You had best grab some fizzy water and biscuits and find a comfy place to sit kittens, this is going to be a lengthy one.
I have this nice garden space. Green grass, sunlight, trees, flowers, a swing. Much like the image at the top of this post. It is a place I started to create in my earliest memories, and I have maintained it well over the years of my existence. Where is this little bit of Eden you ask? It’s not a place you can physically visit, it exists entirely in my mind. It is that safe space where I keep all those parts of me that can be fragile if handled roughly, where my hopes, dreams, loves, desires, etc., reside and can be tended to and encouraged to grow.
I learned early on though, it also needed a wall to help protect it and keep it safe. Not a physical wall, but a mental and emotional wall around that garden space, as it was the easiest way to be safe while in that space. As the years progressed and life was experienced, the walls became thicker, higher, more imposing, it was the way to stay safe and away from what went on in the physical world. When life in the physical world became too much to deal with, I would shut down and withdraw into my safe space, my garden, where nobody could get at me.
On a side note, much of what I discuss on this blog is material that I have never discussed publicly before, but, I feel if it can help someone else with their daily battles, then it’s time to share this. Sometimes it takes a while to get there, while I peel back the layers on something, so hang in, I may wander a bit on the journey.
Why have the place you ask? It’s like children with a blanket fort, it’s a place to hang out, have fun, but be safe at the same time.
Why spend so much time there? Because the physical world is not a fun place some days. To lay it on the table, I hated, despised, and dreaded every single day of my school years. Bullying. In all the various forms, including schoolyard beatings, name calling, belittling, etc. Some days it was so bad that I would become physically ill and would be kept home from school. It didn’t help matters that we moved around so much in our younger years, always being the new kid in class meant you had the target on your back from the day you showed up.
Really, the only reprieve I had from it was being laid low with kidney disease in grade 4 and I was out of school for 2 straight months recovering from it. That, while not the most pleasant of experiences for physical health, was a relief mentally from the daily torment that was school. Never really knew why it was so constant until I reached my high school years. We had moved after my grandparents divorced, we had our grandmother live with us (even when Mom was abandoned with two kids, her ex-in-laws took her in and when they split, Mom said it was natural for grandma to then live with us), and funnily enough, two of my high school home room teachers lived in the apartment buildings either side of us.
One night, my grade 12 home room teacher had called my Mom at work and asked her to drop over for a chat and a cup of tea. Before supper, Mom is giving me the Mr. Spock raised eyebrow in the kitchen, “Just what did you do to warrant me going to his apartment for a chat?” No idea. “I expect this about your sister, the school is constantly calling me about her latest stunt, but you?” I heard all about it when she returned home after an hour or so. This teacher had been the first in all those years of school to actually take an interest and when he heard of some plot being hatched dug into it until he found out all the details. All those years of school, all the bullying and torment, the days when I was physically sick before going out the door for school… my younger sister was the ring leader of it all this time. He was so concerned, he had looked into making arrangements to transfer me to another school in the downtown core, an arts-focused school, to finish my last year and a half of high school. Mom said she appreciated the effort, but, at the end of the day, the kid has to come home and live under the same roof with her chief tormentor. At least we had an answer into why it was so constant and had persisted for all those years. And upon further digging and questioning discovered that it was Mom’s ex-husband, father of her two kids, who egged my younger sister on through all of it. He bullied his ex-wife at every opportunity, may as well target the oldest child, because too much like the old lady according to him.
So, when things got to be too much in the physical world, I retreated. I self-isolated. Until I graduated from school and went into the working world, I kept to myself as much as possible. Since I was young I have always had a love of reading, I inherited that most certainly from my mother, along with her constant intellectual curiosity and thirst for learning. Mom had artistic talents, she was a fantastic photographer and had a knack for anything she could do with her hands (knitting, crocheting, needlepoint, etc.), and while I can take a decent enough picture, my area was always music. I went into artistic pursuits with a passion, but always things I could do by myself. (I also think you might be getting a hint about some of the causes that led to my diagnosis of PTSD.)
This is why the self-isolation. It was my safe space. I could be under my headphones listening to music, or my nose buried in a book and lost in another writer’s world. In my room, in my world, mentally off in my garden with all the walls protecting it. That was the only safe space from the physical world. It is why, to this day, I cannot bear to be in a crowded space, why loud noises (like arguing, slammed doors/drawers/cupboards) make me physically jump and want to disappear. Even in my current living space, if the roomie slams doors, I become a bundle of nerves and my heart rate skyrockets and withdraw even further.
Believe you me, I breathed a gigantic sigh of relief on that last day of grade 13.
But, this also explains much about why, when I came out to my mother at 16, her advice was, “For chrissakes, whatever you do Kit (my nickname that only she used), do not breathe a word of this to your sister or your old man or they will never let you have a moment’s peace until the day you die!”
I’ve seen what she meant many times over the years. Even decades after their divorce, the old man would not give her a minute’s rest. If he wasn’t on the phone ranting while intoxicated, he was showing up at her work, or inviting himself over to our place seeing as it was his mother who lived with us. He even went with my sister to the hospital to see Mom in palliative care (which I lost my temper in a nuclear fashion when I found out about it from a distant relative), and the nurses were forced to sedate her heavily after. I’d like to, but then again, maybe not, know what happened in her room that day. But at her celebration of life, I had to hire pay duty police officers to guard the church, inside and out, as he had threatened to show up and create a scene. His exact words were, he wanted “to piss in her urn so she would always remember who was the boss.”
As you can imagine, I was not spared this, and went through the same treatment. He’d show up at my work, and do his best lounge lizard routine while trying to pick up the receptionist. Damn near cost me one job which I eventually had to leave anyway because of him showing up drunk and hitting on the female employees.
I was fascinated some years into my working life to hear about and then read a study showing that alcoholism ran through generations of families. Of course, I had living proof of it. Grandma was a nasty drunk, and had a 10 year run without a single day sober. The old man, her younger of two sons, was, and still is a violent alcoholic, who thinks women are placed on the Earth solely to satisfy his deviant sexual urges, and a more bigoted, racist, homophobic, misogynistic prick you will never encounter the likes of elsewhere. And, it passed down to my younger sister, who is a blackout drunk, but the same racist, homophobic, transphobic mind as her father. Their favourite trick is to keep hurling false stories and accusations at you and about you… you’re so busy defending yourself against the lies and bullshit, there is no chance at all that you have the time to hold up a mirror and reflect their behaviours back to them.
And that is why, my dear readers, if I was not at school, I had isolated myself when I got home, and mentally I was off in that garden. The same in my working life, when I was not at the office, I was at home and in that garden again. You see, I had learned through my teenage years and once I got into the working world, I did not fit in, I was not one of the crowd, the only place to be was on my own as much as possible. That was my safe place. It’s where my musical side lives, it’s where my writer lives, it’s where the woman who sings along to the radio in the car lives, it’s my little place of happiness by myself.
That’s why I never socialized in my school years, never went to events, dances, parties, anything social. I was home, isolated, and safe.
Besides, Mom and I had our hands full just managing grandma and her binges. Many a day we would be sitting around the corner out of view of the windows, in the car, freezing half to death, waiting for the liquor store to close before going home (the days when stores closed early on Saturday and were not open on Sundays). Mom and I were the social drinkers of the family… we would have one to be social, but that was it. I learned all the tricks, asking for extra ice, slipping the bartender a 5 or 10 and asking them to pour anything ordered for me virgin-style (no alcohol), sitting near a plant and dumping drinks into it through the evening. All the tricks. I got absolutely falling down drunk once, just after I turned 20 (before the age of majority dropped to 19). Mom said, you need to experience this once so you know what it’s like, and I’ll be there by your side to make sure you’re safe. Yeah, once was enough, no desire to ever repeat that experience again.
It became the same thing in the working world. I avoided social events and outings at all costs, or if I was expected to attend, would find a safe corner to stay in for the duration. I had my brief wild oat-sowing period, from 19 to 23 years of age, and the last relationship of any note went so horrid, I stopped and shut that part down completely too. If you’re curious, my partner at that time was abusive, particularly emotionally abusive, and would sleep with anything with a steady pulse. Not my cup of tea at all, so I shelved that part of my life almost permanently. And, all the while, I kept building the walls around my safe garden, they got higher, and more elaborate, and I became quite adept at keeping people at more than arm’s length from me. I’m sure some over the years thought I was an icy bitch, but, self-preservation is stronger than all other desires.
It was something we laughed about in later years, after my grandmother had died, and there was just my Mom and myself. She said, “Ya know Kit, we’re like two women of a particular vintage… both of us had a shit relationship in our early 20s and haven’t been the least bit arsed to even think about dipping our toes back in that pool ever again.” It was true. Our apartment with our cats and us was our safe space, where we were allowed to simply exist. Mom had always known my true identity, and I could fully live that truth when we were at home. No, that doesn’t mean what so many mistake it as. Truth be told, 3 years into medical transition, my wardrobe hasn’t varied all that much from what it was before. There may be additional garments required, but I’ll always be the jeans and runners type… I get dressed up for formal occasions as warranted, but more often than not, I’m just me being me, you should expect nothing less.
One of the favourite insults of Mom’s ex was to go on at length about how stupid and clueless we both were. For the record, we both had MENSA level IQs, we were tested a few times to confirm it. And he and my sister were convinced that something was up because I didn’t go out and socialize or date or anything of the sort. The old man was convinced, I must be one of those fa**ots because I wasn’t out “chasing pussy all over town like a real man.” Nice, eh? And what made him even more crazed was that Mom and I not only looked exactly alike, but you’d swear we were clones of each other. I could start a sentence, she would finish it, and the reverse was also true. I recall distinctly being in hospital recovering from the latest surgery to correct another birth defect, he shows up, loads me into a wheelchair, takes me out to the parking lot and starts in about how I “must be one of those dirty fa**ots, even your sister thinks so too…but I won’t mind…” yeah, definitely father of the year material. If he’d pull that while I’m recovering from surgery on various joints and bones, I can only imagine what horrors he did to Mom in palliative care.
About those walls… let’s add razor wire and electrified fencing too, and maybe a moat.
And throughout the years, we would do 2 social events per year, perhaps 3. Mom and I would go to my company’s Christmas Dance, her company’s Christmas Dance, and perhaps her Spring Dance as well. That was it. No more. She knew what my limits were. We would go for dinner, listen to the speeches, do our “duty dances” as Mom called them, and then we would split for home. People tended to get more than a little carried away in the era of open bars and we had no desire to be there to see the results. And we knew each other’s facial expression that said “I have had enough, I need to leave now, if not sooner.” There was no need to say anything, that look meant let’s get on the road to home now.
Of course, one of Mom’s classic lines that still cracks me up to this day… any time there was a new hire in her department (she was at the same company for 40 years before retiring early), she would inevitably ask why Mom didn’t date or remarry, after all, she had been divorced since 1965. Mom would slide her glasses down, fix the questioner with her famous patented icy stare and then slowly say, “I’ll have you know… that I am not… in the habit… of repeating… my mistakes,” smiling sweetly at the end as she pushed her glasses back up her nose. I eventually adopted her line as well, particularly in my years on Bay Street. Of course, I would pick the perfect career field for myself… after starting out in Finance, I went to EDP (Electronic Data Processing, as it was known in the 80s), and eventually side-stepped into Telecommunications. The nice part about the job, I spent a good part of my day inside the computer room, hunched over the PBX terminals, and was pretty much left alone to do my thing, because in 6 years with one company, we never had one second worth of downtime during business hours. It was my own version of being isolated, but during the workday. Just myself, cabinets full of data circuits, a couple of refrigerator size PBX cabinets, and a wall of manuals (I didn’t get any formal training until I had been in the job for 3 years, I learned by reading the manuals on the subway to and from home, and giving me the chance to isolate myself in my own little world instead of dealing with the sardine can I was riding in).
Pretty much throughout work life, once the day was over, make a beeline for home. I never had time for the politics, gossips, rumour mill, ass-kissing, and all the rest of that nonsense. I was there to do my job, and collect a paycheque on a regular basis and nothing more. And yes, it did cost me over the years, I wasn’t “one of the team”, I didn’t “fit in” and so on. I’ve heard it all. Well, my idea of a fun night out is not going out and getting falling down drunk in some strip joint while spending ridiculous amounts of money on watered-down liquor and lap dances… I didn’t join in the latest office gossip, and I had no desire to play in the politics quagmire. The best part of the day was going home to peace, quiet, relaxation. Put on a pot of coffee, get dinner on the table for us, play time with the cats, and relax with our favourite shows on television.
And still, I do not care for crowds, overly noisy scenes, and I definitely cannot bear being around intoxicated people who don’t know enough to go home once they have hit their limit (or usually surpassed it by 5 or 6 too many). You’ll never see me in a packed shopping mall before Christmas or after, and I do my best to avoid the subway at all costs during rush hour. If I have to take the subway, I usually end up getting off the train every stop or every two stops until arriving at my destination because I cannot handle the sardine can conditions. Usually if I’m off to an evening meeting on College Street, I will stroll over and take the Bay bus up, it takes a little longer, it is a more out of the way usual route for me, but, I don’t have to endure the crowds and behaviours that are typical on the subway.
Yes, I have perfected self-isolation over my lifetime. It is my safe place. Particularly from what lies outside my apartment door. But when you are constantly told that you will never measure up, you’re not good enough, bullied constantly, insulted, put down, had vicious lies and gossip spread about you, what else is there to do?
I described it once to a close friend, the dance that happens when somebody tries to get close. It’s like some odd tango, only my partner never does manage to take my hand and lead me through the steps. People get to a certain level of familiarity, then they hit my walls and boundaries. I have spent a lifetime building them, it’s how I keep that garden and myself safe. If they step too close, I back up. If they move closer again, I will back up again. It’s a similar experience when somebody stands too close to talk to you and you are literally looking up their nostrils, like, stay outta my envelope sparky! You’ll know when you are welcome to be that close, and that’s because I have extended my hand to you or we have just had a proper hug, and you are allowed to be that close because I feel comfortable with you.
I had recently come across this article again, How I Broke my Heart Wide Open. I shared it with a close friend, and she got the message contained in it instantly. It definitely spoke to both of us, as self-isolation and keeping that garden walled off and protected was what we were both experts in. It goes with the territory when you battle PTSD every single day. I have worked hard at breaking it open, at tearing down the walls and barricades, being open to whatever life has to offer. But, I do so with the knowledge that what was kept safe behind those walls is still extremely fragile. I recently found this quote, and I felt it described my journey quite accurately:
It has worked from time to time. Without being able to break things wide open, I would never have become close friends with Danielle. She is one of a select few who have ever been in that place where I can exist as my raw self, emotional, broken, and more… the parts I hide away from the world behind my ‘rough as a badger’s arse’ exterior, and the one thing I know, is that no matter what happens, we will always have each other’s back. My gruff old broad exterior keeps that innocent child safe in the garden and most people at a distance. A few close friends have been to that space. Darla, who you must know is quite simply love personified. The one thing I know for certain, if I ever need to reach out my hand, she will be the first one to take it and hang on for dear life, it is just the way she is made. I quite simply adore her with all that is good inside that garden and she knows that I will always have her back too. Ashley joined the crew last year, I call her my twin sister from another mister, as I swear some days we are joined at the brain. I can start a sentence and she can finish it, and there are days where a look says volumes and we end up bent over laughing ourselves silly because we both know the joke that passed between us without speaking a word. And then a new close friend who just “gets it” between the two of us. We have shared so many similar experiences that there is no need for asking, when one of us needs to say something, the other one gets it deep inside, and that would be Natalie. We text, we send messages, we giggle ourselves silly, trade pictures, and so on, but we both know, if either of us hits that button, the other one will come running instantly, it’s just how we are. These close friends, they are always welcome to come and hang out in the garden anytime (even when it’s a bit messy).
And then there is my Sunshine. I have mentioned in a previous post some of the details about how we first met online and took the conversation from there. The easiest way to explain it, she saw me, no walls, no barricades, that open book she had never seen before. She saw all the stuff so that there were no surprises. I admit, I’m no picnic, and it takes a while to get to know all of my true self. She never hesitated. The simplest way to describe what I think about her would be this, I love her, exactly as she is, nothing needs to be changed, she is perfect as she exists in any given moment. No matter what may come our way, she knows that I will always be there for her. We were friends before we fell head over heels for each other (her giggle still makes me go weak in the knees!), and even with things on hold currently, she still crosses my mind frequently every single day, she will permanently be “my Anne.” If you had told me that was possible a few years ago, I would have suggested you go right to your doctor, something was definitely off.
Yet, despite all of this, I found myself over the holidays at the end of last year, beginning to reconstruct the walls, barricades, and so forth around the garden again. It was a list of things that build upon each other until I got to that stage where things were going off the rails and all I wanted was my safe and quiet space alone again, just like the image at the top of this post.
I had recently come across this article on Thought Catalog (I typically share with friends the source material I have been reading before writing a post), and in the early paragraphs, I saw the term “malignant narcissist”. How thoroughly appropriate to describe that thorn in my side that I described in my relaunch post New Beginnings. As I read through the 20 items, so many applied to recent events, particularly the part about smear campaigns. You see, this character thinks he can continue to travel about running his mouth, and then people come right to me to fill me in on what’s going on so I know to be prepared for it. Reminds me of that family that I rid myself of at the point of my mother’s death. And no matter what, there are still those feeble-minded types who will believe every word of it. Those are the same ones who regularly found it hilariously funny when one of the local drunks would grab me by the breasts in front of other people. Umm… it’s sexual assault under the criminal code, but when people think it’s funny, why even bother to try and do anything about it. Danielle tells our students at every lecture, sexual assault, verbal assault, physical assault… it’s a regular thing for transgender women, and yet, it happens so frequently that we have all become inured to it and barely raise an eyebrow any longer, and yet, every time it happens, it causes more damage to our mental health. It is what it is folks, as much as I wish it were different. In the case of one business owner, she doesn’t see what is wrong with it when it happens to me (the unspoken part is, “because you aren’t a real woman” and that comes up repeatedly when excusing boorish behaviour), but if it was somebody else, they would be kicking people out the door. Welcome to my life.
And that is why the pull to self-isolate has been irresistible in recent times. I purposely have only one thing booked for the month of March. I need that downtime away from the outside world. I need to repair, rebuild, and break things wide open again. Even if I am always on high alert (and believe me when I tell you what an energy drain that is) while waiting for something to happen, and with the resident narcissist up to his old tricks again, I just desperately want time away from it all. Just to lay in bed, listen to music, write, etc. Do all those enjoyable things that happen in the garden.
As much as I have been ahead in my daily battle for a few years now, things are holding on tenuously lately. It was a good run, but time to have a breather and re-evaluate many things. One thing I continue to seriously consider is moving outside of the city. Toronto holds too many unpleasant things for me these days. I remain in that inquiry without a decision, mostly because there are some lovely folks in my neighbourhood, but some people just put a sour taste to everything.
To conclude, self-isolation can at times be an act of self-care, to step away from something that is triggering you in every way possible. But, it is not a place to reside permanently, one must get out and be sociable, even if only in small doses to begin. Some days the conversation in my head is going full speed just to manage getting through the day, and other days it breezes past effortlessly. But, I’m still standing, still breathing, still putting one foot in front of the other. Just some days, I need to step away from the world and recharge my batteries, at times for extended periods, but I always return.
And who knows, if I can keep my heart, my walls, my barriers, broken open, perhaps if you reach out your hand, I’ll let you come and explore my garden too. And there is a swing. Just give me time, I’ll get there eventually, I’m still on my journey and still being a warrior every day. That’s why the new image on the main blog page, it represents where I am in my journey currently, and exploring which path will lead me back to myself again.
Don’t forget to LOVE each other INTENSELY kittens!