Asexual Trauma

sexualized

Over at Queer Libido there is an amazing post about why Alok does not feel comfortable identifying as asexual. Alok is a South Asian man, and because of the tendency to emasculate and desexualize Asian men, he does not feel comfortable terming himself “asexual” without an exploration of the fact that it was trauma and colonialization that acted on his body to put him in the position he is in now (very brief summary, please read the article itself as it’s fantastic). As is my odd tendency when reading things from men of color, I found myself nodding along at many of his comments. I have no desire to co-opt his feelings or his narrative, and I deeply don’t want to play the oppression olympics, but his identification of trauma as an important part of sexual identity and his desire to look at a journey rather than a “born this way” mentality felt so important and personal to me.

As someone who never presented as feminine until I reached halfway through high school, I was never viewed as sexual. I never viewed myself as sexual. As someone who at an early age got into her first relationship and had sexuality forced down her throat, I often saw sexuality as invasive, as taking away my autonomy. Guilt has figured heavily into my sexual repertoire: I owe someone my sexuality, I owe the world my sexuality and my body. My partners have often reminded me of this fact, doing everything from telling me what clothes I could wear to guilting me into sex.

Clearly my experience of the violence and trauma of sexuality is very different from Alok’s, as my experience is that of a white woman (someone whose sexuality is deemed compulsory) rather than a brown man (someone whose sexuality is denied). However Alok’s experience of wanting to recognize his own trauma, the violence that he feels when it comes to sexuality, the distance he feels from being allowed to be a sexual subject, all these things feel familiar and important. Each of us feels that we have had our autonomy taken from us in some way, him by his race and me by my gender.

It seems intensely important to me to recognize that actively accepting the role society has created for you is not compulsory. If society bills you as sexless, you do not have to acquiesce to asexuality even if you don’t find yourself strongly pulled towards sexuality. Identities are political and they don’t appear in a vacuum. The trauma that we experience out of our oppressions plays a clear role in how we feel towards our sexuality and our bodies, but it can also play a role in how we feel comfortable identifying. As an example, I have always felt uncomfortable with the fact that the most obvious identities I have are heterosexual, monogamous, and cis, because these are the roles that society demands I have. I have spent time asking myself whether I want to publicly identify myself with these things because they have been used to damage so many women.

While Alok’s experience is one of being forcibly de-sexualized, and so he feels uncomfortable embracing that, mine is one of being forcibly sexualized. Each of these experiences can leave you feel as if you have no space to act, no connection to the body that is being acted on, no intimacy with yourself. Each of them can be traumatic. Alok asks that we openly acknowledge our trauma when speaking of our sexual identities. As I mentioned in a previous post, our histories are an important part of our identities today, and we cannot ignore that. The politics and traumas involved in those histories are part of that, and I want to be open about the fact that my body has been a site of sexual violence and mental health violence, often at my own hands. These are part of what I react to when I say I am asexual. These are part of reclaiming my body.

As Alok says “The dilemma of this brown queer body is its inability to see itself through its own eyes. The mirror becomes a site it which we view what white people have always told us about ourselves. Regardless or not of the status of my libido, I’m not sure I will ever feel comfortable identifying as asexual because it seems like I am betraying my people. ”

This dilemma is true for any person with oppressions. There is no right answer when it comes to sex. There is no certainty about whether we are the actor or the object of our sexuality. Perhaps this is the problem with labels, with identity politics, with trying to be a part of a community based on a sex drive. But perhaps this is the place we can begin to be open and vulnerable, to see ourselves as both the site of others’ violence and our own reclamations. Maybe this recognition could be the beginning of a sexuality more complex and more empathetic than any of us has seen before.

I don’t know how we can proceed from recognizing that bodies are one of the most common sites of trauma, but I know that we need to start there.

Beautiful Asexuality

beauty

I don’t think I’m beautiful. This is not a ploy for attention or compliments it’s just a fact. I don’t like my body and I don’t like the way I look. I don’t much like my face and I’m consistently dissatisfied with my hair. Nothing ever quite seems right.

Oftentimes one of the ways that we gauge our own beauty is by whether or not others find us sexually attractive: can we “get” a partner? Obviously there is more to feeling beautiful than external affirmation, but traditionally we use sexuality as a way to understand beauty. And for me? That attention is more often than not unwanted. I crave the reassurance, I crave someone to tell me that my body is acceptable, but I cannot accept the sexualized truth that I am wanted because I will always feel like an object when someone reminds me of that. Oddly enough even my friends who are not sexually attracted to women still choose to express any compliments of my body in a sexualized form.

So how does someone who refuses to accept sexual compliments find beauty in themselves? How does someone who feels bifurcated from their body come to feel at home, appreciate the lines and curves of their collarbone, fall in love with the feeling of running? How can an asexual identity help someone who has felt impinged upon to feel beautiful?

When I look at my body, I often compare it to magazines, to models, to movie stars, really to any image of femininity that I can find. More often than not these images are sexualized. My body doesn’t look quite so alluring, it doesn’t look quite so sexual, it doesn’t look quite as curvy as those images. I can’t imagine myself plastered on a billboard. I can’t imagine people looking at me and liking it, or touching me and enjoying it (especially with the scars that I have).

I wonder if I can see it differently though. I wonder if I can look at my body without the lens of desire or sex coloring everything I see. I wonder if I can look at it with an aesthetic eye, with an emotional eye. When I look at a picture of someone smiling, I see beauty there, especially if it’s one of those real deep down smiles that reaches far back into the eyes. I see it when I watch my new kitten romping around on the floor, or when I see my boyfriend try a bite of a new and delicious food. There’s something intensely appealing about watching these things, something that I feel drawn to. I have no other word for it than beauty.

I think about the photographs that I love, about the colors that I’m drawn to, about the fact that I like lines that have a nice beautiful curve in them, or about the fact that I can see certain images and simply want to stare at them for hours and hours, not because of any meaning or desire but simply because they’re transfixing. Sometimes I have to stop and stare at a particular face simply because the eyes are too interesting or because the cheekbones are just so or because the hair is too cute. None of these things are sexualized, they are simply moments of seeing how the world fits together and wondering at it.

I want to shift my focus away from attractiveness and sex and spend some time thinking about my relationship to the world and to vision as a new way to perceive myself. Sometimes I stare at the tendons on the back of my hand and wiggle my fingers, watching the funny interplay of skin and flesh. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and my hair has turned itself into a mini mohawk all by its lonesome and I love it. Sometimes I feel the way my lips turn up at the edges and I can’t stop it when something tickles my fancy and I know my eyes are crinkling in the special deep smile way.

I want to sit with myself and a mirror and watch the ways my face moves when I’m happy. I want to watch my toes wiggle and see the muscles flex in my calves. I want to see the line my hip makes when I lie on my side and how my little kitty can play on it for hours. I want to feel the sharpness of my nails and revel in the textures I contain. I want to look at myself as I would anything else in the world, as lines and textures and colors and shapes, and see if the patterns I make draw me in as the rest of the world does.

I think of the desire that I feel for others, the way I could trace someone’s back for hours just because it moves the right way. I wonder if I can desire myself that way: as good, as beautiful, as pleasing. I wonder if we should all spend more time seeing ourselves that way. I wonder if it could heal some people.

Identity: The Nature and the Nurture

ace

Like many young adults, I’ve been having some identity crises lately. In particular, I’ve started spending some real time with my wants and needs in terms of relationships: am I as monogamous as I thought I was? Am I really interested in a sexual relationship? Where do I want to prioritize my time and affection? As part of this, I’ve spent a lot of time reading blogs and articles about asexuality, trying to understand what it means that I’m perfectly happy without sex in my life and that I can feel intensely close to someone with no desire for sex.

As I’ve started to feel more and more of an affinity with the label “asexual” I’ve also found my anxiety rising and found myself unwilling to share that with many people who are close to me. The reason for this is that I’m not what one might call a “gold star” asexual. I have some sexual trauma in my past, I have a stormy relationship with my body at best, I have mental health problems, I have depression (which lowers sex drive) and I take medications which affect my sex drive. When I bring up the concept of asexuality, the first reaction on the part of many is skepticism that I could “really” be asexual because the reasons that I don’t have a strong sex drive may be the things I just listed. It can’t really be me if it came from the experiences that affect me or from medication rather than from some innate place.

I don’t think this kind of skepticism is relegated to asexuality alone. If a lesbian has had a bad relationship with a man in the past, many people will say she’s “only” lesbian for that reason. This is the whole reason that the concept of “born this way” has gained such traction: you can’t tell us that our identities are not our own if we’ve always been this way, if it’s innate, if it was not influenced by any of our life experiences. If you haven’t “always known”, then you must not truly be what you say you are.

Unfortunately this whole concept makes very little sense. We understand that other facets of our identity can change over time: who we love, our priorities, the job we want, the house we want, where we want to live, our nationality, our religion, our values, our politics. We also understand that for all of these things our environment and our genetics play a role. Yet for all that we don’t say that these identities are invalid because they can change. If someone was raised Christian and saw their Christianity as an extremely important part of their identity, no one would say that it wasn’t really them because they weren’t born that way. We would accept that someone’s background deeply affects our feelings and actions about the whole world.

From my personal experience and looking at the experiences of others, I deeply wish that we could take this same attitude towards sexuality. Throughout my history there have been a number of extremely negative experiences around sex and around my body. It makes perfect sense to me that going forward I would want to avoid those. Let’s take a less loaded example: say for example that for a long time I thought I wanted to ride horses, then had a bad experience such as getting kicked or falling and getting injured. No one would consider it weird or inappropriate if I didn’t really want to ride horses anymore, or lost any pull or desire towards horseback riding. Why is it considered inappropriate to feel averse to sex? Why is that invalid?

I think for many people, this is a problem because sex is considered an inherent, biological part of being human. Most people don’t see how their surroundings shape their sexuality because their bodies react to certain things naturally. Since they see their sex drive as occurring naturally, they assume that everyone else’s must function the same way, so if you don’t act on whatever feelings you naturally have you must be repressed. If your feelings change or are impacted in some way, then repression must have played a role at some point.

For asexuality in particular people find it hard to comprehend because it is considered natural to have a drive for sex, therefore there must be no way for someone to go without sex unless they’re repressing urges and hurting themselves in some way. I see a strong parallel to the way people view asexuality and the way people view eating disorders: you’re doing something against your very nature. The problem with that parallel is that not having a desire for food will actively hurt you. The same cannot be said of having no desire for sex. People have all sorts of different drives to different degrees (e.g. aggression, sexuality, competition, achievement), and there is no guarantee that everyone will have a specific drive that someone else views as essentially human.

What people fail to understand about changing, fluid identities is that we all build our identities out of the experiences that we have. All of us make some choices, whether conscious or unconscious, about how to think of ourselves, what makes us happy, and what is fulfilling to us. And for each of us, these things come out of the lives we’ve lived. It is entirely possible to create a happy and fulfilled life out of an identity that has grown up slowly. It’s also possible to adjust the way we cope with the world, what we want, what makes us fulfilled, based on the experiences we’ve had. In the aforementioned horseback riding example, that same person could go on to have an incredibly fulfilling life, still have a close relationship with animals and with nature, and not feel as if they’re missing out on anything.

Many people like to talk about their identity as if “It’s just who I am”. To me this seems to be a way to miss out on a lot of wonderful experiences and to be caught thinking that you can’t grow or change. There are times that I look back at things that have made me extremely happy in the past and I deeply miss those feelings, but I know that it wouldn’t be the same if I moved back. Of course nostalgia can play a role in our identities, but I want to be able to accept that my feelings right now are valid. If something is not causing me pain, why does it matter what caused it? It’s still a real and true feeling that I am experiencing. We really only have our subjective experiences out of which to create a sense of self. Undermining those subjective experiences because the cause isn’t “good enough” is a pretty insidious form of gaslighting and leaving someone feeling adrift.

So right now at this moment I feel like I am asexual. And for me that’s good enough. I don’t need to prove to anyone that it’s not “caused” by something. I don’t need to prove that it isn’t born out of some trauma. I don’t need to prove that it couldn’t change. Because this is my honest feeling and it is not a feeling that is leaving me feel as if I’m losing out on something or some part of myself. There is nothing broken about an identity that has grown because of hardship.

Seeing Progress

better

Last night I had my final session with my individual therapist for DBT. After almost two years of 5+ hours of therapy a week, I’m starting to get really burnt out, and so after my full year commitment of DBT was up, I decided it was time to be done. I have one more group meeting, then I’ll be leaving. I don’t entirely feel ready to be done with DBT, but I am fairly certain that it’s the right decision at this moment. I need some breathing room and I really need more time to be able to do things that I enjoy. Right now my schedule is a fairly large stress in my life, and I feel like I’m often choosing between committing to therapy and committing to work, something I absolutely hate. So overall, I think that it’s a good choice, although I do wish I could keep learning more about DBT.

Part of moving on when I don’t feel entirely ready is that I feel I haven’t made any progress. It’s easy to do. Since change in mental health often comes slowly, we rarely notice the differences. Often it’s a lack of anxiety or depression that is a big change, and those are also harder to notice than something actually showing up (as an example, I made a phone call yesterday without anxiety, which is a huge change for me, but I didn’t notice it until I brought it up in therapy). Mental health is rarely a straight line upwards, and so there are peaks and valleys. Again, this can make it hard to see an overall upwards trend.

So as I’ve started moving out of DBT, I’ve been feeling a little down on myself. Anxiety’s been high lately, I feel I haven’t excelled at the treatment, and my perfectionism is high. But last night as I was talking to my therapist for the last time, she mentioned repeatedly how far I had come. She pointed out specific skills that I had become much better at. She pointed out my grasp of all the skills and my ability to figure out which skill is the right one to use in a given situation. I was surprised when she first said I had grown, and at first I thought she was simply saying it because that’s what a therapist is supposed to say to a client who is moving on. But the more I thought about the more I realized that I have been more level-headed in the last year, that I’ve made it through some really tough situations with little to no meltdown or target behavior, that I’ve figured out how to think critically about my feelings without invalidating myself.

By no means do I feel recovered or entirely healthy. I absolutely have struggled with a few bad bouts of depression and anxiety in the last month that have interfered with work and relationships. However with the help of someone else pointing it out, I can say that I have grown an amazing amount over the last year and made some serious progress towards healthiness.

I know many people who feel like they can’t find clear landmarks of their progress. Some can, and those things are wonderful, but many people wonder how they’ll ever get better and don’t see how far they’ve come. I think an important element of taking care of your mental health is checking in. Others are far more likely to see how far you’ve come than you are. Of course no one can define how you’re feeling but you, but if you haven’t thought about progress or how you’re doing in the larger scheme of your life for a while, it can be really helpful to have an outside perspective who can reassure you that they’ve seen changes and that they’re proud of you.

When in treatment, you often periodically check up on treatment goals or talk about whether you need to introduce new treatment. It’s great that this kind of check in is often built in to therapy. But I wish that it was just part of our relationships too. I wish that like getting your annual check up, each of us would periodically go through the inventory of our mental health with someone we love and trust to see how we’re doing and if there’s anything we should be worried about. Not only would this make it easier to talk about mental health in general, but it can be incredibly grounding when you’re trying to sort out your mental health by yourself.

I can’t say that I feel I’ve hit any big landmarks in my treatment. I still restrict. It hasn’t been a particular amount of time since I last purged or over exercised or self-harmed. I haven’t weaned off my meds (if I ever will. Still not even sure I’ve found the right ones). But despite all of that muddiness, it can be incredibly validating to see that someone else can point out what it is I’m doing better. What tricks do you use to measure progress and keep yourself motivated?

The Internalized Misogyny of the Follow

dance

I’ve been on a bit of a dance hiatus for a long time after feeling a bit of a plateau and some serious anhedonia issues that left me feeling uninspired by dancing. However this week I finally got back in the saddle and made it out to a dance. Overall I found myself having somewhat lackluster dances as tends to happen after you’re gone for a long period of time, but my last two dances were with Anthony Chen and they were fantastic. Now that in and of itself is not a surprise, as it’s always fun to dance with Anthony, but what surprised me was how I felt about myself and my dancing during and after the dancing.

In the past, one of the things I’ve loved about dancing is the feeling of losing myself. I don’t have to think, I don’t have to plan, I can trust someone else to guide me and get me where I need to go. I’m not generally very good at trusting others, particularly with my body, and so for a long time I thought that this was progress: I could trust someone with my body, to place my body, to let someone else be in charge for a while and let myself simply go with what was happening.

It’s a feeling a bit like being on a roller coaster: you feel almost out of control, but you trust that you will be safe.

This dance was different. I found that instead of being told where I was supposed to go, I put forward my own energy and found someone else there with me. I contributed. I usually am extremely self-conscious of adding any flare or styling to my dancing. I get scared of screwing it up or looking stupid. I worry that it won’t fit into what my lead is doing. This wasn’t even on my mind during this dance. I simply DANCED and happened to be with another person. Each time one of us added some energy in, the other saw that and raised their own energy level to match. It was lovely.

I realize that this is not a revelation. There has been a robust discussion ongoing in the dance community about changing attitudes towards the lead/follow relationship and about the importance of equal partnership in dancing. I even was aware that this was the ideal in dancing for a long time before I had this dance (there have been few others where I’ve actually felt that I could achieve something close to this ideal). Rather what was a revelation was my own personal attitude towards the experiences of dancing equally and dancing not in partnership. I cannot speak for anyone else when it comes to these types of attitudes, but I strongly suspect that there are other women out there who share them.

I feel more comfortable when I’m not in control of my own body. I feel more safe. I feel as if I’m doing something right when I give up some of the autonomy that I have and let someone move me. It feels like an intense relief to me. Looking objectively at these two experiences, I can see that I dance better when I am on equal footing with my partner, but I am deeply uncomfortable with contributing something of myself to the dance. Instead, I simply want to get it “right” and do what the other person is asking me: be the perfect follow that is just an extension of the lead.

I have noticed this in other areas as well. For all that I hold feminist ideals and strive to be independent and autonomous, I often feel the most comfortable when someone else is telling me what to do, particularly when it comes to questions of the body. I prefer not to be particularly ostentatious with my body. I know that I have internalized these attitudes because society has told me to be more submissive than men, has told me that my body is dangerous, has told me that my body is an object.

Some people might deny the link between the objectification of women and the tendency for female follows to be passive in their dancing, but I know that it is true in my personal experience and I strongly suspect that it may be true for others. I worry that by encouraging women to be follows and that by continuing to teach follows to be an extension of the lead, we are solidifying the internal misogyny of many women. I know it has encouraged me to continue taking a backseat in my own body and in my own motion. It has not encouraged me to take up space, something that I have always found difficult and that I have actively worked to do. It has not encouraged me to be intentional with my body.

And so I worry that the way dancing is approached by many women is from a mindset of internalized misogyny that not only sets them up to dance worse than they could, but also to continue to put themselves in vulnerable positions. I don’t think it’s a stretch that the way we present our bodies and relate to others in dancing can carry over to many other places, even so far as sex (I’ve found that I’m very passive in both contexts out of much of the same motivation: fear of screwing up, fear of disappointing my partner, fear of looking stupid). But more than that, it seems that dancing could be a wonderful place to experiment with new attitudes, new rules, and new behaviors. It’s a fairly safe space (the worst that happens is you have a bad dance), and it’s one of the few places where we actively learn what we’re supposed to do with our bodies. In my mind, this gives dance teachers (especially those who are teaching beginner students) a great deal of power to make a positive impact in the lives of their female students. It certainly means that they should be careful with the language they use (e.g. I once heard a teacher refer to follows as a trailer hitch. Not helpful), and at the very least spend some good time with follows early on in dancing to set up the concept of equal partnership in dancing.

I’d really like to encourage other follows to think about the dances they prefer, the dances that make them feel comfortable and ask themselves about how that might reflect on their relationship with their body or gender. I’m certainly going to be more intentional going forward about not letting myself slip into a passive role, and I am setting myself a goal to learn how to lead. I would be very interested to hear other people’s thoughts about the relationship between gender and style of dance. Sound off in the comments!

Childhood Surgery and Mental Health

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When I was about five years old, I underwent a major invasive surgery. I don’t talk about it often because it wasn’t exactly dinner table appropriate: I had problems when I was a child with UTIs because my urine would reverse along my urinary tract if I didn’t pee. Yup, refluxing urine. Sexy. It had the potential to give me serious bladder infections throughout my life, and wasn’t responding to antibiotics, so in order to keep me from being in pain often and really fucking up my urinary tract, the doctor reimplanted my ureter to a better location so my urine would stay in my fucking bladder and out of my god damn kidneys.

Lovely right?

Now at the time it seemed like it was just an unpleasant experience. It happened and it hurt and I was utterly miserable for about four days of my life. I remember not really eating or sleeping at all. I remember puking a lot the first day because they couldn’t get my pain meds right. I remember peeing a lot of blood. That’s about it. I moved on. I continued my life and I didn’t think about it very often except that every time I drove past the Children’s Hospital in my city I shuddered and told my parents to get me away from the “Dreaded Hospital”.

Until a few months ago when my therapist asked if there was any trauma in my past. I shook my head, sure that my childhood was normal and safe. She pushed a bit, asking about violence or loss or surgery. Surgery? Surgery counts as trauma? Yes, apparently it does, and often leads to PTSD in children (particularly invasive surgeries such as the one I had and surgeries that require multi-day stays at the hospital).

I’ve spent some time poking around the interwebs looking for more information about surgery and trauma, about what sorts of effects surgery can have, about why surgery is considered a trauma, and I’ve been having a really hard time finding much qualitative information that might shed some light on the connections between my severe dissocciative tendencies, my depression, my anxiety, and my surgery.

As someone whose natural impulse about things is to learn about them, to get information, to explore them from every angle, having an event in my past that I cannot research is unsettling to say the least. But more than that, I find it worrisome that the only resources I can find for parents of kids who are going to be going through surgery seem to be geared either at sudden and extreme accidents or towards cancer.

It seems to me that once again mental health concerns are being ignored, even in a situation where someone is already receiving medical care and should be under close supervision of doctors. Why is there not a mental health professional involved every time someone goes under the knife? It’s a scary proposition, even if you’re prepped and feel fairly comfortable. In addition, based upon my own experiences, I would hazard a guess that even if a child does not show immediate signs of PTSD after a surgery, there is a possibility that it could affect their mental health in years to come. Having someone around to teach them strong coping skills and help them process the experience could save the medical industry lots of money in the future (imagine if they hadn’t had to provide me 3 years of eating disorder treatment. Huzzah!) and potentially lessen a great deal of emotional pain for people who have internalized lots of fear and anxiety without realizing it.

It’s becoming more and more clear with research into neuroscience and neuropsychology that the experiences that we have as children deeply affect our brains. Even a limited amount of isolation can affect a brain for years into the future. Surgery can be isolating, it can be painful, it can force a child to deal with mortality, it can be overwhelming, and it can be confusing. These things can change the brain.

Typically a kid is coddled a bit after something like surgery, so you might not see the effects right away: they would be supported, they would have their needs taken care of, they’d have mom and dad around. This means they’re not going to be in a high stress environment where they might need coping skills. It’s only when they’re put into a situation that requires coping skills, or even a situation that feels remotely like their surgery experience that those effects might begin to pop up.

This is pure conjecture on my part, because as I said before I couldn’t find much by way of information, but I suspect that having something like this in one’s past would significantly increase one’s susceptibility to mental illness in the future, as well as potentially create some intense anxieties or fears that aren’t totally rational. Imagine that I’ve been seeing mental health professionals for over five years talking about anxieties and depression, and never once did they think to ask me whether I’d undergone any sort of serious medical experience. It took until this year for someone to even consider that having that trauma in my past might be related or might help me understand. 3

Why are mental health and physical health so bifurcated? Especially given the research that we’re finding that suggests that our brain is deeply connected with all sorts of other body systems, and that we rely on the same chemicals and hormones for all sorts of things, why on earth aren’t we integrating our treatment of mental and physical health? Why aren’t we sharing medical records between our mental health care providers and our physical health care providers?

It’s hard to express how frustrated I am about this, as it feels like an important element of my own health has been hidden from me, as if a doctor had found a gene that put me at a severe risk for cancer and neglected to mention it to me (I do recognize that when I was 5 the research on neuropsychology was nowhere what it is today, so it’s not as if I’m holding a grudge, but rather just feeling confused and hurt that with more information I perhaps could have avoided some of the shit that has been in my life in the past three years). I never thought that this could be an important element of my mental health, but the moment it was mentioned it clicked into place.

The feeling I feel when I am bored, when I feel useless, when I feel alone, is the same feeling I get when I think of my surgery. It’s hard to explain the sense that comes over me when I remember those days because it’s so visceral as to be nonverbal. That says something to me about its importance in grounding many of my other emotions and experiences of emotions. I feel as if I’m wavering away from myself when I think about it, but I can see my body stilling, the panic bubbling through my chest. My teeth clench. I lose the sense of my whole body. I remember the dark, the night, lying in bed unable to sleep with no one there, no one to speak to, nothing to do. It feels like it won’t ever end, it goes on forever because I can’t do anything. It hurts. I remember how much it hurt. I remember trying desperately to stay awake when they were putting me under, a bit confused about what was happening, but knowing that I wanted to keep talking to the people around me. I don’t want to go to sleep, I don’t want to go to sleep, but now hurts and I just have to sit in it because there’s no way out.

When I think about that, it’s hard not to see just how badly that experience hurt me, how it told me that my body was probably broken, how it told me that there was something wrong with me and that the only way to be safe was to always keep my mind safe and perfect.

I just wish I had known that I could think about it or talk about it or process it earlier. I wish I hadn’t kept it tucked away for 17 years. I wish someone had helped me. I don’t know that there’s a taboo around surgery, but I certainly think there’s a silence around it. I wish there were more people talking about their experiences, more ways I could find some sense of community or solidarity.

If anyone has more resources about these connections I’d love to see them, but until then I simply want to say that if anyone else wants to talk or needs support I’d love to hear from them.

That’s Not The Real You

anorexic

One of the tropes that I hear most often about mental health, particularly eating disorders is that when you are behaving in a disordered way you are not yourself: you’re not the real you. I see this kind of rhetoric everywhere, in exhortations to fight the eating disorder, to make the eating disorder separate from yourself, to remember what you used to be like. We bifurcate ourselves into the “bad” self that is disordered and the “good” self that is real, true, happy, honest, vulnerable, and open.

This doesn’t just happen with eating disorders though. We hear it about weight loss, about all kinds of illness, about poverty, about education, about nearly every state that we wish we hadn’t been. In all of these cases we pick one state (usually one that comes with privilege and societal status) and decide to identify ourselves with that status: healthy, educated, skinny, wealthy, independent. The other versions aren’t us. We weren’t ourselves. It was all a fake.

Unfortunately this just isn’t true. Of course there are all kinds of philosophies about what makes you who you are, identity, whether you remain the same over time or not, and I don’t really want to address those here, but what I will say is that your behaviors, your thoughts, your body, your tendencies, your emotions, and your chemistry are important elements that are part of who you are. Simply not wanting something to be part of who you are is not enough to take it out of your identity. I might wish that I was not white, but that’s not going to change the fact that I am and that is part of my experience and part of who I am. Even if I do in some future change to another race (if for example we were to create some sort of technology that could completely change skin pigmentation), that does not erase the history that I had or the experiences that I had as a white individual and does not change me into a wholly new person, the real me, the me that replaced the old me. The new self will always include elements of the old.

This might seem like I’m making a big deal out of something small and semantic: if some people find it helpful to think of an element of their life as a rebirth then why do I care? There are two main elements to the language of “real self” that appear to cause harm. The first is that it keeps us from validating the feelings and experiences we truly did have in the past. To draw again from the eating disorder community, this often comes in the form of individuals who have recovered denying all the thoughts and feelings that they had while in the midst of the disorder: I was stupid, I was crazy, I thought I knew what would make me happy but I didn’t, I was totally illogical, I was unreasonable, I was not in reality. There might be elements of this that are important to recognize such as disordered thinking, but it’s also important to know that our feelings were not wrong, that our wants were not the enemy, that our emotions are not the enemy. Particularly when we extend this denial into other areas such as obesity it becomes far more harmful in undermining the respect for individuals who have not yet changed or who will never change.

One of the most important things that we as a society can do to improve mental health and to fight against oppressive structures is to validate people’s experiences, even when they seem utterly foreign to us. This includes validating our own experiences as real and acceptable. If we don’t do this, we end up with things like gaslighting, the denial of harassment or racism, and a society that’s willing to say an individual who disagrees with them is just crazy.

But in addition to creating a culture where people’s emotions aren’t safe from criticism and questioning, when we have a narrative of “real me”, we reify structures of privilege. This might seem like an overstatement, but there are many ways that narratives like this can contribute to privileging one type of individual over another and can even go so far as to deny personhood to other types of people. The most important element of this criticism is that people almost never identify the “real me” as the one with the oppressed identity. If you have a choice between fat and skinny, abled or disabled, sick or healthy, you will always say the real you is skinny, able, and healthy. By saying that we can choose our identity, or that we’re not really ourselves when we’re in an oppressed condition, we both blame those people who remain in the oppressed condition and hold up the privileged condition as something to praise.

Even worse is that when you say you weren’t you when you were fat/sick/whatever, you deny yourself personhood in that oppressed condition, and by extension you deny others in that same condition personhood. You tell them that they’re not actually the way they are, there’s something wrong/broken/off about them that must be fixed before they are actually a person. Who were you if you weren’t yourself? Did another person take over your body for a while? In all likelihood you’re simply denying that you were a real, honest to god person who was deserving of things.

None of this is to say that we don’t get to choose our identities or say that we didn’t like who we were at a given time. However it’s important to remember that history is always a part of us and when we deny that it becomes much easier to scrub our history of anything that doesn’t appear perfectly white, cis, straight, thin, healthy, stable, middle-class…when we erase those moments from our history, we tell others that those are stories not worth telling, they’re selves not worth having.

Being open is of course a vulnerable place to be, and being open about moments in your past when you were oppressed is even more vulnerable. Unfortunately we need that openness to embrace all experiences. We can no longer have before and after narratives that erase the “before” as a fleeting, unreal state: I lost weight and I’m a new person.

I’d like to try embracing all the moments that make up who I am and who I have been, whether those  moments are who I want to be or not, and whether those moments are ones that society privileges or not. I will not deny that identity is a complicated question, and that there are narratives that defy this privileged “real me” narrative (that of trans* individuals is a wonderful example), but I challenge each of you to think of what selves you’ve hidden and why.

but it also keeps us from validating our own experiences and feelings and reifies the structures of privilege that tell us a certain status is what a person should be: we refuse to even categorize ourselves as people until we’ve reached those prioritized statuses.