Rembrandt, Warrior

This is not a test. This is the real fucking deal.

Trigger Warning.

You see those words a lot these days on posts and status updates and tweets and such. Trigger. Warning. It’s a caution. It’s a courtesy. It gets used so much it starts to mean nothing. It’s all the above.

I admit, even I grow occasionally weary of the expanding list of things that can trigger people, the warnings that need to be laid plain. And yet, I’m exactly the person who needs them. But maybe that’s why they irk me — just a bit. It’s this idea that we can somehow be prepared for what lies ahead. But anyone who has ever survived a trigger — the free-fall moment you are undone to your atomic level — knows that more often than not the real ones blindside you as you are stepping around a corner on your way to no place special. You’re hurrying to pick up the dry cleaning before they close. You’re texting a shopping list to your partner for the umpteenth time. You just got a flu shot, because that’s what responsible grown-ups do.

Triggers are like earthquakes. They roll up unannounced and unwelcome. They unhinge you from your reality. And they unnerve you with aftershocks that you can never quite be sure are over.

Just like any other day, I took a Facebook break during work. I scrolled through cute baby pics, clever (and mostly not-so-clever) joke memes, and countless political diatribes. I rolled my eyes at the ridiculous weight-loss ads that crop up in my feed, as if I would think that anyone I know would put them there. Do men get these, too? Is this really what being a woman in my late-30s is about — ads for stylish flats, baby clothes, and weight loss secrets? And then it hit me. Right there in my daily routine and my routine thoughts about minor outrages. A photo of the man who sexually abused me for nine years. He had his arm around someone I know. Like … I don’t know. Like he’s just living his life and smiling for the camera because he’s fucking crazy smiling guy without a care in the world.

Bam! Triggered.

I ran to the bathroom and vomited.

Then, because my husband was at work and my child was in daycare, I gently folded myself into bed and passed out. Blacked out. Done. My body shut that shit down. Full stop.

It hasn’t hit me like that since I was in college. But I haven’t seen a photo of him or seen him in person in more than a decade, maybe two. I don’t want to stop and think about that, to add up the years. Because, really, that’s just too much time thinking about the worst person I can imagine. He’s the reason why when I’m in a conversation about some person who loses it and kills their lover or when Lorena chopped that guy’s dick off … this man is the reason why I have a moment of clarity about their hysteria. Because I know what it feels like to be treated with such cruelty and tortured for years, and years, and years until you feel like you can’t think straight. Until you feel like the sanest thing you could do is go into the kitchen, get a knife, and then go chop somebody’s genitals off. I’m not saying I ever did that. I’m not saying I would. I’m just saying, I understand that moment of crazy as perhaps a moment of salvation. I’m saying there are times when you’ve been pushed so far that prison sounds like a vacation.

But Lorena is the exception. Everyday people like you and me are the rule. We tough it out. We survive. In a world that could give two shits about sexual abuse survivors, we soldier on. We put up with a society that constantly tells us to just get over it. Like it’s some kind of bad breakup or disaster prom date story. That again? Can you just move on already?

My God, if it were that easy.

I can go a long time between triggers. Sometimes so long that I forget what a whirling vortex they are. It starts to feel like you’ve conquered something, like learning to fly an airplane when you have a fear of flying. But that is an illusion. The hardest part about being molested is the years and years afterward when you get triggered or haunted or fucked up by it somehow all over again. You experience the trauma on such a deep level that it embeds in your cells. It’s attached to your DNA for life. It’s like a disease that goes in and out of remission. Sometimes it feels like it’s eating you alive from the inside. It’s a blackhole. That’s a lot of cliched imagery. Because even now that I’ve been a professional, award-winning, respected writer for 15+ years — I still don’t know how to describe the sensation of being a survivor. I don’t have the words. That’s how bad it is.

I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read or how many therapists I’ve been to over the past 25 years. A lot. Not enough. Too many. Who knows? I’m a pretty intellectual person. I like to know the reason for things. I’m the kind of person who only gets how to cook something after someone can teach me the chemistry behind it. Oh, that’s why! It’s not because I have any kind of a clue about chemistry. It’s because I have the kind of  mind that never stops whirring. And it just revs up all the louder when I’m confused or afraid or can’t find the words. How can I not have the words? That’s who I am! I’m writer. Everyone knows that. My whole family knew that before I was even in junior high. It was my destiny, as my old, superstitious grandmother used to say. My destiny to tell the stories of people who had no words. So I can’t NOT have the words! Ah-ha! Double negative. I do have the words! … Somewhere? We could be here all night waiting. … Moving on.

This is the intellectual side of me. This is the part of me that reads all over my face and makes friends smile at me and say things like, “I can tell you are always thinking.” Really? Is that actually a compliment? It seems like if you are really smart, then you wouldn’t have to try so hard that people see it all over your face. I mean, babies have a poop face when they are pooping. Is it really a compliment to have a think face? … This is the part that kicks into overdrive and spins out during a trigger-quake.  But the problem with that is, it doesn’t take long for my brain to realize that there is no eminent threat. The danger is not real. Even though the rest of my body is saying that this is not a test. My brain is going, “Nothing to see here! Shut it down.” But the endorphins, and the body’s defense response (quick vomit!), and oh the heart … she is beating. You can’t think your way out of that. You can’t rationalize with emotions. And holy shit are emotions powerful. Crashing in on you. Burying you to your eyeballs. Shut it down. Shut it down!

After all this time and growth and learning and healing and breathing … I would have thought I was strong enough to take a photo by now. I wasn’t really interested in testing that hypothesis, mind you. I just figured I could take it. After everything else, that’s just pixels. Pixels never hurt anybody. They’re not even real. I mean, you can’t touch them. But my God, they can touch you. And I felt all my learning about meditation fly away. I felt all the hours and hours and hours I’ve sweated it out in yoga, chanting ohm, breathing into the wounded places, stretching past my limits — gone. I felt all the tools they teach you in therapy evaporate. I was left defenseless and bare. Alone. Guileless. There was no witty comeback. There was nothing in my head at all. My head was blank. Stopped cold. All I could feel was the rush of panic and then the eventual biology kick in. It was guts and heart and the rush of blood. Because that’s where the old cells are. The old cells don’t even touch the new cells with their evolved, therapeutic ways. The old cells are basic and primal and warrior. Panic. Sad. Vulnerable. And angry. Oh, my old friend Anger showed up just in time. You can always count on Anger to play bouncer to the rush of emotions that want to come storming through the gates.

When my brain did start buzzing again, two memories floated up simultaneously. I remembered that several years ago I had, indeed, talked to this man on my birthday. It was, of course, not by choice. But it happened. And it was terrible. Meanwhile, this other memory bubbled up. I remembered the night my friend offered to kill that man. And, as former military, he was every inch serious. He rather convincingly told me about how it would look like an accident. Just say the word. It was a dizzy feeling. We were driving far too fast down Las Vegas Boulevard. I felt drunk even though I hadn’t been drinking. I remember feeling a kind of fear that I could just say a word. I knew a guy. And it would be done. What was this? The Godfather? I felt fear that it was possible. And I felt fear that even for just the most briefest of moments, I entertained the fantasy. And for all that man tortured me, can i just tell you that to this day I feel guilty about that moment. I feel guilty that for just the space of a breath, I let myself consider what it would be like to say yes.

Why Anger would bring up these memories as the first semi-rational thoughts in my brain … I have no idea. Maybe those are just the ghosts in the machine. A bit of memory flotsam. Just some stuff that shook loose in the quake. A few broken mementos. I felt like somewhere inside my guts I was bleeding internally and for the next three hours I just tried not to throw up again. And then life came rushing in. My family was home and dinner was needed and life events were happening in real time. So time didn’t stop for you? And everything felt loud and bright and hurt. I couldn’t even tell my husband about it until the kiddo was in bed, because how do you even say stuff like that out loud with a three-year-old clamoring for you to color with markers together. And it’s trash night. And that one show starts in 20 minutes. I mean. Yeah.

It was a bad one this time. But the thing I can say is that I got through it. And the tools came back, like muscle memory, sometime while we were watching that show. Something funny happened on TV and I was able to laugh it. And I remembered how to take care of myself in a way that was beyond basic. Maybe I was reduced to my atoms for a moment there — scrambled up in a transporter beam. But eventually I came back to myself. The pieces reassembled. And faster than they ever could have in the past. Because, the truth is, I am stronger now than I have ever been. It doesn’t stop the times when the air gets knocked right out of me and I lose focus on the world for a few minutes (or hours). It doesn’t make it hurt any less intensely. But the duration and the aftershocks, those become less threatening over time. Because even when it is hurting, I know that pain is temporary.

When my daughter falls down, I go to her and if she is not hurt, I tell her to get up, brush herself off, and get back to it. Keep climbing or jumping or riding or running. Whatever it was. Get back to it. Don’t let hard knocks frighten you or stop you. Because life knocks us all on our asses from time to time. And it’s a lesson I’ve had to learn the hard way many times over. Triggers happen. The important thing is to get back up.

If you or someone you know needs help dealing with trauma related to sexual abuse or sexual assault, you can contact the 24-hour RAINN hotline at 800-656-HOPE.

Get by with a little help from our allies

*TRIGGER WARNING FOR SEXUAL VIOLENCE*

Earlier today I participated in a tweet chat about sexual violence and the #IDidNotReport campaign with my Fem2.0 colleagues. It was a great and lively discussion that dealt with a spectrum of issues related to sexual violence — from workplace harassment to sexual abuse to rape. When you get down to it, there’s a lot to drill into when we talk about sexual violence.

One of the issues that was raised was how to be an ally to survivors. How do people create safe spaces? How do those who will become the support system for a survivor start making that first supportive step?

This is an important question and one I have faced every time I tell someone my story. Every time it is the first time someone is learning that I am a survivor of sexual abuse, it is an experience that can be hard to predict. Will this person offer me solace? Will they explode with rage? Will they shut down, unable to process what I’ve told them? Or worst of all, will they decide to not believe me? It is not an exaggeration to say that I have to anticipate any range of reactions every time I tell someone my story.

Every single time. And I’m not alone.

I would guess that this is an experience shared by most survivors of sexual violence. And depending on where you are in the healing continuum — from raw wound to just managing to shedding the layers of shame and anger — just the anticipation of a bad experience sharing your story is enough to keep you silent.

And silence is the evil twin of sexual violence. Physical wounds will heal. But the shame of silence can crush you like the sands of an hourglass slowly burying you alive.

I don’t have all the answers but here are some hard-earned truths I’ve learned:

  • First and most important of all, Start by Believing. If someone comes to you and tells you about an experience they have had, don’t hesitate. Believe them. It is the single most powerful thing you can do to help them.
  • Don’t re-victimize them by forcing them to re-live their experience so that you can hear the story of what happened. You may be curious. You may even have questions. But you do not deserve their story. The story is irrelevant. The story proves nothing. Truth is what matters. The truth is, they are telling you they were victimized and experienced a terrible trauma. The fact that they are trusting you with that truth is what matters. That is enough.
  • Don’t make the victim have to take care of you. I find this a lot. More than I like, to tell you the truth. Often when I tell people that I am a survivor, the first reaction is some mixture of shock and dismay. Nobody likes to think about sexual abuse, rape, or other forms of sexual violence. It’s horrible. It’s a ninth circle of hell. Why would you want to find out that someone you know has lived through that? That’s bad news! I get that. Unfortunately, some people are so aggrieved by the news that it becomes more about me comforting them and walking them through their reaction than about me and why I told them (because why would I just tell someone that for no reason?). One time the person I told broke down crying uncontrollably and sat down and rocked gently back and forth. That is a more extreme example. But I think you get what I’m saying. If I have decided to share such a painful truth with you, please remember that I’m still in the room after I do so.
  • Don’t make the survivor responsible for your discomfort. This goes with the previous tip, but is important enough to warrant it’s own bullet point. Sexual violence is evil. I know it will make you uncomfortable. But just because it makes you uncomfortable does not make it okay for you to passive-aggressively try to silence me. When you ask a survivor to not talk about such things or just “let that go for tonight” or similar such sentiments, what you’re really saying is that YOU can’t handle that information. But the fact that you can’t handle the truth (sorry, I had to go there) is not an excuse to re-shame the survivor. It’s okay for you to have your feelings and take time to process whatever you need to. But if that is the case, own it and don’t put that back on the survivor. That’s your stuff, not theirs.
  • Remember that the process of healing is not a straight line. Healing from the trauma of sexual violence can take years. And there will be set-backs. You will see your loved one have progress and then suffer from a trigger and fall back into old patterns or seem to lose ground in their journey. This happens. It’s important to follow their lead. Sometimes the best thing you can do is just be patient and offer encouragement, support, and hope. If you feel frustrated, believe me, the survivor is way more frustrated than you are.
  • Each survivor is different. Some people can’t even say the word “rape.” Some people, like me, prefer the term survivor — because fuck you, I’m no victim.  But for years I could not say the words, “I was molested” out loud. Not even when I was all alone. I could not form the words in my mouth, even though it was true. I could not stomach to hear the sounds in my ears. But everyone experiences their trauma differently. One day before class, one of my friends in college just casually told me about how she was date raped in high school. She just said it like we were talking about a TV show or the news. She said it while bending over to tie her shoe on a bright and sunny spring morning with birds singing in the trees. Just like that.
  • You don’t have to be their sole support system. This is hard to remember sometimes when your friend is calling you crying at 3 am or your spouse keeps waking up drenched in sweat from the night terrors. You love this person. You care about what is happening to them. You want to be a part of the solution. You want to ease their pain. And that is wonderful! That is so important! That is a gift that a survivor can never repay. But you are also a human being with needs and a limited supply of comfort to spare. If you are getting tapped out, I highly recommend, indeed, encourage you, to seek your own support system. And to seek out resources in your community, online, at the bookstore, on iTunes… wherever, that you can offer your loved one to give them more outlets and more tools for their journey. Counseling is a godsend. I highly recommend it. I can honestly say that when I was deep in trauma that the counselors that I went to saved my life. And probably my marriage.
  • You can’t change the world, but small acts of safe-space building can make a huge difference. Do you have a friend who always makes offensive rape jokes (Oh, my phone company is raping me each month!)? Is there a hot new movie out that you know has a graphic scene depicting sexual violence that could be a trigger for the survivor in your life? When I went to see The Watchmen I had to leave the movie theater when they showed the attempted rape scene, even though I knew it was coming. I’ve seen other scenes of sexual violence in movies and on TV before and since and did not have the same visceral, triggering feeling. I suddenly felt hot all over and that I was going to throw up. Images from my past flooded my mind. I don’t know why, but that scene just cut me deep. When I got to the bathroom I found it hard to collect myself and wept in a stall until I felt better. One of the things that was a comfort to me was the simple knowledge that if I needed to, my husband would leave that theater immediately and never make me feel a moment of guilt. You can be that person for somebody. And even just knowing you are willing to create a safe space for someone can sometimes be just as good as actually doing it.
  • Speak up for survivors! Be a voice for change in your community. Lobby for legislation that helps survivors. Vote out politicians who trade away sexual violence prevention programs in budget negotiations like some kind of worthless bargaining chip. The community at large doesn’t know what they are asking when they demand that survivors be the only credible lobbyists for change. It’s so hard to be open and speak publicly about sexual violence. You can do a lot to support those who do speak out.  But also those who are too afraid to do so. Because surviving takes more courage than you know.

If you want more information about sexual violence or are in need of support services, please check out RAINN and their 24-hour, national hotline.

Cross-posted on The Sin City Siren and Fem2.0.

The hard side of love

On tonight’s episode of Bethenny Ever After… Bethenny Frankel, the reality TV star and cocktail mogul with a razor wit and a soft underbelly, breaks down while talking about her daughter:

I want her to be soft and sweet and nice — and not hard and a survivor like me.

And now I’m crying. And I’m not alone.

As I’ve written before, I am a survivor of sexual abuse as well as a childhood marked by alcoholics, absent parent(s), poverty, and social-skill handicapping transience (because how do you learn the rules of adolescence, girlhood, and young adulthood when you don’t even have the same friends more than one year at time?). And my transition into motherhood and the transformations it has brought in my life have been rich, profound, and at times core-shaking. It took me a long time to want to get on this ride at all, and now that I’m here it’s truly full of surprises! Case in point: All the ways that being a mother has been so joyful, so frustrating, so revealing, so challenging, so exhausting, so cathartic, so heartbreaking, so inspiring, and so deeply healing. Indeed, loving my daughter and being loved by her has been one of the most healing and miraculous experiences of my life. She is joy personified.

So, as a survivor who has worked through my own share of pain, I empathize with Bethenny’s sentiment. I don’t want my daughter to have the kind of experiences in her life that would require her to become a hardened survivor, like me. I want to protect her from those kinds of experiences. And I want to destroy all those who would try to bring those into her life.

When you are a survivor — of sexual violence, domestic violence, poverty… whatever — how do you begin to channel all your rough edges and the resilience and strength it took you to survive into the softness of love? How do you speak with truth and conviction and not seem hard, jaded, or even broken? How do you encourage your own child’s light to shine when no one ever did that for you?

Like Bethenny, I struggle with this. I worry about being too hard around my daughter. I worry that I don’t show her enough love, affection, attention, and praise because I did not experience that. There is no well to draw from for me. There is no example to follow. And no matter how far away from the trauma I get, by virtue of it happening to me in my formative years, there are certain scars that will never fade. For instance, I may learn how to mitigate my survivalist need to plan for any “worst case scenario,” but I probably won’t ever be able to turn it off or even take a vacation from it. That instinct protected me from the dangers that I could avoid. That instinct probably saved my life more than once. And that instinct — which I know comes off as pessimistic or even overly critical at times, despite my best efforts to be transparent in my pragmatism — is part of the very core of who I am. It’s just my nature to always have a Plan B in my back pocket for when things go wrong. Because I’ve lived through some wrong times.

In a lot of ways, I have tried to flip the script on what remains in your life as a survivor. Sure, there are some difficult things to overcome and that process of healing can take years. But, there are some things about being a survivor that you can turn into assets. I am a fighter. I am fiercely loyal. I am resilient — no matter how deeply you wound me, I heal. I am resourceful. And I know how to use anger as a powerful motivator. Being a survivor is rooted in a deep strength. After all, that’s how you survive!

But there’s no denying that strength comes at a cost — especially if you are a woman. I am not the person you call when you want to watch a chick-flick. I don’t like going shopping with other people. I don’t have the patience for a four-hour conversation about which beige you are going to paint your living room. I always have to give myself a pep talk when I wear an outfit that shows a lot of cleavage (because I’m uncomfortable with being a sexual object, even in passing). I don’t cook. And, yes, in my younger days I started more than one bar fight by throwing the first punch (or can of beer).

So I know how hard being a survivor can make you. And, if we’re being honest, it can be easy to just stay in that place. To stay cocooned in that hard shell. I know; I did for a long time. It kind of feels like bullshit to leave it behind. After all that hardness did for you — it helped you fucking survive! And then you come out the other side and the whole world asks you to change. Can you just mellow out a little? Can you soften the edges? Can you try opening up a bit? Can you fall into gender norms more? Can you be nicer? Can you just be less of a bitch, please?! And for a lot of us, this is just too much to take. We throw our hands up and storm off, clutching the hardness all the closer, like a warm coat on a blustery day. No, you can’t take my jacket, asshole. I might need it! And I don’t appreciate you bagging on it! When you’ve come out the other side of trauma and can live free as a survivor, it almost feels like another assault that the world doesn’t give you some kind of respect for that. Yeah, I’m hard. But I had to be, damn it! Yeah, I might make you uncomfortable sometimes, but this is who I had to become to survive. If the worst thing you have to deal with is my hardness, then you don’t know pain. Get over it.

I lived like that for a long time. And I suspect that Bethenny has, too. But I think she has had some recent experiences that are not unlike my own. For one, we both became mothers later in life than the norm. (Our daughters were born only weeks apart.) And, we both have had to find our equilibrium in marriages to men who are from a life made up of experiences and family wholly different from our own. (I know there are rumors of her having marriage woes, but for the benefit of what I’m about to say, I’m going to ignore that for now.) Before I met my now-husband, I didn’t know anyone whose parents were happily married to their original spouse. I didn’t know families that ate “family dinner.” And I definitely did not know how to handle being welcomed into a family that seemed alien (in a good way) to everything I had ever known.

During last season’s finale of Bethenny Ever After…, I remember her saying something about how she had gotten everything she ever wanted and then asking, “Who gets everything they ever wanted?” Like, Holy crap! Now what?!

And I totally get that because, I too feel like I’ve gotten everything I ever wanted. During those nine years that I survived sexual abuse, I would often pray to God (even though my family was not religious and did not go to church). I just started doing it because once I was finally alone in my bedroom and whatever horrors were over for the day, I needed to feel like there was something good in the universe. I needed to feel like I was not alone, in a good way. I would pray for lots of things, some important and some trivial.

But I would always, always pray for two things: that I would one day have a home that was safe and comfortable with no threat of homelessness or danger; and that God would bring someone into my life who loved me, unconditionally. When I was 14 and praying for these things, they were painfully desired and fairly abstract concepts because I did not know what either one felt like. When I was sending up that prayer, I think in my mind I thought I was praying for my father to come back into my life and rescue me. Or perhaps, that once I left home for college I would be so successful that I would be able to afford to provide a safe place for myself and find love on my own terms. I certainly did not think that what would happen was that I would meet a boy when I was 15 that would later become my husband and with whom (after almost 15 years of marriage) I share a safe home filled with unconditional, honest love between us and with our daughter. And somewhere in there I got a college degree and built a nice career for myself, too, among other things.

My life might not be as lavish as Bethenny Frankel’s — no multi-million-dollar liquor deals in my household — but I think I understand the kind of shell-shock she felt last year when you could sort of hear the panic behind the joy when she tearfully talked about getting everything she ever wanted. Because as a survivor, there’s always a sense that nothing good lasts. And that, deep down, you don’t deserve good things in your life. (I mean, what was all that trauma about, if it wasn’t because somehow you deserved it — right?)

And now you have a beautiful baby daughter. A child who is everything wonderful in the world. A baby who adores you unconditionally. And it’s profound. And it scares you.

I don’t want my daughter to be hard like me, either, Bethenny. And I absolutely don’t want her to be a survivor. Strong? Yes! Because she had to become strong to survive? Hell, no!

But I’m a bit hung up on a part of the sentiment that Bethenny puts out there. She doesn’t just want to protect her daughter from being hard and a survivor. She wants her daughter to be sweet and nice, too. And that’s where I disagree. I want my daughter to be a bad ass — in a good way. I want her to be whip-smart, fierce, brave, adventurous, creative, strong, and happy. So, so happy. I want her to be a good person with good values. But she doesn’t have to be “sweet” unless that’s her natural personality.

After thinking about it, I’ve decided that maybe what Bethenny means by soft is love itself. We think of hard as being the opposite of soft. And that, at least a little bit, strength is the opposite of loving. Here’s where I challenge Bethenny and all the other survivors out there to create a new script about what it means to be hard and what it means to be loving. Because I think being loving — open, unconditional, honest love — takes a lot more courage than being hard. It seems easy to stay in the hard shell. But it’s so limiting. And in truth, when we push through the hard shell, that’s when we bust through the last vestiges of trauma. Because just like our capacity to endure and survive, our capacity to love has been inside us all along. And what I have found is that I feel 10x stronger as a loving person then when I was in my shell.

I may never be able to give up the comfort of a back-up plan or ever feel comfortable at “girly” functions because being a survivor is always going to be a part of the fabric of my being. But I also know that I have a loving side. And what I pray for now is that my daughter is happy, healthy, smart and knows she is loved beyond measure. And if my prayer track-record is any indication, I’m going to get everything I ask for, and then some.

Missed a post on The Sin City Siren lately?

Just in case you didn’t know, I have another blog called The Sin City Siren. Here’s what you may have missed in recent posts:

  • The Sin City Siren Book Club is back! Check out the details on our next selection (Hint: You can’t see Russia from her house.) and when we’ll be meeting.
  • On dismantling DOMA and working toward equality for all Americans.
  • Enjoy some art and culture at ARTrageous tomorrow!
  • A look at why Sugar Ray Leonard sharing his story about being sexually abused is another big step in helping all survivors heal and non-survivors understand.
  • In support of Planned Parenthood, I shared this story.

As always, you can get more goodies from The Sin City Siren on Facebook and twitter, too!