For me the past month has been…spectacularly hard.

Some stuff went down that I’m not quite ready to blog about yet. The summary is that someone I love and respect broke my trust in a complicated way, over a time period of a year. And he acted with such a strange mixture of good intentions and evasion that it has left me feeling bereft, very confused, and very angry. I am also seeing my own self-betrayal and my own mistakes and they are myriad, and all of that’s really hard to come to terms with. Basically, it feels like my heart can’t catch a break. I am in a lot of pain.

This of course against the backdrop of global pain, pain which is finally being voiced in the protests and activism and conversations all over the world. This is a beautiful moment in history but it is also a very, very difficult one. In my own life I am feeling profoundly convicted, heavy-hearted about my own inaction in the past, and aching with the need to live a life which is more open, more compassionate, more aware of my fellow humans’ stories, especially people of colour. I’m not entirely sure how to do this – some days I feel paralysed by my fear of being thoughtless, doing something racist, not being aware of my own privilege. And I also know that acknowledging my privilege is not enough. I need to reach out. I need to step out of my comfort zone. Which battles do I pick? Which hills do I decide to die on?

I really want to blog about that, when it feels right. I’m still searching for the words though.  

I want to acknowledge this moment of global buildup and accompanying pain because it feels very relevant. I feel it aching in my body, mingling with my individual aches. I don’t always know where to go with all of this intensity. And that’s what this post is really about: It’s about expression, about riding the waves of pain however they appear, and also about learning to release them. This post is about re-learning freedom.

When I was a little kid I once attended a children’s service at a church where the pastor spoke about freedom. He said that unfettered freedom is silly, really. I remember clearly his metaphor about train tracks: a train doesn’t say “screw this, I want to be free!” and drive off the tracks. There would be chaos. The train would break. People might get hurt. Instead, a train accepts its limitations and goes with the prescribed route.

That metaphor stayed with me.

That, and all the million tiny ways I have been told (all of us have been told) how to live, how to have an experience, how to be an acceptable human – all of that has piled up.

For me, the past two years have been a gradual dismantling of this. I wrote about the anger and pain I have been discovering stockpiled within myself. I’m learning that I have a lot of trauma. I’m learning that I’m really angry about that. I’m learning that I’m really scared, and also that I’m inhibited in a million tiny ways because of how I was taught to exist. Being a big weepy mess was not a safe way to be for me as a child. Being loud, or ‘bad-mannered’, or exuberant, wasn’t safe. Being angry was definitely not safe. Heck, it still isn’t safe.

And now, when I feel strong emotions, I feel…terrified. I have no idea where to go with these feelings. I have no idea how to express them in a way that won’t harm someone else or myself, or almost worse, that wouldn’t be scorned or laughed off by others. I experience life so intensely – and I have always felt the need to apologise for that.

I recently watched a video by Conor and Brittany about how they are not teaching their child to say “please” and “thank you” (check them out, they have some fantastic content). In the video they say that they want their toddler to express themselves authentically, to feel right from the start that their experience is valid, as is their reaction to life. I felt a strong stab of envy as I watched them speak. “I wish I’d been raised this way”, I thought, remembering how strictly policed I was as a child. Here’s an entry from the journal I kept when I was 12 (spelling and language kept as is, I was still learning English at the time):

“Dad sais he wants much more children. People think he’s brave of having five, and he’s proud of it, and proud of himself. But he’s not proud of us.

At the table, we chatter happily, maybe a bit loud. (…) Dad marched inside with a face like thunder, and commanded us to be quiet. Not just to be quiet. To not say a word. Now the table was quiet, with a terrible athmosphere.

“Could I have…?” [Esther says]. Dad looks at Esther with a black frown.

If we want anything, we are obliged to reach over for it, which doesn’t lighten Dad’s frown. Our guests look surprised at the sudden death of the happy chatter.

Benjamin practically puts his elbow in my plate, so I whisper to him to stop it. I am stopped by a now deadly angry dad.

And what has also angered me was that he told us to be quiet and listen to the grown-ups talking. He always talks to us about how important things grown-ups do. So his talking is much more intrusting than ours. (…)

But I’ve got a way of angering him even more. My revenge.

Dad enjoys it when I cry, although Mom sais it’s not so. So at last, I don’t cry anymore. Instead, I smile this tiny smile, just enough to show him I’m smiling, and I let my eyes sparkle.

It works. Afterwards Dad called me, and told me that I shouldn’t laugh at him, and I have seldom seen him so angry before.

Next time, I won’t smile, just let my eyes sparkle, so there will be no reason for giving me a hiding (he almost gave me one now).

I’m going to get back at him.”

Around that same time in my childhood my mom once said to me “us women have a lot of emotions. Our feelings can be big, so we need to learn to keep them inside because we’re not always right about what we feel”. She meant well; my mom was an intuitive parent with a good grasp of her children’s needs and personalities. Had she been given free rein we’d have had the space for all our experiences. But she wanted to protect me – intense, weepy child that I was – from a world which had already punished her over and over again for her own bigness.

I learned: don’t cry. Crying shows your weakness. And sublimate anger, sublimate it into productivity, into giving fewer fucks, into cynicism, into subtle revenge. And it feels to me that it will take me a lifetime to unlearn the urge to apologise for my ‘femaleness’, for my large reactions, for my tears. For my gut.

I never became good at not crying, thankfully. But anger still makes me profoundly uncomfortable. Which makes sense because our entire society is freaked out by anger. We either legitimise its expression through violence, or we silence it, label it as “bitchiness” or “irrationality”.

Where are we meant to go with the overpowering feeling that something is very, very wrong, with the disquiet we feel in our souls when an injustice is perpetrated – when our every self-expression is so profoundly policed?  

Much of this I don’t know yet. But I am learning so much.

One of the things that has started happening for me these days is that I’m recognising my reflexive urge to apologise as it comes up. And it comes up all the time. It’s intensely frustrating: I keep wanting to intersperse my conversations with apologies for talking too much. When I tell people about my recent experiences, I keep wanting to preface my sentences with “this sounds really intense, but…” or “sorry, I might cry while I talk about this” or “this might sound silly, but…” And when I don’t do this, I feel uneasy, scared I might be seen as a hysterical female.

Conversely, in this time I have been feeling so.much.POWER when I do express myself. Such fucking power in allowing authentic self-expression to flow through me. And there are so many ways of expressing myself that I’d never tapped into before, it’s breathtaking.

Three weeks ago I woke up in the middle of the night. The shock and the betrayal around my recent heartbreak were very fresh. As I lay there my mind ran in circles, trying to find something to soften the blow, something to hold on to.

This is what minds do: They scan and scan our environs in search of meaning, or at least of explanation, holding up an array of often anxious and circular thoughts in the hopes of avoiding the chasm of despair we fear might otherwise open up.

But my mind came up blank. There was nothing – no fresh understanding I could arrive at that would stop the pain. I felt alone, in every possible way, and entirely without hope.

So I started weeping. It started really softly but soon I was crouching on all fours, alternating between holding my belly and hitting the mattress, groaning and yelling so loudly that at one stage I thought I might wake my neighbour. I rolled over. I climbed out and lay on the floor. I went back to bed and wept, and wept, snot and tears congealing on my face, making sounds I am confident I have never before made in my life. At one stage it felt as if my entire being had supplanted itself to my throat – my continued existence felt dependent on the sounds I was making, on how true an expression of my despair I could possibly produce.

And then there came a sense of profound power, a quietness inside the very noise I was making. I wished someone was there to hold me, I wished it desperately, yet simultaneously I realised that the power lay exactly in the fact that I was telling my emotions to the universe with no-one to act as go-between, or even as a witness. It felt like I was making art. Transient, raw, beautiful art.

And then I fell asleep, depleted. When I woke the next day I knew that it was time to do a mushroom trip. I hadn’t taken mushrooms in eight months, not since a trip last year during which I felt the mushrooms themselves telling me to lay off. It felt like it was time instead to build good habits, to build everyday meaning, instead of plunging into psychedelic experience after experience.

But on this day I felt ready again, so I took 2 grams that morning and climbed back into bed. There was a power outage and a storm was railing outside. I put my favourite instrumental playlist on my portable speaker, and lay with my blankets piled on top of me, shivering, breathing deeply as I readied myself for the waves that were about to arrive.

You can’t explain a mushroom trip, there are no words for the intensity of experience it opens in one’s psyche.

But I can tell you that the first time I took mushrooms (two years ago), I felt extremely self-conscious. There was nobody to witness me yet I felt awkward, very obviously high and weird, shy around myself. It was a wonderful experience but I was painfully aware of my own inhibitions. The first few trips after that were similarly filled with the realisation that I am so used to self-monitoring that I find it very hard to let go and relax into any experience. I even had a mushroom trip that was just all about that, about the shame I carry around, and about how that limits my being.

But since then I have gradually become more comfortable with riding the wave of intensity in however it wants to be expressed. Oftentimes during mushroom trips that has meant bouts of intense weeping, and then bouts of deep calm as the waves come and go.

This time it was EVERYTHING. I don’t know how else to explain the experience: it was everything. I swam in an ocean of Life in which everything, every strand of experience, felt right and true and a crucial part of life. I continued the weeping from the previous night, but this time there was peace in my crying, even when I was gasping with sobs. I’d stand up and press my palms against the wall and groan like a woman in labour and I’d feel the universe saying: YES. At one stage a song was playing that felt so beautiful that I almost wanted it to stop, the sounds resonating in my belly with the most whole-body ache I have ever felt. I rolled around. I curled into foetal position. I stood with my head between my knees, hands on the ground. I whimpered, I groaned, I mewled, I gave little screams, I swayed from side to side as I chanted a wordless song.

There was no self-consciousness whatsoever. And every time I opened into a new expression of my experience, the universe arose anew to meet me there. Now you know, it said. Now you know what it is to exist.

And I knew that anger and betrayal and confusion and fear and loss and aloneness and yearning are all One Thing. They’re Life.

A big part of my sorrow came unloosed that day, it feels like I wept a huge stone out of my heart. But I’m still sad. I still feel heavy. I still feel angry.

I drive in my car and realise I’m clenching. I let go and breathe a few deep breaths and say to myself: “This is okay. It’s okay to feel heavy. Life can be pretty heavy.”

I take a long walk with my dog and feel the cold air whipping into my face. I feel relief as I breathe in, the cold feels very true to what’s happening for me right now. I’m playing my desert trance playlist on headphones and at the top of the hill I start dancing a little bit, long coat and scarf flapping as my dog stares at me in puzzlement.

I sing a lot.

I’m taking martial arts classes and it’s fucking hard, I keep falling over and wheezing and getting the moves wrong and I’m scared I’m holding the rest of the class back. Also, it’s at seven in the morning, which is still icy and dark at this time of year. Usually about halfway through the class I start questioning all my life choices. But afterwards I drink coffee and sit absorbing the morning sun and I feel triumphant. I’m doing this. I’m living.

It’s so hard. My heart feels so broken. This is such a difficult place to be in. But it also feels tremendously powerful. Acknowledging my heartbreak, without hurrying it along, feels powerful.

This is power, I am coming to feel in my body: To go out into the world knowing that every emotion and every sensation we have is valid. And not only valid, but necessary. Life demands to be felt, and by feeling it we are honouring the deepest call there is.

I am opening into loss and it is the most beautiful journey of my life. It feels as if I have been one with death and with agony and terror and it lives in my body now and I am powerful with it, I embody grief and rage and fear because all those things are love, all those things are Life and I know Life more intimately than ever before. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. Also, at least half the time I’d really really like to have it any other way.

I wrote this poem after my mushroom trip. It’s about life. It’s about YES.

I ache, I say to the world.
YES, says the world.
 
I’m small and terrified, I say.
Yes, says the world.
 
I’m so tired, I say.
Yes, says the world.
 
I’m vast and enraged, I say.
Yes, says the world.
 
Who will carry this, I ask.
Come, says the world.
 
Fuck you, I say.
Yes, says the world.
 
I writhe.
I yelp.
I whimper like a frightened animal;
my throat surrenders the normalcy of human sound,
I throw my head back and keen the forgotten call.
YES, says the world.
 
I am here, I howl.
YES, howls the world.
 
Come.
Bring.
Be.
 
This, this:
YES.

I have written and deleted six different opening paragraphs to this piece. Writing about my own stuff – even the hard topics, even stuff that makes me feel really exposed or embarrassed – comes naturally. I own my story and I choose how I tell it; I might worry that readers will be alienated or bored or offended even, but I am never scared of being wrong.

But talking about race? This is far beyond even the furthest outposts of my comfort zone. I am white, and squirmy under the knowledge of my privilege. I am South African; when the topic turns to race I know to tread gingerly around the simmering rage and gaping wounds that lie just beneath the surface of our collective psyche. I am petrified of overstepping, of appropriating others’ suffering, of riding roughshod over the pain of People of Colour with my good intentions. Even the terminology feels hard. Do I write ‘People of Colour’? That sounds somehow both euphemistic and slightly racist. ‘Black people’? But then I’d be leaving out all the people who aren’t white but aren’t black either. Very quickly I start drowning in the myriad ways I could go wrong and find myself deleting yet another paragraph, undoing my #blacklivesmatter tag on instagram, backing out of a conversation, apologising profusely.

Basically, I don’t want to look bad. Sure, I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings nor ignore my own privilege, but really, behind it, I want to save face. I want to be perceived as humble and willing to learn and woke. So much so that I’d rather stay quiet than offend, which as it turns out isn’t very woke.

My sister pointed this out to me when we were texting about the newest events around race, of which both our news feeds were full. Both our hearts were heavy. This started in America, which to me can feel very far, but it resonates deeply here in South Africa too. A man died. Many people have died. Atrocities are happening. Whether this be in my own country or elsewhere, injustice is happening and it HURTS. I hurt. I hurt; and I also feel guilty because this is happening all the time but I don’t always hurt. I only know about this when facebook won’t let me forget. I only pay attention when my attention is grabbed. The rest of the time, race issues for me lie uncomfortable but dormant, half-acknowledged, relegated to the I-don’t-know-what-to-do-about-this folder in my mind.

So I said to my sister: “I want to write about this, talk about this, but I don’t feel it’s my place.” To which she replied

“but it is EXACTLY our place to talk about, because we are the cause of this”.

Later she made a post on Instagram with the tag “#whitesilenceisviolence. And that made me cry, because I have been violently silent. I feel deeply convicted. I feel moved. And I still have no idea how to have a conversation about race.

But I can listen. And I am willing and eager to listen, I am hungry to grow, I am hungry to understand how I may better hold space for my fellow humans who have been oppressed and ignored and bullied and denied basic rights and respect, for centuries now. And they have been ignored by people like me, well-intentioned people who just aren’t willing to see beyond their own reality. I want to see past my own reality. I want to do better.

At this point in my post I initially started writing about my shortcomings as a white person. I started naming my unacknowledged prejudices, my lack of Black friends, the times I don’t call other people out when they make racist jokes. But then that felt kinda…self-interested. Another smart way of making myself the topic in a manner that doesn’t allow for much conversation.

So I’ll try to write in a manner that doesn’t appropriate the stories of others, while not putting myself centre-stage either. I might get it wrong. But here’s what’s on my mind.

I have been reading a lot about trauma recently. It was a huge relief for me to admit out loud that I have a lot of personal trauma, mainly from my childhood. At first I fought against it, because it felt weak, it felt disempowered, it felt as if I were relegating myself to the role of victim. But you can’t heal if you can’t admit your wounds first, so I started admitting them. And here are some of the things I have been learning, which feel relevant right now:

Acknowledging one’s own victimhood can be tremendously powerful.

In our society we tend to avoid the word ‘victim’. When somebody suffers an injustice, they will be quick to say “Yes but I’m not a victim” or others will say “good for her, she’s not playing the victim”. We associate it with self-pity, helplessness, weakness; everything that runs counter to our ‘pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps’ culture. But saying “I’m a victim” isn’t weak. It’s saying: “Something bad was done to me and I DIDN’T DESERVE IT. I am not in the wrong. The perpetrator is in the wrong. I am innocent of any crime, I deserve justice and respect and dignity, and the fact that I was not given these things is embarrassing, sure, but it’s not embarrassing for ME – it’s embarrassing for the perpetrator. It says something about that person. It says nothing about me. And I will acknowledge this injustice, in private and in public, because what was done to me matters. I matter.”

This is what’s happening right now. George Floyd was a victim. Thousands of African-Americans are victims. Hundreds of thousands of Black people everywhere are victims. The protests are acknowledging that, and it’s high time.

But sometimes there isn’t the space to lay claim to your own victimhood. Often the people around you are made uncomfortable by your pain, or feel vaguely guilty because of it, or somewhere deep down believe that you deserved it. I see this in my own life: there have been dozens of times I’ve tried restoring some semblance of a relationship with my dad, only to be laughed off when I bring up the topic of my childhood. He’d say I’m being dramatic. He’d say my reaction is unintelligent. He’d blame my mom. He’d say he’s always been misunderstood. I’d end up tiptoeing around his reactions, bending over backwards to explain myself, frustrated because no relationship could be maintained without acknowledging the wound at the heart of it. I finally realised that no conversation could be had with a man who wasn’t open to a process of restorative justice, nor to even imagining the tremendous wounds he has inflicted.

So fuck him. I’m still acknowledging my trauma, but I’m not bothering to explain myself to him anymore. Nor to anyone whose reflexive reaction is to say: “Well, that was a long time ago, look at all the nice things that have happened since, isn’t it nice how it all worked out?”

In the story of race, white people are my dad. I am my dad. And if I’m going to be pat and dismissive about this, then I cannot expect anything to change for the better, ever. It’s my job to create space for people to embody their losses and say out loud what was done to them, even if that makes me feel guilty, ESPECIALLY when that makes me feel guilty.

I hesitate to write about other people’s trauma, but literature agrees that People of Colour in South Africa (and elsewhere) have collectively been traumatised. Over centuries. Do you know what happens when you have trauma? You feel shame. You internalise the voice of your oppressor. Even if on the surface you know that you’ve been treated unjustly, somewhere deep inside you fear that you might actually be unworthy. You fear you might be found out, be rejected again, be given no love or respect. In this meritocracy we live in, being mistreated is cause for shame, because the narrative says in a million tiny ways that people who suffer probably deserved it.

Which is why acknowledging victimhood is such a powerful and necessary step: It breaks the narrative. It says “nope, actually I didn’t deserve this”. But it’s not enough for POC to admit that they’ve been victimised. It’s up to us, to those who have been benefiting from their suffering, to make it safe for them to speak out. And not only to make it safe, but to welcome their voices. To be really open, and willing to learn, willing to be corrected, willing to feel convicted – ashamed even. We have to be willing to do the work without reflexively jumping to some version of saying “there there, it’s all better now.”

Because what I see in South Africa, over and over when these conversations happen, is that white people jump up and say one of the following things: “Okay but Apartheid has been over for 26 years now, can’t we all move on?” or “Okay but what about crime/farm murders/the awful current government/affirmative action?” or “My parents were really poor and I couldn’t afford to go study either so you weren’t the only one who suffered, you know.” We do what people always want to do when confronted with others’ pain: we argue it away. We feel very very threatened because this narrative doesn’t bring to the forefront the fact that our lives haven’t always been easy either, we start competing in a “who suffered the most?” game, we want to tell our stories too, and above all we sidestep blame. We’d do anything not to feel culpable.

No one has sole ownership of suffering – but there is personal pain, and then there is systemic, structural oppression. One is not like the other.

I have a ton of resources and support yet it has been taking me all my life to process my own trauma. My childhood abuse affects my every adult relationship and every choice I have made thus far, even what job I took, even where I live. So I cannot imagine how far-reaching the effect of societal abuse must be, how difficult it must be to live and love and make a living when the abuser still shrugs off the damage it has done, when you need to interact with this abuser daily. I am calling society at large the abuser in this description, but let me be very clear: we are society. You and I, we make society. And we can change it.

I cannot tell another person’s story on their behalf, decidedly not when I have benefited from their oppression. Thus I won’t try to expand further on what I imagine the effects of systemic racism must be for those on whom it is inflicted. To some the impact might be severe, to others not. Some might reject the label of ‘victim’, and they also get to do that. I don’t want to say “I know how you feel”, because I don’t. But I do know that if we are to heal, both oppressors and oppressed, then it is the job of those of us who are privileged to seek out restoration. To make an effort, and to listen to the stories in all the forms that they may take.

Because for me to be a healed person, my fellow humans also must be healed. I am because you are. And if you can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.