Nap Eulogy: On Gaslighting and Reclamation

By me. Melted crayon.

 

DISCLAIMER: This one is heavy. It is also very personal and at times sexually graphic. If reading about my sex life would make you uncomfortable, now is a good time to turn off your computer and go do a puzzle. If you happen to be a family member reading this, there’s no shame in quitting while you’re ahead; you might not want to know (love you though!). Or you can read it; you are more than invited here as long as you know you’ve made the choice to read it just as I’ve made the calculated choice to share it. And buckle up, because it gets icky.

CW: gaslighting, emotional abuse, sex stuff, depression, anxiety

 

 

This is a eulogy. I am giving it here, at a funeral for shame, self-loathing, and hiding. Don’t get me wrong, those three guys are zombie-like. Let’s not kid ourselves—they are going to come back. And when they do come back, hungry for brains, I won’t be angry; I will give them a cup of tea and a blanket and do this whole shebang over again. But today, I am putting them to rest. So I guess what I described is more like a nap. Okay, let’s call this a Nap Eulogy.

I’ll be up front. What I have written here is not going to make me look good. It will not depict me as particularly smart or confident or rational or strong, all of which are qualities I took a lot of pride in before all of this ever happened.  I’ve dredged through tragedy, trauma, and heartbreak while keeping these personality traits more or less intact. You might not believe that after reading this. Because not this time. Noooo way. This is when all of those traits come crashing down faster than the cradle in that super messed up Rock-a-bye children’s lullaby (down will come baby…like, wtf?). Anyway, that’s okay, because my goal in writing this piece is not to make you think I’m awesome. It is to reclaim a part of my story that someone else got to narrate for me. It is about taking agency and looking at my imperfections and believing that I do not have to be too ashamed to share them.

And maybe it’s about you, Reader, and your imperfections and the parts of your story that you have yet to reclaim. Because my therapist keeps telling me I’m not alone, and she is a badass, so I’m inclined to believe her. Which, mathematically, means a certain proportion of people reading this might have felt some of the same things at some point in time.

Also, this is about a boy. I really don’t like that this particular story does not pass the Bechdel Test, but don’t worry, because I have a lot of stories that do, so I will make up for it later. Promise. Oh yeah, and speaking of Alison Bechdel, I am a huge, flag-waving, bleeding heart, pink-pussy-hat-wearing feminist. But you might not believe that at first either. Don’t worry; stick with it. I’ll find my way.

You might notice that throughout this piece, I point out gaslighting and manipulation when I notice it. In his article “Gaslighting as a Manipulation Tactic,” George Simon explains that gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse in which the perpetrator uses “sophisticated tactics of manipulation to create so much doubt in the minds of their targets of exploitation that the victim no longer trusts their own judgment about things and buys into the assertions of the manipulator, thus coming under their power and control.” Basically, it makes the target call into question their perception of reality, their instincts, and/or their basic foundations for understanding the world around them. Sometimes perpetrators don’t consciously understand their own tactics or patterns. It can be unintentional, but this doesn’t make the consequences less harmful.

Sometimes when I point out instances of abuse, you might be thinking, “hmm, why is she trying so hard to convince us this is ‘abuse.’ We get the point!” Well, lovely Reader, there are a few reasons. First, it took a long time for me to realize that what happened to me qualified as abuse. I was afraid that calling it “abuse” was whiney. I was afraid that I was just using it as an excuse to feel sorry for myself. Just because I was weak and taking forever to get over this doesn’t make it abuse, Caitlin. Wrong! So wrong. That is part of the whole shtick—gaslighting makes you blame yourself for all sorts of weird stuff. So now I am practicing calling it out as what it is without any shame. Shame is napping, remember? It is not invited.

Also, I am pointing it out for you, Reader, just in case it does help. If you are reading this, we are a team now. You and me fighting through some tough issues. I appreciate you. Step into this safe space and listen to me talk about myself for a while. I found out recently that a lot of women and men take time to come around to the realization that they’ve been psychologically abused, even if it may seem obvious from the outside. The world often tells us we do not belong to ourselves, that certain things are acceptable. And sometimes it helps to have a person say, “Hey! They can’t do that to you! That is not okay!” And sometimes if you’re ready to hear that you look around and think, “Oh shit. Maybe she’s right.” So, you can grab-bag. If any of this helps you, awesome.

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Okay, whew, that was a long introduction. The preamble is done, you made it. But before we start, why don’t you take a second to make yourself comfortable? Life is tough, and you deserve it. I’d like to invite you to grab something that makes you feel cozy—maybe a stuffed animal from your childhood, or a pillow and a blanket, or maybe a hot chocolate. You are important. You are enough. Okay, ready? Here we go.

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He never said mean words to me. He never laid a hand on me, outside of the bedroom, that is. He was charming and intelligent, a brilliant songwriter and musician with a quick wit and a kind of hot nerd thing going for him. I was an aspiring artist of 23, in awe of this person who had actually made a creative profession work. I watched him for the first time among a crowd of two hundred or so people clapping and cheering and singing along—a band, exalted on a stage, worshipped by their subjects below. That isn’t to say that all musicians look at it like that, but I would speculate that that worship was his fuel, whether or not he knew it consciously. I think my worship was his fuel too, for a while anyway.

Some of you reading this might know that for a lost someone trying to find their place in the world, nothing is as thrilling as being liked by someone who they, for some unfortunate reason, think is cooler than them. He likes me? Really? I’m a nobody, and he isn’t looking straight through me?

For me, it was a high, and a dangerous one because my maintenance of that high depended on my ability to convince him that I was worthy of him. But you have to understand, it started out all compliments—how pretty I was, how smart I was, how my hair looked so beautiful in the sun and blah, blah, blah, meow, meow, meow. He would pour over my art with me and tell me how creative I was and that he believed in my talents.

These were the good ole days—the dragon to chase, but I’ll get to that later. Once, he cuddled up on the couch drinking tea and watching Netflix with me for two full days while I was sick. He texted me constantly, made me feel special, cooked for me several times a week. We had a similar sense of humor and could “talk for hours,” as they say. I told him all my weird thoughts and he’d volley back with his own. He once said, “Ya know, if I didn’t have a penis and you didn’t have a vagina, I still think we would hang out all the time.” How romantic. I was nested in the warm illusion of safety, and during this period of time, I was so over-the-moon happy.

Maybe my favorite thing about him was that it felt like he saw a light in me. He acknowledged parts of me that I knew were there but weren’t always noticed or understood. It’s hard to explain—like describing a taste or a sound. It was as if he had seen a color inside me that I knew was there but that no one else could see. And he was curious about it.

He asked questions and he explored me. He wanted to discover more of the colors and sounds and tastes inside me. And that made me want to find and cultivate more colors in me also. Maybe I really am that beautiful. My creativity exploded. My imagination began spilling into notebooks and onto canvasses. Flowers grew from empty spaces. See me; here I am. That is what made me fall in love with him. That is what made me want to see all of him. He inspired me to cultivate stunning, new dimensions inside myself during those early stages. And some of them are still with me today.

It was because I felt so seen and respected during those early stages that I was able to justify the kind of sex we were having—a kind I hadn’t yet experienced.

Have you ever been with anyone who had a kind of “sex persona?” Like, you think you’ve put your finger on their personality and then as soon as the sexy time starts it’s a rapid transformation. Their body language, their expressions, their attitude are like that of a different person entirely.

The first time we fucked, he removed his nerdy thick-rimmed glasses and like Clark-fucking-Kent he transformed immediately. His eyes and face had a primal intensity. His touch lost its gentleness as he grabbed at my body with a hunger. He came on my stomach and left a few minutes after. It was about four in the morning. I went outside, rolled a cigarette on my front porch, and cried. I saw it all ahead of me for those few minutes of clarity. I was going to get utterly fucking screwed. And then I went back inside, fell asleep, and convinced myself the next morning that I was being silly, that I was in control, that I wasn’t completely high and losing sight of the ground below.

After that, it quickly escalated to a rough dominant/submissive power dynamic. Can you guess which role I was in? Before I go on, I should say that, while I had to do some mental gymnastics to convince myself this was not counter to my feminist ideals (I got really good at mental gymnastics during this relationship), it was completely consensual. I wished the sex could be more loving and caring, and at the same time, the roughness was thrilling and new, and it felt amazing. It had a raunchiness to it, a wrongness, that lured me in like a stupid, flailing fish.

We had many conversations reaffirming that it was okay because we had mutual respect for one another and we both knew this power dynamic was just pretend, a Foucauldian model of the fluidity of power. Of course this would all blow up in my face later when I realized there was not mutual respect and it was not just pretend.

Over the next few months he had spit on various parts of my body; he had choked me; and he didn’t go down on me more than a time or two. The kicker wasn’t necessarily the actions, but the talk. It was all, “I can do whatever I want to you.” “Yeah, I want you to use me.” “Tell me how big my dick is. Beg me to fill you up.” And I did. I begged; I told him he could do whatever he wanted. “I own your pussy,” he would whisper into my ear. “Yeah, you own me. You can do anything you want.” What I am sharing here is a cleaned up version of events because this is already super uncomfortable for me to share, so I hope you will read it kindly.

At first it was just pretend play. But gradually, over the span of almost a year, I started to believe these words as he rammed them inside my body where they grew into my beating heart and spread through my arteries to all my tiniest capillaries. And he began acting like he believed them too. He owned me, and I owned nothing, not even myself.

The truth was, I did want to please him. I was getting sick. He was sick too, but in a different way. He had control, and I was losing it. He explained he didn’t want anything serious; I pretended I didn’t either. We agreed not to be exclusive. I didn’t have sex with anyone for the whole year we were together. He had sex with multiple people. I knew when he was fucking someone else most of the time, although I would have preferred not to.

(I want to make a note here that I am not arguing against power play in sex.  I am saying this became something that wasn’t power play; it was just power.)

I lived with him, not in the same unit but in the same duplex. He would come over for coffee in the mornings after spending the night with someone else, and we would fuck. Yes, I was very sick, but here’s what I would implore you to understand about manipulation. He communicated to me that if I had too many needs, this relationship wouldn’t work. I wanted it to work. I loved him. So I fought my feelings and put my energy into a “chill,” laidback demeanor. He knew I loved him; he knew I was vulnerable; and that’s how he wanted the power dynamic to stay.

I knew it wasn’t healthy, but I also knew that making it stop would be devastating. I would have to put myself back together—fix myself in all the ways I was broken—and I wasn’t ready to do that work. After all, we had some rules set.

Rule Number One, as I mentioned, he could sleep with other people and so could I. But, I always had to be his primary “person.” (He wouldn’t use the word girlfriend, even though we were cooking meals together; sharing secrets about families, friends, and work; shopping for cars together; sleeping at each other’s houses, etc.) The minute I was no longer the most important relationship, he had to tell me immediately.

Rule Number Two, we must be respectful and considerate of each other in regards to sleeping with other people. That means he was to go out of his way not to put anything in my face when it came to other women.

Rule Number Three, shower in between having sex with someone else and then having sex with me. Spoiler alert: he broke all of these rules, loudly and painfully. I know how fucked up this sounds, but believe me when I tell you he was one hell of a charmer. He truly made me believe that he wanted me. I thought he was just a different kind of person and conventional relationships just weren’t possible for him. How fucking progressive.

And you might have caught on that these rules were pretty much made for him. But there were rules for me too. Rule Number One, he didn’t want anyone to know that we were together. I chalked this up to him being a private person. And Rule Number Two, I couldn’t put any expectations on him. That means no obligations, no emotional needs, no nothing. Once again, he presented this as part of his quirky personality. He made me feel like that was an okay thing to ask because we weren’t in a “real” relationship. First of all, just no.

He didn’t see that it wasn’t me who had the expectations; it was him. I was expected to stay close enough but always at a certain distance set by him; I was expected not to have needs pertaining to the relationship (what??); and I was expected to keep our “thing” a secret from his friends. My version of reality and rationality became skewed and foggy. This is classic gaslighting. He made me feel like this was normal, that it was okay to expect a woman to have no needs. Asking for any kind of attention was met with coldness. I was made to feel greedy.

After a few months, the period of compliments and excitement wore off, and his attitude toward me seemed to shift. I had had this feeling of safety, but he slowly began to seem less interested and less excited to be with me. He was colder more often; annoyed at me more often. It became a cycle. When he would withhold his affections I’d plunge down into an anxious sadness because, after all, how could a person like him ever like a person like me. But as soon as I’d convince myself to give up he’d throw me some precious scraps of attention as if I was a begging dog under the dinner table, and I would bounce back up to all kinds of heights like a little Adderall-ed out Tigger. Isn’t the sky looking extra beautiful today? Are all the world’s colors a little more vibrant, or is it just me?

After all of this, when I look back, I see an edge of a plateau. After this “good ole days” period, he had a balancing act to play. He wanted me always on the edge of leaving, but ready to pull me back every time. The less I reached out, the more he leaned in. A day without a text from me meant a present left for me to find on my porch in the morning. The more forward I was, the less he gave. It was his way of keeping me passive. I don’t know if he was doing it consciously, or if it was his subconscious fear or insecurity running the show. I would guess a bit of both, but that’s just speculation.

This cycle of withholding and giving is how he kept me on the edge. Here, I had no control. Since most of his friends didn’t know anything was going on between us he was able to isolate me from them so that he didn’t have to be accountable to anyone else about the way he was treating me. He also had an easy, clean exit when he was done with me. No intermingling of friends; no explanations necessary. I would come when he called, and wait at home when he didn’t need me.

I bet I can guess your thought process. Why the fuck would you ever want that? We’ve all done shit that was ill advised at best. And second, that’s why this type of manipulation is powerful and tricky. Let’s all remember how this started out. He made me feel like the possibilities were endless (showing up and being present, bringing me gifts, complimenting me all the time), and then once I was locked in and hopeful, edging back more and more while I continued to cling to the same hope I had once seen. It’s hard to go backwards when you see that kind of hope. It’s hard to convince yourself someone is being shitty when you’ve already agreed with yourself to fall in love with them.

Once, about seven months in, I did tell him I couldn’t do it anymore. (Good for you, Past Caitlin! You tried, at least.) I was tired of being angry and miserable until the next high came around, and the part of me that knew I deserved better was on the move.  But I’ll be deep-fried and god damned if that little mini-breakup didn’t hurt like a motherfucker. My chest felt hot while the rest of my body was heavy and cold. I cried in my car, at work, before I went to sleep. I tried to think of all the reasons why I shouldn’t be with him, but you have to understand, this felt like an addiction. Highs and lows, remember? Dark terrible caves of sadness on one side, Adderall Tigger on the other. And quitting sucks, but I was trying to stick with it.

Then one night, about a week later, I was sitting on our porch bench when he returned home and sat next to me. The smell of his shirt, his dorky glasses, his silly flat feet all made me miss him with my whole body. He put his arm around me (it’s important here that he started it). He asked me if I wanted to come inside. I did want that more than anything.

So we picked up where we had left off, but this time he was spending more time with me, being warmer, and the compliments were back. I honestly don’t even know if he knew how good he was at manipulating me. I surely couldn’t see it at the time. He was being nicer to me because now he knew that if he pushed me too close to the edge I would actually jump. This was some good ole fashioned boundary testing. Now he had to pull me in a little closer and redefine a new edge.

And that’s how it went for a little while—a few months, I would say. My dependent little ass was happy again, and on the heels of the car-shower-bed crying, it felt like walking into a warm home after being out in the cold for too long (you New Orleanians don’t know what I’m talking about, but take it from me, it’s a great feeling).

Okay, this is where the real chaos starts, so buckle up because I’m about to get “hysterical” (translation: the word for women who are upset when men wish they weren’t).

Things started to deteriorate even more about a year into our relationship. I’d been having a harder time looking past his exploits with other women. I knew I had agreed to this arrangement, but I didn’t know how to avoid anger or jealousy. I would later figure out that this was in no way what ethical polyamory looks like. As a friend explained to me much later (shout out to Teddy), if a straightforward monogamous relationship in Relationship 101, then polyamory is Relationship 401. It takes accountability, responsibility, trust, communication, and all those other key words. Do we sound like we had those things locked down in our relationship? No, you’re right, we didn’t. Our “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule was obviously not working since we lived in the same house. Our “keep it the fuck out of my face” rule was failing too because I knew when his car was gone all night.

I felt my mental health begin to decline, and I stopped liking who I was as much. I started listening for his car to get home, asking poorly disguised questions about what he was up to the night prior. He would receive a text from another woman and I’d watch his face curl into that same mischievous smile that he used to get from my texts months before. Hell. No.

This is where I started to feel “crazy.” And he let me feel that way. We both acknowledged that I felt jealousy and anger, and he was “sorry that I felt that way” but he wasn’t about to make any apologies for the behavior. This was the deal. If I had a problem with it, that’s exactly what it was—my problem. #gaslighting

One night at one of his shows, there were at least three people he had slept with among the packed crowd. That was common, and also a powerful form of control. Get a bunch of women you are fucking, pack them in a room together, and then get up on stage while hundreds of people cheer for you. I still can’t shake being in those crowds, looking at the other women he was sleeping with alongside a whole sea of strangers, all glorifying him. And who the hell was I? This invisible little ant who was completely alone, not even good enough that his friends could know I mattered, because I didn’t.

On this particular night, I walked towards him at the end of a show and saw another woman’s hand on his hand. I locked eyes with him before storming out. He would have never let me hold his hand in public. In fact, he treated me like a downright stranger when we were outside of our house. He would maybe talk to me in a formal, acquaintance way for a few minutes before running off, and he would not so much as make eye contact with me for the rest of the night. I was a ghost. WHY DID THIS GIRL GET SPECIAL HAND PRIVILEGES! See, crazypants. Which, in this case is a term used to place the locus of culpability on a woman who has been manipulated. He had broken me. And I was crazypants.

On another occasion, I asked him to put me on the list for one of his shows. He said he would, but he forgot, as if to whisper, “Caitlin, you aren’t important. You’re the only one out of all these other friends who I forgot to put on the list.” So a terrifying bouncer looked at me for a few minutes like he was about to stab me while I called this dweeby, celebrated little musician’s phone three times before he finally picked up. Christ. Then, once I was in the green room, someone pulled a pair of someone else’s lacey panties out of his backpack, and all of his friends joked about what a slut he was for a few minutes (haha, because guys can’t be sluts lol). I was mortified.

By the time his birthday came around (marking about a year of us being together), I was beginning to see the relationship’s toxicity more clearly and started trying to release myself from the hook. The breaking point was a relatively small event. He had agreed to play music for one of his friend’s weddings, but he was already burning the candles at both ends. He realized it would be unrealistic for him to devote the time to the rehearsals for it, so he lined up another musician. I listened as he called her, explained that he had another gig that had been accidentally double-booked, and it wasn’t in his power to switch it as much as he wanted to.

It shook me, not because of the lie, but because of how he told it. His delivery was flawless. His voice sounded sincere. He was so sorry about this “mix-up.” It was chilling. I wouldn’t have called it out as a lie if he had told that story to me, and I was under the impression that I knew him intimately. We were cooking in my kitchen. He made that call, hung up, and tended to his pasta as if nothing had happened, making a joke here and there, acting completely normal. That was the first time I thought it was actually realistic to believe that I had been played, that he wasn’t who I thought he was, who I had put so much faith in. How many times had he lied to me? I could think of at least four or five little lies I had caught him in, and now everything he had ever said to me became suspicious.

Okay, back to his birthday. Although I had attempted to break it off with him again—tears, hugs, the whole nine yards—it wasn’t going well. The night prior we had stayed up until 4 in the morning fucking. It was the kind of “I can do anything I want to you,” “I own you” type sex that used to be pretend. By this point, it was 100% not a game anymore. It was all real, being acted out on my body.

We had sushi that day and then met up later at the bar with all of his friends, and again several women he was sleeping with at the time were there. He got drunker, and I wasn’t drinking that much, so I offered to drive him home. At the end of the night, he was talking closely with the same girl who had held his hand a month or two prior.

I was jealous. I felt the crazypants starting to come on. How could he do this in front of me? That is clearly against the fucking rules! Why are they getting closer? I walked up to him. “Hey, [insert name], we need to go.” He brushed me off and turned back to her and touched her thighs, then moved his hand up and up and up and then squeezed. My mouth dropped open. They were whispering SEX STUFF into each others EARS! I knew by the way he was biting his lip like he used to do with me. “Hey, [NAME]!” I screamed. “We are fucking going.” I was about to lose my composure. My chest hurt. He gave me an annoyed look, like, “Mom, shut up; you’re embarrassing me.”

And then, they kissed, right on the lips, with me not even ten feet away. I fucking lost it. On the inside, anyway. I walked out of the bar, and for the first time in my whole life had to convince myself not to punch someone, not to slap off his stupid fucking Harry-Potter-but-less-cool glasses and stomp them into the dirt like a schoolyard bully. He walked outside with a drunk stupid look on his face as if absolutely nobody’s world had just came crumbling down in there.  My arms and legs shook and my vision sharpened. If it was gonna be fight or flight, I was not about to fucking run.

“What the FUCK is WRONG WITH YOU?!”

“What are you talking about?” he stammered.

“Are you fucking shitting me right now?” And we can skip forward, but I can tell you that the whole car ride home went exactly that way. I yelled at him like I wasn’t afraid to lose him, so, basically, like I never had before. And he took the attitude of Steve Carrell in Anchorman. “I don’t know what we’re yelling about!” He, for a reason I could not fathom, could not see why what he’d done was so wrong. Why could I possibly be so upset? GASLIGHTING, people. There it is. In. Print.

Here’s what crazypants means here: getting the fuck woke. Wake up, Caitlin! Good job, you’re doing it!

Did I ever have sex with him again after that night? Yes, of course, plenty of times. That’s how it went on until the night before he moved out. Addiction, remember? He lived right next door. The goods, or in this case the bads (stupid, sorry…), were easy to find.

We carried on much like we did in these past few incidents. He would do something awful. I would get mad. We would have sex. He would treat me like I didn’t exist. Once, I accidentally spilled his whiskey on the nightstand and he was so annoyed that he huffily cleaned it up and then left to go sleep on the couch. He made me feel so stupid I cried until I eventually just went home. On the night a friend of mine died, I asked him if I could sleep with him that night because I was upset. He said he was staying at another woman’s house.

He told me he would go to my first art show. The night of the show, I saw his car pull around the venue. I went back inside, and a few minutes later received a text from him that the line was too long and he had to leave. Two of my other friends got there at the same time and only spent five minutes in a standstill line before the bouncers ushered everyone in within a matter of minutes.

How could this be happening? I thought I knew him. The person I fell in love with was kind and funny and caring. He would never do this stuff. I thought I knew him better than anyone. I had waded through all of this behavior because I was waiting for him to pull me back from the edge, just like always, but now it felt more like he was trying to push me off.

At this point, I had finally had enough. Depression swallowed my life. Food didn’t taste good. I didn’t want to be around anyone, not even my friends. My creativity was completely blocked. All I wanted to do was smoke cigarettes and drink so I didn’t have to hurt. I felt worthless, unwanted, unlovable. I was a small nothing compared to him. He was on the cover of OffBeat Magazine that month; I was scooping ice cream and hardly breaking even in my art. I was nobody. Completely invisible.

The day before he moved out we had sex for the last time, and I explained to him that I couldn’t do this anymore. We needed to end it for good.

“Did you ever love me?” I asked. He thought for a moment.

“Maybe every once in awhile, like when you were talking to your dog or something.” I winced, then more tears. You see, up until the end I was convinced that he truly did love me, in his own way; he was just too afraid and insecure and emotionally constipated to admit it, maybe even to himself. (Can that even happen? Can you love someone if you don’t even know it? And the person you’re with kind of bends the definition of love so she fits into it? Seems suspicious…)

“Does that woman that you kissed love you?”

“Yeah, she is definitely in love with me.” What I didn’t realize at the time was that he had been treating me so poorly because he didn’t need my worship anymore. He found someone else’s. The man who, by his own admission, did not know how to love somebody seemed to have no dearth of people who loved him.

“Are you going to be in a relationship with her?” I had asked the question for reassurance. Of course they aren’t; he’s been saying all this time that he doesn’t want a conventional relationship.

“Yeah, maybe.” My sad turned into mad.

“Are you going to be exclusive?” I kept my emotions reserved.

“That’s my business.” That’s when I lost my shit. All this time that I had thought he didn’t want a relationship, what he meant was with you, I don’t want a relationship with you. Whatever sense of self-worth I had left was utterly crushed, and I started thinking what women think when men pit them against each other. The conversation in my mind switched abruptly from a sad parting of ways to a flurry of comparisons. Why is she enough when I am not? What is it about her? WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME? She’s probably successful and smart and funny, and I haven’t accomplished anything.

We had marathon text and email fights, which were really more like monologues. Sometimes I would spill out as much “hate-filled vitriol” (his words, not mine) as I could to try to prove to myself that he cared about me enough to be hurt by something I said. I desperately wanted to find some evidence that I didn’t make up all of his feelings for me. At that point, I was slinging ten insults at a wall and hoping one would stick. I called him an arrogant chauvinist pig drunk on his own success. I told him he was going to hurt every person who ever loved him. I told him his existence was an affront to vaginas everywhere. Just like shucking an oyster—look for the weakest part and then cut in. It got real grim.

Overall, he seemed cold and unaffected by my angry ranting. What I didn’t realize until much later was that I was getting through. If my goal was to hurt him and shame him, I had succeeded. But he rarely let on how much it affected him, even after my most creatively engineered insults. For example, his responses often had this kind of tone:

“I detect blame. It wasn’t my fault or your fault that we don’t feel the same way about each other.  I said from the beginning that I didn’t want to pursue a conventional, monogamous relationship.”

“It actually is fair. We don’t feel the same way about each other, so we don’t feel the same about how things ended up.”

Ladies and Gentleman and all our non-binary friends, that right there is gaslighting. I recoiled into the shame of my anger for months, asking myself why I couldn’t get a grip. What was wrong with me? Why did I care so much? It’s just like he said—he didn’t love you back. Just let that shit go and move on.

God knows I tried. I moved out of the house and began spending hundreds of dollars a month on high quality therapy. I stopped drinking; I started meditating; then I started drinking again. I journalled; I read self-help books; I bought herbal tinctures for anxiety and depression. But anger and hurt consumed me. It was in the cells of my body.

Then just as abruptly I would do a 180 and apologize for being so angry, which I’d follow with a thorough, thought out composition of my feelings. I imagine it often looked like I had written a new, fully developed Adele song on his text screen. (Again, not proud, but not ashamed.)

I knew that I eventually needed to cut off all contact with him, but I felt completely incapable of doing so. This was a person who literally trained me to depend on him, whether it was knowingly or unknowingly. I thought it was my fault. I knew it felt like an addiction, but I didn’t yet understand how or why. I didn’t realize yet that when he whispered in my ear that he could do anything he wanted to me, it was true. I let him program me to need him, and now I had to painfully uncover the possibility that this intimate connection, which I had used as my life force for over a year, was a lie.

In general, the pain was writhing, unrelenting. I couldn’t breathe; I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t find any joy. I stopped doing art altogether except for the therapy I was doing at weekly appointments. Coupled with the pain that he didn’t want to be with me, I had to face the fact that I was insane enough to make up the whole thing in my head. And this is also a crucial point of emotional abuse. Gaslighting makes you think that you are TOTALLY FUCKING NUTS. Before this, I rarely lost my temper; I considered myself to be confident and worthy; I was wholehearted and excited by others; and I fully trusted my instincts and intuition. Gaslighting makes all of these things crumble before one’s very eyes.

I was too ashamed to tell the full story to any of my friends. They knew the old me—the good me. I felt like I had to convince them I was just as good as always—totally normal—because I didn’t want them to see this broken person that was worse than the person they chose to become friends with. And I didn’t want my friends who had picked up on some of the manipulation during the relationship to be proven right. I couldn’t take the shame of that when I already felt so stupid.

That is the isolation effect of gaslighting. Gaslighting convinces a person that they are to blame, and telling the story of what happened would entail letting their friends see the “real” them—the person that is dumb enough to let someone else control them. I felt like a fraud, and I tried to continue going to social engagements because I knew it would be good for me to stay rooted in a community, but people became either threatening or uninteresting to me. It exhausted me to try to convince my friends I was okay so that I wouldn’t have to explain what happened, and I didn’t want to meet new people when I felt that I was the worst version of myself. I wanted to be alone all the time, because I felt even more isolated and afraid when I was around people.

My friendships with cis men suffered the most in the wake of the breakup. I began re-examining the roles men had played in my life, tediously combing through all my relationships and hookups, friendships and professional acquaintances, and I was horrified by how much fucked up shit I pieced together. I was overwhelmed by the experiences in my past that I was just now identifying as sexist. I realized that some of the circles I held dear in high school and college were completely male-dominated. Women may have been present, but they were never able to be the main characters.

A lot of my relationship history was just a mess of sexism, power relationships, and hegemony. A mental inventory of my past revealed over a dozen experiences that I cannot believe I had considered acceptable at the time. How did I let this happen?! I had spent actual years of my life studying gender and sexuality, and yet here I was, feeling totally defeated despite all the knowledge I thought I had.

The patriarchy is a like a swarm of termites in mid-June. You can do your due diligence to block it out, but it will find its way in through the tiny little cracks you couldn’t even see. You won’t know how it got there but it’s there in full force and has laid a million eggs. I had thought I was safe, but now my trust in my own judgment was erradicated. And I looked to all my own shortcomings to explain the position I was in.

I tried to have a little fling but ended it because I was too sad all the time and because all men were disgusting to me at this point. I went on a few dates, but ultimately I couldn’t continue with them because I couldn’t feel safe anymore. Not only that, but I was carrying immense anger not only at [insert name], but also at men in general. So I tried to make a list of all the men in my life who were honorable. Simple—just a list of honest men who did the right thing and held themselves accountable when they made a mistake. It was hard, y’all, and I had to think really hard to get a list long enough that I couldn’t count it with fingers. I spent a lot of time in therapy working through this and eventually just decided I have evidentiary reasons to distrust men, and that’s that until further notice.

Men were ruined for me now. I was too angry, distrustful, and afraid of them to even have no-strings-attached sex. So why? Being angry and sad after a break up is normal, but are these fearful and angry feelings towards men to be expected?

I had been exploring how pain and trauma nests itself in the body in my therapy sessions. Even if your mind can forget something entirely, your body has its own kind of memory that can react based on past experiences. I started thinking about my body’s relationship to the breakup. What might it remember that I haven’t processed yet? How was my body affected?

I found my answer, and I burst into tears. I finally realized that that smallness and worthlessness I felt from the relationship was intensified in multiples when he enacted that on my body, when he asked me to beg for him, told me he had control over me, choked me and spit on me during sex. It made sense why I was fearful, why I was anxious and depressed. It wasn’t just my mind that felt small; it was my body. My body had its own memories of being treated as worthless. That was why I couldn’t just be sad for an amount of time, and then eventually think my way out of the pain. It was deeper than that. These feelings of shame and fear were bone deep.

It was the first glimpse of the sun when I realized that this might not be all my fault. He had told me multiple times, “You consented to the kind of sex we were having. I did nothing wrong.” I had thought that I was being overly emotional, but this was abuse.

He met with me twice to try to talk things out. The first time I had three drinks and ended up throwing up for the next two days from stress. Both times he listened. Both times he didn’t really understand but he bore witness to the tears anyway. I told him it was my fault for not communicating my expectations properly. I should have been more honest about what I needed. He made it clear that he didn’t think any of my feelings were invalid, he just did not consider himself accountable for the things that happened.

———————————————————————————————–

Okay, timeout. Everyone take a breath. This is all getting really heavy. Anyone need another bathroom break? Or a snack? You can go get yourself a cookie and come back. I’ll still be here. It’s all going to be okay. There’s a happy ending. Okay, good debrief, now let’s keep going. We can do this.

———————————————————————————————–

In the couple months after the breakup, I tried to keep myself busy. Some days I pretty much cried straight through; other days I dedicated solely to self-care. I tried so hard to convince myself I was important and I mattered and I was not invisible. But all-in-all, most minutes hurt, and I tried to treasure the ones that didn’t. With my artistic endeavors more or less flat lining, the only thing I was “doing with my life” was scooping ice cream. And it sucked. I felt like I had wasted my potential, or that maybe I didn’t have any to begin with. My teachers and my family and my friends had all been wrong about me, and they were going to have to learn it the hard way.

At constant interplay with my newfound sense of uselessness was the endless barrage of [this musician’s] successes. Even though I had defriended him on Facebook, he popped up in other people’s pictures all over social media, sometimes with his girlfriend by his side. I “hid posts” from all of his friends, some of whom I was close with. I heard his music, which is still very emotional for me to hear, on the radio; his face was in local publications; he was doing interviews on television. If I had a nickel for every time somebody asked me, “Have you heard of the band [blank],” I would take them all and cram them in my ears so I never had to hear anyone ask me that question ever again. On most community bulletin boards in the city there was either him or one of his bands being promoted for an event. I changed the radio stations I was listening to, and I stopped reading any Louisiana-published magazines.

And then there was the fear of seeing him. Anywhere I went I was afraid he would be there. At first there was part excitement, during the few months after when I still missed him a lot. But after that there was just anxiety and fear. Even if the chances were small, it was in the back of my mind. So I stopped going out as much, especially to see music, which really sucked because live music used to be an important medicine for me.

About six months after our split, when nothing seemed to be helping the anxiety and depression, I decided to go on anti-depressants for the first time. Gradually, almost imperceptibly at first, my self-care routines began to work. I was able to do art again, a little bit at a time. Momentum built, and about a year after the breakup I reached the highest annual sales since I began selling art three years prior.

My healing wasn’t a linear progression. There were ups and downs, of course. But I noticed the latent pain subsiding. I could work, draw, and socialize without the weight of it pushing on my shoulders the whole time. Bodywork helped. I had always been under the impression that acupuncture was bullshit, but I decided to try it and it rocked my whole shit. I actually hallucinated during the session. It was awesome. Learning about cool stuff helped—things like history, art, or nature. It made me feel like I was doing interesting things because I wanted to, not because somebody might notice. While I am very into the importance of being seen, I also find it empowering sometimes to grow and learn without an audience, just because I want to do it for me.

I reconnected with a group of queers and drag kings that I had lost touch with a few years before. It was the first time in a long time that I felt genuinely excited and inspired by people. I had missed that feeling so much. They are interesting and dynamic, and they are so so kind. They all have experience with marginalization. Their spaces felt safe, and I felt understood. They knew that play was an important part of healing. They were colorful, vibrant, nerdy, and different. Many of them were drag king performers who performed twice a month. I knew it as soon as I laid eyes on them for the first time in years. These are my people. Thank God.

It’s still hard for me sometimes, and I get angry sometimes. Not like I was in the past; now it is normally only when I am triggered. But I still have my hang ups about the situation. I don’t think it’s right that he can damage someone this way and not have to see the fallout from it. It feels like cis men, especially men in glorified positions—athletes, actors, musicians, etc., can do whatever they want with a woman, throw her to the side, and then go have fun being famous. The significant others of these exalted men are so often treated like accessories. But they matter! They are important! They are enough!

I am writing this to grieve the loss of myself (don’t worry, I’ve found a new one), to grieve all the little tiny losses of self-love and self-worth that were chipped away through the year, all the losses of energy and time, all the losses of imaginations and unrealized expectations, the loss of my perception of a city I love. And, if you are reading this, [you know the name goes in the brackets by now, right?], I am grieving the loss of you, too. This is also your Nap Eulogy. I have to let you go along with all the shame and the self-loathing and the hiding. Very kindly, you are no longer invited.

It’s okay. Just go take a little nap—a nap away from my brain and my body and my spirit.

Sometimes it’s hard because I miss the person I thought you were, and I future miss the better person you will hopefully become. You sucked. A lot. But I don’t think you’re too far gone. I think you are trying to get better. If you’re reading this, know that I don’t hate you. I am glad I met you, because I am way more of a badass now. I know things I didn’t know; I can move in ways I couldn’t before move; I can appreciate things that I didn’t know how to be grateful for. I believe you can get your house in order. But I believe that from a safe, far-away distance where you can’t reach me or fuck my whole shit up again.

Nayyirah Waheed writes, “grieve so that you can be free to do something else.” So after this, I will be celebrating all the flowers that have grown in the empty ground that these losses left behind. I will celebrate that I picked myself up and I fought with all I had in me even when it didn’t feel like very much at all. I will celebrate the community I returned to, full of people who love me and want to be there for me. They tell me I belong; they make me feel important. They queer it up and do their own performances. All shapes and sizes and ages and genders are welcome, and I feel seen and appreciated as much as I see and I appreciate. It’s beautiful and it is home. And there is lots of glitter.

I will celebrate my girlfriend, who tries to convince me every day that I am important and special and talented and smart and utterly full of light, even when I don’t believe her. I will celebrate her for taking all of my deepest feelings and answering them with love and compassion. I am grateful for how we play and laugh and sing. She loves me fully and I never have to wonder if it’s real. She says what she means, bravely and with disarming vulnerability. I don’t have to convince her of anything. She wants all of me, even the flaws. She is wholehearted and funny and flawed and perfect.

I will celebrate all the things I have learned—and I think some of these are like, big, life altering things. Here are a few:

  1. That it is not only okay, but critical, that I say what I want.
  2. That my self-love does not need anyone’s approval, ever. And it is worth everything. Fight for that shit.
  3. That the next time I get holier-than-thou about someone’s relationship choice I can be humbled by the fact that I once lost my fucking mind and thought I was being totally level-headed and sane (during the relationship). And then regained my mind while someone convinced me I was totally losing it (after the relationship). Gaslighting, people. It’s really something else.
  4. That it is okay to feel sad and angry. It is okay if you aren’t the best version of yourself all the time. During college, I once told my professor I didn’t know if I could complete my thesis after going through a family tragedy. After some words of encouragement, he told me that, when doing a challenging task, don’t think about what the outcome would look like without all the messed up circumstances in your life. There will always be circumstances, and they will affect what you do, and that is part of putting your mark on the world. Do the task with the circumstances and be proud of it.
  5. In this same vein, FORGIVE YOURSELF.   That’s the first step to forgiving others.
  6. That the people that I think are cooler than me aren’t really cooler than me. They just have a different thing going on, and if they don’t want me to be a part of it, that’s cool. There’s lots of other stuff to get into.
  7. That back there, when I thought I had lost my resiliency and my strength, remember? I was so wrong. I fucking rocked. I searched everywhere for little tiny pieces of light and slowly put enough of them back together to put the stars back in my eyes. I wanted to be with a rockstar? Shit, I am, and I don’t care if it’s cheesy. I’m a fucking rockstar. Goal achieved.

So, there you have it. That’s the story, fleshed out in full detail, totally naked. If you read it all, thank you. You persevered. If you skimmed it and skipped through and landed here anyway, that’s cool too. As a liberal arts major, I appreciate that (introduction, first sentence of every following paragraph, and conclusion—that is called reading a book, my friends). Now I will go out into the world and be able to more respectfully and actively listen to the stories of others.

Okay, one last thing. You, Reader, are a shining star. You have lots of colors and flavors and textures in you. You have flowers and you have empty ground where seeds can grow. You have hidden pockets of undiscovered light to explore. Your landscape is a playground. I love you.

 

 

 

What if you tell a story and everyone listens?

I stole this from the doctor’s office once.

By contributing writer Engram Wilkinson

Born in Alabama, Engram now lives in California. His work has most recently appeared in The Offing, with a chapbook forthcoming from H_ngm_n Books. He is currently in denial about having started another series-long re-watch of The Office.

CW: grief

 

 

Do you remember coming out? I do. I was fifteen, talking to my mom. Then, again, several times over three years in my hometown to select friends; and unremarkably to everyone I met in college from Day 1 of Orientation through the rest of my life until, perhaps, you, reading this now.

People much smarter than me have remarked the initial experience of this disclosure can inform how queer and trans people construct these conversations throughout their lives — even in the company of allies and their safety pins — which sometimes, even in age, backfires. “Why didn’t you tell me earlier,” is a common refrain, or “I totally knew.” To which the friend-cum­-queer might respond: “Well, I’m telling you now,” or “Well, I didn’t,” or — day depending — “Well, fuck you.”

I make that last half-joke because I’ve been thinking lately about other ways I have, or have failed to, “come out” in my life — some of which have been veiled with the negative feelings that lend themselves to a deft “Fuck off.” To wit: my stepfather died in the summer of 2014. The man who raised me died from a sudden, unstoppable heart attack outside of his gym on a Friday afternoon while I was nearly four hundred miles away, getting a subpar haircut from my roommate (I remember this clearly).

The attendant task list was lengthy: take the train home Saturday morning; cry; coordinate a funeral in one week; clean my parents’ house; clean the courtyard at my parents’ house; write an obituary; write a eulogy; cry; stuff the courtyard with chairs for an early afternoon memorial service; approach podium to deliver eulogy; look out into the clean, pressure-washed courtyard at all the bodies it has failed to contain; miraculously deliver eulogy; cry; endure the time that emulsified from the reception into the following weeks. Decide to quit beloved, salaried job and move four hundred miles home to live with mom. Admit to no one but yourself — if even to yourself — you don’t know what to do now that the flowers have been watered, the dogs walked, and another hour dropped into the offertory.

I found a new job within days of moving, replete with young co-workers I tried desperately to befriend. This was a newly complicated process: why, when asked how I took the job, tell what hurts? Or how much it hurt to understand the mere fact of this friendly conversation was proof and reminder of the loss that animated it? Thankfully there was always another happy hour, another excuse to joke — to convince myself, when talking about a movie I didn’t like, I was only talking about a movie I didn’t like — and try to ignore the paradox of a titular moment whose discounted IPAs elicited from me the raucous participation that pointed exactly to its bankruptcy.

My point here is I never “came out” as aggrieved to my friends — not to long-distance friends from college, not to local friends I gradually accepted as actual friends who, shamed as I am to type it, I originally thought were just same-aged distractions. It’s hard to type this. I recall quickly how false, how performative, I felt befriending people who took that performance at face value, and how it pushed me further into the behaviors that reinscribed and deepened the feelings driving the whole performance. I both enjoyed and hated their puzzlement. I organized my life around it.

It’s hard to think back to a moment in your life where doing the best you can meant acting that way, and refusing to let others understand why, or how, or that their endorsement of your character only made it worse.

Eventually saying I was — am — lonely; I grieve; It’s still not okay is the first time I was honest with myself. This was a big hurdle for me: I don’t like these statements of feeling because I felt for my whole life that feelings had to be articulated in (arbitrary) forms of insightfulness, which excluded this vulnerable frankness (and the word “vulnerable”). I’m over it now, though: I’m not arrogant enough to understand the world so comprehensively that I don’t use, or need, feeling-statements. I write mostly to confront exactly how stupid I am.

This was essential when, last year, I had my first grand mal seizure. And weeks later when I had my second (this time with an audience), and then a few days later my third, and then my fourth, while I was driving my car through a grocery store parking lot. This experience, and the medications I was quickly prescribed after being diagnosed with epilepsy, proved debilitating: I lost thirty pounds in two months. I lost practically all of my short-term memory. For a few weeks I could not read. I had more seizures before I had less, and even then — while I’ve gone, at the time of writing this, seven weeks without a major event — the proximity of that experience is haunting. I am terrified what might happen every time I have a headache. Friends ask, “Remind me again, what do I do if it happens?” I hate feeling like they have to be cautious around me, even though I was made to stop drinking because of my disability.

Imagine how reluctantly I thought about this disability in terms of my own grief! Or how much I hated being forced to “come out” this time without any of my usual tricks! There was, as before, enough to do that for many weeks there was no time to consider the parallels. I had to quit my job (couldn’t drive down the highway anymore), sell my car (lost some money on that), re-home my retriever because I had to move within two weeks because I was deemed “unfit to live alone” and my new housing situation disallowed pets, and find something part-time that was (ideally) no stress and was within biking distance of my new apartment.

I don’t say any of this pityingly; on the contrary, I was thrilled to have a task list. I am what Brené Brown calls an “over-functioner,” which is basically to say I sublimate my negative feelings into tasks and achievement (see the above lists). The negative feelings hit in January, when I was in my new apartment, without my dog, head befogged with another (expensive) medication, trying to decide where I could even live in my country if I can’t drive myself.

People grieving — for someone, for a past version of themselves — are required to instruct others how to understand that grief at exactly the moment they are incapable of cogent instruction. I still struggle with this and my seizures: how do I describe to someone an experience that is defined by me, due to unconsciousness, not actually experiencing it? Through this effort I recall being fifteen, as well as the bar where I explained to the first of my co-workers that I took this job in my hometown because my parent died a month ago, and try to remember outside of the stubborn linearity of what, in recalling those instances, we refuse to forget or forgive about ourselves. How this (dys)function of recall blurs the people who, in my lucky case, listened anyway to what I was barely able to say, and who continue to listen.

Mark Fisher defines interpassivity as an experience (where a movie, for instance) does all the work of feeling for you. He gives Wall-E as an example: we laugh at the screen-obsessed, soda-chugging humans, and are given through this laughter a “pass” for any behaviors we have outside the theatre that might mimic the ones Wall-E judges for us.

In grief, I was “writing myself” with the same narrative goal: gesticulating with silence (and, let’s be honest, drunkenness bordering on alcoholism) to make all of my relationships interpassive. The obvious feature of this (manipulative) work is retaining control of the narrative you’re paradoxically unwilling to publicize in any way that might actually jeopardize your control of it — it becomes the concentric motion of an anxiety motorized by an object it can only perceive by daring to slow.

I still do a remarkably poor job of talking about any thing I think or feel about anything, but — while diagnosing a problem isn’t the same as curing it — my communication newly emerges from a year-long interrogation of the unhealthy boundaries I built, whose “protections” I see, in hindsight, noisily clatter to advertise the loneliness they posture as minimizing.

Sure, I cringe when I think back to specific moments from 2014 to even today, but now I see any life entirely inside an apology — anything singularly responsive, or parenthetical — will never see what is emancipatory about all the things we have left undone, and how this returns me here, to you, to a reader whose relationship like any is long and complex and subject to change.

What if, in closing, the remains say more, and aches — after naming a few of our hours — have already begun to forget the future?

 

No Chill: Part 1

Whenever a dude tells me to “chill” I want to cry out a multi-pitched scream and circle kick them in the face.  I don’t do that, because violence is not the answer or whatever.  And that wouldn’t be very chill.  That is to say, it gets a reaction out of me.

I spent most of my life trying to chill, to figure out how best to appear chill; to tease out what it meant to be chill.  That’s before I realized that people weren’t using the word “chill” to be synonymous with rationality, level-headedness, or thoughtfulness.  They meant it to mean the opposite of “crazy,” a word that, when directed at women, often means “you are mad and I don’t want to be subjected to it.”  If something is bothering you, just be chill.  What that translated to for me was taking my needs and swallowing them deep down until I eventually explosively shit them out (this comment will soon be explained).  

I thought that if I could be (or pretend to be) as chill, as perpetually unperturbed, as the boys I was trying to be friends with, I would be treated like they treat each other.  I would be afforded respect; my input would be valued; they would laugh at my jokes.  I was different than other women that were so dramatic, that were too silly to be allowed to be “main characters” of the group.  They were relegated to supporting roles, defined in relation to someone else– Jack’s girlfriend or Kevin’s sister.  I wanted to feel like I mattered to the men in my social circles.  I guess this was my way of behaving under the male gaze.  I didn’t feel like my appearance or sexuality was good enough for them to validate me, so maybe I could just try to be like them.

This line of thinking is an utter crock of shit, and I can’t believe I held onto it so tightly and unknowingly throughout high school and most of my college years.  Women are awesome, and they have things to say, and they matter.  Being chill means not stirring the pot when it might ruffle some feathers.  If women don’t do that, they are relegated to the sidelines and it robs the world of their voice.  If women do firmly communicate their opinions and needs or express anger when they feel it, they are often inconvenient to mainstream, male-dominated social circles and cast out of them.

Exploring how to communicate effectively is not easy for women who often find themselves having to choose between being polite and “bitchy.”  There is a way to set firm boundaries with compassion, but for me that takes a lot of practice and a lot of failures.  I eventually decided to move on from my male-dominated groups of friends in favor of finding groups where it wasn’t so difficult to navigate the proper syntax to be valued.  I lost a lot of friends in the process.  It was painful and it still is sometimes.

I want to outline my own history of learning to communicate needs in the hopes that you may see yourself or your loved ones in this story.  I should start by saying, I consider myself a radical, pink-pussy-hat wearing, loud-and-proud feminist.  And when you read this, you might not think of me that way.  But that’s okay, because I am not writing this to make myself look good.  The jig is up.  I am full of contradictions and imperfections, and you are going to get to see them.

On swallowing your needs and pushing them deep down until you eventually explosively shit them out:

I have historically been afraid to ask for what I need because what I need has run the gamut from potentially hurtful to over-sensitive (whatever that is) to downright embarrassing. (Remember back in the first article when I told you you were going to hear some humiliating things.  I wasn’t lying to you, Reader.)

I once lied to stop two charter buses with fully working bathrooms so I could run into a bathroom and shit my mother-loving brains out.  In my defense, I was in high school, riding from Lexington, Kentucky to Washington, D.C. with my entire junior class.  During those years, my IBS was awful– volatile, unpredictable, and thunderous.  Probably because I was digesting all that “chill.”  

Sweet Reader, maybe you are thinking, “Wow, Caitlin, please stop.  You are being disgusting, and no one needs to know that.”  Well, I’m here to tell you that you are reading a blog in which the reality of women taking shits is not covered up.  I am not a ninja, and I refuse to ninja poop in order to keep up the guise that it never happens.  There have been whole entire novels written about the fact that everyone poops.  And if three-year-olds can handle that kind of material, maybe it’s high time time you learn to as well.  

I feel like I got off track.  I want to apologize to you, Reader, for possibly being a bit too defensive.  You are valuable and I respect you.  And my IBS is almost non-existent now, if you were wondering (#tooblessedtobestressed).

In any case, when I began to feel the familiar cramps of impending doom, I took two anti-diarrheal pills and began to pray (there are no atheists in foxholes, after all).  This could end a few ways.  Either it went away; that was Plan A.  Plan B, I swallow the pain no matter how bad it gets until we make it to Washington D.C. in 5 hours.  Or C, I shit my pants, ride the five hours sitting in a muddy puddle of my own shame, and then convince my parents to move states so I can go to another high school far away.  

My face was white.  I was sweating profusely.  I sunk down into my bus seat so that my stomach was horizontal in hopes of easing the onslaught of contractions.  After about an hour and a half I devised a plan.  I warned my teacher that I was feeling a bit nauseous (setting the foundation for the con).  Then I waited another half hour before telling her I felt like I had to throw up but I was totally fine and I could hold it in.  (The trick is to make her decide the situation is dire.)

“Do we need to stop?” she asked.  

“I don’t know.  I think that might be best,” I said shyly.  “I’m so sorry.”

We stopped at a gas station and I ran in so that I would be the first one there, and to this day I am still so sorry to my friend Lisa Wang, who had to go in after me and was sweet enough to decline the opportunity to tell anyone about the terrible things that had happened in there.

Fearing that it would happen again, I took about three Imodium every day of the trip and did not shit for seven days.  Do you know how that feels, Reader?  My pants stopped fitting.  My body’s chemicals were reaching toxic chemicals.  I had to drink two bottles of laxatives, which didn’t work for another 24 hours.  I broke the toilet.  It was not chill.  

The point of this story: I chose to sit through 2 hours of pain, lie, and then not shit for a week rather than just say what I needed.  The end.

On setting boundaries:

Now I know how important it is to communicate clearly.  I know, theoretically, that I deserve to have my needs met as much as everyone else deserves that for themselves.  I know I am important; I know you are too, Reader, and you deserve to have what you need also.

While it is often inconvenient or awkward to say what you need, sometimes it can even feel unsafe.  In some scenarios, you can’t be sure how angry or violent the reaction will be.  In the series “No” of Kaitlin Prest’s brilliant podcast The Heart, she talks about how the word “no” is sometimes not enough.  Boundaries are not always respected.  If you haven’t listened to this series, you probably should.  In fact, stop reading this blog right now and go do it.  It’s incredible, and it inspired me to throw in my own thoughts on this subject.   

Setting boundaries effectively is hard.  How gentle should I be in my communication?  I hate hurting other people’s feelings.  At what point is the other person accountable for picking up on my boundaries?  What is the appropriate reaction if they are breached?  

As a friend of mine often says, “No is a hard word.”  I have taken on projects I didn’t want, travelled to places I didn’t want to go, and even had sex I didn’t really feel like having in ways I didn’t feel like having it because my “no” was stuck in my mouth.  Or maybe it just was not heard.  Was I not saying it loud enough or was the other person just not listening?  Who is accountable? (See Kaitlin Prest’s above-mentioned podcast for a deeper discussion on this.)

After I graduated, a teacher from my high school asked me to go to a state park with him to hike.  He was one of the most well-respected and loved teachers of the school.  We had what I thought was a close but appropriate relationship throughout my high school years.  My school was small– I graduated with 56 people– so it was not uncommon for students to have close relationships with teachers.  

I was very sheltered; the red flags weren’t going up.  He wasn’t a stranger.  He had always seemed to have my best interest at heart.  I hadn’t really experienced bad things happening to good people yet in my life.  If you are thinking I am being an idiot in this story, that’s fair.  I’m not mad.  I’ve already told you I am not telling these stories to make me look good (that should be obvious by now).  I am telling them because I haven’t told them to very many people, and that is because of shame.  I am telling them because I have made the decision that I don’t need to be ashamed of my stories, and I don’t need to care if other people think I should be.

So anyway, we went out to the state park, about an hour drive away.  He had asked if I had any pot to bring, another red flag that I had failed to identify as such.  I had chalked it up to, “Everybody smokes pot (not true, but in my world it was), and holy shit, how cool would it be to smoke with a teacher!  I am going where no kid has gone before!  I am fucking special.”

So we get high.  I have a pretty decent tolerance; he tells me this is the first time he’s smoked in years.  I was disappointed because I thought this was, like, his thing.  I thought he was asking because he was allowing me, a new high school graduate, to enter into the adult domain where everyone smokes all the time.  

And then I see his body language change.  I started to panic.  I still remember the drop in my stomach, the is-this-really-happening feeling.  He was so old.  Surely he knew this wasn’t that kind of relationship.  We were sitting on an old log, and he shifted his body toward me.  I was wearing gym shorts, and he put his hands on my bare thighs and began rubbing up and down.  I froze.

“I want to talk about all these hugs we give each other in the hallways,” he said.  What the fucking fuck?  I guess it was normal for me to give him a side hug in some situations, but he did that with all his students.  And he was my mentor, so it was okay.  He was a wise, paternal figure.

I didn’t say anything.  He said a few more things that I have absolutely no memory of.  His hands were still on my thighs.  And then he asked, “Is this okay?”  I knew that this was where I was supposed to either confirm or deny consent.  I knew I didn’t want this.  In fact, I so vehemently did not and could not believe this was even happening that I took a while to formulate an answer. 

What surprises me most to this day is that I cared that I didn’t hurt his feelings.  It must be hard to be old, I thought.  Age doesn’t mean you don’t have feelings for people anymore.  I thought that it was in the same line of thinking as my own inner conversation about my sexuality.  I liked girls to some extent; I did not think I should have to be ashamed of that.  Maybe it was the same for older men.  I was, after all, pretty mature for my age, I had reasoned.

“I don’t really think of you in that way,” I said, kindly.  “I think of you more like a paternal figure, I guess.”  He took his hands off my legs and breathed a huge sigh of relief.  “Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone though.  It’s okay.”  

Like, what?!  Why was I trying to reassure him?  And frankly, I lied, partly.  I told my best friend and a few other friends in the five years following, but I never breathed a word to my family or the school.  I guess because I felt like I didn’t want to tell his secret.  I didn’t really consider that he might have had similar interactions with anyone else, and I didn’t want to deal with the drama.  I didn’t want to look him in the face again.  I didn’t want anyone to know how stupid I was.  I loved my school and all my other teachers, and I didn’t want to make them mad at me.  And I hadn’t felt unsafe.  I said no, albeit politely, and he stopped.  He waited until after I graduated to hit on me, but I didn’t realize at the time that that was for his own self-protection.  

“Well, I guess boys will be boys,” he said.  I didn’t know how much I would come to hate that phrase.  He told me he was too high to drive home.  

“It’s cool, I can totally drive!” I said.  But alas, it was a stick shift.  God. Fucking. Dammit.  I never thought I would regret not having that skill so much.  So we had to walk around in the park for an hour and a half while I pretended everything was totally cool.  I knew, factually and scientifically, that the outing had to end, but I could not for the life of me believe that it would.  It felt like forever.

The drive back was an hour long, and on the way he said he wanted to get something to eat.  I still remember how my spirit dropped at that moment.  I was so fucking close to my safe bed.  I suggested a fast food place.

“I want to sit down somewhere,” he said.

“NO!  HOW COULD YOU THINK I WOULD WANT TO DO THAT?!  THIS IS TOTALLY INAPPROPRIATE AND ALL I WANT TO DO IS GO HOME!” I screamed.

Just kidding.

Instead, I was still thinking about his feelings, which deeply disturbs me now.  “Why don’t we stop at Panera?”  It was strategic.  It’s a sit down place, but not a wait-for-your-server place.  In my mind it was the quickest option, and I wouldn’t have to actually let on how upset I was.  Somehow navigating a truthful conversation felt like way more work than just riding it out.

I got home, went to my room, and thought about the weird fucking world.  God, I had no idea. And I should reiterate how tame this story actually is.  Again, I never at any point felt physically unsafe (should I have?).  Compared to a large amount of women, I was completely unscathed.  It changed my view of the world, which probably ended up helping me more than anything else.  I did lose some innocence, and that was painful.  I moved one step closer to adulthood, although I still had no fucking clue.

This is only part one of my inability to set boundaries.  I want to point out that I have gotten a lot better, at least I hope I have.  And also, there is a lot to be discussed here.  At what point should the boundary be so obvious that I should not have to be the one to set it at all?  For instance, if I am 18 years old, should I be able to expect that my teacher in his late 60s would not try to feel me up?  Should I be accountable for being so wishy-washy with my objection when I have never come up against this kind of offense before?  Is it victim blaming for me to think that I was a stupid fucking idiot, that I let it happen?

My internal accusation of being a stupid fucking idiot has definitely come up plenty of times when I have opted to tell this story before.  I have learned how to spot victim blaming and point it out with indignant passion everywhere I notice it, but it seems a lot grayer in my own stories.  Can you think of a time you have done something you haven’t wanted to?  Do you blame yourself?  Do you think you were responsible because you did not set the appropriate boundaries?  What about if you did set a boundary but you aren’t sure you set it firmly enough?  What was your tone when you set it?  Were you too nice?  Should that matter?  What are we teaching men about boundaries and how to recognize them?  It feels like a lot of weight being set on women to do it all correctly.  I feel very heavy, y’all.

This brings up a lot of issues of consent, I know.  This teacher asked for my consent.  I said no, I didn’t want to be with him, and yet I didn’t say no, that I can’t wait for you to not be high to call someone to pick me up.  I didn’t say no, I don’t want to eat with you.  What if I had of been that polite about the first thing he asked me.  “Is it okay that I have my hands on your knees?”  Shouldn’t it go without saying that it is not okay?  I hadn’t even had sex yet at that point.  The age of consent is 16 in Kentucky, so does that mean it doesn’t go without saying?  Is it okay for him to ask?

I want to be clear: consent does not merely mean the absence of a “no;” it means the clear presence of an enthusiastic “yes.” This is absolutely true in cases of sexual assault.  I do not want to gray this line in this discussion at all.  I am hoping to discuss consent in other interactions, in times where a person might feel physically safe but perhaps afraid or unwilling.  

What do you think, Reader?  If you feel comfortable sharing, you can leave a comment.  I told you this story in hopes that you would think of larger questions.  I told you this in hopes that you would relate to the stories in your past where your boundaries have been transgressed in ways large or small, and that maybe you would feel that your feelings about it matter.  The story I have told you about today was not a traumatic one.  It was memorable sure, but I was not violated here in ways I, and maybe you, have felt emotionally or physically violated in other circumstances.  Consent can be in passing moments, and it still matters.  It teaches us what to regard as ours, what is valued as ours, and what can be taken from us.  

In the next segment I will talk more about ways in which my boundaries have been breached, and I hope I will hear your feedback before then.  As always, you are my helper.  You are the one seeing, and that is an act worthy of love and admiration.  It is not always easy.  Feel free to tell me what you see, or maybe you would like to be seen now.  Maybe you want to say your story now.  How will you tell it?  Who will you ask to see it?  

How I’m Magic AF and So Are You

 

Okay, that last one was a little grim, but look, some of you stuck around! Keep on trooping, Trooper. Or maybe this is your first time here. To catch you up from the last article, trauma, trauma, trauma, death, death, death. Okay, done. You came on board at just the right time. Congratulations. This one is going to be a bit more hopeful. Make yourself at home. You are welcome here.

So here’s something a lot of you might already be onto. Faced with trauma, you will need new strategies. It’s not a “new strategies will really help you” type thing; your body and your mind require them. And this is where the inventing comes in—you are creating technologies to handle and process the experiences you are going through every day. It’s fucking amazing. But here are some important variables/rules to remember about coping mechanisms:

  1. Sometimes you are aware of it when you are creating strategies and sometimes you are not. At all. Your body and your subconscious do it for you. Kind of scary, huh?
  2. Sometimes they are generative; sometimes they are not; and sometimes they are downright destructive. And a lot of times they are a weird mixture (very confusing when this happens).
  3. The things you notice about or intend to reinforce with your new strategies matter.
  4. People don’t commonly up and create wholly new, original coping mechanisms after a traumatic event. They more often do variations of things they had done before the trauma, but with more intensity. You can see how this could be so great if that habit is composing music or journaling or art, and pretty bad if it is drinking, stress eating, or inviting people to play Candy Crush Saga with you on Facebook.

Honestly, I’ve seen the destructive coping strategies get pretty fucking bad—life-threateningly bad. I should mention I am no mental health expert whatsoever; I am just going off my experiences, which seem to have bumped up against this sort of stuff quite a bit. (I think that makes me more similar to most people than different.) This is nothing more than personal opinion—my way of fitting the puzzle pieces together (shit, this puzzle is complicated as fuck).

Let’s stop for a second. Dear, sweet Reader, how are you reacting to the topic right now? Check in real quick. If you are uncomfortable, take a break. This stuff is rough, but I think it’s important. Also, I know I promised you human flaws at the beginning of this blog, so before you think I am getting all holier-than-thou about “how to deal with trauma,” let me go ahead and let you know just a few of the destructive coping mechanisms I have come up against in my own personal life:

  1. Drinking, duh. The extent to which I have a handle on this waxes and wanes, but generally remains relatively in check. My relationships haven’t been affected. (Secret: I fear that they would be more affected if I stopped drinking altogether.) I don’t drink during the day unless there’s a social reason. But I can feel it being an issue. I can feel myself doing it to quell the anxiety. I have to actively try not to drink at night. My body knows that it is trauma related.
  2. Calling my psychologically abusive ex very creatively mean names (more on this in another article) during “the worst of times.” For example, I once called him a chauvinist demon monster who is a threat to vaginas everywhere. Another time I called him a creeping spider who prowled for vulnerable women and then unhinges his jaw to swallow them whole like freaking Shelob in Lord of the Rings. (See, human flaws, right there. Are you happy now?)
  3. Lots of sleeping.
  4. Eating less without noticing it. If you’re thinking, “Oh I’m sooo sorry for you that you lost weight. Lucky bitch,” that’s fair. But my friends suffered the most from this one, because I am really mean when I’m hungry even if I don’t know I’m hungry. And it happens in phases. I’ve eaten four airheads since I’ve started writing this (yes, people still eat those).

For me, there has always been a tug-o-war between these negative coping mechanisms and the positive ones. I assume that is far more common than one or the other taking over. I want to tell you about a really cool coping strategy I found. It relies on the premise, and hear me out first, that I know everything I need to know at any given time. It’s more a matter of noticing that I know things that is the issue. In every moment of every day, there are literally millions of details to notice. Millions. And still I am most likely looking past 999,999 to fixate on the bug bite at the top of my ass crack.

In comic Simon Amstell’s stand up special Do Nothing, he talks about Richard Bach’s book Illusions: Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah. I’ve not read it, but I’m going to summarize a theme in it anyway because this is my blog and I can do whatever I want (I’m drunk with power, really). The idea is that if time is only linear because we as humans have to experience it that way, than theoretically everything has already been achieved. For that reason, the author believes that he can manifest his own reality. For instance, he can think of a blue feather in his hand and then, at some point in the “future,” it will be so. Skeptical? Well, I’m explaining it poorly because I haven’t read the damn thing, but yeah, I am too.

I decided I wanted to play with that theme anyway, because I don’t think most of us quite understand the power we have in the outcome of our lives. I know that I don’t. It’s quite complicated really—the illusion of control, the concept of free will, time, butterfly effect, blah blah blah, meow, meow, meow.

So it was right before the trial for my mother’s murder when I started thinking that maybe in this mess of existential concepts I do not understand, perhaps I can find some help dealing with all this. So, I thought, I will imagine something in my hand, and if it comes to be in my hand in the future as I imagined, I win and I’m magic. I’ll call Hogwarts and let them know so they can send me my letter post haste.

The item should be something rare but not so rare that it’s actually impossible—something kind of weird. A purple leaf! Not a flower; an actual purple leaf, and not a purple tint either, an actual purple leaf. Perfect.

So I was walking my dog (shout out to Shenzi!) a week or two later, and you will never guess what happened. A purple fucking leaf, right before my very eyes. So I plucked it off the plant and put it in my hand, thereby making me a real live witch. It had actually happened. I had been waiting for this moment ever since I started reading fantasy chapter books as a ten-year-old, and the special-ness of me (again, my blog, so I get to make up words if I want) was intoxicating.

And then, I started looking around and I noticed, those little shits were everywhere! I later learned they were called purple hearts and they were all over everybody’s yards. I had unknowingly cheated. I was a boring, ordinary muggle, after all.

So I tried again, this time with a seashell. I couldn’t remember having seen a seashell since the last time I had gone to the beach. I imagined one in my hand and sure enough, about two weeks later, I looked down and in the gravel was a small shell, and I picked it up, once again fulfilling my made up prophecy. My heart lifted with hope.

Until I started looking around and realized that the gravel in New Orleans is regularly made of crushed up seashells. How could I have never noticed that?

Okay, this time I meant business. An amethyst. And you can guess what happened. A few weeks later at the French Market I saw a beautiful amethyst necklace, so I had to fork over 20 bucks that time for the chance to be magic. But after I thought about it, how many jewelers sell amethyst stones? Probably a lot. I was bound to run into one sooner or later.

Alright folks, now comes the epiphany. You probably think I’m a real solipsistic asshole right now, thinking I’m magic and all, and I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong. I can just tell you, had it been real, I would have harnessed the power to be a good witch. I hope anyway, but they say absolute power corrupts absolutely, so who knows.

I did realize something life-changing. Everything I was looking for had been around me the entire time. I had walked past all of those items a million times without ever noticing they were there. So, if you’ll allow me to extrapolate a little, that could be true for so much shit.

I was about to go into the most traumatic two weeks of my life. I could see it coming, like I was sitting on my roof with a glass of iced tea watching a giant fucking tsunami come right at me. I was about to drown. How could I possibly get through a thing like that?

I remember the truth sinking in. I have all the tools I need to go through this. I just have to open my eyes to them. I simply have to notice them (passive) and pick them up and put them in my hand (active), and it will be so. Anything within reason will be so. It’s kind of like how when you are feeling completely alone (which I was), that’s cool that you feel that way, but it’s probably not true, or at least it never has been in my case. Even when I have not felt understood, I have, 100% of the time for my whole life, been deeply loved by my family and friends. I know how lucky and privileged I am to be able to say that.

I felt lost, but I could rely on the fact that support was there. I just had to make myself available to see it and actively receive. Even when the world felt completely black and suffocating, help was on the way. That thought was my blanket in a very cold courtroom.

Little did I know, the trial would be more horrifying and traumatic than I ever could have imagined, despite the conviction at the end of it (but that story is for a different post). And that made that glimmer of hope all the more crucial. I wanted to withdraw the whole time. I wanted to hide and to make myself alone, to go into one of those sensory deprivation pods and never come out forever. But I knew I had to notice the help that was out there. I had to look for the outreached hand and grab it, and to do that I had to come out from my hiding place and open my eyes. Not that I was 100% successful at that all the time. It is, however, the way I stayed connected to my family, despite my instinct to run away so that I wouldn’t hurt them with my feelings or have to deal with anyone’s emotions but my own. It’s also how I found art. That was my breath of fresh air. It was how I communicated when I couldn’t talk about it to anyone. It certainly changed the course of my life.

Lovely Reader, you being here means the world to me. You are also an outstretched hand. You are a helper, just by reading this, even if you hated it and it’s the worst thing you’ve ever read ever. Who is reaching their hand out for you? Will you take it?

Death Stuff

 

CW: violence, death, PTSD

 

 

I think about death. A lot. Every day, probably a few times an hour. I think about suffering a lot. Not necessarily mine, but the suffering that all people and animals in the world might potentially be feeling.  I feel very sad and very sorry.  Probably more than twice an hour, most days.

So I guess I should preamble this.  Have I told you yet that I have strange issues? Some of them are kind of fun. Like, I make up songs where I replace my dog’s name (Shenzi) with every word. I genuinely enjoy the hiccups. In middle school I told everyone I could talk to trees and had created a whole new religion called Physicism (not a real word, but very close to one). I got made fun of quite extensively for that one so I was pretty effectively policed out of a lot of my weirdness by the age of 12. Even though I am adequately weird as it is, it still seems like a shame. Like the one that got away, ya know? What weirder-ness could have been?

A lot of the issues are not so fun. They are a constant struggle. I suffer from PTSD from my mother’s murder and the trial thereafter. I got two concussions in a row about a year and a half ago and have since struggled with depression. The depression could either be from that or the emotionally abusive relationship I ended right before the injury. I’m not sure, but it fucks with my head even more that I can’t weed out the exact reason. I have social anxiety that I manage pretty well (well enough that it often goes unnoticed), and that makes me want to be alone a lot of the time.

But I digress. Now is not the time to unpack all of that. We are together now to talk about death. Aren’t you glad you’re here? I know I am. Don’t worry, it’s not as heavy as it sounds. I’m used to it by now. Death and I are buds. Or more like roommates who are forced to house together but are constantly at odds.

I regularly think about the fact that every person I love, every creature I have ever met, will all be dust in 100 years time. That is an indisputable fact. What will we all look like as dust? Where will the rest of us, the parts that are not dust, go? I think about how I could die at any moment, how all my friends and family could die at any moment. I feel for some reason that I’m on borrowed time, but I don’t know why.

Do you ever think those thoughts? How often? I don’t know how unusual it is really, but I know I’m not supposed to talk about.

I have a friend at work. We’ll call him Jon for the sake of this post. Jon is, understandably, not all that open about feelings in the workplace. He seems kind of scared of them, but I can’t tell for sure. He is very funny, and he’s good at giving me a lot of shit. All in good fun, but he should know that two can play. To get him back, I sometimes say very intense, existential feelings at inopportune times to watch him try (or not try) to handle it. Like, the other week I was doing dishes, and he came into the back to tell me something work-related.

“Hey, I just refilled all the napkins,” he said. Classic Jon, always talking about emotionless napkins.

I replied, “Okay, thank you. I feel like death is following me.”

And then he left, without saying a word. I found this hilarious. I don’t really know why. Maybe because it feels like an inside joke with myself, and the idea of having an inside joke with no one else is entertaining to me in the first place.

I don’t really need to talk about it mostly. I wasn’t craving for someone to know. At this point I’m pretty comfortable with it, actually. Plus, most people react in a way that makes it worse. I learned that quickly and then just decided not to tell most people. Jon’s reaction made it a little better because it was funny at least. Mark my words: the darkest, heaviest subjects are a breeding ground for some of the most hilarious, restorative humor.

I don’t really want to be told that that’s no way to live, that there is no reason to be in fear all the time. “Don’t think about it too much,” they often say. Or they brush it off because, understandably, they really can’t handle it at that moment. I get that; I’ve definitely been there. They are not responsible for taking any of my issues on, nor do I want them to be. And still, that brush-off response, I have learned, is very isolating. It’s the feeling that even if you reach out there might not be a hand to grab onto. Even if that’s not true (I am very loved and grateful for it), it still hurts because it chips away at the realness of the circumstance, the hard-to-look-at notion that every minute is deeply lived by every single creature.

So I taught myself not to need to be understood, not to need to be seen. I’m good at that most of the time. “So why write about it for anyone to see,” you might ask. I appreciate your curiosity. Well, Dear Reader, first of all, as important to me as you are, I take a lot of solace in the fact that I do not have to see your reaction, so if you take it the wrong way, I won’t necessarily know or be harmed by that. There is a very convenient, protective wall associated with personal writing on the internet.

The problem with not being seen or understood is that it can sometimes make a person feel very small and unimportant. I have felt that way before. Also, I believe I have something valuable to say. I have learned a great deal from the experiences of others. What if maybe a person or two could learn from mine? I believe in the worth of my voice. So, short story long, I am writing this to say to myself, “Caitlin, you matter! You matter so much that you don’t have to hide your stories, even if it makes some people uncomfortable!” Yes, that is me talking to myself, by the way. And believing myself does not come easy, no way. It takes convincing and practice. But luckily my inner cheerleader won’t shut up. She doesn’t care if she’s heard or not. By the way, do you feel uncomfortable? We can pause for a moment so you can go make a cup of tea, if you want. That always helps me.

So, where were we? Oh yes, death. Yay.

Yeah, I think a big part of the reason for this particular issue is post traumatic stress disorder. Six years ago my mom was murdered. It sucks, a lot. And now I have PTSD and that sucks a lot too. And also, there is a lot to be learned from that disorder. Looking at things differently because of this disorder has its insights. It feels a little bit like knowing a secret, like having an affair with death that no one knows about, and like being able to see it in places where others can’t.

It makes life fucking intense, I’ll tell you that much. Every moment has meaning. Every moment is so special because it could just as well have not been there. Every time I get pissed about forgetting my phone and having to drive back to my house, I imagine that that lapse in judgment saved my life, that if I hadn’t forgotten it I would have been timed perfectly to get in a car wreck and die. See? It means that you never know if a bad event is actually a miraculous event. Every time you get lost or can’t find your keys or wake up late for work, there is potential that that mistake has saved your fucking life. That kind of makes those little things less infuriating for me.

Don’t get me wrong, mostly it’s a pain in my ass. Every time a family member calls at a weird time of day, my heart drops so fast it nearly comes out my asshole. The worst is always looming. Bad things are expected. And that is not a great head space to be in.

Because of PTSD, the “that’s no way to live” response I mentioned earlier is particularly annoying because it insinuates that I have culpability in the matter. This situation right here, folks, is my body running the show. It is scared before my brain is. It remembers things that I forget. Bodies are fucking powerful. And in these cases it overrides the system and then my brain follows like a little wuss. Ugh, what a sheep.

It’s not like there’s nothing I can do. There are plenty of coping tools. Trying to clear those memories out of the body is an important one. Yoga helps. So does exercise. Touching others, like hugging or holding hands, is helpful too, that is if I feel safe and I am open enough to want to be touched at the time. And trying to keep the brain from being such a goddamn follower is important too. Meditation is good for this. Mindfulness is key. Rituals focusing on qualities like gratitude, acceptance, or empowerment help me prioritize certain thought patterns over others. They make me more creative.

There are a myriad of other PTSD symptoms that I have to keep at bay, so cut me some slack if sometimes I want to ditch all these healthy coping mechanisms and take the easy way out with a Xanax or some beers and some snacks, but I try not to. I just get tired.

But the point is, there is a lot of value in being forced to develop a toolbox of coping strategies, even if it’s true that the unhealthy ones consistently push up against the wholesome ones like a three-year-old testing behavioral boundaries. I have learned about ways my body works that astonish me. I have discovered ways my mind and spirit work that are nothing short of stunning. Nothing has cured the anxiety and the worrying by any means. These tools do, however, compel me to take a closer look at myself, to find patterns in my thoughts and behaviors. This makes me more humble, and it makes me more whole.

Okay, Dearest Reader, we are done now. A bit of an abrupt ending, I know, but there’s more to be said at a later time. This has been a heavy read, so why don’t you go play some Mario Kart. If you don’t think about this stuff all the time, then that’s fucking awesome and I grant you permission to stop it right now and go eat some lo mein and watch TV. Thanks for making it here though. You matter.

And Also…

 

A Present Creature artwork. Note: All doodles from here on out will have dog hair on them that is accidentally scanned in. #sorrynotsorry That shit gets everywhere.

And also. You might be thinking, “Wow, congratulations on choosing two of the most boring words in the English language and making them your blog title.” Well, Dearest Reader, you are smart and I appreciate you, and also you are very wrong. And I’m going to tell you why.

Firstly, they aren’t the most boring words. “Insurance” and “attorney,” when paired together, are the most boring words. I’ll get to the point though. The phrase “and also” comes from a lovely friend while sitting on a lovely porch. She told me about this simple method that allows her to artfully communicate in a clear and respectful way while refusing to be submissive or self-denigrating in her speech. This is something, as women, that we are taught not to do. Clarity is arrogance; strength is bitchiness; and so on.

This brings me to the beautiful linguistic tool, “and also.” The rule is, anytime you are about to say “but,” try using “and also” instead. For example:

“I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t agree with points x, y, z…”

“I understand what you’re saying, and also I don’t agree with points x, y, z…”

“You should read my new blog, but you don’t have to if you are too busy.”

“You should read my new blog, and also you don’t have to if you are too busy.”

“I am trying to be confident and brave, but I am struggling with social anxiety.”

“I am trying to be confident and brave, and also I am struggling with social anxiety.”

What do you notice? I will concede that the second sentence in each of these examples sounds less natural, and I am willing to bet that is especially true if you’re a woman. We are used to speaking in ways that discount the power of our statements. Following a statement with “but” feels normal, and also it discounts the value of the assertion we just said. Even if two clauses seem like they naturally contradict each other, often both are equally as valid. Trying to be confident and brave is just as important as struggling with anxiety.

And the beauty of this phrase is that it doesn’t ask you to compromise your compassion. In fact, it can make you more understanding and more appreciative of the nuances of yourself and those around you. I refuse to believe that kindness and compassion are at odds with firmness and conviction. On the contrary, those concepts are all quite good friends if you ask me. This tool allows you to put equal value on “I understand what you are saying” and “I disagree in some ways.” It opens up a world of dialogue in which gratitude and critique are weighted the same. We have the opportunity to see and value each other while maintaining the validity of our own opinions.

I don’t want to talk in a masculine way in order to get people to listen to me. The traits I have that are coded as “feminine” are some of my favorite things about myself. I love that I am empathetic and nurturing; I like that I don’t always assume that I am certainly right; I don’t want to change that I appreciate people’s time when they offer it to me.

I wish the focus of linguistic discussions would focus less on the ways in which women speak and instead look at the diction and syntax men use that contribute to the undervaluing of women. And also, I am still acutely interested in exploring ways to speak that do not put me in a submissive position. For more detailed insight on the ways women’s speech is policed, check out this post by Ann Friedman in NYMag.com .

Coming from a place where my narrative has been stolen from me on many occasions, where invisibility has shaken my self-worth, this is my answer—to write about it without shame, to reclaim my narrative. That is why And Also is important enough to be the title of this whole big shebang.

I also feel like I should mention that I am scared shitless. I am 100% introverted. I love people. They are also terrifying to me. I mostly don’t tell them personal things, and sometimes when they are talking I want to run away and go hide in a closet. But that isn’t socially acceptable, unfortunately. So it makes sense that I love being alone.  It’s like throwing a party for myself and no one there is annoying or mean (see above doodle; don’t I look so happy!?). So this is a radical 180 turn for me. It could very well be a disaster. But I can promise you that I will try to be honest, brutally so at some points; I will try to be kind; and I will try not to be too boring. I will almost certainly use the word “but” instead of “and also” by accident or on purpose on several occasions.

And hey, this is about you too! You, Dear Reader, are invited to be a participant. I am letting you in of my own volition, as a teammate. You are the one allowing me to reclaim my narrative just by listening to it. I don’t want to sound needy or anything, but hey, I need you! My hope is that perhaps you will read it and think, “yeah, me too.” Maybe you will feel less like a weirdy if you see me fly my weirdy flag. Or maybe it will make you feel better that you have stuff a lot more figured out than I do.

I won’t go easy on myself so don’t worry, if you keep reading you are about to see some serious human flaws, some bad decisions, some downright humiliating stuff. And you will read some really sad stuff, as well as some badass shit too. I can promise you oscillations—whip lash from funny to sad to triumphant and then back to weird.

So now that you’ve been adequately and verbosely warned, welcome to And Also. Get cozy, stay awhile if you’d like. You are important. Wrap up in your blanket and have a look around. Get some tea and make yourself comfortable. Or tell me to go fuck myself and close the computer. Your call. I respect your agency; you matter.