Sunday, 22 April 2012

Hi HO TRIGGER...



As anyone who has read this blog will know, it deals with some fairly emotional subjects and while I hope it makes people think about things they may not have had to think about or address them from a slightly different viewpoint, it is mainly written to help me get my head straight on the same subjects. I am constantly surprised anyone else reads it (but secretly thrilled to have my ego fed, so thank you) but a recent conversation with some friends made me think about what I've been writing in a slightly different and possibly less indulgent fashion.

This blog talks a lot about rape and yet I've never put a trigger warning anywhere on it. There are a couple of reasons for that. Because I'm writing from my point of view, I never really stopped to think about it from anyone else's. I tend to write posts in a flurry and frankly haven't been organised enough to tag and label things clearly. I'm also a little bit ambiguous about trigger warnings anyway, feeling that it in some cases they skirt dangerously close to perpetuating unhelpful and prolonging behaviours of avoidance. Also I've never found them especially useful since my own triggers aren't especially obvious and clear cut. I rarely find written things triggering, but am still deeply affected by sights, sounds, feelings and touch. Being crowded into a small space with no obvious means of escape still does it as does environments that mimic the interrogation and disbelief of the various police stations I visited. I still suppress a sick shudder when I hear male Welsh accents and until recently my biggest trigger was the feel of unvarnished wood with the darkly amusing result that a wooden spoon could make me retch with fear. My therapist helped me see that the fear of wood was related to trying to push my first attacker away and we spent several afternoons in a basement room, fondling a selection of cooking implements and talking about boundaries to help me not scream around rolling pins.

As well as being borderline ridiculous to think or write about, my focus on my own triggers meant that I was terribly self absorbed and didn't give much thought to other people's triggers, naively assuming they were similar to mine and stupidly think that words don't have an impact. Talking it over last week with a variety of women I admire utterly and aspire to grow up to be like presented a whole new view to me which I've been thinking about all week. Then yesterday footballer Ched Edwards was found guilty of rape in a case where his victim was deemed too intoxicated to consent. He was given a five year custodial sentence and told his footballing career was over. The world and its granny had an opinion, mainly played out on Twitter.

Predictably there were two camps. Those who supported the victim completely and those who thought she was a lying bitch out to ruin a young man's career and get rich off the event. One of Ched Evans's team-mates Tweeted that almost exact sentiment (now deleted) and was backed up by another chorus of people immersed in rape culture. Ghastly as this is (esp for the victim at the centre of the case), it didn't surprise me. And since I don't follow a bunch of lads with no empathy on there, it wasn't shoved in my face. Except it was...

Well meaning and rightfully angry feminists who I do follow swamped my timeline with retweets from knuckle dragging bigots and added their own irate commentary. One had tweeted almost 10 times about it in 10 minutes with the result that when I checked my timeline after a lovely evening with friends, I was hit by a wall of intensely upsetting comments that filled the screen of my phone like a tsunami. I suddenly clicked as to what a lack of trigger warnings could do to people and asked her to consider using them before such an onslaught. She realised the issue (quicker than I had) and there was no bad blood. But the next morning, there was a similar deluge from others which when I logged on to have a wee chat with a friend about the Golden Girls took the sheen off the morning somewhat.

Doesn't this sound bitchy and precious? I'm aware of its princess vibe, but the whole thing made me very uncomfortable for several reasons wider than just feeling butt hurt. While the prevalence of rape myths and rape culture needs discussed to try break down incorrect perceptions and biases, this indiscriminate way of doing so seems to exclude a lot of people with genuine experience of the subject because it's bloody hard to convey anything while the room is spinning and you're breaking out in a sweat. Instead the people who have second hand knowledge get to posit themselves as the experts, which is actually pretty similar to what the people saying the stuff they don't like are doing, just on the other side of the fence. Victims get sidelined and talked over which can be triggering in itself as its often how they are treated in the aftermath of an attack. It also drives a subtle wedge between feminists and their allies, splitting the camps into 'traumatised' and 'incensed' creating a situation with a weird kind of privilege.

Many women know the details of rape culture firsthand and have heard the equivalent of those tweets and newspaper comments directed at them face to face and lived with them rattling around in their heads ever since. It's oddly privileged for some who has only read about it to offer them up to someone emotionally tattooed by them in the trauma equivalent of telling someone wearing the group's teeshirt that they should really listen to this amazing band you've just heard about and ignoring their first hand experience with a quote from a book. The fact that it is a genuine emotion and from the right place doesn't really make it any less patronising and difficult to deal with. And I feel bratty bringing it up as if you can't have opinions on subjects unless you've experienced it. I also know that most women have experienced some form of being made to feel frightened by the rape culture we live in from street harrassment to being blamed for that same harrassment because of what they were doing or wearing and that I'm perpetuating a hierarchy that rape is the worst thing ever and other forms of assault aren't the same and less important and I really don't want to do that. I'd just like it if those with first hand experience were given more of a space within the group that should be supporting them and room to speak if they choose to, even if it's halting or slowed by emotion.

So from now on, I'll be trying to do that very thing myself and will be prefacing my entire blog with a trigger warning and adding specific ones to certain posts as necessary so that I stop assuming my triggers=everyone else's experiences and think more about what my words bring up. But, you'll notice that that warning isn't there yet. So am I being awkward and putting it behind the jump or tucking it away like the size guide on clothes shop sites? Nope. In the spirit of learning not to talk for people or treat victims like people who are too damaged to have independent thought and need spoonfed, I'd like to ask your advice on how to phrase it so it's welcoming, educational, doesn't talk down to anyone but does the trick. What should I focus on? Should I provide links to sources of help and support? Should I leave it as it as? Whatever you think would be helpful, I'm willing to do.

I get a lot from writing here and even more from the support people give me by reading it. Some of you know me and some of you don't and I'd like to make both sorts of readers feel welcome and show my appreciation by making this a quiet corner of the internet with a safe space. I can't promise kittens to pet or cake, but I'll do my best to make sure you don't go away feeling worse than when you dropped by. It's the least I should be offering and I'm sorry it hadn't occured to me until now. It's just one more way that I'm incredibly grateful for the peer support I have in my life. Plus, I'll be 34 this year. It's getting a bit unseemly to still be in a teenage-esque 'me me me' mode...

Sunday, 1 April 2012

GOOD GRIEF


At the weekends, I like to start the day off with a vat of tea and a peruse of the papers. I have certain sections of the Saturday Guardian I particularly enjoy as I wake up and come to life. I start with the Weekend and after checking in to giggle at the seriousness of the commenters on the John Lanchester restaurant review and boggling at the complete inability of the Blind Date section to find two people who can tolerate each other temporarily, I like to read the Family section and wallow in other people's dysfunction. And this week with this article by Bibi Lynch, the dysfunction was overflowing and threatening to take us all down in a tidal wave...

I'm single and childless so this article should have been right up my alley in many ways. Instead I read it in wide eyed horror with a feeling of queasy discomfort gnawing at the pit of my stomach. It was like reading a 17 year old girl's diary as Bibi described her emotions around realising at the age of 46 that she would never have a biological child. Motherhood, or the lack of it, is an emotive subject and one that everyone woman has some thoughts on, albeit in very different ways. This piece came across to me as a mill race of 'I want', 'it's not fair' and 'it's all your fault' rather than much else more substantive. I came away wondering why the hell the Family section had morphed in the Mail for a day and disliking everything about the piece, especially its trick of further dividing women in those who have reproduced and those who haven't by suggesting women who have children cannot understand grief like those who wanted children and don't have them. Not only is a classic Mean Girls tactic that achieves nothing, it's also utter bollocks and tapped into the notion that when it comes to anything involving wombs, women are simply hysterical and can't debate nicely. In fact it also suggested that all women do ultimately comes to down to their uterus rather than anything else, which is infuriating as one of the things feminism seeks to do is make women the sum of all the parts of their body and soul, not just incubators.

But aside from the societal issues the article raised, my strong reaction came from a more personal level (and like Bibi herself, perhaps not an especially nice one) and I fould myself saying 'aw diddums' to the lady who hasn't had everything she wanted in life handed to her on a plate and feeling personally defensive and angry after reading it. She doesn't like it when the world doesn't stop turning for her personal feelings and although I felt snippily judgemental of her for that selfishness, I felt strangely the same in many ways, with my first reaction being 'give me a fucking break. You think you've got it bad? Try being me' following it up with the helpful suggestion of ' just grow up.' Then I drank more tea, read a few other articles and looked at more calmly and realised that it's not the events that define your life, but the way you deal with them instead.

Not being able to have the thing you thought would turn you into an adult and complete your life is tough. But it's no excuse to be dismissive and cruel and judgemental of others and blame them for how you feel. Everyone experiences grief as they grow up. The difference is how people deal with it and whether they let grief be the only emotion they have again..

I have a serious chronic illness. For the past 15 years I have been unable to hold down full time work or education for more than a few months at a time. I wanted to do my A levels, go to uni, do a degree and then work, earning enough to be comfortable and hopefully meeting someone who would love me and I would enjoy being with. Maybe there would be children depending on who and what came along.

I haven't had any of that. I didn't get to do the A Levels I so loved studying for. Instead I became very very ill and spent the next four years lying on the sofa, watching a different set of friends each year complete their exams, leave home and embark on their adult lives while I was left behind. Even when I finally got to university I didn't complete my degree. Things became harder to deal with when I was raped twice and developed some spectacular mental health issues to boot. I had to give up job after job and abandon a career I adored. I've lived on minimum wage or benefits the whole time with absolutely no financial freedom. I've been homeless, in part because my health was so poor I couldn't get a job to earn my way out of a tight spot. I get portrayed as a benefits scrounger, a liar, a malingerer. No one wants to date me once they know about my health and I've been rejected by my father over these things as well. I will never have children because I will never be well enough to carry a pregnancy to term or cope with raising children. It would be miserable for me and them and the father of any child would be under unbearable pressure, raising a kid essentially single handed and caring for an ill partner.  So there's no point wanting a baby. It's not possible.

My world has shrunk to a tiny sphere with none of the things in it that I wished for and wanted, especially work and the self esteem that comes from supporting yourself. When friends bitched about their boss, their job, their overtime, their life choices, it at times pained me to my very soul. It was like they were pouring salt into open wounds. I lost count of how many times I felt shellshocked with grief while a seemingly normal conversation was going on. It's been hard. But I've always tried (and not entirely succeeded) not to blame other people for their lives. I'm not sick and struggling because they are fit and well and have a shit boss. It's not their fault I feel terrible about myself and that my life isn't going to plan. And their lives aren't always perfect or better than mine really. Competition helps no one.

I mainly took my misery out on myself, but sometimes on others and I ended up lonely and pushing away the only nice thing in my life as people couldn't be around me. So before I backed myself completely into a corner of self pity and resentment, I had to do something about it and try to drop the martyr act.  I couldn't expect people to be nice to me if I was awful to them and to myself, so even though it was agonising at times to listen to talk about jobs and studying and relationships, I started expanding my horizons by sepnding more time with other people and caring about their lives. I got a therapist (or five) and I worked on it with them rather than continue to burden individuals with my baggage as a punishment for their issues being different to mine. Now I have wonderful friends who bring pleasure and purpose to my life and we're important to each other and it helps soothe the pain of the other losses, because even though I can't work, I have a purpose in my life that I previously lacked. My family tree might stop with me, and I'm most likely to going to be single for the rest of my future, but I'm important to other people and I will live on in the memories of people I loved and their families and children. It's not what I planned for and I still often wish I hadn't had to work harder to still end up with less than many, but I'm glad I did and my grief no longer dictates my life. I can also now appreciate that while my life isn't exactly what I chose, it's pretty bloody great in many places and yes, there really is always someone worse off than me, and that I'm lucky in many ways, including people overlooking the demands I put on them.

All of which is lovely and makes me sound smug as hell with a side helping of massive sanctimony doesn't it? Like I'm one step away from uttering the words 'if I can do it, anyone can.' Which would be equally annoying and missing-the-point as Bibi's original article. I'm not fixed (in fact many of you know just how fucked up I am) and I'm not suggesting that other people can be fixed either. Grief doesn't go. There's no magic cure. You don't wake up one day and it's completely vanished. It changes things. It needs acknowledged and accepted rather than railed against endlessly fruitlessly. It needs the sting taken out of it by allowing other people to understand it and know it is there. Those suffering from it need support, but not indulgence. All the well meaning in the world won't undo the cause of the grief after all. What the grieving don't need is a constant drip drip of competition and insularity where people's misery is used to minimise and belittle other people's feelings. Yet another article about a well educated middle class woman (ahem) suggesting her turmoil is the most tumultous of all serves only to fray people's last nerve and create seething resentment on top. We could all stand to hear more about how to understand and work through grief, because there is no one who won't experience it, often in varied ways at different times in our lives.

I wish I could be the person to write that article, but I'm not sure I'm quite far enough out the side of my grieving for the life I was going to have and the person I wanted to be, to avoid falling into the path of self absorption that loss tends to create. But if anyone else is further down their five stages and would like to write it or know where it is, I'd very much like to read it. Not only would some tips be useful, I'm getting quite bored of myself by now. I hope Bibi Lynch can come back in time and say the same....