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.

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If you give a Mom a popsicle…

When Daisy was a toddler, we had a fluffy calico cat named Scarlett O’Hairy. Daisy adored her and wanted to be just like her. She’d sleep like a cat, all curled up with Scarlett in a patch of sun on the floor. She tried eating like a cat (but even her love for Scarlett couldn’t convince her to take more than one bite of the foul-smelling food). Once, in the wee hours of the morning, Daisy saw Scarlett jump off my bed and decided to do the same thing. While Scarlett landed gracefully in the laundry basket, Daisy fell into the dresser and split her forehead on a sharp corner. This resulted in a trip to the pediatric emergency room, and four stitches. Another time, Daisy took up Scarlett’s favourite pastime – digging in the houseplants. She ripped leaves off the plants for Scarlett to eat and crammed mouthfuls of potting soil into her own mouth. This resulted in a call to poison control, and a decision that maybe a baby brother or sister would be a safer companion than a cat.

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Scarlett O’Hairy: on Wednesdays she wore pink.

 

We’ve spent a lot of time in the emergency room over the years, for cat-induced and other ailments: ear infections, kidney infections, strep throat, croup, broken bones.  Eventually, toddlers pass out of the Walking Germ Bag phase. Trips to the emergency room become so infrequent that the kids actually look back on them fondly: misty watercolored memories of being safe and warm, wearing brightly coloured johnny-shirts and wrapped in warm flannel blankets, and being treated by kind people who gave them popsicles and stickers and cool-looking bandages. 

My memories of those visits are equally nostalgic. Maybe that sounds strange – I mean, what parent looks fondly back at illnesses and middle-of-the-night trips to the ER? But like my kids, I don’t remember the illnesses much. I’ve thankfully forgotten the vomiting, the search for clean sheets in the middle of the night, trips to the hospital through dark streets with time standing still. What I do remember is how we were all treated. My kids were treated with compassion and kindness. I was also treated so well. Everything was well-explained, follow-up instructions and appointments were clear, and the health professionals seemed as concerned with how I was coping as with how my kids were managing. Once or twice, I even got a popsicle of my own.

I’m nostalgic for that, because these days my visits to the ER are for Puck’s mental health crises — something that can’t be treated with stitches or antibiotics, and is a genuinely terrifying kind of pain. And when we get past this, my experience with the mental health emergency room is not a memory on which I’ll look back fondly.Read More »

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 »

Current state of gender enlightenment in Halifax: “Nice hat.”

Two weeks after my blog post on sexual harassment in Nova Scotia politics,  I’ve been getting a follow up question from media, activists, and even those working within Nova Scotia politics:

“So now what?”

How do we take the discussion beyond storytelling? How do we make change? And whose job is it to do that?

So many people have phoned, emailed and texted me about my blog post. I had messages from women I’ve worked with, who recalled the same situations and the un-named throwers of footballs and grabbers of butts. I had messages from female politicians who are concerned that the stories being shared might dissuade young women from entering politics.

I had messages from male politicians who said they weren’t sure they’d done anything wrong, but offered apologies just in case.

I’ve also heard from political parties, sincerely wanting to know how to move forward with a cultural shift.

Women have been silenced in one form or another for years. We’ve been told what to wear, and where to work. We’ve been gaslighted, and told that our stories are the hysterical ramblings of  cold women who can’t take a joke. We’ve been warned we should be quiet, because what if our families hear us telling this story? What if a future employer does? Uh oh. Don’t want to be labelled a troublemaker.

God forbid we tell the truth. OUR truth.

I am a believer in the power of telling and reclaiming stories. The very act of telling your story to someone else, in person or in writing, is liberating. It gives you clarity. It helps you see patterns. It connects you to others with similar stories. There is power in those connections.

It helps you, and others, to think about what the next chapter needs to be.

I don’t have all the answers to, “So now what?”. I do have a few suggestions for how I hope the next chapter can unfold:

Keep telling the stories.

The media is already moving on. This is an old story to them — yawn, another woman complaining. Listen: yes, this is old news. It’s old news because it’s been happening to women for millennia. We’ve been talking about it now for a couple of months. That might not be sexy from a news cycle perspective, but let’s look at the bigger picture. This is a movement. This is a cultural shift. This does not end with a 24-hour news cycle. These stories will keep coming, because there are millions of them. Do they make you uncomfortable? Are we annoying you? Good. That means it’s working. Social change isn’t comfortable.

Think about whose stories we aren’t hearing.

I’m a white, educated, cis woman. I have a lot of privilege. I felt fairly safe in telling my story, even though I knew there’d likely be some fallout from people I know, and maybe I’d lose out on some contracts for being ‘too vocal’. Most of the stories we’ve been hearing are from women like me. There are lots of other stories out there we need to hear: stories of people of colour, LGBTIQ people, people from all backgrounds and walks of life. We need to support everyone to tell their stories. This isn’t just a problem for white women. There are many layers to this.

This is not the fault of a few bad apples. The whole damn barrel containing the apples is dodgy. 

Some politicians have suggested this is a witch-hunt (of course, in the actual witch hunts, it was women who were burned or drowned…usually for being too outspoken or independent, which apparently made them supernatural). The #metoo and #timesup movements aren’t about attempting to ruin the careers of individual men. It’s about exposing parts of our society that have been complicit in oppressing, harassing and abusing women and other historically marginalized groups. It’s about making systemic change, taking on misogyny, and stop asking women to “fit into” structures that were designed and perpetuated by men to keep them out. We need to throw out the rotten apples, sure, but let’s not keep putting our apples in the same barrel that makes it easy for them go bad.

This isn’t about men not being allowed to talk to women.

No. Just stop. This is not about whether you can tell me I have a nice hat. You really like my hat? That’s nice. Tell me. The problem is, you are probably not talking about my hat. The problem is, we are probably sitting in a policy meeting, and you have interrupted what I’m saying to say “Nice sweater” while staring at the general area below my neck. And even if you really, really have a sweater fetish or like my hat, what the hell does what I’m wearing have to do with the policy issue we are discussion? Do you often interrupt your male co-workers to compliment them on their hats?

Halifax councillor Matt Whitman  also told The Coast he’s saddened that you also can’t “…be quite as free with your hugs.” Hugs are for your family and your close friends. Hugs are not (or rarely) okay in work environments. Especially when one person clearly is not into that hug.

You are still allowed to talk to women. If all you can say to a woman you work with is “nice hat”, maybe you shouldn’t talk to women much, though. And if your gregarious nature has you hugging or grabbing the bottom of most women who come into your orbit, you need to learn some basic social skills, or at least not try to live your life by being a Halifax imitation of Don Draper.

Think about policy decisions through a feminist lens.

(Did you just stop reading because I used the word ‘feminist?”)

Policy decisions don’t happen in a vacuum. They reflect a government’s ideology regarding people in society and power structures. Think about what’s happening with the school board decision in Nova Scotia — 54% of elected school board members are women. We don’t see that kind of number in any other elected body in this province. And yet, those elected women are being dismissed. Their voices are no longer welcome.

It isn’t up to women to fix this.

The women who’ve come forward with their stories aren’t doing it to be vindictive. They’re doing it to heal from something that has deeply affected their lives, their careers, and their feelings of self-worth. This comes with a steep emotional cost. It might also come with a cost to their careers and friendships. It can even come with threats and hate from strangers.

Given that cost, is it fair to expect women to do all the heavy lifting to fix society? Is it fair to ask us to singlehandedly come up with ways to fix institutions and systems we’ve never been fully welcomed into?  2018 marks 100 years since women got the vote in Nova Scotia. We’re still fighting to fit in and to be heard. We have ideas, and we have momentum, but the burden shouldn’t be ours, alone.

We need allies. We need men and women inside the political system who acknowledge what’s happened/happening to step up and commit to change. We need to media not to just tell our stories, but to shine a light on where change is and is not happening. We need media to check it own behaviour in how they treat women staffers and politicians.

This change needs to be more than not just saying, “Nice hat”. This is fundamental change in our political cultures. This is a cultural change away from the ‘boys club’ mentality. This is a change to a more inclusive and respectful working environment.

Our political parties claim to be working toward visions of a society Nova Scotians want. Can we trust them to create a progressive, inclusive province if they can’t do the work to get own houses in order?

#MeToo: Politics & Misogyny in Three Acts

This week’s resignations of provincial and federal politicians over allegations of sexual harassment kept me awake last night. Long-buried memories surfaced. Puzzle pieces about why my career took certain detours (or outright exit ramps)  suddenly fit together. Somewhere in the wee hours of the night, I came to an understanding that my own experiences in Nova Scotia’s political sphere were not isolated, or based on my personal shortcomings, lack of fortitude,  or “taking things the wrong way”. Others have experienced the same thing.

#MeToo.

I have been involved on the inside of Nova Scotia politics since I was 20. Three times, I dove into the political pool with relish. I loved the action, the issues, and, naively — quaintly, perhaps — I believed I could be part of work to make things better. Three times,  I left feeling a bit less as a person. I left with an uneasy feeling that I should stay and fight, that I needed to protest — but knowing there was no one to listen.

ACT I:  The Page

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It is 1990. I am so young that my face looks like a blank slate in my official legislature ID photo. I am so excited about this part-time job. I am a student of history and journalism, and being on the floor of the legislature as a Page will let me feel like like I’m part of history being made — part of our province’s story being written.

Being a Page is not glamourous. It’s a lot of fetching coffee for MLAs, and (in this era before the internet) looking up information and making photocopies.

It is also, I learn, an uncomfortable dance between being noticed, but not being groped.

Most of us Pages are here for the connections we can make and the possibility of furthering our careers. All of us have a genuine interest in politics. Over half of us are young women. Furthering our careers seems to have a lot in common with what we hear about young actresses furthering their careers in Hollywood. Our MLA ‘mentors’ are helpful, friendly – but there are strings attached. We jockey to be the favourite of certain MLAs. We struggle to avoid others who are a bit too friendly. There is a whisper-network about who to avoid, why we should never be alone in a room with certain MLAs. I put up with hands resting on my bum in the legislative chambers, my shoulders being massaged in the kitchen outside the chambers, men pressing themselves close against me, asking me for drinks, asking if I have a boyfriend and what we like to do together. This is normal. This is just the way things are.

But it is exhausting. It is disgusting. Going to work at the legislature feels no different from being in a bar downtown, except that I am paid to be here, and as a student, I need the money. It is also creepier: the men who hit on me downtown are my age. The men who hit on us at the legislature are much older than we are. They have families. They are in positions of power.

Years later, another former Page tells me she remembers that working in the legislature felt like being a Bunny in a Playboy club: serving men, enduring their leers and gropes, and understanding it was just part of the job.

I leave after a year. For a time, I tell myself I hate politics. What I really hated, though, was feeling like an amusement, an object for middle-aged white men from out of town to chase.

I don’t talk about it. I don’t complain to anyone. Why would I? As a 20-year old woman, this is the world.

ACT II:  The Researcher

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It is 1998. After working as a journalist for a couple of years, I recently graduated with a social work degree. One of my social work mentors, a woman I love and admire greatly, has recently been elected as an MLA for the official opposition. At her urging, I apply for and get a job as the party’s health researcher.

I have never enjoyed a job as much as I enjoy this — not before, and not in the years since. I love the work. I love reaching out to people in the community to hear their concerns and bring issues to light. I love writing somewhat snarky questions for Question Period. I love the insanely fast pace, the long hours, the thrill of knowing things before others. I love the budget lock-ups, the need to do on-the-spot analysis of what it all means for Nova Scotians. I love that I am good at it. I love knowing that my work made a critical contribution to not getting that budget passed, and a snap election being called.

I do not love many other things. The caucus office often feels like a frat house. Footballs are thrown. Often, they are thrown at me. Inappropriate jokes are told. ‘The Boys’ (any staff who are not female) are invited out for drinks after work. They are buddies with the MLAs. My female co-workers and I are not. We are not even informed these drink-meetings are happening, and only hear about them after the fact. In politics, being left out means you are ‘out’. Those on the inside have the connections, the information. My female colleagues and I are marginalized, and fight for scraps of information. Frustrated, we watch our male colleagues get plum assignments and more senior positions not because of their ability, but because they had access to the decision-makers and information that we didn’t have.

I see our Communications Director, a capable and intelligent women, forced out of her job by men who do not respect her, who belittle her behind her back, who comment on her appearance and who leave her out of important discussions because she’s not one of “The Boys”.

I sit with a close friend and fellow staff member as she cries with anger and disgust after an MLA grabbed her and rubbed his crotch against her. More than once. And there is no one for her to officially complain to.

I stand outside a media scrum at the legislature, and ignore MLAs from another party who loudly discuss the length of my skirt, how I’m small enough to “put under an arm and carry to a back room”. They call me Policy Barbie, to my face.

At election campaign time, I listened to my female coworkers talking in low voices in the staff kitchen, negotiating who would travel with whom, so that no one would have to be alone with certain MLAs.

After the election, staff reductions were necessary. Many women lost their jobs. I was the only women left in research. My responsibilities increased, but my influence diminished. The frat house atmosphere worsened. There wasn’t even a pretence of including me in discussions (most of which took place in bars, at meetings I didn’t even know were happening). Within months, I left. On my last day, my manager (who went on to have his own career as an MLA) told me he’d seen what was going on, and apologized for not stopping it. I don’t recall how I answered. I probably said, “That’s okay”. But it wasn’t okay. It was not okay to see misogyny, and to do nothing. It was not okay to watch someone who was passionate about her work and good at it just walk away in disgust and defeat because of the atmosphere of toxic masculinity.

It was not okay.

Should I have stayed and fought?

Who would have listened?

 

ACT III: The Senior Advisor

Ten years have passed. The party I used to work for is now in power. One day, I receive an email, asking if I’m interested in once again working with the woman I so admire, who is now a cabinet minister. I would be Senior Policy Advisor to the Minister.

I jump at the chance. It is truly my dream job. It is, I feel, a chance to reclaim the career I have regretted abandoning. I hope to recapture that thrill I used to get from the work, when I first became a researcher. I put the other stuff out of my mind.

This time, I am 40. I am no longer fresh-faced. Now, I see a different side of things. I am a crone, it seems, and somewhat invisible. It is the younger women  — the caucus staff, the Premier’s Office staff – who I see struggling with the outright sexism. It has been almost 20 years since I was a Page, and there are some differences. The advances, the groping, don’t seem as obvious. But the flirting is still there. The inappropriate jokes and frat house environment is still there. The ‘boy’s club’ mentality is still very much there. I see listings of people’s salaries. There are gaps.

The men who excluded me at the caucus office are now senior staffers. They are running the show. They do not welcome me, and immediately try to put me in my place. My opinions and ideas are pushed aside. At 40, I am invisible. I’m reminded that I left once, and my loyalty is questioned. Still, I persist. In this job, I truly believe I can make a difference. I can help shape policy. I can make things better.

I see different things, this time. There are many female MLAs now, which certainly wasn’t the case when I was a Page (I think there were two, then – including the amazing Alexa McDonough). I see how the female MLAs are often disrespected. I see the eye rolls. I hear the mansplaining. I see their frustration as they are talked over. I witness their anger as deals are made behind their backs — deals that directly affect their portfolios.

This time, I stay two years. I have had the privilege of helping usher in the province’s first Mental Health & Addictions Strategy. I have helped shape and bring in key pieces of legislation. But my Minister is moving to another portfolio, and I don’t want to continue here without her. I am frustrated by being left out of conversations, by the back-room dealings among the small group of men that have not changed since my last dive into the political pool. I feel beaten down by having my ideas dismissed, my insights laughed at and overruled. Plus, this fight is more than I have energy for, with Puck’s emerging issues.

I retreat.

Should I have stayed? Should I have fought to make my voice heard?

Probably. But at this point, it feels like a never-ending fight. And I am tired.

 

I miss politics. I do. I miss that thrill, the pace, the issues, the satisfaction of being able to (very occasionally) make real progress. I miss the joy of doing work that I loved and was good at. I’ve had many wonderful opportunities since, but have never again had that sense that I was doing my best work.

Am I done with politics? Maybe, with party politics. I will always be a political person. I have found other ways to make my voice heard now and to try to make change – through advocacy, community-based work, and writing — that are more satisfying.

But maybe I’m not truly done. Maybe there is an Act IV, where I return as part of the growing resistance to fight the toxic masculinity that is beginning to crumble under the weight of its own noxiousness.

I could dive back in. Who’ll join me?

These (fat) legs were meant for walking (all over your stupid sexist BS).

I spent the entire decade of my twenties hating my body. No, not just hating it – actively trying to destroy it. I starved it and abused it. I punished it for crimes for which it wasn’t guilty. In my mind, all my young life’s problems stemmed not from my mind or spirit or environment, but from the failings of my body.

I consumed little, while my eating disorder consumed me.

At its worst, I was unable to think rationally, to work, or to do anything but obsess about my caloric intake. Dreams and goals and relationships were destroyed, along with my mental and physical health. It was the most painful ten years of my life.

Eating disorders are the most lethal mental illness. 10% of people diagnosed with anorexia will be dead within ten years. At times, when I could feel my heartbeat fluttering, or I became faint from the workouts I forced myself to do despite having not eaten, a sane voice in my head warned that I was in real danger. But the eating disorder voice was always stronger.

“Just a bit longer,” it whispered to me. “Once your body is perfect, you can stop.”

But your body is never ‘perfect’ to the eating disorder. And you can’t stop so easily.

Recovery from an eating disorder isn’t straightforward. It’s hard, and it’s long, and relapses are common. Recovery isn’t a final destination, either. Once you come through to the other side, you realize how much the eating disorder took from you. Once you’ve started to restore your body and mind, you understand how much work you need to do to repair your relationships, your bank account, your education, your career. It’s exhausting.

I’ve sustained recovery for many years now. My body is healthy, and I nourish it.  But recovery requires an almost daily choice to accept myself as ‘enough’ in a society that is so damn eager to tell me I’m not. Read More »