Saturday, June 28, 2014

Sexual Assault: Stories of Survival, Strength, and Courage

After the rousingly mediocre success of my last contributor-generated blog, I was talking with a  friend about the ever-serious topic of sexual assault. This friend is a survivor of sexual assault, and wanted to share her story with others, and given my recent attempt at a contributor generated blog format, I suggested that if she wanted, she could use me as a platform for her thoughts and feelings on this subject. She, of course, graciously accepted, and we set out on the journey to find other survivors of sexual assault to share their experiences, thoughts, and struggles with us. As always, comfort, safety, honesty, and anonymity are my highest priorities with issues like this, so all submissions are anonymous and unedited unless otherwise requested by the individual submitting.

Also, as a warning: Some of these stories contain graphic depictions and explicit content, and may serve as a trigger. Please be careful and mindful of your well-being while reading. 

Now I'm going to let the others take over take over.

As I was getting dressed a few weeks ago, I found myself concerned that my shirt was too snug for the errands I would be running that evening. I just wouldn't feel safe walking across a parking lot at night with a tight shirt on. That realization stopped me cold. I, of all people, should know better. After all, I was wearing jeans, a baggy sweater, and sneakers when I was attacked. Even I had fallen into the thought process that the victim’s clothing could play a role in their assault. The idea to write about the realities of sexual assault and rape that had been floating around in my head for several months was now front and center. I reached out to my friend here and he offered up his blog as a means to do so. I am so grateful for this platform and for the others who so bravely share their experiences, as well.

My story begins on a cold Friday night in November 16 years ago. My crush called. His friend was having a party at his house and he wanted to invite me. I was excited. I really liked this guy. He came and picked me up at about 9:30 that night. When we walked into his friend's house, the first thing I noticed was the loud music. The second thing I noticed was that I was the only female there. I became nervous, but I trusted the guy I was there with. He immediately offered me a drink. Feeling uneasy and already wanting to leave, I requested only water. But he laughed and insisted I have something stronger and brought me a rum and coke. I felt every eye on me as we stood in the living room. After a while, he asked me if I wanted to go somewhere more private. I nodded yes, eager to get away from all the stares. He led me down a hallway to a darkened room with only a couch and a floor lamp, which he didn't turn on. I was suddenly not feeling very well. I wanted to leave. But he told me to sit on the floor and he would rub my shoulders for me. I know I did. Then it all gets a bit hazy. The next thing I remember, I opened my eyes and a stranger was hovering above me. I was lying on my back on the floor with no pants on. I frantically pushed away with my feet until my head hit a wall and I had nowhere else to go. He grabbed my shoulders and told me it wasn't going to hurt that much and I should just enjoy it. I looked around. There were three other men in the room, watching us. One of which was the boy I'd come there with. As the stranger pushed himself into me, I remember yelling and feeling dread. Were they all going to take turns? I started to cry. "No no no no no no..." I repeated over and over and over, while trying to get out from under him. He put his hands over my mouth and nose and leaned his weight on me. I struggled to breathe. I weakly slapped at his hands.

"Shut the fuck up and take it." He said.

I was afraid. I don't really remember everything. Part of me is grateful for that. I do remember trying to fight him off and also just lying there in defeat and fear. I went in and out of consciousness. When I awoke the last time, I was alone in the room. I put my clothes back on and sat down on the couch. I was afraid to go out there. But I desperately wanted to get away.

There were three of them in the living room when I stumbled out. One of them was the stranger who had forced himself on me. They laughed when they saw me. "Want to cuddle now, bitch?" my rapist asked. I ran out the door and just kept running. I didn't even know where I was. I ran until I reached a street I recognized. I called a friend and while sobbing, asked her to come pick me up. She begged me to let her take me to the police. But all I wanted to do was take a shower and forget anything had ever happened.
I never reported it to the police. I never told anyone the whole story, until now. I felt embarrassed. I felt that if I had been smarter, it wouldn't have happened. I felt somehow at fault for what happened to me.

Now let me briefly share some statistics with you. 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.  According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, there is an average of 237,868 victims of sexual crimes (over the age of 12) in the U.S. each year. 44% are under the age of 18. 38% of sexual assaults are committed by a friend or acquaintance or family member. Less than half of them are ever reported to the police. About 25% of reported rapes lead to an arrest. Only about 4% result in a felony conviction, with only 3% of assailants ever actually spending a day in jail. Why is it that people are so afraid to come forward when they are sexually assaulted? Is it fear of retaliation? Not being believed? Shame? Being somehow blamed for inciting the attack? There is a way of thinking out there that a person’s actions or clothing or sexual history can play a role in the crime.

“Well, what was she wearing?”
“How much had he had to drink?”
“I heard they sleep around.”

So many suffer in silence because of these stigmas. Too afraid or ashamed to say anything. Many blame themselves, at least in part, for what happened to them. The crime committed against them will have a long-lasting impact on their lives. A large percentage will suffer from PTSD. Relationships can be difficult to maintain. Trusting anyone becomes a terrifying, daunting task. Many will have issues with anxiety and depression.

A sexual assault is something that the victim will often relive over and over in their head. Triggered by a name or a place or a song or for no tangible reason at all. Your body was defiled and you can never leave the scene of the crime. To anyone reading this that was the victim of any type of sexual crime: You are not to blame. And you are certainly not alone.


Our next submission reminds us that sexual assault doesn't always take the form of rape, and discusses misconceptions of sexual assault.

When I was 11, a neighborhood boy came over to swim with my brother & I in our pool. He was a couple years older than me, maybe 13. He was cute I thought, but because I was so young the thought very quickly left my mind; I was too focused on normal kid things to think any more of it. We swam for quite some time, the water began to get cold as it progressed into the evening & I began to shiver. He came up to me & said, "You look cold." He pulled me close to him, which was strange but I was young & naive so I just thought he was being kind, & I let it go. A few minutes later he began coming up behind me frequently & rubbing his hand against my lower back, it made me a little uncomfortable, but again I let it go. Then he said, "Let's have a contest to see who can hold their breath the longest under the water." Sounded fun, I thought. But right before we began this contest, my brother said, "I'll be back, I'm going to go see what's for dinner." I was alone with him now. So I figured if we quickly began our contest, it would last as long as my brother was inside, & nothing eventful would be able to happen. I was very wrong. As soon as we dipped our heads below the water he grabbed my head & forced a kiss on me. I quickly came up, but my brother was walking towards the pool. I was afraid I would get in trouble over it if my mom found out, (why I thought this, I have no idea) so I just pretended nothing had happened. I would later come to regret this. My brother had brought some water guns out with him when he came back to the pool. The boy quickly grabbed me & said "You're on my team." We went to opposite ends of the pool, & he & my brother began to squirt one another with the guns while I sat & laughed at them. I was more of a spectator than anything but I was okay with that; we only had two water guns after all. But then, what I thought at the time to be the most terrifying thing of my life, (I would soon find to be the second most terrifying thing in my life) happened. He began operating the water gun with one hand instead of two. His other hand slipped beneath the water & made it's way down to my leg. I wasn't sure what to do, so again, I did nothing. Then, the next thing I knew, he was forcing his hand down my swimsuit bottoms. I jumped up & said, "I think my stepdad is home!" & I got out of the pool and ran to the driveway to pretend to check for him. Later in the evening we went inside to eat dinner. I learned then that this boy was staying the night at our house, because my brother had asked if he could. My brothers room was right next to mine. We ate dinner & it was about 8pm when it was all said & done. I was tired from a long day of swimming so I went to lay down in my room & watch tv. The boy, who I had now learned went by the name of James, went with my little brother into his room. A little later in the night, he crept into my room while my parents were in the living room watching tv. I began to sweat. He made his way over to my bed & he began to touch my face, tracing it with his fingers; he then got into bed with me, under my covers. I heard my brother yell from his room "James come look at this!" He was referring to something on his video game. I felt so relieved. But before he left he whispered in my ear, "I'll be right back." I quickly tucked my covers underneath of me as tightly as I could, hoping if he had to put up too much of a struggle to get under them again that he just wouldn't bother. When I heard him making his way back to my room I pretended to be asleep, hoping he'd leave. He didn't. I heard him coming towards my bed. I shut my eyes tight. He didn't even seem to notice, or care, that I was asleep. He got back into my bed & began aggressively yanking the covers out from underneath me. I tried pressing my back down on them but it was no use. "How is no one realizing what's going on right now?!" I thought to myself. Of course, my brother was only 8, he didn't understand. My mother, always so protective, was no where to be found. James made his way under my covers, & I felt his hand caressing my lower stomach. He then forced his hand into my pants, & thus began the most terrifying, painful, thing I had ever endured. He did not rape me, but he did assault me. I felt raped, nonetheless. It felt like a century before he finally left my room, the entire time I had pretended to be asleep. I let a little time pass after he left before I got up. I closed my door & began to put on layers & layers of clothes. I still felt naked. I went into my bathroom, where I began sobbing & vomiting uncontrollably; I let the water run so no one could hear. I felt so disgustingly dirty. I never even thought about telling my parents, or anyone else. I was utterly ashamed. I felt like it was my fault, because I never once fought back or told him no. I never wanted to have to explain to anyone why I didn't just yell for help, or tell him no, because to be quite honest, I wasn't sure myself why I didn't do those things. It's 6 years later, & I'm 17 now. This is the first time I have ever told my story to anyone.

I will never tell someone what they "should" have done while being assaulted, you never know what it's like until it happens to you. When people think about rape, they often envision a man in a mask jumping out at a woman walking home alone at night, & attacking her. Then, the woman is blamed for walking alone at night.  Or we envision a 21 year old girl, walking home from the bar, dressed in provocative clothing, drunk, when she is attacked. Then, she is blamed for being drunk & dressing provocatively. Or, in the most sickening of cases, where a child is irreparably scarred, they are often blamed for not telling anyone about the abuse. The latter, is my story. I was not a drunk girl; I was not walking home alone in the dark; I was not dressed provocatively. I was an 11 year old little girl. The man who assaulted me was not a man at all, but a boy of 13 years old who lived next door. I hope to teach others that rape is not always black & white. That victims, & rapists, come in all age groups, ethnicities, backgrounds, etc. I want to help stop blaming the victim. It is never a victims fault when they are attacked. Toni Morrison, a famous author, once said: "A woman riding the subway nude is guilty of indecency, but she must not be raped... It doesn't matter if she was selling sex at 9:59 & refuses it at 10, this is still rape."


Our next contributor speaks candidly of her experiences with sexual assault while married:

I was sexually abused by an elderly man when I was 8, it happened once and he got arrested and put on trial. I was not affected by it, it didn't affect my relationships with men of any age. I am known as being very sexually open and aware and not at all 'a victim'.

I've been promiscuous, I've been celibate, both were choices made by me and how my life was at the time. I'm however not easy and fussy about who gets into my bed.

I met my husband at 22, he was 25, we married in 2004. I knew I was making a mistake, that I didn't love him but thought we'd still be happy. As the marriage progressed he became more dominant in the bedroom to a point I was uncomfortable with, and he took that control into my whole life, we had a child together in 2006 and I suffered terribly from Post Natal Depression to the point where I wasn't washing, eating or doing housework for days ( our daughter was always cared for, fed and cleaned, by myself I might add).

In 2009 after years of control I made the decision to leave him on my 30th birthday, I was putting plans together so my children would be safe and cared for. He got a job working in Afghanistan, I thought the distance would make the control looser, it didn't, it got tighter, till I was suffocating. In September 2009 he came home from leave and I went to meet him for a city break, we had booked a lovely apartment, went shopping, had a lovely meal together and had fun. It was better than it had been for years, I thought maybe the decision I had made was the wrong one till that night. We went out on the town, we had a lot to drink and when we got back to the apartment I passed out drunk on the sofa. I was awoken with a sharp pain in my rectum, my husband was sodomising me, he knew I was passed out and he knew anal sex had been taken off the menu, I was too shocked to move but I cried and asked him to stop, he got faster, I passed out again, I awoke to him urinating on me, in my hair (I love my hair, it's my identity) and on my face and breasts. He pulled me up and said 'get to bed'.

I didn't leave, I didn't report it. Who would believe me? I was mentally ill, I was drunk, we'd had anal sex before. But I was angry, angry that someone who loved me would do such a thing, angry that I knew I might not be believed. A month later I left him, he tried to punch me in the face.

Assault in my opinion, done by someone you know is far more damaging than a stranger violating you. I know that it is a personal opinion and every person is different.

5 years later I am still single, not because I am scared of men, but I am scared of how men will react to me telling them. One man who said he loved me I told and he finished it with me 2 days after being told what had happened. Was that the reason? I don't know but I'll forever be cautious of telling anyone else that I'm emotionally close to.

I'm not a man hater, I love men, I've had sex with men since then, some great sex. I guess the moral is don't let someone take you away from yourself. Report it,if I could go back I would have. It may not be too late for you


Our next contribution also discusses the use of rape as an exercise of control and power in a relationship and her own personal struggles with sexual assault.

Rape. The word I, for so long, didn't want to use for what had happened to me.
The first time I was raped I was 13 and I was at a party and I had been drinking. I was also a virgin. My more experienced friend was there, flirting with a boy about 3/4 years older than us. His friend was interested in me. The 4 of us were in a room, chatting about teenage stuff. Adults and parents a few rooms away. My friend started kissing the boy that she liked and it soon turned to more. I was terrified. I was soon on my back with a 17 year old boy on top of me. I said no, I said stop, but he carried on. It lasted minutes but felt like years. I lost my virginity that night and also part of my heart was broken forever. I never told anyone till this day.

I've subsequently been raped countless times but this time by 2 ex partners, who were also both physically abusive. I can't count or describe many of these attacks because I zoned out, I mentally went somewhere else whilst they took what they wanted from me. Only one time really stands out as a memory.

I was heavily pregnant. My much older partner didn't care that I felt uncomfortable or unattractive. He didn't care that I worried for my first babies health or that I had no sexual urges, he didn't care that I said no.
That night he forced me to lay on my side, crying while he had sex with me, roughly, painfully, over and over. When my ordeal was done and he'd finally fallen asleep I crept from his room to the kitchen and threw up in the sink. I collapsed into a heap on the floor and sobbed my heart out for hours. Luckily my baby was healthy and I left him soon after she was born, scared of the influence he'd have on her life. Again, I've never told anyone about these rapes.

People know I'm a survivor. They know I'm tough. They know I've been through the mill and made it out the other side, but I'm telling my stories now because we shouldn't be afraid to say "this happened". We have a freedom in our country to speak out against sexual assaults that other people haven't got and we should use that freedom. If my speaking out puts one rapist where they belong, in prison, saves one person from being assaulted or merely helps a victim become a survivor then I've done my part against the weak people who use rape as a weapon of power.


Our next contributor, who asked to be referred to only as B. discusses her experiences with rape in marriage as well.

The first time it happened, I was sleeping. I woke up to my husband on top of me, inside me. I yelled at him and tried to push him off, telling him I didn't want to have sex. He held my arms down and told me he was almost finished. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know if what he was doing was "wrong" or not. So I stopped fighting and let him finish. When he was done, he rolled over and went to sleep. I got up and took a shower, crying. That hadn't felt like sex between two people who love each other. This same thing happened several more times, even though I begged him to stop doing it. Finally, I started sleeping in my daughter's room with her. This made my husband furious. One night, he stormed into her room and grabbed me by my arm, roughly dragging me to our bedroom. Once we were in our bedroom, he started yelling at me and I started yelling back. We were getting angrier and angrier, screaming louder and louder. I tried leaving the bedroom but he blocked me. I went into the bathroom instead, and tried shutting the door. He wedged himself in the doorway of course, and I pushed him. He didn't take kindly to me pushing him. He slapped me and pushed me against the sink. He held me there and pulled my nightgown off of me. He took me by my hair into the bed room and threw me face first onto the bed. He pressed my face into the mattress, and pulled my underwear down. I told him this wasn't funny and to please stop, but he held me down and forced himself into me. It was surreal. On a certain level I couldn't believe that what was happening was actually happening. I had a hard time connecting that the man behind me was my husband. This was not sex. It was far more forceful, and therefore far more painful. My vision went spotty and my stomach knotted and my muscles burned. He finished, and I could only lay there, I just couldn't bring myself to move. By the time I managed to get up, he wasn't in the bedroom anymore. I went into the bathroom and took a long bath. When I came out of the bath, he was in bed. I don't know if he was awake or asleep, but I didn't want to sleep next to him. I went back to my daughter's room. The next few days, we avoided having to be alone or have any conversations. When we finally did, he said this: "I make the money. I can take what I want from you when I want it."

We were divorced two years later. I never told anyone what happened. I'm ashamed that I stayed with him even one day after that happened. I've heard people say that rape within marriage isn't a real thing. I can tell you that it is.


This submission comes from a dear friend, about her experiences with sexual assault and the social issues relating to it.

1st rape - I was 19, in college, & worked as a waitress to be able to stay in my own apartment off campus.  I had a boyfriend, who was older & not working at the time... he was 26.  One day in August after working a 16 hour shift, I came home exhausted.  He wanted sex, but I told him no, I was too tired.  He said ok & started rubbing my shoulders.... the next thing I knew, he had torn my dress off & pinned me down on the couch.  I struggled & yelled no, stop... but he didn't stop, & I couldn't get free.  I can't ever forget the look in his eyes, so inhuman & predatory.  I don't know what made him get up & run off, but I gathered what was left of my yellow dress, wrapped it around me, & sat on a chair with my arms wrapped around my legs, rocking & sobbing.  I could only think one thing, over & over, like a broken record - he raped me... he raped me...  He came back, kneeled in front of me, & I whispered what was playing over & over in my head, "You raped me."  He said, "I know.  I'm sorry."  I don't remember what happened after that, just that I woke up at some point later that night.  He had taken all my money & jewelry & left.  I called my mom first, who told me it was my own fault for letting him stay.  Same response from my sister.  I called my doctor next & told the receptionist - she made an appointment 2 weeks from then & told me it was fine.  After I went to the doctor, she said I should have had a rape kit right away... 2 weeks later was too late, that I should file a police report.  So I went to the city police station to file a report, where the officer said he thought I was lying, that I was just a jilted lover.  In the meantime, he called & threatened to kill me if I told... & kept calling.  I went to the county police department, where 3 officers told me they couldn't help me & laughed at me as I left in tears.  1 officer called me later; my boyfriend had a warrant in another state for raping an underage girl, & had served time in his home state for an undisclosed felony.  Later, I found 2 others that he'd raped & warned the one he was heading to next.  I changed my phone number, but had night terrors every night for a year before seeking therapy.   It helped, but I still sometimes have them - wake up so scared that what I dreamed, I can still see.  I still panic if someone tries to hold my hands down, even in play.  No charges were filed by the prosecutor; the thought wasn't even entertained.

2nd rape - 3 years ago, I picked up a male friend & we went to the park to hang out.  He was drunk, an ex-Marine, & had a backpack.  We talked & he continued to drink, & he started showing me some self defense moves that he'd learned.  He grabbed a knife from his bag while he had his arm around my neck (it was military, I think they call them K-Bar or combat knives), to "show me."  He started kissing my neck, with the knife at my throat... then pushed me down in the grass, pulling my jeans & underwear down.  He told me if I screamed, he'd kill me.  He had the same inhuman, predatory look in his eyes... I tried to hold my legs together, but he wrenched them apart & raped me.  I turned my head & stared at a tree until it was over.  Afterwards, I put my clothes back on & he told me to drive him home, so I did.  The next day, I was covered in bruises, took some photos, but later destroyed them.  I didn't bother going to the police this time... he was the son of a prominent local politician,  & I knew I'd be drug through the mud.  No report, no rape kit, no charges.

A lot of people have a lot of theories about why rapists rape - in my experience, & from what I've seen firsthand of others who have been raped, is that it is about power & control.  Make no mistake, it is a weapon, and a powerful one at that.  It dehumanizes, terrifies, traumatizes.  The sex is secondary, if it's honestly even a factor at all.  One of my professors in college had a theory about punishment for rapists & child molesters - "nail his dick to a tree stump, set the tree stump on fire, & give him a rusty butter knife".  While that would personally be satisfactory, I don't believe it would stop either of the men who raped me.  They would just use a tool to rape (broom handles, bottles, etc) or find another way to gain that power & control over another woman (by strangling, etc).

During therapy (which was in a group - I found that bizarre but oddly comforting), I discussed my molestation by a family member when I was between the ages of 7-12.  Most of the other women had also been molested as children, & the therapist said that rapists tend to look for such women, that they are easy prey.  What this meant to me, is that I'll never be free from my past.  I'll always have to be extra vigilant to ensure that it doesn't happen again... and frankly, that's rather sad & shitty.  I've spent most of my life feeling guilty & being shamed because of crimes committed against me.  Every time I tell someone new about what happened to me, I brace myself for the backlash.  Every time I tell what happened, I live it all over again in my mind.  It gets easier to tell each time, though.  It's like a horror story, that with repetition, it loses its power to scare.

So if you know or suspect someone has been raped, what can you do?  Encourage him/her to tell what happened, don't interrupt, really listen, don't blame/judge/say "well, maybe you should have...", & don't try to force a police report.  I say the last one with some hesitation, because I think the only way we can put a stop to rape as a society is to report it, & it's only helpful if done immediately.  However, it's their journey, not yours.  They are in survival mode, & they don't need someone else trying to take control.  Filing a police report is intrusive, a rape kit even more so, & increases feelings of helplessness if they are done by uneducated, unsympathetic police officers & nurses.  Unfortunately, that's the norm.  Reassure your friend/loved one that it is not his/her fault, do make sure that they know that they only have about 72 hours to receive a rape kit before DNA evidence is destroyed permanently, & get information about local rape crisis centers.  Offer to accompany him/her & offer a hug, but don't be offended if either and/or both are declined.  Don't push, especially physical touch.  Also, don't be surprised if your friend/loved one "changes".  Some won't want to be touched at all, some will crave it & may become promiscuous.  Personally, I felt like sex with me was worthless - who would want damaged goods?  So I gave it away, having sex with men readily so it couldn't be forced from me - after all, if a guy wanted it, he was just going to take it anyway.  I know better now, but don't assume any actions indicate whether a rape happened or not - everyone acts differently, & shock makes him/her go on autopilot.


Our final submission discusses date rape, and the impact of guilt on lifestyle, as well as the change which comes with knowledge and empowerment:

It was June 1990 and I was 18. I had just finished my summer exams at the end of my first year in University, and I was out for a big night of celebrations with my friends before we all went our separate ways for the summer. Being a starving student, I had bought a few cheap cans of cider in an off-licence and smuggled them into the student bar on campus. Sometime during my third can of cider, I passed out. Never in my life had I been so drunk on so little alcohol.

Of course, what I didn't know until several days later when a concerned friend told me what he had seen, was that another so-called male friend of mine (I'll call him Pat) had been spiking my drinks whenever my back was turned and I had unknowingly consumed a large quantity of vodka along with my cider.

I remember only snippets for the rest of the night. Falling and hitting my head badly; my friends carrying me outside for fresh air; Pat gallantly saying he'd take me home; ending up with Pat in my bed while I was wearing just my underwear; Pat ripping my knickers off; me crying and saying 'No'; Pat telling me I wasn't a virgin anymore; Pat's two best friends bursting into my room and taking pictures of us in bed.

In some ways I can't tell this story in a linear timeline. The problem was that I was so drunk, I didn't remember any of the above until several days, or even several weeks later. I woke the next morning with a terrible hangover, complete amnesia and a vague sense of unease. Our grotty rented house had become a party zone, and bodies were lying everywhere. Pat and his friends were still downstairs, and I talked to them as though nothing had happened. The following day I even phoned Pat to say goodbye before he went abroad for the summer. He was cold and distant with me on the phone, and I didn't know why.

Then the memories started creeping back. Friends who had witnessed snippets of what had happened phoned to see if I was ok. This is how I learned about the drinks being spiked; it's also how I learned that Pat had done this to me based on a dare from his friends. The picture they took, I assumed, was for proof.

I cannot describe the psychological pain I went through in the weeks after this. Just being alive hurt so much I didn't know how to keep breathing. I couldn't get out of my own head at all, couldn't escape from the memories that went around and around till I thought I'd lose all of my sanity. Pat was a friend, I'd trusted him; even fancied him a little. I couldn't comprehend how any human being could hurt another so badly.

Then my period was late. Very late. Living in a small town (I'd gone home for the summer) I couldn't even buy a pregnancy test without everyone knowing. I contemplated abortion, but had absolutely no money. It would take the whole summer in my summer job to earn enough to take the boat to England, but that was money I needed to support myself in college the following year. The thought that I might have a baby growing inside me, against my will, terrified me. I looked at it as a parasite implanted in my body that I was powerless to remove. Finally my period arrived, or so I thought. Based on what I know now I think I actually had a miscarriage at about seven weeks' gestation. It was a blessing in disguise.

The hardest thing to deal with was not knowing how to quantify my experience. The term 'date rape' had never been heard in Ireland, and rape was still something that a stranger did in a dark alley; it wasn't something that happened when you went home willingly with a friend. I thought maybe I'd been seduced or ravished, but words like that sounded a lot nicer than what I'd experienced; they sounded like something I should have enjoyed, not something that had destroyed me. When I returned to university I spent hours trawling the library stacks looking for an explanation, a definition, a pigeon-hole I could put my experience into. I never found it.

In the early days I reacted by becoming promiscuous, and dropping guys left and right. If they could hurt me, I could hurt them right back. Then I withdrew into myself completely and went the other direction. I became reclusive and scared of spending any time with men. I had panic attacks if I was alone in a room with a man, regardless of who he was. I went nearly three years without any contact with the opposite sex. I was lonely and depressed, and thought I would be that way for the rest of my life. I contemplated suicide many times.

Then in 1992 Mike Tyson was convicted of date rape. It was a lightbulb moment for me, and I devoured newspaper articles outlining what exactly constituted date rape. I learned that it was very common in universities and that various 'date rape' drugs were in use, most commonly alcohol. Most importantly, I now had a label to put on what had happened to me, and I realised that I wasn't alone in being treated this way; in fact, I was pretty much a statistic. Rather than making me feel worse, this news gave me enormous relief. Finally I was able to be angry, which made a very welcome change. I started calling myself a rape survivor, and stopped thinking of myself as a victim.

Everything that happened to me was pre-internet, and in 'holy Catholic Ireland' such topics were seldom discussed. Today, articles about rape and sexual abuse are ten a penny in online newspapers. There are chatrooms, forums and support groups online to help rape survivors, and date rape is well understood. There are occasionally even convictions for it. I've heard people groan at yet another story of rape, yet another awareness campaign about sexual abuse, and so on, wondering why we need to keep repeating these messages over and over. I'm a good example of why we need to keep talking. I lost years of my life to feelings of confusion and guilt about what happened to me, because these forums weren't available then. Every day (sadly) another girl or woman is raped, and this state of being as a rape victim or survivor is new to her. Every day a woman will look for help, or advice, or understanding, or just someone to talk to online; so every day, those articles and forums and support groups need to be there, talking back. Until rape no longer exists (and I'm not holding my breath) they need to continue to be loud and up front.

I'm happily married now with a beautiful, bright, bubbly teenage daughter. I can't tell you how scared I am for her.


So we come to the end of this. I'd like to say thank you to everyone who took the time to read this. I would also like to thank all our contributors for the courage and strength it took to share their stories. I am humbled that you chose to use my blog for this opportunity. Thank you for your courage and strength. Stay strong, and be well.

 Now, my friend will see us off.

"My desire is that reading the different experiences that everyone has shared here has helped shed light on some of the many misconceptions about sexual assault and opens up a dialog about the personal and cultural aspects of the issue. Perhaps it will make us think about how we ourselves may be contributing to some of the stigmas that surround the topic. I hope anyone who has been a victim finds some comfort in knowing you're not alone in your experience or how it has affected you. Thank you to Philip (@EmbraceTheCoda) for the use of his blog space and to all of those who shared their stories."

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Science Denial

Now, my goal with this rant is not to provide you with scholarly links or hard statistics. You can look those up yourself, or ask me, and I will send you some awesome links.

Now, a quick aside on bad science. I touched upon the issue of agenda-driven science in my blog about "Christian science" and how it is bad science, and most of those things hold true here, even when religion isn't the driving force. When you allow your biases to control how you interpret, present, and report data, you are  being intellectually dishonest, and this is the antithesis of scientific endeavor. If you start with your goal, and then try to fit the research and data, or even the current work of others, to fit that end goal, you are not doing science, you are disseminating misinformation and lying. If you are parroting a stance without being aware of the evidence provided by the opposition, then you are doing a disservice to yourself and to factual truth. Keep this in mind when examining papers, as well as where and how they were published, and how the peer review (if any occurred) was done. Technically, a biased scientist sending his pet cause article to a couple scientist friends who share their views is peer review. The system isn't flawless, so you have to look carefully.

Science denial is rampant in modern culture, and it is sickening, yes... but also really sad. These are adults who cling so tenaciously to their prejudices and preconceived notion that they are incapable of acknowledging evidence which is presented to them, even when said evidence is overwhelmingly strong. These people cling so desperately to these ideas, they will take any supporting evidence, no matter now flimsy or ill-conceived, and hoist it as a shield of ignorance to defend their claims. The culture here is that they will take the most fringe, agenda-driven science, from the least-respectable sources, and try to pass it off as a legitimate counterpoint to the overwhelming majority of very strong research. The "scientists" in these fringe groups are just as guilty o the hype, often allowing their clouded agenda to interfere with a scientific sense of objective study. Often, the studies are reported without peer review, or in less-than-reputable journals. More serious papers are often removed after other scientists break down the poor science behind the studies.

And these are the BEST arguments these folks have, often just falling back to blind name calling and accusing their opposition of being sheep or shills to whatever group they are so blindly against. The problem here is that this ignorance begins to perpetuate ignorance, and people begin to believe these things are political issues up for debate, instead of the scientifically-validated facts they are. When the uninformed presents a convincing-sounding argument to someone equally uninformed, it is easy to see how this could progress to a large group of completely ignorant, oblivious folks parroting support for something they don't understand and which is pretty much a load of shit.

This is pure ignorance, but not solely the purview of the ignorant. In fact, there are plenty of otherwise reasonable, intelligent people who are opposed to very well-supported scientific evidence of certain claims. You see this among many conservative groups in any culture. In the United States, we see that the "right wing" groups are famously awesome at ignoring even obvious, simple scientific evidence. A huge example of this is in religious groups which espouse a creationist view of the beginnings of the world and of life. Included in this will be the issue of evolution denial, because these two things are so closely linked. Now, special creation, intelligent design, and any denial of evolution all fall apart under even cursory scientific scrutiny. Either the claims for them are un-provable, untenable, or blind parroting of ignorant rhetoric in the face of actual evidence. Evolution is observable on different scales, and has various mechanisms which have been elucidated quite clearly in scientific literature in the years since Darwin and Wallace first published. The mechanisms of abiogenesis and chemical evolution are less well-understood but have some great support for the concepts which suggests they are correct. Big bang theory, as a model for creation of a universe holds water fairly well. So we see that these ideas are attacked either with spurious language, ignorance, or bad science. You can rest assured that anyone attacking evolution or the age of the earth, is a scientifically illiterate mooncalf with no understanding of the drivel they are parroting. They are simply attempting to swamp evidence with tenacious stupidity... overwhelmingly vocal stupidity at that. A quick nod here is climate change deniers, who are unable to understand how the majority of climate scientists agree that not only are we in a period of high risk but also that human society is contributing greatly to the risk level we are seeing in the climate, leading to the destruction or fundamental nature of ecosystems, but also creating more and more inhospitable environments for humanity. The science and simple observation are on the side of climate change, evolution, age of the earth and universe, etc... yet these ignorant assclowns think their feelings have any bearing on observable conditions. The fact that these things are being taught in many places is a little scary... I met college students studying biology who didn't accept evolution. Enough that it became a pattern.

Anyway, this is only half of the puzzle. We kind of expect the religious to not be big on logic and reason and things like "evidence" and "proof" of their claims. The problem is now arising from the liberal side of the spectrum, where we see an equally insipid denial of basic science. Welcome to the new illogic of the liberal left. The science is denied for the sake of their personal feelings, and they use almost the same exact arguments and approaches. They use bad science, or misrepresent existing science. They make assumptions about the basic nature of science, and cling to a sense of personal prejudice rather than acknowledging the overwhelming mountain of evidence. This culture clings to these ideals as if they offer some positivity, and much like the religious ignoramuses they avoid cognitive dissonance by any means necessary, included blindly reaching for anything resembling support. It is the quintessence of ignorance. They are making unfounded assumptions, and worse, not bothering to examine where the overwhelming evidence lies.

Let's look at where this stupidity lies. The biggest ones I see are the anti-GMO/pro-organic folks. The science is clearly on the side of GMOs here. They have overwhelmingly tested to be safe, and the industry still works hard to make sure they become more safe. These people either don't know the science, don't understand it, or are ignoring it. The scientifically literate folks I see standing against GMOs should be sincerely ashamed of themselves for their fear mongering and promotion of ignorance. GMOs are better tested than the organic food you consume. They are also designed to be not only safe, but more nutritious. The plants are also designed to be more survivable, yield larger harvests, and generally feed more people. The largest scientific organizations in the world all agree that GMOs are safe and effective. I'll trust real science of fear-mongering pseudo-lunacy every single time. This is on the same level as the anti-vax and anti-pharma people, as far as ignorance goes. They use the same psuedo-scientific misrepresentation and fear mongering. These people make spurious claims about the validity of the overwhelming scientific support, and counter with bad, agenda-driven science. A good hint: if your study is self-published, there is a good chance it shouldn't be taken seriously. Arguing that "science is out to get them" is insipid and illogical. Just admit that your "science" is mostly just a rushed promotion of a personal agenda, and let the rest of us who aren't blinded by prejudice carry on with the real science. I also hear a lot of hatred towards GMO companies about their shady business models. *Looks hard at Monsanto* but most of this is misrepresentation. Read the court cases. Look at how much organic food Monsanto produces as well. This is just obfuscation of facts to fit a bias, rather than adjusting a point of view to fit available evidence. This is pure intellectual dishonesty. Worst, are the people who know better, but willingly ignore it, for profit or stupidity.

Within these movements, you also see this huge attempt to dismiss all industry scientists as greedy and dishonest. They want to dismiss all industry-funded research on the basis that the findings can't be trusted... an admirable desire, if it didn't assume every scientist working for industry was incompetent, greedy as hell, or completely dishonest. This is not only a vapid assumption, but insulting to every single industry scientist. Every time you say this, ignoring the fact that conflicts of interest have to be declared and are taken into account by most reputable journals prior to publication, you sound exactly like the fuckwits who say "Big Pharma is hiding cancer cures, and blah blah blah." The irony here, is that these movements tend to avoid bringing up that their own scientists are not only JUST as agenda driven, but actually use blatantly dishonest practices to propagate their personal bias.

Yeah, let that sink in. Those people are about as intellectually respectable as tinfoil hat conspiratards.

Now, it is't just the anti-GMO/pro-organic folks who ignore the science. The anti-vax movement ignores the public health benefits of vaccinations, and invent spurious claims about the "dangers" of vaccines. Granted, most of the people making these claims aren't really involved in science or medicine, but it's still dangerous. Anti-vax is a bad one because it can and does contribute to the harm of others. With anti-GMO, complete removal of GMOs would probably result in a lot of people starving to death. With the anti-vax movement, you'd see a resurgence of manageable diseases, and let's be honest... how cool would it be to have to contend with polio and tuberculosis again?! Another potentially lethal movement is the homeopathic and alternative medicine movement, which encourages ignorant people to forego legitimate medical care so they can have their auras jerked off by some con artist who sells them magic water which will "heal" their legitimate medical conditions. Congratulations on getting ripped off. Double congratulations on not treating an illness. I think the least harmful of these bullshit movements is the gluten-free idiocy which is pretty much stupid unless you have Celiac Disease, which most of you don't. You're a mark in a wonderfully lucrative con game.

Scientific literacy is only part of this puzzle. The other half is a willingness to let go of your prejudices. When the facts are against you, taking a stand doesn't make you righteous, it makes you stupid. There isn't even a nice way to put it. If you're ignoring evidence and inventing a nefarious opposition just trying to "silence you for profit" then you're already on the wrong side. You must be willing to examine the facts, and where the evidence stands. If you're not standing with the facts, then you're standing with ignorance. And if the evidence shifts, it won't be because of a group of people who stand there screaming about the evils of this product or that concept, but the people who are sincerely examining how these things work... and most likely those will be the people constantly trying to improve them... because, you know, they work.

And yes, science and history are FULL of examples of times where the majority was eventually proven wrong, and thus the evidence shifted sway. Look at pesticide use! Everyone thought DDT was great! It obviously wasn't, and so of course we... well, we amended the pesticide safety regulations and controls, and began doing more in depth monitoring, safety research, multi-generational studies, etc. Just like we do with medications and GMO products. Well damn, okay. Science still has their shit together.

The point is, if you're listening to the small fringe group who has to publish in shady journals, and hyper-sensationalize their findings (and who may get their publications withdrawn for being unscientific) then you should reconsider your "evidence based" opposition. Don't try to make the issue about anything other than the facts and outcomes.

And the simple fact is, if you're one of these people, the chances are... you're wrong. Look past your personal feelings, and look at what is presented, without bias. Ignorance is slightly more excusable than knowing misrepresentation, but you should never be content with ignorance. Both sides can be guilty of only examining their side, and this will never lead to discourse, merely argument. You have to look at both sides, and weigh the evidence given by each. It isn't foolproof, but I feel a hell of a lot more comfortable with evidence on my side, knowing I could be wrong in time, than I do standing against the evidence and hoping the people doing the real work in the field are wrong.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Mental Health and Social Stigma

The days aren't always easy. The nights can be much harder. Depression is lonely, and difficult. You find yourself constantly feeling empty. There is a need for deception, because answering questions just isn't easy for you. The people around you, they struggle to understand. They can't comprehend the thoughts, the feelings, the emotions (or lack thereof) which you are experiencing. Your friends and family are the worst, because they mean so well when they try to be supportive, but they always miss the mark. It's worse with casual contacts or strangers... most times, I find myself simply pretending. That's a good portion of my time spent in public, in social interaction: pretending. I pretend to be happy. I pretend to be content, and cheerful. I've plastered a plastic smile on my face so many times I don't think I remember what it feels like to actually smile. You and the world have a mutual agreements to remain in stasis. You watch life passing around you at speeds you can't match. Every step forward is a battle. Every single move you make is a titanic effort.

You need to get it out of your head. You need to express the weariness, the pain, the apathy and hollowness. Some days the battle to pretend is too hard, and it fails. Your mask cracks and everyone can see a glimpse of the darkness underneath. That's when it starts...

The unsolicited advice. The well-meant consolations which show a fundamental lack of understanding. The dismissals of your feelings and mental and emotional state as exaggerated... "You're just sad, you can choose to get over it. Just try to be happy." Maybe you get the accusations... of being dramatic, or too sensitive. You get told to toughen up, or to get over it. You begin to internalize the stigma from those around you, which causes you to feel like this is a flaw in you, a fault you can overcome. You begin to feel as though those words are true. Maybe you do need to toughen up, and just get over it? You may even hear the casual way people treat those with mental health issues as pariahs, talking about them, or even TO them, as if they are lepers or carriers of smallpox. The vocabulary is insensitive, the ignorance is suffocating .

And there is the pity. That look when people know you struggle with your mental health... that treatment as if you're either being histrionic or are insane. The ignorance is isolating. Your little world gets even smaller. You can't reach out to them, because it's not safe...

Let me repeat that: it is less safe for your mental health, for you to reach out for help, than it is for you to stay trapped in your head. THAT is what stigma is doing.

I suffer from depression, and it isn't something I had even acknowledged as a possibility until quite recently. Part of the reason is that my social background didn't support acknowledgment or treatment of mental health issues. Having been through the things I have, I feel it is necessary to tackle issues of social stigma relating to mental health in all realms. I can only speak to a small subset: depression, self-harm, and suicidality. Even then, I can only speak to my experiences. We can't forget eating disorders, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, learning disabilities, etc. I know that's a broad range, but I think they all suffer from these preconceived notions, and that creates a barrier to feeling accepted. Worse, it creates a barrier to seeking treatment, which is important when treatment could save a life.

For me, I grew up in a place where I was expected, as a male, to be this perfectly inhuman, stoic image of solid dependability. I was raised under that good old "you're not hurt until something is broken" mindset. Funny enough, even broken bones weren't really viewed as an excuse to not pull your weight. On top of that, my family was not very emotionally involved. We didn't express them, we didn't share them. I was caught in this very awkward culture of expected to never talk about feelings, and not knowing how to show them anyway. For me, it was very much a culture of "feeling down? just get over it" and similarly ignorant statements.That was just the culture. Mental health was seen not as a health issue, but as a weakness or character flaw. This culture is so deeply ingrained in my psyche that I refused to seek treatment until quite recently, and even then it was a constant struggle. The friends I had who struggled with their own mental health, we clumped together. We self-medicated, with alcohol, self-harm, drugs, violence, whatever took away the sting of non-acceptance. It felt more like a social disease than a biochemical one. I know plenty of people who made suicide attempts and were not hospitalized, or their families were unaware of. We had this little culture of mutual suffering, but it was kind of a taboo. Even now, the idea of seeking treatment feels like a blow to my pride. Every pill tasted a little bit like shame. Every therapy session was a little bit of a concession to personal weakness. I was raised to be strong, and capable. I was raised to overcome, to constantly push through whatever came. Fight through the pain, rub some dirt in it. Just man up and get the fuck over it. Even to this day, I understand how illogical my aversion is, but I can't help it.

So I thought that with this blog, I would do something new. I think that we can only address stigma if we examine the breadth of experiences, and my story alone isn't enough to probe the depths of how prevalent this is. The fact is, many people struggle with mental health issues, and even just every day language can create a barrier between those people and treatment, even if it isn't directed at them. Throw in the diverse responses of different cultures and areas, and my own opinions alone do not do justice to this. So, I enlisted the help of some wonderful friends of mine to share their stories and experiences with you as well, so you can see multiple facets. Their privacy is being respected by omitting names, but other than that, this is all 100% their words! I hope you enjoy reading this as much as we enjoyed writing it!

Our first contribution discusses the internalization of stigma and how it can manifest in those who do not struggle with mental health, but observe and interact with those who do. It was important for me to find someone willing to discuss being on the outside looking in, and this provided a concise discussion of that!

Up until a few years ago, I was willfully ignorant of the stigmas put upon those dealing with mental health issues. I was even one of those that fed into them. I thought people with depression just needed to get over it. Stop being sad. That they were being selfish and overly dramatic and weak. Manipulative. Sometimes I would pity them. Even worse than that, I would find myself wishing that they would at least try to hide it when they were around me, so I wouldn't have to feel bad. Awful, I know. When a friend’s bi-polar brother had what his family referred to as a “one of his episodes” when I was there, I thought he was crazy. I judged him for it. Watching his family trying to cope, I was even angry with him. But about four years ago, a good friend moved into my house with me. She was bi-polar. Living with her was difficult. But it opened my eyes and made me realize just how ignorant I had been. She told me how she just felt like a burden to everyone. How her family didn't understand her. How badly she just wanted to be “normal”, and if she could stop being the way she was, she would.  She was often suicidal. When she would lash out, at first I would get angry. But then I would hear her crying softly to herself in her room afterwards. I realized that she couldn't just get over it. Snap out of it. Suddenly be different. And she shouldn't have to. I had been judging her, and others, as though it was something they were doing wrong. But I was the one who was wrong. She had an illness. Someone suffering with an illness doesn't warrant disdain or judgment. And they certainly can’t make themselves suddenly NOT have it anymore. Now, instead of offering pity or advice or contempt to those around me with mental health issues, I just let them know I care. That I’m there for them and they don’t need to hide anything from me. And when I hear others around me making the same judgments I had, I try to gently correct them. There are still so many incorrect assumptions about these issues. I hope this little bit from me helps.

Our next contribution is from a friend who has depression, and discusses their presentation as well as the personal and social issues which arise from living with a mental health issue.

I was formally diagnosed with moderate clinical depression in late 2012 although I had been experiencing clear symptoms for about a year prior. I was reluctant to seek any professional help, in part due to the perceived stigma of admitting to a mental health issue, but also because I felt that I would be able to solve the problem on my own. My own ignorance of this problem was due to my assumptions about the stigma of mental health issues.

Thanks to medication that stabilizes abnormal brain chemistry I am on less of an emotional rollercoaster than prior to diagnosis. Don't get me wrong though; I’m far from golden as life is still mainly a uniform beige tone. I can probably best describe myself as being brittle. Impotent anger, frustration and exasperation are my constant companions, threatening to overwhelm me multiple times per day. I’m often sad, but I can’t cry as an emotional release; emotions upswell but cannot crest this invisible dam. I can laugh and enjoy myself but these feelings are brief and transient. I still struggle to genuinely smile. I still struggle to feel comfortable in my own skin. I still struggle to enjoy and participate in activities that I once loved. I still struggle keep focused or interested in any task for any period of time. When I can relax and feel what I would previously describe as “normal” I am simultaneously amazed by the novelty of the experience and mildly uncomfortable by my experiencing it.

Ironically, the one thing that I find helps me the most is what I am most loath to do: talk. More people online are aware of my battle with depression than do in real life. As irrational as it is, I am concerned that people will start to treat me with kid gloves or as something of a pariah if they know. My wife knows and is as supportive as she can be without understanding what it’s like while suffering through having to deal with my ogrish self. My kids don’t understand at all (nor should they) – they just know that Daddy is often grumpy and accept it as The Way It Is. My few friends that know are supportive, but I get very uncomfortable when they mention it.

There really isn’t a happy ending to this story (yet). I aspire to a future when I won’t need to take my meds. I aspire to a day when I am able to overcome my depression symptoms and become an active participant in my life again. I hope that I will be able to change my own mindset and not feel ashamed about having a mental health problem and for a time when such stigmas are rendered obsolete.

This last submission is from a dear friend, and covers a wide array of topics relating to stigma! I've had the please of working with this person before, and talking with them about issues of mental health, so it was a real treat when they agreed to contribute here, and they definitely delivered!

Philip requested that people give their view on the stigma with depression. But I've been doing some thinking, and I would like to address more than that. Most of the stigma that I've endured has come from people who are ignorant, and who actually have depression themselves. Also from the ideals we pick up on that we think other people think. In the end, we listen to those ideas and put them on ourselves. In doing so, we neglect ourselves and in doing what we think is right for us.

What is depression?

If I could describe depression, I'd say that it occurs once you've accumulated enough self-destructive habits and you begin to feel ill. Habits that degrade yourself, that deplete your self-esteem and attack your own principles. And more often, you'll begin to feel like you can't stand yourself, and you may even hate humans. You're left in survival mode, and you are trying to survive and escape your own self-destruction. Sometimes survival becomes meaningless, and that's when you may consider suicide. Either way, you're stuck in many destructive cycles... and you may or may not be aware of it. They can come from ideals you hold onto and listen to (i.e. the stigmas or your principles), how you lead your lifestyle  (i.e. if you neglect your home, and your body), and your background (i.e. the habits you've picked up from around you as you've grown up.). 

Problem of Stigma

The main problem with stigma is that many people who have depression listen to them, and take them on as right... they feed into the self-destructive habits, or they end up attacking the self. They let them in. Even though most are false. To hear others repeating them, merely reinforces ones own view of ones worthlessness. People who have depression have a tendency to listen to what is said outside of themselves when it reinforces their own views of themselves. Although this generally occurs anyway, especially for people who have low self-esteem and have been taught to listen to those outside of them, like authority.

Personal history

Personally, I've lived in a socialistic society, and grew up believing in god and started in a christian family. It was only when I had a huge breakdown, that those started to break apart before my eyes. The problem with those ideals is that they put others before yourself. They also teach that money is bad/evil... because the meaning of money seems to have been lost in translation. I assumed that capitalism was my problem, when it was the only way out of my self-destructive lifestyle. Money is an exchange, it is labour. For your labour in a job, you earn money which can be used to better your own life. It has meaning. It means you become independent and earn your own way. But I existed in a world that didn't recognise that, one that considered furthering your own life to be selfish and bad.  It was sinful. One that pushes for me to listen to “authority”, through fear or because I don't know better. I exist in a world filled with ideals or actions that belittle me and humanity. I only have to sit in a church, and hear the message echoed. I only have to listen to a socialist who gets worked up when I'm not for their ideals.  That somehow I'm wrong, and I should listen to them. If I don't, then I'm hateful. That I hate the poor or god. Like they can't fathom that I consider their lifestyle to be self-destructive because I lived through it, and bought into or thought about it. That suicide is wrong because it will hurt those who love me, that taking medicine isn't natural so I'm weak for doing so, that I'm weak because I couldn't pull myself together. In some of my lower moments, I thought that I should be locked up, or that I would harm others. That I was evil, sinful, and selfish. That I was weak because I cried, that I'm sensitive because I'm emotional. That I wasn't worthy of forgiveness, or greatness. That I'm not beautiful or pretty. That I could only be good if I were selfless and helped others, sacrificed myself. That I couldn't fix any of my problems and had to remain dependent. I'm sure there were more. Do you know what sorts of things those do to a mind that absorbs them? It's enough to make one crazy and remain depressed. But for me, I consider that to be my problem.

It's bullshit!

But enough gloom bullshit. Hopefully everyone makes it this far because I'm about to tell you that it's bullshit. There is a reason that I'm saying that the problem with stigma is that we listen to it, and that is because it's true. We are not victims. We don't need to allow those ideals to rule over our minds. We don't need to talk about it, except to say that it is bullshit... and we're not buying into it. If enough people think that way and openly express it, then other people will know how to respond. The problem with those who are ignorant is that they don't know how to react, and just react how they think they should. Hell, it's the problem that people who are depressed have too. That we think we know the minds of others, and if it causes us to struggle against ourselves then we fear it. Because we're on the edge of self-destruction. We don't need another area to struggle with, to allow to circle in our minds. But even that is bullshit... because we can decide whether it does or not. When it happens, we can say no. It's bullshit to claim that we are defined victims and will remain depressed... like it's some inevitable thing beyond our mind and control. We just lack in the know-how... once we have the tool to do so, we can freely use it. Who teaches you to say no, when they are too busy teaching you to agree with their own ideals? For every ideal, you have the ability to say “Yes!” or “No!”. Even if you have gone far with it, and realise it is bullshit. Should your fear be that all you've done is for naught, or that you continue to lead a life that is for naught? The ability to detect bullshit, to use your principles, reason and logic to guide your life, to know yourself and humanity... those are wonderful tools to have. Why not use them?

There is hope!

I want to tell you about the beautiful world. That those things you thought were impossible... they are possible. The world isn't against you. The problems you find lie in your own self-destructive habits but you can change them. You don't need permission from anyone but yourself to do so. You are capable of change. Yes, it's hard and scary... but it's rewarding. It's better than retreating down the path that will cause your destruction. You are not a victim even though others try to paint you as one, you are not defined by depression or your struggles. Only your principles and sticking to them will define you, but even those can change and be built upon. Life is not set in stone, and humans have this handy ability to reason and think. We can choose our “destiny”. Uncertainty isn't to be feared, but to be embraced and changed for your own means. The beauty is that you can choose... you can decide to remain comfortable, safe or self-destruct... or you can take risks, you can better your life and embrace change. You can reach higher comfort levels for yourself. You can thrive instead of just survive.

Not only is this possible, but you are capable of it. To overthrow every thought and ideal that demeans you, that holds you back from meeting your full potential and greatness. As long as you carry on moving forwards, and obtain it yourself while sticking to your principles... you've earned it. You've earned your life, your happiness, and your potential. Because to not earn it through your own hard work, this will mean that you won't feel worthy or happy with it. Being selfish and earning your lifestyle isn't the problem... it's when you lead a lifestyle that you haven't earned, that goes against your principles (i.e. theft.). That's when the problem begins. In other words, you aren't evil for being selfish, for thinking about yourself... it's about the method that you go about it. It's wrong because it leads to your own self-destruction, and it's against your own principles.

In the end, the ills of society come from self-destruction. The problem with society is not selfishness or greed... it's self-destruction. When we destroy ourselves, and we live in an environment that encourages that. We teach it to each other, and cause our own self-destruction. It happens regardless of your status, whether you are rich or poor, your appearance, etc.. There's no point denying it, or avoiding it. It's the truth. This is what it means to live in reality rather than fantasy. To acknowledge our faults, where we went wrong and what we've done to ourselves. To realise when we've attacked and degraded our own principles, and our nature as a thinking human being. So that we can learn from it and do better. So we can take responsibility, and become independent. To defeat those thoughts that we think will plague us forever. Because we are not victims, and we can control our thoughts and actions. What we accept and absorb. The choice is ours to take or not. That shows to me that we can be our own inspiration. That is something to admire, and admire it I do.

I will say that I hope you think about what I've said, regardless of what you decide in the end. The choice is yours. Just as I choose to not follow religion, to reject ideas from socialism, and to acknowledge reality. To build my own foundation since my last one has shattered, and to not be afraid of that or death. To attempt independence, taking care of myself and earning my way. To realise my potential, greatness, beauty. Allowing my principles to guide me more, along with reason. I still have a long journey ahead of me to become the person that I want to be but it's in the small steps that get you there. I still have depression, and perhaps I'm still stigmatised, but neither define me unless I let it. I'm moving away from notions of an in-group with depression, or that I'm a victim of stigma. Because in my experience, neither have helped. I agree with educating people about depression but I think I'll leave the leading to others. I don't want to lead a life that is engrossed with it, that keeps depression itself circling in my head. What is done is done. I'll repeat that we don't need to be defined by depression, to let it continue circling our minds, to assume that we'll always have it... that we're the victims of it... I'll ask you this, did the successful, principled and happy people in life continue to let their issues like depression or being poor define them? Or did they focus their attention elsewhere, on bettering themselves and earning their lifestyle? What do you think the difference is?

For anyone interested in the background on this, each contributor was asked to contribute an anecdote or experience relating to the topic. They were allowed to choose freely, and write however they wanted. I didn't do any editing. 

In an awesome coincidence, I also recently touched upon this issue in a contribution to the Stigma Fighters blog! I was introduced to this wonderful group and asked to contribute my own experiences and thoughts, which you can find here! I strongly recommend you check them out, as they have some amazing things going on and things in the works! Here is a Psychology Today article written by the founder of the project, and most importantly, here is a link to the Stigma Fighters push to become a Non-Profit organization! Please check it out, and consider donating!

Now, something I think is really awesome, is that the founder is planning on doing  series of college tours, and wants to open up University Chapters of Stigma Fighters on college campuses for support! This is great, because this is not only the developmental period when many mental health issues become more prevalent, but it also targets a very at-risk population for the more negative impacts of mental health issues, which range from poor performance to high suicide risk. If you're a college student, and interested, please contact Stigma Fighters about the potential for starting a chapter at your university!

I would like to once thank my contributors for their courage and honesty in sharing these things with me, and with you, the reader.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Transient Nature of Human Interaction

Our lives are temporary. We live as these momentary self-aware flickers of consciousness before we cease, never to again exist in this state. As this flickering candle of life burns down, the darkness of the world around us is illuminated by other candles. Some burn brightly for us, others merely flicker and move on. The only thing we share is that we all burn, and in the end, we are all snuffed out.

Human interaction and the establishment of interpersonal relationships is an essential part of our cultures, and likely an essential part of the process of survival for our ancestors. The challenge of forming any relationship is overcoming the intrinsic barriers to trust. We have to contend with biology, our own experience (or lack thereof), and our societies and cultures when it comes to forming bonds and interacting. For some people, there is a sort of easy, effortless trust which falls from them, as if everyone is their friend. For others, it takes the jaws of life and 8 strong men just to pry the door open enough to make sure everything is alright. Most people fall somewhere between these extremes, and let's be honest... even if you're one of the people who trusts easily, it isn't always an easy process. The trust has to be earned. You have to explore the minds and experiences of these other people until you are satisfied that they are worth your trust. Shared experiences facilitate this. Shared outlooks and opinions too. Even just spending time together, doing certain nearly-innocuous activities, can cause a biochemical predisposition towards trusting someone. 

From this, it is easy to see that human interactions are, for the most part, inherently selfish. Of course, a lot of you will likely take exception to this, and roll your eyes, and maybe call me an idiot, or bitter ignoramus, or whatever. I mean yeah, if the shoe fits and all that, but regardless, here is what I mean. We interact with other people not for their sake, but for our own. To have our needs met, whether they be physical, mental, emotional, or social. Even things you may consider selfless, are done only to perpetuate the cycle of positive stimulus. Keep the feel-good flowing in my brain, and I'll bend over backwards for you (and maybe do that thing with my tongue you keep asking about.) You can even see examples where seemingly altruistic behaviors have an honestly pragmatic and selfish reason. Example: a mother protecting her young. The mother is put at risk, for what? Most certainly not for any emotional or chemical fulfillment really, unless you consider the continued mutually selfish affection of a child . It's even more basic than that. A child who survives to mature and reproduce passes off the parent's genetic information. We love, trust, and bond simply to have our needs fulfilled. We need the chemical fix of emotional stimulus. The science has shown that the social attachment and pair bonding pathways are inter-linked to an extent with pleasure, reward, and addiction pathways. These are some pretty potent molecules we're dealing with when we discuss social attachment. Think I'm wrong? How much stupid shit gets done from immediate response to an emotional state? How much completely stupid shit gets done for the sake of "love?" Shit, even breakups seem pretty close to withdrawal symptoms to me. Close enough to make you understand that most of what's going on in your "heart" is just your brain getting high on endogenous chemicals. Well, you chase that fix, but realize that that is part of what you're doing: just trying to get your next fix of beautiful emotion-induced chemicals.

Let's take a moment for clarity. A selfish behavior can still be mutually beneficial. If you keep the second party happy, they continue to give you the stimulus you're looking for. We're not all self-serving bastards, but we are looking out for our own feelings. We take the hit, sometimes, and that may seem very selfless or altruistic, to inconvenience ourselves for the sake of another, but it seems more like trying to maintain a steady supply of chemicals than anything else. That's the fuzzy part, though, because I don't think this is bad at all. It's just how we function. Mutual beneficence is the cause of groups which eventually gave rise to organized societies. We're lead to accept that on some level, these selfish behaviors are not entirely selfish at all, and I don't think acknowledging that both parties benefit (even though you're doing it for yourself) really makes a huge difference. You're not going to stop, and I'm not saying you should. These are observations, not indictments. 

Now I hate to be the guy who starts reducing emotional states to chemicals and synaptic firing, but that is my background. That is where I am personally most comfortable. Your emotions are chemical stimuli. You can become addicted to them, and suffer withdrawals from them. Your brain can change because of strong feelings, adapting to the constant stimuli in various ways. There is plenty of personal and cultural meaning to emotions, and reducing them to a series of chemical cascades and nerve impulses does nothing to diminish that... does explaining what we know of the chemistry of romantic love make your love any less powerful, or real? Not a fucking chance. You still feel it. You still respond to it. Just like any other kind of strong chemical impulse, you do stupid things for it too. We've all done stupid things from an emotional place, for better of worse. Now, it isn't all action potentials and quantal packets. You can't consider emotions without considering the power of personal experience and memory, and context. Social context constructs our perception and expression of emotions. As someone who grew up in a very emotion-free environment, I have a hard time expressing my own feelings in a constructive manner. I feel them, sure. I even feel them strongly sometimes (just kidding, I'm like a fat ginger robot.) but I don't express them well.

Now for another round of bullshit I'm going to be throwing at you. You really can't argue that emotions aren't chemical, though I suppose there may be some room for arguing if they are a cause or effect of the chemical cascade. (Do dopamine, serotonin, vasopressin, oxytocin, testosterone, estrogen, etc. cause love, or does love cause them?) I'm not interested in that discussion. Where I'm going with this, is that every human interaction we have releases some of these chemicals, and activates parts of our brains associated with emotions. Every single interaction. That's just kind of how things work... stimulus causes response. A stranger smiling at you, or saying hello, will cause a (hopefully) positive emotional upregulation. By the same virtue, some fuckwit cutting you off in traffic or yelling slurs at you will likely trigger a more negative emotional response. Again, I'm honestly not interested in the response itself, merely that it is occurring in this limited form, constantly. For me, it shows some very important things: human emotional interactions are constant and transient. People fall in and out of love, all the time. People end friendships, or even just drift apart as lives become separated by distance, time, or priorities. People change, for better or worse. You may never see that stranger on the street again, or that cashier at the gas station. 

But hey, guess what? For however brief the interaction may be, you had an impact. You changed their lives. If you smiled at a cute stranger on the street, you touched their life, even if it seems so minuscule. I find that concept fascinating. Just you reading this, right now, is evoking some response, whether it be amusement, or boredom, or thinking "Fucking hell, this guy is full of shit." 

I'm part of your life for this brief moment, and something changes.

And that's glorious. I think recognizing that even transient interactions have an impact is important. It can change your behavior towards others, and also allow you to accept things you may not otherwise be comfortable acknowledging. You don't need to externalize closure over a terminated relationship or friendship if you can understand that this is not uncommon. There is no mystical link between people "in love" or between "best friend" which you can exploit to prevent someone from leaving, or even to alleviate your own personal loss of feelings for someone. It just fucking happens. The beauty in this is that you can acknowledge the impacts without being bitter about the losses. Be grateful for the old friends and relationships and kind strangers and wretched shitbags who taught you how to be you, who formed your paradigm either through observation of their actions, or direct interaction of the events in your life. After all is said and done, and the smoke clears, nobody walks away from it the same as when they went in. Who and what you are have tiny pieces of every person you have ever met or interacted with. We learn our limits, our breaking points. We see how we wish we could be, or hope to never be. It maybe seems a little obvious, but for me it was a very profound realization. Every single fucking person leaves something with you.

Humans NEED emotions, as much as my robotic processing hates to admit it. We need people around, to trust and love. We need these stimuli, and we prefer continuity and stability. This is how long term friendships and romantic relationships form. Let's be honest, that's not easy, to keep someone in your life for the long term who continues to fulfill the stimuli which your greedy, drug-addled brain is so desperate for. Kudos to them, and to you. Just remember, that on some level, it could be literally anyone else fulfilling that need for you.

The hope though, is that realizing that only makes your appreciate how special and awesome a long-term, strong bond is. They could be anyone, or a different anyone every few weeks. It isn't, though. Something must click, if they stick around for any length of time. Enjoy interactions in every time scale. Love the people close to you, and appreciate the passing strangers who can still shape you. Enjoy what your friends have taught you, and the lessons the pain gives you, but don't dwell. Everyone you know and love will disappoint you, or leave you, and eventually they all die. that right there is reason enough to not feel too bad about people who cause some emotional trauma... that's just part of life. I feel as if there is this tendency to say that temporary interactions lose their power, which forgets that all human interaction is temporary.

Anyway, thanks for reading, and thanks to you all for making the small differences, even if our paths never cross again... and for letting me make a small difference for you today too.