Thursday, September 25, 2014

Safety, silence, and self-care

I'll be honest: I don't want to write this.  I have been an honest-to-goodness mess today as me and my body and my brain attempt to settle from last night's incident.  Between clients and everything else that occurs in my typical workday, I was fielding emails from various people at the college about the issue.  I'm not pleased with the direction things have gone.  But that's not what I want to write about.

Instead, I want to write about the push and pull.  I want to write about why I am writing about this.  I need to write the struggle.  I need to write the struggle.  In order for me to feel whole, and worthy, and as though I matter, I need to write the struggle.

On its face, this issue does not seem complicated.  In fact, it seems pretty easy, actually.  What should happen is this: a person feels unsafe.  Said person takes action to feel safe again.  The community hears that person and responds.  The person feels safe. 

Ideally, this is how it would happen.   Every time.  We would all feel as though we matter enough to advocate for our safety.  Our environments and communities would reinforce these choices, and feelings of safety would abound.  Women say to one another, "you have the right to feel safe.  You are entitled to safety.  You deserve to feel safe and supported in your place of employment."  And we mean it, because -- of course -- we all have the right to feel safe. 

But the fact of the matter is that this pattern isn't always the way things go.  What happens instead is this: a person feels unsafe.  Said person takes action to feel safe again.  The community does not hear or respond.  The person feels unsafe.  She takes another action to feel safe again.  The community does not hear or respond.  The person feels unsafe.

Guess what happens next?  She stops taking action.  Why wouldn't she?  Aside from the basic behavioral principles at play here (i.e. if a behavior is not reinforced, it will not continue), Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, right?  So why would she keep trying?

The only thing worse than feeling unsafe is feeling as though you lack the agency to make it better.  The ONLY thing worse than feeling threatened is feeling like you are unable to make a change to push you towards feeling safe again.  Every time you feel you are advocating for your own safety and it gets shot down, you learn that advocating for safety makes you feel more unsafe.  Every time you try to speak up and state your needs and change is denied, your sense of threat increases.  Each time a piece of that agency and autonomy is taken away, each time that ability to effect change and protect yourself in an environment is denied, your sense of safety is further taken from you.  Then it is not one person or a group of people that are a threat.  It is your entire environment.  When people fail to stand next to or behind you when you ask them to, they are a threat.  Maybe not as big of a threat as the initial threat, but a threat to your autonomy and your ability to advocate for your needs and effect change.  It is a threat nonetheless.

And unfortunately, once you have had this experience once, in one environment, it generalizes.  You are then forever faced with an impossible choice: when I feel unsafe, do I advocate for my safety, even though I have this intimate knowledge of the ways in which advocating for safety can make me feel even further unsafe?  If I stay quiet, maybe my silence will protect me.  If I stay quiet, I always have that option of speaking out stored in my back pocket.  If things get bad, I am still holding the potential for agency and change.  If I use that now...I'm out of tools.  When you feel unsafe, the last thing you want to be is out of tools.

If I heard a client say this, my first thought would be, "oh shit, this girl is really vulnerable to being re-victimized."  And it's true -- the rate of revictimization of women who have been sexually assaulted/victims of crimes is ridiculously high (code word for: I know it's high but don't have the energy to look up the stats right now.  Sorry).   There are lots of reasons for this.  This may be one of them.

As I was driving to work this morning, thinking about this point, I thought of this quote by Audre Lorde.  I've read it so many times, but I understood it today, perhaps for the first time: "...we are taught to respect fear more than ourselves.  We've been taught that silence would save us, but it won't."

"We are taught to respect fear more than ourselves."  This is part of that push and pull.  It is part of the struggle.  We become frightened, and then are saddled with the additional fear of being unable to make a change.  That fear is real.  All of it.  She is something that inhabits our bodies, changes our breath and our muscles, and if we're talking about trauma, changes our brains and our genetic make-up.  She is something to be respected. 

I believe we can respect ourselves in spite of the fear.  We can respect ourselves more than the fear.  And, I believe, we have to learn to respect ourselves alongside the fear.  I also believe that respecting ourselves is not as easy as it seems.  In fact, it is frequently a violent push and pull, and often, I'm not sure what it means.  Andrea Gibson says, "Safety is not always safe.  You can find one on every gun."  When your attempts at securing safety backfire, and "safe" is not something you can trust, how do you do anything but respect the fear -- more than you trust or respect yourself, even?  It is, sometimes, the only thing that is rewarded.

"We've been taught that silence would save us..."  We are taught this in so many ways, both implicit and explicit.  Silence is reinforced by lack of additional fear.  Silence is reinforced by lack of added shame.  Silence is reinforced by the recognition we receive as we pretend that all is well.  When faced with the choice of speaking and risking shame or re-traumatization, or remaining silent, we sometimes believe it is better to be silent.  And sometimes...sometimes...for the moment, it is. 

But silence won't save us forever.  Respecting the fear won't save us forever. 

So this is the precipice I find myself standing on: I cannot possibly be naive enough to believe that my environment will support my right to safety.   This was emphasized to me today.  I played my cards wrong, perhaps, in that I played my speaking up card too soon, or in the wrong manner.  Perhaps it was my silence that would have saved me.  I made the choice to respect myself more than the fear.  It wasn't rewarded.  It seldom is.

I don't know where I go from here.  Right now, self-care and respecting myself feels like it would be letting it all go, sucking it up, dealing with the fear and the discomfort, and walking myself to my car alone every Tuesday.  My head knows this is wrong.  My head knows that this is not what respecting my safety looks like.  But it feels like respect because it means that I no longer need to deal with my environment telling me "your safety doesn't matter."  It feels like safety because then I am in control.  I have made a choice, and no one is accountable for me but me.  I can be hurt, but not by people I know.  Not by people who are supposed to protect me.  Not by people who are supposed to be on my side.

My head knows that the right decision is to fight the bureaucratic bullshit, and to demand that they respond to my requests for changes to be made so that I (and other women) feel safe.  I know that this is supposed to be my action if I truly believe that I am worthy of safety.  But my heart knows that we are tired.  We've been in this fight before, my heart, and my brain and me.  And we lost.  We gave up because we had to.  Because we were so broken down, that fighting was no longer what self-care, and advocacy, and strength, and bravery looked like.  Instead, they looked like survival. 

The fight could be short.  It could not even be a fight at all.  It could be a push, a leaning into the resistance, and the wall could give way, and a sense of safety could open for me and for other women there.  Or I could meet brick roadblock after brick roadblock with no end success.  I have no way of knowing which path this would take, and the unknowing feels unsafe.

It's not supposed to be this hard.  I know that.  I realize that it's completely ridiculous that I could write 2.5 pages on this topic, and reach the end still without definitions or answers.   I'm not even completely sure this makes sense. 

The only thing I know for sure is this: our silence will not save us.  My silence?  It will not save me.  And so I write, with a whispered prayer that one day I will write myself into change, or safety, or an answer. 

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