My divorce was one of the most isolating events I have ever experienced. I got married young, so there were few of my friends who could relate to what I was going through or know how to offer support. It was also an emotionally exhausting situation most people understandably didn’t want to get too tangled up in. But I also shut a lot of people out. I was fragile and extremely sensitive to judgement.
Around the same time, my friends Tiffany and Sarah were going through devastating breakups of their own. I reached out to them both after Tiffany had posted this article, If Community Were a Safe Space to Fall Apart. It spoke to the isolation and alienation I felt:
“My friend and his former wife had gone through these divorces in secret and silence. Their union and wedding had been public. Their divorces took place mostly in the shadows.
And it made me ponder: how is that the coming together is in the light, in public, a public celebration — but the falling apart done in the shadows, in silence, in loneliness?
If we are a community, we should be together through thin and thick, for better and for worse. We stand together in the valleys and on the mountaintops. How do we make it possible for us to stand together when each of us goes through the valleys?
Why do we celebrate together but suffer in silence?
It made me realize that we have no rituals for suffering, for breaking up, for hurting. I am not sure what those rituals would look like, but it does seem like something to seek.”
Mourning rituals. Community. Those both sounded like things I wanted to seek out as well.
I asked Tiffany and Sarah if they would be willing to talk about their own experiences mourning relationships both on their own and with friends and family. Could we develop better processes by which to grieve and mourn with each other? Could we invite others into that process in a safe and healthy way?
What follows is a conversation between myself, Tiffany, and Sarah, about loss, mourning, and community support. The initial conversation happened in Google Docs from February through April 2017.
We are publishing this a year later because the process of editing it into a readable format was daunting and emotionally exhausting. This conversation is crossposted on Tiffany’s website here.
We took our time. Like mourning itself, it wasn’t something you could make follow a schedule.
This is an approximately 35 minute read and covers a lot of ground, potentially triggering to those who have had traumatic breakups. We suggest this conversation is best read in a safe, comfortable environment where readers can take breaks and self-care measures as needed. We hope that this conversation will help others in their mourning and healing processes both individually and within their greater communities.
February 9, 2017
Emily: I asked you both here because all three of us have been through pretty earth shattering breakups, resulting in significant changes in lifestyle and living situations.
For myself, it’s been really difficult to know how to let others into this grieving process, especially when as a result of all this, I found myself in an extremely vulnerable situation, both physically, financially, and emotionally. I shut basically everyone out. I felt like I had to, it was an act of self-preservation. But I didn’t want to be alone. I just didn’t know what else to do.
So I want to talk about mourning rituals, how to create them and how to incorporate others into them so we can resist the alienation that happens during some of the most vulnerable moments of our lives.
Sarah: Last fall I experienced a brutal breakup that left me feeling completely abandoned and discarded. It came out of nowhere and a lot of my friends/community had been following our “epic” love story (he bought me a house, we blended families, had a dreamy life, then he ditched).
Because I had celebrated so much of the relationship with my friends online, when it ended I felt like I needed to share with them. I hadn’t been on Facebook for about a month at the point of the breakup, and immediately activated my account after he left, knowing I would need the support of my community or I would quite possibly not make it through. I TOTALLY grieved publicly, but was very careful not to sound bitter or vindictive, I just needed support.
Emily: Thanks so much for sharing!
Tiffany: Whoa. That would be brutal. I’m glad you were able to find a community space for that grieving, but I can imagine it was a tightrope to balance on.
Sarah: Yeah, I didn’t want to teeter over the edge of shitting all over him and lowering myself, I guess?
Tiffany: Legit. I have had a few big relationship transitions, and when we first talked about this project, I wanted to discuss my divorce which happened almost ten years ago. It was a pretty major break from one life into another.
But right now, I think I would almost rather talk about my most recent transition, which wasn’t a breakup, but was pretty cataclysmic and didn’t leave space for public grieving. If that’s okay?
Emily: Of course! Yes, whatever is weighing on you the most right now.
Tiffany: Awesome. Thanks!
So, then, my story for the purposes of this, is that I fell in love with someone who was married with two kids. He fell in love with me. There was an awkward and not really open period of trying to incorporate polyamory (I am polyamorous and was living with a partner when this happened). His spouse was not okay with it, lines were crossed, there were five months of zero contact, then there was a long period of in-house separation for him, my relationship with the partner I lived with got very … hmm.
See, even talking about it is so fucking hard. I moved out. Joe and I live together now. I’m stepparenting, and it’s a massive change (I never had or wanted my own kids). I struggle with the label of “homewrecker” and also with all the challenges of being a stepparent while queer and non-binary. There’s a LOT of grief. And it doesn’t feel like there is any space for it.
I was very quiet on social media about what was happening, because I didn’t want to hurt the partner I was moving out on – we had just bought a house together that year. We didn’t break up, and are still together. And… the moving out would probably have happened regardless of the situation with Joe. It wasn’t working, the way we were together, in that house. The house was a huge part of what changed the sustainability of that relationship in that format. There were challenges. But talking about it hit some raw, painful nerves for that partner. AND talking about it opened me up to all the judgment about my role in the ending of Joe’s relationship. If Joe and I hadn’t happened, and if we hadn’t happened in the way that we did, the transition of that relationship would have happened differently. And the trajectory of Joe’s relationship would also have happened differently. SO, yeah.
Sarah: That would be super hard to talk about! Thanks for sharing it with us. Relationships and love can be so dang tricky.
Emily: Yes, thank you so much, I know these narratives are just…they’re not simple. They never get said because we like to put relationships in little boxes with bows on top and the reality is, I think, they’re just so fluid and there are so many different dynamics that spill over into each other… and then there’s love. How are we supposed to grieve when we’re not allowed to have complex narratives? No wonder we hide and isolate, or at least for me.
I’ll share just a bit more about my story, because it does relate to yours a bit, Tiffany. I got married when I was 22. At the time I got engaged, I had grown up a Christian fundamentalist. I had all these ideas in my head about what an ideal relationship should look like. I found what appeared to be that, and in so many ways it was very good for me, very nice and lovely.
But I had changed so much over the seven years we were together and the four years we were married. I had a different outlook on life, on myself, on relationships. And then, I ended up falling in love with someone else. And I left my husband for someone else. And I can’t tell this story because of the narrative that paints me as…I don’t know, the fickle, untrustworthy, manipulative woman.
Tiffany: That narrative. It is SO POWERFUL. Pervasive.
Sarah: Super similar to my first marriage too. I left for him for a friend I was in love with, then ditched the friend too ha. I hated myself for years.
Tiffany: So… I left my marriage, lo these many years ago, after I had an affair. That marriage was so toxic for me. It was so bad for me. It was crushing me. And I had come to such peace with the fact that my affair was the best thing I could have done for myself.
But now? Now that I have this label again, in a different way, in a way that *includes children* and “breaking up a family” – my shame, ten year old shame that I really never processed then because I put on this hugely defiant “I AM GOING TO SURVIVE, I AM ALLOWED TO BE SEXUAL” … not mask, but it was performative, for sure. I never processed that shame because I felt like if I even admitted an inch of it, I would be overwhelmed by people’s judgement. But now I’m feeling this “I’m a homewrecker” shame and the compound interest is here to demand payment. It is so tough.
Sarah: I totally hear that. In those cases the narrative is soooo complicated. This past breakup was the first time I’d been involved in a very CLEAR case of “I AM THE VICTIM” and it was almost… relieving? Exciting? I was LEFT, and it wasn’t my fault! Clean storyline, nothing but sympathy.
Whereas my previous two marriages ended because of me and were very unhealthy for me mentally. I will say though, in therapy, the best thing I heard was “You’re allowed to change your mind”. That has stuck with me, and I feel like as women we put so many expectations of “how to be” in relationships – like be a good girlfriend/wife/lover. When we change our minds it feels disgusting to us? Whyyyyy.
Emily: Okay, I have like serious shivers, honestly, you guys, like thank you so much for talking through all this and being so vulnerable here. I want to touch on how our relationship narratives determine how we go about mourning/processing with friends and family. I think that’s a key thing that has shown up here.
Sarah: I also wanna clarify that I was still utterly gutted and am still recovering. It’s just a completely different mourning process than the self-loathing ones I’d experienced previously, and it’s weird to feel mega love for yourself after something like that goes down.
I want to talk about the stereotype of like…not airing dirty laundry, or being a “burden.” Like you said, Sarah, you had to walk a fine line between asking for support and not being bitter. And I think we’re so often conditioned to think of ourselves as needy and weak for expressing our brokenness online. So what are ways we can counter this?
Tiffany: Yes, the burden thing is tricky. Because the fact that we can’t talk about a lot of this openly (and I’m still struggling to talk about this even within this space – shame is such an isolating emotion! And so is fear) – it means that the few people we CAN talk to, or at least the few people that I found I could talk to, I talked to A LOT. And I ended up feeling like I was damaging those relationships because the weight was so much, and it was just all bearing down on me and on these few support people. That made it hard.
(And on that topic, I can definitely say that I had a suicidal depression absolutely decimate a relationship once and it was so awful to lose that relationship – I did get it back, but I lost it for a while – because of that weight. That’s another thing we aren’t allowed to be open about!) So, yes. Burden. Fear. Weight.
Sarah: I’ve always had a hard time with isolation, and one of my coping mechanisms (I think) has become meeting new people, getting into one BIG HEAVY conversation with them that we both are suuuper into, and then kinda vanishing? Like not fully, but I always have disclosure regret and feel bad when they want to be super friends after and I’m at home realizing I used them for therapy. I don’t know if it’s cool of me or not – probably not – but I’m not doing it on purpose!
Emily: Omg I totally get thaaaaat haha. And I think it’s because, I don’t know, if it’s someone you don’t know too well, you can feel like you’re bonding and sharing something intimate with them but don’t feel obligated to pursue more of a relationship that you don’t have energy for.
Tiffany: Yuuuup. Me too. I love the idea of being radically open about my experiences and my weaknesses but… kinda, more at a distance. Lol. Radically open on Facebook, crying in complete silence in the bathroom at home, kinda deal.
Sarah: Haha yes totally. During my last breakup there were a couple people I didn’t know well who full on STEPPED UP and went all out to help me, and then I felt sooo obliged to reciprocate and was just so drained by the breakup, I ended up feeling like a HUGE jerk.
Emily: Yes, I think it’s really important to recognize when someone is grieving, they might not be able to give you as much energy as you give them. They might not be able to give you any energy back at all. I think for someone in that position, you might have to recognize that, I don’t know, you’re almost commiting a random act of kindness that may never be reciprocated?
Tiffany: I totally agree. I think that the fact that we don’t have many mechanisms for widespread community support makes that tough. There IS an expectation of reciprocity. And reciprocity in a “timely fashion” because we have the ideal of the nuclear family and even, I think, the idea of the “squad” or small group of tight friends. But that kind of dynamic doesn’t work when there is a major, life-altering grieving happening. Because you just can’t bounce back and reciprocate right away. And that means that a lot of relationships become collateral losses, because big grief breaks the social contract. (The current iteration of the social contract is fucked, imo, but it’s still there.) At least, it seems that way to me.
Sarah: Totally agree. I will say that opening up publicly (and having the clean narrative to do so – like it would have been so different if Facebook had been around during my first divorce), was super beneficial and like, the commiseration that poured in was very healing. It’s so messed up that it has to be SUCH a clean storyline though. Like I literally only lost one acquaintance, whereas after my first divorce, I lost my entire hometown haha.
Tiffany: YUP. My whole extended family, for like a year. Everyone loved my ex-husband. And it’s not that the clean narrative makes the grief easier – I don’t think it does. It’s still such a major, major loss and so crushing. It doesn’t change the GRIEF. It just changes what avenues to support are open.
Emily: I relate to the family thing, I’m in the middle of a divorce and my ex, well, yeah, my entire family adored him so it’s a pretty big mystery to them – most of them – why I would think of leaving. And I moved cities, for sure. I’m glad I’m here, I’m glad I’m where I’m at, but it still hurts to feel so abandoned just for making choices based on contexts that literally only I knew, only I was capable of making these decisions for myself.
Sarah: Same! It took years before I could make my mom see why leaving my first husband was so crucial. Religion played a big part too. Like the idea was “a marriage only ends out of selfishness.” And like, my mom had escaped an abusive marriage, yet it was still so hard to explain to her why my marriage was horrible. In that case, I have a lot of resentment for the church, etc, but that’s another conversation ha.
Tiffany: Yeah, my mom also didn’t understand for a long time. But it also really hurts that my extended family is accepting me now, more than they EVER have before, because I’ve got a relationship that they can understand. Now I’ve got a cisgender man as a partner, and two kids. Now I “fit.” My bisexuality, my polyamory, my genderqueerness – it’s all erased. It’s still there – Jon and Scott and my girlfriend still come to Christmas dinner when I host it – but the extended family just sees me and Joe and the kids, and we fit in their box. And I fucking hate it. And it leaves no room for my complicated feelings about these changes, and it definitely leaves no room for my queerness or my gender.
Sarah: I recently came out as bi to my mom by telling her about a date I went on with a girl and she was super chill which was a massive relief, but she was probs only okay with it because me and my sibs have put her through so much at this point. Anyway at a later time I’d be interested in hearing more about navigating as bi!
Tiffany: Totally!!! It’s one of my favourite topics. 😀
Emily: Yay!! I am also bi but not super open about it to my family, for reasons. But it makes me happy we are all here together haha, go us ❤
So given these narratives, again, that erase us, erase our agency, erase people’s ability to perceive us as capable of making our own decisions….well, let’s just bring it to an individual level and talk about personal mourning rituals. Because getting others involved, as we can see, is a really complicated, and sometimes unsafe process! Depending.
For me personally, I found myself in a place where most of my self-care rituals were thrown out of the loop. And those self-care rituals were developed out of financial stability, out of being in a certain socio-economic status. My self care rituals involved eating nice food, seeing my therapist I could afford through my partner’s benefits, and other things that sort of became habitual when I needed to take care of myself.
Here, in this situation, I was very isolated with few resources or people I felt like I could trust. But what I noticed I did start doing is documenting everything that was happening – I started writing more, taking pictures – I started noticing all these tiny little things I would take pictures of, and that would sort of ground me. Even if I wasn’t sharing it with anyone, I was taking control of my own narrative for myself, and affirming that what I was experiencing was valid and important, even if no one else saw it. And I found that to be incredibly valuable.
Sarah: I love that. I think I’ve had bursts of self-care, but am only now thinking in terms of “rituals”, and I guess mine is walking and writing jokes? I have to walk every day, for at least 30 min. I have to write jokes and they have to be positive and (if I can manage) not self-depreciatory. I enjoy wine but try not to ritualize it too much haha. Mainly walking, breathing, I don’t really know what else is a constant for me. With kids everything goes loopdy-loop, it can make quiet self-time tricky. Walking though, and jokes. Like my comedian friends can tell when I’m having a hard time because I’m tweeting jokes more haha. That’s when they’ll check in.
Emily: Haha, I love that! It’s nice when friends are like, attuned to you that well and check in. I think that’s huge. Last year, I had a friend who would check in, and still periodically checks in, because she realized that saying “Oh, I’m here if you need me” was bullshit. People suffering don’t want to be burdens, to say “Hello friend, may I assail your ears for an hour about my heartbreak?” Like, that gets back to that feeling of “Am I using this person, this friend?” But if the friend or group voluntarily checks in to say, “Hey, want to talk? Hey, how are you doing” that’s an invitation, and I think mitigates that feeling of burden, because they’ve welcomed you to share.
Sarah: Totally, totally. I’m lucky to have a supportive community, and again, lucky to be able to use online platforms as a way to vent or express pain when I feel like I need a new/healing perspective. But also, super great to have friends who call (like who CALLS anymore, rare precious unicorns).
Emily: I always balked at calling bc #millennial, but more and more, and probably since I moved away too…there’s just something different about someone’s actual voice, or even FaceTime or something. Like texts are good, but a call feels like an “event” you know, the conversation meanders, you can’t just disengage after a few texts, you’re invested to a certain extent in having a meaningful update about each other’s lives.
Tiffany: There is so much here, both around narratives that erase, and the pressure towards tidy narratives (I have FEEEEELS about that), and also the self-care stuff, which is really near and dear to me, and yet also really challenging right now and I haven’t got a handle on it. Like, self-care plus kids? Self-care minus financial stability? Self-care plus BEING a self-care coach, plus kids, minus financial stability, plus hella shame? Questions I do nooooooooot have answered but am asking myself daily. So, definitely want to explore more.
Emily: I will say that every time I’ve opened up online, and I’ve observed with the two of you, just through Facebook, people do really respond to vulnerability. Because I don’t think there are a lot of clean narratives out there, or a lot of people that are willing to share their vulnerability in an age where it seems like we have to be these perfectly curated #brands, so I guess I will say that. I’ve experienced a lot of shame and fear from my family, but from my friends and others, people really want to know it’s okay to have these messy narratives. And that’s a huge part of healing for me, I think, is people saying “It’s ok. It’s ok.” Even just the few friends who have, it means the world. And I get messages from people saying “That thing you shared, that meant a lot to me” and that helps me heal too.
Tiffany: Yes. Agreed. I have had the same experience. At times when I was being more open about my struggles, I have gotten similar messages from people who appreciate it. One thing that has been really challenging for me in this most recent plot twist is that I haven’t been able to be as open because so many other people involved in the narrative are still involved in my life. So talking about how I feel about Scott, knowing that Scott is going to read it – it’s harder. And talking about Joe, knowing he will read it – it’s not the same as talking about the experience of being bisexual, the experience of being genderqueer, my divorce, etc. The story doesn’t just belong to me, so there are ethical and logistical issues around sharing.
It’s like talking about my move towards atheism and then towards whatever hybrid-wootheism I’m practicing now – harder to talk about because people I’m close to, who might read what I write, have feels about it. So that’s a long, long, long way of saying – YES! And also, despite the fact that this is such a valid coping mechanism, and so healing, it’s challenging to figure out how to access it again when variables shift.
Sarah: Very into exploring all this more. It’s always super cool and relieving to hear the things you’ve been turning over in your brain expressed by others, it feels like magic haha. Which is why I guess people respond to vulnerability online too. It feels like magic to connect with people now. When I had a visual art practice I always made the work unapologetically personal, and always so enjoyed when people would send me messages after because it had reached something in them, something about the super personal also being the super universal.
Emily: Magic is a good word for it ❤
February 17, 2017
Emily: Wanted to follow up earlier but have had the most. Terrible. Two weeks ever.
Also, I got emailed a certificate of divorce this week lol, so I guess I’m officially divorced now? God, it feels so adult to say I’m divorced…more adult than being married.
I want to talk about anger and mourning. I feel like femmes have their anger policed on so many different levels, and even in the times of anguish we’re still told to always put others ahead of ourselves. I don’t think it’s necessarily bad to be cognizant of how we express our anger and how it affects others, but sometimes it feels like it’s an emotion that’s simply not allowed at all. So how do you manage anger in this context?
It’s been challenging for me to express pain and anger over the end of my relationship because it was I who left, so therefore I forfeit my right to those emotions, apparently. Either that or there’s very little sympathy, and it’s implied I deserve whatever negative experiences occurred at the end of our relationship.
This is just…so toxic, honestly. A woman should be able to leave a relationship she feels is not right for her without fear of violence or poverty and yet this is a reality for many. But these narratives we have – that deny women any sympathy for making decisions for themselves – allow this kind of violence to be justified and normalized. Our pain and anger are erased and the pain and anger of whoever we left, or hurt, is justified.
This is not to deny my ex-partner pain, anger or mourning. The entire time this was happening I felt like my heart was being fucking torn in two because I knew how much I was hurting him. I tried to mitigate that pain as much as I could, I really did. But it hurts. it hurts. and I would never deny that.
But there are structural issues at play in relationships – and these narratives about manipulative, fickle women justify structural oppression. My partner was heartbroken, but didn’t have the added stress of worrying about rent or groceries. My partner was heartbroken but didn’t have to worry about being like, disowned by his family. My partner was heartbroken but had access to health and mental health benefits. My partner was heartbroken but could afford a lawyer, etc.
I was heartbroken and all the sudden had the rug pulled out from under me – all of these things went flying up in the air. How am I supposed to mourn and process and heal when I don’t know where I’m going to live, how I’m going to pay rent or buy groceries? And furthermore, when this vulnerable state I am in is justified because I broke someone’s heart?
I have guilt and shame for leaving him, and the added guilt and shame of being in poverty – which you’re just not supposed to talk about. You’re not! As soon as you start talking about poverty, it’s like, “Oh well you should have made better choices.” We still totally equate poverty with moral character. Those who have nice stable lives and who have been married the longest are good people. Those who got divorced for whatever reason and who experience financial fallout from that, well, they’re bad people, irresponsible.
I saw the same thing with my mother – she left my dad and faced a lifetime of stigma from it! She lived in the shadow of it her whole life – the fact that she struggled to provide for her children was seen as a moral failing in our Christian communities. I know she internalized so much of that. We lived in subsidized housing and there was a stigma around that too – like subsidized housing is for people with immoral lifestyles.
And this thinking still exists! People in Calgary will get all up in arms about affordable housing and secondary suites because they think poor people are immoral. It’s absolutely disgusting.
So, I struggle with how to express pain or anger in all this. I know at times when I was extremely financially stressed I would text him viciously. I don’t regret it, honestly. But other times I would get on Twitter and my anger would be more passive aggressive because of course I couldn’t speak about it directly, I would just go off on men in general haha. Which like, is not very healthy or constructive and didn’t really make me feel better either. I was in so much pain about the structural violence I was experiencing but I wasn’t in a place where I could articulate it in a healthy way.
So, that’s my experience with anger and pain. If either of you felt like sharing, I’d be interested in hearing your perspectives on dealing with these emotions. ♡
One last thing I’d like to talk about, besides anger, is examples of already existing mourning rituals like, when widows would wear black for a certain period, etc.
Would there be a way to incorporate some sort of outward symbol/signifier for a relationship mourning period etc? Would that be helpful on a personal level and help others in the community understand where you’re at and how to offer support etc. I don’t know what that would look like, but I like the idea of physical symbols and rituals helping to process pain and engage others.
April 19, 2017
Tiffany: Just caught up on the conversation I missed in Feb – so good and so valuable. ❤
Emily: Thanks! How would you feel about picking up on the subject of anger and like, healthy expressions of it etc. Or would you want to start off with something else that’s been pressing? Also we’ll wait for Sarah to show up too.
How’s your day been? Haha
Tiffany: My day has been busy. I’m wearing my bee socks, because I needed to be productive and was not feeling it. Outfits = armour and encouragement. Scaffolding! It was interesting reading the comment about widows wearing black, given how I use clothing as an avenue for expression so often! I interviewed/chatted with a friend for my financial self-care article just before this.
Emily: Oh awesome! I’m really looking forward to that, so important. Also the clothes thing, yeah, I feel that too. It’s been frustrating for me having to adjust what kinds of clothes I wear because buying a new piece of clothing used to be kind of a self-care thing for me haha but it really can’t be anymore, so it’s hard to adjust – as super privileged as that sounds.
Tiffany: Not at all! Financial self-care is often in direct conflict with every other kind of self-care. Thanks, capitalism. This article is actually proving suuuuper difficult and emotional to write, because I have hella hangups about money. I thought I had worked through most of them, but “working through” is always iterative and I guess I wasn’t prepared for this iteration.
Emily: Same, I mean it’s stressful because like turns out not being able to pay for things/not having autonomy is one of my triggers from growing up in child poverty. Just that sense of helplessness that sends you spiralling when one tiny thing goes wrong. It’s been a fucking trip. I always knew I was privileged when I was married, but you sort of forget just how much easier life is. You totally forget, poverty stays with you but it also fades…. Anyways. Makes it hard to sort through emotions.
Tiffany: YES!!!! SO hard to sort through the emotions. Also, not to hijack the topic, but I do think there is just so much grief that comes with life transitions that move you away from financial stability. One thing that has come up over and over for me as I try to write this article is my desperate longing for the financial stability of my marriage. It was such a shit show and such a disaster for my emotional health, but… I could just buy what I wanted, really. Camera lenses. Notebooks. Fuckin’ ridiculous scrapbooking supplies. We weren’t wealthy but we were stable. I haven’t had that since. And I didn’t grow up with it. And I *did* almost have it with Scott before I moved out to live with Joe. And part of me… wow. The just… the sadness. Sadness at just never feeling stable. I just want to feel safe and like my life is not so tenuously anchored, financially. There IS grief there. But how do you talk about that grief???? You can’t.
Emily: Holy fuck, yeah I get that. I feel an immense amount of sadness that my new relationship has to bear the weight of the fallout, both emotional and financial, of my previous relationship. Like – what, our relationship gets to have this kind of strain? There’s almost a level of like, sorrow for this current relationship sometimes, that is has to be plagued with these issues. Sometimes I do wonder if my past relationship was really that bad and if I had known how hard it would be, would I have left? I mean, not that those questions are that helpful or productive. But I do feel like…augh there’s such a cost to truly making a decision for yourself. Like this relationship means so fucking much to me and I don’t regret leaving at all, but I am angry when things are stressful and I feel like the relationship might drown because of these external factors.
Tiffany: Yeah. And there’s so much anxiety that Joe will hit this wall of grief and loss and regret it and take it back. He had a lot of financial stability. I made $40k in my most lucrative year of my life, and that was the year I was an executive admin assistant. I will NEVER do that job again. Ever. So. I mean. I grieve losing my financial stability. What will Joe end up grieving when he comes face to face with this? Ugh. And then I just can’t help judging myself in terms of financial worth = personal worth. It’s gross.
Sarah: I have so much to say about self-worth = financial stability! One of the biggest shocks/adjustments I had to make in my last relationship was *finally* not having to worry about money. He made 6 figures and everything just flowed in: the house, fun plants for the garden, great food, daily gifts that to him were just little things but to me were like “WHOA A PS4 I NEVER THOUGHT I WOULD OWN ONE OF THESE”.
I grew up in poverty too, as a kid (one of six) my dad was usually unemployed and we literally survived off of food provided by the church storehouse, clothes came through charity, holiday or birthday gifts came in the mail from family. During my first marriage, my husband gave me the OPTION to work, and it blew my mind! When I eventually left him I was young, childless, and in art school, so going back to poverty was like “meh, this is normal”. Second marriage never had financial stability, I worked through my pregnancy and during newborn times, supported us while he was in school. Came out of the marriage in debt and still don’t know how I paid rent and bills afterwards as a single mom of two kids on 30k a year.
So this last relationship was WILD in terms of “oh my god this is a new reality, I don’t have to worry about money??”. I always felt uneasy about relaxing into it, and when I finally did – when I finally decided “no, I can trust this. This is finally the real thing”, he left lol.
So needless to say, having a taste of that financial freedom, especially as a parent, and then finding myself back in povertylineland fucking sucked haha. BUT, by the grace of tax audits that took 18 months to process, I got 2 years of tax returns plus retroactive child tax benefit payments, which wiped out my debt and has allowed me a savings cushion. I have a great job that I love and for the first time I feel financially secure ON MY OWN TERMS. It has completely changed how I view relationships. My world is so precious to me now, I’m SOOOO hesitant to share it with someone else who might mess it all up again. I don’t need a partner to achieve my financial dreams (it’ll still be a decade before I can buy a house but that’s fine!) or to feel secure! It took 38 years but OH WELL. I’m in control of my financial future and all my exes can all kiss my ass haha. (I hope this doesn’t sound like bragging, I HOTLY encourage you both to retain hope for your independent financial futures 🙂 )
Emily: Do you want to talk about anger? I’ve been getting so much better at managing my emotions only because I’ve had to, also the trauma of the whole leaving situation is further away in my mind, but lordt…..I still get so angry. And anger was like a primary emotion in the thick of it too.
Tiffany: Anger. Heh. Okay, so, in my family of origin, it often felt like my dad was the only person who was allowed to express any anger. In my marriage, my husband would literally refuse to acknowledge my existence – sometimes up to two days in a row! – if I showed *any* signs of anger. With one partner, we fought like cats and dogs who don’t get along. Another shut down ENTIRELY when I got angry at them. And in all of those relationships, I just didn’t have the tools to try and learn how to navigate it more effectively, less hurtfully. I did a relationship counselling session once and learned how to do “discussion mapping” – basically turning the discussion into a physical representation of the timeline, with shapes of different sizes to represent our level of emotional intensity or upset. It was really helpful, and showed us where our experiences of the argument differed. Joe and I can have disagreements that include anger without it escalating and without it needing a lot of really intentional help to keep it productive, and that’s one of the first times in my life I’ve had that. I think I learned a lot in my relationships with Jon, and then more in my relationship with Scott, and I feel some guilt and shame over the fact that I’ve sort of… springboarded into new awareness at the expense of the comfort and health of these relationships. Anger scares the SHIT out of me. I feel so much anger. And I have so much trouble identifying when I’m feeling it. (Unless I’m feeling it on behalf of someone else.) And SO MUCH trouble expressing it. Ugh. Anger.
Emily: There was a lot of anger in my home growing up, lots of kind of chaotic stuff, so I learned to pretty much shut down. As soon as I get angry about anything, even today, I just shut down. I go silent. I think I was used to being forced into the role of mediator, or knowing that I couldn’t add any fuel to the fire. So…I’ve been called passive aggressive haha. But it’s only because I’ve been conditioned that it was unsafe for me to ever question authority or ever express anger. I had to express it other ways. And I get so upset about that hahaha that I can’t just BE ANGRY oh my god because I have so much to be angry about and, I truly believe it’s healthy to be angry, people can learn to express anger in healthy ways… So with this whole marriage thing, it’s been frustrating, because YET AGAIN I am not allowed to be angry. Because I left. And my ex would talk so calmly and be like “I’m being so calm why are you so angry” while doing and saying the most damaging things…. It was infuriating. Anyways, like I said earlier, I would take to twitter. Haha. bad idea! But lordt, there were just hardly any “acceptable” outlets! I still struggle with it, although my current partner is really, really supportive and allows me to be angry in healthy ways, and we share that anger together and so that feels like a healthy expression, which is nice. But…it’s a hard thing.
Tiffany: Yeah. It is a hard thing. And I think that we really don’t ever talk about how to have healthy interactions that include anger. We just don’t. Even when we talk about men, who are allowed to be angry (when white) and expected to be angry (when Black or Indigenous), still we don’t ever talk about how to have healthy interactions within that anger. So nobody learns how to have healthy and productive angry interactions. It makes it really scary. I would rather shut down and go process things until I can be calm and then come back and have the interactions without the anger there. But that’s often very self-silencing and dishonest.
Emily: Dishonest, that’s a good word. I really love the song Mad by Solange…it’s so so great, just this lovely song about how it’s okay to be mad. It’s definitely written for black folks, and I don’t want to appropriate or erase that, but it’s a sentiment I rarely hear expressed in that way and it resonated with me a lot.
Sometimes I wish I could express my anger in like this violent physical way, or loud way, but at the same time, I think I have to give myself a little more credit for not going that route also. Because that’s harmful and damaging and all that too. So, what’s the balance between expressing anger in a way that isn’t silencing but also isn’t like, damaging. I find writing helps, which is maybe why social media seemed like a good outlet.
Tiffany: That makes sense. I also write. In my marriage, I threw sneakers against the door, when Aaron wasn’t home. Nothing could get broken, nothing was damaged, I put the dogs downstairs so it wouldn’t scare them, and it gave me a bit of that physical outlet. In high school, I had a punching bag in my room and it also helped. Having a physical outlet can be really helpful. I don’t think that kind of anger expression has any place within an interaction, because of the inherent threat – even shoes against a door are threatening when there’s another person in the room – but as an outlet, it can help. And I have really struggled since the fibromyalgia, because that physical outlet is far less accessible. How do we practice anger mitigation when chronic pain gets in the way? I haven’t figured that out yet.
Emily: Totally, yeah, and I’ve always felt a punching bag would help me quite a bit haha. I should take up boxing, seriously. Probably would be good for my physical and mental health.
Tiffany: Yeah. I would have to look it up, but I am pretty sure there are legit studies documenting how that kind of physical outlet can be a regulator for anger and stress. Even just hormonally it makes sense to me. Endorphins? Idk. But I do think it works. One reason I hate fibro so much is because a punching bag is probably never gonna be an option for me again. But yoga does help.
Emily: Yeah, actually the reminds me of something that happened the other day. I was like brushing my teeth, something mundane, and after I put my toothbrush back in the cabinet but it fell out again and I picked it up and it just wouldn’t stay put haha and I ended up just SLAMMING the cabinet door shut and for a second I just stood there like shit I hope my partner didn’t hear that. And I realized how much pent up anger I had that wanted to come out in a physical way, and I wouldn’t want it to come out unexpectedly at like the wrong time, you know? So it’s good to be self aware of that and really find healthy outlets for it.
Tiffany: Yeah. I have a lot of conflicted thoughts and feelings about anger and honestly it just kinda makes me want to shut down because it’s annoying and makes me feel physically uncomfortable. Lol. But. It is irritating that so much weight is put on women and femmes and non-men to mediate and regulate our anger, and to find healthy outlets, and to be aware of how anger can be weaponized. To dispel the anger before we come into the interaction. That irritates me. I know that it’s the better way, but it irritates me anyway because the same expectation is not placed on cis white men in the same way. And also I wish there were ways to bring anger into interactions without it being rejected or escalating or seen as inappropriate. Like, yes, we should find those healthy outlets and punching bags 4 life, but at the same time, it is so fucking irritating. And also unfairly distributed. You and I are allowed more anger than, say, a black or a fat woman. That’s bullshit! Yeah. Eh. It’s a messy tangle.
Emily: Yeah, I feel that. Like if we can develop mediation skills and do the emotional labour to understand and regulate other people’s anger, why can’t other people do the same for us?
Tiffany: EXACTLY. Exactly. But then also, nobody should have to do that work. I don’t actually WANT everyone to learn how to do that dysfunctional work that I’m so skilled at. But I also resent the fuck out of the fact that nobody in my life is doing that work for me. Like, I mean, I guess this exactly how abuse perpetuates itself. But whatever. It still makes me mad and hurt and sad.
Emily: Yeah. Yeah, I feel that so much.
April 20, 2018
Sarah: YES ANGER. After Ryan left me I was filled with so much rage, I felt like Phoenix Force (from Marvel comics haha); like I wanted to raze the physical world around me, just wanted to destruct reality at an atomic level. My eyes felt blackened for a solid month, at least. There was a day when I mixed several buckets of salt water and planned to spend the day salting the entire yard and all the gardens (of the house he had bought for us and left me in) – I was going to kill every possible plant and wanted it to be a deadzone that would baffle neighbours forever afterwards haha. I didn’t do it though, I texted friends, they convinced me not to, so I dug up all the plants and gave them away, then hurled ice cube trays around in the kitchen, shattering them and leaving sharp bits of plastic all over the floor for him to clean up after I was finally out of the house (my kids were at their dad’s for those last couple weeks, so they didn’t witness any of this). Oh god I was SO ANGRY. It’s been six months now (and he has never reached out, haven’t seen or spoken to him since he left) and the anger has subsided a lot, but I still experience waves of fury at what utter bullshit his handling of it all was. I see a therapist now and am trying to do all the work I can in healing up before getting into another relationship. I can feel how toxic the anger and bitterness is (moreso than after either of my other divorces) and I just don’t want it to ruin me. I don’t want to give him that, he doesn’t get to wreck me. He never deserved me in the first fucking place (THESE ARE THE THINGS I TELL MYSELF, QUITE ANGRILY).
Reflections One Year Later
A year later, this conversation strikes me as something incredibly beautiful. Thank you both so much for sharing this experience with me.
It has taken so much time to get to this point. Circumstances resulting from the fallout of our relationships have made it challenging to coordinate time together. It’s also not the easiest subject to pick up and work on at any time. Taking the time to let this project breathe has been important.
Right now, I am surprised to find myself still grieving a lot. Not so much the relationship itself as those tangential to it: my relationship with my hometown, my province, my perception of self and who I wanted to be there – all of that just gone. It’s a lot to lose at once, and there are still reminders of that loss everywhere.
But I have also gained a lot in the past year, and I wouldn’t have been able to accept this newness into my life without properly grieving. And I also have to recognize that grief is ongoing! It’s not like you just grieve it all at once and get over it, you kind of have to process it in fragments. But with that, you can take more and more steps forward.
I recently started the book Rebellious Mourning, a compilation of writing on grief edited by Cindy Milstein and published by AK Press. This passage resonated with me:
“One of the cruelest affronts, though, was that pain should be hidden away, buried, privatized – a lie manufactured so as to mask and uphold the social order that produces our many, unnecessary losses. When we instead open ourselves up to the bonds of loss and pain, we lessen what debilitates us; we reassert life and it’s beauty. We open ourselves to the bonds of love, expansively understood. Crucially, we have a way, together, to at once grieve more qualitatively and struggle to undo the deadening and deadly structures intent on destroying us.
Cracks appear in the wall.”
I’ve always sort of downplayed my personal reflections and essays as too self-absorbed or self-indulgent. Who wants to be perceived as another self-obsessed millennial? But – what I have always strove to do is situate my experiences within larger contexts, draw connections, and – yes – find those cracks in the wall, to break free, to move forward on both personal, communal and structural levels.
This project has shone light into some of our darkest and most isolating personal experiences – but we have also discussed or touched on broader issues and concepts such as: marriage; parenthood; polyamory; religion; shame; sexuality; family; mental health; fear; regret; love; abuse; gender; finances; poverty; employment; benefits; social media; anger; the legal system; housing; guilt; morality; clothing; capitalism; debt; tax returns; men; masculinity; racialized expressions of anger; physical expressions of anger; chronic pain; and white privilege.
There’s a whole lot of cracks in the wall. A whole lot of room for new life to break through.
Tiffany Sostar is a self-care and narrative coach, working with folks going through a trauma or transition to take care of themselves in the chaos, and land as softly as possible in their new story. They founded and run Possibilities Calgary, a bi+ community group, and generate free, shareable resources for the community on a monthly basis (thanks to the support of their Patreon backers!) Tiffany is also a freelance editor, writer, and tarot reader. You can find them on their website, Facebook, and Patreon. Tiffany lives on Treaty 7 land, in Calgary, Alberta.
Sarah Adams is an artist, comedian, organizer, and makes new life bloom at Alberta Girl Acres.
There’s yet another Spiderman movie coming out this summer, and with it, a fresh reminder that each day we stray further from God’s grace – God’s grace being 2004’s cinematic achievement, Spiderman 2. Not only does the film hold up astonishingly well, it – like a flower in perpetual bloom – reveals new truths with each viewing.
One particular revelation being that this film explores prominent anarchist themes: it challenges hierarchical power by making our “hero” dependent on others – exploring individual agency in the context of mutual aid and collective action, rather than self-serving individualism.
The film opens with Peter Parker racing against the clock to deliver pizzas on time – he’s been consistently late and this is his last chance before he loses his job. Will our hero deliver the pizzas on time? It’s an extremely working class dilemma; many of Peter’s greatest battles in the film are not against some larger-than-life villain, but against the minutiae of his own circumstances.
The entire first act of the film puts Peter in these varying scenarios – disappointing bosses, landlords, professors, friends, and family. He gets called lazy, unreliable, and irresponsible – common adjectives given to the working poor who are victim blamed for their own circumstances.
The audience, however, gets to see more than that. We know how much Peter has on his plate, how he can’t seem to catch a break, and especially how hard he works. We also know he’s Spiderman. We know he’s more powerful than anyone else realizes, and is trying to use his power for good, heeding Uncle Ben’s famous adage, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
And while this is perhaps the most well known line in comic book history, director Sam Raimi adds complexity by pairing it with wisdom from Aunt May, who now takes centre stage as Peter’s mentor.
“I believe there’s a hero in all of us,” she says, “that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride – even though sometimes we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want most, even our dreams.”
Anarchy, roughly translated, means “without rule,” or more specifically, without rulers. While anarchists differ on what exactly this looks like, the general idea involves challenging unjustified power hierarchies. This would also involve refusing to hold up one person, or group of people as saviour figures.
Aunt May is totally an anarchist.
Raimi uses Aunt May’s sentiment to subvert the concept of the lonely vigilante, highlighting how dependent Peter is on the secondary characters. Their character arcs are so tightly woven that each choice and sacrifice has direct consequences for each other and the plot: Aunt May chooses to forgive Peter and encourages him to continue being Spiderman; Mary Jane must choose to give up class mobility for what she truly wants – despite putting herself at risk; Harry must let go of his desire for revenge to help save Mary Jane; and Otto Octavius – the main antagonist – must let go of his life’s work before it destroys the city.
This film also empowers the background characters, giving them the opportunity to save Spiderman in a display of mutual aid – another key anarchist concept. This is best illustrated by legit one of the greatest scenes in cinematic history, where Peter saves a subway train from crashing off an unfinished track. Once he slows the train to a halt, he collapses from exhaustion – only to be caught by the people he saved on the train. And, as Octavius shows up to collect Peter, they put their bodies on the line for him just like he did for them.
In action movies where extras are often portrayed as helpless bystanders, running away in fright while the hero and villain duke it out, Raimi actually treats them like people capable of making their own choices. This story belongs to them too, and they have power to shift its course.
And finally, Spiderman 2 explores abuse of power – portrayed in the film as individualism. (Basically, a middle finger to Ayn Rand.) And this doesn’t always look the way we think – power can be abused both actively and passively, by any character.
Perhaps the most memorable “villain” from this Spiderman era is not the Green Goblin or Doctor Octopus, but J. Jonah Jameson, one of Peter’s bosses, and editor of the Daily Bugle newspaper. He runs the office like a tyrant, belittling his employees, leaving those around him in a constant state of fear. And, rather than challenge and question institutional power, he literally cozies up to it in the gala scene where he and his wife rub shoulders with and flatter various VIPs. It’s not hard to see his active abuse of power, putting his own self-interest ahead of the social need for conflict-of-interest-free news.
It is no coincidence that Peter’s landlord shares similar characteristics to Jameson, chasing down – and shaking down – Peter for rent money. It calls to mind the famous Proudhon quote “Property is theft!” – a critique of private property when used to extort and extract profit from others.
In the second act, Peter’s had enough of falling behind in his personal life and gives up the Spiderman mantle. All the sudden, his personal life improves. He starts attending his classes, he does his homework, and he puts in a serious effort to pursue Mary Jane. Others start seeing him for the brilliant and kind person he is. All he had to do was give up his power, and look the other way.
But this is portrayed as a passive abuse of power, as he lets harm he could reduce continue and proliferate – and allows Octavius to wreak havoc upon the city. Once Peter becomes a “civilian”, he thinks that because he doesn’t have his “powers”, he doesn’t have any responsibility. But, like those who saved him on the train, Peter has to choose whether to ignore his power or act on it – not only as Spiderman, but as a citizen.
The “villain” in Spiderman 2 is not any one group or individual, but selfishness itself. While Octavius starts out pursuing science “for the good of mankind,” his work soon becomes a way to validate his ego, and it harms instead of benefiting others. But by recognizing his ability to make choices, he has the opportunity to become a hero at the climax, choosing to sacrifice himself and destroying his life’s work to save the city.
By the end of the film, each character is arguably worse off. But, by giving up the things they want the most, they have shown how powerful their choices can be, working in conjunction with each other to do something great – like save a city, and each other.
So it must be noted that while Spiderman 2 is a well-constructed movie exploring identifiable anarchist themes, it does so in an extremely limited context. This movie is super white! And there is a misconception out there that anarchism is a predominantly White Thing as well, so I want to address that for a second.
Anarchism challenges power hierarchies of gender, race, class, orientation, ability and so on. People of colour have developed their own networks of mutual aid and reciprocity to survive in the face of state and colonial power for centuries. Trans and queer individuals and communities have likewise been forced to live outside and in between structures built to eradicate them. Though the term “anarchist” is not always used for a variety of valid reasons, threads of anarchy run through many struggles for social justice.
This is why having a black hispanic Spiderman, like Miles Morales, makes a lot of sense for a working class superhero exploring themes of power and responsibility. While I am not familiar with the comic book storylines and can’t comment on their quality, this webcomic by Let’s Be Friends gives you the idea of its potential.
Not to mention, anarchism generally involves a pretty explicit critique of the state and its disciplinary arm – police and prisons. Peter Parker in Spiderman 2, despite being part of the working poor, never has to worry about negative interactions with the police or incarceration – even though he gets accused of robbing a bank. It would be interesting to see if/how the Miles Morales comics explores policing, incarceration, and Spiderman’s position as a vigilante-of-colour.
So there you have it! I hope this blog post inspires you to have a very fun time re-watching Spiderman 2 and perhaps read some more about anarchism. This blog post is obviously hella basic, so here are some articles to check out if you’re interested in exploring these ideas further!
The Anarchism of Blackness by William C. Anderson and Zoe Samudzi and corresponding podcast interview Everything We Need is Already Inside Us: On the anarchism of blackness.
Beyond Prisons podcast with Kim Wilson and Brian Sonenstein
Noam Chomsky: The Kind of Anarchism I Believe in and What’s Wrong with Libertarians with Michael S. Wilson
Indigenous Intersectionality: De-colonizing an Indigenous Eco-Queer Feminism and Anarchism by Laura Hall (more academic than the other ones, but I don’t know another article that explores these ideas in more common language – suggestions welcome!)
I re-read Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire recently, which is maybe one of my favourite books ever. I wanted to write down what I thought were the main tenets of the book because writing helps me clarify my own understanding. I also wanted to share my thoughts here because Freire has been probably my number one influence informing the way I approach activism or conversations about social and economic justice. I hope you find these reflections helpful in rethinking the ways we learn, transmit knowledge, and transform society.
“Pedagogy” refers to the “method and practice of teaching”, and the term itself implies this pursuit has been relegated to academia. But I think, and Freire would also argue, that pedagogy is important for everyone to think about. We all have to go through the process of teaching ourselves – our education does not lie solely in the hands of others, but is a synthesis of our experiences, where we take on roles of both teacher and student, often simultaneously, throughout our lifetimes.
So it follows, according to Freire, that to make any radical changes to society, you must address the present material conditions, and to understand them you have to be in dialogue with others. Academic knowledge and theory can be helpful, but can also run the risk of overlaying someone’s personal experience, or a group’s cultural history, with a wooden narrative – the goal is to enhance one’s understanding of their circumstances, not erase them. We must learn how be both teacher and student with each other, exchanging information and synthesizing new knowledge together. Only through this process can we come up with new ways of organizing ourselves in relationships and communities that affirm each other’s full humanity.
“Dehumanization” is a big academic word I first learned in an English class, but the concept is fairly simple, and a central theme in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It essentially is the process of treating individuals as subhuman, or incapable of making their own decisions, who therefore must be dominated and guided by more liberated or enlightened individuals. This shows up frequently in various forms of media, where stereotypes flatten out human experiences. We participate in dehumanizing others by internalizing these stereotypes and ascribing trite narratives to someone based on a few facts (ie. someone who is poor or disabled or Indigenous etc – our minds can easily flood with these incomplete narratives that reduce the individual to a trope). Once someone is dehumanized in this way, it can be easy to then prescribe particular solutions for their ailments, or force upon them particular social order that is meant to be ‘for their own good.’ This can be seen in the way an author treats a particular character, the way those in authority treat individuals in real life, and, unfortunately, often the way teachers treat students.
Humanization is the process of acknowledging the full humanity of individuals – and that is trusting them to know and identify their situation and their needs, and recognizing that no one else can do the work of liberation for them but themselves. It is through this process of liberating themselves that they then liberate others. Again, to come back to media, this is why the ‘oppressed’ must be able to create and tell their own stories – it is the work of humanization and liberation. To deny someone the opportunity to tell their own stories is to deny them the process of humanization.
Through the process of self-liberation we also liberate others, for we allow them to see the full complexity of the human experience and use it to further their own knowledge about themselves and their situation. This is why consciousness-raising is a common form of learning in radical circles – sharing personal experiences to form a common and more complex understanding of ourselves and each other.
The common model of learning we have – what Freire calls the ‘banking model’ – does not affirm each other’s humanity and overlays stiff ideologies and dogmas overtop of people’s lived experiences – the ideologies and dogmas that best suit those in power, or the ‘oppressors.’ This banking model also sees knowledge as a commodity, meaning one can use knowledge for profit and domination, instead of a means for transformation.
The banking model imparts narratives that humans must then try to squeeze themselves into to be recognized as human – think of white supremacist standards of beauty or capitalist narratives of a “hard worker” or “contributor,” or patriarchal notions of acceptable femininity, and so on. If you cannot adequately fit your existence into these boxes, you become dehumanized, and your ongoing subjugation is justified.
And, finally, according to Freire, the ‘oppressors’ dehumanize themselves by asserting dominance, or supremacy, over other individuals. This, too, is a false narrative. Think models of masculinity, where ‘real men’ only partner with cis women, where authority warrants inflicting violence as ‘discipline’ over others, or that in order to be successful in your career you must achieve domination over others. Freire refers to an educational process that frees both the oppressed and the oppressor. Through recognizing the full humanity of oneself and of others, one can give up their need for domination and take up the mantle of the oppressed to continue the work of liberation. Who can see others as fully human and also see the need to subjugate them?
I have found this book particularly helpful to return to periodically as I think about what organizing should look like, and what conversations within activist spaces should look like as well.
In online spaces, for example, we are constantly sharing personal experiences and knowledge. How can we utilize this sharing in a transformative way, that allows us to break down the alienating status quo, and discover new ways of being, interacting and organizing?
We can find new ways of being, new ways of organizing ourselves outside of colonial capitalism, but only when we rethink our relationship to knowledge and learning. We must do this work for ourselves and for each other.
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.