abuse

Every now and then, something new shakes loose

[CN: this post mentions but does not directly describe or go into any detail about abuse and rape]

There are just so many weird, little ways that my abusive, rapist ex continues to have na impact on my life and my brain, that eight years later I am still finding new ones.

The thing about my ex is that I knew him for years before we ever dated. We were in the same social group. We were probably friends even (this is hard for me to determine for a bunch of reasons, but most notably because it is only in the last five years or so that I’ve actually managed to convince myself that anyone really sees me as a friend, and also because I instinctively avoid thinking about that or him and because I don’t know how to parse memories I have of him from before I understood what an awful human he was.)

Which, that latter point is what’s messing with me today. Because I realized I have no idea what to do with that entire period of my life anymore. My high school years and memories are tainted. I still have a photo album full of pictures of me and my high school friends and my rapist. I have so many (generally good!) memories that, whenever I start thinking about them, I have to stop, because suddenly there’s his face, there he is in my brain where I don’t want him to be.

I can’t write him out. He was there. And I don’t know what to do with his presence in those places in my brain, the ones I would like to keep parts of.

On the one hand, I am much better than I used to be, than I was when I started this blog. None of this is causing me sleepless nights anymore (I have new, less traumatic reasons for those now! :P); even when a new random anecdote of awful that I don’t think I’ve ever shared with anyone bubbles to the surface – just another puzzle piece of memory that never quite completes the picture – it doesn’t make me feel like my guts are trying to claw their way out of my throat anymore; I can sit quietly with those memories and be at peace.

But I don’t want that to be the only way I can engage with these other memories, the good ones with friends, during a time when I was only just beginning to figure out who I was. Right now, there is just this 7-year gap in time where I don’t tell stories about my life – if we’re close, you’ll hear about when I was a kid, and about everything since I finished my bachelors degree, but those formative years of adolescence and young adulthood are mostly a big no-fly zone.

Really, this all brings me back to a point I’ve made before: I hate, hate, HATE so much that one person’s actions, which have no consequences for themselves (unless you count me eventually breaking up with him, which is pretty minor in a grand scale) have had such a far-reaching, damaging impact on me. I am permanently altered by the things he did to me. And the ugliness stretches across a huge part of my life, and it always will. And I, when all I did was survive, am left with the exhausting work of fixing it all myself. Or really (more often than not), of finding ways to work around the scars, of ways to cope with what can’t ever be fixed.

It is not my fault. It shouldn’t have to be my responsibility, but it does. There is no one else’s it can be. And I will never not be angry about that.

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.

In which I talk about my personal experiences of sexual coercion

This post has been a long time coming.

When I started this blog, one of the main topics I had in mind was abuse, and my own experiences thereof. I was really deep in the work of trying to develop a coherent narrative of what had even happened in my abusive relationship, and writing was, of course, helpful for that. I wrote some things about it here, and wrote at much greater length in more private venues. It helped.

I am actually in an extremely healthy place around the whole thing, now. Which is probably part of why I am finally getting around to writing the post I wanted to write almost two years ago, but just wasn’t ready to.

Trigger warnings for what follows

You see, there was a question I have always had trouble definitively answering. And as I understand it, it’s a pretty common one:

Was I raped?

What happened to me (and I will get to that) is definitely in a grey area. It is reasonable to describe it as rape, and also reasonable to decide that it is something else, also horrible. I mostly don’t even care anymore. I get that it was fucked up. I know that it was damaging and awful to experience, and I know the ways that it has impacted me in the long term. These are the important things for me. Everything else seems irrelevant.

Nevertheless, I want to talk it through, as it might help other people achieve some clarity in framing their own experiences. I want to start with some things I know to be true.

So here goes:

Fact #1: Nothing ever happened until I said “yes”

Or, you know, at least until I said, “Ok.”

Of course, oldest story in the book, the yeses and oks were often begrudging. Scratch that: they were often made from a desperate desire to escape the “conversation” (y’know, the one where he begged and pleaded and guilt-tripped me about not wanting to have sex, endlessly, for as long as it took – and believe me, I tested it; these could go on for hours, long past when I needed to be asleep in order to function the next day, and I never found any way out other than giving in and getting it over with).

But my point is, there was never any physical force involved.

As if that matters any more.

Fact #2: A lot of the time I didn’t want sex, but I said yes right away, anyway. No convincing required.

I actually have a very clear memory of making a conscious decision one day. I wasn’t going to refuse him anything ever. I was up for whatever whenever.

Because just saying yes and getting it over with was so much less painful than trying to stand up for myself, and being beaten back into a position where I had to say yes and get it over with anyway.

Because it was quicker, and then we could do something else.

But, I mean, that’s a thing: I decided to do that, of my own free will, right?

For years I actually framed the whole thing as me using him as a tool of my own self-destruction. Like I tricked him. What *really* happened, I told myself, is that I used him to rape myself. I was awful, and cruel, and unfair, and exploitative. Wasn’t he the real victim here, a victim of my dishonesty?

Fuck it.

Fact #3: This was some fucked-up shit

One day, at some point after I had given up the ghost, when I had stopped even checking in with myself to know what I did or did not want, when I was an automaton on autopilot every time he wanted to have sex (I had that shit down to a routine that I knew to be efficient; he never even noticed as far as I know), I did a very strange thing.

In the middle of sex, without doing anything else, I just started saying “No.” Over and over. “No no no no no no no.” In one long, flat, monotone sentence. No sign of distress whatsoever. Just the word. I can’t explain it. I think I just wanted to know how he would react.

I couldn’t see his face.

He didn’t even break his rhythm, though.

I felt… empowered, somehow? Giddy, anyway. I felt like I had let out this big secret I had locked inside of me.

So I did it again. Just once, or maybe twice more, I’m not sure. I never got a reaction from him. And then I stopped.

I think that I was getting way too close to a reality I wasn’t ready yet to face.

I brought it up in conversation some months later – I guess I still wanted to know what he had thought was happening with that.

He indicated that it had made him “uncomfortable”.

Yeah.

Fact #4: No matter how convinced I may be about the truth of Fact #1 (I always said “yes”), it’s not, strictly speaking, true

Here’s the tricky thing about me brain. Its knows that the things I’m about to tell you about happened, but it still constantly tells me that I always said “yes”.

If I actually include all of the things I know in the narrative, this is really easily disproven.

On at least one occasion (I know it happened once for sure. I just wouldn’t put it past myself to have forgotten other instances), I was lying half-conscious, very drunk, on the bedroom floor. And he took off my pants. And he “had sex” with me.

I was entirely aware of what was happening the entire time. I was entirely capable of asking him to stop. I really was. But I didn’t.

Instead, I played a game. I decided I wanted to know what he would do if I just did nothing. Just lay there, conscious but unresponsive. I wanted to know if he would actually go through with it.

Of course he did.

I don’t know who won that game.

So, was I raped?

I don’t give a shit, any more. I was someone’s glorified sex toy (and not in the consensual, kink-positive way) for a few years. It was awful. He is a shitty, selfish person.

I am pretty much done with that shit.

The Conflation of Virtue and Weakness

Weakness-Strength1I had a realization about gaslighting recently. You see, gaslighting only works if it’s victim is willing to consider the possibility that their perspective is wrong, if they are willing to consider other people’s perspectives and incorporate new information into their world-view. It works even better when the victim trusts the perpetrator, believes them to be acting in the victim’s best interest.

This is the thing that makes so much abuse so insidious (and also just plain maddening). Predators and abusers literally take advantage of positive character traits and virtues in their victims.

Because being willing to consider other people’s perspectives? This is an absolutely necessary part of making your social justice work intersectional. It is necessary to recognize oppressions that you don’t personally experience. It is vital, in other words, to being able to fight the good fight.

And trusting our loved ones to act in our best interest? Well, this might not be a virtue in and of itself, but being able to do so is a pretty important part of being a healthy human. No one can survive as an island, and sometimes we have to put our well-being in the hands of others.

Abusers take advantage of other positive traits as well. In any romantic context, you’ll get the abusive tropes of “If you really loved me, you’d…” or analogous sentiments, which play on the victim’s desire to be a good partner, and their desire to make the person they care about happy. It takes advantage of the selfless aspects of love, without any reciprocation (Because if you really love them, you won’t ask for anything in return, amiright?)

And then there’s this other thing that happens. Abuse survivors are often framed as having made mistakes, and having allowed themselves to be taken advantage of. You were naive. You were stupid. You were, ultimately, weak.

Trusting people? That makes you weak. Loving someone and being willing to sacrifice yourself for their happiness? Weak. Being willing to consider the possibility that you are wrong about anything ever? Sooo weak.

Even if you don’t have anyone telling you the abuse was your fault, I think it’s very common for survivors to feel like they have to change the things about themselves that made them vulnerable in the first place.

This makes me really sad, because so often this is the way the narrative goes, and we get derailed into trying to figure out how to cure these weaknesses that are really virtues, and harden good people into assholes, instead of actually figuring ways of discouraging/preventing abusive behaviours in the first place. We want to turn the predators into virtuous people, not strip the virtues from victims in order to prevent their future victimhood.

I just wish I knew how to do that. All I know right now is that we need to stop repeating the damaging derailing tactic of examining all the weaknesses and mistakes of the victim. Because I don’t want to live in the world where no one has the loving, caring, open qualities that can make a person vulnerable to abuse. That’s not a solution I can accept.

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.