Dust

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The experience of violence is like dirt underneath your fingernails. It is like sugar grains spilt across a counter, burying themselves in the gaps behind the cupboards.

The experience of violence is like the dust the accumulates on the backs of shelves, on hidden, forgotten knickknacks, once loved and cared for.

It is always there, in the cracks. It is always there, in the forgotten, long-lost parts of yourself.

Sometimes, I get out a scourer. I get out the soap and the foam and the disinfectant and I try to burn out every trace of violence I have left in my bones.

I try to erase it from myself and come out clean; purified; new.

I try to be a better person who has never spilt sugar or not dusted. I try to be a better person with clean hands and clean nails.

But it never lasts very long. There is always somewhere that I forget to look, somewhere dark enough and small enough for the trauma to hide away. It never lasts very long because, eventually, I remember.

I am trying to become someone who accepts the dust.

I am trying to become someone who knows that I do not need to be clean and new and purified to be whole and to be worthy.

So instead I sit in my room, and I look around at all the places where my books are piled haphazardly, on the floor and on top of my shoes. I look at all the places where scraps of paper and dried-out pens lie neglected under my bed, under my desk. I see the dust and the cracks and I know that I will never be perfect or have a perfect past. I know that I will never be someone whose room is always tidy. I know that I will always be someone who still remembers.

But I open the curtains in the morning anyway and I let the light in. And I sip my tea. I reflect on the fact that I will never be the person I might have been had I not been abused. I reflect on the fact that I am someone different to who I might have been. And I decide that is okay.

 

 

Favourite Things

This week, I thought it would be fun to do a post about my favourite things at the moment: TV series, youtube videos, quotes, songs, fabric…

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My main aim with this blog (and it’s something I do continually have to remind myself) is to remember and celebrate the good in life, even though I am dealing with memories of abuse.

I am a strong believer in the idea that we have to confront our past sooner or later, if we ever want it to release its hold on us in the present. But I also believe that our lives will always be bigger than our past. After all, there is no “rewind” button.

As haunted as I may feel sometimes but things that have happened to me, I am realising more and more that I am here, in the present, and I am safe.

Although some days are hard, and I have a good cry most days, there are also things that help to keep me going. Things that distract me or make me laugh. Things that connect with a part of me that is different to my trauma. Things that remind me that I am a whole person, with things that make me light up and smile, as well as memories that make me sad.

So here goes….

Favourite Fabric

Bit of a niche one, I know, but if you’ve read some of my previous posts you’ll know that something that is helping me through this difficult time is learning how to sew and make things. I am still very new to the whole process, and haven’t followed any complicated dress patterns yet, but I learnt how to make a bow this week, and cover buttons, all out of my favourite pink flamingo covered fabric:

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Favourite Quote

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I’ve just finished reading bell hook’s Feminism is for Everybody, and I loved it. It wasn’t the easiest book to read, but some of the points she made really blew my mind; especially about how dominance and domestic violence can exist in same-sex relationships. I also loved how she repeats that feminism isn’t anti-male, and that we need more men on board the feminist band-wagon if we are to make positive changes in our society. This quote is actually from the next book I’m reading by her, called All About Love:

“So many of us long for love but lack the courage to take risks.”

I love this quote because it reminds me that love is always a risk. Having feelings for someone? Always a risk. I learnt that from experience the hard way when I told the first girl that I knew I had a crush on that I… you know… maybe liked her as more than a friend. Our friendship completely broke down after that, and I was heart-broken. But I was also exhilarated to finally have genuine strong romantic feelings for another person, after so many years of trying and failing to have feelings for men.

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Favourite YouTube video 

Something that makes me really happy is dancing and watching people dance. To be clear: it’s not that I’m a good dancer or have a secret background in dance. I went to one ballet class as a kid, didn’t like it, and never went again. That was the beginning and end of the possibility of me becoming a child dance star.

But dancing, even badly (especially badly), always lifts me up, and I love videos that make me feel like it is okay to give it a go, even if my dancing is a bit awkward and stilted.

Diplo’s Get It Right video does just that:

Favourite Song

This is a hard one. My music taste at the moment is divided into two categories: pop music that makes me dance around, and acoustic/ piano music that helps me to think and feel.

I’m going to go with the second category, and chose the acoustic version of Dynamite by Sigrid. Needless to say, the lyrics “You’re as safe as a mountain, but know that I am dynamite” really summed up how I felt last week, when I had to stop dating someone because I wasn’t ready.

Although it’s a sad song, I think that’s it’s always comforting to find songs and lyrics that reflect how we’re feeling, and help us to work through it.

Favourite TV Series

Hands down the best series I’ve seen in a long time is The End of The F***ing World, a Channel 4 series which is now on Netflix.

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I should say, first, that I was very hesitant to watch this show, because I read it had trigger warnings for murder, consent and suicide. Because of its dark humour, I was worried that this was a series that would make fun of these serious issues.

The truth is, it does the opposite.

Even though the comedy in The End of The Fucking World is dark, with teenage boy James being convinced that he is a sociopath who wants to kill someone, every serious issue that comes up – from dads who walk out on their kids to men who call women a “cock-tease” for changing their mind during sex – is handled with the subtlety and gravity these subjects deserve.

Plus, there is an amazing scene where James and Alyssa dance around a room with their eyes closed, so that James doesn’t feel self-conscious while dancing.

Dating

As many UK readers will know already, it’s been snowing! My step-dad religiously keeps up with the weather forecast. We get a run-down of the next 5 days of predicted weather at the dinner table most nights. 

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For some reason, I am always skeptical of weather forecasts. I’m more of a but-you-never-really-know-what’s-going-to-happen person. So when my step-dad told me it would snow today, and probably tomorrow, I rolled my eyes and said “We’ll see”. But he, and the people doing extensive meteorological readings, were right.

I like to tell myself that I can’t really predict things. It comforts me. Because most of my snap self-evaluations and forecasts for my future are clouded with anxiety and all-or-nothing thinking (“You’ll never get better” – “You’ll never be able to work again”), it helps me to remind myself that I am not God (not that I believe) and that I have no special super authority to say what is definitely going to happen in my life.

These last two weeks have been a perfect example of how you never really know what’s going to happen. After countless conversations about how I am definitely not ready to date right now with my therapist, this month I suddenly found myself in a situation with a girl I liked, who liked me back. Suddenly, I found myself dating.

Liking someone and dating, after having been so unwell, after having been socially isolated for so long because my friends live elsewhere and I haven’t had the energy or the strength to get the bus or train out of this village, is a bit like a boiling hot summers day after living for months in the Arctic. Or the experience of being plunged into an ice pool after living in the desert.

In a word, it’s overwhelming.

I used to love the idea that someone somewhere could save me and make all of my problems go away. I bought into the whole “knight in shining armour”/ “prince charming”/ “romcom Hugh Grant” type figure big time, while I was dating guys (I know Hugh Grant is a pretty retro example, but Notting Hill is still one of my favourite films).

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While I had to fake emotions to be with men, the drive to make myself better by being someone’s girlfriend/ having a boyfriend was very real.

When I came out as gay, the fantasy shifted, but only slightly. Instead of wanting prince charming, I wanted a princess, or a knight-ess (can you believe that there is no female equivalent of knight??). I still wanted to someone to save me, it’s just the gender of that person changed.

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If the idea that the people could take away our problems was real, then the timing of dating this month would have been perfect. I could have lost myself in someone else, forgotten about this process of re-integrating traumatic experiences. I could have skipped or cut short the hard stuff.

But, of course, that’s not really possible.

As brilliant as the highs of feeling close to someone was, the price of it was high too; memories of past abusive experiences started to surface 24/7, the tiniest hint of rejection sent me spiraling into a bottomless pit of trust issues, and suddenly I had no mental space left to do the important things that usually ground me, like my mindfulness body scan and trying to organise a few hours of volunteering each week.

I want to be able to have a healthy romantic relationship more than perhaps I want anything else. It’s the very opposite of the abuse and forced experiences that I’ve had. But I realised that I need to be a lot stronger and steadier in myself to be able to have the healthy kind of romance that I want. So I had to put an end to the dating.

It’s always hard to make these kind of decisions, but today I’m feeling positive. I lost the possibility of someone as a future girlfriend, but I’ve gained a potential friendship that I’ll be far more able to enjoy. My sewing skills are improving – I made a skirt last week out of stretch fabric, and two head bands. 

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My first self-made skirt!

I’ve bought some really great matte liquid lipsticks this week, and seeing how the different colours bring out the best in certain outfits makes me smile.

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Head band – home-made, liquid lipstick – Jeffree Star (doll parts), necklace and top both charity shop

Oh, and I love the frost. And the snow.

Leave.

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A Buddhist master once said that the longest journey we can take is from the head to the heart.

Yesterday, I was struggling with the journey between the bed and the couch.

It’s very rare for me to feel like I need to spend all day in bed.

Not getting out of bed, getting up late and sleeping for hours in the afternoon were all things that I did while my mental health was getting worse, before I ended up in hospital.

Since then, I’ve made a real effort to get out of bed early(ish) and to only have naps in the afternoon if I feel really overwhelmed.

It works most of the time. Even if the alternative to being in bed is binge-watching series on Netflix on my couch, I often feel that this is a better option to sleeping.

But yesterday was different. Yesterday everything felt too difficult and too heavy for me to get up. So I stayed in bed, for hours and hours.

I know why it happened.

As I start to get more and more positivity in my life, by going out and meeting new people (something I have been trying to do, once a week, for this month), the contrast between how people in my life now treat me and how I have been treated in the past feels more and more jarring.

In short, I (only) have people in my life now who are nice to me. Who really listen when I talk. Who remember the things I tell them. Who show interest in what I’m up to or how I’m feeling. 

Don’t get me wrong – I want that. I have done a lot of work on myself to get to the point where I can say that I deserve to be surrounded by people who genuinely care about me.

But the difference between people who really care about you and make an effort to make sure you’re comfortable, and abusive people who say they care about you and then hurt you, is huge. And experiencing better things now brings up the contrast of the past.

It’s something I still find difficult to make sense of. That my boyfriend in Argentina, who took me to restaurants and told me how intelligent I was, would end up hurting me as intentionally as he did. Just like I find it hard to get my head around the fact that the same man who bought me the Harry Potter books on tape and always wanted to play cards was the person who manipulated his way into my childhood bedroom.

To outsiders, people who have healthy expectations of how they are treated that don’t include violence and manipulation, abusive situations are black and white. Abusers are abusers. They see what is more difficult to see when you are very close to an abuser: just how bad they are.

And abusers and their actions are terrible. This isn’t a defense of them, not at all. This is a defense of victims and how difficult it can be to see clearly in abusive situations. To see through the lies we are told and the lies we tell ourselves. The “It didn’t start out that way” and the “But they said/did this really nice thing too”. 

Some people say that every nice thing an abuser ever does is a manipulated effort in their desire to control people. Other people say that abusers are damaged, misunderstood or unloved.

I think that maybe both are somewhat true, but that neither really matter. I think the most important thing to get through to victims who are still in this type of dangerous relationship is for them to focus on how they feel, to understand that that terrible feeling of being scared and confused and unable to speak about it, that that feeling is a message to leave, to get out, to talk to someone, to get help. 

No matter what the complex picture of nice and bad things that someone close to you does, if someone makes you feel scared, or trapped, or reinforces how scared and trapped you already feel, then you need to get away from that person. Whatever they’ve been through or you imagine they’ve been through. Whether you suspect that their actions are manipulative or whether they seem completely genuine. It doesn’t matter. Only feeling scared or trapped or inexplicably uncomfortable when you are around that person matters. 

Even before my relationship with my boyfriend in Argentina got bad, there was something about him that made my skin crawl. I couldn’t put my finger on it. He hadn’t said anything nasty. He looked like a regular guy. But when I was close to him, there was a part of me that wanted to run away from him as fast as I could. 

I didn’t listen to it. 

It didn’t make sense to me because he hadn’t done anything wrong (yet) and he seemed nice and I felt like I needed someone to take care of me, because I was living abroad, and yet with him I felt so much more trapped than I felt safe.

If there’s one thing that victims can get very good at, it’s denial. I listened to a story of a woman who had survived domestic abuse, who had been beaten daily for over a decade but had never thought of herself as being in an abusive relationship. When she eventually called the help line, it wasn’t to talk about how bad it was – it was to ask about the logistics of divorce, because her husband had promised she could never divorce him. She just wanted to know if that was true.

Victims stay in abusive relationships for many reasons, and of course age is a factor as well. Pedophiles threaten, bribe and manipulate children not to speak out, and use the fact that they are so young and unaware of boundaries to their advantage.

I truly believed that the man who abused me when I was little really cared about me. I felt sorry for him, because there was something sad and angry about him.

But I also hated him. I didn’t know why but I did. One night, when I was 10, I kept repeating to my mum how much I hated her friend. She didn’t understand why. She thought I was being silly or rude. And then I told her.

There is always a part of us that knows when somethings feels innately terrible to us, no matter how “nice” a person in our lives may seem to be. It’s been, and still is, very difficult for me to be able to trust and enjoy people who are caring and show interest in me, because of experiences where people who seemed nice turned out to be so, so different.

Either way, if I could go back to myself when I was in Argentina, unsure about whether to trust my head that was telling me it was fine and I needed him, or the more physical part of me that was frightened and uncomfortable, then I know which part I’d tell myself to listen to.

Sometimes, it doesn’t have to make logical sense. As victims, our sense of logic and normal boundaries and safety is scrambled anyway. Sometimes, it’s about the part of you that just wants to leave, without knowing why.

“Because wanting to leave is enough” – Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things

Trust the Process

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This year, I’ve learnt that snowdrops flower in spring.

Until now, my mind has always been too busy to notice what’s growing, and when.

Before, I was always consumed with trying to become a better me and lead a better life. I wanted to press fast-forward. I want to skip to the part where I was sorted and happy.

But I’m not there yet.

Instead, I am unable to work and am stuck in the present. I walk the dog. I go to a sewing class. I turn our tin cans into pencil pots and make-up brush holders. But there is no “fast-forward” button in this space. Time drags.

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We may live in a fast-moving world of dating apps and instant downloads, but there are some things that will always be slow.

Building healthy friendships and connections takes time. Coming to terms with memories of abuse takes time. Recovering from being psychotic takes time.

It’s humbling and frustrating, but it also has a groundedness to it that my busy life before lacked.

When I was at university, I was always busy. I had an essay to write every week, and about 5 books to read. I had French and Spanish grammar and vocab to learn, translations to do, classes and lectures to go to. At Cambridge, because the class sizes are so small (sometimes one-to-one), missing a class or a deadline quickly gets noticed.

When I moved to London as a graduate, I told myself that I’d had enough of working so hard. But old habits are more difficult to break that you think, and I ended up working frantically in a different way.

I worked frantically to go out and make new friends in a new city, and tried everything from stand-up comedy classes to lesbian meditation groups to life drawing classes of east London pole dancers. Even though I did meet some great people, nothing could cover over the ripple effects of me being abused or my deteriorating mental health. I ended up sabotaging a lot of the friendships I made.

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This quiet life, where I notice the snowdrops growing, where I walk the dog and learn how to make pillow cases, is difficult.

But living my life on fast-forward became impossible.

At heart, I will always be the person who sped-walked everywhere, who went against everyone’s advice and reapplied to Cambridge after being rejected from Oxford. I’ll always be the person who exceeded everyone’s expectations and got in.

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I will always have that determination, but now I’m learning to have patience. As my therapist Evelyn says, trust the process.

Change

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Last week, it looked like I was finally getting busy. I had a dress-making course lined up, where I was going to learn how to make a skirt. I had martial arts classes once a week. I found three different LGBT events to force myself to go to this month, even though the last time I felt strong enough to meet new people was in September.

I felt like I was getting so busy that I started writing down events on my baby sloth calender (which I bought as an emergency mental-health-boost necessity one night when I really couldn’t sleep) and, because the space to write in the days of the calender is so so tiny, from a distance it looked like my schedule was full.

But, of course, it’s not full. It’s not full because I’m not strong enough to work at the moment, not even part-time, and, as frustrating as that is for me as an ex-workoholic, it doesn’t look like that situation is going to change in the next two months. It’s not full because I’m living back home with my mum and my step-dad, in a village where the “high street” is actually a cobbled alleyway called The Shambles.

It’s not full and this week it’s become empty again. My dressmaking course was cancelled. A guy at my martial arts class was too tough on me again for the third class in a row, and suddenly I clicked that I was mock fighting with someone who was too insecure, too eager to prove their own strength, to listen to me repeating “Please go easy on me, I’m new”. And I realised I couldn’t keep going to the same class anymore.

We never really know what’s going to happen. I had no idea, at 7 years old, that the man who had started to help my mum out with putting up shelves and other household tasks, was only there to abuse me. He’d been a distant friend of hers for years, but only became interested in being more involved in our family when he heard that she was a recently divorced single mum, with two young daughters.

I had no idea, when I was studying French and Spanish at university and went to Argentina for my year abroad, that I would get into an abusive relationship over there. I didn’t think that the chronic health condition that I’d been learning to manage would get as out of control as it did. I couldn’t have predicted that my fear of being alone and too ill to do my own food shopping in a foreign country would become the main reason why I didn’t leave him, after things got bad.

We never really know what’s going to happen. I’m reading The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan at the moment. It’s been on my to-read list for a very long time. In it, she writes:

We’re so young. We’re so young. We’re twenty-two years old. We have so much time.

As I’m sure some of you already know, Marina Keegan died in a car accident the same year. She was still twenty-two.

Me and my therapist talk a lot about what we have that remains, even though everything changes.

I’ve had a lot of changes in my life. I’ve had long-term relationships with men and I’ve come out as gay. I went from discussing philosophical theory at Cambridge University to making sure that there were always enough pens and rulers on tables as a primary school classroom assistant. I’ve lost more friends than I can count. I’ve changed my birth name. I tried every gender expression on the spectrum (hyper feminine, androgynous, butch/masculine) while I was trying to work out what being trans* meant for me.

Through all the changes, through all the surprises, good and bad – through everything that bought me closer to myself and everything that tried to pull me further away from who I am – I tell myself that there is an essence of me that remains.

I tell myself that there is a part of me that gets wiser and more compassionate with every mistake. I tell myself that there is a part of me that has learnt how to spot the warning signs early. I tell myself that there is a part of me that is getting better and better at listening to who I am and what really makes me happy.

Reasons To Still Be Here

In my first few days of blogging, I found a post on Sam Dylan Finch’s blog (Let’s Queer Things Up) that really sunk into my bones.

It was about how glad he was that he hadn’t committed suicide. Early January last year, he almost did.

The post is about everything he would have missed in 2017 if he’d decided not to live anymore:

Holding a dear friend’s hand while they waited for an ambulance. Crying with my partner when their father died. Learning a best friend’s new name. Trying out the word “no” for the first time.*

Last weekend, I had suicidal thoughts for the first time since being out of hospital. Feeling low had been building, but the idea of somehow ending everything came out of nowhere. Within minutes, no part of me was left that had any perspective. My mind became pitch black with the endlessly repeating message that everything was too much and there was no other way out.

Eventually, I called my sister. I hadn’t tried anything. We talked and we talked and she told me about how much joy there was out there that I would still experience one day, and how many new people I still hadn’t met that I’d love.

It’s only been 6 days since then. And I am already so glad that I am still here.

I’m glad because, if I wasn’t, my mum wouldn’t have been able to surprise me by giving me these daffodils.

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I’m glad because, if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t have finished my 4 week sewing course and learnt how to make my own piping.

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I’m glad because, if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t have started to fill the book that I just made with my favourite people and quotes.

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People who make a lot of money don’t dress as well as people who have to make do, who have to be inventive – Iris Apfel

And I’m glad because I know that my sister is probably

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*https://letsqueerthingsup.com/2017/11/30/for-the-mentally-ill-folks-who-didnt-think-theyd-make-it-this-year/