Consent violation, and owning my story

Content warning: This post contains descriptions of sexual harassment and assault.

I wrote this post about two months ago, but then decided against posting because the time felt somehow off. Now it feels right. I do want to mention that most of the events recounted here happened in my early to mid- twenties, thus quite a few years ago. While some anger and shame remains, much has changed since then. I have especially grown in my ability to voice my non-consent, to dare being impolite; I have also healed significantly from my broken heritage.

One night about a month ago, as I was about to fall asleep, a memory came to me so vivid that I spent the next hour listening to the blood rushing through my skull as I lay trying to moderate my breath. I was reliving telling a trusted friend, a male friend, a personal story that I was very ashamed about. The story I was telling went like this:

When I was 23 I moved to a new town and took a new job. I knew no one in this town save my colleagues and a few friends of the guy I was sort-of seeing at that stage, Alexander (we were in a long-distance non-committal thing, Alexander was on the other side of the world but some of his friends lived close by). At that stage my job was only part-time. I didn’t have transport so my explorations were limited.

The days were sometimes startlingly lonely.

A friend of Alexander invited me to supper. His name was Chris, I’d met him a few weeks before and had quite liked him. It was also the first time since moving to this town that anyone had invited me to their house.

I was picturing myself becoming fast friends with him and his friends, within a few weeks being invited to wine tastings and rock concerts and evenings of philosophising in tiny bars.

Chris, large, affable, rather macho, was a surprisingly good cook. He stir-fried chicken and veggies together and we ate while watching Top Gear. Conversation flowed easily. He did drop some comments that were critical towards Alexander, implying that I was being duped, which confused me because I thought they were very close. But I sort of ignored that because I needed Chris to be a loyal friend to Alexander – otherwise visiting him alone might start feeling strange.

Somewhere during the second episode of Top Gear Chris put his arm around me. “Don’t worry,” he said when I reacted in surprise, “this is the way I am with all my friends, I just like cuddling. I’m a very tactile person.”

Looking back, a part of me knew right then what was going to happen. But another part of me believed him. I believed him because I tell the truth (when it feels safe to do so) and I assume that other people do as well. I believed him because he seemed nice, and he was a close friend of someone I trusted. And I believed him because he spoke about his many other female friends, friends I assumed felt safe with him. Also, I couldn’t imagine he would make a move on a close friend’s lover.

Being touched by another human was nice. Sitting on a couch watching a TV show with someone’s arm draped heavily over my shoulders felt comforting. But by the time Chris moved his head and started kissing me, I wasn’t surprised. Somewhere over the previous ten minutes I’d figured out he was probably going to do that. So when he leaned in I did the maths and everything fell into place:

If I hadn’t wanted this to happen, I should have left long ago. I should have taken his arm off my shoulder. I should have been really clear about my need for a non-sexual friendship instead of just vaguely mentioning my unavailability. I hadn’t meant to flirt but I could understand how it might have looked that way. I could not plausibly plead innocence.

“I’m on my period, so we can’t have sex,” I lied when Chris’s intent quickly became clear.

“Go down on me, then,” he whispered. I did so without thinking twice.

Was I scared? Did I think he might use force if I said ‘no’?

No. My thoughts never went far enough to even entertain the possibility of physical danger. At no stage did I truly feel physically threatened. But I never even considered saying no, although I didn’t want to sleep with him, I didn’t want to give him a blowjob, and I hadn’t even wanted to kiss him. A quick blowjob just seemed by far the most expedient way of getting the evening to be over. That pattern had been formed much earlier, when I was sixteen and drunk at a party: If I make out with a boy, his horniness is my responsibility. If I don’t want to have sex, the least I can do is help him finish. This is what I learned early, and I learned it well.

Back to the story: afterwards, Chris drove me home and I sat for a long time in my flat with all the lights turned on, chain smoking and playing Solitaire on my computer. I didn’t want to try to sleep yet because I knew I wouldn’t be able to. I felt ashamed and very, very alone.

To understand what happened next you need to understand my thinking: I never considered the fact that I might not be in the wrong here. I’d felt uncomfortable and exposed when Chris made a move on me, but I assumed that I had miscommunicated somehow. I had failed to accurately convey the fact that I was not interested in having sex with him, and thus what had happened felt like the logical conclusion of my error. To fix it, I thought I simply had to communicate more clearly.

(Communicating clearly was in itself a source of anxiety, because I had so rarely done it in this context. Even now, when I suspect someone is interested in me and the desire isn’t mutual, I agonise about how to convey this as nicely as possible. Sometimes I avoid parties just because I’m afraid I’m going to have to say “no” to someone there. I replay every time I do reject someone over and over in my mind, agonising over what I did wrong for them to have misread my signals. I know that I’m an engaged conversationalist. I know that I am friendly. Am I flirting? Do I secretly crave the attention? Am I asking for this?)

Anyway – the next day I communicated clearly, or so I thought. I sent him a message saying “So last night was interesting but given my situation I really don’t want it to happen again, I hope you understand. Let’s just be friends?”

I know. I know. I should have just said “I’m not interested in you” instead of going with “given my situation”. And I shouldn’t have suggested we be friends. I should have blocked him and stayed the hell away. But I didn’t. I did the best I knew how, while remaining excruciatingly polite, because impoliteness was terrifying to me.

“It’s all good, I totally get it. It won’t happen again,” replied Chris. Ah, relief. Everything would be fine now. A week or so later Chris contacted me again, suggesting another meal. I didn’t want to go to his house again, because then I wouldn’t be able to leave at will (remember no car), so I suggested he come to my house.

* * *

At this point in the story, the friend I was telling it to, who was driving, let out an exasperated sigh and interrupted me: “But Sage, why did you invite him over after that? Surely you should have known better by then.”

I remember with crystal clarity how those words hit me in the stomach. He was confirming what I was thinking too, even as I was starting to own this story and come to terms with what had happened. He was blaming me and I suspected I deserved the blame. I felt hot waves of shame washing over me, even as the anger flooded through me, even as I felt almost paralysed in my need to make myself understood. You deserved it, whispered an inner voice. You were naïve and stupid. Surely you knew better. Don’t go around asking for someone – especially for a man – to be on your side with this story.

“Stop the car,” I said, voice choked. “I need to get out.” Wordlessly he stopped. I stalked off into a field, face hot with tears. Eventually I sat down and sobbed with my head between my knees, feeling profoundly inadequate, alone, and ashamed. How do you explain your choices, how do you explain what was done to you, what you ALLOWED to be done to you, to someone who doesn’t understand where you came from? Who doesn’t understand how deep it runs, this need to be acceptable, to please, to preserve the peace at any cost? Who doesn’t know how hard it is for me to exist without apologising?

And who, even if he does grasp this, would not be able to hold the complexity of that reality in tandem with the equally true story of my strength and courage?

Because I AM strong, and courageous, and I take up space daily even though it’s still so hard for me to do.

How do I tell this story without seeming either pathetic or criminally stupid?

I didn’t, that’s how. I got back in the car. He apologised. I shakily accepted his apology and we had a pleasant evening together. I didn’t tell him the rest of my story because he hadn’t earned the right to it. And I never forgot that moment; without knowing it I withdrew parts of myself right then because I realised that they weren’t safe. I wasn’t known.

And months later I lay awake in the middle of the night, sweating, weeping because I still wanted the chance to tell him my story. I DO want to be known. I want to be told “Fuck, I get it now, what happened is not your fault, and I’m so sorry I was an arsehole who couldn’t imagine a reality apart from mine”. I want to not have to explain and justify myself. I just want to be seen.

So I’ll tell you the rest of the story instead, unknown reader, even though I might not be safe with you either; and I’m telling this because it needs to be told. Because this happens to many women. Because this happened to me and it’s a complicated tale and I am still processing my regret and my shame around this, but I know this now: IT WASN’T MY FAULT. 

                                                                           * * *

The day came, Chris came over. I had only one chair and a tiny table so he had to sit on the end of my bed, which I had pushed up against the table, while I made sure to sit far away on the chair. We had curry and lots of wine. We spoke about music and got super excited exchanging favourite songs, waxing lyrical about the bands we’d loved as teenagers, Green Day and Depeche Mode and Radiohead. I was having fun, relaxing. Then suddenly Chris got up. “I just need to do something, I’ve been wanting to do this all evening,” he said. And he walked over and kissed me.

I kissed him back. My brain scrambled for a coping strategy and the best it could come up with was: kiss him back and then, after a while, withdraw and make a joke, say something that’ll defuse the situation. So I did. I was totally fake and I still struggle with that: I told him he’s a good kisser (which he admittedly is, so, you know, I wasn’t lying exactly).

And then I said “but this can’t happen again, you know we spoke about that”.

At this stage I was painting myself as withdrawing regretfully, which was inaccurate because in reality every cell in my body wanted to get away – but I WAS still saying NO. I was saying no, even though I could have said it better. But Chris was having none of that. He came in for a kiss again and I moved my head away, said no a bit more strongly this time. I leaned back in my chair, casting about for something to do, and lit a cigarette. That would clearly occupy my mouth. That would be a clear no.

Chris stood over me as I smoked. “Sit down,” I laughed confusedly. I moved my head away, blowing out smoke in the opposite direction. He kept standing. Then he loosened his pants.

“Look at what you did to me,” he said, pulling off his underwear as well. This was getting weird. I smoked frantically, looking away, moving my chair back a bit, laughing in embarrassment. I kept insisting he sit down. He kept standing with his crotch at my face, for the entire seven minutes it took me to smoke that cigarette. I was shaking with shock as I smoked. Finally he took my hand and put it on his penis.

At which point I gave up. I just…gave up. I couldn’t realistically be on my period again. I had no idea how to defuse this situation short of kicking him out of my house, which he might have refused to do anyway. No amount of politeness and joking could make this stop. So I had sex with him instead.

And he thought I loved it. I remember opening my mouth wide into my pillow as we fucked, screaming silently in an agony of rage and confusion, even as he groaned triumphantly above me. I was doing this. I was doing this to myself. It felt as if I was betraying myself in the most profound way imaginable and the anguish settled like nausea in my stomach.

It’s still there. The nausea is still there.

After that we only ever met up in public places, but stuff still happened. He’d drop me off at home and ask to come inside – once I even let him. (It would be weird by now to say no all of a sudden, I reasoned.) After that I managed to find lifts with other people. He’d send me dick pics. He’d try to make out in bars. Gradually I managed to evade him more and more until we never met unless there were many other people present, and after a while even that felt impossible to me. The discordance was too great, I was too disgusted with both him and myself. My fear of impoliteness was overcome by my terrified need to never ever again have to see his face.

When #metoo happened Chris contacted me by text. He was nice, bashful, a bit penitent. He wanted to know if he’d ever made me feel uncomfortable, if he’d maybe been a bit pushy back then. He said he hoped I knew he never meant to make me feel pressured.

I didn’t reply. I didn’t want to, I didn’t want to do him the favour of explaining how awful those events had been for me. I didn’t have the energy to sift through the shame and the fear that it might have been my fault and come up with a coherent and accurate response; I didn’t feel like explaining something to him when I knew he’d act very surprised and try to scramble for excuses. His message didn’t fell genuine. It felt like the message a person sends when they really want to think of themselves as a good guy.

Chris was no longer living in my town by then so I thought I’d safely left it all behind. Then two years ago he came to visit local friends. He kept phoning me. I kept not answering. Then we ran into each other at a bar. Somehow, while our mutual friends were buying drinks or going to the loo, we found ourselves alone together for two minutes.

He confronted me immediately, still wanting to know whether he’d made me uncomfortable back then. I didn’t want to answer. I didn’t have an answer ready and it was neither the time nor place to confront him with my version of events. So I got vague and said: “Well, you WERE rather pushy.” He looked shamefaced for a few minutes. I fought down the reflexive urge to make him feel better. He kind-of apologised.

Then he asked if he could come visit me. And he commented on how good I was looking nowadays. I fled the bar soon after.

A year ago I finally wrote him an email. I did it because I thought: he might really not know. By then I’d met scores of other women with tales about him, women he’d harassed and pressured, women who were warning each other about him. Maybe he really doesn’t know, I imagined. Maybe no one ever bothered to tell him this isn’t how you do things. And maybe, by telling him, I can stop him doing it to someone else.

And it also felt like a cop-out, avoiding him indefinitely without explaining why. It didn’t feel brave. It didn’t feel like I was owning my stuff. A part of me felt bad for him – lumbering around, thinking of himself as a well-intentioned if rather horny guy, freaking women out everywhere he went.

So I wrote a clear, long email, detailing how I felt about what had happened, detailing every time he had overridden my ‘no’. I wanted to sound lucid and believable so I stuck to the facts, pointing out my non-consent, giving the timeline of events, not dwelling on my feelings overly much – I didn’t want him to be able to point at my email and go “wow this chick is crazy”. At the end of my email I asked him to never contact me again.

He promptly did, of course. “Thanks for your honesty,” he wrote in a text. “I’ll reply as soon as I get the chance to think about this.”

Had he not read my request not to be contacted? I considered sending him another text reiterating that I didn’t want to talk. But then I didn’t, because I’d already said my piece, I didn’t feel like repeating myself. If he did speak to me again, I decided, I’d simply block him.  

While I was writing this piece (which took me a month), Chris finally sent me that promised response. It came in the form of a voice note over Whatsapp, just over a week ago. I stared at that voice note for the longest time. Despite myself, I felt bad for him – most likely his message would be mostly nice. He’d say something like “I had no idea, I’m so sorry.” And then he’d add “You never told me you didn’t like it. I thought you wanted it too…” He’d manage to apologise while placing the blame squarely back on me. He’d be confused in a good-hearted way. He’d find excuses. He’d paint himself as more sinned-against than sinner.

And I would get it, because for a long time I too had thought this had been my fault. I’d thought I was in the wrong; it would be no surprise if he did too.

But I wasn’t in the wrong. He was. And I will not, finally, ease his guilt. I will not be polite. I will not make him feel better by incriminating myself and saying: “sure, I should have said no more clearly, sorry about that.” I will not tell him he’s actually a good guy.

I will not offer him cheap redemption.

So I deleted his voicenote without listening to it, and sent him a message explaining that I am not interested in a conversation, that I had said so already, and that he should learn the meaning of consent. Then I blocked him, and felt sorry for him for a while. I had to keep reminding myself that even in contacting me he was again overriding my “no”, and that I was fully justified in blocking him. You don’t get to apologise, you don’t even get to go through a process of sincere restoration, if your victim isn’t on board. You can’t force your apology on someone.

It’s hard for me, not being nice. It’s hard, when it’s so easy to make someone feel better about themselves. Not placating people, not apologising when I’m harsh, not softening the blow does not come easily. Because I was taught that my value lies in my ability to accommodate and please, even as my sin lies in being a source of temptation in the first place. The accusation goes something like this: “You have sinned and are shameful because you’re an object of desire. It’s your fault men want you. But since you made them desire you, you had better make up for your sinfulness by giving them what they want, whether that be sexual gratification, to be admired, or to be absolved. Be pleasant, be nice, be accommodating, and we might forget your shamefulness.”

In a sense I was groomed to be harassed, objectified, violated. My entire childhood and society at large prepared me to be an object for men’s consumption.

I still wonder: was what happened at my flat that day assault? Is it assault if you end up saying ‘yes’, kind-of? Am I allowed to claim that, when millions of women have been raped, abused, overridden in brutal and obvious ways? But then I imagine someone else telling me this story, and I imagine my response. It would be clear, it would be instantaneous: “Yes. This was assault. This is not okay. Your anger is so valid.” So that’s what I am telling myself.

Part of coming to terms with this story, for me, is also admitting its complexity. I don’t want to make Chris an uncomplicated villain. It feels powerful to be able to stand and say: he was groomed too. He was groomed to be a predator by a society that allows men to be less than what they can be. He was raised in a hypermasculine context, in a community which sent the messages “be a good man” while objectifying women at every turn. He was raised to believe that women’s “no” means “maybe”, and that “maybe” means “yes”. He was raised to view his own sexual desires as uncontrollable, and therefore excusable.

But it still doesn’t make what he did right, not by a long shot. And I am living with the damage he did, him and the men who came before and after him.

It started with my dad, who didn’t sexually abuse me but vilified women, considering them to be empty and unintelligent subordinates. My dad would force us to hold his hand in public. He’d force me to stand still while he’d pop a zit on my face when I was a teenager. He’d tell me I belonged to him, my body belonged to him until he found a suitable man to hand me over to.

And then there were the boys in high school, who thought I was hot but judged me for making out with them. The boys in bars who said “fuck you, slut” when I refused to give them my number after they’d bought me a drink. The men who called me a cock tease. The guy who told me he’d lost respect for me because I’d slept with him on the second date.

The friend who came over with DVDs and takeaways, and ended up relentlessly begging me to sleep with him until the early hours of the morning, arguing “but I find you irresistible!” as I hid in the bathroom. The other friend who came over for wine and chats and ended up pushing me into a corner, forcing a kiss on me until I bit his tongue. The man who sent me a voicenote detailing his sex dream about me, after I’d told him I wasn’t interested in a relationship.

There was another event, once, in my mid-twenties: a male friend came over for tea. We’d been involved before but things had petered out; now as we sat down, he moved in for a kiss. I drew back, said “no”, and then in the awkward silence that followed I added “I’m so sorry, I’m just not in that space”. And the friend looked at me with confusion on his face. “Why are you saying sorry?” he said. “You’re allowed to say no.”

I cried myself to sleep that night. No one had ever told me before that it’s okay to say no.

A story of doubt, trauma and truth

In June 2018 I checked myself into a psychiatric clinic for three weeks.

In many ways, the time I spent at the clinic was one of the most profoundly validating and healing experiences of my life. I was, first of all, extremely fortunate to have medical insurance which allowed me to check into a private clinic instead of a state institution; the latter being a different kettle of fish entirely. Also, I went by free choice – I’d realised I was on a downward spiral of exhaustion, cognitive decline, and suicidal ideation, and I got help.

It took some doing though – I had to convince my psychologist that I was depressed enough, who then had to find a psychiatrist willing to recommend that I be checked into a clinic, after which I was to phone my medical insurance provider with the preliminary diagnosis and recommendation and wait for them to approve my case. I spent hours on the phone. I wept in many different offices.

All the local psychiatrists seemed to be on leave, which meant that my psychologist and I had to convince my GP to make the recommendation instead, who wasn’t very keen to do so because she’d only ever experienced me as a ‘happy’ person. (No surprise there, I’m not in the habit of blabbing my life story while someone performs a pap smear on me). Apparently it isn’t quite the done thing to go around asking to be placed in a mental institution. Other people are meant to do that on your behalf when you’ve passed the point of reasonable sanity. Or something. This is really worrisome in itself – the amount of effort demanded of me to access a mental health care facility could easily act as barrier to many people who urgently need help.

Anyway. The clinic was good for me. I met wonderful people, staff and patients alike. I ate, finally. I managed to sleep. The psychologist assigned to me there was a wonderful and empathetic human being, and I will forever be grateful for her stabilising and humorous input in my life.

The psychiatrist, on the other hand…

Upon arriving at the clinic the psychiatrist on duty (let’s call her Dr. Lourens) had to perform an intake interview. What that basically means, I soon found out, is that shortly after checking in I was meant to sit in her office and answer questions for roughly an hour, after which she proceeded to diagnose me, only meeting me again two weeks later to check whether my medication was having an effect.

Maybe some psychiatrists actually do talk therapy, but this one certainly didn’t.

She barely even listened, only making brief eye contact in between the copious notes she was making on her iPad. There was a questionnaire and she was completing it. The task was clear: diagnose and prescribe. Next!

She wasn’t cold, or rude. She was just… very busy. And not very interested.

I’d just gone through a breakup, I explained to her. The guy had left me for a close friend of mine, but really it wasn’t quite that simple, because we were in an open relationship and…

“Open relationship..?” Dr. Lourens had interjected, peering at me over her glasses. Her office was roomy, bland, filled with medical handbooks. In between questions I sat staring out the window at the mountains on the horizon, waiting for her to finish typing. I felt tired, lost.

I tried explaining. Just as I was exploring the idea of non-monogamy I met this guy in a bar, he and I and my friend (the one he ended up leaving me for) landed up having a threesome that night but it was nice, it was a fun and warm experience. And then after that he and I really hit it off, so we continued our relationship…

“Do you often become drunk?” Dr. Lourens asked. “And then partake in risky sexual behaviour?”

No. I wasn’t drunk that night. I was high, though, I said. I thought I should probably mention the cocaine use, it felt relevant. (I took a six-month detour into regular drug use during this time, which I wrote about here. It was very foolish but also a valuable learning and living experience). Anyway – that was my first threesome and it didn’t feel risky at all, it was with someone I knew well and with someone else who moved in my circles, someone who knew lots of my friends. He was nice. Respectful. Funny. Sure, we were high but there was never a sense of danger, only excitement and curiosity.

“Do you often participate in risky sexual encounters?”

How to explain myself to this middle-aged woman, who had Bible verses stuck to her cabinets, who had a picture of her grandchild up next to her textbooks?

Seen through her eyes, my life seemed positively insane.

“Yes, once,” I said. “Well, it wasn’t risky. I had a four-way, again with this guy (Lance) and two female friends.” It had been a fun night. We were celebrating my graduation, running around in my toga and smoking rolled cigarettes in between sessions of enthusiastic friskiness. We laughed a lot. We shared life stories. I felt powerful and beautiful and enveloped in friendship. I tried explaining to Dr. Lourens that none of this was sitting badly in my soul, that it fit well with my then approach to life and love (which is basically ‘do no harm, and also, don’t avoid doing things just because they’re considered taboo’).

She made notes. I suspected they were not flattering. Then we moved on to family history. Here I had quite a bit to say. There’s a lot of depression in my family, a few suicides, and, I mentioned, most of my shrinks have seemed to think that my dad has undiagnosed Bipolar Disorder.

“Bipolar Disorder?” Dr. Lourens perked up. “Which type, do you know?”

I have no idea. He is undiagnosed, after all. Anyway, from the undergrad psychology I myself have taken I thought my dad might have Narcissistic Personality Disorder instead, or perhaps Borderline Personality Disorder. Something, in any case. Maybe all of the things.

Dr. Lourens was making notes. Timidly, I floated a suggestion past her:

“Could I perhaps have CPTSD?”

A few weeks before, a friend had suggested this to me. I’d never heard of it but after some quick googling I found out that CPTSD stands for “Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” and that it occurs from repeated trauma, often in the context of an abusive childhood. Sounded plausible to me.

Dr. Lourens frowned. For a moment I thought she might not know what I was referring to but then she shook her head sharply.

“That only affects children who were sexually abused,” she said.

Oh well, in that case. I felt foolish for suggesting it. Sexual abuse was the only form of abuse that did not take place in my childhood, so clearly I couldn’t have this disorder then.

Could I just be burnt-out? I tried explaining the past six months to her: I’d just finished my Master’s degree when my long-term boyfriend and I broke up. Then I woke up in a new relationship, one with a cocaine addict (who was also a good friend and a kind person, those are not paradoxes), and we were trying non-monogamy and doing too many drugs, and then suddenly he left me and also I lost a close friend, and I was under pressure to perform at work and publish an academic paper, fast becoming broke, exhausted…

“Do you have a lot of mood swings?”

Well…I’d googled ‘effects of regular cocaine use’. Does it count as mood swings when you’re feeling on top of the world and super motivated, and then you spend a sleepless night wishing for death to take you, but only after doing cocaine? (Which, those days, was often).

“I’m quite… intense,” I tried to explain. “But apart from the past six months, I don’t think I’d describe myself as having mood swings. Well, maybe a bit. I AM quite weepy. And I did struggle with anxiety a few years back and for six months the doctor put me on a mild anti-depressant, but that was while I was holding down two jobs and studying and…”

I have felt depressed before, but I’ve never actually thought that I have depression. My blue moods have always felt too transient, situation-bound, or like deep upwellings of sadness for a world which is legitimately broken. If I do have a mental illness, I always thought, then it would be an anxiety disorder, and even that has never felt quite like the right fit. Rather, I considered myself emotional, high-strung maybe, but also emotionally vast in a healthy way. But perhaps I’d internalised the stigma around mental illness? Perhaps I was in denial about my own mental ill-health?

The intake interview was over. Dr. Lourens leaned over, taking her reading glasses off.

“Would you like to know what I think?” she said.

Yes. Yes, I really would. Perhaps she’d find a description that makes perfect sense, perhaps there is a word out there that might fit so wonderfully that I could stop feeling lost and exhausted and feel understood instead.

“I think you have Bipolar Disorder.” She looked down at her notes, ticking things off. “It fits with the risky sex, drugs and thrill-seeking behaviour, with the mood swings, and your family history also confirms it.”

Oh. She’s still hung-up on the four-way, isn’t she?

“But aren’t you supposed to have manic episodes when you have Bipolar Disorder, moments where you go shopping and spend all your money or feel powerful and amazing? I mean, I get that one might say I have the down-swings, but I don’t recognise that mania within me…” I suggested.

“That’s Type I you’re describing,” Dr. Lourens interjected. “Type II only requires instances of hypomania, and it’s more often characterised by frequent bouts of depression. Many people with Type II Bipolar Disorder lead normal lives for a long time before they’re diagnosed.”

It didn’t fit. It didn’t feel right. How could I have reached the age of 28 without anyone clocking that I might be bipolar?

Nobody had ever told me that they experienced my intensity as mental illness, not even the long-term boyfriends I’ve had, not even my family. I’d always felt…emotionally diverse, rather than ill.

“Just consider it,” Dr. Lourens said, handing me two pamphlets. “There’s no harm in thinking about it. In the meantime we’ll prescribe some medication and see whether that makes you feel better, and if it does then that’ll be confirmation.”

I supposed there was indeed no harm in thinking about it. And I would have swallowed almost anything if it might make me feel better, so I agreed to the medication.

And that was it. Without informing me, Dr. Lourens then notified my medical insurance (and thus the world) that I have Bipolar Disorder. It still says so in my files. I have never even vaguely consented to that.

Two weeks later I met up with Dr. Lourens again and we discussed my medication, which we were gradually building up to a therapeutic dose. I had heard rumours in the clinic… at least two thirds of the patients there had been diagnosed with Bipolar Type II as well. It was starting to seem like a catch-all for “I have unpleasant emotions and the doctor didn’t have time to listen fully to my personal history”. So I retained my scepticism, caught between the desire to be honest with myself and the vague sense that something was wrong with my diagnosis.

I read up about Bipolar Type II. Some of the symptoms somewhat resonated. During hypomania, it says, a person might have a decreased need for sleep. And indeed, when I’m in the throes of an interesting project or am excited about something I often lie awake at night with my mind bouncing around endlessly (it’s much better now because of healthy living and mindfulness practices). I don’t have exaggerated self-confidence (except on cocaine), but my mind does sometimes fly rapidly from one idea to the next. And I talk quite fast.

“People experiencing hypomanic episodes are often quite pleasant to be around. They can often seem like the “life of the party” — making jokes, taking an intense interest in other people and activities, and infecting others with their positive mood.” (WebMD)

That felt trueish. I’m fun to have at parties. I’m likeable. I didn’t think I was pathologically fun, but I suppose you could make a case for hypomania.

The depression bit fit less well, actually. I did experience, like I said, times of sadness. But they didn’t feel like general “low-ness”, lethargy, feelings of worthlessness, or loss of pleasure. They felt like hormones. And cocaine comedowns. And like sadness because my boyfriend dumped me. And like stuff I might need to sort out from my childhood.

I’m a cheerful person. I’m a cheerful person who also cries a lot. I’m not forcing my cheer, nor faking it; I am genuinely enthusiastic about nearly everything, and the idea that this might be a disease instead of a nice part of my personality sent me spiralling into self-doubt.

So I phoned my family and my ex-boyfriends. “Do you think I have Bipolar Disorder?” I asked them all. They all seemed doubtful. I asked my friends. They didn’t think so either.

But I gave the meds a shot anyway. We upped the dose gradually. I felt better, but that might have been because I wasn’t using cocaine. I left the clinic after three weeks and resumed my life and things were good. Still intense, still weepy. I was scared that the pills might blunt the edge of my emotional experiences but they didn’t, I still thought people were really interesting and I still had lots of energy (usually) and beautiful things still moved me to tears. I stayed off cocaine, even attending NA meetings a few times before I stopped because introducing myself as an addict felt like a lie.

That’s the thing with all the terms, all the diagnoses: I couldn’t bring myself to believe them. On the one hand they felt limiting, on the other they felt simply untrue. I’d sit in a meeting and say “Hi, I’m Sage and I’m an addict” and I’d feel like a fraud. I have made some bad choices on cocaine but I’m still not categorically against drugs. I don’t fold and phone my dealer every time I have a sip of wine.

I know that I tend to adopt new habits too fast, I know that I smoke like a chimney and that I tend towards unhealthy coping mechanisms. The problem there, it still feels to me, does not lie with addiction per se but with lack of good coping strategies and emotional regulation.

The same applies to having Bipolar Disorder – I’d talk to some other people who have been diagnosed as well, and I’d feel as if I was lying to them.

Like I was trying to be part of a club I didn’t belong to. I hadn’t spent half my life wondering what could be wrong with me. I hadn’t searched fruitlessly for the right kind of medication until the doctor found the exact right combination and my mood began settling. I don’t have a string of hurt and baffled ex-lovers and family members behind me. I didn’t feel like I get to call myself mentally ill, because I haven’t suffered, not in that way at least, not enough to find respite in a psychiatric diagnosis. But perhaps, I kept thinking, perhaps everybody feels this way? Perhaps we genuinely can’t see our own mental illness because of our blind spots?

In August 2018 I had my follow-up interview with Dr. Lourens. I felt good, calm. I still didn’t think I had Bipolar Disorder, but I was still taking the meds, just in case (but we weren’t even up to full dose yet, the pills require a gradual build-up). Dr. Lourens seemed baffled when she saw me. I gathered that the medication wasn’t supposed to work this fast, I wasn’t supposed to look this serene and well… this together yet. So she over-compensated, and that’s where she finally lost me.

“It’s amazing,” she said, leaning back. “Do you remember your intake interview? You could barely sit still, you were fidgeting all the time. You were nervy, strung-up. The medication seems to be working wonderfully.”

She was trying to convince me she’d made the right diagnosis, I realised. And she was misremembering our first encounter entirely in service of her argument. The first time we’d met, I’d barely moved. I was exhausted, sitting limp and still, staring out the window. If anything, I was noticeably more fidgety this time around.

So there I decided I was done with it. I contacted some friends and family members, asking them to act as my accountability partners as I took myself gradually off the meds again. I let my GP know. My colleagues were mostly in the loop. I wasn’t using drugs (although soon after that I encountered magic mushrooms, but that’s a whole other story), I wasn’t in a romantic relationship, I was doing yoga every day, I was reading self-help books, I felt really stable. I watched myself for plausible signs of hypomania or of depression. Nothing.

I fell in love. I tried non-monogamy again. I felt scared and vulnerable but okay. I started relaxing.

It was exactly a year after my stay in the clinic (thus in June 2019) that everything came crashing down again.

I wrote about that already so I’ll try not to repeat myself too much. What I haven’t quite discussed before, though, is how my life had changed over that past year, between June 2018 and June 2019. I had good habits in place that I now roughly managed to maintain. I had a much larger emotional vocabulary. I was much more self-aware. I had since adopted a dog, was living on a beautiful farm, was maintaining supportive friendships.

So even though the bottom dropped out of my world again, I had me. I had my knowledge of me. I had friends I wasn’t hiding facts from. I had the sense, deep in my gut, that I would have my own back and that I could trust my truth.

My truth led me down a path of learning more about trauma. Suddenly everything around me seemed to point in that direction. The notion of CPTSD floated back around, and it turns out it isn’t a disorder that only kids who were sexually abused can get. Also, I learned that CPTSD isn’t in the DSM-5 (the manual psychiatrists use to make diagnoses), explaining why Dr. Lourens had been so dismissive of it.

A few months ago I came across this piece in a book by Pete Walker titled Complex PTSD – from surviving to thriving:

“I have witnessed many clients with Cptsd misdiagnosed with various anxiety and depressive disorders. Moreover, many are also unfairly and inaccurately labeled with bipolar, narcissistic, codependent, autistic spectrum and borderline disorders. (This is not to say that Cptsd does not sometimes co-occur with these disorders.) (…) Furthermore, this is not to say that those so misdiagnosed do not have issues that are similar and correlative with the disorders above. The key point is that these labels are incomplete descriptions of what the survivor is actually afflicted with. Reducing Cptsd to “panic disorder” is like calling food allergies chronically itchy eyes. Over-focusing treatment on the symptoms of panic in the former case and eye health in the latter does little to get at root causes. Feelings of panic or itchiness in the eyes can be masked with medication, but all the associated problems that cause these symptoms will remain untreated. Moreover, most of the diagnoses mentioned above are typically treated as innate characterological defects rather than as learned maladaptations to stress – adaptations that survivors were forced to learn as traumatized children. And, most importantly, because these adaptations were learned, they can often be extinguished or significantly diminished, and replaced with more functional adaptations to stress. In this vein, I believe that many substance and process addictions also begin as misguided, maladaptations to parental abuse and abandonment. They are early adaptations that are attempts to soothe and distract from the mental, emotional and physical pain of Cptsd.”

And the penny dropped. I’d found something that resonated. I don’t fucking care if it’s not in the DSM-5. THIS feels true. I read and I read and I cried a lot as I read because finally, FINALLY, someone was explaining myself to me in a way that felt true. It felt like this was honouring what was happening in my heart, instead of explaining it away, pathologising it, labelling it, medicating it – dismissing it, really.

But. I have days when I wonder. Since entering my newest cycle of pain (there’s something about the month of June) I have caught myself wondering: Could I have depression? I run through the symptoms: Low energy. Check. Seemingly inexplicable weeping. Check. Or could I be bipolar? After all this time, could my psychiatrist have been right?

I don’t know for sure. I don’t think she was right, I think rather than bipolar I am still traumatised and also just plain sad, because a lot of difficult things have been happening in my life. At night I lie in bed breathing deeply and I listen to the beat of my heart, and underneath all the pain I feel a river of life, of strength, coursing through me. I don’t feel at the mercy of my moods, but rather at odds with the different parts of me, with the part that is scared for my life and the part that knows everything is as it should be. But this could be true AND I might be bipolar. So am I?

Time and time again, I then return to this question: Does it matter?

The empowering thing about claiming my own trauma is that there are things I can do about it. I can learn about my attachment style and my coping mechanisms, I can gradually learn to release what is no longer working for me and adopt new strategies to life. I can recognise my own fear when it comes up. I can do deep stretches and yoga and take long walks; and importantly, all those things will not only bring temporary relief but will contribute to lasting change, to rewiring my brain into understanding that I am safe now.

That’s the difference: with a diagnosis like Bipolar Disorder or Major Depression, you do what you can, you take the meds if they help, you surround yourself with a support network, but basically the diagnosis is for life, or at least potentially for life. You might get relief but you will still have this sword hanging over your head, waiting to drop. And I think that getting caught up in the story of this disorder, of depression or mania or anxiety, can make things worse instead of better. It can be disempowering.

Far be it from me to say that having Bipolar Disorder (or depression or any number of psychiatric diagnoses) is not valid. I think those terms are extremely useful. I think that medication has helped a huge number of people. I think that many people have felt tremendous relief in giving a name to their experience. I think we should destigmatise mental illness.

But I also think it’s really dangerous to give one person, a stranger with a medical degree and a long list of syndromes in front of them, this much power. Usually, if you’re diagnosed with cancer or diabetes or Alzheimer’s, doctors run a whole lot of tests. They see you again and again. They consult with each other. I know you can’t exactly do the same with disorders of the mind, but it feels reckless to me that a psychiatrist is able to make a diagnosis based on a single consultation.

I am not okay with this. I am not okay with having my life story, my spiritual and mental and physical history, my traumas, my genes, my choices, reduced to a quick diagnosis, a diagnosis made without taking my own opinion into account.

I officially have this disorder now, it’s a public fact, whether I like it or not, unless I am willing to spend huge amounts of money to get another psychiatrist to overturn the diagnosis. And if I contest it doctors can simply say “methinks the lady doth protest too much”. Which is indeed what my psychiatrist ended up saying to me, asking me that last time we met: “Why are you so against this diagnosis? Could it perhaps be that you’re resisting it because it actually feels true?”

No, Dr. Lourens. I am not resisting this diagnosis because it feels true. I will not be shrunk into doubting myself. I will not be enticed to bow to your superior knowledge. I am the expert here. No amount of guidelines and medical information and manuals can provide you with the insight needed to override my own innate wisdom. No more.

Medication is an important part of the arsenal of tools to help people who are struggling. So are psychiatric clinics, and diagnoses themselves. But in the clinic I met a frightening amount of people who land up there again and again, stuck, changing their medication when the pills stop working, taking huge amounts of sleeping aids (all legally prescribed), spending large sums on psychiatrists and counselling, and yet landing up there over and over because life simply is not becoming more bearable. It’s heartbreaking. It’s frightening.

And I believe that there is a better way, there must be a better way. It’s sad for me that many holistic practices are frowned upon by the medical world, thus pitting “science” against “the quacks” in a way that does not serve the actual people. It’s sad that most of the ill people I met at the clinic left with no more understanding of their own psyches than they had come with, taught only to depend on the doctor’s better knowledge and her prescription pad.

It’s sad that our discomfort is medicated away instead of accepted and investigated. It’s sad that we are not encouraged to learn from our unpleasant emotions, but told instead to view any strong emotion with suspicion. It’s sad also that alternative ways of living can arouse such suspicion in a doctor that they are considered symptoms of mental illness. It’s sad that our truths about ourselves are being ignored in favour of a stranger’s opinion. It’s sad that our stories are seen as symptoms instead of the rich tapestries they really are.

So: I might be bipolar. I might have a whole lot of things, as I discover whenever I go down the google rabbit hole. But unless these labels are helping me on my journey, I categorically reject them.

Instead I am taking magic mushrooms and learning martial arts and dancing in my kitchen and weeping on my yoga mat. And talking to my friends. And to wise helpers. And to Life.

I am here. It’s hard. The truth is that a psychiatric diagnosis isn’t going to make it easier.

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.

Content warning: This post contains mentions of drug use and mental illness and abuse and heartbreak.

This is not the full story. I’d like to preface this post by saying this is not the full story. There is also triumph and joy in my life and I am much more than my trauma. But this is a true story. And I’m sharing it because I don’t know of any other way.

I have spent the past two and a half years in a near-constant state of being triggered. Re-evaluating how I love and relate has forced me to confront old aches I didn’t even know I had. Trauma I thought I’d processed a decade ago reared its head again. Trauma I didn’t know I had announced itself. There were times I felt surrounded only by naked loss – new losses mingling seamlessly with old ones, like a sinister forest crowding out my life. There are months from last year that I barely remember; when I try to recall how I got through last winter I just feel the reflexive urge to roll into a little ball and start weeping.

The arrival of another winter, all thin air and silent mornings, coupled with lockdown and the general angst of current life, has forced me back into myself once more. There is nobody I can turn to, so again I go inward. And there I ask myself: is it worth it? This long strange journey into unknown territory, where nothing is as I learned to assume it must be, why am I still on it?

Because.

Yes it’s worth it.

Ask me again tomorrow.

Sometimes.

Nothing is worth this searing desolation. Nothing.

Help me.

Yes.


Everything I do these days is tinged with pain. Over the past few years I have had moments of soaring joy and triumph such as I have rarely felt before, but they were never uncomplicated – for me joy comes with grief now; I struggle to distinguish between the two. Laughter is prone to tip into sobbing. I am very, very tired.

This is how these years have gone:

I had prepared myself for the first hard bit. I woke up one morning in early 2018 and in the night I had left my life behind. I had an entire journal explaining why, and a tiny empty flat, and many books about non-monogamy. But I had wounded someone I loved; my resolve did not keep me warm at night. In the mornings my heart dragged itself across the bathroom tiles for a numb silent shower. Life would get better soon, I knew. I just had to get through the hard bit.

I woke up on another morning and I was busy making death-defying choices. I was buying cocaine in a strange car from strange men with whom I had to speak French to be let out. I wasn’t sleeping much. In the silent hours of the night I daydreamed about my death while my fuck-buddy (lover? best friend? co-dependent hanger-on?) lay twitching next to me.

When that ended in a muddle of drug-addled open-relationship-miscommunication, resentment and searing jealousy, I went to spend three days alone by the ocean. This was almost exactly two years ago: wintertime, and pouring with rain. I walked. And walked. I sat on rocks with the wind whipping into my face, feeling Brontë-esque, enraged and abandoned.

So far, so familiar. Just because something feels intense doesn’t mean it’s unknown. I swam through the seas of heartbreak with my usual mixture of despair, self-pity and panache. But when time came to get up… I couldn’t. I didn’t want to eat. I had unlearned how to sleep. I felt forgotten and weak and terrified.

Below my feet the ice gave a resounding crack.

But it held.

I finally checked myself into a psychiatric clinic because my mind wouldn’t obey me anymore: I’d sit in front of a screen with time to kill and interesting research to write up, and my mind would spit up blanks. The energy to string together any words at all was missing. My memory was hazy, my ability to formulate thoughts almost non-existent. It scared me.

In the clinic the angst subsided. On my first night there another patient said to me “No offence but I don’t think you should actually be here”. I laughed and replied: “I just look functional”. But a part of me agreed with her. I might be crazy but at least I’m self-aware, I thought. At least my family is functional, supportive and loving. In comparison to most of the people there, I had a lot going for me. Within days I was the nurses’ favourite patient, the little eager one with all the answers in group therapy, the empathetic one who made friends with all the other patients. When I left, they made me a card and each wrote a personal message. “I have never met, such a gifted person like you,” said one. Another went: “You made me feel special without me having ever asked for it”.

I’m likeable. I’m kind. I’m gifted. I deserve to exist.

And I was fine now. I was fine. I’m fine.

After the clinic my psychologist said to me: “Well I hope you’ve learned not to try open relationships again”, so I promptly stopped seeing her. I still wanted to do non-monogamy. I wasn’t sure why, but it felt true, truer than my former ways of engaging. Looking back, perhaps it’s simply because our intuition guides us to the paths where we might find the most growth and healing. But healing demands discovering and acknowledging that we are wounded first, and I didn’t have the space or the courage to see the immensity of my own brokenness yet. I don’t know if I have it even now.

Things were different after the clinic. Colours were more intense. Everything moved me. I cried a lot. I felt closer to God, even while my definition of God remained as vague as ever. In my every spare moment I walked – through suburbs, down little paths next to streams, over hills, through private properties, in nature reserves. I had to keep moving; I was aflame. I felt very alive and it wasn’t always pleasant.

After some months I fell in love. Of course I did, I am addicted to falling. All the months of guarding my health closely, of reading spiritual books, of doing yoga, of listening to uplifting music, of walking, all said to me: “This time you’ve got it. This time you’re balanced and healthy and totally capable of having a relationship(s) without disappearing into it”. And so I fell.

All the other times my relationships ended, I could point my finger at the other person: He couldn’t communicate. We wanted different things. He was a drug addict. He was severely conflict-avoidant. We were too different. We grew apart.

So I had control over the endings, and when I didn’t, it was clearly because the other person was at fault. Perhaps somewhere inside there was the niggling fear that I, just as I am, might not be good enough. But matters never came to a head; I would end relationships, or the other person would turn out to be an asshole, long before the question of my worth came up. I left each relationship battered but unscathed. Within my heart doubts of my own worthiness could bloom unchecked and unacknowledged.

But this time. This time I fell in love with a worthy adversary. He was verbose and self-aware and emotionally astute. He was almost as kind as me. He was more gifted. He was raw and real and wise and fucked-up in a profoundly moving way. He took up a lot of space. His way of being demanded engagement and authenticity from me in larger amounts than I had ever had to bring before. I was hungry to show up. I wanted to rise to the challenge.

I was petrified but I unfurled. I powered through my insecurities. I gave of myself unquestioningly while tamping down on my need to be reassured. I impressed myself with how well I navigated the waters of non-monogamy, his other connections and then mine too. I communicated my heart as bravely as I could while editing carefully the jealousy, the fear, into digestible titbits, without even knowing that I was doing it.

Sometimes my bigness would spill over. I’d react to something like a frightened child or a wounded animal and then apologise profusely for my emotions. I’d try to explain myself. I’d try to control his reaction by showing less of me, yet more of me demanded to be known. As time passed I found myself weeping more often after our encounters. Loss. Loss. Loss is coming, screamed my heart.

Loss came. It came in threes, as these things do. First, just more than a year ago, deep wounds at the heart of my family surfaced, long overdue. I sat back in horror as I witnessed the uncomplicated truths I had clung to as a child dissolve: “My dad might be an asshole but my mom is a superhero”, “The women in my family are strong” (I realise now I had confused strength with the ability to suffer), “My pain as a child was worth it somehow because my siblings came out okay”, and, resoundingly, this myth: “We’re fine. We’re all fine now.”

‘Crack’, went the ice. But I was still standing.

The second loss: The second person I was seeing did a runner. He disappeared with barely a sound. I coped because in the larger scale of things, there were more serious crises. I’d loved this person but I’d known for a while we weren’t compatible and perhaps his disappearance was a tiny bit of a relief. I could tell myself it was on him: he didn’t have the courage to communicate. He didn’t know how to show up. It was on him. And I still had my other relationship, the scary one, the authentic one, the one where I was bringing unknown amounts of myself to the table and was being met in equal vulnerability. I was weepy, and wounded, and my family didn’t make sense anymore, and I wanted to run into a mountain and scream my guts out. But I was fine. I was standing.

Then in a casual conversation my remaining lover admitted that things were changing for him. “It doesn’t feel like it has to be a big deal because I don’t think it’s necessarily permanent,” he said. “It’s just that I feel a moving-apart kind of energy for now.”

Even as I lashed out in terrified anger, my mind whispered to me: “What did you think would happen? Did you really think you were capable of having a mature relationship? Did you really think someone, anyone, could hold space for the entire mess of you? You’re too broken. You’re too intense. You’re too much.”

Without a sound this time the ice beneath me dropped away.

                                                                                          * * *

Just about a year ago now my heart broke itself irreversibly. The closest I can come to explaining it is by saying that it feels as if I have a different heart now. It is still recognisably mine, it still has the texture and intensity of my own heart. But it feels much older, and tired, and achingly vast. It feels like I have a war veteran for a heart now.

And perhaps like a war veteran my heart vacillates between expansive acceptance and abject terror. I lie awake at night and feel the blood rushing through my body as if in mortal danger. I feel my mind groping for a way out like a terrified child. My heart stutters one message, over and over: alone. Alone. Alone. Alone.

I hadn’t heard or read much about trauma before. So six months after the ice broke, in December 2019, I was still flailing about, trying to get back onto a patch of land, confused about how utterly devastated and ravaged I felt. I mean, I’m not a complete idiot. I knew how I’d grown up had left a mark. But I’d dealt with SO MUCH of it already. I’d wept and read and forgiven and loved and prayed and WORKED, worked really hard, for over a decade. How could I still be this broken? How could life be so unfair?

But this had to be acknowledged at some point and eventually, begrudgingly, I did: I was reacting to something more than what was visibly here. I was reacting as if my very life was in danger. The rejection was real, the loss was real, but it was nowhere near as big as my reaction to it. A year after the heartbreak, I still get stuck in loops of abandonment and unworthiness that are not being caused or confirmed by anything in my actual life. I am still extrapolating like a maths wizard. I am still descending into spirals of shame and terror caused by unseen bogeymen.

And I am having a really, really hard time existing right now.

I know it’s happening now because I never had the energy or the insight to face up to it before, but I don’t want this to be happening. I don’t want to be the sum of my parents’ errors. I don’t want to be just how I grew up. I have resisted the word ‘trauma’ for very long because I want to be NORMAL, dammit, I want to be at peace within myself, I want to love and laugh as easily as other people seem to do. I want to get to relax. I just want to get to relax.

But that’s not my path. What is on my path is blurting out my wounds wearily, knowing that my lovers and my friends will see me differently once I do. What’s on my journey is sifting through the mess left by generations of wounded ancestors as best I can, and right now my best doesn’t feel very good.

Because when do you tell someone? When do you say “so, about, ahem, ‘LOVE’: I think I might do it differently from other people. Like, more intensely or something. No sweat, it’s just trauma, I think. Or maybe it’s my personality. But I’m still having fun, I promise, it’s just that I can’t relax, never ever, and also, I know you’re going to leave me but my heart will shatter when you do so anyway. (But if you don’t leave I will.) But don’t worry, I’ve got this. I’m managing my shit. I know myself. If I break, WHEN I break, I won’t hold you responsible. And I’m really really healthy now actually anyway, I’m working on myself and I’m generous and brave so please never ever leave me. And I’m really sorry. I’m sorry I’m inconvenient. I’m sorry I’m an incoherent mess. I’m trying to make sense. In fact I’m actually quite considerate and I’ll rein in my terror until I can’t anymore and most of the time I am quite capable of communicating maturely and I have self-love practices in place and I even meditate sometimes and please please don’t run away”.

I have been feeling near-constantly triggered over the past two and a half years, and this has culminated for me in a weary acknowledgment that I am more traumatised than I care to admit. I think I should come with a warning: ‘This woman will use you to dig up old shit in her psyche and you won’t even see it coming (but she means well. And she loves hard, for what it’s worth).’ It has been years of digging through muck and the only thing I can say for sure is: I’m still here. I don’t like it very much, but I’m still here. And I’m fucking exhausted.

So is it worth it?

Yes.

No.

I don’t know of any other way.

I’m showing up. Most of the time. I’m here.

Go away.

Help me.


I’ve been working on a post which has been getting rather stuck in my throat. It’s a necessary piece, for me, but writing about it feels hazardous. I stop, delete, rewrite. I think ‘In the face of others’ much greater trauma, do I even have the right to tell this story?’ I wonder if I’ll offend people. I wonder if my words will be too triggering. I wonder if people will look at me differently. (Update: It’s two weeks later, I’ve written another post, and I’m still stuck with the above piece. At this point I think I might never actually finish writing it.)

So I’m busy writing that post, but I also really miss just sitting down in front of a laptop and feeling words arrive easily. In the meantime thus, here is my attempt at something less intense:

We are all going to die.

I’ve been thinking about death a lot over the past while. I always do, really, but naturally the continuing coronavirus crisis and the strange silence enforced upon my own life have been bringing up this topic more than usually.

A few weeks before the virus became a global reality I read an article titled ‘Deep adaptation’, which I also blogged about here. Basically, it says that climate change has passed the point of no return and that society as we know it can only last another few years before it collapses. Even as I was writing my reaction to that, countries were announcing extreme lockdown measures. I was reading forecasts saying that lockdowns would, on and off, last until a vaccine can be found, which might take two years. This most likely means an end to the world as we know it, at least for a good long while.

How strange; how anti-climactic. I was bracing myself for a climate-induced catastrophe and then out of the blue a virus comes and sweeps the world into a new shape. We hide in our homes as a breathless hush descends over the world, punctuated only by increasingly surreal statistics. The crisis feels urgent yet far away. I feel untouched yet shaken, profoundly isolated yet part of the most global crisis of my lifetime thus far. The truth I had been chewing on before all this happened became suddenly more urgent: Life is completely unpredictable.

The only thing I know for sure is that we are all going to die.

We tend to react to a sentence like the above by saying “wow, that’s dark”. When I say that I think about death a lot, people think I’m morbid. They even try to cheer me up.

But stop, stop that for a moment. Let’s stop the reflexive flinching we do when the topic of death comes up. What if we stared down the chasm of our own finiteness, what if we explored this one and only certainty? What would happen if we really believed the idea that we are mortal?

What happens for me is a blend of grief and relief that eventually, when I lean into it, crescendos into ecstatic nihilism. This is IT. This. THIS. Aaaaaaaaaaaaah.

My twenties were basically an extended time of existential crisis for me. When I started seriously doubting my faith at 21 I asked myself, over and over, “what’s the point of life if there is no God and no hereafter?” I watched a video by Stephen Fry around that time, wherein he waxed lyrical about our mortality and about the strange defiant beauty of our tiny lives in comparison to the chasm of eternity. To me he sounded like a man grasping at straws while dismantling the very fabric of his own life. Sure, I thought, there might be beauty in doing good without having a god forcing you to do so, but it’s a sad second place to actually, you know, having a MEANINGFUL life. (I wasn’t sure what I meant by meaningful, but I knew that I was missing it.) The departure of religion had left a large hole in my life, and saying that our insignificance can be beautiful was not going to fill it.

It took almost ten years. Ten years to dismantle the ideas that society and religion had planted so deep into my soul that I thought they were fundamental to who I was: ‘Life should be Meaningful, and Meaning is inextricably linked to making a mark. Leaving a legacy. Making a difference. Changing the world. Being remembered. Living forever’.

It took me ten years to dismantle the idea of ‘meaningful’, perhaps because this concept is as vague as it is deeply ingrained. What we usually mean when we speak of meaning is that we want our lives to feel like they matter. Naturally then the question arises: matter to whom? And the answer, if we’re honest, is ‘matter to as many people as possible’.

On one level, I think that most of us want our lives to matter to others because we are so deeply relational. We deduce that we exist from others’ reactions to us. We deduce that we are significant based on how important others think we are. This is part of what makes us human.

On another level, I think there is a yearning in most of us to form part of a cosmic story. We’re storytelling creatures. We want quests, adventure, romance – we want momentum and progress in our narrative. We want to form part of a story playing itself out on the stage of eternity and unfolding into intricate patterns, in which our footsteps, tiny as they are, form an integral part.  

I think it’s fine to want to have meaning in our lives. It’s fine to want to matter to others, and it’s fine to want to form part of an epic adventure. And in many ways I DO think we form part of a continuous unfolding tale, of a cosmic love story in which every creature matters tremendously and uniquely. Every cell, every particle, throbs with existence and with impending death, with the unending flow of endings and beginnings comprising the tragedy and the glory of this universe. We matter. This matters. Excruciatingly so.

And also: we are all going to die. And in many ways, it’ll be as if we’d never lived.

This morning my dog Waldo and I went for our daily walk through the neighbour’s vineyards. A thick fog was covering the landscape, so that the earth fell away into grey nothingness at the end of every row of vines. I was the only human on earth. I opened my arms wide and walked with hands flung into the sky, laughing, crying a little bit. “I am going to die soon”, I whispered into the air. No need to get too serious. No need to do Great Things. No fixed Destiny to chase down, no Person I might disappoint, no life-or-death decisions to make – death is the only given.

This realisation has been settling into my bones over the past year or two, but it’s really over the last few months that the relief of it has become palpable for me. I hear people talk about changing the world and I think ‘wow, I don’t want that anymore! Not in the way they mean it, anyway’. I witness people being really anxious about the state of the Earth, about themselves, about humanity, and I get it but I think, quietly: ‘don’t take it so seriously!’ I’m not being flippant – we are surrounded by suffering, we are separated from nature in untenable ways, we are destroying our habitat, we are the walking wounded blindly wounding others. These are big problems. But we can do much more about these things if we start from a profound admission of our own mortality.

Everything is really really precious because we are going to die soon.

And nothing will last forever. Not even the damage we are doing to the Earth. Not even greed, and capitalism, and inequality; not even radioactive waste.

Being profoundly aware of our own impending death means not taking anything too seriously, yet ascribing great significance to everything. Holding this paradox in our hearts: My life is fleeting. My life matters. Without any grand gestures, without monuments being put up in my honour, my life matters because it matters to me – and because nothing will ever be like ME again, not in a billion billion years. I get to fill my life with exactly what I want to fill it with. I get to people it with misty morning walks and Terry Pratchett novels and late nights watching sitcoms and many, many tears (because everything makes me cry now that I realise I’m going to die soon).

I like it here. I like existing, even when I’m not enjoying it. I like this realisation settling into my heart: If there is no Grand Plan handed to me by an all-knowing God, then there is just the daily adventure of figuring out how I want to fill my life. The ending of this book is certain: death. But the pleasure is in the reading, in the plot twists and grand romances and big reveals along the way.

P.S. I do actually think that there probably is some sort of Consciousness from whence I came, or whom I am embodying, or a kind of Cosmic Plan or something. I just don’t think that it matters very much for how I live my life right now. Whether or not there is a grand destiny at play, in this embodiment I can only hazard guesses about the greater scheme of things. And, if you ask me, with no knowledge comes no responsibility.

No holy duty, only play. No god-given task, only breath-given awe.

Love and chaos

For the longest time, I thought that the word ‘anarchy’ was synonymous with ‘chaos’. As in, “if I can’t get my hands on some cigarettes soon, there will be anarchy”. Vaguely I knew it was a political ideology, but surely one only hooligans and angry teenagers subscribed to.

So when I first heard about relationship anarchy (RA for short) I naturally thought much the same. I thought relationship anarchists must be entirely against all relationships, refusing to commit, to fall in love, or even to engage. To somehow find fault with all relationships they must be singularly difficult people, I concluded, and for a while I didn’t think about it much again.

Then somehow RA popped back onto my radar. I was questioning a lot of things: why did I feel a slight recoil inside whenever I’d describe myself as ‘polyamorous’? What did I really want from my romantic partners? What’s the difference between sex and romantic involvement? What even is ‘falling in love’?

Why did every new relationship style I researched feel like an increasingly complex system prescribing how I should and shouldn’t love?

Enter RA. This time I came across writings by Andie Nordgren, who is credited with coining the term and writing a short manifesto to accompany it. One of Nordgren’s 7 principles for relationship anarchy reads “Build for the lovely unexpected”. Another says “Customise your commitments”. This I like, I thought. This I can get behind.

So I devoured every thing about RA I could find. I joined the facebook group. There, every now and then, I’d see suggestions to newcomers that they familiarise themselves with the principles of anarchism itself, in order to better understand relationship anarchy. That sounded tedious. Ploughing through opaque texts written by old Russian men more than a century ago just to understand a current way of relating in this world felt mind-numbingly ineffectual.

Eventually, though, I felt the need to get a bit more savvy about anarchism. So I watched some Youtube videos. Skimmed through a few books. Got a bit lost, actually, in the maze of texts: interviews and thinkpieces and fantastical anarchist utopian sci-fis.

My knowledge about anarchism is still scattered and, at best, full of plot holes. But I get it now. I get why it’s so important to understand at least roughly what anarchism is before attempting to understand RA: you can’t have, nor DO, relationship anarchy if you don’t understand where it comes from, what its aims are, where it fits into the bigger picture.

I don’t think you have to be an anarchist to be a relationship anarchist. But I do think that we need a thorough understanding of whatever relationship approach or theory we adopt to do so properly. We get bombarded with information about marriage and the nuclear family from birth. Whether we want to or not, monogamous romantic relationships are the one style we know lots about – and still we mostly don’t get them right. It would be foolish to enter a new way of connecting with little to no information to guide our way.

Speak truth to power

Anarchism is mainly concerned with power. At its heart it believes that power “is always illegitimate, unless it proves itself to be legitimate” (Noam Chomsky); it is therefore concerned with all the ways that people’s freedom is curtailed. Specifically, it is concerned with identifying where power is located, and how it is wielded. Are people free? Even if they think they are, are they really free, or are they just choosing from very limited options every day because they’re not aware of any others? Chomsky (whom I love and want to quote for ever and ever) says about this that:

“people should be able to live in a society […] where they can develop their capacities freely – instead of being forced into the narrow range of options that are available to people in the world now”.

Chomsky, ‘On Anarchism’

In other words: we might be obviously un-free, or it might be more subtle. For instance, in South Africa the government put a ban on alcohol and cigarette sales during the COVID-19 lockdown, which is a ludicrous overstepping of the duties of the state. To me, that is some super obvious paternalistic state interference; an example of unsubtle un-freeness. Then there are also ways we might be less noticeably un-free, as when we can’t even imagine not being monogamous, because that never even came up as a possible way to be.

Power is everywhere, and of course it is not necessarily bad. It would be amazing, in fact, if every person felt personally powerful. Having power over someone, though, that’s dodgy. The question is thus: “Who/what calls the shots? And if it’s not the individuals involved themselves, why not? And how are we going to fix this?”

I came across the following definition of anarchism in a 1970s Dutch collection of essays titled simply “Anarchisme”. Loosely translated from the Dutch (words in bold emphasised by me):

Anarchism is in general defined as a theory or principle for life, characterised by the absence of power and authority, specifically of the organised political power we usually call ‘the state’. It has as point of departure a network of free agreement between groups and organisations […] to the satisfaction of the infinite variations of needs and aspirations found in humanity. To make such new forms of societal living possible, we will have to adopt entirely new premises instead of those on which current development is based.” (Arthur Lehning, Anarchisme). Isn’t that beautiful? I love the picture of freedom yet interconnectedness this awakens. This is what I want in life. This resonates.

Lehning’s definition places specific focus on the state as locus of power and therefore as the thing that must be opposed. That corresponds with thinking during the 1970s-80s, but in the meantime we have begun to think of power as much more widespread than just the state.

Power is systemic. It can be subtle. It is wielded in a variety of ways, and the first step in resisting it is to identify it, which can often be a lengthy process as we dismantle our beliefs and institutions.

The word ‘institutions’ here is important, since it is through institutions that power is legitimised. We see this in formal institutions (parliaments, universities, hospitals, courts, etc.) where it’s very clear who does what; we see this in societal institutions (religions, marriage, families, etc.) where we know exactly what to do and expect, and we even find this in those firmly entrenched habits that we share as a society (9-5 workdays, how to write an email to your boss, how to address the shop cashier, etc. – power comes into play in a million unacknowledged ways every day). And because there are so many holders of power, there are many branches of anarchism, of which many focus on more societal or even interpersonal contexts.

Is anarchism basically libertarianism, then?

NO. Nope. God I hope not.

Well, actually…

A little bit, maybe, yes.

The wide definition of libertarianism is simply “a political philosophy that upholds liberty as a core principle”. So far, so good, since anarchism is concerned with liberty too. But the thing is that nowadays when we think of libertarianism, we specifically think of right-wing libertarianism – what comes up in my mind is rich white men who own ridiculous amounts of land and complain about having to pay taxes. Basically, to me, libertarianism conjures up extreme capitalism, and the type of people who actually believe that the invisible hand of the economy will play a fair game and fuck over only those who deserve to be fucked over.

That’s not anarchism at all. Tom Wetzel sums it up well in a short online piece on anarchism vs. libertarianism (my emphases):

To the right-wing libertarians, being forced to work for employers, being commanded by bosses, is consistent with liberty because no one puts a gun to your head to take a job. And therefore it isn’t coercion. From the anarchist or socialist libertarian point of view, this is a drastically poverty-stricken definition of “liberty”.

Tom Wetzel, ‘What is the difference between libertarianism and anarchism?’

The point here is not that anarchy maintains that working for someone is bad (it doesn’t necessarily) but rather that anarchism seeks liberty beyond the lowest common denominator. It is not enough that some of us are free on surface level. We must all be free, and we must be truly so. So anarchy demands that we continue to notice all the subtle ways that hierarchies of power determine our actions, even in a ‘meritocracy’, even in a free market.

Freedom, but with heart

The kind of freedom that right-wing libertarians envision – unchecked freedom to seek more personal acquisition, basically – is a pretty unkind type of freedom. It’s every man for himself. It disregards the subtle and systemic ways in which power and inequality have been baked into the system, benefiting some to the detriment of others. That is not anarchism, nor is it relationship anarchy (although I have encountered some people who do seem to think that RA means placing personal desires above the well-being of anyone else).

Anarchism has a lot of heart. One of its legs might be the dismantling of power structures, but its other is a deep-seated belief in people’s ability to self-govern. According to anarchism, people can coordinate themselves. This might happen in a friendly communal way or a more tense way where people compromise despite anxieties and conflicts, but it will happen whenever the need for cooperation arises.

And according to Ruth Kinna cooperation will breed its own rules; it’s not for anybody outside this framework to judge what the rules should be: The rules will change over time, and people will adopt new practices, but they will always be cooperative.” In other words, Andie Nordgren’s principle “Customize your commitments”, see?

I find this very beautiful, the belief that people will cooperate and create something workable and creative together if given the chance. I have, however, often wondered whether it isn’t very naïve, given all the greed and opportunism in the world. But in Political Science class I learned that more and more, it is not the state but rather civil society which is causing change. In South Africa this is very apparent in our past liberation struggle, but also in our present: people lose patience with the government and simply start their own NGOs, charities, businesses and movements, lobbying for change or educating people or placing increasing focus on important issues such as sustainability or mental health. We’re doing it ourselves.

Look at all the groups and initiatives arising in the wake of COVID isolation – I form part of several Whatsapp groups and collectives that immediately popped up, arranging for food donations and collections, the distribution of educational activities for kids stuck at home, wider and better aid for people in need, etcetera. It’s imperfect and disorganised, but it’s normal people mobilising themselves to help. On the farm where I live, myself and all the neighbours (we’re about nine households) have quickly arranged ourselves into taking turns shopping, swapping ingredients, gardening tips and cigarettes when needed, and providing emotional support. The same is true of my colleagues, with whom I feel more allied than ever. The amount of initiative being taken by normal people right now is heartening.

Change comes from the ground up, it always has. Anarchism says that this change would be faster and more effective if we gave up on the idea that the state is supposed to do things for and with us, and stopped waiting for it to join the picnic. Instead we should dismantle it and directly manage our own lives, in collaboration with each other.

Relationship anarchy as praxis

Anarchism places a lot of emphasis on ‘praxis’ which is, as far as I understand it, just a fancy version of the word ‘practice’. In other words, praxis means bringing ideas and vision to fruition through doing. And that’s where I think relationship anarchy fits in.

If we take the principles of anarchism to their logical expression in relationships, and if we look at some of the texts on RA specifically, then altogether we can basically say that RA: aims to dismantle the (often unconscious) hierarchies and assumptions we have made around relationships, to identify where we or others are un-free in how we relate, to determine which patterns are detrimental or beneficial to our lives, and to decide what to retain or rebuild.

Relationship anarchy is one of the most accessible ways for us to DO anarchy.

While overthrowing the state or building small societal utopias isn’t quite as readily done, we can always, anywhere, start re-examining our relationships and rewire them to reflect our deepest truths. We can always start relating more authentically. We can always take a step back from all the relational and gender roles forced upon us and begin to live from the inside out.

Therefore I think that all self-professed anarchists must necessarily be relationship anarchists too. There’s an interesting reddit thread about that, actually, where someone asks whether they are morally obligated to be RA since they consider themselves an anarchist. “Do I have to be polyamorous now?” they ask. See how the writer mixes up polyamory and RA, using the terms interchangeably? Well, they aren’t the same thing at all. Here’s a lovely insightful snippet from one commenter:

heterosexual monogamy is a constructed vision of the “proper” relationship, but that doesn’t mean you’re immoral or anti-anarchist for being attracted to it. The point, whether with gender or race or relationships, is to be self-aware of what parts you’re inheriting from the society, and how those parts could be hierarchical.”

– insightful reddit commenter

In other words: if you’re an anarchist, you’ll do the work of examining and questioning your relational heritage, and of working towards greater freedom and consent. Yet practicing RA does not mean you’ll be non-monogamous.

But.

Practicing RA, according to me, is more than a relationship preference. It’s more than just a vague label allowing you to question some ideas and norms that bug you. It’s an unflagging task you declare yourself willing to see through.

More than just making up your own relationship norms, it demands that you look at your own life with searing honesty. “This thing I want”, you must ask yourself, “why do I want it? Why do I flinch at the thought of ‘sharing’ my partner? When I say I want to be monogamous, is it just because I’m afraid of the pain an alternative might trigger? Do I really want the things I want, or have I been conditioned to want them?”

Tailor-making our relationships into living things that reflect our innermost desires is not the hardest part of RA. The work begins before that, in the deconstruction of our unconscious norms and desires. Because we can have no real idea of what we truly want if we have been exposed to only one idea for the majority of our lives. If all the relationships we know follow the same trajectory, power is being exerted over us in that area, whether we know it or not.

And so I am wary of people who say that they are anarchists or RA but add “but I practice monogamy, personally. I’ve always just been a really monogamous person.” How do you KNOW that? Have you done the work? Have you faced the things that scare you about non-monogamy? Because it might well be that you end up choosing monogamy, after examining your life and the other options. But if you choose it by default, then that’s not really choosing.

To be clear: I am not saying that everybody should practice RA, nor am I saying that those who do (or anyone else) should be non-monogamous. I don’t think non-monogamy is inherently better than monogamy. But to misquote Socrates, I do think an examined life is more worth living.

Also, I may have painted a picture of RA being really hard, since it entails all this self-questioning and deconstruction and inner work. And I do think that it is often hard. But in my (still limited) experience, it’s about as hard as anything worth doing. And as one expands and develops confidence in one’s own voice, it becomes less hard. The things that I thought were simply a part of being human – jealousy, envy, fear – those get less over time than they ever were before.

Congratulations, you have made it to the end of this post

It’s ridiculous how much I still want to say. It’s ridiculous how long this post already is. Let me end by summarising the main points:

  • You don’t have to be an anarchist to be RA, but, as I see it, you DO have to be RA if you’re an anarchist.
  • To practice RA, it helps to know what anarchism is all about.
  • Anarchism is about two things: resisting power, and voluntary collaboration between people – change from the ground up instead of from the top down.
  • Therefore RA is about the same things: Dismantling power structures in our relationships, and collaborating with our beloveds to craft meaningful connections.
  • You don’t have to be non-monogamous to be RA, but to do RA well you do need to do the emotional work and engage with your own deep-seated assumptions and fears.

I leave you with this thought:

Any system that limits or stigmatises our imaginings of the possible, much less our ability to act upon them, is oppressive to all of us.”

Jamie Heckert, ‘Changing anarchism’

This post is dedicated to my friend Jannie – your pain is sacred. I feel it with you.

Magic mushrooms have taught me so many incredible things that sometimes when I talk about them, I realise that I sound like a televangelist. It’s hard for me not to grab people and shout at them: “take shrooms!” whenever a related topic comes up. But I must add that magic mushrooms can also make very little difference, or be detrimental even, if we don’t embrace the experience they give us with surrender and a willingness to change. And using magic mushrooms as a spiritual tool should be accompanied by putting in the work: practicing self-care, developing a spiritual practice, building on one’s foundations, putting in the hours to turn our lessons into lived reality.

That being said, some of the things I’ve learned through magic mushrooms were just THAT BIG, that transformative, that they changed my life immediately and irrevocably. It’s like seeing something for the first time, and never being able to unsee it again. And of all the revelations I’ve had on mushrooms, the biggest one by far has been, quite simply, love.

Every mushroom trip I go on gives me some experience of love. One of my favourite things about shrooms is the experience of expansiveness and belonging that happens especially at the tail end of the trip. But almost every trip I’ve gone on has also had a theme, something(s) specific that was shown to me. Sometimes these are hard realisations, like the one time I delved deep into my own shame.

In fact, in my experience there’s always at least a part of the trip that is quite difficult, even on the experience I had roughly a year ago now which I now call my “love trip”, the one which entirely changed the way I understand life.

It began in my house; I was watching the sunrise through my window, feeling my mind opening in the rather terrifying way it does on mushrooms. Spontaneously the image of a person I love deeply came to me – his soul, the nature of his essence, his aches and joys rose up in my consciousness so strongly that I immediately burst into tears of awe. I couldn’t stop crying, profoundly moved by the beauty I could sense flowing from his heart. He was the most breathtaking being I had ever seen. Everything about him was perfect: his struggles, his fears, his desires, all coming together to create this complex dance of flesh and soul, this Being, this very breath of God. That’s what I saw. I saw that he is perfect, that nothing is out of place, that everything belongs, even the things he dislikes about himself, even the things he denies about himself.

And I saw that loving him is the most natural response imaginable.

The only thing I need to love fully, I realised, is to notice. As soon as I notice someone’s beauty, alive and throbbing in their every cell, my only possible reaction is love. And it is an expansive love, a love filled with awe and compassion, with recognition and admiration and sadness and profound joy. There is nothing else. I knew in that moment that when we are able to open our eyes to the vibrant beings around us, we cannot refuse to love them. We cannot even be afraid or shy or insecure in our love – faced with the fullness of Life, the only possible response is to open entirely.

Okay, I thought, but this is someone I love deeply, even when I’m not on mushrooms. Would it be the same if I thought about somebody I know less well? So I thought about a colleague. Her laughter rose up in my mind, the funny stories she shares at work, the way she rushes late into the office, breathless. Immediately my heart overflowed again. WOW, I thought. There is so much here. Such a complex and joyful and perfect being, imbued with such tremendous beauty. It’s there. It’s right there, everything: every struggle she has had and will ever have, her fears and empathy written into her very cells, everything exactly the way it should be. Changeable, fluid, yet at the same time everlasting.

It is incredibly poignant to witness another human. We are all so very brave, as we continue living on this earth in these limited forms, seeking love, seeking connection. Every day we have to reconcile our need for belonging with the limitations of a life in which resources are scarce, in which time is short. We get tired, we get hungry, we get jealous or irritated, we worry about money, we worry about our families. We negotiate our needs and desires in a world where there is a constant sense of not-enough: not enough sleep, not enough time, not enough energy. We pick our battles. We hold our tongues. We laugh, and relax, and tense up; we give of ourselves, unceasingly, in every interaction. We are so very scared that we might not be loved, or be worthy, or be enough. Yet we continue living through this fear, giving, loving, as best we can. We are so tremendously brave. We are so beautiful.

I thought about myself. I could feel the calmness of my own essence, like a tree somehow, grounded and singing softly, whispering the song of my heart to myself. I could feel my soul contract and expand like a river flowing unhindered around obstacles. I could feel the bigness in me, the joy and the grief running deep. I am SO beautiful. I am breathtaking. I am exactly as I should be.

All it takes to love myself is to see myself. Now, when I feel tired or self-critical, I lie down and place my hand over my heart. I grow still, until I hear the song inside my soul. It’s there, constant, my own life force undeniable. Sylvia Plath wrote it so powerfully: “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am I am I am.

                                                                   * * *

That day, I listened to my own heart for a long time. Then I started asking questions: What about rejection, and loss, and jealousy, do they form part of this elemental love that I am feeling? What about desire, is that part of it? In this, in what feels like divine love, is there room for need as well?

Yes and no, came the answer. There is nothing wrong with feeling fear, or loss, or jealousy, or an overpowering need to be loved back. Those feelings form part of this human experience, and they are the things that make us so complex and beautiful. In fact: We can love these very things about ourselves.

All the different emotions and experiences that we have as humans are simply more chances for us to love another part of ourselves. I see my own insecurity, and I love that too, and I love myself FOR it. And I am grateful for the chance to experience the whole gamut of emotions, because everything is another experience I can open myself to.

But. Love is independent of these feelings. As a human I am hardwired to want, and need, and even fear. Those things serve a purpose. But none of them affect the quality of Love itself, the love I was tapping into as I lay there, the love I have often tapped into since. We could be in the midst of much pain, bereft or abandoned, rejected, unseen. And still, if we are able to open our eyes to ourselves and to others, love will arise naturally. Even in the midst of a deeply painful moment.

Sometimes in life that feels impossible, and I do think there are times when opening our hearts is not what serves us best. There are times we feel threatened. There are times we need to insist on getting our needs met. There are times when we don’t have the energy to surrender into the full expansion of this kind of love. But it is there.

It is there whether or not we have the capacity to allow ourselves to realise this.

And it’s all okay. Even while I was on this mushrooms trip I realised there’s a reason I don’t feel this intensity of love all the time: I would not be able to function as a normal human being if I did. I get to witness myself and my fellow living beings in awe for a while, and then I have to go back to the grind of normal life.

But that’s where the magic happens: when it’s not easy. When I am anxious and rushed, yet suddenly remember the beauty around me. When I become still after a long day and acknowledge my own heart again. When I realise that love, this kind of love, is at the heart of everything I do.

Last night I watched a video by Russel Brand. He was talking about the death of his cat, about the deep love that existed between him and his pet, a connection far deeper than language would allow. “What is love”, he said, “other than an acknowledgment of oneness, an acknowledgment of union?”

That was the thing I saw on that mushroom trip: that we all have the same spirit. Every living being is beautiful in a wholly unique way; never will the exact combination of genes and experiences cohere again as they do within each of us. Witnessing each person is a journey of awe and discovery every single time. Yet at the heart of us we are the same. We have the same Life throbbing within our cells. Recognising the beauty of someone’s being is recognising my own. It is remembering, deep within my bones, that we are one.

I stumbled onto the drug scene comparatively late in my life: the first time I ever smoked weed was at 21, in a coffee shop in Amsterdam. It took me another three years before I tried cocaine, and the first time I took LSD (at 28), I didn’t even know what it was (looking back, that could have gone horribly wrong – but instead it sparked a profound love of psychedelics).

Of course the term “drugs” is very strange. Grouping speed and magic mushrooms into the same category is patently absurd. Equally absurd is the fact that we don’t generally describe alcohol as a drug – we talk about “alcohol and drugs” as if they’re separate things. This grossly underplays the dangers of alcohol, which we somehow feel safe to use even though it is by far the most ubiquitously destructive substance.

Most of us have been very mis-educated about drugs – the only drug education I ever received was to just “say no”. We’ve all seen the before and after pictures of a weather-beaten teen star, or heard whisperings about the local promising student who fell in with the wrong crowd and got hooked on meth. As a teenager, I thought all it would take for me to become a raving drug-addled dropout was to take a single pill handed to me by friends.

You hear that drugs, all drugs, are so addictive that you’ll never be able to quit if you’ve tried them once. You hear it burns holes in your brain. You read about that one girl who took ecstasy for the first time and promptly died of a heart attack. I was terrified of ruining my life – more than most kids, perhaps, I realised there would be very little to catch me should I fall. I needed my wits and my willpower, such as it was, to carve a life for myself and so I stayed away. Looking back I am quite glad I abstained from drugs for as long as I did.

But the widespread misinformation about drugs is much more harmful than it is good.

One of the biggest dangers about this misinformation is it that it completely alienates people who DO use drugs. Parents and peers alike react with horror at the slightest whispering of substance use. So what happens if you stumble upon cocaine, for instance, and find yourself liking it, and using it increasingly often? There’s no one to talk to, that’s what happens. Your mom would cry herself to sleep if she knew. Your friends and colleagues would look at you differently, even though many of them get drunk almost every weekend. You can’t even tell your GP because you’re too ashamed.

You enter the twilight world of dodgy backstreet purchases, of taking lines off toilet seats in clubs, half surprised your brain hasn’t collapsed yet. On the inevitable cocaine comedown you lie in bed feeling suicidal, totally alone, even though half your acquaintances have also, unbeknownst to you, abused a substance at one time or another.

On the flip side, the misinformation regarding drugs doesn’t prepare you for the relief you feel when, after all, you don’t promptly die of an overdose the first time you try MDMA. Oh! It’s actually fine. Actually all your friends use it too! It must be okay then. Because all the official sources react so hysterically to drugs, you dismiss them all as entirely wrong. Have you ever tried googling “effects of using MDMA”? All the websites stridently warn you off. All of them have banners at the top with the numbers of helplines you might call if you suffer from substance addiction. All of them detail the side-effects but barely mention what happens if you, like most people, simply take drugs every now and then without disappearing into the chasm of total addiction.

So between the hysterical headlines and the casual secrecy of your drug-using friends, you have nowhere to go for solid information. You have to learn it all yourself.

Imagine if we did this with sex – imagine if you googled “having sex for the first time” and the internet exploded with enthusiastic reddit threads and WebMD pages listing all the dangers of sex, with nothing balanced to actually explain your experience to you. What would happen? You’d be too embarrassed to ever go for an STD test, for one. You might never understand why your body works the way it does. If you enjoy sex, you might think there’s something wrong with you. If you don’t enjoy sex, you might think there’s something wrong with you.

As we know, until recently, this hushed hysteria surrounding sex was in fact the norm. We are realising the error of our ways gradually, with increasingly thorough sex education (though we still have a long way to go), with magazines and movies imperfectly bringing this profoundly normal act into everyday conversation.

But drugs? Drugs are still the all-around baddies. In movies when a character takes drugs (almost always a nondescript pill given by dodgy friends in a nightclub), the camera becomes shaky, visuals blur, music becomes ominous. You know the protagonist is going to wake up bloody and his best friend will be revealed, through disjointed flashbacks, to have died in a car accident. In police procedural series, it’s always either the street thug, the hopeless rich boy, or the crooked policeman who uses drugs.

This ignores the fact that most people have tried mind-altering substances at one time or another. Most of these people are functional citizens. Most people manage to drink two glasses of wine on a weekend without becoming alcoholics (although I’ll say again that alcohol is much more dangerous, in my opinion, than most other drugs). Many, many people smoke weed without becoming ambition-less stoners. Many people routinely take MDMA at a party and wake up just fine, if a little emotional, the next day. Many people, myself included, have even flirted dangerously with substance abuse and have emerged a little poorer, a little battered, but wiser and humbler on the other side. Without help, because none was available.

We need to talk about drugs. We need to talk about the fact that humans have been using mind-altering substances for as long as we have existed. We need to talk about the difference between psychedelics and opioids, about the difference between a line of pure cocaine and the similar-looking but much more dangerous speedball.

And importantly, we need to talk about the difference between drug use, drug abuse, and drug addiction.

A friend recently told me “I don’t use drugs because I don’t need anything to change my reality” – she was very drunk at that stage. This is one of the most pervasive myths I have encountered about drugs thus far: that it is somehow shameful to take them because it implies that you can’t have a good time otherwise. Like religion (the “opium of the masses”), drugs are viewed by many as a crutch for the weak, for those who can’t face life without something to soften the blow. SO many of my acquaintances have said to me that what you experience on drugs “isn’t real”. By implication, sobriety is the only valid way to experience ‘reality’.

Reality is a matter of perspective. You see colour differently than your dog does. You experience emotions in a different way from anybody else. Your brain chemistry and your biology is entirely your own. The information we take in, every minute of the day, is heavily filtered according to what we need to know and what we are able to process. Something as commonplace as a cup of coffee or a chocolate bar may significantly change our experience.

The expansive love we feel on ecstasy, or the spiritual awareness on LSD, or even the frenetic excitement of cocaine, is not inherently less valid than any emotions we might normally experience. It’s just an experience we might add to our arsenal, another way of seeing, another way of being. Like everything, this could further us on our journey, or it could hold us back. But to safely expand our horizon of experience, we need to bring drugs back from the shadowy world of fear and shame that they currently inhabit. We need to start a conversation. We need to talk about drugs.

The first time I heard about non-monogamy my instinctive reaction was to jerk back. “Oh no, I could never do that,” I said to myself. I felt a kind of fascinated revulsion. The idea sounded so foreign to me, so…sad. How could anyone resign themselves to not being their significant other’s One True Love? How could anyone so resoundingly give up on the romantic dream? Could people really be happy living non-monogamously, or were they kidding themselves, being brave and modern and secretly very, very alone? That’s how I thought it must be: a very liberal, forward-thinking yet deeply painful lifestyle.

Yet I couldn’t leave the idea entirely alone. Something in me was triggered and I reacted the way I see my friends reacting now when I talk about non-monogamy: defensively, as if they suspect they’re in the wrong somehow for not embracing this. To be clear: they’re not in the wrong. We are where we are and there is no need for us to push ourselves into uncomfortable territory if that doesn’t speak to us.

But.

Monogamy and the romantic dream goes so deep for us, touches us at the very core of who we are and of what we secretly hope and long for; and therefore when this idea is challenged even slightly we react with the flinching instinct of a threatened child.

People say all sorts of things when they hear I’m non-monogamous, and all of those things are comments I’ve made myself at one time or another: “Oh, I’m too jealous, I couldn’t ever do it” and “That’s completely impractical, having one romantic relationship is a full-time job already,” and “I’m a born romantic, I can’t be in love with more than one person at a time” and “it’s just a phase, you’ll be monogamous when you find the right guy” and “but what about feeling special?”

The weird thing about people’s reactions is that they often react as if I’m trying to convert them, when really, that’s not it at all. I’m not preaching non-monogamy, not trying to get them to change their lifestyles, not hinting that their way of living is worse than mine. (Or am I? It’s hard to tell, sometimes, when you stumble upon something that revolutionises your way of thinking, whether you’re being overly zealous. But after all, isn’t that what growth and community is all about? We lovingly share what we’ve been learning, and perhaps it benefits others, and perhaps it doesn’t.)

So I share where I’m at, and people react in a way that betrays how very, very threatened they feel in the area of romantic love. And it makes sense, because this is scary stuff. Even just briefly facing our bottomless need for love and acceptance and belonging, and our fear of this need not being met, is terrifying. Encountering the idea of non-monogamy for the first time takes us right to the edge of the terrifying unknown.

Non-monogamy stayed at the fringes of my consciousness for a long while before I finally started delving into it. Amanda Palmer and her husband Neil Gaiman are non-monogamous, which is where I’d first heard about it. They’re some of my favourite artists, the both of them making wise and brave and moving art; they also seem human and relatable. Yet they’re non-monogamous. This fascinated me. I scrolled through Amanda Palmer’s Wikipedia page (this was almost a decade ago when she was just as confessional on the internet but social media wasn’t nearly as ubiquitous) looking for clues to how she did it, looking for scandals maybe, for hints that it doesn’t really work. She must be even cooler that I think she is, I thought, she must be confident and collected with no hint of insecurity. Then she posted on facebook about her marriage, mentioning that being in an open relationship is tremendously hard work, requiring a lot of communication and facing of your own insecurities. Somehow she made it look more real, like something normal humans do.

For a long time I kept the idea of non-monogamy tucked into my mind, something scary and fascinating that I was saving for a rainy day. My romantic relationships, each offbeat and unique and often very difficult, without my knowledge were moving me towards revisiting this idea. I was becoming more disillusioned with romance and my seeming inability to find the ‘right’ person or to settle down. Finally, one day in late 2017, I officially started exploring non-monogamy. I read books. I imagined myself as polyamorous. I read blogs, arguments for and against. I encountered more people who were in open relationships of one kind or another. Then I took the plunge.

It’s been a hell of a ride. I could write a hundred posts about it, and I hope I will. For now, what bears repeating is that it is incredibly scary to dismantle one’s ideas of romance and monogamy, because they touch you right at the core of who you are. When I started entertaining the idea of being non-monogamous in 2017, I had no idea that I was about to launch a full-size investigation into who I am, into what I really want, into what I have always assumed about life and how to transcend these assumptions.

I’m not even close to finished with this journey, but so far it has by far been the most revolutionary event in my life, greater even than that time, ten years ago, when I started questioning my faith.

My advice to anyone considering any form of non-monogamy is this: Do not think you can compartmentalise this experience. We have so successfully internalised monogamy, made it such a deep part of who we are, that we cannot leave it behind without putting other aspects of our identity in jeopardy too. That’s okay, because there are many corners in our psyches that could do with some deep cleaning. Letting go of parts of ourselves that we thought were intrinsic to who we are is not a bad thing. It is, however, a tremendously challenging thing.

Listening to my romantic woes, a friend recently said to me: “But you know it doesn’t have to be that difficult, right? Love can just be easy sometimes.” And it can. It has been for me, and it will be again. It’s not love that’s hard – love is really very, very easy – it’s fear. And the way I lived my life before, the way that I often still do, I now see is filled with fear. I’m not saying that monogamy is bad, but I AM saying that unquestioned monogamy is a hotbed of insecurity, it’s an institution that we have created to hold fear at bay, and it is not working. It is making us smaller. The answer is not to dive with abandon into polyamory or swinging or threesomes. The answer is to approach the topic of romantic love with curiosity and the courage to be sceptical about our assumptions, the courage to grow more than we thought we ever would. All we need is willingness, and growth will happen.