Hypervigilant

I believe hypervigilance is the word for what I’ve got going on these days. I’m still coming to terms with the idea that I spent two years being very close with (and investing a fair level of trust in) someone who was fundamentally manipulative and deceptive. That my normal, and usually functional, skills of listening and empathizing and perspective-taking and seeing the things people do in the best possible light were used to take advantage of me. So it’s unsurprising that I’m having some pretty fierce struggles with trust.

Thankfully, I’m not feeling constantly on edge or paranoid. I’m still able to trust the people close to me and experience their love and kindness. But there is a piece of my brain that is always aware of the potential dark side. “That thing he said was lovely and sweet. Notice what it is doing to your emotional state, and how easily it could form a path for manipulation down the line.” I’ve had voices that said this before — I’ve been anxious about vulnerability and manipulation my whole life, which is partly why this is so devastating. But before I would always say, “Yes yes, but that’s not what’s happening here.” Now, I can’t say that, and sometimes when I try I start to freak out. I had a weird, stupid fight with Shaun this weekend, because a car almost ran us down while walking through the city, and he said he wished he’d keyed it as it passed. I don’t condone property damage as retaliation for dangerous jerkassery, and neither does he: he was pissed and riding an adrenaline surge and agreed later that he wouldn’t have actually done it or believed it was justified. But I lost it, extrapolating to the very worst possible implications of what he’d said and unable to let it go. I believe words like “morally reprehensible” were tossed around. We talked it through later, so that’s fine. But what sticks with me is the memory of trying to get to my usual place of “give this person you know and love the benefit of the doubt re: not being horrible,” and my entire body going, “NO.” Apparently that’s not a thing I’m able to do right now.

I have a mental map of what it would look like if each of the people close to me was actually a sociopath: things they said and did that I’d re-interpret as being signs I should have picked up on; kind and lovely things they said and did that would turn out to be part of an agenda; beliefs that I would have to re-evaluate. That’s a super-weird thing to admit in words, and it’s probably kind of weird for People Close To Me who are reading this. Sorry. I don’t dwell on these maps and I certainly don’t believe them, but they’re there. Previous to all the shit going down with our former household, I had this kind of map for exactly one person: him. Every interaction I had with him, after our first failed breakup, was viewed through this weird double lens: this is what this would mean if he were the person he claims to be; this is what this would mean if he were secretly a callous self-serving liar. I scolded myself a lot for having such a detailed mapping of this person’s secret sociopath self, and when it turned out to be scarily accurate, apparently my brain decided I needed to have one for EVERYBODY. Not sure how that logic works, but my brain is firm on it.

In general I’m able to co-exist with this hypervigilant piece of my brain. It doesn’t bother me too much unless I try to silence it altogether. Then it throws a royal freakout. I know it’s trying to protect me from being hurt, so I’ll let it stay around until all of me feels safe again. I will let the people I love and trust prove that they’re worthy of that love and trust over time. In the grand scheme of things, it could be so, so much worse. But it still kind of sucks.

My post on I believe you / it’s not your fault

I wrote this a couple weeks ago. It was one of the first steps in writing-processing All That Shit. I submitted it to IBY/INYF and then was super anxious about when it would be posted there. It finally was, today. I hadn’t decided then, nor have I now, how publicly linked to me I want this to be. I used a pseudonym and an image that I’ve used on various social media profiles in the past but not currently, so I have some flexibility there. I’m feeling very uncertain and exposed and anxious right now — not in a terrible way, but definitely on edge.

It’s called How My Ex Became a Rapist, so, you know, content note for that.

Space

Ugh, he’s going to be at my house today. Fortunately I already had plans to be out. Shaun’s plans had to be altered, though, which sucks. For those not in the know: one of the five people who lives in our house is dating the asshole, which is one of several things that makes it hard to just completely cut him off and never think of him again. He has only come over a total of maybe 4 times since we moved in in January, so it hasn’t been a huge issue practically, but it’s kind of a big deal emotionally.

In the midst of the latest upheaval, once I had finally stopped doubting myself about what a toxic, deceptive, and manipulative person he is, I sent an email to all our housemates saying that I prefer him to be here as little as possible, and would like notification if he is going to be here. His girlfriend fought back with the standard bag of tricks: I shouldn’t be the one asking for any special accommodation when I am being soooo mean and hurtful to the Victim (married to the Asshole), and she doesn’t even know how she’s supposed to deal with having Shaun and me in the house when we’ve been causing so much pain and strife for her family. She strongly implied that we should move out if we don’t want to be around them and their friends (I’m on the lease, she’s not, so I’m unclear on how that’s in any way reasonable.)

I wrote back saying, Ok, I guess I did myself a disservice by not being more explicit: this is a person who sexually assaulted my friend, and I do not feel safe around him. I did not mention the assault on me because I’m still pretty uncomfortable proclaiming that as such. She responded by parroting his account of that incident and talking up how respectful of consent he’s been with her. Cool story, sis, does not make me feel bettter about what he’s done to myself and other women. (Lots and lots of gaslighting around Shaun’s and my mental health going on, too.)

Anyway, he’s going to be at the house tonight. At least she did respect my request to be notified. Shaun and I have argued for months over whether we should just ask that he not be here at all. I’ve argued no: his girlfriend lives here and that’s unfair and we don’t have the right, etc. I had also argued that we should not tell our side of the story in any kind of public way, or to any mutual friends. In the end it was tearing him apart to keep quiet, so I said ok, do what you need to do. And instead of people being all, “UGH WHY WOULD WE EVER WANT TO KNOW HOW YOU FEEL” a lot of people were like, “Yeah, the account I got was really one-sided and I’d appreciate hearing the other perspective” and a lot of people were like, “Yup, that’s about how my experience with him was too,” and there was some amazing, totally unexpected healing that came out of it. And the biggest thing was that I realized how much my resistance to speaking our side was making both of us feel like we were actually in the wrong, that our hurt didn’t matter, that it was totally okay for someone to treat us the way he treated us and then talk for months about how horrible we were. And speaking our side, just saying, “I have a story too, and a right to tell it, and here it is,” made both of us feel more whole and sane and able to sleep.

And maybe I’m wrong here too, and maybe I’m once again not giving myself enough permission to have needs and have space of my own and have the person who fucking abused and harassed me not anywhere near my home. Even if his girlfriend does live here. Even if talking about it will feel super awkward for the other two people who live with us. Even if we run the risk of losing another home, which I am probably irrationally afraid of.

I don’t know. I know it will cause another flurry of accusations and vitriol and belittling all our feelings and needs and lots more patronizing recommendations to see a therapist if we’re so upset by him. And it might cause any of the other things I’m afraid of. That maybe doesn’t mean it’s not okay to stand up and ask for something I need?

My instincts are so strongly in favor of not making waves, not taking up space. I’m at my boyfriend’s house right now, my boyfriend who loves me and would do anything for me, and I was getting myself some coffee and almost didn’t put cream in the coffee because the cream bottle was still sealed and I never eat anything at someone’s house that would involve opening a seal. Because that means I’ve changed something, I’ve made my presence evident. And I don’t feel like I get to do that. And I know that’s wrong, but it’s a fucking strong mental habit.

I don’t know. It makes me so tired.

Smear

It’s always bitterly helpful when you realize that shitty things that are happening to you are similar to the shitty things that have happened to other people. Instead of feeling uniquely targeted by a hateful universe, or feeling that you personally must have done something to deserve this kind of behavior, you can start to see, “Nope, there are just some pockets of shittiness in this very mixed universe, and I happened to stumble into one of them, as many have before me.”

So reading this article about abusive narcissists was similarly bitterly helpful. A lot of it applies to our recent experience, but this section in particular rings true.

Narcissists keep harems because they love to have their egos stroked and they need constant validation from the outside world to feed their need for excessive admiration and confirm their grandiose sense of self-importance. They are clever chameleons who are also people-pleasers, morphing into whatever personality suits them in situations with different types of people. It is no surprise, then, that the narcissist begins a smear campaign against you not too long after the discard phase, in order to paint you as the unstable one, and that this is usually successful with the narcissist’s support network which also tends to consist of other narcissists, people-pleasers, empaths, as well as people who are easily charmed.

This smear campaign accomplishes three things: 1) it depicts you as the abuser or unstable person and deflects your accusations of abuse, 2) it provokes you, thus proving your instability to others when trying to argue his or her depiction of you, and 3) serves as a hoovering technique in which the narcissist seeks to pull you back into the trauma of the relationship as you struggle to reconcile the rumors about you with who you actually are by speaking out against the accusations. The only way to not get pulled into this tactic is by going full No Contact with both the narcissist and his or her harem.

Literally every word of this is true of our recent experience (the bit about “harems” was meant more figuratively, but ooh boy do I have thoughts on the ways poly can be especially appealing and enabling for a charismatic narcissist.)

A boon, to the person trying to pull this kind of shit, is having an “adversary” whose past and present contain some ugly episodes. If you can unearth some legitimately wrong and terrible things a person has done, your work in smearing them is so much easier. If you can enlist their own shame and self-loathing, maybe they’ll crawl into a hole without you even trying very hard.

I’m triumphant-angry when he attacks me, because fuck you dude, I have flaws and I make mistakes, but most days I think I’m a pretty quality human being, and I have a lot of backup on that opinion. When he attacks my partner, I am Mama-Bear-furious. My partner, who has done some bad (some really bad) things in his past, and had some really bad things done to him, and has worked for years to become the functional and loving human being he is today. My partner, who still fucks up sometimes and fucks up big. My partner, who has grown by leaps and bounds in these last six months, who approaches incredibly stressful and painful events with a new degree of wisdom, compassion, and calm. My partner, who I know will never stop questioning and challenging himself, never stop trying to become a better and better person. How DARE you ally yourself with the voices that tell him he’s unworthy, that he will be forever defined by his past no matter how hard he works and how much he changes. How DARE you take his worst moments and worst impulses and claim that these define him, that these are all you or anyone else should see about him? Guess what, fucker? None of us look too shiny when our worst moments and worst impulses are all we’re seeing. I love Shaun for many reasons, but I trust him largely because, of all the humans I know, he is the most open and the most vulnerable about the things he’s ashamed of in himself. He does not try to hide or put on a shinier face. He faces the ugly things so that he can work on them, make them better, make them smaller. You, you fucking preening asshole, could not IMAGINE living life the way he does, with all of the worst parts of yourself open to anyone who asks. The very thought that some of the shitty things you’ve done might come to light, might become part of how people view you, is so terrifying to you that you invest hours and days of your life into throwing slime on anyone who might be in a position to expose you.

Phew, I talked myself around from furious down to contemptuous.

I know the temptation toward image management. I’ve indulged in it a lot, in my life, and one of the biggest ways Shaun challenges me and helps me is in showing me how hollow that tactic is. How, if you actually give a shit about becoming a better person, you have to face the things about you you don’t like. These things thrive in darkness. But shame does not help. Shame does not facilitate growth and change. If someone has behaved badly, it is okay to put distance between yourself and them, especially if you need to for your own emotional safety. It is okay, sometimes, to warn other people who might be vulnerable to them. But shaming them? Relentlessly painting them in the worst colors you can? Harassing their friends for wanting to spend time with them? This is not going to make the world better. This is self-serving, demonizing bullshit. You are trying desperately to cover your own shame by throwing it all over someone else. It’s disgusting, and I am disgusted with you.

 

A quick thank you note

Dear Person Whom I Hope Never to Speak With Again,

A few days ago, in a publicly posted document that most of my friends could see, you wrote a whole lot of things about me, including this:

Ginny is a much more sympathetic character than Shaun. She is affable, friendly, intelligent, and is often kind and compassionate. However, she also has some serious mental health issues for which she refuses to seek treatment. Most of her issues are related to her relationship with her father. According to Ginny, her father is confident, outgoing, and strong- willed, and so (she admits) she projects a lot of her issues with him onto me. Her father is also a strict conservative Christian, and raised Ginny in a very oppressive household, from which she has many issues that will require decades of therapy.

Ginny often describes herself as not feeling any emotions most of the time. According to her, the majority of the time, her emotional existence is simply blank. I’ve heard some credible speculation that she perhaps has a dissociative disorder. Because of this, she admits, she has trouble understanding others’ emotions or motivations, and gets anxious when it seems like she is causing emotions that she didn’t intend. She also regularly admits that she doesn’t understand her own emotions. Apparently, pointing out this (undisputed) fact made her feel like “an emotional infant.” I cannot say that I completely disagree with that characterization.

Ginny is also truly committed, in a very deep part of herself, to Guess Culture. Ginny is terrified of making anyone angry or upset, and so neurotically monitors her own behavior to avoid conflict. Conflict of any sort petrifies her. As a result, she displays all of the behaviors of a socially adept Guess Person referenced above. She will constantly project an image of calm, or even enjoyment, when on the inside she is in turmoil. She will use everything at her disposal to hide the way she is feeling when she thinks that her feelings might lead to conflict or make someone upset with her. She does this unapologetically. It makes her a pleasant person to have around socially, but in any sort of close relationship, it’s a disaster.

So I just wanted to say, in response:

Thank you. Thank you for all these words about me. They are harsh, and they are false, but in many ways they are the most helpful thing you could have possibly said. Thank you for showing me, so clearly, the person I was afraid of being. The person I was afraid I was. In a few paragraphs you have neatly encapsulated the image of myself that I felt so much fear and shame over, in the years I was close to you. The person I felt maybe didn’t even deserve to exist anymore.

What you don’t know is that in the months since I stopped ever seeing or talking to you, that person has evaporated like a bad dream. I have been warm, and loving, and engaged, and honest. I have been the person I remember being in the years before I knew you. I am surrounded by love and joy. I have no fear that anyone who has been close to me in the last six months will recognize me in anything you’ve written here. So thank you, thank you, for showing me so clearly how far I’ve come. For showing me how much that fearful, closed, dissociated person belonged to you, and stayed behind when I left you.

Thank you for accusing me of using my suicidal thoughts as a weapon. Fearing that accusation was largely what kept me silent about them for months, until I became actually concerned about my own safety. Thank you for proving those fears valid, even as you complain that I didn’t share them with you at the time.

Thank you for sharing many, many private details, and actual text of private conversations between you and me. Thank you for not seeing what an incredibly invasive and violating thing that is to do. Every day, you make it easier and easier to believe myself when I remember you doing other invasive and violating things and acting like they were no problem. Every day, you make me less and less afraid that I am the one who is crazy here.

Thank you for making this public, where most of my friends can see if they choose. I don’t have to tell them any more how hostile, disrespectful, invasive, and gaslighting you’ve been to me. Now I can show them.

Five months ago this might have broken me, because I was afraid and I was not far enough out from under your shadow to know that the things you say about me are not true. I have healed, and I am strong, and you cannot touch me. I am angry and sad and incredulous, but I am not wounded. Thank you for showing me my own strength.

Thank you, and fuck you very much.

Crying on Septa

I’m not okay, I think as I wildly scramble through my bag for the Septa pass I literally just had in my hand two minutes ago. Each pocket. The entire giant middle section. Every side of the mini-purse I’ve been using as a wallet. I lose stuff all the time but right now I feel frantic. I feel crazy. Last night in the middle of the night I boneheadedly unplugged my computer, while it was still on, to protect it from the thunderstorm. There was weird logic in my head that made that seem sensible, and on waking and finding that my computer wouldn’t boot, I began to wonder if I was really as okay as I seemed to be. And now this, as Septa operators and passengers look curiously at me, the girl frantically pulling things out of her bag in front of the turnstile. I’m not okay.

I find the pass and get onto the train and sit down. Mercifully, one of the little single seats is open. I put on my music — the mix CD i made to encapsulate my life of 2013. And I lean back my head, and I start to cry.

Crying on Septa is a bit of a thing for me. I’ve been doing it almost as long as I’ve lived in Philly. Not every ride, of course, but regularly. On Septa I feel anonymous. Everyone’s got their own shit and if they’re curious or think I’m weird, it really doesn’t matter. Many, many times in 2012 and 2013 I would board the bus home from work, lean my head on the window, and cry quietly. It was a relief, and I think something about it being in public was important too. It meant my pain was real, was witnessed, but witnessed safely by strangers who wouldn’t say or do anything, and would go about their own lives and forget it.

Today I start to cry just a little, and I think of all those other times crying on Septa, and then I cry for real. Because it’s different now. Then I didn’t understand. I thought I was crazy. I told myself over and over I didn’t have any reason to be so unhappy, to feel so trapped and desperate, to wish for some accident that would just let me escape from life.

And when I told myself that, what I was really saying was “You are wrong. You are irrational. You are paranoid and unreasonable.” Because in truth I knew why I was unhappy. I felt trapped because I was trapped. I was unhappy because I was living my life in the shadow of someone chillingly indifferent to my happiness, unless it happened to serve his interests. But I could not come up with reasons and evidence and a clear case that my feelings were justified. And I thought that mattered. So I spent afternoons crying on Septa, walking home listening to my music with a quiet sense of dread, with resolves to build up my shell stronger.

And I cry today because I want so badly to go back and take 2012 Ginny in my arms and whisper to her that she’s not crazy. Because I have spoken my truth into the world, and the world came back and said “Yes, i know.” It said it through the people who reached out and said, “I had the same experience with him that you did.” It said it through himself, losing his shit in less and less subtle ways, as control was wrested away from him and the person underneath started to come through. It said it in the continuing quiet strength I found to keep telling other truths, hard truths. It said it in the first full night of sleep in months.

And I am so angry and sad for those months spent wallowing in misery, spent kind of wistfully thinking of death, spent making myself smaller and smaller and harder and harder because that was safer. Months when the well of love that has always flowed abundantly from me dried up to a paltry trickle, just enough for my husband and my baby brother. It’s been gushing now, in the last few months, and it’s so good to know it wasn’t lost forever. That the little taut person I was then wasn’t my future. She was just the person I needed to be to survive.

I wish I could tell her. But at least I know now. And I think I’m going to be okay.

A note

I doubt anyone is following this blog, it’s so long defunct. But I need somewhere to write about things where I can feel heard, but hopefully not by the wrong people. So a defunct blog that was already intended to be fairly private and anonymous seems just about perfect.

In brief: I have left a relationship that was doing tremendous emotional damage to me, with a small side of sexual assault that I didn’t acknowledge as such for years. In the wake of very public and very ugly fights, I’ve been doing a ton of processing over the things that happened, and I’m having a lot of feelings. If I write about them on my main blog, or anywhere he or his family are likely to read, these feelings will be dragged into the public fight and it will become all about him. I don’t want that. This is my experience, my story. My recovery.

Naughty or not

So recently, as my last post hints at, I had sex with another man in my boyfriend’s presence. Don’t go feeling bad for my boyfriend — we were swapping, so he had a lovely lady to keep him occupied as well. We met this couple — I dub them Nate and Anna — at a poly meetup recently, and we all liked each other right away. We’ve all spent one very pleasant evening together already, and we’re hoping for many more.

But this is what I wanted to talk about: hanging out with these people, swapping partners, lying around naked on the bed chatting afterward… these things are supposed to be naughty, right? Thinking about it in retrospect, I should maybe be feeling a thrill of transgression? If I told my co-workers, I’d get some shocked responses and some “oooh, Ginny’s a bad girl!” teasing. But it didn’t feel like that at all to me. It felt like, “We liked these people, there was attraction in at least four directions, so we hung out with them for a while and fucked each other.” Like ya do. Like, when we hang out with a couple that likes to play Spades, we play Spades… when we hang out with a couple that likes to have sex, we have sex. What could be more natural?

I dunno, I don’t get the whole “taboo” thing. Another partner of mine, Brendan, has talked with me a few times about how weirded out he is when kinky people play up the “ooh, we’re so naughty” aspect. He feels, and I feel, that you like what you like and you do what you do, and as long as it’s all safe, sane, and consensual, there’s no “naughty” about it.

I realize that some people get off on the thrill of transgression, and hey, that’s cool too. I’d rather someone be turned on by the idea of harmless “naughtiness” than be repressed or condemnatory about it. But I don’t seem to have had my naughtiness sensor installed. Rolling around naked in bed with three other people, with all the laughing and teasing and squeals of pleasure… to me that’s just good, clean fun.

One year later

A year and two days ago, I had sex for the first time. At 28, I was very late to the party. I already knew, from my experiences learning to masturbate (which I started doing at 25), that it would take a while not only to figure out what I liked, but to like what I liked. My thinky-brain works very fast and is always on the spot; my feely-brain works very slow, and doesn’t update me on recent events until they’re long past. What I mean is, I usually don’t know I’m angry about something until a few hours after it’s happened (that number has gone way down… it used to take days). And my body doesn’t know whether it likes a new sensation until it’s had it a few times.

So, while my darling Shaun was very considerate, that first time, about asking what I wanted, what I’d like him to do, and how I liked what he was doing, I wasn’t really able to give an answer. Now, a year later, I feel like my sexual response patterns have stabilized a bit, and I’m better able to answer those questions from a new partner.

One odd thing to me is the way I orgasm. I don’t know how many other women operate this way, and I don’t know if it’s partly a result of inexperience/late blooming, or if this is just the way my body works. I don’t really have hard, explosive orgasms in partnered sex. I do when masturbating: the typically-described crescendo, climactic spasm, and then happy exhaustion. But I’ve never had that experience in partnered sex. Instead I seem to hit a run of mini-orgasms that can go on pretty much indefinitely — ebbing and flowing a bit, but neither rising to a sharp climax nor collapsing into the post-orgasmic refractory period.

I’d love to know how many other women come like this, either sometimes or always. It used to worry me a bit, like maybe I wasn’t really coming, but I never have the sense that there’s a further peak to be reached. I think this is just how my body works, at least for now. While I’d like to experience that sharp orgasmic peak with a partner, it is nice to be able to just keep going and going and going… (last night my boyfriend told the other guy who was fucking me “yeah, she’s like the Energizer Bunny.”) And — what really helped me come to terms with the way I come — one time after some slightly kinky play with a friend, I reached this hyperaroused state where my whole body was one big erogenous zone, and even a touch on my back or neck triggered those mini-orgasmic spasms. That was awesome.

So, a year later, I feel like I’ve established some sense of sexual identity, of “what I’m like” in bed. I’m sure it will continue to evolve, but I have a foundation of sorts.

Sexuality and public image

Apologies to anyone who has me on an RSS feed of any kind… a while ago I wrote a post about objectification, posted it, and then promptly took it down when I decided that it didn’t say what I wanted it to. I spent the rest of the night trying to write what I really meant, and finally gave up, deciding that my thoughts on this matter weren’t quite coherent yet. Turns out the whole question of sexuality and public presence is a complicated, multi-faceted one… who knew?

Here’s the difficulty I found myself facing: I don’t have a problem with a person looking at another person and responding to them sexually, whether the two are strangers or friends, whether the looked-at person is at all interested in the looker or not. I am inclined, however, to be defensive of people — usually women — who choose to conceal their sexual attributes if they prefer not to be considered as a sexual being in a particular context. I thought I was on pretty solid ground here, until I started wondering if this conflicted with my general values of making the world a more beautiful place wherever possible, and wondering if society ever has a right to expect a certain kind of dress from its participants, and the answer to that in my mind was “of course it does, sometimes,” and that’s when I started to realize that this whole issue was hella complicated and I needed to think about it more.

Arguing with Shaun about it, and then reading this excellent post on Lori Douglas, a Canadian judge recently forced to step down because of a sex scandal, helped me clarify one part of my confusion. In a perfect world, a woman would be able to wear a low-cut blouse to work and not be considered any less competent, serious, or professional by her colleagues. In the real world, that’s not how it works. Society may have made great strides in accepting women as able participants in the professional and academic world, but only if they are thoroughly desexualized. Let a professional woman be seen as a sexual being — whether as an object of desire or as an enjoyer of sex — and her credibility and respect takes a huge hit. It’s the Madonna/whore dichotomy for the new millennium.

This, like most forms of sexism, causes problems for everybody. Obviously it causes problems for women, who have to choose between being professionally respected and being sexually expressive — and a sub-problem for professional women, who have to be as attractive as possible without being sexy. It causes problems for men, too, who can’t acknowledge a woman’s sexual appeal without it being assumed that he’s reducing her to only her sexuality.

Women are increasingly allowed access to the professional and academic realms. Women are increasingly allowed sexual autonomy and expressiveness. But until a woman can exist publicly as a whole person — sexual, creative, productive, intelligent, familial — sexual liberation is in its infancy.

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