Has your experience of relationship exclusivity (monogamy and non-monogamy, but also types of exclusivity within either monogamous or non-monogamous relationships) shifted multiple times?
Would you like to talk about it?
I’m putting together the beginning of a narrative project on this topic, and will be scheduling one group conversation and up to 5 individual conversations between now and November 15.
Depending on how these conversations go and whether there is interest, I will be organizing a six-week narrative practice group where we can explore and re-story our experiences of changing relationship structures. This group will be scheduled for the new year.
My goal is to better understand how people experience fluidity in relationship structure preference over time. I think that within polyamorous spaces there is often the idea that there is an ideal (and linear) trajectory from monogamy to a specific form of polyamory.
I’m interested in talking about this, especially since I think for folks who have a different trajectory (such as returning to exclusivity, or having relationship structure preference expand and then contract, or preferring exclusivity in one area of a relationship even if there is non-exclusivity in another), there can be feelings of shame or failure attached to this.
If this sounds interesting to you, let me know! Email me at sostarselfcare @ gmail, and watch this space for the group conversation information.
Editing to add: The group conversation has been scheduled for November 7 from 11-12:30 mountain time, and will be hosted on Zoom. Contact me for registration info!
So many thanks to Osden and Sean for presenting this webinar with me, to Joe for editing the video, to Shara for the transcription, and to all of my patrons for supporting me to be able to do this work. This webinar was presented on June 13, 2020, and this video and transcript was available to patrons a few days early.
I am so thankful to the folks who support my work. It has been a challenging time, but I really cherish this work, and I think it makes a bit of a difference, and it means a lot to me to have your support.
The following is an edited transcript of the Mapping Borderline Spaces webinar. Content notes for discussion of anti-Indigenous violence, stigma, trauma and abuse, suicidality, and substance use. This webinar is part of a larger project of creating resources by and for folks who identify with Borderline Personality Disorder. You can find this growing collection of resources at https://tiffanysostar.com/category/bpd-superpowers/
The experiences shared here do not represent the experiences of every person who identifies as borderline, or who has been diagnosed as BPD. Each person is the expert in their own experience, and each person is at their own unique intersection of identities, relationships, and social contexts.
Tiffany: Osden, did you want to start with your introduction?
Osden: Yeah. I can do that. I want to say first and foremost that I’m feeling very stressed out, kind of activated today, a little bit on edge. Ideas of how I thought I was maybe going to talk about things yesterday are different today, but I think it’ll all still be relevant and still important.
I’m Métis, which is historically a mixed nation of Indigenous people here in well, if you call it Canada, on Turtle Island. I live in Toronto, which is known as a meeting place, where the trees meet the water. And I’m a little bit nervous because I haven’t been perceived by this many other human beings in a long time. So, I’m going to cheat and look at paper in front of me a bunch.
I am on the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee, Wendat, and Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, which is under the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt covenant, which is a treaty that precedes colonial treaties on this land that talks about sharing the resources of the space, but also caring for a space in a way that’s responsible to one another and the land, hence the idea of a dish with one spoon.
And yeah, Rodney Levi is a Mi’kmaw man who was killed by police last night on the East Coast of Canada and that’s a very common thing here, and I’m just feeling it a lot today, so. Thank you for giving me space.
Did I say who I am? Also, I’m Osden [laughs] and I used they/them pronouns, and I’m a visual artist, and I identify as having BPD and then all the other stuff I said.
Tiffany: Sean, did you want to introduce yourself?
Sean: Hi everyone, my name’s Sean, pronouns are they/them. I was introduced to the BPD Superpowers group by someone who is in this room today, so I’m really thankful to her for introducing me. I’ve been working with Tiffany and Osden for the last year. I received a diagnosis of BPD in 2018, and have been struggling, surviving, thriving, all sorts of things, ever since.
Tiffany: And I’m Tiffany. I use they/them pronouns. Both Sean and I are on Treaty 7 Land. Calgary is one name for this space. This is traditionally the land of the Blackfoot Confederacy including the Siksika, Kainai and Piikani First Nations, as well as the Stoney Nakoda which includes the Chiniki, Bearspaw, and Wesley First Nations, the Tsuut’ina First Nation, and the Métis Nation of Alberta Region 3.
And every time I say that list of First Nations I am just struck by how this space has been such a space of mingling and community and connection, and how the colonial project pushes us apart and into individualizing. And violence against Indigenous folks is very much present in this space and across Turtle Island.
The BPD Superpowers group and all of us here are watching the violence against the Black community in the States and in Canada, and in other parts of the world, and are fully in support and solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. That’s happening now and we can’t separate this event from what’s happening politically around this event.
The first question that Sean and Osden are going to address is:
What is the one thing you want participants to take away from this webinar?
Osden: So this I think above everything, is a question that I’m like, oh, yeah, it’s a different answer today than it might have been yesterday. And I was talking with a friend earlier today about how there’s a meme that I like, that talks about borderline people and people with bipolar disorder, and how you are always having to work and be conscious and be in control of your emotions, like, 24/7.
And today that’s the thing that like, really, really stands out to me, is how sometimes I think I’m perceived as somebody who is really good at self-regulating, and maybe even people take it for granted, but it’s a constant amount of effort and it’s tiring. I guess just remembering that it’s not that we’re bad. I really identify with being in a kind of panicked fight or flight state when I’m feeling more activated by something that feels dangerous or upsetting. I have to be really careful not to be more reactive, or I can be more inclined to be avoidant of friends.
Anyways, my big takeaway was just to acknowledge that folks who are borderline have to constantly be putting in effort to be the kind and caring and appropriately responsive and present human beings that we want to be.
Sean: Thanks, Osden. I think one of the reasons why I volunteered to have this conversation is because I struggled a lot in some of my close personal relationships with advocating for myself.
I’ve experienced a lot of ableism. Even as a white settler, I have experienced a lot of difficulty accessing health care and have had multiple clinicians and therapists tell me that what I was experiencing wasn’t real.
I really want people to know that even though I am put together, and lots of the folks in the BPD community are thriving, it’s like Osden said, it’s a daily exhausting struggle to keep ourselves regulated. And when we’re not regulated, there’s a lot of shame attached to it, because people don’t really like to see us out of control, I guess.
I identify with the window of tolerance concept, where when I’m emotionally dysregulated, I present very differently to people. So I really want to challenge some of the ableist assumptions that come along with BPD.
Tiffany: I’m not going to contribute much in this conversation, I’m just facilitating. But I work as a narrative therapist, and I know that we have some service providers, some mental health professionals in the audience here today. As someone who is on that side of some conversations about BPD, I just really would like to encourage folks who offer services, medical or mental health care or work as teachers or professors, or in any kind of situation where you have that power over dynamic that service providers have… this project exists because of how pathologising and stigmatising, and how unjust so many of the resources out there are. So if you’re in this conversation and you want to learn how to better support and be in solidarity with folks who identify as borderline, don’t stop at this webinar. Really interrogate what you’ve been taught about what BPD is and what it means, and who has it. And keep digging and find community voices. I think that is the one takeaway that I would offer to fellow service providers.
Okay, so our next question is:
This whole group is framed around the idea that BPD Superpowers, and some of the things that borderline makes possible. So, what are some of the BPD Superpowers that you’ve felt in your own life, and that you want people to know about? What might become possible if these Superpowers were more visible in the discourse around BPD?
Sean: Some of the Superpowers that I resonate with specifically are my capacity for love and intimacy and understanding of other people. I generally, before my diagnosis and before learning more about the neurodivergence that I experience, honestly thought everybody navigated the world the same way I did. I didn’t quite understand sometimes when people weren’t outraged at injustice, or didn’t love as big as me, but I’m seeing it now and instead of being maybe confused and hurt by the differences, I’m really accepting, or learning to accept, at least, ‘cause it is a daily struggle, but to really love myself for how deeply I can experience emotion.
And often, I think I empower myself with that experience, to better understand other people, and to work in social justice spaces, because that’s where I would say the majority of my work lies. It really has developed over the years as an increased capacity for that work. I don’t think I have the luxury of turning off or checking out.
And something the BPD group talks a lot about is that we don’t really get the luxury of getting to opt out sometimes, but I really do like the fact that I have this emotional intensity and I find it drives me quite a bit.
I think, to answer the second question about what becomes possible if these powers were visible in the discourse – I think there would be a lot more compassion towards people with BPD, understanding that when we are in emotionally reactive states or have what is considered bad reactions to very real and probably harmful things that we experience, there could be a little bit more patience and understanding. And I really would expect that from at least a clinical perspective.
Within intimate relationships I think it would be really, really great within families, friendships, and as I mentioned, intimate partnerships, for people to be able to see us a bit differently and to maybe hold a bit more space for the nuance in how we experience the world.
I think in understanding my strengths and what empowers me, that also gives other people the opportunity to see me in a good light, even when I’m in different spaces that seem bad or reactive, or problematic.
Osden: I’m just going to just emphatically nod so much every time you talk [laughs].
Thinking about BPD Superpowers in my own life, and what I really want people to know about, what Sean was saying resonates strongly within me. I think that sometimes the challenging aspects of being borderline can be really focused on, and maybe not just because like, you know, we’re talking about supporting borderline people. I can’t say that everyone has had the same experience as me, but like, not just what might be challenging in relationships, but it’s challenging for me to experience this turmoil internally and I think that’s maybe something that it’s helpful for people outside of me to know.
But it’s also completely euphoric sometimes. I think that’s a Superpower. Like if I go into an art exhibition that I’m really moved by, and nobody judge me here, it feels like being on MDMA, like it’s so cool to enjoy art that much.
So, the intense emotions also have these amazing high points where you like, feel love so deeply and you feel care so deeply.
And what Sean said about not realizing other people didn’t feel things the same way as me – I’m very considerate, I’m very aware of small things people tell me are meaningful to them, I remember them.
Thinking about insight as something really powerful that we can offer in relationships and I think also like, because I spend a lot of time self-regulating and being really aware of how I’m reacting to things and how I want to treat people, I’ve had a great experience helping people I care about in my life kind of develop better standards of how they want to be treated by people. Even if sometimes I wind up getting excluded because of those standards. That’s one of the big things.
And just the amount of tools that I’ve had to develop to kind of like, get by in the day to day, and keep things regulated or acceptable. I think there’s a lot that I can share and there’s a lot of strength in that.
Tiffany: That idea that there are insider knowledges and tools and skills within the BPD community is important. The group put up a blog post about big feelings in the pandemic, bringing in some of that wisdom, and I think that that in itself is a really valuable thing to bring – the idea that within BPD community, and within Borderline folks, there are skills and knowledges that can help even people outside of the Borderline community and outside of Borderline experience.
And one of the stigmatising views is that BPD renders people less capable, less insightful, less regulated. Which is how I’m going to segue into our next question, which is:
What are some of the most difficult assumptions about BPD that you’ve faced in your relationships? Are they linked to ableism, and how has ableism shown up in your relationships?
Sean: This is a really painful but important question. I just want to acknowledge that. I think…where do I want to start?
What are some of the most difficult assumptions? I think… that I’m toxic, that I’m manipulative, that I’m inherently abusive.
I think one of the things that I’ve really been working on in myself over the last few months of having had a break from a relationship recently, was just how much of my reactions and how much of my existing was in response to abusive behaviour. And I really identify with the fact that I was surviving a lot of these moments. And surviving is fricking scary sometimes, for me, and it might not be life or death, but my brain interprets it that way. And so, surviving can look like yelling and screaming to be heard, because I’m constantly being gaslit. And it might mean like one day I’m fine, I’m fine, and then the next I like, snap and I self harm. And I think the thing I struggled the most with was always hearing that I was a bad person because of those things. Like when I finally got pushed to a point where I could no longer hold onto that abuse anymore, I got labelled as manipulative, as toxic.
And I still struggle with that within all of my relationships. I think these are linked to ableism, like I absolutely believe so. I think it’s very, very convenient for people who are in positions of power, whether that be a clinician or an intimate partner, to tell me that my reactions are inappropriate and to tell me that I’m behaving inappropriately to silence me. And I do think that’s linked to ableism. I think it’s an explicit tactic that a lot of abusers use, and I’ve had that in particular.
I’d like to talk about experiences outside of the abusive relationships that I’ve had, but unfortunately that’s not my experience right now. And I think in my relationships with clinicians, it’s shown up by telling me that what I’m experiencing isn’t ‘clinically relevant’. I remember once being assessed by a psychiatrist, telling me ‘well, you have too many traumas to be considered for a PTSD diagnosi’s, for instance.
Or when I felt like I was really in a place of struggle in my life, and I said I identified with the word ‘ill’. I didn’t’ have a BPD diagnosis yet but I identified with being ill, and they’re like, “you’re not ill”, and they mean it in a way of maybe empowering me, but it ended up being an incredibly invalidating experience, so I don’t trust you anymore if you are going to tell me that the daily life that I have, when you see me, you don’t see me outside of this interaction, is not a struggle, is not real. Like how can I possibly ever learn anything from you, because you don’t believe in my existence. And I could talk about this a lot, but I would like to hear Osden’s thoughts, so I’m going to pause.
Osden: I knew that you had some good present feelings on it, not that they’re good, but that you had a lot to say, so I was like, this is your moment.
I feel so much of that, so much, so strongly, and I was thinking of what you were saying about clinicians. And like, I come from a background where at the time in my life when I was going through trauma, it was also very important for me to hide that I was having a lot of traumatic experiences and that my home life wasn’t safe. And so, you know, I can get good grades and I can work a job in capitalism, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not suffering deeply, like in woe and inner turmoil, and wishing that I could like, burst into flames in a way that would represent the amount of emotional pain that I’m dealing with on the daily.
But because I could go through these steps in a society that’s mostly focused on being able to do those things, I had the experience for a really, really, long time of going to therapists and doctors and being like, I’m so anxious, I’m suffering so much, I’m having so many problems with this thing, and them being like, “oh, how’s work, how is school?” and being treated like I was fine.
And I was thinking about this earlier, In it’s own way, that’s so ableist. Just because somebody doesn’t look like they have an… and I don’t know if it’s like, an okay way to use this analogy, that’s like, thinking that someone doesn’t have a disability just because they’re not in a wheelchair. Just because I can go through certain motions that are perceived as normative, doesn’t erase all of the experience that I was trying to share and trying to get support with. And so that’s ableist and almost this kind of reversed way as compared to how we think about it.
And I know we talked about really wanting to emphasize when we talk today, to trust that people are the experts in what they’re experiencing. And I didn’t get that trust and that was really hard for me for a long time.
In a more intimate and relationship way I would say the most difficult assumptions are that when I’m reactive, the thing I’m reactive about isn’t still a legitimate problem. Just because how I react can be read as like, ‘oh, you know, you’re being more upset or more needy or need more reassurance than you should because of your BPD,’ doesn’t mean that I’m not like, ‘no but you still did something shitty to me, it’s fair that I’m upset. If you don’t like how I’m expressing that I’m upset, that’s fine, but we also need to address, that there’s like, a valid reason for me to be upset.’
Which in a weird way mirrors the thing I was saying about being told I was fine when I wasn’t.
Yeah, those are two things… they’re the most difficult assumptions. And they’re very, very ableist and I’ve internalized them to certain degrees, too, and that’s difficult. Especially in relationships, one of my partners thought that my reactions were the problem rather than whatever thing set me off being the problem. And after I had a big breakup last December, I read SO much neurodivergent and ableist theory and disability theory to get a sense of how not to be ableist towards myself and how to realize that there is truth in these reactions, even if you want to control how you react. That’s my rant.
Tiffany: The thing that I really notice in both of your response, is people not believing what you say about your own experience.
That idea having your reactions framed as inherently inappropriate or over the top and not ever addressing what may have happened to cause the reaction, that seems like a really critical issue, and is tied I think, to assumptions that BPD means being unreasonable or reacting to things that don’t deserve a reaction. And I think we can separate that from having reactions that are not preferred by the person on the receiving end, or the person having the reaction, because that’s something we’ve talked about, too. But the thing that sparks a reaction is real.
How can folks respond when you’re reacting to something, given that there probably is something valid at the root of that reaction, but how you’re reacting may not be what they want?
Osden: I can’t say that I’ve fully figured this out, but I’m always working on it. One of my big tools is if I tell somebody that I need a minute to respond, like I swear to God, I tell people this on a first date, if I say that something has hit the wrong way and I can feel myself going into panic brain, and I’m like, ‘just one minute, I can’t talk to you for one minute.’
And if I say that I need that space and then I’m pushed when I need that space, I’m going to react strongly, ‘cause I can feel myself panicking and I need that space to be respected, or I’ll react in a way that I don’t want to. And the other person doesn’t want me to either.
But another thing that’s meaningful and important is acknowledging… and I’ve only heard people describe this in theory, I haven’t had this experience with a partner yet, but I’ve had early dating situations where people will say, ‘when someone gets upset, you know, maybe you don’t like how they’re getting upset at you, but you look for the truth, and where the upset comes from,’ and that’s like, genius?
But I think really great things for helping me defuse when I’m feeling really hotheaded is validating what I’m feeling without sort of negating the intensity of what I’m feeling. So like, ‘yeah, that sounds really upsetting, and I would be upset by that so I can only imagine how intense that must feel for you’, is something really wonderful that someone I know used to say to me. And that was great because sometimes people are like, ‘oh yeah, I’d totally feel like way too’, and it feels like very brushed off when you’re like, ‘no, I feel like the world’s ending, please, take me seriously.’ That’s a really good one.
Letting me know if I’m hurting you is a really good one, too, because I care so much about whether or not I’m hurting my loved ones, and I feel so much shame if I am reactive in a hurtful way, and that’s pain that I deal with for days and days. I’ve had a lot of people mistreat me, and I don’t want to mistreat anyone. If somebody’s like, ‘hey, I know you’re feeling kind of frightened right now, but the way that you’re saying this is hurting me or it’s scaring me’, then that helps me have the kind of presence to kind of check myself. Because I so strongly don’t want to do that that. I don’t know that those things would work for everyone, but they work for me. And I don’t know if there’s anything Sean wants to add.
Sean: Thanks, Osden.
So one of the things that I’ve thought about are ways of inviting me to think of how I’m expressing things differently. So if I’m in a really intense state where I’ve dissociated let’s say, or withdrawn, or even if I’m yelling, to invite me to be like, ‘I understand that there are some big emotions here’ and really validate that what I’m experiencing is real, and then inviting myself to try and express them differently.
I think what I describe as ‘disarming’ is really important for me. And that can be done in a number of ways. I think the biggest thing to take away from this conversation is to check in with the person who has BPD. For me it’s sometimes a bit of physical pressure of touch from someone who I’m interacting with that can really disarm me. But asking, ‘is there something I can do in those moments when you’re out of your window or you’re feeling just extreme distress that I can do to bring you down a bit?’
Something that I know is really helpful in my therapeutic relationship is my therapist will ask me to locate in my body where I’m experiencing the distress. And I know that doesn’t work for everybody; I find it really resonates for me. But it’s a very collaborative approach, too, it’s not like, what you’re experiencing is on you, and it’s on yourself. It’s like, ‘how can I support you in moving through this really big experience?’ And so in a therapeutic way, that’s like, ‘let’s take a second. I know that you want to talk and you want to work through these things, but if we ground ourselves, do you think there’s a better way to express it right now?’
And I can feel myself getting activated as I talk about this. But being able to locate it in my body, or to feel a physical sensation and actually experience that before I express myself can be really helpful.
Other things I really like to hear or see in someone, if at all possible is if they’re not defensive right away, or if they don’t show that they’re ready to fight back, then it kind of also gives me the indicator that I’m not in a fight situation. I know that it’s not easy all the time.
I know that we wanted to acknowledge this piece when we were talking about this the other day, that everybody brings in their own experiences, and so if I’m yelling and that’s triggering to my partner, I also have to understand that. But just taking some time and giving us some space to work through these emotions [is helpful].
Osden: I think that my main emphasis with what I’m going to add is to trust people about their own experience, because while what you’re saying really resonates, most of that was very, very different from my experience.
When I’m in an activated space, I feel it so deeply within my body. And I had a conflict with a friend a couple of days ago and I spent like, the last two days, despite, you know, whatever kind of activities I did to try to kind of self-soothe, feeling almost literally like a cornered animal. Like, I’m going through life, and nice things are happening, and people are walking by, but in my mind, I feel like I’m cornered and I don’t know if I need to run or if I need to fight, or what I need to do, and I have to filter every life experience through feeling like that.
Which is to say that the way I’m feeling in my body, I really have to try to set aside to be a remotely functioning human. I respect the hell out of the somatic stuff, but I just have particular challenges with it. If I really focus on how I’m feeling in my body, then I get almost more panicked and reactive because I can feel my heart pumping and I can feel that I’m not breathing well and it just amplifies that cornered animal feeling.
And I also thought of another Superpower, which is when I’m upset, I’ve had partners think that I’m saying things to hurt them which is not usually the case. I’m saying stuff that I’m afraid of. Like ‘you don’t care about me.’ I didn’t say that to hurt anybody, I said that cause I genuinely am terrified you don’t care about me, because of my past experiences and how I experience everything now.
But I’ve had partners says things in kind of like, anger or frustration at me, and I’m so well versed in that, that it’s almost a Superpower that I don’t even give a fuck. I know you just said that ‘cause you’re mad, because I know what that looks like! So it’s a weird Superpower, but I kind of just be like, you’re bullshitting right now ‘cause you’re upset, and that is a little bit helpful. But I just wanted to reiterate that everybody’s experience can be very different.
Tiffany: One thing that I’m hearing in what you’re sharing is that part of the process of inviting both accountability and safety in relationships involves pre-discussion about what things might look like, and also discussions of accountability after. And I wondered if either of you wanted to talk about what those two pieces look like and what the interaction is between discussions that happen before an interaction that has caused some hurt or some harm, and what it can look like after.
What is the interaction between discussions that happen before an interaction that has caused some hurt or some harm, and what it can look like after?
Sean: To address the before… I think in an ideal world, I would like to set myself up with every relationship this way; if I can talk out and give you an expectation of what might happen when I’m having an episode. To really be able to trust that you’ll be there for me, and what it might look like for you to be there for me.
And if you can’t be there for me, because I know in our group sessions we’ve also talked about what happens when someone needs actual space and their coping is to withdraw when mine is to run in and maybe, you know, working out, ‘okay well, if you do need to go, how do I know you’re coming back? And how do I trust that?’ I think these conversations really do facilitate that sense in myself that I will trust you. But in my experience when I haven’t had those discussions, I don’t know what to expect and so it’s really scary.
And like I said, I haven’t always set myself up for success in all of my relationships so I’m not some like, guru here, but I would like to think, moving forward I would really just try and assert that I need to know you’re not going to abandon me if I have a bad reaction, if I have an episode.
Even if I say things that are really hurtful, like if I say things like “you don’t love me” or “you don’t want me” or “you’re going to leave”, knowing that even if I say things that are really what sound outlandish to someone, they’re very real for me in those moments and when I express those fears, I don’t actually want to lose you, I just don’t necessarily know how to articulate it properly when I’m out of my window.
And then the accountability piece after. I don’t like hurting people, and I don’t know if this is true for everybody in the BPD community but it resonates with me strongly that like, I want to be accountable because the idea of hurting someone is so painful to me that I will work and that’s what my life’s work seems to be… how do I not hurt other people? Because I’ve been hurt, and I know what that feels like, and I never ever want anyone to be in that position.
And so, the accountability piece to me is huge. And it’s not just like a sorry, and then assume it’s over. It’s like, how can I do this better next time when I’m feeling reactive, when I’m feeling out of my window. Like, how do I hold myself accountable for the reactions I’m having. And I don’t know the answer specifically on how to do it properly, but I know it’s something I’m open to. And I know that most people with BPD are open to making amends and really truly doing it, not in just a brush-off kind of way.
Tiffany: Did you want to speak to that, Osden?
Osden: One of the things I was thinking about while Sean was talking that I don’t think I’ve ever said before, but that I think is actually really important and something that I think I do in some ways manage to be upfront about in my relationships, and I don’t just mean with partners, but with friends and with chosen family, the family you can choose, is like… I am a neurodivergent person, and if you’re choosing to be in a relationship with me, you are going to have to be able to hold – able and willing, even if you need me to work with you – to hold some space for my neurodivergence and the different shapes that that can take, and the supports I might need, or the challenges there might be. And I don’t think I’ve ever really said that before, but like, there’s gotta be space for it. If there isn’t, go find someone neurotypical. I can’t be that guy.
And so on top of that, the fact that I’ll be really honest with people that I need space if I’m upset, and that, you know, I can feel this sort of shut down of my cognitive thinking brain, like, I can’t react in good ways and I really try to emphasize with people that I am going to need support or at least space in the times when I’m upset. If we talk about things ahead of time then I can prepare somebody, and I can know if certain things are going to be more or less triggering for other people.
And part of why I brought the neurodivergent piece up, is even neurotypical people do this. Even though we know what boundaries we want to have with somebody, they can be hard to respect when we’re really upset or something’s feeling really challenging and scary.
And I don’t think that’s Borderline specific at all. Maybe we’re actually more adept in thinking about it, because we have to be.
With someone I was dating ages ago, there was an agreement that if you’re getting too intense, I’m going to put my fingers on top of my head and sit in a circle and then you’ll know. And it’s kind of silly, and so it kind of defuses the situation.
And talking about stuff after the fact. One of the things an earlier relationship was really missing was talking about ways that we hurt each other during moments of conflict after I was in a calmer state and could really have a conversation about it. Because it’s hard for me to do much support work when I’m feeling very threatened, or very frightened. But I’m actually really adept at that work, when I’m in my calm and social space. And I’d be so happy to do that work, because, again, I think as someone who’s experienced trauma and abuse and it really affected me, I care so much about whether I do those things to people and I want to show up for them.
Learning from experiences, working together, trying to know what to expect, trying to heal from things when you don’t know what to expect.
I think it’s really important to have honest conversations about what you are or aren’t going to need from someone. Like, I want to be able to talk about suicidal ideation, but I’m not going to act on that because I have safety nets in place, so that I’m going to be safe, and being able to negotiate those conversations ahead of time, or being invited to negotiate information around those things ahead of time, so that I can talk honestly about my life experience without continuing to have to hide it to be safe, is like, amazing.
Tiffany: Thank you both.
What are some of the challenges that BPD introduces into your relationships? And specifically, I’m asking about the challenges that are not related to ableist assumptions or to the stigma around BPD, but some of the challenges that actually comes with Borderline experiences; the things that folks who want to support you should be aware of, that might be difficult in your life or in the relationship.
Osden: The first thing I thought of that I feel really emphatically about, given the current political climate that we’re in, and just like, being a mixed race person who does have neurodivergence and stuff that they deal with, is like, I care so much about injustice in the world, and I’m under the impression given the history of my relationships with friends or acquaintances, or partners or my relatives, that people kinda find it tiresome to be held to the standard of living their life by their ethics.
And so people say they like it, but I think it’s also challenging that I genuinely live life every day by my ethics, and I want the people that I care about to do that also. And so maybe this is a silly thing to say as a challenge but that’s definitely something that’s come up in a repeated way, is like, if an Indigenous person dies and you’re silent about it, I’m going to notice and I’m not going to forget, and I’m not going to like, placate myself about that. Or what’s going on in the States right now, there’s like, white artists that I know in the arts community who are just posting about their art practice like usual and I’m like, I don’t respect you so much anymore, I’m going to remember that. I’m noticing things and I remember them and I genuinely expect people to like, have ethics and live by them, and not everybody’s really game for having someone actively in your life who’s always going to remind you of that.
So that’s not really an ableism thing. But I think it wears on people. Which is a strange challenge, but yeah, one that feels really present in my life right now.
Sean: Thank you for sharing that. I mean that feeling resonates with me. I am going to talk about something completely different, but I just want to say that it does resonate with me.
One of the biggest challenges for me that comes up in my life and across all of my relationships including my therapeutic relationship, is my fear of abandonment. And I literally have the hardest time on a daily basis remembering or feeling, really feeling, safe in my relationships. And constantly, constantly evaluate whether or not someone’s going to leave me.
And sometimes even… like, I went on a date last night, and on that date the person said they’d like to be my friend, and I don’t even know this person yet, and I was like, incredibly reactive after, and I was like, I’m a bad person, it’s because I talked too much about my BPD, because I like to be open about these things, which is also a challenge, but that’s an ableist thing, we’re not going to talk about that right now.
But the idea of losing people in my life is an extreme challenge for me. So yeah, something I think that unfortunately, and I’m getting emotional talking about it, but, unfortunately I think it has impact on how people interact with me.
I identify with the language of ‘favourite person’, and when someone is my favourite person it makes it challenging for both of us to navigate that, because I will have that splitting effect of, I love you so much one second, and I don’t love you the next. And I know that’s really hard for people and I wish I could change it but I don’t know how and it’s a daily struggle for me.
I think a lot about how even in my therapy, I have a really wonderful therapist and it’s offered through provincial programming is coming to an end and I’m terrified about that moment. And the minute something along the lines of therapy ending comes up, I get reactive and that often looks like me dissociating and I get suicidal and it’s really intense, and I can only imagine what it’s like to see me, on the receiving end of that, to see me shut down, to see me disclose that I’d rather die than be away from someone. But I know that people need to hear it, it’s real and it’s really, really hard, and I wish it wasn’t true.
And at some times, you know, I love talking about the Superpowers, but sometimes I also want to sit here and say like, it’s a really difficult experience to have, to be with everyday, to constantly assess whether or not people are going to be in your life. Because I have been left on numerous occasions. Anyway, I’m going to pause.
Tiffany: Thank you for sharing.
Osden: Yeah, what Tiffany was saying, thank you for sharing.
I think that’s really, really important. Some of my biggest fears and reactions aren’t around abandonment, but they’re around fears that people will want to stay in my life and abuse me, stay in my life and neglect me but like, lead me on, keep me around for some reason. And I don’t fully understand, but like how that ties into it for me is like, waking up and seeing that like, another Indigenous person’s dead and knowing that I live in a society where my life is not only inherently less valued… like, don’t read the comments on CBC Indigenous article ever, because it’s basically just like, ‘just fucking kill them, who cares.’
But yeah, you know, waking up today and reading that and trying to choose to like, get up and burn some sage and like, prayer is sort of an inadequate word for it, but like, set intentions over some tobacco and like, laying down tobacco in my yard and trying to do more of a ceremony for everything that’s going on in the world. The other thing is that my head was like, ‘why don’t you just walk into the kitchen and grab some whiskey, who fuckin’ cares?’
And that’s very present and I think that acknowledging that is fucking important because at any given moment of every fucking day, I could keep going to do whatever is the good thing or the uncomfortable thing, or I could implode and it’s fun and exciting and the people who got to be a part of that would probably have a great time for a minute, but it’s very self-destructive.
And that favourite person thing. I struggle all the time to try not to let myself attach like that. One of the challenges is if I go on a first date with someone, I won’t see them again more often than a week. I currently won’t see anyone I date more often than once a week and it’s like, I don’t yet know how to develop emotional intimacy without keeping someone literally at arm’s length so that I can stop myself from becoming that reactive to their presence and how they aren’t available to me. And yeah, I just wanted to add that to what you were saying.
What are some of the ways that folks in different positions can be supportive when these challenges come up? (With the huge flashing caveat that everyone is different, so anything we share right now should absolutely not be taken as a golden rule for how to approach this.)
And does it look different for a friend, or for a partner, or for a family member, or for a service provider? What is some of the advice that you might offer to folks who aren’t experiencing that, who don’t have those challenges happening in the same way but they are adjacent to, or witnessing, or struggling along with, how can they support?
Osden: The very first thing that comes to mind when you asked that, is something that one of my best friends will ask me. I don’t know where she came up with this but she’s fucking great. And early into our relationship, sometimes I’d be venting to her and she’d be like, ‘oh, why don’t you just to this,’ and I was like, ‘uhh, I don’t know.’
And she just started asking, ‘do you want to vent right now or do you want advice?’ And it’s a fucking blessing. Because not only do you want to defer to each person’s own experience, but not every moment’s going to be the same.
And so it’s something that I brought into my other relationships and my other interactions with people, cause it’s just genius! Do you want me to help you try to solve your problem, or do you just want to tell me how you feel like shit about this thing?
And the permission to kind of do either and knowing there’s space for either is so, so good. And I think that…I mean, depending on the kind of service provider you’re seeing, maybe that’s not quite what they do, but I think service providers can often offer a similar sort of set of options. Friends, and partners can do that.
Family’s harder for me to speak to.
I think this would apply to every relationship – Being willing to interrogate harm you maybe are causing, and where you’re coming from, and being self-critical and I think that’s something that is like, the hardest for family to do. And often very hard for partners to do and sometimes just under the sort of guise of professionalism, not something that service providers think they have to do. And as someone with a variety of intersections, that I’m often dealing with that affect when I get upset, or how I feel about things, that’s something I feel really aware of.
I keep glancing at this line in my notes that I highlighted. Patience is a big one too. The thing I highlighted says: When I’ve been hurt, it can be like incredibly hard for me to feel safe again.
So what I was saying about having a history of people keeping me in their life and being like, ‘aw, I love you,’ but also abusing and neglecting me, is part of where a lot of my fear reactions come from, and are rooted in.
And when somebody hurts me, it’s really hard for me to feel safe again, to get to feeling safe again, and so it’s really important that people be willing to be patient with me while I try to get back to that point, because I’m not happy that I’m not back at that point quickly, either. I’m not. I think those are really important things to remember.
And just kind of finally, as somebody who had conflict with a friend who also has BPD recently… it’s important to be honest and humble and willing to apologise, like you know, I caused some harm that was pointed out that I was unaware of at the time, and if I know what I’m doing, which I think maybe I do, then like, being honest about where I was at, and how that happened, and that I am very sorry and I don’t want it to happen again, that I’m going to try to make things work differently in the future, is a really giving spot to start with and what I would want from anyone.
Sean: So I’ve been thinking about how having difficult conversations, whether it be my therapist telling me that we need to end our session soon, or a partner telling me I’ve harmed them a certain way, there are definitely dos and don’ts that apply in the light of being in a very digital age.
I really struggle with the start of a conversation that’s not guaranteed to be finished. And if something is brought up that could potentially be triggering to me or someone, and it’s just kind of flippantly thrown out there and I don’t have the ability to resolve that with you, that will send me into emotional distress that can last for days. And so being mindful of how you approach difficult topics, so, you know, maybe starting it by saying, ‘this might be something that’s going to be really difficult for us to talk about and that’s probably going to bring up a lot of emotions for both of us, what would make you feel safe right now and how can we talk about this hard thing without like, sending you into distress?’
I think it’s easy for me to say that right now and it doesn’t mean I’m always going to react the same way and I’m not always going to be able to hold it together, but I know that if it doesn’t just like, get sprung on me… and some people don’t notice they do these things, but like, don’t send me a text message in the middle of night if you’re not going to be awake in the next morning to talk to me about it. Like, I absolutely cannot handle that. And it will derail my entire day, maybe days. So, you know, being able to have conversations in the moment and when you need to have that conversation to be fully present for it, and don’t tell me to leave, don’t tell me you need to come back, don’t put your phone down and forget about it. This is more specific to right now because it is a little bit more complicated to have human interactions, but I’m thinking specifically around some of the challenges that I experience. Following through is a really, really, big thing for me.
And like Osden said, when someone hurts me, it’s really hard for me to trust them again. And so if there is an apology or if someone says, ‘I will do better’, then actually doing better is really important. And that will reinforce the trust I have for you.
It’s okay if people screw up, I do too, but being able to acknowledge that and acknowledge the feelings you’ve hurt and the harm you’ve done and then really showing up to make it better is so important. I can’t tell you the amount of times there’s more harm to hear ‘I will do better’ and then just not doing the thing. That’s more harmful than the first time it’s happened.
Tiffany: Let’s take a different direction and talk about medical discourses and diagnosis, because that was a question that came up from someone who’s attending, and it’s something that we’ve talked about in the group. Questions about whether folks look for or seek a formal diagnosis, what the choices are there, and also what the whole discourse around BPD means in medical contexts. I think that’s something for service providers for sure, but also for friends and family and partners to understand, because this is really impactful in people’s lives.
What would you say about whether folks look for or seek a formal diagnosis, what choices are there, and also what the discourse around BPD means in medical contexts?
Sean: I think that it’s great that Osden and I are both talking about this because we have different experiences with diagnoses. I’m someone who’s been formally diagnosed, and it wasn’t a diagnosis that I was looking for when it happened. I was absolutely looking for a diagnosis, though, and something that I found incredibly helpful in that journey, when I finally got to a practitioner who I feel sees me, is that she took a year to diagnose me. It took several sessions, and it took a lot of conversations with her, before she very gently said, ‘I think this might be something that is truth for you, what do you think?’
And I found that, although it was obviously very intense to be presented with, it was actually kind of an empowering experience, because I felt like after so many appointments with different people and so many failed therapeutic relationships, this person was really trying to collaboratively come to a decision with me. And this is my psychiatrist, just for reference.
I also think that in those moments, recognising that this diagnosis is a big deal and it does go on your medical records, [asking], ‘are you comfortable with this?’
I didn’t have that conversation, and I think I would’ve appreciated that at the time, but that’s something that comes up for gender all the time, they’re like, ‘do you want me to write this down right now?’
And I think I would’ve liked the opportunity to have had that negotiation with my healthcare providers. I think, you know, without [the diagnosis] I don’t have access to certain programs. Right now I’m on a waitlist for a Dialectical Behavioural Therapy for BPD program and without that formal diagnosis, I wouldn’t have access to that.
But I really want to emphasize that it’s a practitioner’s responsibility to do it carefully and ethically, not just throwing out diagnoses to people without adequate support. I mean, this person’s not in attendance today but we know of someone who experienced that diagnosis just thrown at them and that’s not safe. That’s not a safe way to talk about this diagnosis, because there is so much stigma and so much discrimination associated with it.
And within our families and friendships and interpersonal relationships, I really challenge people to also look for resources that are not about how people have endured us, because goddamn, there is a lot of that out there, and it is so hard for me and was hard for me in my relationships to have people be like, ‘well I read this thing about this person who had a girlfriend with BPD’ and I was like ‘great, like, what do you want me to say about it?’
Like, not only is there like, a million different ways that people experience BPD. It’s not helpful to me to know that that’s what you’re reading because it’s often the case that those resources will say really, really stigmatising things about my experience that are just fundamentally not true. You might experience my episode very negatively but it doesn’t mean that I’m a bad person, and so to only read those resources from other’s perspectives is super damaging.
So I’m really thankful that Tiffany orchestrated this resource, because without it, there’s really nothing that exists.
Osden: Ahh! Just like, so much agreement for starters.
And then yeah, about the resource, even though I had involvement in that, re-reading it recently when we were working on it I was like, this is so fucking cool that this exists, damn! Because, yeah, it’s almost comical when people in my life are like, ‘oh, BPD, can you send me a resource you like about that?’ And I’m like, ‘not really.’
In regards to the diagnosis and clinical experiences, I talked earlier about having to kind of perform being well to be safe when I was quite young. Even when I’ve now been trying to express to people, over and over and over again that I’m not well, I haven’t been able to get people to take me seriously.
And you should be able to get people to take you seriously without like, having to attempt to take your own life or wind up in a hospital or a ward, and they’re like, ‘oh maybe you’re upset.’ Which has happened to people I care about and that’s when they get genuine help and it shouldn’t take that.
I do not have a formal diagnosis of BPD. I have spent years talking to therapists wherever I could access ones through school or work, because therapists are expensive, and describing anxiety attacks, so like, forget BPD, I also struggle with really strong anxiety and I am at this point in my life on some meds that I find really, really help with that. And having my anxiety more under control makes managing my BPD a bit easier. And that’s fucking great.
But I spent years trying to get someone to take me seriously about the anxiety attacks I was having and I was literally self-medicating when I was in grad school with like, if I got triggered to like a panic mode at school that day, I would have a shot or two of whiskey when I got home, cause it was the only thing I had found, because no one would take me seriously and no one would prescribe me anything or send me to someone who could that would help me get away from that feeling of my heart just fucking pounding in my chest. And that for hours and hours on end is so exhausting.
So, see, I made it a long way through my life having a lot of struggles and not being able to get anyone to take me seriously about them, and I came to BPD through a very dear friend of mine spending some time with me. And they at the time had been very out to like their friends and people in their life about their BPD diagnosis and were really habituated to apologizing for it when they spent time with me. And so they’d talk about a way that they view the world or a way that they experienced something, and they’d apologize immediately and then be like, “sorry, my BPD…” and I was like ‘wait, no…but like what you just said is exactly how I think about that and that makes perfect sense to me.’
So we spent all this time talking about it, like our trauma and stuff. And you never want to step on somebody’s toes or claim something that’s not yours, so like, I waited and I did some research and there is this checklist of symptoms, it’s like, ‘if you have 5 of these 9’ and I’m like I have all 9! [thumbs up] Neat! And I eventually messaged them and was like, ‘hey, I don’t want to step on any toes but I think maybe BPD?’ And they were like, ‘oh my God I was thinking that too but I didn’t want to offend you.’
And then, I swear this is relevant to the question [laughs], it gave me language to start finding things to interpret the world in a way where I wasn’t just tearing myself apart, like, why can’t I be okay? Why can’t I treat people like the way that they think I should or be calm when they do things that I think are really terrible? And that was such an amazing tool to be given a framework for understanding my experience of the world as neurodiverent. It allowed me to see that an inconsiderate thing someone in my life did that I’m like, ‘how could you do that I literally feel I’m fucking dying because you did this inconsiderate thing,’ knowing it wouldn’t make them they’re fucking dying made it easier to understand how they could do it. And that was so helpful. And it just opened the door to trying to deal with how I am instead of hating how I am.
And I think that I could, at this point in time, seek a clinical diagnosis but I won’t because I know from the people I love’s experiences that if I had a clinical diagnosis, I would be more likely to be discriminated against in regards to different medical care, painkillers, saying I’m in pain, if anybody would take me seriously or think that I’m just seeking stuff. I don’t know if you can tell, and depending on where you live, this may be more or less relevant but I have my head shaved and I have a bunch of tattoos and I work in the arts. I’ve already spent like a decade getting discriminated against by the medical system as somebody who’s going to be ‘drug seeking’ and like, being in pain and not getting painkillers when I need them and stuff.
There’s no fucking way that I would risk another reason to dismiss the problems I’m having on my medical record on top of how much I’m already being profiled. And I’m an Indigenous person, I’m not like, visibly Indigenous, so whether or not people know that depends on conversations we’ve had, but that’s a major factor for people to dismiss me saying I need help if they know. That’s my rant on that that I think answered the question.
Tiffany: Yeah, absolutely. And I think we say this in the resource, and because I do work as a service provider, it just feels really important, but I feel like any of us who hold that kind of structural power in either medical healthcare or mental healthcare, but also teachers, professors, social workers, we have an obligation to stand up against that injustice that leaves people more vulnerable if they seek a diagnosis. And that leaves so many people who have not sought out a diagnosis but have it slapped on their file, which we know has happened to multiple people in the BPD Superpowers group, including experiences like receiving a diagnosis of BPD and not being told that that has been put into their medical file.
So these kinds of things happen and people should not have to go through the kind of calculus that Osden is describing about figuring out whether they’ll be able to access help if they receive a diagnosis that will allow them to access other help like Sean was talking about. Like this is a rock and hard place situation that service providers are responsible for and we need to challenge.
Osden: [to viewers] This is maybe cheesy, but I’m grateful for the intention to bring better understanding to the relationship you may have with folks who have been diagnosed or who identify with Borderline. So grateful for that listening, and future reflection that should follow it and just all of that engagement and that willingness to try to be better for the people in your life.
Sean: I was going to say something really similar. Thank you so much for being here, everyone. And for witnessing.
I also want to thank Tiffany for creating these spaces and giving us the opportunity to have what I think is, even though it’s difficult and even though I got emotional, quite an empowering experience to be able to talk about who I am and how I navigate this world and give me an opportunity to advocate for something about myself. I’m not really good at doing that, and so, thank you to everyone.
Find the other resources created by the BPD Superpowers group:
This is the video and transcript of an interview with Kay and Sam, which took place on August 24, 2019, in Calgary Alberta, as part of the Recognizing BPD Superpowers event.
Content notes for references to suicidal ideation and attempts, substance use, hospitalization (including involuntary hospitalization)
This transcript has been edited. It’s long, but I really hope you’ll read it or watch the video! At the event, I was incredibly moved by the tender, precious vulnerability shared here, and by the rich stories of survival and persistence. Far too often, Borderline Personality Disorder is described through a lens of pathology and stigma, articles are written about people identified with BPD, rather than by people identified with BPD. The BPD Superpowers project hopes to change that.
This interview is Part Two of the Recognizing BPD Superpowers event. You can read the text of Part One, a presentation on BPD, here.
Kay D’Odorico is a queer, neurodivergent human of Indigenous and European descent. They advocate for Sex Workers and own and operate their own perfuming business full-time here in Mohkinstsís.
Sam is just a human pursuing her best possible self. She is passionate about her recovery, her intersections, and wishes to hold space for others while creating it for herself.
Tiffany: I have the benefit of having known both Kay and Sam for years, and having worked with them in a variety of contexts. They’ve both been involved in each stage of this project.
So, Kay, you’ve been part of the project since our first narrative conversation, and I was wondering what was it that brought you to the group and what are your hopes for the project as it moves forward?
Kay: What brought me to the group, and really pushed me forward actually, was Osden, the co-facilitator who’s not here with us. They’re a very dear friend of mine, and seeing that they were so invested in this idea gave me a little bit of brave [laughs] to out myself, basically, to a roomful of strangers that I didn’t know. And it definitely was 100% worth it, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. For moving forward, I hope to continue to be able to facilitate conversations like this and educate a larger span and demographic of people, because I think it’s valuable work that we’re doing.
Tiffany: Yeah. I heard you say that Osden helped you find some of that bravery that was needed, and I’m curious, why was that bravery required? What is it about outing yourself in a roomful of strangers that required an extra dose of bravery?
Kay: Because I’ve experienced a great deal of bias and unfortunate circumstances because of naively telling people about my diagnosis before I really understood the amount of stigma that’s actually out there. I lost my job because I told my boss about my diagnosis, and I lost my apartment because I told my super about my diagnosis, so I had a lot of fear of rejection, like maybe I wasn’t going to be able to access certain parts of the community, or even my relationship with you, so. That was kind of the fear that was gripping me.
Tiffany: Mhmm. And what was it that you were hoping for or valuing that allowed you to hold onto that bravery and show up anyway?
Kay: Well I know that Osden is super kindred, a kindred spirit of mine and a kind witness, if you will, and I was hoping for all of those; a community that’s not forged on the psych ward.
Tiffany: Sam, I am curious about the same thing, but I’m also curious as well if there was anything in what Kay said that resonates for you.
Sam: Yeah, I think for me, I saw your posting about it and something in me just screamed ‘yes!’
Traversing diagnosis is a scary thing to do and disclosure consequences have been a huge part of my life. I’ve lost work, I’ve lost friends, I’ve lost relationships, even with myself, therapists, whatever have you. So then I was like, okay, ‘superpowers.’ It really got me into a place of curiosity and [feeling] strength-based. I tried to approach a therapist to create community like this and they werere like ‘no, it costs money, it can’t be free.’ So that puzzled me and then there you were. And I was so excited to just jump in. And I relate to what Kay said a lot in just the consequences of sharing and having to add some bravery to that. And it was something I was looking for, like how do I empower this part of me? How do I find that? And how do I learn from others who are doing the same?
Tiffany: Yeah. If you were gonna give a name to whatever it was inside of you that was screaming ‘yes!’ do you know what you would name that part of yourself?
Sam: I think just like…I would name it like, human, I don’t know…just like the human inside of me was like ‘Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!’ there’s more to me than all these layers of diagnosis that have been thrust into me. Just the raw basic self.
Tiffany: Yeah. That, sorry…I should have better words, but I’m just like, ah, the human part, I love that! [laughs] And it’s interesting because I think in a lot of the discussions of BPD there is a dehumanising that happens, there’s a diminishing of the ability to connect or the ability to have…Rebecca Lester talks about it as like the urge towards health and happiness…I don’t think she used the word happiness, but. Yeah and I think it sounds like that’s what you’re talking about.
Sam: It is. That’s very much it.
Tiffany: One of the contributors to our project, Dottie Ayala, shared the following on her facebook page and has given us permission to use this quote in the resource.
So Kay, I was wondering if this resonates with your experience, and how you’ve learned what works for you and what doesn’t when accessing care and support, and also in navigating the ways in which BPD might show up in your life or in your relationships.
Kay: Well, I mean, I was kind of forced into it in a pretty aggressive way because I had a full meltdown, like with suicidal ideation and then follow through. So, I committed myself and I ended up in psych emerg for several days. And they formed me. And for anybody who has any knowledge of the system and how to access resources, being formed is when they basically take away your right to leave. So, I had committed myself willingly to the hospital because I felt like I was a danger to myself but then they formed me, which made me incredibly angry because they didn’t tell me what was going on. They used scientific words to basically tell me that I had no rights anymore, and I couldn’t leave when I wanted to, and then a week later, I was moved to this ward called short stay, and I still didn’t know what was going on and unbeknownst to me, the doctor had actually slapped the BPD label on me like, the first day of psych emerg, but nobody told me. And then I was put on short stay, which is the BPD ward at the Peter Lougheed. So, I was like, there’s an inordinate amount of people on this ward with Borderline Personality Disorder, this is really weird. And then like, I sit down and they’re like ‘you realise you’re on the Borderline ward and you have been diagnosed with Borderline’ and I was like, nobody told me!
And so I fought with the doctors every single day, because it was something that had been just completely just like…it almost felt like it was suffocating and crushing me. And like, my response to that was to not read any of the stuff that they gave me. And to like, basically shut everything out that I could, like to protect myself. And then when I did read it, it tore me to pieces. So that was kind of my experience going into it, with BPD. And so, my way of dealing with that has been, oh man, reading the things and realising that some of them do fit, like some of it did fit and some of it didn’t fit. And that also changes all the time. And I don’t talk about BPD with my family doctor. At all.
Tiffany: It’s interesting because I have been doing a fair bit of research because we’re creating a resource, and one thing that is written about fairly regularly is A: the disdain and contempt that a lot of mental health providers have for folks that have a BPD diagnosis, and B: a fairly normalised pattern of applying a diagnosis and not telling the person. So that experience of being diagnosed and then not having that diagnosis shared is common enough that it shows up regularly in papers about how clinicians engage with folks in the BPD community.
I don’t understand how that could be considered a helpful thing, but it is a thing that happens, so. I’m sorry you had that experience.
Kay: Me too.
Tiffany: The thing that really resonates for me in that, is that when you answered the first question, you said that you wanted to find community and to find people that you could share conversations with. It sounds like your first conversations about BPD did not include much kind witnessing. Was there a moment or experience that helped you hold onto the idea that you could find community despite those first crushing experiences?
Kay: Yeah. So, on Unit 37, you’re not allowed to make friends. They discourage you from talking to other patients, and there’s usually somewhere around 15 people and you’re in a really small space and you all have rooms, and you have a roommate, but you can’t sit on your roommate’s bed. You can’t stay up late past bedtime talking to your roommate. You’re not allowed to touch. There are really, really strong rules about it, [they’ll] actually get security in there, and I would sit on my roommate’s bed, just like as a [holds up both hands with middle fingers up in a ‘fuck you’ sign] [laughs] just to the system in general. It’s like, stop discouraging intimacy, it’s dehumanising. So, I’d sit on my roommate’s bed and we’d just like hold each other’s hands because it’s traumatic, being there. Engaging with these health care professionals that very, very clearly hold great disdain for you, and exhibit racist tendencies, and bigotry to the max, so I fought that at every chance I could.
When we went out for cigarette breaks, we would hug. Whenever we were out of eyesight or earshot, we would make friends and we would bond. And I made a best friend who I still talk to and I still support. She moved to Toronto to pursue becoming a musician and she was the first inkling of the beautiful little sparkle of community that I could identify [with] very strongly. It evoked a love in me that I didn’t know I had, because it was this shared experience of the ward, but also the world. So you get off the ward and then it’s the real world, and like, they try to set you up as best as they can, but you’re never gonna get ready for what’s gonna happen, so, yeah. We were there for each other when it was the world instead of the ward.
Tiffany: I love that idea of BPD solidarity like against oppressive systems and within hostile institutions.
[turning to Sam] Was there anything in there that resonates for you? How did you find what works for you and what doesn’t?
Sam: Yeah, I had unique experiences, as each person does. My diagnosis came with several. I did feel part of the diagnosis process. I had been struggling immensely in many aspects of my life and my career, and I was at the point where I was in Edmonton, and I checked into a hospital. They kept me for a day, like different perspectives, you know. Often the psych teams come at random times, they don’t really inform you why or how they’re doing it. And opinions can vacillate so extremely. You know, so someone said ‘oh, you’re just having a nervous breakdown, this is normal, this can happen.’ And they’d send me home. And I would destabilise more and come back, and they would tell me…I had one professional say ‘you are absolutely a danger to society and you need to stay for a very long time.’
And that was very confusing. Because one person, two days before, said no this is normal, the next person says you’re unstable.
So, I was formed as well. And I was formed for a month. And in that time, a lot of journey happened. I learned with the psychiatrist I was working with, he was really good at being informative, but also still dehumanising, so I had the opportunity to have my mother come and have discussions and kind of engage in conversation. But at the end of the day, I was still given a diagnosis that I was not comfortable with, and it took a long time.
In my situation, I had the opportunity in a very privileged way to access resources without a lot of financial burden myself. I went through a lot of different types of therapy. From exposure therapies, to DBT therapy, to so many different types; CBT, what have you, I have done it. And in those experiences, I can really relate to Dottie that trusting a therapist is super scary. I still struggle with it and I’m still very involved with therapy.
It gets to a point for me where I don’t know what life is anymore. I only know how to psychoanalyse and can associate well ‘this is BPD, I’m BPD,’ you know. There is no room for me to have any sense of just ‘I’m a human being with human experiences’ and I don’t trust therapists super freely, because I either feel like they under relate or over relate, and I’m learning there’s a delicate balance. There gets to a point for me, where therapy is only so useful. And there comes a time where I would rather just experience society and those relationships kind of on a grass roots level, more of a narrative direction than a clinical environment.
Though I have to say, there are so many aspects of each type of therapy that are little golden nuggets that I can take away. I do feel DBT was developed in a very obscure way and Marsha Linehan, who’s the founder of these principles adopted it from many, many places, from CBT, from Zen Buddhism, and kind of incorporated her own brand. But I feel like it is essentially a part of capitalism. You know, to have a DBT program, you must have this much and do this. In Calgary, access to free DBT is 17 months’ [wait] at least.
The program from other’s experiences has been sketchy in my perspective. I went privately and it cost me an arm and a leg. Again, I had the opportunity to have funding in that way so I was very, very, very privileged. I think that there are so many little nuggets that DBT taught me, you know, like distress tolerance, when I was so suicidal that I was pushing people away or they were just literally scared to be near me because I was so unable to regulate that. And those little things really did help.
But I think there comes a time where I’ve outgrown a lot of aspects of therapy. And I’m tired of pathologising human experience. There’s so much more and this group, this Superpowers, has really allowed me to like, let go of the need to have BPD as my identity and simply relate in a way that’s different for me. And there’s some train of thought that BPD does not actually exist. The symptoms of behaviours are still of course valid, but that it could be a form of Complex PTSD rather than this ‘personality issue,’ and I think identifying something wrong with your core foundation is really fucking harmful.
Tiffany: Mhmm I would agree.
One thing that really jumps out at me, actually about both of your stories there, is that at the beginning of these journeys there was a moment of self-awareness and an action of very active self-preservation. Both of you took an action of checking into a hospital and then were met with, like I know that the stories are different, I want to honour those differences, but there’s also a shared experience of self-awareness and cherishing your own life enough to take that action to preserve it, and then running into what sounds like in both cases, a system that then really dehumanised and diminished and didn’t acknowledge that active agency, and that choice of doing what would make your life possible. So, that’s not a question, but I just wanted to note that, because that feels important.
Kay: I never thought about that. [laughs]
I mean, I felt that and I knew it, but I hadn’t heard it, so you’re right. We did do that, and nobody said thank you for doing this, for sticking around even though it’s scary as hell. [points to Sam] Thank you. [Sam points back and says Thank you]. That was my aggressive point. [laughs]
Sam: I just wanna comment on that. As someone like, I still struggle with ideation, not so much now, but it’s still a big part of my day. And Calgary hospitals had been unrelentingly unhelpful. Being a repeat patient for issues that continue to happen. I don’t know why but I’ve been told directly from psych teams, ‘people with BPD don’t belong in hospital.’ That ‘you need to go now, you have BPD, you’re gonna get way too attached.’ I’m like ‘listen it’s been two and a half weeks, and I can’t leave my home today. It’s so bad I cannot function,’ and being told ‘well this is how we’re gonna treat you,’ and it’s gotten to a point that seeking help in those times is very, very, scary.
I write a letter and I don’t tell them anything, until I’m at a place knowing that I’m going to spend 24 hours, up to 96 hours, in an ER where nurses actively work to devalue you. You know, I feel like ERs are not supportive of things they can’t see. And that’s something we’re going to fight like hell to change, cause it can’t keep happening.
Tiffany: What do you hold onto in those moments; what keeps you connected to that sense of humanity or the part of yourself that you named as ‘human’ that was screaming yes for connection? How do you hold onto that in contexts where you know that you’re going into a hostile but necessary space?
Sam: Ahhhh [big sigh]. The will to live. I feel that in many forms of the recovery moments, I need to hold on and go through these experiences because I know this is what I need to stay safe and that one day, just maybe, there can be enough ripple effect that I can be that change. That’s all I’ve ever wanted is to make impact in the world for the better.
Tiffany: I think just speaking from myself, because we have intersected and collaborated in many spaces over many years, I certainly have been impacted by your role in my life. And I think like obviously I’m not [gestures towards the audience], but I imagine this is a very moving thing for me to hear and I imagine it might be moving for folks out there, too, so I think that that impact is happening.
One common theme is that there’s this idea that BPD renders you incapable of making your own choices and decisions, that BPD kind of like, drives the bus. That’s part of that dominant discourse. And what I hear when you talk about being the change, or making a ripple, is a strong connection to a sense of agency.
So, I guess I’m curious, are there people in your life who know that you cherish that ability to make a change?
Sam: Yeah, absolutely. My mom is a huge person who tells me quite frequently, like, if you want something, like you’re gonna go for it. And there’s been lots of different places where people see that innate agency within me. And I don’t know how it developed, I think trauma probably, enough trauma, to say like, fuck this, this is not my story. Finding support anywhere I can, whether it is the person on the street who can relate in ways that the bureaucrat cannot. I don’t know, it’s everywhere, and it’s so little, but it’s tiny shifts, tiny, tiny shifts. And I think of course recognising I’m very privileged, and so I have very different intersections than more marginialised folks and I acknowledge that today.
Tiffany: That sort of ties into the next question that I had written. Difficulty in relationships is one of the most common traits associated with BPD and yet our BPD Superpowers group has maintained such a strong focus on community and the role of cherished friends and community members and family. That came up again, and again, and again in our conversations.
So Kay, I was wondering, who in your life has been supportive in helpful ways and what have they done that’s been helpful, how has that community shown up for you?
Kay: [laughs] This is like, I can talk about myself and that’s okay. My husband, like…it makes me cry every time…ahh [big sigh], so definitely my husband, my spouse Brandon. He was there every single turn, not sometimes embracing the more dark corners that I had, but still witnessing them, and knowing that I had that agency. And I had the strength and the passion and the compass inside of me; that I was the expert. He just was there in crucial moments where I felt like I was bubbling; he just stood there and was my witness and believed that I would figure it out.
And that spoke volumes, because there was a point, kind of like, my darkest hour, I had not a single friend. I didn’t even have one. But Brandon was there. And he let me do whatever I needed to do. He never gave me guilt trips, or shamed me for the way that my mental health was presenting itself. And always generally just told me, ‘you’ve got this. I trust you with your own life.’
And that meant everything. Just having one person in my corner. I was like, I don’t have family connections, I don’t have any close friendships because it did all burn down at a point, like, you know, I was a toxic individual in all of my communities and all of a sudden every single door I thought I had was closed. And he just stuck around. And like, stuck around enough that we now go to relationship therapy and identify ways that we can communicate better, and it betters my other connections that I now have, and I value him so much. He’s like the best part of life.
Tiffany: What really jumps out at me in what you shared there, was the way you phrased, ‘not necessarily embracing but witnessing every part of you.’ I was wondering, what does it look like, or what are the actions that can be associated with not embracing, but witnessing? How does that show up in your relationship?
Kay: Well, I mean, I have a really dire relationship with most substances. To the point where I’d be pretty much drunk all the time, and it was impacting me in ways that I had no idea. And this has gone on since I was 19 years old and reached a fever pitch about 3 years ago, so the last 3 years have been the drunkest of my life, and not in a fun way. And other substances got involved, but even then, even when I told Brandon what was going on, he was still like ‘okay, fine, I can’t change things for you, and like, this is how you’re coping right now. Please, please come to me if you feel like talking about this or you feel I can help you in some way.’
And so I knew that there was no shame associated with that coping mechanism, any of my coping mechanisms, like self-harm. He [would say], ‘okay, so you’re gonna go in the bathroom and you’re gonna cut.’ We had a conversation about it. ‘What are you doing right now about that?’ And I was like, ‘I am cutting to release all of the feelings’. And so he’s like, ‘so you’re not cutting to kill?’ And I was like, ‘I am not cutting to kill.’ And he said, ‘okay, well there are little bandages and sutures in there, there’s clean razors in there, there’s alcohol in there, and can I just sit on the other side of the door?’
And I said ‘yes, thank you.’ And closed the door and did what I had to do, and felt his support through a door while I was self-harming.
So, like at that point that’s what it looked like. And then with my alcoholism and substance abuse, he let me ride that to the point of almost pure and absolute self-destruction, but still with the absolute faith and lack of judgement that I would figure it out. And I did. And every single day, he’s like, ‘I’m so proud of you, I know how hard this is, and I know it’s every day.’
Tiffany: It’s interesting because that story really runs counter to a lot of dominant narratives around both substance use and self-harm, and actually around mental health too, and the idea of enabling as a thing that can happen, a negative thing. It sounds like part of what Brandon has offered is space for you to make the choices that you are going to make without judging you for them, and helping you make them in ways that allowed you stay as safe as possible within that. That’s really powerful. I wish I had a better response to that, but it just really jumped out at me how that story of what was helpful really stands against some of the discourses that we have, that say that in order to be helpful, people need to like, not allow, or control access to, or other things like that.
[to Sam] You shared about your mom who is really meaningful to you, and I was wondering if there have been other people in your life that have supported you in helpful ways, or what has been helpful. Or if anything resonated about what Kay shared.
Sam: Oh, man. It really brought me to an emotional place with that.
Kay: Me too.
Tiffany: Me too.
Sam: Yeah, I think that the word that comes out for me is harm reduction. The idea that if people don’t have safety in like, housing or food opportunities or like, love, basic needs, that they’re probably not going to magically get better. And I think that’s really valid.
I’ve had lots of different experiences with acceptance. My family’s pretty great at like, oh, what do you want today, it’s sobriety, great, like go give ‘er, or oh, you’re in a place of using, well, we support that, and it was really confusing for a long time, cause I’d use that as justification. I’m like, everyone thinks me using is a great idea, like, even my professional team was like, okay, you’re using. And I was like, waiting for the hammer to come down and like, it didn’t happen. But in doing that it really allowed me to want change for me.
I’m quick to think, ‘what do you need, what do you want, how can I be perfect like okay don’t show BPD, don’t do it.’ And so learning that agency piece again has been really big.
I have the privilege of having someone in my life where we’ve run through the gamut of aspects of enabling codependency and I definitely think that can be a part of any relationship right? It’s such a fine line for me. I was in a very codependent relationship and that is my pattern, just to feel safe. I don’t know now if that’s just my own internal stigma and pathologising, but learning that despite my challenges, there is someone who, no matter where I’m at, might need boundaries that I don’t always like, but will be there. Someone who just silently roots for me.
Sober spaces are a big, important aspect of my life today, and I find 12 Steps helpful. Not always, but I remember how many times I [would] go out and actively use or come back and want recovery, and somebody just simply says ‘hey, glad you’re here.’ Not ‘where the fuck were you, why aren’t you…’ just ‘hey, I’m glad you’re here.’
You know, my family has showed up in lots of ways, too. No one says, ‘you’re going to the hospital again?’ They’re like ‘Okay. Do you want visitors?’ So, there are really subtle ways.
My DBT therapist also has been very good. There’s aspects of the self-harm for sure, of like, ‘okay, we have self-harmed.’ Rather than, ‘you have self-harmed. Here is the punishment.’
And I think flexible boundaries, but boundaries, are really helpful for me, so that witnessing, what Kay said, rather than controlling or enabling, is so subtle. I don’t know if I have it figured out quite yet, but seeing that I can also do that with others, cause I’m quick to enable. ‘Oh, I need you to love me, I need you, okay whatever you do, that’s great,’ like…and I’m learning through examples, that there is a space where I can witness and hold space without controlling.
Tiffany: One thing that really jumped out at me as we were talking was the idea that it allowed you to choose to change for yourself, and I’m curious how you have figured out, or what has helped you connect with the ways that you want to change? How do you figure out where you want to go?
Sam: Yeah. Meditation is a big cornerstone, so I really have to work at understanding what’s in my body, what’s in my deepest sense of self, and quieting down the stimulus that happens outside. So taking that time to really like, do bodywork and sit in emotion. For me here up [motions indicating from the neck up] my body has often been a war zone. It’s not safe, it doesn’t feel good, I don’t want to be in it, and just that slow, steady, somatic invitation, and then like, journaling, writing, like, trial and error, you know? I have unrelenting standards, and so just process and recognising…giving myself permission to be utterly, completely messy. Cause that’s human to me.
Tiffany: Mhmm. I wanna go off my script here, because I’m really curious about the idea of boundaries, and how boundaries can be set in a way that doesn’t feel controlling, but does feel… ‘good’ is such a silly word, but it’s the only word that’s coming.
So, I guess what I’m wondering is, what does it look like when someone sets a boundary that, like you said, might not feel good for you, but is a necessary part of that relationship? Are there specific actions or ways of talking about that or enacting that boundary, that are helpful or that invite you to be a part of that process, or that make it possible for you?
Sam: Yeah, I’m super sensitive to perceived rejection, absolutely. Where I really have struggled…the word ‘good’… my language shift is ‘effective’.
Where it’s really effective for me is when someone invites me. Not into the decision, but the process of the boundaries. So [something] has been violated, boundaries are very contextual things, and if something has crossed said boundary, if they invite me in and say ‘hey, you know when you called me 16 times yesterday? That crossed my boundary.’
There’s an action, there’s something that they’ve admitted that they need, there’s a vulnerability piece, and then it’s like, ‘I realise that you need support, I cannot be that support on that level. What do you think you or we could do to help you through that?’ So just issue, consequence, and follow-through as well. I like consistency a whole lot, because it helps me feel safe. So, if this continues to happen, the consequence will be I will have to set even further boundaries with you.
And that role modelling really, really invites me to know and trust that if and when I cross people’s boundaries, I know that they have enough respect and love for me that they’re gonna actually come back to me and be like, ‘okay, this has happened,’ versus like ‘you’re BPD, you’re messed up, bye!’ and that tends to be how things go.
Tiffany: It’s interesting. It makes me think of both the narrative therapy foundational principle that the person is not the problem, the problem is the problem, and the solution is not individual. And it also makes me think of Rebecca Lester saying that BPD is attenuated through relationship; that you can co-create a space that makes it possible for that to just be part of the context you’re creating together.
[To Kay] I heard you going ‘Mmm’ a few times, and I wanted to ask, what do you think about this boundary conversation? Are there ways that boundaries have shown up in your relationships that have been effective.
Kay: Well, it’s funny because like I said, I really rejected a lot of the ways that people describe BPD. So, I was like, ‘I don’t take rejection hard, I just like being considered.’
So, when you said, ‘being a part of the process of boundary setting,’ [that] is consideration, it’s valuing someone enough to involve them in the conversation about what’s going on, rather than just cancelling them outright, which can explode everything. And, I mean…[laughs] there’s…I don’t know, it’s a really confusing situation for everyone to be in, because everybody has the right to have a safe relationship, and to know their own needs and their own desires, but I feel like we also have a responsibility to each other in our intimate friendships and relationships where it’s like, ‘no you can’t just cancel me.’ Like, my heart is broken, and I still don’t know [why].
So when somebody does set that boundary, and has me be a part of the conversation, I’m yours for life. There’s trust there, instead of just confusion and pain. And that’s my number one trigger in pretty much every situation, I can trace it back to somebody not asking me how I felt or where I was at. It’s like, ‘why aren’t you considering me in this?’ And why am I not valid in this context, as a part of it, and integral part. So, yeah. [laughs]
Sam: That really spoke to me on those boundaries. Thank you.
Tiffany: It’s interesting because that idea of being invited into the process, not necessarily, I don’t think I’m hearing from either of you that being invited into the process means being in control of it or having any kind of veto power over people’s boundaries, but having the courtesy of being told what the boundaries are, that sounds really important. And there are narratives about BPD as being controlling or manipulative and unreliable and untrustworthy, and in this conversation about boundaries, it sounds like maybe some of those descriptors might not encompass the whole humanity of the people that are being described.
So the last question that I planned for us today has to do specifically with the superpowers that we’ve identified in group conversations. I was wondering, Kay, if you could speak about which of these superpowers you have a particularly close relationship with, and what that looks like for you?
The BPD superpowers that we identified were:
The superpower of community and community care
The superpower of showing up
The superpower of resilience
The superpower of endurance
Dialectics as a superpower, meaning holding multiple true stories at once
Superpowers of empathy and compassion
The superpower of quick turnaround of emotions
The superpower of being able to get out of a bad situation
And the superpower of chameleoning and flagging. Chameleoning being the ability to blend into situations, and flagging being the ability to signal to other people parts of their identity.
Kay: Good, okay. Well, probably 75% of that list.
The things that jump out at me personally that I know I am ‘super’ at are chameleoning. It’s interesting because it is so often framed as manipulative behaviour. And oftentimes it is also thrown in with a bunch of other personality disorders I was slapped with. It’s like, ‘you’re doing this to impress people, you’re doing this to like, whatever, survive,’ and it was [framed as] a negative coping mechanism. But it’s actually a superpower, so I definitely feel that.
And that also feeds my resistance and my resilience, and I feel like we’re really good at holding on and believing that there is better and more and I definitely feel… I guess community wasn’t really one that stuck out at me, that’s not really my strong suit, but chameleoning and empathy are probably my number one.
It’s like, feeling those strong feelings.
Someone said the word trauma bonding to me the other day and I was like ‘that sounds like a negative thing like in the way that you said it with your voice and the inflection; I don’t think I like it.’ And she had to stop and be like, ‘well you know honestly, it usually is perceived to be a really bad thing, like, you’re just using your trauma to bond,’ and I was like ‘oh, but that’s what we do [laughs] and that’s how things happen and like, it happens to someone else.’ And she’s like ‘okay well maybe it’s codependent,’ so she threw a bunch of unhelpful stuff at me and I was just like ‘fuck this I’m taking back trauma bonding.’
I mean, my empathy helps me connect to people that have been in difficult situations and I’ve been like that since I was a child. And I always thought that there was something wrong with me that I could feel these things with such overwhelming reality, like sometimes it would displace my own self and it would just be me in a sea of so much human difficulty. And I would see it and I would be so overwhelmed I would shut myself off and not know what to do. I’d be frozen because my powers of empathy I had not yet learned to control. [laughs] or like, work with, I guess. So that’s where empathy is definitely the one that I really feel. All the time.
Tiffany: I have read quite a bit about trauma bonding and you’re right, it is often framed as a negative thing. And I can see how there are situations where it can introduce problems to a relationship or to people’s lives.
But like, we never talk about ‘boardgame bonding’ in the same stigmatizing terms even though any kind of relationship based entirely on shared experience can hold space for unpleasant parts of that relationship or unpreferred parts of that relationship.
[to Sam] I’m gonna ask you the same thing.
Sam: I think for me a big aspect that really resonates is just like the ability to sense people, sense emotion, and show up and care, cause I know my needs and wants around human connection are less than surface, it’s fairly deep-rooted.
And so I look for opportunities to show up for others in those ways. And in a lot of feedback that I’ve received from family and friends [they’ve said] ‘wow, you’re so genuine and caring, like I just feel so loved. You’re so thoughtful and I appreciate that’
And what Kay said is that that’s often pathologised as a ‘dependent personality’ or ‘histrionic’ or like, ‘fuck off’ [laughs] you know, like, when is being genuine a great thing and I think this superpower discussion completely hits that on the head.
I can sense, I feel like a canary in the mine quite often. Things are just starting to get like ‘oooh this is dangerous.’ I can empathise and show up and just say, ‘you know, I’m feeling stressed about that, how ‘bout you?’
I think flagging, it’s definitely a big thing. Like I flag mental illness fairly frequently, and while it’s a very tricky thing to do, and has much consequences, I think those consequences do not outweigh the benefit of just saying ‘I have mental illness’ cause that conversation is huge.
You know, I used to work in health care, and it was delicate, coming out with mental illness, or having anything that made you possibly susceptible. And I refuse to hold it in anymore. Welcome, you’re welcome. I am not an island, you are not an island. Here we are, many of us. So, that’s a big thing I try and do.
I also think that the ability to chameleon is huge.
My resilience is probably one of my strongest traits, like, you give me something that I should not have or maybe not good to survive and I will. Why? Because that’s all I know. There’s no choice not to. It’s simply this is awful thing is hard, you know. Whether it’s been medical experiences I have gone through the ringer. I don’t know how, I don’t know how I did it. And I did.
So, I think people who survive or live with marginalisation or challenges and are slapped with this diagnosis actually are far more versatile, you know? BPD is like ‘oh they can’t do this and they’ll struggle’ well fuck yeah, they will, AND where’s the part that they get through it? Where’s that part of it? So this superpower concept like, has often given more grace than three and half years of consistent therapy ever did.
Tiffany: One of the things that was identified in our conversations was the idea that folks with BPD, for a variety of reasons, often have very well-developed skills for navigating complex persistent traumatic experiences. And right now, there are a whole lot of people in the world looking at climate crisis, and rising facism and late-stage capitalism, and experiencing persistent traumatic feelings.
So I think it would actually be very interesting if we could figure out a way, and that’s one of the goals of the resource, to take some of these skills that have been developed by folks with BPD diagnoses and teach other parts of the community how to navigate big, intense, persistent negative feelings.
Because I look at my facebook page, and I think there are a lot of folks who have not really been confronted with big, persistent, negative feelings that get really overwhelming, and there are skills within, there are insider knowledge within, folks who have BPD that would be helpful for a lot of people who right now might not ever have had to navigate that experience.
The last thing I wanted to ask was whether there’s anything that either of you really wanted to talk about that I missed in my questions, or that has come up in our conversation that you wanted to circle back to, or just open up a little bit of space for either of you.
Kay: I’m good. I also love that we’re kind of wrapping it up with the future in mind because I feel like so often I feel like a lot of us don’t have… we feel like we don’t have a settling spot, we don’t have a place to feel safe, we literally don’t. Like there are very few places we can go where we know deep in our souls we’re safe.
So, like, we have our online communities, we have small discussion groups, but like, giving me even the suggestion of somebody else valuing my perspective and lived experience makes me feel good. So, I love that we ended it with that, because it’s like yeah, we are absolutely assets to society. We do deserve to be in hospital. We do deserve to tell our stories and be valued members of society, so, and I’m looking forward to that because like… I’ll never forget, my boss sat me down and was like, ‘yah, like honestly? The way you’ve been acting, like there’s no excuse for it. Everybody has things that go wrong,’ and I looked at her and I was like ‘call me when your mom dies, cause I’ll be ready.’ I still feel that way, I’m like call me, because I’ll know how to navigate that pain with you and witness you with kindness and empathy. And that kinda goes with everybody that’s gonna slowly realise that all of this shit is gonna come back to every one of us. So, we’re here and we can help! [laughs] firefighters! [laughs]
Tiffany: [to Sam]: Was there anything that you wanted to talk about that we didn’t get to or that you wanted to come back to?
Sam: I think the biggest thing that is so important, is anyone who tells you ‘you’re too sensitive’ or ‘you’re not blank…’ is just like, fuck them, number one!
Number two, I think it was really mentioned in here is challenging the bias that exists in others. Because when someone is deeply uncomfortable with who I am, it has nothing to do with me. Because it’s their own process where they are uncomfortable. They often don’t recognise their own emotional needs, and it is a deeper reflection of maybe their own stuff. And so my whole life has been ‘too much’ for others, and I’m learning, that’s theirs! I am just okay today so I just want to thank people for holding space. I just wanna like, squeeze you but I won’t, but like, thank you. Like Kay said, I’m glad that we’re focussing on the future. That’s wonderful.
Note from Tiffany: If you wanted to offer any witnessing to Kay and Sam, please email me and I will pass it along.
A few weeks ago, before COVID-19 blew up like it has, I had the opportunity to interview Kay about their experience in An Unexpected Light. This is an excerpt from that interview, focused on answering concerns that folks might have about taking the course. The transcript is below.
Although we didn’t talk about COVID-19, I want to write about something that Kay brought up, and why I think that we need to find ways to imagine possible futures right now, despite the chaos and fear and the way that this pandemic is highlighting just how precarious so many of us are.
For example, why didn’t the stock market set aside three months of savings and give up avocado toast before this? Honestly, irresponsible. (I can’t take credit for this joke, but I do love it.)
In our interview, Kay says, “I think that pretty much everyone and anyone could really benefit from it, because there is so much of a push, especially in science fiction, to imagine dystopia. And dystopia is not very hopeful, if anything it’s quite damaging in a lot of ways and it’s not inclusive and it’s not intersectional. Like, if there’s a dystopic future, chances are you know who’s gonna go first; everybody living in the margins. This [course] is kinda the flip side of that, where the margins are creating a new world and a new path through that muck and mire, around that muck and mire, over it, under it, floating above it. Like, it’s just…hope is such a beautiful thing, and it’s much more accessible than people might even realise.”
It is so easy to tell the dystopian stories, to picture the dystopian future, to imagine the many ways this is awful and getting worse. And it is awful, and it is getting worse. But those dystopian stories do not help us move forward.
We must find a way to be present with the difficulty of this moment, without losing our ability to act on hope – not the flimsy hope of “everything will be fine!” but the robust hope of action and intention. Rebecca Solnit, in Hope in the Dark, writes, “Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal… To hope is to give yourself to the future – and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.”
“To hope is to give yourself to the future… to make the present inhabitable.”
We need that hope.
We need to act – to be connected to a sense of possibility, to a sense of ourselves as acting in solidarity with each other when we stay home, to a connection to the earth and our non-human relations. There is hope to be found in this time, and we must reach for it.
You don’t need to take An Unexpected Light in order to find that accessible hope.
You don’t need this course to bring that light into your life.
But I do think that many of us need the light. Whether it comes from a course or it comes from our communities or it comes from forgotten books on our own bookshelves.
I am in the process of converting some of the content in An Unexpected Light into some free lessons that I’ll be sharing on this blog, and into a ‘light’ version of the course that will be less costly and meant for folks who are in quarantine or isolation.
And in the meantime, find the unexpected light.
Find the people on the margins who are writing about possible futures.
Find the voices that are guiding us through to more justice, to more community care, to collective action.
Here are a few places to start:
Kay references Vandana Singh’s essay Leaving Omelas: Science Fiction, Climate Change, and the Future. It’s one of the essays we read in the course, and it’s fantastic. In the time of this pandemic, this essay is even more relevant. Singh writes, “We are taught to unsee the connections, to look at the world in chopped up, disconnected little pieces. Our Omelas constrains our empathic imagination to small personal circles, and to short scales of time and space. Science fiction should enable us to see structures of oppression and control, to make us aware of and question the things we normally take for granted, and to expand our imaginative reach. But more often than not, science fiction simply reflects the world in the image of the overwhelming paradigm.” COVID-19 is forcing us to see the connections, and it has the potential to expand our empathetic imagination. That this essay was written in 2018, about a story written in the 1980s, should tell us that there is guidance to be found in our history. There are maps that we can follow, even in these new and terrifying times.
Consider spending some time with the Destroy series – a set of special issues in Lightspeed, Fantasy, and Nightmare magazines that includes People of Colo(u)r Destroy; Queers Destroy; and Women Destroy. Start with People of Colo(u)r Destroy Fantasy (And within that rich wealth of stories, consider starting with Darcie Little Badger’s pandemic story, Black, Their Regalia.)
Another essay included in An Unexpected Light is Lewis, Arista, Pechawis and Kite’s essay Making Kin with the Machines. We are realizing how critical our machines are – our internet, our ventilators, our computers and phones. This essay brings Hawaiian, Cree, and Lakota perspectives to the idea of machines as kin, as part of our network of non-human relations.
Read Brairpatch Magazine’s article, Mutual Aid for the End of the World. “There is so much latent strength in communities of disability when we rely on each other to survive with each other,” says Jim, an autistic trans man with disabilities who is mixed-race Indigenous. (Jim asked that we use only his first name, for privacy.) “Able-bodied people who have the choice to go it alone without consequence, or who have wealth and influence or access to resources that enable them to make it on their own – it’s a choice for them to do this work [of prepping], not a necessity. We rarely learn hard lessons voluntarily.”
adrienne maree brown (who is, truly, the core of An Unexpected Light even though she doesn’t know it! Her work inspired this course and her writing is central to the course) shared a collection of resources in this blog post.
And last, consider backing Hugh and Nicole’s COVID-19 comic. Their work is fantastic, and this will be an excellent resource.
Keep an eye on the blog, I’ll be sharing content from the course, as well as ideas and resources for moving through this time.
If you want to take the course, get in touch! You can also register at the Thinkific course page. (Note: all of the scholarship spaces have filled, but sliding scale is still available.)
Either way, become phototropic – turning towards the light. And if you can, become bioluminescent, creating light for others to turn toward.
As Kay says, hope is a beautiful thing, and it’s more accessible than people may realize.
TS: So if someone was kind of on the fence about taking An Unexpected Light, what do you think is the most important thing for someone to know about the course if they’re debating whether to take it?
KO: Hmm. Cause like a lot of different factors can go into somebody debating whether or not like, am I a writer? Like identifying as a writer would be a big one. Like, I know that that was kind of a contributing factor and I mean, there’s no pressure on you to do that, and like, if you’re like, “am I a reader? This seems overwhelming.” Same thing goes, like there were certain parts of the course that I like just couldn’t deal with, so, I mean, I just put them off [laughs] indefinitely.
TS: That’s fair.
KO: You can skip over stuff. If accessibility seems like an issue, like financially, I know I worked out a payment plan with Tiffany that worked for me, and my money, my financial situation, so that’s another really awesome option for people and that I know Tiffany’s open to.
KO: Another thing would be like, “am I gonna be graded on this?” The idea of like, learning or doing or making… I came from an art school background. I got a BFA from ACAD [now Alberta University of the Arts] and I really like the approach and style of this course because there’s no grading unless you want feedback for your writing and even then. I was just a reader and did a little bit of feedback for people and then you get the chance to read some really amazing stuff.
TS: Yeah, as the person who got to read everything that was submitted and then only sent it out to the folks who volunteered to be readers, yeah, the writing that has been shared in the course has been fantastic. And if folks are worried that you’re not a writer, I can tell you that some of the most profoundly moving pieces have been written by people who don’t see themselves as writers and who maybe hadn’t even written speculative writing previously. Because we’re thinking about the future and hope and possibility and justice, and I don’t know, the course just, this cohort of the course has been full of brilliance.
TS: And that Kay’s word. Kay came up with that at the Shiny writing group.
KO: [laughs] Everybody was jumping on it and I love it. “Cohort” is just like a really, you know? It’s just like, I love it. Everybody’s in this, you know, bumping shoulders, “Kay, what’s up?”, bumping elbows…
TS: Yeah. Trying to imagine futures together.
TS: Would you recommend people take the course?
KO: Oh my God. I haven’t stopped talking about it since before I was taking the course. I think that pretty much everyone and anyone could really benefit from it, because there is so much of a push, especially in science fiction, to like, imagine dystopia.
And dystopia is not very hopeful, if anything it’s quite damaging in a lot of ways and it’s not inclusive and it’s not intersectional. Like, if there’s a dystopic future, chances are you know who’s gonna go first; everybody living in the margins. This is like, kinda the flip side of that, where the margins are creating a new world and a new path through that muck and mire, around that muck and mire, over it, under it, floating above it. Like, it’s just…hope is such a beautiful thing, and it’s much more accessible than people might even realise.
KO: And like, I never would’ve really realised that Indigenous people had already lived through the end of the world if I hadn’t been a part of this course, so. It’s weird to think about, but that’s just a history that we’re not introduced to; it’s not a perspective that you hear. It’s like, no First Nations really did live through the end of the world; their world, everything they knew. So, that’s a huge takeaway in and of itself, so. Anybody who is talking about decolonising anything should probably know that.
TS: Yeah. And I think it really serves a colonial, capitalist narrative to imagine that the apocalypse we’re facing now is “the” apocalypse, and to ignore the fact that you know, first contact was an apocalypse and the transatlantic slave trade was an apocalypse and is an ongoing apocalypse. And the inaccessibility of care to trans folks is an apocalypse.
TS: And ableism in our culture is an apocalypse, and each of those communities not only is surviving the apocalypse, they are figuring out how to build possible futures.
KO: And everybody it seems like is survivance. That was one of the things.. I’m about it now; it’s not about simply survival, it’s about vibrance, it’s about…there’s levity there, there’s joy to be found there, and there’s future to be found there and so, like, it’s not just about surviving it anymore. Yeah. [Kay gives two thumbs up]
KO: [laughs] Take the course!
TS: Yes! Take the course! [laughs]
KO: I feel like I always get off track so that’s my takeaway: Do it. But only if you want to.
TS: Yeah. Yes.
KO: No peer pressure! [laughs]
TS: Is there anything else that you wanted to say, either about your experience writing or your experience in the course that you think you’d like to have in this interview?
KO: Hmm. Lemme think. Nothing immediately comes to mind other than the fact that I really liked the idea of, I loved that you kind of had Octavia’s Brood at the core of it because that is some stuff. Like, there is some brilliant writing in there. And the essay, is it Leaving Omelas?
TS: The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.
TS: I think? I don’t know, actually.
KO: Yeah, I wasn’t sure either, [laughs] but I say it both ways just to…
TS: But, you’re talking about the essay by Vandana Singh?
KO: That was, like, one of the most.. I think that was a point of clarity when I read that, it kind of put everything in focus for me. And that was when I really stopped to think about what I was writing. So, I don’t know if it’ll ring true for other participants like that, but, it really, it’s an incredible essay. And even just the dynamism in it, and talking about like, what is it? Newtonian physics?
KO: And like, that being a thing. It’s just so good, everything about it. It’s an excellent essay.
TS: It’s an excellent essay.
KO: And, what was the quote that you say, like “writing science fiction is like, everything…”
TS:“All organising is science fiction” which is a quote by adrienne marie brown.
KO: And that was something that I’d also like to leave with anybody that’s considering this course and not sure. It’s like, getting together to, online, to talk about this, emailing Tiffany your work, considering this course, like, all of it is creating possible futures and maybe bringing something into the world, so. [sings]: Science fiction! [laughs]. It’s not all just like ancient sexist Star Trek! [laughs]
TS: It’s true. It’s so much more than that. Awesome. Thank you so much.
Image description: A picture of a forest. Text below reads You Are Not Alone Stories, thoughts, and resources after the loss of a pregnancy or child.
Today is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day.
Last year, one of my friends noted that the available resources were incredibly gendered, heteronormative, cisnormative, and overwhelmingly white. This is still the case, although it is slowly getting better. There are still very few resources that feature people of colour, bisexual people, trans people, disabled or fat people. More work needs to be done.
Creating resources that help serve the margins is exactly the goal of my Patreon, and it’s why I do what I do, so we came up with a plan last year, reached out to contributors, and spent ten days pulling together something that I am really proud of.
This resource is not perfect. Although this is the second draft, the updates were minimal this year because of my Masters program, and it is still not as inclusive as it needs to be. Our goal is to reissue the resource each year with an expanded selection of personal stories, and a refined resources section. If you would like to have your story included in the next issue, let me know.
You Are Not Alone
Stories, thoughts, and resources after the loss of a pregnancy or child
Updated for Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day | 2018
This document was first created in 2017 as a response to loss resources that are highly gendered, and that implicitly assume their readers are straight, white, and cisgender. It was also created to try and provide something free and easily accessible.
This is the second version, and we hope to reissue this document yearly with more and better information and resources. The biggest change in this version is the inclusion of some of Sean Longcroft’s drawings, generously shared with this project by Petra Boynton, the author of Coping with Pregnancy Loss. Petra’s book is highly recommended as a compassionate, comprehensive, inclusive resource, filled with more of Sean’s drawings. You can also find an earlier project Petro Boynton undertook at the Miscarriage Association site, where she collected resources for partners.
Although this resource attempts to be intentionally inclusive and anti-oppressive, the two primary collaborators – Tiffany Sostar and Flora – are both English-speaking white settler Canadians, with stable housing and strong social supports. Our privilege means that we are missing nuance, and we do not see what we’re not seeing. We are open to being corrected, and to hearing from people who do not see themselves represented in this document. You can reach Tiffany at email@example.com.
This document is designed to be a grief and loss resource, and we have included abortion stories and resources. However, we recognize that not every abortion is experienced as a loss or followed by grief. (This is true for miscarriages, too!) We also recognize that it is possible to feel grief without feeling regret, and this is true for any pregnancy loss, whether it’s abortion, miscarriage, stillbirth, or adoption.
We are so thankful to the individuals who contributed to this document. Our call for contributors was met with courage and generosity by people who shared their stories despite the pain that telling the story brought up for them.
We are also thankful to Andi Johnson and Randi van Wiltenburg, both full-spectrum doulas in Calgary, Alberta, who contributed not only their personal stories but also a wealth of knowledge and information. Their professional contact information is listed in the resources section.
Parents we want to honour:
Those who have lost a child to miscarriage
Those who have lost a child to abortion
Those who have lost a child to stillbirth
Those who have lost a child after birth to medical illness
Those who have lost a child after birth to adoption
Those who have lost a child after birth to structural violence
Image description: Tiffany looks at a pile of laundry.
The following is a collaborative discussion that I was invited into by the amazing Emily. 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 posted here, but belongs to each of the participants. 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?
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
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 is a writer and organizer based in Treaty 1 territory, Winnipeg, Manitoba.
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.