Back Through the Fire

Smoke after a forest fire.
Photo by Joanne Francis on Unsplash

[Content note: cancer, illness, suicide]

In November, I had my last cancer-related surgery. My temporary tissue expanders were replaced with permanent breast implants, and I was instructed to give my body six weeks to recover, after which I could return to my usual activities.

After five weeks and 6 days, I gave in and started exercising. It was almost the New Year. It was deep winter, a time of planning and setting things in motion. I was finally done with treatment, and I was ready to live again.

So for the next six weeks, I lived. I worked out almost daily. I started my private practice. I made plans. I designed a backyard garden. I took classes, learned new things. I took on new roles at work. I returned to freelance writing.

For six weeks, I lived. I was determined to get back everything I’d lost to cancer, and then some. I enjoyed my time with family, unburdened at last by the demands of treatment or recovery. Having emerged unburnt from the fire, I felt that nothing could stand in my way.

For six weeks I lived like a person reborn. This lasted until February 13.

That day my mom told me she had cancer too. That day, my newfound momentum sent me clear off what I now realized was a cliff, and like the coyote in the cartoon, I looked down and found myself unmoored, unsafe, and spiraling down.

It was nothing like my own diagnosis, first of all. I never thought that “I’m thankful for the way I was diagnosed with cancer” would be a set of words my brain would assemble in that order. But I am. I got the call one day. I saw an oncologist the following day. Within a week, I had a clear diagnosis, a treatment plan, a second opinion confirming those things, and a team of medical professionals I trusted.

This was about as different from that as it could get. For starters, the initial “diagnosis”–the one my mom called me about on February 13–wasn’t even that. It was unfounded speculation from a rude, shaming primary care doctor. I let myself believe for a bit that it wasn’t true. But for the next six weeks, as my mom was bounced around between doctors, hospitals, and scan machines like a dented ping pong ball, the picture continually came into focus, then blurred again.

One day it was early-stage lymphoma. Another it was metastatic ovarian cancer. Some days, other diagnoses were thrown out like beanbags on a cornhole board–lung, stomach, liver, breast, uterine. Doctors would walk out of her exam room completely confident and optimistic, only to return subdued and humbled, their hypotheses disproven, without any others waiting in the wings to be tested.

Picture yourself surviving the worst thing you can imagine, and before your scars–literal ones, in my case–have even fully healed, that same thing happens to the person you love most. That was me.

My mom had always been the person I called when I was so desperately upset I couldn’t do anything else. Now I had lost even that. My parents, through no fault of their own, relied on me in completely unsustainable ways during that time. I found myself supporting both of them, trying to curb my spiraling panic whenever they talked about metastasis and preparing for the worst, comforting all three of my siblings (especially the two teenage ones), fielding calls from extended family and close family friends, driving an hour to question doctors at the hospital while sick with the flu, researching–always, always researching–calling and begging my oncologist to take on her case or make a referral, talking my mom down from panic attacks over the phone, using my own therapy appointments to try to figure out how to live if my mom dies.

I could’ve handled this for a week. Maybe two. The mind goes into crisis mode and you somehow push on.

But it lasted for six. By the third week, I was coming apart. I started to become paranoid almost to the point of delusion, refusing to believe anything any doctor said because so many of them had been wrong. When my mom finally had a vague diagnosis and some semblance of a treatment plan, my mind rebelled against it, refused to accept it, and I ranted like an unhinged person over the phone about how this was wrong, and they hadn’t done this or that test or ruled out this or that possibility, and they needed to find a “real” doctor and get another opinion.

To their credit, they did get more opinions. The opinions all converged on the fact that the particular way my mom’s cancer had played out was so statistically improbable that it had only been recorded 20 times in medical history.

By way of comparison, there have been 23.2 million cases of cancer recorded historically in the United States alone.

This broke my brain.

I walked through the world like a fading ghost. Everything was a reminder of the thing I couldn’t forget anyway. The lemon tree my parents gave me as an engagement gift right before my surgery had unceremoniously dropped its leaves over the winter–they do that–and I couldn’t shake the fear that I was killing the last tangible symbol of her love I would ever get. All of my clients suddenly turned out to have dead or dying mothers that they needed to talk about.

My work suffered–everybody noticed. My parents were often calling and texting me during the workday and I would grasp at whatever few minutes I had between appointments to talk to them, sob inconsolably on the floor of my office, or both. I no longer wanted to be alive whatsoever, but even stronger than that feeling was the belief that I absolutely could not die, accidentally or on purpose, without dooming my family for good. By then I was living only for other people–my family, my partners, my clients–and I was starting to fail every single one of them, noticeably and repeatedly. The more I failed, the more I hated myself, my life, and the world.

It was, in short, a complete fucking living nightmare.

You have to understand—I was never one of those people who wonder Why me? when they get sick. Totally reasonable reaction—just not mine. In some ways this is because I incorporate and adapt to new knowledge quickly, and I was immediately focused on survival.

But the other half of it has to do with the way in which having cancer stripped me bare. I discovered that all of that emotional baggage and maladaptation I thought I’d handled years ago were actually still there, dormant. As all of my learned coping skills and cognitive strategies were eroded away like layers of sediment, I found that there was no bedrock of self-love underneath, no protective sense of my own worth as a person.

And so I didn’t feel the need to wonder what I did to “deserve” getting cancer. I didn’t think I deserved it, but I also didn’t think I’d done anything to deserve a happy, healthy life, either. Honestly, getting cancer kind of made sense. On my worst days I really do hate myself enough to make renegade killer cells an apt (if heavy-handed) metaphor.

My mom’s illness was completely different. As the weeks leading up to the eventual beginning of her treatment wore on and on, I hated the world more and more, and wanted to live in it less and less. I wished an asteroid would hit and destroy it. I wanted nothing to do with a world in which something like that could happen to someone like her. I wanted nothing to do with a life without her in it.

As a patient, I had a dark source of comfort—this too shall pass. You either survive cancer or you die.

I survived. My illness taught me that I can overcome anything. My mom’s taught me that no matter what I overcome, the suffering it brings will never end.

And yet. With something approaching an actual working diagnosis, my mom started her treatment in late March. The treatment seemed to be effective. The tumors shrank. I found myself sometimes thinking about something other than her. Spring came, as it always does, and the seeds went into the ground, and my wondrous garden sprang up once again as if from nothing.

And, just like last year, the new life in my backyard brought life back into me, too.

I don’t know what will happen with her treatment, or the rest of her life. There are reasons for hope and there are reasons for despair. Which one will win out in my mind in any given moment is a coin flip. I still haven’t figured out why or how to live without her if she dies. When she dies, as that’s obviously going to happen eventually. That’s another one of those things I didn’t expect to be thinking about this much at my age.

I haven’t written about this for months, except for scribbled ranting in my journal, because I had nothing to say. I could find no meaning or narrative in it. With my own cancer I learned things, experienced things. I had things to say about fear and bodies and friendship and family and work and joy. It was awful but it was also in many ways profound.

This was nothing. I learned nothing, saw nothing. “What am I supposed to write about?” I remember asking my therapist. “There’s no ‘there’ there. I just don’t want my mom to die. I’m just miserable and terrified and grieving already about that. That’s literally it.”

“You should think about why this happened to you,” my mom’s first doctor said, after ordering CT scans. I have also thought about why this happened to me, to us, as has she. We got nothing.

When I lost the thread of my own story last year, even that became part of the story itself. It was a gap, but the gap spoke volumes. When my mom got sick, I wasn’t weaving the web anymore. I was a fly trapped in it.

So I made do with what I have, and made myself a little cocoon from the fibers.

Then, midway through her treatment, everything changed again. She finally got her genetic test results back. She has BRCA-1, the same genetic condition I have. Then I understood.

She was always going to get cancer. It has always been a near-certainty, since long before I was even born, since before she watched her own father survive cancer.

My dad called and told me, and asked me to be the one to tell her. I froze. Couldn’t do it. On the one hand, it was “good” news, of a sort–it was a medical explanation, and it increases her chances of survival because it makes certain additional treatments possible. On the other hand, I shuddered to think of anyone, let alone someone I love so much, going through the hell I went through. What do I say to someone about to go through what was my worst trauma?

I told my dad this. He said, “It won’t be anything like that. We have your experience to guide us.”

And that’s when everything clicked for me at last.

My mom, like me, was always going to end up in this situation. Statistically, it was much more likely that she would go through it first, and I would go second. But that’s not how it happened, thank god, because this way it was my body and sanity on the line, not hers. Because this way I was the one to be mistreated and traumatized like that, I was the one who learned what I learned, I was the one who had to figure out how to demand humane treatment and pain control, I was the one who realized that panic attacks interact uniquely with this particular kind of post-op pain, I was the one who lived to write about it, I was the one who made it my mission to learn how to talk so doctors will listen and to start to teach that to others.

Now none of that will happen to her, so help me god, because I will be for her what nobody was able to be for me.

And with that came the realization that if I had a choice—if I could’ve somehow chosen to be put through this first so that she may survive it with fewer psychological scars—I would’ve chosen this, because I would do absolutely anything to save her life and her happiness, even face down death myself.

Everyone hopes on some level to find some sort of ultimate meaning in the horrors they go through; my answer to that basically got handed to me. I went through it so she wouldn’t have to, so that I could one day walk right back through the fire I’d escaped, and lead her out with me.

Things became somehow easier after that. While there isn’t any sort of cosmic meaning or significance to all this, I don’t really need there to be. In the unanswerable question of her tragedy, I found an unquestionable answer I didn’t know I was looking for.

After that I did something I didn’t expect to do. It won’t seem like a big deal to anyone but me, but I know what it means.

What I did was I bought trees. Berry trees. Black currant, gooseberry, cornelian-cherry dogwood, lingonberry, hawthorn, fig, mulberry, and, of course, rosa rugosa, which produces those rosehips my mom so prizes.

For the first time I was willing to plant things that wouldn’t give fruit for at least a year if not more, and to trust that on the day they repay all of my digging, watering, fertilizing, pruning, and protecting for the first time, I will still be around, and I will still care. That one beautiful fall day, maybe one of the last, my mom will visit me, and she will steal rosehips from my bushes, telling me that I wouldn’t use them anyway, and her laughter will be strong enough to send the birds from the feeders and bushes, flocking up, up into the dying light.

So that’s where I was, last weekend, digging holes in the yard as the rising summer sun woke up and thawed me.

On the patio behind me, where I’d set it out after the last frost, my parents’ lemon tree was waking too, sending bursts of new smooth green leaves from its buds like offerings to the sun god it worships.

I finished my work, picked fresh herbs from the garden for my mom, threw my stuff in the car, and drove west to Dayton, where my family was waiting for me.


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Back Through the Fire
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My Zine, “The Girl Survives Cancer in This One,” is Now Available!

Banner for "The Girl Survives Cancer in This One." Visit bit.ly/GirlSurvives

As you may know, I’ve been writing a book of essays about my experience as a breast cancer survivor. Last month, I decided to publish a zine that collects some of the essays I’ve written so far, to put my writing out there and build some interest in my book.

It ended up being a very fun project (my first zine!) and although I didn’t end up with the old-school photo-copied look I originally planned on, it’s very pretty and the writing is very much the focus.

A photo of the inside of my zine.

It’s now available on Etsy in digital format for $4, and as a paperback for $8. You can even get the paperback signed! Who knows, maybe it’ll be worth something one day.

If you want to get updates on my book as it progresses, you should subscribe to my newsletter here.

I hope many of y’all buy it and read it, and don’t forget to leave a review on Etsy!

A photo of the cover of my zine.

My Zine, “The Girl Survives Cancer in This One,” is Now Available!

10 Things Sex Positivity Is Not

Over at Everyday Feminism, I wrote a piece defining sex positivity by what it isn’t.

Put two feminists in a room together and you’ll have three definitions of the term “sex positive.” For all that we love to use this label, it’s hard to agree on exactly what it means.

To me, sex positivity has always been about two things: 1) affirming that sex can be a healthy part of human life that shouldn’t be shamed or stigmatized, and 2) affirming the choices others make regarding sex, even if those choices are different from the ones we would make (as long as those choices are consensual).

And by the way, the “healthy part of human life” part doesn’t mean it has to be part of every human’s life – more on that later.

But all of that probably sounds pretty vague. Sometimes it’s easier to define a term by what it isn’t than what it is.

My aim here isn’t to negate the fact that some people use the term “sex positivity” differently than I do. Disagreements about meanings are inevitable when it comes to feminism and social justice.

Rather, I aim to envision a sex positivity that is inclusive and intersectional, one that welcomes folks with a variety of identities, experiences, and perspectives. Sex positivity isn’t just for straight, cis, able-bodied white women. It can – and should – be for everyone, even people who aren’t interested in sex themselves.

Here are some common things that people think are sex-positive, but really aren’t, necessarily:

1. Liking Sex

If sex positivity were as simple as enjoying sex, there’d be a lot more sex-positive people. Alas, it’s not that easy.

Plenty of people who love sex nevertheless judge and shame other people for the way they have sex.

Plenty of people who love sex are queerphobic and transphobic, and that’s not compatible with any sex positivity I want anything to do with. Plenty of people who love sex coerce others into having sex with them, which proves that they don’t really believe that others should get to do what they want with their own bodies and sex lives.

As sex educator Charlie Glickman writes, “The fact that someone enjoys sex doesn’t necessarily mean that they can honor and celebrate sexual choices and practices that they don’t do.”

On the flip side, the fact that liking sex isn’t synonymous with sex positivity also means that you can be sex-positive without liking sex at all – as long as you support people who do. Disliking or being uninterested in sex is part of the spectrum of human sexuality, so any sex positivity worth its salt affirms that.

Read the rest here.

10 Things Sex Positivity Is Not

Identities Formed By Trauma Are Still Valid

[Content note: mentions of sexual assault]

A common way that people invalidate certain marginalized identities is to claim that they developed as a result of trauma.

When I write it out that way and think about it outside of the context of any current civil rights movements, it sounds completely bananas. How could attributing someone’s identity to trauma possibly invalidate it? Isn’t it common sense that going through trauma often changes people permanently? Would anyone consider it invalid for a veteran to be afraid of fireworks or for someone who survived a flood to avoid going swimming?

As it turns out, when trauma gets tangled up with marginalized identities, all common sense flies out the window.

The problem is that many people will only accept marginalized identities if they view them as unchangeable, unchoosable, and biological in origin. Consequently, many advocates for people with marginalized identities believe that the only way to increase acceptance of marginalized identities is to present them that way. (This includes many people with marginalized identities themselves, as we do not come out of the womb with a perfect understanding of our identities any more than we come out of the womb with those identities already in place.)

If not for the fact that many of us grew up already steeped in the Born That Way narrative, I think more people would see this as the massive insult that it is. In this view, being [insert marginalized identity here] is only okay because they didn’t choose it, the poor things, they were born that way, and if they could change it, they would! Few liberals will say this out loud, but even tolerant people often maintain the belief that marginalized identities are inherently inferior and that of course those people would choose to be normal if they could.

That is insulting and oppressive.

Continue reading “Identities Formed By Trauma Are Still Valid”

Identities Formed By Trauma Are Still Valid

Nonverbal Consent, Nuance, and Objectivity

[CN: sexual assault]

An academic I follow on Twitter recently quoted this tweet with a (presumably sarcastic) comment about how if it’s true that “consent is never implied,” then they and their partner have been raping each other for years.

(I have no desire to individually call out this particular person or get into an argument about them and their specific views, so I’m not naming them. It’s irrelevant. Many people believe this.)

I was disturbed by this even though it’s not a new opinion to me, nor a new type of response, that flippant “well I guess I’m a rapist then, lol!” as if it’s something to joke about. That still makes me sad every time.

I’ve noticed a tendency to conflate a lot of concepts in this discussion. “Active” isn’t the same thing as “verbal,” and “passive” isn’t the same thing as “nonverbal.” “Implied” isn’t the same thing as “nonverbal,” either. Consent cannot be “implied,” but it can be indicated nonverbally. I would know, because that’s how it works in most of my established relationships.

Continue reading “Nonverbal Consent, Nuance, and Objectivity”

Nonverbal Consent, Nuance, and Objectivity

Other People Have It Worse

[CN: bullying, sexual assault]

I had a client recently who spent most of his childhood as a target of relentless bullying and physical violence at school. Now, he says, “It’s not that big of a deal. I had a home and a loving family. Some people had it much worse.”

I said, “The worst thing you’ve ever gone through is the worst thing you’ve ever gone through.”

What I mean is that whatever it is that happened to you that still makes you burst into tears or wake up from nightmares or shudder in horror, that’s still (one of) the most difficult thing(s) you’ve ever lived through. The fact that the things that make other people burst into tears or wake up from nightmares or shudder in horror seem worse to you doesn’t change that.

Besides, it’s not so easy to rank suffering. Even if you could rank potential traumas from worst to least worst, someone else’s ranking might look totally different. (There are people who feel that they’d rather die than be gay, and there are happy gay people.) And the ranking might change completely if the hypothetical becomes real. Many people might think, “I could never live through ____,” until ____ happens. Then it sucks, and yet they live. Often they even thrive. And something else becomes The Worst Thing.

So, in fact, one of the people who’s survived one of the things you think about when you think “other people have it worse” might be thinking the same about you. Who’s to say who is right?

When I worked with survivors of sexual assault on a hotline, I noticed that almost every single one of them expressed the belief that others were the “real victims” while they didn’t really have it “that bad.” The women who had faced “attempted” rape said that the women who had “actually” been raped had it “worse.” The women who had been raped by partners or friends said that the women who had been raped by strangers had it “worse.” The women who had been raped by strangers said that the women who had been physically injured during the rape had it “worse.” The women who had been physically injured during the rape said that the women who had contracted an STI or become pregnant had it “worse.” And on and on it went.

In fact, some women who had been raped by strangers thought, “At least I didn’t get raped by someone I loved.” Some women have found it less traumatic to be raped by someone they hadn’t wanted to have sex with at all than by someone that they agreed to have sex with, who then violated their consent by lying about having put on a condom or by doing something else that they hadn’t consented to.

Everyone seems to think that 1) someone else’s experience was objectively worse, and 2) that this means that their own experience “shouldn’t be that big of a deal.”

So either everyone’s trauma is valid, or no one’s trauma is valid. And the latter doesn’t make any sense.

The purpose of reminding yourself that “others have it worse” is ostensibly to build perspective and remind yourself that yours aren’t the only problems in the world. That’s an admirable goal and a worthwhile perspective. However, I think that a certain amount of healing needs to happen before that’s feasible or healthy. It’s okay if there’s a period of time during which you feel absolutely certain that nobody has ever suffered as you’re suffering. And it’s okay if the cause of that feeling is a broken-up relationship or a failed class or even just a spectacularly shitty day. It doesn’t have to be a Real Approved Trauma™.

I think many people feel that they have a moral imperative to always Keep Things In Perspective and make sure that their feelings are in line with some objective ranking of bad things. But the way you feel in the aftermath of a bad thing doesn’t have to be your final say on the matter. It doesn’t have to Mean Anything besides the fact that your brain is doing brain stuff. It doesn’t have to be a feeling you “endorse.”

Of course, many people also believe that if you can somehow fully convince yourself that others do in fact Have It Worse, it will hasten your healing. I’m sure that’s the case for some people, but it doesn’t really seem in line with what I’ve observed in my own experiences, friendships, and professional work with people. Rather, it seems that people heal through acknowledging what happened to them and feeling the feelings that it brings up. There’s a reason why “Wow, that sounds really hard, I’m sorry” does a better job of comforting people than “You know, others have it worse.”

If there value in contemplating the struggles of others as part of your own healing process, I’m convinced that it doesn’t lie in chastisingly reminding yourself that Others Have It Worse, but in letting yourself see how similar those struggles really are. Don’t jump to the classist assumption that people in the “Third World” are necessarily dying of AIDS or hunger while silly privileged you is crying over a breakup. Read some lovesick poetry written by a teenage boy in Ethiopia. And, not but. Replace “This sucks but others have it worse” with “This sucks and I bet other people have to deal with it too.” Countless other people have survived this and you will too. Doesn’t make it suck any less, but it does mean there’s hope.

Emotions are relative, which is why the worst thing you’ve ever experienced feels like the worst thing in the world. But that’s a feature, not a bug. The fact that emotions are relative is what allows us both to cope with persistent adversity and also to keep reaching higher for happiness rather than becoming complacent.

It also means that there isn’t much use in trying to figure out who’s suffering more. Rational!You can choose to care more about global poverty than rare feline diseases that kills some pet cats (I think that would be a wise decision), but the rest of you is still allowed to grieve when your cat dies because of a rare feline disease, and while you’re grieving, you’re allowed to care much more about rare feline diseases than global poverty. If nothing else, think of it this way: the sooner you let yourself feel your feelings, the sooner you can be back to your rational, poverty-prioritizing self.

But besides that, I think that allowing ourselves to feel our own feelings also helps us to be more compassionate to others, including all those people we think are suffering so much more.

~~~

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Other People Have It Worse

A List of Ways I Have Used Trigger Warnings

[Content note: mentions of sexual assault]

These are some ways I have mentally responded to encountering a trigger warning/content note on the internet:

  1. [ignores, continues reading]
  2. “Oh, yikes, this is going to be pretty serious. Ok, I’m ready. Let’s do it.”
  3. “I think I need to take a few minutes to mentally prepare myself before reading this.”
  4. “Welp, that’s just too much right now. I’m going to wait a few hours or days until I’m in a better brainspace and then engage with this.”
  5. “Ok, this is totally fine for me, but it’s nice to know what I’m getting into.”
  6. “I can do this. But I’m going to message a friend and talk to them while I read it, or maybe pet the purring kitty.”
  7. “I’m going to read this, but I already know I’m going to be a wreck afterwards, so I’m going to set up some hot tea/some time with a friend/Chinese food/a fun TV show to help me afterwards.”
  8. “You know what? I don’t need to read this. I’ve lived this. I know this. There’s no reason to make myself think about it again.”

I’ve been hearing a lot about how trigger warnings are nothing but a way for trauma survivors to “avoid challenging material.” I present this list in order to show some more typical ways that people use trigger warnings, such as mentally preparing themselves for the material, choosing the best time to engage with it, and setting up self-care practices that will help.

As you see from #8, yes, sometimes people choose not to engage with triggering material at all. In that latter (and not extremely common) case, it’s useful to remember that people who are triggered by something are usually triggered by it because they have lived it. I’ve sat through many classroom discussions about sexual assault, suicide, eating disorders, sexism, and other things that I have lived through, and while I occasionally did learn from these discussions, more often I learned little or nothing, because I have lived through it. And yes, everyone’s experiences are different, which is why it can be useful for survivors of trauma to share their experiences with fellow survivors and learn from each other. But that’s usually not what the classroom space is.

I’m also a bit fed up, to be honest, with this deceptive word “challenging.” What is a challenge? Here are some things that I find challenging:

  • applied math problems
  • recipes that involve very precise timing
  • coping with depression
  • keeping my apartment clean when I’m very fatigued all the time
  • wrapping my head around dense and difficult literature or philosophy
  • persuading myself to make the effort to go out and see friends even when I’m wiped out from work, because I know that it’ll be good for me
  • sitting through a very boring class or meeting
  • saying goodbye to people I love after a visit
  • shooting in low-light conditions without a tripod
  • telling someone that I love them
  • addressing situations where I feel like someone is communicating passive-aggressively and we need to get things out into the open and talk about them
  • dentist appointments
  • arguing with someone who thinks that rape victims ever deserve what happened to them
  • economics
  • climbing up four sets of stairs while carrying several bags of groceries
  • figuring out how to properly manage my enormous student debt
  • relationships where I feel like I’m more invested in the person than they are in me

You might notice that many of the things on this list seem to have absolutely nothing to do with each other because “challenging” is a very ambiguous word!

There are intellectual challenges, like solving a difficult math problem or understanding a difficult text. There are interpersonal challenges, like figuring out the right way to address a conflict with a partner. There are physical challenges, like climbing a lot of stairs while carrying a heavy load. There are emotional challenges, like coping with depression or with dentist appointments. Some challenges involve combinations of these things. For instance, shooting in low-light conditions without a tripod involves an intellectual challenge (knowing what all those manual settings on the DSLR mean and how to set them) and a physical challenge (holding the camera as still as possible). Telling someone that they have hurt my feelings involves an interpersonal challenge (figuring out the right way to say what I need to say in a way that’ll be effective) and an emotional challenge (dealing with my hurt feelings as I do this).

When people condescendingly claim that college students who ask for trigger warnings are trying to “avoid challenging material,” they are–perhaps intentionally–conflating two meanings of the word “challenging.” Triggering material is emotionally challenging. The challenge is that you feel like you’re about to start screaming and crying in front of your classmates and professor. The challenge is that suddenly you’re back in that bar or that dorm room or wherever it happened, and you’re trying to get away but you can’t get away and you’re trying to scream but nothing comes out. The challenge is that suddenly you’re floating somewhere high above the classroom looking down at yourself sitting there unable to move. The challenge is that you forget who or where you are. The challenge is that your brain starts to empty out like a glass with a crack in it, and no matter what you do you just can’t fill it up again and they’re all looking at you because the professor asked you a question and you have no idea what any of those words meant or how to even make words.

Do we really go to college to encounter this type of “challenge”? No, college coursework is intellectually challenging. The challenge is understanding the nuances of complicated arguments or literary devices. The challenge is connecting ideas together in a way that flows and makes sense, finding patterns in the texts, defending your opinions using evidence from the book. The challenge is being willing to entertain an argument that you personally disagree with, to examine it from all sides. Sometimes, the challenge is memorizing facts, though that’s not so common in college. Sometimes the challenge is writing code that works, or designing a study that effectively examines a particular research question.

You know who would be pretty bad at those types of challenges? Someone who, in their mind, is currently stuck reliving the worst thing that ever happened to them.

Yes, those who insist that trigger warnings are no substitute for professional mental healthcare and that it’s not a professor’s job to heal their student’s personal trauma are absolutely correct. Trigger warnings will not heal trauma. However, they will also not “prevent people from healing” or whatever’s getting thrown out as the latest justification for not using them. What they do is allow people to engage with triggering content in a way that works for them. Only sometimes will they cause people to choose not to engage at all, and remember, the absence of the trigger warning wouldn’t have made them engage with it anyway. It would’ve made them try, get triggered, and fail to engage. It’s such a creepy “Gotcha!” sort of thing to insist on tricking people into trying to engage with triggering content by not including a trigger warning when they asked for one.

In my experience, most survivors of serious trauma–the ones that get triggered by things–are either already accessing mental healthcare, are unable to access mental healthcare, or have tried it and found it unhelpful. Please stop with the condescending advice to students to seek mental healthcare “instead” of asking for trigger warnings. Engaging with triggering content in a thoughtful, intentional, and controlled way is often part of someone’s healing process and has been recommended by plenty of mental healthcare professionals.

Trauma survivors know best what they need. They don’t know perfectly, but they know better than someone with no experience or knowledge of that trauma. If you don’t want to use trigger warnings, then don’t, and say so. But don’t cloak that unwillingness in a patronizing concern for the survivor’s well-being. We see past that stuff. You’re not the ultimate authority on what we need and what’s best for us. Just say it’s too much of an inconvenience for you and you won’t do it.

A List of Ways I Have Used Trigger Warnings

How Rolling Stone Failed Rape Survivors

[Content note: sexual assault]

My new Daily Dot piece discusses the Rolling Stone mess.

Last month’s groundbreaking Rolling Stone piece about sexual assault at the University of Virginia recently came under scrutiny from reporters at Slate and the Washington Post, leading Rolling Stone to retract the piece on Friday.

Unfortunately, many are taking this to mean that “Jackie,” the college student who described her brutal gang rape in the original piece, was lying about her ordeal. Based on everything I have read about this story, however, I find that exceedingly unlikely.

One major criticism of the original Rolling Stone piece has centered on the fact that the reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, did not reach out to the students Jackie accused of rape or to the fraternity where she claimed the assault happened. In the retraction piece, the editors wrote, “Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie’s story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man who she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men who she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her.”

I understand this decision, and I understand how difficult it must’ve been for Erdely to try to keep Jackie comfortable enough to speak publicly about such a traumatic experience. But this goes against journalistic ethics and leaves the journalist, the publication, the readers, and the subject of the piece—Jackie—vulnerable. Since Jackie was already going on the record with her accusation, refusing to try to interview the men she accused would not have helped prevent retribution against her. Unfortunately, that is a risk any time a rape survivor goes public—in fact, any time anyone publicly accuses anybody of anything.

Reporting the story ethically and rigorously doesn’t have to mean disbelieving Jackie or treating her insensitively. There’s a difference between a reporter who says, “I’m going to interview whoever I want regardless of what you want” and a reporter who says, “I understand your concerns, but in order for this story to be as powerful as we want it to be, I need to reach out to the people you’re accusing.” If Jackie refused to speak given these terms, perhaps this was not the right time to try to write this piece. As Audrey White writes at Autostraddle:

Erdely’s job as a reporter required she create a bulletproof story to protect Jackie, avoid libel against the alleged assailants, and achieve her ostensible goal of revealing a culture at UVA and in Greek life that promotes and protects sexual assault. … If respecting Jackie’s wishes meant the reporter couldn’t contact anyone else related to the assault, even to confirm basic details like a person’s membership in the frat or the date of an event, she should have found a different source or approached the narrative from a different angle. As it stands, she put the integrity of her story and of Jackie’s search for resolution at risk.

Indeed, it’s now unclear how willing Jackie was to be a part of this story at all. The Washington Post reports: “Overwhelmed by sitting through interviews with the writer, Jackie said she asked Erdely to be taken out of the article. She said Erdely refused, and Jackie was told that the article would go forward regardless.”

While Jackie doesn’t specify exactly how or why she was overwhelmed by this process, the fact that there appear to be “inconsistencies” in her recollection of her gang rape gives a possible clue.

Read the rest here.

How Rolling Stone Failed Rape Survivors

Online Bullying and Trauma: What's At Stake?

[Content note: online bullying/harassment]

Since I wrote my last blog post, I’ve been treated to a number of enlightening debates about the issue of online bullying and PTSD. And by “enlightening,” I don’t mean that I changed my mind about anything or learned very much about online bullying or PTSD. Rather, I gained an understanding of just how desperately people will cling to the claim that online bullying cannot cause trauma (and therefore PTSD or other mental illnesses), or that even if it is in some way actually seriously damaging, we need to have some sort of different name for it to differentiate it from, you know, “real” trauma and psychological suffering.

This doesn’t seem to be that polarizing an issue, but it clearly has been (to wit: someone managed to compare me to a Fox News anchor and a fundamentalist Christian in the same paragraph because I claimed that both combat and online bullying can cause PTSD). Whenever people defend a view on an issue that does not impact them personally in any way with such gusto (and such incredible derision, contempt, and hatred), I get the sense that there’s more at stake here than the mere question of whether or not online bullying can cause trauma. Suppose it can, and does. What do we lose? How must we change the way we go about our lives online and off? What is so goddamn inconvenient about this idea that it must be defended so vigorously and, at times, so cruelly?

I can think of a few reasons why.

1. If online bullying can cause trauma, we must acknowledge that the internet is “real life.”

And there goes all the condescension about “surfing the web instead of going out into the ‘real world,'” all the snarking about people who meet their partners online (and perhaps don’t immediately follow that up by meeting in person), all the unsolicited advice about “don’t let it get to you, it’s just the internet,” all the ridicule of people whose primary social ties are through the internet, and all that.

2. If online bullying can cause trauma, we may have to be as careful with criticism and argument online as most of us are offline.

This is a lesson some writers learn the hard way. I remember the first time some public figure I criticized in a blog post actually read and responded to the thing, and I realized that I’m not just shouting into the void anymore. The person I criticized said that the criticism stung but that they learned a lot from it and that I was right. All the same, would I have written it differently if I’d expected them to read it? Absolutely. And these days I do.

I was a little bit horrified and dismayed to see how much power my words had, despite the fact that I had not been cruel or hateful at all. Criticism hurts, even when it’s justified and necessary, and even when the target of the criticism is ultimately glad to have received it. Offline we learn all sorts of techniques for criticizing someone effectively and fairly, like sandwiching the critique between two compliments. Online it’s easy to forget why we’re given that advice. It’s also easy to forget, especially when you’re not exactly internet famous, that the person you’re calling out might actually read it.

To be clear, I’m not saying that all online criticism (or even most of it) qualifies as “bullying.” Negative comments towards other people exist on a continuum. But if online bullying can be traumatic, then online criticism can be needlessly hurtful if not done carefully. Note that I said “needlessly”: sometimes hurting people is unavoidable because, as I said, criticism hurts. But I consider it an ethical responsibility to try to minimize needless hurt.

3. If online bullying can cause trauma, we have to take it seriously.

No more “don’t feed the trolls” or “it’s just some asshole in his parents’ basement” or “don’t let it get to you” or “it’s not like they can do anything to you anyway.” Even if they can’t physically find you and hurt you, they have already “done something” to you: they bullied you.

Of course, even offline bullying isn’t taken as seriously as it should be; things like that are said to victims of offline bullying too. But it’s not dismissed quite as much. There’s an understanding among most people that if you’re taunted and teased and harassed all day long at school, then it’s going to seriously harm you and your experience at school, especially if physical violence is involved. With the internet, it’s usually “just stop going on Twitter,” ignoring the fact that for many people, being on Twitter or other parts of the internet is pretty much as necessary as it is for children to attend school.

But we don’t want to take online bullying seriously because we don’t want to take the internet seriously, and because it’s easier to just dismiss it and put the onus on victims to avoid it rather than on social sites to develop better safeguards against it and on bullies to stop fucking bullying. We’ve chosen to treat bullying much as we’ve chosen to treat rape: as some sort of amorphous force of nature that we can never stop, only try to avoid.

4. If online bullying can cause trauma, we must expand our understanding of mental illness beyond what we see in the media.

Seeing a friend blown up by an IED can cause trauma. Receiving a constant stream of slurs and graphic threats of violence, dozens a day for several years, can also cause trauma. The former is much easier to portray in film and literature, and it’s what people are familiar with. You can’t shoot an interesting scene in which someone’s terrified to leave the house because some creep on Twitter said he knows where they live and plans to come rape them.

And that scene isn’t the type of scene that persuades people to donate thousands to PTSD therapy research. It doesn’t inspire a lot of sympathy. But it should, because as I wrote in the last post, sympathy is not a zero-sum game.

People keep insisting that if we claim that both combat and online bullying can cause trauma/PTSD, we’re somehow saying that combat and online bullying are “the same.” They’re not. Nobody claimed this, ever, at any point. If you hypothetically asked a large sample of people if they’d rather go to war for six months or be bullied online for six months, the majority may well pick the latter. Who knows? Who cares?

A multiplicity of different stimuli and experiences may lead to the same symptoms. Those symptoms may vary in severity based on the original stimulus, or they may not. I’m sure there are people who had much more difficult lives than I have whose depression is much less severe, or who don’t have depression or any mental illness at all. So what?

5. If online bullying can cause trauma, we have to accept the ways in which people avoid it.

As I’ve said, it’s not the victim’s job to prevent their own victimization. Nevertheless, the same technology that makes bullying so easy also makes avoiding it easier at times.

And yet. The same people who declaim that anyone traumatized by the internet must remove themselves from it forthwith (which, as I’ve noted, is not realistic, fair, or ultimately helpful) are also usually the people who ridicule anyone who takes steps to limit their exposure to nastiness online. These are the people who whine about their free speech whenever their comments are deleted from a blog. Who complain when a blogger has no comments section at all, as though having one were mandated by some Internet Rule. Who consider the existence of the Block Bot to be some enormous personal slight. They think that either you must be willing to engage with any and every person who decides to show the fuck up in your Twitter mentions or your comments section, or you must shut down your Twitter account and your blog.

Look, if you believe that it’s the responsibility of someone who’s getting bullied to avoid the bullying, you cannot then condemn them for avoiding it by any means other than never going on the internet again. This all-or-nothing crap is silly.

In conclusion: accepting the claim that online bullying can be traumatic may involve a shift in how we think about internet interaction. Generally, this shift entails taking more responsibility for the way we treat people online, taking online communication more seriously, and letting go of some stereotypes and misconceptions about the internet and mental illness. That sounds like hard work. I’m not surprised people find it so inconvenient.

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Online Bullying and Trauma: What's At Stake?