This post will contain some discussion of abuse, survival, and the aftershocks of sexual assault.
I think sometimes that I am not a very brave person. I shy away from most confrontation. I have so many auditory processing issues that direct conflict makes me panicky because I usually can’t react quickly enough to feel as though I can assert myself, let alone defend myself. My silence is often taken for submission. I freeze up, clam up, and my brain goes into overdrive. It’s one of the less fun sides of being neuroatypical. As a bonus, I can then replay those conversations verbatim hours later, thinking of everything I should have said and feeling guilty for not being stronger in the moment.
I’ve been peripherally following the discussion on Twitter about #TheEmptyChair. I’ve seen tweets from Elon James White amplifying the anonymous voices of people who sit in that empty chair. I’m one of those people who sit. I know more others than I can count.
I don’t feel like a very brave person most of the time, even when people tell me I’m brave. This week as I was setting up my new apartment, I found postcards from Europe that I’d had stuffed in a drawer. I do this thing where instead of buying souvenirs from wherever I am, I tend to buy postcards and write little vignettes on the backs of them. On one of them, from a stopover in Rome, I wrote about bravery. I remember the American couple who told me I was brave for traveling Europe alone. I remember my bewilderment when they said it, because to me that didn’t feel at all brave. It was simply a thing I did. Europe felt a lot safer than America to me.
Yesterday a good friend told me they’d stood up to their abusive parents, and the parents responded as abusers do — hitting my friend and blaming them until they had to flee. That’s fucking courage. I have so much admiration for my friend I could burst.
I myself sent Elon James White a Facebook message telling him my own story, and in it I referenced a family member who literally put herself between me and her rapist when I was a kid. She knew he was grooming me, and she was terrified. At the time, I thought she hated me. At the time, I thought she was trying to make my life miserable by yelling at me for going anywhere alone or going near him. I had no idea what was going on. It was only later, when I came forward about someone who tried to molest me (and failed — I lied to him and got away) that she came out with her story. It floored us all. She worked with police to get him put away. She is, to this day, the biggest hero in my life. Her courage is unparalleled. He had abused her for years, and she’s the only woman in my life I know whose rapist saw jail time.
There are so many parts of our life where we need courage. It’s not just the really big traumatic stuff.
Sometimes I feel like the trauma in my own life has been easier to bear than other things. Maybe because I already lived through it and survived. It might still make me miserable or ruin my day on occasion, but it’s done. It’s over. My perpetrator no longer has any power over me.
I think the residue of abuse does something very insidious, though. It’s not always the physical trauma that leaves the deepest scars, but the sense that what happened was somehow our fault. That’s true whether the abuse is physical, emotional, psychological, whatever.
I think of people telling me to be myself when I was a kid. How easy they make it sound! Just be you. Be yourself. You’re awesome as you are.
But it takes years to find out who we are. Eleanor Roosevelt said to find out who you are, and do it on purpose. I think that’s what it takes — deliberate purpose. Finding that kernel within you that you can allow to germinate. For those who survive abuse, sometimes that kernel is obscured or walled off or overgrown by myriad other things.
I tend to lose myself in relationships. I feel deeply undeserving of happiness, and I feel as though I don’t have a right to my feelings. Some of that has been enforced in my life explicitly by others, some of it has been learned implicitly. I was selectively mute as a child/early adolescent. It took me literal decades to find my voice. And now sometimes I find myself talking without being able to shut up, and then I feel guilty for it. Some of that is being neuroatypical; it’s a behavioural trait that goes along with aspects of who I am. Having that explained has helped me recognise when I’m doing it and figure out why. But in spite of the changes in how I express myself, I often feel as though I have no right to.
I’ve been considering the concept of courage, of what it means and how we do it. There are acts of courage that are easily quantified, like what my family member did for me to save me from the experiences forced upon her. There are also acts of courage that seem insignificant to an outsider. This weekend at DC Con, I was in the queue to have my photo op with Misha, Jensen, and Jared, and there were two lovely people behind me. One of them zoomed in on my tattoo, which got us talking. All three of us share anxiety. For them, walking up to the actors was an extreme act of courage. They both did it. To me, that was brave.
It’s been said thousands of times in a thousands of different ways that courage is not an absence of fear, but doing something in spite of fear.
This morning in a text to my best friend, I said there wasn’t a single corner of my life right now where I am not terrified. In friendship, in love, in career, in finances, in health — 2014 stomped me into dust and 2015 has been a year of seeing glimmers of things through the settling motes in the air. I have to survey the damage before I can rebuild, to clear away the rubble and start anew.
I’ve done a lot of things that scare me lately. Telling the actors at the con how their work has touched me was scary. Even though I’ve now met them all multiple times, making yourself vulnerable to a stranger is never easy. And they are strangers, even if we’re family. They meet so many people that it’s unlikely any of them remember more than a flicker of meeting me before. But something remarkable happened when I started talking to them. We laughed at my photo op, and they each snapped to engagement when I started in with the hard stuff. I reached out. They reached back. Literally, in all cases. Osric got up to hug me. Jensen clasped my hand like a comrade. Tahmoh enveloped my hand in his. Misha took it and held it. Jared high fived me and shook my hand.
I quit my day job. I am now a full time author. I moved into an apartment by myself. I’ve never lived alone before. I made the choice not to run away to a new state and instead stay and nurture my life in this one. I ended an eight month relationship. I’m finally getting tattoos I’ve wanted for years. I’m participating in the American extreme sport of not having health insurance. There are any number of things right now that I want to do — even need to do — and feel too afraid to attempt. Like this week, there was a thing I was going to do, and I noped out.
I think about the people who have undermined Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out because of her position of relative power and privilege. And I think of my many trans friends who live their truth every day. I think about Jared Padalecki’s candour about his depression and anxiety and how he has taken it to mould into the Always Keep Fighting campaign. I think about my close friends and myself with our own daily battles.
I think of the nervousness, the anxiety, the paralysing fears that keep us from doing things. Fear of being alone. Fear of being rejected. Fear of failure. Fear of physical pain. Fear of death. Fear of shame. Fear of so many different things that could happen. Our minds like to create laundry lists of all the bad that could happen.
But I’m reminded today, at the end of this rambling post, about the strength that can be found in doing things that we are afraid of. There is power in it, even if it doesn’t feel like courage to us. Courage, I think, wears a veneer of gloss that makes us forget that underneath it is squiggly anxiety and self-doubt and inferiority complexes and brittle memory and the reek of bitterness or self-loathing. Scratch the surface of any brave person and there’s just a person there underneath.
The remarkable act sometimes is just to wake up, get out of bed, to embrace the extraordinary when you find it, and to live in this world. To engage with it, to be vulnerable, to open up. As Buffy Summers said to her sister, “The hardest thing in this world is to live in it.”
Sometimes when we reach out, we find hands reaching back.
Hell, sometimes they’ll be raptors so you can be Chris Pratt.
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