Someone I cared about and respected deeply died this past Friday. The grief and shock has been coming in waves for me, mingling with the grief and anxiety I feel about the world at large. It’s taken me a while to decide what to say – if anything – about her death. I tend to step back when someone who wasn’t part of my family or closest friends dies, wary of appropriating others’ grief (we all know that one stranger who takes over all the message boards when someone dies, like a sadness vulture).

But she changed my life. This person, Marian, changed my life multiple times over. And I want to remember her in writing, because that’s where I make sense of things. So this is a letter of love and gratitude to a woman whose spirit moved me deeply.

When Marian and I became colleagues in 2015 I didn’t realise at first how multi-talented and accomplished she was. A teacher, writer, musician, academic – Marian excelled at many things, and did it with such humorous self-deprecation that her gifts kept sneaking in under the radar. Before I came to know her as the idea-generator and researcher of note that she was, I knew her as a very kind and very funny woman. When she bragged, it was about other people’s accomplishments. (She’s probably the only person – other than my supervisors – to have read my MA thesis.) When she joked, it was mainly about herself.

At work she bustled about with funny quips and stories about her family. She defused the tension in meetings. She kept me company as I chain-smoked between lectures, sharing about her own life and emotional struggles in a way that made me feel safe to share as well. She once described us as people “missing an extra layer of skin against the world”, matter-of-factly giving words to the sometimes excruciating experience of living in this world as a sensitive person. She was completely disarming: infinitely quotable, gutsy, wholesome, yet vastly complex. She had a tremendous appetite for life (and for naughty jokes), a shy streak, and a huge heart.

Besides being an all-around good human, Marian changed my life in a number of tangible ways.

At a work retreat in 2018, shaky and weepy and exhausted, I shared my romantic and existential woes with a few colleagues around the dinner table. (I cringed about this for days afterwards, but that’s what happens when you combine red wine and Marian’s icebreakers.) Marian stepped in immediately: “Book yourself into a psychiatric clinic, girl!”

At that point, I thought only REALLY sad or sick people went to psychiatric hospitals. Like, not-me people. Marian was quick to bring me back to reality by pointing out that I was in fact REALLY sad, and also, that I had a use-it-or-lose-it opportunity: Our work-imposed medical insurance permits 21 days of free mental health care a year. “It’ll be like a 3-week holiday,” she said. “Treat yourself.”

I treated myself, and boy am I glad I did. (There were many problematic aspects to the psychiatric clinic, and don’t even get me started on the lack of help available to non-insured South Africans, but nonetheless – my stay at the clinic turned my life around.)

Marian destigmatised mental illness for me, in that conversation and many others.

A year later, when a close family member of mine attempted suicide, Marian sent me countless resources. Not only information about mental health, but names and numbers of people and organisations who could help; she even phoned several counsellors on our behalf. For months afterwards she sent me messages to hear how we were all doing – full of advice and opinions, she also knew when to step back and simply support.

It’s also through Marian that I met my closest friend and the biggest shaker-upper of my adult life so far (and please universe don’t let there be many more of those – a girl can only take so much shaking up). It was at a workshop led by Marian; I caught a lift home with her afterwards and her first words to me in the car were “whew, he is HOT!”

And I was like “which one?”, because there’d happened to be two hot guys at the workshop and I was feeling giddy and wonderfully glad I’d attended the session. (This was a while after my exit from the clinic and I was just about ready to flirt with the world again).

Marian had laughed and said “both, you’re right!”. And then myself and one of the hot guys in question struck up a romance, and it was complicated and intense right from the start, and I tried not telling my colleagues about it because I didn’t actually know how to explain it. But they found out anyway because Marian was beside herself with pride that this had all started at her workshop (and also, I am BAD at secrecy). We were her success story – one time she ran into us having coffee, sent me a wink, and cornered me afterwards to call dibs on being our future children’s music teacher. (I tried explaining to her that wasn’t at all where we were headed, but she was dead set on this imaginary future for us).

When the romance part of that relationship ended, I distinctly remember feeling bad on Marian’s behalf that things hadn’t worked out the way she’d envisioned. To her credit, she didn’t pry. She just sent me the occasional encouraging text or email, and commented on my glow when we met in person (she had optimistic eyesight). I was going through an extended (ongoing) reshuffling of my understanding of love and friendship and life itself, and Marian was there for it. I shared with her a little bit about my forays into non-monogamy and she thought I was a bit weird but brave. It was such a relief for my people-pleasing soul to share about my life – with a colleague, no less – and be met with warm-hearted acceptance.

Marian took life on with gusto. She was funny, and wise, and humble, but most of all she loved well.

That is what will remain, what cannot ever be undone. The biggest lesson I learned from Marian is that everything pales in comparison to simple, ample, sincere love. When we show up with willingness and an open heart, we change the world.

 
 You do not have to be good.
 You do not have to walk on your knees
 for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
 You only have to let the soft animal of your body
 love what it loves.
 Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
 Meanwhile the world goes on.
 Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
 are moving across the landscapes,
 over the prairies and the deep trees,
 the mountains and the rivers.
 Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
 are heading home again.
 Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
 the world offers itself to your imagination,
 calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
 over and over announcing your place
 in the family of things.  

 -        Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver 

A life update

Almost exactly three years ago I was discharged from a psychiatric clinic after spending three strange and illuminating weeks there. I was 28 years old, wobbling my way back into the world, eyes stinging from the beauty around me. I felt reborn and also very, very old.

‘Everything is about to change,’ I told myself. ‘Everything is different now.’

And it was. It is.

I had done a lot of self-work in the ten years prior to my visit to the clinic: Seen therapists, journaled, cultivated self-awareness, read Women who run with the wolves. But now I intended to work harder. Dig deeper. Cultivate more nourishing friendships. Exercise more. Eat healthier. Heal.

I did not factor Covid-19 into my plans, of course. Nor had I really thought about the effect of living in late-stage capitalism, in a prolonged world-wide existential crisis, in a looming climate disaster. Nor had I really reckoned with the depth and intensity of my own childhood trauma. I was going to yoga it all away. I was going to do magic mushrooms and make uplifting Spotify playlists and listen to good podcasts and go for long walks and I was going to be ALL BETTER.

And, credit where credit’s due: I don’t know where I would have been had it not been for long walks and Spotify playlists and yoga and good podcasts and psychedelics. And good friends. And my dog. And nourishing food. And breathing exercises. And journaling. And the foundation of self-inquiry that had been laid over the past decade. Thank fuck for routines and good books and self-care.

And also, I AM NOT ALL BETTER.

I don’t even know what ‘better’ means anymore.

***

This is a life update, because some of you have been asking me what’s happening and why I’m so silent on my blog. I have a million other things to do, but I’ve just spent three hours in foetal position on my couch staring into the void – nothing else is about to happen, so I might as well write this post.

I am turning 32 soon. A lot of people tell me they don’t feel as old as they really are, but I definitely do. Not that I’ve become remotely good at adulting, but my heart feels heavy with all the lives I’ve lived. Not exhausted exactly, but laden with sorrow and pungency like tea that’s been left to steep for hours.

I know some parts of the world have been coming out of hiding, but over here in South Africa we’re in the heart of a third wave of Covid. Every day I receive news of more friends, colleagues and acquaintances who are very very sick. Facebook feels like a minefield of bad news and conspiracy theories. Our government is fast losing whatever credibility it once had and our president’s fortnightly speeches are just fodder for memes and existential despair. We wear masks and obey the 9 PM curfew, but other than that, everybody does whatever they feel like, myself included.

It’s winter and outside the rain is pouring down; even my dog refuses to leave the house. My sister, who lives in Kwazulu-Natal province, sends us hourly updates on the protests and violence over there. She’s locked inside her house. Someone she knows had to evacuate. I refresh the news every ten minutes, watching with rising horror as my beleaguered country burns down. On Instagram the positivity brigade is wearing me down, yet I scroll endlessly through uplifting posts in search of answers, in search of something to do: Another mantra, perhaps. An online tarot card reading. An inspirational quote.

I am not holding it together, but I am holding it.

I am holding it all and I am grieving really hard because this world is terrifyingly broken and movingly beautiful, and it is a crazy thing to be alive right now. It is a privilege and a curse. It’s everything.

I have no idea what’s going to happen next, not to the world nor to myself. It’s like I’m living in the eye of a storm and all I keep feeling, deep in my gut, is to be here fully. To resist the urge to DO SOMETHING, and be here instead. It’s excruciating.

***

At the end of 2019 I felt very strongly that I would have two more years at my current job and then I’d have to move on. Tick tock, those two years are coming to an end soon. I still plan to move on, but all my best-laid plans have fallen away in the face of internal and external crises. I thought I’d be writing much more, making beautiful zines, cranking out poem after poem, connecting with other writers and artists and even making money out of my writing by now. Instead, I have a floundering blog and a slowly-growing Instagram presence (about which I have mixed feelings). A piece I wrote a few months ago has been accepted for publishing in an anthology book, about which I’m very excited – and also, I can’t seem to find the inspiration to make its last requested edits. (I will, though – tomorrow.)

What am I willing to do without? What am I willing to let go of? Because more and more I am coming to know that I will have to surrender whatever is not necessary, whatever weighs me down, and whatever markings of success I’d envisioned achieving soon.

At first I thought I’d find somewhere cheap to live (probably east of here, because where I currently live is not affordable on a freelancer’s income). I thought I’d pack up my things, twist my brother’s arm into helping me move, and find a small place on the east coast where I can do freelance work, build my writing practice, play the ukulele a lot and make friends with the locals. Now, I think even that might be too solid and structured for my next move. I think, instead, that I might have to put my possessions into storage, and bring only my dog and my clothes with me. I might have to flounder about from place to place, volunteering and staying with friends. I’ll freelance if needs be, but I don’t want to spend too much time scrabbling to earn a living at jobs that take more energy than they give. I want to write. I want to start a podcast. I want to build meaningful connections. I want to learn about community living and regenerative agriculture and about the endless variety of cultures and ways of being in my own country, ways I know very little about.

I don’t want to quit my job only to find myself scrambling away at endless low-paying freelance tasks that allow no room for creativity.

I am asking myself: How little money can I get by on? What am I taking for granted that very soon I’ll have to give up? Personal space, organic vegetables, fancy dog food – can I do without that? My handful of close and beloved friends here – how do I leave them behind?

And, on the flip side: Why do I imagine that only hard things are worth doing? Why do I imagine that I’ll have to move to a remote town on the far side of nowhere to prove my commitment to making a change in my life? Is there another option? Have I been so steeped in a mentality of suffering that I cannot imagine an authentic future if it isn’t isolated and difficult?

I’m shit scared all the time, and every time I try to reassure myself by falling into frantic action my body forces me to a halt. The only things I seem to be able to do semi-consistently is to weep a lot and go for long walks. This prolonged inactivity goes against everything the world has taught me and against my natural inclination too, yet the only thing that feels right at this moment is to exist very slowly. Even as my self-imposed deadline looms closer and closer (a deadline I still intend to honour), the message I feel insistently in my heart is that right now I should do very little, and do that fully. I don’t get it. But it’s what I’m doing.

To summarise:

The world is not okay.

South Africa is not okay.

I am not okay.

That’s where I’m at right now. I am not holding it together, but I am holding it. I’m holding it all in my heart.

Everything is holy

We’re coming up on Easter. And I’ve been wanting to write about religion (specifically Christianity) for a long time now, so in honour of the occasion, here we go.

I cannot quantify the harm nor the value that religion has contributed to my life. I know that my existence has been shaped by Christianity; and some days I feel itchy about this, allergic to all things religious – and then, on other days, I feel immense gratitude. 

However, if I look at my country, and at the Afrikaans culture I come from, I feel that Christianity – Calvinism specifically – has done, and continues to do, a great deal of harm. Generations upon generations of my ancestors lived lives steeped in suffering, silence, and oppression (both giving and receiving). The punitive approach of Calvinism created an artificial divide between body and spirit, between earth and heaven, between man and woman – fertile breeding ground for the kinds of injustices that have blighted South Africa for centuries. I believe that religion is largely to blame for Apartheid – both in obvious and less obvious ways. I believe that it is religion that has allowed people to forget about their connection to other humans and to the earth herself, leading to rampant capitalism, to exhaustion of our natural resources, to climate change.

But of course, religion is a man-made thing. In a sense, blaming religion itself for the ills of the world is a cop-out, because it too is only a symptom of an ill society, just like capitalism, or any of the other malfunctioning institutions we have created. They are symptoms of greed, of fear, of dogmatic thinking, of the need to control, of disconnectedness. They tell us something about who we can easily become as humans: how easily we grab onto anything that resonates for us and try to make a monument out of it. How easily we step out of flow and try to hammer truths into immobility, forcing a moment of transcendence into stagnation.

This can happen to anyone, with anything: One might become just as dogmatic about ideals like compassion, or equality, or respect for nature. In fact, Christianity was built on beautiful ideals. But somewhere along the way it lost its joy and became an institute built on crippling self-righteousness and shame.

Yeah, I’m not a fan.

And I will write about that. I’ll write an entire series about that.

But I also need to acknowledge that in many ways religion has been good to me.

The word “religion” of course encompasses many types of faith, and these have affected people in a variety of ways. What I write here applies to my experience, and to the brand of Christianity I was raised in: fundamentalist, charismatic yet Calvinist-influenced Christianity (think fire-and-brimstone meets happy-clappy coupled with a good dose of shame and suppression). Other people’s experiences may, and do, differ widely.

My parents met as ‘rebel’ Christians: Both had broken away from their Calvinist Dutch-Reformed roots, had been ‘born again’, and been baptised as adults (something of a scandal in 1980s Afrikaans culture, enough to get them kicked out of the Dutch Reformed church). They were hungry for something that felt real, for relationship with God instead of rote singing of hymns, for community and communion instead of weekly lip-service.

By the time they had me, however, their versions of faith had already deviated from each other’s. In my childhood, my dad’s religion did not appeal to me at all, even though I was convinced by it and correspondingly scared of God. His religion was fervour bordering on frenzy, a morass of condemnation, self-congratulation, isolation, and rampant rage. We joined a new church; we left it within weeks, my dad foaming at the mouth. We couldn’t listen to pop music, or celebrate Christmas, or play with Barbies. We were always told that we were different, pure and right in a world full of heathens, atheists, and fake Christians.

I don’t remember my mom openly disagreeing with my dad about religion. I think most of the time she didn’t, at least not consciously so. But her faith was…alive. She found comfort in God. He wasn’t the jealous God my dad was fond of citing, but rather one who invited debate:

Like David argued with and railed against God in Psalms, my mom told me, so too I could go to God with my questions and even with my anger. (Which I did, many times, especially in my teenage years).

To my parents, God spoke (though it seems he said different things to each of them). He spoke to them in Bible verses, in moments of clarity, through other people, during worship. If nothing else, my parents’ religion seemed very involved: Theirs was not a God of distance but of daily interaction. Every small event was a miracle. Every struggle was a test. Every sadness an opportunity to grow closer to God.

The combined push-pull of my parents’ Christianity worked very well on me, and I was a very religious child. Even though I am still unearthing the damaging ideas of God I then internalised, it wasn’t all negative. I was raised to believe that God could speak to me, and so he did. I was raised to believe that God cared about my life, and so I told him all about it. I developed the habit of thanking God for every beautiful thing I encountered, a practice which has carried me through many difficult times since. That feeling of having an intimate witness, a friend and protector who is always by my side – I sorely needed that as a child. In many ways, religion saved me.

(This picture has nothing to do with religion, but it’s a picture of me as a child, looking appropriately odd and vaguely angelic, so I thought it would do.)

One of the most beautiful things I gained from religion was the concept of grace. As a teenager I read Philip Yancey’s book ‘What’s so amazing about grace?’ and it changed my life. This concept of grace, of being welcomed into a life that places emphasis on abundance rather than performance, has remained with me ever since. Sure, there were some recesses of my mind that held (and perhaps still do) an idea of God as a punitive being, one who punishes pleasure and will tolerate no straying. But mainly, by the time I entered my pre-teens I had grown to love God on my own terms, as a figure who extends compassion to all.

Strangely, the more my dad forced his doomsday religion upon us, the more I doubled down on my own more compassionate brand of faith. It was like God and I would share a little knowing wink, a shared moment of “you and I know better, don’t we?” The very religion that was used to oppress me became my shelter.

I also really liked Jesus. He hung out with dodgy people and spoke movingly of inviting the drunkards and the homeless to a banquet fit for kings. He was patient with his disciples (mostly). He was kind to prostitutes. He condemned hypocrisy. He said “I have come that they may have life, and life in abundance.” (John 10:10)

To me the Bible was filled with poetry.

Even today, reading the first verses of the gospel of John inexplicably fills my eyes with tears: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

The principles of Christianity that I cherished – grace, gratitude, faith, honesty, relationship, cultivating a spiritual practice – these I later discovered to be principles for life. I was able to take them with me into secular adulthood, but I doubt they would have formed such a foundational part of my life had I not already learned to live by them in my childhood.

And the last thing: growing up religious left me with a taste for the mysterious, for the inexplicable, for the divine. Try as I might, I have never been able to fully divorce myself from the concept of a higher power. When I’m driving in my car and the Stellenbosch mountains unfold before my eyes, and at that moment the perfect song starts playing on the radio, I signal a mental ‘thank you’ to god. And then I laugh, because I don’t even know what god is – but I’m okay with that. To me god is in the soul of trees, in the laughter of my friends, in the ache in my heart when I think about the collective pain of the world. To me god is in my garden. To me god is in my feet, in my palms, in my ability to see beauty. God rests in the intimately known, yet hovers also beyond what my mind can understand.

God no longer bears much resemblance to the religion I was raised in, yet I am grateful to religion for playing its part in teaching me this: everything is holy.

Hi everyone!

So someone sent me this question on Instagram, and I am so excited to respond to it here. I’ve been wanting to start some type of advice column for yeeeeears but I’ve always hesitated, because something about it felt really…arrogant, you know?

Yet here we are! I lay no claim to any credentials nor any superior knowledge whatsoever. What I do have, however, is a vast and colourful dating history, a heartfelt desire to heal and love well (which has translated into much research and therapy), and a network of weird, brave friends who will hopefully contribute their voices here as well.

If you’d like to send a question – I’d love to respond to it! Find my details in the contact section.

***

Question:

I have so many things going through my head right now with polyamory. We opened our marriage to polyamory just over a year now, and overall it’s been working great; I really resonate with the philosophy of it and the idea of loving who you want to love, not feeling like you’re trapped, or that you’re not allowed to love more than one person. But I’m having so much trouble connecting, just finding people who understand what polyamory means, and actually looking for connection – they always think that it’s something to do with sex, and multiple sexual partners.

I have a husband and a second partner, my boyfriend. And I get very protective over my boyfriend, but not with my husband having other partners. I just found some items of an ex-girlfriend at my boyfriend’s house, and I felt so uncomfortable. I thought he was maybe cheating on me, but he explained in detail why his ex’s belongings were still there, and I don’t think he was lying at all. But the rage I felt was something else. I thought I would never get jealous of any partners because I’m absolutely fine with my husband having partners, so I’m a bit shocked about my reaction. The amount of feelings and emotions that this person triggers in me, it’s absolutely insane – I never thought I was going to go through the things that I am going through right now, because I was in a very stable marriage: we’ve been together for nearly ten years, everything was very set…and now this person comes and he came completely out of nowhere, and we really connected…

And I would love to have somebody to talk to about this, because I don’t have many friends who understand the concept of polyamory.

Answer:

Thank you so much for writing to me – I feel so honoured that you reached out. A lot of what you wrote really reminded me of my own experiences, and of others I know who are braving the world of non-monogamy too. I’m going to answer from my own life lessons and experiences, but I know that there are others out there who also have a lot to contribute, for instance people who were already married (which I have never been) and who then opened their relationship – so this is an invitation to everyone out there who resonates with the letter writer: please share your experiences in the comment section!

First of all: there’s nothing wrong with you.

If you’re judging your own feelings, or feeling ashamed of your reaction, please don’t. Your emotions are valid, they’re always valid, however illogical they might seem to you. We have ideas of fairness ingrained within us, for instance the idea that we shouldn’t feel jealous or threatened when our partners have other partners if we ourselves have multiple partners. But just because your heart agrees with the concept of polyamory doesn’t mean that you’re exempt from feeling insecure or triggered. So start by lovingly holding your own vulnerable heart close, and accepting every feeling as a valid part of you.

There are many reasons why you might feel triggered about your boyfriend potentially having other partners, yet not be anxious about your husband seeing other people: You and your husband have been married for a long time. You’ve built trust and safety with each other over time, you’ve settled into a rhythm, you most likely communicate quite well. You know he’s not just going to leave you when the next interesting person appears.

And also, quite simply, every relationship has its own dynamic. While we can definitely transfer the skills we’ve acquired from one relationship to another, there is a different kind of energy between any two people. Different wounds will be triggered, or lessons we thought we’d learned long ago might be tested in new ways.

This is a whole new human being you’re getting to know; and we are never fully prepared, however mature we thought we were, for the upheaval that a new relationship brings.

Because falling in love: that’s one of the most intense experiences we get to have on this earth (at least for most people). You’ve been married a long time and you’ve likely settled into what Page Turner calls “old relationship energy” with your husband, which is that wonderful feeling of being at home with somebody, of looking fondly at their quirks and habits and feeling known in return.

In comparison, what is often described as New Relationship Energy (NRE) – that initial feeling of intensity and longing: that’s a LOT. On a physical level, there are heightened levels of adrenaline, oxytocin, and dopamine coursing through your system, which make you crave being with this person all the time. On an emotional level, everything feels achingly poignant.

And so in my experience, however non-monogamous my heart and intentions might be, at the start of a new relationship my entire body wants to be monogamous with that person. I want them to be ALL MINE.

Imagining this person being with someone else can feel like actual death. 

And let me repeat myself: It’s okay to feel like this. Discomfort is not necessarily a sign that something is terribly wrong, and intense emotions are part of life.

So these are some of the possible explanations for why you’re having these feelings. You could still be in the NRE phase with your new partner, you’re not yet securely attached, your dynamic is simply different than with your husband, and you may have forgotten how intense those initial feelings can get. It could also be that different insecurities are being triggered for you with your boyfriend, things you haven’t had to deal with or investigate for a long time.

Here’s what I would do (and have done) with these feelings: I would find myself a quiet spot (or go for a long walk, if that’s available) and take a few deep breaths. I’d put my hand on my heart and acknowledge my courage, because this is courageous work. I would extend love to myself, to my heart, to my body, to my insecurities and wounds and splendid wholeness. I would tell myself that everything I feel is valid. I would sit and breathe, and probably cry, and NOT try to find a solution immediately. And I would do this frequently, as often as these feelings come up, reminding myself again and again that I am safe with me.

Because the most important thing is to cultivate safety within yourself. When your heart can really trust that it will be seen and heard by you, then much of that intense panic can slowly dissipate. And then it becomes easier to feel safe around other people too. And when the fear comes up again – remind your heart again that she is safe.

And then you might think of actions to take. Perhaps the action will simply be to share with your partners how you’re feeling. Try to do this from a place of openness, without making them responsible for ‘fixing’ things; do it in the spirit of creating more intimacy, not imposing more rules.

But you might also ask your boyfriend to adjust his behaviour, if that feels right for you. For instance, you might ask him to ‘over-communicate’ for a while, telling you beforehand about situations you might find triggering. You might ask him to reassure you of his love more often. You might ask him to ease gently into non-monogamy. However, be prepared with any request you make for his answer to possibly be “no”. Be prepared to negotiate, and to have this conversation many times as the situation and your needs change.

You don’t have to always power through your discomfort.

You don’t have to grit your teeth and force yourself to be cool when you’re simply not feeling cool. Being polyamorous doesn’t mean you stop being scared and vulnerable, and you’re allowed to be those things. Over time you’ll learn the balance: when it’s time to push yourself past your comfort zone, and when it’s time to take a breath and say “ouch, can we hold back for a moment?” And you will achieve this balance by being very patient and compassionate with yourself.

Know that you are busy with the most beautiful and worthwhile work you will ever do: you’re grappling with what it means to be human, to love, to exist. The complexities, aches, and joys of human relationships – this is where the magic happens.

I am sending you all my support and empathy. You are not alone on this journey.

I don’t feel safe enough to speak my truth.

If I don’t speak my truth I feel as if I might die.

***

I desperately need people to like me.

I desperately need to act with integrity.

***

I desperately need people to approve of my every action.

I desperately need to feel free and unscrutinised.

***

I need to feel safe.

I am not safe.

I am never safe.

***

A week ago I woke up and was about halfway to the bathroom when my body announced to me: “I think I’m dying”.

Something sprang in my neck, followed by a sharp cramp that would not let up regardless of how still I held my head. I yelled, and then stopped yelling because that hurt more. I crawled back to bed and tried to find a position in which my neck would not cramp. No position worked for longer than a minute – within a few minutes I was crying from the pain, soundlessly and without moving my head.

Fortunately one of my neighbours is a body therapist. She twisted my neck back and forth, clicked it into place (I screamed quite a bit), and for the rest of the day I was able to move, cautiously. “It’s because you clenched, during the night,” she said. “Because of yesterday’s stress.”

“I know, I do that,” I responded, exasperated with myself. On the surface, I handle (short-term) stressful events well. But the day after, I invariably wake up with a cramp in my back, or a shoulder that feels dislocated, or a migraine.

For the rest of the day I wobbled around from couch to floor, occasionally spasming up and dissolving every time into panicked, tired tears. That was the strangest: the tears. Each time I felt a cramp I started crying involuntarily.

It felt as if my body were acting out, punishing me, screaming at me “danger, danger!”

I felt like a scared child, and the feeling was entirely kept within my body, because every time I’d tap into my heart, into my deeper inner voice, I’d experience a large, unruffled sense of calm there. Yet, despite the underlying assurance from my heart that all was well, my body was intent on warning me furiously against impending death.

The day before had been a difficult one on the farm where I live. We’re an assortments of households here, an ‘unintentional community’ if you will, at least tangentially invested in each other’s lives. One of my neighbours, whom I really like and am quite close to, went through a personal and medical crisis and I found myself somehow in the middle of it. There were phone calls to and from the landlord. There was involvement from other neighbours, and accusations flying back and forth, text messages and screen shots being sent, and in the middle of it all myself, googling what to do, trying to be as helpful as possible without being intrusive (at one stage I really thought my neighbour might die).

Everything turned out fine, turned out well even, but it took a few days. At the height of the crisis I found myself doing what I often do, what I’ve done since childhood: slipping into calm supportive mode. Totally chilled. Watching series with my neighbour while I surreptitiously checked her vital signs every 15 minutes. Trying to make it clear to everyone involved that I was not judging, not prying; being almost cringe-inducingly tactful. Feeling overwhelming compassion, but also the ever-present urge to be needed.

Was I doing this from a place of empathy, or because my identity lies in being useful? Who the fuck knows. Both, I guess.

The next day was the neck cramp day. My neck got better fast, but for the past week my body has been sending me all kinds of distress signals. Severe back pain. Slight nausea. Waking up in the middle of the night and being unable to fall back asleep. A near-constant headache. I keep reassuring my body: “You’re okay. The crisis is past,” but like a screaming infant, my body refuses to be calmed down before it is good and ready.

Someone I follow on Instagram posted the other day “If you listen to your body when it whispers, you will never have to hear it scream”, and I thought FUCK YOU.

She meant well. Listening to your body is generally a good thing. But if your body has been through trauma, then any hint of new danger will make it scream anew. Your body holds the fear of all the times something terrifying happened. My body tenses up when men move or speak aggressively. It clenches whenever someone I care about appears to be in danger, especially if I cannot help them. When my defences are particularly low, at night I have recurring intrusive thoughts of my loved ones’ gory deaths and wake up with a migraine. When I myself feel in danger – when my heart is broken, or my finances look bad – my back and shoulders become a plethora of knots, often so stiff that I can barely sit or stand.

My body screams regularly, without warning, without offering up a whisper first. To say that it is screaming because I did not listen to its whispers is to speak from a place of almost unimaginable privilege.

It’s not the message that trauma survivors need – or anybody else, for that matter. What we need to know is that it’s okay to sometimes feel as if we’re going to die – we’re not doing anything wrong.

We’re not failing in our self-care practices, or not being mindful enough, or bad-adulting, if life feels suddenly and inexplicably hard. (But also, it’s fine if we ARE neglecting self-care or not being mindful enough, because life is weird and there are no fixed rules for successful living.) We need to know that it’s okay that we feel deeply unsafe, and insecure, and torn between opposing needs like wanting to be liked by everyone and wanting to feel authentic.

That last one is my particular struggle.

In the wake of the farm-wide crisis, with whispers of possible evictions doing the rounds, several neighbours asked me what had happened and gave me their opinions. I found myself mediating: giving the absent person’s perspective, trying to advocate for them, without offending the ones that I was talking to. Trying to tell the truth without oversharing. Trying to be polite without picking sides. I tried to come out the entire drama looking lilywhite, yet it felt as if everybody was misquoting me, assuming I was “on their side”. I felt profoundly fake somehow.

At one point I even lied: A neighbour asked me point-blank whether I’d done something, and, panicking, I denied it. (The thing in question was a wobbly choice I’d made during this whole drama). That night I lay awake, nauseous. I tried to listen to my body, tried to regulate my breathing, but every time I’d tap into what my body was feeling, a rush of panic would threaten to overwhelm me. So in that moment I decided to override my body with my mind. I felt too unsafe within my body to let it be in control. It was trapped in a childlike cycle of panic, and it was time for my mature self to call the shots.

And so I reasoned things out: I was feeling panicked because I felt dishonest and inauthentic. But I was scared of being honest, because then people might not like me, and I have internalised the idea that my survival depends on being likeable.

So I was caught between two needs: I can’t exist if I am not honest. I can’t exist if I am not liked.

Well then, said my mind. The answer is simple: Choose honesty. Because honesty feels more intrinsically important, whilst I actually know that I will indeed survive if I am not liked by everyone. (In fact, when it finally happens, being disliked often feels like a relief.)

So the next day I contacted the neighbour in question and told her that I’d lied, that I had indeed made that wobbly choice she’d asked about. “I feel confused and torn between everybody,” I told her. “I want to be honest and I also don’t want to pick sides. And also, sometimes I make bad choices, and I didn’t want to look bad.”

“We like and accept you just the way you are,” she responded. “And I understand your inner conflict. I won’t ask you any further questions.”

And this is what flooded through me, the moment I got her response: The remembrance that I am no longer a child in an unsafe world. I am an adult and I’ve got my back. Even when it feels terrifying, I can choose to act with integrity and the results will confirm that I made the right choice (even when I do piss someone off).

My survival does not depend anymore on my family liking me or on being super useful. And every time I choose to act from a place of authenticity, my body believes a little bit more that I am truly safe.

I might never be fully free from the panicked messages my body sends me whenever a situation reminds me of past traumas. But the wisdom in my heart grows more assertive. I know what to do when I am panicking: I honour my body, I am gentle with myself, but I do not give in to my most panicked demands. And I call upon my community, the community I have gradually built by choosing to be authentic again and again.

(I still have a headache but my body is no longer screaming at me, merely grumbling. Onwards!)

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?

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.