Tag Archives: relationships

Disconnecting Power Lines: “I Can’t Keep Quiet”

For me, and I’m sure many other victims of sexual harassment and assault, the recent #metoo movement has been a time of reflection. Also like many others, I’m coming to the maddening realization of how garden-variety, standard, all-in-a-day, etc so much of my harassment has been— to the point where so many of the experiences and faces blur together without conscious efforts on my part to really examine and untangle them. And the ones that don’t fall into the blurred together category, I’ve neatly compartmentalized because my relationship with the perpetrator was too complicated, but that’s its own post and not necessarily a Pandora’s box I’m interested in unpacking in its entirety for the general public at this point in time. In turn, that leaves me tempted to do that whole minimization thing I do so well for myself: I’m kinda lucky in a fucked up way; plenty of people I know and love have experiences they remember—and often relive—in vivid, excruciating detail because it was that horrific. But—as we all know far too well—there are always plenty of third parties out there who are all too ready and willing to minimize and invalidate our experiences for us, so it doesn’t quite make sense to do it to ourselves too. And for me, those are the experiences I remember most vividly.

The first time—on paper at least—was relatively benign. I was in third grade. I’m just old enough that that was back in the days when homes still had landlines and each student received a copy of a class roster listing everyone’s phone number. I was the shy, quiet kid who read books during recess, and there was a boy in my class whose favorite pastime was coming up behind me to interrupt my reading by whispering explicit and obscene comments into my ear to try to get a reaction. Where an eight-year-old even came up with some of the shit he pulled out, I have no idea. I don’t remember him ever actually touching me, but he was relentless, taking my silence (since my only recourse was that trite and terribly ineffective “just ignore them and they’ll stop” MO that adults liked to tout as the cure-all for bullying) as a challenge. And when he got the bright idea to use that class roster to call me at home one day, my mom—cluelessly determining that he “sounded like a nice boy” and I “shouldn’t be rude”—forced me to take the call with the ever-helpful suggestion that I just tell him I had too much homework as an excuse to cut the conversation short. Beyond that, my side of the story didn’t matter to her, and she shoved the phone into my hand and waited for me to comply. “She finally talked!” he crowed in delight to his laughing friends in the background when I flatly cut off his hissed, “I heard your pussy is really loose…” with my scripted excuse. I slammed the receiver down, bursting into humiliated tears. If I’d even repeated what he’d said in an attempt to let her know what was actually going on, she would have jammed an entire bar of Ivory soap into my mouth.

Around eight years later (give or take), we were shopping for my prom dress when a man came up, asked for directions to another nearby mall, and then interrupted before we’d even had a chance to fully answer, looking me dead in the eyes as he started tugging at his junk through his pants: “I’m sorry; you’re so cute, I just can’t help myself.” My mother had turned with a snort of disgust and walked briskly away leaving me to chase after her. She’d given me the silent treatment in the car on the way home, refusing to discuss it, and when I brought it up again years later, she denied it had ever even happened, scoffing that I “had a vivid imagination.”

Don’t be rude. Keep up appearances at all costs. Shove your shit wayyyy deep down… and make no mistake that it is one hundred percent your shit and you’re probably either wrong or wildly overreacting anyway. These were the messages planted into my brain early on. While they definitely took root, they never quite flourished there… but they did sprout just enough to keep me mostly either silent or compartmentalizing and rationalizing away my experiences after questioning or rebelling against them proved ineffective.

It didn’t help that many of those around me had accepted similar rationales seemingly unquestioningly: “At least you know you’re hot,” a friend tried to console me with a laugh when I regaled her with the tale of a particularly creepy catcaller who had followed me down the street for several blocks one morning… and the mailman who had exited a store moments after I had finally managed to shake him and cheerfully instructed me to “Put a smile on your face, baby!”

“You can just say ‘no thank you;’ you don’t have to be so mean about it,” another chided me after I witheringly rebuffed a strange man who had ground his denim-clad, semi-erect penis against my unsuspecting ass on a dance floor by way of introduction.

“Well, you didn’t say ‘no,’” the department chair of my graduate program reasoned when my friend and I came to him with complaints about another student in the program who had been harassing me and stalking her.

Getting people in my corner in these instances consistently seemed such a tall order that when a friend with benefits stealthed me, it took me roughly an hour to internally debate whether what had just happened was fucked up before silently shelving it away in the farthest corners of my mind… and another couple years before we stopped our on and off casual hook ups altogether. It was another three to four years or so before the internet came up with an actual term for the experience and finally validated my concerns, several months after that before I spoke it aloud… and it’s taken until now for me to write it down.

Last weekend as I lay in bed scrolling through social media, I came across a headline about Lena Dunham. Normally a topic that holds almost zero interest for me and I’ll keep scrolling, but this time, an accompanying screenshot caught my eye:

“Hey, babe,” I called across the room to my partner before clicking the link (and realizing that the story went a bit deeper), “Did you see that Lena Dunham just pulled an Elise*?” Elise was a former “friend” of mine who had earlier this year proven herself to be a master of gaslighting, invalidation, and narrative re-creation, so she was the first place my mind went upon seeing that screenshot.

I rang in this year of #metoo’s with another benign-on-paper #metoo experience. Know how I said I’m really good at that whole compartmentalizing and rationalizing away thing? My rationale for my New Year’s Eve experience went like this: “If only I’d remembered to pack pantyhose, none of this would have happened.”

It was freezing out, and there was no way I was going bare legged under the sparkly little bodycon sweater dress I’d bought for the occasion so mid-afternoon of New Year’s Eve day, I stopped at our local CVS to grab a black nylon barrier to ward off the chill. As I was checking out, I heard a “Hey, what’s up?” to my left. It took me a moment to place him as the dude I’d briefly met and nerded out over Black Mirror with at Elise’s birthday party a month earlier, and we made small talk about our holiday plans. His were still up in the air, but he’d been debating attending the party I mentioned as some of his friends planned to attend. “Will there be a bar there?” he wanted to know.

I shrugged. “No clue. I’m pregaming at my friend’s apartment down the street. But why don’t you take my number and shoot me a text if you decide to go?” The more the merrier and all that jazz, right?

As I was getting ready, my text alert sounded. Dude wanted to know my friend’s address because he’d decided to join us. Not sure how to broach the awkwardness of “I kinda just meant hit me up if you end up in the same public place, not an open invite to my friend’s home,” I decided it would be easier to just check with her… and being the warm, loving, and generally all-around wonderful person that she is, it took minutes for her to text back a similar “the more the merrier” affirmative. And at her house, the mentality of inclusiveness and celebration held. We all drank and shared in much-needed laughter and camaraderie, Dude appeared to be bonding with my partner and another friend of ours over music, and life was sweet enough to allow the unease that the dumpster fire otherwise known as our recent presidential election had left in its wake to fade into the background. It also gave me a reason to shove my phone in my bag for a much-needed reprieve from the vaguely passive-aggressive texts Elise had been sending my way. She was suffering from a bout of walking pneumonia—the severity of which was evidently outweighed by a combination of intense FOMO and annoyance that “No one at this point will come to me!” After Dude (who she apparently thought was cute, but Elise is one of those girls who tends to view most of her male friends as potential romantic options… even if it’s just to let others know that so-and-so has an unrequited crush on her that she feels so bad about because he’s so sweet, but she just doesn’t see him that way) had mentioned to her that he was crashing joining in on my plans, she was rallying to drag herself out to meet up with us. She chose to dutifully ignore my repeated “Are you sure you’re feeling up to it?” inquiries (my kinder alternative to “Bitch, stay home if you’re sick! My new health insurance didn’t kick in yet, and I don’t want your germs.”) and made sure to let me know, martyr-like, what a “bad part of town” I was evidently forcing her to come to as she reiterated her plans to meet us at the venue since she “never got [my friend’s] address.” (And no, she hadn’t asked for it; she’d been too busy trying to talk me into changing my plans to an alternative option that would be more convenient for her).

We made our way over to the venue where it was still another hour or so before she showed up with her roommate in tow and mumbled a not-quite-apology that the area wasn’t actually as bad as she’d anticipated as we snapped an obligatory selfie. Dude had presumably found his friends and wandered off. I spotted him again after the band hit the stage and launched into a full set of Bowie and Prince tribute covers and my friends (sans Elise who said she wasn’t feeling up to it) and I joyfully rushed to the dance floor. He was hovering, awkward and alone, on the fringes of our group, and as I looked happily around at my friends all singing along as we moved to the beat—“Put on your red shoes and dance the blues!”—we locked eyes, and I waved him over. After all, I’d kind of invited him, and (misunderstanding over the particular details aside) it had been an awesome night so far. We danced and sang along for several more songs, my partner in front, Dude behind, and me sandwiched between them, the crowd pressing in closer and closer. Usually, that kind of mass humanity is terrible for my social anxiety, but that night, I was unfazed, lost in the music…that is, until I felt Dude’s hand begin to creep up my black nylon clad leg and under my skirt to firmly grip my ass cheek (had I not stopped for that pantyhose, we’d have been skin-to-skin). I jolted and instinctively yanked the back of my partner’s shirt. Thankfully, it didn’t take him long to connect the dots before turning and announcing, “Hey, Dude, you’re pretty much humping my girlfriend into me.”

“Is that okay?” Dude asked inanely.

“Um… no, not really.”

I took that as my cue to exit stage left, and Elise was the first familiar face I encountered. She wanted to know if Dude had just tried to kiss me, and I replied that I didn’t think so; “he just got a little handsy.”

She pursed her lips, studying me for about half a second before pronouncing with a shrug, “Well, it’s New Year’s Eve. He’s probably just lonely.”

And at first—as conditioned as we are, and as commonplace as such experiences are—I mostly succeeded in shrugging it off too, determined not to let it ruin an otherwise great evening. It wasn’t until the next morning when Dude texted to ask whether I’d made it home okay and “is your boyfriend still mad?” following up with an afterthought inquiry of “how did you feel about it though?” that it began to peripherally occur to me how little my feelings were ever taken into account in such instances. Even then, I tried to be diplomatic and “nice” in my response that while it wasn’t necessarily cool, it didn’t have to equal awkwardness if we bumped into each other in a common area in the future. His retort of “That’s good to hear because you very clearly wanted it,” however, finally prompted me to come for him, guns blazing: “Oh, clearly. ‘Cause what woman doesn’t get off on being flagrantly objectified?”

He took the hint. I haven’t heard from him since, and anytime my partner and I have seen him around town, he’s quickly scurried off in the opposite direction.

Elise was another story. Checking in to see how she was feeling after pushing herself to come out, I remembered her comment about thinking Dude was cute and decided to give her a heads up— I wouldn’t wish that kind of toxic masculinity bullshit on anyone, let alone someone I considered a friend. I’m not sure what I expected, but the flood of shit she sent my way in response was something I never could have anticipated.

For a solid two to three hours, my phone vibrated incessantly with her barrage of text messages about how, “Real talk,” she “had seen everything,” had been “the only sober one there,” and “could understand how he would have gotten very mixed messages,” as “the flirting was turned way up.” She had been sure to add how “uber uncomfortable” it had been for her to witness “especially” since she had mentioned to me that she might be interested in him.

I tried at least five times to end the conversation, telling Elise I felt slut-shamed and frankly unfairly judged seeing as how she didn’t in fact have all the details as to how things had unfolded— which she shut down by prissily informing me that she “didn’t subscribe to this conversation being slut shaming at all,” and how dare I “push the feminist propaganda on her” when all she was trying to do was “help me by challenging my perspective.”

“Just stop talking to her,” my partner—who was never a big Elise fan and had been thrilled at the prospect of finally being able to unfriend and unfollow her on social media without threat of eventually being drawn into an inevitable tiresome conversation in which she approached him doe-eyed and asking for an explanation—said wearily, “She’s an idiot anyway.”

And after awhile I did, letting her have the self-righteous last word about how “the right thing to do” would be for me to call her and talk it over or meet up in person to which I conceded, leaving the ball in her court to let me know when she was free and feeling up to it (since I still had zero interest in exposure to those walking pneumonia germs). She never followed up about that… but she did start obsessively interacting with my social media a couple weeks later, acting as if nothing had happened. And once again, my only recourse was that old “ignore it and hope it stops” exercise in futility which—just when I started to think it might actually be working this time around—backfired hard when she “randomly” texted three months later (conveniently a few days before a mutual friend’s event) to say she missed me and oddly enough had just so happened to come across a draft of a message she had meant to send me “after all that weird stuff went down.” Spoiler alert: it was yet another paragraph of preachy, prove-herself-right sanctimony. Oh, and spoiler alert number two, she really didn’t appreciate my calling her bluff on the unfortunate phenomenon of intent vs effect where said “weird shit” was concerned… or my final answer that while I hoped we could be cordial if we bumped into each other, I no longer viewed her as someone I could trust or with whom I felt emotionally safe confiding anything real about my life. Her diatribe of defensiveness went on for another few hours before I blocked her for good. Undeterred, she tried again on Facebook messenger the day of our friend’s event. I reiterated myself and blocked her there as well which led to a Facebook status tantrum and shit talking messages sent to two friends (that I know of). Still, no one had any better ideas than ignoring… and for all her relentless digital discourse, Elise hung awkwardly in the opposite corner at our friend’s event that evening.

It went on that way for the rest of the year: I’d get a couple months at a clip of false security thinking she’d finally moved on before something else would happen. First, I got an out of the blue message from my out-of-state friend of nearly a decade asking if I thought Elise (who had met her once and apparently “written a novel” on her Facebook status about having an available room) might be a good fit for her as a roommate. Towards the end of the summer, Elise wrote my partner a giant Facebook message to pass along to me, and on Halloween weekend, my friend who’d been the recipient of her first shit talk message had some brand new shiny bullshit in her inbox to show me.

On their own and on the surface, written out like this, the details in and of themselves feel so petty and “beneath me”— I’m a mental health professional, for fuck’s sake! I “know better” than to entertain this kind of nonsense, and when clients come to me with similar stories, I even have a sage little speech at the ready about how reacting to such annoyances is the equivalent of giving one’s power away. But below the surface… I may need to re-evaluate a bit to make some space for the added complexities of the situations in which we feel like we have little to no power to begin with.

Dude’s behavior relegated me from subject to object— not only through the action of groping me, but in the footnote-to-an-afterthought approach of his inquiry as to how I felt about the situation. Elise’s readiness to immediately create a narrative that excused his behavior as “loneliness” while judging mine as sending him “mixed messages”—without bothering to fact check with either of us first—further perpetuated the stripping away of any semblance of power or autonomy I might have had in the situation. And each attempt to insert herself back into my world, each staunch refusal on her part to respect my wishes—insignificant and petty as her behavior in and of itself might have been—was another attack, another reminder that my feelings were unworthy of being taken into account.

That’s the problem with the “just ignore it” solution. Yeah, Elise was a shit excuse for a friend, self-righteous and judgmental with a disturbing lack of boundaries to boot. But she’s not Patient Zero; she’s merely a symptom of a much larger social issue when you break it all down, the product of conditioning in a longstanding legacy of rape culture. We’re desensitized into either shaming and blaming victims or keeping silent— and silent support doesn’t often translate in these cases. For me—though I never would have asked anyone to tell her off or shun her in some way on my behalf—I walked away feeling sorely tempted to misappropriate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for purposes of expressing my feelings on the matter (probably since a lot of people still listen to him): “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

I remembered Elise’s words, but I also really remembered and struggled with the silence of the friends she reached out to— while as far as I know, no one really engaged, and the most they ever did was laugh about how “crazy” she was as they shared her nonsense with me after the fact, would it have been so hard for even one of them to point out to her how wildly inappropriate and disregarding of boundaries her behavior was? Or even just to ask her not to drag them into the middle of whatever issue she had with me? It would have felt far more effective and proactive than brushing it off with the joking dismissals that Elise was just “crazy” or “an idiot” (a tactic that, while well-intentioned, felt way too similar to those past dismissals whenever I shared my upset over yet another of those all-in-a-day violations)… and they wouldn’t have even had to be mean about it.

In a vague, roundabout way, I included Elise in my story when I added my voice to last month’s online chorus of #metoos:

And I felt more supported in the feedback I received on that than I had during this entire year… or possibly ever. Poetically enough, my favorite response came from Elise’s and my mutual friend’s girlfriend who had never heard the story as the couple had actually met for the first time that fateful New Year’s Eve. She wrote three words: “I believe you.”

And while I know she wasn’t the only one who had believed me, while I know the vast majority of people tend to prefer short and sweet, easily digestible soundbites to larger sordid sagas (so she was already getting off easier than everyone who’d seen it play out over the course of the year), she was the first to actually say those words without any debate or well-intentioned dismissal or request for further details.

So how does this all fit together? Dude’s actions were a clear participation in rape culture. Elise’s slut shaming then perpetuated it, with each refusal on her part to respectfully fade away serving as a small act of further victimization. As for the silence… the best I can come up with is that it’s another case of intent vs effect. While the intent to not engage with someone who so desperately craves a reaction is, in itself, logical, the unintended side effect of the no response from a victim often means a perpetrator will simply try harder. And the silence of those we view as our friends and allies—despite their best intentions—feels isolating and invalidating.

But we are witnessing a movement this year. And perhaps it’s no accident that the song that became the anthem of that movement when millions of women marched on Washington was the product of one sexual assault survivor’s poignant and powerful speaking out, giving voice to her experience, and declaring that she can’t—and won’t—keep quiet about it (and if you have yet to do so, click the linked text above and watch the video. It is goddamn breathtaking).

It’s taken me almost a year to write this down. But I’m finally done putting on a face, and I, too, won’t keep quiet for anyone anymore.

*Name changed to protect privacy.

© Kristin Despina for Acceptance Revolution, 2017

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Personal Experience Spotlight: Cosi Saint-Phard

The Joy of Roller Coasters and the Power of Connectivity

I had a heart to heart with an employee the other day. He’s a tall, strong African American male with his whole life ahead of him. However he’s apprehensive about a lot of things. I said to him, “It’s really incredible how much people hate things that they have zero familiarity with.” I have countless experiences that demonstrate the power of connectivity. When I was in college at Syracuse University, I met lots of people that were Jewish. The best description of Judaism to me is a heritage; it goes beyond a religious belief system. I’m not Jewish but my friends who are still insisted that I come to their homes for Passover Seder. I drank wine with them, fellowshipped with them, and had an amazing meal. It was the absolute pleasure of my life listening to them sing songs and recite the biblical story of their liberation from Egypt.

When I was done with school, I moved back home to Binghamton, NY for a while, and I met wonderful people from Bosnia whom I consider family today. They also happened to be Muslim. They invited me into their homes to sing songs and dance dances that were from their country and eat Bosnian food. I am not a Muslim, nor am I Bosnian, yet I was always welcomed with open arms.

When I was older still, one of my very best friends honored me and made me one of her bridesmaids. She’s white, I’m not. Her parents are conservatives. I am not. However, they insisted that I bring my girlfriend at the time as my date to their daughter’s wedding without any hesitation. I was allowed to witness my friend marrying the love of her life at the altar of an episcopal church and then, together in dresses, dance with my girlfriend on the dance floor like everyone else.

On the other side of things, I grew up in church as a Christian in an evangelical environment where you raise your hands and your voice on Sunday to praise the Lord. I went on a missions trip to Mexico and laid my hands on people to pray for them. This was over 10 years ago now but I still don’t think there’s a more intimate act, than to put your hands on someone’s shoulders that you don’t know at all, and beg that life treats them kind. That’s really what prayer is. If you didn’t know already, I am gay. Surprisingly, not one of the people I grew up with in church, in a church that considers that a grave sin, has shown me one bit of malice for it. They have shown me nothing but love, if not acceptance.

I know that not everyone has been so fortunate and I refuse to diminish the pain that people have experienced for being “different” with this post. That is very real indeed.

This is just to say that: Hate is not something that’s natural. It’s actually quite unnatural. There are many people out there with these preconceived notions that are false. That’s like listening to someone who tells you they hate roller coasters but have never actually been on one.

If this is my purpose on earth–perhaps it is–my life has been a living testament that people will love you no matter how they were raised or how you think they will act. Systematic misery exists but it DOES NOT have to define us. In my life, love and compassion have defined me, and I have found it in the strangest of places. I am eternally grateful. This is the America people have fought and died for. This is the America people are kneeling for today. And this is the America I’m praying for to continue to exist, a place where we can co-exist FREELY without FEAR! Seriously, what a blessing it has been to be wrong in a world full of people dying to be right. To find out, hey, roller coasters are actually freaking awesome and that people, well people are fucking dope. We don’t have to look alike, act alike, or believe the same things to love each other! Don’t buy into this garbage. It’s not true. I promise you, it’s not true.

© Cosi Saint-Phard for Acceptance Revolution, 2017

Interested in sharing your own experience? Click here for details!


An Open Letter to My Community

I haven’t directly said my piece on anything yet, but I’m keeping up with everyone: Those of you who are sick, stunned, outraged, fearful for yours and your childrens’ futures, etc., I feel you and I’m with you. I’m also heartened to realize how many truly fine people I am fortunate to know … and how many heterosexual cis white men in particular I know who are speaking out in recognition of their own privilege and in support of those of us who do not benefit from it – my gratitude for all of you is extra hard. And then there’s the handful of you who I either know in your way are trying to help us all move on with an “it’s not that bad” or who I know just flat out don’t get the gravity of things – not because you’re bad people or “part of the problem,” but because you’re viewing the situation through the lens of your own privilege and have never found yourselves in a position where you had to really consider or examine it. So here’s the piece you’re missing about the strong reactions the rest of us are having to this election: This is not about anyone being “butthurt” because the candidate they wanted didn’t win, and it’s not even about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. For those of us who do not benefit from the same privileges you do, this is often devastating and scary on a personal level, first and foremost because it is shedding stark light not only on our marginalization or on the racism, sexism, hatred, and divisiveness that exists in this country, but on the people in our lives whom we have known, loved, and trusted whom we are now learning do not stand with us or for our rights. Let me get even more personal: for me, there’s plenty of this that can be boiled down to the undeniability of the fact that my own mother gave more of a shit about my basic human rights when I was a fetus than she does now. Seriously, go back, reread that sentence, and wrap your brain around that one. I’ll wait. I have plenty more examples from others I know and love too- that’s just a tiny piece of my own story. I don’t blame anyone, but there are those of you whose dismissiveness is disappointing to say the least. I’m choosing to believe that it stems from a lack of understanding rather than some deep-seeded belief on your part that I or any other marginalized person I happen to know and love is somehow “less than” you, and I hope this helps clarify things a bit.

© Kristin Despina for Acceptance Revolution, 2016


The Importance of Solidarity in Sadness

Tennessee Williams once wrote that “When so many are lonely as seem to be lonely, it would be inexcusably selfish to be lonely alone.”
Another renowned and beloved Williams – the recently and dearly departed icon of our generation, Robin Williams – had another spin on that sentiment, one which has always resonated deeply with me: “I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone; it’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people who make you feel all alone.”
I’m not normally one to comment on celebrity news in general, particularly the stories of the more tragic variety, mainly because I’m not a big believer in living or suffering vicariously through the lives and tragedies of people I’ve never met. But this one is hitting close to home for me, and the subsequent outpouring of articles on depression awareness and suicide prevention that has come on the heels of Robin Williams’ tragic passing has intensified that.
When I first heard the news, I uncharacteristically posted about it on my personal Facebook page and Instagram account. My truth on the matter is this: Check in every now and then with the people in your life who laugh the loudest or seem the strongest, and make sure they’re really doing okay; they’re often the ones who cry behind closed doors and need support the most. As someone who takes on the role of either  lightening the mood or playing the rock for others depending on what the situation calls for, I know this firsthand. Even though I’m the type who stays on call pretty much 24/7  to provide support to the people in my life, not many check in with me to see how I’m doing, seeming to take the mentality of, “Oh, Kristin’s the strong one; she’s got this.” In all fairness, I don’t reach out for support when I need it either; the prospect of asking feels exhausting, so I drop off the grid and hide out in my room until it passes. I also tend to feel loneliest when I’m around other people and feeling ill at ease – ever the queen of “alone in the crowd” – even more so when depression strikes. And I can’t help but wonder if, perhaps, Robin Williams may have been in the same boat.
The other day, a friend and I took a little moment to remember Robin Williams over dinner, and she commented on an article she’d read that had upset her as it had clearly been written by someone who didn’t understand depression and seemed to take the oversimplifying stance that  somehow this tragedy could have been avoided if only his family had loved him more… which – to anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of what depression actually entails anyway – is a completely absurd conclusion. No matter how lonely and isolated I might feel when I’m going through my own dark times, I don’t think I’ve ever believed this to be the case, and I can’t imagine Williams did either. In his beautiful tribute to Robin Williams, comedian Russell Brand, too, says as much: “Robin Williams could have tapped anyone in the western world on the shoulder and told them he felt down and they would have told him not to worry, that he was great, that they loved him. He must have known that. He must have known his wife and kids loved him, that his mates all thought he was great, that millions of strangers the world over held him in their hearts, a hilarious stranger that we could rely on to anarchically interrupt, the all-encompassing sadness of the world. Today Robin Williams is part of the sad narrative that we used to turn to him to disrupt.”
When that aforementioned outpouring of articles began, I kind of obsessively read them. The sad irony of  how something so lonely and isolating that it feels like no one else could possibly understand it when you’re the one walking through it is actually so widely relatable and seemed to be hitting so close to home for so many people really struck a chord with me.
While there was the inevitable flip side of criticism with regard to these articles – which, to an extent, I understand, and in many instances agree with as far as the whole phenomenon of the social media attention whoring of vicarious suffering goes – I think in this case, we may have found an exception to the rule.  As someone who has both struggled with depression myself as well as seen several people I love battle it, I firmly believe it’s so very important for people to know that other people “get it” and that they’re not alone in what they’re going through. And – criticisms aside – the sheer number of people who are talking about it helps contribute to that. A dear friend of mind recently texted me detailing how sad and lost he was feeling in his own depression, and I responded – as you do – with heartfelt words of comfort and encouragement, all the while deeply admiring his courage. Being vulnerable enough to admit to another person that you’re not okay is one of the hardest, bravest things in the world… and sometimes, it feels too daunting to actually do so. Particularly if – like me – you’re everyone’s rock. Or perhaps, too, if – like Williams – you’re everyone’s beacon of joy and laughter. Solidarity in this instance matters so much, especially because the act of reaching out of those depths does feel like such an enormous effort. So personally, I’m all for people talking about this, increasing awareness and mindfulness about – as Brand puts it – “how fragile we all are, how delicate we are, even when fizzing with divine madness that seems like it will never expire,” and striving for kindness and compassion. No, it won’t magically bring Robin Williams back. And maybe it won’t change anything. But maybe – just maybe – you’ll help someone feel a little less alone and, even more importantly, a little more understood in their darkness. And that matters… sometimes more than we can even begin to realize.

 

© Kristin Despina for Acceptance Revolution, 2014


Personal Experience Spotlight: Mallorie Ruston

“Hearts, Not Parts”: Breaking the Cycle of Biphobia-Induced Shame

            When I was about five years old and my mom was pregnant with my sister, she met a woman named Nese who she then left my dad for. Growing up in a world of Ptown and same sex couples and rainbow stickers then seemed like no big deal; that was just how life was: People loved people, and it never seemed to matter whether they were male or female. At the same time, I started to “hook up” with the neighborhood girls… so even at a young age, I knew that I liked boys but also really liked girls.

Hearts Not Parts

It wasn’t until 3rd grade when a boy in my class told everyone my mom was a lesbian that I started to have feelings of being ashamed and like maybe it was different to have two moms. This was circa 1994, way before Ellen and Rosie. There was no media to look up to and tell us such feelings were totally ok and shouldn’t be hidden. So when we transferred to a very prestigious and wealthy high school, my mom’s beat up old jeep with a rainbow sticker was the last thing I wanted to be seen in. And it wasn’t until I graduated high school in 2004 that I felt comfortable enough to express to others – including my mother – that I felt like I was bisexual. And surprisingly enough, the one person who took it not very well was my bisexual mother, stating, “Being gay is just such a harder lifestyle. I just wouldn’t choose for you to be a minority.” She of all people told me it was just an experimental phase and that I would get over it.

Well, it’s 2014, and after completing my Bachelors in Science in sociology and taking majorly enlightening classes about gender and sexuality, I’ve realized there is absolutely nothing wrong with me. And I wish I could have known Kinsey; I would love to just make out with his face for creating the Kinsey scale. Even the media has opened my eyes with shows like Nip Tuck and The L Word and Queer as Folk. I spent time living in Hollywood, and WeHo is the most amazingly accepting and beautiful place. Even the cop cars had rainbows on them. I had never felt so comfortable being exactly who the fuck I was. In fact, my first night In WeHo I had so much fun dancing and being me, I woke up the next morning in a pool of my own pee! God, what a great night!

But aside from all of it, there is one way I know I am completely and totally gender neutral toward lovers: My dreams. When I dream, I have the most explicit sexual fantasies about both men and women equally. When I am attracted to someone, it’s their soul I want to be close to. The body parts are just perks. I have better sex with girls, definitely, and can only truly get off with them. But when it comes to dating and being in actual relationships, it normally tends to be with guys; they are just simpler and less dramatic. Also, I think part of me knows I was meant to end up being in a lesbian relationship … I just feel more authentic in the gay world.

My mom is now dating men and has been since I was 13, saying woman are just too emotional and too much work; she is 58 and still single. It’s so funny with the stereotypes these days because everyone always tells me I “look straight,” and that my little sister, who is as straight as the day is long, “looks gay” … and I’ve always thought, “What the fuck does that even mean?” People are also constantly telling me to “pick one or the other already,” and I’m just so sick of it. Lesbians think I’m greedy, and straight people think I’m confused. But I’m not confused; I simply reply with, “There are so many flavors of ice cream in the world, why would I eat one for the rest of my life?” Fortunately, I have never been one to care what people think of me especially those that can’t understand me.

I still keep in close contact with my other mother Nese, and she is the only spouse of either of my parents that I still feel a connection with. I am very thankful to have been raised in a very liberal and open-minded world, even though it was more difficult at times. It has made me who I am: a very bold, loving, honest (sometimes too honest), accepting person. I may not have a career or ridiculous house or car, but I have the ability to love and take care of people around me. I make friends everywhere I go with all kinds of people. I am wholeheartedly passionate about people and traveling and seeing things that can open my eyes and my heart. My ideal job would be to open and run some sort of LGBT center for anyone seeking help or guidance as a life coach … maybe someday!

© Mallorie Ruston for Acceptance Revolution, 2014

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High-Wire Act: Treading the Line Between Acceptance and Self-Care

This is a hell of a post to write.

There’s a famous saying about how if we don’t learn from our past mistakes, we’re doomed to repeat them. Basically, life has this funny and sometimes excruciating way of presenting us with the same experiences time and again until the lesson we’re meant to learn from them finally sticks. And for me – even before the conception of this website – it’s been setting boundaries and figuring out where I draw the line when my notion of myself as this empathic, open, accepting person begins to become hazardous to my mental and emotional well-being.

quoteThe first pronounced incidence of this came nearly four years ago when an ex-girlfriend and close friend of mine began her descent into the abyss of addiction. Religious types might describe this as a “love the sinner, hate the sin,” scenario (although I personally don’t know too many of those types who actually manage to pull that off in a genuinely accepting, compassionate, non-judgmental way). Either way, I futilely tried to “save” her (which, at the time, she had no interest in) and finally realized I was in over my head and needed to break free when I found myself in an NA meeting (because she wouldn’t go to one herself) crying to a roomful of strangers after assuring them that I wasn’t Marla Singer, I just needed some backup and didn’t know where else to turn. Taking a tip from a comment Dr. Drew made on that season of Celebrity Rehab, I eulogized  “the her I used to know” for myself (a bit morbid and melodramatic, perhaps, but it was effective in the moving forward process) and wished her well, telling her that I hoped she made it out alive but that I had to wash my hands of the situation because it was unhealthy for me.

I like to think I learned the bulk of my lesson on that one, but it seems life has begged to differ; every now and again, I’ll get hit with a smaller scale refresher course. Usually, it’s something as simple as fading a toxic friend out of my life… and nine times out of ten, they’ll actually even do it for me, losing interest when I do something “unforgivable” like, say, reach the executive decision that life is too short for a pity party and stop putting my own needs and happiness on hold to cater to their deep commitment to wallowing in misery and negativity. But those are easy, hardly really “lessons” at all as much as they’re a long-run contribution to an improved quality of life… or, as Oscar Wilde put it, “Some cause happiness wherever they go, others whenever they go.” It’s when I find myself having to sever ties with someone I love and who – for the most part – has been a positive asset to my life that things get tricky, and recently, I’ve been faced with just such a situation.

So, what do you do – especially as someone who’s set themselves up publicly as a beacon of acceptance – when accepting the choices of someone you love interferes with your own mental and emotional well-being, making keeping them around while simultaneously exercising necessary self-care seem like an impossible feat? Without going into too much detail, I recently made the difficult decision to cut someone who’s been extremely special and significant to me out of my life. Further complicating the situation, this wasn’t even someone who had done anything “wrong” themselves, but rather, who was going down a path that was completely out of alignment with anything I wanted for my own life. Paulo Coehlo wrote that, “It’s one thing to feel that you are on the right path, but it’s another to think that yours is the only path,” and while that certainly rings true, it’s hard to just sit back and watch someone you love making choices that you might view as potentially destructive. And on the flip side, it feels really fucking self-righteous to even say that, but it is what it is at the end of the day. Plus… you really can’t say anything anyway; not unless you’re prepared to do battle, which I don’t recommend. It’s never worth it. Ever. All it does is stir up angst and anger and misunderstanding and a metric fuck ton of pain, and the outcome never changes. Because the thing is, we all have our life lessons to learn, and no matter how well-intentioned it may be, trying to help someone else “skip ahead” because we love them and don’t want to see them hurt only does them a disservice in the end. My yoga teacher (who is brilliant and amazing and somehow always manages to drop the precise gem of wisdom I happen to need on me at the precise moment I most need it) often uses her children as an example of this, describing the experience of wanting to “stand in life’s doorway and protect them from anything that could harm them,” but recognizing that in doing so, she would be preventing their learning lessons that will help them grow.

I know she’s right, of course. It’s just that the acceptance of that fact is a really hard lesson to learn in and of itself… and it comes with a bitch of a learning curve, quite frankly. Or maybe the answers even lie in the email I received from a random guy who happened to stumble across this site and explained that, while he loved the concept as a whole:

“I have decided to reject the word acceptance in my life (not to accept acceptance). Accepting, in my understanding of the word, means that we finally allow something we dislike to enter our life: our noisy neighbor, a disease, those infamous politicians, our personality, ignorance, you name it. It implicitly says something like ‘I will live with it, and I will twist myself enough so that I can endure this pain, as I follow an idealization of myself as open to everything that happens in the world that surrounds me.’
I don’t want to ‘accept’. I want to embrace. Embracing happens once we have integrated the opposites, once our true genuine self has incorporated the alien thing in the body, the mind and the spirit. I know that ‘unconditional acceptance’ means it, that it speaks about that very process of embracing. And yet I still keep feeling incomplete and dissatisfied when I hear or read ‘accepting.’ I think we need profound ontological distinctions that describe (and embrace) the world to come in a more accurate way.”

Definitely some food for thought. I’m not sure I’m quite there yet, though. I don’t have a clever, pithy little ending to tie all this together. It’s all a perpetual learning process, and truthfully, I might always struggle with the boundaries of acceptance without sacrificing my own self-care. All I can hope is that I at least “passed” my lesson this time around… because this is certainly not a course I ever care to repeat.

© Kristin Despina for Acceptance Revolution, 2013


Rearrange Again: Thoughts on Sexual Renegotiation and Privilege or “I’m Coming Out…But DO I Want the World to Know?”

I remember watching Luminous (the seventh episode of Showtime’s The L Word, circa season two) and really relating to this one particular scene where the character Jenny Schecter goes off on an impassioned diatribe over the way a guy in her creative writing class has portrayed women in his latest piece: “Because … you basically turn them into these nameless, faceless, body part whores… Your main character, Jasmine, she, like, opens up Madelaine’s world by giving her the best fucking orgasm she’s ever had, which, I don’t know if you know this, is the primary sex act that two women can actually have! And then you go ahead, and you belittle it by turning it into pornography, and I think that the reason why you’re doing this is because men can’t handle it, the fact that these women can have this amazing, fucking, beautiful, mind-blowing orgasm, without a fucking cock!”

This is the season where Jenny’s character is first coming out, and – as clearly evidenced in that monologue – she does so in a completely balls to the wall, in-your-face manner… and it made me smile, because when I first started exploring my own attraction to women in my late teens, I was exactly the same way. Growing up with my hardcore religious mom and feeling like I already fell short of her expectations anyway, just by being me, I went the rebellion route with a lot of things, and my coming out was very much that in-your-face display of defiance against both the pain of that rejection and my upbringing in general. I talked about it constantly, read every piece of lesbian literature I could get my hands on, and engaged in mixed company PDA’s with my girlfriend for the sole purpose of sparking double takes and reactions. And of course, eventually I outgrew that behavior… but in the interim, when I was so defiantly focused on inciting the response, it either left me immune to or, perhaps, simply didn’t leave room for the feeling of being on the receiving end of those outside perceptions and judgments that I think many people struggle with during their coming out years.

Later on, I experienced outside perceptions and judgments to a degree when I initially felt the need to justify to a couple of girls who asked me why my ex and I were at the gay bar if we were “straight” that we were cool and still “belonged” there because he was FtM . But with the exception of that one incident, the majority of outside perception and judgment was pretty nonexistent when I was with him. I was still open about who I was and who I loved to a certain extent, researching and writing on trans issues for several school assignments, and sometimes (though not quite with Jenny Schecter level flair, force, and fire) taking it upon myself to put makers of exceptionally ignorant or intolerant remarks during class discussions in their place or to provide mini sex and gender education 101 lessons to the occasional, curious cisgendered guy who wanted to know what I had against “regular” dudes like them.
One subject that came up a lot in my research were stories of partners of transpeople struggling to renegotiate their own sexual identities after their partner’s transition – and true, maybe I would have felt differently had my ex transitioned during our relationship rather than the several years prior to our having met, or had I been exceptionally attached to a lesbian identity – but renegotiation wasn’t an issue for me. Though I wasn’t in-your-face about it this time around, the incident with those girls in the gay club solidified for me that I had nothing to apologize for or justify to anyone; this was who I loved, that love came by sheer merit of who he was as a human being, and I was proud to have him by my side… and at the end of the day, that was all that mattered. And at the end of the day, having him by my side also meant that I became a recipient of heterosexual privilege… and I think privilege in general is a really easy thing to get used to. Soon enough, I hardly gave it a second thought, quietly blending in, privately enjoying my favorite dichotomy of appearing one thing and being another, yet no longer feeling the need to broadcast it to anyone and everyone within earshot.
The other thing about getting comfy with privilege is that, in a way (or at least for me), I think it can sometimes negate the need to really think too deeply into things (or at least the need to think about them as they apply to you personally)… and there’s a world of difference between feeling empathy and compassion over seeing someone else coming up against adversity and facing it head on yourself. Because I never directly felt the impact of any negative repercussions as far as how I was perceived by the outside world, I simply never thought about it beyond this abstract thing that happens to other people… and while I feel for them and speak out on their behalf, I realize it’s still never really touched me. One ex-girlfriend of mine blogged about an experience we had where a random woman came up to us in Target to tell us how cute we were together, and where I had simply smiled and thanked her, my ex described a very different experience of tensing up in anticipation of a confrontation when the woman initially approached us before exhaling in relief when her comment wound up being positive. Add to that the fact that, with all the strides made towards equality, it can be easy to get lulled into a false sense of security, thinking that things have gotten so much better, that maybe society is finally progressing, becoming more open and accepting over time… and I was legitimately thrown by the ignorant comments of my classmates during my undergrad (not to mention learning that my knowledge of gender and sexuality was more current than that of a few of my professors, a couple of whom I wound up filling in on the stigmatizing nature of the word “hermaphrodite” for intersex people).

To an extent, yes, we have made strides toward equality… but there’s still just as much hate and intolerance to be found too, and I sometimes forget that until it smacks me in the face. And, fast-forwarding to present day, the fact that I’ve been primarily dating transmen for the better part of the last four years also means I’ve now enjoyed the appearance of heteronormativity for as long, strolling hand in hand with my man of the moment with no one around us batting an eyelash. So when I found myself on a date with a woman again not too long ago (and wasn’t incorporating the shock value factor this time around when we held hands or shared a kiss in public) for the first time ever, I was fully aware of the stares and double takes from the people around us… and I wasn’t really prepared for it, honestly. I mean, it wasn’t like we were out in the Midwest somewhere; this is a North Jersey town about a half hour outside of New York City, and last I checked, it was the twenty-first century. But apparently some of the passersby in the park where we were walking hadn’t gotten that memo. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not like people were throwing rocks or admonishing us because their children were present or anything like that… but it’s also not like we were engaging in any sort of heavy PDA either, and had I been enjoying those initial “getting-to-know-you” moments with a male, no one would have given us a second glance. As someone who’s always been so matter-of-factly open and outspoken about such things, that sensation of “don’t look at me!” discomfort was a brand new one for me. All of a sudden, I was experiencing that hyper-awareness and self-consciousness that just about everyone else confronts when they first come out… and while it’s certainly not something that would ultimately deter me from exploring a connection with someone, it was enough to make me feel a little of that discomfort that I had initially escaped.
As a result, I started really noticing and becoming sensitive to a lot more; a few weeks later at a Halloween party, I overheard a guy commenting on how “freaky” it was “not being able to tell who’s a guy and who’s a girl” as I passed him with an adorable gender fluid friend of mine (she happened to be dressed in boy’s clothes that night, but all he really had to do was look at her delicate-featured, obviously feminine face in order to render his irritating and ignorant remark completely unnecessary). I settled for shooting him a dirty look over confronting him, but I was pretty pissed off on her behalf until she shrugged it off and talked me down, pointing out that, as far as she was concerned, his insecurities were his and obviously had nothing to do with her… pretty much, if she wasn’t losing sleep over it, why should I? And yeah, it’s awesome that that was her attitude about it. It used to be mine, too, if I really thought about it… but apparently feeling suddenly conspicuous after all these years had put me on the defensive… and even as I’m writing this, I can feel the residual defensiveness coming through in portions of the retelling. However, it also helped me cultivate a whole new level of awareness and understanding… as well as a renewed appreciation for how fortunate I’ve actually been to walk through the world feeling as safe and comfortable in my own skin as I do overall; I know not everyone is as lucky. But I also have to acknowledge that these challenges are real and they’re mine, too… I’m not just here to empathize with and ease things for other people. If I should, at some point, happen to connect with a woman on a deep, significant level again, there’s a very real possibility I’ll also eventually wind up having to revisit all that “mama drama” a second time around… and while I can hope my mother may have mellowed with time all I want, I can’t know for sure unless or until that happens, and the uncertainty is a scary thing to sit with; she’s gotten as used to my heterosexual privilege as I have, if not more so. The one thing I can be sure of, though, is that, whatever obstacles and challenges may be part and parcel of it, whatever rearranging and renegotiating might need to take place, as long as where any of us ultimately end up is in a place of being true to ourselves and our own hearts… that’s what makes it all worthwhile.

© Kristin Despina for Acceptance Revolution, 2012