REPOST: What NOT to Say to a Survivor of Emotional Abuse

Sometimes we need to hear something more than once for it to sink in. Reposts are made exactly for that, I think! The ideas in this week’s post are something abuse survivors should NEVER hear, but everyone should be aware of the harmful comments and “advice” abuse survivors often get. A lot of the items I’ve listed below are said with “good intentions”, but I don’t think naïvité is actually a decent excuse. So pardon my repost, but I’m putting this out here again as I work on my first ever public speaking gig (!!!) and try to divide my time between that anxiety-inducing (but very exciting) activity and all the other shit I have going on in my life. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below; have I missed anything in my list? xxJ


I’ve been posting some pretty heavy stuff lately, so think it’s time to lighten things up and bring back some sarcasm. Adding humour to conversations about emotional abuse and mental health is something that’s always kind of “funny-not-funny” but I think we can laugh every now and then and not hurt our cause.

So today I would like to present to you, complete with the witty and charming commentary you’ve all come to love hearing from me,


Number 10: “Well, it takes two…”

Um, excuse me?

Whoever says this manages to both undermine the legitimacy of your experience and place responsibility for that experience on you, the victim. OBVIOUSLY relationships involve more than one person BUT only the abuser is responsible for their abusive actions. I’ve said it before and I will keep saying it: you are only responsible for yourself, no one else! You are not responsible for anyone else’s feelings, behaviour, or choices. Emotional abusers use tactics like gaslighting and playing the victim to convince you that everything is your fault and not theirs. There may be two of you in your relationship, and neither of you are perfect, but when you are being abused emotionally, you cannot be blamed for it.

Number 9: “No one’s life is perfect, so why are you complaining?”

Ugh. This one. The worst! Okay, well, one of the worst.

Saying this to someone is like when you were 6-years-old and refusing to eat your Brussels sprouts and your parents said, “There are starving children in Africa who would love to eat those” in an effort to guilt you into consuming what you’ve come to understand is a vile vegetable. (My adult-self now loves Brussels sprouts, for the record.)

Actually, it’s worse than that. Clearly anyone who says this has no understanding of what it feels like to be abused emotionally. When you come to someone and confide in them that you are experiencing abuse, there is no place for shaming. Yes, we all experience stress and hardship in our lives, but ABUSE IS NOT NORMAL STRESS OR HARDSHIP and therefore, it can’t be treated as such.

Number 8: “Couldn’t you just try harder?”

Wow. Okay, again, what a shitty thing to say to someone! When I was in abusive relationships, I worked my ass off to change them into healthy ones. I sacrificed and struggled and exhausted myself putting effort into making things work.

If your abuser isn’t putting equal effort in, or, if the effort they are putting in is narcissistic and hurtful, then it won’t matter how hard you try; your relationship will still remain abusive.

I think it is safe to assume that anyone who comes forward and says that they are being abused has spent an incredible amount of time and energy trying to avoid coming to that conclusion. So don’t say shit like this to them.

Number 7: “But how can you leave them? You have children together.”

There are probably lots of people who will disagree with me on this one and I’m betting some of those people have made the decision to “work through things” with their partner “for the sake of the children.”

I’m calling bullshit on that.

Who in their right mind thinks it’s better for kids to live in a dysfunctional home where one parent is being abused? What kind of model is this setting for those children? And why is it considered selfish to try to stop being abused?

Leaving an abusive partner when you share children is incredibly difficult; I know that firsthand. It’s not the kids’ fault and yet they have to endure the struggles of managing the breakup of their family. Some days I feel insanely guilty about putting my kids through a divorce, but then I return to the little mantra I made for myself: I would always rather explain why I left, than why I didn’t.

‘Nuff said.

Number 6: “But if you leave [insert name here], you’ll be all alone. Do you really want to be [insert age] years old and single??”

Fuck, it sucks to be a single divorcée! It especially sucks to be a single parent! Do you know what sucks worse, though? Being in an emotionally abusive relationship. As hard as it is to be alone, I would never EVER go back to my previous partners.

As if being single is someone’s primary concern when they come to you and admit that they are being abused! Please don’t say this to someone who comes to you looking for support. Just don’t.

Number 5: “Well, there are plenty of other fish in the sea…”

This one’s kind of the opposite of Number 6, isn’t it?

So someone’s just come and told you that they think they are being abused. Now is not the time to offer clichéd dating adages. Also, if someone has experienced emotional abuse with a partner, there is so, so much that they need to work through before they can feel safe and secure enough to trust somebody new. I’m not saying survivors don’t get into rebound relationships or go looking for another “fish” too quickly (yep, guilty of that!); I’m saying that to suggest that there are other, better fish out there in the sea, at a time when the fish this person had chosen has let them down and fucked them up monumentally, is completely inappropriate.

Number 4: “Suck it up; just get over it.”

In the most significant relationship of my life so far, I spent the majority of my time “sucking it up” and since ending that relationship, I’ve done everything in my power to “just get over it.” There is no magic way to recover from emotional abuse. There may not be physical reminders of a survivor’s experience, but emotional scars run incredibly deep and they have their own timeline for healing. Advising someone to “suck it up” is a callous and insensitive thing to say, no matter what they’re telling you about.

Number 3: “They didn’t actually hurt you, so it’s not abuse.”

Oh my goodness, this one drives me absolutely crazy! People don’t usually put it to words so clearly, but often there is a strong implication that emotional abuse doesn’t count because it wasn’t physical (something I argue against here).

If you tell an emotional abuse survivor that their experience wasn’t real, you continue the cycle of abuse by gaslighting them into believing your own misinformed perspective. I still struggle with accepting the legitimacy of my experience because I assume that since a) my former partners don’t recognize the abuse, and b) I have no police report, hospital stay, or physical reminders to show that I was abused, it must not count.

How messed up is that? I am literally writing a blog about my experience of emotional abuse and I continue to question my experience! No one who has gone through something like what I did should have to justify it with corporeal proof.

Number 2: “But he/she/they seem like such a nice person…”

Wow, gee, yeah…I guess since you think he’s such a nice guy, I must be totally wrong! Thanks so much for helping me see that!

I have heard this so many times in the last few years and it is infuriating.

Do you think an emotional abuser isn’t capable of “playing nice” outside of the home or wherever they proliferate their abuse? In my experience, emotional abusers are exceedingly talented at manipulating others, so they can seem “nice” when it serves them to do so. I was once told that my story couldn’t be true because my former partner was “so handsome and charming.” I think I threw up a little in my mouth when I heard that and it definitely set me back a few counselling sessions too.

Ugh. Let’s move on to number 1…

Number 1: “I don’t care. I don’t believe you.”

Clearly, this is the WORST thing you could ever say to a survivor of emotional abuse. I don’t think I need to say much more about it; survivors need to know that we have the love and support from the people we confide in. A much better response when someone tells you that they are being abused is to say, “How can I help and what do you need right now?”


Helpful? Not helpful? Fuck, I don’t know all the shitty things people say to each other! But I do know that there are lots of ways to mess up supporting someone who needs loving kindness after recognizing a pattern of abuse in their life. (If you think you need a better understanding of what emotional abuse looks like, check out my post “Looks Like/Sounds Like/Feels Like”.) 

I hope you laughed a little; I hope you thought more about what you could say to someone in need. I mean, no one’s perfect (see number 10) but we can all try to show compassion to those who come looking for support.

Emotional abuse = abuse. Period.

xxJ

The Proliferation of False Positivity

My biggest pet peeve is the proliferation of false positivity.

False positivity litters Instagram, Facebook, magazine pages (wait, does anyone still read actual magazines??), blogs, web sites, self-help books, and almost all other media and advertising. We seem to be living in an era where we are told that simply having the “right” attitude is what will fix all of our problems:

Okay, first of all, no one should be taking advice from a fictional character, ESPECIALLY not Jack Sparrow (or Johnny Depp…ew!). Secondly, I’ll buy that the way we think about things affects our experiences of them, but I refuse to promise myself or anyone else that just “changing my attitude” will solve all my problems. In fact, I see this kind of bullshit approach to managing mental health and personal well-being as reductive and limiting. It tells me that if I’m feeling shitty, it’s because I just don’t have the right attitude! As a survivor of abuse and a person with diagnosed mental health disorders, I’m offended by the suggestion that my attitude about these traumas and struggles is what’s affecting my ability to heal or feel well.

And this is the problem, I feel, with what I’m calling “false positivity”. False positivity reduces our legitimate struggles into memes and clichés that essentially instruct us to ignore or disassociate from our problems. OR they create a sense of shame and blame that we can’t just “attitude” our way out of them!

Look at this bullshit! I guess it’s supposed to be uplifting, but it feels like anything BUT uplifting to me! If only I could simply use my supernaturally powerful thoughts to think away the abuse I endured, the chemistry of my brain, and the long-term trauma that’s resulted from my struggles with these things! Wow! Either I’ve been handed a magic key to happiness (nope!), or I’m being blamed for the trauma I experienced (yep!).

And this! This actually makes me angry. Like, I want to go punch something right now, because it’s so wrong to suggest that betrayal by someone you trust and love is actually a blessing or a gift! It’s the same with suggesting that my anxiety is a gift in disguise. Or that emotional abuse was a blessing because now it’s fueled this blog and my writing.

My anxiety is a daily and lifelong struggle. It was exacerbated to the extreme by my abusive partners. I did not asked to be abused. I have not fully recovered from that abuse and likely never will. And most of all, it’s NOT MY FAULT that people took advantage of me. Telling me that I should just “think differently” or see my experience of abuse (or the aftermath of it) as anything other than trauma is exceptionally upsetting to me.

I found these and many, many more after spending only about 10 minutes scrolling through Instagram. All of them create so much unease within me. I’m frustrated that people seem to think that comments like the ones in these screenshots are helpful, authentic, or reasonable. In fact, I would go so far as to say that they are more damaging than anything. They offer, at best, a temporary sense of relief from whatever mental anguish is ailing us, but the consequence of that is, I believe, a perpetuation or deepening of the shame/fear/struggle/anger/issues that we are trying to cope with.

You can’t solve real problems with fake positivity.

So what is an alternative? How can we offer better support and cultivate hope for people who are struggling for any reason? Why do we continue to rely on cute memes and catchy Instagram posts instead of addressing our problems in more authentic and lasting ways?

I believe that vulnerability and authenticity are the key to managing these problems better. For example, my writing with head/strong is based on relating my first-hand experience and offering insights into how I *actually* manage (or don’t) based on the  knowledge I have right now. You don’t have to swear like a sailor to be authentic; you just have to be consistently honest and allow yourself to admit fault, to share struggles, and to relate the real experiences you have.

Therapy can be a great tool for cultivating self-awareness and authenticity. Good therapists don’t hand you answers (which is effectively what the images above are trying to do); they help you work through your struggles and co-develop the coping strategies that work best for you.

Unfortunately, therapy isn’t accessible to enough people. And it can be really hard, even IF you can afford and find therapy, to get a counsellor whom you work well with! Just because they’re qualified as a social worker, psychologist, psychiatrist, or mental health worker, doesn’t mean that they’re able to support you in the ways that you need. My experience is that I have the most success in finding therapy when I reach out to referrals from trusted people in my life and then set up what are essentially interviews with these prospective therapists. If we don’t mesh in that interview, then I try someone else.

My first therapy experience was with someone who didn’t care to know me as an individual. We made progress in some regards, but the lasting impression from that experience is more trauma that I carry with me. I’ve learned how to speak up for myself so much more now that I’m not willing to accept people like that in my care team or in my life in general. (‘Bout fucking, time, eh?) It’s been decades of learning to get to this point though and I know how lucky I am that I can access exceptionally high quality counselling as I need it.

After learning so much in therapy, mental health programs, and lots of hard work, I can’t look at bullshit like what I see on Instagram and buy into it. I guess I can imagine, though, that some people feel good when they read something like this:

At least, they likely feel good for a moment or two…

But really, how practical is it to “walk like you are made of magic”? Like, how the hell do you even do that? What does this have to do with improving your mental health (the screenshot came from a mental health support post) and how effectively does its message of “walking with magic” reduce the legitimacy of mental health (or any) struggles?

My god, I wish I could feel like magic all the time! I can’t. No one can! And I don’t want to feel a sense of shame for “failing” to walk like magic when clearly that’s exactly what I should be doing to fix my life.

What do you think about false positivity? Do images like the ones in this post lift you up in authentic ways, or are you like me and view them cynically (and likely cringe) whenever they show up in your news feed or wherever?

I plan to continue avoiding and remaining skeptical of messages like the ones I screenshot for this blog post. And my goal with head/strong (and in general) is to continue being authentic and offering real, tangible ideas for how to manage as an abuse survivor and a person with mental health problems—we can do so much better than telling ourselves that our attitude is the problem, instead of the problem being the problem.

xxJ

My attitude towards false positivity (artist unknown, unfortunately)


50 Ways to Leave Your [Abusive] Lover

*Disclaimer: I am not a legal, medical, or mental health professional; I’m simply a person with experience and ideas, trying to share them. Please take the following suggestions carefully and if you are in an abusive situation and need help, reach out to someone you trust. xxJ



You just slip out the back, Jack
Make a new plan, Stan
You don’t need to be coy, Roy
Just get yourself free
Hop on the bus, Gus
You don’t need to discuss much
Just drop off the key, Lee
And get yourself free

Paul Simon, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover

If only leaving your lover was as easy as Mr. Simon’s catchy tune makes it seem! And leaving an abusive partner? That’s even harder to do.

I don’t actually have a list of 50 ways to leave your abusive lover. I did start start trying to make one… I had things like, “Sneak out at night and leave a glitter bomb for your now ex-lover to open and find in the morning. All it needs to say is: Fuck you; I’m outta here!” I also included ideas like giving your partner the finger, doing a dramatic hair flip, and then walking off like a bad-ass movie star who never looks at explosions behind them. Or simply look at them, and call upon the Queen of queens, RuPaul, saying “Now sashay away…byeeeeeeeee!!!!” before sauntering out the door.

But those ideas seemed really inappropriate when paired with the actual circumstances of leaving an abusive partner, because I think, unlike Mr. Simon says in his song, that leaving an abusive partner is a process—one that doesn’t end when you physically remove yourself from your partner’s presence. It’s more like a series of physical, emotional, and financial steps away from your disentanglement to that person and towards your re-engagement with yourself.

You’ve probably considered leaving before—maybe even many times before!—but until now, you’ve always found ways to rationalize staying. You’ve told yourself that your partner will change. Or you’ve blamed yourself and decided to just work harder (just!) to make changes in the relationship. You may feel too scared to face the uncertainty of leaving what’s familiar (even if it’s dysfunctional). You might assume that you’re not worth more than how your partner treats you (they’ve groomed you for those kinds of feelings, remember?), feel like you have nowhere else to go, or there may be children involved and that complicates things.

There are so, so many ways to convince yourself to stay.

When you do, finally, make the heart-shattering, gut-wrenching, completely terrifying yet entirely empowering decision to leave, you begin the step-by-step process of leaving your abusive lover. I have some ideas about how this process might look, but remember that the entire process could take years, or it could happen in the course of a few moments. My experience was that it took years before I felt empowered enough to leave my partner. Others may make it happen right away. You do you, but here’s what I think the process may be like:

  1. You begin to consider leaving as a legitimate possibility. You mull it over, maybe take some small steps to start preparing for it, and you work yourself up towards making the final decision.
  2. You reach out to someone you trust for support as you prepare to leave your abusive relationship. This may be a trusted family member or friend. It may be a counsellor or your doctor; it could be someone at a shelter or on a partner abuse hotline. You seek out the reassurance that someone will in fact be there when you find yourself alone.
  3. If you are an intensely anxious over-planner like me, you will set a time and date for when to inform your lover. You may also draft up a quick and informal separation agreement and have your trusted friend or family member come with you on D-Day to deliver your news and your agreement to your partner, ensuring that everyone present signs and dates the agreement (this is an immensely helpful document if you find yourself in a legal battle post-separation).
  4. Or you don’t plan ahead and one day, you just tell your partner that you’re leaving. Or you kick them out of the house. Or you sneak out in the middle of the night because that’s the safest way for you to leave. You get the fuck out of there, however works best for you! Because that’s the whole goddamn point.
  5. This is where the-post-leaving work begins. You begin to disentangle emotionally from your abusive partner. This might take days. More likely weeks, months, or even years. Having a counsellor, if you’re able, makes this a much steadier process.
  6. You hire legal help, if necessary, to protect yourself when your emotionally abusive ex tries to exert control over you again. There are Legal Aid services in Canada and the United States. There are likely others in different places as well.
  7. You enlist a kickass accountant, if you are able, to make sure your finances are dealt with responsibly. Do NOT allow your partner to dictate this unless you fully understand the scope of the decisions being made. And please do NOT underestimate the importance of taking care of yourself financially. This was a much bigger part of leaving my spouse than I expected and was very hard to deal with during the sweep of intense emotions that came along when I left.
  8. You “get yourself free”, as Paul Simon says, and you manage the best that you can. That’s really what it comes down to.

Voila! You’ve left your lover. And it only took 8 steps! Easy, right?

No. It’s not easy. It’s 100% difficult. Especially in instances of emotional abuse, because people (including law makers and the like) often consider “emotional abuse” to be subjective. And depending on how skilled your ex-lover is at being charming or manipulating others, it may become even more difficult to get support as an abuse survivor. I know this firsthand, because when I left my marriage, I had to fight fiercely for my claims of abuse.

And isn’t that just the worst thing you can do to someone who has just escaped an abusive relationship? Make them fight for the legitimacy of their experience? Fuck that. The lip-service given to emotional abuse is not enough to protect survivors of it, should they choose to, or more likely need to, engage in a legal battle post-separation. If you don’t have children with your abusive lover, things may be different. I’m not going to say that they will be easier—that wouldn’t be fair to those whose legitimate struggles with abusive partners happen without them being parents as well—but I know that when I left an earlier partner who was also abusive, whom I didn’t have children with, it was still incredibly difficult. So difficult, that I’m still dealing with the feelings and fear that developed as a result of that relationship.

So, no. Not having kids doesn’t guarantee that it’s easier to walk out on your abusive partner. There’s still intense fear and risk involved. You still need somewhere safe to go and someone trusted to talk to. You may have to hire a lawyer and advocate the shit out of your experience in order to protect yourself. There will still be so many feelings and experiences to figure out afterwards. You will still be putting yourself in an incredibly vulnerable position by changing the status quo of your life and of your ex’s life.

Emotional abuse is just as scary and just as serious as physical abuse. So, despite what Paul Simon says, leaving your lover isn’t usually as easy as just walking out the door. Anyone in an abusive relationship should be able to leave that situation. Maybe that’s the one part Mr. Simon gets right in his song when he says, “Just get yourself free.”

I had the fight of my life trying to disentangle from my abusive partners. In fact, it still feels like a fight everyday.

If you need help leaving your lover, please reach out to someone you trust, or to one of the places below.

xxJ

Canada: https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/cj-jp/fv-vf/help-aide.html

Canada: http://www.awhl.org/home

Canada: https://www.sadvtreatmentcentres.ca/find-a-centre/

USA: https://www.thehotline.org/

USA: https://www.rainn.org/national-resources-sexual-assault-survivors-and-their-loved-ones

Worldwide: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_domestic_violence_hotlines

Let’s never underestimate the courage it takes to leave your [abusive] lover.

Story Time: The Story of the Girl Who Felt Too Much

Once upon a time there was a little girl who had enormous feelings. To her, the sky was never just blue: every day it amazed her with different shades of sapphire, azure, violet, ultramarine, or indigo. To her, a sunset was never just a sunset: it was a daily dose of unspeakable beauty and magic. To her, happiness was never just happiness: it was exuberant, all-encompassing joy! To her, sadness was never just sadness: it was a deep feeling of despair, sorrow, and anguish. To her, love was never just love: it was a profound commitment of devotion, adoration, and affection.

To this girl, everything felt big, BIG, BIG.

But the girl quickly learned that few people felt the world like she did and that most people couldn’t understand what it was like to be a Big-Feeling person in a Little-Feeling world.

When she was very young, her big feelings would come out as stubbornness, passion, or exuberance.

“Don’t be too sensitive.” she was told.

“Don’t be so shy.” they said.

“You need to stop crying so much.”

“It’s not a big deal; just get over it.”

So the girl tried her best to hold back her big feelings—she learned that big feelings aren’t appropriate. She learned to be polite and cautious, and giving and passive. She listened to the Little-Feelers and did what they asked of her.

But this got the little girl into trouble. Because when the little girl grew into a bigger girl, she became someone who was always doing what everyone else wanted her to do, instead of taking care of herself.

Soon, some No-Feeling people came along and started to take advantage of her. Since the girl was now used to holding back her enormous feelings and had become so good at ignoring what she wanted or needed, she let these people, the No-Feelers and the Misunderstand-ers, do and say bad things to her for many years. From them she learned that even when she tried her best to be a Little-Feeler, she was still Far Too Much. And that being Far Too Much somehow also meant that she was Never Enough—she went from being a Too-Much-Feeler to a Never-Enough-Feeler.

The girl was taught to be obedient and submissive and quiet. She never knew what the No-Feelers were going to demand of her, or what harsh words they were going to say, but she still wanted to feel something, so she did everything they asked, trying to earn love from those No-Feelers. She gave and she gave and she gave…and eventually she gave so much of herself, that there was hardly anything left.

Then, on a cold, winter’s night, one of the No-Feelers let her down and hurt her badly enough that something inside her shook to life. She finally became aware that the people around her weren’t actually giving her love; that they were selfish, No-Feelers and that she needed to escape from her life with them.

On that night, the girl-now-woman reached deep down inside of herself and found a small piece of the stubborn, passionate, exuberant little girl she used to be. She decided, somehow, that she no longer wanted to be Not Enough. And she put that tiny piece back into its place.

She tried to hold it there carefully, but sometimes she lost it as she fought against the No-Feelers, who refused to let her go. Thankfully, she always found the little piece again and amazingly, this piece, so fragile and nearly forgotten before, began to grow.

Clutching that tiny shred of her childhood, and drawing on the Big Feelings she had found again, the woman was able to get away from all the bad, No-Feeling people she had become entangled with.

Sadly, the damage that the No-Feelers and the Misunderstand-ers had done was so much that the woman still didn’t feel like enough. But she practiced, every day, and she started to learn that there were people who loved her, even though she was a Big-Feeler and even if they weren’t.

The woman kept practicing, still often feeling like a Too-Much-er in a Too-Little world, but also enjoying a reunion with her big feelings. She began to see the sky as infinite shades of blue again. Sunsets and sunrises made her pause with their enchanting beauty. She laughed sometimes and she cried a lot. And she slowly started to embrace being a Big-Feeler, because she had finally realized that she couldn’t change how she felt the world and that she didn’t need to.

xxJ



“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” – Roald Dahl

Fear Part 2: Things That Are

This is the second instalment in a 3-part series about fear. Throughout the series, I’m breaking fear down and looking at it from the perspective of fear in the past, in the present, and in the future.  If you missed the first post, you can see it here. Thanks for reading!


What does it mean to experience fear in the present?

All the mindfulness advice and chit chat about “being in the present” and “staying in the moment” can feel impossible if you think of the present literally. If you consider that it is fleeting, with every moment moving almost instantly from future to present to past, you’ll never be able to be in the present. But if you think of “the present” more broadly, if you look at it as what you’re currently doing/working on/experiencing over a short span of time (a few minutes, an hour, a day), then I think it becomes easier to understand.

So, if we can all agree that “being in the present” means living in our experiences over a short and immediate amount of time, then we can start to think more about what fear does in that space.

After writing about fear in and of the past last week, I realized that it’s a hell of a lot easier for me to think about fear as something from before or as something that’s yet to come. But, I do want to think about how I can examine fear as I experience it now. What I ended up realizing as I prepared to write this is, that fear in the present isn’t necessarily about living through fearful experiences in the moment—I don’t know anyone who can mindfully examine their fear (or any other feelings) if they’re literally terrified, do you?—I think the key to examining fear in the present is to look at how it affects us from moment to moment.

Ruminating on past feelings, or past experiences of fear, is an example of how fear affects us in the present. This kind of thinking can quickly take over and crowd out things like productivity, confidence, or mindfulness. Likewise, if we spend our time feeling fear over what might yet happen, fear also hijacks the present.

If we’re not living in a situation where fear is a reasonable response (like say, if you lived in an active war-zone or with an abusive partner) but we continue to allow fear to sit at the forefront of our minds, then it sabotages our ability to function. Our fear response of “fight, flight or freeze” should only be stimulated in acute situations, but many of us stay in this kind of stress response for long periods of time and THAT is when fear fucks up our experience of the present!

I grapple with past fear and future fear in almost every moment of every day. Somehow these things can co-exist, even though that doesn’t seem to make sense. My anxiety (which is largely the trepidatious anticipation of the future) and my depression (which is mostly a product of my past experience) are ever-present, which means that fear persists throughout my daily life.

Being fearful in the present means that all my actions are affected by my fear. This sounds like a terrible way to make decisions, but there’s some benefit to keeping scary past experiences and apprehensive future possibilities in mind when deciding things.

Remember that bit on “Animaniacs”, the one called “Good Idea/Bad Idea”? I keep thinking about it as I’m writing this. Mr. Skullhead usually only had to grapple with things like: “Good idea? Stopping to smell the roses. Bad idea? Stopping to feel the roses.”


Classic Mr. Skullhead.

In real life, though, the consequences of fear can be much more serious.

Like, it’s a good idea to sign your kids up for swimming lessons and keep a close eye on them at the beach so they stay safe in the water. But it’s a bad idea to never go to pools and beaches altogether because of the remote possibility that your children might drown, even in shallow water.

Or, it’s a good idea to not climb into the leopard enclosure at your local zoo, but it’d be a bad idea if your fear of a leopard attack kept you from even looking at them from a safe distance with a barrier in place!

Or what about these:

Good idea? Not leaving a party with a stranger.

Bad idea? Not going out at all because you’re afraid that everyone will try to kidnap you.


Good idea? Taking a cab or staying home when you know you’ve had too much to drink or if you’re high.

Bad idea? Not driving anywhere, anytime because you’re too afraid that you might get in an accident even just popping out to get some milk.


Good idea? Letting your daughter stay home from school when her tummy is upset.

Bad idea? Taking your daughter to the hospital every time her tummy is upset because you’re terrified it might be appendicitis or a perforated ulcer or Cholera or Dysentery or cancer or…or…or…


When I’m in a bubble of fear…okay, maybe it’s less of a bubble and more of a vise-grip with razor sharp edges or some other horrible torture device…when I’m deep in the grips of fear, I really do get stuck there: fear becomes my present and my present becomes entirely obscured by my fear.

I lived like that for many years and it was awful.

It was worse than awful, actually! And I’d never want to go back to living in survival mode again! But I know that lots of people do live like that! Lots of people remain in bad situations or continue to make bad choices because they’re so deeply ensnared by their fear, no matter how irrational or ridiculous it may be. My fear kept me in unsafe and unhealthy spaces (both mentally and physically) for well over a decade. It’s not an easy thing to overcome.

So on one hand, fear helps keep us safe—it protects us and warns us and sometimes, we really need it. But our response to fear can be unhealthy and I think the biggest thing to consider when talking about fear in the present is that we have to tread lightly along the line between being too fearful and just fearful enough.

Because of my past experience and all of the counselling and learning I’ve done in the last few years, I now spend a lot of my mental energy checking in with myself to make sure that I’m thinking about and doing things rationally and responsibly. Using tactics like The Bizarro World Technique , creating Positive Belief Records, spending time outdoors, doing some physical activity, or simply pausing for a moment and turning towards my feelings are all things that help release me from the clutches of my fear.

I say “release” a bit hesitantly, actually. It’s more like “lessen” or “diminish” because fear still never completely leaves me. Or, if I work through it for one issue, it pops right back up for another one, so there’s this ongoing amount of effort I have to exert to keep it in check. As an abuse survivor and a person with mental illness, I continue to have to practice relieving myself of fear and trusting not only myself, but others, to keep me safe.

Remember, fear is a hungry bitch and likes to be fed! So I try to tame her growling stomach by feeding myself hope and love and awareness and mindfulness. I throw shitty thoughts into Bizarro Land or I take a break and check in with someone I trust. I search for moments with people whom I feel secure around and try to relish moments of relaxation, no matter how rare those are. I aim to follow the clichéd advice of trying to conquer my fear without letting fear conquer me, but I do it thoughtfully and with a mild amount of skepticism about following anything that pops up on a Pinterest board or Instagram feed.

Does fear continue to run your daily life? What do you do to help work through it in the day-to-day?


Next week, I look at how fear in and of the future plays into our lives. ‘Cause I seem to know a helluva lot about what that feels like and may have a thing or two to say about it.

Til next Sunday, keep kickin’ ass. Keep punching fear in the face.

xxJ


Another way to put fear in its place? Keep a “Brave Camoll” nearby. Because if you can’t be brave, at least he’s got your back.

Fear Part 1: Things That Were

This is the first instalment of a three-part series about fear. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to try to break fear down using the past, present, and future. I want to explore how fear affects our lives and what strategies we can use to cope with it. Also, which strategies suuuuuuuuuuck and are super unhelpful, because that’s important to know too. So enjoy! (Or don’t? I’m not going to tell you how to feel, but like, I hope you like it? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!)



LOTR for life! Also, a frighteningly accurate depiction of anxiety.

Fear is a bitch.

It’s true! Fear is the worst.

I suspect that fear is the culprit behind the vast majority of the struggles people have with just about everything. Anger, sadness, embarrassment, resentment, judgement, ego, narcissism—you name it, I think fear is the root cause.

Fear has been and continues to be a big part of my own life, playing a starring role in the abuse I experienced and feeding into the mental health struggles I continue to have.

So I want to break fear down; I want to dissect it into parts and try to look at the different ways fear plays into my life and the lives of others. Today, I’m starting by looking at fear in the past. And also fear of the past, which I think is an important distinction.

Little bit of a story time:

I vividly remember moments of intense fear in my childhood. Moments like being three years old and waking up in the hospital post-tonsil removal surgery, likely drugged up, and completely terrified because I had no idea where I was, I was freezing cold, and I had no one with me.

I remember at age five, waking up from a nightmare where I imagined that my mother’s head fell off, which was a terrifying and visceral experience for me at that age!

I remember being ten and hiking in the mountains with my family on a trip to the west coast of Canada. I decided to walk atop the raised barrier guiding us along the path and protecting us from literally falling off the edge of a mountain. I tripped and fell, only to be caught in one of those slow-motion-like moments where it’s as if you can watch yourself in a weird, suspended reality but are actually helpless to stop whatever bad thing is happening. As a child, that fall seemed terrifying; I’m not sure if it actually was, but I do remember the intense relief I felt when a woman on the path below caught me and stopped my descent down the mountainside.

So clearly fear has been a companion for most of my life. I’m sure all of you could also think of fearful experiences from your childhood. These would be moments that stand out in your life, either reminding you to be grateful for your health or your loved ones, or leaving you with physical or emotional scars as a testament to the scary shit you went through.

Research tells us that young children need moments of failure, risk, and yes, fear, in order to develop skills like resilience, self-awareness, coordination, problem solving, and grit. It makes sense, right? But in a healthy, typical upbringing, fear should sit at a level where it offers at most a strong warning about the dangers of not being careful, or brings home  the reality of the “real” world so that we learn to be smarter.

To me, anxiety is really just a manifestation of fear; it’s a prolonged sense of being afraid that ebbs and flows to an extent, but can also become a part of daily living.

As I grew out of my kid-years, fear became a stronger presence in my life. I coped by turning against myself inwardly, while pushing myself to appear confident and strong outwardly. I’m not saying that fear was the only thing present in my life as I grew up—not at all! I felt joy and excitement and all kinds of other feelings! But fear was always lurking in the background, sometimes taking centre stage, and ultimately leading me into bad relationships with hurtful people that set me up with the life I now find myself in.

The scary moments in my childhood did little to prepare me for what it would be like to live in fear on a daily basis. In fact, those experiences I just described, and the other, similar ones I had as a kid, say nothing of the anxiety that became my companion over those childhood years and truly manifested in my adolescence and young adulthood.

To me, anxiety is really just a manifestation of fear; it’s a prolonged sense of being afraid that ebbs and flows to an extent, but has ultimately become a part of daily living.

I think fear is what allowed me to be victimized. Fear kept my mouth shut when I should have spoken up. Fear let me be vulnerable to the wrong people. Fear made me a perfectionist. It told me I wasn’t good enough. It said that I was ugly. Stupid. Too sensitive. Too emotional. Fear stole my self-confidence and pushed me to strain against it and keep pushing until I burned myself out.

Pretty much, fear made me it’s bitch.

Sound relatable?

This brings me to thinking about my fear of the past. I’m sincerely afraid to delve into my past because I fear being brought back to the deep, dark chapters of my life, when despair and hopelessness were the most pervasive feelings I had. As someone who has been suicidal, manic, and everything in between, there are just too many times that I shudder to bring up. It’s physically painful to think about these memories; I’m not kidding! Every time I post something here about my past, every time I talk with a counsellor, every time I see a baby photo of my kids, or I come across something that reminds me of my marriage or my wedding, or even things like high school or that ridiculous childhood dream about my mother’s head falling off, I have an emphatic response that zooms me right back to that moment and I feel it as if it’s happening all over again. It takes hours, or more often days, to move beyond those feelings.

So what do I do about it? What can you do about it when you start down that rabbit hole of reliving your worst moments and memories?

Well, oftentimes the best strategy I have is to distract myself from it. Short-term, distraction is a great tool for preventing you from following that White Rabbit into Wonderland. But it’s not a great long-term solution. Long-term, I’ve learned that I need to devote more energy and time into acknowledging those moments of struggle so that they become easier to face. I’ve had counsellors describe this approach as “turning towards” your feelings, or “looking at them with detachment.” You could even suggest it’s a type of exposure therapy. However you want to describe it, turning to look your fears in the face can be a powerful strategy in learning to manage them and move past them in order to lessen their grip on your life.

Sometimes, we can choose to look back at painful things and this can be an empowering way to re-frame the experience of reliving difficult or scary moments from our memories. But sometimes our fears from the past get triggered unexpectedly. Someone says or does something, or you see a movie or hear a song, or smell or taste something familiar and it brings you right back to that awful, terrifying moment. These are the hardest occurrences of fear to manage. They jump out at you like high school kids at a tacky Halloween haunted house fundraiser. It doesn’t matter that they are ridiculous; what matters is that they still scare the shit out of you!

Why is it so damn hard to face our fears of the past?!

Because fear is a strong, mother-fucking beast! That’s why it’s so hard! And that’s why I can’t say everything I want to say about it in just one post. So I’ll stop here for today and ask you to look for another instalment next week. Until then, I’m going to try and imagine that you’re out there, kicking fear in the ass and, if even only for a moment, or only in a very small way, you’re recognizing your strength and your resilience and continuing through the fear. Remember, the scary stuff in that haunted house is all just smoke, mirrors, and a gawky teenaged kid in a Jason mask.

xxJ

Burn Anyway

I came across this little piece by Erin van Vuren the other day:

Its appearance on my computer screen felt like a moment of serendipity.

Fuck them. Burn anyway.”

These were exactly the words I needed to hear as I was, in that moment and in the last few weeks, experiencing some major insecurity about head/strong and about speaking up in general.

By choosing to make my experiences and my words public, I’ve had to push through a lot of fear. My anxiety creates a sense of fear around literally everything, but choosing to write publicly about my life—my past, my kids, my struggles, everything!—has essentially been a practice of putting something on a page, closing my eyes, and hitting “publish” before I chicken out or throw up.

That’s because the act of sharing something personal, of offering something authentic to the world, also means being vulnerable. And feeling vulnerable is a deeply uncomfortable feeling. Even more so when you are a person who has been taken advantage of in moments of vulnerability before.

The current authority on vulnerability is most definitely Brené Brown. Her amazing TED talk about vulnerability, aptly titled, “The power of vulnerability” has been viewed on the TED website over 38 million times. Her 1.2 million Instagram followers, plus her five New York Times best-selling books, attest to Brené Brown being a tour-de-force in her chosen field of study (not to mention the fact that she has a PhD in Sociology, is a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW), and teaches at the university of Houston in Texas. No big deal, right?).

“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”

Brené Brown

I’ve put myself in a position where I feel excruciatingly vulnerable. I felt this way when I first started talking to friends and family about my mental health struggles and the issues in my marriage. I felt this way every time I went and spoke to a counsellor and tried to dig deeper into what was causing me so much pain and heartache. And now I feel this way every time I sit down to write, and especially when I share that writing here on my blog and via Instagram or Facebook.

I’d be lying if I said that writing for head/strong isn’t partially about creating a sense of catharsis for myself—it does help make me feel justified in my experience. But I think that’s a helpful thing for me and for anyone who reads this. I’ve learned that there’s a difference between writing for yourself and writing for an audience (thank you Janelle Hanchett) and for every post I make, I keep this guidance in mind and I try to tread the line between being vulnerable (and therefore, authentic) and not using my blog as a personal diary.

I recognize that I’m the one who has put myself into this very liable position. I could have continued to keep my mouth shut, keep my words to myself, and not allow myself to be vulnerable. I was pretty much a master at maintaining the status quo already (regardless of how much it was hurting me), and likely could have kept on maintaining.

Except that I couldn’t.

And also, I wouldn’t.

I mean, I won’t.

A fire’s been lit inside me (to reference back to the piece from Erin van Vuren) and now…well now, I’m not going to shut up.

I think my experience gives me something worth saying and I think that using my life as an example allows people to connect better with what I’m talking about. I’m trying to connect with emotional abuse survivors, mental health warriors, and the people who support them. This is a very courageous, yet delicate group of people. Trust definitely needs to be earned authentically, so I feel its necessary to share about my life. I need to show that I’m in the club too; I’ve lived what I’m talking about.

The flames that are now flickering with head/strong want to grow and I want to fan them and let things build into a flaming inferno (not to be dramatic or anything…). I want to become a powerful woman who uses her position of authority to accomplish something meaningful and head/strong is an avenue to do that.

So I’m stoking the fire. It was lit a few months ago, really, when I made my first post and committed to writing every week. The spark I struck by hitting “publish” that very first time has ignited a flame and I intend to grow that fire and burn the hell out of anything that gets in my way.

I let myself be full of ashes for most of my life, but I won’t allow my light to be dimmed again. I’m not going to stop burning, even if I’m afraid.

Because I think we need to talk more about emotional abuse.

We need to talk more about domestic abuse.

We need to talk more about mental health.

We need to talk more about single parents and divorce and writing and creativity and healing and struggling and we need to allow ourselves to come from a place of vulnerability so that we can authentically connect.

So look for big things. Watch as I fumble around and try to make head/strong grow. Stick with me (I hope) and be vulnerable alongside me. There’s beauty in the flames, remember?

xxJ

Burn, baby, burn.