an exercise in ventriloquism.

I wrote this as a submission for Catharsis: Trans Women’s Stories of Sexual Violence, which is a wonderful project that I am so happy is being put together. This piece is a personal narrative about my rape, followed by an analysis of my experiences with recovery and support highlighting the difficulties as a trans woman, as neurovariant, and as having psychiatric disabilities. A lot of it is very personal, and difficult to read (and trust me, even more difficult to write), but I feel it is important to share nonetheless. For those who wish to read the analysis half, but not the personal narrative (which is where the majority of the triggering material is), it is under section II.

TRIGGER WARNING: The following contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence, drug use, and transphobia. There is also brief mention of self-harm (specifically, cutting).

- – -

an exercise in ventriloquism.

I don’t remember much of 2009. In some ways that’s for the best, but part of me is deeply troubled by nearly a year of my life gone missing. I’ve tried to pick up the pieces; so much time spent playing archaeologist, searching for anything, any tiny shard of my memories, of my life, that could potentially bring some of my history back to me. Even the records from that part of my life are gone. The endless stack of notebooks filled with my thoughts skip over most of that year. Old email accounts, facebook archives, chat logs – almost entirely empty during the summer of 2009, and the rest of the year left scarcely a trace at all. What I do remember has come back to me suddenly, violently, unexpectedly. This is the product of my excavation, the put back together pieces of the history of my rape.

I

“I was welcomed into adulthood in an abandoned house in our nation’s capital with a crackpipe and two filthy cocks in my mouth. I was only 18. This was my rite of passage.”
– excerpt from the earliest known writing of mine about my rape, sometime in late 2010.

- – -

I woke up, shivering, drenched in sweat. Sleep has always been a retelling of painful experience. I woke up more exhausted than the night before, lucky to have fucked myself up enough to fall asleep in the first place. Fragments reassembled and the first complete thought to enter my head was something close to “oh shit, I’ve got to call my probation officer” before spiraling into a panic attack. My drug test results were going to be a couple of days late, and I had tested positive for oxycodone.[1] I have anxiety around the phone as it is – this time I was absolutely terrified. I crushed up some adderall, made neat little lines, sucked them up my nose, filled a cup full of half whiskey/half coffee and downed the whole thing in a couple of gulps; got me fucked up enough to manage the call. Turns out, the bastard wasn’t even around – or at least he didn’t feel like picking up the phone – so I faxed the results over to the court and hoped for the best. I didn’t have time to sit around trying to figure all of that shit out. I had a bus to catch.

I hopped on the commuter rail going into the city, then transferred onto the metro towards Chinatown. Two trains collided into each other. Nine people died, though I didn’t find out until a few days later. What was supposed to be a 30 minute ride took over an hour. I finally got to the bus stop, out of breath, nearly collapsing. I missed my bus by five minutes. The sun was bearing down on my back with a great weight, and I sat down on a nearby stoop to smoke a cigarette. A middle-aged man, in his mid-40s if I had to guess, was standing around the bus stop.

“Yo, you miss your bus too?”
“Yeah, somethin’ like that.”

We made small talk, and he asked if I wanted to smoke a blunt. I said yes, obviously. I was fucked up in a bad way. Some weed would help put me at ease.

We walked for a few blocks to an abandoned building. We walked around the side, the wall in the back corner had decayed significantly. Pieces of rot, wood and plaster littered the floor. A slight breeze danced across the room, grazing against my skin gently with a certain maternal compassion, trying to reassure me that I was safe. He asked if I had money to put in, and I gave him a ten. After about 10-15 minutes, he came back with a friend of his. There were introductions, more small talk, and I asked about the blunt. All I remember was that he gave me some vague unrelated answer, redirecting the conversation elsewhere without me being aware of it – something that happens to me often. My adhd[2] causes disconnects in my flow of consciousness; one thought becomes another, seemingly fluid, entangled, not the same but seen and felt and known as one – tied but never to the ground.

He said I was cute; how he was bi but on the down-low, and some shit about how “pretty I was for a boy.” He pulled out some crack and a pipe, took a hit and passed it to me, asking if I wanted any. I passed on it and he handed it to his friend. The air was heavy with the smell of burning plastic and a piercing chemical acridity hung in the back of my nostrils. He told me I was cute again, his voice wavering and desperate, warning me that crack made him and his friend horny and asked real politely if I could “help them out” by sucking their dicks. It caught me off guard. A deer in the way of a speeding truck, ensnared by the coming inevitability, fully aware but unable to act.

He insisted, complimenting me on how beautiful I was and how he needed help and “just kiss it then real quick nothing more you don’t have to do more if you don’t feel okay with it just kiss it real quick ’cause you’re so beautiful and it’s just the coke please help me” and pulled down his pants and put his dick in my face and I kissed it softly and he moaned and asked me to put my mouth around it and I did for like fifteen seconds. It was soft, flaccid, unthreatening; it looked like it had been thrown out onto the dirt, left in the sun to wilt. His friend whipped his out next, and shoved it in my mouth for a few seconds before I spit it out. They gave me their heartfelt thanks. I wanted to vomit. I wanted to cut my tongue off.

They packed the pipe again, hit it, then passed the pipe to me. I took a real motherfucker of a hit. I nearly choked. The world was spinning, the past half hour never happened and I felt alive for the first time in over a month, for the first time since I had my ass beat in the middle of the woods by some pig bastards. We left the building and walked around a bit, making more small talk about whatever, about how I was going to NYC to visit my partner. I didn’t believe a word I was saying. I was going to die in Chinatown. Not that I thought anyone was going to kill me, I just knew my life was over. That was it, I was done. 18 years was enough for me; time to turn in and move on.

I eventually made it back to the station and got on the next bus. By that point, I was crashing hard. I couldn’t get the taste out of my mouth, off of my tongue. It tasted of salty rot and a dusty bitterness reminiscent of coffee left out overnight. I spent the ride holding back tears, shaking like I was having a goddamn seizure. The taste kept making me gag. I vomited three times.

My partner was waiting for me on the sidewalk, right where the bus dropped us off. I sprinted to her, knocking people over left and right like Moses had sent me himself to part the Red-Fucking-Sea. I fell into her arms and rain began to fall.

II

“I am learning to find hope in the tiny flickering light of distant unfamiliar suns. And so I am learning to live without any light but my own. I am far from being truly safe or self-sufficient but slowly, I am losing less of myself each night.”
– found in a notebook used for processing, undated (estimated early 2012).

- – -

There are days when I don’t eat, not for lack of food, but for some strange, compelling sense of uselessness; nights spent sleepless for fear of the nightmares that follow. There are times when, seemingly unprovoked, I catch a glimpse of apocalypse and fall into panic, overwhelmed with sorrow. When happiness comes, I consume it, devour it, burn it all up in a matter of moments then crash – and I am left a twisted, smoldering wreck, having only peered above the clouds for a brief instant. Some days are better than others. Days like these come less frequently. I am slowly taking back all that was lost, reclaiming my life. I am slowly learning to love myself. I don’t blame myself for what happened anymore. I still feel shame, but it’s no longer a crushing weight bearing down on my chest, halting my breath. I still can’t take care of myself entirely, but I’m no longer making things worse. I still cut myself sometimes, but it’s no longer a means of getting through the day. I still hurt, but it’s no longer the only thing I feel.

A lot has taken place since then: an abusive relationship, a long series of various addictions, multiple overdoses, homelessness, two suicide attempts, additional traumas I’d rather leave unmentioned. I do not wish to give the impression that trauma is always an isolated incident, as it’s usually not. Merely coping and surviving can be all-encompassing, sometimes it’s nothing but luck. It’s hard to think about getting well when I, like many others, am struggling to figure out how to even get by. It’s even harder when intersecting oppressions are a constant affront to survival. Coping and recovery take many forms, as many as there are people, and I do not wish to imply that my account is anything but my own experience as a poor, young, white, able-bodied, queer, neurovariant trans woman with psychiatric disabilities.[3] There may be some similarities however, and I hope that by sharing my experiences, unpacking them, and analyzing them, others will find at least something helpful in their own experiences.

The way my rape affects me has a lot to do with being neurovariant, with having psychiatric disabilities, with misogyny and transmisogyny. Unfortunately, the same goes for the barriers to support I encounter. Most rape survivor spaces I’ve come across are transphobic, and even the self-identified “trans inclusive” spaces tend to be transmisogynistic. I’ve gone into survivor spaces, seeking support and understanding, being further traumatized in the process, being told my body is that of a rapists’, being told that my rape is not real, being told to feel ashamed of who I am and that all that has happened to me is my fault, or worse even – that I secretly wanted it to happen. As a poor, neurovariant trans woman, I am supposed to seek help from a justice system that actively criminalizes me, that perpetuates and sustains sexual abuse, that not only sees rape as being my fault but goes further and tries to punish me for what happened in the process. My body is sexualized by others, and consequently my sexual traumas are erased, kept invisible, sexualized themselves.

Trauma often affects neurovariant people differently, sometimes more severely, as it does for me. Functioning in an inaccessible society with adhd is a daily struggle as it is, and coping with trauma in such a society only compounds the difficulty. My thoughts disconnect, jumping from idea to idea at random without a logical progression. Sometimes, triggering thoughts come to mind unprovoked. One minute I’m thinking about what I want for lunch, then suddenly, I’m thinking about one of my suicide attempts. Thoughts move faster than I can think, piling on top of each other into a cluttered trainwreck. Combined with my anxiety issues (generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and ptsd), it makes for crippling panic attacks that have lasted up to days. The impulsivity from my adhd and the reckless tendencies from my ptsd compound each other, and I have fucked up my life and nearly died on occasion as a result. It fuels my already existing addictive personality. I fall in love too quickly and too intensely, using romance as escapism, hurting myself and those I love in the process. I fear that the combination of severe anxiety, depression, and adhd might unexpectedly cause me to take my own life, and I have substantial evidence to support that it might. After all, I’ve tried three times before. Who’s to say I won’t find myself having a bad day, the wrong combination of thoughts, and around something I could use to kill myself?

I feel alienated from neurotypical trauma survivors, whose experiences with trauma often differ widely, and who often invalidate my experiences as being illegitimate or invalid since they do not match their normative expectations. I have difficulty in my own personal processing and deconstructing of the experience. Finding the lines between what trauma caused what damage, between what aspect of my neurovariance accounts for which behaviors, between trauma, neurovariance and psychiatric disability themselves, is often impossible. The progress I’ve made with being able to function and cope with my psychiatric disabilities has come undone in various ways each time a traumatic experience occurs. I’m blamed for not being able to keep up. People tell me that I’m “not trying hard enough” to recover, that I’m lazy or unmotivated – all things I’ve been told throughout my entire life as someone with adhd.

The medical-industrial complex only offers inadequate mental health support, often times feeding into the same system of criminalization and incarceration as the prison-industrial complex. I am terrified still that I will be institutionalized against my will for the ways in which I cope with this trauma. I am criminalized for self-medicating, as there is little to no self-determination of treatments. I am forced to self-medicate, because what actually helps me does not fit into what my psychiatrist has been trained to do for a specific, normative definition of how these medications are supposed to work. Psychiatric medications are notoriously under-researched, inadequate, and ineffective. There is so much variation in how medications affect different bodies, different brains, that I am forced to jump through hoops, give myself up to trial and error experimentation at the whim of a psychiatrist who hardly knows me. I am forced to take medications that don’t work, simply because they are profitable. The medical-industrial complex is a capitalist structure, guided only by what can make a profit without regard to patient welfare. This capitalist model of treatment carries over to research as well, and as such trans specific and neurovariant specific needs are entirely overlooked, leaving me to fend for myself.

One of the less immediately apparent aspects of trauma and ptsd is that there’s sometimes a sort of amnesia around the traumatic experience. In my experience, being triggered plays itself out when my brain has to recall a piece of information encoded in that traumatic experience, causing what feels akin to short-circuiting, opening the floodgates. I’ve noticed over the years that by reclaiming those memories, it helps center my perception when interacting with my traumas. It helps keep me grounded enough to sometimes lessen the damage from panic attacks. I feel similarly in my experience with being a trans woman in a way. Reclaiming our histories, to me, has always been a source of strength, of inspiration and hope, a way to know I am not alone and break through the suffocating fog of alienation. It keeps me grounded enough to help me deal with this transphobic, cis-supremacist, violent world. It helps me keep fighting for our liberation. That said, it’s often an extremely difficult, painful process, and one which I could never do alone.

The support I have received, was almost entirely from within my own communities, from other trans survivors, other neurovariant trans folks, other poor trans women. I’m extremely grateful for them, and that is partially why I am writing this piece – because I believe that it is important for all feminists, not only transfeminists, to acknowledge that misogyny runs deeper than biology. To acknowledge that trans* communities are, and have been, engaged in struggles against rape culture for as long as cis feminists have.

Transmisogyny and misogyny are inexplicably tied.[4] Transmisogyny is the process through which our identities are invalidated, through which people make claims as to what is or isn’t a “real woman”. It sets standards as to how feminine one must or mustn’t be to be considered a woman. If we are too feminine, we are told we are somehow feeding the patriarchy, living up to their stereotypes and reinforcing negative perceptions of women. If we are too un-feminine, we are told that it is proof of our not being “real women”. Our identities are held hostage to our appearance, validated or invalidated based on how much we pass as cis women – an extension of patriarchy determining what a woman is “supposed” to look like. It ignores the ways in which we are socialized as trans women, making brash and incorrect assumptions that trans people internalize socialization in the same ways as cis people. It perpetuates rape culture and violent heteropatriarchy, enabling them by asserting that so long as they only target certain kinds of women, that is, trans women, it’s acceptable. To ignore or erase the existence of transmisogyny can only lead to a false understanding of heteropatriarchy, one which will inevitably fail us in our pursuit of transforming society from one enamored with sexual violence, into one where we are all truly free.

- – -

“Yet, despite these overwhelmingly interwoven oppressive social institutions, many of us are able to unweave such mental conditioning. We can perceive life as it unfolds, and be able to absorb such experiences, learn from them, grow from them. We see beauty where others find none. We know of the uniqueness of things, and find new insight in all we come across.”
– fragments, 7/13/2011.

- – -

notes

1. Since I was living out of state at the time I was arrested, they forced me to go pay for my own drug tests, then send the results to a probation officer.

2. I do not capitalise adhd purposefully. I do the same when referring to ptsd, and any acronym for the names of psychiatric disorders or disabilities. The reasoning for this, is that the words and terms themselves are incredibly useful in describing my experiences and I feel it is incredibly important to be able to place a name to such things personally, however I wish to challenge the legitimacy of the psychiatric institutions and the medical-industrial complex in their pathologizing of our minds and the stigmatizing presence they’ve cultivated around us. This is my way of compromising between the two.

3. I differentiate here between two terms: neurovariance and psychiatric disability. Neurovariance refers to a variation from how society expects one to think, process information, and otherwise exist psychologically. I use psychiatric disability to refer to impairments in my mental function, and aspects of my mental function of which society is inaccessible. The two terms are not mutually exclusive however, but simply refer to aspects of how I relate to the way my mind works.

4. A more accurate terminology would actually have misogyny consisting of sub-groups including transmisogyny and cismisogyny, as transmisogyny is a function of misogyny and not a separate process in and of itself.

2 comments
  1. I wanted to leave some sort of intellectual reply, but I’m afraid my intelligence isn’t fully active at the moment, all I can say is that this piece is really well written, very good job. :-)

  2. Justin said:

    I’m a straight married man, and a comment on a blog doesn’t count for much, but you can count me as a trans woman in terms of support if it counts at all.

    I had PTSD issues related to childhood and adolescence.

    My way out, my therapy, to climb out of my head and back into the present, has been art and physical or mental exercise. I have no psychological advice, all I can say is that I’ve used two tactics primarily to unwind myself.

    1. Get into a physical process that leaves no room for thought, under the right amount of exertion, its very difficult to continue thinking. At this point, I am good at having no thoughts at all for long stretches, whether at rest or exercise. (Unless I need to be thinking about something, I try to relax my mind with no thought.)

    2. When I have inappropriate emotional reactions, I stop thinking and allow myself to process the emotional response. While going through this, I have a tendency to slip into my own head, coming up with rationalizations, explanations, and reliving experience of the past. I actively concentrate on experiencing the emotional response without much thinking and try to focus on the present experiences around me. The questions I lash myself too are, “what about my present environment is causing this emotional or mental activity?” I focus on the details of my environment or change it until the moment passes.

    I also believe that our culture is so toxic, so socially oppressive, that it crushes people from birth. No healthy society could turn its members into suicide bombers like ours does.

    The clouds have parted in the past couple of years, I am 33. I remember my mental state and decision making in my 20s as though through a fog.

    Good luck and Godspeed with whatever route you find out.

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