to in order to force it to be possible that what I feel and what another person feels be the same thing. And at the end of the day, despair knowing that it’s all imagination. Is it?
It’s up to each of us to make a judgment here. I’m not going to make it. I’ve said what I said earlier and what I have said now about the difference between imagining what it feels like to have an experience, to living through and with that experience ever after without the surcease of merely stopping imagining it and going back to one’s own problems. I think like many things the truth isn’t simple. And that the complicated truths are the ones worth thinking about much more than simple ones. Empathy isn’t automatic and it isn’t built into humans in the womb. It’s what we develop from socialization, and some people fail. Some fail entirely, some fail a little, and some mistake many other things for empathy and get in the habit of doing that wrong thing for so long they don’t know the difference.
All this being said, while any one of us are oppressed none of us are free and I am enraged (well, okay, most days now I’m too tired and in despair to muster the anger that GETS THINGS DONE, to my intense dismay) about the worldwide violence against transgender, gender nonconforming and genderfluid individuals and non-heterosexuals, as well as racially and ethnically motivated violence, violence against women and children, and violence against those of different religions.
I have this tired disgust I feel that by the time we get around to talking about the poor, the homeless, the disabled, the invisibly disabled, and the mentally ill, there’s a whole lot of silence going on. In my struggles I’m finding a whole lot no support and a whole lot of hate speech, despair, hate crimes, violence, homelessness, and suicides, and above all denial and victim blaming.
But I will leave you with this, even though it changes nothing, because a day without a Pratchett quote is a day without Kassi.
“She always had a soft spot for the underdog. So did Vimes. You had to. Not because they were pure or noble, because they weren't. You had to be on the side of underdogs because they weren't overdogs.” ― Terry Pratchett, Feet of Clay