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Beyond Survival, Week 6: Faith and the Narrative Frame

When I was a child, I believed in the sanctity of sacrifice. My Catholic school was the haven that kept me stacked with books and care and nooks where I could disappear. Sometimes I’d spend grade school recesses alone in the church pews, moving my rosary beads from finger to finger, lost in incantation. The ceilings in that church soared enough to make possibilities feel possible, and if I dared to sing, I knew the walls would bring my voice back to me.Michelangelo's_Pieta_edited.jpg

I believed, back then, in the power of belief itself, the power of faith. I sought and sought out stories that might offer me some useful frame.

Not long ago, one late night on the phone with my best friend from Catholic boarding school, I was recounting one or another of my minor personal dramas, and she said to me, “You know, I wish I had this talent you have for making the story you tell yourself match what you need to believe about a situation.”

She’s right. I retroactively change my narrative frame, again and again, until the story becomes something I can live with, something I can move through.

Soon after that exchange, I was sitting on a stoop with my dearheart, and I found myself telling him, “I know before I tell you how I feel, you’re going to have a perfectly honed rebuttal, some hyper-eloquent narrative that’s going to serve to fade these feelings somehow, but before you start in with the eloquence, I want you to hear me out on these feelings.” After he’d heard me, I waited two beats for his narrative to begin, and there it was–exacting. Perfect. If I were less able to provide a counter-narrative, to keep bouncing the story back and forth between us until it makes sense for us both, his ability to do this would terrify me, but my sense of my own story is solid enough now that I don’t get so easily swept in anyone else’s versions. It’s taken years for me to get here.

When I teach, I strive to make sure my students learn to attune themselves to the ways language is shaping them, as much as they attend to the ways they then shape their language. Only through that critical distance from the stories we tell ourselves and each other, I think, are we able to sort what we want to hold true.

On the phone with another friend, she tells me about a podcast she’s been listening to, and the podcast has been talking about narratives, specifically that narratives are the thing that sets human beings apart from the rest of the animal world. I’m not sure how we know that bats aren’t passing along an oral tradition, or that prairie voles don’t have some system of convincing themselves they should do what prairie voles do–I happen to think we humans give ourselves too much credit any time we start going on about our inherent superiorities–but the point was that our fundamental experiences are, of course, shaped by the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

I build and rebuild my narratives so I can maintain some hold on the world, so I can give myself faith in some way. When I was young, I wore my religious narratives so well and so hard that they broke, cascaded off my neck, landed under my saddle oxfords. Before they broke, my childself believed that in accepting abuse I was becoming more Christlike, believed that whatever pain I was absorbing in the things Danny did to me was an offering for the care and containment of my family’s good life. Jesus, who was without sin, died to cleanse the sins from the sinners, right? So I believed my pain would absolve my stepfather, and that my sacrifice would keep my family whole for my mother and siblings. Like so many of us, I had to break the Catholic narrative that self-effacement and self-sacrifice were virtuous, or I was going to wind up letting the world crush me. To get free, I had to first decide that virtue should go fuck itself, and then knit backwards to find my own ethical lines.

And honestly? Every time I have put myself in some system of faith, some cluster of stories that other people have decided to live within and base their choices on, I wear it out. I love stories until the pages fall out. Given the right set of circumstances, I’m sure I could manage to convert to any major or minor religion. Give me a narrative that bonds me to other people, and baby I’m your best cult-follower. Give me some steps to follow, or some disciples, anything to make the hard work of cultivating hope a little less bleak, and I’m there. Ooooh, who’s got the next bandwagon? I’ll jump, I’ll jump.

I’ll jump, and then I’ll jump out, hit a hard roll on some faithless shoulder of some deserted road.

My Catholic school friend also said to me, “All these people want you/love you, but I think it’s because you reflect back to them, like a chameleon. Like a mirror. You show them whatever they want to see.” If I didn’t say, “What I’m reflecting back to you right now is I think your metaphors suck,” I wanted to.

Recently, I happened on an old livejournal, an anonymous one, that I kept when my son’s father first descended into addiction. There’s no voice in this journal; it’s stripped to bare fact, strung with appropriate truisms from the support group I was attending at the time. And my friend’s suck metaphors from the morning came back to me.

I texted my dearheart: “Now after reading that old blog, and seeing how shapeless the narrative self is there, I feel panicked. Formless.”

He texted back: “But I wonder if that reflection comes from manipulation/trauma? Survival mechanism?”

I read Margeaux Fragoso’s memoir, Tiger, Tiger, yesterday, after reading Roxane Gay’s Hunger. Hunger’s narrative frame is clear, direct, and aware, even as it describes so viscerally the disordered eating which Gay is aware sprung from sexual trauma. She knows exactly how she’s framed herself against the trauma, even as her pain clings to its residuals. And though our coping strategies have been different, I recognized deeply the impulse to destroy in oneself what, for a long time, felt like the reasons for my abuse: smallness, femininity, beauty, vulnerability.  I’ve gotten somewhat comfortable being feminine and beautiful and vulnerable, though I don’t feel like those things are reflective at all of my worth, positively or negatively. But I still hate feeling physically small. Like Gay, I went to boarding school, and while I was there I gained enough weight to find myself in a different body from the one which had been so often violated. Most of my adult life, I’ve stayed just overweight enough to be comfortable in a body that’s not the body my perpetrator desired. And when I’ve found myself in life circumstances that brought hunger with them, I’ve slimmed too close to my early, more slender, girl-form. And when that’s happened, it’s been a bitch: my own body, when it’s slim, is a fucking ptsd trigger, just like my natural hair color has been.

I’m nearly a year into growing out my natural hair color, now. That trigger has been broken. Small success, but success nonetheless. Now that I know my hair is no longer kept as a reaction to my trauma, I don’t know what I’ll do with it. Maybe I’ll color it. Maybe not. For now, I’m just glad that my hair is no longer any sort of emblem for me–now my hair is just hair. I’m not sure I care to break the weight trigger any time soon. It still feels safer only being attractive to people who like fuller forms.

But back to Fragoso, back to Tiger, Tiger and formless selves. I hope, for her sake, that before she died this year she found a way to break her perpetrator’s spell. The narrator of Tiger, Tiger seemed still trapped in a mind built for her pedophile’s pleasure. By the time I finished the book, I felt hung on its last line: He loves us very much. He, meaning Peter, the perpetrator, and the afterword describing a new life with Fragoso’s husband and daughter did little to alter my sense that Peter, who jumped to his death off a cliff, was the only one in the story who got free. For a half second, I wanted to jump off my own cliff.

But then I snapped back to my own present-tense: a quiet apartment with clean hardwood floors beneath my bare feet, my dog Betsy curled in the corner, content and sleeping away the afternoon, my tuxedo cat play-swatting in the next room with my dearheart’s calico, my dearheart coming through the front-door, storm-drenched and laughing with an old friend after they’d been out to lunch.

I don’t know much about the sort of faith that’s kept through elaborate, religious structures anymore, and I don’t think stories alone can save any of us. The only faith I can maintain is this: I do not expect the world to be good. I do not expect life to be just. But I know I can build a story I can stand to live in.

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Post-Existing Conditions

Pre-ExistingThis photo was taken the year before my mother married Danny, my stepfather. I scarcely remember myself pre-trauma, but here’s the visual record: I existed before the condition of my victimhood, and before the condition of my survivorship.

The revisions to healthcare currently under consideration will allow companies to discriminate against survivors of violence and assault, citing those experiences as “pre-existing conditions.” Danny’s abuse of other girls existed before I was born, and yet I am the one with the “condition?” No.

So much of therapy for survivors of sexual trauma consists of reframing fault, of taking displaced self-incrimination and redirecting it externally, but here’s the thing: even as a child, I knew what he was doing was wrong. I knew what he was doing was not my fault. What else I knew, though: the world would hold me accountable for what he had done to me.

And the sheriff that took the deposition from my teenaged mouth implied the fault was mine and my mother’s. And the culture over and over again touts Personal Responsibility, Personal Responsibility, Personal Responsibility.

Here’s some personal responsibility: I have paid thousands upon thousands of dollars out of pocket for mental health care in the 19 years since my stepfather’s arrest, and I have come to terms with knowing that I may never function “normally.” The condition of abuse was his disorder, but I am the one who will carry the symptoms for the rest of my life.

I went to the gynecologist last week and had to have a cancer biopsy done. Thankfully, the results came back fine, but the procedure set off my PTSD. For three days, I shelved my emails and my finals writing work, and instead I read in bed, I knitted a sock, my daughter read me fairy tales on the couch. I asked my loves to keep close so I wouldn’t be alone with the old shadows in my door frames. They brought me sorbet, they drank rum on my patio with me while I chain-smoked, they took me to dinner, they took me to the gym even though I felt weak and pushed me just enough to remind me of my strength. I talked, but not about the abuse, because I am sick of talking about the abuse.

The people closest to me do an inordinate amount of caretaking and emotional labor, in addition to the therapist I see, even this many years removed. But because I now have the resources I need to keep myself on keel, I’m able to be high functioning. I have to monitor my thresholds like anyone else with a lifelong condition, though, and I am careful with myself. I know I am hobbled. My community labors to keep me functioning. When I am functioning, I give back everything I can muster.

After my mother found out what happened to me, her brain broke full-stop. I don’t know how else to contextualize that, as mental illness is so complicated, and its sources so multifaceted. I’m sure that she likely was cycling in the years before, on a smaller scale, and knowing she could be claimed crazy was likely a perk for my predator. But the intervening trauma sent her careening. In the years since, she has had multiple psychotic breaks and suicide attempts. She has been hospitalized and hospitalized, hospitalized and hospitalized. I have power of attorney over her care, though I prefer to give her as much autonomy as she can manage. Officially, her diagnosis is bipolar disorder. It’s easy to use the Personal Responsibility argument against someone with bipolar disorder, because the disease itself impairs rationality and decision-making. In a manic state, my mother is capable of all manners of literal madness, making decisions that baffle anyone whose brain allows them to keep conscientious control of themselves. She is wild and wily. She is easy to vilify. She is easy to blame.

My mother and I are post-existing in someone else’s condition, not pre-existing. We do have damage that can not be undone. I know full well that we are not at fault for those damages, but the reality is that our entire support systems continue to bear the brunt of the care we need to keep functioning.

I am constantly frustrated with myself for what I need. I’d like my living to be something that’s a manageable given, and I’d especially like for my brain to quit mooring me in past horror. But then I remind myself of the Dutch woman that I wrote about here. Plenty of us wind up so moored in past horror that there is no present, no future. Some of us wind up dead.

Every time I think about what’s happening in our government, I’m baffled. I don’t know how to grapple with these people, people who’ve so convinced themselves of their own superiority that they think other lives are disposable. People who want dominion, who think dominion is their rightful place in the world, are people I do not want to understand.

I had five years pre-existing in my own sovereign body before Danny came in. The real condition, the source condition–thinking one has a right to violate, control, and dominate other people’s bodies–that condition is not mine, and it is not my mother’s. That condition is sicker than we will ever be, and I won’t let it convince me that the problem is me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Beyond Survival, Week 5: Letting Go

My worst fear of what will happen if I let go is. . .

I don’t think I’m afraid anymore of letting go.2015-04-26-01-56-56-1

I can tell there’s something I need to let go when Bishop’s One Art starts circling my inner ears again. Recently, my best friend asked what would do if I wound up in another heartbreak. I didn’t have to pause to think. I said, “I’ll be heartbroken. I’ll grieve.” Sometimes I stall and resist, but ultimately, I’ll walk away from what doesn’t work, and I’ll grieve.

When I was twenty, my first husband and I owned a hole-in-the-wall pizza joint. We lived in a little khaki cottage trimmed white with wrought iron leaves. We had two Japanese magnolias, one in front and one in back, and an orange tabby named Beaux. I brought my son home from the hospital to that house, and spent my days nursing him, trawling livejournal, and keeping the house fastidiously clean. Every day, I’d stroll my infant son through the midtown streets. I had a meal planning calendar and a dusting schedule. I was exactly what I imagined good wives could be. Then I found out my husband had been hiding a serious and expensive addiction from me. We lost everything, including each other.

Gone were my husband, our restaurant, the car, and the house. I sold my engagement ring to buy groceries. My clothing size normally ranges from an 8 to a 10, but I wound up wearing a 0-2 from nursing my son with nothing in the house to eat.

And it propelled me into getting my GED, going to college, and going to therapy like it was an extra full-time job, because I knew my son didn’t have anyone to depend on but me.

I got remarried a few years later, and we had another child. This time, I didn’t get lost in my marriage. I stayed in therapy. I started writing in earnest, and got into the college of my dreams. I kept hold of all the things that matter most to me. And then, again, everything unraveled. I had to let go again. I had to walk away.

Walking away meant years and years of poverty. It meant food insecurity and housing insecurity. But I kept my kids close and my intentions for my life in sight. I kept writing. I kept my face in the books, graduated with a good GPA, won some prizes. I finished my MFA, moved on to a PhD. I’ve gotten good at walking away from people and things that aren’t good for me, and all that walking away has brought me to a place where everything in my life, and everyone in my life, is there because they matter to me.

The one thing I haven’t been willing to allow back into my life is partnership. It’s been years since I’ve had a committed, close-range relationship that I actually wanted to last. I’ve dabbled and dated and played, here and there, but each time I was prepared from the start to let go.

This week, I decided to put myself through an exercise: if I were to have a committed partnership, what would that look like? I tried at first to think about what I wanted, and couldn’t even begin, because I’m not in a place yet where I believe I can have the things I need from another person, if I were to try to need. Instead, I decided to make a list of things I’d want and need in order to stay, in order to quit letting go.

And so, here’s the list, repetitions and anaphora abounding:

I want a partner who knows his or her own heart and is willing to stand up for what he or she believes in, regardless of what the rest of the world has to say about it. I want a partner with solid ethics and with nerve. I want a partner who is always searching for a greater and deeper understanding of the world, of him/herself, and the people around him/her.

I want a partner who can decide what they want and make the necessary sacrifices to achieve it, who decides what they’re going to do and then does it. I want someone whose word is solid. Who shows up when they say they’re going to show up, and lets me know when they can’t. Who makes commitments realistically and holds to those commitments.

I want a partner who will take responsibility for their failings, who can own their own shit and not blame me or pick stupid fights when they feel guilty. I want someone who will call me on my shit, too, and be honest with me even when it’s hard. I want someone I can trust to do the right thing instead of the easy thing. I want someone who is willing to give me the choice to love them instead of trying to manipulate me into loving them. I want someone who does not lie to me to save face. I want someone who is more substance than image.

I want someone who respects me, innately, and who is someone I can respect even when we disagree or things get hard. I want someone who understands me, and who I understand, and who will work with me to reach understanding when our communication breaks down. I want someone who won’t turn my apologies against me. I want someone who can apologize.

I want someone who loves my ugly seams as much as they love my beauty. I want someone who is willing to be vulnerable enough to show me their own ugly seams, and who gives me a chance to love them as they are, in their full, multifaceted complexity. I want someone who can admit their fallibilities.

I want someone who truly values my work and will never ask me to give up doing what I love, who will work with me and who will count my successes as their own success. I want someone whose sense of purpose is stronger than their need to feel good.

I want a partner who tries to be a haven when the world hurts. I want a partner who will let me comfort them when they are in pain, who will take solace in my arms instead of drawing away from me to nurse their wounds alone.

I want a partner who will work with me to make our home a sanctuary, who will tend to the domestic affairs with mutuality, who will negotiate with me to make sure that things get done in a way that feels fair to both of us. I want a partner who approaches problems with solutions instead of blame, shame, and animosity. Who, instead of getting mired in “this is your fault,” or, “this is my fault,” can say, “This is a problem. How can we fix it?” or, “I’m not okay with how this happened. I need _____ from you.” I think I deserve this much because this is how I approach problems in my life.

I want a partner who communicates as thoroughly as I do. I want a partner who will actively work with me to communicate about problems instead of picking petty, useless fights. I want a partner who can recognize their own irrationality and talk through it with me to a place that’s rational and reasonable.

I want a partner who can detach from my trauma responses and understand that, while frustrating for me and everyone else, they are not to be taken personally. I want a partner who will listen to me when I say, “I understand that this is not something you caused, but I still need for you to do _____ so that I can get through this and build trust.” Who can understand that when I start to dissociate, the thing that helps is having someone who can bring me to a place of presence and safety, and that lashing out at me only exacerbates my brain’s trauma responses.

I want a partner who likes a reasonable amount of pdas. Who will hold my hand and match my pace when we walk. Who will snuggle up to me and caress me on the couch. Who will let me rub their feet after a long day. I want a partner who needs nurturing touch as much as I do, who will let me bury my face in their chest when I’m feeling needy, who will stroke my hair and tell me they love me. I want a partner who will be cozy with me. I want a partner who will vocalize their feelings for me regularly, and who will hear me with gratitude when I shower them with love and affirmations and mushy bullshit.

I want a partner who loves my sexuality and who will explore our bodies fully with me, enthusiastically and unabashedly. I want someone who is sexually curious and open. I want a partner who works with me to create safety around our sexuality. I want a partner who is satisfied with me, and who doesn’t need or seek other romantic dabblings to get their sexual needs and ego needs met. I want monogamy. I want a partner who will protect our bond and work to keep our relationship the primary center around which the rest of our lives can flourish.

I want a partner who will come home to me every night. I want a partner who will think I’m hot as fuck even as age takes its toll, even when I’m a little chubby or out of shape or stressed, even when I don’t feel my most sexy. I want a partner who will let me love their body fully, flaws and all, and not shy away from revealing their most intimate facets to me, who knows that I will cherish and protect and nurture all their vulnerabilities.

I want a partner who will love my children deeply and appreciate my motherhood. I want a partner who is open to the possibility of more children, but who can understand the very particular set of financial and career circumstances we would need to make that possible. I need a partner who can be okay with the prospect that more biological children might not be in our future, given my age and career constraints. I need a partner who will love and commit to me even if I can’t bear babies for them. I also need a partner who can be a decent parent and role model, and who wants to be so.

I want a partner who understands that showing up to social functions (familial functions, career functions, functions with friends, etc) is important, and being good to the rest of the people in our sphere is important, even if they don’t particularly enjoy everyone. I want to be integrated into my partner’s family, and I want to work to earn the love and acceptance of my partner’s family, and I want them to do the same for me.

I want someone who will be generous with me, and who can let me be generous with them without either of us feeling like we’re carrying the whole load. I want parity and mutual support.

I want both of us to be busting our asses, in the trenches, together, so we arrive together at our goals. I want my contributions to be appreciated and recognized. I want to be able to appreciate and recognize my partner’s contributions. I want us not to feel like things are so out of balance that anyone needs to keep score. I want my partner to take joy in my success and help me achieve what I set out to achieve. I want a partner who is driven to their own success, and I want to be invested in supporting them to realize their dreams. I want someone who is either as ambitious as I am or at the least who values my ambition and supports it.

I want someone who is reasonably financially responsible and who makes choices with their financial life that I can respect. Extreme compulsive spending is a dealbreaker for me. Living reasonably within one’s means is a must. I don’t want someone who is so frugal that it makes life miserable, though. I want someone that I can trust with joint accounts, shared checking and savings and investments and property, and who will share resources for our shared goals and livelihoods, but I also want to have our own separate accounts so that we can maintain some autonomy and not have to justify every dime to each other. I want someone who will treat me and surprise me sometimes, and I want to do the same for them.

I want someone who takes responsibility for their mental health and who isn’t afraid to seek outside help when they are struggling. I want someone who can hear me when I tell them that there is some problem with their mental health, and who will take steps to manage their mental health so that it does not become a destructive problem. I want someone who will tell me when my behavior is concerning them, and who will level with me if I get to a place where I need to seek mental health care.

I want someone who has enough self control that I don’t wind up having to step into an overly responsible role. Who can tell when they’ve had too much to drink and shouldn’t drive. Who can admit when they’re caught in some destructive cycle and need to break out of it. Who can decide that the risk of doing something isn’t worth the temporary pleasure it might bring. Who makes their decisions with a global perspective instead of from a place of temporary enjoyment. Who can keep their compulsions in check enough that they won’t destroy our lives or our connection.

I want someone who will never be emotionally or physically abusive toward me, and who will recognize when I need nurturing and care. I want someone who will cherish my tenderness and not take advantage of my softest spots. Name calling is a definite no. Not respecting boundaries is a definite no. Disrespectful language, raging at each other, and physical intimidation are all things I don’t want in my home. Language that essentializes eachother (you’re such a _____. you’re always _____) is also a no. I want to fight fair.

I want someone who will play hard with me. I want someone who will get wild with me. I want someone I can drag to poetry readings and shows and art openings and lectures, and I want someone who can be at home wherever we travel. I want someone who can hold their own with my colleagues, but who can also shoot the shit with a gas station attendant in rural Alabama. I want someone who is interested in everything, who is up for the next adventure. I want someone who is proud to have me on their arm. I want someone I can be proud to have on mine. I want someone whose worldview makes sense to me, whose judgements of other people and the world around us makes sense to me. I want someone whose judgement I trust, so I can relax and enjoy our playtime together.

I want someone who loves food. I want someone who takes reasonable care of their body, but who isn’t so wrapped up in appearances that they can’t take pleasure in the body. I want someone who can accept that when the semester is in full swing and things get hectic, fuck it, we’re getting takeout or eating ramen and protein bars. I want someone who also values my attempts to get and stay in decent shape, and who won’t let themselves go too far. I want someone who’s always working to improve and maintain their physical self, but not to the point that they’re sucking the pleasure out of life. Exercise yes, decent diet yes, but also fried chicken and cookies and beer yes.

I want someone who will drag me out of the house and remind me of the wider world when I get too insular. I want someone who likes planning excursions and will take control of making sure we get out sometimes, because I generally hate making plans for leisure activities.

I want someone who can recognize the gifts I bring to their life, and who will appreciate those gifts. Who is grown enough to acknowledge when one of us is more skilled at something than the other is, and who can work with me to divide the labor to suit both of our gifts and talents.

I want someone who will be as committed as I am to making things work, who is mature enough not to threaten me with divorce or with leaving when things get hard. The next time I make a lifelong commitment, I want it to stick. I want it to be truly lifelong. I don’t need these characteristics in all of my relationships, but I do need them in a serious, committed partner. Even if I have to wait decades for this person to show up in my life, even if it takes years and years to build this sort of trust with someone before we make any commitments, this is what I want for my life. Lifelong, sustaining, grown people love. Love that works with our own particular humanities, flaws and all.

One day I’d like not to need to let go.

 

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Beyond Survival, Week 4: Assessing the Damages

After my husband smashed the windows out of my jeep, the owner of the glass shop said to me, “You must be Some Kind of Woman to make a man do that.” At the time, I laughed. Shook my head. img_20130703_104455Said, “Man, I don’t know about all that.”

The last time my step-father’s shadow came into my dark bedroom, he pulled off the baby blanket I clutched to my body, stared a moment at me pretending to sleep in my t-shirt and underwear, tried to pull off my clothes while I pretended to toss in my sleep. Finally, he said, “Girl, you’re just not worth the trouble anymore.”

When I watched, during this election cycle, Trump deflect so many allegations of sexual violence, one of his most used retorts was that the accusing women weren’t attractive enough to incite such behavior from him.

The message is insidious. I try not to absorb it. But still it’s there, the message that my ability to make myself desireable to men is deeply entwined with how much I deserve their violence. Over and over again, victimization gets wrapped up in worthiness.

I have worked so hard to become the sort of woman whose sense of her own worth is detached from other people’s desires. I don’t want to be worth the energy it would take to control me. I never wanted to be worth the energy it took to control me. And I don’t want to be able to control another.

I savor my own loneliness because it’s been the thing that’s kept me free.

And I know I don’t want to stay so clamped and closed. I shut down so easily. I am so guarded, so wary, so prone to shutting myself off from what other people want from me. Self-absorption can so easily grow from self-preservation. I wish I could imagine a way to stay self-preserving and still bring a partner into my fold.

If I look for the place I’m most damaged, it’s in trust.

I trust nothing, and I expect nothing. In the span of this election, I wanted to believe we were better—that we as a nation and as a culture had begun to make enough progress that, at the very least, we wouldn’t put in power a man who so clearly thinks women are nothing more than pretty fucktoys. I wanted to believe this, but I didn’t believe it.

And then I saw my family circulate more memes villifying people who’ve needed public assistance, and I remembered those years in the recession when I couldn’t find a job that would offset the cost of childcare for my daughter. I remembered crying in my car the first time I was able to buy food with foodstamps after my husband and I had split. I remembered sobbing in gratitude that I lived in a world where people thought my kids deserved to eat fruit even though the only labor I was doing couldn’t draw a paycheck. I was facing eviction and I was looking for a job like it was my full-time job, and I had these two small children to think about, and it had been months since they had been able to eat an apple. I look to my culture, and I see that I can work myself into the ground, I can be dutiful and dilligent, and because I haven’t been willing to take abuse from so many men, I am a problem and my children don’t deserve to eat.

Right now, I look to my culture and the primary message I can see is that I should’ve shut up and stayed pretty and catered to abuse if I wanted people to think my kids deserved to eat.

It’s thankfully been several years since I needed any form of public assistance. We live in a tiny apartment where I sleep in a “den” without a door, and my kids have the actual bedroom (separated with four curtain panels). Currently I don’t have a working vehicle, but we make it, and I can buy our apples without help from anyone else. Still I’ll never forget being branded lazy and useless during one of the most heartbroken times of my life.

I read recently that sexual trauma victims actually have more mental health problems if their trauma is publicly disclosed. There is the initial violence. Then there is the violence of interacting with a culture that hates victimhood more than it hates the initial violence or its perpetrators.

It’s been over ten years since I was willing to trust a partner in any true and deep way. Ten years ago is when I married the man whom I loved deeply, whom I thought could be present and tender with me even in my pain. Instead, when he saw the real, daily depth of my woundedness, he responded with rage. He took it personally. He was outraged at the thought that I might need to be sexually unavailable sometimes. He was outraged when I shut down. He told me I was a bitch and a prude. He called me a trainwreck when my PTSD resurged.

I’m really good at playing blasé, and my game face is usually solid. I sometimes make jokes about my many husbands to people I’ve just met. I act like I don’t give a care. I play ascerbic.

But the place where I’m most damaged? I still can’t bring myself to trust real intimacy. I still don’t trust the world to value or to love me. And I’m still not sure I feel like being “worth the trouble.”

Vision: I want to go on living my life in a way that makes me feel deserving of my own respect, and fuck the rest.

Action: I’m going to continue raising these babies. I’m going to savor my alone-ness. I’m going to keep myself hard at my own work.

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Beyond Survival, Week 3: Yes, I Took His Knowledge With His Power

the-agony-of-powerBut when I put on His knowledge, I found it didn’t fit my form, because His knowledge said: there is pleasure in subjugating another to your own whims and your own desire, and there is pleasure in indifference, in watching others fall.

I have never wanted that pleasure, that power to bend another. And now, when I’m told from various directions and in myriad ways that I should somehow work harder to make myself more palatable, so that I can make other people comfortable, so that I can make sure to help people acquiesce to my own desire, I can’t. I just fucking can’t. Charm looks too much like the face of my enemy.

When I was very young, my two favorite poems were, Edgar Allen Poe’s Alone, and Emily Dickenson’s I had a Guinea Golden. To my mind, those two poems in sequence were my first map, and I still have them memorized:

From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were; I have not seen
As others saw; I could not bring
My passions from a common spring.
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow; I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone;
And all I loved, I loved alone.
Then- in my childhood, in the dawn
Of a most stormy life- was drawn
From every depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still:
From the torrent, or the fountain,
From the red cliff of the mountain,
From the sun that round me rolled
In its autumn tint of gold,
From the lightning in the sky
As it passed me flying by,
From the thunder and the storm,
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view.

             —

I had a guinea golden—
I lost it in the sand—
And tho’ the sum was simple
And pounds were in the land—
Still, had it such a value
Unto my frugal eye—
That when I could not find it—
I sat me down to sigh.

I had a crimson Robin—
Who sang full many a day
But when the woods were painted,
He, too, did fly away—
Time brought me other Robins—
Their ballads were the same—
Still, for my missing Troubador
I kept the “house at hame.”

I had a star in heaven—
One “Pleiad” was its name—
And when I was not heeding,
It wandered from the same.
And tho’ the skies are crowded—
And all the night ashine—
I do not care about it—
Since none of them are mine.

My story has a moral—
I have a missing friend—
“Pleiad” its name, and Robin,
And guinea in the sand.
And when this mournful ditty
Accompanied with tear—
Shall meet the eye of traitor
In country far from here—
Grant that repentance solemn
May seize upon his mind—
And he no consolation
Beneath the sun may find.

To my childhood mind, He was the demon in my view, and His was the eye of the traitor who stole my star. I used to think I was very, very alone when I turned to face the demon. And I used to think that stars could be stolen from my sky.

I also used to think what he’d done had something to do with my being a girl and his being a man. And then so many grown boys and mothers of boys came to whisper to me, and tell it had happened to them. And then so many grown boys and grown girls came to whisper to me that it had happened to them, but their He had been a woman. And then I realized that, though we have a system that puts more power in the hands of more men, individual abuse of power is genderless.

And too, I used to think that my judgment had been damaged, because I was a Victim, and surely His perversion had crushed the lens through which I viewed the world. Therapy assumed this. Our culture still presumes this. But then I realized that, no, because of what I know from human ugliness, I am more careful and more particular with where I place my true trusts. And the people I let in and the people to whom I give myself have mostly been so good. And when I’ve encountered people who wield their power wrongly, I have always walked away. Over and again, I’ve put my self-sovereingty and my peace (and that of my children) above some wrongheaded love.

I used to think my sexuality had been skewed, because my culture told me my queerness and gender oddness and my kinks were a perversion, and one perversion must have of course followed some other perversion. I know now that I have fought hard to put my sexuality in its right places, and I know that along the way I’ve had a lot of falsehoods to sort, but I am solid in my desires and my willingness to seek those desires with clarity and care.

And tonight, I know that I let his knowledge fall dripping from my hair. I let the demon in my view crumple into itself until it became one small, dead, repentant man,  and I looked around and realized I had never been alone, my Pleiad was never gone from my sky after all. My golden guinea still sifts through its sand. My robin still sings, bright crimson.

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Beyond Survival Week 2: I Couldn’t Tell/ I Told

I couldn’t tell because I wasn’t stupid.
He never had to make a threat.

He was a dimpled charmer,
and I had a flat affect.
I was so negative
I was so Negative

after all those years
being made his sieve

I was the place he poured
his rage I was the place

where his de/s/ ire collected
I was on the surface

mostly a blank, blank place
so far inside myself gone

I could barely talk at all
you could ask me anything

and back I’d stare
I didn’t want to give

anyone else anything
that might come 

from all my many mouths
Not even the truth or

my supposedly valuable voice
All I wanted was to be left

alone, alone. All I wanted
was a pile of portals

to anyone else’s worlds
All I wanted was a locked door

and a bed full of books and maybe
a tesseract.

I didn’t tell
because I didn’t want to disturb

the known world 
because I knew if I did, I’d be left

to sift myself (into what?)
and because I always knew 

how very small it was to be a girl
and because all my mother had wanted

was family
and I thought my brothers needed

a father 
Because after I told 
there would be a sheriff
who’d ask my mother what she’d done

to deprive a man so
he’d turn his need on me
and everybody everybody would
shake so much blame on her,

my dear mother who’d known nothing
my dear mother who was slivered
as much as any of us by the truth

and that sheriff would badger
“are you sure?”—was I sure
I was really that young, 

was I sure because it seemed Odd
my story didn’t match his story
because clearly if there were a liar

the small girl must be the liar
she must have motives that snarling
pinchfaced girl must have something
up her pantsleeves 

and no matter what he did
she must be at least exaggerating
let’s not bother imagining
the unimaginable

the unimaginable being yes,
a grown man would, and did,
and knew damn well what 
he was doing

because power is being able to give favor
to whomever's mind we can most easily
map to our own, and that sheriff had power

until he didn’t, until the dear Assistant DA
had those tapes thrown out, and new tapes
made, new statements,

but still that sheriff would come sit
in my section at Waffle House after work
and grin, the point being

if I thought I could get off my knees,
he’d make sure I served standing

and there would a newsprint article
and reporters always fuck up the facts

and there would be the constant 
of being told what a minor, Minor

Child could not do (have a place to live
without adult supervision, as if
adult supervision had worked so well

all those years) and it would be so funny
when The Boys filled my computer
with kiddie porn just to fuck with me
because GOD COULD YOU LIGHTEN UP

but no, neither I nor God, far
as I could tell, could lighten up

and because all the others he’d touched/
raped/ somehow harmed

would scramble to whisper their support
oh my truth but they wouldn’t dare

say it out loud in a courtroom
who knows why, maybe 
it was his family’s money

 (Did all those quiet girls
with his family name
kept their inheritance lines?)

but I oh how lucky 
never had his family name

or maybe it was pure plain cowardice 
that kept them clamped
(I lied, too, terrified, at the start)

but no other Victims showed a voice
in court, and I was alone

But I told because when I was sixteen
Kathleen called me her most beautiful poet 
then she told for me

I told because my most favorite Girl 
and I together showed ourselves
how glorious real sex was

I told because my most favorite Boy
and I together showed ourselves
how glorious real sex was and he
told for me

Because the guidance counselor asked,
“how are you going to feel
if you let him get off
and there are others?”

And because I had always been writing
I had been writing everything 
before I even knew letters I’d been writing

and so when the time came I handed
over the handwritten, dated pages
which detailed the whole history

of all he had done
which I had always been writing

because the written world had always
been more real to me than reality,

my small self had decided to write
the reality (as preservation of my sanity)

So finally he fell to a child’s journal.
I never had to take the stand—
he took the plea
and after me, there never was another.

No matter what I still carry,
I broke the broken legacy
and that is enough.

Photo for I couldn't tell i told

Go here if you missed the introduction to the "Beyond Survival" posts.

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“There Was No Prospect of Hope for Her”

Back in May, I came across this article from the Women in the World section of the New York Times: http://nytlive.nytimes.com/womenintheworld/2016/05/12/dutch-victim-of-childhood-sex-abuse-suffering-from-ptsd-allowed-euthanasia/

“There was no prospect of hope for her.” All summer, I’ve held this phrase under my tongue, let it rattle like a marble against my teeth. I think now it’s begun to dissolve. I do believe her death was humane, and am not interested in sidelining my subject with concerns over euthanasia as a practice. My need to stare down her decision is personal.

The years she endured (ages 5-15) closly overlap the years I endured (ages 6-16). Of course, I don’t know the particulars of what happened to her, beyond the shorthand given in the article.

What happened to me all those years, in legal shorthand: Rape and Sodomy of a Minor Child, first and second degrees. That’s to the point, alright. But they only charged him on three counts when there should’ve been a couple thousand. I am not being hyperbolic.

In therapists’ shorthand: childhood sexual abuse. I happen to hate this phrase, not because of what it describes, rather because of how. It’s so full of lolling l’s and oooohs that it sounds like a taunt, especially when it lands on the softness, the sinisterness of the s. I want what happened to sound a hard stop. I want it curt and finite.

In literary shorthand: reader, I am Lolita. Or at least I was once. It should go without saying that you can’t trust Humbert’s version of events, and if you take him at his face you’re a fool. I don’t care if you think he was a genius: Kubrick’s movie sucked. The 90’s remake was even worse.

My Humbert died in prison over a decade ago. I am 18 years now removed from him, and on the front of things I’m nothing like the tragedy I was expected to be.

I’m nothing like the tragedy I was expected to be. All the old scars are barely audible anymore. I have a life that I truly like. My children are half-grown, brilliant and bright, and they know their skin as their own. They know themselves as their own. I wasn’t the first girl my Humbert hurt, but I was the last. And my life may still be under poverty lines, but it is wholly mine.

Recently, one of my loves asked, “What saved you?” and that phrase has twined with the other, “There was no prospect of hope for her.”

What saved me. What saved me. The what’s and who’s are too many and too long to encompass here for now, although of course I take stock and keep the list running. And often I don’t feel particularly saved, though I so often meet the phrase “you look great!” I say I believe her death was humane because I know, no matter how great I look or how much I love my life, my head is often still a nest of terrors. What I’ve done is learned to carry my nest of terrors in ways that it can’t hobble me or bring the world more hurt.

Of course I’ve already said all of this. I’ve said it part-way already on this blog, which I keep leaving vacant for months, sometimes years, because I keep losing my nerve to speak. I’ve said it in therapist’s offices and group therapy rooms and I’ve said it in hospitals and I’ve said it in court rooms and lawyers’ offices and twelve-step rooms and I’ve said it on the phone with friends and mentors and across the table in restaurants and bars and I’ve said it in classrooms and I’ve said it from podiums, said it and said it and I’m sick of hearing myself say it and I’m sick of all the language—the survival and the salvage and the wreckage and the damage and the redemption and the healing, whatever that means, and all these words I’ve received to explain myself, most of none of which are mine.

And yet, when I stare down the figment of that Dutch girl, that now-dead girl, and the so many others of us there have been, it doesn’t so much matter how sick I am of my own story. It doesn’t so much matter, either, how sick you are—those of you who aren’t survivors, or those of you (survivor or not) who don’t want to sit with other people’s pain, those of you who think it’s oh so blasé when people show their vulnerable seams.

If you don’t want to read this, I’m not writing it for you. But here’s what I’m about to do—I ordered the old weekly workbook I used in group therapy well over a decade ago, Beyond Survival: A Writing Journey for Healing Childhood Sexual Abuse . And for the next year, I’m going to retrace my steps through it here, every week, publicly. Looking through these pages, now even the headings make me cringe. I’m not going to give you the headings or the chapters. If you want those, go track the book down yourself. It’s out of print but you can find it used. The chapters are full of twelve-step truisms and presumptions and language vague enough to land in a horoscope column. It’s a pretty rudimentary map, definitely not literary writing. But still I’m so glad Maureen Brady doubled back through herself and made that map for me, because there was a time that I badly needed the particular trail it cut. Now, I’m going to double back and tamp that ground again with my own feet. For the dead Dutch girl. For me. For whoever else needs to know there are ways out.

And this isn’t meant to be literary writing. This is immediate raw draft, hit send, then let it go writing. Therapeutic writing. Who knows what the hell will come out of it. The prompts are three parts. Part one typically goes: complete the sentence that’s been started for at least twenty minutes. I’ll start that sentence and write, then erase the words that started me which weren’t mine. Then come parts two and three: the vision and the action. I’ll show you how I work those each week, too. Starting now.

 

 

WEEK ONE:

Down on Bay Minette Creek

Biting horseflies and yellowjackets down the point that stretched into the creekbend. Skinny dipping, I am old enough to be embarassed when the boat passes. I can’t tell how much of me the passengers can see. Their motor rips a current through the water, cold and tea-black. Beneath my feet, sogged leaves. The passengers (how many?) I can hardly remember. I remember their metallic cans, lettered in red, and their sun-umbered shoulders, and the unconcerned corners of their mouths.

He leans into the shelf of earth and roots above the point’s small sandbar beach, stands there in his polo shirt. His jean shorts, a moderate blue, a reasonable blue, a no-hysterics-here blue. He waves at the passengers, smiles genuine and easy.

I shift my feet underwater, and new weight on the leaves sends up methane around me. Bubbles, minnows bristle my bare skin. All my skin is bare. It doesn’t matter if I want an audience. It doesn’t matter if I want clothes at all. If I get out of the water, the horseflies and yellow jackets will swarm to welt my skin.

It doesn’t matter if I want to want or want not to want. It doesn’t matter if I want the attention—I happen to hate attention. I want to melt into foam on the creek. But I know I will be centrifugal until I figure out how to break myself.

The only way out was to break myself. He wanted me his and whole and his.

I carved hypocrisy beneath my breasts for him to find. This is not a metaphor. I carved the word, “hypocrisy.” I carved others on my thighs, ankles, torso, for him to find. I wanted him to find me being mine. I needed to see it, too, for me. I used a straight razor.

I did not want “the attention.” I was trying to break his gaze. I was trying to force him to look away. I was trying to find a way to make my form mine, and cutting lettered lines in my skin wasn’t shit compared to what all else I’d endured.

I hacked my hair in the bathroom mirror. I bleached out the gold he coveted and made it run manic panic red—red as stop signs, red as women’s blood, acapella red as Tori Amos singing but I haven’t seen Barbados, so I must get out of this.

And by the time I started breaking open and breaking out, I did not give a fuck what you thought of how I carried that pain.

This summer, I toned my hair back to match my original dark ash/gold roots, something I’ve tried and tried over the years to do and keep, but can’t seem to manage to do for too long, because facing my face, framed like it was when I was still his, triggers all manner of flashbacks and dissociative spells. My brain sees my face framed in dark gold, and suddenly it’s set back in a past it thinks I need protection from. This pisses me off. Forcrissakes, it’s hair. And it’s mine. I should be able to do whateverthefuck I want to do with it, without it being some outsized ordeal.

There Was No Prospect of Hope

Vision: I want to be able to face my own face in a way that’s daily and mundane. I want to be able to wear my own damn hair however I please without my brain sending out its terror patrols. It’s not so much that it matters to me what color it is. I’m not attached to a particular way of having my hair. What I want is to break the trigger.

Action: For this year (and maybe longer, maybe), I’m going to let my hair continue to grow back to its natural state. I’m going to let it be as it is, dark ash and gold with silver branching in, without frying it at the roots, until the trigger is broken.

 

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