If She Just Tried

I told my therapist that when I was a young woman, I shaved my bikini line and always wore clean underwear when I went out, just in case I was raped.

“Is that weird?” I asked, hoping to be assured that it was totally normal. 

“That’s a little weird,” she said.

I want to call her up to explain myself further.  It’s not that I want to be attractive for rapists, and it’s not that I think rape has anything to do with attraction.  It’s just that in addition to my perfectly normal fear of being sexually violated, I am afraid of the compounding indignity of being judged inadequate.

I’m an asexual woman in my late thirties, and I didn’t know I was asexual until recently.  By that, I mean I didn’t know there was a word for it.  I did know (and tried to deny) that I wasn’t attracted to anyone, ever, and that I couldn’t relate to crushes or falling in love or being hot for someone. I knew that the idea of sex and all sexual acts both repulsed and terrified me.   Because I didn’t know this was a valid state of being,  I didn’t know that I could choose to not reciprocate when someone expressed sexual interest in me.  

I was trapped between two conflicting needs. Because I didn’t know I was asexual (and feared that I was fundamentally different in some shameful way), I needed to pretend to be sexual. Yet because of my asexuality and sex repulsion, I also needed to avoid sex—somehow, some way. To complicate things further, I had to avoid sex without directly refusing it, because I didn’t know that I had the right to say no to sex, and also didn’t really believe no would even work. (I should add here that this is where my internalized heteronormativity gets all tangled up with my internalized misogyny and dances with my trauma history).

A solution was to become unattractive, and I flirted with this strategy.  I wore my unbrushed hair in a straggly ponytail or stuffed into a loose bun-like arrangement.  I didn’t wear make-up.  I refused my mother’s efforts to dress me in cute skirts and belly shirts and instead raided my father’s closet for his flannels.  I made no effort to do any of the things that the magazines (or my mother) said to do to attract boys and men.

Yet, I wasn’t brave enough to take it all the way. I had internalized an unconscious and unexamined directive from my culture that my value as a woman was determined by my attractiveness to men.  This message was also transmitted to me directly from my family.  I remember my father criticizing my morbidly obese aunt when she decided to leave her abusive husband.  “Doesn’t she realize that no other man is going to want her? She will always be alone.”

So I remained meticulous with my hygiene, showering and brushing my teeth, using deodorant.  I took care of my skin with toners and lotions and creams.  I shaved my legs and armpits.  I employed life-threatening methods to control my body weight, terrified of drifting into the fat-enough-to-be-contemptible zone, desperate for the safety of the too-thin-to-be-sexy territory.

I walked the razor sharp ledge between repulsive unattractiveness and sexual attractiveness, always seeking a sort of safe zone of “she could be pretty if she just tried.”

None of this was conscious. I had no words to understand my struggle.  Perhaps if I’d had access to the language I needed to understand and empower myself, I may have prevented a few decades of suffering.  Instead, I was a young woman walking scared in the world, covering up an emaciated body with enormous flannel shirts, turning her unexplored and unnamed anger at her culture inward, shaving her bikini line for rapists.

A Trip to the Mayo Clinic

To the Office of Patient Experience: 

I am writing to inform you of a recent experience I had while at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonsville, Florida.

After more than a year of suffering from a range of troubling symptoms, I discovered that I meet the criteria for Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome. My cardiologist ordered a 30 day Holter monitor test which confirmed my tachycardia. He was unfamiliar with POTS and suggested that I seek help at the Mayo Clinic. 

I called the Jacksonville clinic and spoke with the appointment coordinator in the cardiology department.  I explained that I needed an evaluation and treatment plan for POTS.  I was given an appointment with one of the Mayo cardiologists. 

The cardiologist examined me in early March of 2017. He was pleasant during the exam and seemed to take time to listen to my health concerns.  However, he did only a single reading of my standing heartrate and blood pressure, after I’d been upright for less than 1 minute.  Based on this brief exam, he stated that my multiple, life-altering symptoms were entirely explained by “simple low blood pressure,” with a cause of “genetics,” and instructed me to increase my caffeine consumption to raise my blood pressure.

He stated that he doesn’t find labels helpful and that “if it is POTS, then what?  There’s no treatment.” He declined to explore my condition further, saying that he could “count on one hand” the number of patients he had referred for tilt table testing.  When I asked if my other symptoms, including joint pain and excessive thirst, were a result of low blood pressure, he said no.  Yet he continued to state that he believed all my symptoms were explained by low blood pressure. He then stated that the POTS patients he has observed could hardly stand up from a wheel chair.  Given that I am ambulatory and do not present as unwell, his last statement had the effect of invalidating my health concerns.  

When I arrived home, I consulted the log of blood pressure and heartrate readings I had kept at my cardiologist’s request.  According to my records, my blood pressure is somewhat low when sitting or lying down, but when standing it almost invariably increases to the normal or prehypertension range, while my pulse always increases between 30 and 80 beats per minute.    I contacted the cardiology department to ask for clarification from the cardiologist. My questions were:  Given that my diagnosis is low blood pressure, but I do not always have low blood pressure, do you still recommend I take caffeine to raise my blood pressure?  And if my symptoms and high heartrate are present even with a normal/high blood pressure reading, does low blood pressure actually explain my symptoms?  A nurse consulted with the doctor and reported to me that his advice was that I not take so many readings of my blood pressure. 

I would like to make the following statements regarding my experience at the Mayo Clinic:

1.      I called the clinic seeking an evaluation and treatment plan for POTS.  It is not appropriate that I was assigned a cardiologist who is clearly not a POTS specialist or even very familiar with POTS.  By his own admission, he has referred less than a handful of patients for tilt table testing, which is the standard diagnostic test for this syndrome. Even if the doctor had concern about what he called “invasive and expensive” testing, he still could have done a simple active stand test in which he measured my heartrate and blood pressure at 3, 5, and 10 minutes, which is also a screen for POTS.  Instead, he took a single reading of my vitals at less than 1 minute standing, and he entirely disregarded both my Holter test records and my own reports about my tachycardia (which for me tends to appear after about 3 minutes upright).  

2.      It is not correct that “nothing can be done for POTS.”  It is my understanding that the Mayo Clinic is one of the leading researchers in POTS treatment.  I already know I meet the criteria for POTS.  I was seeking help to determine the underlying cause and develop a treatment plan.  If this doctor was unwilling to help me pursue a diagnosis and treatment plan, I feel that he should have referred me to a doctor who would.
3.      I find it upsetting to be dismissed as not sick enough to warrant help.  It’s true that I am not confined to a wheelchair, and I am extremely grateful for the health that I do have.  But I am suffering significantly and my life has been dramatically impacted by my condition.  I turned to the Mayo Clinic in hope of preventing further decline and improving my quality of life.

I am writing this letter because I hope that the Mayo Clinic will consider making adjustments to the referral process so that what happened to me doesn’t happen to another. Seeking treatment at the Mayo Clinic required me to take time off work, drive 400 miles, and pay for a hotel room, but I was willing to undertake this financial hardship because I hoped to find relief. Instead, my visit to the Mayo Clinic was an emotionally harmful experience and ultimately a waste of my time and money.

Sincerely,

Erin

Dangerous Wanting

When I was nine years old, my family moved from Texas to Georgia for my father’s job.  Before buying the house where I would eventually finish out my childhood, we rented for a year.  On the weekends we went house hunting.

On these house tours, my brothers and I raced to claim the bedrooms we wanted.  I wandered the floors dreamily, imagining life in this house or that house. What kind of girl would I be with a private bedroom and a laundry shoot? What kind of girl would I be with a  window seat, a walk-in closet, and a basement? (Rooms underground?  I would be transformed!)

My parents also took us to houses we definitely would not be buying.  We went on the Tour of Dreams, Luxury Home Tours, the Atlanta Street of Dreams.  I trailed along behind my brothers with wide eyes, taking in how other people lived. I can clearly recall the tension inside my little body—the wanting, the fear of committing to the wanting. 

Up to this point, I had lived a comfortable life.  All of my basic needs were always met, as were a large percentage of my wants.  I can’t remember wanting what I couldn’t have as a child (except more cookies).  I was a girl who was well cared for materially, and I’d not yet been influenced by the forces that work to create painful artificial wants.  

The Tour of Dreams houses marked a shift.  It caused my wanting to grow an imagination.

As oblivious as I was about money and our family’s finances, I still somehow knew that these mansions were not for people like us.  These lives were not our lives. The houses were far too large, almost frighteningly large.  They had amenities I’d only seen at hotels—swimming pools, tennis courts, movie theatres, gyms.  I had never considered that there were people who lived with these kinds of treats. 

I walked through these homes with mounting anxiety.  I didn’t want to imagine the little girl who might live here because I knew she wasn’t me.  I didn’t want to think about that girl, because when I did, I got an unsettled feeling, a sense of anxious wanting being unleashed.  Though I didn’t have the words for it, a deep part of me nevertheless understood:  It was far better, far safer, to keep my wanting tamped way down.  It was too painful, wanting what I couldn’t have.

Much better to keep my longings small, my child self decided.  Too small to even feel them.

The Morning After

In late October, my therapist suggested I stay off CNN, and NPR, and unplug from the political podcasts.  I had been on a nonstop news vigil since the story broke about Donald Trump’s habit of sexually assaulting women, and  she could see in my face the toll it was taking on me. At this point, she said, I was just retraumatizing myself. 

Yet, I found it impossible to stay away from the stories.   I wanted to see Donald Trump destroyed. I wanted him ridiculed, humiliated, and abandoned by anyone who ever believed in him.  I wanted the entire Rape Culture to be told:  It’s over.  And, fuck you

When the story about the Trump Tape first broke,  I didn’t imagine that anything would come of it.  I knew from personal experience that this is how a lot of men behave, as though they have a right to do what they want with a woman’s body. I assumed everyone else already knew this too—so  I was pleasantly surprised by the outrage. The political pundits on CNN predicted a total collapse of Donald Trump’s campaign for president.  “It’s over,” they declared.  “He can’t recover from this.” 

I could hardly sleep due to my excitement. I hadn’t realized that the world had changed, that it was becoming safe place to be a woman.  I hadn’t noticed that happening at all. 

Government leaders who had supported Trump repudiated his campaign and withdrew their endorsements. They said what had happened to me was wrong and should never have happened.  My country would have no part in supporting such behavior.

And then…well,  nothing else happened.

Donald Trump participated in a debate in which he was said to have “held it together,” and then it seemed this whole mess had blown over.  There was still outrage and calls for Trump to step down, but these voices fell into the background, even as more and more women came forward speaking their truth. I was harmed, they said. This is how I was harmed.

Even louder voices responded back: Just like a woman to overreact. Shame on you for distracting us from what really matters, from the issues.  This is a world where the men make the rules and we aren’t changing things for you.  You should be ashamed of yourself for even asking.

Today, twenty-four hours after the election of Donald Trump,  I am full of shame.  I feel shame for having gotten my hopes up, shame for having joined the voices of protest.  I’m back at the silly fringe, whining and shrill and oversensitive.  Once again, I’ve asked for too much, and hoped for too much–for far more than I deserve.  

And yet I don’t turn off my TV, and I don’t turn off my phone.  I remain at my vigil: watching, hoping, and needing.  

DIY:  Euthanasia

When Linda* comes to meet with me this week, I’m not surprised she is downcast and weary. In addition to an addiction to methamphetamines, she has a progressive and degenerative autoimmune disease and is navigating the social security disability system. For her, the sting of poverty is sharp and constant.

“Why so blue?”  I ask, knowing it could be any number of reasons.

She eases herself painfully into the chair that faces my desk.

“I had to put Mushu to sleep,” she says.

I offer my condolences, feeling a pang of empathetic sadness. I have three cats of my own, so the reality of putting an animal to sleep is close and painful.   Linda has talked about her beloved dog Mushu every week since we first started working together.  “That mutt is the only thing in this world that don’t expect no amends from me,” she once said. “She woulda followed me to the jail if they’da let her.”

Now Linda explains, “She got diarrhea and couldn’t stop goin’. She couldn’t walk or eat no more. It hurt too much to see her suffering.”

And after a moment she adds, “I just wished I coulda took her to the vet.”

I get that.  Especially now that my cats are getting older, I worry.  What if Hugo gets cancer?  What if Gizmo gets diabetes?  I couldn’t possibly afford the treatment.  I do my best to offer Linda my full, open presence, to let her know with my silence that I am willing to help hold her sadness.  We sit without speaking, a communion of two sisters sharing in grief, the power differential between us momentarily erased.

She says, “I got my friend Billy to do it.”

“Do it?” I ask.

“He done shot her for me.”

I feel myself sliding into a layer of reality too painful for any sober person to endure.  My brain resists, responds with temporary confusion. Why did she just change the subject?  And who done got shot?

Then I understand.  When Linda said she wished she’d had money for a vet, she wasn’t talking about medicine or surgery.  The image of this Billy person putting a bullet into Mushu’s trusting skull jolts me so hard I feel sick.

Linda must sense some change in emotion behind my frozen face, my carefully professional expression.

“I wasn’t there,” she says quickly.   “I took her to Billy and done went back to the house.” She leans back in her chair, crosses her arms over her chest, watches my face.

Ah, yes. Being a convicted felon would complicate home euthanasia.  Linda isn’t permitted to be in possession of a firearm.  She has just let it slip that she violated her probation.   My fantasy of our communion of souls is threatened in this moment by Linda’s reminder that she is a Defendant and I am The System.  Linda has offered me a chance to escape:  We are separate, we are different, we do not inhabit the same world. I can run from this grief and deny that it is mine.   As long as we are separate, I will never be at risk of feeling the kind of pain that comes from being so poor you can’t humanely euthanize your beloved pet.

How tempting, her offer.

But I know that when you separate yourself from one, you separate yourself from all.  In recovery myself, I must, absolutely must, turn always in the direction of love, connection, and the flow of reality. Turning away, hardening my boundaries just a little and to avoid this pain, leads to destruction.

“How did that make you feel?” I ask. And she tells me.

We have a number of business details to discuss:  treatment logs to turn in, fee payments to document, case management goals to review.   I choose not to follow up on my solid suspicion that Linda is lying to me about not being present with the gun. I know she did not leave Mushu to die afraid and alone at the hands Billy.

I know this, because I know myself.

*This is a fictionalized account of a real event.  Details have been changed.

How I Got Here

I’d been in my old apartment nearly four years when the roaches came.  They came at night, as roaches do. Looking back, it seems odd that I was caught off guard.  I had come to expect such things.

When the roaches came, I had developed a fairly high tolerance for the intolerable.  These roaches found a woman far removed from her teenage self–a girl who once killed a bug with a tennis shoe, and then threw the tennis shoe away.  It had been many, many years since I could afford the luxury of that level of squeamishness.

When the first of the roaches appeared, creeping singularly along a baseboards in the kitchen, and scurrying frantically from the sudden light in an open cupboard, I did the broke woman’s version of throwing out the tennis shoe. I shut the cabinet and pretended I hadn’t seen a thing.

Those initial scouts must have sent the All Clear to their buddies, because within days my apartment was headed toward full-on infestation.  Roaches slipped in and out from of the seams at the edges of my carpet, scurried along baseboards, clustered inside cabinets, marched up and down walls.

As was my nature, I blamed myself.  Here it was, coming out of the crevices and shadows:  the evidence that I was, at my core, a nasty and filthy human being.

The roaches were rapidly multiplying and taking over my apartment, but I was too ashamed to ask for help from the landlord. Upon inspection of my lease, it did appear that “regular pest control” was the responsibility of the management, though not one pest control visit had manifested during my years there.  But I was afraid to expose my moral failings, afraid to reveal my disgusting nature.  Only bad people got roaches, right?

I did a deep clean of my house. I even resorted, temporarily, to chemicals.  After years of using homemade cleaning products made with vinegar and baking soda, I now feared I’d been an absolute fool.   Somehow, I knew I had caused this.  There I’d been, thinking I knew how to get by in the world, and it turned out I couldn’t do something as simple as keep my home free from infestations.

I took all of my food out of the pantry and stacked it inside my refrigerator, where I hoped it would be safe.  Then, I moved plates and bowls and silverware out of the cupboards and onto the bottom shelves of the fridge as well.

I bought borax and sugar and tin foil and made some traps.  I cried while I waited for my passive massacre to take effect. As a vegetarian, I refused to kill for food.  I didn’t think I should kill for comfort, either. Who was I to decide which lives were of value, and which were worthless?    In the end, I needn’t have worried, as the borax traps did nothing.

After some time, I found myself fleeing the roach infested living room.  I confined myself to the bedroom. After a roach crawled across my forehead one night, I pulled my bed away from the walls. One day I opened my fridge to find that the roaches had infiltrated my safe zone, and that was the last day that I cooked in my apartment.

One afternoon, I sat on my patio, escaping the roaches to watch the clouds.  The woman from the apartment next to mine also came outside and sat on her own patio. She wore rubber gloves and kerchief in her hair.  She sighed, and stared off at the sky.

“How many times have you talked to the property manager?” my neighbor asked.  “I’ve documented at least 10 phone calls and letters.  And they still haven’t addressed the problem.”

“The problem?”

“The roaches,” she said.

“You have them too?” I asked, incredulous.

“Everyone has them. Ever since they sprayed those abandoned units at the end of the row, they’ve just been pouring in.”

A sort of relief was thawing its way through my chest. So it wasn’t just me? So it was, in fact, everyone else too? My neighbor gave a quizzical frown in response to the grin taking over my face.

“I haven’t talked to property management yet,” I admitted joyfully.

“Well, it won’t do any good. They’ve been saying they’re taking care of it for weeks now. I’m just going to have to break my lease and leave,” she said.  She motioned inside her unit.  “I’ve already started cleaning up and packing.”

I went back into my apartment and laid down on my bed.  I stared at the ceiling, meditating on a pair of roaches making a trek across the wall paneling. I had really thought it was just me.

Maybe, then…well, was it possible?

Maybe  I deserved to pack up and leave too.

Father Hunger: The night Donald Trump got me in touch with my Daddy Issues

This post was originally published on my blog Yoonede on October 8, 2016.  

I never could understand the big deal about fathers. When I worked as a domestic violence counselor, I couldn’t relate to how women agonized over their children not having a daddy anymore.  As a child protective services worker, I couldn’t really empathize with girls in foster care feeling lost without their fathers.  I felt leery and (I’ll admit it) a tad judgmental in the presence of any women who self-identified as a Daddy’s Girl.  I found myself wondering, just what’s the big deal about fathers?  They seemed fairly expendable to me.

Reading this attitude, you’re probably drawing certain conclusions about me.  I must have been traumatized by an abusive or neglectful father, or raised by a competent single mother, or some such family situation.  The truth is, my father is a perfectly decent and kind man.  Growing up, he was a good provider for my family.  He was funny, energetic, and gentle.  He treated my mother well, coached my brothers in their athletics, and could tell a great story. I was the only girl in my family, and I don’t think he knew quite what to do with a daughter, so he left most of my raising  to my mother—but I can’t think of a single time that he deliberately harmed me.  Though I always felt disconnected and vaguely uncomfortable around my Dad, I didn’t think this was a problem to work through.  I was certain that I was free from Daddy Issues.

Last night I was watching news footage of Hurricane Matthew, waiting to see if the storm would make a direct hit on land, when the storm coverage was preempted by the story of yet another of Donald Trump’s transgressions. It emerged that he had been recorded making lewd, predatory, and sexually aggressive comments about women, and he admitted to a practice grabbing women by the genitals (presumably, without their consent).

As a survivor of sexual violence, I felt pretty agitated listening to Donald Trump’s admission of acts of sexual assault, and I am disgusted and horrified by his belief that he’s entitled to help himself to the body of any woman he wants. I feel emotionally triggered whenever I’m exposed to any  justification of sexual aggression or perpetration of rape culture.  Listening to this story unfold last night, I found myself in a state of high agitation.

I stayed glued to CNN throughout the night as statements and reactions from politicians and the media rolled in.  I listened with mounting anxiety as prominent men firmly stated they can no longer support Trump because  of his vulgar attitude toward women.

Of course,  I realize that I should have been outraged by the fact that Trump can denigrate disabled people, immigrants, and minorities and still get the support of the Republican leadership, but it’s the disrespect of white women that finally makes him unfit to be President.  And I am (outraged).  Also, my inner feminist should have bristled at  the “women are precious” rhetoric, at the idea that women are objects to be revered on a pedestal, that women are only valuable because of their relation to men as wives and daughters.  And I did (bristle).

But.  Yes, but:  Tears welled up in my eyes as I listened to Jeb Bush’s statement that “as the grandfather of two precious girls, I find that no apology can excuse away Donald Trump’s reprehensible comments degrading women.”  And again when Mitt Romney said, “Such vile degradations demean our wives and daughters and corrupt America’s face to the world.” I listened as men called into the media outlets to say that they can’t let their daughters think they condone such behavior by supporting Trump. They think of their daughters, and how they love them, and are sickened by this man’s words.

Out of absolutely nowhere, I found myself falling into a deep, yawning pit of painful need. I sat in my apartment weeping three decades worth of tears. I realized I was desperate for a father. I needed my Dad to call up Fox News (his favorite station) and say he will not vote for Trump because he cannot condone such behavior toward women. “I think of my daughter, and I love her and respect her,” he would say, an edge of sadness in his words (he really, really liked the idea of Trump). “And I will never stand by someone speaking of my daughter this way.”

Before last night, I had been entirely unaware of my yearning for a father. Now, my Daddy Issues had made unexpected landfall.  It was a direct hit.

Wave after wave of pain washed over me through the night.  I thought about how growing up as a female in a mostly male household, I never felt a sense of integrity, or healthy pride, or true worth. How I always felt less than, both because I wasn’t a male,  and because I was not the right kind of female. How growing into womanhood, I felt like a failure in my father’s eyes.  I realized that I had a belief that all my father valued about women was their sex appeal.  As an asexual woman, I wanted absolutely no part of sex appeal.  This left me deeply questioning my worth.

I need to repeat here that my father is a perfectly wonderful man.  There is no specific reason for my belief that he views women as sexual objects—other than the fact that our culture views women as sexual objects and my father has never resisted this. He has never defended me against the culture. He has never told me I am worth more than my body, that I have more value than as a sexual object for a man. He never told me that I deserve to be respected.  Possibly most importantly, he never told me that I had a no, or a right for my no to mean no.

I needed someone in my life to tell me this.  I needed my father to tell me this.

And today I need my father to say:

Mr. Trump, I will not tolerate you speaking of women this way.  Because my daughter is a woman, and she is strong and capable and intelligent and powerful.  I love her, and  I want the world to be a safe place for her.