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.

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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.

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.