Another Brick to the Head: As a Woman, I Can’t Endure Anymore “Locker-Room Talk”

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My first vivid memory of being sexually assaulted is when I was 19 years old living in the UK. I would often walk to work and one damp, English morning, while walking along a bike path, a man jogged up behind me and grabbed my ass fully into his hand before running ahead of me and disappearing. Shock, rage, and shame washed over me, alternating between some combination of the three. I remember wondering why I was chosen for this. I questioned my clothing- was it my jeans? Did I ask for this somehow? I wondered if I should walk alone anymore. But my rage would counter-attack – how dare he! Why does he think he can get away with that?

But of course, he can.

I was encouraged to call the police, but it all happened so quickly that I didn’t have any information to give other than it had happened. I’ve held on to this moment for 15 years, adding to the pile of sexual assaults, harassments, creepy moments, verbal assaults, and general misogyny that so many woman- and girl-identified individuals deal with on a daily basis.

Since the audio of Trump came out a week ago and hearing it dismissed as “locker-room talk” not only in his so-called apology but repeatedly during the second debate, I can’t stop thinking about it. My heart is heavy as more women come forward to tell their stories assault. I am exhausted by the overwhelming evidence of women’s lived experiences that are shared, yet dismissed as “too sensitive.”

Because many women who are speaking against this so-called “locker-room talk” are not speaking out about being offended. We are speaking out about being violated

When Michelle Obama said, “And I have to tell you that I can’t stop thinking about this. It has shaken me to my core in a way that I couldn’t have predicted,” I am right there with her. Her speech this week was a breath of validation. Because many women who are speaking against this so-called “locker-room talk” are not speaking out about being offended. We are speaking out about being violated.

Violations of our bodies, our minds, our spirit, our core being have built up over our lifetime, our mother’s lifetime, our grandmother’s. This history of violence is intolerable.

When I think about my maternal history, all I see is pain that bleeds into my own lived experiences. Stories about my grandmother dropping out of school and running away to the city as a young girl that can’t even be verbally shared – just hushed tones and knowing eyes that say “your grandmother had some bad things happen to her.” Or when I was 16 and my mother broke down crying in our kitchen late one night as she told me about the man who raped her while her roommate slept in the next room. Or the man who stalked me when I was 12 years old. Or the men who joked about sexually assaulting me because I wouldn’t listen to their sexism while out drinking with friends. Or the fear I have to choke down when I walk alone in the dark. Or the gay men at clubs who have grabbed my breasts because they “always wondered” about them. Or the pastors who have physically and emotionally intimated me, keeping me trapped in offices, rooms of their house, or even rooms of my own home. Or the men who I have stepped between themselves and their girlfriend so I can take the brunt of their abuse because I saw what they were doing to a person they claim to love. Or men who have intimidated, trapped, forced physical contact on, manipulated, isolated, and abused my sisters, my mother, my grandmother, my aunts, my friends, my classmates, my coworkers – Every. Single. Woman. I. Know.

Every woman has these stories. All of us. You can read them on Twitter. You can ask the women in your life to share – they will have these stories.

So, that is why, when a powerful man gets to display, celebrate, then minimize his violence against women, it is another brick to the head for women who have already had so many thrown at us. This week feels like I’m bleeding out. It’s more than just keeping our heads above water as Michelle Obama said, it’s trying to avoid drowning while also trying to avoid bleeding to death.

“And I know it’s a campaign, but this isn’t about politics. It’s about basic human decency. It’s about right and wrong. And we simply cannot endure this, or expose our children to this any – not for another minute, and let alone for four years. Now is the time for all of us to stand up and say enough is enough. This has got to stop right now.”

I continue to stand up to say enough is enough. But, I tell you, this week has been hard and I’m worried that my enough isn’t enough. Because the pain is there. The pain is real. And we all can’t take it anymore.

The Sermon

bible“Imagine, for a moment, that a cockroach walks up to your foot,” the pastor displays his own foot from behind the pulpit and gestures toward the ground, “shakes his fist and demands that you move out of the way so he can keep walking.” The pastor looks up, shaking his fist like the angry cockroach, inciting soft laughter from the congregation. He shifts out of his pantomime to carefully place his hands on either side of the pulpit, leaning heavily against the flat, wooden surface he lowers his voice and almost sadly says, “This is what pride looks like and our pride makes us just like that cockroach in God’s eyes.”

The lecture hall is filled with the sound of rustling paper and a crowd of bodies shifting in their seat. The air conditioning whooshes to life overhead as it blasts through the Indiana June heat. The pastor chuckles as he asks us, “So, what would you do? Would you move for that cockroach?” He points to the ground again and we laugh along with him. We all know that we would never move out of the way for a demanding insect. He pauses, then swiftly shifts gears, “of course you wouldn’t. Instead, you would do this,” and with a thunderous stomp, his foot decisively strikes the stage floor, crushing the imaginary bug. He has my full attention. The hall falls silent but for the echo of his foot. Sweat rolls down the pastor’s forehead, the hot stage lights beam down on him, shrouding the congregation in darkness. He moves his lips close to the microphone, almost touching, as he drives the point home with a low, even, somber tone, “and God can do that to us.”

I am paralyzed in my seat. Full knowledge of my insignificance threatens to suffocate me. I keep my eyes glued to the stage, trying to avoid the feeling that hundreds of people are watching me as I feel all the sins of my thirteen-year-old life being exposed in this moment. Guilt rips through me when I think about all the times I have been mean to my sisters, swore under my breath, stole pieces of candy from the Pick and Mix, or for all the impure thoughts that have me convinced I’m a teenage sex addict. I try to control my breathing as my heart pounds in my chest and crashes in my ears. Tears threaten to overflow but I blink them back. God is finally speaking to me, but I’m not sure I have the courage to respond. What if this feeling isn’t real? I’m afraid to trust my emotions because they don’t let me think logically. I am afraid to be cross-examined by my pastor when I do get saved, so I need to know my choice is genuine. I want to pass that test. I ache for the love and acceptance I will receive from my Baptist mother, the woman who I led back to God the day I was born. My salvation would be her greatest joy.

teenage-meI’m overwhelmed by my predestination. My name means “follower of Christ”, a name she gave me, her first child because I brought her back to God. “The nurse put you in my arms and in that moment I knew I had to go back to church,” she explained to me as a child while looking through my baby pictures. My little heart swelled with pride as I grazed my young fingers across the plastic covered photo of her smiling into the camera, holding me, swaddled tightly in her arms. My mother and father were married when she had abandoned her faith. She says that when she walked down the aisle on her wedding day, God told her she shouldn’t marry my dad because he wasn’t a Christian and never would be. But she didn’t listen and a year later I was born, calling her back to her faith. “You didn’t belong to me, I had to give you back to God.” From moment one, I was never hers. I was a gift she couldn’t keep. A symbol of both her disobedience and return to her Heavenly Father. I didn’t know then that this set me on a path to struggle between these extremes. I live in the place between sin and salvation, Heaven and Hell, God and the Devil, unable to choose one to reject the other.

My best friend, a pastor’s daughter, was Born Again when she was six years old. I want to be like her, but I’m confused about why it is so much harder for me than it is for her to know when God is speaking to me. Deep down, I know it’s all my fault. Pride makes me refuse to listen to God. It is so easy for the other church kids to get saved. I wish my pride didn’t help Satan keep me from God. I often imagine the Devil following me around, smiling a satisfied smile every time I say I am not ready to be a Christian.

The Devil and God have leading roles in my young imagination as they compete for my eternal soul. In my mind, the Devil is a beautiful woman in a red cocktail dress and black stilettos. She has a soft voice and caring arms that hold me close, soothing me from anxiety and fear. She is more intimate to me than God. God is a strict father who needs me to obey Him. He judges and punishes. God’s love is abstract and conditional, so I am always working hard to be worthy of His love. But following all the rules makes me tired and conflicted because all the things that are bad about me also make me feel most like myself. The Devil, on the other hand, is personal, friendly, seductive. She accepts and encourages all my desires. I don’t have the pressure to pretend to be something else with her, something I’m not – Good. The Devil’s sexual attractiveness suggests she knows something about me long before I do. But she also tries to convince me I am okay as I am. I am enough. But I know I’m not enough for God, for my church, for my mother until I reject my sinful nature. I have prayed while pastors maintain eye contact with me during fiery sermons, begging God to take me as His instead. But God demands that I reject my caring, encouraging Devil so that I can accept Him. I have to abandon the unconditional love that provides me with agency and twist myself into someone He will want so that I can finally be Good.  


Fear of spiritual acceptance, as well as rejection, creep through my veins, so I remain glued to my folding lecture hall seat while I watch members of the congregation stream down the aisles to the front of the stage where elders wait to pray with and bless them. I watch everyone group like freshly fed fish in a tank, hands laid on their head or shoulders as they kneel and cry. Tears of joy replace tears of sorrow as their sin is forgiven. And still, I refuse to be brought to my feet. I think about Jesus on the cross, suffering from the pain of the nails in his palms and feet, the thorns cutting his scalp, lips parched from dehydration. I press my left thumb into my right palm like Thomas placing his fingers in Jesus’ wounds so he could believe.

The worship music swells as I clasp my hands tightly together, fingers tightly interlaced until my knuckles turn white. I press my forehead against my knuckles and silently pray for this time to be different. Maybe this time, I am saved.

On Mother’s Day I’m Not Interested in Forgiving My Abuser

Tomorrow is my 4th Mother’s Day since disconnecting from my mother. Her final email to me two months after our last phone call reads, “well, I guess you have made your point….no more contact from mum…So, heaven knows that I don’t wish to make you angry but obviously I do so you have a good life in whatever you put your talents to…”

I read this email as a reminder of her inability to talk with me about our problems. She never asked me why I am angry. She never wanted to know why I wasn’t talking to her or how she could make amends. She isn’t sorry. She doesn’t believe she did anything wrong. This email is just the cherry on top of a lifetime of experiences, conversations, arguments, mental, physical, and emotional abuse, manipulation, and coercion that reminds me why forgiveness is not part of my healing. At least not her forgiveness.

Forgiveness and Love were tools of manipulation and coercion for my mother. Our church promoted the concept of “Turn the Other Cheek” as a way to lower yourself to the needs and abuses of others. When someone told you they were forgiven by God, it meant you automatically had to forgive them, even when they weren’t really asking you to. I mean, how do you argue with the forgiveness of God? It took me years to realize that this is a poor understanding of biblical forgiveness. Forgiving someone for actions against you means that you name that action against you, that the person seeks forgiveness from you because they realize what wrong they have committed. The act of forgiveness is a mutual act.

For me, forgiveness can not be granted unless it is sought and because of that, I have little interest in forgiving my abuser.

I know forgiveness has different meanings for everyone. The meaning that a lot of people I have spoken to use is one that allows them to let go of hurt, negativity, and pain. They tell me that they just needed to Forgive so that they could Move On. It is their act of letting go and trying to not let what was done to them rule their lives. I can appreciate this even if I don’t personally understand it.

That being said, I am not interested in forgiving my mother. Forgiving my mother continues to put the focus and power on her. I’m not interested in allowing her that kind of power anymore.

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“Expansion” by Paige Bradley

The person I need to forgive is myself. 

Mother’s Day reminds me of the mother I don’t have and all the ways that I couldn’t get away from the one I do. I remember the Mother’s Day I bought her a nice tea cup and delicate teas because she always claimed to love making and drinking tea. She politely smiled then set the cup aside, just as she did with every gift I ever gave her. That mug sat in the cupboard, untouched, for years. She doesn’t have a tea drinking ritual like she claims to. I remember all the gifts I gave her trying to make her realize I know her and love her. I remember all the ways I tried to make her proud of me, love me. I remember all times I should have stood up for myself or my sisters. I remember all the times I let her walk over my needs. I remember all the times I planned to run away but never did. I remember all the ways she made fun of me, belittled me, ignored me, abandoned me, hurt me, lied to me, manipulated me… all while claiming she loved me. All while making me feel crazy, unbalanced, difficult.

I need to forgive myself for all the ways I couldn’t protect myself as a child and even as an adult. Because I hate myself for not being stronger, louder, braver. I blame myself for the abuse and suffering that my sisters endured in our house because of our mother. I blame myself for the mental health struggles of my youngest sister. I have to learn to forgive myself for things that were out of my control. Because I am angry at that young girl for not knowing better. I’m angry at her for not having the resources to protect herself. I am angry at her for not fighting harder, even when her fighting was destroying her. There is a part of me that is even angry that it didn’t destroy her… maybe if all this had killed her, then her little sisters would have been saved and she would finally get to rest.

The forgiveness I seek is from myself so that I can move on. Forgiving my abuser is not necessary for me to heal and grow.

So, this Mother’s Day, I will try to hold even a small amount of forgiveness for myself. It isn’t going to come all at once. It might not even come tomorrow. I know I still hurt. I know my heart will feel heavy with every joyful post online and my anxiety will thrash against my chest. I will carry my sadness. But I will also be kind to myself. I at least have a better idea of what that looks like now. I will remind myself and all other survivors that we were brave. We survived. Survival was the strongest thing I could do and now I want to thrive.

Where Do You Hold Anger?

My therapist asks me where I experience certain emotions in my body. Anxiety is in my neck and shoulders. Sadness twists my stomach. Stress sits on my chest. 

I never thought about anger until today. I didn’t have an answer until after my post-therapy walk. 

I hold anger in my eyes – piercing, scrutinizing. If looks could kill, I’d be a murderer several times over. 

I hold anger in a clenched jaw, tight lips pressed firmly together, teeth literally biting my tongue into submission. 

I hold anger in my throat – burning with the equal desire to choke me into permanent silence or release a never ending, agonizing scream. 

I hold anger in my hands – clenched so tight that half moons are creased into my damp palms. Fists shaking, itching to make contact with a person, wall, or my own body. 

I hold anger in locked knees and firmly planted feet that urge me to fight instead of flee. If I flee I prove my worthlessness. But if I fight, I prove my self inflation. 

I am always ready to fight or run. I’m waiting. So, anger is always with me. Even when it isn’t at the front, anger is keeping me safe. 

Coming Out As A Survior

“Is your writing real?”

I stall for a moment as I try to find the words that out me to yet another new person in my life. Whether it is conversations about childhood, holidays, or parental and sibling relationships, I know I’m about to be placed in a new category. I am confronted with my life-long feeling of Otherness.

I remind myself there is a reason I speak and write openly, I’m trying to dispel the Weirdness, the Otherness, the Shame. Because, yes, it’s all true.

Now I’m out again. I’m an abuse survivor.

When I was young, my sisters and I would watch Dr. Phil. Our mother enjoyed collecting life tips from him. Her approval of his messages made it okay for us to sprawl on the carpet floor and couch to watch the parade of emotionally traumatized, stunted, hurt people who sought his help, validation and “straight talk”. I was fascinated by the lives of these people that willingly sat in a chair with cameras and a studio audience to discuss their heartbreak, abuse, and struggles.

Dr. Phil always had the right answer. He knew what would fix them. He knew how to make them be better. The audience at home gained valuable advice to avoid the pitfalls and emotional damage that his guests experienced. Or at least they gained good quotes that could be displayed under a magnet on the refrigerator door. My sisters and I often joked that our family should go on the show. We discussed how mortified our mother would be to have to sit across from Dr. Phil, his audience and cameras glaring at her, as her daughters described why they had brought her here today.

I knew we’d have to trick her to get her on the show or else she would never come. Once, we teased her about it. She scoffed about how she would never do such a thing, then as she walked away gave her final thought over her shoulder, “…besides, you don’t air your dirty laundry in public.”

Skeletons are best left in the closet. We aren’t like those people on TV.

Don’t Air Your Dirty Laundry

This phrase has kept me silent through my life. And if not silent, then cryptic. And if not cryptic, then in allegiance, as I attempt to make sense of things that don’t make sense by making excuses. And it’s this pattern of silence that kicks in every time I am confronted with new people in my life. How do I drop this bomb that I keep carrying around?

I grew up conservative, Baptist, isolated and home schooled. Boom.

I was a born again Christian who thought her only purpose in life was to be a Good Wife and Good Mother until I gave all that up to become a Queer Atheist Feminist. Boom.

My mother belittled, hit, manipulated, isolated, taunted, and blamed me for everything even up to the late day I spoke to her. Boom.

I haven’t spoken to my mother in four year. Boom.

Two of my three sisters blame me and cut me out of their life. Boom.

My youngest sister struggles with her mental health and I feel responsible. Boom.

I struggle with my mental health to the point of hating myself and feeling worthless a lot of the time. Boom.

All this and more is not for “polite” conversation. Although I more often than not find support in the people I share this with, I still feel like I’m risking my reputation – the thing my mother finds so much more important than empathy, safety, and love. The shame still envelops my experience and tells me I’m strange and dirty and unworthy of support or love from those around me. I’m too weird to be around people. I’m a downer for being an abuse survivor.

I still blame myself for not having been stronger. Not being wiser. Not fighting back hard or earlier. I blame myself for not being able to save my sisters from their struggles. I even blame myself for not being able to save my mother from herself and the history of abuse she brought with her to me.

The current of Shame runs deep. Coming out as a survivor is slowly helping dismantle a lifetime of shame. But it still catches me when a new person learns about me.

My drive for authenticity is stronger than shame, though. So, I’ll let them keep battling, because with each one that authenticity wins, I get closer to owning my past and present for a loving, stable, whole future.

Maybe it makes me Weird. Maybe it makes me Other. Maybe it makes me Strong and Brave. Maybe it’s okay that I am an abuse survivor.

 

 

It Started Hopeful

It’s been four years, but I can still hear the moment she turned on me. The moment I knew I couldn’t do this anymore.

This was the last conversation I would have with my mother. 

It started hopeful. 

Even though this was the middle of a family crisis, I had found out four days prior that my mother’s husband was entering my twenty year old sister’s bedroom without invitation, while she slept. He had been cornering, intimidating her, forcing physical contact on her, and then repeatedly telling her she is worthless. 

She needed to get out of that house and our mother needed to understand how fucked up her husband is. 

It started hopeful. 

I had emailed my mother, expressing my concern. Emphasizing the importance of safety and distance from a man who is no friend to women. 

For the first time in ten years of him being in our life, she agreed with me. A single text message that read, “everything you wrote is true.”

Everything. I am right. I’m no long being hung out to dry with claims that I am too sensitive or man-hating. I am right. Everything is true. 

It started hopeful because I thought we were on equal footing. I thought we were working together. I thought I could finally save my sister and my family from years of disconnection. 

But by the time I got a phone call from my mother, I wasn’t right anymore. She explained to me that her husband just didn’t understand that he isn’t suppose to do all the things he had been doing to my sister. She explained that in fact, he was in danger from my sister and needed protection. Her voice encouraged me to stop fighting and give in to her reality. It encouraged me to accept this truth – the one that isn’t mine. The one that keeps my sister victimized. The one that allows abuse to keep going, and going, and going like it always had. I was suppose to shut up. 

Instead, I spoke. I told her this was wrong. I told her he was wrong. I told her I wanted my sister safe. 

Then she turned and sunk her teeth. 

“What did you think I was going to do,” she snapped, “leave him?”

My answer was and still is yes. 

Another bite, “you just don’t understand what it means to be a wife.”

“You don’t understand what it means to be a Christian.”

“I need harmony in my house. This is how I’m getting it. Your sister isn’t stable. If you want to whisper in her ear and stir the pot, then whatever she does is on you.”

Each phrase stabs into me then rips chunks away. I don’t even know how to escape. Instead I am stunned silent, save for the gasping tears I am holding back from her. She can never see or hear me cry – she enjoys too much satisfaction from my pain and apparent weakness. 

“Listen, you claim to want to talk about these things but you aren’t even talking. You just have to have things your way all the time.”

I knew for sometime that my mother is manipulative, abusive, and has little interest in protecting her children – even as adults. But I had never experienced her viciousness so clearly. She had kept me in line with years of put downs and deniable manipulation. But this was different. She needed to get me back in line or emotionally bleed to death on my own. 

My chest tightened as I managed to gasp a coherent, “I have to go” before I hung up and broke into pieces. I curled up on the study futon and sobbed. My heart was broken. She may have left me mangled with scars I carry all this time later, but I think the thing she tore from me that day was the last shred of trust and hope that I had a mother who loves me. I’ve begged for that love my whole life. I twisted myself into someone I thought she wanted in the hope I could finally be enough. 

Instead, I never was. Instead I was too whiny, lazy, wrong, angry, emotional. I questioned too much. I wasn’t feminine enough. I was too stupid. Too unmotivated. Too liberal. Too feminist. Too queer. Too radical. Too fat. Too out of shape. Drank too much. Liked to talk about sex and sexuality too much. I just needed to do as she said not as she did. I wasn’t suppose to ask why. 

I tried. I did. But I kept coming out. Who I am refused to be silenced. She screamed inside me, beating against her cage, demanding to be free. To be enough. 

So, that day four years ago, I let her. My mother broke me but not in the way she intended. She finally broke all trust and all hope that I could change her from the abuser she had always been. 

I then I would never talk to her again. I was finally free to say that I don’t need abuse in my life. I am happy for this freedom. What I wasn’t expecting was how much it all still follows me around. 

So, on this four year anniverary, I can still hear the moment she turned on me. The moment I knew I couldn’t do it anymore. 

2015 is the Year

I’m trying to understand where an entire year went. I increasingly feel like 2015 is like a piece of paper folded in on itself so that each end touches one another. All the things from this year compressed in on themselves and instead of having lived another 365 days I am walking across them from one December 31st to another. A phrase I have used a lot this year is “I just don’t know where time went.” It feels like I have lost days, weeks, and even months where I know things happened, I know I did things but instead they all seem irrelevant or non-existent.

I am taking this moment to make it all relevant and exist.

2015 is the Year I Advocated for My Mental Health

This is the big one. After two very specific years and many others before that, I have struggled with depression and anxiety. I have struggled silently and alone. I thought it was a character flaw. I thought I was broken. But this year I advocated for myself. I told my nurse practitioner how long I have been suffering and she prescribed me SSRIs that have changed my life. This daily pill brought me back to me. I also started weekly therapy this year that is so emotionally hard but also amazingly rewarding. I started sharing my experience outward and the response has been overwhelming from friends and strangers who become new friends. I am at a lack of words to express how grateful I am for everyone’s support and honesty about their own mental health struggles. I’m not alone anymore.

2015 is the Year Gary Died

Gary was a cat like none other. I miss him. I’m still sad that he suffered without my knowing. I still wish I could have done more for him. I wish he was here to curl up with me and read books with his quiet, loving nature wrapping around me in kitty loveliness. Gary loved love – a notion that I strive to live life by.

2015 is the Year I Reconnected with Home

Until this year, I had not spent any significant time in my home town for six years. My feelings about home are complicated by lack of contact with my mother but growing relationship with my father. Visiting him this year has taught me that home can be safe, accepting, calm, and non-judgmental.

2015 is the Year I Claimed My Bisexual Identity

I spent a lot of time being scared about this. I didn’t come out to myself until I was already in a committed, long-term relationship with my husband. I wasn’t sure what he would think of me, what others would think of me, what I thought of me. I wondered if it was worth being open about. But, like so many things I try to keep secret because of shame, I knew I had to embrace this for myself as well as others. This is who I am. Bisexuality is important. My queerness isn’t attached to who my partner is or not. My queerness is about me and what I know to be true about myself.

2015 is the Year I Read 39 Books

That’s 9 more books than my goal!

2015 is the Year I Watched 121 Movies

Of those movies, 35 were written by women and 23 were directed by women.

2015 is the Year I was Paid to Write

2015 is the Year I Lost My Job But Found Another

2015 is the Year I Valued Making Art

2015 is the Year I Embraced the Power of Selfies

2015 is the Year I Biked Further and More Often than I Ever Have

2015 is the Year I Dyed My Hair Purple

2015 is the Year I Decided to Live With Intention

2015 is the Year I Asked for Help

2015 is the Year I Learned I am Resilient 

2015 is the Year I Valued Self Care

2015 is the Year I Started to Challenge Shame

There is more. There is always so much more. But these are some of the things that stand out in my mind. 2015 was the year that I fought for myself shoulder to shoulder with people I love and who love me. I want 2016 to be the year of love. I want to accept love and give it and know that the more I do that, the more I will understand I am deserving of love.