“Since time immemorial, 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.” —Sidney Rosen, ‘My Voice Will Go With You’
“It’s easier to tell the truth in stories.”
I was a child when I first said this. Every year it has become more true to me, and I have found more sentiments like Sidney Rosen’s in his book about psychologist Milton J. Erickson that validate that sense. Art of all kinds looks to me like a way of inviting or enticing people, and art with a strong message performs the delicate act of coating a bitter pill with Princess Bride-style chocolate to make it taste better. As someone else (that I did not write down) said, it disturbs the comfortable and comforts the disturbed.
This ‘Art & Soul’ series, originally intended to be YouTube videos, was I think a desire in me to search for those things in myself, to dialogue and puzzle through in writing my feelings about art and soul in general but also to specifically answer for myself the most sleep-destroying question of my life: how do I turn all this pain I carry into satisfying art?
Also in many ways: how do I recover my imagination from the endless repetitive loop of trauma and fear?
What I yearn for is a sort of alchemy. Alchemy appeals to me for a lot of fantastic human reasons. As a science it’s total crap, but as a method for exploring one’s inner worlds it’s heartily endorsed by Carl Jung. The dreamlike imagery of his ‘Red Book’ as well as the traditions and myths of alchemy are deeply appealing to me on an art level, but also as ritualistic ways of drawing out what often resists language and logic like narcissists resist realistic self-knowledge. We respond to rituals and patterns, it’s part of the human condition. (See: Matthew Hutson’s book ‘The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking,’ where he even deconstructs his own delineation of 7 laws as a form of possibly flawed thinking.)
The creation of art can be incredibly ritualistic. It can also be incredibly flippant and shallow. I still haven’t read it yet due to a reading list backed up from here to eternity, but I want to talk about ‘The Screwtape Letters’ despite being ill-informed. Recently I watched Stephen Colbert being interviewed by a Catholic priest on YouTube. Colbert spoke of the four forms of humor described in ‘The Screwtape Letters’ and the fourth was the only one the two demon characters discussing humor focused on as a way to influence ‘clients’ (i.e. the human race) to the dark side of the Force. The first was joy, the second play, the third the joke proper, but all these had the potential to invoke closeness and divinity while the fourth was flippancy, and only created barriers between people and atrophied the intellect.
Listening to this I knew finally how I felt about a long stretch of my early teen years where I wrote poetry. I knew I felt nothing and revealed nothing and invited nothing and risked nothing, and here was an excellent framing for what that was and how I sometimes feel when I experience works of others’ art (or especially my own)—there is nothing at the center of the Tootsie Pop. There’s no passion, no drive, no message, the artist acting almost as a random generator regurgitating forms and stories and diagrams and what seems like what would happen if you deconstructed someone else’s art and swapped out pieces with a clinical air to present something as original.
I hate writing that. Because I feel like this is leveled at a lot of burgeoning artists and shuts them down before they build a capacity for public vulnerability and self-knowledge and confidence with their craft to show up and be what they have to say. Hell, in various nicey-knifer ways I’ve had that done to me so relentlessly it shut me down repeatedly for years, and as soon as I’d build back up it would hit me again in that soft fleshy ‘who do you think you are?’ place. What turns me off is when artists never even discuss this—admittedly for valid reasons because artists love passive-aggressively attacking other artists in general. What turns me off is when artists get comfortable faking it, make it, and start to drink their own Kool-Aid and never grow beyond the titillation of form and pretension.
What turns me off, basically, is my own art, when I think about it too much. I recognize I’m faking it and despair and all those nightmare voices play in a loop, reminding me I do not have what it takes. I’m triggered, I’m too fragile for feedback and criticism, and I know this about myself. It’s only in denial of those things I can do anything at all, including go on living. Because without art, my life has no meaning. No soul.
I have a lot to say that is not at all nice. And it’s bound up in trauma and hate and fear and grief and abuse and I long for an artistic and satisfying way to express it, so it’s both not so jarring for me and something I can share with others, without feeling as though I am abusing them with my compulsive desire to connect with others and share the stories of the traumas I have been through. The problem is that art itself is entangled in a web of shame and traumatic experiences of destructive feedback I cannot just scrape off like a healthy well-grounded well-supported or even well-educated person might. My art and my life are compartmentalized so I wouldn’t be vulnerable in an area where everyone is a critic.
Admittedly everyone is a critic regardless of whether it is art or my personal stories of pain I am sharing. It’s a defense mechanism I think destroys human connection, empathy, and a capacity for emotional resilience. Plus the critics are the most voracious, vocal landsharks that ever did walk; they must continually seek out people and things to criticize. I used to be one. I was raised with them. I had them in place of friends because I never learned how to filter them out. Now they are like slivers embedded so deep they will never emerge from my psyche.
I think validation is important because it’s so important and rare for me. I don’t think it’s appropriate to blindly validate everything because not everything is valid. For instance, with a bully and a target, the bully’s feelings are not as important as the person they have abused. Their choices are not valid and it’s not appropriate to pressure the victim to listen to the bully’s rationalizations, forgive them, or consider them as important as the complaint of a person who has been genuinely harmed by a bully.
I’ve studied why bullies and abusers do what they do, and for most I have encountered and studied, their level of denial is even greater than those of addicts. They do not get interventions because they lash out when people attempt to curb their behaviors and hurt targets they can without repercussions. People who serially hurt other people, whether through narcissism or harassment or child abuse or any other form of cruelty and preying on those weaker, do not respond to a lot of common-sense approaches. Dr. Phil, on an interview on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, talks about the impossibility of treating narcissists, because they learn the lingo, they learn to game the therapy system to their advantage, and powerfully resist change. Those who learn to turn off empathy are not eager to re-engage it. They are often rewarded far too much for their almost solipsistic selfish behavior.
So validation is not always the right response to everything. That’s all-or-nothing thinking. At the same time, validation is valued far too little, and understood even less. Those who are in the habit of invalidating what they do not like or agree with or ‘get’ are just as defensive and unlikely to change, in my experience, as those who serially bully others. Even though chronic invalidators are usually this way because they were bombarded with invalidation and fear of ‘other.’ When ‘uncomfortable’ equals ‘wrong’ there is a problem. However there is also a problem when people ignore discomfort and just keep enabling bad behavior.
But where is the art in this? Where is the soul? I can talk about what I’ve learned as a result of my experiences, but don’t yet have the capacity to tell the stories of what those experiences were in a way that satisfies me and feels okay to me. It’s too easy to get damaged in this journey. But for me, it’s the only one worth making anymore.
The things I find funniest are when people can laugh at themselves, and the above video is a brilliant example. It’s hard to cultivate in myself after being raised with shame-based parenting and having my weaknesses used as justification for hurting me, even though I know it would make me stronger—not weaker—to own and enjoy my own frak-ups.
I have loved how cross-training in different creative disciplines helps me grow in all of them. I realize new things about myself that are true not just in the form of creative expression I’m working with. For most of my life my only creative outlet was writing. When I took up hoopdancing it brought me into my body, into a more direct experiencing of things, helped me feel things physically and emotionally I often distanced myself from with words and intellect, brought new appreciation for dance and music. It opened a whole new world to me of performance art, of the experience of give and take with kind and generous audiences—although far from all performances featured that. This in turn also made me more appreciative of others’ performances, and realize that expressing my enjoyment during the performance can be valuable for a performer. (Also that performers can—but don’t always—make the absolute best audience members, particularly if it’s ROOTS Week. Oh my yes.)
I’ve been collaborating with my dearest friend on visual art. This is a new area for me. I contribute collage materials and she paints brilliantly, which makes me feel a lot less like a fake and a hack doing the least possible work at visual art to create something that, if I think too much about it, feels like literal trash and emotional insincerity. I realized that a lot of what I do creatively, I do in ways that try to protect myself, to safely deflect any criticism onto whoever took the pictures or created the graphics I’m using. Much like when I write, and quote other people obsessively, and in the past when I have felt a strong need to prove my words and opinions and experiences have validity by linking to things other people have wrote that express what I don’t feel safe to myself. Then if someone criticizes what I wrote, I have used the other person as a human creative shield—“they said it, not me.”
It’s an appealing but unfortunate habit, because internally I’ve also gotten to a point where I don’t even let myself have awareness of how I feel and what I think. I’m trying to dodge shame internally and externally, to dodge vulnerability.
Which isn’t always a bad thing. Brené Brown said something to the effect of ‘share your vulnerability with those who have earned the right to it,’ which is a crucial part of smart vulnerability that can be overlooked easily and was leading me to get awfully hurt when I first tried to cultivate the ‘power’ of vulnerability. Vulnerability is where shame flourishes as well as strength, and often presents a lot of risk if I’m revealing something about myself that people are in the habit of attacking and judging freely, or offering unsolicited and destructive advice, sometimes out of buried envy. Like art.
I learned this lesson painfully on YouTube, and learned how susceptible I am to being hurt. This isn’t a bad thing either. We feel things as a result of how others respond to us. No matter how many people want to insist that we ‘choose’ to feel a certain way, this is not the case. Emotions happen first, in a much older part of the brain than higher reasoning. We know this because of fMRIs and Bessel van der Kolk, who knows what the hell he’s talking about. We can choose what emotions we express, and we can choose to repress awareness of emotions, but I’ve seen where that leads—to sociopathic and narcissistic behaviors and habits of interacting with others, and having no problem hurting other people habitually, and blaming victims.
I didn’t want to be like that. I still don’t. But I also, in my intense desire to not turn into my abusers, went much too far the other way. A certain amount of not caring what other people think, or more accurately caring selectively and finding good supportive allies and doing right by them, is essential in order to be myself and to live, and especially to have the strength and courage to express myself in art and life.
Having defenses is important to being human, and so is knowing when and how to lower those defenses in order to grow and thrive. If my Wall is always up, I am bound for loneliness and bitterness, and likely to become abusive in my own ways.
The way I make visual art and write are valid choices, but I find myself wanting to widen my range and form a willingness to show up, make mistakes and learn from them in art. I may take in information in a variety of ways, through listening and watching and doing, but learning only happens if I allow myself to try new things (and keep failing all the way to success), and get feedback that helps me pinpoint things I can change.
That being said I only want to accept feedback that I’ve sought from people I respect who know what the hell they’re talking about. Throwing myself open for all feedback is akin to jumping into shark-infested waters with a bloody cut. The people most in a rush to give unsolicited feedback are often those who give the absolute worst and most self-serving kinds and often have no idea what the hell they’re talking about. Those who know the least often know it the loudest, and I’m absolutely guilty of doing this when I’m just starting out.
In my younger days I wrote a lot of stupidly pompous stuff about how to write. I was aping my abusers in telling other people what to do. I didn’t share this writing with others and I’m really glad I didn’t. I spent too much time ‘telling’ how to do something rather than doing it, and that was pure aggressive defensiveness on my part. Crucially, I wasn’t aware of this.
I believe most people engaging in abusive defensiveness block conscious awareness of what they’re doing, which makes it impossible to change. I think of this as ‘blindfolded drivers’ and a lot of people go through all their lives plowing their proverbial car into other people and causing a lot of damage and continually claiming ignorance and innocence. And persecution. It doesn’t fly with car insurance companies or the police and it sure doesn’t fly with me anymore. “I didn’t mean to” raises a red flag with me because so often it meant that the person I was dealing with was incapable of not doing destructive things repeatedly and incapable of changing their behaviors. I wasted too much time forgiving people who never earned or deserved it, and only used that forgiveness to go on hurting me. People can and do make mistakes, but after a while it begs the question, “What did you mean to do, and why aren’t you doing that? If you didn’t mean to run me over, why are you repeatedly doing so? Even though I have said repeatedly that I (a) don’t like it and (b) want you to stop?”
Doing what I mean to do requires that I take off the blindfold, although this also meant finding out I didn’t know how to drive, and it can be really tempting to put the denial back so I don’t see all the wrecks I’m causing. It’s very painful when awareness comes before change, and I know I’m doing something I don’t want to do or want to do better, but I haven’t yet learned how. Without awareness, though, change hasn’t been even remotely possible.
So I can appreciate why people go through their entire lives blindfolded with denial, especially if what they’re spending all their time and defenses denying is painful for them to see. These are not people I want in my life, for sure, but understanding the why of denial helps me understand others and identify when it’s happening and steer my car away from them. If someone is a raging ball of defensiveness, I understand that these people will be giant time and energy drains on me if I choose to engage more than I absolutely have to. Especially because I am often a raging ball of defensiveness when criticized or otherwise triggered.
It’s still frustrating. A lot of people are asleep at their own wheels in a lot of ways. It’s how bad attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs thrive in secret and drive a lot of what people aren’t aware of doing, including me. What I don’t own owns me, drives my choices and keeps me unaware that I’m even making choices, making those wrecks feel unavoidable and out of my control. But to be alive is to make choices, is to be behind the wheel. Pretending I’m not is not a smart way to live. Not everything is a choice and a lot of things are out of my control, which makes it even more important to me to figure out what I can choose.
This brings me back to art. Art, to me, is how I thrive, how I engage with my own feelings and thoughts and ideas and opinions and explore them. This rich inner landscape of mine I navigate and explore with art, and without art life isn’t worth living to me or in any way meaningful. It’s the lifeblood of my soul, both enjoying others’ art and making my own, no matter how unskilled or ‘fake’ I feel. I have so many disciplines but I am master of none, a ‘multi-disciplinary dilettante’ who’s a little crap at a lot of things. It’s easy for me to get overwhelmed and discouraged if I think too much about those shortcomings, but if I don’t make art at all I can’t possibly grow in any way that matters to me. (N’est pas de l’art. French: another thing I’m completely crap at.)
It’s essential for me to figure out what ways do matter to me, to be able to identify where I want to go, so someone else doesn’t metaphorically give me directions and tell me how to drive and wind up putting me in a wreck or somewhere I never wanted to go. I don’t want to base my decisions on the advice of those who don’t have to live with the result. Ideally I’d like a way to tune out their extremely loud knowing of the least and focus on driving my own car. That advice-giving is the least helpful and most draining to deal with. When I tell people to stop, I run into all those defenses and all that denial, and my patience evaporates instantly. Poof. Like water in the Nefud Desert.
Figuring out how I personally can cope with this has been one of the biggest challenges of my life. I really attract people in a rush to tell me what to do, especially by talking about what I’m doing. (Ceci n’est pas une invitation.) I haven’t yet hit on a strategy that I can successfully use to get them to shut up and go away. Sometimes I wish I could summon my inner bitch, but I’m not that great at consciously being a bitch (stellar at being one unconsciously; I always drive my Bitch Car blindfolded and leave no survivors), so it’s not a set of choices I’ve cultivated. I’m much better at avoidance, withdrawal, and ghosting. Which aren’t always bad things but also aren’t always effective, especially when someone is determined. Again, I really attract these unfortunate characters, and I’ve tried learning and changing things that help cut down on that, like taking self-defense classes and learning what in my body language signals submissiveness or that vulnerability to those who are determined to target it—and replacing it with more confident body language. Awareness plus change.
There are unavoidable things about me that make me a target—being female, being poor, being disabled, being asexual, being mentally ill. Being an artist, being open about hardships I’ve been through, writing this post itself, working through things in writing and then sharing that writing with others. It could be argued that those last things aren’t unavoidable and are choices I make, but they’re not ones I’m willing to live without. Living in silence and secret and without art are things that kill me slowly and make me miserable quickly.
But living aloud, and creating things, and being myself, is hard. Really frakking hard. (Although not as hard as people who struggle with oppressions where I have privilege, and it’s important for me to remind myself of that.) It’s hard even without my desire to grow and change and develop new skills, try new things and know I’m going to fail a lot more than succeed even by the most compassionate standards. Failure is probably the most important part of art for me, and certainly one of the largest for me, but so is defining what that means for myself and resisting the extremely aggressive insistence of others to define it for me. It’s hard enough living with my own standards without having to deal with those of others. Particularly those who don’t meet mine. And won’t keep their blindfolded driving away from my car. That takes at least 90% of my energy and effort and often inspires me to withdraw entirely from everyone, in order that I can keep going and keep making art.
Protecting my art, especially early on in making something or practicing things I’m not good at (everything), is essential to me, much like protecting babies from the myriad dangers the world presents them with. Having a judgment-free sandbox to play and develop in is one of the most important things I need for both making art and learning anything new. So is knowing when and how to find the feedback I need and want to grow where I want to grow, and figuring out where that is.
It’s like in therapy where therapists who are a good match for me can strike exactly the right balance between validation and change. I need absolute fraktons of the former and a very gentle and responsive touch with the latter—in pretty much all areas of life—and that can be infuriatingly hard to find. Asking for it doesn’t work if the other person isn’t conscious of the choices they’re making and rejects all attempts I make to wake them up. It’s made worse when I’m too triggered to articulate what’s happening and overcome my defensive reactions that lock us into a cycle of provocation and reaction, which happens the vast majority of the time. Then we’re both blindfolded and repeatedly ramming each other like we’re jousting instead of driving, and I’m a psychological wreck for weeks or months after these incidents. I have to be cut out of the twisted remains of my car by doing something like watching ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service.’ (Thank you, Amanda!)
Art at its best for me is a dialogue with myself and my world. Something that’s browbeaten into us writers from all quarters is how we have to think about our audience. But I really hate reading something where the writer is clearly writing for an audience as their primary goal. The writing I like best is when the writer is writing to fulfill their own burning needs, and doesn’t presume to try to control me, how I feel or what I think or do. When writers write at me, it comes off as manipulative, condescending, aggressive, demanding, and turns me right off. I want to read something that someone wrote for themselves, to tickle their own fancy, to give themselves the best thrills, and then shared without caring what I personally think or feel about it. I don’t want people to make art for me. Even if at its core the art is there to educate, especially about certain issues that the artist really cares about, and does require a lot of thought about making the information accessible to those without the knowledge and expertise of the artist, I still want the artist to be responding to a deep soul-level desire to make that art. The art that is there because the artist clearly could not live without it is my favorite kind of art. The art that says what an artist wants so say, not what they think I want to hear. In art people can tell a lot of otherwise unbearable truths wrapped in an appealing chocolatey shell. Yum, art!
To me, that kind of art has built-in success. When I write something for me, when I make something for me, when I do something for myself, then doing it will be guaranteed to please one person, even if it doesn’t come out great (and it usually doesn’t). If I were to write for others that would be giving others the power to determine whether what I wrote was a success. And what other people like is a matter of taste. I started writing when I was four for one simple reason: I was frustrated that there were stories I wanted to read that I couldn’t find. The only way I was going to get to read them was if I wrote them myself. This is why when people try to tell me how to write what I write, I want to tell them, “Then you do it your way and let me do it mine. Ce n’est pas ta voiture. …Yes, I know, my French is awful and I should absolutely stop.”
It really sucks that so many people have aggressively judged and criticized what I wrote that I have withdrawn behind others’ words, and no longer share my stories and almost never write them anymore. It took away what was really important to me about writing and made it about other people—and not just any people, but the whiniest, most impossible to please people on the planet. People who mistake their opinions for facts (which I also do, but not all of my facts are opinions when others don’t like them) and behave as though everything is made specifically for them, as though it’s all right to send back with demands to remake it better the food their hosts serve them. People who don’t understand why they are shown the door and never invited back. They will never be satisfied and won’t do it themselves, and it isn’t my job to satisfy them.
I wish I could tell them that. It’s aggravating to get my own defensiveness triggered by critics and feel trapped by it, blindfolded by it, hearing the sounds of the slow-motion wreck I’m in and not know how to stop it and get out of it.
The moral of the story is: shame-based parenting sucks, y’all.
Also, I’m not wanting advice. I wanted to engage with these things and work through them in writing, and while I may not have the answers, I’ve made a place for them to arise from myself. I’ve opened a door inside myself to see what was shut up in there. This writing, however objectively bad or long-winded or useless to anyone else, has done what I wanted it to do, and in that sense it’s a success. I’m letting you overhear my conversation with myself, because I have loved when other writers have done that for me. So much of others’ processing of their own stuff, shared so generously, inspired me to do those things myself. And with that courageous generosity what makes sense to me is to pass it on, allow others the choice to read or ignore if they want without demanding a response.
It’s the give-and-take of my lifelong dance with art, which is a dance with myself. I am the partner who is always ready when I am, who doesn’t care how we dance or how well we dance, only that we dance exactly the way we want to. I danced damn hard to get here, I have a right to dance here—in my car—and I’m damn well gonna dance.
“…we came in?”
(First words on Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ album)
“Isn’t this where…”
(Last words on same)
Bear McCreary, soundtrack virtuoso for Ron Moore’s re-imagined ‘Battlestar Galactica’ series, said of Bob Dylan’s ‘All Along the Watchtower’ that the song is a circle, it ends where it began. Circles and cycles are very potent human symbolism: “All this has happened before, and it will all happen again,” a recurring quote in the same series, was lifted from Disney’s animated ‘Peter Pan.’ Looking at stories and at art and even at our own repetitive patterns of behaviors and relationships with enough perspectives the phrase ‘nothing new under the sun’ comes to mind. (Although so does the phrase ‘there is evil under the sun.’)
Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ is a fundamental need for me. Every once in a while I have to listen to it on repeat endlessly. It literally ends where it began, the music and words at the end matching up to the intro. It’s a validating externalization of my repetitive somewhat mercenary patterns when it comes to other people and communities especially. Whether or not I’m listening to it, I am continually building up and breaking down my own personal Wall on various fronts, sometimes both at the same time in several places.
I know I’m not normal, and was not born to be normal or raised to be normal. Mark Twain said that the two most important days of one’s life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.
It wasn’t a day but a dark night of the soul that took years to bring me to that understanding, as well as Sharon Old’s poem ‘I Go Back to May 1937.’
Sometimes when two people hate each other very much, to the point they are stalemated in their emotional codependent abuse, an ice queen and a volcano, they have a child. That child becomes a symptom bearer, a focal point for terrors that adults have immunities to, terrors adults can leave behind and ghost out of their lives. The babe, knowing nothing of this, may understand only that their role is perhaps mediator or go-between or buffer. Lacking exits, lacking contact with reality after being yanked out of school and stranded in the woods and surrounded by culty white middle-class Baby Boomer adults with postgraduate degrees in thrall to a channelled entity, lacking escape, a child may spiral inward to her own reality, the only corner of herself she can hide and protect from others. Stories she reads, watches, writes. Nothing provides a real magic door at the back of the closet escaped to in order to escape the screaming. The only thing for it is to develop a rich inner life.
Yet years pass, and even all that she loves about art and imagination can be worn down by ongoing trauma and people who never live up to the virtues of characters on a page or in a mind. Life doesn’t go well for someone who can’t bear being dominated, told what to do or believe or feel. Even in the small normal ways that make us a social human race of creatures. When the most saccharine-sweet intentions and words contain within them control and manipulations, nothing can be trusted.
This is why in Pete Walker’s book ‘Complex PTSD,’ when he talks about the profound crippling affects of prolonged captivity in childhood (like being hobbled like in Stephen King’s ‘Misery’ to ensure one is incapable of escaping or standing on one’s own two feet)—because, after all, Parents Know What’s Best is an unspoken but fanatical belief of even the irreligious and certainly legislation—Mr. Walker validates that those of us who have been permanently bent by seashore winds and malformed by psychotic shrub-pruning often cannot participate easily and freely in human interaction. I too easily feel trapped, ordered, patronized, put down by others’ behavior I was never trained to stand up to.
It doesn’t help that predators smell the blood in the water of how I was raised to walk in this world, defensive, suspicious, withdrawn, quiet. Honey for predators. People without this invisible handicap often don’t understand what it’s like to be hyper-vigilant always, and to be repeatedly targeted as I move alone through life. The smallest, stupidest remark isn’t any such thing when it activates my frightened coping skills of placating and submitting just to get through the day. And predators never ever believe they are predators, they are the heroes of their own story, and get very upset when this self-image is called into question should I dare say “no.”
There’s no succinct way to say I don’t get on with people in the most profound sense. It can take so little to throw a broomstick in my bicycle wheels so that I cannot get up again. It’s almost impossible to understand for those who have learned to get along with others, growing a shell, strong where they stand in their own truth, resistant to the vague aggression that underlies all human interaction. What we’re not aware of, we can’t fathom, and we can’t change. Denial, that most basic of all human characteristics that keeps us doing what we have to do to survive, keeps us also from understanding even while we parrot “I understand” followed by a personal anecdote that amounts only to projecting our own experiences and feelings on others.
I’m in a Wall-up place right now, where I know I’m vulnerable to the least thing said to me. Years of surviving insidious, post-graduate psychological torture has left me so that I question everything that is said to me. I believe that the ‘fake it till you make it’ syndrome has blown up to the point where most people have faked it so long they believe in their own stories they tell themselves without reserve, and faking it has replaced making it. Holden Caulfield, predictably, thinks you’re a phony, and despite my general dislike for the book I have to agree. The problem with phonies is not that they are phonies but that they mix lies with the truth and believe it all sincerely. There is no talking to someone who has bonded to their own convictions of who they are and what they do.
Bullies and Abusers aren’t what they told me. They believe they are justified, they are heroes, their behavior is aligned with what they say even when it’s patently obvious it isn’t. And the bullies I’ve met, when you stand up to them, rally their equally crusading supporters to not only hit back but take out anyone who ‘rejects’ any part of them or what they say. Everything is not just personal but a part of them, and a disagreement with them is an attack on their very self.
It is so easy to be derailed by these people, and not just derailed but train-wreck derailed, where I have to pick up the pieces.
I don’t like the conceit of trying to be one’s ‘best version’ of oneself going into a relationship or a job, because it isn’t sustainable, and once things get comfortable, then gradually the curtain pulls back to reveal not just some bumbling old man but a heavily armed individual prepared to take down anyone who sees beyond the veil. We can code it with language like ‘defensiveness’ and protect monsters with the insistence that all points of view are valid. But from the point of view of the torturer, torture is not only all right, it’s not torture: it’s For Your Own Good and Tough Love. Because Love the way many people define it means justifying treating other people in ways that make the person doing it feel better and then conflating that feeling to Doing the Right Thing, and reassuring one another that it was For the Best.
Things aren’t that black and white. As the Queen of Ghosting I know all too well that sometimes breaking contact with another person who is hurting one is the better course. Not everyone is worth everyone else’s time or friendship. Trust is earned, not a right. Forgiveness, too, must be earned, and the burden of responsibility is on the person who did wrong to make things right. Sorry means making changes, otherwise it’s just a word; you can apologize or keep doing the behavior but not both.
Some people will never be sorry for the consequences of their actions and blame them on those who suffer as a result. These people have drunk their own Kool-Aid so long there is no hope for them.
After all I’ve been through I know a lot of people wield their own insecurities and pain as weapons, and maybe I do too. The difference is I am willing to work with someone who is willing to work with me, and such people are more rare and valuable than blue amber.
Right now I’m in a bad place and I hurt a lot. I don’t respond to people I ordinarily would, knowing how fragile I become when I have been hurt too often by how I have been treated by others. I don’t trust easily, and once lost my trust has never been successfully repaired. People have other lives, other friends, other family, other concerns that dominate their lives.
Meanwhile I am building the Wall and tearing it down, up and down, in a cycle.
And in the meantime I have no outlet for all the unresolved anger, both at others and myself, for all the times I have been hurt by others, and that hurt has only been compounded by all my efforts and years of building and practicing interpersonal skills.
I think part of it is that I have put a lot of effort into knowing myself and working on my stuff, and I rarely meet others who have. Those few precious gems of blue amber, which look so violently different in different kinds of light, those few who have self-awareness and work at it with me, pay the price of the many I meet who swim in Denial like there is no tomorrow and it’s Tartarus or bust. Those who slam into my life like abusive, controlling trains and set fire to my imagination and leave me burning inside with no remorse.
When I’m so badly hurt, up goes the Wall, and I lose touch not only with those I love and appreciate but also with myself. I doubt myself and my own worth for being treated like I have none.
It’s so easy to feel that way being so disabled and poor and desperate and terrified so much of the time about my own survival. Knowing always that like it or not, those with choices have no understanding of the fight I go through every day just to keep surviving any way I can with a selection of only bad choices. It’s too easy if you have choices, if you have a job, if you have a home, if you have supportive family and friends, to not understand that it’s entirely possible for another person to not have those things—not because she doesn’t fight for them every day, work harder at it than someone without her challenges, not because she’s not motivated, but because of circumstances that can’t be fully understood by someone who has not been there.
Maybe this sounds like whining, maybe it sounds like making excuses, especially to someone who has not faced this darkness every day of her life. I’m not here to sugar-coat or leash in my anger that this is how things are. There have been people who have known me through this and know I only still live because I fight with everything I have.
Don’t compare your life to others. You have no idea what their journey is all about. And don’t assume someone with Walls needs to just tear them down and let you in. The best people say ‘no’ to each other all the time and it’s not a big deal. Share your vulnerability with those who have earned the right, to paraphrase Brené Brown. It is not a good idea to share your vulnerability with everyone unless your idea of a great life is painting ‘WELCOME’ on yourself and lying down.
I have spent so much of my life explaining myself to others and too often this is interpreted as a request for advice or rearranging my life so it looks more like theirs. I am not you. You do not live with the results of what you advise me to do—and often I get the impression such people would never take their own advice. Advice is like cooking—you should try it yourself before offering it to others.
My problem isn’t that I’m stupid, or that I haven’t thought of everything people suggest or even rant at me. My problem is that I am not like the people who are in a hurry to tell me how to live my life. This is some of what disability is, and being raised with totalitarian abuse and control during the years of the development of my personality and sense of self.
There are people out there who are lonely, looking for connection and understanding, but go about it aggressively, by projecting who they are and what they’ve been through onto others and expecting intimacy. Forcible, non-consensual, and self-centered.
If you want to know yourself, take a walk on your own dark side. Spend some time alone with yourself and do not run away. Learn who you are without other people around, learn how you feel and what Walls you build.
And unlike unsolicited advice, this is not given as a stiletto to who you are and the choices you make. These words are here for you to take what you want and leave the rest behind. And unlike intimacy, this is not me inviting you behind my Wall, but me narrating what it has been like living a life of strategic barrier-building and self-protection in a life where human hostility was the ground on which I was planted and grown, a twisted, gnarled, pruned life that cannot be understood without sitting in reverent silence and taking in how I grew into who I am.
I am not complacent in my misery. I do what I can. But what I can do is not what trees who have grown straight up in a forest can do. I can move small things, but I will never not have been born in a tempest and hurricane of violent winds. I will never be a forest-tree even were I transplanted. And if I were, I would perish in the shadows of the other trees who did not grow as I did.
Experience has taught me I am not like others. I may have the capacity to visit, but not to live, in a forest, or outside my Walls. They are there for a reason, and to paraphrase Robert Frost, never tear down a wall until you know why it was build. Don’t try to change what you don’t understand. I’ve come to believe that understanding is the most important part of change. Without understanding, we may destroy what is necessary and beautiful. And questioning what I have been told is not just the beginning of wisdom, but the never-ending process of it. The day I stop questioning and seeking to understand is the day I begin to turn to stone, petrified wood, no longer to grow.
Maybe these words are too abstract, never too be heard, howls in the dark, but they represent a great deal to me. Being alone is not the absence of people but the absence of understanding.
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