When We Are Silent We Are Still Afraid, We Speak Up to Survive: An Interview with Julie


In the second installment of the “Your Voice is Beautiful” series, Earth First! activist and writer Loki interviews fellow comrade Julie Henry about her abusive relationship with Rod Coronado, well-known animal rights activist and environmentalist of Wolf Patrol.  To learn more about this interview or Earth First!, click here.  Thank you Loki and Julie for letting me share this piece in The Possible World.  Your story will help so many people.

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By Loki of Earth First!

Content Warning: Sexual Assault, Backlash, Victim Blaming

2015 is the year that rape culture, a buzz word that has been rattling around in my brain for over a decade, took on a whole new meaning. I watched story after story about rape or abuse unfold. Steubenville. Jimmy Saville. Bill Cosby. Jian Ghomeshi. Julian Assange. Most of those names mean something to all of the women and femmes I know. Many of us shared news articles, used hashtags, got sucked into furious Facebook flame wars. For once, the mainstream media seemed to be as saturated with stories of sexual assault as my personal world often is. In the midst of all this, I heard that people were coming forward and sharing stories about Rod Coronado’s violent, unsafe behavior. It felt like a familiar tale; I (and many other women and trans folks) had come forward in the early 2000s with our own experiences of being sexually assaulted or abused by fellow environmental activists. Time and time again, the reputations of men are protected at the expense of safety for women, trans, and gender-nonconforming people. All of this is still very present and real inside our own Earth First! circles, as we try to figure out how best to show up for survivors and make our movements better equipped to challenge abusive behavior.

In 2014 a crew of folks tried to call out Rod Coronado, a well-known animal and earth liberation activist. They felt he had been violent and threatening towards his ex-wife Chrysta. They had also heard stories of predatory behavior towards younger women. A movement-wide call-out seemed necessary because they believed he was a risk to women in the environmental movement. The Earth First! activists they reached out to about this in the summer of 2014 didn’t share this information with the wider community. A renewed effort was made later that year, and an email warning people about Rod began circulating in early 2015. Around that time, Julie, a “new guard” EF! activist, came forward with an experience of being sexually assaulted by Rod in November 2014. A few months later, Julie shared her experiences in a statement that was circulated over email and social media. Being open about her experiences was an act of solidarity with all the other women out there who have survived sexual or physical violence. She has received a mixture of support and vitriol, as have others who helped call Rod out.

In the spring of 2015, Julie approached the EF!J Collective about sharing her statement on theNewswire, but they didn’t follow through on her request. I approached Julie because I wanted to help her share her story with a wider audience. We asked the Journal Collective to revisit their previous decision to not share Julie’s experiences on the Newswire. They agreed to do so after hearing input from other survivors and allies in the community. Her interview should serve as a wake-up call to all of us to renew our commitment to challenging cultures of abuse in our own networks and organizations.

Loki: What led you to get involved in Earth First!?

Julie: Before I was an activist, I was a researcher. My background is in biology and environmental science, and I have a degree in wildlife biology and field biological techniques. After I graduated from college, I got an opportunity to do research for a wildlife agency in Vermont. I would spend weeks at a time in the field conducting environmental impact studies. On occasion, I would write environmental impact statements. To make a long story short, I soon became disillusioned with what I was doing, and I came to the realization that Fish and Wildlife is nothing more than a government hunting club on the side of the exploiters. Meanwhile I’m watching as oil companies and corporations are literally eating the planet and destroying what I thought I would be protecting. Fast-forward a bit, I quit and became an activist. 2009 to 2010 I spent in Southeast Asia doing undercover work on the black market wildlife trade. I would love to write an article on that some day. Fast-forward more, I’m back in the States. A year later I’m part of the Tar Sands Actions civil disobedience arrests in DC, which led me to meet more activists, and a year later I’m involved with the Tar Sands Blockade and EF!. Those are the cliff notes.

Why did you join Wolf Patrol?

I first heard about Wolf Patrol in the summer of 2014, and it came at a time in my life when I was looking to get involved in something again. I had just had a split from a partner and lost my community at the same time. I was vulnerable. I had never met Rod before, but Wolf Patrol felt like another chance to protect wildlife where I had failed in the past. I was really looking for a campaign to throw myself into.

The following is an excerpt from the statement you put out last year: “My boundaries became less and less respected and his touching became more … for his own gratification. There were nights I would wake up to my body being touched and fondled. There was no more checking in, but it was all on me to push him off and tell him no. I could tell he was becoming increasingly more irritated with me. My anxiety didn’t go unnoticed by one of the other Wolf Patrol members. And when she asked me what was going on, I confided in her. It got so bad that finally I took him aside and told him it had to stop. I told him what it was doing to me emotionally. Shortly after, his entire demeanor towards me changed. I should have realized then what was going on. Then a few nights later, it happened. My most triggering boundary, where all my trauma surrounds, was violated.” How did Rod react when you talked with him about the experiences mentioned in this statement?

It took me hours to work up the courage to confront him about it. I really had no idea how he would react. I was completely terrified, so when I finally did have my moment, all I could say was “Why? Why did you do that to me?” What’s strange is that he didn’t even act shocked that I had just accused him of raping me. He pretty much just dismissed it like it was funny to him. He told me that what I was telling him was “impossible.” As if I should have been honored. Then he told me that I was being too emotional and that he wasn’t going to talk to me until I calmed down. That I was being demanding of him by taking up his precious time to talk to him about this. Then he left. Left me alone with the only two other remaining team members to finish up the campaign in Montana, while he went home. Twelve hours later he called me to “discuss the matter,” which was really him telling me how I had wanted it, because he would never do anything that I didn’t want. And it was very clear from his tone that me talking about this anymore would not go well for me. Then he went on to tell me that he had decided that we didn’t have good chemistry. I was stunned. I don’t even remember how I responded, if I even responded at all. I wanted to say, “You think, you fucking asshole!?” But I didn’t. Then I felt the most acute loneliness and isolation in the acceptance that I wasn’t going to pursue this matter any more. I knew it would hurt more trying to seek accountability from someone who was so clearly telling me that he would never be accountable.

 

I can definitely understand why you felt silenced after Rod told you it would be best all around if you kept quiet. I know there’s also been some discussion about why you didn’t go to the police. Did pressing charges feel like an option for you?

Absolutely not. And I’m really glad you brought this up. What has really been hurtful and baffling is some of the responses I’ve gotten over how I reacted in the aftermath of this situation: “Rod is innocent until proven guilty in a court-of-law;” “If this really happened then why didn’t she go to the police?” Or, “You should really think twice about talking about such serious criminal actions without proof,” paraphrasing something from Rod himself. The baffling part is that the people who are criticizing me for not going to the police are people who have been in the movement actively fighting against police and state repression for decades. What would they be saying if I had gone to the police? So my question to them is this: Why do you throw survivors under the bus when movement insiders commit the horrific acts you claim to stand against? In a community where we as survivors are told not to go to the police, where we have a completely different version of “justice,” what do we have to do? What are you bringing to us as an alternative? I’m not supposed to go to the police, but there’s also no safe alternative that I have. I can’t even speak up without knowing I will be attacked. No, I absolutely did not consider going to the police. Of course the whole police/state repression issue was the last thing on my mind immediately after. I had an even greater fear. My team. What would they say? What would they do? I was in the wilderness, alone with these people. I didn’t trust the police, I didn’t trust the community of hunters who had been threatening us, and I didn’t trust my team. By not going to the police, I felt like I was protecting myself from a whole circus of shame. I wasn’t ready to lose control over my situation. By doing nothing I was at least still in control. No, going to the police was just not an option.

It makes a lot of sense that you’d want to remain in control of the situation at that point. It sounds like you might have been in a really vulnerable position. What happened after you confronted Rod? Were you able to talk to other people in the campaign about your experiences with him?

Even before that night, I had confided in one of the girls in the campaign that Rod had been making me uncomfortable. He’d been pressuring me more and more, and when I didn’t give in, he’d either ignore me or treat me like I wasn’t valued anymore. So after I had confronted Rod and had him react the way he did, I was completely devastated and probably in a state of shock. I couldn’t have hidden the fact that I was not OK, even if I was greatest actor in the world. So I confided to the rest of the crew. At first I believed that they were supportive and had my back, but over the next few days, that all changed. Towards the end, the bullying had escalated to a point that I felt so unsafe that I called Rod to get me out of that situation. It was the biggest mind fuck I’d experienced yet. I now depended on him for my safety and well being. That’s when I really think certain parts of me shut down completely. Rod rescued me from them and I was relieved to see him. I went back to his house and spent the next few days there before I left to stay with friends in Kalamazoo. I went back to his house. I stayed in his bed. Sometimes I still hate myself for that.

That sounds like such a tough spot to be in, to have to rely on Rod because you felt bullied by someone else. I wish people would realize how often women or trans people have to make those kinds of decisions when they’re struggling to keep themselves safe and come to terms with the traumatic nature of what happened to them. Were your friends in Kalamazoo more supportive?

I didn’t tell them. By the time I was in Kalamazoo, I had convinced myself that it was my fault, that I deserved it, that I was garbage. What kind of a victim goes back to their abuser anyway? I was traumatized by the bullying and it felt less complicated to talk about that than it did the assault. I still had a lot of shame about it and had now been conditioned to keep my mouth shut. Even for a long time afterwards, I still wanted to organize with Wolf Patrol and was crushed when I was told I wasn’t welcome back. It’s actually hard thinking back to that time in Kalamazoo because I was trying so hard to be OK. My friends there were wonderful but I know I was clearly depressed. Even for months afterwards, I found myself breaking down multiple times a day. I tried to keep it under control. I do remember one specific incident when we were all painting a banner and I just suddenly became overwhelmed. I declared to everyone that I was excusing myself so I could fill up the tub and have a cry bath. (Never underestimate the power of a good cry bath.)

It sounds like it was hard to feel comfortable sharing your experiences. I know a lot of survivors struggle with that, because they are afraid of not being believed or of being judged for how they responded to the abuse. A lot of the survivor advocates I’ve spoken with talk about why it’s important to support and validate survivors who do come forward. They feel that doing this will create a culture where people feel safe sharing their experiences of abuse. Why did you feel it was important to tell more people about what happened?

Not only is there so much fear about not being believed but there’s so much shame associated with it. To make the decision to speak up, you know that all your sins from the past will be thrown back in your face. I had absolutely no plans to come forward, especially not publicly, but it wasn’t until a while later someone approached me and very bluntly asked me if something had happened, if Rod had done something to me. And I broke down. I was tired of keeping it a secret. I feel like I need to say this: I don’t think I ever would have told anyone, had she not directly asked me. And it frightens me to think about that. She encouraged me to reach out to a few former Wolf Patrol teammates who had left the campaign due to issues with Rod. I think she may have told them because it felt like they already knew, which to be honest, made it easier for me.

It was during a conference call with them (former Wolf Patrol team) that they asked if they could talk to others about what happened. I was hesitant for at least a week, knowing that once it was out, whatever amount of control I had would be over. That itself was terrifying. I knew I was going to be attacked if it was public, and I needed time to consider all the ramifications.

That week I came across an article about a woman who’d been assaulted and she never said anything. Then later a woman in her town had committed suicide, and in her letter she implicated the [same] person who had been assaulting her. I called them immediately after and told them, “Yes, you can share my story.” Silence helps no one. Silence protects abuse. I was helping no one by staying silent.

It sounds like you were afraid of the negative repercussions of speaking out, but you wanted to warn other women about Rod so that they wouldn’t have the same experiences as you. That feels like real bravery to me! I know that there has been backlash against you and people supporting you. Do you have any examples of that?

Besides being called a liar, crazy, psycho, I’ve been labeled a snitch, an informant, accused of using COINTELPRO tactics, and at one point Rod even accused me of being an agent directly working for lawmakers “targeting my work.” That one was actually kinda cute. There’s now a rumor going around that I recanted the whole story. There’s also an attorney who’s been actively creating a climate of fear and threatening others who wanted to talk about it. Not only was I being labeled all these things, but so was anyone who supported me.

Are you aware of other people who have had similar experiences with Rod? And have you been able to connect with any of them?

Chrysta (Rod’s ex-wife) is the only one. So far. And it was probably the most validating experience, not that I needed someone else to validate what had happened to me, but just having her reach out to me and tell me that she believes me. She’s really been an angel to me.

Many survivors talk about having to leave their communities or organizations after they’ve been assaulted because of the backlash they experience. In activist communities, this means that we are losing a lot of really powerful, outspoken activists after they are assaulted. In this sense, the abuse itself, and the backlash that these survivors (the majority of whom are women and/ or trans people) and their allies get in the aftermath is a form of repression. It deters them from staying involved, just like state harassment or violence deters some people from getting involved with or staying involved in grassroots activism. Has what happened with Rod impacted your ability to continue to organize with Earth First!?

One of the first consequences was being kicked out of Wolf Patrol, a campaign I really wanted to be a part of, because Rod wields so much power. But I’ve been more afraid to organize anywhere, because Rod has so many friends and supporters. I live with that as a constant fear. Certain Wolf Patrol members have been virulently, actively trying to destroy my reputation and it’s scary. It’s really really frightening.

Have there been any attempts to hold Rod accountable or do any kind of accountability process with him?

All I have is secondhand information. I want to make something very clear, because there’s been a lot of different stories: When asked if I wanted to pursue an accountability process with Rod, I said no, because number one, he’s not going to be held accountable. I believe he will continue to deny it, and I’m not going to put anyone through the abuse. Nobody’s got time for that shit! So I made it clear that I wasn’t actively seeking a process, because his first response was to make me believe it was my fault. He’s also extremely manipulative.

Are there any final thoughts you wanted to share?

Yes. Sexual assault and harassment have been something I’ve dealt with most of my life. I’m sure this is something that many womyn can relate to. It became normalized. I handled it by trying to ignore it and move on. But this is not a single horrible event womyn suffer once in their lifetime. It’s an epidemic. Something I started to notice after speaking up about what Rod did to me is that men hate rape. Let me rephrase that: Men hate the word “rape.” It takes the onus off of survivors and points the finger directly at who is responsible. Men who commit rape. Rapists.

The problem with our culture is that people—men, and even some womyn—believe that rape is a very specific crime. Rape is only rape when a survivor is abducted against their will, by a stranger in the dark. It can’t be rape if they knew their rapist. It can’t be rape if the survivor had consensual sex any other time in her life. These lies are damaging, but they stem from misogyny and patriarchy that still leads our culture. These lies take someone who is already traumatized and dumps the shame and guilt on them when it belongs to the one who committed the crime. To everyone who has supported me (and there have been many): a huge thank you! I could not have ever done this without you! To those who would rather I not have spoken out publicly, I’ll make you a deal. Get off of your computer and do something to stop these crimes from happening to womyn. Call men out when you see sexist behavior. Call your friends out when they participate in it. Make it socially unacceptable for men to abuse and oppress us. If you do that for me, then I won’t have to. Until then, I won’t be silenced. To anyone who has ever been hurt by Rod or men like him, you have a voice. Abuse and oppression thrive on silence. People like Rod thrive on silence. Fuck them. Fuck him. Speak your truth.

Please visit youcaring.com/support-for-julie for more informationon how you can support Julie.

Loki is an artist-storyteller and PhD student currently residing in unceded Coast Salish Territories. They have a background in forest defense and feminist/queer community organizing. A central focus of their research and praxis is the history of anti-oppression and safer space organizing within forest defense in the early 2000s. Contact them via their website or twitter at lokiera.wordpress.com or twitter.com/kjandersons

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Your Voice is Beautiful: Open Statement to Survivors and Allies


*** Trigger Warning: This message contains descriptions of assault****

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By Julie Henry

“and when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcomed but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive.”   

— Audre Lorde, A Litany for Survival

 

There has been a lot of specific conversation surrounding sexual assault within our community recently, and now I’m coming forward with my own voice to talk about my experience. This message is for survivors and those who want to support survivors. It is you I have in my heart as I write.

My name is Julie and I was sexually assaulted by Rod Coronado.

This assault didn’t happen in a dark alley. He didn’t grab me by the hair and shove me into a closet and put his hand over my mouth (that would be easier to comprehend, easier to forgive myself).  It happened within the campaign Wolf Patrol, while organizing in the field. Rod was my friend. I thought we had established a great working relationship. I thought he respected me as a comrade, that we got shit done together. He was my friend. That’s what makes this so incomprehensible.

He was my friend. 

Before Wolf Patrol, I had been in a nearly two-year relationship with someone I loved very much. I struggled so hard to be able to be intimate with him, even going to multiple counselors. My PTSD and trauma surrounding past sexual violence affected my relationship with someone I LOVED. Even with him, who was so encouraging, supportive, and did everything he could to let me know he wasn’t going to hurt me, that he cared about me, my trauma affected us everyday. Eventually it played a big role in our relationship coming to an end. That was the last time I remember what it was like to feel sexually safe.

So once Rod had made his intentions of wanting to pursue something with me known, I disclosed to him that I was a survivor. I’m not sure if I told him that I struggled with PTSD, but I told him the specifics of my triggers, what I needed to feel safe in an intimate relationship, and what my boundaries were. There’s no way to misunderstand “I’m triggered by sex”, “I have a lot of trauma around sex, so just don’t right now.”

But as the campaign continued, my boundaries became less and less respected and his touching became more….for his own gratification. There were nights I would wake up to my body being touched and fondled. There was no more checking in, but it was all on me to push him off and tell him no.  I could tell he was becoming increasingly more irritated with me. My anxiety didn’t go unnoticed by one of the other Wolf Patrol members. And when she asked me what was going on, I confided in her. It got so bad that finally I took him aside and told him it had to stop. I told him what it was doing to me emotionally. Shortly after, his entire demeanor towards me changed. I should have realized then what was going on.

Then a few nights later, it happened:  my most triggering boundary, where all my trauma surrounds, was violated.  I hid in the bathroom for almost two hours in utter disbelief. I was shocked and confused. The next morning, when I finally worked up the courage to confront him about it—to ask him why he did that to me—his reaction was silencing, dismissive, and gaslighting. He told me I was being irrational, emotional, and disrespectful, that what I was telling him was “impossible” and he wasn’t going to talk to me until I calmed down. But then twelve hours later, he came back to me with his own version. He told me that I had wanted it. That he would never do anything I didn’t want.

So that was it.  I had asked for it. His response was to tell me what I was feeling (because he said so) and that was that.

When I confided in two Wolf Patrol team members, the response I got from them wasn’t what I was looking for or needed. I began to wonder if maybe it really was my fault, that somehow I really did ask for it.  I was devastated. I was heartbroken. I was shut down.  So I kept quiet. In the environment I was in, my safety and well-being depended on me keeping my mouth shut.

And I stayed silent for months. I told myself I would never speak about what happened, that there was no point asking for accountability from someone who refused to even acknowledge what he did to me—even when I confronted him about it. I was ashamed I allowed it to happen.  The thought of disclosing what happened was too terrifying.  I didn’t want to be re-traumatized and I certainly didn’t feel like dealing with the scrutiny, victim-blaming, criticism.

But looking back, I never had any hope of having my own agency inside the campaign.  I was there to fulfill a very specific role Rod had for me. No one deserves what happened to me. I know if I had never spoken out, it would happen to someone else. This didn’t start with me, and it certainly won’t end with me either. I know I will never heal from this by silently letting it happen to someone else.

And so here is my story. I am sharing this publicly thru my own voice for the first time to encourage others to speak up. Survivors—I want you to understand that you DID NOT ask for, or deserve what happened. DO NOT listen to criticism over how you handled the situation. You did what you had to survive the territory. You did what you had to do just to make it thru each day that followed. Do not listen to anyone who criticizes you for staying silent, or speaking out. Do not listen to anyone who feels compelled to judge how you should or should not have handled your situation. You are doing exactly what you need to do: survive. You are stronger than you think, and YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

And allies—I want to be careful to not speak on behalf of other survivors, but to make it clear I am speaking only from my own experience.  Breaking the silence can be, in many ways, just as scary as “those moments.” It can feel like handing over the narrative for your peers to tear apart and scrutinize as they see fit. You no longer have control over what happens or what is said about you. That’s why it’s easy to convince yourself to stay silent. There’s power and control in what is secret. Once you speak up, it’s out of your hands. Power is effectively gone……again. It’s even more scary if your abuser is a well-known character in the community. You are well-aware that backlash may be brutal and cruel. Your very integrity as a human being may be torn to shreds by supporters of the perpetrator who refuse to believe that their friend could possibly do such a thing.  Doors slam in your face, and opportunities that are associated with friends of your abuser are lost. The consequences of telling far exceed the benefits of keeping it to yourself.

For all these reasons, you don’t reach out. For your own safety you begin to operate under the assumption that most people won’t believe you. Silence from friends = they must be against you. Trust was what made you vulnerable to be assaulted. So again trust = bad. Isolation feels safer.

If you know and want to support someone who has opened up about being assaulted, here are some steps you can take: gently reach out and let them know you care, because we will probably be too afraid to reach out to you. Tell them you believe them because they may assume that most people do not.  Those words are more powerful than you can ever know. Ask them what they want, and let them know it’s totally ok if they don’t know yet. If there is some kind of process happening around the incident, let them know what’s going on. Don’t make them have to ask. Reestablishing trust is about opening up communication. If you can no longer be there for someone, be honest about it, but help them find someone else they can trust. Never leave them hanging after the world has already upended for them. I can tell you from experience, this WILL cause more damage than what’s already been done. Simply put, just communicate. The most important resource a survivor can have is friendship.

Some of the worst things you can say (not including the obvious victim-blaming) are “That’s between you and him” or “I have too much drama to deal with this,” “I’ve never seen him behave that way,” “I’m just hearing so many different stories,” “Weren’t you in a relationship?” etc. If this is how you feel, then I will put you in the non-support category. It is preferable to hear silence than these condescending and very non-beneficial statements.

We are a community that likes to talk about smashing patriarchy. Here’s a real opportunity to actually deal with our shit. This is a real situation, not hypothetical. It’s not acceptable that assault is this prevalent in our movement. And it’s not acceptable that we still don’t have real ways of dealing with it when it occurs. It’s time to change that now. How many more people have to be hurt? How many more people have to be hurt by one person?

It’s time to take a stand and stop allowing our movement to be a platform for perpetrators. There’s enough danger and trauma out in the world that we’re trying to fight against that we shouldn’t have to be afraid of each other here. Let’s either stop talking about smashing patriarchy and prioritizing keeping people safe, or actually do it.

So speak up everybody. Speak up. You do not have to live in fear and silence. You deserve to have your voice heard. And your voice is beautiful.

-Julie

Survival in Practice


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By Dr. Sekile Nzinga-Johnson

 

I’m typically a chatty Cathy…except for when I’m in pain.

When I was in labor with my children, I was sooooooo quiet. Labor was painful and somehow I intuitively turned inward to survive it. During my first labor and delivery, I remember my grandmother being very worried about me not using medical intervention. She and her bible sat in the corner. She was present and prayerful and I was grateful for her.

Cedric was right beside me and I recall when the pain got so intense I looked at him and said “I don’t think I can do it!!” He looked back at me and said, “Yes, you can”. I turned inward and I did.  I pushed out a 7 lb 15 oz baby boy. It was then that realized that I could survive what was quite surely one of the greatest physical pains that a body can tolerate. I set the terms, no pain killers, a Ghanian fertility doll as a focal point and loved ones present to help me get through. But ultimately, it was me who had to get that baby out of me and had to deal with the pain associated with childbirth.

It was no joke but I felt like a bad ass after.

During labor, it was my silence that was most necessary. I had learned the Lamaze breathing/panting (ineffective) technique, but I just wanted peace and quiet so I could listen to my body and survive the pain. With each childbirth, I refined my desire for intentional silence during labor. I learned Hypno birthing and incorporated affirmations that helped me believe that I could birth my baby. This practice is necessary only because we have been taught to fear our bodies and the child birthing process as well as deny our strength. The hypnotic state was really a deep relaxation and meditative process. It required inward reflection and visualizing a place of peace. Even the verbal prompts Cedric had practiced to help me go deeper into a hypnotic/relaxed state were distracting in the labor process because of my deep desire for silence and turning inward. I needed peace and quiet to survive that pain. No nurses coming in and out poking and prodding, no lights on, no massages. Just me getting through that shit.

Leave me alone.

I birthed an 8 lb 7 oz baby boy that day with very little pushing thanks to a very self-determined little one.  By the time the 3rd labor came along, I was skilled at childbirth and also at knowing which conditions were ideal for me. Silence and solitude during labor! I wanted my support system there, which now included Cedric and the boys. I had the boys with a family friend while I was in labor but they were the 1st ones to hold and see their little sister after she was born. Unfortunately, my midwife did not get the memo about my need for peace and quiet and got on my damned nerves the whole time. She could not accept that I was in charge of my birthing process and kept trying to offer suggestions. Irritated the fuck out of me.

What I have realized is that when I am in pain, deep pain, I hurt too much to explain myself to others. Cedric was my advocate but we could not regain control of the labor and delivery process. I felt disempowered. I recall that process as my worse birthing experience simply because I felt imposed upon and I was not allowed to just lie there and meditate til that baby was ready to come out. She wanted me to shift positions and just kept talking. I needed to just survive the ugly beauty of my pain in peace. Thankfully, a 8 lb 6 oz baby girl blessed me with another quick labor and put me out of my noise induced misery.

I find myself in pain a lot lately. My current pain is not physical–it is psychic, emotional, psychological and spiritual. It still hurts and it’s hard to explain its fullness to others. I tend to retreat into myself during these times. It’s simply too tiring and painful to try to help others get why and how a happily married, mother of 3 beautiful children with a bunch of sister-friends who owns a home, smiles a lot, and is a professor is dealing with anxiety and life long depression. My support team is ready to help—friends call, family members pray, Cedric does the heavy lifting at home and is the affirming spouse that I need in my life. I am grateful.

But I have learned that sometimes I still have to–need to– turn inward to survive my life. Especially when I feel my survival and joy are at risk or are being threatened. It is how I have survived before when there was seemingly no one at my side (go ahead, insert your “but God” here). Turning inward is how I am still here. I need to time to think, to name my pain, and at times go numb to survive it. Turning inward feels safe in this moment. Being in silent solitude through pain also allows me to spiritually ground myself and to store my reserves so I can tackle life as it is dealt. Living in solitude means not having to explain why I stopped listening to someone in the middle of their sentence, or why I am not feeling happy at “happy” moments or why I am not interested in things that typically bring me joy like socializing and exercising and eases some of the pressure. It means not having to cry in public or navigate answering the dreaded question “how are you doing?”

Prayer, meditation, silence, and out of body robot mode—have helped me survive before, in beautiful times like during childbirth and in horrific times, like during child sexual abuse.  I won’t stay forever but this is where I am in this moment.

This is survival.

 

“Survival in Practice”  was reposted in The Possible World with Dr. Nzinga-Johnson’s permission.  Readers can find this piece and others on her Blogger.com blog, I usta be monique.

 

Courage with a Pen: Fighting Rape Culture with Writing


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By Shermeeka Mason

 

As I write this, my eyes burn with fatigue.

My body is tired, but my spirit and mind are alert, yet bothered by both past and recent events.

It all started earlier this week when I hung out with a friend of mine.  While we were talking, I found out that a local radical we both dated moderated a discussion about misogyny in the Rochester radical community.

Needless to say, I was floored and somewhat sickened by this piece of information.  The guy in question not only uses a well-known community space and political events to cruise for find potential sex partners, but uses poly and labels such as Pansexual and Demisexual as an excuse to sleep with them. In fact, he is one of the reasons why I don’t attend that space.

I knew this because he and I dated for three weeks.  He approached me after an organization meeting and I thought he was genuinely interested in me. I found out over the course of time, however, that he was more comfortable being a “friend with benefits” than my long-term partner.  This was AFTER I shared with him my history with sexual trauma.

Around the same time, pictures, news articles, and think pieces about Brock Turner continuously showed up in my newsfeed. Turner is the former Stanford University swimmer who was arrested and sentenced to six months in county jail for raping an unconscious young woman last year. I went through a plethora of emotions as his blank expression and blood shot eyes stared back at me time and again, burning into a mind already fogged by medication-induced insomnia.  His father’s letter and the judge’s leniency on the Turner further perplexed and angered me due to the gross lack of accountability.

In addition to all of this, a friend of mine spoke up against their rapist, a prominent Black radical in their community.  Though this young man violated them, it was my friend who was banned from Facebook for forty-eight hours for just posting a picture of their perpetrator!  What bothered me was that they were one of many who were sexually assaulted by an activist and/or pillar of the community.

So between this fact, the constant coverage of the Stanford rape case, learning of the hypocritical behavior of the so-called radical I dated last month, and the lack of adequate sleep, I broke down crying.  This recent chain of events pushed me back to Saturday, February 7, 2015 when I traveled to Peekskill, New York to visit Alec and Sharon, a poly couple I met online a year prior.  What was was supposed to be our last romantic weekend together turned out to be one of the most traumatizing.  This couple not only joked about me being dead, but crossed boundaries that involved Alec hitting my body with a crop and threatening to hit me in the face with it.  To this day, I can’t talk about that night without having panic attacks and flashbacks.

Without feeling ashamed.

The shame was one of the reasons why I remained silent about the assault in Peekskill for the most part. In fact, this was the reason why I kept quiet about how I was treated by the local activist I dated.  And I thought that just keeping quiet and going about my life, would let forget what happened.  Forget about all of them.

But I can’t.  My own PTSD won’t allow me to.  The flashbacks, panic attacks, and wave of emotions won’t let them get away with it—won’t grant me the desire to distance myself from the fact that I allowed myself to succumb to my self-blame and their gaslighting.

So as exhausted as I am, I write this passage because I’m mentally and emotionally done with seeing victims of sexual assault not believed by the media and judicial system.  Done with hearing stories about perpetrators in radical clothing lingering around within the community to somehow seek sexual gratification and then have the nerve to occupy spaces not created for them.  Done with domineering sexual perpetrators using the polyamorous lifestyle to traumatize others.

In other words, I am done with rape culture.

And I’m done shielding myself from it.  That’s why I have my pen, my laptop, and my books at my disposal—so these tools can be utilized to at least talk about what rape culture is doing to people and to our society.  I cannot and will not allow my perpetrators and ex-partners to frighten me or continue to get away with how they treated me and possibly others.  Writing is my way of holding them accountable for what they have done.  And if someone reads this and relates to it somehow, then my experiences served a purpose.

 

What Separates Me from Normal: Surviving PTSD


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By Delaney McLemore

 

A four letter label is what separates me from normal: PTSD—Post-traumatic stress Disorder.

But it’s a misnomer if it’s anything – let’s break it down. Post – the past, something that has already happened. Traumatic – something that has caused trauma, significant damage, pain (be it mental or physical or both). Stress – that force in our lives that constantly makes us feel like what we have and are is not enough, not befitting of our believed possible life. Disorder – the state of being that is outside what is normal, what is accepted, what is right.

So I’m past something that hurt me that shouldn’t have happened and rearranged my life.

But that pesky past…

This week, every possible media outlet is sharing the aftermath of a rape case in southern California. The survivor’s letter that was read to the attacker has been an incessant feature of the news cycle. I have shared it. My friends are sharing it. We’re reading her story with a lump in our throats and our own attacker’s breath on our ears.

The first day I read the letter was the one-year anniversary of when I was last raped by a professor at Oregon State University. On June 4th, 2015, at four o’clock in the morning, I was forced awake by someone I trusted, whose couch I was trying to sleep on, by his hands taking mine in his own and placing them on his body. That part. In my mind, it is foggy, amorphous, blacked out by some force of my defense mechanisms. I wasn’t drunk or high, like the times it had happened before, but my mind isn’t able to clearly see him.

I see me.

And when I read about women like the woman in California, or like Terry Mitchell in Utah, or Larkin Grimm in New York (and on and on; there are hundreds of incredible, vocal survivors), I see myself. Again. Crouched in pain against his entry. Standing in his bathroom as his sperm slipped to the floor. Staring at the gun closet as he told me, “You have to, it’s never been this big.” I see my nurse between my legs, near tears as she measures the bruises on my back, thighs, pubic bone.

I can’t stop seeing this day.

Sometimes, I make it worse for myself, clicking on the articles about attackers willy-nilly, this one in Texas, this one Oklahoma, this one Oregon. The detective in my case suggests books about surviving and I focus on the parts where people tell their stories. They sound so much like mine.

I have an illness that keeps my mind in a place it hates to be, in the past where I cannot avoid the hurt that has been inflicted upon me over and over and over again. I cannot say how many men have raped me. That is a hideous truth. But every time I see something, anything, about sexual violence or rape culture or surviving, I am put back in that space, every time it happened to me. I remember my friend’s brother, pulling out his gun from his waistband. I see the ex-boyfriends who thought they were owed my form. I hear the closest people to me saying, “It’s not your fault.”

And it wasn’t. Just like the woman in the Stanford case. There is no part of this that falls on us. As much as the deluge of stories, think pieces, reports about her experience hurts me, puts me in the worst part of my illness, I know how powerful it is. I’m willing to be triggered for her, to help her. I’m willing to compromise the safety of my habits in order to share what has happened.

I’m mentally ill. It’s completely terrifying a huge part of the time. When I lose control to the dark of my memory, I feel like I am no longer myself, that something has fallen away. I fight the people I love, scream about justice, scream at God for what he failed to provide. And I don’t have the power to say when these moments will come and go, as I can’t control the world around me. I’ve tried. It’s not possible.

I will probably be fighting that dark for several years. There are small acts of self-preservation that I’ve learned how to do – leaving parties, drinking less, taking care of my apartment. I use the tapping method in order to calm panic attacks. I learn something about this illness every day.

What I learned through processing the Stanford case is that there are no limits to the depths of my rage. Anger is a power that I didn’t realize I had. I’ve spent so long ignoring how I felt or wallowing in the sadness that anger never had room to grow, only coming out in lashes towards those who still loved me. I couldn’t see how anger could help me survive.

The woman in Stanford has given me that anger back. And it’s not just to the men who raped me or Brock Turner, the man who raped her. I am furious with the way we have let this become our society. I am furious with the capitulations we have made to toxic masculinity. I am furious with the way that men are still able to rule our lives, to be more powerful and worth more than we are.

Brock Turner is made to be. My rapist was made to be. So was the first that attacked me.

This cannot be the way we go forward.

I think back to the definition of my illness, a point past a bad thing where life cannot be ever what it was. It’s simplified, of course, but it demonstrates so well the way that life after violence is lived. I can’t go back to who I was before these men hurt me.

But I can go forward.

And I will fight.

Going on Hiatus: What I’m Learning Through Celibacy


“I tend to agree that celibacy for a time is worth considering, for sex is dirty if all it means is winning a man, conquering a woman, beating someone out of something, abusing each other’s dignity in order to prove that I am a man, I am a woman.”

Toni Cade Bambara, author

 

Today I’m scrolling through my newsfeed on Facebook when something one of my friend’s posted catches my attention.

It’s a clip from My Mad Fat Diary, a British television series about a young girl named Rae who is released from a psychiatric ward.  I haven’t watched it recently, but I do consider it one of the best teen shows I’ve ever been introduced to.  It touches upon everything from Rae’s going through: self-harming, body issues, fitting into a society and a time period that doesn’t discuss certain issues openly (the show is set in the 90s—the year of Brownstreet and Oasis).

And then there’s her relationship with her boyfriend, Finn Nelson.

Well, speaking of him, he’s lying on Rae’s bed in the clip.  While Rae herself is mentally agonizing over whether Finn is even able to pleasure her sexually, he seems to do by massaging her clitoris with this thumb.  Not only is Rae’s surprised by the fact that he could pleasure her, but she describes the moment with a comedic, yet genuine innocence as dubs Finn a Sex Wizard.

After watching the clip, I think about it the majority of the day.  If anything, I think about Rae’s reaction to her boyfriend’s touch, her words, the look on her face as she imagines the universe as she enjoys as describes their experience with the act.  Correction:  her experience.  I witness her genuine connection with Finn—one that is proves to be important to her regardless of the nature of their interactions.

It’s also something that I wish I’ve been granted when I was her age.

At the age of five, my aunt Joyce introduces me to porn she somehow steals from my uncle Tony.  As she closes the door, I’d plop down on her bed and follow her every move when she slides the tape into the VCR.  Soon we would both watch these adults, these complete strangers do things to one another my young mind cannot comprehend.  I remember feeling the thrill of doing something secretive, forbidden despite the fear of being caught.  But we never are; by age eight, I begin watching Joyce and my cousin Chuckie having sex after I ask if I could.  By the age of ten, she would have sex with me because I too wish to do what those strangers in the videos have done.

I don’t know what I’m doing, to be honest.  I just know that it feels good and it’s the first time I am not beaten, ridiculed or yelled at for little to no reason.  It’s shameful, but it’s quiet.  And I feel something else: beautiful.  I’ve been called and perceived as ugly throughout my entire childhood and into my adult years.  So whenever I have sex, I feel that I can finally consider myself physically attractive enough to catch someone’s attention.

I chase that feeling for many years, engaging in unhealthy sexual relationships—sometimes using little to no protection.  I would meet complete strangers online or bring them back to my apartment to have sex. I’d travel long distances just to be with partners who would emotionally harm me in the long run.  I’d use sex in order to maintain “intimate” relationships with people I wish to actually be with and would become next to suicidal when things fall apart.  I’m not completely innocent in any of this.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve harassed, cursed out and even verbally assaulted someone I’ve been with—especially if they moved on to someone else.

The worst of my behavior has occurred in my early 20s.

Fast forward to 2016. I decide to become celibate after growing tired of the emotional and mental stress that comes with being sexual for all the wrong reasons.  I’ve tried it before in my 20s, but my fear of never having sex again prevents me from going longer than a month.  But after not seeing my sexual partner for about a month and constantly feeling as if I’m trying to mold him into the monogamist he could never be, I tell him that I don’t want to be with him—or anyone else—until further notice.

Since becoming celibate two months ago, I notice a trend:  the mere thought of having sex with another person causes me anxiety and depression. Even cuddling with someone is very much out of the question and the most I can do these days is a hug.  When I had been sexually active, I would use sex as a means to connect, feel disconnected from my body.  In my mind, it has never belonged to me, but to the person (or people) I am “with.”  But because I’m becoming more protective of my body, I find that I don’t trust my intentions or that of the other person when it comes to touching. When people hug me for long periods, I wonder if they are doing so to sexualize me or take possession of my body…of me.

At the same time, I feel and recognize the power of having a choice.  And my choice is to find out who I am without this need to connect through sexual contact.  It is only when I watch the clip featuring Rae and Finn that I’m further reminded that all I wish to do is experience love making with someone I love and on my own terms once I’ve healed from the sexual trauma.

I’m sharing all the gory details, Readers, not only for therapeutic reasons but because you too deserve and have the right to experience sex your way and at your own volition.  You have every right to not give someone access to your body, mind and your very core unless you feel comfortable—regardless of your gender and that of those who wish to have your time.

 

 

 

 

What Dreams Speak


Last night, I have a strange dream.

For one, I am not even my friend’s home where I live now, but in a house for the mentally ill.  I am in my room during the morning period talking to a man named Travis, who is one of the orderlies working the morning.  I can’t hear his voice, yet I can hear mine.  For some reason, I have this feeling that I’m something invisible is watching me and have been for a while.  I’m telling the orderly this and I tell that I’m not being believed—that whatever I’m saying to Travis is going into one ear and out the other.

Nevertheless, my tone is calm and I feel extremely comfortable in the house—in my room—wearing my pajamas.  When he leaves, I try to close my door, but I find that am unable to. Soon after, I hear a low rumbling demonic voice as the gap in my door becomes wider.  I attempt to push back with all the strength I have, but the invisible force prevents me from closing my bedroom door.

Suddenly, I feel my feet lift off the floor and my legs are floating in the air.  I’m calling for help—especially from a man named Travis. Next, I’m floating out of my room, levitating in front of three men—Travis included.

The Lone Gunmen
The Lone Gunmen–none of them are named Travis.

That is when I wake up.

I haven’t had a nightmare (if you can deem it that) in three months and before that for about a few years.  I will admit that my depression and anxiety has grown worse since the beginning of 2016, but even that doesn’t explain why I feel like an X-File episode waiting to happen.

Then I put two and two together.

Hours before, I have been envisioning my entire future, wondering what my next move should be.  For the past two weeks, I have been going through mixtures of danger, fear, and a sense of being overwhelmed after because I feel as if I have my back against the wall.  To make matters worse, I’m now exposed to the profiles of the couple who sexually assaulted me a year ago (I have blocked them in the past but because I have created a new Facebook page, they of course can easily find me unless I block them again). So I visit the male’s profile and become embittered because not only does he not care about the pain he inflicted, but will get away with it as well as his girlfriend.

I worry about my businesses—or whatever I’m trying to do—will have an impact on anyone one of these days.  Then I feel guilty for having such a selfish thought—for being ungrateful when I shouldn’t be.  I myself have no answers and I feel as if I am shutting down mentally, emotionally and even physically.  And, though I have choices, my brain is so befogged with untreated ADD and depression that every solution that pops into my mind is either unhealthy, illegal or just plain triflin.’

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Jesus…bail money doesn’t come outta thin air, Meeka.

Meanwhile, my cat son Tobias is lying at my feet paying attention to none of this.  So I pet him just to calm myself down.

As I write this post, I’m thinking about what every part of my dream represents.  Travis is my skeptic—the medical and mental health professionals who believe that I’m over exaggerating when all I want is help.  The invisible force is my Dark Passenger attempting to possess me and my entire life.  The levitation is the overwhelming feeling I experience when my depression takes over.  And the three men standing at the stairs watching everything represent the professionals seeing my truth for themselves.

The truth of the matter is that nightmares (or any sort of dream) is our brain’s why of expressing the unspoken. I personally feel as if I am not receiving the treatment I need in order to get better.  The PROS Program is amazing, but without the proper medication needed to help me manage my ADD, depression and emotion regulation, I will not be able to become the real me.

Which is the reason why I have to continue to talk to my therapist, chant, and do everything I can to reach out to people who struggle the way I do.  Because, if not, the dreams will only become worse.  And I can’t have that.