Friday, October 1, 2010

Advocating for Yourself: On Abuse/Disability/Mental Health and THEN SOME!

I believe this is quite possibly the most important subject I will ever write about - and therefore, I will not do it adequate justice in this moment, as it is something I will continually deepen and expand my knowledge upon. Advocating for yourself is a fickle subject - it involves self-love, self-knowledge, and self-respect. It could possibly be confused with selfishness or laziness or pride. But it's none of these.

Someone had once asked me a question on my formspring, which seems to have, by some magical force of technology, gotten mysteriously deleted. The person asked: "What is the best advice you have ever received?" And while that question seemed incredibly overwhelming at first, the answer I came up with seemed incredibly simple: "Take care of yourself."

It probably doesn't seem so astounding - so, I'll provide explanation. I am the type of girl who has gone on stage with fevers; who has walked to class with a box of tissues in hand (to only be thrown out due to looking so miserable); who has gone a whole day so busy she's forgotten to eat; who has taken 44 credits in one year in a determination to graduate a year early - swine flu, insomnia hospitalization, severe weight loss, chronic migraines and body pains be damned! I will crawl to the finish line if I have to! And no one will stop me with their silly little logic that is actually quite logical!

It's actually quite amusing to recap all the times I thought I'd save myself grief by walking around, about to combust or implode, one step away from being covered in caution tape. And then - oh the shock! I always got so shocked when the disaster became even more of a disaster. And my various doctors eyed me with pity and said "What are we going to do with you, Victoria?" Well. Some people are hands-on learners, others are visual, others: auditory, some are written. Me? I'm a "get so blown over by a situation that I'm forced to crawl my way out of it" learner. Throwing myself into the extremes has perhaps been the best (if not most chaotic) way I've ever learned.

How does this relate? My very chaotic path towards self-care began in the midst of my 24 credit semester wherein I worked several jobs and trained to be a hotline advocate (amongst other trainings) for Sexual Assault Services Organization (SASO!). Are you sensing a pattern? Most people would be over-stimulated as is taking my credit load and my work load, but only I could look at both of those things and go "BUT I WANT TO EMOTIONALLY CHALLENGE MYSELF TOO. Let's dig those skeletons out of the closet!" Do it all! Well. Within the first few days of training, I had already emotionally collapsed - I took the obligatory 15 minute break everyone else took... but magically extended it into an hour long break as I began sobbing hysterically in the hallway to only have the therapist (who had been there to present) try to talk me down from the game of Chutes and Ladders: Trauma Version! This sort of thing repeated itself several times more, creating a reaction from the trainers each time: "You don't have to do this now, Victoria - you can finish the training later." But no, I would finish it then - "now is the time to finish it," I had decided. It's how I learn.

Luckily, this behavior thinned out - and as I took future trainings with SASO, the knee-jerk crying abated. However, it manifested into these awful levels of guilt. Even though I was receiving all the trainings, I felt only very passively involved - I wasn't answering hotline calls, I wasn't going to elementary schools and high schools to teach about sexual assault... I didn't feel as if I was doing much of anything, other than being a really awesomely informed bystander. So, I did what felt like were the more menial things - help write the newsletters, speak with some professors on campus, put up flyers, help organize events. No matter how many times a close friend of mine kept trying to remind me that the office work was and is just as important as the groundwork, I still couldn't help but feel like a sell-out.

But there were times, small glimmers that revealed themselves to me in their soft warnings. No matter how many times I heard my supervisors chant their mantra: "Take care of yourself first," it never really hit me until I began to run into other advocates who had been working for SASO for years, listening to them softly say that no, they needed the time off from the hotline. Life, man. Life. And it made it slightly more acceptable for me to be kinder to myself when I saw others be so gentle with themselves. The combination of my body falling apart (a la swine flu, insomnia hospitalization, etc.) and watching others trying so cautiously to preserve their hurt from impacting the services they gave others - it changed something, ever so slightly. But significantly.

I couldn't really tell you how I responded to these incidents immediately, fluidly - I can only remember the past year as a blur of yelling and repeatedly falling and getting back up again. I can, however, tell you what it's like to begin to crawl out of that vast hole. For, when you set yourself up for that intense of a year, you are bound to walk out with something.

The knowledge I have, in general, is something I tend to take for granted. And it becomes increasingly apparent to me everyday. That I have been through so much, and put myself through so much, that I am, in fact, a very good person to have if you need to crawl out of a hole. It's given me a striking amount of confidence - "You see that strife? I can endure that strife. I can crawl my way out of that strife like nobody's business! In fact, I know so much about that strife that I can see the signs and avoid it all together!" I began to live life a bit more courageously, more self-defined, and hyper-aware of other people's motives for my life, and how much they were or were not contributing to my creative energies. Some things will begin to happen and you will realize: "Ah, I see - you want me to be in that hole because you have been in that hole and are still stuck in that hole and you don't like the fact I'm no longer in a hole. Well, I'm not really the type of a person you want to put into a hole."

So, as I've been going through this past year, learning things about myself and my wants and needs and interests, who I genuinely am - I began to shave off the past. I cut loose some bad relationships, and I meditated and read and analyzed and wrote about the experiences I couldn't understand. In my head, I took care of myself the best way I possibly could - I saw my trauma as the biggest barricade I needed to push through in order to get healthy, and so I paraded on into the thickets of war with myself, my relationships with men, my understanding of love, the various definitions of sexual trauma - and in determination to have thought process mirror reality, I tore down everything that lay in my path. I let my anger sound out, my depression slam down, my euphorias tear off the roof. I was painfully honest with everyone (especially my professors who looked perpetually concerned about me) and I wrote repeated letters to people who probably cared less about me. But I was determined to exorcise myself. I crawled to the finish line.

This perhaps sounds like a manifesta for "put yourself through grief! you'll grow stronger!" but it's more along the lines of "realize what you need to do for yourself." Because, shortly after that year of hell, I collapsed into months of not doing anything - I went to work, came home and watched netflix, tried to motivate myself to work out that whole "moving across the country" thing, but generally enjoyed the sound of lack of chaos. I crawled into different truths - putting myself through such a rigorous test made me adamantly recognize what I needed and who I needed and where I needed to be going (something that is always evolving while simultaneously made stable) - and it was after all of that that I began to really see others without projecting my own grief upon them or deluding myself that they would change when they were living a life they wouldn't own up to.

I never answered one hotline call, I began to throw grades to the wind, I stopped reading, I stopped writing, I tried frequently to support myself with positive materials that asserted my own extremities were smart and sound and that I would have a future significantly better than my past if I just followed my passions and intuitions. While I wasn't a very active activist in the field, I became a Knowledge Advocate - learning all the intricacies of myself and how it fits into society, thinking and learning becoming a radical thing in itself. How simple a thing it is to learn your rights and what sort of treatment you deserve - but how powerful the impact.

I have known other types of advocates and activists that strive to take care of themselves though - The Somatics Advocate: seeking foods healthy for their bodies and activities good for the whole of their mind-body connection; The Talk Advocate: the hotline advocates, the emergency call numbers, the weekly therapist visit; The Exercise Advocate: let those positive hormones flow as you go to the gym and work out your stress; The Yoga and Meditation Advocate: let's explore our inner emotions with as much silence of the mind as possible, with movements meant to enhance our strength; The Medication Advocate: you deserve all the help you get, and the medication is out there; The Activist Advocate: get really involved in the causes that impact your life, and seek to change the world through fighting your own dilemmas side by side with like minds.... and etc. I wouldn't limit the list of possible ways to be an advocate to this list, as I'm sure there are many more forms of self-care and advocating for self.

Me? I'm a Knowledge Advocate: let's study the things that trouble us so that we learn to stop the cycling of that problem, so we can inform others on how to stop it. Let's use facts to explore our emotions, philosophy to broaden our minds, psychology to deepen the extent of our self, and sociology to give it all a place. Let's use language to dictate the terms of our freedom, let's use the most powerful creative force out there: learning.

But perhaps it was the combination of a handful of these different types of advocating that really made me. In learning the things that greatly troubled me, in befriending those who struggled similarly, and in actively engaging in my community, I learned how to take care of myself - and by extension, others. It comes in handy to take care of yourself.

In engaging in the trainings SASO had to offer, I not only aided in my own recovery - but I was able to aid in other's. It gave me the foundation on how to prep a friend who needed a restraining order for an abusive ex. It gave me the insight and emotional depth to help provide a handful of people I know with the comfort of my knowledge - how trauma comes in scale, how rape and sexual assault are a range of definitions rather than a sole definitive, how recovery can begin to form despite the jerking of emotions. A close friend approached me, knowing my trainings and where my honed focus lies (sexual assault), and together we acknowledge her rape and what materials to read and how all of these things impact her relationship. Things, she says, she can only talk to me about.

In studying materials about love, I began to redefine my relationships and the relationships others around me held - how so many people filtered their abusive relationships as part of the trials and tribulations of love, claiming that love "Bears All Things, Believes All Things, Hopes All Things, Endures All Things... Love Never Fails." When really, it's as bell hooks states: "When we understand love as the will to nurture our own and another's spiritual growth, it becomes clear that we cannot claim to love if we are hurtful and abusive. Love and abuse cannot coexist. Abuse and neglect, are by definition, the opposites of nurturance and care." And you recognize how very few people understand this, trying to justify the repeated hurts they receive from their partners. (And I'll post a few quotes about love in the comments section).

And lastly, by involving myself with the First Annual Four Corners Pride Festival out of desire to learn more about non-profit outreach engagement and organization, by seeking to embed myself into other layers of feminist concern... I began to liberate myself just a bit more. While I already had friends who actively sought to campaign for gender fluidity and the danger of gender norms, I became more immersed in the statistics and the stories of the LGBTQ community. In fact, I became very engaged with an unfortunately fairly common scenario - where the daughter or son reveals the true extent of their sexuality to their family members, and end up being tossed out and disowned. And it hit the tenderness of my own trauma - feeling cast out by throwing the spotlight on the troubles of my family, which inevitably hit upon my own abuses. How small I felt while struggling to exist as a self-actualized person that was not accepted.

And it triggered something in me - What gives someone the right to disown another person, decide that they are lesser than them, cast them away for who they inherently are, their truths? What gives a parent, a family, the jurisdiction to hurt someone they were supposed to love so dearly? Why do they get the power? And oh - in that moment, I realigned the tiers of power in my head. I laughed out load, I felt the weight of struggling for years with my trauma begin to life off of me - What if I decide to disown them? What if I cast them as the disappointment? What if I stand up with a Fuck You, you're the one with the problems! I ran miles with that thought, deciding that I would change my name when I had the money, noting how much energy is put into a name.

By helping others, I had helped myself, and vice versa.

When you have created this positive environment of self-care and advocacy, it inadvertently recognizes the truths of who you are and begins to give back to you.

And now, the last part of all of this, the final story.

You may notice the title of this post and go "where is the discussion of disability?" Well, I did not plan the chronology of this post, but it fortunately ties into the last story and point I was making. There was one day, fairly recently, that it had come up in discussion that my brother had Aspberger's, a mild form of autism. Noting this, a woman had come up to me afterwards, mentioning that she knew someone recently diagnosed with Aspberger's - but his father refused to accept the diagnosis, despite his training in psychology. She mentioned the person was really struggling in school (college) and they were all trying to figure out what to do. And I realized they did not know his rights - I said to her, "You realize every college is mandated to have some sort of a disability accommodations office? You realize he has a right to demand academic accommodations that suit his disability, and teachers are obliged to recognize this?" She was floored. She had no idea that this amazing resource exists.

"I've used it," I said.
She laughed, "For what?"
"For my PTSD," I replied, to give the most simple response (but it was also very handy for my mood disorder). Both of these things catastrophically affected my academic career, and the relief of having my accommodations and knowing a whole office on campus was going to go to bat for me, was incredibly relieving. Thus, for clarification, the term disabilities here... and by federal law, covers mental, emotional, and physical disability - the whole spectrum.

To give her examples, I explained that my accommodations involved leniency with absences, extended due dates for assignments, and taking tests in a different room should I so choose. But furthermore, these accommodations are something that is decided between the disabilities coordinator and the student - so that the needs are fully recognized and adequately accommodated. And if anyone wants to get a basic run-down of this sort of thing, more can be read here: Q&A on Disability Discrimination in Education Under Federal Law.

And so I conclude.

Knowing is important. It gets you places. It aids in self-care. It liberates. By taking steps to learn about your own truths and needs, you inevitably help the lives of others. It all comes in full circle.

Prepare to love yourself, so that you can love others.

A Mental Health Creedo: Just Breathe

Note: This post was written over a week ago, and I neglected to post it - partially because it was so vividly emotional that I needed to drop it and distance myself from it. The only reason I'm posting this now is for the entry that I'm writing that will come after.

My anger traps me. My impatience stunts me. I frequently forget to breathe. I hold myself up to standards higher than I would give most other people, higher than most other people would hold for themselves. I want to do everything now all at once. I want to understand everything now, be more patient now, be more peaceful and happy now, everything troubling me to go away NOW. Do you see where I get myself into trouble? I can't breathe - I keep myself cluttered. The odd part is in saying that I've actually gotten better. Maybe because at least I'm aware of the ridiculousness of it now. A lot of my behavior can be chalked up to the sociological phenomena known as the Alpha Female - perfectionism. Combine it with a guilt complex, and over-stimulated attention span, and the trait in me that never lets go of everything. I've always argued that while I hold others up to high standards, I hold myself up to them too. I never forget about the people I anger or upset, the things I've said and the actions I've done - I frequently fail to forgive myself for momentary lapses in judgment, for not keeping my cool, for being afraid and lashing out at others because of it, for falling apart and taking it out on everyone else. I never forget. It makes life very hard for me. There's very little room for movement.

I spend most days in some stasis paralysis - torn between wanting to get an honest break I feel I deserve (which, due to my current economic situation, is highly unlikely I'll actually get) and lambasting myself for not working hard enough, for not living up to my own ambitions and doing as much with my potential as I know I could be doing. I see others my age do it, others only a few years older than me - living this highly successful life where they can keep pushing through everything, don't stop.

But I splinter. Can't breathe. Need to remember to breathe.

All of my old arguments wear thin. The only person that's pinning me to these standards is myself. I feel like it aligns closely with a quote I read that essentially states that in order to have great disappointment in something/someone, one must love it deeply. And to quote Paramore, in self-assessment, "For a pessimist, I'm pretty optimistic." In joking with my friend Amelia, I mentioned that I thought one of the things that made me stand out from so many other people was my reflex of "But think of the possibilities!"

I'm an idealist - that's not a shocker with my track record of high-achieving. But I'm also a realist. I've grown too aware of how to approach things. And it's a struggle managing the two. But, more importantly, having been on both sides of things, you begin to see how easy it is for other people to shut out the idealist.

And maybe that's where a lot of my frustration stems from lately - life is full of possibilities! genuinely! .... if you're straight, if you have money, if you're studying something the world places importance on (like business), if you have the right connections, if you grew up around the right influences, if you can fake it.

And I know I can't fake it. And I know many people don't have the resources to change their situations to get the right sort of environment where they can fully access all the possibilities. Or don't know the options they actually have. And I know a lot of people grow disillusioned with life, just as I have, just living and breathing to pay bills and jump through one hoop after the next, to only have the government or insurance companies or academic standards raise the bar once more. To fall flat. And you begin to wonder how much possibility there really is when DADT isn't repealed and oversexualization of younger girls is rampant, and even though "the recession is over" the economy is so awful that everyone would rather stay in school accumulating debt rather than get a job. When all of who you are, your potential, your possibilities, have to take the back burner until further notice - until after you pay the bills, until after the government passes an agenda, until you're done struggling with just keeping your daily rights intact (looking at you CO 62).

And that's when I find this a dangerous time to be living in - when everything is pieced off into what you can afford to do. When you can't afford basic things that you intrinsically need to function as a human being - time off, work breaks, health care, personal interests, academic aid, government assistance - it all of a sudden just seems... dismal. I know there have been several times these past few months that I've stepped back and gone "What am I doing this for? When will I have time to relax and actually breathe?"

You begin to see life as just a series of unfortunate hurdles you have to thrust yourself over to get the next series of unfortunate hurdles. There is no room for water breaks or not-hurdling. Pretending to integrate the core yourself into a system that seems to care very little for you begins to feel like a lie - how does this truly function as an extension of you when really it is just dealing with what you're forced to deal with?

Where's the possibility in that?

I told Amelia recently that I slowly stopped following politics more and more after Obama was elected - how lack of action and doubling back on promises began to disappoint me. Disappointment, rooted in love. There was so much possibility.

While I have been known to be a pessimist, and have been known to struggle with depression, I can't help but think now that it is perhaps because I love life too much, I view it with such wonder, so preciously... that when I find out other people don't want to help each other live as freely, with as much enthusiasm and interest possible, I get crushed. That, rather than fostering an environment that encourages a life worth living, we now live an environment that fosters all the life and possibilities we cannot live or have. Life has become exclusionary.

And I get angry. And impatient. I frequently forget to breathe.

I try to remember to breathe. I think to myself, "Imagine how many people you'd overwhelm by just living fully to the capability of your life force, untamed, fully realized."

Try to mantra:

I think that I'm bigger than the sound.