Pure As the Driven Slush: Heather Corinna's Journal and Diary, Online since 1999

Archive for the 'heart work' Category

Sunday, July 6th, 2008

I just spent about five hours today seriously cleaning up the home office. Given my schedule over the last half a year, and how often I’ve been working away from home, it had gotten more and more cluttered and insane. When I cleaned it out, I not only took out two bags of crap, but cleared about fifteen boxes, which were either temporarily storing things in a way that was reasonable, or storing them in a way that was about me… just throwing assorted shit into boxes.

I took some photos so that I can remind myself when it starts to get bad that this, right now, is what it is supposed to look like, and there’s really no good reason it can’t most of the time.

I did this because after this next week, I’ll be back to primarily working from home again. Without getting into too many details, the clinic has been restructuring due to what works for them best financoally, and I got laid off from counseling a week and a half ago. For various reasons, this was a good deal of my recent devastation I alluded to.

The timing was both awful and strange. I hadn’t gotten the chance here to mention — we needed to have the timing right — that a few months ago an offer was extended to me to take over directorship of the clinic’s CONNECT program: our teen sexual health education and outreach program which we inherited from Aradia when it closed. It was a great offer which I pretty quickly accepted. Running CONNECT would be in very perfect harmony with what I do with Scarleteen, and they’ll really enhance each other. I’ll get the opportunity to do more in-person, local outreach and education (and get paid for it), more additional training (and get paid for it), and develop more materials (and get paid for that, too). My co-worker and supervisor is one of my favorite women who works for the clinic. At the time, the extra bonus was that combined with my hours counseling at the clinic, I would have been full-time. That certainly wasn’t going to be a bonus in some ways: combined with Scarleteen hours, that would have had me at around 60 work hours a week. But, hey: it ain’t like I hadn’t done that a million times before.

The big boon in all that, and part of the plan knowing I needed this, was that I FINALLY was going to have health insurance for the first time since the 80’s, something I am in more and more of a dire need for these days.

But alas.

I’d gotten started with CONNECT for a while, then got this news my first day back to work after my Minneapolis trip. It was highly unexpected and a really, really sad thing, not just because I was thisclose to having some of the basics I have lived without for so long, but because I LOVED counseling at the clinic. I loved our clients (and I mean loved them: I felt my heart grow and deepen daily, it was such a crazy-rich thing), I loved having a team to work with, I loved almost every aspect of what I was doing. It was hard as hell some days, for sure, but it was — particularly as a Buddhist and a feminist — such an incredible spiritual exercise. I also know myself well enough to say that I was extraordinarily good at it, and I got very highly invested in it. I was able to develop some resources that weren’t in place before, get this amazing mojo going on with one of the doctors (who had told me not two weeks before that all the clients coming from my office into her exam room were the most comfortable and calm she sees, and how very much I rocked), and really feel, much as I do with Scarleteen and sometimes more so, that I was able to provide something unique that was very much needed. Whereas apparently a lot of counselors burn out, I don’t think I was in even the remotest danger of doing so anytime soon: doing it felt so natural to me. Sometimes, I came home seriously buzzed on nothing but compassion and endorphins.

To say I’ve shed tears over this is an understatement. The first night and day after this happened was like nursing a very bad breakup. I could barely breathe when I got the phone call telling me this news. I can’t express how much I am going to miss all of these women and miss doing this. It has been tough over the last seven months to kind of connect with a lot of people outside work: doing this has made small talk something I really stunk at, whereas I used to only moderately stink at it. So much of this, and really letting myself get invested, really being fully open to all of the clients, has expanded my universe to such a degree that sometimes, hanging out with people, I felt a bit like I’d been living on Mars. But it was so, so worth it. This is no small loss for me. Yesterday was the first day I was able to talk about it in casual conversation, without getting deeply sad or deeply angry. I still feel like most days, I could easily sleep all day, which is not at all like me.

Mind, I will still be in the clinic once a week or so (and apparently still do some options counseling over the phone) once I get all shifted into doing CONNECT and developing some in-clinic education we’ve been planning since I accepted the job, which I am still electing to take. It’s kind of weird, really: I got laid off due to money, but this gig pays me better (it’s not primarily funded by the clinic, so that’s the why on that), and is a promotion. And it may be that should the financial status of the clinic change, I can someday walk back into my old job.

Again, there are still some things I’m opting to keep to myself, but on top of the loss of almost-benefits and the clients in that setting, I also have never been fired even once in my life. I know being laid off not actually being fired, but still. My inner overachiever was completely rattled and shaken by this, and I had no idea how to process it. I come from immigrant, hardworking family, so even though we are hardly ignorant to the realities of these things, it feels very intuitive to us that if you work your ass off and do a great job, everything should be just fine when it comes to keeping a job. When that doesn’t happen that way, it just feels like something is terribly wrong with the natural order of things. To some degree, I still don’t know how to process this, and I’ve no doubt that during my last week counseling this week, it’s going to feel mighty weird.

So, after this coming week, it’s back to a lot of home work for me. Some of why I had to clean today was to make room for two huge tubs of CONNECT materials, another laptop for the work on the site for it as well as the clinics birth control comparison site (both of which I’ll be webmastering as part of this job). I have to say, it really sucks to wind up a lone wolf again. I don’t mind being alone and working alone, but it was just so nice to have a couple days a week where I wasn’t, where I had in-person co-workers, especially given the way social stuff goes (which is to say it often just doesn’t) in Seattle, and especially because so much of the work I do leaves me feeling so isolated.

Meh.

I don’t want to get too mopey here. Not only have I been working hard to crawl out of the big funk this put me in for a while, some of this also is only so bad. I DO still have a job there, and it’s one that in many ways, will likely wind up to be a very perfect fit. Again, it also pays me better (and if I could find some freaking way to get health insurance as a self-employed person in Washington state, where this is highly problematic, I could just about afford it now), and it is so in line with Scarleteen. As well, RH Reality Check just offered me weekly syndication there with my advice columns for Scarleteen (we’d started with bi-monthly), so it’s not like my work life is terrible.

It’s just mighty tough to kind of see the top of the mountain in so many ways and feel dropkicked back down.

Friday, May 30th, 2008

Yesterday at the clinic I got wedged in the middle of a client’s abusive relationship.

It was pretty clear even from watching the goings-on in the waiting room that something was not at all right. She was dressed like she’d been scraping by, yet he was dressed like he was going for a job interview. He gave us her ID and insurance card because he was the one who kept hold of her purse. When she came in for her labs, he used that time in the waiting room to try and woo other women. (I found out later that while he was the one pushing for abortion, one of his wooing tactics was apparently to tell the women in the waiting room how much he didn’t want his wife “to kill our poor little baby.”) She also clearly, from her body language, did not want to be at the clinic. She had a do-rag she kept pulling down over her eyes, she was all curled into herself, but she also looked very irritated and upset.

We have a section of the intake form which asks how sure someone is of their decision to terminate, and she’d marked she was unsure. Those charts are more often given to me, in part because I’m trained for options counseling, and in part because they tend to be more difficult sessions, but I’m usually okay with that. When I get that on a form, I usually start with a discussion about that before I do anything else.

She told me firmly that she did not want to terminate. She had kids from a previous relationship, had never had an abortion, never wanted to have one.  She had been married to this man for a year, and described a very textbook pattern of the cycle of abuse. We discussed how the lone conflict she was having — the only thing which would incline her to choose to terminate of her own accord — was that she knew full well that having a child with this man would tie her to him. I talked about the realities of this, about legal help, about how it was a big issue, even if she could get a divorce and help keeping him from her and a child, a person obsessed with control tends not to be someone who gives up easily, so she would have to be okay with possibly fighting legal battles for years and years. All the same, in our conversation, it because clear that while she still might consider a termination given the permission to evaluate it for herself, she had been forced to be there by someone else that day — she was physically pushed into the car that morning and driven to the clinic — and so terminating that day was off the table so far as our polices go and her wishes went. I discharged her, making clear that should she make her own choice to terminate, she could reschedule for another day.

In trying to assure that going home not having terminated would not compromise her safety, I talked a little about shelters and ways to taxi her out potentially without his notice. What she just wanted was just somewhere inside the clinic to sit for a bit, gather her thoughts, ready her resolve, so I arranged that for her in another area of the clinic. I really thought she needed to get to a shelter, but obviously, I can’t usurp her choices that way. Unfortunately, when she stepped outside to smoke, he’d been circling the clinic and found her, and I was notified that there was a bit of an altercation outside. Looking at the security cameras, he kept blocking her path on the sidewalk, and wasn’t yet pushing or hitting her, but it didn’t look good. I was asked to go outside and help escort her into the clinic and to ask him to leave, making clear that we’d call the police if he came back into any of the waiting rooms.

And here’s the part where I found myself sucked into the vortex of another planet.

When I circled around to them, greeted her by name and motioned with my arm a bit protectively around her back for us to walk back into the clinic, and we tried to go in, he stepped in front of me, as well. He stepped in front of me, arms waving as if flagging down a driver who has come to help you when your car has broken down — as if clearly, I was help en route for him — and said, “She won’t LISTEN to me!”

It wasn’t just what he said, but the way he said it; the way he said it with this confidently held belief that I was on his side, that her disobedience was preposterous, and that, of course, her compliance to him would have been my primary or sole concern. I had to fight off the very nonproductive urge to say something to the effect of, “Oh dear! She won’t listen to you? That’s not right at all. Why don’t us uppity little ladies just sit down and you can tell us how it is since we’ve clearly lost our marbles all thinking for ourselves. I just don’t know what’s gotten into us. I am so sorry. Daddy knows best!”

Instead, still trying to get us both past him and back into the clinic, I said, very firmly, “I don’t care. I am taking her inside where she is safe, and you need to leave.”

He then said, “But she’s my WIFE!”

Resist sarcasm, Corinna, as it is not at all likely to de-escalate squat. Also? Do not stand there slack-jawed and silent because you can’t believe someone is trying to have this conversation with you at all. So, instead, again firmly and clearly, “That is not meaningful to me. I am taking her inside where it is safe, and you need to leave.”

And it isn’t meaningful to me, personally or politically, but it’s particularly devoid of meaning in my book when it’s obvious that the person telling me it is has acquired a wife the way one acquires chattel, and sees her likewise. You can have a marriage which is a partnership, but marriage alone does not partnership make, and I care about if someone has an earnest partnership, not a legal shackle to someone else as their personal property. I don’t give a rat’s ass what papers you have, what ceremony you’ve had, what promises you’ve made or what you call someone: what I care about is what is enacted and actionable. You can call it marriage all you want, but when what it is is bondage, putting a pretty, legally-sanctioned name on it doesn’t change a damn thing.

Then, clearly not having absorbed the general sentiment that we’re all just heartless babykillers (though most likely only because he sees us as people able to get him what he wants: I’m sure if he had wanted her to stay pregnant, we would have been Satan’s handmaidens), he tries a new line.

“But she SMOKED a cigarette today while she was PREGNANT with MY child!”

Oh, well THAT is a totally different story! Because of COURSE the damage a fag is going to do to a fetus so, so far surpasses a woman having you make her reproductive choices for her. Because of COURSE when you scheduled the appointment FOR her last week, you knew, being omniscient and omnipotent, she would have this cigarette today and thus make sustaining a pregnancy completely off the table, which I’m sure whatever you do to her at home can’t come close to comparing to. Because of COURSE your deep and utterly selfless concern for the fetus usurps her own life. Because of course, if a woman has done anything less than perfect pre-natal behavior we are morally obligated to terminate her pregnancy against her will. Duh!

He starts to ask if I asked her about that. I make clear that what goes on with a client and us is private, I can’t talk to him about her medical history or health, and that, again, I am taking the client inside, he needs not to block us or try and follow, and that if he persists, we will call the police. He is starting to sputter why at me, and then even goes so far as to make a move where his hand is starting to raise in my general direction.

I tend to react to anything like that, at this point in my life, with a reflexive look which I’ve determined, the times I’ve been physically threatened since I left home to get free of that in my teens, gives a crystal clear impression that laying a hand on me would be a Very, Very Bad Idea. For all my self-defense training, I never even really get a chance to use it, because the look always comes first, and it’s been 100% effective over the years. (I wish I could make it in the mirror to see what it looks like: I’m curious. Alas, I can’t do it on purpose, or at least I don’t think I can, because nothing I do when I’m trying looks all that intimidating to me, especially since it’s also usually happening several inches to a foot lower than the person I’m giving it to.) He lowers his hand very quickly, I swoop us both around him and get her inside, he tries to follow. Someone else’s boyfriend or husband tries to do him the profoundly undeserved service of being a brother helping another brother out by making clear that he really needs to go back outside because he’s about to find himself in serious shit if he doesn’t.

There’s more to all of this — it’s a very long story, aspects of it can’t and shouldn’t be disclosed, and this whole incident had legs and took up half my day. I’m not happy with how it resolved itself, if you can even call it that. She rescheduled for next week to terminate, clearly pressured again after several more bouts with him in the parking lot, thanking me the whole time tearfully for trying to help, telling me it isn’t what she wants to do, and wound up quasi-electively leaving with him (I say that because he had a pretty firm hold on her arm, and he looked like the cat that ate the canary), but the whole situation was such that our hands were tied, and since she was discharged and did go outside again and go to him, and they were leaving, there wasn’t anything we could do. I would have written down his license plate number — since we did make clear to both of them that he may not ever come to the clinic again, and police will be called ASAP should he do so — but he didn’t have any on the car. I will probably be her counselor if she shows up for next week’s appointment, and will have to try and suss all of this out again, trying to help her figure out what she wants or needs to do knowing that in the situation she’s in, whether I like it or not, what he wants is going to have an influence I can only mitigate so much. I’m trying to think of a small token to have for her if she shows up again: I’m thinking she might need some Maya Angelou.
Obviously, I was left after the whole thing feeling both rather unhelpful and helpless, my heart aching for this woman, but I also still just had this profound feeling of total sci-fi. That guy didn’t know me. He had no idea that I interpreted his words and behavior as completely sinister while, to him, they were sacrosanct. But I know me, and anyone who knows me even thismuch would know that saying the kinds of things he was saying, trying to sway me the way he was was so completely ridiculous as to — were the situation not so sad — be knee-slappingly funny. Again, were I not so outraged for this woman, I would have laughed myself, and amidst all the adrenaline, when he first opened his mouth at me I did have to fight off laughing outright. If we can (even though we really can’t) take out all of the ugly in this, to anyone who knows me, a person talking to me like this, asserting this kind of shit to me presuming I’m on board, is earnestly silly beyond measure.

By my perspective, it was this level of total delusion that his words were meaningful, that his control over the woman he was married to was sovereign and that I’d recognize that which struck me first and foremost. I couldn’t believe, through the whole exchange, that it was happening, that this guy could not know that he was trying to speak a language to me which was a long-dead language that even if I recognized some of the words, didn’t mean shit to me.

That was immediately followed by the not-at-all-laughable feeling that it was not entirely delusion, not outside my frame of reference, anyway, and what I will and will not tolerate or enable in my own life. Clearly, in order for both of them to be at this point, this crap had been working on this woman for some time, and was likely working for him in one or both of their extended families, in the community they were in: after all, in our session it seemed clear that no one had made any kind of motion to help this woman before or acknowledge that this guy was very bad news. When we talked about him, the way she was telling me about this had a certain certainty on her part that I’d think she was crazy and that he was reasonable: that I was supportive of her pretty clearly came as a total surprise.

(I should add, as an aside, that some of that might be my color. The clinic staff are very diverse, but unfortunately, all of us who counsel right now — who often have the most in-depth conversations with clients about their trickiest stuff — are white. So, I’m often not surprised to have women of color warm more slowly to me, be more cautious at first, and, understandably, be reluctant at first to trust that I’m in their corner.)

I managed my clients the rest of the day, but it wasn’t easy. I got a ride from work to a spot downtown a mile or two from the stop for my third bus, and took a long walk there, fighting tears. Sitting on the packed, rush-hour bus on the way home, I was not only still fighting tears, I felt pressed in on all sides by people, in dire need of more air, open space and ideally, the opportunity for a good, loud primal scream. I dove into some bell hooks, but I couldn’t stay with it all sardine canned like that. I stopped at the market on the way home, picked up a bottle of wine and some things so I could have a good meal, got home, had a yawp and a good weep, took out the dog, than parked my tucas on the porch with a hefty glass and Flannery O’Connor. I needed me some Flannery: I needed her beautiful darkness and her realness all at once, the way she shows up the facades of people. I needed her to give me empathy. Mark came home, and listened to the whole saga and gave me a much-needed hug. I sat this morning for a while: I breathed it all in and out. I need some extra time for myself at some point in the next couple days — which won’t be easy, given it’s Mark’s birthday today and festivities are afoot, I have a march tomorrow, and work that needs be done before Monday — but that’s okay.

* * * * *

I also have a bit of a Buddhist conundrum about scenarios like this when it comes to how I approach, manage and experience them.

In so many ways, I am loving the work at the clinic — even when things happen like this — because it is such an amazing and constant exercise in compassion. It is nothing close to easy: it’s sometimes very tough (especially when sometimes, you have to remain compassionate with a client when they are not extending you the same compassion), but it’s a nourishing, life-affirming challenge. I certainly have a similar dynamic with Scarleteen, but it’s a little different. Not only is it virtual, but if something shakes me up, stirs me, overwhelms me, I can step away from it for at least a few minutes, if not hours, gain some composure, and come back to it on my own time. I don’t have that luxury in my counseling office: the person disclosing to me, letting me in, is sitting right in front of me, and their need is intensely immediate. I also have to address those needs knowing that a) they need to be able to move through the clinic at a decent clip so they, other clients and staff don’t have to spend all day there, so I have to try and be efficient in how I address them, and b) I will not likely have another opportunity to help this person again. This is probably my one shot.

Here’s the kicker, though: in any aspect of healthcare or counseling, from a professional standpoint, you’re supposed to keep this given distance, not get too stirred, too invested, etc. That approach runs solidly through care-based services. But as a Buddhist — and as someone trying to remain devoted to helping others in heart, mind and body — striving for distance (not nonattachment, distance) in order to cope, stands counter to my practice, and in my mind in order to best connect with clients/readers/users/the-universe-en-large, I have to remain pretty open. When a client is upset, and I am troubled by their troubles — while still keeping my own shit together enough not to make them feel guilty or like they need to take care of me, and keeping it together enough to do my job for them — this clearly is and has always been a comfort for them. I have a tough time believing that when you feel you have been marked by a great tragedy that for a person you disclose that to not to express a deep and real empathy for you, to express feeling some trace of that tragedy in a very real way, is a comfort.

There’s obviously a balance to be struck. You still need to do your job and you need to be a support, not just a co-griever. You need to instill a sense of faith in that person that however upset you also may be, that you are capable of being unattached to your feelings enough to help them when they can’t help themselves. If they feel out of control or incapable, you need to be someone they feel is in control and capable. You need to be able to still do what you can do for them while being open enough that part of the help you are giving them is being someone — sometimes that only someone they have yet encountered like this — who feels their pain and is unhappy that they have been wronged, traumatized, shafted. And of course, you need to be able to do all of this and find a way to preserve enough of yourself and your own emotional equilibrium to still start each day whole and end it the same way.

When I hear noises from anyone that I or my kind of approach gives too much, opens too much, doesn’t distance enough, doesn’t shut down enough, should strongly consider putting a larger shield up, my first reaction tends to be repulsion. I feel like there is a certain arrogance in the idea that self-preservation must always come first, as if we had any way of determining that somehow our self has greater import or meaning than someone else’s self. (Mind you, I think I’m a bit passively suicidal sometimes, but I figure it beats being the actively suicidal I was when I was younger by a serious long shot. This may color my views here.) I know that in part, that kind of directive comes from a place of care, perhaps the same kind of place that mine is coming from in trying to put others first myself: people say that to me because they care for me. But I also can’t help but think that some of it comes from a place where I’m effectively being asked to follow a certain status quo as to not threaten or usurp it: if we don’t all agree that the self always comes first, even if making it secondary, temporarily or permanently, might help someone else, that we then make it harder for those who want or need it to always rule all to feel as comfortable doing that. That sounds a bit pious to me, but I don’t know how else to express it. Thing is, I’ve been going about helping and counseling the way I do it for many years now, and I have my own way of managing it. Clearly, I can handle it without burnout better than most since I’ve got some serious staying power, and I still very much like doing what I do. My way seems to work for me and feels authentic to me — and is also in line with the kind of person I want to be, the kind of life I want to live — and I’m the expert on me.

I came to the practices I did because they make sense to me, and they run through everything I do in my life, including work. I’ve never been able to — or wanted to — separate my politics, my ethics, my spiritual life from my work, or set them aside somehow, and I’ve tried very hard to only choose work and work settings where I don’t have to do that. I often approach people very vulnerably, with a great deal of openness. It’s gotten me hurt before, for sure, but I think that the benefits have far outweighed the harms. Yesterday was a hard, hard day and parts of it were painful and very frustrating. But at the same time, yesterday, amidst everything else, I did get to share more than one moment where I was able to do anything at all to help someone feel a little more empowered and a little more cared for. But I do sometimes feel a little alien, both at the clinic and en-large, when it comes to all of this stuff, particularly when it comes to the harmony and cacaphony of all of it with my practice. I need a new sangha, I think. It’s tough to find something I can actually get to here without a car (good lord is this city car-centric), but I think it’s time to renew my efforts.

I’m rambling. I’m seeking out a balance and a clarity with this which I’m finding difficult both to do and to express. I’m glad for the opportunity, but it is a lot to try and sort through in the breakneck pace of my life these days, and I’m certainly not going to sort it out before I head back to the clinic on Monday.

Tuesday, May 6th, 2008

One of the things that has a great influence in both how I enact sexuality education and how I conceptualized my approach from the get-go is my background with teaching in the Montessori Method.

Overall, the primary way Montessori works is this: as educators, we observe our students, and based on our observations of what their self-directed interests, skills and questions are — basically, what they’re drawn to in terms of what activities they choose for themselves and what activities and areas they express interest in — we choose what materials to make or find and to present to them. In doing this, we’re also trying to help students learn to be observers, as well as working to empower them when it comes to trusting their own interests and instincts and to be self-motivated and self-directed, rather than reliant on — or vulnerable to — others to give them directives. Montessori teachers see ourselves more as helpers, as guides, than as directors or founts of knowledge. We see our students as the real directors, not us: it’s our job to follow their cues, not teach them to obediently follow ours. The underlying principles of Montessori are all about liberty and freedom, without which one cannot achieve, develop or experience self-discipline or learning. Montessori wrote that, “Discipline must come through liberty. . . . We do not consider an individual disciplined only when he has been rendered as artificially silent as a mute and as immovable as a paralytic. He is an individual annihilated, not disciplined.”

Particular areas of what we call absorbency — times during which a person is most able to learn something and can most easily and enthusiastically absorb information — is also something we pay close attention to and bear in mind. The big deal that identifies a time of absorbency is when a person is both expressing a strong interest in a subject or area of development and is just starting to use and hone those skills: ages 1-3, for instance, as children are learning to speak and are fascinated with language, is usually the time of the greatest absorbency for language. If we help children be exposed to and learn language then, not only is their mastery best, they usually can also learn more than one language, more easily and ably than they will be able to during other times in life.

It doesn’t take someone with Montessori training or keen observational talents to identify the fact that when it comes to human sexuality and sexual attitudes, the minds of adolescents and pre-adolescents are greatly absorbent. Because part of identifying what and when to present certain things has to do with when a person is starting to use what they learn, we can easily spot adolescence as a great time for sex education. In working with young adults, while I’m not really getting in on the ground floor since so many sexual attitudes are learned in childhood, I’m still in early enough so that our readers can get help forming healthy habits and attitudes at a dawn in their sexuality and during a time when they are very absorbent. I’m not just working with them just so that they can use this information and these skills now — after all, some of them want the information now, but don’t intend to, or are not, putting all of it to practical use, while others are becoming or already sexually active — but so that they can have them early, available to them for the whole of their lives.

Young adult sex education isn’t just about young adult sexual activity, just like young adult education in mathematics, social studies, physical education or language isn’t just about their use of those skills now. We teach these things with the understanding and expectation that they will be useful and needed now and later or now or later.

Most teens have an expressed interest in sexuality, and feel and express a need to find out about it now, which makes now the best time to teach it. When children and young people ask us or each other questions about sexual anatomy, sex, and sexual relationships, when they are starting to consider how sexuality will be part of their lives and what they want from it, they are communicating clearly to us that they feel a strong need and desire to learn and want our help. Even if you’re not a Montessori-enthusiast like myself, this idea is woven throughout nearly any educational approach you can think of.

For the life of me, I cannot figure out why or how people can selectively forget that what we learn about sexuality is information most of us will need for the whole of our lives. When we learn about sexuality, we’re not just learning for what we need and will use right at the moment we are learning, and no matter when or in what context we have a solo or shared sexual life, that activity itself cannot teach us all we need and want to know, nor can learning only through sexual activity later tend to result in sound sexual, physical and emotional health.

I confess, I quietly slipped out the back door years ago when it came to doing adult sex education, because I often found it deeply depressing and frustrating. We all know it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, and it is often just as hard for adults who have firmly established certain sexual attitudes and behaviors to change them after ten, twenty or forty years of thinking and/or doing things differently. I heard so much “But my husband just won’t listen when I say this doesn’t feel good for me: I’ve told him a thousand times,” or “My wife just won’t believe that how I feel is normal and common,” or, “But we’ve never used birth control so he can’t understand why I need to now and just won’t do it,” some days — so many firmly cemented attitudes and practices making so many people unhappy and unhealthy that I felt helpless to counter — that I just had to step back from it in order to preserve any sense of sexual optimism about the world at large.

In my job at a women’s clinic, where part of my counseling is to try and help my clients who want them to find and use sound birth control methods and safer sex practices, and to have sexual lives which are truly beneficial and safe for them, I hit the wall of this daily, both with them and with their partner’s compliance. With some women, we have to have a conversation as to how she is going to convince — not request, and know that request is all she needs make — her partner that he is not entitled to sex with her at any time and will, indeed, need to withhold from sex with her for two weeks after her abortion to prevent her from getting an infection or complication. Plenty of those clients will express a strong feeling of hopelessness, or a history of failed attempts at changing established norms of behavior, when it comes to their ability or the ability and willingness of their partners to change those habits and attitudes. I know, plainly, that had many of my clients and their partners learned these behaviors, in terms of their physical health and their social relationships, and started out with inclusive, factual and compassionate sex education earlier that these situations would be far more rare.

Those clients are lucky to even have an opportunity to get some sex education later in their lives: there are not many avenues for older adults to become sexually educated (which explains why we see some of them come to Scarleteen for help in their twenties, thirties, even in their sixties). When I hear those who protest young adult sex education in high school and college, I’m often left wondering where, exactly — if indeed, as many express, young people will all just elect not to have any kind of sex until they are older — they think older adults are going to get that education. Last I checked, major corporations aren’t giving sex education seminars to their employees, and many general doctors, like many people period, remain uneducated on, and uncomfortable discussing, sexuality.

That isn’t to say educating older adults is an impossible task, but it seems a needless challenge when we have the opportunity, as educators, as a culture, as communities, to teach sexuality and sexual health way before that time, when absorbency is far greater, and when a person is either in the dawn of their attitudes and practices, or is able to start learning them before they’ll apply them at all. What we establish early as norms, and hear pervasively as norms, is incredibly sticky. We know that when someone learns to do something incorrectly or incompletely, that the longer they go doing that thing that way, the tougher it becomes over time for them to learn differently or to add on additional steps and skills. This is true with sex as much as it is with anything else.

The practical application of all of this aside, I’m never going to be able to let go of the idea that without liberty, real learning — learning, not indoctrinating — can’t happen. If in any of the ways I educate, I seek to hinder or protest that essential liberty, I’m not only hindering learning, but the quality of life of my students, and it is my job to very carefully consider how I educate through that lens. It is not my place to tell my students or clients when to have sex, how to define their own sexuality, to tell them they are good or bad people based on their sexual desires or choices, or to tell them that they do not need to know the very things they are asking me to inform them about. I cannot ever call myself an educator if I purposefully slam the door of knowledge in my student’s faces because I, not they, feel that it’s for their own good.

Rather, it is my place to observe be responsive to the cues they give me in terms of what they need and want from me to help them learn about sexuality and sexual health, and to give them as wide an array of factually accurate and inclusive information, resources and discussions as I am able so they can create lives where their sexuality is part of their liberty; where the attitudes and practices they develop are in as best an alignment as possible with their and their partner’s unique set of needs and wants. It is my place to share with them as much of what I learn and know as I possibly can when they invite me to. This is part of why I feel so blessed to be able to educate in environments which are completely drop-in and also very one-on-one — or without my intervention at all, unless it is asked for — where even the onset of the education I provide isn’t determined by me, but by my students or clients themselves, and where every person I interact with is able to expressly ask me or my co-workers for exactly what they feel they need, rather than what I or others determine is right for them.

It is my place to allow and encourage the opportunity for them to draw their own conclusions, and to provide an environment for them where they feel they have the inarguable right to use that information however they please without my value judgments. It is my place to make clear to them that questioning my authority is always acceptable, that while I do my best to be as educated on these issues as possible, I am not infallible, without my own biases which inevitably will occasionally leak through, or somehow representative of one universal truth, and when they have questions or doubts, it is my place to direct them to other sources of information besides my own.

Every now and then, when doing an interview or a press piece, I’m asked why I give the information I do with the approach that I do, and if I’d ever consider doing it differently. And every time, I make clear that I walk into each day ready to do it differently, because if my students and clients — through my observations of them and their direct requests — asked me to, felt another approach would be more helpful, or showed me that the way I am doing things is not helpful for them, and is not what they needed, I would be obligated to adjust my approach based on my own educational ethics. Were I shown that, say, my students and clients were all made happier and healthier in the whole of their lives by only ever having sex within heterosexual marriage, only having sex for the purposes of procreating, or in going without sexual healthcare and birth control, even if that conflicted with what I have found keeps me happy and healthy, by all means, I’d have to seriously consider that. But again, I’m a trained observer, I observe daily, and that’s not something they express or I see. I do not tend to hear that knowing how to use a condom, how the sexual response cycle works, how to negotiate sex with a partner, how varied human sexuality is or how to prevent unwanted pregnancy at any age has done a person emotional or physical harm: I, do, however, hear and see the inverse daily. I do what I do the way that I do it because I do my level best to base it on mindful observation with the aim of being a partner in the learning of others, not a director or a dictator.

Like much of my father’s family, Montessori was an Italian Catholic, and designed her educational model during a historical time when sex education wasn’t an issue on the table. The only sex theorist she even had to draw from was Freud, whose ideas on infant and child sexuality — sensibly so — she rejected. She did however address that sexuality was a particular issue for adolescents, and one which can be so encompassing and distracting for them that adaptations may need to be made in their education — such as allowing them more physical activity during the day. I can’t know, ultimately, what Montessori would have felt about sex education as it is today overall, save that it does seem to me to be part of Practical Life (the area of the classroom and materials in Montessori that focus on care of oneself, others and the environment) for older students. We can glean some ideas based on how she felt about education for ages 12 - 18 (see From Childhood to Adolescence for more on that). She felt it vitally important to recognize those ages as a passage into adulthood — not an extended childhood — to help students of those ages to feel capable and able. She emphasized adolescents’ need to separate from adults, rather than to be dependent on us or exploited by our determination of what is right for them based on our ideas-in-hindsight of what would have been right for us. She protested the notion that we need to save them from themselves, and worse still, try to do so in a way which is purposefully misleading and a barrier to freedom, motivated by the idea that the ends, however deceptive and controlling, justify the means. Fascism is incompatible with learning and liberty: this is why Montessori left her home country in the 1930’s.

She would have been very much opposed to any kind of education — sexual or otherwise — which denied what we observed in our students, denied the needs our students express and demonstrate to us; which was based in ideas of controlling their behavior by making them fearful of life and others rather than providing them with the information and tools they need in order to exercise their liberty to make their own choices and to follow their own interests and development.

Uncannily enough, Montessori once wrote something else which seems a sound representation of our current conundrum with approaches to sex education in the States. It was this: “The task of the educator lies in seeing that the child does not confound good with immobility and evil with activity.”

The inverse of that statement defines abstinence-only approaches to the letter. While good and evil is not a dichotomy which particularly speaks to me — few dichotomies or binaries do — ideas of good and evil, rather than ideas about liberty and learning, are foundational in abstinence-only education approaches and arguments against honest, factual, inclusive and comprehensive sex education. That simple sentence can tell us much about the flaws in a lack of sex education or abstinence-only sex education and the idea that the only way we can help protect people from activities which can carry risks is to keep them from them, teach them that they have no real means of managing them, or to urge them to be inactive — in both how they behave sexually and how we educate them sexually.

It shows up the red herring in the proposition that abstinence-only “sex education” is sex education at all, due to the approaches it takes, the purposeful misinformation or incomplete information it provides, and the place of control and withholding — a place with no allowance or respect for liberty — it’s all really coming from. It demonstrates an awful lot about if denying young people free and factual information and real opportunities for learning is really about health and well-being or really about being “good.”


(cross-posted at the Scarleteen blog)

Monday, April 7th, 2008

My plans for last weekend were pretty mellow: I was going to work on my taxes, do a little housecleaning, maybe get started on my garden now that the sun is back out, hang out with my sweetheart, finish some writing, practice piano and play some Scrabble. I was going to tend to myself, for the most part.

The weekend I would up having was quite a bit different.

Last Wednesday, I raced against the clock — I had to go work at the clinic the next day — to get everything up for our focus this month on sexual assault and abuse as part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. That included getting together a page and other materials for the “I Was Raped” shirts which months back, I’d agreed to help Jennifer Baumgardner distribute as part of a project to increase rape awareness, both through these t-shirts and the conversation we’d hoped they’d start, as well as through her developing film of the same name, which will focus on first-person stories from survivors.

The New York Times first covered the project, using a photo of Jennifer — which was appropriate, since this is her project. Then Gawker and Jezebel hit on it, using a photo of me in the shirt without my permission or even a request for it (and still have yet to respond to my requests to remove a copyrighted image they have no permission to use). A few more sites followed suit. Later on Friday, KOMO-4 news contacted me, telling me they were doing a story on it that night and asking for my participation. As is my general practice with television, I declined to be filmed, but did finally agree to have a phone interview.

Before that interview, the reporter and I had a discussion about using my image where I explained why I was not comfortable with my face being put on the television as a survivor. I explained that when I went to get coffee this weekend, I needed it to be up to me if I was “that woman who is dairy allergic, so don’t forget, soy only,” or “that woman who was raped.” I explained that as a counselor for an abortion clinic half the week, I didn’t want to make anything of my personal life so broadly visible that any of my clients might recognize me and doubt that it was their issues which were of the utmost importance in my office. I explained that choosing to show my face with this in one context is not permission for anyone to make that choice for me in others, and that I’m the expert on how much exposure I can handle and want. I was told they don’t show rape “victims” faces on television, anyway (and then wondered, if that was so, why we were even having that conversation in the first place).

Apparently, they do, because my face was indeed shown on the news, coupled with the reporter saying I’d requested they did not show it. My words were edited massively — as is to be expected — and no information on the project was even given. The “I Was Raped” t-shirt was compared to t-shirts reading “Yankees Suck,” and “Boys are stupid — throw rocks at them.” The story spread — the tone of it intact — and the video made its way to other stations, and eventually to CNN (which I only found out about after the fact: CNN never contacted me). The story has spread very largely through the blogosphere, and with some notable exceptions, an awful lot of what’s out there is full of a lot of misinformation about me and the project, and in some cases, some really inflammatory accusations. As of today, I’m about one for one between positive emails and negative ones, and while the positives are very positive, the negatives are really negative and many have been incredibly threatening and disturbing.

I’ve been accused of exploiting myself and other assault survivors just to make money, which would almost be comical if it weren’t so vile. Scarleteen gets five dollars from any shirt sold. Five dollars, which to make, means not only my processing the order, packing it to ship, walking to ship them as well as doing all I’ve done to set things up to sell them, the crazy amount of extra bandwidth all the press has brought on (none of which I courted or chose), and all of this causing technical problems with the site, but also includes putting up with all of the crap which I have over the last handful of days. You’d think it’d be pretty easy for a person of any intelligence to realize that if it was about the money, I could do better by setting up a lemonade stand on the sidewalk, make the same dough, and do so without any sort of emotional stress or difficulty. And flatly, if someone doesn’t want $5 to go to Scarleteen, I have no trouble sending it to a different organization which helps with rape prevention, awareness and healing. But since I’m also the one paying the bandwidth bills for all of this, doing a lot of the work, taking care of all the orders and shipping AND being the whipping boy of choice AND since Scarleteen does advocacy work in this area, I’m not sure what the big problem is.

I’ve gotten letters in my email box from those who came to Scarleteen and read some of our rape content, and felt the need to write me and explain to me all of the ways in which any given kind of sexual abuse was not actually sexual abuse at all, be it because the victim asked for it, because the victim apparently really wanted it but was just ashamed of their own desires, because when the victim is male they always really want it; how for “horny” teenage boys, raping is just something they do naturally, how all survivors need to do is find out what we did to get raped, make sure we don’t do that thing again and move on, how in doing what we do at Scarleteen in the first place, we’re setting girls up to be raped by encouraging them to be promiscuous sluts, or enabling rape somehow by educating youth on homosexuality.

I’ve had the great privilege of being patronized, with other victims, by non-survivors, “experts” on rape, or even other survivors letting us know what they think we need to be doing “for our own good,” how they think we don’t know how to protect ourselves, physically or emotionally, how much more it would scar us to take something “private” and make it in any way public…and how all of these concerns are OF COURSE about us, not about them. I have been told what my personal problems are, by people who know nothing about me, and about how I could do a lot more good if I did more meaningful things with my life than I do, or how, if I stopped doing the work I do now, went and took a corporate job, was able to buy a house and car, and then give money to an organization like…oh, the one I run, I could do more for other “victims.” I have been told outright that while a given letter-writer cares for all other rape survivors, they do not care for survivors like me, and feel that it is perfectly appropriate — nay, quite called for — to shower me with abusive invective.

(Might there be some truth in some of them saying this could be traumatic for survivors because of what I’m dealing with myself and how I’m feeling right now? Maybe, save when you realize that most of this is coming from my being shown wearing the shirt in places that were not of my choosing, and where, following the choice they made for me, I have asked not to be shown. In fact, I think how I’m feeling says a whole lot more about how rape survivors are often seen as everyone’s property — since we’ve already been spoiled, see, already ruined — than it does about how my choices to be public have resulted in my getting upset.)

I’ve read about how any survivor who wears this is being a terrible person to other abuse or rape survivors who might be triggered by it. However, I never see the same concerns voiced about, oh, many media representations of sex or romance, people verbally abusing their children in grocery stores, people who enforce ideas that sex is a duty people owe one another in certain social contexts, people using the word “rape” applied in scenarios like “The IRS just raped me,” or… hey, wait! People deciding to verbally abuse a survivor because she breaks silence in a way they don’t like or wouldn’t choose for themselves. Just a word on that? I feel pretty confident saying that many of us who are survivors will not be triggered by another survivor saying he or she was raped, or having that voiced in a pretty sensitive way on a piece of clothing. More to the point, if you think this is the only way in any given day we might be reminded of our rapes, you’ve got to be kidding. The most benign aspects of daily life are often triggers: groups of men crowding close to us in a bus, the street we have to walk down to get home which was the one we were raped on, being quickly grabbed by the shoulder from someone who had no idea that was a trigger, a chair, a doorknob, a broom handle, someone’s hand, a belt, a given way the light looks at a certain time of day, the smell of a cologne, the very skin we inhabit, or someone, perchance, saying something about rape to us like “Don’t tell a soul.”

I have, of course, had to deal with the nasty kinds of feedback we always get any time we talk about rape. I have gotten email which informs me that women are property and that women are raped because men are superior. I have gotten email that told me I am sexist because we largely address rape at the site of men and women which is perpetrated by men, not which is perpetrated by women (which is only because it is perpetrated by women so infrequently, and because we can only respond, in advice queries, to the questions which are asked: I assure you, I have not deleted or purposefully not published any questions about a person surviving a rape by a woman — I simply have not yet gotten any such questions). I have gotten email informing me that I am making a “disgusting display” to get attention and pity for myself — and to help young women, I am told, make false rape accusations — by choosing to put my face all over the news (which again, was very much not my choice, but one made for me against my express wishes). I have gotten email which informs me that if I was raped, I clearly deserved it for being the terrible, horrible waste of breathable air which I am. Of course, I also got letters from people said they would have supported the work that I do and this project until they found out that not only was I, and the site pro-choice, but that I also am a baby killer who works at an abortion clinic (one such letter also informed me that having an abortion would only add to the trauma of a rape survivor, but going through pregnancy or becoming a parent before a person was ready would somehow be in no way difficult or traumatic). I read a thread discussing if I was “hot, for a rape survivor” or not.

For the record, the gender of those with those responses is mixed. These kinds of sentiments by no means only come from men (and when it comes to supportive responses, we’ve had just as many from men as from women). They come from every kind of person you could possibly imagine. This is one of the many reasons why those who have been raped often stay silent: we never know who is going to react to our rapes like this, and are well aware that it’s possible the people we expect it from least may be the ones who react just like this. I can assure you, for the record, that of the people who have sent me the worst of this vitriol, around one of every two is someone who those who know them wouldn’t even suspect the malice they usually keep hidden, save for people like me.

We’ve had server troubles all day which I’ve had to stay on top of when I still have things I need to do which I had planned to do this weekend, but could not do because I have had to spend most of it on damage control, sending requests to people to please stop stealing my face without asking me, correcting tons of misinformation about all of this flooding my mailbox, having to read through piles of hate to find emails from Scarleteen users we need to tend to, and having to try all I can not to have all of this wear on my relationships with people glad to support me, but who also have needs of their own, and things they need from me. Suffice it to say, since we have had many positive responses, many people want the short, and I wasn’t prepared to have to be processing orders all weekend. I have also been reading the positive mails, which are great, but many of them also contain the writer’s personal rape experience. That’s not to say I am not open to being the person someone chooses to share with, and that I am not very glad if I can provide a way for someone to disclose, but obviously, reading those letters is not pleasant or cheerful.

Obviously, this wasn’t my best weekend ever. Many of these responses and results obviously disappoint and distress me.

But what they don’t do is surprise me. I’ve lived as a survivor for almost 27 years now, and I’ve worked in sex education, including in advocacy for survivors and efforts for prevention, for a decade. When I was a teacher, more than once I had to deal with the travesty that was the justice system for a student of mine who was being abused. I am used to people excusing away all manner of abuses, resenting the hell out of those of us who do our damndest to protest that, and am well aware that denial of abuse, and the amount of abuse which exists in the world, is alive and well and living…well, everywhere.

I am used to statements which start with, “If I was a woman and had been raped…” (as if men never get raped: but really, statements like this start that way because they’re about how women should behave, period), or “If I was a rape victim….” or “If I had been raped…” and with the uselessness that follows all of them. Maybe it’s time for me to start talking about how I might feel and behave were I a woman of color, were I a heterosexual person, were I a person of means, had I survived the Holocaust. Because, obviously, my ideas on how I might feel and behave in those situations would be so very useful, especially to those people who actually are members of those groups.

I am used to hearing that if I want to talk about my rape, if I make it important in any way, even for a limited time, that I haven’t “moved on.” I am used to hearing about how I deserved it, asked for it; I heard it from one of my rapists (and had I been fully conscious for one of my rapes, I am sure I would have heard it from more), I heard it from friends and family, I’ve heard it from others who are oh-so-certain they and my rapists have nothing in common. I am used to hearing that the difference between strong survivors and perpetual victims is this: if you never say a word about it, if no one around you even has to know you were raped, you’re a strong survivor. But if you’re upset, if you want to talk about rape or your rape, if anyone around you has to know what happened, then you’re looking to stay a perpetual victim so that you can live a sweet life where everyone feels sorry for you. I am used to hearing that if I want to speak out about my rape, publicly or privately, that anyone who hears me is entitled to react however they would like, even if that means speaking to me in a way which is abusive, threatening, callous or cruel.

I am used to hearing about how any given thing about me is so awful or distasteful that nothing about me or what I do deserves any sympathy or, — and more important to me, since I don’t really need sympathy — any kind of basic common courtesy or respect. Sometimes that’s been because I’m queer, other times because I do sex ed, other times because I’ve had an abortion (and now, because I also work where they are provided), because I’m Buddhist, because I’m this age or that one, this gender or that, because I look this way or I don’t look that way, because I don’t have issues with nudity, because I’m sympathetic to a given group of people, because I’m loud, because I’m independent, because I have sex I enjoy, because I’m still alive. I am used to every kind of excuse imaginable at this point for why I don’t deserve the same courtesies I have always extended to others.

None of these things are new to me, nor are they much different from what I have dealt with simply in my personal life when it comes to my rapes.

And I am used to hearing all of this so much, that while it never stops being hurtful, what it has long since stopped being for me is particularly powerful. Don’t get me wrong: I have spent a lot of the past few days somewhat shellshocked, but that has more to do with the en masse onslaught and a lack of sleep than it does with any particular thing anyone has said or done. I know the place the craptastic stuff comes from, and I know that that place is one of fear, resentment, guilt, ignorance, violence or self-loathing. As much as I revile those things, as much as I want them gone, and as bad as they make me feel, I can at least identify them, and I know very acutely where my own bad feelings come from and, for the most part, how to deal with them. I can even look them dead in the eye: again, that’s a survivor skill, too — to survive, we all have to learn to do that expertly.

I’m also used to the fact that all rape survivors are different. We are not all the same, our rapes were not all the same, how we’ve processed them or reacted to them has not all been the same. I have had plenty of thanks for other survivors in my email box over the weekend, but I have also gotten emails like this:

“You are a sick fuck… and if in fact you were truely raped you would not be so fucking stupid to even want to do something so damn outrageous on wearing a shirt. And I wonder why you dont want to show your face. You are a sick individual and I am a rape victim and now a survivor but you appaul me on such a horrible suggestion on someone wanting to wear such a dumb remark shirt. If in fact you were raped, you are as sick as i could ever imagine. Of how you want to make money on it… this is not fame this is a sick person like you it saddness me to think there are people in this world like you . Playing on what horrific act of rape , how it kills a person day in and day out. We have to live with that horrible thought of it happening to us. And then we have people like you… SICK.. how do you get up and look in the mirror? May god bless your sick soul.”

By all means, I feel the way that person chose to spoke to me was insensitive and cruel. However, I think that it’s really important to remember that none of us lives in a culture conducive to healing, or in a culture which makes it comfortable to live as a survivor. We can’t even trust each other, as fellow survivors (and when we’re addressing a survivor who is same-gender, be we male or female, an awful lot of same-gender learned distrust is tossed in the mix, something often even more difficult for male survivors since their rapists were usually male as well), in our motives, in how our healing differs, in the different places we’re at in it. Survivors are, justifiably, angry — and also all sorts of people — and can often enough direct that anger just about anywhere: that’s how it is when you’re so angry and so hurt and given so little support. I directed mine inward after I was assaulted, and doing that, on top of having my rape be a thread that wound through other trauma I was living with and trying to survive, nearly killed me and also set me up for challenges in my life — as well as more risks of danger — all of which could have been, if not avoided, strongly mitigated by being able to talk about my abuses, at all, and finding some kind of support. I don’t like getting emails like that, to say the least, but at the same time, I have to take a breath, stop, and recognize that at the very least, someone just got some release of all of that anger, and while I don’t think I’m the right person to direct it to, that that person was able to direct it anywhere — to open up that pressure valve — is a likely positive for that person.

It may well also be — and pardon any pop psychology on my part — that as much as I don’t want this kind of visibility, that survivor does, and resents me for having what she wants. That’s also valid, since we are made intensely invisible as a group of people, particularly if we become survivors, rather than remain victims. While if our rapes were in some way found horrific, we might get some media-based ambulance-chasing, once they’re over, we’re non-issues, and if there is nothing particularly noteworthy about our rapes (and for most of them, the general population will find nothing noteworthy about them), we’ll rarely see address at all. In any case, victims trump survivors, and victims who arouse a pithy kind of pity trump all.

Or, this one: “No body in there right mind would believe that you’re truly doing this to help other people. I’m a real survivor because I’d never broadcast or announce the horrible things that have happened to me. the only people who would wear that shirt are full of shit. NO BODY would wear that who’s really been raped. But I’m sure a bunch of girls will buy it who want attention and want people to feel sorry for them. I do think this should be taken away from you and all the bullshitting bitches who pretend this has happened to them. Millions of women have suffered and worked very hard to over come what you are now trying to profit from. You should NOT be allowed to capitalize on other people’s pain. And even if you were raped that shouldn’t give you the right to profit from it. Did you know when you were raped that you were going to get paid for it? Or did that idea come later?”

What I hear in this — once more, forgive me for being armchair — is that this person needs to be validated in surviving, and needs to have someone let her know that however she speaks out of silence is okay, is brave, is laudable, even if it doesn’t look like someone else’s way. My impression is that she needs for her rape to be made important, because if it already really felt that way, I’m not sure why she’d put so much energy (I got three different emails from this woman before I blocked her address) into telling me how no one’s story is true but her own or those which resemble hers. I hear that she is suffering, and I hear that she is tremendously, and probably righteously, angry. That doesn’t mean I’m going to say she’s not responsible for misdirecting her anger at me, because she is, and I’ve directed no such things at her or anyone else, but it is to say that I can only get so angry back at someone in this space. I know that space: been there, done that, and — literally — have the t-shirt.

Here’s what we don’t often see and hear in the various peanut galleries of the Internet: we don’t see many survivors sharing the stories they have also shared with me both in my email box over the weekend and in other avenues I’ve had them shared with me in my life, both with work, and with the people who have personally disclosed to me over the years. I even got stories in my email box from survivors who were at sites talking about this, where so many people incessantly talked about how they were not silencing anyone, and yet, these people didn’t feel able to tell their stories, or perhaps even share the mere fact of being survivors. people who send me email like the above aren’t posting it in the forums or on the blogs: through the resentment, they also know I’m safe, or else I’d not be hearing this. Everyone else would.

Some survivors do want something like this. It’s okay to want it, and it’s okay not to, and wanting it or not doesn’t determine who was and who was not raped. It’s having been raped, only, which determines that. The two women above were raped. The man who wanted one of these and told me it was because of being brutally raped during time he spent in jail over a misdemeanor was raped. The woman who bought one because she was molested as a child was raped. The person who bought it for their partner who is working on acceptance of their rape was raped.

Saturday morning, I literally overheard my neighbors talking about the news story on the porch (and clearly not knowing it was their neighbor, who could hear them, they were talking about: Seattleites don’t tend to be very familiar neighbors)

So, why would a survivor wear something like this? Obviously, I can’t speak for anyone other than myself and for those who have talked about why they would. I’ve also already said a little bit about why I would here. One of the emails above asks how I look at myself in the mirror.

When the t-shirts got here, and I put one on to take a quick photo, checking in the mirror to make sure that despite the fact that I was two days late on washing my hair, I wasn’t too disheveled, it was an interesting experience. It was like myself was telling myself a hard truth directly, but gently. With a quiet, but clear, understanding. Rape is something that those of us who are raped are told at every turn to doubt happened to us, to explain away with a rapist’s “misinterpretation” of our nonconsent, to do our best to rid our memories of the experience, to the point that even someone like me, who also works with other survivors, who has done an epic amount of personal processing for over a very long period of time can have days and times where I, too, wonder if somehow, in some way, I managed to imagine what happened to me. Maybe that blood was from something else: maybe I just had hemmorhoids I didn’t know about. Maybe that soreness is from falling off my bike and I just don’t remember when. Maybe the reason I don’t remember all of that assault isn’t because I got knocked on the head, but because nothing actually happened. Maybe no one wants to believe me because I’m crazy, and this is all some sort of delusion. Maybe all of those body image issues, that overdose, all that poetry I wrote in my teens was about all that OTHER stuff, and that other stuff caused me to believe I was raped. Maybe when he shoved my head in his crotch, he mistook it for his own hand: maybe while I was choking on what he wanted and I didn’t, he just didn’t know I couldn’t breathe. Surviving rape is a whole world of maybe, but maybe nots.

So, sitting there, looking myself in the eye in the mirror with that t-shirt on did cause me to cry, and even if I never wear it anywhere else, even though I have, at other times, been able to acknowledge and accept what happened to me, that moment was powerful for me. I deeply could look at myself in the mirror and accept the woman who is there and everything that made her who she is, even when some of those things are incredibly difficult and not things I wished for. I was proud of her, and she made me feel strong and able, both for myself and for the work I do where I need to help others find strength and resilience. I can do that at other times, too, but I’m always grateful for any new tool to help me do that, because some days, the ones I have don’t work or don’t take me to a new place.

Over the weekend, when I was talking to an old friend on the phone providing support, he said to me, “You know, you can take this. I know it doesn’t feel good, and you don’t want to, but the fact is, you can handle this.” It might sound hollow, that, but the truth of the matter is that yes, I can. That woman looking back at me in the mirror could. If taking it wasn’t something I thought might carry any benefits for anyone, not only would it all be even more upsetting than it already is, I wouldn’t have had anything to do with this in the first place, or even have been public about surviving rape as I have been over the years. I didn’t need to be as public as I have for myself: just telling people close to me and being able to sometimes speak through my art, for me, has been enough. I’ve been more public in the hope that my doing so will help other people be able to break silence, find strength, and be able to find whatever way is their way to healing.

The biggest bummer with things like this is that unfortunately, one very strong message the backlash sends to other survivors is that it is absolutely best they stay silent: because if they don’t, see, if they speak up like I do, speak up in any way, this, too, is what will happen to them. Some who silence with ignorance, fear or guilt probably have no idea that this is a likely result: others, of course, very much are aware that they are silencing and very much intend to silence.

But here’s the thing: something like this shirt isn’t for every survivor, nor for any given survivor in every environment, on every day. I do a lot with my life, and my rape is not often at the forefront of any of it, but sometimes it is, and sometimes, it’s helpful to others if I let it be, as much as I’d prefer not to. Being able to even just say — even just to oneself — “I was raped,” is rarely easy, even though it does get easier over time. It still always hurts, it always infuriates, it always confuses, it always saddens, especially in a world which makes it so very hard to speak just that simple fact and to have it merely acknowledged. It is never easy, and it will never be easy. Saying it out loud, in any way, to anyone, is almost always scary, almost always risky. But for ourselves, and for others, when we can do it, when we are able — and it’s always okay when we’re not — it’s usually, in my opinion, a worthwhile risk. While it means that we might open ourselves up to all kinds of garbage, it also means we might open ourselves up to the good stuff, too, to connections which are rare and unfathomably meaningful, to us or to others.

I won’t be dishonest: I still want that other weekend that I was going to have back. I’d have preferred that weekend, and I really needed that weekend for myself. I spent a lot of time this weekend very deeply resenting feeling like I was pushed into the spotlight in a way I did not choose and I did not want: up until now, I’ve felt like the level of public I have been has been enough to make things better for enough people that something like this level of visibility wasn’t anything anyone needed me to do. And yet, seeing all that I have seen over the last few days, I can only assume that I was wrong in that, since if things like this were not needed, I can’t imagine I’d be seeing so much of what I had. We’d be past all of this by now, wouldn’t we? So, if that’s what needed to happen, and it did or could net anything at all positive, I can live with that. I can have that weekend I needed another time. I can move past my anger and resentment. I can make time up to my partner next weekend. I can have my life go back to being about all the other things it’s about shortly. Again, I can take this: I may not want to, but I can.

There’s no perfect note to end this on. I’m massively grateful for the support myself and the project have been shown by some. I’m deeply moved by the other survivors who have trusted me to share their stories, and to those who also have offered their care and compassion, and not just because you let me help you heal, but you helped heal some hidden parts of me I didn’t even realize still needed healing. I’m deeply saddened, frustrated, shellshocked and worn the hell right out from all of the backlash — and some of that is surprise in that I was more vulnerable than I thought myself to be and at the same time stronger, but also not as over my rapes as I have long thought — but I’m just hoping that maybe at least some of it will result in something positive, either for survivors, or for the world that we live in when it comes to how survivors are treated, how rape is viewed and in terms of anything and everything which might keep it from happening to anyone at all.

And if, from a Buddhist perspective, there truly is no separation between the self and others, and I am seeing and hearing from so many people who clearly need to work through all of this chaos, who have all of this inside and around them — and if the way I, myself, have been feeling has anything to do with anything — then all of these last few days hasn’t really just been about or for other people: it’s been about and for me, as well.

So, as it turned out, and for as much as it sure hasn’t felt like it, it seems I spent the weekend tending to myself, after all.

It seems appropriate to link this to Carly Milne’s blogging project to benefit RAINN, and I’ll write for that project a few more times before month’s end. We’ve linked to RAINN and its services for years at Scarleteen, so it shouldn’t be new to anyone, but to say it is a worthy place to support is a serious understatement. RAINN has made, and continues to make, great efforts for both rape prevention and survivor support, and if you have some extra cash — especially for many of you who get tax refunds — it’s a fantastic place to put it. I know I certainly could have used what it provides, and many other survivors do as well.

Saturday, April 5th, 2008

So, the television news segment basically just validated all of why I don’t ever agree to do TV, and why I won’t ever even try again to half-do TV like I agreed to last night.

It was earnestly idiotic. It compared the “I Was Raped” shirts to two other visuals of t-shirts: “Yankees Suck,” and “Boys are stupid — let’s throw rocks at them.” It sliced and diced my words to its liking: when asked if I thought people might not get positive reactions to the shirt, I had said that is certainly possible, and a wearer might be met with embarrassment or scorn…but that she or he also might be might with connection with other survivors, with sensitivity and understanding, and that even a negative reaction could be an opportunity for discussion and getting people to reconsider what they think about rape. They edited that statement down to end with “a wearer might be met with embarrassment or scorn, and left it at that. On the phone, the reporter also asked me if I wasn’t worried about survivors (though she said victims) choosing to wear it before they were ready, which may go down in history as one of the most ridiculous things I have ever heard. I told her that for most, even just telling the closest person to you is something you might go back and forth about doing for days, months, weeks, years, and the idea that someone would just be all, “Let’s just put this shirt on and see what happens,” without any considerable thought was moronic and seriously uninformed. Apparently, being assaulted not only traumatizes us, it also inhibits our ability to think things through for ourselves anymore or know what we are and aren’t ready for. Of course, that didn’t make the cut.

They clearly resented my not being interested in going on TV or being seen — even though they told me it wasn’t their policy to show rape survivors’ (they used the word victim — as they did through most of the news story) faces, they made a point of saying, while showing my face that I had asked not to have a visual. This after an extensive conversation about how I would prefer not having to worry about going to get coffee in my neighborhood for the next week or so and have to be “that girl who was raped,” and would prefer not having to risk a potential clinic client seeing that segment then having me as a counselor and then feel like her issues were not as important as mine. Thanks.

They had a sexual assault counselor on as their expert (pity they didn’t pull in the part about how one of the big deals of Jennifer’s documentary is to have the only “experts” on surviving be survivors)who was seriously patronizing, talking about nothing but what delicate flowers we all are and how wearing something which identified that we had been raped could “scar” us… but for all I know, they edited her stupidly, too. They also didn’t talk, at all, about WHY the t-shirts were around, what the whole of the project was, et cetera.  It also sure would have been interesting if they had pulled this event yesterday into the piece, but I suppose that would have grossly interfered with the presentation they were going for.
In a word, it was just dumb. Nothing horrendous, but mightily stupid. The online version isn’t great, to say the least, but it does at least mention the project in the midst of misspelling my name the whole time. I got a thank you note from the reporter, saying she’d keep my contact information for future reference and did manage to resist the urge to write back telling her to shove it up her bum. I count this as a victory.

Yesterday? Not a good day. Mark was amazing about it, though, even letting me know that it was 100% okay that I couldn’t find the kind of understanding in him that I needed at the moment, and even though who I really wanted to talk to was my ex I’ve been talking to, since abuse issues were one place we had a common background. He actually said something very quotable, my sweetie did, which is that he isn’t “swiss army boyfriend,” and that the fact that he can’t meet all my needs at times like that isn’t something I should feel bad about. Normally I wouldn’t, but last night, I did, and that helped. He had a friend of his — my favorite friend of his, too — who might come by and asked if he should tell him not to, or what to tell him, and totally got it when I said I was fine with him coming by, but just did not want to tell the whole tale of my day again to someone who wasn’t going to get it. Per usual, I have a good sweetie, and it’s a hell of a thing.

I also got some pretty amazing survivor stories, including two from male survivors, sent to me in my email yesterday. Obviously, that didn’t help me calm down any emotionally, but it was really touching and it did help me feel a little bit more connected to people who get it.

Still no response from the sites using my image without permission, so for now, until I hear back from my lawyer pal, I’m just going to try and let it go. Today is what yesterday was supposed to be: a day of sitting with all my boxes of receipts and getting them into sections to do taxes, so I don’t have to go be out and about at all post-news segment, which is good. And today, I am going to call my ex (we really need a better word for the friendship we’ve been forming, but we haven’t found it yet), because weird as that still is after so many years of disconnection, it is exactly who I need right now.

Wednesday, March 26th, 2008

The woman here in Ballard who runs the local apothecary has always been awesome (and is also a fellow member of the women-going-grey-in-dire-need-of-a-haircut-with-big-glasses-who-live-in-blue-jeans club), and while my practice with herbalism and the lot goes back around 20 years now, even when I’ve been stumped with things before, she’s had a creative answer. Today I went in considering, for the second time this week, buying a nice teapot for my office at the clinic, since being unable to offer women a cup of tea when they come in strikes me as rude. I still wasn’t all the way there, just because of money issues, but she overheard me moping to Audra about the fact that I couldn’t burn aromatherapy candles in there, either, due to fire codes. I just feel like the leftover scent of Lysol is way too medical for a counseling office and not at all comforting, especially when clients are upset or distressed. My office should be their place of peace.

But voila! She comes out with a very nice electric diffuser and a bunch of pads for me, and only charged me for one set of the pads: she knows what I do for my living and is on board. After I nabbed a bottle of clary sage to use with it (it’s an excellent antidepressant, tends to be very calming and also promotes healing — it’s also heaven if you’ve got a migraine), I picked up a bottle of rosemary, wishing I could use it, but felt like it was a little too stimulating for clients. She offers up myrtle as an alternative, which indeed, is very similar to rosemary in scent, just not quite as strong, and says myrtle always makes her feel cared for. I’ve never really worked with myrtle before, and when I get home and look it up, turns out it’s of great help with anger issues and anxiety. Perfect!

It’s not the answer to world hunger or anything, but I’m very excited to be able to go back to the clinic tomorrow with this small improvement to the space.

Saturday, March 15th, 2008

I am filing my survival of this last week under M for total freaking miracle. I slept until 10:00 this morning, after going to sleep before midnight, which is legendary sleeping-in for me, and I still woke up with achy feet and a very exhausted mind.

It’s tough to be unable to really write about work here. For as long as I have been keeping a public journal — nine years now — I have been self-employed, with only the occasional freelance gig where I had non-disclosures. Of course, I have never discussed every single case with Scarleteen, everything that goes on with managing the volunteers, nor did I do the same with Scarlet Letters or with photo clients, but I have always had an awful lot of room to discuss the ins and outs of my day being my own boss and having a setup where client privacy was not a big issue.

It’s weird to have a million big things I could write about and to be unable to write about them. Every day at the end of the day I come home with at least one client stuck in my heart or my head which I need to process, and writing things out is one of my primary means of expression and process. I have still sometimes written things out just for myself, but this is a large part of how much more infrequently I’ve posted here of late: time constraints notwithstanding, I just literally cannot write about my clients in-depth at the clinic or most of the goings-on there. I’m trying to feel out the ways that I can while protecting privacy, but it’s tricky.

In an extra training for options counseling yesterday — counseling for clients who are pregnant and don’t know what they want, so need someone to just sit for an hour or so and talk through their unique situation and walk through how all of their choices look and feel to them to help them find the best one — my trainer asked what we do to take care of ourselves when we’re feeling emotionally spent or upset. And I do still write it out sometimes, but given privacy issues and that writing is so much more work for me than leisure, I’ve been diversifying how I process lately. Obviously, talking it out with friends is massive, but on really tough days, I also have this thing going I really like where I load up the woodstove with wood and get a really hot fire going, sit in front of it and start sweating, and then let myself have a really good cry. The heat and sweat mixed in with the tears is my little sweatlodge: it’s seriously cleansing, and usually does the trick. I leave feeling warmed and relaxed by the whole process rather than feeling isolated or wrecked.

I also brought up the issue of how with any kind of job like this, you have to be able to recognize that there is only so much you can do, especially since by the time someone comes to you for help or counseling, they are coming as a result of situations and background that you can’t influence. In other words, the stage was set long before you. So, you have to invest yourself in doing what you can to help them right now — be that in giving them education they want/need or negotiating in relationships such as at Scarleteen, or in providing abortions or counseling to help them make reproductive decisions at the clinic. Any or all of that will, hopefully, help them, and be positives, but you can’t even get invested in those positives having legs: they may or may not. And by the time they leave your office or your websites or your email, you’ve done what you can do most of the time for them. You had your moments, and they have passed, and afterwards, it’s out of your hands. In other words, when you’re there, to do your best by them, I think you really need to fully commit and invest, but for you, after you’ve done that, then you need to be able to detach and let go. Obviously, that’s not always easy, and it’s also not always comfortable to fully invest when you’re in it.

The cases that keep leaving me hit the most hard are the genetics cases and the women you have to tell are too late to have a termination. With the genetics ones, even though I’m personally not one of those people who has ever seen the import of having biological kids vs. adopting (or to be more clear, creating family in any number of ways) — likely in part because I’ve never found that being actually related to someone automatically creates a stronger bond and because I also hate how many kids live their whole lives in foster care — it still is just so heartbreaking when a woman has planned a pregnancy or really wanted a happy surprise with one that was unplanned, made room in their lives and hearts for kids, saved money, etc., gotten all excited about it and then has to terminate when that is the last thing in the world she wants to do. Conversely, with the too-lates (which often happens because someone just didn’t know — lots of women have very irregular periods, especially young women — saving money for a procedure just took that long, they had to travel long distances, etc.) when an abortion is THE thing a woman wants, and she absolutely doesn’t want to parent or stay pregnant, telling her she’s without that choice is often an awful thing to have to do. When that happens with teens or very young women, I get extra sad, and when it’s with women, for instance, who are heavy drug users and you know that beyond their turmoil, they’re not even likely to deliver healthy kids (and lord knows that this is one of those instances where these folks are unlikely to be good parents, and those kids are unlikely to find adoptive families either, if they’re born special-needs), it’s another huge weight.

Of course, even outside of those situations, the stories women tell you about how they came to be in the spot they’re in are often maddening, upsetting, or just really sad. I’m not just talking rape or domestic abuse cases but also serious interpersonal betrayals or sudden abandonments with partners, the way they lose jobs or homes, how many doctors are just lax in telling people how to use birth control properly or just choose methods for patients that are not likely to work for them, how many partners don’t comply with birth control use, and so on. A couple times now, I’ve had women for whom the two-week period where you cannot have vaginal sex in order to prevent infection afterwards was a very real problem, not because of abusive partners (had those too), but because sex was how they paid the rent: making clear that they may have to choose between paying their bills and putting their health or lives on the line just stinks. And as a sexuality activist, how many women are thrilled when you say they can’t have sex for two weeks — some of whom will even ask if we can’t tell their partners it’s longer than that — is endlessly depressing.

I keep threatening to wear a button that says “Just keep it in your pants, man” for the men in the waiting room given how frequently I hear the story that’s that some guy doesn’t want any more kids because he has so many with other partners. Yet, Mr. Thing, knowing full well he no longer wants any children and being firm on that point, isn’t willing to get a vasectomy or even back up BC methods with condom use. Instead, he sees it as totally workable that he can just pressure partners into abortions they may not even want to serve his own ends. These same guys will usually pitch a fit when I say that no, they can’t come into the counseling session, because they usually really, very clearly, do not like the idea that their partner can say something about them uninfluenced or uncontrolled. Suffice it to say, if and when I find they’ve pressured a partner who doesn’t want an abortion and I discharge those partners with resources to have the kid they want, these guys are NOT happy. (Apparently, we’re not doing our job if we don’t push abortion on people, as clearly, we’re expected to do that.) I have, however, developed a hairy-eyeball just for them that has limited the number of times they’ll ask to go back with us, to the point that though I do usually say I can come get them when they are done if they have questions or want to talk to me, many of them are starting to get the message that they probably do not want to give me private time with them, because I am not the women they’re used to dealing with.

Too, sometimes you meet women who have just been through these unbelievably challenging lives are are flat-out amazons. I had one of them the week before last who had to be discharged due to having such collapsed veins from years of heroin use — she’d kicked the habit amazingly for the last handful of years — but got to come back last week. She had a kid she loved dearly, but because of a severe reproductive health problem likely due to her years as a user, found out she was not going to be able to carry another. I adored her, but there was something bittersweet about it, beyond her having to make a choice she would have preferred not to. With how she looked and what her social mannerisms were, with what she told me about her life and her recent medical history, it was clear she was one of those people that most tended to treat like shit on sight and without seeing who she really was. If I could have scheduled someone to give her a foot massage during her procedure and a week on some beach afterwards, I would have. I didn’t leave those days feeling sorry for her, like I said, she was incredibly strong and really amazing in my book, but there was something I carried home: this sadness that she deserved a life she was probably not going to be able to ever have, no matter how hard she worked at it and how much she survived.

This last week, not only did I work more than twice as many hours as usual, and have some other work issues on my plate to deal with, I had all of these kinds of cases and more when I was counseling. This weekend, I’d planned to be at Scarleteen pretty much 24/7 to make up for last week, but today that is so not going to happen. I think I need that heat and those tears today, and then some time to deal with no one’s crises.

Wednesday, March 12th, 2008

This is shaping up to be a seriously crazy week: I’ve already done two days of clinic time, and on Monday, we had new protocols, new paperwork, and one counselor out with the flu on one of the busiest days I’ve seen there so far. My first chart showed up at 8:15 and the last one I pulled was just before 5:00, with only a half hour break for a quick lunch in there. It also included a client to whom I had to break the news that she was too late for a termination, which always seriously sucks, to say the least. Yesterday, I went downtown (a MUCH better commute: I’m only a 20-minute bus ride away, tops) and did some BDI logic model training for the sex ed outreach arm of the clinic which was awesome, but that meant last night and continuing through today, I’m racing to finish a piece past a deadline for something else, and then have to do a bunch of work for extra training in Options Counseling for Friday. Tomorrow I’m probably going to want to just take my coffee in an IV since I have to counsel all day then jet over to a public health clinic at night to do some sex ed work. Then, over the weekend, I need to do some prepping for our bi-monthly all-clinic staff meeting Monday because I’m teaching a self-defense piece to staff, and I’m a bit rusty when it comes to teaching self-defense. Somewhere amidst all of that I have to try and at least do some of the usual Scarleteen work.

So, yeah: still exhausted. It’s old news, I know.

When a little bit of time shows up, I’ll write more about this is depth because I have a lot to say, but over the past couple of months, I’ve reconnected very strongly with an ex, and it’s been tremendously powerful. This is someone who I had hurt, made amends with over ten years ago after a five-year-period where we didn’t speak, then the amends and what all happened in the one-week-period of time around sent me into a massive tailspin which had legs for years of my life. We only started talking again after this recent reconnection, and we seem to finally have found a place that really works for us, and that’s just incredibly fortifying and restorative for both of us. We had a very intense and highly charged relationship — and it was one of the rare one for me where I was with someone very similar to me; I tend more often to get involved with people who are a contrast to me — and while we loved each other immensely, and knew one another very deeply, I don’t think we ever really had a real friendship in all of that. A lot of that had to do with both of us being so young for something so big, and also both being so post-traumatic in various respects, but I also think we just weren’t in the space in our lives yet to manifest what we had as a friendship. Being able to forge one now feels like the rightest thing ever, and it’s been amazing to really feel that, especially getting close to almost 20 years after we first met.

On the other hand, last week someone I went to Jr. High with managed to track me down, and the group of friends from back then have apparently all reconnected and been looking for us stragglers. While it was awesome to hear from that person, that reconnection — especially with everyone from then — isn’t something I want to pursue. That spanned a period of my life which was easily the most traumatic I have ever had, where for those years, I had to invest energy every day in outwardly projecting a person who…well, wasn’t me. I had so many horrendous things happen to me during that period of time, my home life was so awful, and having no history with those kids since I had only moved to that area once the bad got started, there wasn’t a single friend then who really had any idea of what I was really grappling with or trying to survive. Meeting up with them again, even just via email or the phone, would be so surreal for me; seeing people who felt like they knew you and feel warmly about the shell they knew, but who you knew didn’t know you at all, on top of a 24 year-lapse of any contact just strikes me as sad and strange. So, I’ve had a few bittersweet moments around that over the last couple of days: it stinks to be reminded of a childhood you were robbed of, and it’s not something I choose to reflect on often, to say the least.

Mark got home from Austin late Monday night, and last night we got to reunite in the somewhat ritual fashion we seem to have: we crack a bottle of wine, take turns sharing everything the other one missed while we were apart, start collectively cooking while blaring some music so we can dance in the kitchen at the same time, enjoy a meal, gab some more, then head upstairs to get all sweaty, juicy and melty. Paired with the fact that I could sleep until 8 this morning, it was a bonafide luxury, one I very, very much needed. I even got to wake up with some serious bedlocks from a lot of happy thrashing, which Mark would have had himself if he had any hair.

And with that, back to the grindstone go I.

Addendum: Piece finished. Man, I love writing manifestos. That was tough but supremely gratifying.  Now on to a quick bath, homework for the training Friday, and if I get really lucky, to bed.

Wednesday, February 6th, 2008