Month: March 2018

Five Things to Understand About People Processing Violence

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People who’ve survived any form of physical abuse or threat are often left with hard-to-heal emotional scars. The damage can take many forms, such as: sexual molestation, rape, being physically struck or beaten, experiencing danger, and military service. But no matter how personal safety violations are inflicted, any may lead to psychological dysfunction.

Generalized Anxiety Disorderdissociationdenialdepression, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are some issues experienced by humans whose nervous systems have been pushed beyond their limits. People who experience assault-based trauma are more likely to develop PTSD, but everyone has a different level of stress they can handle before becoming permanently overwhelmed. Because all humans are different, there’s no way to predict psychological disorders, and no guaranteed cures.

Some common symptoms felt by those who’ve been in threatening situations may include hypervigilance, being easily startled, insomnia, never feeling safe, brain fog, irritability, an exaggerated fight-or-flight response, mood swings, and panic attacks involving dizziness, nausea, sweating, rapid heartbeat, tunneling vision, or a sense of impending doom.

Below are 5 things to kindly keep in mind while talking to people processing violence:

1. The Compassion Competition

One of the worst assumptions to make about a person affected by violence is that they lack perspective or don’t understand that somebody always has it worse. Abused people know they’re not the only person to which injustice has happened, and unless they’ve never been on the Internet, they’re aware of life’s many atrocities.

Examples of this might be saying, “Well, at least THIS WORSE THING didn’t happen to you…” and giving an example of something you consider a greater wrongdoing.

This reaction completely invalidates the feelings of the person who trusted you enough to confide, and insults their intelligence. The fact that bad things also happen to others doesn’t magically erase the bad things that have happened to them, no matter where you’d place the abuse on your spectrum.

In short: Pain is not a contest. You can show empathy to more than one person at a time without dismissing the feelings of anyone. Because regardless of how someone was hurt, it always matters.

2. The Dance of Denial

Many victims of physical or sexual abuse find themselves alone with their pain because the topic makes others feel uncomfortable. This can be especially true if the person was violated by a family member.

Families sometimes brush unflattering stories about sexual or physical abusers under the rug because it’s hard to believe a relative is capable of such brutality. But this reaction can re-victimize people by invalidating their pain.

Often, rather than helping those harmed by someone, friends and relatives defensively ignore the issue, allowing the perpetrator to get away with something evil. This lack of justice or support can severely hamper the healing process, because a person can’t heal from a wound nobody will acknowledge.

In short: Abuse at the hands of a stranger -or- a family member hurts, and all forms of abuse are abuse. Ignoring the “icky” can make those harmed feel like they’ve done something wrong, rather than the person who caused the damage. Listen, believe, and strengthen instead of shaming.

3. The Blame Game

If you ever feel like saying, “Well that person is a ____, so what did you expect?” or, “I just accept that they’re messed up, and ignore it. That’s just who they are!” about the person who harmed someone, go ahead and keep that thought to yourself, because it reeks of victim blaming.

You may have the best intentions, such as trying to commiserate with the person who’s sharing their painful experience with you. However, what they often hear instead is: “Shame on you for being stupid. You should have known what you were dealing with, and anticipated your own violation.”

In short: Nobody in a civilized society should ever have to expect violence. Don’t imply that people could have predicted their own abuse and avoided it, because this only makes you look uncompassionate.

4. Downplaying the Damage

There is nothing more unhelpful than someone telling you to “get over it” in reference to anything, including the violation of your personal safety. Unless you have the ability to crawl into another person’s psyche and assess how something has affected them, dismissing their damage can be downright dangerous. Everyone has the right to feel safe, and whether you’ve experienced similar things or not, your decision that everyone else has to deal with emotions exactly the way you do is condescending, at best

Being told you’re “histrionic” or to “put on your big boy/big girl pants” are examples of thoughtless advice, and often given by those who choose to live in denial, rather than being brave enough to deal with their problems. This form of blatant invalidation is heartless and harmful. If someone has the courage to face their personal demons, rather than attempting to humiliate them into silence because of your own cowardice, you might instead watch and learn.

In short: Gaslighting is gross. Stop trying to make people feel like they’re overreacting or incorrectly imagining their own abuse. Everybody’s emotions are valid, and your motives are questionable if you’d prefer people in pain “suck it up and move on.” If you feel this way, why don’t YOU move on… somewhere out of hearing range.

5. No Pity Parties, Please

Most people who’ve been hurt by someone else are furious that they were forced into the role of victim, and don’t enjoy it. Treating them with compassion is lovely, but viewing them with pity can be upsetting. Being helpless is the worst feeling in the world, and nobody who’s experienced it ever wants to feel it again.

The word “survivor” is preferred over the word “victim” by some (but not all – everybody is different) because it implies strength, rather than weakness. Surviving doesn’t have to mean someone has survived a life-or-death situation, either—it simply means someone is trying to accept and cope with what’s happened to them.

In short: Nobody chooses to be abused, and treating people like they’re fragile or broken because of the violating actions of another can frustrate them. Let them know you think they’re strong for moving forward, despite those who’ve tried to hold them back. Survivors of abuse would much rather you celebrate their courage than pity them.

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People on the path to wellness don’t appreciate roadblocks created by other humans, well-intentioned or not. If you truly want to help someone move past bad things that have happened to them, listen to and believe them, don’t invalidate their feelings, and try to empathize.

Kindness and understanding go a long way in this world, and by avoiding the potentially harmful reactions listed above, you might give someone the compassion and support they need to heal themselves.

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Black Cat in the Storm Drain

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My husband says, in a hoarse voice as he leaves for work, “My lungs are thick. I’m going to try to go to work as long as I can,” and I laugh quietly inside, knowing he’ll be home soon. He always says this when he’s sick, and it’s code for I’ll be home soon and I wonder why I know this, but he hasn’t yet figured out there isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell he’ll make it through the day at work. He committed to coming home psychologically from the second those words left his mouth, and it entertains me how it always takes an hour or two for him to catch up with his own subconscious.

My son takes his time getting ready for school, making me feel like a nagging, irritating dog nipping at his heels, nudging him through the steps it will take to prepare him for school. We do this dance every day, and I dread it. I long for the day I am no longer his keeper, his pushy life coach, and he can function on his own. I never understand when people wistfully look back on the baby and toddler days, because my child has always been so high-maintenance that I’m existentially exhausted.

Lately, he has taken to languishing in the shower, and our water bill doubled last month because of this, so I open the door and tell him to rinse off, get out, officially the drill sergeant of utilities. Eat the breakfast I’ve cooked for you. Fix your hair. Brush your teeth. Put on your shoes. We leave ten minutes later than planned, but still with plenty of time.

I send him into the school where he’s been violently bullied, saying my usual mother’s prayer for his safety, hoping today kids and teachers will be kind to my neurologically atypical child. Hoping no shooters will enter the building. Please, no phone calls today, I beg silently in my head. Let it be a good day. I drive away after telling him I love him, because I never miss a chance to say this to him, knowing it may be the last I get.

On the way home, I pass the entrance to the gym at the affordable club where we have a family membership allowing my husband to golf, my son to swim in the summers, and a place for me to lift weights and do cardio exercise. I turn in because I was exhausted yesterday and took a three-hour-long nap in lieu of exercise, trying to listen to my body. I’m still very tired, but I can’t live with the guilt of going two days without a workout. I park and use my key card to beep into the door that unlocks when I wave my purse in its direction.

The creepy older man who came up behind me when I was alone in the gym on the treadmill and scared me one day to ask me if I am married sees me and says, “Hello, beautiful!” like he does every time I see him, which felt nice and grandfatherly before he asked if I’m married, but now doesn’t feel as nice. I smile and reply with a friendly greeting even though I don’t feel like it anymore, don’t feel cheerful towards him, and instead feel nervous and sad. I’m relieved when he walks out of the gym to another part of the club.

I run through the strength training machines I like best, finishing with a mildly brisk mile on the treadmill because I read somewhere that twenty minutes of fast walking a day can reduce one’s chance of high blood pressure or diabetes by thirty or forty percent–I’m not really sure of the number–but I know it will help me stay healthy and alive for my kid, so I do it. Through the gym window, I watch the ducks waddling in puddles while I walk, mind wandering down five paths at once like it does, trying not to look at the numbers on the machine.

The cold air feels good on my sweaty face as I leave the gym, heading for my car in the empty parking lot. I unlock the door to my small, fuel-efficient car, and drive home. A few blocks from my house, I notice the black cat that darts into the storm drains whenever I see it. My son and I have named it Midnight after my childhood black cat with the same unoriginal name.

I keep a large bag of cat food in my garage in a tote that I use to refill a smaller bag in my car to feed stray cats. I don’t understand why people have cats as pets if they’re going to leave them outside to be lonely and vulnerable, hiding from predators, collecting parasites, and in constant danger. It makes me angry because innocence should always be protected. We have so little of it in this world, and that makes it precious.

I’ve tried to befriend this black cat for almost a year, but it refuses to come out of the storm drain, meowing loudly while staring up at me with round, haunted eyes, telling me it doesn’t want to be outside and hungry in a cold, dirty storm drain, but it’s too afraid to trust. I relate to this cat. I understand wanting to trust but being too scared, even while crying out for help in other ways. I know what it is to be alone, vulnerable, and unable to reach out.

I pull my car to the side of the road, wondering if the neighbors are watching, thinking I’m weird, and realize I don’t really care. I open the hatchback of my little car that doubles as the trunk and pull out the small bag of cat food. I pour some outside of the storm drain while Midnight cries from below, breaking my heart. I talk to the cat, apologizing for humans who don’t care, telling it as I always do that I will adopt it and give it a warm, safe home if it will come with me, if it will trust me.

I pour some food down into the storm drain, and the meows are replaced with the sounds of a cat crunching kibble. There is one cute meow with a mouth full and then nothing but the sounds of a starving animal eating as fast as it can. I pour more food gently through the slats of the storm drain, and it falls next to the cat. The cat doesn’t even look up or startle because it’s so hungry.

I walk sadly to my car, wishing I could do more, and drive the few blocks to my house. I see my husband’s car parked in the driveway, and know he’s in bed with the illness he was going to work through that I knew he’d never work through but let him pretend because it has to be his choice to stay home. Like me, he’s as stubborn as a cat in a storm drain.

Writing out a shopping list to make chicken noodle and vegetable soup, I ask if he needs anything in particular from the store and go. In the parking lot, I get out of my car wearing a mask because we own multiple packs of them, just in case I’m sick, too. I don’t want to risk infecting others.

A man pulls into the parking lot with his car windows down, screaming, laughing, and singing to a song I don’t hear, and I assume it’s playing in his head. He stares at me in my face mask and I become nervous he’s going to approach from across the lot, but he only pauses for a moment. I look down into my purse and pretend to look for something to seem nonthreatening, but what I’m actually doing is pulling the large canister of Mace I keep in my purse out of the plastic sandwich bag in which I store it should it accidentally go off. I get it into position for easy grabbing, and set it on top of the other items. I give the aggressively manic guy a thirty second lead, then head in.

In the grocery store, a child asks his father what’s wrong with that lady, is she hurt because I’m wearing a face mask, and I want to reassure them both that I’m not showing any signs of illness, only being cautious, but I am too shy, so I move out of visual and aural range as fast as I can, not wanting to make anyone uncomfortable. After finding the items I need to make soup and the comfort snack foods my husband likes that are too salty and processed for my tastes, I use the self-checkout as usual, hoping I can avoid talking to anyone, trying to stay in my storm drain.

The machine requests an employee, even though I’ve scanned the item, placed it into the bag as requested, and I’m forced to talk to another human. I realize I forgot to take my anti-anxiety medication today, which is okay, according to my psychiatrist, because I’m on a low enough dose that there’s no physical addiction, and if I forget to take it, he tells me, that’s a good thing. It means I didn’t feel anxious enough to remember.

The employee has kind eyes and I recognize her from past visits to the store. She adjusts my scanner and screen with a code. My social anxiety subsides enough that I ask her if she noticed the scream-singing, laughing man when he came in a while ago. She tells me she sees all kinds, and he was probably in the bathroom because it happens a lot. I share that I worked five years in a convenience store and a few years in a grocery store, and I remember the unique characters, too. We share a smile over this and I pay, push my groceries to the car, and load it up.

Arriving home, I unload the groceries and spend an hour cutting vegetables and placing them into the crock pot full of broth. I hear my husband coughing from the main bedroom where he sleeps alone because he snores, and my nights in the guest room quickly became permanent years ago when I realized I’m a weepy, emotional mess if I try to exist on only a few hours of constantly disrupted sleep. I call it the Mom Cave, but really, it’s my bedroom. I sleep in a twin bed like a child, hugging a stuffed animal because I’m lonely, also like a child. My life is nothing like I imagined it would be years ago, but it’s fine. I’m safe. My storm drain is safe. I look out from inside sometimes, wishing I could trust the strangers who leave their versions of food for me, and occasionally yearn for more, but I’m protected. Again, I’m safe.

After a quick nap, I wake up and write on my laptop about my day, wondering why anyone would care about the boring minutiae shared by a human with such a truly uneventful existence.  I decide to write anyway because it’s only life, after all, and I’m aware I overthink everything.

I stop writing to pick up my son from the bus stop where the subdivision kids must wait as a group because the schools can no longer afford to drive the kids closer to their homes like they used to, and I don’t trust the mean kids to not bully my son on the walk home, because they’ve done this before. He’s very kind and doesn’t understand it when people are mean to him. I worry that cruel others will someday force my gregarious, outgoing, friendly little boy into his own version of an emotional storm drain, but that’s a worry for many other days.

When we get home, he races inside to use the bathroom because they don’t let the kids do this at school when they need to anymore, limiting them to three restroom visits per semester–something I find repulsively dystopian and disturbing. His stomach is upset every day after school from holding in waste all day, and I’m positive I was allowed to use the restroom whenever needed as a child, so this makes me very mad.

I refill the bag of cat food in my car in case I need to feed another lonely cat tomorrow, and walk inside, closing the garage door behind me.