Mate, you’re stepping on my foot

I could write a post where I speak enthusiastically about the digital release of my latest project, but it’s the Victoria University Law Journal.

Actually, it does contain scholarly legal articles about computer-generated works, the treatment of women with intellectual disabilities and something called ‘hot-tubbing’. (No, I still don’t really get why that’s the appropriate term, and I’ve read that article several times by now, but I’m not a legal editor. I’m not paid to understand. I’m paid to put the hyphen in ‘computer-generated works’.) I don’t actually agree with all the articles or their academic position/line of thought, and I wish I’d had the time and pay to go through and do more line editing/proofing, but it’s actually not an uninteresting read, and it’s a free open-source academic journal.

Moving on. Yes, I can sometimes be capable of brevity.

I’ve also spent some time working on the conundrum of ‘How do I make my free books available to people without using a Smashwords-esque service, the nonsensical Google Play, or a host that only hosts PDFs and Word docs (like Google Drive and WordPress and every other hosting service I was already signed up for)?’. I’ve got a few ideas now, but for the moment, I’m putting all my files up on Dropbox, so if you ever wanted an epub or mobi edition of Up Close and Personal or Crooked Words, go forth and download. I’m also using WordPress to host versions of the PDFs for in-browser reading, as it doesn’t disable the interactivity the way Google Drive does. One day I’ll figure out this how-to-be-an-author deal and get everything working smoothly, but I’m not there yet.

On to something title-relevant.

I’m writing a scene in my novella-in-progress where one character (A) listens to a second (B) talk about a third (C), already struggling with depression and PTSD (in addition to queerness and non-binary gender identity and chronic pain), who gets so emotional in triggering situations. B can’t understand why C can’t calmly/quietly/rationally explain what’s going on in her head, or why the things B says to C (some of which are subjective or non-obvious) hurt C so damn much.

By ‘non-obvious’ I mean ‘people who don’t have the  internal experience with the subject/situation at hand – or something quite comparable and some experience of intersectionality – to develop the required empathy to not to say/do stuff that is obviously hurtful to the recipient’. I don’t know how many times I’ve had people who want to debate queer rights with me, something that is totally innocent in their eyes but damn hurtful in mine, because so many people just do not have the empathy to realise that my having to defend my position on wanting basic human rights – and marriage that doesn’t define me by my (wrong!) legal sex – is another bloody reminder of how I am not human in this country. Curiosity and learning might be the driving motive, but the end result is that I need to justify my humanity to all who ask. When do you see a cishet man (assuming no other status of oppression) doing the same?

I wish people understood it’s not a debate. It’s a fight for my existence. I can’t debate this stuff because I don’t have the privilege of this being in the abstract, an entertaining conversation – rather, it’s something that impacts me every day I breathe, and serves as another reminder just how long the road to equality is in this country.

So. Character A listens to B’s confusion and follows up with a surprise-stomp on B’s foot, which gets the usual response from anybody who’s had their toes ground into the floor without warning (consent was given for an unspecified action to make a point). While B still swears a blue streak, A asks B to explain why he shouldn’t have done that … calmly, quietly, rationally, reasonably. B, of course, has an emotional reaction to that request as well. Fancy having to explain calmly why somebody shouldn’t have trod on your foot!

The light bulb starts to go on then, for B, but A says:

Imagine what that’d feel like if someone had done that just yesterday, and two weeks ago, and a month ago, and six months ago, and two years ago when the toes were actually broken and never quite healed right and have pained you ever since … and you know somebody’s probably going to step on your foot again next week. If you can’t be calm when somebody steps on your toes just the once, how can you expect anyone else to do it all the time?

I didn’t think about writing this; it wasn’t planned. I just followed the muses. In reflection, however, this is the story of my life. I don’t know how many conversations I’ve had where people have said or done something that hurts me, be it intentional, obviously hurtful, obvious to people who do think, or something so subjective it can’t be warned for or predicted. Every time the expectation is that I can calmly, reasonably and rationally explain how I feel to the other person and why they shouldn’t say/do it again, when in fact I’m reeling from the emotional equivalent of having someone thoughtlessly grind my oft-broken toes into the ground. Or it is assumed that I can respond in a calm, rational, adult manner, and think my way through the situation and anything that happens afterwards without difficulty or impairment, as though I am not in any pain or distress at all.

When I can’t manage either, because of course I cannot, I am judged. I am told off for not considering the other person’s needs or wishes. I am the recipient of screams, curses and the back of someone’s shoulders as they walk away. Should I break down and cry, I am an object of disgust and scorn, either a babyish child despite my years or the child that cried wolf, an emotional manipulator. How can someone who cries so much mean it each and every time?

I mean it, because my feet are black and blue.

My combination of medical limitations and queerness and gender identity and assigned/perceived sex and background of familial dysfunction means that I have people stepping on my feet all the time. Yet, I am still expected to be calm and reasonable. I am expected to shelve my feelings and my trigger state and put everybody else’s needs before my own. I’m expected to smile and be grateful when people ask about my wrists and nothing else. I’m expected to explain why the teacher touching my arm freaked me out so much I had to leave the classroom. I’m expected to explain why I don’t want to debate ‘gay marriage’ (just that phrase alone is upsetting) with anyone. I am expected to accomplish the impossible – be calm and rational while I am in pain, be it physical, emotional, psychological or a combination of all the above. We assume that people can somehow function in this kind of pain.

I’ll let you in on a secret: we can’t.

If I’m standing and breathing and able to say halfway comprehensible words whilst triggered or anxious, that’s an accomplishment I wish people gave me credit for, because the large majority of my brain processing is devoted to distress and anxiety. I’ve had times where my legs shake so hard I can’t even make it down the stairs to the front door of my apartment building. Just walking and talking and breathing is beyond difficult. Trying to not cry, not mumble, not say something nonsensical, or think about other people and their feelings and needs and desires and demands of me when I’m a hair’s breath from breaking down, when the anxiety and stress and sadness and pain is such that I can barely think through the flood of thoughts and emotions battering themselves back and forth inside my skull?

I know, I know. I should do something about that, right? Get help? Get sane?

It’s only recently that I’ve come to terms with the fact that I will never not be hurt and upset and triggered when my sister says something cruel and abusive to me. I can’t throw it off. I just can’t. It cuts me so deep I’m looking at tears and a week of depression spent lying on my bed watching TV (and I’m now reassessing as to whether or not I really need to spend holidays in her presence). I do have coping strategies, though. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they just kind of help. Sometimes I can learn to anticipate and work through a trigger. I’m actually damn good at shelving the pain until I’m in a place safe enough for the break-down. I’ve become someone who can handle non-surprise touch from others when I used to be so bad I’d freak out if I saw a stranger touch their child/partner’s face, never mind my own. (Still not loving face-touching, though.) I have done a lot about my sanity and I’m still working on it, as hard as it is (and people who don’t walk this road will never understand how hard it is to become something approaching sane and functional) and I am offended by any implication to the contrary.

The answer to this problem isn’t actually my learning to become an emotionless automaton who never feels pain. That’s actually the direct opposite of sanity – it’s the direct opposite of what I work on with my psychologist. I know my family would like that. They’d love it if I didn’t cry when my sister says something horrible. It means they don’t have to do anything about the difficult situation of my sister (someone they love as much as they do me) and how she treats people. It’s easier for them if I don’t feel. It’s easier beyond words if I don’t cry, because if I don’t hurt, nobody needs to act. Who doesn’t want the easy way out?

(There’s an ugly phrase for this turn-of-thought, though: victim-blaming. There’s also a second: scapegoating.)

The answer to this problem is for people to get off my feet.

The problem, though? It’s not just the triggers, the non-obvious things that hurt. I’m expected to be calm and rational and silent about my physical pain as well. People aren’t encouraged to reveal their own, true, emotional selves with any kind of honesty unless it’s positive or falls in the very limited window of ‘Things appropriate to angst about’ (white middle-class cishet male existential philosophy, I dare say?). It’s all needless angst, otherwise. Voicing the negative sides of the challenges people face is diminished and discouraged, and society has a host of bad words for anybody who dares post a Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr update about their real life challenges too often/in the wrong way/with the wrong words. Why are so many books that give their main characters more than one bad thing in their past – or sometimes even that – mocked as angst-ridden or unrealistic, an indication of bad characterisation? It’s somehow unrealistic to have a mentally-ill non-binary queer PWD who has survived abuse all in the one character … oh, wait, that’s meand there are so many people who can add even more things to that list.

It’s only unrealistic, you see, because I am encouraged to not speak, because what the mainstream society considers ‘reality’ is a flawed and limited construct designed to repress and silence the unwanted, and our literature and our words and our actions very much reflect this. The expectation that I am calm and rational and non-expressive ties into that belief that someone like me, someone with bruised and broken toes, should not be at all, and if I must exist despite society’s best efforts, at the very least I need to be quiet while people step on my toes … to the extent that I am expected to be and behave like someone who isn’t in pain.

My pain isn’t just invisible. It doesn’t exist.

That terrible truth is what I’m being told every time someone steps on my feet and then wants me to explain to them why stepping on my feet wasn’t a good thing. I need to explain why my toes exist. Think on what it feels to explain something so obvious, so often, while you’re in pain and upset and triggered, because someone not only didn’t see your toes, but didn’t realise they existed. That’s horrible, isn’t it? And yet, that’s what so many people go through, every day, every week, every month. It’s something I took for granted for so many years – that it was right and normal for people to not see my feet, and in no way is it ever right or understandable for me to cry/swear/scream/be anything less than patient or ‘rational’ or emotionless in response.

(I don’t know how many times I’ve been told it’s wrong to cry. I’ve lost count. I just know that all the people that mattered for twenty-six years told me verbally and implicitly to stop crying, and it took me way too long to find a psychologist who said that I was allowed to hurt and cry about it.)

The crushing part about all this isn’t the fact that so few see my toes.

The crushing part is all the years I’ve spent feeling like I’m the one at fault for crying because someone stepped on them.

The sad part about this extended metaphor is that I have no answer at the end of it, no simple solution – it’s one of those complex problems humans like to hide away from. Society is still going to say that they couldn’t have stepped on my toes, or they didn’t know they were there, or am I sure those appendages are toes at all, or are toes actually even breakable in the first place, or…?

In my story, B is the kind of person who gets the message. B knows that she might never stop treading on other people’s feet (everybody does it), but at least she’ll try and hold her peace, and educate herself as much she can about the existence of toes, and avoid the toes she knows about, and ask about C’s toes when C isn’t reduced to tears. B won’t take it personally when C is unable to do nothing more than express her pain – hell, B will even do the right thing and feel bad about it, and do her best to make sure it doesn’t happen again, because she’s a good person who doesn’t want C to be in pain, and she will learn that what she thought was right and normal was far too much to ask of anyone. In fact, it’ll horrify B once she thinks it through, once she sees how much happier C becomes as a consequence, and how much B’s expectations increased C’s distress. B will do the one thing of which I wish everyone were capable – make her best effort to take responsibility for where she places her feet. She’ll make mistakes – toes are pesky creatures to spot – but she’ll try and she’ll learn.

That’s all I can do, really – write a world where it becomes normal to look, as much as one can, for the toes underfoot.