Turning Paper Into Diamonds

Or, “I Bet You Look Cute in that Emotional Tool Belt”

After my divorce, I spent some time working with an abuse counsellor named Alanna. She was one of the last stops on my roundabout tour of finding caring, knowledgeable support when I was at my lowest point and needed help getting up from rock-bottom. The partner abuse program she facilitated ended up moving to a different agency and she ended up moving elsewhere as well, but the months I spent attending sessions with her had a profound effect on my daily life.

The biggest take-away from my time with her has been a single piece of paper that I keep taped up above my writing desk. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at this flimsy, white sheet and felt stronger because of it.

Good counsellors offer a wealth of helpful and insightful information, but great counsellors listen closely to their clients and offer little gems of wisdom that hit just the right note at just the right time and give the people they work with exactly what they need in that moment.

I bet you most of the time my counsellors do this and then giggle to themselves as they watch me unfold my understanding, thinking that I’ve come to some great realization all by myself, when really it’s because of their sly influence.

Damn they’re good!

Alright, I won’t keep you on tenterhooks (how’s that for a word of the day, eh?) any longer. Obviously you’re all dying to know what the hell is on this glorious, life-changing piece of paper.

Shit…now I’ve built it up too much! Ugh. Okay, it doesn’t matter, because even if you think it’s lame, it was/is totally the exact right thing I needed from this counsellor and she fucking nailed it.

Here it is, in all it’s simple glory:

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Pretty fucking awesome, right?

Okay, fine. It’s just a piece of paper with a some lines and a few very important words that suggest one simple idea: think about what your stupid, anxiety-ridden/depressed brain is telling you and then call yourself out on that bullshit and use objective proof to throw it the fuck out the window!

Or in different terms: figure out your self-critical belief, use that to identify what’s really true (your new, positive belief), and then prove to yourself that the new/positive belief is real by coming up with examples that support it.

It’s gotten to the point where I can just glance at this paper and be reminded that I’m not crazy. It reminds me that I can handle my shit. That what my abusers have told me isn’t the divine truth. That my mental illness doesn’t have to stop me from living well. That I can fucking DO THIS.

Feel free to borrow it.

Print it out, or draw your own fancy version, or scrawl the words onto a Post It and stick that shit up somewhere you’ll see it.

You’ll find that you’ll catch yourself glancing at it and thinking about its message, whether you have anxiety, or depression, or not. Whether you’re an abuse survivor or not. No matter your circumstance, you can use this tool to improve your life.

I like to think about techniques like this as tools that I keep in an emotional tool belt (a metaphor gifted to me by my other kick-ass counsellor, Daniel). My emotional tool belt used to be filled with rusty, dented, useless objects that caused me more pain and confusion than I ever needed in my life. I’ve been slowly scrapping those old, dysfunctional tools and refilling my tool belt with useful shit like this worksheet. I keep it next to my #2 Robbie (screw you Phillips screwdrivers!), a copy of Rupi Kaur’s “milk and honey”, my “DIVORCED AF” tank top, and the same stainless steel water bottle I’ve been slurping from for years (gotta stay hydrated!). I keep it with my dearest, most important possessions, but I know it’s better to share, so it’s yours to borrow now.

Use it to remember: you are more than your mental health diagnosis.

You are more than what your abusers say you are.

You are capable and smart and strong and brilliant.

You can change and you can get better tools to put in that cute-ass emotional tool belt of yours.

This paper may as well be made out of diamonds, because it’s become completely priceless to me. And I’ll keep it on my wall until it yellows and fades. I’ll keep it until I don’t need a daily reminder to re-frame my thinking, because I’ve got practices like this to grab from my cute-ass tool belt at any moment.

xxJ

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This is also usually found near my writing desk. It doesn’t fit well into my tool belt though…

What We Need to Hear

“I believe you.”

Once I started speaking up about my experience of abuse, those three words became a crucial message I needed to hear.

“I believe you.”

It was even better if they were followed by the words, “What do you need right now?” or, “What’s his address? My fists would like to meet him.”

Just kidding.

Sort of.

Not really…people did say things like that to me and I kind of loved it #sorrynotsorry

Violence is not the answer, friends! But dear god did it feel good to know that someone else felt as upset as I did!

I needed to know that the people I cared about understood what I was telling them.  In sharing my story with my trusted friends and family, I was able to gather support around myself. Even those tongue-in-cheek threats to go rough-up the people who messed with me helped me feel safe enough to ask for help and to open up about my experience. Overwhelmingly, the people I told treated me like my experience was valid and they stood by me as I disentangled myself from my past and started to recognize and deal with what had happened. 

Emotional abuse is most insidious when it’s subtle; it is difficult for outsiders to see and virtually impossible for its perpetrators to recognize (and tbh, even if they could recognize it, chances are they’d be disinclined to change their behaviour!). I didn’t have bruises or scars. I had, however, endured years of being controlled and manipulated through gaslighting, neglect, put downs, and blame…none of which were obvious and none of which left marks on my body. For a long time I yearned for my abusers to recognize what they had done to me. I wanted them to look at me and identify as abusers. Maybe they’d go to rehab, or AA, or therapy, or have an epiphany, break down, and beg me for forgiveness in front of all my friends and family…

Kidding again.

Sort of…

Eventually, my healing journey brought me to a point where I no longer craved that affirmation, but it wasn’t easy to reach that level of self-assuredness. I had to accept both my victim-hood and that fact that I would have to continue standing up for the legitimacy of my experience with outsiders to my community and with my abusers. I realized, too, that the weight of my truth came only from the consistency of my story, so I kept telling it! And I keep talking about it, because it’s real and others need to understand that! The more I spoke up, the more I wanted to speak up, and the more I understood about my experience. Now, I want to help other survivors feel like they can speak up and be believed and I want perpetrators of abuse to be held accountable. Because of the support of those around me, I can now share my story more widely and hopefully help more people understand emotional abuse. 

I often think about how our society has become incredibly adept at downplaying uncomfortable truths. We don’t want to hear the “bad” stuff, even if it’s true! I know my experiences could be dismissed by people because “nothing bad happened” (i.e. I didn’t end up in the hospital, or dead, or my partner/s didn’t go to jail). But even when faced with irrefutable evidence that abuse of any kind has taken place, people tend to dispel its authenticity, ignore its credibility, and treat its victims as though they are snotty, selfish whistle-blowers trying to slander the “good” name of the accused.

It pisses me off that at this point I feel compelled to point out that yes, a very, very, very small number of people claim abuse in order to stick it to another person out of spite or anger or selfishness. Because that does happen. It does, I know. But overwhelmingly, abuse victims who speak up do so from a place of honesty and authenticity and at great personal cost, so can we just move on from this technicality and support the people who have struggled to speak up in spite of the trauma they’ve experienced?

Mmkay thanks!

Imagine standing up in front of the people you care about the most and admitting your deepest, darkest secret to them. Imagine looking out at them and forcing yourself to share the part of you that brings you the most shame. Imagine that feeling of intense discomfort, the feeling of letting them down, of embarrassment, of anger, of sadness, of guilt… Then imagine doing this completely naked. In the winter. Outside. With all your neighbours looking at you. While your dog takes a dump and your children start to bicker about who got the bigger piece of cake for dessert while also complaining that they’re cold and tired and can we just go inside now pleeeeeeeeeeease???

Okay, okay, I’m being a bit facetious… forgive me for trying to add some humour here!

What I’m trying to express is that it comes at great cost to an abuse survivor to speak up. It is fucking terrifying to utter the words “I’ve been abused” or whatever other version of that you say. It feels like an admission of personal failure, regardless of how understanding your audience is. Chances are, your abuser taught you that everything is your fault (mine did!) so admitting to the abuse is admitting to being wrong—they weren’t who you thought they were, you aren’t actually happy, you stayed for way too long, you couldn’t “fix” them, you couldn’t make it better.

I tell myself everyday that what happened to me wasn’t my fault. That it was real and that the time I need to heal and recover is necessary and reasonable. I‘ve been very fortunate: my community has always believed me, even when I didn’t have the language I do now to describe my experiences. Even when I was a blubbering, suicidal, manic mess! Even though I pretended for a very long time that nothing was wrong.

They believed me.

And I believe me.

And if you speak up, I’ll believe you too.

And then we can have a conversation and I’ll listen and together we can unpack the experiences and struggles that caused you to speak up because I know how fucking hard it is to do that.

“I believe you.”

xxJ

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We, as abuse survivors, may feel scratched and broken, but solidarity from others can help heal our hearts and make us stronger.

Story Time: Blue Bic Pen

I love being a story-teller and I have this idea that it would be rad to share some of the significant experiences I’ve had using a narrative format. I want to tell stories about things that connect with the purpose of head/strong—abuse, mental health, life, love… I want to engage people in conversations about these things in creative ways, so settle in everyone; it’s story time.

xxJ

P.S. Obviously privacy is important, so names will always be changed, but the stories are otherwise true.


I’m 15-years-old and, along with 30 or so other kids, I’m sitting in a cold and musty portable for my Grade 10 English class with Miss Lee.  This week we’re studying media literacy and today we’re starting a group assignment looking at the messages and imagery advertisers use to promote their products. We’re a few minutes into the class, groups have been assigned, and we’ve be given most of the period to work on our presentations.

My group is gathered close to the front of the portable. I remember seeing the chalkboard directly ahead of me—it was filled with our teacher’s neat, curly, cursive writing. I stand up to retrieve the package of assignment guidelines, printed on blue copier paper, from the teacher’s desk at the front of the class.

As I return to my group and begin to sit down on my chair, something jabs me between my legs. Shocked, I look behind me and I see, grinning up at me, the face of a boy in my group. In his hand is a blue, Bic pen, poised vertically on the seat of my chair.

I sort of register what’s happened, but I don’t know what to say… So I blush, I hold back embarrassed and confused tears, and I force myself to start the work with my group. But, through my thin, Jockey underwear and the jeans I stole from my older sister, I feel bruised and tingly. In fact, my shock makes it impossible for me to feel anything else until the bell rings and I’m shaken into the present moment.

As my classmates file out of the portable, I decide that I’m going to say something to my teacher. I wait for the classroom to empty and then I head over to Miss Lee’s desk.

I am so embarrassed and I can barely get the words out, but Miss Lee is young and friendly, she has a kind and approachable face.

“Brian stuck his pen up between my legs at the beginning of class.”

She asks me to repeat what I just told her, so I do. My cheeks burn with embarrassment and shame for not understanding what happened and for not just ignoring it like I’m sure most other girls would. Miss Lee asks me a few more questions, which I do my best to answer before stumbling out of the portable.

Later that day, my parents get a phone call from my school. Miss Lee has talked to the administrators, and Brian and his parents have had a meeting with them; Brian denied everything. I tell my parents what I know happened and I resolve to face Brian at school the next day. Where this courage comes from, I’m not sure, but it doesn’t last, because when I show up at Miss Lee’s portable for my second-period English class I’m met with nasty taunts from Brian and his friends, who are standing outside the portable’s door. They call me a liar and a slut. They say I just want attention. They make me cry.

I uncharacteristically skip Miss Lee’s class that day.

Time passes and the incident quickly blows over. I mean, it’s not really that big of a deal, right? Boys will be boys? Maybe it didn’t even happen…did I make it all up? 

No, I didn’t.

In Miss Lee’s grade 10 English class, I learned that advertisers use women’s bodies to sell everything from cigarettes to shoes. I also learned that boys can shove Bic pens between girls’ legs and it’s not called sexual assault. I learned that I should feel shame for something that made me feel violated and that I should just get over it, because most people don’t think it’s a big deal, especially not Brian.

But I don’t ever really get over it, and the truth is, I still feel that pen sometimes.

I still feel that pen.

xxJ

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“Beautifully smooth” eh? I wonder what Miss Lee would have said about Bic For Her; it certainly makes me cringe.