About Transgender

For those of us who are a bit new to the idea and language around what it is to be trans, it can be a bit confusing or intimidating. Some of us are just baffled, some of us are trying to engage but worried about getting it wrong and being offensive. Some of us are loud and offensive about being baffled.

Some cultures cope just fine with the idea that some people have a strong sense of gender that is different to their body. On the whole, Western culture has not. We divide our world by gender starting at or before birth, and people who find their bodies place them on the wrong side of that divide are highly vulnerable to ridicule, disgust, and violence. This divide also causes strife for gay people, partly because the idea behind it is that all boys and all girls have more in common with their own gender than with each other, and that safety and discretion are obtained by separating them for private acts such as toileting, changing clothes, sports, and medical care. When we think that our young girls are made safe from feeling exposed by segregation from boys, having a gay girl (or a girl who is thought to be gay) in the class can trigger a powerful sense of threat, and with that fear often comes rejection or even violence. The same goes for when a young trans girl (ie a girl with a male body) uses the girl’s facilities – or the boy’s facilities. These minority gender and sexual identities are often highly vulnerable and don’t have a safe place in a world divided by gender and assuming that everyone is straight.

So what is trans? A quick guide to the language – someone who is trans has a sense of gender identity that is different to their body. Those of us who have a gender identity that is the same as our body are not called ‘normal’, but rather cis-gendered. This is because it is normal for some people in every community to be trans. Some people with a female body have a strong sense of being male. This is different to feeling like you are female but masculine (or male but feminine) – I have tomboy girls in my system and their sense of themselves is completely different to the guy parts. Being trans doesn’t mean you’re gay. There’s a difference between gender identity and gender expression, and also with our connection to the traits we’ve bound up in our ideas about what is feminine and masculine. They are all connected, certainly, but also distinct. Some trans people are gay, or bi, some are straight. (I touch on this is my post What bisexuality is and 9 things it isn’t) Some trans people take hormones or have surgeries to help themselves look and feel more like their real gender. Some trans people don’t have the money or social support to come out. The rates of suicide and violence against trans people are far higher than average.

In some ways and areas the trans community has been able to get legal supports more quickly than the gay community, in areas of recognition such as legal documents and relationships. In other areas the trans community is still far more vulnerable and at risk, particularly when it comes to social acceptance. Part of the struggle for this is that many gay people are willing to openly identify as gay, and want their lives and love and families to be visible. Many trans people do not identify as trans, they identify as male or female, and what they desire is to be accepted and to ‘pass’ for being their real gender. For many people, being trans is a source of shame, and being identified as trans is humiliating. This means that there are not many trans people willing to become activists to help to raise awareness and further the cause of social justice. So the community is very vulnerable. This is changing more and more, as is the traditional either/or binary of identifying as male/female. Some people identify as both, or as neither, or feel different on different days. There’s nothing wrong with any of this!

Trans issues and needs are highly relevant in my own work with people who have parts, because it’s quite common for different parts to have a different gender identity. This can be tough for people, sometimes trans supports aren’t multiple friendly and want people to choose to be either male or female all the time. Sometimes multiple supports aren’t trans friendly and treat being multiple as if that means it’s never healthy to access trans supports or to want to identify as trans. The reality of course, is more complex. Sometimes multiple systems want to transition because their primary part or parts who run the day to day life are trans. Sometimes one part is trans and wants to know about temporary devices and supports (such as prosthetics, makeup, or breast binding) to be able to be out as their gender and go to a movie or out to dinner. Many multiples who are gender diverse have great difficulty with things like using public, gender specific toilets, or engaging with gendered communities and activities such as sports. Sometimes supporting a trans part can be as simple as buying a pair of guys or girls shoes for them to wear, or having a partner willing to use the correct gender pronoun when they’re out. Sometimes trans parts in a girl body will find it easier that they can wear male clothing in the western culture and this is pretty normal for girls today, sometimes being seen as a tomboy rather than a guy just makes them feel painfully invisible. Sometimes trans parts in a guy body find that the rest of their system feels so threatened by being seen as female that it’s very hard to get any gestures of being female accepted.

I have male parts in my own system and we’re still struggling to figure out how to engage this positively. One of mine is a black humoured cross dresser who wears more makeup than most of the girls in my system and finds it deeply amusing that he can go to work in drag without anyone being the wiser. Another is a gentle and shy gay guy who is so lonely and quiet that I know almost nothing about him. I come from a background where women were run down and the feminine was treated with disgust and disdain. Being female was equated with being weak. The only women who were treated with respect were highly masculine. I remember the courage it took to tell people that I wanted children, that I felt highly maternal. It took a lot of processing to embrace being female, to find strength and beauty in it. It took possibly even more to reconcile myself to some aspects of the feminine, and to my attraction to women. So it’s been highly threatening to process that some parts of us feel male. And even more confusing to us, that they are not necessarily particularly masculine guys at that. We’re working on it, gently. In our culture, gender can bring out a deep sense of threat and fear even in those of us who consider ourselves to be very accepting.

So, let’s work to make more room in our lives for diversity in gender. Let’s embrace the trans people in our communities, in our own systems, in our schools and workplaces. Let’s stop trying to force people to ‘choose a side’ when their real, authentic state at the moment is confused, ambivalent, both, or neither. Some trans people find that after years of only identifying as their real gender, through all the hell of outing themselves and transitioning, they are finally safe to acknowledge that they like some activities, or qualities, or have some skills or interests that are traditionally seen as being of the other gender, and that’s okay. So do most cis-gendered people. 🙂 Let’s be honest about fear and threat and work to make everyone feel safer, and be safer. Let’s make it possible for trans people who want more than anything to pass, to not have their trans identity subsume all the rest of who they are, and to not have to live in fear of being outed. Let’s support the trans activists and people who live openly and answer questions and humanise, and remind us of the painful, awful statistics that show we have such a long way to go for social acceptance of trans people.

If you’d like to read some more about trans issues or find some support, here are a few links I’ve come across recently that I liked. If you’d like to add any other links or thoughts, particularly if you’re trans and feel I’ve misrepresented you in some way, please comment or email me. 🙂 As I’ve said, this isn’t my ‘home turf’, I’m somewhat new to the topic and might step on toes or repeat myths without being aware of it. Wherever you stand, I hope this article has given you some food for thought.

Readers’ Top 10 Transgender Stories of 2013 | Courtney O’Donnell.

All About Trans | Encouraging better understanding of trans people in the UK.

From bullied child to transgender woman: my coming of age | Paris Lees | Society | The Guardian.

35 Trans Women I Had #Herocrushes On In 2013 | Autostraddle.

Safe Sex 7 – Find Freedom

Explicit but not graphic content.

Part of what helps to make sex emotionally safer is freedom. Most of us have a whole host of beliefs about sex that limit, bind, and cause us pain. We live in cages in our minds about sex, partly because of terrible experiences and partly because of cultural myths. There’s a lot of ideas that limit us – from the simplest linking of the experiences of sex and pain – experiences that one always leads to the other; to more complex constructs that bind and confuse us.

I was in a conversation once where someone expressed discouragement about differences between what they and their partner liked. Their idea was that keeping things ‘fair’ meant that both partners got exactly the same experiences during sex. So, if I got a massage so I have to give my partner one. This tit-for-tat system is an unnecessary burden. The goal is intimacy and pleasure for both! If what each partner likes is different there’s no benefit in inflicting something on the one who doesn’t like it! If I love a foot rub but my partner has madly ticklish feet then it’s just silly to feel obligated to give them a foot rub back. It’s not just okay to like different things, it’s quite common! And to like different things at different times – tonight I don’t feel like this, I’d prefer that, and so on. It doesn’t really matter what form sex takes or how different you both are in what makes you feel pleasure and closeness, as long as you are both feeling it.

Another example of freedom being important to emotionally safer sex; I was talking about sexuality and was surprised when a woman told me that she found women attractive and appealing but couldn’t be a ‘genuine’ lesbian because the idea of oral sex with a woman disturbed her. I do not believe this is the case. Sexuality is about who you want to have sex with, it doesn’t say anything about what you do and don’t like during sex. Misconceptions like this create cages that bind people. Our culture weaves different ideas in together to create a big knotted mess that people get tangled in. Lots of lesbians like oral sex. That doesn’t mean you have to, to be a lesbian! Some gay men are brilliant in the kitchen, that doesn’t mean all little boys with an interest in cooking are going to be gay. It’s fun to look at the clusters of experiences that commonly occur – gay men and fashion! But it’s harmful when these become the ‘norm’ and all other experiences get overshadowed. As a young person I knew a kid who was bullied a lot because he was the only straight guy in his drama troupe. Clusters become stereotypes, and people get trapped by them whether inside them or outside them.

The politics of sexuality is highly charged for many people. The language around sexual orientation, gender identity, the politics of sex and morality are relatively new to mainstream Western culture, and in many places are used as distinct categories rather than descriptive language. Language as a general rule can be very helpful as a shorthand way of explaining who we are and perhaps most importantly, if someone might be interested in you. 😉 Categories, where people get stuck in boxes and stereotyped, are often very destructive. There’s a cute ‘Gingerbread Person’ poster where Sam Killerman has worked to untangle these categories back into descriptive language – it’s not perfect, but I do love it as a starting point for seeing gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation and so on as separate concepts that differ from person to person!

People can become scared of ‘what things mean’ about sex; if I like this does it mean I’m gay/straight/kinky/whatever? It can often help to realise that you are allowed to define yourself. Liking or not liking certain sexual acts does not determine what people or genders you like to do them with! Sometimes the political fighting about rights can chew up vulnerable people who are in the middle in a way that disturbs me. Nobody should be forcing or coercing you to publicly identify or privately see yourself in a way you find distressing, with the exception of holding people to account for ethical behaviour. This is incredibly important to me! On a personal scale this push to put people into boxes limits people’s ability to engage and accept their own sexual desires and lives because of fear of what it might all mean for them. On a public scale, bullying, isolation, and intense distress can result from our tendency to categorize people and assume that we know better than they do what is going on inside them. It’s a form of diagnosis and holds about as much water for me in social settings as it does in mental health.

In Dead Boys Can’t Dance , Dorais and Lajeunesse explore issues of homosexuality, stigma, and suicide. What I was most interested by is that the group of boys at highest risk of suicide is those who were straight, but designated as gay by their peers. These boys suffer all the stigma, rejection, and isolation of being seen as gay, and do not identify with the gay resources and communities who might provide some refuge from these experiences. The process of mis-identifying each other might be less distressing if such stigma were not attached to some of the labels, but I’d still argue that not being seen for who we believe we are, not being believed about who we believe we are hurt us. If there’s anything we’ve learned from the past 100 years of the gay rights movement surely it’s that this harms people?

Another area in which freedom can help us to make sex emotionally safer, is freedom from the cultural beliefs of what it is to love another person. We tend to value our relationships in terms of duration. Only those romantic partnerships that last until the death of one partner are ‘true love’. Only sex between partners in love can be ‘good sex’. Or alternatively – marriage (or monogamy) kills sex, and good sex can only be had between strangers, or casual partners. Many communities that prefer and normalise particular kinds of relationships and sex consider that only their kind of sex is ‘good sex’. (think of the sexual norms of polygamous Mormon communities, and those of the BDSM communities). People are highly diverse! Good sex for one person is another persons dullest evening ever, or even a nightmare. Relationships that had great sex still may not last forever, because life is challenging and people grow and change, and relationships need lots of skills as well as love to thrive. We don’t have to take on these ideas ourselves. Sexual plasticity is an amazing idea the scientific community is exploring. (see The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge) Briefly put, plasticity refers to our malleability, the way we change over time. Sexual plasticity is why we can find our partner deeply attractive at 20, and still deeply attractive at 50 even though they look rather different. We are to some extent, wired to change. Sometimes this works for us, sometimes we find it frightening or stressful.

Freedom from limiting cultural myths around beauty, about the superiority of youth, the way we de-sexualise people with disabilities or illness. Many mature people love to have sex, and do not deserve to be seen as ‘creeps’ or weird. (See blog and book Better Than I Ever Expected) Emotionally safer sex doesn’t just happen between the individuals involved, it’s a cultural and community concern. How to create aged care resources that respect sexual and gender diversity, and support romantic and sexual relationships? How to support ethical sexual behaviour for people with intellectual disabilities, or at least foster the recognition that many of us, whatever our other challenges, are sexual beings. How to break out of limiting ideas that great sex only happens between the ‘beautiful people’ as if ripped abs means someone will be a generous and wonderful lover?

There are so many areas in which freedom can support us having emotionally safer, and better sex. Sexual morality is a tricky one, in that engaging sex (and life) ethically is a responsibility of all of us. Determining what ethical sex is can be challenging. Many of us draw from our faith communities to help us decide moral sexual behaviour, and this can be deeply rewarding. But for some of us, their moral frameworks around sex are a painfully poor fit, leaving us trapped in self rejection or hypocrisy. Some of us have no faith community and are relieved by the sexual freedoms of Western culture, but also wrestling with our sense that sex should be engaged ethically and trying to find non religious frameworks for that. There’s more than one way of looking at sex. You do not have to be trapped between moral frameworks that are hurting you, and immoral sexual choices that also hurt you (and other people). Go looking at the ways other people and other communities frame ethical sex. This isn’t an easy road, and people’s deeply held beliefs about morality are sometimes nowhere more intense than around sex. For some of us, rejection and revulsion would be the cost of living more authentically to our own beliefs.

There is no right way of dealing with this. Each of us has to decide for ourselves what prices we are willing to pay to be connected with our communities. For some of us the much lauded ‘coming out’ would cost us everything, and we would be at very high risks of suffering violence or suicide. For others, anything but coming out is a slow death. We do not have to walk each others roads. But freedom can mean at the very least, freedom inside ourselves from ideas that make us hate ourselves. Freedom from being trapped into choices between a morality we do not believe, and abusive sexual acting out. Freedom can mean simply the freedom to know who we are and make our choices willingly, bear our burdens with love and not hypocrisy, and seek to help our communities grow into safer and more accepting spaces.

Perhaps one of the greatest freedoms we need to make sex emotionally safer, is freedom from shame. Brene Brown is a brilliant resource in this area, she writes about shame, courage, and imperfection. Here’s a link to a couple of her great TED talks about connection and shame, or watch it below:

Freedom is a key human need, and it’s not as easy as it sounds. It can come at great costs, and expose us to awful risks. It can be painfully vulnerable. It can ask us to deeply wrestle with our beliefs about love, morality, and relationships. It can also be healing, liberating, and deeply peaceful. I hope you are able to find freedom from ideas that are hurting you, to make peace with yourself as a sexual (or asexual) person, and to engage in sex and support others to engage in sex in ways that are ethical, loving, and emotionally safer.

This article is part of a series about emotionally safer sex. Try also reading

5 hours after an assault

Rose and I were unfortunate enough to recently have to exercise all our ‘how to support someone after trauma‘ skills. We’ve talked about it and decided that it may be a useful story to share, in the hopes of helping other people better support their friends and family.

My lovely girlfriend Rose accompanied me to Melbourne recently for the International Hearing Voices Congress. I was given a full three day subsidized access to the congress, but we could only afford to pay for one day for Rose. So, on the Wednesday while I was having my mind blown in amazing talks, Rose was off roaming the city and seeing the attractions.

Rose and I are both passionate about social justice. Neither of us have had easy lives, we’ve both experienced abuse, homelessness, and poverty. We’ve both had PTSD. Rose was first homeless as a 13 year kid, and we both have a particular place in our hearts for other people who find themselves in that place. So, when she came across a guy who was living rough, she bought him a cup of coffee. She sat nearby to share a drink and a chat. And then things went bad. He grabbed her, manhandled her, and tried to kiss her as she struggled and then froze. It seemed like a long time before she was able to break out of being frozen and run away. She was alone in a city she doesn’t know very well, with almost no phone battery left, having a major trauma reaction as many other far more horrific memories and experiences suddenly flooded her.

This is not a nice story to tell, because it touches on prejudices and misconceptions. I want to name some of them. Firstly, the idea that homeless people are dangerous. Like people with mental illnesses (and the two populations have a massive overlap), people who are homeless, and especially those who are roofless are often treated with fear and revulsion. They become invisible, and can go days or weeks without another human being making eye contact, smiling at them, or touching them kindly, even when they live in crowded cities. This fear reaction can trigger exactly what people want to avoid – because being dehumanised alienates people. And alienated people often feel little empathy and a great deal of anger at communities that have rejected them. Homeless people are not more likely to be violent. It could have been the well dressed guy waiting at a bus stop, it could have been someone Rose thought of as friend. The latter is harder to imagine but statistically far more likely. Rose was doing exactly the right thing – treating a guy who was down on his luck like a person, and sharing a little of her good fortune with him. Things going wrong does not always mean you have done something wrong. And sadly, doing the right thing does not shield you from things going bad at times.

The other misconception people often have about an incident like this is around the freeze response. There’s a lot of complex science, neurology, psychology, and outright conjecture about the freeze response that I won’t go into here. Suffice to say, it’s pretty common in both animals and people. If you want to read some more about it, try the blog Understanding Dissociation by Paul F. Dell and look for the term ‘tonic immobility’. I’d also suggest the works of Peter A. Levine. Here’s a quick overview of what I’ve found useful – there are (at least) five basic responses people have to a major life threatening event – Fight or Flight, Freeze, Fold, and the Tend-and-Befriend. Fight we all understand and usually people who fight in the face of something like an assault are applauded and appreciated. Sometimes if their fight response is intense or seen as disproportionate, they are instead lynched. The flight response is also pretty self explanatory and again, there’s usually a pretty warm reception to people who have been able to escape something awful by running – and even those who tried but didn’t make it. After that, things get less clear. Tend and Befriend is about the intense bonding and banding together for survival that people can do when faced with severe threat. It’s often an overlooked response to threat, and not often framed in the more ‘heroic’ light of the fight or flight.

Lastly, we come to freeze and fold. These are the two responses that culturally carry the most baggage. People are rarely applauded for having these reactions, and sometimes the reaction itself is viewed as evidence the trauma was not particularly bad, or even the fault of the victim. Freeze is an extremely common response to threat. It’s difficult to predict, and even people who have previously never frozen in response to a threat can be surprised to find themselves doing so. Freezing often predicts a much rougher time after a trauma (by which I mean a higher incidence of PTSD), which personally I suspect is at least partly the result of the cultural shaming around the freeze response. Freezing can be life saving in some situations. Some animals escape predators that leave them unattended, thinking they are dead. Animals who have frozen are often numb; unafraid and unresponsive to pain. If an animal cannot escape, this is a merciful state. For some people in some terrible situations, the same dynamics apply. Freezing is a powerful, involuntary response of intense immobility. For some people it may be triggered when no other threat response seems like it will work. For others, freezing may be the result of both the fight and flight responses being triggered at the same time.

Where the freeze response immobilises, the fold response is a complete collapse of independent will. This threat response is about extreme submission and compliance. In the short term it can be life saving. It can also (like all of these threat responses) be catastrophic if used in the wrong situation. In the long term it may unfold as stockholm syndrome.

So, in response to a threat, Rose froze. At some point, she then ran. Fortunately, she was able to then stop and think about where would be safest to go. She decided to find the conference. When I found her in a quiet room at the conference, she told me what had happened. She was reluctant to tell me and already feeling a deep sense of shame about the assault. She was also highly stressed and dissociative and in a very traumatised state.

The conference was about an hour by public transport away from where we were staying in Melbourne. We also had bought tickets that night for a ‘Mad Hatter’s Party’ which was being held at a hotel across the city. My first impulse was to cancel the party and get us both home. When I suggested this, Rose was extremely distressed. To buy ourselves time to settle and talk about the evening’s plans, we instead walked to a nearby restaurant. This was a plan she liked. I knew that if I could help Rose to eat and drink, this would reduce her dissociation and help her to communicate what she needed.

We were fortunate in that a nearby restaurant had a fire lit. Rose was extremely cold, which is a common trauma reaction – basically she was in shock. The nearest table to the fire already had people sitting at it, the lovely Lewis Mehl-Madrona and his gracious wife, resting after a big day at the conference. In an unusual step for me, I asked if we could join them so I could sit Rose as close as possible to the fire. We found a risotto on the menu she felt she could stomach in her upset state (digestion shuts down when you are very anxious), and ordered drinks with bitters in them so the strong flavour would help to ground us. I sat next to Rose and kept an eye behind her to make sure that no one came up to her without her seeing them approach. Literally having someone’s back like this is very important at this point. New tiny shocks after a big trauma can embed the sense of terror more deeply, because the reaction to the little shocks is overblown and involuntary. Where people start off distressed and feeling helpless due to the trauma, they move on to feeling distressed and helpless to prevent the ongoing trauma reaction they are having. We both knew this, and as much as possible made it normal that Rose was agitated and hypervigilent. Rose did not wish for the others sharing the table to know what was going on so we did not disclose it.

Food, warmth, company, and drink all helped to ease some of Rose’s dissociation and distress. We started to talk about our plans for that evening. Rose was adamant about not missing the Mad Hatter’s Party, and also very concerned about not being able to cope with it. It was tempting for me to overrule her and refuse to attend. I was very mindful of her need to be heard and to restore some control over events so I tried to work with her instead. She was anxious about the assault making me miss out on something important I had been looking forward to. The thought of this was increasing her shame, guilt, and self loathing where she was blaming herself for the assault, blaming herself for freezing, blaming herself for telling me about it (and ‘ruining my time at the conference’) and blaming herself for having a trauma reaction to it afterwards. I could see that doing the ‘right’ thing and cancelling was actually going to make her distress much worse. So instead I attempted to reduce the intensity of the dilemma. I agreed to go to the party, on a relaxed, let’s-see-how-it-goes approach, with no shame or blame if either of us decided it was a stressful kind of event and wanted to go home early. I made the call that we would catch a private taxi instead of public transport to get home. Rose agreed to leave the party if it was intolerably stressful, and accepted the offer of a taxi with only a token protest about expense. I had no desire to deal with buses myself at that point either.

So, we trekked across Melbourne and found our way to the party. It was loud, cramped, and possibly the least trauma-friendly environment we could have gone to! But Rose was determined, so we found a good seat – from the point of view of not too far from the exit, back to the wall, able to see everyone. Rose ate nibbles as they came around. I bought a jug of lemonade. We shared half an alcoholic drink to take the edge off. (one drink can help, more is generally not a good idea) I couldn’t eat much as my adrenaline was too high.

I put all my own feelings about the assault in a mental box and ignored them. This is a pretty important skill when you’re trying to support someone else. I had a genuinely good time, made some friends, gave out some business cards, danced, had a laugh. I checked back in with Rose frequently. She was happy we had made it but stressed about the crowding and the really loud music. Eventually we decided to call it a night. We held hands tightly as we walked into the night and found a taxi. I didn’t let her hand go until we were both in the car, and then I held it all through the drive ‘home’.

Home that night we gently piled into bed and unpacked our feelings a bit more. I held her hand as Rose bravely opened up about a number of fears and areas of shame that were turning up for her about the assault. We discussed and countered them together. Was it her fault? No. Had she asked for it? No. Could she have seen it coming? Well – maybe, that’s a hard call. If on reflection she thinks she could have been more alert, that’s okay. It still doesn’t mean she didn’t anything wrong and certainly doesn’t make it her fault. Do I still find her attractive? Hell yes! Will I be upset or angry if she doesn’t want to be touched? Not at all. What about if she doesn’t want to be touched again ever? It will be okay. We’ll still be friends, even if we are never romantic partners again. Touch will only happen if and when and how she wants it.

We keep talking and crying. I share how sad I am for her, how angry I feel about it – but not with a lot of emotional intensity. The crucial thing is to be present but allow how Rose is feeling to be paramount. She should know I feel things too, but not be comforting me. My voice and words are sad and gentle but also express quiet confidence that she knows she needs to manage this and will get through it okay. She shares a little about some of the other memories that have been stirred up for her. I listen. She talks about the freeze response, and talks about other responses she’s had to threat. I emphasize that a freeze reaction is involuntary and does not mean she ‘asked for it’ or ‘wanted it’. She finds this helpful and the sense of shame diminishes. We turn the memories over together, the upsides and downsides of different reactions in different situations. It’s always tempting to bury everything in platitudes and reassurance, but this questioning is necessary. Rose, like most of us, needs someone to gently engage with her about the complex moral questions these kind of situations raise.

After a while she asks me to touch her back. I run my hands over her t-shirt. She asks me to go under her shirt and touch her skin. I stroke her back gently, checking that the pressure, pace, and type of touch are what she wants. She shakes and cries a little. I want to hold her tightly but restrain myself. I cry a little too. We lay close and hold hands. After a while she cuddles up under my arm and lays her head on my chest. I can feel my heart beating, like a big sad drum. I hold her close, we tell each other how much we love each other. We go to sleep.

If you’re reading this hoping for suggestions on how to manage with your own partner, I’d suggest reading Intimacy After Abuse, and my series about emotionally safer sex which starts with Safe Sex 1: Checking in.

Imperfect bodies

It’s been a wobbly week, health limping along on training wheels. Yesterday was great, today is awful. I have endometriosis, which for me means very painful and heavy periods. Endometriosis is a condition where the tissue that lines the womb (the stuff that pumps up, ready to support a foetus if you get pregnant, and then every months sheds as a period)  grows elsewhere in the body, often through the digestive system, latching onto organs and tendons like weeds growing where they shouldn’t. This ‘weed’ reacts to normal monthly cycles the same, shedding and bleeding into the pelvic cavity where it can’t escape. This can make a mess of scar tissue and adhesions, and can cause awful pain if there’s nerves around those areas. Not everyone gets pain, it depends on where it happens. It can also destroy fertility.

I’ve managed for the last 10 years by taking a medium dose of the oc pill, on a continuous basis, that is, not taking the sugar pills except for three short breaks a year. That means only three periods a year, only a week long, and not severe pain. Before I was diagnosed and started treatment, my usual period lasted about 14 days a month, involved extremely heavy bleeding, and severe pain with at least three days in bed. I have vivid memories of trying to work at childcare and manage my periods, weeping with pain in the bathroom. I wasn’t diagnosed until I was almost 20, thanks to a male family doctor, an uptight religious community that treated normal functions as secret and shameful, and myths about what was normal. I’m angry as all hell about this, I suffered a lot as a teenager and was mostly treated as weak and lazy by people who didn’t know better.

Rose and I are now in pre conception care, gearing up towards pregnancy possibly next year. This January I stopped taking the pill so my normal cycle is back. The great news is that all the signs are good that the endometriosis has been contained and even reduced over the years, so my fertility should be intact. The difficulty for me is that I can no longer schedule my cycle around work and other commitments. It’s also frustrating because our cultural taboos against talking about this stuff mean that whenever I’m ‘just sick’ again I tend to come in for a lot of advice about not over doing it and tut tutting about needing to manage my health better. The truth is that none of that would help. What does help (me) is sleep, forms of pain relief that reduce muscle spasms, such as Naproxen Sodium, or orgasms, heat in the form of hot showers, baths, or wheat packs, and avoiding cold foods such as ice cream. My mood is usually very low and I find that I’m often teary and depressed. One or two days stuck at home very quickly leave me feeling lonely and miserable. When I’ve been under a lot of intense stress as a young person, I’ve had an almost psychotic response to the loneliness, secrecy, and pain of these experiences, such as nightmares that the pain was a demon clawing me apart from inside.

It shouldn’t be a big deal to talk about it. Many people have difficulties around menstruation, fertility, sex, digestion, and all the areas of health that we don’t talk about. It’s harder to get funding for cancer research for less sexy cancers. It’s harder to explain health problems like these to friends and employers. There’s a kind of bemused and patronising tone taken to people who ‘fail’ to live up to our expectations that adults can manage digestion, menstruation, and sexual health without anyone else ever knowing about it. Many of us are struggling with issues like these! I’ve seen women in such intense pain with endometriosis, they wind up begging for morphine in emergency rooms, and have to carry a letter certifying their condition so they are not mistaken for drug addicts. I can tell you these women are not just lazy or making a big deal about something everyone has to deal with! I’ve talked with women who have suffered through a long, painful struggle to get pregnant, too sick to work, and too embarrassed that something as ‘minor’ as menstruation causes them such distress to tell anyone but their closest friends about what’s going on.

These things are not that unusual. Embarrassment about them helps noone, especially not young people who are so particularly sensitive to shame and isolation. Every day, people are managing infertility, chronic digestive problems, recurring thrush, uti’s, and other infections, immune issues, and allergies to toilet paper, latex, lube, sanitary items, and their own skin and secretions. All of us are trying to find ways to manage with some sense of dignity, to still feel attractive when we dress up for a date, even if that means making 15 minute stops to pee, finding an outfit that conceals a colonoscopy bag, or trying to discretely manage menstruation while using the men’s bathroom as a f2m transperson.

Human bodies can be fragile, and leave us very vulnerable to shame. I generally don’t talk about my physical health challenges, mostly because I don’t want to make other people uncomfortable. I’m an activist when it comes to mental health but still very influenced by ideas that I shouldn’t embarrass anyone else, and shouldn’t complain about physical health problems. I’m feeling a bit fed up about those ideas. Shame is for people who have done something to feel bad about. I just happen to inhabit a body that is lovely and fragile, and that has issues in some areas like menstruation that we don’t, as a culture, like to acknowledge. I know I’m not alone and I’m tired of feeling alone. I’m not any less of a person, I have nothing to feel ashamed about. Being sexy and adult isn’t, in my opinion, about being able to maintain mystery about our bodies. There’s a humility about inhabiting a body that doesn’t work perfectly, intimacy about being forced to acknowledge our shared vulnerability as people, at having our lovers or house mates understand these needs and at times care for us. No one is healthy all the time. As much as people might like to pretend otherwise, whether as children, in our age, or due to sickness or disability, we all at times will need help and support with intimate functions and for issues we find confronting and embarrassing. All of us will love people who have these experiences and struggle with feelings of shame, ugliness, and degradation. We can let this isolate us, or we can rise above it and embrace the tenderness and humour of having imperfect bodies.

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A year with Rose

On this day last year, my girlfriend Rose became part of my life. We first met online and started dating shortly after meeting in person. She’s a beautiful, generous, complex person I feel very privileged to know and love.

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Photo courtesy of Marja Flick-Buijs http://www.rgbstock.com/gallery/Zela

We’ve dealt with a lot over the year. We’ve both had health troubles. We’ve found ways to support and care for each other, to navigate the challenges of having two trauma histories and find joy in each other. I found myself reflecting upon a quote today:

Mama used to say, you have to know someone a thousand days before you can glimpse her soul.

Shannon Hale, Book of a Thousand Days

365 days today. I’ve glimpsed a little and what I’ve seen moves me.

Dating as a multiple is… interesting. Different parts have different relationships with Rose. Some date, some are friends, some more like colleagues, or little sisters. Each takes time and effort to cultivate, each brings something different to the relationship. Where one is tender and nurturing, another is mischievous and energetic. There’s a lot of adapting, and a lot of talking things through. It takes an extra special effort to be honest and authentic. Friendship is the foundation.

We’ve been talking about moving in together for a while now. It’s exciting but also stressful. For both of us, we risk losing our secure housing in a gamble on our relationship lasting – or at least our friendship lasting. As we’ve both been homeless, it’s a very raw area. One thing adds a sense of urgency to our plans, which is that we both want children. Considering the challenges of conception in a woman/woman relationship, health concerns, and our desire to have settled into living together long before we start trying, there’s a certain keenness.

When I met Rose, she had been trying for a baby as a single woman. She’s been pregnant and suffered losses before, a grief that is still very fresh for her. I, on the hand, as a sick single woman approaching 30, had all but given up on my own dream of children. Last year I started reading books on grieving infertility. To my surprise, I was given a clean bill of fertility earlier this year. With Rose’s deep love for children, and my sister back in the country, my own health limitations no longer seem such an impediment. I visit my delightful goddaughter Sophie almost every week and fall more deeply in love with her. We’ll keep dreaming and talking, trying to find a balance between pragmatism and optimism.

Falling in love with Rose has been amazing, maddening, glorious, exhausting, healing, and deeply satisfying. She’s the first woman I’ve fallen in love with, and she’s been a gentle and caring partner, laying to rest my anxieties that perhaps I was mistaken in thinking I was attracted to women. I’m now very settled in my identity as bisexual, or queer. I’ve ended many years of choosing to be single, which was the right choice for me at the time. Being in this relationship has given me so many opportunities to grow and learn, and unlearn, to share and celebrate life. It’s been eye opening to realise how much difference it makes to have such support, little things like watering the garden when I’m ill, big things like supporting my efforts in business. We’ve made the most beautiful memories, that I’ll always treasure. I’m grateful and I feel blessed.

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Safe Sex 6 Communication & Consent

I come from a highly conservative background where our sexual health information was entirely about abstinence, and based on fear of pregnancy, disease, and shaming. Sex was talked about as sacred, but basically seen as a commodity that had the highest value the first time you traded it, and depreciated rapidly. We did the whole ‘hand a rose around the room and fondle the petals until they fall out’ exercise my school. I was never supported to develop a language to feel comfortable communicating about sex, because the model of sex I grew up with assumes that I would never need it – I would remain a chaste virgin until I was married, then I would instantly become happily sexual and permanently available for sex with my husband. There was an assumption that ignorance about sex and an inability to communicate about it would possibly more likely keep me from having it until marriage. This model lacked the idea that I would still need to be able to communicate consent, comfort, pleasure, enthusiasm, or any other needs or feelings even once married. I once sat through sex education at a camp, as a ‘youth leader’, listening to the talk for the young boys, which was outside, round a campfire, with a bunch of adult men basically saying “Sex is awesome, don’t do it until you’re married”, and then to the talk for the girls, which was inside, everyone sitting at individual desks in a classroom, while the adult women said “Sex is risky and you could get pregnant, don’t do it until you’re married”. I was so angry that we were not telling girls sex is awesome, that they got the ‘sex is scary’ story, that I folded the paper handouts into airplanes and threw them at the presenter until I was thrown out of the room. I had no language other than this to communicate my frustration and distress.

Many of us grew up with variations of these ideas where communication about sex is unnecessary, and they have been cast in a romantic glow – that if it’s ‘real love’ your partner will just ‘know’ what you want and like, or that a ‘real’ wo/man knows how to satisfy a wo/man. That if you’re in love you will be perfectly sexually compatible and never need to negotiate that. That all ‘decent’ people  like the same sexual behaviours and therefore never need to communicate about their desires. On the other hand, sometimes these ideas have been taught to us with a brutal resignation – I was once advised by a female friend that “it takes a long time for women to get used to sex, and I don’t think they ever really enjoy it”. Tolerating miserable sex is seen as being grown up and understanding that real life isn’t like the movies. This is really sad.

These kinds of ideas can make it challenging to communicate about sex! But, there is a big difference between privacy and shame. The former is a part of our healthy function as people, the latter is painful and destructive. Many of us (me included!) feel embarrassment and uncertainty when we try and talk about sexual stuff. That’s okay! My experience has been that if you can untangle embarrassment from shame then it’s not such a big deal. I talk about sex quite a lot, here on my blog, in my relationships, and in appropriate ways with people I help support in my mental health or queer supports work. In fact, it turns up as a topic all over the place, even in my work as an eating disorder peer worker. Sexual health and needs are not side issues in our lives, they are often key foundations in our relationships and health and happiness. However, I still get embarrassed! I still blush – I’m part German and have fair hair and white skin, my blush response can be pretty incredible! You don’t have to be some kind of emancipated modern person to learn how to communicate about sex. 🙂 It does get easier with time and practice.

Part of this is about education. I started reading and learning about sex, anatomy, being queer, child development, and so on as a young adult because I needed a broader framework than I’d been provided with in my upbringing. I remember the intense shame and self loathing I experienced as a young person, and the fear that myths and misinformation created in me. I had a vision of a future in which I would not be trapped anymore in the shame, terror, self hate, loneliness, and awful double binds about sex I had been living in. I was taught women are not interested in sex – so when as a young person I naturally started to mature sexually, I thought of myself as deviant and evil. I was taught that being gay is wrong so I feared and suppressed my natural interest in other girls. I was taught that once a man is aroused he “reaches a point of no return” where he cannot stop sex, so I learned that I was not permitted to stop or change my mind once a sexual act had begun. I was taught that after marriage a woman’s body belonged to her husband, so she cannot deny him sex. I was taught that if an adult man touches a girl child that is abuse, but if the genders are reversed no harm can be done. I was taught that men cannot be raped, and that women cannot be sexual abusers. I experienced peer based sexual abuse that was not seen as abuse by anyone I sought support from because the others involved were also young people, so I learned that what happened to me didn’t count, and the trauma reactions I suffered were simply me over reacting or being a drama queen. I witnessed sexual abuse, the entangling of sex and violence, sex and shame, punishment, sadism, entitlement, and humiliation. I became a repository of horror stories as other people confided secrets to me. I became a silent witness to peers helplessness in engaging their own sexual abuse, unwanted abortion, and incest. I was trapped in a nightmare mess of conflicting messages about sex through which I attempted to mature into an ethical, passionate, adult sexual woman. The result was disastrous and life threatening, an intense inner conflict and self hatred, warped frameworks about sex, relationships, and consent, and a clash between unbounded desires and terror. All of this happened in secrecy and silence, without a language to communicate, with no way of understanding what went wrong or how to set things right.

What I did have was this vision of myself as someone who was no longer afraid. Someone who could use correct anatomical terms without stuttering, who was comfortable with their own sexuality. Someone who might even have great sex, who could talk about it, ask for what they wanted, navigate consent, explore, explain, support, nurture, and adventure. It wasn’t a clear vision and I couldn’t believe in it all the time but by this star I set my course and began to inquire.

We need a language to be able to even think clearly about any of these areas. Communication and consent are profoundly connected ideas, without the ability to communicate, consent is not possible, and without the knowledge that we are allowed to express or deny consent, we have no foundation for our communication skills. So where do we start? Building communication skills in this areas started for me with a language I could engage.

Find a language you like for everything about sex. When you spend time with a sexual partner, work on a language you both like! What words do you both feel good about for your bodies, for different sex acts, for toys, lubes, for asking if the other person is interested in sex, for boundaries around what you are consenting to, the whole works. For some people this is pretty easy and there’s not a lot of hassle. For others many words or terms are highly negatively charged and you may need to be creative to come up with ways of communicating about sex that are fun, respectful, useful, and don’t increase stress. It doesn’t matter if this private language makes no sense whatever to anyone else, as long as it works for whoever is involved with sex with you.

You need to be able to clearly communicate nuances, because sex and consent is more than yes/no! This is kind of frustrating considering that a whole lot of our culture hasn’t really wrapped their brain around the idea of yes and no yet! There’s a whole conversation here, the need to be able to communicate things like “It’s late, let’s go to bed, naked is good, lets kiss and cuddle but I’m not in the mood for anything else” or “Yes, I’d love to have sex, but I feel like this or this and not that (kind of sex) today”, or “How do you feel about trying this new (toy/position/game/whatever) today?” or “I’d really like to sleep alone tonight, don’t take it personally, I’m not upset with you and I’d love to have you over again on Friday if that works for you?” or “I know you’re not feeling into sex tonight, but I’m really worked up, do you mind if I take care of myself in bed while you hold me?”. If you’re not used to this, these conversations are hard at first. Whether you’re setting the scene with a new sexual partner or trying to introduce more communication into an existing relationship, it can be scary and awkward and stressful. But then, so can sex without communication.

People who engage in types of sex that are risky use back up forms of communication to make sure everyone stays safe. This might sound a bit silly, but if you have any concerns about communication this can be a wise idea for any kind of sex. Some of us struggle to say things clearly. Terms that require a high level of confidence and assertion can be difficult. They can also be tangled with unintended meanings. So, where ‘stop’ might be difficult to say, and feel confronting and rejecting when all the person is trying to say is ‘please pause for a moment, I need to gather myself’, or ‘sit up a bit, I can’t breathe well’, a safe word can be less challenging.

Practice it! If you have high anxiety or difficulty with boundaries, you may really struggle with this. So, silly as it sounds, practice it with your partner or with each partner. Sit on the bed, have a massage, and say your safe word. Touch stops, and then starts up again when you ask for it. If verbal communication is sometimes compromised – due to disability, anxiety, dissociation, switching, or anything else – have a ‘safe touch’ that is used the same way. It needs to be easy and simple – a pinch, tapping the other person twice, clicking a ring against the bedhead… This is especially relevant for any form of sex where you can’t see other person’s face. It can be difficult to tell sometimes if the breathing or sounds are pleasure or distress, and that uncertainty can add a lot of unnecessary anxiety to sex. You need easy ways to check in that don’t feel too awkward – “Are those happy sounds?”. Especially if you or your partner have a lot of stress around sex and communication issues like this – checking in needs to become the norm to keep sex emotionally safe.

Don’t let anything make you feel awkward because of this, I know that we never see this in movie sex or sex in books. It is critical that you both want what is happening, that neither has frozen and that sex is not migrating between consensual and abusive. We as a culture are still struggling to understand that this happens, and we don’t give people the tools we need to navigate sex and keep it good. Safe sex doesn’t just mean stopping when they say no, it’s about not doing anything they haven’t said yes to, and about learning how to communicate no, and yes, with enthusiasm and without shaming.

This isn’t the final word on this topic, in fact it barely scratches the surface. Communication about sex is linked to but also distinct from our communication skills in other areas. Assertiveness is part of this but also insufficient – we shouldn’t have to be highly assertive, we should be working to create safer environments where it’s easy to communicate even if we’re feeling very vulnerable. If you’re interested in exploring ideas about the nature of consent further, I suggest reading “Yes means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World without Rape” by Friedman and Valenti. I hope that my simple, if unusual, suggestions might start you thinking about these topics in your relationships, and help you come up with creative ways to build in more, and easier, forms of communication about sex.

This article is part of a series about emotionally safer sex. Try also reading

Safe Sex 5 Reset the norms

In our culture we have the idea that a relationship is a linear progression from strangers to intimacy, from distance to closeness, from a touch on the hand to ‘home base’. We also think that you never lose ground you’ve gained. Once you’ve reached second base, second base is always available. Once you start having sex, or seeing each other naked, or kissing in public, those are now always allowed and to be expected. This does not make sex safe. If one or both partners have any kind of anxiety around sex, this pressure, the awareness of these norms being set to new places, dramatically increases the stress because even after a great time together, they will now have to either put up with contact they don’t want, or fend off a partner who thinks this is the new norm, whenever they don’t feel comfortable with it.At the extreme, this assumption of the new ‘normal’ between you, what is okay and acceptable and to be expected, becomes a sense of entitlement. We might not mean it that way, or think very much about it, but it’s pretty easy to start making assumptions and to treat sex like something we are owed. People who, for whatever reason, already feel anxious or unsafe about sex, can be highly sensitive to this dynamic. It may not stop them having sex, but it can certainly stops sex feeling safe.

I’m not being naive here, and this is not about desire discrepancy – the partner with a higher sex drive is not bad or wrong. This is about the way you engage sex. This is about both of you always having the right to say no and not be shamed, as much as the right to suggest sex and not be shamed! This isn’t about building sexual rejection into your relationship. It’s about not building in entitlement, unawareness, or distress. We do not have the right to coerce our partners into having sex with us. We have the right to feel desire, attraction, and arousal. We have the right to want sex. We have the right to make choices about who we want as a partner, who we want to be sexual with, how we want that relationship to work, but I do not believe we have the right to demand sex, from anyone, ever. That belief and those values are part of what help me to be a safer sexual partner, and to require emotionally safer sex from my partner.

Sometimes when I talk about this idea with people, there’s fear. People get anxious that if their partner is truly that free to refuse sex, they would never have sex. People get anxious that if they refuse to have sex with their partner, their partner will have it with someone else, or leave them. There’s ideas about owing each other sex, that having sex once implies a contract that you will have it again, or that certain types of relationship choices – such as moving in together – mean you are now permanently available for sex and lose your freedom to decline. Push these ideas a little further and we move into rape apologist territory – that what you wear signals that you’ve decided to have sex, that the person who pays for the night out is owed sex, that if you’ve kissed you’ve offered an un-revokable consent to sex, and so on. I get some of these ideas and how pervasive they are- mainly because I’ve been severely tangled in them at times myself. And I’ve suffered, and I’ve hated myself. I know what it feels like when there is terror, shame, self-loathing, guilt, obligation, rebellion, recklessness, misery, and humiliation choking me during sex.

Here’s the nub. If you or your partner feels like this during sex – it’s not really sex. We have other words for sexual experiences where one person enjoys themselves while another one screams inside. I’ve learned that not having sex is far, far better than having bad sex. Sometimes people are shocked by my many years of voluntary celibacy. It’s almost a taboo in our culture to make a choice like that – not for lack of opportunities, or for lack of desire, but to chose to decline sex. (Of course, there’s nothing particularly special or holy about it either, and it’s certainly not better than anyone else’s choices. It was just what I wanted at the time.) I’ve made stupid decisions in the past that any sex was better than none. I’m old enough now to be wiser about that. I’m wise enough to want no more bad memories about sex.

There’s another way, and it might feel frightening or radical, like it opens the door to rejection or a total lack of sex. I’ve found that for me, it has the opposite effect. Sex is not a contract but a song, a dance, flight.

So, try to reset the norms each time, back to dating, back to checking. It might feel stupid, as we have almost no cultural support for this idea. The higher the level of anxiety and the more communication difficulties you or your partner have, the more important this is. Don’t assume anything. Sex last night doesn’t mean sex tonight. Nakedness being fine yesterday doesn’t mean you can wander in and brush your teeth while they’re in the shower the next morning. Don’t force a stressed partner to constantly say no. Assume no first, and check to see if it might be a yes. This approach also gives freedom for people to have difficult reactions after sexual contact. Even if the experience is wonderful, it can stir things up. Breathing room is critical at times. Allow the relationship to move between romantic and platonic. Last night was hot sex. Tonight is cuddles while wearing pajamas. With safety comes freedom. Unless you make it very easy and comfortable for your partner to say no, you are not having safe sex. Unless you make it safe to initiate sex without being shamed, you are not having safe sex.

As a multiple, this need to reset norms and check again is especially important, as I switch to non-sexual parts or to child parts. Properly covering non-sexy clothes or PJ’s are worn on nights when my child parts are around, or are kept next to the bed in case they turn up unexpectedly on other nights. Nakedness does not cue sex – sometimes it is platonic. For my system this is critical, it reduces shame and stress about sharing a bed, a bathroom, and life with another person when some of the time Sarah is a child, or a guy, or someone who’s not in a sexual relationship with my partner.

Resetting the norms doesn’t have to be horrible – anxiety ridden, stressed, depressing. It can be sexy as hell. If you’ve never done anything like this it will take time to find your rhythm and get comfortable but it does get easier. Talk it through. Find what works for you both. Own your own desires and let your partner own theirs. Lean over and whisper “You look incredible tonight, can I kiss you?”

You might like this video that links the idea of having sex to music jams:

This article is part of a series about emotionally safer sex. Try also reading

Why bother blogging?

Sometimes I find myself wondering about the value of spending my time blogging. Especially when I’m trying to make a business work as a face and body painter, having so much deeply personal information out there on the net really seems like shooting myself in the foot. In the wake of recent homophobia, I’m wrestling with conflicting impulses to wear my rainbow throw everywhere like a cape – or strip my public online world of every reference to my sexuality, relationship, and mental health.

Whenever I feel like this, I go into my blog and have a look at one area of the stats collected about how this site gets used – the words that people are typing into search engines like google to find my site. Here’s a short collection of things people have been searching the internet for when they found this blog:

    • How to be comfortable with intimacy
    • Grounding techniques for dissociation
    • Adults who lack object constancy
    • Do you need to speak about your trauma?
    • Therapist wants to talk about my childhood
    • I hate positive thinking
    • Dissociative identity disorder pamphlet
    • Safe sex
    • Afraid of my psychotic neighbour
    • Self harm tools
    • Intense self loathing
    • Chronically feeling suicidal
    • I hate myself

How can I not share?

Cape it is.

Homophobia & despair

I’m tired. It’s been a very difficult couple of days and I’ve shut down. Depression is protective sometimes, when the alternatives are frantic and destructive.

I’m 4 months in to a 10 year lease, signed with Housing SA for my lovely unit. That followed a 1 year probationary lease. I’ve had hassles with a neighbour since moving in, which despite my best efforts have escalated into minor vandalism, and harassment in the form of hostile letters and verbal abuse. There’s a history of difficulties between other tenants and this neighbour, some of which is frighteningly dangerous (none of which involves witnesses or can be proved). Last night blew up badly, she harassed me persistently as I ignored her and tried to get from my car into my house. For the first time I lost my cool and shouted at her to leave me alone. She dumped a tirade of homophobia on me. She told me I was a dirty, filthy, deviant, freak lesbian, who should be exterminated.

I waited a very long time to get into this unit. Years of unstable housing and periodic homelessness, waiting for the dream of a home of my own. Somewhere safe and permanent, to plant my roses. Somewhere I could have a dog and a cat, work on my degree and my business, bring home a date in peace. This dream of security is being destroyed.

The reality is that my circumstances – female, disabled, poor, queer, make me vulnerable. I don’t have money to fix problems like this. Our safety net services don’t protect people like me very well. I remember when homeless, sitting outside a shelter that could not accommodate my electric scooter, having been kicked out for the cleaners to come in, and told to walk into town. I was too sick to walk to the end of the street. I sat in the gutter and wept. There is no security. Life turns on a dime.

This is the first time I’ve been personally abused since coming out. Oh, there’s been issues here and there. A waitress so uncomfortable with Rose and I that she could not make eye contact and avoided our table. An intimidating group of guys that prompted us to drop hands and walk home faster. People in our close circles who still refuse to meet the girlfriend. Friendships that randomly blew up after we started dating. A training facilitator asking us to ‘stop obviously being in a relationship’ during classes. But this, to have someone spitting with loathing as they tell me I should die, this is a first.

It’s horrific.

I feel dead inside. Because I have to. Because the alternatives were unsafe. The scream rising in my chest, the images in my mind, of running into the night, of slashing my arms and smearing the blood on her door, the despair that having run from the threat of violence and homophobia years ago, I’m still not safe. That I pay such very high prices to be safe in my life, and safety eludes me.

Last year a very dear friend of mine was attacked by a group of strangers who assumed they were gay. They escaped, hurting themself in the process. Their car was burned to the ground. This is the stuff of nightmares, the stuff that has you waking up screaming. It’s real and it’s still happening now. This is the world I live in, and the world my children would live in.

I’m used to mindless vandalism  I once lived in a unit where every week, something would be stolen from my yard. I made a game of it, bringing home broken or misshapen statues from my work to leave in the front yard to be stolen. One mother’s day, half of my irises were dug out and stolen overnight. It’s demoralizing.  It’s also not so hard to pity the person so broke and hopeless that stolen irises are their gift for mother’s day. This is different because it’s personal. It’s not mindless, it’s malicious. The intention is to hurt, the motivation is a narcissistic belief that they have the right to punish. It’s gutting. It’s impossible to know what it feels like to be hated if you’ve never been hated.

I have been hated and abused before. I’ve been threatened, I’ve been hurt, I’ve been screamed at, had property damaged or stolen, been touched when I said no, been told the world would be a better place without me. I’ve been given all the advice – hit them back, ignore it, don’t show fear, report it, record it, move away, try to befriend them, try to scare them, try to humanise yourself to them, fight back, turn the other cheek, disengage, empathise, deescalate, don’t make yourself a target.

I’ve followed it all, at one time or another. I’ve frozen. I’ve not shown fear or pain. I’ve cried. I’ve cut myself. I’ve reported and recorded. I’ve downplayed it and hated myself for being over sensitive. I’ve protected their reputation and kept the secrets. I’ve run.

I’ve been told “Until they touch you, we can’t intervene” (not unless, but until). I’ve been told “without witnesses it’s just your word against theirs”. I’ve been told “you bring it on yourself”. I’ve been told “it takes two to tango”. I’ve been told “you need to toughen up”.

They’re wrong, of course. It’s always easiest to blame the person being hurt, to make not being hurt again their responsibility, to offload the anger and frustration that powerlessness makes us feel onto the easiest target.

Abuse has only ended two ways for me – someone with power came along and decided I had enough value to protect me, or I ran. Hence the homelessness. I wonder, at times like this, if it was worth running if this is where I have run to? I have sacrificed so much following a dream of a life without violence or abuse, when that dream evades me like the end of the rainbow. There’s a scream in my chest that’s so loud it would tear the world in two. Not only for me, but for all those like me. The ones I’ve outlived, and the ones who live maimed by memories of torture and terror. Why run, if there is no safety? Because you cannot stay without imbibing the belief that you deserve this. That they are right, that you are perverted, pathetic, vile. That the world would be better off without you. When I ran, when I lost everything, I gained back the self respect that denies all those claims.

I don’t know what I’m going to do yet. My options are limited. Both Housing SA and the police have been involved, neither are offering me answers. I am vulnerable, and I am hated by some people, for things I cannot change or help, for things I do not wish to conceal, for things about myself that are not flaws or failings or perversions. This used to be my whole world, growing up. Now it’s a vicious corner of my universe. Those invited into my world love and respect me. It’s the uninvited who are doing the poisoning.

Rose and I are reeling, quietly. Hurt, scared, stressed. I’ve a lot of face painting coming up, which will be a welcome relief from thinking about this. Making kids happy – there’s no better thing. Admin is on hold, plans of all kinds are on hold. I’m just putting one foot in front of the other. I need to eat, Zoe needs a walk, I need a shower. I feel dead. On the phone to lifeline last night I moved out of hysterical and into numb. They were pleased and moved on to more urgent cases. In my mind I’m back at school again and I can’t escape, back in relationships that terrified me. In my mind I feel the despair settling in – that nothing works out for me, that everything falls apart, that there is no real hope.

There’ll be a way through this, somehow. I’m creative and resilient and I have much better networks these days, friends who care, counselors. But I think that dream of reaching a safe place some day, I think that’s gone. Nowhere is ever really safe like that. And that feeling – it’s like being profoundly homesick. The loss of that dream aches so badly, like a child longing for a home that has burned.

Safe Sex 4. Take Your Time

There’s a lot of skills involved in the process of making sex emotionally safer, particularly for those of us who have experienced relationship violence, or sexual abuse, or emotional abuse about our appearance or bodies. We need to learn how we work, what we need, where our own limits are. It’s a process of trial and error to find the line between anxiety that’s background noise and anxiety that needs attending to. It also takes time to learn how to communicate about things like ‘please don’t touch me that way, I like to be touched like this’ or how you can best be supported during a flashback. It takes time to learn how to communicate about your needs and preferences. There’s often pressure to ‘finish what we start’, but when there’s stress about sex this pressure isn’t helpful. Building all this self awareness, ability to communicate, and sensitivity to your partner takes time, attention, thoughtfulness, and dedication. 

Breaking the experience down into smaller components can help to keep the stress manageable. So you have a partner and you’re both keen to have sex but one or both of you is really stressed. Moving very slowly gives you both time to get used to each other, to take in the experience, to learn what is and isn’t enjoyable. Maybe you start with massages or with sleepovers in pajamas. One night there’s some skin to skin contact, hugs and kisses. Another night there’s nakedness. No sex, just nakedness. Getting comfortable with each other, with being seen, with seeing. Maybe you shower or bathe together, or cuddle under a blanket and watch a movie. Maybe you ask what they think of your body, or show them your scars and tell the stories about them. You experience intimacy as safe, as something you control, where you have rights, where your feelings count, where nobody makes you do anything you don’t want to, where nobody treats you with anything less than respect and care.

You also have a chance to see how you and your partner cope in the charged space of physical intimacy. Some people don’t handle this space well, it’s intense and deeply personal and they’re not comfortable with it. Sometimes otherwise decent and caring people react badly in this space, they snipe about you or belittle you or intimidate you or pressure you. Sometimes you may find that you are not handling it well and are doing or saying things you wouldn’t otherwise. Moving slowly gives you both a chance to see how safe you are about sex. It gives you time to see whether you can handle their anxiety graciously or if you get angry with them about it. It gives you time to see if they are safe to be naked and vulnerable with or if they will make humiliating remarks about your body. It also gives you an opportunity to see how well your communication, negotiation, and boundary setting skills hold up. Sometimes you find that you may have a superb skill in one area of your life that seems to go completely missing in another area.

There are some dumb ideas about sex floating around many cultures. One of them is the idea that you are innately good or bad at sex. You find someone, have sex to see what it’s like, and are either excited or disappointed by it and nothing can be done about that. New couples are often under pressure to have sex and share the details with friends. Newlyweds in many cultures are expected to go from minimal physical contact to sex overnight, with little to no education or support or chance to become comfortable with each other. Sex that is safe, loving, enjoyable, and fun takes skills, and skills take time to create. It takes time to learn the needs of a partner, and it takes maturity to be a safe and sensitive partner. Sometimes there’s a gap between how we want to be and the skills we currently have. We love the idea of being caring and supportive about our partners physical disability, but we’re scared to death we’ll do or say something wrong and instead come across as defensive and uncaring.

Time isn’t seen as sexy in our culture but it can be just what you need to blossom into a wonderful sexual partner, and to make sure the person you’re thinking of having sex with is safe and trustworthy. There’s actually something deeply erotic about languid afternoons in bed giving massages and talking through things that make you nervous without any pressure. When you prepare the context so well, sex when it blossoms can be amazing.

Time can help make things safer, but there’s also a place for jumping in and I don’t want anyone to think I’m judging those who find that approach empowering. Sometimes the opposite helps us, there’s a wall of terror between us and sex. Some of us dismantle it brick by brick, some of us pole-vault it. Whatever helps you navigate your stress is a good idea, with two caveats – that you’re not setting yourself up for bad experiences (see, I knew all women were heartless, or men are brutes, or whatever), and that you’re not harming anyone. My observation has been that even those who find pole vaulting more to their nature often need to come back and kick a few bricks out of that wall at some point. It’s much easier to have sex without the hangups that stress us out, than it is to keep having to find ways around them. Give yourself permission to take your time to make sex safer and as the things that are stressing you get resolved sex can feel less like a 3 mile crawl through barbed wire on the promise of something better up ahead, and more like a soaring inside, a desire that calls you on and draws you towards another person.

This article is part of a series about emotionally safer sex. Try also reading

Safe Sex 3. Bringing down the Stakes

If stress or anxiety about sex is intense, then ignoring that and going ahead anyway can make sex emotionally unsafe. The stakes are very high under these circumstances. Some stress is okay, it can co-exist. Loads pulls you into a place where you’re not listening to yourself or keeping yourself safe when all your internal sirens are screaming. You may be safe – with a loving person you trust, in a beautiful safe environment, in a situation where you are very keen to have sex such as a night away you’ve been planning together. But if you’re screaming with distress inside and not doing anything to settle that, you’re at risk of blowing your circuits – whether that’s through a big overload like a panic attack, short circuiting through major dissociation and numbing, or a subtle effect such as exhaustion from working so hard to suppress such strong emotions so often. Being overwhelmed emotionally makes it harder to connect with and be sensitive to your partner, and often more difficult to focus on the moment and feel pleasure. Anything that is experienced as a failure to protect yourself or a betrayal of yourself is risky.

What brings down the stakes? It depends on what things are driving your anxiety. It might be one thing or a whole knot of them. A lot of what drives up the stakes in sex are when we are using it to answer a whole bunch of questions about our lives – Am I too damaged to have sex? Are they really attracted to me? Is our relationship on the rocks? If I really want it does that make me a slut? Does not liking this particular thing mean I’m weird? Am I ugly? Marty Klein goes into this in excellent detail in his book Sexual Intelligence. His assertion is that sex is about pleasure and closeness. Everything else you can’t answer through sex – you have to work it out in your head, with your shrink, a good friend, or by talking it through with your partner. You bring down the stakes and help sex to be safe by getting back to those two things – pleasure and closeness – and clearing the rest of the clutter out of the way.We stop having sex, or wind up having sex that doesn’t feel safe or good when the stakes are too high. If you’re terrified your partner won’t like your body, or won’t be comfortable with your disability, or will be hurt if you ask them to stop, or might have a panic attack… if there’s a whole bunch of ways you feel like you could ‘fail’ at sex, and the outcome would be really painful – rejection, distance, an argument, embarrassment, then sex is scary. It doesn’t take many of these experiences to shut us down. People are left thinking longingly about how wonderful sex might be, but bitten once and twice shy about how painful it can also be. Even between caring partners, when the stakes are high, sex can be lonely, depressing, humiliating, and miserable.

Part of what’s raising the stakes is this idea of failure. Sex is not a sport. You don’t win or lose at it. This is another area Klein explores in his book, and something I found very useful to think about. It’s worth thinking your ideas about what sex is ‘supposed to be’, and what ‘failure’ means to you. If you can expand the first category, and collapse the second, you bring down the stakes. If there’s lots of ways sex can happen that are good outcomes, and the idea of failure is reduced to the Big Deal stuff – coercion, manipulation, belittling, cruelty, then sex becomes a whole lot safer. If you can’t fail through any of the things that make you anxious about sex – your appearance, ‘performance’, confidence, stamina, and so on, sex can become something fun to explore instead of a stressful ‘moment of truth’ where you succeed or fail. If you can’t fail (because you’re not about to harm your partner) then sex isn’t risky. You can go chasing that good feeling and that closeness, and however it works out it will be okay. The stakes are back to something manageable and the outcome isn’t so potentially frightening.

This has been a helpful concept for me, and now whenever my anxiety spikes I think about what’s raising the stakes for me and what I can do to bring them down. Some really helpful conversations have come out of this and I’ve been able to ease that frozen place inside me and find lightness and joy. Bringing down the stakes feels like being able to breathe again, being able to fly again. It brings me closer to delight and helps me to nest sex into a space that is very safe, very intimate, beautiful and fun.

This article is part of a series about emotionally safer sex. Try also reading

 

Safe Sex 2. Expectations

You don’t need to have a completely perfect stage set for sex to be safe. There can be awkwardness, embarrassment, anxiety, body memories, little flashbacks, all going on like background noise. It’s okay to be aware of them and still be following that thread of desire. You don’t need a completely empty mind, free of memories or triggers to have sex that feels safe, loving, intimate, joyful, and amazing. These things can all co-exist. I think a lot of us trauma survivors don’t get this idea. We feel – dirty – damaged – soiled. We think to have good sex we have to get back to something resembling ‘purity’. We work very hard on ourselves hoping to get to a place where we have eradicated our past. It’s devastating when it intrudes.

It doesn’t need to be like this. Ever had great sex while you were injured in some way? A twisted ankle or stitched up hand or just an elbow that was protesting because you’ve been leaning on it for too long? There was pain – in the background – not intense pain like a migraine or calf muscle cramping, but there and present. Then there was also pleasure, in the foreground, consuming your attention. They can co-exist. I live with a chronic pain condition so this something I really understand. It’s the same with emotional pain, with memories and anxiety. If they’re not intense they can be background noise. If they become intense, they need some attention.

The form this attention takes might be as simple as changing what you’re doing because the anxiety has become high or body memories have become strong and confusing. I get this problem, sometimes they’re so intense that I can’t work out anymore what’s happening now and what is just a memory. (or to use the clinical terms – a tactile hallucination) So I move away from touch in that area and find somewhere else that feels nice to have touched. Sometimes those of us who struggle with stress about sex find that some things are higher risk than others – things that make you feel exposed, or feel trapped, or new things that make you feel uncertain and so on. Sometimes you may find that there are certain positions, acts, and locations that can become your safer sex to retreat back to if you’ve tried something else and become stressed.

Sometimes it means pausing for a little while to settle whatever has been stirred up. This isn’t a bad thing – it’s a chance for healing. Having feelings and memories come to the surface gives you a chance to address them and to break cycles of ignoring and depriving yourself. This time everything stops the moment you want it to. This time you can ask for non-sexual contact while you settle. This time you wont be hurt, ignored, or abused. Maybe you realise that a certain touch is making you struggle, or that the music on the radio is triggering you.  If your stress isn’t about abuse, this is a chance for growth. You have a clash between some things you believe (such as sex has to be perfect, or that you are ugly, or that you’re not good at sex, or that you’ll be rejected by your partner) and what you want to experience. You’re giving yourself a chance to develop a different way of approaching sex and navigating the stress. Maybe you sit together and talk for a bit. Maybe you put things aside for that night, or only for 20 minutes while you settle. Maybe you go watch a DVD or find some icecream in the freezer. There’s no rule that says sex has to happen all within a certain time frame. There’s nothing wrong with breaks to get something to drink, empty your bladder, change the CD, find a snack, have a giggle or a cry, get a hug, and start again later. This whole experience is intimacy, safety, and care. Our culture has a very crude idea of what constitutes sex, but it doesn’t have to be broken up into a single act like that. Sex can be woven through the whole evening, it can be the back rub when you have a cry, it can be your partner ducking to the shops for a new packet of condoms, it can be you understanding that a shower will help them feel more comfortable or that keeping a sheet over them will make them feel safer. It doesn’t have to be perfect to be safe and wonderful. You don’t need a perfect body, you don’t need ‘movie sex’ where no one gets the giggles, or drops anything, or farts, or needs to rush off for a pee, you don’t need an entirely clear mind. You can have trauma issues, anxiety, and all kinds of mental health challenges that may certainly complicate sex as well as the rest of your life, but if you can make a space in your mind to accept that your sex life will include having a panic or needing to stop or lots of showers etc and that is okay! then you can work to create a safe space to have a  good sex life.

This is part of a series of posts about emotionally safer sex.

Safe sex 1. Checking In

I want to put aside for a moment the important considerations of STI’s, unwanted pregnancy and so on, and share for a moment some thoughts about making sex emotionally safe. I find myself having a lot of conversations about sex at the moment, partly because I’m very frustrated by the lack of these conversations in mental health! I’m not some kind of expert. I’m certainly not someone who has everything together. In fact, my knowledge base and my passion for this topic comes from being a person who’s had some terrible sexual experiences, huge distress about my own sexuality and identity, and who has big struggles in this area. I’ve gone into sexual health counselling to get support through accepting myself, coming out, learning how to navigate my distress, and my first gay relationship. I’ve very carefully ended many years of voluntary celibacy because I finally felt that I had enough tools and had done enough work for this to be a positive experience. I’ve read a lot of books and done a lot of talking and thinking. I’ve also done a lot of listening and what I’m hearing distresses me.

I’m hearing a lot of confusion, pain, grief, and resignation. I’m hearing people who do not believe it is possible to ever have good sex after rape or abuse. I’m hearing people who do not believe sex can be anything other than a manic, shame-based compulsion. I’m hearing massive anxiety about how to communicate about sexual things or during sex. I’m hearing people who feel stuck with sex that is empty, painful, lonely, violent, or emotionally abusive. I’m hearing people who feel broken, scared, ashamed, repulsed by themselves or their desires. People who feel rejected, guilty, beholden, that they ‘owe’ sex to their partner, and that they are failures. I’m hearing people for whom sex is a secret topic of personal torment and misery.

So I want to talk about it. I want it not to be secret anymore. I want to challenge the mental health system that pretends these are not important issues for us. I want to challenge those terrible fears that for such as we, the ruined ones, there is no possibility of a healthy sex life. When I’ve talked about the idea of emotionally safe sex, I’ve had people tell me there is no such thing. This breaks my heart. I want to tell people this is not true.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about the ways I’ve worked to make sex emotionally safer for me. I’ve been able to come up with a specific set of ideas I want to share in case they’re useful to someone else. There’s a few of them so I’ll break them up into different posts. The very first one is how you make the call that you’re going to have sex.

1. Checking In
Think about the ways you’re assessing whether you have sex. You’re checking in with yourself, noticing how the idea makes you feel. You’re probably asking yourself questions inside your mind. This is a great process to use to work out what you do and don’t want. For some of us, this process of checking in with ourselves is quite long and thought through. For others of us, it’s a split second instinctive glance at some internal alarms just long enough to notice that none of them seem to be screaming. For some of us, we’ve been trained through trauma or abuse that our needs, wishes, and preferences don’t matter, so we’ve never really developed the skill to do this check in with ourselves in the first place.

Babette Rosthchild’s book 8 Keys to Safe Trauma Recovery has a chapter about developing this kind of check in skill to help you make decisions. If you’re feeling in the dark about this skill you can borrow it from many libraries including my own. For those of us who have some capacity to do this, I’d still suggesting fine tuning the process a bit. For example, if you’re trying to decide if you want to have sex, try picturing in your mind the details of your choices – in this place, with this person, in this way, and see how it makes you feel.

Pay attention to the kinds of questions you may ask yourself during this check in. I noticed a little while ago that my standard internal question when making this decision was ‘Can I handle this?’ – a question clearly born out of my own trauma history. Answering ‘yes’ to this question does not make sex safe! It doesn’t mean I want to be involved, doesn’t mean I will enjoy it! In fact it’s a set up for high risk sex – the kind that often leaves me feeling lonely, scared, or empty, even with a loving partner. I’ve changed this question now – to ‘What do I feel like?’ I may be feeling anxious but there’s also that impulse to kiss that soft skin in the fold of their elbow, or that hope that they’ll take off my top. If the anxiety is low I can follow these impulses.

The questions you ask yourself are a powerful way to set you up for safe sex or risky sex. Learning to check in with yourself is also part of how we follow our own pleasure. It’s not something to be done once at the start of things, it’s an ongoing process of listening to ourselves and noticing what we do and don’t want or like. People who are stressed about sex can be so numbed, so anxious, so overwhelmed by what’s going on in their mind that they can’t feel what’s happening in their body. Checking in is about noticing that this kind of touch makes your skin tingle, or that your knee is starting to get achy and needs to be shifted. Being focused on your feelings is how you will discover what you like. It’s a good skill to work on.

Checking in only really works for us if we have the ability to follow what we want and need. If we know we don’t want something but we can’t say no, there’s a miserable sense of betrayal and failure that only adds distress to a situation we didn’t want in the first place. It takes strength and commitment to notice how we feel and act on it – whether that’s saying “I don’t feel like this”, or saying “You look amazing tonight, can I kiss you?”. But it all starts with connecting to yourself and noticing how you’re feeling, and asking yourself what you feel like. It’s also really important to check in with your partner and find out where they are at, even if you are ‘the one with the problem’ in your relationship.

This article is part of a series about emotionally safer sex. Try also reading

I’m in love

I’ve had the most wonderful day. It’s been cool and rainy here in Newcastle, much more to my tastes. I am sleeping on the top bunk on the second floor, by a large open window with no screen or bars. There’s no bars on the bed either, nothing to stop me rolling out, falling through the window and down to the pavement below. Which gives me the shivers, but is also wonderfully like sleeping in a tree house, all breezy and up among the lovely tropical foliage. I lay in my bunk at night and watch the stars and city lights and rain and the trees dancing in the wind. Not far is the sea, just a brief walk, and I can smell it and feel the salt in the air. In the mornings it’s very warm and still, and I can’t sleep for the light coming in and the heat. But this morning it was perfect, cool, raining, breezy. I lay under my sheet, waking from nightmares to watch the rain falling through the trees, sleeping and waking and sleeping.

My beloved is napping now with her head in my lap as we rest in the lounge at the backpackers. Today we went again to visit her elderly relative for lunch, and it was sad for her. It’s always painful to see someone you love ill, or old, to be aware of time passing, of mortality, of the cruelty of distance and the inadequacy of words. There’s always so much to say and no words to say it. I’ve been here with my beloved grandma who died a few years ago. I can sit with this sadness, I know how to bear it, how to stay present with it. There’s so much beauty in it, joy within pain, love beneath sorrow. Such a simple thing it is, to be present.

Then we visited the Newcastle art gallery, and were lucky enough to stumble into an exhibition of Oscar Wilde’s The Nightingale and the Rose by Del Kathryn Barton. It was stunning. I spent an hour in front of the huge, intricately painted canvases, trying to shelter that tiny flame of inspiration that lit in me. I find it so hard to keep believing in myself, in art, in the value of my work, in the possibility of success. One of my greatest limitations as an artist is my lack of confidence. Strangely enough, the cause of this; poverty, hardship, is also one of my great strengths as an artist; I have experienced so much and have so much to say. I’m also painfully afraid of the times I shut down and can’t create art, and terribly impatient with myself.

This exhibition was an artists response to a work of writing, something I’ve often thought of doing. The size of the paintings was powerful, and the technique; combining inks, paint and watercolors, was appealing. I was very taken by it all, and found myself blossoming with hope, that if she can make such splendid works, I can also. I’m excited about my projects planned for this year. I so want to keep that tiny sense of hope alive, it dies so easily in me and then everything is such a struggle. I bought a beautiful big art book of the exhibition to take home and display, hoping to keep this feeling alive. Others have walked this road. It is possible.

Once the gallery closed, we sheltered under the eaves on the doorstep and picnicked on snacks and talked about life and cried a little and held each others hands. Then we walked until we found a lovely Vietnamese restaurant and ate prawns and red rice and soft shell crab. It rained and we wandered the streets in it, finding paths around puddles, water shining in our hair. Night fell as we walked.

Sometimes there were loud groups of drunk guys or someone hassling passerbys for money and we stopped holding hands and walked faster. My part who handles violence comes out, walks tall. ‘We won’t be easy victims, leave us be.’ Nothing happens. My girlfriend and I have a rule that either of us can stop holding hands (or anything else that clearly marks us as a gay couple) if we feel unsafe in public, no argument, no recriminations.

We find a store that’s open, and buy exotic icecream; filled with brownies and cookie dough. Back at the hostel, we lay about on a big couch in the lounge, legs tangled, reading Sabriel to each other, sharing the icecream and enjoying the freedom to be a couple in a public space and feel safe and accepted. We laugh and play and talk. It’s so sweet, sweet to be in love.

I’m off On a Holiday!

I’m writing to you tonight from the top bunk of my room in Newcastle. I’m thrilled. My girlfriend and I are on a trip to visit some of her people and have a break from the heat and illness that have taken up a lot of the start this year for us… So ironically enough, at around 2am this morning, I had a sudden flair up of an extremely painful mystery skin condition, when I needed to be on a 6am flight! The pain was terrible, and I wound up booking an appointment with a GP in Sydney this afternoon. My frustration was so great that at 3am I was sobbing into my girlfriends shoulder. But we actually pulled of a great day today anyway!

I coped really well with the flight, no phobic stress or troublesome switching, although I did become distressingly travel sick. Virgin airplane staff were super kind and helpful with ice and ginger beer which was lovely. The Sydney doc thinks I’ve developed another form of dermatitis that burns like acid on my skin and has prescribed a cream and anti inflammatories. I seem to be collecting unusual skin conditions, which I’m frankly furious about. I would like at some point to trade them all in for, say, a cat run.

I spent a wonderful afternoon trundling around Paddy’s Market and buying lovely little items to add to my personal grounding kit (search for this term in my blog if you’re not familiar with it) foodie nibbles, and gothy jewellery. It was wonderful. Then we caught the train over to Newcastle (here I am on it)
ate some instant pasta and lovely fruit we bought at the markets, showered, applied creams and bug spray liberally, and crashed out by the cool breeze coming in the open windows.

You know something I’m still getting used to, dating another woman for the first time, is the way you share space differently. Picture yourself out on a date. It’s going well, you’re feeling excited. You decide to duck off to the loo to toilet, fix your hair, check for food in your teeth, text your best friend, talk to yourself in the mirror, whatever, and as you excuse yourself and leave, your date says ‘that’s a good idea’ and follows you in. o.O It’s a little bit of a different dynamic! I still find it a bit surreal to be showering in the cubical next to my girlfriend on holidays and the like. Not bad, just different. Sometimes less convenient, and sometimes more intimate. You have to put care into creating thoughtful partner space because cultural gender segregation hangups won’t do it for you. It’s certainly been very interesting noticing things like this.

I’ve also come to the conclusion that gothic proclivities have prepared me well to cope with public stares, discomfort, and occasional rudeness when you’re obviously in a gay relationship. I’m used to those reactions when I’m done up goth, so it hasn’t hit as hard to be getting them for holding my girlfriend’s hand down at the local pool, or taking her out to dinner. A lot of the time I simply don’t notice. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes it makes me feel sad for the other person and where they’re coming from. Sometimes it makes me angry. And sometimes it makes me laugh, especially when people seem to think that their disapproval is going to cower me! It can be funny, the power people think they have over you. 🙂 If they’re particularly obnoxious I amuse myself by irritating them by being particularly affectionate with her as they stare daggers, mutter, snort, or pretend not to notice. It certainly gives me something to do on long train trips ha haa!

What bisexuality is, and 9 things it isn’t

What does it mean to be bisexual? I’ve been surprised by how many people have asked me what the word means. Wiki defines it as romantic or sexual attraction or behaviour towards males and females, which is a good start. It’s probably easiest to define if I disentangle it from some of the misconceptions:

1. Bisexual doesn’t mean wanting to have more than one partner at the same time. This preference is called polyamory, or poly. It’s been a bit startling to have people assume that I’m in an open relationship on the basis of my bisexual identity! Some poly people are also bisexual, others are straight, others are gay.

2. Bisexual doesn’t mean lots of sexual partners. Without judging anyone who enjoys casual sex, these are separate concepts. Some bi people do, some don’t. 🙂

3. Bisexual doesn’t mean that I can’t make up my mind about what gender I like. It doesn’t mean I’m really gay but not properly out of the closet. It doesn’t mean I’m really straight but want to experiment or get into the cool nightclubs. 🙂 Being with a partner does’t mean that I’ve gone straight or gone gay.

4. Bisexual doesn’t mean that I’m attracted to all men and all women, any more than being straight means being attracted to everyone of the other gender. One of the ways I explain what bisexuality means for me, particularly when kids ask, is that I am capable of falling in love with a very few men in this world, and a very few women.

5. Bisexual doesn’t mean being equally attracted to men and women. I’ve read bizarre reviews of openly bisexual celebrities’ lives where the number of months they’ve been in relationships with men and months with women were compared and used to assess that they were ‘really’ gay or straight unless they exactly matched. Let’s put sexual preferences on a scale for a moment – on one end we have entirely straight, on the other, entirely gay. Many people strongly identify with one or the other end of this spectrum. Some people are right in the middle. Some people are more up side than the other, perhaps they mostly date men but have fallen for one or two women. Because there is a political aspect to how we identify ourselves, some people are attracted to men and women but choose to identify with their strongest, primary focus – women who identify as lesbian but have the occasional fling with a guy for example. If being mostly into one gender means you’re more comfortable identifying yourself as straight or gay instead of bi that’s absolutely your right, and it’s an accurate description of your tastes most of the time, even if occasionally you surprise your friends.

However, you can be anywhere in this spectrum between totally straight and totally gay, and identify as bisexual. It’s not something you have to prove by having sex or lots of relationships. It’s not just a dead-centre third category between straight and gay. It’s all the ground between straight and gay, even if that means ‘mostly into guys and sometimes into girls’ or vice versa. You can live and express that any way that’s right for you.

6. Bisexual doesn’t mean sexual predator, paedophile, or sociopath. Enough said!

7. Bisexual doesn’t mean unfaithful. It doesn’t mean ‘pining’ for the gender your partner isn’t. It doesn’t mean being dissatisfied in any relationship. It doesn’t mean betraying and hurting people. Certainly there are bisexual people who do these things, but that is not a result of their orientation. There’s a deep distrust of bisexual women within the lesbian community where being hurt by partners – especially those who have been left for a male partner, has been ascribed to the orientation and led to a lot of distrust and discrimination.

Bisexuality can be difficult. There are some unique pressures, a lot of misunderstanding and hostility from the straight and gay communities. Social and family pressures can lead to poor decisions and hurtful behaviour where bisexual people walk out of same-sex relationships to find partners who’s gender won’t make them stand out for such strife.

8. Bisexual doesn’t mean binary gender. Gender is different from sexuality. Men can be bi. Women can be bi. Manly men can be bi. Femme men can be bi. Genderfluid people can be bi. Trans women can be bi. Androgynous people can be bi.

Bi people can also be attracted to other people who are non-binary. Non binary simply means anyone who doesn’t identify within the boundaries of ‘manly men’ and ‘femme women’. Some bi people are attracted to androgynous men and butch women, for example, or have a particular passion for high femme trans women as well as shy sweet gay guys.

Personally as a multiple, I find people most sexy when they are comfortable expressing a range of gender identities – and enjoy me doing the same. I vastly prefer people who can be masculine and feminine and androgynous and move between them as they want. People who stay with one gender expression all the time kind of bewilder me.

9. Bisexual doesn’t mean being attracted to “only two” genders. There’s a bit of an argument in the queer community that bisexual people are attracted to only two gender identities and pansexual people are attracted to all of them. I’ve been hanging out in the bi community for a few years now and I’ve learned that very, very few bi people are okay with that definition. Which is a surprise as that’s what I thought it meant too, when I came out!

For a great article about this, check out Bisexual vs Pansexual.

A better way to frame how most people use bi-sexual is being attracted to “more than one” gender. There’s so many gender expressions out there! Some of us are super specific about attraction, we have a really narrow band. Think – slender, white, redhead, femme women and men. Or you probably know someone who’s ex’s all look pretty alike. Others of us are attracted to a wider range of qualities – women, however they present, or all genderqueer people. Some of us find specific groups most attractive – eg. femme bi men, ‘bears‘, butch bi women, and androgynous men. Some people describe themselves as ‘gender-blind’, meaning their attraction isn’t geared around bodies or gender, but other qualities such as personality instead. Gender identity has different levels of importance to people when it comes to sparking attraction.

When you explore a little more in the marginalised communities of intersex people (those who have both male and female characteristics) transsexual people (those who have a gender identity different from their physical sex) and transvestites (people who dress in clothes of the other gender), you start to see gender differently. There’s a term for this – genderqueer. It’s a big umbrella term that basically means – anything outside of the gender binary of men born in male bodies  who dress like men and like ‘male’ things and likewise women. A common form of genderqueer you’ve probably come across is people who have an androgynous look.

If you’d like to learn a little more about people who identify as genderqueer, I’d recommend the blog The Felt Fedora. For some more information about the differences between gender identity and gender expression, check out this great infographic, The Gingerbread Person.

Genderbread-Person-3.3

I hope that’s been helpful and cleared up a few myths. People who are bisexual can also be many other things obviously, but it’s helpful to pull apart what the word itself means and what it doesn’t.

It’s been a really interesting process for me since coming out and dealing with people’s reactions, and also learning more about the history of the bi movement and the challenges of being a part of a community that is often invisible. As I am with Rose, I am usually mis-identified as lesbian, which sometimes I don’t mind and other days really grates. Mono-sexualities (straight or gay) are more visible and both can demand that people fit in one of their boxes, or treat people as tourists – gay for the duration of this relationship, and now straight for that one. It’s rather bizarre how often the media labels as ‘gay’ people who have outed themselves as bi, and how often coming out stories are told as ‘then they went gay/lesbian’ when the story really is ‘then they realised they were bi’. So I’m finding myself with a sense of sympathy for a people group who are often struggling in both queer and straight communities to be seen as real and legitimate.

Personally I identify as bi/pan, and genderqueer. I care a lot less about how someone fits into boxes than I care about how they connect with the aspects of themselves that don’t fit. As a multiple, our system spans straight, bi, gay, lesbian, and asexual, as well as male, female, non-gendered, and genderqueer. We chose bi and genderqueer as our group identity because they contain the broadest range, but that’s not a perfect fit and sometimes there’s a need to express and be seen as individuals. Sometimes one is out who is a straight woman and doesn’t identify at all under the umbrella of queer. That’s okay, we can navigate that. 🙂

The comments refer to an earlier edition of this post where I mislabelled bi as being attracted to 2 genders. 

Feast Picnic

Yesterday was the last day of the Feast Festival, a two week queer arts and music event here in Adelaide. It wraps up with a huge picnic and then an after party. I went to picnic with a great group of friends and my girlfriend. We didn’t stay for the after party, by evening most of the crowd has been drinking steadily all day and gets restless. We set off once a few scurmishes involved the police.

It’s been an amazing fortnight, I attended Feast for the first time rather clandestinely last year, when I was not yet out as Bi to most of my networks. This time I’ve got along to dancing, music, theatre, and film events with my gorgeous girlfriend. It’s been an interesting experience to notice what it feels like to kiss in a public place and feel accepted. To hold hands and not be watching the crowd for danger signs. To be surrounded by the incredible diversity within the Queer community and feel like I’m on the inside for once. It’s been powerful to hear and be part of art and stories about being queer. It’s also been surreal, trekking along in the Pride march wondering why people are cheering for us, with us, at us. Buying cute/kitchy little rainbow bracelets to mark the event and remind myself I was here, try to remind myself what it feels like to be at home.

It makes me want desperately to find a way to create events like this in mental health. To make my little campfires for my groups huge events, full of pride, full of sorrow, full of respect for diversity, love. I want to make lonely straight kids feel this kind of acceptance too. I want to see comedy and theatre and films about madness, about the oddballs and the misfits.

I had a fantastic picnic, but when I got home, my head crashed. That’s not uncommon for me. All the triggered things surface and the lonely parts come out to howl the kind of pain I can’t bring out in the daylight without the men in white coats coming. So here in the small hours, there is blogging, there is the journal, my inks, my bath… there is a fresh Terry Pratchett book to read and a promise to my girlfriend that I’ll call her if things get bad. It’s sad. I’m lying in bed with a fan running, wrapped in my new beautiful rainbow sarong, with my little netbook. The screaming in my head has gone quiet, but I know it’s still there, cut off behind a door that’s now closed. My broken toe is a dull ache and my eyes are dust dry. The night is warm and still and silent. Makes me think of a line from Something Wicked This Way Comes;

Somewhere in him, a shadow turned mournfully over. You had to run with a night like this so the sadness could not hurt.

-Bradbury

Here’s to the nights you run.

Plans!

Next year is creeping up on me (don’t even think about mentioning Christmas) and I’m turning over in my mind what I want to do in it. I need a break, that much is clear. I’m thinking of taking January off, fixing up my car, and doing some travelling… It’s been forever since I’ve been out under the stars!

My Aceda contract wraps up at the end of this year, possibly a bit earlier depending on what happens with funding rounds etc. A job I’ve been keeping my ear to the ground about has just been advertised, it’s the women’s worker with Bfriend… an area very close to my heart! GLBTIQ supports are a passion of mine and I’d love to work in that field… on the other hand, working at Aceda, whilst WONDERFUL has pretty much put a complete stop to work on the DI, and that can’t go on.

On the other side of the coin, I have turned down about 5 face painting gigs since I started work at Aceda because I’m too short of time and energy to manage them… I love the facepainting. I have a gig this Saturday morning at the Christies Beach fair and I’m really looking forward to it. It’s fun and arty and I get to spend time with little kids and big kids and see fairs and hang out with some really cool people. It doesn’t wear me out the way mental health/community services work does, I still have some oomph left over to work on DI resources…

I have a website I was developing that ground to a halt, many requests for art prints I haven’t had time to fix up, requests to purchase original artwork I haven’t got back to yet… my arts practice has taken a bit of a back seat lately and I’m thinking it’s time to turn the tables.

Plus, there’s an awesome facepainting convention happening in Melbourne next year. And I have independent peer work gigs lined up for a couple of the big mental health conventions too. That’s going to be pretty hard to work in if my week is already packed with regular work and the art degree. I want some room to be able to attend interesting events and fit in extra work as it happens. I also want a less manic schedule, more time to chill with friends, have dinner parties, watch movies, go to the theatre…

My life has changed so much this year, it’s incredible. I’ve been very driven and working hard, I’m feeling it’s time for a change of pace, just for a little while. There’s some hard decisions to make, some challenging things (like the paperwork involved with being self-employed), some adjustments… but it’s so good to have options and choices. I want the space in my life to be able to drop things and make room for a sudden 3 week workshop on supporting trans people, or relationships with multiples, or sex after abuse, or… I want more weekends spent camping. I want to slow down and enjoy what I’ve got. I want to spend more time in my studio. I want to go on a trip around Australia and develop more DI resources for people with dissociation. I want a little more fun and a little less stress. Less tonsillitis would also be a bonus. At some point I want to take out 6 months and write a book.

Just thinking it all through. As a wise friend said to me recently, it doesn’t have to be a forever decision. I can try something out for 6 months or a year, see how it goes. Change my mind. Find a new opportunity…

But I went to the pride march recently with my face painted and got a massive response, heaps of people asking for a business card. It seems the queer community are perhaps short of facepainters? I hear my name being called… 🙂

Feast Begins!


Here in South Australia, we have an annual GLBTIQ festival celebrating all things queer culture, and it’s just launched. I went for the first time ever last year, down to the hub on a quiet night. This year I walked in the Pride March wearing rainbow tear face paint, then danced and chatted and listened to music and roasted marshmallows on the fire and danced some more until getting home around 3am.

It was an incredible experience, I am buzzing and exhausted and desperate to tell you all about it once I’ve had some sleep… Which as I’m booked into see several shows this week will not be happening soon…

But I will, I promise! In the meantime, wow.

Just wow.

The Harmonic Project

I went to an amazing concert the other day, something quite unlike anything else I’ve experienced.Picture yourself on a cushion on the floor of a big lovely church hall. Above you is a high roof with exposed beams, in front of you is a stage festooned with unusual instruments, candles, and fragrant roses…
The music was so beautiful and gentle, my girlfriend and I just lay down with everyone else around us, I held her hand and let it wash over me. I drifted in and out of sleep, I could feel the warmth of bodies all around me, hippy types resting peacefully, everyone breathing gently together, no fear, even the smell of strangers not jangling, only peace, only peace.
I don’t often know peace in church. (I’ve certainly never kissed a woman in one before.)
It was a special kind of night. The music was ambient ‘world’, made from many instruments with a history of being used in holy ceremonies. It was all improvised and rhythmic, like rain falling and softening and falling again, like breathing or the beating of a great, slow, gentle heart. 
They describe their work as Sound Meditation and I certainly found it to be that. The concert was launching their new CD, which I very much recommend, I’ve given my copy to my friend with the new baby as I think they need it more than I do at the moment. 🙂
If you’d like to know more, have a look atThe Harmonic ProjectHeather Frahn (she has a show coming up at the Feast Festival here in SA)Or listen to:Cosmic Tone Drum

Sex and mental illness

I’ve never heard anyone discuss this topic. It’s a non topic, like the whole disability sector I think the assumption is that if you’ve got a mental illness, you’re not having sex, you’re no longer even a sexual person. It is a non issue in your life, to the extent that you also have not noticed that other people have sex, so you don’t even have feelings about that. (this is starting to change in disability) There are incredibly thorny issues here that people are struggling to navigate alone, often without information, without language, without the ability to communicate about it. This makes me furious!

Imagine your partner has bipolar. Part of mania can be an increased libido. Is sex during mania ethical? Is refusing it on the basis of your assessment of their manic state rejection? Your partner is a multiple. You have a romantic, sexual relationship with the part who is out most of the time. A different part comes out one night and wants to be sexual. Where do you stand? (more information on Multiplicity and Relationships) Your partner has depression. You want to comfort them. Is sex okay? What about if you have to coax them into it? People everywhere, every day are trying to navigate these kinds of dilemmas, and are doing so in a culture that refuses to discuss any of this. We talk about sex incessantly, but we so rarely get beyond ‘nudge nudge, wink wink’. In mental health we don’t talk about it at all.How do you navigate issues of consent and coercion with people (or as people) who are at times, not in their right minds? How do you even determine when that might be? What about with those who have been sexually traumatised? Who are often so deeply ashamed, feel so profoundly broken and guilty, and desperate to ‘make it up to’ their partner, that the power imbalance makes genuine consent almost impossible to determine? What do you do if they have a panic attack during sex? If a child part comes out? If they dissociate or become catatonic? If they weep? If they pressure you? If they want you to re-enact a sexual trauma with them? (more information on Intimacy after Abuse)

All of these things need communication. For many of these issues, there is not a one-size-fits-all answer, there is a unique and deeply personal understanding between those involved about what constitutes love, fidelity, betrayal. One person coming down off a manic high may feel abused by sexual contact during the mania, while another person may feel patronised and humiliated by rejection. Too many people don’t find this out until after making difficult decisions on the fly. It doesn’t need to be this way, and in mental health I believe we should be starting these conversations. We should be opening that door and helping people to think about these things before they find themselves in a catch-22 situation. We should be talking about meds and libido. About cardio-vascular health and sexual function. About diverse sexuality and gender. About unwanted celibacy, which is an agonising result of chaotic behaviour for some people with mental illness. About sustaining emotional and sexual intimacy through episodes of illness. About the risks of the carer role, parent-child dynamics, the loss of erotic interest in the ‘sick’ partner, and how to reverse it. About sex post-PTSD. These are deep and critical aspects of people’s lives and we have no right to pretend they are not relevant. We deserve honest, open, caring conversations about them.

I’ve now written a series of articles about emotionally safer sex that’s relevent for people with anxiety, trauma, or mental illness struggles. It starts with Safe Sex 1. Checking In.

Elixir and Taboo

Today I presented the results of a term’s work in my concept development class at Tafe. The topic was Food and our works had to incorporate food in some way if possible. I wound up making two small sculptures from my research. The first was playing with ideas of elixirs, infusions and preservation. I was very taken by the idea of preserving things other than food – memories, relationships, knowledge… I researched honey which is a fascinating substance and used in both preserving and embalming processes. So for this first work I used honey to preserve the memory of my close relationship with my grandmother, represented by a strand of blue pearl beads.
Sarah K Reece - Elixir
The contents then become an elixir to be taken during difficult times. The label reads:
Memories of Grandma
Dose: one thimblefull
To be taken: when lonely, afraid, or feeling unworthy

The second sculpture was playing with ideas around the sacred and taboo, particularly around our cultural reaction to the only food we make ourselves: breast milk. I used eggshells to represent new life, and turned them into breasts with the addition of sculpted polymer clay nipples. Blowing the eggs empty was fiddly and time consuming, I spent a lot of the last weekend with egg in my fringe. 🙂 I played with realistic colouring but decided to reference the use of gold leaf in art to signify the divine or sacred instead. The result has an unexpected element of humour to it, which I love. There’s also something a bit cheeky about the work, a slightly flippant take on a serious topic, a wink to fake breasts a la Monty Python, a nod to my own sexuality. Something that makes me smile: breasts in a box.
Sarah K Reece - Taboo
Plus I’m pleased with those nipples! My presentation went well, and I’m very happy to be on holidays from Tafe now. 🙂

Logo for group The Gap

Today I finally bunkered down in my studio for some non-art degree related art making. 🙂 One of my projects was this; to make the logo for one of the groups I co-facilitate. The group is called The Gap, and is for same-sex attracted women aged between 18 – 40. Hence the ‘gay rainbow’ represented in the tail feathers (traditionally using only 6 colours) for this bird of happiness. This work has been made with ink on archival paper, the bright colours are Chinese style ink paints which are beautiful and vibrant. The bird’s body is inspired by traditional henna designs.

Draft one of our postcard advertising the group can be viewed here.

Queer – loves books, rats

It’s been a hell of a journey I’ve been on, clichéd as that word has become. Claiming my sexuality has been stressful, frightening, and wonderful. I was in the library the other day, looking up resources for the dreaded Concept Development project on food. Thinking laterally, I flick through books about sex looking for information about supposed aphrodisiacs or games involving food. I find a book called the Lesbian Karma Sutra and add it to my growing collection to borrow. One of my local libraries has recently extended their maximum book allowance to 40, as a result I had to buy extra green carry bags from them this day. I’m aware of a tension between the old rules – that a book like this was forbidden – and the new world – where I can publicly acknowledge my interest in the topic. There’s a sense of reclaiming territory that should have been mine all along, that should never have been fenced off.

Of course, the one book that refuses to scan at the self-service checkout is the Lesbian Karma Sutra. I put on my brave face and go up to the librarian and look her in the eye and ask her to scan it through for me. I refuse to be intimidated! I do however, walk to the desk with the older female librarian rather than the older male. Not that liberated yet!

I’m loving spending time with other queer people, especially women. I have gay male friends but very few female. It’s been wonderful to meet other people and flesh out what have been mostly media-informed stereotypes in my mind. My initial sense of being totally out of my depth and uncertain is making way for a new sense of confidence and enjoyment. I love the company of these women, and I treasure feeling accepted by them. I’m also becoming ever more passionate about making safe spaces for queer people.

That’s not to say there haven’t been some interesting experiences. One day recently, I had a huge stressful day at work, dashed home to change and dress up – trying to find that line between just enough to look good and fit in and not so much that it looks like I think I’m on a date or trying too hard… gawd it’s like being a teenager again, worried you’ve got lipstick on your teeth and playing nervously with your hair. I drive off to a group I’m meeting up with. I’m nervous and excited and hypersensitive and jumpy. Watching them watching me watching them… wondering if any of these new friends have read any of my blog and if so what they thought about the crazy new group member or if that’s a conversation yet to happen, wrestling with a bra, my nicest one, whose straps climb off my shoulders every few minutes, and slightly freezing as we’re meeting in a big, cold hall.

A new member turns up with a pet rat tucked in her jacket and I can’t resist – I love rats. I wait patiently for a cuddle of him, he’s big and placid and sweet. He also quietly pees all down my jacket front. So, having gone through the anxious process of trying to dress up but not dress up too much – to work out which part wants to attend (the same one as last time or take turns? – this affects which outfit gets chosen) and the ramifications of that choice, trying to be friendly without over-sharing and fit in without pretending to be anyone I’m (we’re) not… I’m now sitting on the floor with all the carefully made choices about how I present myself to a new group of queer/lesbian friends rather foiled by the fact that I am wearing rat piss perfume.

After some thought, I give back the rat reluctantly, strip off my jumper as if I’m not cold, surreptitiously pat my tee-shirt to check if it’s wet, decide I’ve got away with it and finish out the evening. And laugh half the way home. Life is surreal! 🙂

Healing

Things have been going so well lately. Not perfect, (not manic), not without some confusion and struggle, but still; flying. Being ‘out’, especially as bi, is finally not just traumatic. It is liberating. I’m having positive dreams! Beautiful dreams, sad dreams, dreams of how things might have been for me growing up, if it had been safe to fall in love with women. Dreams that make my heart ache, make me cry when I wake up, curl back the curtain and cry in the golden light that spills onto my bed. Dreams of spring, blossoms on tree branches, light falling through orchards and curtains rippling in the cool air. Dreams that heal.

I’ve written before here about having ‘ugly days’, where my self perception is so destroyed I hate and loathe myself with an unbearable intensity.

I’ve been having ‘beautiful days’. Days I love what I see in the mirror, days where I dance, where my heart soars.

I feel like a little battery hen that has come at last to a world of green grass and blue sky and endless horizons.

It’s been a week since the psychosis workshop with Rufus May and my voice has been so quiet, but I can feel her, there’s no sense of absence or loss, I can feel her like a warmth in my chest, like a cat curled up tight around my heart. I am ecstatic.

I’m under no illusions, the work with this voice may not be done, there will be backsteps and bad days and times again of confusion and distress.

But, to make such a giant leap forward, after so many years of struggle… empowered really isn’t a strong enough word for how I feel. Perhaps hope is.

There’s been a lot of work happening over the past few weeks, so much thinking and remembering and making connections. Unpicking locks and following string into labyrinths. Coming to understand the things that trap me, the monsters that savage me, the ties that bind. Moving further into freedom and health. Feeling the sun on my face and the rain on my skin and being able to smell the cut grass in my yard. Washing off layers of secrets and shame like oil slicks. Feeling my system come alive, like a carousel turning with music and lights, that deep dreaming start up again, the wells flow with poems.