Forging Meaning Building Resistance

When we are in the fire, we cannot escape the pain and fear of annihilation. It feels like it will never end. Yet one of the few things I know to be absolutely true is that emotions are fleeting. In my somewhat wise middle-aged years, when someone sets fire to my body yet again, I know to breathe and breathe and chant “this too will pass.”

I’m not saying this is easy. I have been brought to my knees in tears and pain over and over by the cruel and abusive acts of former partners. Yes, I must sheepishly admit that I have been in more than one abusive relationship. The particular way I shape myself around partners causes me to ignore controlling and violent behavior for far too long. It also recently occurred to me that one becomes conditioned to such behavior; after one abusive relationship, the next one seems normal. It took many years of living under the control of another person for me to finally gain clarity about what constitutes healthy relational patterns. At this point, I am confident that I can say “never again.” Learning has occurred!

When dealing with acts of cruelty, it would be easy to revert to my own unhealthy coping skills, namely calorie restriction and substance use (though hiding under the covers, binge watching Netflix, and isolating myself would also not serve me). I am happy to say that in the midst of pain and conflict, I haven’t engaged in any of the above activities. Rather, I work diligently on my PhD, dance, spend time with nature, write and write, listen to music, eat and eat, sit in meditation, and engage with community. Look, friends- HEALTHY COPING SKILLS! It is possible to make use of them!

I was recently catching up with a dear friend with whom I had not spoken in a while and was musing about my role regarding a former toxic relationship. Where could I hold myself responsible? Is there something I could have done to prevent the onslaught of cruelty that followed my exit from the relationship? My friend asked, “is anyone else in your life telling you that you’re sick, hysterical, and out-of-control?” Uh, nope. Not even my doctors and therapists. In fact, they observe strength of character, healthy coping skills, and an ability to hold myself accountable for my choices. My friend then said, “so if one person is telling you you’re sick, hysterical, and out-of-control but no one else is, doesn’t that say more about that person than you?” Zoiks. Thank Goddess for the rational reflections of people who love us.

Acts of cruelty, abuse, prejudice, discrimination, microaggressions… these are all occurrences which plague queer people, sometimes on a daily basis. These are the matches used to set our bodies on fire. We will walk through that fire again and again. If one lives a non-normative life, it is nigh impossible that such things can be avoided. So I figure I have a choice: I can curl up in the fetal position under my covers, never to emerge except to hit the bottle or pop a pill or I can forge meaning and build resilience from these very acts of violence. That latter choice makes me smile.

I kind of enjoy the idea that a person or a group of people are so intimidated and frightened by my power and non-normativity that they have to spread rumors, target me through social systems, attack my choices, and exert a tremendous amount of energy to try and annihilate my existence. To those people I say, neener neener neener, I still stand. Like Obi Wan, Gandalf, and Dumbledore before me, I am more powerful after I am attacked. Resilience to adversity makes us stronger and at this point in my life, I am like a Bristlecone Pine and may be around for thousands of years. Tee hee.

I recently watched a Ted Talk about forging meaning from adversity and want to credit Andrew Solomon with the concept. If you’re interested, here it is:

The stories we tell about our lives are the building blocks of our reality. Will you choose to tell a story of victimization or will you choose to tell a story of resilience? When you’re in the fire, remind yourself that it cannot last forever. Let the flames increase your power so that when you emerge, you have the strength to tell your truth.

Love before hate. Always.

How to Survive Acts of Cruelty

This is what it feels like: Someone reaches into your chest, grasps your heart, yanks out a chunk (they always leave some behind so you can really feel the pain), throws it on the ground, and stomps on it. You are used to this feeling because it has happened before. For some people it happens on a daily basis. For others, the pattern is once every few weeks or months. An act of cruelty inflicted by a spouse or lover, a former partner, a current partner. How do we survive? I mean, we only have so much heart to rip out, right?

Breathe.

It seems our hearts might have the capacity to regenerate. Yes, it is painful to regrow bones and it is painful to regrow myocardium, but when it does regrow it will be stronger. And our abusers are not counting on that.

Cry.

When an act of cruelty is initially inflicted, it is important to feel our feelings. For me, that generally shows up as tears. Sobbing, actually. Big, deep, gulping-for-air, holding onto the wall sobs. Ideally, a beloved friend will be nearby to ask if you want support, to hold you if that feels good, to wonder at someone’s calculated ability to rip out a chunk of your heart. Cry it out, feel the pain, let it move. If we don’t move the pain and sadness it gets stuck somewhere in our body and will leak out later in an unproductive way.

Get angry.

This might show up immediately or it might not manifest for months or years. Whenever Anger decides to present xemself, let it move. Write about it. Speak it. It’s OK to feel and express anger. It’s not OK to turn that anger towards another living creature, so be careful how it gets channeled. It’s easy for people who have been bullied to turn around and bully others. Don’t perpetuate the abuse.

Make art.

I cannot stress how important this is for survival. Paint, play music, write poetry, dance; engage in whatever artistic endeavor feeds you. Paint your anger, dance your sadness, collage the pain, sew your future… there are an infinite number of ways to foster healing through creativity. Even if you are not the recipient of personal acts of cruelty, the people of the United States are currently in an abusive relationship with the White House (in case you were wondering what an abuser looks like, look no further than Trumpie Wumpie) and we need art to maintain our sanity.

Go outdoors.

There is solace to be found in nature. The unfolding of a fiddlehead fern, softly falling snow on a pond, the scampering of squirrels or the grazing of deer can all offer balm for the heart. Even a short moment of mindful connection with a tree can be the medicine needed for heart regrowth.

Breathe.

Acts of cruelty have forced me to examine my beliefs and values. What matters in life? The material things that were destroyed? Loss of money? Slander? Stolen ideas? Despite the intense pain of loss, I have had to admit that ultimately, none of this matters. I am not here to amass wealth, lie and cheat my way into a powerful position, or remain emotionally or spiritually stagnant. Sigh. So I take the long view and attend to the ways that survival will strengthen my heart. I will not be crushed by cruelty. I will notice yet another lesson in non-attachment. My heart will grow.

Breathe.

It also helps me to recognize that I am not alone. Acts of cruelty are inflicted on people all the time, every day. My white privilege ensures that I do not endure racial taunts by strangers, nor do I fear deportation or harassment by police. As a non-disabled person I move through my world with ease and do not have to face daily microaggressions pertaining to my body. Perpetrators of intimate partner violence tend to follow a script. I sometimes wonder if they realize how stereotypical they are in their cruelty. So anyone who has survived such acts knows what this feels like. You are not alone.

First we survive, then we heal, then we grow. No one’s heart deserves to be ripped out. No one’s spirit deserves to be crushed. You did not deserve to be treated cruelly. Breathe, cry, get angry, make art, go outdoors, breathe some more, regrow your heart.

Love before hate.

Always.

What Does it Mean to Heal From Abuse?

It means finding your breath and breathing deeply again.

It means seeing the beauty of a sunset.

Healing from abuse means knowing it was not your fault.

It was not your fault.

Not one part of it.

It means letting the tears flow, letting the anger grow

and not getting stuck

When the crying stops, when the raging ends

you feel your heartbeat

the wind on your skin

your feet on the ground, supporting you

supporting you

and you move on.

Healing from abuse means one day you find yourself spontaneously dancing

One day you do not flinch when someone gets close

One day you do not walk on eggshells

or fly under the radar.

One day you allow yourself to be big

without fear

or maybe with a little fear but you face it anyway.

It means listening to the plea of your heart

and trusting that your heart carries wisdom.

Healing from abuse is a journey

A journey that gets easier as we travel the path

and practice the art

the art of healing.

Healing from abuse means knowing it was not your fault.

It was not your fault.

Not one part of it.

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Dear Abuser…

You likely have no idea who you are because insidious acts of emotional abuse are often inflicted unintentionally. However, in quiet moments of self-reflection, you may wonder if you have acted in hurtful ways towards your partner. Domestic violence shelters determine who is a perpetrator and who is a target, in part, by noticing whose life has gotten bigger and whose life has gotten smaller. In your partnership/s, who is shrinking and who is dominating?

When you tell me my experience isn’t real, you are abusive

That’s not what happened!

You’re wrong

I remember it correctly, you don’t

You do it wrong

I do it better

I didn’t say that

You don’t want that

You didn’t say that

You’re having a breakdown

When you react with emotional aggression, you are abusive

Fuck you!

Get out and never come back

I hate you

I can’t wait till you’re gone

Your brain is fucked up

I wish I was with someone else

[throwing things]

[kicking things]

[slamming doors]

When you insult and humiliate, you are abusive

Put your grown-up pants on

Stop being emotional

You’re hysterical

You make people feel badly about themselves

You’re too sensitive

You don’t know how to act in social situations

You’re having a midlife crisis

When you overly control situations, you are abusive

We have to do it my way

Move over, I will do it

Give it to me, I will do it

I don’t want that, I want this

We have to go here, do that

I don’t care how you want to do things

Your way is wrong

You have to eat this

You must do this

Sign this

I will spend whatever I want

When you explode in anger because your partner made a request or set a boundary, you are abusive.

When you tell your partner what they are like and what they should do, you are abusive.

Healthy expressions of anger are necessary, but reactive, emotional aggression is not healthy.

Violating a partner’s privacy is not healthy.

Attempts to control a partner’s life are not healthy.

You may think you are “helpful.” You may think you know better. You may believe your way is right, but these beliefs and subsequent actions do not leave room for body autonomy. I get to be in charge of my body. It’s ok for me to set boundaries even if you don’t like them.

To you, I say never again. Find your anger somewhere else.

This Body

Trigger Warning: This post contains violent and graphic content. Read at your discretion and take good care of yourselves. I decided to end my silence.

It is time
Time to reclaim this body
This body that sits naked on the earth
crying out to come home 
This body that has been beaten, punched, slapped, shoved, hair pulled
bitten 
(yes bitten)
This body that has been raped
and raped
I do not coat that word in something sweet 
so as not to offend your ears
I say it the way it was done to me
rape
This body that was used as another person's reason for power
another person's blocked rage and need for torment
This body an outlet for your self-loathing
a starved skeleton of my own
This body has a right to say
ENOUGH
I'm done
I quit
Yet here it is
not quitting
This body danced and sang
and rolled with the punches
Call me an idiot
I still love
Call me a whore, a dyke, thing, stupid, fucked up
I still love
Tell me I'm worthless, I'm crazy, I don't belong
I still love
In fact, I'm a big mother fucking love bomb ready to explode
To tell the earth 
I love you
To tell my mother 
I love you
and when I tell you
I love you
and you can't handle it
cause you have issues
that's OK
I'll still love you anyway
And I love me too
I love this body
that was broken and starving and twisted
and survived to thrive
and dance on the side of a mountain
This body with a bunny heart
Like holding a butterfly
But butterflies are stronger than you think
And don't they know it


Intimate Partner Violence in Queer Relationships

I suspect that I will have a lot to say on this topic over the course of the next few years because it is the focus of my doctoral studies. Even though I am completely immersed in Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) as a course of study, I still want space to talk about this issue outside of the ivory tower of academe. Why? Cause it is happening in relationships all over the world but people aren’t talking about it and that is scary.

What is IPV?

IPV is defined by the Center for Disease Control as “a serious, preventable public health problem that affects millions of Americans. The term “intimate partner violence” describes physical violence, sexual violence, stalking and psychological aggression (including coercive acts) by a current or former intimate partner” (2016).

Unfortunately, most research and treatment programs still view IPV through the lens of Domestic Violence (DV) which upholds the outdated notion of IPV as “wife bashing,” and contends that IPV can only exist between a woman and a man. You are likely familiar with the image…

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A scared woman is beaten by her aggressive husband. This does happen! I don’t want to imply that we shouldn’t attend to IPV in cis-het relationships, but it exists across cultures and is pervasive in relationships of all kinds in the United States. Cis-het IPV in which a man beats his wife is not the only type of IPV being perpetrated, yet instances of IPV in queer relationships or IPV where a woman is the perpetrator go largely unreported.

Why?

Misogyny.

In order to understand queer IPV we need to understand straight IPV.

If a woman is beaten by her husband, she is seen as weak, vulnerable, and helpless while he still retains the “masculine” qualities of aggressive power and strength. If a woman beats her husband, he is seen as weak, vulnerable, and helpless and we can’t have that. God forbid a man embody “feminine” qualities. An additional factor contributing to this misogynistic view of IPV is the labeling of the victim as weak and helpless. The victim is vulnerable to abuse but that does not make them weak. They may be an incredibly strong person in many areas, but they have become desensitized to abuse and aggression and are likely trying to support the perpetrator in some way.

How many people have heard a perpetrator say, “I don’t want to be this way. Please help me.”

Mhm.

While I can feel anger begin to tense the muscles of my jaw and my left arm is twitching in a rather alien way, I am trying to remain committed to holding compassion for perpetrators as well as victims. It’s hard. I feel hate. I feel anger. I feel grief and overwhelm and sadness. I want perpetrators to take responsibility for their actions instead of crying and begging for forgiveness. But underneath all that, I also understand that most perpetrators are products of our fucked up culture. That doesn’t mean I excuse their actions. No way. But I hold compassion. Or try to.

So what about IPV in queer relationships? What happens when gender roles and genitals don’t adhere to the norm? There are people who think IPV can’t exist in lesbian relationships (cause all lesbians live in lesbitopia?). Those people are wrong. ANYONE can attempt to maintain power and control through aggression and coercive acts no matter what their genitals look like.

And what about IPV that is more insidious? The subtle, verbal insults and humiliation tactics? This type of IPV is very common and highly invisible. While physical violence does occur in intimate partnership, 80% of IPV consists of emotional and verbal violence. Expressive aggression is defined as “verbal abuse or emotional violence in response to some agitating or aggravating circumstance” (Carney & Barner, 2012, p.2).

For example:

Does your partner explode when you express a feeling? Do they get angry when you set a boundary? Do they kick furniture, throw things, or otherwise act like a toddler when something pisses them off? That is expressive aggression and it’s not OK. There is nothing wrong with the Feelz; we all have them, but there are healthy ways to express anger, most of which begin with the statement, “I am angry.”  We all get happy, sad, angry, and scared. Children scream and kick and bite, but they should learn how to express emotions in a safe and healthy way as they get older. Unfortunately, we live in a world that doesn’t offer parents much support in teaching kids healthy emotional expression. Most adults can’t do it! This is why some adults think expressive aggression is A-OK. It’s familiar. But it scares loved ones. And when it is directed at loved ones because of the aforementioned boundary setting or feeling expression or a myriad of other ways that are attempts to exert power and control, it is IPV.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline states that IPV affects more than 12 million people each year in the United States. They also note that “members of the LGBTQ community are slightly more likely to experience abuse than straight couples.” Yet most shelters for victims of IPV are not queer/trans friendly or queer culture informed.

Grrr. Argh.

suffering-in-silence-domestic-violence-in-the-lgbti-community

It feels like time to end my silence on the subject.