No but seriously, why do our brains do this?

We interrupt our lack of regular programming for this random memory:

When I confronted my abusive ex about being a bully in our relationship (I did this after we broke up), his response was

I can’t believe you would let me steamroll you like that. Excuse me for assuming you were stronger than that. Actually *I* feel betrayed by the discovery that you let me do that.

HOLY WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCKING FUCK THOUGH. How did I spend literal years talking myself out of thinking of him as terrible tucking person and absolute textbook abuser?

That is all for now.

Why does my brain do this? The difficulty of recognizing first-person experiences of abuse and mental illness

I know this isn’t just my brain. I know it is an absurdly common experience. But still, I can’t believe my brain continues to do stuff like this.

Me, at many points in the past: “I have lots of badfeels about this past relationship and there were issues with having my boundaries respected, but it’s not like I was raped or whatever”

Actual facts: this past relationship involved me being repeatedly bullied into doing things sexually that I had set as hard limits. My ‘no’s were next to meaningless. He did sexual things to me when I explicitly told him I didn’t want to.

For the record, I know I was raped. I just still have trouble with saying it.

Me, very recently: “I don’t think I have PTSD

Actual facts: Although it’s been a while now since this last happened (I may have mostly recovered), I have experienced repeated, vivid, uncontrollable flashbacks to the aforementioned relationship. On more than one occasion during these flashbacks, even though it was years later, I have been momentarily genuinely scared that I was still in that situation, and that the intervening years had all been a weird dream. That’s how real they were.

I don’t have a diagnosis of PTSD. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t get one now – though I do still sometimes have the sorts of trauma-related dissociative symptoms I described in my post on being triggered, I think the diagnosis would be different. But yeah, that was a thing my brain was doing for a while. And yet at the time I never made the connection between that and PTSD.

Why is it so much easier to give credence to and put weight on other people’s experiences of these things? I think it especially applies to all forms of abuse and definitely sexual violence. It also seems to apply to mental illness, though – so often people will describe textbook symptoms and follow up with “but I don’t think I’m really…” or something else that suggests they don’t think they deserve to be taken seriously. People will say “I don’t think I was really abused, but…” and then go on to describe clear-cut, textbook, and/or often outright extreme instances of abuse they have experienced.

Why can’t we be kinder to ourselves? Why can’t we believe our own experiences of these things, and trust in our responses to them? Is it just that the idea of being an abuse survivor, or living with mental illness, is just so othered in popular narratives that it seems impossible it could ever apply to us? I suspect the logic often goes something along the lines of “the way I feel isn’t the way I imagine abuse/rape survivors (or PTSD sufferers etc.) feel, therefore that can’t be what my experience is”.

Or is it something else entirely?

The things I did while in an abusive relationship, (but no really, what the fuck was that, even?)

I’ve been having a resurgence of thoughts about my past experiences of abuse lately, for some reason. I think it is just that my life is at a major turning point right now, and things are unstable, and that is making me reflect on all of the things that have come before.

I am struggling to articulate more complete and cogent thoughts about boundary-setting, and my developmental history around that, and the ways that my experiences of abuse have developed strange coping mechanisms that sometimes work amazingly and other times are the literal worst possible thing I could do.

But for now, I just want to get a story out of my head (again apparently. I realized after writing this version that I already wrote this story down more briefly in this post. I’m going to post this one as well anyway, because it’s already written, and because I hope that seeing that I’ve managed to write the some thing so similarly more than will help remove my generalized sense of unreality from the whole thing. Because it’s something I still don’t really even understand, and I can barely believe happened.)

It’s one of the moments where I first started to admit to myself that this shit was fucked up. It’s a moment where I did something to prove it to myself, even. And it’s surreal as fuck.

[Trigger warning: abuse, rape]

By the time my abuser and I had been dating for a year, I had already given up the ghost. I no longer bothered thinking about whether or not I wanted to have sex with him, let alone what kind of sex *I* might want if we did. When it became clear that was where things were going, I had a solid auto-pilot mode that I could run through the things I knew he wanted, so that I wouldn’t need to actually be present for any of it. I could just vacate my body while he got what I owed him for simply existing in a way that made him want to do those things.

I didn’t even think about it really. It’s just what started happening, all the time. It wasn’t worth it to try and figure out what I wanted, because I had already learned it wasn’t worth it to try and stop what he wanted from happening, anyway.

But there is this thing that I did, I think twice (maybe three times? Definitely not more than that, but definitely more than once), in the middle of him having sex with my body.

I said “No.”

Specifically, I said “no no no no no no no”. I don’t know how many times. Maybe about a dozen times, on each occasion.

I said it without affect, totally dispassionately, without any intention of making him stop. I didn’t move or do anything else different from our usual pattern. Just this inexplicable word, coming out of my mouth. Rhythmic gibberish. Or it might as well have been. He didn’t react at all, just kept at what he was already doing. Nothing changed.

I did it twice. Or three times. Over the course of less than a week, probably. And then I stopped doing it.

It came up at some point, in a conversation/argument about something or other, months later. All he had to say about it was that it had made him ‘uncomfortable’, apparently.

I didn’t say anything about it, really, I don’t think.

I remember deciding to say it. It wasn’t involuntary. I don’t know where the idea even came from. I just remember being vaguely curious about what would happen. And I remember needing to do it again because I didn’t want to believe that the answer was “nothing”. I remember deciding not to do it again, too. Because it was too painful. Because it made it harder to stay outside of my body. Because it threatened my ability to keep a distance from what was happening. Because I was not yet prepared to face up to the reality of that “what was happening”, of what “him having sex with my body” really was.

And I still have trouble calling any of it rape. Somehow I can know it’s important to include the word in the trigger warning without internalizing it as an actual description of my experience.

But these things are real. They actually happened.

And this leaves me with the question I ask myself over and over:

“So what the fuck was that, then?”

I really don’t have any answers, still. But it doesn’t seem to matter as much how I categorize it specifically, as long as I can hold strong to the fact that whatever it was, it was fucked up. It was not ok. And I didn’t deserve it.

And I’ll write it as many times as I have to, I guess.

Writing about abuse, thinking about abuse

[TW for abuse, especially gaslighting]

There is this very weird thing that happens to me when I start trying to talk about or write about the abuse I have experienced. Everything starts coming out in short sentences, short paragraphs. I cannot express big complicated thoughts.

Which, if you read anything else I write, you will know that is right out of character for me. I am a wordy mother fucker. I love giant, complex sentence structures, and nuance, and disclaimers, and clarification. But I can’t talk about my experience of psychological abuse that way.

When I try to bring nuance or deep analysis to my memories, I get confused. I become uncertain. I don’t know what’s true. I am only certain of particular details, and it is hard to even hold more than a couple of those up the light at a time, to see how they relate, and interact.

This is part of why it is so hard to name abuse. I can barely even clearly *remember* what happened.

And it’s hard, because that’s now even strictly true. I remember a lot. A remember a lot very clearly. But somehow the way it’s stored in my memory makes it hard to turn over, to really examine. I don’t know if this is something that can be explained to someone who hasn’t experienced it. I can’t make the things add up to anything. The pieces refuse to fit together. No matter how many times I write them down in an order that makes an apparently coherent narrative, I still can’t quite hold the whole thing in my head. Not for long, anyway.

I have the details. I have so many details. Details that haunt me. Shit he said that even at the time I knew to be bullshit, but that I didn’t bother calling him on, because it wasn’t worth the effort. The ways my words always got twisted back onto me.

Some time after we broke up, I (sort of) confronted him on his bullying of me, the way he steamrolled me any time we had a disagreement; just refused to listen and kept hammering away until it didn’t seem worth it to continue to disagree, until even the fact that I knew I was right seemed less important than making it stop.

I told him that I often hadn’t meant it when I gave in.

He accused me of being dishonest. He said that because he loved me so much and believed me to be a such a strong person, he never would have thought I would do such a thing. He couldn’t believe that I wouldn’t keep fighting until I convinced him.

He said that by giving in, I had selfishly denied him the chance to grow as a person.

He implied that my giving in was evidence that I never loved him as much as he loved me.

And I can write that, and I can see that that is fucked up. But it’s just one piece of a much larger picture, one that I will probably never really be able to see.

But I want to write it down anyway, because maybe someone else will see it, and maybe it will help them, even just for one moment, understand their own histories, or their own present, for what it is.

Welcome, Mentalpod-ers!

Hi! If you just came here from my guest appearance on the Mental Illness Happy Hour blog, I’m really happy you’re here! For starters, I’m working up an FAQ about genderqueerness, so please feel free to leave any questions in the comments here, or email me at valprehension@gmail.com

Beyond that, feel free to browse around, and stay awhile. I’ve taken the liberty of making up a list of posts that you might be most interested in, broken down by topic, but you know, you can obviously go ahead and read whatever you want. You can click any of the topic titles to see all of the posts with that tag, or you can just browse through the posts I’ve hand-picked in each category for you.

But first, this might be a good place to start. This is the post where I touch on almost all of the things that are most important to me, and that I like to talk about. It also tells you all about why this blog is called “Valprehension”.

Gender Identity

  • A Gender identity Primer and Follow-up are two pieces I used to come out to my friends about being genderqueer.
  • Navigating the Gender Binary, in which I talk more about what it’s like going through day-to-day life as a genderqueer person, and some of the challenges I face in a world that regularly requires people to identify themselves as belonging to the binary.
  • Attraction, sex, and gender: what’s going on here?. Here, I admit that I really don’t understand what it means to be attracted to people of only one sex/gender, or how that works. This is a post on which I’d love to have your input, and to hear about your experience.
  • Genderqueerness and the inadequacy of language. Here, I write in more detail about the distinctions between gender identity, gender presentation, and biology.
  • The relative nature of gender presentation. Gender presentation also gets a whole post to itself, because it’s the aspect of gender that (because it’s about how others see us) is in many ways defined for us by other people. And that’s super-fascinating.

Mental Health

  • The breaking point, in which I discuss the near-complete mental break-down I had in March of this year.
  • I could have sworn that I’d written about my struggles with depression, but it appears that my depression ate that stuff, and it never made it onto the blog. It’s certainly a topic you can expect to see in the future, if you’re kind enough to follow me.

Emotional and Sexual Abuse

  • The “asking for it” narrative. Because I think that everyone who has ever been abused has spent years blaming themselves (I know I did), I think it’s important to talk about why we feel this way sometimes, and also where the idea that victims of abuse are “asking for it” comes from.
  • Stranger on a train. A guest blogger talks about the constant stream of boundary-crossing that women experience in their day-to-day lives, and how that effects her interactions with people.
  • “Abuse-logic”. Here, I talk a bit about what happens in the brain of abuse victims, and some of the mental gymnastics we do to convince ourselves that it’s not that bad, that we should stay, and that it’s really all our fault.
  • Abuse-logic and memory. This one is about how the effect that abuse has on a person’s brain sticks around long after the abuse has been escaped. I guess it’s mostly about why (in my experience, anyway) so many people answer the Shame & Secrets survey question with “Some stuff happened, but I don’t know if it qualifies as sexual abuse” and then go on to describe clear abuse.

Abuse-logic and Memory

I find it extremely difficult to talk, or write, or think clearly about the fact that I spent some years in an abusive relationship (which I’ve written about before, here and here. And it’s not that the thoughts are clouded by emotion – I can be dispassionate about most of my memories from that time. It’s something else entirely that’s going on.

Here’s the thing – the ways in which that relationship was abusive were definitely kind of nebulous, and not clear-cut examples of your standard after school special an abuse. And even now I’m often like “well, you know, it was kind of abusive, but not like super abusive” with whatever caveat I might have about it. One of those caveats is “I mean, it’s not like he raped me or anything.”

Except that, you know, I can actually point to a whole litany of occasions when he did sexual things to my body without my consent (up to and including penetrative acts, in case you’re a purist about these kinds of things).

So, honestly, I have no idea why I kind of just (conveniently?) forget about these things all the time.

I know it took me years (literally, *years*) after the fact to actually link any of these incidents with the way I felt about him and about our relationship. But it’s still hard for me to actually integrate them into any narrative of things – it’s like the way they’re stored in my memory is incompatible with the way other memories are stored, and they just don’t fit together. They’re random isolated islands of memory, oddly context-less, and my brain resists attributing any sort of causal relationship to them and anything that happened to me since, or any feelings that I have.

Even at moments like this, where I explicitly remind myself that actually, you know, he did rape you, I mostly don’t feel the truth of that statement. It’s not internalized in any way. Or rather, I suspect it’s already really deeply internalized, but that it’s somewhere that I can’t actually access consciously. Part of me resists it very strongly, to the point that I am entirely uncomfortable providing any kind of details about the incidents I’m referring to above.

I mean, I guess it shouldn’t matter what the details are, and it’s not like I feel like I have something to prove*, or that somehow sharing the actual story would allow me to get external validation on the fact that what happened was fucked up**.

I really think a lot of this links back to the kind of thing I was talking about in my post on “abuse-logic”. Being gaslit has a distinct effect on the ways that you understand the things that are happening to you in an abusive relationship. If, every time you have a moment of clarity, every time your brain wakes up enough to tell you that this maybe isn’t ok, your experiences are denied, ignored, and minimized, you’re told that your memory is incorrect, or that you’ve misinterpreted things, over time you develop an inherent distrust for your memories of the events in question. I don’t know why so many of us fall for it, either. But we do.

And unfortunately, the effects last well beyond when we manage to escape the cycle. Even though I know, intellectually, that my memories are accurate, and that my refusal to interpret them in the ways he insisted I should is valid, still I can’t interpolate these things into my existing narrative in any real way. Still, I can’t stop instinctively second-guessing myself, and doing the kind of generous rewriting that I had started doing as a matter of course when I was in the relationship. Because that’s the other thing. I was gaslit so much in that relationship that by the end, I never even confronted him with things, because I could have his side of the conversation with myself. I could tell myself exactly what was wrong, and exactly why I was being unreasonable, and I would do so because it was less emotionally draining than talking to him about it. And, by the time the relationship had developed to that point, the largeness of the pile of things that had been shoved under the rug to keep me in the relationship made me more and more reluctant to even look directly at each new piece of the puzzle.

The narrative is clear when you actually look straight at all of the facts pieced together, but the full picture is also just too scary to contemplate, and so I usually don’t put the pieces together, and certainly never more than one or two at a time.

And so it’s hard, but I’m getting better at reminding myself that it actually was that bad. It’s far enough away from my day-to-day life now that it looks smaller in the distance, and I’m processing it and putting the pieces together. And maybe one day I’ll stop minimizing my own experiences of it, I’ll stop second-guessing, and I’ll trust my interpretations. But I don’t think that day is quite today.

*Of course, I very often do feel like I have something to prove. This is exactly why I’m so often internally dissembling about whether it was “real” abuse.

**I’m actually perfectly comfortable framing the whole thing as fucked up, and that’s a depiction I can feel the truth of. It’s just the words abuse and rape that I can’t get to really stick in a way that’s convincing to myself, even though I would have no trouble if the same story was told by someone who wasn’t me.


I always find that talking about what it’s like to be in an abusive situation is a lot like talking about a dream you had. There’s a bunch of logic that made total sense at the time, but that you have to do a lot of hand-waving around when you explain it to someone else after the fact.

Delirium is really good at dream-logic.

Of course, when I’m talking about dreams, the hand-waving can usually be glossed over pretty quickly (e.g. “And when I realized that I was only wearing one sock, I was totally relieved, because in the dream-logic this would make it easier for me to…”), and that’s just fine. But when you’re talking about having been abused, there’s a lot of decisions you made while that abuse was happening that allowed, caused, or sometimes even encouraged, the abuse to continue or escalate. And people want to understand, or they think that your actions when you were in it (You stayed! You never complained about x at the time! Maybe you even said you liked it! Maybe there were specific instances that you could have prevented but instead decided to provoke!) somehow mean that the abuse wasn’t that bad, or wasn’t as bad as you’re now making it out to be, because they don’t understand that maybe you were numb at the time, and you’re only feeling a lot of the emotional effects now that you’re out, and all of your life-energy is no longer being completely expended on basic psychic maintenance.

Because the thing is, if you’ve never had to face up to the kinds of twisted logic that we all use every day to get through life and make the world bearable, you don’t realize that the mental gymnastics that abuse victims perform to justify their decision to stay, or to forgive again, or whatever, aren’t that distinct from the hundred little ways that everyone elides good logic every day.

We all put up with ridiculous things, just to get through day-to-day life. Women accept, or refuse to notice, that in order to look “professional” they have to spend far more money (make-up is extortionate, and women’s fashion isn’t built to last half as long as menswear) and far more of their time (the grooming!) just to meet the same level of acceptance as men. Women spend twice as much money as men on apparel alone, and that’s not counting all the grooming apparatuses most women invest in. This means that even if we achieve income parity, women will still be at a significant economic disadvantage, because cultural norms insist that in order to be equally professional, they must spend a much greater proportion of their money on their appearance.

BUT, this absolutely doesn’t mean that all women who wear make-up are bringing it upon themselves. It doesn’t mean that women who “choose” to wear make-up are responsible for their economic disadvantages. And it doesn’t mean that they’re stupid or damaged. It means that they’ve accepted this nonsensical piece of culture-logic, because they can’t see viable alternatives.  And ok, sometimes it means they actually think make-up is fun, but I’m talking about everyday make-up and grooming procedures here, the kind designed to cover “flaws”, the kind that I’m sure you’ve heard women in your life complaining about, and wishing they didn’t “have to” do. This is not the kind of grooming designed to make bold,  self-expressive statements, it’s the kind that many women feel they need to comply with simply to be able to make their actual self-expressions heard, just to earn a  base level of respect.

As I see it, the main difference between this kind of culture-logic and abuse-logic is that we can’t escape the culture in which we live, whereas people in abusive situations often *can* escape their abusers (they just can’t always see the escape route, or the alternatives simply seem worse). Oh, and very few people try to make women justify their decision to continue practicing grooming rituals that they profess to hate; we all understand why they make that decision, and why it would be so hard to “choose” otherwise, whether we’re the kind of person who sees and understands the bargain they are making with the culture at large, or we’ve simply bought so fully into the cultural norms that we don’t even think the stopping is an option – it would simply be unacceptable.

Stepping outside of what you know is scary. It doesn’t matter how much you’re sacrificing to stay in that comfort zone, and it doesn’t matter what it looks like to people on the outside, it’s damn scary. And abuse-logic is the logic that allows you to make the decision to stay, and it’s often oddly comforting despite itself.

And we really shouldn’t demand for it make any more sense than the justifications we have for all the other things we do in life. So I like to talk about my past now with phrases like “but when he said something obviously incorrect just to get his way, I didn’t bother arguing  and instead just agreed, because in the abuse-logic I knew that…” and I think that should be enough.