Q&A with myself on International Women’s Day.

First up Leni, happy international women’s day. What does this day mean to you?

L: Hello, this is the first year I have ever given it much precedence. I have mostly felt alienated from the idea of being a woman. I never thought it was something to celebrate or be proud of. As I am growing more aware of the structure of patriarchy and the gender imbalances of our world, I can see how these constructs have disempowered me and kept me separate from other women. By acknowledging this day, I am choosing to side and stand with and for women, who have been structurally, physically, mentally and conceptually abused. So this day means a lot to me now and is a day to reflect.

That leads nicely into the questions I have for you. When you were growing up, what were the ideas in your family about gender?

L: My father was a dominant man, impatient, brash, rude and scary. He worked full time, he controlled all the finances and I never saw him cook or clean. My mother was a housewife. She looked after us as four kids, and waited on him hand and foot. She was subservient, submissive and often in the house we felt like we were walking on eggshells. My father used to beat my sister too. I don’t remember much though. He would also call us names when he got angry, he would say we were worthless and a piece of shit. I have two older brothers and an older sister. So I guess some of the ideas I learned about gender are:

  • Boys can get away with anything
  • Men are strong, women are weak
  • Girls / women are bad (they get in trouble)
  • Being tough and assertive gets you things. Keeps you safe. You don’t get hurt if you are in charge.
  • the man should look after the woman
  • Women can’t look after themselves.
  • It’s the woman’s fault. She causes “him” to do things.
  • Women are stupid.

What do you think these ideas made possible for you and how did these ideas limit you?

L: I think I rejected a lot of these ideas, particularly as a teenager and in my twenties. In some ways rejecting them made me fearless and not care. I didn’t see being a woman as something that held me back, but I didn’t embrace it either. I didn’t feel like a woman. I think I was ultimately scared of accepting my womanhood, as though that meant accepting my inferiority. At the same time I think the ideas limited me because I looked to men to take the lead. I never felt like I had power, I just tried to maintain control, I guess like my mother did to the best of her ability. I rejected femininity for a while. I became independent, almost an F you to my mother. I think these ideas limited me because I had no direction. Deep down I felt worthless, bad and not good enough. Later, I turned to a man to try and save me.

What is the most important role you have in the world? What would help you or support you to fulfil this role in the way you want to?

L: There are lots of things I could say here which is nice. One could be as a teacher but I could lose my job so that wouldn’t count. The other is as a girlfriend to someone but I don’t know if I value that role enough yet. What jumps out at me is as a survivor. Money would help me to fulfil my role in the way I want to. Quite simply, money to start a social enterprise business.

When you think about the kind of person you want to be in the world, how is this different to who you are now and what do you feel needs to change?

L: Right now I feel like my mind is still frozen and I can’t seem to articulate or think the way I would like; with ease, clarity and grace. I feel what needs to change is confidence and practice.

If you think about times when you’ve acted in ways that have harmed others, what would be helpful to understand or know more about so that you can do things differently in the future?

L: I guess I would like to know more about the beliefs and unconscious drivers that contributed to my harming others.

Is there past hurt that constantly sabotages or gets in the way of who you want to be in the world?

L: I guess it’s not one. It’s a series of hurts and repressed memories of trauma that lies underneath my skin. It keeps me from feeling safe, connected and free.

Questions taken from The Dulwich Centre, Intersecting Stories: Narrative therapy reflections on gender, culture and justice. p.66 2020.

A quiet knowing.

Ah yes a night of feeling normal – actually it’s almost been the whole day! My partner has lost a bit of weight, about 5 kilos and I had noticed it recently but hadn’t said anything. I think it was silently triggering me because I felt like she was doing it on purpose. She weighed herself yesterday and we had a bit of a moment and I was quite mean spirited about her looking too thin and gaunt and weak. Plus it makes her look very young, more young, which some readers will know is a massive trigger for me. It wasn’t fair what I said as I was coming from a place of anxiety. I think I was jealous because of my desire to be skinny and I was also triggered because I used to be that skinny. When I was, I always thought I was fat and couldn’t see I was skinny. Seeing S was stark evidence that I was thin. Too thin! Yet the body dysmorphia and anorexia was so strong I couldn’t reconcile it. When we woke today S said she was booking in to the doctor to check on it as she wasn’t trying to lose weight. She had looked it up online and apparently if you lose about 5kilos without trying you could have thyroid problems or something else. I didn’t even think that it could be about sickness which shows where my head goes- self centred triggers. I spoke about how it triggered past body stuff and after that things just became normal again and we were connected. It’s funny how talking about stuff helps clear the air.

Life feels manageable and exciting again. And I recognise all the things I have and am thankful for and that I am grateful to have Yeshua. Even tho there is a lot I don’t understand about faith and love and God, I feel He keeps me grounded and strong. When I think about life, sometimes I feel so weak and incapable. I am glad I don’t have to just rely on me. I feel like the spirit of God gives me sound mind and quiet power. Not in an overbearing way; just an inner strength. A quiet knowing.

Play therapy

On Wednesday evening I had therapy and we played. My T said I could pick anything to play with from her shelves full of toys, but I didn’t know. I sat on the floor and asked her if she could lead. So she picked an imaginary object and said it was a round sphere. A beautiful sphere full of light and she passed it to me and I held it. She said that it was love and as I held it I felt that I didn’t deserve it so I passed it back. And so she asked if she could introduce something else to help that and got a bowl and placed it on the floor. I didn’t know what to fill it with or to do with it and so T picked a figurine that had a butterfly on top of a rainbow.

All the toys in a bowl to play with.

She put it in the bowl and said this was about giving the parts a childhood they never had. And then she got lots of toy figurines and put them in the bowl and asked me if I would like to choose some. So I picked Mr Frog and Mrs Snail and put them in the bowl too. Then we built a path made out of dominos and put the diamonds at the end. Then all the figurines walked down the path to the diamonds and sat there for a while and then walked back. That was the session. I felt sad when I left, more connected to my parts and deeply sad that I could not remember my childhood or that it was filled with terror.

The next day I woke with the worst headache that turned into a migraine and nausea. I threw up lots and slept for 18 hours. Today I feel better but avoidant with my partner, triggered and scared. I don’t have any reason to pin it on.

Trail run adventures

I went away this weekend to do a trail run. 55km – so for the Americans that’s 34.17 miles! It was intense, full of inclines and rocky pathways. At one point we had to wade thigh high through water to cross a small creek! I went with a friend – JS – a fellow survivor- and she was a machine. This woman completely undersold herself leading up to the event. Not only was she faster and more energetic than me, but she just had a terrific attitude. Mentally I found it incredibly tough. Don’t get me wrong at some points there were waves of ecstasy and elation, but then plummets of pain and mental and physical torture. I had recently done a virtual marathon, on the road, but trail runs are something else. It was fascinating how depleted my body got of energy and so I learnt to nibble on energy food (protein balls, caffeine sticks, little vegemite sandwiches), and drink water and basically do whatever I needed to, to get through. JS was motivating me the whole time and it was remarkable, although sometimes emotional. I felt like I was letting her down, I wasn’t good enough, I was too weak etc etc and she just gently pushed me. “Long power strides uphill”, she would say. “Little shuffle run steps when you can”, “keep going, you’re doing good, you’re a champion.” The scenery was incredible. So diverse and luscious. It kept changing. We ran over sand, the beach, water, mud, steep gravel hills, rocks and grass. We just kept running and nibbling and sipping water for just under ten hours. I tried so many strategies to keep focused/ 100 things I was grateful for, a mantra about God being love, power, strength and sound mind, that I kept repeating over and over again. And JS just pushed me and made me not give up. It was so hard. In the last 2km we got lost and I nearly burst into tears, I felt like I had let JS down for taking so long. We ended up running 57km (35 or so miles!) and added about half hour to our time. It was so emotional and draining. But we found the finish line in just under ten hours and crossed it and got awarded medals! My body ached and cramped and I have been hobbling since but I’ve been on a high as it was an incredible achievement. JS has taught me so much, about resilience and kindness. I hope one day I can be as kind and strong as her.

Survivors are so complex and full of contradiction. Like me this woman suffers suicidal ideation and depression. The programming is very intense for her and I am a few years ahead in a recovery journey, so sometimes the effects of the abuse can be more profound for JS in terms of where she’s at right now. But yesterday she just took charge and showed me how strong and capable she truly is. Yet I know her daily life contradicts her true strength and that it can be so hard to live. The dichotomies of self are hard to navigate, to accept and to harmonize. It is humbling to see this tension within my self and to see it played out so clearly by another survivor friend.

In and out of.

I’m in and out of depression. Mostly in. It’s been hanging around for about a week. The online group I attend helps me. I feel like they are the only people I truly feel safe to just show up and be. That’s rare for me. I don’t have to lead, or be responsible for anything. I just have to attend and they get it. 110 per cent. I got through today with a clearer head and then the darkness returned. It’s not even darkness, it’s flatness, but it’s heavy – like a weighted blanket. I don’t want to be looked at or touched or talked to. I just want to be alone.

Last night in therapy a couple of things happened. Firstly I met an 80 year old part. She was so deeply tired and exhausted by life. She was just sitting in a chair and waiting to die. I can’t even remember much else but I remember my therapist saying we could help her die. I think that’s the right thing to do. Maybe next week. My T also said something about dealing with the positive and negatives / the internal split. I am experiencing this now. I have some exciting things going on in my life, yet I feel so depressed and am having difficulty waking up and getting motivation for anything. What’s happening internally is just not matching what’s happening externally, yet it’s like this trigger/ this switch has gone off and I can’t seem to find any equilibrium.

It could be: (and this is just me riffing with my parts/ beliefs):

  • Good things can’t happen to bad people
  • I’ve seen such bad things / horrors that it doesn’t matter what good happens nothing will take that away (is that loyalty to those parts who have endured)?
  • Don’t pull me into your fake goodness, cos it’s not real.

I’m expecting an aha moment. I don’t think I’m going to get it just yet. I just gotta ride through this. I know it will pass. It always does.

Successes and student laments.

Sometimes it’s hard on this blog to keep my “outer life” from spilling over into my “inner life”. Tonight’s one of those nights. This afternoon, we had the Australian premiere screening of the indie feature I produced. I was so nervous about how it would screen to Aussie audiences, but similar to its reception in North America, it played very well. I am proud of the film, it’s important, it’s a film about abuse and it adds to the discourse surrounding what happens when a child makes an allegation of abuse. Do we believe children? Sexual abuse divides. It erodes relationships, systems and structures. People were impacted and maybe survivors felt heard and maybe someone was able to think differently about their own abuse experience. I don’t know. But anyway it felt good and special. Then, later, I had to go and visit a student film set I was supervising. Everything is being made under strict COVID operations, face masks, social distancing, shields, goggles etc. Despite this, I felt like I went back in time to my late teens/ early twenties. Making films in laneways and grungy rental houses. I talked to one female filmmaker and she blurted out how depressed she was last year (studying her final grad year in lockdown). She lives alone and her mental health took a real toll. It was sobering hearing from her, how hard the experience was and I just acknowledged that we felt it too, but as teachers and leaders, it was important for us to stay positive and reframe the situation. However, we all just felt so sad for the students and empathised with their situation.

She was a very funny person, not funny haha, but just funny weird. Kinda wore her heart on her sleeve. She said “my films are dark. I make Films about women’s trauma” and I’m thinking, man I love this girl. Imagine being 20 and having the confidence to say that. I didn’t even know what trauma was at 20, yet I was completely scarred by it. Most of the crew were women and I just felt this strong feminist girl vibe on set and I loved it. The young women who are growing up (I know I sound so old) inspire me. They are astute and clever and so cognisant of the patriarchy. It’s awesome. They are smart and powerful and authentic.

I felt so depressed leading up to the screening today. It’s been such a big weekend. I know today sounds so exciting but seriously this morning I would have preferred to be dead than go to the screening. I felt so tired and anxious. Feelings of fear and anxiety are reminders of my trauma and so I guess it’s not surprising that I was depressed and dissociative. I could hear my parts clamouring for attention. But I muddled through it and the day is now over and I am in bed and tomorrow is a new day. This will become an experience I can draw on and a moment to speak about one day.

Characteristics of a survivor

Below is a list of what I think are common characteristics of sexual abuse survivors, particularly those who have experienced ritual abuse.

1. Dissociation/ amnesia

I didn’t know I was dissociative until I was about 26 when I realised I had been sexually abused. The more I tried to find out what happened to me the harder it was to get the details. I kept hitting what I describe as a black wall. It took another six years to learn I had D.I.D and amnesia about my childhood because of the abuse. I understood my memories were repressed but it took a long while for me to fully understand what this meant. Sometimes I think I am still in a state of shock. It took a long time to accept that I was programmed and my mind had split and this was done through torture.

There are many layers to dissociation. I have experienced depersonalisation and derealisation- things don’t feel real, I feel like I am on an acid trip, I am separate from body and mind and not connected to my surrounds. To be honest i feel like this a lot, but I don’t notice it so much anymore. I’m kind of used to it and it’s not that distracting anymore. Or maybe it is? I’m not sure….

2. Body issues

I didn’t notice my body until I was a teenager and I don’t remember being very connected to it. It wasn’t until I was 19 that I became self conscious in a heightened way. I had been backpacking overseas and on return my father met me at the airport and said, “gee you’ve put on weight” and from there, I developed an eating disorder. I must have lost 15 kilos through starvation and amphetamines. I loved being super thin but always felt fat and ashamed of my body. I have done lots of work over the years and it’s only been in the last 12 months that I have been kinder about my body. Perhaps this is one of the benefits of age. I have suffered body dysmorphia, shame and feelings of disgust about my body for so many years. I like to keep fit now and it makes me feel strong and empowered, but i still long to be skinny and not seen.

My issues with body have played out in sex, intimacy and all relationships. I’ve used my body as an object, I’ve degraded it, I’ve tried to get control of it in Sado masochistic environments. I’ve sexualised it, ignored it and shamed it.

3. Addiction

I’ve experienced many addictions throughout my life: drugs, alcohol, sex, fantasy, love, codependency, smoking, workaholism and coffee. The last two I am still working on. They keep me going for now at least. I’ve tried many forms of therapy for these things but found twelve step programs the most useful for the drugs and alcohol especially. I don’t attend these anymore as I think AA is too triggering as a SRA survivor but i am glad I did it. I’m also glad to be out of it. It took a while to deprogram from the false beliefs spouted. The addictions were all masks over the issue of abuse and as soon as I started to work with parts and my fractured identity and the dissociation, I got on top of most things.

4. Depression and suicidal thinking (ideation)

I think I had depression from a very young age. I’ve written before that I wrote a letter to God asking Him to take my life. He didn’t answer. I didn’t notice I was depressed until about 21 years old. I had moved to London from an isolated city in Australia, known as Perth. I thought I would thrive in the busyness and cultural life of a cosmopolitan city, but fear and anxiety dominated the experience. I was desperately trying to be adult and convince everyone around me I was more than how I felt – so worthless and low. The depression increased over the years and before and after I got sober the suicidal ideation intensified. Some nights I would lie in bed praying to God to take my life. Again, He never listened.

5. Negative feelings / self image

These go hand in hand with depression and suicidal ideation. At my low points I feel worthless, shameful, like a piece of shit, pathetic, selfish, disgusting, ugly and embarrassed. It’s hard when these feelings get activated. It was helpful for my therapist to remind me it was memory. Over time these perceptions have changed, through parts work, creative arts therapy and also just talking about these feelings with other survivors and people with addiction. It was helpful to discover I was not alone and these were common feelings amongst others like me. I never looked at these people in this way. I thought they were great, yet I couldn’t extend that thinking my way. Over time it’s softened and I know when these feelings come up it’s generally a part or a memory that needs to be released.

6. Fragmented thoughts

I lived in my head most of my childhood, teens and adulthood. Drugs and alcohol were great for getting me to verbalise. Most of the time my thoughts were fragmented and fractured. I didn’t realise this was because of the abuse. Writing has helped and so has study. My love of learning has meant that I pursued higher educational studies and so in many ways becoming more coherent came with study, practice and time. I have come to accept (thanks to a wonderful survivor feminist friend) that fragmented conversation and thoughts are a valid part of a survivors experience and that it is okay to celebrate this rather than see it negatively.

7. Obsessiveness / control

I used to have major issues with control in my 20s and early 30s. I think I am a lot better now. I used to be obsessive about cleaning. I find it a real chore now. These aspects of my abuse felt more pronounced in the stages of my developing identity. Now I feel organised and capable, rather than tightly bound. I think I’d have to get a second opinion on this.

Digestion issues | exhaustion | Headaches

I’ve had bowel issues, digestion issues and exhaustion most of my life. The tiredness is there when I stop. That’s why I keep going, like a little energiser bunny, but there is a deep fatigue inside. When I would experience conflict with my ex (of many years ago) I would get so exhausted and need to sleep. My mind would shut down. After getting sober I remember being tired for four years and then coming in to my 5th year sober I felt more awake and energised. That’s when life started to change massively for me.

Digestion ranges from constipation to IBS to stomach pains.

I am prone to headaches. This only started when the dissociation really came out, at about 32/33. I had lots of headaches, especially when I was switching. I still get headaches. I have to be careful because if I get prescribed pain killers they don’t last long even when the headache is over. The addiction starts to play out….

What am I missing? I’m sure there are lots of other characteristics but these are the main ones I can think off the top of my head. I hope what I wrote was helpful or identifiable in some way. More so, to know that you are not alone.

Milestone

Today I submitted my PhD. This means it’s on its way to the examiners as soon as my supervisor finds someone! The process is that two people read the thesis and look at the creative work. They might come back with some comments and changes and then I respond and once it’s accepted, I get a pass. Then i can officially graduate and wear a floppy hat at the ceremony.

It felt a bit anti climatic. I wasn’t planning to do it today, but I had everything done and just wanted to get it off my plate. It’s been a seven year journey and I think I’ve done the best I can for where I am at. I am proud of the thesis and also the project. I learnt so much and have grown exponentially throughout this process. So let’s wait and see what the examiners say. But at least now I can stop working on it over weekends and summer holidays and move onto other things.

Also, I just found out I’m 9 years sober / alcohol free this year. I don’t keep track anymore. That means I’m 8 years with my therapist. gosh to think at one point in my life I couldn’t imagine going a day without a drink. Crazy.

Fragment: the one who was designed not to believe.

Today was a big day, spent in a faculty planning day and beginning conversations around decolonising the curriculum, creating cross cultural safety and embedding indigenous knowledges at the centre of what we do. It was very draining at the end and i was left with a sense of inertia. Confined by the oppressive reality and the great privilege of working in a large institutional system. I guess I didn’t feel smart enough to effectively aid the conversations and help create positive change.

Ephesians 6:12 “ For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

Sometimes I take the above to mean and include patriarchal systems of power, institutions (principalities) and political structures. Pretty much our entire world! And humans are caught in between this, trying to do the best we can and thrown around by forces larger than us. Today it felt like a losing battle, although it was necessary conversation. Now it’s about action.

I then went to therapy, exhausted and disconnected from self. We decided to do some visualisation work. To be honest I thought I was just going to fall asleep, which I kinda did but it was more like being in a heavy trance. A part came out, more like a fragment, that didn’t believe there was anything wrong with me. That I was making things up, nothing had happened. T talked to the part and asked it questions, like where it lived etc. and the part felt confused, like firstly, where should it live? Why should it live anywhere? And then T asked how it came to be and I started to dissociate. It’s such a strange feeling, lying down and it’s like I am on a swing, going up and down, up and down, and I know I’m lying on the floor, but it really doesn’t feel like it. It’s quite dizzying, but also enjoyable, sort of. The memory fragment realised that they had been “made” and that caused stress and anxiety. The part asked if they were bad because they didn’t believe the other parts and my T said no. Eventually, I came to and T suggested I hold the parts hand and so I visualised doing so. T said that my neural pathways had made a connection. That was helpful and it was very interesting to have more of a body reaction to the belief that I am making this all up. It felt like the belief moved from brain to heart. I wonder how many more fragments have this belief or if they can be joined together.

I will fall asleep trying to connect these beliefs across my timeline.

Process of enquiry 3.

Following on from my creative exploration of “commitment”, I took the last two words in my list of unconscious feelings and enacted them as follows:

Commitment is…crazy

The keyword was crazy. I performed a movement and took a photograph. Then I wrote the description “when I commit, I get hurt. I get hit, I can’t breathe. I’m trapped.”

Then I moved on to my final word “safety.”

Commitment is… safety
Body movement to represent safety.

After “performing” a movement of the word safety, I added to it, writing: love, protection, held, peace. I wrote: “commitment is safety. Is safety possible? Do I deserve it? No-one is safe. I am safe now.”

I felt that I circled back in some ways to one of the first words I wrote “peace.” Next step, according to therapist, is to now further cluster the words and explore them in more detail. Stay tuned….