Hard week, this is all I have to offer. Be gentle with yourselves.
I keep feeling like I need to write a new blog post, like I need to shift my last one down the page a bit so it’s not the very first thing you see, but I don’t know where to start. It’d be great to write something bright and cheerful saying, “Wow, I did this brave thing and spoke my truth and it was hard but it released all this shame and now I’ve dealt with it and I’m ready to soar so here’s my online store!” That’s what part of me (the deeply-ingrained, people-pleasing, "It's fine, it's fine, it's fine" part) wants to able to say. I’d love to wrap it all up with a bow, but I can’t. I’m still in the middle of it. I might be juuuuuuuust at the beginning, actually.
When I hit ‘publish’ on that post, I felt a bit numb (this was my go-to state for 33 years so I’m really, really good at it hashtag humblebrag). I texted my three best friends from university, because they felt safe, then took a bath -- insanely long, emotionally cathartic baths are kind of my new weird thing right now -- and didn’t let myself look at my phone for a good two hours. When I finally screwed up the courage to look at my Facebook page, where I had shared the link to the blog as a ‘public’ post, the expressions of love and support I received were (and, two weeks later, still are) overwhelming. I went to bed that night feeling so many things, among them pride at having spoken from my heart, mounting rage and shock at the prevalence of sexual violence among all women, and anxiety about knowing that there was no going back, that I had just ripped the bandaid off a long-festering wound in the most public way, and that everyone would now know this thing about me that I had kept private for so long. I was feeling a lot of feelings, but they were at least a complex and somewhat varied mix. This carried me through the next day, but by Wednesday -- the date I had set to launch my shop -- things were going south fast. Sona was sick and had missed three days of daycare, and Mark and I were splitting up our workdays to care for her. I started to do my anxiety spiral, the one where normal everyday things become huge. I got super twitchy about surface clutter. The thought of cooking anything for anyone became insurmountable to me, so I just didn’t (despite the fact that I also had my cousin and her boyfriend staying with me; worst host ever). I made Sona give away half of her stuffed animals on Wednesday, and although I have been feeling lately that we both have way too much stuff , I also know that making her do that didn’t come from a place of thoughtful intent but rather one of, anxiety displacement (I just made that up but doesn’t it sound super legit?), and, let’s be real, taking my own shit out on her. I didn’t launch the shop that day.
By Thursday, it was bad. By Thursday, I was right on the edge of rage and hopelessness, wheels spinning with constant thoughts of “WHAT DID I JUST DO”, ”I can’t launch my shop now because I’m stupid/I’ve put myself too out there/if people buy stuff it’s because they pity me/I’m an imposter/I’m too fundamentally lazy to succeed at anything/etc. etc.”, “Everyone is looking at you differently now”, and the loudest voice of all, the one that came from the deepest, most vulnerable place inside me: “Who the hell do you think you are? Why did you feel the need to post that so publicly? What if people think that you think that you’re special?” I didn’t know what to do with all of those thoughts and feelings, so I both imploded and exploded.
Thursday afternoon culminated in me locking myself inside my bedroom so I could scream into a pillow while Sona banged on the door outside. Just typing that, I immediately fear judgment from others and feel intense shame about how out of control I felt, but it’s also the truth of what happened. Even just a few hours later I was able to apply a bit of perspective to this, but in the moment, I felt flooded with emotional pain. I felt unglued. I felt broken.
But. Here -- and this is something I could only see after a few days (and, uh, two therapy sessions) -- is the miracle: I asked for help. I removed myself from Sona, I made us both safe. I expressed my anger by screaming, yes, but not at her (well, mostly not at her. The complete truth is that I did direct some of it towards her before removing myself). I did punch something, but it was only a pillow. I sent this text to Mark, even though I didn’t want to bother him at work, even though I thought I should be able to handle this myself.
He was so patient and understanding in that moment. He made me take some breaths and he offered to come home from work. Just saying it out loud to someone and receiving a gentle response made an immediate difference. We made a plan: put a movie on for Sona, try to find a sitter for the next day, text my counsellor and see if she could fit me in. I opened my door to find that my cousin and her boyfriend were already home and playing with Sona. They took care of her while I sent my emails and texts, and then sent me to bed for a nap (I haven’t really slept in the past few months? If you know me in real life, you’ll realize that this is the most shocking sentence in this post). I took a break, then got up and made some dinner for us all, and went to bed early.
Here, again, is where I want to wrap things up and tell you what I’ve learned, but the thing is that I’m still learning it -- whatever it is -- every day. Even writing this out, I feel such strong resistance to talking about it, because I worry that it makes me seem so fragile and the association with fragileness is helplessness, or at least that’s the connection I assume others will make, and that I used to make about myself. I don’t even know what I’m trying to say, but I think it has something to do (actually I think it has everything to do) with truth and trust. The truth is that I was violated in a horrible way at an age when I was forming the majority of my opinions about people and the world, and that I grew up in a family where emotional well-being was not prioritized at all (which I know is is not at all uncommon among many of my friends). It makes complete and total sense that I would react by growing up with suspicion about people, even as I placed great value and importance on being cheerfully accommodating because I didn’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable. As my therapist would gently remind me, that reaction served a purpose: it helped me grow up and learn to navigate the world without completely falling apart from trauma. I didn’t talk about it for decades, and that’s okay -- I didn’t feel safe to. No, I didn’t expect to start processing this stuff so abruptly -- I had adorably been like, “Yup, there’s some shit there that I have to deal with, but I’ll do it in like three months once the shop is up and more of my life is figured out!” -- but I know there’s yet another lesson in that: Life isn’t convenient. You don’t get to pick what external triggers you might be exposed to, or even what may come up out of seemingly nowhere, you just do the best you can with what they are. Perhaps as I grew up, I was doing that very thing -- taking care of myself the best way I knew how in the situation I was in. A lot of my trust shit, especially my lack of self-trust, comes from that. And yet! Look at what I’m doing now: I’m doing the work. I’m going to the really hard places. I’m letting myself feel it. I’m asking for help. I’m doing it for Sona, yes, because I can see so clearly now that what you are exposed to can’t help but form your thoughts and feelings about yourself, but I’m also doing it for me, because I matter too. It’s not at all straightforward. It’s more like one giant leap forward --> doubt/anxiety/doubt/anxiety --> forgetting everything I know --> sort of starting to remember it again --> major freakout (see above) --> total moment of clarity during an hour-long bath --> “oops I just ate six cookies” --> "hey, I kind of vaguely remember what I’m learning to be true for me” -- and then, with luck, I end up slightly ahead of where I was before.
In my head, I keep going back to why I’m putting this stuff out here, despite my persistent fears of being labelled as ‘showy’ or ‘dramatic’. I know it’s probably a fucking terrible idea in regards to marketing and my business. I know I should be trying to ‘cultivate a brand’, or at least not splashing very personal information all over the internet. Part of me wonders if it’s some sort of overreaction to having kept it quiet for so long, and there very well could be some truth to that. But even if that’s the case, I guess what I’m trying to let myself believe is the knowledge that, well, that’s a valid reaction too. I’m trying to believe that I don’t need any other reason than wanting to connect with people; that the wanting is a pure, universal desire. I’m still struggling with that very basic idea, but I’m still just so glad I’m even receptive to it now.
I finally opened the shop today and at the end of the Facebook post announcing the launch, this is what I wrote:
“I keep thinking about how grateful and excited and, yes, vulnerable I feel, but I also think that's how I want to live my life, so here I go! [...] Sona often wanders around the house warbling "I love the whole woooooooooo-ooooooorld!" and sometimes I know exactly what she means.”
Here is what I should be doing: I should be tying up all the loose ends before my shop launches on Wednesday. I still have at least a dozen things to figure out: invoicing software, adding inventory, nailing down product photography, posting on Facebook, setting up a PayPal business account, determining shipping costs and logistics, hustling, hustling, hustling. This is what the intellectual part of me knows; what it says to me when I wake up in the night with overwhelming fear and anxiety; what I know are the "right" steps to take two days before launching a business.
Here is what I'm actually doing: scrolling through my Facebook feed, seeing woman after woman I know post those two small words, marvelling at the bravery it takes to admit it, and then also knowing that for every woman who posted, there are several more who couldn't, for whatever (completely valid) reason.
Something is happening right now among my female friends. I can feel it, this solidifying of truth and anger, this gradual uprising against all of the patriarchal bullshit we face on a daily basis. I myself have been slowly awakening to an immense amount of repressed rage I've been harbouring for decades, and though I still resist it at times -- my brain: "Chill the fuck out! No one wants to hang around a harpy raging shrew!" -- it's unstoppable. I can't go back to who I was before, and the real miracle is that I don't want to. I feel like I have this new take on the world, and all that I'm interested in is what's real. And right now, what's real for me is that I am so. Fucking. ANGRY. Even writing that, I feel like I need to offer the disclaimer that yes, I know anger can eat away at your insides, and yes, I know I don't want to sit in that place forever -- and then I bristle at feeling like I even have to state those things, like my pure, unfettered anger at what I myself have dealt with, let alone the innumerable shitty experiences of the women around me, isn't completely valid on its own. I'm not in the place where I want to move forward yet. I just want to feel angry, because I never really have before.
I was sexually abused from the ages of roughly five or six to eight or nine. I have never typed that sentence before. I don't remember a lot of the details; much of it is repressed and I'm not ready yet to go down the road of recovering them, since, you know, I have a lot of other shit going on and also I still need to catch up on the current seasons of Game of Thrones and Last Week Tonight (priorities!). Up until this past July, I had told exactly two people about what had happened to me. One of them was my ex-husband, who, despite being the kindest, gentlest man I knew, I always struggled to show real, raw vulnerability to (exploring all the reasons for this in therapy has been
super fun very enlightening!). I felt like it was something he should know before we got married, but I was terrified of what he would say. His immediate reactions of anger and sadness about what happened to me felt like a balm, but I also didn't understand them. I was so disassociated from my own trauma that at that point I still kind of felt like, "Okay, it's not that big of a deal" and I shoved it back down to fester for a few more years.
Here are some other reasons why I didn't talk about it:
- I thought it wasn't really that big a deal
- But I also thought it was such a big deal that people would completely reframe how they thought of me
- I couldn't/don't remember a lot of the details, so I thought people wouldn't believe me
- My abuser was also young (around five years older than me) so I told myself maybe it was just kids playing and that I needed to get over it
- I felt confused about how pleasure and shame were all intertwined and that there must be something seriously wrong with me to even admit that I experienced both (though I now know that this is very common among abuse victims)
- I didn't want to be pitied
- I didn't want to be blamed
- I didn't want to be accused of blowing things out of proportion
- For years I told myself it was probably just some weird rite of passage and maybe similar things had happened to everyone and it was one of those super common things we didn't feel the need to talk about, like being into The Babysitters Club or owning a Furby in 1997. The really sad thing about this belief is that it's true in many ways -- the more I talk about what happened to me, the more my female friends open up about startlingly similar experiences.
The glaringly obvious emotion fueling all of those points is, of course, deep, blinding shame. Even now, thinking about posting this, about putting this into the world and having it linked to my full real name, fills me with terror and nausea. My thoughts go something like this: What will people (my family? people in my choir? potential first dates doing the requisite Google search?) think? Why do I even need to share this; why can't I just write it "for me" and keep it to myself? That would probably be the smart thing to do. It would definitely be the safe thing to do. I have therapy tomorrow, why not just save it for there? Sure, this blog is for writing about my personal journey, but do I really have to get this personal? People might feel uncomfortable! This is just too much, I'm too much, maybe I should just go back to bed.
And yet. Here I am writing it anyway. Because it's the truth. Because I didn't ask for it or deserve it and neither did any of my Facebook friends, or any survivor. Because I want Sona to grow up in a world where she feels safe and strong. Because I think my anger is starting to replace my shame, and maybe for me that's the first step to healing. Because I saw my abuser in a Vancouver bar this past July, and he came up to me and talked to me like nothing had ever happened. Because instead of immediately fleeing after that encounter, I stayed and finished my fucking drink. Because, yes, the internet is forever, but there are countless other women who've been brave enough to talk about this before me. Because every time I tell my story, I really and truly feel a little piece of shame fall away. Because I'm not alone, and neither are you.
Welcome to my blog! I'm not sure what this will be. To be honest, I have no idea which direction to go in, and no immediate desire to even establish any sort of direction at all, so I'm just going to inhabit this space and see where it leads me. I'm going to try to write mostly for me, because I'm slowly starting to realize that writing helps me process things. I'm
probably definitely going to use profanity, because, well, I love a well-placed expletive. I'm choosing to hit 'publish' because even though a huge part of me is terrified to put myself out there, I also know that part of the really, really big lesson I'm in the middle of learning is that, for me, vulnerability breeds connection. I say a lot of woo-woo things like this now -- I will probably be writing a lot about that. You can roll your eyes at some of them; rest assured that I may be (or would have been a few months ago) as well. Dismantling my ingrained skepticism is an ongoing process for me, and particularly difficult because I have a pretty strongly internalized bullshit detector. I'm slowly emerging from a few months of significant personal change, and mostly just want a place of my own to explore who I'm starting to become on the other side of it.
I have so many ideas for I want to write about. I want to write about what it's like to be 33 and just figuring out who the fuck I even am. I want to write about raising a daughter and how the two of us struggle and succeed in daily life. I want to write about women I know in real life -- interview them or profile them somehow -- and how real actual magic happens when women congregate. I want to write about stumbling through the process of starting my own business, and how it's the biggest, scariest leap I can imagine but I'm doing it anyway. I want to write about how much I love the shit out of Broad City and maybe do some recaps. I want to write about what's nourishing me -- books, shows, music, food, creativity, adventures. I want to write about identity and how it's related to race, gender, family and location. I want to write about really small, silly stuff that makes me laugh, and share it for no other reason than because I need more silly in my life. I have no idea what this space will be for me, and my only goal with it is to let intentional sincerity be my guide. I'm probably going to say a lot of things like "intentional sincerity" so I don't blame you if you point your browser elsewhere.
Like anyone starting a new venture, I'm terrified of failing. This fear of failure has, in the past, kept me from trying SO MANY THINGS that I've wanted to do, and I have a lot of shame and regret around that. This isn't to say that I haven't attempted scary things before -- I had an Etsy store for a while, and blogged for several years -- but even as I was doing those things, I knew I wasn't doing them wholeheartedly. I wasn't really trying, because by not really trying, I told myself I couldn't really fail, because, whatever! It was just for fun and no one even needed to know about it! I didn't want to be narcissistic or have anyone think that I believed I was special or not completely self-aware. Ew!
So what's different this time?
I read (and then immediately re-read) Big Magic this summer. I'm sure there are a lot of widely published opinions on Elizabeth Gilbert and Eat Pray Love and Julia Roberts and pasta and spiritual tourism, etc., but I don't really care about any of that right now. Except for pasta, which I always care about and if you care about it too, please make this lasagna posthaste, you're welcome, you're welcome. Er, where was I? Big Magic. The whole book is about what she calls "creative living":
"Look, I don't know what's hidden within you. I have no way of knowing such a thing. You yourself may barely know, although I suspect you've caught glimpses. I don't know your capacities, your aspirations, your longings, your secret talents. But surely something wonderful is sheltered inside you. I say this with all confidence, because I happen to believe we are all walking repositories of buried treasure. I believe this is one of the oldest and most generous tricks the universe plays on us human beings, both for its own amusement and for ours: The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them.
The hunt to cover those jewels -- that's creative living....
....The often surprising results of that hunt -- that's what I call Big Magic."
(Does anyone know if I'm allowed to quote something that long? If not, hello Liz Gilbert's legal team! Javier Bardem is very attractive!)
I can tell you with 100% certainty that a year ago, my eyes would have skimmed past those words. I might have picked up the book and read them, but my inner disdain and overwhelming fear of failure would have meant that I skimmed them, shrugged and put the book down. I wasn't ready. Now, I'm ready.
Big Magic is divided six parts, and the first section is called "Courage". One of the very first things she writes about in the book is a man named Jack Gilbert, a poet and writer born in the 1920s whose office Elizabeth Gilbert (no relation between them!) inherited when she ended up teaching at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She writes a bit about his life and how he meandered around the world, working when he needed to, actively choosing to withdraw from the literary world (he was nominated for a Pulitzer early on in his career) and instead just live his life. She includes this quote from one of his poems:
"We must risk delight. We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of the world."
Maybe you're reading this and thinking, "Okay, yes, stubborn gladness, that sounds great and like some words strung together but doesn't really mean anything to me." The thing is, I completely get that. Again, that would have been me just a few months ago. But for some mysterious reasons -- and I'm only just beginning to process and examine what those reasons are -- something in me shifted, and when I read that quote in the summer, some small piece of understanding clicked into place for me.
I spent most of the summer doing a metric shit-ton of emotional work. I read self-help books, I did online courses, I journalled enough to keep Moleskine in business, I went for biweekly counselling. I just had this instinctive feeling that I needed to start to uncover some of the thoughts and beliefs I held about myself/others/relationships, and I also realized that whatever I'd been doing for 33 years wasn't exactly working for me. I'm still very much in the process of it, and I'm starting to realize that, contrary to what would be nice and convenient, it will be ongoing forever. Forever. That can be exhausting to think about! The alternative, though -- to live in a fog, to battle constant fear and anxiety but never try to move forward through it, to feel completely disconnected from my body, to constantly wonder at/suspect other people's motivations, to (often subconsciously) view other women as competition because that's what we're conditioned to do, to feel like I was separate from other people and that I didn't experience basic human emotions in the same way (turns out this was because I was repressing a LOOOOOOT of uncomfortable emotions -- I will be writing much more about this, but sneak peek: ANGER!) -- that alternative is now immeasurably scarier than just doing the fucking work. And so much more exhausting on a day-to-day basis. And so much less fulfilling in every single way.
When I read that quote about stubborn gladness, I was already in the middle of starting this process of doing the hard work, and what terrified me (and still does, though I'm starting to develop the tools to override that fear) was that I would somehow slip backward, that I would lose all the progress I made and wake up one morning the same underwater Pia I was back in January. It all felt so slippery. Something about those words made me sit up and take notice. I'm still living in a constant state of dumb, blinding gratitude that I woke up from how I felt, and those two words put together became a kind of mantra for me that expressed both how I feel about that gratitude, and how I want to proceed going forward. I want to live my life with an open heart (last year me is rolling her eyes here), with authenticity and vulnerability, even though that means that sometimes I'll fuck up and get steamrolled and make odd, shame-based decisions. I don't want to waste my time with surface shit anymore -- but I also want more silliness and play. I want what's real, even though I know that often what's real actually won't be the outcome I may have desired. I want to learn to be able to sit with discomfort in those situations. Also, I still want to say "fuck" a lot. I'm very wise now, you guys.
One of the things I'll be offering in my shop is what I'm calling Loose Leaf Notes (unless anyone has a better suggestion! I feel like that's not quite the right name for them). I had the idea in August when I was doing feverish, constant journalling. I found it really helped me to just write down little things that were true for me/inspired me/I needed to be reminded of, and then I realized I could stitch them and have a permanent record for me to look at in my day-to-day life. There's also something about seeing things in my own writing that is, for me, particularly resonant, and one of the things I'm so excited about is being able to embroider pieces featuring words/phrases that are meaningful to customers in their own handwriting. Last week I stitched up "stubborn gladness", put it next to a double frame containing a picture of me at 7 and my daughter at 3, and placed it next to my bed. I'm not fully ready -- I may never be fully ready -- but I'm leaping anyway.