Image description: A black and white photo of the back of a Black woman’s head in a head wrap. Photo credit: Mel Vee. Mel Vee is an aspiring photographer and her guest post series will feature her photography.
This is a guest post by Mel Vee.
Mel Vee mesmerizes, captivates and incites with her spoken word. She is a passionate advocate for the power of narrative to heal and liberate. A general disturber of shit, Mel Vee seeks to blur and disrupt all kinds of distinctions. She is a core member of the Uproot YYC, a grassroots collective for artists of colour dedicated to uprooting systemic barriers in the arts community. She was a member of Calgary’s 2017 slam team, who were semi-finalists at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word and co-creator of The Unlearning Channel podcast.
This post is the second is a four-part series, one per week for the month of May. Together, this series will comprise the third entry in the Feminism from the Margins series.
Content note for rape, sexual assault, descriptions of misogynoir.
I learned from an early age that my body was not my own.
My Black body was created to be of service to anyone who showed up and demanded it. This Black body, the only home I have on this speck of stardust navigating the cosmos, was as foreign and alien to me as those distant galaxies.
Why should it have been any other way? I received the message clearly that my body was a means through which others could actualize their own wants and desires. My body was not a safe nor joyous place; not a place to be treasured and tended to gently. My body was a vessel – to serve others, for men’s desires, and for birthing children, but never for me.
My education in the precarity and disposability of the Black female body began at home with the women in my family. Their necessarily strong, beautiful black bodies were always in service to others. Most of the women in my family were and are never still.
One aunt, whom I love dearly, always comes to mind. As far back as I can remember, she was always in motion, toiling away for others. She toiled in her home, at her work as a nurse’s aide and in her church. She did it all. Raised a family, held down a career, opened her home to countless unwanted and discarded people in the community and never spoke a word about her struggles to anyone. No one ever questioned what toll this constant availability and service would wreak on her body and mind.
Her pace continued unabated for the entirety of my childhood, adolescence and early adult years until one day, the inevitable happened. She snapped, culminating in a one month stay in a psychiatric ward. People whispered about what might be the culprit for her decline without ever approaching the truth, that she was used up until she had nothing more to offer.
Barely a few months of marginal concern went by before things returned to “normal”. The unceasing demands, the perpetual toil and the complete disregard for her well-being until her health completely failed and simply never returned. She now spends much of her time bedridden. I feel blessed when I receive a message from her because it means her pain eased up just enough to manage a text. My aunt, once a pillar of our family, reduced to sending texts during a brief respite from her unending pain.
Her body bears the cost of continual and unceasing labour for people who took and took and left her an empty shell. Her body is racked with osteoarthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, and she constantly struggles to maintain a healthy weight. I am certain some will attribute this to the inevitable ravages of age, but I know in my bones biology is only one part of the narrative.
Her body fought back in the only way available, it shut down. My aunt toiled for years without rest for others. Everyone around her demanded more and she gave more. When her health declined, all the people who had taken from her vanished, without a trace. I wish I could say my aunt is an isolated case, but this is the fate of many women in my family. Our bodies, time and energy are used up until there is nothing left and few, if any, stick around to pick up the pieces. My aunt cautions me continually about her fate and encourages me to take care of myself. It is a grim reminder that I take to heart.
What is most grotesque about the situation of my aunt and so many women like her is how normalized this is; how people expect the Black female body to be at service and at the ready.
Our bodies are not meant to be lovingly inhabited by ourselves. The roots of these expectations are deep, undoubtedly tracing their history to chattel slavery where our bodies were literally not our own. How do you love a body that was never meant for you to enjoy; a body that was historically regarded as property and in contemporary times is a reminder of your presumed inferiority?
My own body bears the scars of the precarity and disposability of the Black female body. My left arm is scarred from my wrist up to near my shoulder. All of these wounds are self-inflicted. Even after a decade of being free from self-harming behaviour, my scars are still visible. I wear them openly as an act of defiance, to hold a mirror up to a society whose violence I internalized and enacted upon myself.
I had no shape, no words for the anger and hatred I felt for being born in a Black female body; a body people regarded as valuable only so far as it could serve. I lashed out against a world which continually shows its brutal and naked contempt for me and people who look like me. I lashed out against the one person I knew had no recourse. Myself. I lashed out because rage is all I could muster. Someone had to be punished for the wound of being a Black girl in a society drenched in anti-Black racism and misogynoir.
In the process of addressing trauma and healing in my life, it has become evident that my internalized misogynoir had caused me to disassociate and distance myself from my body. I became an unwilling occupant in a body that others had treated with the utmost contempt; culminating in rape, sexual assault and violence. I sought to protect myself emotionally in the way traumatized people do, by distancing myself emotionally from the source of pain, my brown and despised body; a body that was valuable only to the extent it could serve.
I am now undergoing the painful but enriching process of coming home to my body; the process of reclaiming a body others have treated with contempt and disrespect. I am now learning to inhabit my body and treat it with love, respect and dignity. I am learning slowly to prioritize the needs and desires of my body. I am learning that my body is worthy of fighting for and keeping alive.
I am coming home now to this brown body after 28 years. I am coming home to this brown body which has been the site of so much grief and violence. I am coming home to this brown body where I laugh, love, fight, move, dance and sing. I am coming home to this brown body, imperfections and all. I am coming home to the only body that will carry me until I die.
I am reclaiming my body in defiance of a society that regards brown bodies with violence.
I am reclaiming my body in honour of all the Black women who no longer can.
I am reclaiming my body so others know it is possible.
I am coming home to my brown body, in the only home I will ever know in this beautiful and sometimes terrifying cosmos.
I am finally coming home.
This post is the final piece in the third contribution to the year-long Feminism from the Margins series that Dulcinea Lapis and Tiffany Sostar will be curating, in challenge to and dissatisfaction with International Women’s Day. To quote Dulcinea, “Fuck this grim caterwauling celebration of mediocre white femininity.” Every month, on the 8th, we’ll post something. If you are trans, Black or Indigenous, a person of colour, disabled, fat, poor, a sex worker, or any of the other host of identities excluded from International Women’s Day, and you would like to contribute to this project, get in touch!
Also check out the other posts in the series:
Image description: Tiffany looks at a pile of laundry.
The following is a collaborative discussion that I was invited into by the amazing Emily Leedham. Intro and outro are Emily’s words. We are publishing this a year later because the process of editing it into a readable format was daunting and emotionally exhausting. This conversation is cross-posted on Emily’s website here. Collective ownership of ideas and words! I love it.
My divorce was one of the most isolating events I have ever experienced. I got married young, so there were few of my friends who could relate to what I was going through or know how to offer support. It was also an emotionally exhausting situation most people understandably didn’t want to get too tangled up in. But I also shut a lot of people out. I was fragile and extremely sensitive to judgement.
Around the same time, my friends Tiffany and Sarah were going through devastating breakups of their own. I reached out to them both after Tiffany had posted this article, If Community Were a Safe Space to Fall Apart. It spoke to the isolation and alienation I felt:
“My friend and his former wife had gone through these divorces in secret and silence. Their union and wedding had been public. Their divorces took place mostly in the shadows.
And it made me ponder: how is that the coming together is in the light, in public, a public celebration — but the falling apart done in the shadows, in silence, in loneliness?
If we are a community, we should be together through thin and thick, for better and for worse. We stand together in the valleys and on the mountaintops. How do we make it possible for us to stand together when each of us goes through the valleys?
Why do we celebrate together but suffer in silence?
It made me realize that we have no rituals for suffering, for breaking up, for hurting. I am not sure what those rituals would look like, but it does seem like something to seek.”
Mourning rituals. Community. Those both sounded like things I wanted to seek out as well.
I asked Tiffany and Sarah if they would be willing to talk about their own experiences mourning relationships both on their own and with friends and family. Could we develop better processes by which to grieve and mourn with each other? Could we invite others into that process in a safe and healthy way?
What follows is a conversation between myself, Tiffany, and Sarah, about loss, mourning, and community support. The initial conversation happened in Google Docs from February through April 2017.
We are publishing this a year later because the process of editing it into a readable format was daunting and emotionally exhausting.
We took our time. Like mourning itself, it wasn’t something you could make follow a schedule.
This is an approximately 35 minute read and covers a lot of ground, potentially triggering to those who have had traumatic breakups. We suggest this conversation is best read in a safe, comfortable environment where readers can take breaks and self-care measures as needed. We hope that this conversation will help others in their mourning and healing processes both individually and within their greater communities.
February 9, 2017
Emily: I asked you both here because all three of us have been through pretty earth shattering breakups, resulting in significant changes in lifestyle and living situations.
For myself, it’s been really difficult to know how to let others into this grieving process, especially when as a result of all this, I found myself in an extremely vulnerable situation, both physically, financially, and emotionally. I shut basically everyone out. I felt like I had to, it was an act of self-preservation. But I didn’t want to be alone. I just didn’t know what else to do.
So I want to talk about mourning rituals, how to create them and how to incorporate others into them so we can resist the alienation that happens during some of the most vulnerable moments of our lives.
Sarah: Last fall I experienced a brutal breakup that left me feeling completely abandoned and discarded. It came out of nowhere and a lot of my friends/community had been following our “epic” love story (he bought me a house, we blended families, had a dreamy life, then he ditched).
Because I had celebrated so much of the relationship with my friends online, when it ended I felt like I needed to share with them. I hadn’t been on Facebook for about a month at the point of the breakup, and immediately activated my account after he left, knowing I would need the support of my community or I would quite possibly not make it through. I TOTALLY grieved publicly, but was very careful not to sound bitter or vindictive, I just needed support.
Emily: Thanks so much for sharing!
Tiffany: Whoa. That would be brutal. I’m glad you were able to find a community space for that grieving, but I can imagine it was a tightrope to balance on.
Sarah: Yeah, I didn’t want to teeter over the edge of shitting all over him and lowering myself, I guess?
Tiffany: Legit. I have had a few big relationship transitions, and when we first talked about this project, I wanted to discuss my divorce which happened almost ten years ago. It was a pretty major break from one life into another.
But right now, I think I would almost rather talk about my most recent transition, which wasn’t a breakup, but was pretty cataclysmic and didn’t leave space for public grieving. If that’s okay?
Emily: Of course! Yes, whatever is weighing on you the most right now.
Tiffany: Awesome. Thanks!
So, then, my story for the purposes of this, is that I fell in love with someone who was married with two kids. He fell in love with me. There was an awkward and not really open period of trying to incorporate polyamory (I am polyamorous and was living with a partner when this happened). His spouse was not okay with it, lines were crossed, there were five months of zero contact, then there was a long period of in-house separation for him, my relationship with the partner I lived with got very … hmm.
See, even talking about it is so fucking hard. I moved out. Joe and I live together now. I’m stepparenting, and it’s a massive change (I never had or wanted my own kids). I struggle with the label of “homewrecker” and also with all the challenges of being a stepparent while queer and non-binary. There’s a LOT of grief. And it doesn’t feel like there is any space for it.
I was very quiet on social media about what was happening, because I didn’t want to hurt the partner I was moving out on – we had just bought a house together that year. We didn’t break up, and are still together. And… the moving out would probably have happened regardless of the situation with Joe. It wasn’t working, the way we were together, in that house. The house was a huge part of what changed the sustainability of that relationship in that format. There were challenges. But talking about it hit some raw, painful nerves for that partner. AND talking about it opened me up to all the judgment about my role in the ending of Joe’s relationship. If Joe and I hadn’t happened, and if we hadn’t happened in the way that we did, the transition of that relationship would have happened differently. And the trajectory of Joe’s relationship would also have happened differently. SO, yeah.
Sarah: That would be super hard to talk about! Thanks for sharing it with us. Relationships and love can be so dang tricky.
Emily: Yes, thank you so much, I know these narratives are just…they’re not simple. They never get said because we like to put relationships in little boxes with bows on top and the reality is, I think, they’re just so fluid and there are so many different dynamics that spill over into each other… and then there’s love. How are we supposed to grieve when we’re not allowed to have complex narratives? No wonder we hide and isolate, or at least for me.
I’ll share just a bit more about my story, because it does relate to yours a bit, Tiffany. I got married when I was 22. At the time I got engaged, I had grown up a Christian fundamentalist. I had all these ideas in my head about what an ideal relationship should look like. I found what appeared to be that, and in so many ways it was very good for me, very nice and lovely.
But I had changed so much over the 7 years we were together and the 4 years we were married. I had a different outlook on life, on myself, on relationships. And then, I ended up falling in love with someone else. And I left my husband for someone else. And I can’t tell this story because of the narrative that paints me as…I don’t know, the fickle, untrustworthy, manipulative woman.
Tiffany: That narrative. It is SO POWERFUL. Pervasive.
Sarah: Super similar to my first marriage too. I left for him for a friend I was in love with, then ditched the friend too ha. I hated myself for years.
Tiffany: So… I left my marriage, lo these many years ago, after I had an affair. That marriage was so toxic for me. It was so bad for me. It was crushing me. And I had come to such peace with the fact that my affair was the best thing I could have done for myself.
But now? Now that I have this label again, in a different way, in a way that *includes children* and “breaking up a family” – my shame, ten year old shame that I really never processed then because I put on this hugely defiant “I AM GOING TO SURVIVE, I AM ALLOWED TO BE SEXUAL” … not mask, but it was performative, for sure. I never processed that shame because I felt like if I even admitted an inch of it, I would be overwhelmed by people’s judgement. But now I’m feeling this “I’m a homewrecker” shame and the compound interest is here to demand payment. It is so tough.
Sarah: I totally hear that. In those cases the narrative is soooo complicated. This past breakup was the first time I’d been involved in a very CLEAR case of “I AM THE VICTIM” and it was almost… relieving? Exciting? I was LEFT, and it wasn’t my fault! Clean storyline, nothing but sympathy.
Whereas my previous two marriages ended because of me and were very unhealthy for me mentally. I will say though, in therapy, the best thing I heard was “You’re allowed to change your mind”. That has stuck with me, and I feel like as women we put so many expectations of “how to be” in relationships – like be a good girlfriend/wife/lover. When we change our minds it feels disgusting to us? Whyyyyy.
Emily: Okay, I have like serious shivers, honestly, you guys, like thank you so much for talking through all this and being so vulnerable here. I want to touch on how our relationship narratives determine how we go about mourning/processing with friends and family. I think that’s a key thing that has shown up here.
Sarah: I also wanna clarify that I was still utterly gutted and am still recovering. It’s just a completely different mourning process than the self-loathing ones I’d experienced previously, and it’s weird to feel mega love for yourself after something like that goes down.
I want to talk about the stereotype of like…not airing dirty laundry, or being a “burden.” Like you said, Sarah, you had to walk a fine line between asking for support and not being bitter. And I think we’re so often conditioned to think of ourselves as needy and weak for expressing our brokenness online. So what are ways we can counter this?
Tiffany: Yes, the burden thing is tricky. Because the fact that we can’t talk about a lot of this openly (and I’m still struggling to talk about this even within this space – shame is such an isolating emotion! And so is fear) – it means that the few people we CAN talk to, or at least the few people that I found I could talk to, I talked to A LOT. And I ended up feeling like I was damaging those relationships because the weight was so much, and it was just all bearing down on me and on these few support people. That made it hard.
(And on that topic, I can definitely say that I had a suicidal depression absolutely decimate a relationship once and it was so awful to lose that relationship – I did get it back, but I lost it for a while – because of that weight. That’s another thing we aren’t allowed to be open about!) So, yes. Burden. Fear. Weight.
Sarah: I’ve always had a hard time with isolation, and one of my coping mechanisms (I think) has become meeting new people, getting into one BIG HEAVY conversation with them that we both are suuuper into, and then kinda vanishing? Like not fully, but I always have disclosure regret and feel bad when they want to be super friends after and I’m at home realizing I used them for therapy. I don’t know if it’s cool of me or not – probably not – but I’m not doing it on purpose!
Emily: Omg I totally get thaaaaat haha. And I think it’s because, I don’t know, if it’s someone you don’t know too well, you can feel like you’re bonding and sharing something intimate with them but don’t feel obligated to pursue more of a relationship that you don’t have energy for.
Tiffany: Yuuuup. Me too. I love the idea of being radically open about my experiences and my weaknesses but… kinda, more at a distance. Lol. Radically open on Facebook, crying in complete silence in the bathroom at home, kinda deal.
Sarah: Haha yes totally. During my last breakup there were a couple people I didn’t know well who full on STEPPED UP and went all out to help me, and then I felt sooo obliged to reciprocate and was just so drained by the breakup, I ended up feeling like a HUGE jerk.
Emily: Yes, I think it’s really important to recognize when someone is grieving, they might not be able to give you as much energy as you give them. They might not be able to give you any energy back at all. I think for someone in that position, you might have to recognize that, I don’t know, you’re almost commiting a random act of kindness that may never be reciprocated?
Tiffany: I totally agree. I think that the fact that we don’t have many mechanisms for widespread community support makes that tough. There IS an expectation of reciprocity. And reciprocity in a “timely fashion” because we have the ideal of the nuclear family and even, I think, the idea of the “squad” or small group of tight friends. But that kind of dynamic doesn’t work when there is a major, life-altering grieving happening. Because you just can’t bounce back and reciprocate right away. And that means that a lot of relationships become collateral losses, because big grief breaks the social contract. (The current iteration of the social contract is fucked, imo, but it’s still there.) At least, it seems that way to me.
Sarah: Totally agree. I will say that opening up publicly (and having the clean narrative to do so – like it would have been so different if Facebook had been around during my first divorce), was super beneficial and like, the commiseration that poured in was very healing. It’s so messed up that it has to be SUCH a clean storyline though. Like I literally only lost one acquaintance, whereas after my first divorce, I lost my entire hometown haha.
Tiffany: YUP. My whole extended family, for like a year. Everyone loved my ex-husband. And it’s not that the clean narrative makes the grief easier – I don’t think it does. It’s still such a major, major loss and so crushing. It doesn’t change the GRIEF. It just changes what avenues to support are open.
Emily: I relate to the family thing, I’m in the middle of a divorce and my ex, well, yeah, my entire family adored him so it’s a pretty big mystery to them – most of them – why I would think of leaving. And I moved cities, for sure. I’m glad I’m here, I’m glad I’m where I’m at, but it still hurts to feel so abandoned just for making choices based on contexts that literally only I knew, only I was capable of making these decisions for myself.
Sarah: Same! It took years before I could make my mom see why leaving my first husband was so crucial. Religion played a big part too. Like the idea was “a marriage only ends out of selfishness.” And like, my mom had escaped an abusive marriage, yet it was still so hard to explain to her why my marriage was horrible. In that case, I have a lot of resentment for the church, etc, but that’s another conversation ha.
Tiffany: Yeah, my mom also didn’t understand for a long time. But it also really hurts that my extended family is accepting me now, more than they EVER have before, because I’ve got a relationship that they can understand. Now I’ve got a cisgender man as a partner, and two kids. Now I “fit.” My bisexuality, my polyamory, my genderqueerness – it’s all erased. It’s still there – Jon and Scott and my girlfriend still come to Christmas dinner when I host it – but the extended family just sees me and Joe and the kids, and we fit in their box. And I fucking hate it. And it leaves no room for my complicated feelings about these changes, and it definitely leaves no room for my queerness or my gender.
Sarah: I recently came out as bi to my mom by telling her about a date I went on with a girl and she was super chill which was a massive relief, but she was probs only okay with it because me and my sibs have put her through so much at this point. Anyway at a later time I’d be interested in hearing more about navigating as bi!
Tiffany: Totally!!! It’s one of my favourite topics. 😀
Emily: Yay!! I am also bi but not super open about it to my family, for reasons. But it makes me happy we are all here together haha, go us <3
So given these narratives, again, that erase us, erase our agency, erase people’s ability to perceive us as capable of making our own decisions….well, let’s just bring it to an individual level and talk about personal mourning rituals. Because getting others involved, as we can see, is a really complicated, and sometimes unsafe process! Depending.
For me personally, I found myself in a place where most of my self-care rituals were thrown out of the loop. And those self-care rituals were developed out of financial stability, out of being in a certain socio-economic status. My self care rituals involved eating nice food, seeing my therapist I could afford through my partner’s benefits, and other things that sort of became habitual when I needed to take care of myself.
Here, in this situation, I was very isolated with few resources or people I felt like I could trust. But what I noticed I did start doing is documenting everything that was happening – I started writing more, taking pictures – I started noticing all these tiny little things I would take pictures of, and that would sort of ground me. Even if I wasn’t sharing it with anyone, I was taking control of my own narrative for myself, and affirming that what I was experiencing was valid and important, even if no one else saw it. And I found that to be incredibly valuable.
Sarah: I love that. I think I’ve had bursts of self-care, but am only now thinking in terms of “rituals”, and I guess mine is walking and writing jokes? I have to walk every day, for at least 30 min. I have to write jokes and they have to be positive and (if I can manage) not self-depreciatory. I enjoy wine but try not to ritualize it too much haha. Mainly walking, breathing, I don’t really know what else is a constant for me. With kids everything goes loopdy-loop, it can make quiet self-time tricky. Walking though, and jokes. Like my comedian friends can tell when I’m having a hard time because I’m tweeting jokes more haha. That’s when they’ll check in.
Emily: Haha, I love that! It’s nice when friends are like, attuned to you that well and check in. I think that’s huge. Last year, I had a friend who would check in, and still periodically checks in, because she realized that saying “Oh, I’m here if you need me” was bullshit. People suffering don’t want to be burdens, to say “Hello friend, may I assail your ears for an hour about my heartbreak?” Like, that gets back to that feeling of “Am I using this person, this friend?” But if the friend or group voluntarily checks in to say, “Hey, want to talk? Hey, how are you doing” that’s an invitation, and I think mitigates that feeling of burden, because they’ve welcomed you to share.
Sarah: Totally, totally. I’m lucky to have a supportive community, and again, lucky to be able to use online platforms as a way to vent or express pain when I feel like I need a new/healing perspective. But also, super great to have friends who call (like who CALLS anymore, rare precious unicorns).
Emily: I always balked at calling bc #millennial, but more and more, and probably since I moved away too…there’s just something different about someone’s actual voice, or even Facetime or something. Like texts are good, but a call feels like an “event” you know, the conversation meanders, you can’t just disengage after a few texts, you’re invested to a certain extent in having a meaningful update about each other’s lives.
Tiffany: There is so much here, both around narratives that erase, and the pressure towards tidy narratives (I have FEEEEELS about that), and also the self-care stuff, which is really near and dear to me, and yet also really challenging right now and I haven’t got a handle on it. Like, self-care plus kids? Self-care minus financial stability? Self-care plus BEING a self-care coach, plus kids, minus financial stability, plus hella shame? Questions I do nooooooooot have answered but am asking myself daily. So, definitely want to explore more.
Emily: I will say that every time I’ve opened up online, and I’ve observed with the two of you, just through Facebook, people do really respond to vulnerability. Because I don’t think there are a lot of clean narratives out there, or a lot of people that are willing to share their vulnerability in an age where it seems like we have to be these perfectly curated #brands, so I guess I will say that. I’ve experienced a lot of shame and fear from my family, but from my friends and others, people really want to know it’s okay to have these messy narratives. And that’s a huge part of healing for me, I think, is people saying “It’s ok. It’s ok.” Even just the few friends who have, it means the world. And I get messages from people saying “That thing you shared, that meant a lot to me” and that helps me heal too.
Tiffany: Yes. Agreed. I have had the same experience. At times when I was being more open about my struggles, I have gotten similar messages from people who appreciate it. One thing that has been really challenging for me in this most recent plot twist is that I haven’t been able to be as open because so many other people involved in the narrative are still involved in my life. So talking about how I feel about Scott, knowing that Scott is going to read it – it’s harder. And talking about Joe, knowing he will read it – it’s not the same as talking about the experience of being bisexual, the experience of being genderqueer, my divorce, etc. The story doesn’t just belong to me, so there are ethical and logistical issues around sharing.
It’s like talking about my move towards atheism and then towards whatever hybrid-wootheism I’m practicing now – harder to talk about because people I’m close to, who might read what I write, have feels about it. So that’s a long, long, long way of saying – YES! And also, despite the fact that this is such a valid coping mechanism, and so healing, it’s challenging to figure out how to access it again when variables shift.
Sarah: Very into exploring all this more. It’s always super cool and relieving to hear the things you’ve been turning over in your brain expressed by others, it feels like magic haha. Which is why I guess people respond to vulnerability online too. It feels like magic to connect with people now. When I had a visual art practice I always made the work unapologetically personal, and always so enjoyed when people would send me messages after because it had reached something in them, something about the super personal also being the super universal.
Emily: Magic is a good word for it <3
Feb 17, 2017
Emily: Wanted to follow up earlier but have had the most. Terrible. Two weeks ever.
Also, I got emailed a certificate of divorce this week lol, so I guess I’m officially divorced now? God, it feels so adult to say I’m divorced…more adult than being married.
I want to talk about anger and mourning. I feel like femmes have their anger policed on so many different levels, and even in the times of anguish we’re still told to always put others ahead of ourselves. I don’t think it’s necessarily bad to be cognisant of how we express our anger and how it affects others, but sometimes it feels like it’s an emotion that’s simply not allowed at all. So how do you manage anger in this context?
It’s been challenging for me to express pain and anger over the end of my relationship because it was I who left, so therefore I forfeit my right to those emotions, apparently. Either that or there’s very little sympathy, and it’s implied I deserve whatever negative experiences occurred at the end of our relationship.
This is just…so toxic, honestly. A woman should be able to leave a relationship she feels is not right for her without fear of violence or poverty and yet this is a reality for many. But these narratives we have – that deny women any sympathy for making decisions for themselves – allow this kind of violence to be justified and normalized. Our pain and anger are erased and the pain and anger of whoever we left, or hurt, is justified.
This is not to deny my ex-partner pain, anger or mourning. The entire time this was happening I felt like my heart was being fucking torn in two because I knew how much I was hurting him. I tried to mitigate that pain as much as I could, I really did. But it hurts. it hurts. and I would never deny that.
But there are structural issues at play in relationships – and these narratives about manipulative, fickle women justify structural oppression. My partner was heartbroken, but didn’t have the added stress of worrying about rent or groceries. My partner was heartbroken but didn’t have to worry about being like, disowned by his family. My partner was heartbroken but had access to health and mental health benefits. My partner was heartbroken but could afford a lawyer, etc.
I was heartbroken and all the sudden had the rug pulled out from under me – all of these things went flying up in the air. How am I supposed to mourn and process and heal when I don’t know where I’m going to live, how I’m going to pay rent or buy groceries? And furthermore, when this vulnerable state I am in is justified because I broke someone’s heart?
I have guilt and shame for leaving him, and the added guilt and shame of being in poverty – which you’re just not supposed to talk about. You’re not! As soon as you start talking about poverty, it’s like, “Oh well you should have made better choices.” We still totally equate poverty with moral character. Those who have nice stable lives and who have been married the longest are good people. Those who got divorced for whatever reason and who experience financial fallout from that, well, they’re bad people, irresponsible.
I saw the same thing with my mother – she left my dad and faced a lifetime of stigma from it! She lived in the shadow of it her whole life – the fact that she struggled to provide for her children was seen as a moral failing in our Christian communities. I know she internalized so much of that. We lived in subsidized housing and there was a stigma around that too – like subsidized housing is for people with immoral lifestyles.
And this thinking still exists! People in Calgary will get all up in arms about affordable housing and secondary suites because they think poor people are immoral. It’s absolutely disgusting.
So, I struggle with how to express pain or anger in all this. I know at times when I was extremely financially stressed I would text him viciously. I don’t regret it, honestly. But other times I would get on Twitter and my anger would be more passive aggressive because of course I couldn’t speak about it directly, I would just go off on men in general haha. Which like, is not very healthy or constructive and didn’t really make me feel better either. I was in so much pain about the structural violence I was experiencing but I wasn’t in a place where I could articulate it in a healthy way.
So, that’s my experience with anger and pain. If either of you felt like sharing, I’d be interested in hearing your perspectives on dealing with these emotions. ♡
One last thing I’d like to talk about, besides anger, is examples of already existing mourning rituals like, when widows would wear black for a certain period, etc.
Would there be a way to incorporate some sort of outward symbol/signifier for a relationship mourning period etc? Would that be helpful on a personal level and help others in the community understand where you’re at and how to offer support etc. I don’t know what that would look like, but I like the idea of physical symbols and rituals helping to process pain and engage others.
April 19. 2017
Image description: Emily holds a basket of laundry.
Tiffany: Just caught up on the conversation I missed in Feb – so good and so valuable. <3
Emily: Thanks! How would you feel about picking up on the subject of anger and like, healthy expressions of it etc. Or would you want to start off with something else that’s been pressing? Also we’ll wait for Sarah to show up too.
How’s your day been? Haha
Tiffany: My day has been busy. I’m wearing my bee socks, because I needed to be productive and was not feeling it. Outfits = armour and encouragement. Scaffolding! It was interesting reading the comment about widows wearing black, given how I use clothing as an avenue for expression so often! I interviewed/chatted with Sarah R. for my financial self-care article just before this.
Emily: Oh awesome! I’m really looking forward to that, so important. Also the clothes thing, yeah, I feel that too. It’s been frustrating for me having to adjust what kinds of clothes I wear because buying a new piece of clothing used to be kind of a self-care thing for me haha but it really can’t be anymore, so it’s hard to adjust – as super privileged as that sounds.
Tiffany: Not at all! Financial self-care is often in direct conflict with every other kind of self-care. Thanks, capitalism. This article is actually proving suuuuper difficult and emotional to write, because I have hella hangups about money. I thought I had worked through most of them, but “working through” is always iterative and I guess I wasn’t prepared for this iteration.
Emily: Same, I mean it’s stressful because like turns out not being able to pay for things/not having autonomy is one of my triggers from growing up in child poverty. Just that sense of helplessness that sends you spiralling when one tiny thing goes wrong. It’s been a fucking trip. I always knew I was privileged when I was married, but you sort of forget just how much easier life is. You totally forget, poverty stays with you but it also fades…. Anyways. Makes it hard to sort through emotions.
Tiffany: YES!!!! SO hard to sort through the emotions. Also, not to hijack the topic, but I do think there is just so much grief that comes with life transitions that move you away from financial stability. One thing that has come up over and over for me as I try to write this article is my desperate longing for the financial stability of my marriage. It was such a shit show and such a disaster for my emotional health, but… I could just buy what I wanted, really. Camera lenses. Notebooks. Fuckin’ ridiculous scrapbooking supplies. We weren’t wealthy but we were stable. I haven’t had that since. And I didn’t grow up with it. And I *did* almost have it with Scott before I moved out to live with Joe. And part of me… wow. The just… the sadness. Sadness at just never feeling stable. I just want to feel safe and like my life is not so tenuously anchored, financially. There IS grief there. But how do you talk about that grief???? You can’t.
Emily: Holy fuck, yeah I get that. I feel an immense amount of sadness that my new relationship has to bear the weight of the fallout, both emotional and financial, of my previous relationship. Like – what, our relationship gets to have this kind of strain? There’s almost a level of like, sorrow for this current relationship sometimes, that is has to be plagued with these issues. Sometimes I do wonder if my past relationship was really that bad and if I had known how hard it would be, would I have left? I mean, not that those questions are that helpful or productive. But I do feel like…augh there’s such a cost to truly making a decision for yourself. Like this relationship means so fucking much to me and I don’t regret leaving at all, but I am angry when things are stressful and I feel like the relationship might drown because of these external factors.
Tiffany: Yeah. And there’s so much anxiety that Joe will hit this wall of grief and loss and regret it and take it back. He had a lot of financial stability. I made $40k in my most lucrative year of my life, and that was the year I was an executive admin assistant. I will NEVER do that job again. Ever. So. I mean. I grieve losing my financial stability. What will Joe end up grieving when he comes face to face with this? Ugh. And then I just can’t help judging myself in terms of financial worth = personal worth. It’s gross.
Sarah: I have so much to say about self-worth = financial stability! One of the biggest shocks/adjustments I had to make in my last relationship was *finally* not having to worry about money. He made 6 figures and everything just flowed in: the house, fun plants for the garden, great food, daily gifts that to him were just little things but to me were like “WHOA A PS4 I NEVER THOUGHT I WOULD OWN ONE OF THESE”.
I grew up in poverty too, as a kid (one of six) my dad was usually unemployed and we literally survived off of food provided by the church storehouse, clothes came through charity, holiday or birthday gifts came in the mail from family. During my first marriage, my husband gave me the OPTION to work, and it blew my mind! When I eventually left him I was young, childless, and in art school, so going back to poverty was like “meh, this is normal”. Second marriage never had financial stability, I worked through my pregnancy and during newborn times, supported us while he was in school. Came out of the marriage in debt and still don’t know how I paid rent and bills afterwards as a single mom of two kids on 30k a year.
So this last relationship was WILD in terms of “oh my god this is a new reality, I don’t have to worry about money??”. I always felt uneasy about relaxing into it, and when I finally did – when I finally decided “no, I can trust this. This is finally the real thing”, he left lol.
So needless to say, having a taste of that financial freedom, especially as a parent, and then finding myself back in povertylineland fucking sucked haha. BUT, by the grace of tax audits that took 18 months to process, I got 2 years of tax returns plus retroactive child tax benefit payments, which wiped out my debt and has allowed me a savings cushion. I have a great job that I love and for the first time I feel financially secure ON MY OWN TERMS. It has completely changed how I view relationships. My world is so precious to me now, I’m SOOOO hesitant to share it with someone else who might mess it all up again. I don’t need a partner to achieve my financial dreams (it’ll still be a decade before I can buy a house but that’s fine!) or to feel secure! It took 38 years but OH WELL. I’m in control of my financial future and all my exes can all kiss my ass haha. (I hope this doesn’t sound like bragging, I HOTLY encourage you both to retain hope for your independent financial futures 🙂 )
Emily: Do you want to talk about anger? I’ve been getting so much better at managing my emotions only because I’ve had to, also the trauma of the whole leaving situation is further away in my mind, but lordt…..I still get so angry. And anger was like a primary emotion in the thick of it too.
Tiffany: Anger. Heh. Okay, so, in my family of origin, it often felt like my dad was the only person who was allowed to express any anger. In my marriage, my husband would literally refuse to acknowledge my existence – sometimes up to two days in a row! – if I showed *any* signs of anger. With one partner, we fought like cats and dogs who don’t get along. Another shut down ENTIRELY when I got angry at them. And in all of those relationships, I just didn’t have the tools to try and learn how to navigate it more effectively, less hurtfully. I did a relationship counselling session once and learned how to do “discussion mapping” – basically turning the discussion into a physical representation of the timeline, with shapes of different sizes to represent our level of emotional intensity or upset. It was really helpful, and showed us where our experiences of the argument differed. Joe and I can have disagreements that include anger without it escalating and without it needing a lot of really intentional help to keep it productive, and that’s one of the first times in my life I’ve had that. I think I learned a lot in my relationships with Jon, and then more in my relationship with Scott, and I feel some guilt and shame over the fact that I’ve sort of… springboarded into new awareness at the expense of the comfort and health of these relationships. Anger scares the SHIT out of me. I feel so much anger. And I have so much trouble identifying when I’m feeling it. (Unless I’m feeling it on behalf of someone else.) And SO MUCH trouble expressing it. Ugh. Anger.
Emily: There was a lot of anger in my home growing up, lots of kind of chaotic stuff, so I learned to pretty much shut down. As soon as I get angry about anything, even today, I just shut down. I go silent. I think I was used to being forced into the role of mediator, or knowing that I couldn’t add any fuel to the fire. So…I’ve been called passive aggressive haha. But it’s only because I’ve been conditioned that it was unsafe for me to ever question authority or ever express anger. I had to express it other ways. And I get so upset about that hahaha that I can’t just BE ANGRY oh my god because I have so much to be angry about and, I truly believe it’s healthy to be angry, people can learn to express anger in healthy ways… So with this whole marriage thing, it’s been frustrating, because YET AGAIN I am not allowed to be angry. Because I left. And my ex would talk so calmly and be like “I’m being so calm why are you so angry” while doing and saying the most damaging things…. It was infuriating. Anyways, like I said earlier, I would take to twitter. Haha. bad idea! But lordt, there were just hardly any “acceptable” outlets! I still struggle with it, although my current partner is really, really supportive and allows me to be angry in healthy ways, and we share that anger together and so that feels like a healthy expression, which is nice. But…it’s a hard thing.
Tiffany: Yeah. It is a hard thing. And I think that we really don’t ever talk about how to have healthy interactions that include anger. We just don’t. Even when we talk about men, who are allowed to be angry (when white) and expected to be angry (when Black or Indigenous), still we don’t ever talk about how to have healthy interactions within that anger. So nobody learns how to have healthy and productive angry interactions. It makes it really scary. I would rather shut down and go process things until I can be calm and then come back and have the interactions without the anger there. But that’s often very self-silencing and dishonest.
Emily: Dishonest, that’s a good word. I really love the song Mad by Solange…it’s so so great, just this lovely song about how it’s okay to be mad. It’s definitely written for black folks, and I don’t want to appropriate or erase that, but it’s a sentiment I rarely hear expressed in that way and it resonated with me a lot.
Sometimes I wish I could express my anger in like this violent physical way, or loud way, but at the same time, I think I have to give myself a little more credit for not going that route also. Because that’s harmful and damaging and all that too. So, what’s the balance between expressing anger in a way that isn’t silencing but also isn’t like, damaging. I find writing helps, which is maybe why social media seemed like a good outlet.
Tiffany: That makes sense. I also write. In my marriage, I threw sneakers against the door, when Aaron wasn’t home. Nothing could get broken, nothing was damaged, I put the dogs downstairs so it wouldn’t scare them, and it gave me a bit of that physical outlet. In high school, I had a punching bag in my room and it also helped. Having a physical outlet can be really helpful. I don’t think that kind of anger expression has any place within an interaction, because of the inherent threat – even shoes against a door are threatening when there’s another person in the room – but as an outlet, it can help. And I have really struggled since the fibromyalgia, because that physical outlet is far less accessible. How do we practice anger mitigation when chronic pain gets in the way? I haven’t figured that out yet.
Emily: Totally, yeah, and i’ve always felt a punching bag would help me quite a bit haha. I should take up boxing, seriously. Probably would be good for my physical and mental health.
Tiffany: Yeah. I would have to look it up, but I am pretty sure there are legit studies documenting how that kind of physical outlet can be a regulator for anger and stress. Even just hormonally it makes sense to me. Endorphins? Idk. But I do think it works. One reason I hate fibro so much is because a punching bag is probably never gonna be an option for me again. But yoga does help.
Emily: Yeah, actually the reminds me of something that happened the other day. I was like brushing my teeth, something mundane, and after I put my toothbrush back in the cabinet but it fell out again and I picked it up and it just wouldn’t stay put haha and I ended up just SLAMMING the cabinet door shut and for a second I just stood there like shit I hope my partner didn’t hear that. And I realized how much pent up anger I had that wanted to come out in a physical way, and I wouldn’t want it to come out unexpectedly at like the wrong time, you know? So it’s good to be self aware of that and really find healthy outlets for it.
Tiffany: Yeah. I have a lot of conflicted thoughts and feelings about anger and honestly it just kinda makes me want to shut down because it’s annoying and makes me feel physically uncomfortable. Lol. But. It is irritating that so much weight is put on women and femmes and non-men to mediate and regulate our anger, and to find healthy outlets, and to be aware of how anger can be weaponized. To dispel the anger before we come into the interaction. That irritates me. I know that it’s the better way, but it irritates me anyway because the same expectation is not placed on cis white men in the same way. And also I wish there were ways to bring anger into interactions without it being rejected or escalating or seen as inappropriate. Like, yes, we should find those healthy outlets and punching bags 4 life, but at the same time, it is so fucking irritating. And also unfairly distributed. You and I are allowed more anger than, say, a black or a fat woman. That’s bullshit! Yeah. Eh. It’s a messy tangle.
Emily: Yeah, I feel that. Like if we can develop mediation skills and do the emotional labour to understand and regulate other people’s anger, why can’t other people do the same for us?
Tiffany: EXACTLY. Exactly. But then also, nobody should have to do that work. I don’t actually WANT everyone to learn how to do that dysfunctional work that I’m so skilled at. But I also resent the fuck out of the fact that nobody in my life is doing that work for me. Like, I mean, I guess this exactly how abuse perpetuates itself. But whatever. It still makes me mad and hurt and sad.
Emily: Yeah. Yeah, I feel that so much.
April 20, 2017
Sarah: YES ANGER. After Ryan left me I was filled with so much rage, I felt like Phoenix Force (from Marvel comics haha); like I wanted to raze the physical world around me, just wanted to destruct reality at an atomic level. My eyes felt blackened for a solid month, at least. There was a day when I mixed several buckets of salt water and planned to spend the day salting the entire yard and all the gardens (of the house he had bought for us and left me in) – I was going to kill every possible plant and wanted it to be a deadzone that would baffle neighbours forever afterwards haha. I didn’t do it though, I texted friends, they convinced me not to, so I dug up all the plants and gave them away, then hurled ice cube trays around in the kitchen, shattering them and leaving sharp bits of plastic all over the floor for him to clean up after I was finally out of the house (my kids were at their dad’s for those last couple weeks, so they didn’t witness any of this). Oh god I was SO ANGRY. It’s been six months now (and he has never reached out, haven’t seen or spoken to him since he left) and the anger has subsided a lot, but I still experience waves of fury at what utter bullshit his handling of it all was. I see a therapist now and am trying to do all the work I can in healing up before getting into another relationship. I can feel how toxic the anger and bitterness is (moreso than after either of my other divorces) and I just don’t want it to ruin me. I don’t want to give him that, he doesn’t get to wreck me. He never deserved me in the first fucking place (THESE ARE THE THINGS I TELL MYSELF, QUITE ANGRILY).
Reflections One Year Later
A year later, this conversation strikes me as something incredibly beautiful. Thank you both so much for sharing this experience with me.
It has taken so much time to get to this point. Circumstances resulting from the fallout of our relationships have made it challenging to coordinate time together. It’s also not the easiest subject to pick up and work on at any time. Taking the time to let this project breathe has been important.
Right now, I am surprised to find myself still grieving a lot. Not so much the relationship itself as those tangential to it: my relationship with my hometown, my province, my perception of self and who I wanted to be there – all of that just gone. It’s a lot to lose at once, and there are still reminders of that loss everywhere.
But I have also gained a lot in the past year, and I wouldn’t have been able to accept this newness into my life without properly grieving. And I also have to recognize that grief is ongoing! It’s not like you just grieve it all at once and get over it, you kind of have to process it in fragments. But with that, you can take more and more steps forward.
I recently started the book Rebellious Mourning, a compilation of writing on grief edited by Cindy Milstein and published by AK Press. This passage resonated with me:
“One of the cruelest affronts, though, was that pain should be hidden away, buried, privatized – a lie manufactured so as to mask and uphold the social order that produces our many, unnecessary losses. When we instead open ourselves up to the bonds of loss and pain, we lessen what debilitates us; we reassert life and it’s beauty. We open ourselves to the bonds of love, expansively understood. Crucially, we have a way, together, to at once grieve more qualitatively and struggle to undo the deadening and deadly structures intent on destroying us.
Cracks appear in the wall.”
I’ve always sort of downplayed my personal reflections and essays as too self-absorbed or self-indulgent. Who wants to be perceived as another self-obsessed millennial? But – what I have always strove to do is situate my experiences within larger contexts, draw connections, and – yes – find those cracks in the wall, to break free, to move forward on both personal, communal and structural levels.
This project has shone light into some of our darkest and most isolating personal experiences – but we have also discussed or touched on broader issues and concepts such as: marriage; parenthood; polyamory; religion; shame; sexuality; family; mental health; fear; regret; love; abuse; gender; finances; poverty; employment; benefits; social media; anger; the legal system; housing; guilt; morality; clothing; capitalism; debt; tax returns; men; masculinity; racialized expressions of anger; physical expressions of anger; chronic pain; and white privilege.
There’s a whole lot of cracks in the wall. A whole lot of room for new life to break through.
Emily Leedham is a writer and organizer based in Treaty 1 territory, Winnipeg, Manitoba. You can read her other work here and follow her on Facebook for updates on future projects.
Tiffany Sostar is a self-care and narrative coach, working with folks going through a trauma or transition to take care of themselves in the chaos, and land as softly as possible in their new story. They founded and run Possibilities Calgary, a bi+ community group, and generate free, shareable resources for the community on a monthly basis (thanks to the support of their Patreon backers!) Tiffany is also a freelance editor, writer, and tarot reader. You can find them on their website, Facebook, and Patreon. Tiffany lives on Treaty 7 land, in Calgary, Alberta.
Sarah Adams is an artist, comedian, organizer, and makes new life bloom at Alberta Girl Acres.
Image description: Kate’s incredibly stylish orange cane, leaning against white drawers with silver handles, on a wooden floor.
This is a Patreon reward post for Kate, and was available to patrons last week. Patreon supporters at the $10/month level get a self-care post on the topic of their choice during their birthday month. These supporters make my work possible! Especially as I head into my Master of Narrative Therapy and Community Work program, my patrons ensure that I can keep producing resources and self-care content. (And wow, there are some really great resources in production! Check back tomorrow for a post about that!)
Kate and I have known each other for a few years, and got to know each other while we were both going through some challenging times (though we didn’t actually meet in person until quite a bit later, and still aren’t able to spend as much time together as either of us might like!)
Kate has been one of my most outspoken supporters, and I appreciate how she is always willing to leap in with an offer of help or a suggested solution.
Her birthday is in January, and her topic is, “maintaining intimate relationships and partnerships with a chronic illness or chronic pain.”
I struggled with writing this post because I am experiencing my own spoon shortage. I’m in the middle of a depressive episode, have been sick for the last two months, and my fibromyalgia pain has been spiking. All of these spoon-hoarding gremlins are impacting my own relationships, challenging my sense of who I am and how I navigate the world, and putting gloom-coloured glasses on my view of the future. When I write about self-care for folks who are struggling, it’s easier when I can write about a struggle I am not currently experiencing. It’s easier if I can yell back into the labyrinth from the safety of the outside. Easier, but not always better. It is a myth that the best insights come from people who have “figured it all out” – I believe the opposite is often true. When we are in the thick of it is when we have the most relevant and meaningful insider information. Our struggle is not a barrier to our ability to help each other – it is the fuel that allows us to help each other. This is one of the key principles of narrative therapy, and as much as it challenges me, I am trying to bring it into my own life. Can I write something worthwhile from the heart of the struggle? Yes. Well, I think so. Let’s find out.
What Kate asked about was maintaining intimate relationships while navigating chronic illness or pain. In relationships where one person experiences chronic issues and another doesn’t, those issues can create a significant disparity in ability and access to internal resources. (And in relationships where multiple people are experiencing chronic issues, the pressure resulting from reduced access to resources can grow exponentially.)
Being in the position of having (or perceiving that we have) less to offer often triggers shame, fear, and stress. In my own relationships, I worry that I’m not worth it, that my partners will grow tired of me. I worry that I’m “too much.” I have heard the same worry from my clients.
This anxiety is so natural, and so understandable. Our society does not have readily accessible narratives that include robust “economies of care.” Our most common narrative has to do with “pulling our own weight” in a relationship, and our definitions of balanced relationships rely so heavily on ideas of equality rather than justice. Split the bills 50/50. Take turns washing the dishes. You cook, I’ll clean. My turn/your turn for the laundry, the diapers, the groceries.
And it becomes more complicated when we consider the intangible labour of emotional support and caregiving, which is disproportionately assumed to be the role of women in relationships with men, and, since women are also often the ones experiencing chronic pain or illness, this can compound into a messy and unjust situation pretty quickly. (To back up these claims, check out the links at the end of this post.)
Thankfully, both of these problems – the tit-for-tat approach, and the unjust division of emotional labour – are being challenged by writers, activists, and communities on the margins.
In Three Thoughts on Emotional Labour, Clementine Morrigan writes, “We can name, acknowledge, honour, perform, and yes, accept emotional labour, instead of simply backing away from it because we don’t want to be exploitative.”
This is so challenging for so many of us, because we do not want to exploit our friends, our partners, our communities. When we experience chronic illness or pain, the fear that we might slide into exploitation and “being a burden” becomes amplified. Morrigan suggests that we can ask three guiding questions about the emotional labour we are offering or accepting – Is it consensual? Is it valued? Is it reciprocated?
If we can answer yes to each – if we are discussing what we need and what we can offer, if we are valuing what we are offered and if our own offerings are valued, and if there is reciprocity – fantastic!
But what does reciprocity look like in situations where there is a disparity in access to resources?
Morrigan suggests that:
“It is important to acknowledge that some of us need more care than others. Some of us, due to trauma, disability, mental health stuff, poverty, or other reasons, may not be in a position to provide as much emotional labour as we need to receive. We may go through periods where are able to provide more emotional labour or we may always need more care than we are able to give. We may be able to reciprocate care in some ways and not others. This is totally okay. We need rich networks of emotional care, so that all of us can get the care we need without being depleted. We need communities that value and perform emotional labour—communities that come through for each other. Reciprocity is a commitment to building communities where all of us are cared for and no one is left behind; it is not a one for one exchange.”
It is not a one for one exchange.
This is so critical.
And it’s so hard to make space for this. It’s hard to see our worthiness and the value we bring to a relationship when what we offer has shifted from what we were able to offer before the chronic issue grew up within us and between us.
Not only that, but it’s often hard for our partners to recognize what we’re bringing to the relationship. Not because they don’t love and appreciate and support us, but because they are also caught within the web of accessible narratives and ableist norms.
In order to answer “yes” to Morrigan’s “is it valued?” question, we need to be able to look clearly at the work our partners, friends, and families are doing for us and acknowledge that work. And we need to be able to look clearly at our own work and speak openly about it, so that it can be valued. Neither side of this is easy.
Becoming aware of the skills and insider knowledges that we develop as we live our new pain-, disability-, or illness-enhanced lives can help with recognizing, articulating, and allowing people to value our new contributions.
In A Modest Proposal For A Fair Trade Emotional Labor Economy (Centered By Disabled, Femme of Color, Working Class/Poor Genius), Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha writes:
“Sick and disabled folks have many superpowers: one of them is that we often have highly developed skills around care. Many of us have received shitty, condescending, charity-based care or abusive or coercive care—whether it’s from medical staff or our friends and families. We’re also offered unsolicited medical advice every day of our lives, mostly coming from a place of discomfort with disability and wanting to “fix” us.
All of this has made us very sophisticated at negotiating care, including our understanding that both offering and receiving it is a choice. The idea of consent in care is a radical notion stemming from disabled community wisdom. Ableism mandates that disabled people are supposed to gratefully accept any care offered to “fix” us. It’s mind blowing for many people to run into the common concept in many sick and disabled communities, that disabled people get to decide for ourselves the kind of care we want and need, and say no to the rest. This choicefulness has juicy implications for everyone, including the abled.”
I love her wording here. The juicy implications of choicefulness! Imagine the possibilities of this.
And yet, even as I revel in this juicy and nourishing framework, I remember my own deep and ongoing struggle with the concept of pain, illness, and disability as invitation, as superpower, as self. This radical reorganization of labour within relationships does not come easily, and one of the reasons it’s so challenging is because our concepts of fairness are so influenced by one to one exchanges.
Piepzna-Samarasinha addresses this fear later in the essay, reminding us that, “Disabled people often run into the idea that we can never offer care, just receive it. However, we often talk about the idea that we can still offer care from what our bodies can do. If my disabled body can’t lift yours onto the toilet, it doesn’t mean I can’t care for you—it means I contribute from what my particular body can do. Maybe instead of doing physical care, I can research a medical provider, buy groceries for you, or listen to you vent when one of your dates was ableist.”
We forget that there is still care, still reciprocity available within our relationships even when our ability to perform the tasks we used to, or the tasks we wish we could, has shifted.
Learning how to navigate this shift is challenging.
Searching for resources to share in this post, I was discouraged by the sheer volume of academic research performed by normatively abled “experts” on the outcomes for relationships that include a disabled partner. Once again, the centre scrutinizing the margins. It creates such a disempowering framework.
I was also dismayed by the fact that “should I date a disabled person” was one of the suggested related searches. Gross! GROSS!!!!
These are the narratives, and the social framework, within which we try to navigate our relationships as pain/illness/disability-enhanced individuals.
We need more robust, inclusive, intersectional, and hopeful resources. Not hopeful in the “look on the bright side” gaslighting-via-silver-lining sense. Hopeful in the sense of possibility-generating, hope that, in Sara Ahmed’s words, “animates a struggle.” Hope that reminds us that there are narratives possible outside of the ableist norm, and that we can write those love stories within our own lives.
The parts of ourselves that do not fit tidily into the ableist ideal show up in our relationships in many ways. In order to write those inclusive love stories of any kind – platonic, romantic, familial, or parental – we need to recognize and learn to navigate all of it. Financial, social, emotional, physical, mental – very aspect of ourselves that requires tending and care.
Chronic illness/pain/disability impacts our financial lives – we are often less able to work within normative capitalist models. The 8-5 grind doesn’t work if you can’t manage a desk job for 9 hours a day, and many other jobs are also out of reach. This adds pressure to our partners and social supports. Money is a huge source of shame and fear for many of us, so learning how to talk about requiring financial support, how to shift the balance of contribution in a household – overwhelming! Be gentle with yourselves in these conversations.
I find this particularly challenging. More than almost any other way in which my chronic issues impact my relationships, the financial instability that has been introduced as a result of my no longer being able to work a full-time job feels humiliating and shameful. I am working hard to carve out a living for myself, to build my business in sustainable and anti-ableist ways, to do what has to be done to pay my share of the bills. But my partners still take up more than what feels “fair” in the financial realm, and it’s hard. For me, engaging with writers, activists, and advocates who are challenging capitalism and neoliberalism has been helpful. Recognizing that there are other economic models available has opened up some space for me to still see myself as a contributing member of my partnerships and society.
Chronic illness/pain/disability also impacts our social lives – getting out to see friends can become more challenging. Our partners can end up taking on more social caring work for us, being the ones we talk to when we aren’t getting out (or when we don’t feel safe to talk about our struggle with others).
The aggressive individualism of our current anglo-european culture means that we are often isolated, and this can be so discouraging. Again, I struggle with this personally and I don’t have easy answers.
And searching for resources on parenting with chronic pain, illness, or disability is similarly challenging and disheartening. Parenting with any kind of divergence from the ideal is difficult. The weight of judgement, assumption, erasure, hostility, and isolation is so real. Although more supportive and inclusive blog posts, research papers, and articles are being written, the perception of a weirdly-abled parent is still one of lack, inability, and pity.
We often want to provide everything our children needs, without outside help. That’s the expected ideal. The nuclear family is still the celebrated norm, and the ideal of a normatively abled, neurotypical, stay-at-home, biological parent is still the target to meet. We may recognize that “it takes a village” but we resist the idea that part of what that village offers may be physically chasing after the toddler, lifting the baby, doing homework with the teen, helping with the rent. Just like we need to expand our conception of emotional labour and economies of care within relationships, we need that same expansiveness and redefinition within our parenting relationships and roles.
Which is easy to say, and incredibly hard to do.
At Disability and Representation, Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg writes, “What so many able-bodied feminists don’t get is how profound an experience disability is. I’m not just talking about a profound physical experience. I’m talking about a profound social and political experience. I venture out and I feel like I’m in a separate world, divided from “normal” people by a thin but unmistakeable membrane. In my very friendly and diverse city, I look out and see people of different races and ethnicities walking together on the sidewalk, or shopping, or having lunch. But when I see disabled people, they are usually walking or rolling alone. And if they’re not alone, they’re with a support person or a family member. I rarely see wheelchair users chatting it up with people who walk on two legs. I rarely see cognitively or intellectually disabled people integrated into social settings with nondisabled people. I’m painfully aware of how many people are fine with me as long as I can keep up with their able-bodied standards, and much less fine with me when I actually need something.
So many of you really have no idea of how rampant the discrimination is. You have no idea that disabled women are routinely denied fertility treatments and can besterilized without their consent. You have no idea that disabled people are at very high risk of losing custody of their children. You have no idea that women with disabilities experience a much higher rate of domestic violence than nondisabled women or that the assault rate for adults with developmental disabilities is 4 to 10 times higher than for people without developmental disabilities. You have no idea that over 25% of people with disabilities live in poverty.”
So that fear of embracing a new normal, subverting the neoliberal individualist norm, creating new economies of care and radically altering our relationships to be just rather than equal… this doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We aren’t just subverting norms and creating new relationship methods – we are doing so, as parents, under the scrutiny of an ableist and highly punitive culture. We are conscious of the fact that our subversion of norms, which may be possible within adult relationships, may make our parenting relationships more precarious, more tenuous.
Access to external help is readily available to the professional upper class – nannies are a completely acceptable form of external help, and parents are not judged for needing a nanny when that need is created by long working hours. Needing help in order to be more productive? Sure thing. (You’ll still face judgement, of course. Can any parent do it “right,” really? Nope.)
But needing help because of pain, illness, or disability?
That is much less socially sanctioned, and there are far fewer narratives available that leave space for that choice to be aligned with a “good parent” identity.
And yet, many of us do parent while in pain, while ill, while disabled. And we are good parents. Just like we have valuable superpowers of caring that can be brought into our adult relationships, we have the same superpowers of caring to bring into our parenting roles. What we do may look different than the pop culture ideal. How we do it, when we do it, who helps us with it – that might all look different. And that’s scary. But the value it brings to our kids is immeasurable.
One of the invitations that chronic illness, pain, and disability extends is that it pulls the curtain back on how harmful the neoliberal ideology of rugged individualism really is, and asks, “is there another way?”
I’m not great at saying “yes” to that invitation, but I’m getting better at recognizing it when it shows up. I don’t need to have all the answers, because I have a community around me that is brilliant and incredibly generous.
So, when I was struggling with this post, I asked my best friend and one of my partners to help me.
H.P. Longstocking has been dealing with the long-term effects of two significant concussions, and in a moment of discouragement at my own inability to write this post, I asked if she could help me get started. What she sent touched on so much of what I wanted to write about, so eloquently, and I’m ending this post with her incredibly valuable contribution. She is a parent, a scholar, and an integral part of the social net that keeps me going. I think there’s hope in how she has responded to this.
While I am no stranger to depression or anxiety, I had never experienced a chronic debilitating illness and I found that my self-care habits and techniques were no longer usually helpful or even always possible. Last summer I had several concussions. Because I had sustained so many as a child, these two accidents completely changed my life. Most of the summer I was not safe to drive or even walk as my second concussion happened when I tried to walk out of my bedroom and due to the concussion symptoms, I cracked my head into a wall. I could not look at screens, read, handle light or loud noises, and was told to stop having sex. All of my self-care habits were taken away.
I have always been an active person. Running and cycling have been my times of meditation and recalibration. Dancing brings me joy. Physical activity has been an integral part of my self-care since I was a small child. To have days, weeks, and months where walking short distances is the most physical activity I can safely manage, and some days not even that, has had a detrimental impact on my body and my emotional well-being.
I used to love to read. I devoured books and articles. I had just started my Masters and was supposed to be immersing myself in the scientific literature. I could not do any of that. I still struggle. Reading was my escape, my lifeline, my lifeblood, and I hoped, my livelihood. Now it causes me pain.
I was not prepared for the constant, chronic pain. Previously, I had headaches so rarely, I did not recognize them the few times a year I would experience one. Now, I have a hard time recognizing it because I am never without one. I find that I have my face screwed up in pain after someone reacts to me as if I am scowling at them. My coping mechanisms for the pain are to hyperfocus on something so I am unaware of most of the world around me. Unfortunately, this is usually my phone which in the long term makes it worse, but also as it gets worse, I have less self-control and ability to stop myself.
All of this has impacted my relationships. Without the ability to drive, I am often limited in who I can see and where I can go. Even without that, I am easily tired in social settings and my words begin to slur in mental exhaustion. I cannot handle loud spaces for very long, or if I do, I pay for it with days of recovery. I often feel isolated, alone, and incapable of taking care of myself, let alone being the partner, parent, and student I aspire to be.
But, I have adapted. Instead of reading, I listen to audiobooks. Instead of digesting dense theory or the latest studies, I listen to light narratives and fiction that has a plot so predicable that I can fall asleep and not miss much. I go for short walks instead of long bike rides.
My relationships have also changed.
It is hard to feel like you are not carrying your weight, especially in this neoliberal culture where people are valued according to how much productive and profitable output they can do. It is hard to be a partner with someone when you are more dependent and roommate than lover. It is hard not be able to see people, leave the house, focus on what someone is saying, or do what they are doing. It is so isolating and would be so much more so with poverty added as well. It hurts to see your kids do an impression of you which is just sleeping.
My friendships have changed. I am slowly learning to ask for help. To say no. To cancel plans last minute because it is not safe that day for me to go out. I cancel plans so often now that I am scared to make them. Much of my socialization now is online and sporadic. There is a price to pay for too much screen time. I am spending more time with people I do not have to hide my pain from. I do not have the resources to put up with mind games and people who suck energy. I have a few friends that make safe spaces for me to come and just nap around them so I won’t feel alone. My life is rich, even though my world and abilities have shrunk.
Self-care looks entirely different to me now. Instead of the sun on my face and the pounding of my feet on running paths, I sip tea wearing sunglasses. Instead of pushing through discomfort, I am learning to listen to it so that I do not make things worse. Instead of losing myself in the written word, I find comfort in story, sound and other sensory delights. Some of the people I spend time with have changed, and the ways I spend time with people have also. I do not know which symptoms will resolve and which I will have for the rest of my life, but while I grieve for friendships and opportunities lost, I am also grateful for the capacity to change and adapt, and trust that relationships worth holding onto can withstand the changes as well.
Further reading on emotional labour:
- Wondering about women’s differential experiences of pain? Check out the trans-inclusive Popaganda podcast on Women and Pain.
- And this Everyday Feminism article on how emotional labour defines women’s lives will give you insight into women’s experiences of differential expectations of emotional labour.
- And, if you want to challenge the gender disparity regarding emotional labour in straight relationships, check out 7 Ways Men Must Learn to Do Emotional Labour in Their Relationships.
- It’s also important to bring an intersectional lens to any discussion of emotional labour, and this article on Emotional Labor, Gender, and the Erasure of Autistic Women is both an excellent article on its own, and full of worthwhile links out.
- The Emotional Labour of the Closet: A Look at Trans Women’s Socialisation touches on the specific emotional labour that trans women are expected to offer.
- And we can’t discuss differential expectations of emotional labour without acknowledging misogynoir and the demands on Black women to be caregivers for their own communities and the white communities around them. Misogynoir and Black Women’s Unpaid Emotional Labour touches on this issue.
- And then, tie it back to chronic illness, chronic pain, disability. Disability and Emotional Labour talks about these issues, and although it’s an article related specifically to activism, it comes into our lives and relationships in many ways.