(re)birth defect: when vindication comes 39 years too late

This is so sad and yet brilliant. It so clearly shows what it is like to suffer reputation abuse from a parent.

Karrie higgins

I have a birth defect, but I didn’t know it until I was 39 years old.

I was waiting in an examination room for MRI results when my neurologist walked in, climbed atop the patient table without so much as a nod, flipped open a manila folder, and said, “Has anyone ever told you that you have a brain deformity?”

A few weeks earlier, when I walked into the office for my first neurologist appointment in over twenty years, I did it as an experiment. I wanted to see what happened when my mother wasn’t there anymore to tell doctors behind my back that I was putting on an Academy-Award worthy act: the migraines, the dizziness, the sudden collapses in school hallways between classes, the seizures that “didn’t look like any seizure she had ever seen,” the severe stomach pain, even my bruises from my father’s abuse. Fake, all of…

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I love this beautiful little collection of words.


A lovely broken shell,
a delicious frittata,
an abundance of quiet,
the freedom to consider the future,
a hat to replace the one I left at his house,
a sunset.
With every hour alone,
wobbly but growing confidence to tell him “no.”

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What Were the Naked Male Senators Thinking?


For those of you who have not heard, the Senate of the United States has a private pool, that until recently did not allow women. (I learned about this in a great Politico article. If you haven’t read it, you should.)

Banning women from the pool isn’t entirely shocking to me. I am used to people finding a reason, any reason,  to keep women out of public spaces. But the reason for this particular exclusion was astonishing.

Some of the male senators liked to swim naked. That was it – they wanted to give their junior members a little submarine training.

This strikes me as something so deeply filled with symbolism and it offers such tantalizing clues into the thinking of the leaders of our country, that I feel we have to talk about it.

Here is what a reasonable person would have thought when women joined the Senate: “Ah, there are now female senators. They might want to swim at some point. Time to suit up, boys!”

Instead, they had to have thinking something along these lines: “So, some girls have joined our club. We cannot let them change how we behave in any way. So my preference for swimming naked is more important than their right to enjoy all the rights and privileges of being a senator. I want to swim naked so they will not be allowed to swim at all.”

Pools are a big deal in the South where I come from. They are scarce, mostly enjoyed by those wealthy enough to own a private pool or to belong to a club. I remember how shocked I was by the number of community pools when I lived in Britain.

If there is one area of the country that should have a lot of pools, it is the South. Swimming is one of the few safe forms of outside exercise in the overwhelming heat of the South.

But the reason the South has so few municipal pools is because for decades after segregation, white people would rather go without pools than have to share them with black people. They found that they could handle sharing a restaurant or a theater. But they filled in the pools with cement rather than allowing them to be integrated. That is how strongly they felt about sharing the same water with a black person.

In his book “Contested Waters” Dr. Jeffery Wilste talks about the racial history of pools. Before segregation, pools were extremely common even in black neighborhoods.  But when segregation crumbled, pools became a flash point for violence and racially motivated closings. The issue of pools has always been an emotionally and socially laden symbol of privilege and othering.

Sharing a pool, Wilste reminds us, is visually and physically intimate. Also, many people fear that water will transmit something, that you will catch cooties. Swimming in the same pool can be intolerable with someone you see as “the other.”

Now imagine that the rule in the Senate had been: No black senators because that makes some of the white senators unhappy. That kind of racism never would have been tolerated. And rightly so.

But discrimination against women, well that is just fine.

Male senators could not handle the intimacy of sharing a pool with women. And so they called on that old tried and crude defense – they took out their pensis. The symbolism of their actions shows how much they needed to keep women at a distance, as the other.

And now consider what that rule meant for incoming female senators.  Undoubtedly they were told that this is the way it had always been and they were strongly discouraged from changing it. They had to wonder what it would cost them to be “the woman who made an issue of it.” Think how much other sexism there must have been if this is the one that they let this slide.

But also consider how subtly betrayed they were by liberal men in the Senate. Why didn’t Joe Biden force a change? Why not Barney Frank? (Edit: Because he wss in the House. Why did I think he was a Senator?) Where were these men who supposedly believe in equal rights for women when there was a real issue of equality that was so easily fixed?

Excluding female senators from the pool so that the male senators could free their willies is so much more than just a procedural point.

Pools matter for the same reasons that bath houses used to matter. There is something  radically equalizing about sharing the same water. They are  symbolic in the same way that immersion in water by baptism is symbolic.

Female senators have had the right to share the same pool water as men for 6 years. Black men have had that right for at least 40 years.

Think about the free willies keeping female members out of the Senate pool next time someone tries to tell you why we don’t need feminism.

Introduction to the Dirty Dozen Defenses

When I was 15 years old, I discovered that my youth pastor was abusing almost all of the girls in the church and school that I had recently started attending. By the time I turned 16, I had very little hope for my fellow humans.

What disillusioned me was not that a pastor would coerce and force girls as young as 11 to have sex with him. It was not even finding out that it was an open secret among the congregation. When I discovered that my step-father had been covering for the youth pastor for over a decade, it made a sad and sick sort of sense. I wasn’t even that disillusioned when my parents punished me severely for turning Pastor Child Molester in to the police. What killed every last shred of hope that I had in human decency (for a while, at least) was that even after Pastor Child Molester pled guilty to more than a dozen counts of sexual abuse, the majority of the congregation still supported him.

If anything, his arrest and sentencing seemed to make the congregation love Pastor Child Molester all the more. They wept loudly in the courtroom when he was sentenced to prison, and treated him like a martyr rather than an admitted child-molester. To this day, Pastor Child Molester is still beloved in that community. But there is nothing but contempt for those of us who stood up for the abused and for justice.

I was primed for disillusionment by having witnessed abuse in two other religious environments. One was a Christian reform school for teenagers where the abuse I witnessed was so severe the Geneva Convention would define it as torture and as crimes against humanity. And despite the fact that I was not an inmate in the facility, and as close to an objective witness as one would ever get, no one cared to hear what I had to say. Charges of severe abuse made them defend the reform school even more.

For a while, I thought that there was something uniquely sick about religious institutions. But eventually I realized that in almost every situation where there is physical or sexual abuse, there is almost always a cadre of people who will defend the perpetrator. It is one of the truly odd things about those kind of crimes – people are so willing to defend the abusers.

My need to understand why and how people defend perpetrators of physical and sexual abuse has defined much of my life. My very first research project when I went back to college at the age of 33 was trying to understand why and how people defend abusers and rapists. And for the past 12 years I have searched for answers from every angle and discipline that I could find.

Here is what I have learned so far:

First, charismatic leaders are especially likely to find supporters. However, you don’t need to be a politician, a pastors, a coach or even well-liked for people to defend you. I have had people defend my mother who have never met her and do not even know her name. They just don’t like the idea of a mother being criticized openly for abuse.

The second thing that I learned is that the severity of the crime and the innocence of the victim often does not matter. For example, I spent three years of my life researching a group who continued to support a man who sexually assaulted a young boy because the kid wet his bed. The leader injured the boy’s genitals so badly, the poor kid had to be hospitalized. And even though the leader lied to his followers about his criminal record, sexually abused female group members and was arrested on other charges during his tenure – he never wanted for supporters.

So what is it about some people that gives them an almost compulsive need to defend abusers and rapists – even those who have admitted their crimes? After more than a dozen years of research I know only one thing – I have no freaking clue. And I am not sure anyone can adequately answer that question. In fact, I am mistrustful of people who think that they have a universal explanation for this weird need people have to defend the indefensible.

But the third thing that I learned is that while we have no really good explanations for why some people feel compelled to defend abusers, we at least have some pretty good ideas about how they do it.

I discovered that there were a number of researchers who had documented the kinds of excuses or justifications that criminals use to defend their behavior to themselves and others. Most criminals are not anarchists, after all. They generally have respect for some laws and for most law-abiding citizens. So how do they justify their own bad behavior or at least explain it to themselves? In fairly limited and predictable ways, as it turns out.

Defenders use the same techniques that abusers and criminals use to defend their behavior to themselves and others. Often, the abuser or criminal will provide his or her supporters with the defense strategy and a version of the story that is tailored to the defense. But some defenders don’t need the abuser’s help. They are very good at applying the strategies and shaping the story themselves.

In the last two years, I have compiled and synthesized the theories of a number of researchers into a list of twelve defense strategies, a dirty dozen if you will. (I go into detail about the researchers and their theories in the appendix of this article.) To make it easier for me to identify defense strategies, I divided them into three basic categories.

First there are denial strategies. These are denying responsibility, denying ill-intentions, denying harm, denying that there was a victim and denying that there was any other viable option.

Then there are contextualization strategies. These include contextualizing the abusive or criminal behavior in the whole of the offender’s life, or contrasting it with behavior that everyone agrees is far, far worse. Another strategy for contextualizing abusive behavior is to minimize it down to something that doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. Last, but not least, people try to contextualize abusive behavior in a larger context such as a cultural norm or even try to say that it serves a higher purpose.

Finally there are strategies of misdirection. This can be done in very obvious ways such as claiming that condemnation of NFL players who abuse their spouses is really about an attempt to destroy the game of football. Or it can be done by changing the point of view in the story – making it all about the abuser and not about the victims. And if all that fails, there is always misdirection by counter-attacking such as claiming that critics of child molesting priests are trying to destroy the Catholic church.

I have found it both useful and comforting to be able to identify the common defense strategies. For starters, I find that I am no longer as outraged or surprised by the horrible and crazy things that people say in defense of people who have done truly horrible things. I find that I just nod my head and say, “Oh, so he is pulling out old Denial Strategy #3.”

I believe that knowing about the basic strategies used by abusers of children and perpetrators of violence against women has practical benefits as well. As the old saying goes, forewarned is forarmed. If we can anticipate which strategies defenders will likely employ, we can formulate counter-strategies. More importantly, we can educate the public what to look for when they are listening to stories involving abuse. This knowledge can be a tool for analyzing confessions and apologies.

I need to establish some caveats before I explain more about each of the dirty dozen defenses. Here they are:

  1.  This list is simply a way of helping us wrap our brains around how people defend abuse. It is a tool, not a manual or prayer book. In the past, some people have abused these sorts of tools. For example, some people have tried to use the stages of grief identified Kubler-Ross to force people to grieve in an orderly fashion. Please do use this tool in a similarly abusive manner.
  1. Since this is just a tool, a single excuse can have elements of one to several excuses from the Dirty Dozen. You may read the same excuse in two or more of the basic defenses. These basic defenses are wonderfully versatile and the more deeply a person is committed to a defense, the more likely a single excuse is to encompass more defenses.
  1. Sometimes, there are genuine mitigating circumstances and these will sound exactly like one of the dirty dozen defenses. I cannot give you a hard and fast rule for when something is a genuine mitigating circumstance and when it is simply a defensive strategy. But here is what I have found: Defenders are interested in shutting people up, and making things go away. Genuine mitigating circumstances do not allow criminals/abusers to dodge culpability for their bad acts and, more importantly, they do not attempt to silence victims and critics.
  1. This should not be used to condemn people who stay with abusive spouses or who make excuses for abusive parents. Victims do not need more critics.
  1. Here are a few notes about how I have presented this information. First, I have attempted to make clear that both men and women are perpetrators of sexual, physical and emotional abuse by alternating pronouns. However, I use examples found in current events whenever possible, and these have been overwhelmingly male.

    In addition, because I began my research more than a decade ago with the goal of understanding why and how religious groups allowed ongoing abuse, much of my understanding of how defenders work and many of my examples will come from that field. And while I believe religious environments are uniquely vulnerable to abusers and criminals, I want to be very clear that I understand that the majority of abuse happens outside of religious environments. The fact that my examples are disproportionately religious is not a reflection of a bias against religion. Instead it reflects my fascination with and love of religions and my hope that they will one day be as safe as they already aspire to be.

Next up: More about Denial Techniques

How I Learned To Love My Frankengina; Recovering sexual functioning after surgery

This week I wrote for Role/Reboot about the discrepancy between the type of therapy offered to men who are at risk for losing sexual functioning because of medical procedures and what is offered to women in similar situations. If you haven’t read it, you might want to go here and give it a quick scan.

In the R/R article, I omitted the details of my personal experience—what worked and did not work for recovering sexual functioning after a surgery that compromised it. After all, that kind of information is pretty private. But since there is almost nothing out there on the subject, I think it is important to share this part of the story as well.

I had surgery to repair a rectocele, entrocele, remove my uterus, clean up adhesions and do additional biopsies. So, what is a rectocele or an entrocele? Basically, it is when the connective tissue around the vagina is damaged in a way that allows other body parts to bulge into the vagina. In a rectocele, the wall between the vagina and rectum is compromised. So when poop comes down the chute, it doesn’t go out, but builds up in the rectum, which expands like a balloon. It makes pooping without some form of assistance impossible. With an entrocele, the bladder never fully empties, and you pee yourself every time you sneeze.

I went into surgery with every hope of being able to poop when I wanted and pee only when I wanted, but without any idea if I would ever enjoy sex again. It was terrifying.

Recovery was painful and pockmarked with complications—but I knew immediately that I wouldn’t be peeing myself and that my body didn’t seem inclined to make a poop balloon. What I didn’t know was if my sexuality had been amputated along with my uterus. During the eight weeks of bed rest that followed, when there was nothing to distract me, I could not stop wondering if I had lost an important part of myself.

The only instructions that I was given were: 1) “Try not to orgasm for 6 weeks after surgery” 2) “You may resume all normal sexual activity 12-16 weeks after surgery.”

That leaves a lot of questions. Should I avoid becoming aroused or just orgasming? What if I orgasmed in my sleep? And what kind of sexual activity is considered “normal?”

The kind of surgery that I had involved (among other things) pleating the back wall of my vagina (folding the wall over on itself and sewing it that way) and reinforcing the front wall with steel mesh. This not only sounded alarming to a woman who is a self-professed penetration junky, it created literal, physical boundaries to any form of penetration.

When I first worked up the nerve to insert my pinky finger it felt like I was trying to slide between a chain link fence and brick wall. I was fairly sure I would never welcome a penis in there ever again.

Perhaps most troubling is the fact that it did not feel like my vagina anymore. I handled my anxiety by making jokes, by calling my yoni a Frankengina.

From other surgeries, I know that muscles atrophy and scars can harden. So my instinct was to employ the same philosophy of rehabilitation that is applied to men: Use It or Lose It. But my doctor had barred activities like horseback riding, jumping rope and riding a bike for life. So obviously, there were going to be some limits, and I wasn’t sure how and when to begin.

Eventually I found, deep within the internet, one physician’s recommendations for women recovering from extensive pelvic surgery. He recommended starting with daily masturbation at 6 weeks after surgery, beginning penetration at 12 weeks, and attempting intercourse at 16 weeks. From that point on, he recommended intercourse and masturbation five times a week, and warned against going below three times a week. In other words, he believed in giving time for healing, but after that he was a big fan of the “use it or lose” it philosophy.

I had my first orgasm four weeks after surgery. I came in my sleep, right in the middle of a dream about white-water rafting, of all things. I called my doctor’s office and spoke with the nurse, asking her if it was a problem. She laughed, and said that the the instructions should have been: “Don’t try to orgasm in the first six weeks” rather than “Try not to orgasm” That is a big difference.

At six weeks, I began masturbating. The first couple of times it ended badly. Stroking my clitoris in the way that I had before felt uncomfortable, since it pulled on my perineum. The use of a vibrator was simply out of the question. It didn’t help that I felt so disconnected from my Frankengina that I was squeamish. I developed an aversion to touching myself.

Fortunately, right before the surgery, my husband and I had read about Orgasmic Meditation. The touch prescribed by OM is a very light and small stroke entirely focused on the tip of the clitoris. It was not painful, and it allowed my husband and I to re-establish sexual touching

More importantly, it was a non-threatening way for both my partner and I to start thinking of me as a sexual person again. He saw me, and especially my vagina, as being incredibly fragile. OM with its very light touch allowed him to feel good about touching me again. The downside was that it did nothing to lessen my aversion to touching myself.

At 8 weeks, my doctor said that I could start doing Kegels again. (Before, it had been strictly off-limits) At first, it felt like I was squeezing crushed glass. It only added to the anxiety that I already felt about how stiff the walls of my vagina had become. I could not imagine ever fitting anything in me again.

My fear that my vagina had been irreparably damaged just got worse and worse. One night about ten weeks after surgery, the anxiety overwhelmed me. I needed to know how bad off I was. I hadn’t been able to relax enough to insert a finger inside of myself since that first time. So I begged my husband to try. I just needed to know that my vagina had not been replaced by a brick wall. He started by using the same touch that he used in OM. And by the time he had penetrated me with his finger, I had forgotten the object of the exercise. It was completely painless, and it felt pretty damned good.

At about 12 weeks, we hit a wall. The program that I had found suggested working up to intercourse by using fingers during masturbation. I think whoever had that idea must not have ever had the kind of surgery that I did. BAD idea. The problem was that no matter how relaxed I was when I started, as I got aroused, my vagina tightened down on whatever was inside of me. Fingers have bones and nails. My Frankengina did not like either one.

Another huge problem was that neither of us knew our way around my vagina anymore. That wonderful spot way up high—gone. The pleasure from press and release on the back wall—gone. Everything was equally exquisitely sensitive. Toys were no better than fingers. Molded toys have seams, which I never would have noticed before, but I do now. Silicone type toys were better, but they had a drag to them that became uncomfortable pretty quickly.

So we skipped that step. Actually, it wasn’t that we made the conscious choice. We just sort of gave up. It was too emotionally loaded to keep trying.

There was another complication. My first adult sexual experience had been exceptionally violent. If you feel a burning need to write about it, you can do so here. My partner had torn a hole through my vagina and had actually done damage that set in motion the need for all of the surgery.

In that way that only survivors’ brains can do, I had found a way to blame myself. I had gotten hurt, I reckoned, because I had been so tense he had to use that much force and that is how everything went horribly wrong. Yes, I know how fucked up that line of reasoning is. But even though I know it is not true, and that such thoughts are not helpful, they still sneak back in.

So, I was frightened that I would do something that would injure me badly. And my husband was just as worried, if not more. In fact, he was so concerned about not hurting me that he did not even want to help with the rehab some days. I worried that my efforts to get his cooperation could, at some point, be a violation of his consent.

But then something utterly unexpected happened. One night, we started kissing and making out like a couple of high school kids. It was hot and amazing. So we did it again the next day, and the next.

On the third day, we were doing the full grind against each other. It didn’t hurt to have pressure on my pelvis. In fact, it felt pretty damned good. I reassured my husband that I didn’t want sex, but I did want to feel my body next to his. So we took off our clothes, buried ourselves under the covers and slid into each other’s arms. His skin against mine and the way our bodies fit together felt like home. But the longer we kissed and made out, the more I wanted to just feel him between my legs. So we ended up doing a form of what I suppose you could call frottage. His naked pelvis gently ground against mine. It was AMAZING. Finally, my husband, who has always been more sane than I am, stopped it. And in a burst of genius, he brought ice for my pelvis and ibuprofen.

We didn’t plan to do that again. It just kept happening, often after OM. We were not doing it as a part of the recovery program, but just because it felt good to us. And after every session, my husband would bring me the ice and ibuprofen.

I think that the ice and ibuprofen was genius. It stopped inflammation from leaving a bad aftertaste. And it also sent all the blood away from the area. Without it, the vascular congestion would have continued and it would have made me tender and overly frustrated. Don’t get me wrong, I was frustrated, but it was just enough frustration that I was eager to keep trying. And some days the fear that I would never merrily fuck again was overwhelming. But somehow, I kept muddling through.

One day as we were doing our naked frottage, he was a little too stiff and he just accidentally popped in. We both froze. And he began apologizing profusely. But it wasn’t his fault. I knew he was hard and I had moved my hips the wrong way. And, more importantly, it didn’t hurt. It didn’t exactly feel great, but it wasn’t uncomfortable either. We disengaged and we did the whole ice and ibuprofen routine.

After the accidental one-stroke-intercourse, we went back to fingers, and I discovered I could tolerate them better than I had been able to a couple of weeks before. As long as I was relaxed and had clitoral stimulation I thoroughly enjoyed it—to a point.

When I got seriously aroused, just as my body was preparing to orgasm, my Frankengina would tense against the fingers, and everything would become very uncomfortable. By that time, I had orgasmed twice in my sleep, so I knew that I had not lost the ability. I just had no idea how to get there when I was awake.

My solution was to just jump to intercourse. But Pete was having none of it. For starters, he wanted to be absolutely sure that my body was ready for it. But in addition, he thought that skipping to intercourse would be a waste of a great opportunity. He saw this as a do-over for me—a second shot at being a physical virgin. He wanted to be sure that when my Frankengina lost its virginity, it would be wonderful. He did not want to have intercourse if there was little to no chance that I would orgasm. So he asked that we hold off until I was able to orgasm again.

I was tempted to fake an orgasm. But in addition to being a relationship sin, faking it was a highly impractical idea. I had been ejaculating with my orgasms for a long while. And I have no idea how to fake that.

After a lot of frustration and tears, I realized that I was going to need to learn to orgasm differently. I needed to open and relax instead of clench and bear down in response to arousal. I wasn’t even sure if it was possible. But I had seen a Betty Dodson clip in which she said it was how some women come. She doesn’t seem to think it is a good idea since it is hard to do. But she acknowledges that it is a possibility.

Mastering the technique was hard. It was so counter-intuitive. We all tense when we are aroused, don’t we? But I figured that if women who are in the pain of labor can learn to relax those muscles, I could do the same in arousal. I remembered that my childbirth educator had said that if you drop your jaw, it helps open your birth canal. So I tried it and the birth breathing as well. I even used the visualization technique, only instead of visualizing a baby descending, I imagined those stupid flower-opening sequences that they used in old movies as a metaphor for sex.

And then one day, it just happened. It was different from any orgasm I had ever had before and there was none of the delicious lead-up. It was just BAM, then yawn. But it was progress.

Pete and I finally agreed it was time for intercourse. We decided to try it in a scissors position, since this would give us a lot of control. We used a ton of lube, and we took our sweet time—a very sweet time—getting to the point of full insertion. At some point, I thought that I might kill him if he didn’t just do it already. When he finally slid himself all the way in, it was nothing but incredible pleasure—pleasure like I had never felt before with intercourse.

It lasted exactly one thrust longer than the previous (accidental) intercourse. I was so tight that it flooded Pete with stimulus. He came after two gentle thrusts. Again, he was apologetic. But he needn’t have been. I understood exactly why.

In the weeks and months that followed, we discovered something really important about my new vagina: It felt amazing—for both of us. Neither of us had ever experienced intercourse that was so intensely pleasurable.

That brings me to something that is something of an aside, but it seems like an important one: We have to stop making judgments about the kinds of surgery women have. If women want to have their vaginas tightened surgically, we should not scoff. It has the potential for many women to make a world of difference.

I know that a lot of sexual educators will tell you that the size of a vagina does not impact the sexual pleasure of the vagina’s owner or her partners. And I think they are probably right as long as the structure of the vagina is intact. But when that structure has been compromised, as can happen in childbirth or even from bouts of very severe constipation, surgical intervention can make a HUGE difference.

For both of us, intercourse is a very different experience than it was before the surgery. It can be a sensory joy, or a painful mess. For example, we had the bright idea of a midnight romp several weeks ago. Neither of us could find the lube, so we improvised. That is a very bad idea considered how tight I am these days. I was unbelievably sore for a week, and my husband got a micro-tear on the skin of his penis. He described it as feeling a lot like a big paper cut. He called it his pee-pee-boo-boo, and it was funny right up to the time that it got infected. Then it became really painful. He had to treat it with antibiotics, and we couldn’t have sex while it healed.

Even given our positive outcome, I wish we had had guidance on sexual rehabilitation. I think that it could have done a lot of good. For starters, it would have greatly lessened my anxiety. For another thing, it might not have left me feeling separated from my body. I love my Frankengina, but it still feels like a Frankengina, not my own body.

I think that ongoing squeamish separation from my body has taken a toll. My sexual desire is a tiny fraction of what it once was. Now there are many reasons for that. I have undergone two other surgeries since the one that created the Frankengina. The second one was fairly major: a knee replacement. During the two and half years I have spent convalescing, I have gained a lot of weight and lost a lot of fitness. But I think that my reduced sexual desire is related to how disconnected I still feel from my body. Yes, I love intercourse, but I can count on one hand how many times I have masturbated in the last two years. So my sexuality has gone from being a part of myself that I mostly expressed in a relationship to being a relationship-facet rarely expressed or experienced outside of it.

However, I am not sure that anyone could have answered some of the questions that I had before the surgery. I wanted to know if I would ever ejaculate again. The answer is probably not. I can’t come in a way that promotes that. I wanted to know if anal sex would be off the menu forever. My answer is YES! I want nothing to do it with it. I wanted to know if I would ever enjoy sex again, and the answer is absolutely. But not in the same ways. I used to enjoy long extended sessions of sex. Now I cannot handle anything that goes past a half hour. But that half hour packs a hell of a lot of pleasure.

I am not sure if this article, which wanders very far into TMI Territory, will help anyone. My hope is that it does. But at the very least, I believe that I have made the case that women need sexual rehabilitation, or at least guidance, following surgeries or illnesses that are likely to impact their sexual functioning. No one should have to stumble around in the dark like I did.

What To Expect When You Get a Suicidal Person Help: Why our Mental health situation has to change

I was struck with sadness and also a feeling of real frustration when I found out that Robin Williams had committed suicide. I was so incredibly sad that he was gone, but on the other hand, I could understand why he didn’t reach out for mental health help. What happens when people reach out for help can be so dehumanizing they would rather tough it out or even kill themselves.

I wrote an article about what happened when my mother sought emergency psychiatric services. After at least a dozen edits, it found a home over at RH Reality Check.

Here is an excerpt:

On the night that my mother nearly killed herself, I made a judgment call not to call 9-1-1. Instead, I stayed on the phone with her, telling her how much her family loved her as I blindly stumbled around trying to dress and find my keys and bag. My fingers went numb from panic, and my natural clumsiness escalated until I had the coordination and stealth of a rutting elephant.

Within minutes, the entire house was awake and every light was blazing. My daughter, who was 16 at the time, begged to be allowed to come with me. She rightly judged that she would be able to keep her grandmother calm and engaged while I drove.

When we got to my mother’s house, I took her hands and guided her into my car. “It is OK, Mom,” I told her. “You have had to change medications recently. We are just glad that you called.“

As I drove, I called the emergency number for my mother’s psychiatrist. When the doctor on call for the practice returned the call, I pulled over into the vast and empty parking lot of our local mall. We sat there in the island of a safety light, like the only survivors of some great shipwreck.

As soon as I answered, I put the phone on speaker. I didn’t want to talk about my mother like she wasn’t even in the car. But she could barely speak because she was working so hard at controlling the loud, heartbreaking sobs that kept bursting out of her.

The psychiatrist’s voice was clipped and brusque as he asked, “What is going on?” It was a question we would hear over and over that night.

I would encourage everyone who has a mentally ill family member to read this and to make a crisis plan.

Why I Felt Sorry for the Person Who Beat Me

I wish I had a kitten for every time in the last week that I have heard someone criticize a person who stays with an abusive partner. It would make me an animal hoarder, but at least I would be calmer.

Fortunately, the discussion this week about Ray Rice’s abuse has taught me something else as well: Telling people about abuse does not work. They need something like an image to help them put themselves in the shoes of the abused person.

So while I can tell you that abusers are very good at making their victims feel sorry for them, I am hoping that telling a story will get across the point far better.

When I was in third grade, I got in Big Trouble. Once again I had allegedly peeped during one of the 90 minute prayer sessions that our church held every week. As a child with ADHD, I found it almost impossible to sit still with my eyes closed for 90 minutes without falling asleep or having my eyes fly open when I simply forgot that they were supposed to be completely closed. I really wanted to be obedient. I was just constitutionally incapable of doing some of the things required of me.

My mother saw my propensity for peeping as an act of rebellion. Her procedure for dealing with rebellion was to beat me with a belt or a thick plank of wood. It wasn’t just the intensity of these beatings that made them torturous, it was also how long they lasted. Often, she would go multiple rounds, beating me for as long as her energy would last, pausing for a rest break of 10-20 minutes, and then resume.

Those rest-breaks between rounds of beatings were some of the most mentally anguishing moments of my life. Before a beating started, I could lie to myself about the pain, or about my ability to handle it. But in those rest-breaks, any denial had been broken, and I knew that there was more to come. I knew that before long the pain would build until it was all there was in the universe, where I was swallowed by it so thoroughly that I would lose all track of time and sense of myself. Often, I would vomit. My mother saw this as another act of rebellion and would extend my beating accordingly.

I was especially emotionally vulnerable during those rest breaks, and my mother would sometimes use that time to extract promises or apologies from me. The night that I was in Big Trouble, she was so desperate to stop me from peeping during prayer services that she used the rest break to tell me a deeply disturbing story.

She started by asking me to close my eyes and visualize myself on the porch of our house, engaged in our weekday morning ritual. She told me to see myself waving goodbye to her as she drove off to work. She had me imagine the cold air on my face, the feel of the concrete porch posts beneath my hands, and my books beside me as I waited for my ride to school.

Because of how vulnerable and therefore suggestible I was, I fell into her story. I experienced it in sensory detail. When she told me to imagine her kissing me goodbye, I could almost feel her lips brushing my cheek.

She told me to imagine that as she made the turn to go to work, a large tractor-trailer came speeding out of nowhere and knocked her car across the highway. I saw the accident in slow motion, her car crumbling in on itself, spinning and coming to rest at the fire hydrant in front of our neighbor’s house.

As I sobbed, she went on to describe what I would see when I got there: her body trapped in a shell of twisted metal, calling out my name and telling me how much she loved me between screams of agony. Following her words, I imagined her in torture, bleeding, crying and finally dying in front of my eyes.

“That is how I feel when you are rebellious.” She said at the end.

For days after she told me that story, I was overwhelmed with trauma and grief. It was as if I actually had experienced watching the gruesome death of a parent. For years, I had nightmares of that story. It haunted me well into my adulthood, popping into my head at the oddest moments and bathing me in waves of guilt and shame.

I thought that if that was how much it hurt her for me to be a serial prayer-peeper, it was no wonder she had to beat me. She had to protect herself from wounds I inflicted without even the slightest thought. I completely bought her idea of me of as a carelessly bad person and believed that I was fortunate she was willing to correct me.

I don’t believe that my mother set out to tell me a story that would haunt me for the rest of my life. Instead, I believe that she was acting of the instinctual genius that abusers have for making their victims feel sorry for them. She has a gift for making her pain seem so real and overwhelming, that any pain she inflicted on me seems understandable and mild by comparison.

I felt sorry for my mother until I was 40. I believed that beating me really did hurt her more than it did me. My mother’s story was graphic and haunting, but I have no reason to believe that she was more gifted in her manipulation than any other abuser. I think that just about all abusers have one or two gifts that they use to make a victims hate themselves and love the person who hurts them.

Abused people act logically according to the realities of the alternative universe that the abuser builds.
People who stay in abusive relationships are not crazy or self-destructive or gold-digging. In the world built by their abusers, they are at fault and their abuser’s beatings are acts of love and patience.

I felt sorry for the person who beat me for the same reason that almost every abuse victims does – because it is the only way that I could make sense of what has happened. If my mother was the problem, I was completely screwed. But if I was the problem, then there was hope.

Hope and love are what keep most abused people in a relationship. They conspire to make us believe that everything will be okay if we can only say or do the right things. We believe that our abuser is not like other abusers, that really s/he is a truly good and loving person who has been hurt or is putting up with us and that is what makes the abuser hurt us. Hope and love make us believe all excuses, bear unimaginable pain, and bet on incredible long shots.

I have learned that you don’t have to give up love for your abuser, but you do have to run out of hope. You have to finally exit the abuser’s alternative universe and live in reality. Above all, you have to be willing to inflict pain on the abuser to save yourself. Freedom and healing starts when you can finally stop feeling sorry for your abuser.

P.S. Thank you to Rebecca Gorman for her help in proofing this post and to Laurel and Claire for their efforts on other pieces. With my dyslexia, I am reliant on the help of proofreaders, and they have my unceasing gratitude.

The Woman Who Left Her Husband Over a Chicken: Why our stories change over time

When my friend Pam was six months pregnant with her first child, she left her husband over a chicken. Or at least that is how she has been explaining her divorce for the past two decades.

She had worked late one night and came home exhausted and famished. She had put a chicken in the crockpot that morning, and had been craving it all day. But when she lifted the lid of the crock pot, she discovered nothing but bones.

The next day, she filed for divorce.

People in our small southern town were aghast. But as Pam’s friend, I did not join the rabble. I had been watching their relationship develop and I understood what Pam could not articulate: The chicken was a symbol that helped her understand the much bigger problems in their marriage. It was not just the incident, but also how she had constructed the narrative that helped her make the very difficult choice she did not even realize that she had been weighing. She was able to see what many of us already knew, that the man she had married was too immature, selfish and chauvinistic to be a partner in raising their son. He would cause far more work and problems than he would ever solve.

All of that might have been okay if he had been supportive of her in even the most basic way. But he expected her to do all of the work of a housewife and work under those exhausting circumstances. On the night of the infamous chicken debacle, not only had he refused to finish the dinner for them to enjoy. He had eaten what food there was readily available without any consideration for the woman who was carrying his child.

We all tell stories similar to Pam’s chicken. And I am starting to think that there is something pretty profound in those stories Sometimes they are about a moment that was loaded with the symbolism of all that was wrong with a relationship, and sometimes it is a moment when we got clarity.

The stories that we tell ourselves are important, because they make up our biography, what we believe about ourselves in relationship to the world around us.

But the stories that we tell ourselves change over time to accommodate our new understanding of ourselves or of a situation or even changes in what we believe. When I left a relationship with a deeply religious man, I stopped telling myself that God had “shown” him something and started telling myself that somehow the guy had spied on me.

A friend of mine who is a marriage counselor says that he can tell what couples will stay together and which ones will get a divorced by having them tell the story of the time that they met. If the story is filled with love and tenderness, he believes that they have something to build on. But if one or both has already re-written the story to include present grievances, to make what happened then a mistake, it is too late.

An understanding of how our stories change helps a lot for those of us who write memoir. Two years ago, I wrote a story in which I said that I had been sexually assaulted, but I could not bring myself to claim the word “rape.” And then earlier this year, I wrote about the “privileges” I had been given as a rape survivor.

A very nasty critic made hay over the fact that the stories did not match exactly, that the story had changed. What I could not articulate then but can now is that the very act of telling a story changes it because storytelling changes us.

Allowing our stories to change is part of allowing ourselves to evolve and to heal. If all that we have learned does not change how we view our past, then we have not learned anything of importance.

The Real GOP Position: “We support the passive extermination of people that we consider lazy or immoral.”

One of the things that really bothers me about the Right’s rhetoric on poverty is that it stops just one tiny step short of its true recommendation.

Fox News would have us believe that most people who receive some form of public assistance are  moochers. They are really just trailer park dilettantes, kicking back and enjoying barbecue potato chips that come from Uncle Sugar. Or they want us to believe that  the reason we have so many children in poverty is because we have so many slutty women out there just giving it away.

While I could not disagree more strongly with Fox’s assertions about the basic character of the people on public assistance, and I could produce reams of documentation to demonstrate how void their claims are of any factual merit, I have a different idea this time.

How about if for the sake of this one argument we all agree that laziness and immorality is why people are poor and need help. Okay, so then the question becomes what do we do with this group of slatternly and slutty people? Well, the lazy people would of course just get a job if we cut off their benefits, right?

Not so fast. Most people considered lazy have serious problems with attention, and they will never be good workers in menial jobs unless they receive medication and help. In other words, if a person is truly lazy, you cannot fix that character defect by placing him in fear of starving to death.

And what of those who refused to be “fixed.” Who about the people who just sit down and said, “No, I will not work that nasty abusive job flipping burgers.”  

And now what of the women who just keep reproducing. I am fairly sure that  there is a solution for that, but the GOP is doing its best to eliminate it. But let’s assume that all the truly needy people are needy because they are poor or because they are hypersexual.

Here is the tricky thing about people that are cut off from welfare and foodstamp roles. They don’t just disappear, at least not right away.  They try to congregate in little tent cities so they have some safety, but police tear those down. They try to feed themselves and their children dumpster diving, but there simply isn’t enough nutritional value for a large number of people to turn to dumpsters as their sole source of funds.

The question becomes what do you do with these people you have determined not to care for anymore. How close to starvation or death from exposure should we allow them to go?  

This is what we must ask ourselves: Are we really a country that will allow people to die, not because they have committed crimes, but because we find them lazy or a little over-sexed? Really, since when is laziness a capital offense?

Today I published an article in Role/Reboot called,  I Was A Lazy, Immoral Single Mother

I wrote it because I wanted to emphasize three things:

Shaming single mothers is a waste of time since we have enough self-loathing to cover the world in a nice thick goop of the black ink of shame. 

Second, we are not the people who we appear to be at our worst moments.

Third, there should be n test of deservedness when it comes to keeping Americans alive.

We are a great country, and it is high time that we start acting like it. Great countries do not let themselves swayed or be intimidated by the very wealthy. We build a good infrastructure; we take care of kids, and we do it all not in then hopes of making the other person better. We do it because that is what makes us good people and a great nation. 



Writing Is A Lot Like Orgasming

I have had a terrifically productive week. I have banged out four strong articles and made some great headway on my other writing.  You would think that this would be a cause for celebration.  But normally a week like this inspires self-castigation  and makes me a mental-health hypercondriac.

First I tell myself that if I worked this hard all the time, I could really make a difference in the world. Then I think about how my work comes in spurts and stops and wonder if I have just had a manic episode.

Today it finally struck me that this is all a part of the creative process. My articles do not just pop into my head and onto the page. My style of writing involves looking at things differently. It requires a lot of thinking. And thinking looks a lot like being lazy.

After my thinking, I tend to hit a point of frustration where I become absolutely certain that social justice causes need a different writer. Nothing I will ever say or do will make a difference. I also become convinced that I can’t write and that I am a failure as a person.

When the break-through finally comes, it is a flood. Suddenly things that I have had me stuck for weeks just slide out of my fingers and onto the page. I am almost in a frenzy, trying to get the words down before they escape me as they have for the past couple of weeks.

The reason that writing and other creative endeavors can look like being lazy or crazy is that creativity is a slow-cooker, not a microwave.

Writing is like having an orgasm. You have to let it come to you. Rather than straining and striving, you have to trust the process. People have been writing and having orgasms for ages, and you have to trust it. Some days it will come quickly, other days it will play hide and seek with you. But the process will take as much time as it will take.

Frustration is as much a part of the process as inspiration. Trying to rush it, trying to squeeze one out works as poorly for writing as it does for an orgasms.

Trust, breath and let it come to you.