This body is mine. These shoulders, bony, summer-browned, beauty-spotted. This hair, bright purple, growing too long into the nape of my neck. This tattoo on my upper arm. This leg, bundle of confused nerves, scar tissue and odd-shaped bone – mine.

Taking ownership of it isn’t always easy. For me there is a lingering shame in being abnormal. It’s not a reasonable shame (what shame is?) but it’s there nonetheless: there’s a part of my body that I find ugly, and I am ashamed of that ugliness. And not (only) because society has enforced ridiculous beauty standards upon us, but also because it looks…dysfunctional. We find health and vigour and good adaptation beautiful – young glowing bodies, taut calf muscles, or flowers blooming exactly as they were meant to to attract pollinators.

Sure, our standards are constantly shifting, but some preferences remain the same, and we prefer for our fellow earthlings to look able-bodied.

I’m not describing how things should be. I’m telling you how they are, in my experience of things: We look away when we see something we find ugly, or dysfunctional. We are embarrassed on behalf of the owner of this ‘dysfunction’. We suspect they must feel very bad about it and so we try not to make a big deal out of it, we pretend we didn’t see, we try not to look again.

We don’t ask questions but we feel very relieved when they bring it up themselves because we have been dying of curiosity – were they in a car accident? Were they born that way? Could we, perhaps, get a peek into their inner world and glimpse their pain as they tell the story, giving us that frisson of sympathy and ‘thank god it’s not me’ we are always craving?

I was born with a club foot. My foot got bent straight through exhaustive physical therapy by my mom (thanks mom) and I learned to walk normally, if with a limp. At the age of 14, my leg was stretched by 5,5 cm with a machine that looks like a Russian torturing device (it was, incidentally, invented by a Russian and calling the procedure torture would not be an exaggeration).

The long-lasting effects are that my right leg is scarred and skinny from the knee down, my ankle is misshapen and totally immobile, my foot is five sizes smaller than the other one, during my last surgery the surgeon managed to cut off my big toe tendons so I can’t lift my toe anymore, my foot and ankle ache constantly and are always swollen (to varying degrees), and I have scoliosis.

That might sound worse than it is. I can do almost all the things more able-bodied people can do.

I don’t tick the “disabled” box in questionnaires and I hesitate to call myself that. Does it count as disabled when you can’t keep up with your friends on an uphill climb? Or if you fall over if you try to stand on one leg? Or when your ankle aches violently after an hour of dancing (my favourite activity), so much so that you know that standing will be hard tomorrow? Most of the time, I’m not in much pain. I can walk for kilometres on end so long as there aren’t any steep climbs. I manage my back issues with yoga and insoles. I know, I really know, that it could have been so, so much worse. This little taste of differentness has made me immensely grateful for all the things my body can do. I am kind to myself, and thankful for my body.

But I flinch when I look at my right foot. Because most of the time, to me it’s ugly. And I know it is to others too, because their faces tell me so.

Here’s an incomplete list of what people say to me about my leg:

  • Oh! Well I’d never have noticed/you don’t notice it at all, don’t worry.” This feels like a patent lie. Complete strangers on the street have asked what happened to my leg – It’s noticeable. Also, that’s like telling a fat person “you’re not fat!”: you’re still agreeing with them that being fat is bad. Instead, when someone says they’re fat, we could say “well you know your body best, but I can tell you that you are also very beautiful/worthy/this does not detract from your value whatsoever”. In the same way, I’d like people to instead say to me: “O I noticed that, yes. It’s such an interesting part of who you are!” (And some do say this, to their credit; and every time it’s a relief. I feel incredibly awkward when people lie to me to ‘make me feel better’).
  • “Oh shame, what happened?” The main people to ask this are uber drivers, waiters, shop assistants, and complete strangers. I’m stumped for a reaction every time. There are cultural differences in South Africa that make this especially hard – whilst most white cultures value privacy quite highly, I have oftentimes seen that in some POC cultures, caring is sometimes expressed in ways that I find personally invasive. And so I ask myself every time: Was this question asked out of concern? Often the person who asked is somebody who knows me a little bit – a cashier at my local shop, the waiter who served me twice. In that case I respond vaguely but kindly: “oh it’s just an old injury”. Other times I view this as an educational opportunity and respond with something like “We don’t know each other at all, so that’s actually an inappropriate question”. Of course, nine times out of ten, when I say that the other person responds with an exaggerated “Oh I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you!” Great. They strut off thinking I’m over-sensitive, and I am left feeling frustrated because I don’t get to just live without fending off prying questions.

(Here’s a tip for you: If you see someone you don’t know well and they look injured – scars, crutches, a cast even – don’t approach them and ask what happened. Even if the injury looks recent. Let them bring it up, and if they don’t, it’s because they’re tired of talking about what’s wrong with them.)

(Here’s another tip: Don’t use a person’s body as a conversation starter. That counts especially for things they have no control over (weight, injuries, disabilities, facial features). If you must comment on appearance, make it a compliment, and make it about something they had control over. For instance, it’s okay to say “Oh your tattoo is so beautiful!” but it’s not okay to say “Oh, what made you get that tattoo?” Just because something is visible does not put it in the public sphere. Also, “I love your haircut!” feels much less invasive than “Wow you have beautiful eyes” (only say the latter if you’re getting drunk together or if you’re close friends).)

  • “Oh, I also have that! My one foot is almost a size smaller than the other, it makes shopping for shoes sooooo hard.” Alternatives to this one are when people launch into long tales about their rugby accident, their ingrown toenail, and the neck spasm they once had. Also, lists of their sister’s best friend’s injuries. I get this, I really do. We want to relate to people. And we want to tell our stories too. I know that this reaction is not malicious, but it is fucking exhausting because now the pressure is on me to be gracious (and it’s not fun to be gracious when a few decades of my pain are being erased for the sake of a “same!” story).
  • “Don’t worry, you’re still beautiful”. I kinda appreciate this one because in my heart of hearts I really want to be beautiful, but I don’t think it’s a great response. It puts too much emphasis on beauty, and it effectively says “in spite of this thing about you that’s not beautiful, you are still nice to look at.” In effect it is a back-handed compliment. (As a child, my dad once said to me that I could have been a beauty pageant winner were it not for my leg. Guess which part stuck with me.)
  • “Oh, I didn’t realise it was actually that serious.” (This usually after we go dancing/hiking/martial artsing. No, I really didn’t exaggerate.) Alternatives to this one are “You should see my physio, she’s amazing” and “But can’t they operate on your toe and fix it?” and “You know, at my church they do faith healings, you should come”.
  • “Oh, you shouldn’t care what people think.” Well, I do care, and you do too, because we’re humans and that’s how humans work. Also, thanks, but I’m actually fine: I don’t care an inordinate amount, I’m not crying myself to sleep, I feel mostly beautiful and always worthy. But I was sharing a tender part of myself and you just lectured me about it.

Stop that.

I’ve said these things too. I’ve tried to make people feel better, or make myself feel less awkward, or inserted my own experiences inappropriately into a conversation. We do this, and it’s okay – we’re not being malicious. But remember that the person you’re talking to has had a lifetime of experiences. They know what they look like, what they can and can’t do, what makes them feel confident and where they feel exposed. They get to feel all of those things. They know their reality. Behind every sentence explaining their body lies a wearying amount of similar encounters. Give them this gift: Allow them the luxury of a day spent not having to explain themselves and making you feel at ease. Believe them when they say what they can and can’t do.

What we could say instead:

Thank you for sharing your story”.

I really like this about you, it makes me realise how brave and unique you are.”

I can imagine that must have been difficult, and I respect your journey.

It’s true you don’t conform to normal beauty standards, but personally I’m not interested in mainstream ideals of beauty.

You can tell me any time if your body is struggling to do something, and I will support you/wait with you/take a break with you.

How would you like to be supported right now?”

Being different is hard. We all know that, we’re all different. Not being able to rely on your body to do the things you’d like to do is hard. Not being mainstream beautiful in a world that values beauty above almost all else is hard. Being in physical pain is hard.

And it’s also really okay. It’s part of being human. This is my body. It’s mine. Sometimes I inhabit it with grace and other times with hesitance, but I always inhabit it with love. I love my story. Please allow me to tell it my way, at my own pace; and when I tell it, recognise the honour I have just bestowed on you.

But I’ll say it anyway

The first time I kissed a girl I was 28. I was fresh out of a long-term relationship, on the dance floor at a bar with some friends, feeling frisky and a bit lost, when this girl walked in. She was glowing. I don’t know what struck me first – her cheekbones? Her caramel skin? That frilly dress and the strong calves beneath it, or the long arch of her neck curving gently into shoulders? I thought about all those things at length afterwards, but at that moment I only knew that I liked her, the way she started dancing immediately, the way she seemed to inhabit her body. I liked looking at her.

“Hi!” I said. She came over. We shouted names and then life stories at each other over the music. I couldn’t stop looking at her mouth. Within a few minutes I pulled her closer and kissed her; she kissed me back enthusiastically. For a moment the entire bar went silent and then every man in the house breathed a collective sigh of horniness. But I hadn’t kissed her for the male viewers. I wasn’t doing it to try something new, or to shock my friends, or because I was feeling lost and frisky.

I was doing it because she was radiant and I felt irresistibly drawn to her.

But it took me another two years, and several sexual encounters with women, to say out loud, or even think out loud, that I am queer. Even today I hesitate over the word, tripping over terms like “bisexual” and “pansexual” and sometimes “heteroflexible” before finally settling on queer.

I feel cautious, like a child trying out language; and often I still feel like a fraud. Do I get to have this word? Am I bi enough for that? What if this is just a phase? Do I like women JUST as much as I like men? And if I don’t, then would I actually be lying if I called myself queer? If my attraction to women feels different to my attraction to men, then is it even really attraction?

If someone else were to ask me these questions, my answer would be easy and immediate: You don’t need a word, but if you want a word then you get to have one. You can call yourself queer and that could mean anything on the not-straight spectrum. You don’t owe anyone an explanation. And you don’t have to be consistent, nor do you need to have it all figured out. Go be. Go experiment. Go love. Go be authentic. That’s all you need to do.

But when it’s personal, it’s harder. It took a string of crushes, and feeling hot and bothered by some beautiful youtubers (but seriously, check out Stevie Boebi‘s great content if you haven’t yet) to get me to the point of saying to myself: “Somehow I made it to my late twenties before I realised that I find women really hot, and somehow most of my life I assumed that I was straight, and that’s totally valid and fine, but also, I am definitely NOT STRAIGHT.”

If you’re there, if you’ve ever wondered about your sexuality and felt baffled by how easily other queer people seem to know theirs, or if you’re curious about why this took me so long – here are some of the reasons why I’ve been hesitating to claim the word queer (or bisexual, or pansexual, or LGBTQIA+):

  • Because most of my queer friends and acquaintances have had a really rough go of it. As children, they felt different or even ‘wrong’. They grew up feeling isolated. Their parents usually had a hard time accepting their identities. They’ve had to deal with internalised oppression, and shame, and confusion. Just to get to live their lives, they’ve had to do some really brave and lonely things, like turning their backs on their religion, or culture of origin, or even on their families, and coming out again and again when that hasn’t always felt safe.

I, on the other hand, have had the privilege of ‘being straight’ until such a time as I felt ready to expand my repertoire.

In spite of my general weirdness, I’ve always been socially acceptable (in this regard at least). Even my liking women sometimes comes across (especially to straight men) as hot more than anything else – threesome, anyone? I haven’t suffered because of my sexual orientation. I’ve suffered because of other things, though, and I know how it bugs me when people appropriate my hard-earned experiences and lingo for their own purposes (like using the word ‘trauma’ for anything vaguely difficult, or joking about addiction). Would I be doing the same, by coming out as queer?

  • Because I thought for a long time that the only way to be queer is to be really clearly queer. As in, you have to know your identity from a young age (or at least be really conflicted about it from a young age). It’s in the story about the boy who came out at 12, or the woman who grew up in a culture that didn’t even have a word for ‘gay’ but who realised she liked other women nonetheless.

It’s in the phrase “I always knew I was different” – People whose sexuality and sense of attraction to others is so loud, so real to them, that they couldn’t reason it away, even when being this way might be taboo.

For me, however: If I’d grown up in a culture or time that didn’t have a concept of queerness, I am entirely sure that I would have lived to a ripe old age simply thinking that I ‘profoundly admire’ women. I would have dated men all my life, been curious about women and done nothing about it, and would only rarely have registered that I am missing anything.

  • Because so many other things in my life are hard and isolating that in comparison, being queer feels like a relief. There are queer Youtubers, there are Pride events, I have queer friends, there is lingo for everything. Sometimes I’ve wondered whether I’m just claiming the word ‘queer’ to get the benefit of community. I realise this might sound ridiculous to people whose queerness has left them feeling really isolated – and I am not minimising their experiences in the least.

But being non-monogamous, having undergone some difficult medical procedures as a child and bearing the scars of that (I’ll write about that at some stage), coming from an abusive and almost sectarian childhood, wondering about my mental health – all of those things have been very lonely for me.

In comparison, the LGBTQIA+ world seems like a heaven of compassion and belonging to me. Most of the queer people I know are amazing: they’ve thought about stuff more than most people have, they’re self-aware, they’re open. I get to have enlightening and challenging conversations with them. Many of them have experienced religious bigotry too. Some of them are even non-monogamous! Could it perhaps be that I’m just calling myself queer because I want to fit into the group? And, like, do I get to be something if it’s not difficult?

  • Because attraction is weird, if you start dissecting it, and I am the queen of dissecting my feelings to death. Here are some of the questions I’ve asked myself: Am I attracted to women in the same way that I am attracted to men? Is this feeling I’m having attraction, or is it just that I like the attention/enjoy the energy exchange of flirting/like the person as a friend? What does attraction even feel like? Am I getting a adequate amount of butterflies to qualify this as sexual attraction?

If I am attracted to women, why has it taken me so long to become aware of it?

I have long been unequivocally romantically and sexually attracted to men. I could dissect my attraction to them to death, and the conclusion would still be: I am, and have always been, attracted to men, even when I rather wish I weren’t. I had my first (very intense) crush at four, on a boy in kindergarten. I felt definite sexual feelings for boys since entering puberty. In comparison to this clarion call of attraction, my feelings for women felt for a long time like a mix of curiosity, admiration, and an almost queasy sense of being weirded-out.

Being interested in women felt…foreign. Wrong. Almost incestuous, as if admiring a body so similar to mine might somehow make me immoral, since it would bring me dangerously close to actually liking my own body – which in the Calvinistic world I grew up felt like a shameful thing.

(I want to write more about that point, actually: The difference between coming to terms with having sex, and coming to terms with feeling pleasure, because those have been two completely different journeys for me. But that’s for another post).

This last point mainly comes down to compulsory heterosexuality (or comphet, for short). And I intend to write more about that soon, so for now, let’s just define it: It’s the assumption that everybody is straight until proven otherwise. It’s growing up thinking that you’re straight because you didn’t even know there was an alternative. It’s being fed the story of “boy meets girl” since before you could talk, not even in a prescriptive way (“you should be straight”) but rather in a way that assumes this to be the only viable option.

Did I have girl crushes as a child? I think I did, yes. There was a woman in my parents’ prayer group whom I admired very deeply (this was when I was about five), and everybody thought it was just the cutest thing. I thought she was the most beautiful person in the universe. I wanted hair exactly like hers. I always wanted to sit next to her . She once gave me a pair of sunglasses which I lost a few months later, and I still remember the abject heartbreak when I realised I’d lost her gift.

I even ended up being a flower girl at her wedding, and I remember that small feeling of being left out because she had this whole other life now, this whole romance, of which I couldn’t be part.

And then later there was a primary school teacher, and later there was Angelina Jolie, and then many many others. “Admiring women’s beauty”, I called it when I became an adult. “I can’t stop looking at her, she’s just SO beautiful”, I’d say, thinking nothing of it. My ex-boyfriend and I would make lists of our celebrity crushes and I’d fawn over his choices (Olivia Wilde…), and for the longest time I just thought I was a really cool girlfriend. Instead of, you know, really bi.

So yeah – I’m still uncomfortable with the word queer. I’ve never dated a woman and that makes me feel scared – what if I realise I’d been wrong and then I have to backtrack, or what if I hurt someone because of my lack of self-knowledge? And also, if something this huge has been slipping past me unnoticed, what else am I missing about myself? Again and again I catch myself wondering what the implications are for my life: if society could so easily make me think I’m straight, how deeply have some other ideas sunk in, into dark corners from which they run my life without my knowledge?

I was listening to a song today while driving – Brandi Carlile’s “I belong to you” and suddenly I felt a wave of grief coming over me. Here are some of the words:

I know I could be spending a little too much time with you
But time and too much don’t belong together like we do
If I had all my yesterdays I’d give ’em to you too
I belong to you now
I belong to you

And I thought to myself: I don’t think I’m ever going to have that. And I want that.

And also: I’ve had that. And I didn’t want it.

Both things are true.

A while ago, on a Relationship Anarchy facebook group I’m on, someone mentioned the strange grief that comes from surrendering the idea of “the One”. I feel this grief at times more insistently than others, but it’s always there in the background. The dream of being known and seen and cherished is very hard to extricate from the dream of being part of a couple, a tight and exclusive and cosy couple.

I want to be somebody’s favourite person.

I want to feel radiant and beautiful as that person looks at me with awe. I want to know somebody’s body better than anybody else knows it. I want to be weird with someone and know that my weirdness is being held with compassion. I want to be someone’s top priority.

But experience tells me that I cannot have these things without their shadow side. And for me that shadow side is neatly encapsulated by almost everything on the ‘Relationship Escalator’, which Aggie Sez defines as “The default set of societal customs for the proper conduct of intimate relationships.”(She also wrote a really good book about it). Basically, some of the aspects of the Relationship Escalator include monogamy, sharing a living space, merging lives, public recognition as a couple. The normal trajectory relationships usually follow.

And while choosing the relationship escalator is a totally valid choice, for me its shadow side outweighs its advantages.

This is what happens for me when I’m in a long-term monogamous relationship: I look at my partner with equal parts love and exasperation. I chafe under the knowledge that the places we don’t fit will never fit. I grieve for the dreams I’m giving up as I meld my life with theirs. I grieve for the dreams they’re giving up to be with me. I feel guilty when I flirt with other people, and a little resentful over the guilt. I miss having my own space.

I worry about the future – a lot. What if I want to resign, sell all my belongings, and move to an intentional community, and they don’t? What if the way he holds onto his little routines start bugging the living hell out of me, and I can’t leave, because we’ve become too entwined? Wait, is that already the case? How do I love this person without losing so many of the things that bring me joy?

There are ways around these issues without abandoning monogamy, or without abandoning the relationship escalator entirely. Lots of people do it. They spend more time doing fun activities with their girlfriends because their partners don’t enjoy those things. They get permission to flirt with strangers, as long as it doesn’t go any further. They date long-distance.

That’s all valid. But somehow that’s not enough for me.

I want the breathless joy of exploring the beauty of other people’s souls without fearing that I might have to pull the brakes soon.

I want to live by myself entirely (for now at least; I am aware that this might change). I want to make spontaneous weird decisions, go on long road trips and have flings with strangers. I want to flirt with my friends. I want to get to spend entire days alone. I want to bring all of myself into every encounter without worrying that my partner might feel abandoned. I want to not have to explain myself and my choices all the time. I want to not have sex with only one person for the rest of my life.

If that means abandoning the idea of “the One”, then so be it. Because even as I was writing down some of the things I want, I knew I don’t really want them. I don’t really want to know somebody’s body better than anybody else does – when I find someone really beautiful, I want others to see that too. The idea of sharing friskiness and curiosity with others excites me; it even excites me to imagine others falling in love with my partners, when I pause for a moment and let the knee-jerk jealousy evaporate. I don’t want to be somebody’s top priority – the idea makes me nervous; instead, I’d like to be valued. I don’t want to be part of a tight, exclusive couple – there wouldn’t be enough air to breathe.

As for being someone’s favourite person – I am lots of people’s favourite person, even if they have, paradoxically, other favourite people too. And I have lots of favourite people too, people who fill my heart with gratitude and awe and curiosity. I am cherished by my family, by more than a handful of friends. I am known. I am loved. I will never be alone, even as I wander this earth feeling sometimes startlingly alone.

“Let there be spaces in your togetherness, and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music. Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together, yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, and the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.” – Kahlil Gibran

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’