I slip my feet into the slowly rising bathwater and it feels like they’re burning. They’re always the coldest part of my body and unable to gauge the water’s true temperature. It’s hot, but never quite as hot as they tell me it is.
My body has been setting up other alarms lately, warning me of imminent danger when there is none, making me feel like I’m on fire when I am definitely not on fire.
Panic attacks have been wreaking havoc on my nervous system, leaving me very little time to recover from one to the next. My back floods with heat from the base of my spine up into the back of my head; my fingers go numb, I feel overwhelmingly fearful. I cry. I try to remember coping mechanisms I read on the internet, slowing my breathing, talking myself down – but I have yet to master these strategies.
I had recently come across old photos of myself from a past relationship. And by past relationship, I mean marriage. I feel one hundred years old to refer to a marriage in the past tense. I’m 27. Most people around me are just starting to get married, while I’ve already come out the other side.
I was glowing. I felt a twinge of jealousy because today I’m a wreck. I feel like walking cautionary tale, an omen of bad luck for young star-crossed lovers en route to the altar. Someone too fucked up to get into a conversation with because you’ll just come out depressed. I avoid talking to people for this reason.
It’s resulted in a lot of loneliness as I keep one of the most disruptive and traumatic experiences of my life to myself.
I let my feet adjust to the heat, the skin slowly turning redder and redder up until the water line, and soon it looks like I’m wearing wearing rosy-coloured socks. Sitting on the edge of the tub, the skin on my un-submerged calves and thighs tries to figure out what’s going on with the feet and arranges itself into goosebumps in response.
Am I allowed to be this fucking happy? a Snapchat caption on an old photo reads.
My hair, my makeup, my outfit was flawless. I jadedly attribute my aesthetic to the $40 foundation and $70 haircuts. The glow was constructed! I say to myself – there was no way I was actually happy. It’s pretty hard not to feel happiness and confidence when you successfully emulate conventional beauty standards, right?
But in the caption, I acknowledge both my happiness and question its validity.
When I think of my marriage, I don’t attribute its breakdown to any one person or thing. Instead, I look to the culture in which my relationship existed and the cultures it was born out of.
I grew up a Christian fundamentalist in a poor white household – highly patriarchal, abusive and controlling. So to go from that to marrying into the upper-middle class with mostly liberal tendencies was a perceived step up on the whole freedom and autonomy scale.
But much of that freedom I now realize was my own projection of what liberal culture offered, not the freedom it actually granted. All the perks of being young, educated, attractive, and in a financially stable marriage overwrought the true precariousness of my wellbeing.
So of course, I was happy. I lived in a fantasy world that existed inside my head.
Middle class comfort is a fog of complacency. Warm and safe at first, and then slowly dulls and deadens your senses. You learn to see things not as they are, but in ways that will perpetuate your own sense of comfort and safety.
Ie. I feel comfortable, therefore I am safe.
But believing gender equality can be attained in a capitalist society – fundamentally built on hierarchies – is misguided. Freedom from the chains of gender cannot be erased while hungry crevasses of poverty lie waiting below, waiting for us to make one wrong move, and swallow us, body and soul.
It might sound cold and impersonal to use words like “liberal” and “capitalist” to describe a relationship, but I do not believe relationships exist in a vacuum and that they are not shaped by their surrounding culture. Much talk about “healthy relationships” completely disregards cultural contexts and focuses only on individual behaviours and actions. But to challenge gendered power dynamics, one must question the system that organizes individuals into gender-based hierarchies in the first place.
The concept that you can have a successful relationship just by being the right kind of person is the same kind of “bootstraps” fallacy that says you can have a successful career if you are simply a hard worker. Structural sexism, racism and classism factor into every kind of relationship, alienating individuals from each other, setting us apart. No human in this system exempt from it. To then form a truly healthy relationship in this environment requires overcoming not only the internalized oppression, but the structural barriers that organize people into hierarchies with varying socio-economic advantages and disadvantages.
This is not to dismiss the power of individual actions and agency, but to acknowledge that external factors influence our relationships, romantic or otherwise.
There is no love to be found in a system that pits us against each other in hierarchies based on gender, race, class, ability and so on, breeding alienation. There is no love in a system where transgression of assigned gender roles is met with violence. There is no love in allowing this system to persist.
To love is to struggle against it, finding new ways of being.
Consider that it’s not uncommon for women to stay in relationships with men that are either abusive or simply not right for them because the costs of leaving are perceived as greater than the costs of staying. Is this love?
Relationships should be built on ongoing consent to being in the relationship, not contracts or physical or financial coercion. But this is absolutely not the reality for many.
The concept of marriage slowly became unappealing to me. After trying out a series of reforms to make the concept more palatable, I eventually left. I no longer wanted to be married.
Few could fathom why. A lot of people called me crazy. Irresponsible. I asked: Could I be seen as an individual human being, not as a wife?
This proved more difficult to understand than I anticipated.
The fog vanished, the crevasses opened up. I could not negotiate the conditions of my fall. I found myself isolated, abused, gaslighted, financially vulnerable, unable to access mental health supports or any other resources that might have helped me transition out of my marriage in a safe and healthy way.
The fact that you can fall so far, so easily, is evidence enough of the phantom life that liberal comforts offer you. Your comfort is transparent, you are easily sacrificed upon transgression. You will fall in plain sight and it will be acceptable.
It will be acceptable because you are no longer human, but have been relegated to the land of myths, both capitalist and patriarchal. You become an immoral madwoman, living under shadow of poverty, a cautionary tale for others to not stray too far from their assigned positions.
Your range of motion is limited, but you don’t notice it until you try to move.
Labour laws are gendered – women were never meant to earn a living wage working in femme-dominated fields like retail and the service industry, your earnings were intended to be “pin money” to supplement a male income.
These conditions remain unchanged. Today, this concept of supplemental income is used outright as a justification for not raising the minimum wage – dependency on a sole wage earner in a household is perfectly acceptable state of being. Apparently, women, teenagers and young adults have no need for financial autonomy or independence.
Marriage is still considered the most moral and responsible relationship choice. Disrupting this dynamic establishes oneself as both immoral and irresponsible – especially if you’re a woman. Once you’ve been labelled as such, any violence or struggles you might face after the fact become your own doing.
Victim blaming is central to capitalist ideology and thus victim blaming can never be truly eradicated as long as capitalism thrives. We equate poverty as a just consequence for “irresponsible” choices the same way we justify sexual violence against women and femmes who should have “known better,” shouldn’t have been doing the “wrong” thing at the “wrong” time.
Women’s actions are policed by violence and the threat of violence. That violence takes many forms. It could be verbal harassment for coming out as queer, gaslighting for standing up to abuse, physical violence for presenting as trans, sexual violence for refusing advances, employment discrimination for challenging white supremacist standards of femininity, and denial of a living wage for those in femme-dominated fields, and subsequent lack of access to education, health care, mental health resources, and legal support to protect yourself from exploitation.
All this violence reinforces the notion that you do not know what is good for you, and you must be crazy to want something other than what capitalist colonial gender roles have assigned. It’s infantilizing and paternalistic. This violence is built into the fabric of our social system and infects our relationships, binding us into hierarchies against our will, poisoning our understanding of what it means to love.
In a book called All About Love: New Visions, bell hooks writes that “Love and abuse cannot coexist.” So long as we allow this colonial capitalist system of abuse to perpetuate, we must question what we mean when say to others, “I love you.”
I developed a stutter over the past year; the silences hold the words I want to say but cannot. The silences hold uncertainties as I question my reality over and over again. My body throws itself into fight, flight or freeze mode, now unsure about my safety in the most banal of circumstances. I sleep as often as possible to keep my mind from tipping over, exhausted from the constant fight to find solid ground.
I turn off the taps, slip in, and the water greets me like a womb. My body ceases to argue with itself over whether it’s hot or cold, on fire or not, and recognizes that, for now, it is safe. I compulsively close my eyes and exhale. The water reacts to my movements, both holding me close and releasing me, neither of us reduced by the movement of the other.