Sunday, June 30, 2013

Colorado Fires and Body Memories: What is Trauma?

This post by our very own Erica also appeared in Go Girl Magazine.

Body Memories: What is Trauma?
Experiencing a fire can cause trauma. But what can help? Image from
If there’s one thing I hate, it’s somatic memory. It’s what makes your stomach ache, your throat close off, and your muscles clench when you remember something bad. It’s what makes you feel awful when you encounter stimuli that remind you of that bad thing. Maybe you remember a rape. Maybe you remember a pickpocketing. Maybe you remember being laughed at. Whatever the cause, it feels awful because your memory — your past – is impacting your present in an uncontrollable way.
Here’s a recent example:
Last year, running from the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado, I remember spending days wandering around in a daze, exhausted but unrefreshed by sleep, constantly fighting a cringing, sickly feeling in my stomach. It took several months before I felt normal again. I thought I’d finally recovered when the sight of campfire smoke no longer sent me into a spiral of fear. Then the Black Forest Fire broke out just last week, and the same sleeplessness and nausea returned. Even though I was less attached to possessions this time around — detachment as coping, anyone? — I was still a walking bundle of nerves.
Trauma happens all the time, whether through violent acts or surprise disasters from nature. Whilepost-traumatic stress disorder has very specific diagnostic criteria, “trauma” refers to a much broader range of psychosomatic symptoms that can show up in the aftermath of an unusually stressful or threatening event. Here are a few:
  • Restlessness
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Unusual physiological sensations, like jangling nerves or nausea
  • Constant worry
  • Hyper-awareness of your surroundings
  • Low energy
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty sleeping, including nightmares
  • Flashbacks
  • Numbing out, including using self-harm or substances
  • Avoiding anything or anyone that might trigger a memory
Anxiety is a common symptom of trauma. Image from

Why are somatic memory and trauma showing up in a column on sexual politics around the world? Because this is what happens when people are harmed. This is how we, as humans, remember acts of violence and situations of terror. Even when our brains seem to have rationalized themselves into calmness, our bodies continue to carry the experiences forward. Thus, when we are reminded of the original situation — by a plume of smoke, a predatory glance, etc. — we are sent back into the spirals of fear that created these symptoms in the first place.
These symptoms can keep us safe, sometimes, but they can also interfere with our ability to be bold explorers of our worlds. So what can we do to cope? Here are some ideas:
  • Engage with counseling, especially EMDR
  • Use physically active techniques, in keeping with your level of ability, to help your body work through its symptoms
  • Talk to other survivors, knowing that you each have your own experiences
  • Accept your symptoms as being a natural part of the healing process
  • Find a trauma-sensitive yoga or meditation class to re-connect with your body
  • Write or draw a journal of your experiences
  • Take time to focus on yourself and your own needs
Healing from trauma takes a lot of time and patience. It’s unpleasant and doesn’t happen overnight.But when you can recognize it, and nurture yourself in its aftermath, you can empower yourself to take on the world once again.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Feminist Taylor Swift, Fragile Men, Porn Wars and More: Links My Friends Send Me.

While many people complain about the political drivel that shows up on facebook, I've somehow been gifted with friends who share any number of interesting links, so this is a new column, links my friends send me. Like all columns that we currently publish, this one will show up sporadically and when you least expect it.

First up, a fascinating article on the academic wars surrounding the study of pornography. A new academic journal will study pornography in depth and with the nuance that the material probably merits, but the journal's 100% pro-pornography board has others in the academic community skeptical about its  ability to interpret data without bias. If you've been following the blog for awhile, you might recall that Erica and I tend to disagree on this subject.

New research about female desire suggests a lot of our perceptions of gender and sexuality are inaccurate, perhaps even in terms of how women perceive their own sexual desire. That factor alone suggests we need to have a more nuanced discussion on topics like pornography, but that discussion needs to be honest about negative impacts too.

In a similar vein, you can also read about a debate surrounding "naked protests" in the Middle East, though in this context the nakedness in question is women who protest topless. Even Twisty at I Blame the Patriarchy supports nudity in protests when used to subvert a culture that restricts women by restricting how they dress.

Next, an article that discusses the phenomenon of men dying younger on average than women do, a phenomenon that applies throughout all stages of life, including childhood.

It's also worth reading this article about obesity, which explores research that breaks down the myth that obesity is merely the product of poor self control. In a nutshell, the author points to how complicated weight loss turns out to be in reality and to surprisingly high increases in obesity rates among animals, including closely-monitored lab animals, and suggests that something more complex is happening on a chemical level.

And lastly, I'm sure most of you have already seen the Taylor Swift Feminist memes. If you haven't yet, do yourself a favor because they're pretty delightful.

Friday, June 14, 2013

You Don't Get to Tell Me How to Forgive an Abuser

Emily's Note: The topic of abuse and forgiveness is a sensitive one for me, and it's a topic that recently arose in my personal life when a member of my extended family attempted to publicly shame me (and others in my family) for not maintaining contact with someone who abused us in the past. When I privately asked that individual not to make such statements, their response was that I was obligated as a Christian to forgive. And so, with this topic once again at the forefront of my mind, I decided it was time to explain why such advice is in fact damaging to victims and survivors.

For a victim or survivor of abuse, one of the most damaging things a person can say is, "You have to forgive your abuser."

If you're religious (as I am), my statement might sound sacrilegious. Even if you're not religious, you may want to encourage a survivor to forgive those who hurt them so that they can move on with their life and let go of that pain. And I don't disagree with you that letting go of that anger is one essential part of the healing process. But I'm not concerned with the message you're trying to share - I'm concerned about the way you're sharing it and the unintended consequences your statement may carry.

1 - Telling someone to forgive assumes that they are doing something wrong, and a survivor of abuse has been hearing that message for years.

For the context of what I'm going to discuss here, suffice it to say that I grew up in a home with an abusive father, and some (but not all) of his siblings reinforced the abuse by accusing me of causing it. I once came home to find one of his siblings in the kitchen, waiting for me, in order to lecture me on being a better daughter. When I went to the police in order to get a restraining order so that my family and I would be safe from him, his mother and some of his siblings accused me of lying, despite those individuals possessing knowledge of similar abuse which he perpetrated against others when he was younger. To put it lightly, my relationship with those particular family members has been strained ever since.

Research and anecdotal evidence suggest my experience is not at all unusual. I've heard first-hand and second-hand accounts of mothers who accused children of lying when they came forward about abuse or who even accused preteen daughters of seducing their stepfather after he sexually assaulted them. And I've read studies where alarmingly high percentages of survivors reported that the initial adults they   confided in blamed them. I've posted about victim-blaming before, but I cannot over emphasize the damage that a culture of victim-blaming enacts on those who are abused. Victim-blaming leads to victims feeling so much shame that they hide what is happening, and it helps abusers evade prosecution. As a result, the abuser is likely to continue abusing.

2 -  Telling someone to forgive faster interferes with their healing process.

Most survivors spend years sorting through their experience. For many survivors, even reaching a point where they can openly express anger toward those who hurt them is in fact a step in their recovery. They may have spent years convincing themselves that what an abuser did was okay, or even pretending it never happened. Acknowledging anger is essential in working through the repercussions of abuse. And acknowledging the abuser is necessary to eventually forgive. After all, how can you forgive someone if you never come to terms with the fact that they did, in fact, hurt you?

3 - Forgiveness is a process that is different for everyone.

Perhaps you were abused, and you forgave that person by restoring a close relationship. Perhaps you never stopped loving that person or considering them your father, your mother, your brother or sister. Perhaps you forgave them and let them back into your life, after they had stopped abusing you.

But it doesn't work that way for all of us. For some of us, no longer praying for an abuser to die in their sleep is forgiveness.

For many survivors, it is unsafe to maintain any sort of contact with an abuser. And I don't just mean physical safety - yes, that's a major concern. But if you think that's the only issue at stake, you won't understand when another survivor refuses to even be in the same room with their former abuser. For some of us, hearing an abuser's voice or seeing a photo of them alone is enough to give us nightmares for two weeks straight. Enough to trigger old fears and leave us vulnerable in ways to hurt our efforts to simply live our life.

4 - Forgiving does not require staying, and yet many victims convince themselves that it does.

For those victims, being told that they have to forgive just reinforces the old belief that they are obligated to accept the abuse, never fight back, and not try to leave. A victim who holds that belief is likely to feel guilty for resenting the abuse. And even if a survivor overcame that belief in order to leave, hearing you tell them that they have to forgive is likely to dredge up the shame they felt when they were abused.

Again, not helpful in their recovery process.

5 - It's simply not your place to say, and you may be saying it for the wrong reasons.

Forgiveness is a complicated process, and no other person has the right to look at a victim of abuse and assume that their approach to forgiveness is wrong. You may be telling your friend to forgive because you're worried about how their anger seems to eat them up, but you simply can't know enough about their situation to know that for a fact.

If you've given this advice to someone, you may also need to reevaluate your motives. You may have had nothing but good intentions, but you also may have been looking for a way to stop them from sharing an experience you were uncomfortable hearing. Perhaps you have been abused yourself, and hearing their experiences leaves you feeling raw about your own pain.

Perhaps you care about the abuser so much that you're afraid to admit the severity of what they did, so you're treating it like something minor enough that it could be forgiven quickly. Or perhaps you witnessed abuse and you feel guilty that you didn't protect the survivor. If any of these motives ring true for you, please do whatever it takes to work through it. Confide in friends, write in a journal, go to a counselor, pick up a hobby that helps channel that energy.

But please, don't try to tell other survivors how to forgive. Because it's probably hurting you as much as it's hurting them.

Monday, June 10, 2013

That Kind of Girl (from the archives)

I originally published this post more than three years ago, in response to a conversation I'd had with a roommate and some friends. When this topic came up again in recent conversation, I decided to revisit my post from the time. As is usually the case for a writer, I found myself shuddering over the awkward phrasing and wondering how I could call myself a writing teacher back then. But alas, in the name of authenticity I have changed nothing from the original post. 

The other night, some friends accused me of something I found so insulting that I instantly cried, "I am NOT that kind of a girl!" What had they accused me of? Cooking dinner for a man.

They were both shocked by how defensive I was on the issue, and as I tried to explain why that was a sensitive topic for me, and why I am uncomfortable with cooking dinner for men, they became even more confused. In the end, they criticized me for what they saw as inconsistent behavior, and they insisted that if I was ok with my roommate's brother coming over and fixing our kitchen sink, I was a hypocrite for refusing to cook dinner for a man.

And I, for my part, am still confused by their confusion. It's not like I'm anti cooking with a man on a date, or cooking for family and friends. I just refuse to prepare a meal, by myself, for a man I am on a casual date with, and I'm cautious about doing so with a boyfriend too. And I get really upset when people think I have done that very thing. A few years ago, I invited a guy I'd been on several dates with over to my apartment. I had baked bread earlier in the day, and I offered him some fresh bread and homemade jam. He later bragged to a mutual friend that I had baked bread for him, and she immediately corrected him. "That's my friend you're talking about," she said. She explained that I bake bread all the time and had probably just offered him some of the bread I'd already baked. "She is not that kind of a girl," my friend continued, "and don't you ever say that again." He promised her that if he asked me to bake some bread for him I'd do it in a heart beat. Needless to say, I didn't respond well when he asked.

Why am I so loathe to cooking food specifically for a man on a casual date? Well, I can't really explain it rationally. For some reason I just shudder at the thought of doing so. I picture a man sitting expectantly at the table, waiting for me to bring the food to him, a smug, self-satisfied look on his face. It doesn't help that my father usually did that when I was young, even though my mother worked (and he did not), or that there are a lot of men in my extended family who take the attitude that cooking and cleaning is a woman's job, even if both he and his wife are working equal hours outside the home.

And contrary to what my friends from the other night insisted my aversion to cooking for men must mean, it's not that I'm against people who are in a relationship or who are going on dates doing nice things for each other. I appreciate it when a man opens a door for me, and I love sharing the food that I cook or bake with other people, romantic interests included. If I'm in a relationship and I bake bread, I'll specifically bring some to the guy I'm dating. I'll leave nice notes for him to find, and do other little, spontaneous things. I'll unlock his car door after he's unlocked the passenger door and opened it for me. I'll grab extra napkins for him while we're grabbing food. I'll wear my hair a way I know he likes it, and humor him by playing board games or watching movies I'm not terribly fond of. Honestly, roommates who've seen me in a relationship have always been shocked by how often I'll bake something to share with a boyfriend.

So, maybe the issue here isn't that I'm unusually prickly about cooking for a man. Maybe I'm just prickly about the phrase "cook for him." Maybe it brings up images and emotions that upset me so much that even when I talk with other women who are a lot less likely to cook food with the intention of offering some to a boyfriend I end up sounding more anti it? And I become much more comfortable with the idea of cooking for a man if he first cooks for me. I got very upset when one man interpreted my invitation to a group date where we would all prepare dinner together as me offering to cook dinner for him (your words, Carl, not mine!) But when he later cooked breakfast for me, I felt much more comfortable the next time he thought I was "cooking dinner for him."

But what's really crazy about that last example, is that his idea of me cooking dinner for him was me buying the ingredients, and then him making it along with me. Which brings us back to language - am I against going through the physical act of cooking dinner for a man, or am I against some sort of cultural association I have with that language?

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Murdering John Walks Free, Mothers and Daughters Sharing a Husband, SLC Pride Parade, and More: Links of Note

It's no secret that Erica, Rachel, and I have been a tad absentee recently, due to our work (and in my case, grad school) obligations, so instead of trying to catch up I'll just cover a few recent things.

First off, in our distraction we haven't been checking the notanotherwave email account as frequently as we used to. Several months back, someone contacted us in response to a post about attachment parenting and asked if we'd be interested in their graphic about helicopter parents in the workplace. Not the most obvious fit on NAW, but I figured we'd give it a shout out, as readers might find it interesting, and since she was gracious about my delayed response.

Next, this article about a Texas man who got away with murdering an escort has been making the rounds on facebook. Long story short, he hired an escort through craigslist and paid her $150 in advance. When she didn't have sex with him as he'd expected and tried to leave, he shot her in the neck, paralyzing her and causing her death seven months later. His attorneys argued that the victim was stealing from this man and that he therefore had the legal right to shoot and kill her. The jury somehow agreed, despite the fact that her "theft" was in refusing to follow through with prostitution, which is itself a crime. I don't even have words for how disgusting it is that this man was found "not guilty" and that he isn't at least being charged with soliciting a prostitute. The irony is that if he'd pulled a gun on her and she'd shot him in self-defense, she'd probably be serving life in prison.

From a few weeks back, Twisty of the radical feminist blog, I Blame the Patriarchy, recently posted her thoughts on how rape is portrayed on tv and whether those portrayals are inherently misogynistic.

Next, an article on an unusual and rare marital practice from a remote region of Bangladesh that a friend of mine aptly summed up as "both heartbreaking and fascinating." The title of this Observer article is "'My Mother and I are Married to the Same Man': Matrilineal Marriage in Bangladesh," and the details are worth reading in full, so I'll let that title act as the basic summary I usually give along with a link.

In news that I find exciting, the group Mormons Building Bridges marched in a Salt Lake City pride parade this past Sunday. I knew about the parade in advance and was sad I couldn't make it, as I'm very supportive of the work MBB has been doing. Last year they marched in the pride parade, and this year they built on that work with the theme "Family Reunion," to encourage other Mormons to fully accept and love their lgbtq friends and family. 

And lastly, on a fun note, I'll confess that I follow The Voice. The Voice sometimes infuriates me, mostly in their habit of starting off with about half of their contestants being people of color, only to systematically eliminate the majority of contestants who are not white in the battle rounds. (Don't believe me? Watch the battles where one contestant is white and the other isn't. In all but one, the white  performer was declared the winner). Anyway, despite all that, I've been impressed by Michelle Chamuel, one of the top artists in the current Top 5. Chamuel is talented, confident and charismatic onstage, and intelligent, confident, and gracious off-stage. In the following interview she discusses her wardrobe and makeup decisions in a way that sheds light on the creative process while also stressing her confidence in maintaining an appearance that feels organic and comfortable to her:

I'm pretty sure I've got a girl-crush on Michelle Chamuel.