In the Blog
Illustration: Saul Freedman-Lawson
Content Warning: This piece contains discussion of sexual assault and its aftermath, trauma, and psychiatry, and includes misogynist and homophobic language.
I’ve used writing as a way to process things for as long as I can remember. I’m a lover of cheesy poetry, short stories and social commentary. I was the chatty nerdy kid that no one would be caught dead speaking to, sitting in the back of my middle school class with a pile of dystopian fiction and zoology texts. But there are some things that elude even the best writers. In the first week of July I was sexually assaulted twice. By two different men. On two separate occasions. The hardest part wasn’t making it through the assaults themselves but the aftermath. After I was assaulted I couldn’t understand what happened. I couldn’t quite understand why I felt the way I was feeling. Logic told me it was assault. But my head somehow convinced me otherwise. I laughed it off, kept going to work, kept up my volunteer duties, I legitimately thought nothing of it for the first week after the first assault, to the point that I’d jokingly tell friends that “I had sex with a guy I didn’t want to.” But each time the words left my mouth I’d cringe instinctively a little, more and more each time. I knew I didn’t feel right. I tried picturing the words coming from someone else and suddenly I couldn’t justify them anymore. So I wrote. I was convinced it would all make sense if I put it down on paper. That it wasn’t real, I was overreacting, it was all in my head. But my words betrayed me. Every time. I would write and read it and reread it, but no matter how I tried it read like the ‘r’ word. I stopped writing.
But this wasn’t the end. This definitely hadn’t been the first time I was assaulted. Or the second. But it was the first time where I’ve been a fully formed adult. I’ve learnt that adulthood isn’t having things, a career, getting married, having serious relationships, or having a family. What makes an adult is being able to see your own rawness. Your faults. Your past. Your present. And being able to connect things that sometime scare the shit out of you and would have gut punched a younger you off their feet.
And this was a gut punch of rather epic size as they say. Reading back what I had written, the first wave that hit me was that it was that four letter word that I can’t say, even now. But the second was a tidal wave about 14 stories high—if these two incidents were assault, then there were so many other incidents that were also assault and I just couldn’t accept that. It was a disorienting moment, as someone who works and volunteers in social justice circles and as someone who identifies as a feminist. It was jarring to realize that I had misjudged my own past in such a profound way. I’d accepted the fact that I’d been assaulted at least three times before these two. Once was already too many. Five was a catastrophe. I couldn’t process more than that. So I didn’t. I put things back in box. Like someone packing an overstuffed suitcase. To deal with later. Or at least I tried. Some things though, refuse to remain contained. I slowly made my way through processing what had just slammed into me. Sorting through long buried wreckage that came back up with the tide one small piece at a time.
Like a fleet of ghost ships washed up onto the shore, when the waters receded I was left with two main realizations. Things that I had hoped and thought were long gone and forgotten had come back to haunt me.
I did not know how to recognize abusive behaviour when it was pointed at me . And perhaps even scarier, tied to the first point;
Part of me could only relate to myself and to others through coping mechanisms and blaming myself and holding myself to wildly different standards than I hold others
This last part in particular was and is something that has haunted me for many years. Something I’d felt guilty to admit and something I’ve often hidden with a great deal of shame. Googling brings up few resources for survivors who experience this bizarre oxymoronic symptom. But it’s a real thing, something that often comes with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The abuse and trauma we experience literally melts into us like plastic from a car fire. We don’t talk about it because we are scared that it somehow proves that we deserved the abuse, and that we were asking for it. I kept this in the darkest confine of my subconscious where it produced endless streams of guilt and shame. I had prayed that it had all gone away, after I worked hard to build healthy relationships and friendships in my late twenties, but after these two assaults the streams turned to rivers and I drowned in them periodically at random moments during the day. My body would seize and I’d slip into my own world where I couldn’t stop the feeling that this was all my fault. That I had wanted it. It’s what so many of us were taught from a young age.
That’s the most difficult part of processing trauma for many of us. We come to internalize many of the toxic narratives that surround us. Even if we can clearly see rape culture and gendered violence when it’s happening to others, somehow, the laws of physics and the values we hold dear get twisted and subdued when we look in the mirror. I am a sufferer of Chronic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. One of the symptoms of this disorder is that you’re not just stuck replaying the incident, but you’re stuck replaying and creating a million different scenarios in your head around how it could happen again. It gets to the point where you begin to normalize assault and abuse. You begin to accept it as an inevitability.
The way that CPTSD and PTSD, or any mental illness, mixes with repeated trauma and with the overall patriarchal overtones of our society quickly creates a noxious trio for women and trans folks, as often times both the way things are diagnosed and the way in which they are treated work to further misogynistic ideals of how women should cope. How we should process. How we should heal.
Quite possibly the most insidious ways in which victim blaming happens in my experience isn’t through misinformed family members or even the police but through modern psychiatric practice. Psychiatry has a notoriously reductive and sexist history (let alone racist and ableist amongst other things), and it is steeped in that history even today. Sure, we have made progress, but when it comes to differentiating between grief and mental illness, psychiatry often does a rather terrible job, in particular when it comes to girls and women. Medicine pathologizes women’s pain regularly, and it’s only now being acknowledged that doctors take our pain less seriously. We desperately need to talk about how this translates into psychiatry, especially because psychiatrists and therapists are the ones that see us in some of our most vulnerable states. My, and the experience of many of the women and trans folks I know has been one of psychiatrists being counterproductive and even toxic to the healing process. Our trauma responses have historically been pathologized rather than acknowledged and understood as reasonable responses to surviving a violent situation. If we aren’t back up and running and “over it” in a few weeks then we are told that the way we handle horrific events and stress is somehow indicative of personality flaws or mental illness.
Psychiatry, while it helps a great many, can also work to ingrain slut shaming, victim blaming and rape culture in ways that are far reaching. I remember vividly telling doctors, starchy white men in suits, about the abuse I’d suffered at school. These men would sit there impatiently, not really listening to what I was saying, and instead just waiting to hear things that vaguely fit into checkboxes on a piece of paper.
I would tell them “I don’t have any friends I trust, the kids at school all hate me because they think I’m a faggot. My teacher told the class that gays all go to hell so they think they are doing God’s work throwing bricks at me. The one or two kids that talk to me are boys who sometimes hurt me and like to talk about groping and raping me.”
The doctor would check off the boxes for “unable to maintain meaningful relationships and pursues risky relationships.”
I would tell them, “I’m too sad to get out of bed most mornings, I’m too scared to leave my house most days, sometimes I’m not I really feel anymore.”
The doctor would check off “mood instability and difficulty regulating and identifying feelings.”
I’d tell them, “I know who I am, but I feel empty and blank inside.” They’d write “has unstable sense of self and identity.”
Even before I’d finished telling them about how I’d been pushed down a flight of concrete stairs just the week before, I had already been labelled with Borderline Personality Disorder, Bipolar or some other incorrectly applied diagnoses. It took me over 15 years to finally get a proper diagnoses, to FINALLY have it acknowledged that what I was suffering from was less about something wrong with me but was a result of repeated exposure to violence and trauma.
It goes beyond even the way mainstream psychiatry shortchanges women and trans folks–the prevalent concept of self care does, too. Self care and anti-oppression still haven’t given me the language to encapsulate how to handle these things in my own internal narrative. Those who survive repeated trauma manifest it in myriad ways. It took me seven years to process just two of the assaults I survived. The idea that ramifications are quantifiable and can be broken down into a feel good list on Facebook is bull because if we are honest the worst parts of trauma manifest themselves through internalized oppression in ways we are only beginning to understand. We are too scared to talk about much of the internal shrapnel because it’s hard to stomach some of the fucked up ways it manifests in the internal coping mechanisms that allow us to continue to interact with the world and experience pleasure in our lives after repeated trauma.
I wish there were more spaces to talk about the ways these things manifest internally. This is the part of me that wants to scream. The part that fucks up the way I relate to my own internal relationship with pleasure, how I see myself versus others, and the dichotomy between the standards you I myself versus the standards I have for others. The thing is that there’s lots of discussion about how oppression gets externalized and how even internalized oppression gets externalized via relationships and lateral violence. But there’s so very little help and discussion in anti-oppression when it comes to the things we never admit to anybody other than ourselves with regards to the ways in which we play out our response to trauma against ourselves. The ways in which we are silently sexist against ourselves in ways nobody else but us sees. How it mutates the way you’re able to heal, feel pleasure and connect with your own context instead of living in the reality of others. This is especially true for those with PTSD and CPTSD. Repeated trauma is like being stuck in a car fire. The plastic melts into you and becomes part of you. In the end it’s hard to tell where the plastic ends and you begin and you start to feel like a monster even though you’ve done nothing wrong.
How do I tell someone that a part of me thinks I deserved it? How can I be a feminist and be so self loathing, destructive and harsh when it comes to myself? But that’s not how it works as we all hold ourselves to radically harsher standards than we hold others because that’s what we are taught to do as women and femmes. I know what happened to me was wrong. I said “no” many times. I said I was in pain many times. I asked to leave. It felt wrong. But somehow I can’t seem to find it in myself to trust these experiences even when others validate them for me. Why? Because taking the blame is what I know. It’s familiar, in a weird and convoluted way it takes some of the sting out of being assaulted cause if it was something I did that made this happen then I can prevent future instances. We convince ourselves that it wasn’t that bad so we can justify not dealing with it. Self care is such an individualistic ideal that maybe, just maybe I don’t have the energy to take care of one more person. Even if that person is myself. No, making myself a nice breakfast won’t fix it. No, talking about it won’t fix it. No, time won’t fix it. Part of me doesn’t want to stop holding myself to different standards because the scary thing is, I know in my head and heart that this has happened to me so many times, but for me being affirmed has brought me anxiety. It reminds me, that this was real, I have to process this now. I have to put in more years of emotional labour to process the garbage more men have thrust onto me and it can (and if I’m honest with myself) probably will, happen again because rape culture is fucking sisyphean and none of us are safe. The reality leaves you feeling hopeless.
I no longer believe that the statistics are merely underreported, I believe they are catastrophic shortfalls. All of the survivors I know have had moments just like the one I am having. The intense guilt, shame and self doubt. Not really sure of how to approach what just happened, paired with the realization that this isn’t the first #metoo, or even the second or third. In fact it probably isn’t even the fourth or fifth and it most likely won’t be the last. The most painful thing sometimes is recognizing your own glossed over history. The way in which we are taught to grieve, is to not. Instead we are taught to keep it together and to keep moving forward. It’s always “not that bad”, there’s always someone who had it worse. I truly believe that it’s not men who are expected to keep it all in and contained emotionally. Its women, because if we crack after something this horrendous its blamed on our gender/sex. We are supposed to get over it, yet men cannot seem to bear the perceived rejection attached to the word “no”.
For me right now, the hardest thing about the Weinstein case, and all of the other cases in Hollywood and beyond isn’t even the fact it happened. Women and trans folks have always known who the abusers are in our respective communities. We talk, we know who they are. Yes, even in the activist and progressive communities of Toronto. The most difficult has been when people started asking why these claims were all bubbling to the surface now. While there are many very real and valid reasons, the one reason I haven’t seen listed is that because a lot of the time, we don’t allow ourselves to believe ourselves. All I can think about, is how I laughed. How I nonchalantly told my coworkers and friends about what happened to me. Not recognizing it was assault. Remembering the thousands of times I’ve seen other women do the same.
This is the self-amnesia that patriarchy instills in us. The loss of ability to recognize when something becomes assault. The loss of ability to recognize when what we are talking about is no longer just a “bad choice.” That it’s rape. That it’s not ok. That it’s fucked up and the person doing it to you should be held accountable. The loss of ability to understand or imagine something better in terms of the people we let into our personal lives. The inability to assert and create boundaries. The association of violence and abuse with normalcy or worse yet, care and love. Not being sure if it’s rape or not knowing it was rape in the moment, after the moment, years after the moment. It doesn’t make you crazy and it doesn’t make it any less rape. It’s not us who are broken, it’s society. Even the healthcare system we’ve set up for survivors and the most vulnerable really only acts to mask the brokenness of the world we live in.
This conversation that started with #metoo has to be about more than just saying “I believe survivors.” It has to be more than cis white powerful women co-opting a hashtag created by a black woman. I want to believe in transformative justice. I want to believe in calling in/out. But I still see abusers run rampant in my own communities so how exactly am I supposed to let my guard down and feel safe enough to talk about let alone let go of the self destructive coping mechanisms that growing up in a patriarchal society has left me. Seeing campaigns like #metoo and having people say “I believe you” is important and validating, but it rings a little hollow. Not because of the people saying it, but because I see the cycles repeat and nothing actually stopping them even in my own communities. We shouldn’t have to wait for women and trans folks to swallow their own self doubt and guilt and shame and speak their truths repeatedly. We shouldn’t be waiting for survivors to gather the courage to take monsters like Weinstein down. We shouldn’t be waiting for celebs to appropriate hashtags that run like brushfire only to be just as quickly forgotten, leaving many survivors retraumatized. We should be telling men to watch other men (and the women who support them, because yes, that’s sadly a thing – here’s looking at you Lena Dunham). So many of us have seen attempts at holding abusers to account fail repeatedly leaving us to soothe ourselves in self destructive ways that we are too ashamed to talk about, because we have no other effective options.