I thought I rested in your palms like a music box, when I hung in your grip like an invalid. "I don't have words," I slurred, absolutely stoned and oceaned with devotion, and, fluttering, frustrated your questions into silence. You only saw my broadest sweeps, the dashes and dots, some of the inevitabilites and a wound or two. You never could focus.
i have hit the cold floor again. my lovers are sleeping soundly, dreaming that i am still between them while i grip the kitchen sink, taking sandpaper to my frontal lobe, feeling the solitary sage capsule rattle in my ribcage. i have cut my hair and practiced violin and thrown out my scissors and i have been a man and not, but at least i have a perfect sense of direction.
There is no such thing as mutual abuse.
There is no such thing as mutual abuse.
Abuse is a non-consensual power imbalance. The Domestic Violence Hotline defines domestic violence thus: “a pattern of behaviors used to gain or maintain power and control.” This pattern of behaviors (which may include coercion, threats, intimidation, and isolation, among other tactics) is not exclusive to any one gender, though abusive dynamics often mirror social privilege norms (which I will address in a forthcoming post).
There is, however, DEFINITELY such a thing as mutual toxicity. Often in relationships where one person has power over the other, neither are perfect. Either person may have been or currently be toxic in their other relationships, and engage in many unhealthy behaviors.
Two people cannot abuse each other, however, because abuse is about having power over another person in a way that they did not consent to.
This may seem like a matter of semantics, but often abusers will say things like “You’re abusing me too!” after survivors push back on the control being exerted on them.
When I was first looking into the matter of abusive relationships, it was to support a close friend who had just left one. She had me read Lundy Bancroft’s Why Does He Do That? and I was rendered very uncomfortable. Many of the behaviors were things that I had done— that one time I slapped my partner when he was transphobic to me? Telling someone honestly that I thought I might kill myself if they left me?
It was only after quite a bit of introspection (and support from aforementioned friend) that I realized that I was the one being abused. Besides the individual behaviors that one or each of us engaged in, the overall dynamic of the relationship leaned heavily in his favor. He got what he wanted, and I didn’t.
Years later, I found out this was a pattern, and that he had been doing all of it on purpose. The moment of clarity was crystal clear and razor sharp– I had barely avoided serious bodily harm in the four years we were together. After that revelation, I never doubted that all along I was just an unhealthy person trying my damnedest to be heard.
If you are in an unhealthy dynamic, please remember this. No one can tell from outside a relationship who is abusive and who isn’t, but there is ALWAYS hope to leave and/or to change.
The Three Types of Abuse
Abuse survivors and the professionals that work with them split up abusive behavior into emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. Emotional abuse is generally regarded, though not necessarily consciously, as the least harmful, and physical abuse is usually seen as the worst. Many survivors, when seeking to downplay their trauma to cope, will say to themselves and others, “At least he didn’t hit me.” But does it matter? These three types of abuse overlap much more than people tend to understand or appreciate, and that has important ramifications for recovery and self-awareness.
Here’s an example. (Skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to read a detailed description of abusive behavior.) My abusive ex used to hold me down despite my many, very specific verbal protests, and pluck out any body hairs I had that he didn’t like. (He was grossed out by the hair growing out of a small mole on my arm or the occasional dark chin hair.) It happened in public at least once, in the midst of friends, and made me cry in shame. What type of abuse was this? It was emotional abuse because it undermined my self-esteem and sense of autonomy. It was sexual abuse because it focused on his control of my sexual appeal and the expression of my gender identity. It was physical abuse because he was holding me down and rendering me powerless. Through this example, we can see that the lines are not so clear as we may have thought.
What about all the times I was coerced into sex? (I don’t have a specific example here, because it happened so often and in so many subtly different ways.) What kind of abuse was that? It was sexual in nature, of course, and emotionally damaging, but I would argue that since it involved bodily violation, it was physical abuse too.
Sexual abuse is not given its due as a type of physical abuse. Sexual assault is experienced as physical violence, even if it’s a result of emotional coercion. It’s a danger experienced viscerally by the body and the nervous system. It is a literal, physical violation. Physical abuse is not just raising fists with the intent to harm– it’s also about damaging someone’s sense of autonomy and agency. Sexual assault, whether the survivor is overpowered or coerced, teaches someone through intimidation that their body is not under their own control, and that’s one of the scariest experiences a human can have.
It seems to me that bruises and broken bones are easier for the public to digest as traumatizing experiences. When people hear about sexual assault, they often think, “What’s the big deal?” Sex is generally fun and harmless, right? They don’t necessarily realize that sex, which is inescapably intimate and vulnerable, can leave our bodies feeling the exact same way as other types of physical abuse.
The No-Cleanse Lifestyle
Unlike other witches, I don’t DO cleansing.
Sometimes, there are exceptions. If something has “bad energy” surrounding it (like things that I love but were given to me by an ex-partner), I will cleanse it. If my tarot deck is giving me weird repeats, I take note of their message (then make a Facebook post about it), and then I give them a gentle cleanse. Occasionally you need to press the restart button without wiping your hard drive.
To me, my witchcraft tools (and other things, including myself) are like a trusty cast iron pan. They’re seasoned with energy, and I don’t want to strip that away. I don’t want to cleanse my 130-year-old rented house of its spirits. I don’t want to cleanse my crystals of the things they learned in the earth. I especially don’t want to cleanse myself of the energy I exude, the way I fill the air because I’m never quiet.
Some would say I’m a hoarder. I was raised that way. My father, when I was very young, built a barn in his backyard, the residents of which were cars without engines, every dish my mother had inherited, and all the books my brother and I outgrew. I have watched him pick through the trash to rescue a months-old, torn-up magazine that my brother discarded. I think it started during his brush with homelessness, but I also think it’s in my genetics to never get rid of anything. Every marble feels like an ancient artifact, if you look at it the right way. Every notebook is an old friend. Every coin you find is buried treasure. Everyone in my family is like this.
I’m the same way when it comes to memories, too. If someone offered me a miraculous chance to forget about the traumas that gave me PTSD, I wouldn’t take it. Some would say I’m holding grudges, but in reality, I am lovingly holding all the parts of me– even those that bring me pain– just for being a part of me. I need to learn to deal with the memories, work WITH what my energetic body has picked up, and never shy away from the truth of what humans can do.
Some people cleanse all the time, every day. They cleanse their crystals in the light of the full moon, they sage their auras, they purge their homes.
That’s not me.
I will never be pure.
Gentle cleansing ideas:
-put selenite on top of it for a few hours
-wave it over the flame of a light-colored candle
-place it in front of the mirror while you take a shower
-cup it in your hand and whisper to it through your fingers
Review: Still Life With Tornado by A.S. King
“I tell the truth slowly. I think that’s how the truth shows up sometimes.”
For much of this book, we don’t know what’s wrong with the main character Sarah. That’s because Sarah can’t even bear to think about it herself. After all, she tells the truth slowly, but she gets there. This is the main source of tension and intrigue for the reader. Not a lot happens in this book except for the character’s internal shifts and the artistry in how they are conveyed to the reader. If that sounds boring, then this is not the book for you. If you can appreciate introspection in your fiction, however, this is a masterpiece of YA.
I connected wholeheartedly with this book, and found exceptional catharsis in it, despite how different the facts of 16-year-old Sarah’s life are from mine. For one thing, she is an artist and I am a writer. She is cisgender and I am transgender. She doesn’t go to school for weeks at a time and my high school attendance was exemplary. However, the overall atmosphere of the book conveyed the exact feelings I had as a teenager with a dissociative disorder, previously known as multiple personalities. In Still Life With Tornado, her dissociation has a magical but poignant twist in that other people can see her other selves as separate, very real, people. When she first meets her other selves (at ages 10, 23, and 40) she is startled and confused, but gradually she and the people around her come to see them as allies. This is the exact trajectory of healing from trauma with a dissociative disorder, and A.S. King has portrayed her version with immense empathy and care. What may have initially seemed to be an unconventional literary device leaves readers stinging with the truth.
Note: Big TW for physical and emotional abuse.
Trauma & Resilience
I did an online course in trauma-informed peer practice and I watched a video that was supposedly about personal resilience. In it, they interviewed a few people who had undergone horrific events that then went on to live great lives. Ostensibly, they were great examples of personal resilience in the face of tragedy.
One of the interviews really struck me. They talked to a guy who had had his leg blown off by a landmine while camping in Israel, who then went on to found an organization for other amputees. That’s great, but I don’t think he is truly an example of resilience in the face of trauma. In fact, while the incident was obviously shocking and painful, I don’t think his experience was trauma at all.
Judith Herman (1992) and others have defined trauma as “the inability to cope” with an event or situation. It’s the internal response, not the external circumstances, that trauma is made of. It doesn’t matter how someone else would feel about the event— if it overwhelms YOUR ability to cope, it’s Trauma with a capital T. This is key. This is my thesis here.
If you aren’t having symptoms that affect your mental health in some way, then it wasn’t truly trauma. (Obviously you don’t have to be DIAGNOSED/DIAGNOSABLE, but you WILL have some kind of post-traumatic reaction.) It doesn’t matter what happens—if you immediately stand up and dust yourself off, it wasn’t trauma.
For review, here are the symptoms of post-traumatic stress. People who have undergone trauma, and therefore have overwhelmed their ability to cope, will experience at least some of these problems.
- intrusion (unwanted upsetting memories, nightmares, flashbacks, emotional distress after exposure to traumatic reminders, physical reactivity after exposure to traumatic reminders)
- avoidance of trauma-related thoughts or feelings, or external reminders
- negative alterations in cognition or mood (inability to recall key features of the trauma, overly negative thoughts and assumptions about oneself or the world, exaggerated blame of self or others for causing the trauma, negative mood, decreased interest in activities, feeling isolated, difficulty experiencing positive mood)
- alterations in arousal and reactivity (irritability or aggression, risky or destructive behavior, hypervigilance, heightened startle reaction, difficulty concentrating, difficulty sleeping)
These are the types of reactions that “resilient” people avoid. However, what makes the difference? My argument is that it is not a matter of personal “character,” or even “positivity” or “optimism.” It’s societal and it’s privileged-based. How “well” someone reactions to bad situations and events depends on three main factors:
- How early in their lives the trauma/traumatic stress started
- How much other stress they’re under (for example, from microaggressions related to oppression)
- What sort of supportive allyship they have during the event and its aftermath
The guy who got his leg blown off by a landmine experienced anxiety, stress, dissociation, and shock at the time of the event. But that isn’t enough—he was able to cope. He had the benefit of (what I presume to be) a relatively well-off childhood (since they mentioned that his father was the president of a hospital in Massachusetts). (Note: Interpersonal abuse can still happen in well-off families, of course, but he was free of some of the inherent stresses of poverty.) He stayed in a hospital in Israel with other people (soldiers) who were injured in combat. Through them, he had a support system. When he recovered physically, he came home and resumed a NORMAL life, and then—seeking deeper meaning—he decided to start his organization.
He didn’t grow up in a war-torn area and step on the landmine—he was on vacation from his peaceful home in Massachusetts. His traumatic event happened his junior year of college at Brown University, not at age five. And he had the support system of the soldiers who knew what it was like to lose a body part and still be kickin’. The recovery had little to do with his personal moral character, and much more to do with his circumstances that helped him cope so well. He had NO symptoms of post-traumatic stress, as they made sure to note in the segment that he went back to his life at college and continued just as he had been, sans leg. And he was praised for it on national TV. This is not a matter of semantics. Examples of positivity culture like this, that explain reactions to trauma as a matter of personal character, are actively HARMFUL to people recovering from traumatic events. While of course healing can and will almost always happen after a traumatic event, if you don’t react “badly,” it’s not trauma.
This is not gatekeeping, either. I’m not out here saying to survivors, “Your trauma wasn’t really trauma. You’re not suffering enough.” I AM saying, in the face of untraumatized professionals and other gawkers , that personal resilience in the face of trauma is out of our individual control. It’s not something negative about our character if we don’t react “well” to bad things. It just means we’re more vulnerable, in a way influenced by societal conditions and systems of privilege.
Co-Regulation and Manipulation
I read a post the other day that rang true for me. (Unfortunately, I cannot find the source again.) It was about how manipulative people are often seeking out attention that they feel they couldn’t get otherwise. They so desperately need the presence of another individual that they will pull out every trick in the book to make sure someone stays or comes closer.
But why do people need attention so bad that they are willing to manipulate to get it? It’s not just loneliness. I think manipulative behavior is often subconsciously enacted in pursuit of something called co-regulation.
Co-regulation is what caregivers are supposed to do when we are babies and we have big feelings. We’re supposed to be picked up, comforted, validated, mirrored, and soothed. On a chemical level, babies need other people to react to their emotions to understand them with their rapidly growing brains. Eventually, they are supposed to learn how to validate and soothe their own emotions as they grow into adults.
On the other hand, people who are scolded, belittled, or ignored as babies never learn how to self-regulate. Therefore, they continue to have this co-regulating need even as adults, and when they have big emotions they will often do absolutely anything they can to get another person to relieve the pressure. (It’s worth noting that the manipulative methods by which people try to achieve this often knock the other person out of alignment and cause them to never get what they need, making things worse and often starting the cycle over again.)
How do I know this? Because I have done it. I require constant attention and validation because I got none for the first 22 years of my life. I try to go about getting it in a genuine and healthy way (by asking for attention and validation instead of manipulating to get it) but I don’t always succeed in the moment.
This does not mean that we should automatically forgive manipulative adults. People are still responsible for being healthy and assertive in their interactions. But maybe if you feel manipulated in a relationship that you intend on keeping, you can assertively address their behavior and, if they agree to respect you, problem-solve and agree to offer what they need.
For more information about attention and why needing it is not a bad thing, please see this article by Tamar Jacobson.
For more information about co-regulating, check out this article from Howard Bath.