I have seen a lot of photos from the various Sister Marches since marching the Womxn’s March on Seattle this past Saturday. You’ve probably seen my favorite, it’s the one showing a sign that says, “So bad, even introverts are here.” I can relate to this one because there are few events on this planet that contain large crowds and also contain me. At least since developing PTSD. Before PTSD, I used to attend concerts constantly. I was a regular presence at every local Summer festival, and even traveled to Oregon and California to attend O Fair and the Rainbow Gathering one happy year past. I had no problem with large crowds. I remember skipping through Folklife wearing a ragged, oversized striped sweater over a vintage wedding dress, scanning the crowd for friends even though this act may have led me to make eye contact with a stranger (horror of all horrors)! This past Saturday, I scanned the crowd a bit, but only because I had developed PTSD Survival Skill: “Target Skipping.”
This is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. While scanning a crowd, you allow your vision only the smallest amount of focus necessary to be able to distinguish whatever you need to find. It helps when you have a lot of non-human items to glance your focus across. In the case of the protest, I used the signs as my “homing posts.” I settled my gaze on them, read whatever funny, unifying, encouraging, angry, sarcastic, witty or beautiful message was written upon it, and then skipped my eyes to the next refreshingly non-human sign.
Of course, it’s not a fail-proof plan. Those signs were being held by conscious, alert humans. Eye-contact did occasionally, horrifyingly, occur. Did it matter that these humans were here in support of the same ideals as me? Did it matter that they held signs telling me that my voice deserved to be heard, that I deserved better treatment in this life than I have had, that they, like me, found the election of a politically incompetent, braggart misogynist to be both personally and nationally abhorrent? Nah. PTSD don’t care about intentions. PTSD got it’s own intentions. PTSD slips a hue of malice behind every set of eyes. It wraps all conversation with notes of judgment. It is not enough to know, in my mind, that these are mere projections; that within the interactions of strangers and yes, even friends, my mental illness packs the memory of my past assailant. All of his rage, and all of my fear, are reenacted in these small ways throughout the day and the feeling, as irrational as I know it to be, reigns supreme. It is understandable then, that I would imagine a several mile mile march among 175,000 people exhausting, perhaps even impossible.
And it was hard. I had to use a whole host of my PTSD artillery. Besides the crowd scanning skill, I had to use the “Hide Behind My Motherhood” survival skill, where I basically talk to my daughter instead of the other mom (or whomever) is speaking to me.
Example: A stranger comments on the way my daughter is hopping instead of marching. I laugh and coo, with my face pointed between Child and Stranger, “Oh yes, you do like hopping, don’t you?”
I spent a lot of time bent near my daughter’s lips, legitimately trying to hear her better, but also using her smallness as an excuse to hide below most people’s eye-level. Where everyone else has written about the love, and acceptance, and unity, and hope that they felt while marching this weekend, what I felt was overwhelming anxiety, judgement, exclusion, and difference. This is, of course, what I feel all the time. It was amplified not by any negativity coming from the people around me, but only because there were so many more people onto whom I could project these feelings. It was only in my little daughter’s big smile, in her excitement while cheering with the crowd, in the glow in her eyes as she pointed out every sign with a heart, or every protester holding a balloon, that I was able to experience those lovely truths my marching sisters have written about.
I blame this phenomenon on my PTSD. Surely at a peaceful protest lauding respect and love, the overall vibe was a good one. But I can’t help wondering, at 2 in the morning after posting the original article, if perhaps my PTSD did not conjure these negative feelings, but instead helped me to recognize them. There is a discomfort which accompanies any large group of women-I cannot be the only one who notices this-and this was perhaps the largest group of women ever. We are raised to hate each other. We are raised to criticize, to compete, to gain value by devaluing other women, to analyze, to compare. Already we have had to remind ourselves of our values in order to stop us from attacking Trump by criticizing Melania. The women at this gathering spanned generations, but I noticed that many were in my age group, meaning mid-twenties to early-thirties. It is an uncomfortable time to be a woman. Many of us have not yet fully established our own identities, nor fully gained comfort with the body we were taught to hate, though we are growing ever nearer to such a conclusion. A natural evolution of self-acceptance is a tapering of the criticism of others. It is in this age group that the preppy and the freak align. The chubby girl and the athlete become friends instead of para-competitors, and we begin to recognize that not only can the slut and the scholar be friends, they can be one in the same woman. Still, bring together a large group of women and old animosities will inevitably arise. I don’t remember the faces of the girls who told me to go “eat a sandwich,” or who otherwise criticized my then-waifish body, but I remember their words. I remember their impact. I recognize the effect these instances of body-shaming had on my self-image, and the role they played in my development of an eating disorder at age twelve, my development of a substance abuse disorder at age thirteen, or my delving into the most horrifically violent abusive relationship with an older man at age fifteen. I recognize how these girls, girls who are remembered not by face but by voice, helped to tie my life experience irrevocably with mental illness and suffering.
So many of us have similar grievances against each other. Besides being a protest against the president, against the patriarchy, and against the rape-culture it instills and protects, this was also a moment of unification, of healing for a divided womankind. Just as with a physical wound, there is a pain in healing. There is a hardening. Perhaps my PTSD did not imagine the judgement and anger; perhaps it only caused me to attribute it too personally. We were there to be together as women, but this gathering was also an apology, a forgiveness, a howl into history.
There was one moment in which I began to feel a sort of comfort creep over me. I was stopped, at an intersection where the march had fanned out a bit, by a Russian couple. They were holding hands and I could not tell if they were a mother-son couple or a geriatric, chubby-chasing cougar holding hands with her thirty-something sugarbaby whose braces she had purchased. In any case, the man stopped me and asked, Russian droll heavy, what this march was about.
That’s not when I felt comfortable. I felt, in fact, instantly under an unexpected and unwanted spotlight. I did not want to speak for everyone there, not even to this visiting oddcouple. So I told him why I was there personally, that I didn’t feel Donald Trump, a misogynistic braggart, was qualified to be our President. I won’t recount the entire conversation, only that he eventually compared my bridge piercing to Donald Trump’s misogyny, and asked if he should protest me because he didn’t like my bridge piercing. This is where a familiar feeling began to creep upon me, and isn’t familiarity a form of comfort?
That feeling, of course, was anger. On the spectrum of emotions I get to feel as a person whose emotional capacity is blunted by PTSD, anger is the front-runner. I feel anger more loudly, more colorfully, and with more vivacity than any other emotion. I don’t love anger; my mind gets as exhausted by anger as any other person’s. But my body loves anger. It revels in it. Anger brings my body back to life. In the place of attack, where my physical self has been frozen, anger is the escape. It is through anger that I can access the Fight: The fight I didn’t put up enough to escape in real time and which my body thus craves. Anger can be a huge catharsis for me. But I was with my daughter at a peaceful protest. I have had PTSD for eight years. I have picked up a few coping skills. So I breathed away my comforting anger, breathed away the instinct to battle the Russians in the street, and continued marching peacefully for change.
The truth is, I knew that the march would be an uncomfortable experience at best. I knew that I would feel awkward, and out-of-place, because I always feel awkward and out-of-place and January 21st, 2017 was, afterall, a part of always. A huge part of me did not want to go. The night before the march, I stayed up with my unusually hyper youngest daughter, considering, while rocking her, the pros and cons of going to physically protest.
I thought about all of the reasons I had spent the month after the election cycling through the stages of grief. I thought about all the very personal things in my life which made me reject President Trump…
As a rape/DV survivor, I cannot condone the election of a man accused of rape by multiple women, who brags openly about committing sexual assault, and who constantly uses accomplished women’s bodies as platforms for their social defeat. As a low-income, fertile woman, I cannot condone the election of a President whose Vice-President and Cabinet have already begun the process of taking away my healthcare and reproductive rights. As a queer, bisexual woman, I cannot condone the implementation of a Presidential Office that has already removed LGBTQ rights from the official whitehouse.gov website. As a Latina woman, born to a Cuban mother who immigrated to this country as a refugee, I cannot condone a man who would turn away other refugee families, and who classifies Latin-Americans as “rapists, criminals, and drug dealers” (because yes, if you didn’t already know, when a racist white persons says “Mexican,” what he really means is “Latino”). As a human capable of compassion and empathy, I cannot condone giving power to a man who would take power away from so many various peoples. For so many poignant, valid reasons, I must decry the Trump Presidency.
But it was when I thought of my role as a mother that I finally made the decision to march, in spite of my PTSD’s shouts to the contrary.
My eldest child, a nine-year old boy named Robin, is profoundly autistic. He cannot vocalize a single word, he knows very limited sign language, he still uses diapers, must wear special braces to correct his tendon-destroying toe-stepping, and has a lot of difficulty concentrating, to put it mildly. He was diagnosed around the same time as me, and thankfully my family took over his care so that he could receive the high level of stability he needs while I sought some kind of healing and understanding of my actual place in this world. Even though he does not live with me, I still visit him frequently and, of course, love him. It still worries me deeply, as much as concerns for my two daughters who do live with me, that our new President used his campaign as a platform to mock a disabled journalist.
It worries me that my son’s social security and government healthcare are under attack, both of which he relies upon for his expensive, necessary treatments. My son’s future is uncertain; autism is one of the greatest medical mysteries facing us today. Robin could one day learn to talk, use the toilet, read, and live an independent life. Or he could need assistive care until his last breath. I can hope for his best future, but I cannot bank on hope. The country’s current trajectory, if left unchecked, would leave my son behind. I would never dream of bringing Robin to a march like this. His social anxiety and noise sensitivity would have turned this peaceful protest into torture. I did not bring Robin, but I marched for Robin.
And I also marched for, and with one of, my two little girls.
I want my girls to grow up in a better world than the one in which I grew up. I want my girls to bond with other females over shared experiences that don’t include being molested, groped, catcalled, even raped. I want the statistics, which doom at least one of my daughters to probable sexual assault, to change. I want my girls to feel empowered when walking through this world. I want my girls to know that they have a right to their unique thoughts, and to the free expression of their thoughts. I want my girls to know that they do have power, that they can fight back, that they can win. And, I want my girls to feel what I didn’t: That, if they are forced to face an assault, they are still beloved, still believed, still defined by their own selves and not by what this man did to them. I want them to know that their assailant may have held some physical power over them for a moment, but that the moment is over, and the power is theirs. I want them to feel safe in reporting him, and to know that they will never be blamed by their family for his actions. And I wanted to begin to teach myself this as well.
I had to weigh what I wanted as a mother against what I felt as a person with PTSD. I will admit: PTSD often wins. But on January 21, 2017, I took my three-year old daughter Anabelle to the Womxn’s March. I marched against my trauma.
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