Christmas 2018: A Weary World Rejoices

Last week, a woman threw her coffee at me. This kind of sums up my 2018, really.

I had parked my car along a curb to pick someone up from an apartment building. Another car pulled alongside mine, blocking me in. I waited a moment for them to move forward. They didn’t. I waited another minute or two, started my car, and gave a gentle honk of the horn to let them know I was there. 

After a moment, a woman got out of the passenger side. I gave her a friendly wave. She slammed her door and yelled obscenities at me. Then she threw her cup of Tim’s coffee at my windshield and stormed into the apartment building. 

I was shattered for the rest of the day. I asked myself, over and over, what I’d done to provoke it. I hadn’t been hostile. Why had she? I kept seeing the coffee splattering across my windshield, the mess obscuring my vision.

And that, for me, was 2018: I pinballed through the year thinking I was doing okay only to meet with the worst, until I could see only the mess.

I know I’m not alone in feeling like 2018 has dragged on for much longer than its allotted 12 months. This year has been a long slog through a dank pit of ugly. For me, I’ve been trying to emerge from a cocoon, but I am far from a beautiful butterfly (at best, I am a stubby moth). It’s been a year when I felt like the universe was shouting “NO” each time I tried to move forward — almost as if a physical roadblock was placed in front of me, forcing me to stop, check my map, and recalibrate. I’ve learned not to take stability of any kind for granted.

I shed a work situation that was financially ruinous for me; on the upside, it forced me to be intentional and creative about the path I want to take going forward.  Puck emerged from the worst (knock wood) of his challenges; his confidence and peace are a wonderful mystery to me, but I’m always on alert for things to change. Daisy, on the other hand, has struggled mightily this year against her own demons. My heart aches for her, and I worry about the road ahead. But my concern is tempered by the fact that my sweet girl shares her feelings and fears with me. We will find the strength to get through these things, together. 

2018 was the year I confronted the demon that’s been riding on my back for almost 30 years: I was diagnosed with PTSD as a result of the sexual assault I experienced at age 20. I’ve long suspected the diagnosis, but as so many of us do, I saw the problems I’ve experienced more as character flaws and personal failures. I saw the symptoms individually rather as connected parts of a constellation. The hyper-vigilance and startle reflex. The nightmares. The flashbacks and invasive thoughts. The fear of groups of people. The fear of people who are drinking. The inability to trust people or open up to them. The constant, punishing self-hatred and self-sabotage. It was only when someone helped me to see these things together that I understood this wasn’t just something I could just shake off.  Parts of me are still stuck in that August afternoon in 1989, and I’ve started the hard work of facing them. World events have certainly forced my hand in this. It’s hard to deny your own experiences when watching Christine Blasey Ford give her brave testimony, or when listening to so many #metoo stories. The more women come forward, the more others make sense of what has happened to them.

There is relief in knowing that I can, finally, work through this, and that the world is in a more supportive place for it to happen. There is exhaustion and dismay at doing it at the same time my children need my full attention. And there is so much emotion. I am raw, and vulnerable, and I cry a hell of a lot. I am so angry, and so sad, but I have also found my voice and a new energy. I feel like kicking things. I want to kick at my memories, and at insensitive people. Inadequate systems. The patriarchy. 

It’s tempting, after such a year as this, to turn one’s back on the holiday season. It may seem needlessly exhausting, frustrating, and even pointless to turn on the Christmas tunes and put on a merriment we don’t necessarily feel. There are oh, so many moments when I want to just pull a blanket over my head and hide until January 2nd. Many of us feel shame about our lack of Christmas spirit. But there should be no shame is noting what’s lacking in our hearts. Focussing solely on the happiness of the season ignores the polarity that’s inherent in Winter Solstice. This time of year and its celebrations are traditionally as much about the darkness as the light. Death and rebirth. Ends and beginnings. I feel that more than ever, this year. So despite the emotional exhaustion and confusion that’s been my 2018, I can embrace that polarity and drag myself across the year’s finish line. We’ve made it. It’s almost done. I might not be able to clearly see the light yet, but I can celebrating the fading of the dark.

This year, I find myself clinging to traditions. I’m not doing it out of a fear that it MUST be done or Christmas will be a failure (which is how I’ve felt in the past). This year, revisiting traditions and holiday memories feels healing and therapeutic. We dig our traditions out of boxes and recipe books each year not just to make things look good for those around us, but to connect with what’s missing. I do them because they bring me closer to the women who have gone before, who have struggled hard to make a magical holiday out of very little in times or war, unemployment and illness. I look at their cookie recipes, written in fine cursive on the back of a receipt in the 1940s, and I know I am another chapter in our family story. I feel less alone. There is continuity and renewal.

This year, Daisy and Puck are both teenagers. I’m less concerned with the external trappings of Christmas, and much more focused on how things feel. My rituals exist not just to give them magic and memories, but to give them tools for the future, for times when the pressure to have a holly jolly Christmas exceeds the happiness they feel. The tools aren’t fancy, and they aren’t necessarily ones I learned in social work school. But they can, I hope, help them fill their cups at times when they’re running dangerously low on magic and faith. This year, I’m teaching them to make the Acadian meat pie generations of my family has eaten on Christmas Eve, so that they can feel more connected to who they are and where they come from. We’re talking through memories as we choose which decorations to put out. Christmas 2018 is about careful, quiet activities that bring us peace, and that we choose for ourselves. If we don’t want to do it, we’re saying no. The three of us have come to realize, this year, that living up to others’ expectations — and sometimes, our own expectations — can be where trouble begins. Defining happiness for ourselves (and defining what Christmas will look like), can be where peace starts.

Traditions ground us, providing a reminder that no matter how unrecognizable life becomes, there are still elements of comfort and joy and familiarity — things that can take us back to what feels like a simpler time. They don’t have to be done to Martha Stewart standards. Half-assed will do very nicely, sometimes. Having the right decorations and an Instagrammable meal doesn’t guarantee holiday happiness. To be honest, some of the years when I had the most picture-perfect holidays was when I was feeling my absolute lowest. 

There was a Christmas when Puck and Daisy were still babies, when everything looked perfect. The house was perfectly decorated. The gifts were just right. My freezer was stuffed with cookies. But my world smelled of gingerbread and despair. I woke in the wee hours the day before Christmas and thought, for an instant, that the best gift I could give everyone was to no longer be here. The thought was fleeting, but it was terrifying. Despite the brightly coloured lights around me, I could see only blackness. Later that day I went into my office, closed the door, and called a crisis line. A photo from a Christmas party I attended that evening shows me cuddling a young Puck in my arms, smiling and laughing. You’d never have known. 

You never do know. 

That’s why kindness — to ourselves, and to others — is so important. Everything is fleeting. Happiness. Life. The holiday season. Troubles.

The solstice approaches. The darkness has drawn out, but the light will return. 

And to the woman who threw the coffee at my car — I get it. I do. A cup of kindness can be hard to find, sometimes, and the smallest thing can become too much. I hope your cup and your spirit are well replenished. 

 

*NOTE: if you need help over the holidays, do reach out. There is hope beyond the dark.

https://www.crisistextline.ca

Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868

Crisis Services Canada: 1-833-456-4566, or text 45645

Native Youth Crisis Hotline: 1-877-209-1266

or DIAL 911, or visit your local emergency department.

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Time and Tide

I like to tell my children two facts to dazzle them with proof of my advancing years:

1. I was born (slightly) before humans went to the moon, and;

2. Three-quarters of my life (and most of its most significant events) came before social media. 

Of these two facts, it’s the latter that my kids find most shocking, because a life without social media — without a digital trail of your every move, just a click away— feels more alien to them than a trip to space.

Most of the hard proof of my existence is analog, not digital. It’s photos and memorabilia, and it’s scarce and scattered. It’s shoved, out of order, into photo albums and shoeboxes and slide carousels. It’s hidden in cupboards and cabinets and basements. It’s gathering dust in mysterious undeveloped rolls of film in a junk drawer. It’s falling out of yearbooks, along with pressed flowers and notes whose importance I’ve forgotten (although they were important enough for 16-year-old me to keep them forever, certain that middle-aged me would remember and be impressed). 

It’s easy to ignore analog memories. Don’t want to think about it? Don’t look at it. Hide that photo. Pack away the yearbook. If I don’t think of them, the memories stay hidden and unconfronted. Many exist nowhere but in my mind. And memories, I’m all too aware, are tenuous things. Keep them hidden too long, and they may well fade or get lost forever…much like an old Polaroid fades, its image slipping away.

The digital world, though, doesn’t let things slip away. We trip over the memories it throws in our path, unbidden and out of context. It’s not the shoebox hidden under the bed; it’s Pandora’s Box opened in front of the world.

I was reminded of this last week when Facebook showed me what I was doing eleven years ago. Memories from that far back don’t usually pop up in my timeline; back in my early social media days, I didn’t post much, unless it was something really important. And this had been important: my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. We’d spent it at White Point Beach Resort on Nova Scotia’s south shore. The early October days had been warm enough for my kids, then just two and four, to play in the ocean. My parents happily spent hours with them on the beach, sharing stories and making memories. 

The picture that popped up in my timeline was sweet: a photo of the two most important females in my life — my mother and my daughter — walking on the sand, backs to the camera, marching purposefully toward an adventure. In this photo, Daisy is a lively little strawberry-blond girl whose biggest problem in life is figuring out which Disney princess is her favourite. She is walking next to my mother: a tall, vibrant redhead, intently telling Daisy stories and secrets.

The photo took my breath away. It took me by the shoulders and forced me to acknowledge how much things have changed in eleven years. When it popped into my timeline, I’d just returned from visiting my parents for their 61st wedding anniversary. When I visit my mother these days, I note the repetition, the lost memories, the uncertain questions about how old Daisy and Puck are and what they are doing. I notice that my parents’ house is not as well cared for as it used to be, and that my mother doesn’t want to leave the house, at all. I see that the brilliant red hair is faded to silver-streaked copper.  I note all these things, but I hold them at arms-length. I don’t’ look at them too closely. She is, I tell myself, 81. We are all getting older. That’s all it is. Nothing has changed, so much.

But this photo. More than anything in the last five years, it’s forced me to look at what’s happened to her – to us. Even more than that time, five years ago, when my parents were going away and she showed up at my house with twelve loaves of half-eaten, partly-moldy bread for ‘safekeeping’. Even more than two Christmases ago, when she gave 12-year-old Daisy a size 4T sweater.  Even more than the several times she’s confused me with her late sister-in-law, calling me by her name and giving me the cold shoulder because they never got along well.

This photo forces me to look at the before and after. I am jolted by the realization of how much she’s failed in just eleven years, how quickly dementia has pulled at the threads of both her mental and physical self, loosening the weave that held her together. She is a faded Polaroid of who she once was. I am struck by how willfully I haven’t looked at it.

I show the photo to Daisy, asking her if she remembers that day. She cocks her head to the side and thinks.

‘I remember getting in bed with Nana and Papa early in the morning,” she tells me. “Papa was snoring. But Nana told me stories. She told me the story of little Red Riding Hood.”

I smile, picturing my redheads sharing that story in the dawn hours.

Daisy wrinkles her nose at the photo. “I was all in pink,” she says. “I was such a girly-girl.”

Daisy sees little in common with the tiny girl on the beach. She doesn’t like pink anymore. She’s known for a while that she’d rather find a princess than a prince. She barely recognizes herself in the photo. I, though, see her, still. I will always recognize her, as my soul recognized her’s the first time I held her and looked into her eyes. She’s the same, though grown. The photo shows her walking eagerly toward adventure. She’s well on the path, now.

Daisy doesn’t recognize my mother, either. She doesn’t really remember a time when my mother was lively and ready to go for walks and adventures. She only remembers the more fragile, uncertain grandmother.

My mother, too, is still there, although it’s harder to recognize her. As the bright red hair fades, I feel her essence is fading, too. Who she was in this photo is disappearing like a footprint in the sand. It’s only the memories that will preserve the way she was. I’ve been hesitant to look at those memories. I see now that I have to look and to remember before it all fades – before time and tide shift it all, and rub it out altogether.

Coming Out of the Dark

Trigger warning: this post deals with sexual assault and mentions suicide.

August 25th creeps up on me from behind every year, clamping its hand across my mouth and holding a knife to my back, forcing me to relive a horror almost three decades old.

On August 25, 1989, I died. 

The person I’d been died. Rather, she was murdered.  On August 25, 1989, I was sexually assaulted by a group of men in a university dorm room.  The 20-year-old girl I’d been was left for dead — not just by my attackers, but also by me. By the cops. By medical professionals. By people who couldn’t understand what had happened, and assumed it was my fault.

All these years later, I’m still trying to come back to life.

Twenty-nine years after the assault, I no longer think about it every single day. I know that even the most mundane of my choices and actions are still shaped by what happened that day, but it’s become unconscious; secondary and instinctual. Every August 25th, though, everything comes to the foreground, the feelings and memories as fresh as if they’d happened the night before. I wake up with it foremost in my head; the fear, the anguish, the sense of physical and emotional loss, can’t be shaken.

I’m still surprised that it happens like this — that every year, my brain recognizes a date that I try so hard to ignore, or genuinely forget in the rush of my life. This year, I went to bed on August 24th happy and peaceful. I’d spent the day working on my novel and making lovely summer memories with my kids and dog. I hadn’t given a thought to the date.

I woke up in hell.

From the moment my eyes opened, I felt my heart pounding: an anxiety attack, before I was even properly awake. Throughout the day, random images flashed through my consciousness, like slides on an old carousel projector:

A slash of late afternoon sunlight through the dorm room window. 

The clothes I was wearing that day. 

One of my shoes, abandoned in the middle of the room. 

A wooden chair knocked over.

A spilled glass of rum I’d never even wanted. 

A couple at the Elderhostel who, seeing me drugged and unable to speak in a hallway, with my clothing askew, called me a slut and walked on by. 

The boy who’d been part of the attack but who helped me back to my room, put me in bed and apologized. 

The coffee I’d gotten from Tim Horton’s the next morning, that I’d let go cold because I couldn’t deal with putting anything in my body. 

The nurse’s stern face at the hospital. 

My own bedroom in my parents’ house, the next night, looking so ridiculously innocent and normal that it made me angry to be there (a feeling I still get when I go there).

These are, in fact, almost the totality of the memories my brain lets me see. Even after 29 years, I’ve never had full recall of what happened that day — only snapshots and random sounds. Part of this is, I strongly believe, because the drink I was given had been drugged. The men were so insistent that I drink it – all of it. It’s also because of a head injury I got during the attack. One of the memories is of sitting in a bare wooden dorm chair, being pushed backward and hitting my head against the hard, tiled floor. I remember the sound as my skull knocked against the floor, the sensation of pain, the fear, the utter disbelief that this could be happening. Then, mercifully, I remember little until it was over. That I still only remember these vignettes is, I believe, my brain’s way of protecting me and keeping me alive, a built-in resilience which amazes me and for which I’ve been so grateful over the years.

That I remember little of the attack was, of course, a huge deal to the police, who didn’t believe anything had happened. Nor did the medical staff at the small town hospital my friends took me to the next day. I remember a nurse saying, “You must have been drinking”. I remember the doctor asking what I’d been wearing. I remember being told to go home and sleep it off, and to be more careful next time.

“Next time”. The very idea that there would be a next time caused me to vomit. That caused further looks of disproval and judgment from the medical staff, who (I felt) were more interested in cleaning up my sickness than they were in what had happened to me.

The police contacted me at my summer job because a report had been filed by the university. I didn’t want to file a report myself. I wanted to forget it, not re-live it, and in 1989 women were treated horribly at sexual assault trials (little has changed). And I didn’t want my family to know. I thought my parents would be so upset. I thought they’d be angry at me. It was my mistake, I thought (already internalizing the cues the world was giving me); it was my secret to keep.

The police officer took my account of what had happened. My memory of it, just a few days after it had happened, was even more full of holes than it is now. I knew he didn’t believe me. He said, “If you don’t remember anyone having sex with you, how can you be sure it happened?”

I thought to myself: four men. Blood. Pain. Bruises. Being unable to wear my pants comfortably. This constant feeling that I want to vomit, shower, purge myself…end myself. 

To the police officer, though, I said nothing. I couldn’t tell him names. I couldn’t remember faces, or what people were wearing. I had no answers for him. I had no proof that would matter to the world.

I thought that maybe each year, my brain would allow me to know a little more about the details, when I was ready. Maybe I’m still not ready, because I still don’t remember. But I’ve come to realize that remembering the physicality of what happened is not what’s most important. A sexual assault isn’t about a sexual act, after all, even though that’s what the media and society will focus on. It’s an act of violence and terror that is just the starting point in tearing away one’s sense of humanity and power and sense of place in the world. It’s the beginning of a life that’s based on fear and survival. It’s a murder: the death of who you were before, the death of friendships, the death of possibility, the death of courage. Those young men killed me that afternoon, as sure as if they’d put a gun to my head and pulled the trigger.

I have been reborn, to be sure. I’ve built a life. But that life is so different from the one I’d envisioned for myself, before that afternoon, that it seems like it belongs to someone completely different — a twin I’d forgotten about, perhaps, or someone from a past life. 

I was 20. I’d been a journalism student, confident and excited about the future. After, I dropped out of school for a while. I floundered, trying to understand who I was now, when (in fact) I didn’t want to be anyone. I didn’t want to be. I drank too much. I got into a series of crap relationships. I stopped going to the gym, because I clearly remember my attackers commenting on my body and asking if I worked out. I lost most of my friends, and still have a hard time being close to people. I developed an eating disorder, turning my anger and loathing inward on myself. I treated myself with as little compassion, and as little respect, as I’d been treated. I ran away across the country and back again, trying to find myself. And I kept it all to myself, because I blamed myself. It was my fault this happened. If people knew who I really was, they wouldn’t like me, anyway. I feel like on a Wikipedia page for “lost potential” or “failure”, my photo should feature prominently.

On August 25th, I mourn. I mourn that young girl who, in moments of middle-aged weakness, I still judge as having made poor choices. I mourn who I might have been, and all the things I might have done, had my courage and very life essence not been taken away. I grieve for how I’ve treated myself, the friends I’ve lost, and how alone I’ve been.

I grieve, too, for my friends who found me that night. We’ve known each other since Grade 7, and are still bound awkwardly together by our own memories and experiences of what happened in that dorm room on August 25, 1989. For years, we didn’t speak of it. I didn’t speak to them, although they spoke to each other. And then years later, convinced I was losing my mind and making the whole thing up, I emailed one of them to ask if what I remembered was real. She filled in enough of the details to confirm it was real. It had happened. And she shared with me that my dear friends had their own struggles to deal with what had happened. They’d had their own feelings of guilt, anger, and confusion. They’d struggled to trust and to continue with ‘normal’ life. In my own pain, I hadn’t even considered theirs. We still haven’t talked about it face-to-face, at length. That will take a strength I’m not sure any of us has been able to muster. 

A few months after the assault, on December 6th, 1989, a man walked into a classroom at l’École Polytechnique in Montreal carrying a rifle and hunting knife. He separated the women from the men, and killed 14  women —  simply because they were women. I remember watching the news that night and seriously thinking about taking my life. That very day, I’d officially dropped out of journalism school (using a fake excuse, because I didn’t want to tell the avuncular director of the school what had really happened). My parents — who I still hadn’t told about the assault — thought I was flaky and irresponsible. My friends thought I was a loser who just wanted to spend her time drinking, not studying. I was utterly lost and couldn’t see a future. I didn’t want to continue in a world that was intent on destroying women, one by one.

The #metoo movement has brought back so many of these memories and feelings for me. It’s been difficult. But it’s also allowed me to start speaking my truth: this did happen, it’s affected me profoundly, and don’t you dare question it. Each time I hear the stories of Mollie Tibbetts, Reteah Parsons, and so many other women who’ve died as a result of sexual violence, I feel sick and weak. And then I see the marches, the women coming together to speak their truth, and I feel stronger. One story can make a difference. One thousand stories can spark a revolution. 

This August 25th was a lot like the twenty-eight that preceded it. Every nerve in my body was jangling from the moment I woke, like a jolt of electricity was flowing through me all day. Everything I did, from what I chose to eat for breakfast down to what I wore and where I went, was tied to memories; my actions were being directed by the ghost of who I was. I could not shake the grasp of the memories any more than I could shake the grasp of my attackers.

This August 25th was different in some important ways, too. I went to the gym — something I’ve only started doing this summer, with my 14-year-old daughter. It’s not about fitness, or weight loss, or any of the usual reasons. It’s about getting back my strength, literally and figuratively. It’s about not letting my attackers have something I once enjoyed so much. I’m reclaiming my power.

I was also extra kind to myself this August 25th. Typically, my inclination is to stay alone, hide, isolate, mourn. This time, I got out. I stayed close to people and things I love. I moved about in the world, not as a ghost, but as a grown, alive and very vulnerable-feeling woman. I ate ice cream with my kids. I spent time in nature. I sat on a beach. I watched the stars in the late summer sky.

I also opened a notebook and wrote something important: thoughts for a creative non-fiction book about this experience. I’d like to write about how the assault shaped my life, as well as how it affected the lives of my friends and others around me. I want to show how sexual assault isn’t an act against one person: it’s an act of violence and betrayal against society, and has far-reaching implications. Exploring it all in depth will take a courage I still need to find, but by next August 25th, I hope I’ll be stronger. 

Thirty years is a long time to hold on to a secret and self-loathing. Although I don’t keep what happened to me a secret any longer, each time I share a bit of what happened I panic. Will this affect how people think of me? Will it be used against me? What if the friends who abandoned me back then (and to whom, admittedly, I was pretty crappy) come back and laugh or say, once more, that I was lying? What if I get called a slut again? What if one of those men who attacked me read this blog and found me?

The fear is pervasive. I’ve let it hold me in, hold me down, for too long. Trauma kept inside is dangerous and erosive. Sharing stories like this might help someone else feel less alone. I don’t want anyone to feel the way I did — the way I have, for so many years. I know I am stronger now, and I need to keep building that strength. Speaking my truth is one way to build that muscle.

Updating my Privacy Policy

Here is a science lesson: pearls are formed when an irritant invades an oyster. The oyster probably wishes it could just get rid of the irritant and go about its business. But it can’t. It has to live with it. So it hides the irritant. It excretes a fluid to coat it, glossing it over until the sand or parasite at its core is no longer recognizable. It’s become something else. What was painful to the oyster becomes beautiful and desirable to someone else. (Of course, it’s ultimately stolen from the oyster, so all that hard work of coating and hiding was for nothing.)

Our life stories are pearls. They often start from pain, but we learn at an early age that no one wants to see the pain. So we find ways to cover it, to dress it up and make our pain socially acceptable. We drink. We alter our bodies. We use humour. We work too much. We deny ourselves, our feelings. We lie. We fit in.

There are stories you can tell, and stories that you are supposed to lock up inside you. The ones we lock inside us aren’t pearls, though. We still feel the irritant, the pain. We can see what they really are. All else is fairy tales. 

I’ve been quiet here over the past several months. So many times, I’ve sat in front of my laptop and started typing. Each time, I edited. Coated the irritant. Ultimately, I deleted.

After writing about my experience in politics in my #metoo posts back in February, many people reached out to me. Most were supportive. Many wanted to hear more or to share their own stories.

A few others, though, wanted me to just be quiet.

Sometimes, it only takes a few voices of dissent to silence us. Ninety-seven voices can tell us what we’ve said is relevant and important and helpful. Three voices can tell us we’re stupid and misguided and should just keep our stories to ourselves.

Guess which voices echo loudest in our heads?Read More »

Always something there to remind me.

My 13 year-old daughter decided to clean her bedroom last weekend. Yes, this happens so seldom that it’s worth writing about.

For a year or so, her room has reflected her own internal transformation: artifacts of little girl fantasy bumping up against young teen reality. Tinkerbell and Barbie coexisting uneasily with algebra tests and bras.

I’d been telling her for months that she needed to clean her room. I’d intended only that she straighten things up. It was her own decision to do such a radical purge. (I like to see this as a successful change management strategy: I got her to think it was her idea, and she fully embraced it). She wanted to make space for the new parts of her life, and to hide the immature remnants that embarrass her now. She wasn’t just cleaning a room. She was curating an identity; translating the changes she’s been navigating as a middle schooler into her own surroundings.

She grabbed boxes and recycling bags and got ready to purge. I sat on the edge of her bed and got ready to save.Read More »