When I think about writing this piece, I notice that my teeth are clenched and my shoulders are raised. I also feel that familiar, pleasant, slightly floaty feeling as if I’m not really here. I stare out the window vaguely without focus. It’s called dissociation, and I’ve only recently learned to label it as such. It’s pleasant, because it allows me to leave a painful situation, mentally, to check out, even if my body isn’t coping.
I’ve been encouraged for a few years by well-meaning medical folk to deal with the underlying trauma that is a contributing factor in my chronic illness; and I’ve tried hard to identify and move through it. I have had debilitating symptoms for over a decade now, most of which seem untreatable. I won’t delve into the full story of my health problems right now: suffice to say these symptoms and my pain levels are bad enough to stop me from leading a normal life.
My osteopath is currently working on trying to get my shoulders to relax and resume their normal position, back and down. Instead, they sit upwards and forwards, and are chronically knotted; so tightly that my nerves are affected and my arms go numb when I sleep every night. When I first returned to him last year, he said to me “What’s going on? It’s like you’re bracing for someone who’s coming at you.” We’ve talked about the Fight or Flight response, and also the Freeze response, in which your body freezes, but your mind takes a holiday in order to protect itself. In other words, dissociation. It seems I’m freezing up in anticipation of a threat, most likely a threat long gone.
It’s slow progress trying to deal with the trauma, and the illness I have. I’m not really getting anywhere fast, however, I think I have finally realised that the bulk of my underlying trauma has been caused by decades of sexual abuse, in one form or another. It was difficult for me to arrive at this conclusion. I had a troubled upbringing complete with emotional abuse and unhealthy primary relationships, three near-drowning experiences, and my father died after a horrible, protracted illness during my 30s, which I had to deal with and grieve with almost no support. It was easy for me to focus on these things as the cause of my trauma, and indeed, I’m certain they all contribute and are significant. But, the trauma wasn’t shifting, even after almost 15 years of therapy. Daily meditations were not calming my system, nor were significant dietary changes or regular exercise.
However, when the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke last year, it forced me to re-evaluate my life extensively, particularly in terms of my relationships with men and boys, and I came up with some startling conclusions: almost all of my relationships with men and boys have involved some form of sexual abuse, assault, misconduct, or (at a minimum) coercion. In varying degrees, of course, but there has, much more often than not, been something inherently disrespectful and harmful in these relationships. Or, these relationships were inappropriate in other ways: for example, abuses of power and authority by those of advanced age and status that left me feeling used and that wasted precious years of my youth. Add to this inappropriate behaviour on casual dates, decades of street harassment, sexualised images of women on screen and in print, inappropriately sexualised behaviour by teachers, and from men in society in general and being molested as a child by a male babysitter, and you have a pretty overwhelming picture. In short: I think I found my trauma, the behemoth, the ogre-lurking-in-the-shadows, the overwhelming pile of steaming feculence that has derailed my life and my health.
Why didn’t I see it sooner? Because I had to bury every one of these incidents in order to simply survive, both in the moment, and afterwards. Sure, it might have been disturbing when an alcoholic man on a first date unromantically shoved his tongue in my mouth while he simultaneously shoved his hand down my tight jeans and his finger up my vagina. But I was both stunned and surprised by his actions; they were utterly non-consensual, unexpected, and I was afraid. He had taken me to the empty rooftop of his apartment block to talk and have a drink. I had assumed other people would be up there, so I would be safe, but we were alone. In that moment, I had to weather the storm and his revolting advances so that I could get out of there in one piece. I was afraid of him: he was mentally unstable, of large build, and drunk. What’s even more disturbing is that this is only a minor incident, in the scheme of my life. One that I often forget, because some of the other things I’ve had to deal with have been much worse, and much more protracted.
Other “minor” yet disturbing incidents include the time a Frenchman approached me in Paris in a tourist spot at nightfall, followed me alongside the Seine for twenty minutes, and then pleaded with me to come back to his house for “a massage and some fun.” How very Weinstein-esque! He wouldn’t take my very clear “no” for an answer, pestering me over and over, until I became quite angry and afraid. I was lucky enough to be able to find some other tourists to hang out with until he finally got the message and skulked away. I sprinted to the Metro station, afraid that he was lurking nearby and would follow me. My crime? Being out at sunset and not being familiar with my surroundings. My outfit? A corduroy jacket, jeans and short boy-hair. Totally not asking for it. But I digress. None of this was my fault, and I know that now.
Then there was the psychologist I was seeing for therapy, 30 years my senior, who said to the 18-year-old me one day: “If I was 25 and single, I’d run away with you.” How is this man still practising? I was naive and had no idea that what he was saying was unethical and unprofessional, even though it felt kind of icky at the time.
I can go back even further in time to age 15, when a pair of grown men sitting behind me on the bus thought it funny to repeatedly fondle my shoulder, laughing uproariously when I got angry and asked them to stop. They then proceeded to open the window next to me over and over, letting in the freezing cold winter air. It didn’t matter how many times I slammed it shut, they kept at it the whole way home. I was utterly terrified to walk home from the bus alone that night, scared that they would follow me and hurt me. When I told my mother what had happened, she scoffed at me and said nothing, which made me feel neither believed, nor heard, and certainly not supported.
One time Mum did come to my rescue was at age 6, when a man in his 30s tried to lure me away on the beach to “play with his son” who was hundreds of metres away in the surf. Luckily my mother was nearby, overheard the conversation and stepped in. I shudder to think what might have happened, and even then, I had an inkling things were not quite right.
At age 11, nobody rescued me when the boy I had a crush on at school kicked me in the vagina, on the football oval, hard, without warning or provocation. Up until then, he and I had been friends, had a mutual (if awkward) crush, and had hung out together a bit. I was a sweet and popular girl, and simply walked up to him at the end of lunchtime to say hello, when he kicked me. He seemed, up until that moment, to be a sweet and quiet boy, therefore his assault shocked me to the core. The pain was excruciating: he made full and intense contact with my pubic bone. I was doubled over in pain and hot tears streamed from my eyes, yet nobody came over to help me. Not a single student, nor a single teacher. What I remember most is a deep sense of shame. This boy had kicked my vagina, a part of my body that was deeply private, deeply personal, and which I had somehow already learnt was wrong, an object to be justifiably abused. I was supposed to be ashamed of it and of my female-ness. I must have already had it drummed into my unconscious that I was somehow to blame for this attack, as I told absolutely no-one at the time about it, not even a friend. I still feel embarrassed and ashamed relaying this story now, as if I am still somehow to blame. It is almost impossible to overcome a lifetime of gender conditioning. I want to hug the child-me and ask her to tell me all about it. I want to tell her that it wasn’t her fault and encourage her to tell her teacher at school, and to never, ever, put up with anything like that again.
None of these incidents should have happened to me. These are only a few of the things I have had to endure as a female, and as I wrote earlier, these things are relatively minor compared to some of the longer-term, harsher patterns of abuse I’ve been subjected to. And in saying that, it seems I am minimising it, but I’m not. Each of these incidents was terrifying and wrong. Each of these incidents are evidence of a deeply ingrained disrespect for women and the objectification of their bodies, of women’s status as “things” to be played with, hurt, mocked, teased, used and tortured. As I write about these incidents it is apparent that we live in a culture that systemically despises women and abuses their bodies, in which boys and men use women’s body parts to express hatred and enact gross misdeeds of unreciprocated desire.
I have written about some of the more significant abusive relationships and incidents on my blog already, using creative language and styles that more adequately express the intensity of the emotions that I feel about what happened to me. In writing about these other incidents today, I am trying to communicate something of what an ordinary woman might experience in her lifetime. These events are plentiful and are not isolated. They are not necessarily committed by psychopaths or criminals, but by ordinary men and boys.
It is time for the reckoning. I’m immensely grateful for the courage of women like Rose McGowan, Tarana Burke, Alyssa Milano and Dylan Farrow (and so many others) who have helped break the secretive cycle of abuse; bravely and publicly coming out with stories that are so difficult to tell and bringing them to light. McGowan in particular has been incredibly tenacious and persistent, writing a book, Brave, which deals with her abuse and trauma not only in Hollywood, but during her upbringing, and creating a TV series on similar themes called Citizen Rose. It is McGowan’s tenacity and courage in particular that I have found both encouraging and emboldening, allowing me to tell my own stories of sexual abuse and assault for the first time.
My own trauma is seeing the light of day again, with is both good and bad. It is hard to dredge it up, but it is helpful to do so honesty and openly, to make connections between the various incidents, to reassess what happened in the light of other women’s experiences, and to forge a much better understanding that what happened to me was wrong. The MeToo phenomenon has given me a new, more nuanced understanding of what constitutes sexual abuse and assault. At age 43, though already a literate and learned feminist, I feel that for the first time I have the vocabulary and the understanding to be able describe what happened to me. The discussions that have taken place around things like coercion, consent and how women try to please men have been fascinating for me, and I see my own experience reflected back in the various articles, stories and discussions that have been taking place. For the first time I have names and words to describe the various things that have happened to me that always felt wrong; I just didn’t know how to write or speak about them before. MeToo has given me, and all women, permission to speak out about sexual abuse. It is a moment and a movement that I am incredibly grateful for, no matter how hard it has been to relive all of my pain. It is in revealing and dealing with this trauma that I will ultimately get well again, and finally be free to define who and what I am and what I will and won’t accept in my life, in my own body.