July 3, 2007

How do we get serious about stalking?

Posted in human issues, real life, recovery, violence, women's issues at 6:31 pm by nevavegan

Recently the Washington Post did an article in the health section about a woman who felt she was being stalked at the gym. I really felt for her situation. It’s hard for women to get out and be active and get into shape without feeling threatened. You start to appreciate the concept of someplace like Curves where men aren’t allowed, though that’s just not a good workout and if you want to use free weights or design your own fitness program, you’re back to mixing in with the opposite sex at the regular gym.

I blogged a little while ago about how often I get harassed when I’m walking my dogs or just going to the grocery store. Because I go to the gym with my husband I don’t really get bothered except very occasionally at the gym. Also sometimes if Sean sees someone talking to me for what seems to be an extended period of time he’ll come over. It’s not threatening or anything, but it’s enough to get the way too persistent males to back off.

But I feel terrible for other women at the gym. Recently one woman had headphones on and was lifting some free weights. A man kept trying to talk to her and she kept ignoring him and lifting her weights, so then he grabbed her arm in the middle of a lift to force her to look at him and speak to him. First, that’s not safe with weights, and secondly if a woman doesn’t want to speak to a guy at the gym, that’s her right, and thirdly can you imagine the explosive reaction if a guy grabbed the arm another guy while he was lifting and interrupted his set for any other reason than that the gym was on fire… Yeah, you would never try that with a guy, so why would anyone think it’s ok to try that with a woman?

I read Hugo Schwyzer’s blog from time to time and he touched on the issue of women not wanting male attention from both sides. He said men are offended that women just won’t be friendly, but when they feel that way they aren’t really considering how the women feel and they aren’t considering how they might contribute to a world where women don’t feel safe.

Maybe it’s the rotten mood I’m in today (very tired) but I have to say it goes beyond that. I’ve had men make a lot of accusations against me when I wouldn’t stop to talk to them, and they kept persisting. I’ve been accused of being racist because I didn’t want to have a conversation with a large man (who just happened to be African American) who was standing between me and my front door after dark when I came home. I came up to the house to find this strange man inside my fenced yard peering in my front window and when I told him he had to leave he accused me of being racist (because had it been a white man peering in my windows after dark I would have given him a hug and invited him in, had some tea and scones and watched PBS..). I’ve had men follow me telling me that I don’t need to be scared of them because they’re really nice guys. Um, you just disproved that by chasing me in your truck after I told you to leave me alone and tried to walk away from you. I’ve had guys tell me I have something wrong with me to be so unfriendly…

And what’s the common theme here: I wasn’t a person to any of them. I wasn’t a human being who had a right to feel frightened and want to protect myself. I was an object and to a person like that it’s really annoying when an object tries to stick up for itself and get away from them.

I have to add that this kind of stuff doesn’t really happen when you’re in groups. These men decide to pick on you if you’re jogging by yourself. If you’re in a large group of women, or a small group that includes another male, they really don’t run up to you saying you shouldn’t be scared of them. So that just says something to me.

At the same time there probably is an aspect where a nice guy might feel like he had a moment of connection with a woman he doesn’t know, like their coffee orders got mixed up and they laughed about it or she dropped her water bottle and he handed it back, or whatever. And it probably is frustrating to the nice guy that he might want to continue the conversation but the woman is afraid of him and so won’t talk to him. Of course, in that instance, see above, if he really is a nice guy he does not leap into his truck and chase her.

It probably is true that most males have no concept of just how frightening and intimidating they can be to women. But the main emotion I see expressed isn’t empathy: “Wow, I feel terrible that she’s so scared, that must feel terrible” but merely frustration that the other person, this woman isn’t giving them what they want.

I’m not sure anyone can understand this unless they’ve been there. I was stalked when I was younger in a really terrible incident, and seemingly throughout my adult life I seem to pick up stalkers from time to time. I’m not sure why, my dad thinks I give off push-over vibes that attract bad people. I think it’s maybe that I’m short and therefore seem less intimidating. I have long-ish hair… I don’t know. I wonder if I’m just more attuned to it at this point, maybe tons of women are stalked all the time without even knowing it. The first time I had no idea until someone confronted me with details of my life he couldn’t have known except by making following me around his chief hobby. But a person who hasn’t been through this just doesn’t get the kind of terror it invokes.

In the last place I lived I was stalked by my neighbor. I was scared so much of the time, and while Sean is definitely on my side, he just didn’t get how deep my fears were. He laughed it off and said “Wow, he sure has a crush on you.” My response was “laugh it up now because one day you’ll come home and find me cut up in little pieces in the living room.” Whenever I bring up this story Sean points out that in fact this neighbor didn’t physically attack me and my dead body was not found in little bits in the living room. So maybe I misjudged the level of the threat. But does anyone deserve to spend time fearing that outcome? Is it right that I altered my schedule and my dog walking route to avoid a person who was always showing up wherever I happened to be.

Anyway, perhaps I should tell the story of the stalking so you can draw your own conclusions on how badly I misjudged.

Shortly after we moved in I went in the backyard to clean up. The yard had been taken over by vines and underbrush, and beneath those were several years of trash. Apparently at some point the trash service had stopped in that neighborhood, so the previous residents had simply dumped all their trash in the back yard. From the smell and the suspicious mounds back there I joked that I was afraid of discovering a body. Anyway, it was the middle of summer, very hot, and I was doing all this hard work. My neighbor would watch me over the fence and remarked several times that I worked very hard. Then he said he wanted to marry a woman like me who would work so hard. I told him I was married, he talked to Sean a few times. I figured that was that, but it wasn’t.

He kept talking to me, insisting that I was the perfect woman for him, asking me what I liked to do for fun. If Sean was around he’d wax very eloquent on how lucky Sean was to have a wife like me, pretty and hard-working, and the way he went on and on made me very uncomfortable.

I finished the back yard and moved on to working on the front lawn, which involved pulling out a lot of dead and dying bushes. In one single day of working on the front lawn he drove back and forth in front of our house at least ten times, each time slowing way down for a really long stare. Some of the drive-bys were only minutes apart giving me the impression he hadn’t gone anywhere except around the block.

Then he started coming over to ask about things or saying he needed to talk to Sean, but he’d grab my hands and arms when trying to talk to me. Then we adopted the first dog, Kyra. He followed me in his car while I walked her.

Sean built a tall privacy fence all around our yard for Kyra. Then our neighbor decided to have a party, he kept inviting me and I kept making excuses. Then he went to Sean and said he’d be offended if we didn’t come to his party. So Sean said we’d better just stop by. We went to his party and aside from his grabbing my arms and hands, there was something else that made me uncomfortable. He’d built a raised deck, not attached to his house like a normal person, but right next to our privacy fence. When I sat down on the built in bench on his deck I realized that I was looking directly into our bedroom window. We’d built a privacy fence—he built a viewing platform.

After that I really had no peace of mind until we moved. I’d come home from work and rush around closing all the curtains and shades. Then I’d get paranoid that maybe even with the curtains shut he could still see my shadow, so I wouldn’t change in the bedroom, I’d go change in the bathroom. I started walking my dog on a long course that avoided going near his house or the places where I’d encountered him driving before.

Then we moved and that was it. Nothing happened. He never hurt me. He never kicked in my door. He never threatened me with a weapon. I just lived in constant fear of those things. That’s the insidious thing about it—it can destroy your feeling of safety without the other person doing anything really *all that bad.* If confronted they’d just claim they were friendly. “After all, I didn’t hurt her.”

What can we do to move away from a culture where this kind of stuff is allowed to continue? I went to the magistrate’s office to try to press charges in the hit and run and ahead of me was a young woman. She was crying. She explained that her ex had abused her and threatened her and she’d moved away and tried to hide her location from him. Now she was getting threatening emails where he told her he knew where she lived, he knew where she worked. She held out a sheaf of email messages to the magistrate. The magistrate said “We’ll do something if he shows up in person and threatens you.” “I want a protective order now,” she insisted. “But this is just email. Dial 911 if he comes to your house.” the magistrate replied. “But don’t you see,” she said, her voice starting to fail, he must be following me to know where I live and where I work.” No protective order. She left in tears, her face buried in her friend’s shoulder.

EDIT: Oooops I wrote all of this out from my point of view and only afterwards did I happen to think that not just women are victims of stalkers. Some men have stalkers too, and children do as well. I think it’s more women than men that experience this, but we need to stop all stalking obviously.


July 2, 2007

Strange Thoughts Stirring

Posted in recovery at 1:00 am by nevavegan

Today I spent about five hours on the phone with an old friend. Time is generally short in my world. I talk fast, I walk fast, I type fast. But today was a day to slow down and go back over ground we left behind long ago.

I talked to a very old friend about the attack and she was shocked because I never told her this before. She said “You told me something really bad happened but you were ok, then whatever I asked you didn’t really say much. You dropped off the planet for a while. But I never knew any of this.” That was strange to me, because I could have sworn I told her, but then thinking it over I knew I hadn’t.

I never told my family because I knew they couldn’t be there for me and would likely just make me feel worse about something I could barely cope with as it was. It was a given that I couldn’t turn to my family because I knew I couldn’t carry myself and them. I told a couple of close friends after it happened, and though I didn’t give details, nothing gorey at all, I watched their faces go blank on me. They stopped calling. They replied with things like “Ok, I gotta go, but you’re really strong anyway, so I know you’ll be able to deal with this and be back to your old self in no time.” So I stopped telling people.

Sometimes I take certain things for granted and sometimes I’m totally wrong. I act based on faulty assumptions. I said that this blog was a form of coming out of the closet. Just putting everything out there and being really honest. The thought was that I’m vegan and I’m trying to do good things and find more ways to do better things and maybe other people are dealing with the same issues and it might be helpful to read that they’re not the only ones. So that’s why I put all this potentially hurtful stuff out here.

It’s strange to feel like something is central to my life almost to the point that I’m embarassed by how much I talk about it and how much I focus on it. And even more strange to realize later that I don’t talk about things sometimes.

I tell too much to people who don’t know me well, which might be something like a test. I guess I’d rather know early in a friendship if someone just can’t handle it. Not that it makes them a bad person or takes away at all from the good they do. It’s just that I’m not sure I want to move beyond an occassional lunch or museum trip if someone just can’t live with something that for better or worse has become a part of who I am. A tiny part, this little fracture of broken glass. But it isn’t going away.

If people don’t want to know, the reason of course is likely fear. People want to live in a world where bad things won’t happen to them, so it’s frightening to hear about. Or people might falsely think that knowing something puts some requirement on them to fix it and naturally they can’t fix it. Which is silly. It’s not their problem to fix, but I do sympathize with the impulse. Some of us were raised to be “repairpeople” and there’s something terrifying in that with sitting face to face with something that just can’t be fixed. Also maybe there is also an element of empathy fatigue–people who feel they have so much on their plates already they just don’t want to have to think about anyone else’s baggage.

I still don’t know how I feel about all of this. My friend did say “I can’t believe this. If anything like that had ever happened to me I’d never get over it. I’d be a sobbing wreck for the rest of my life.”

I know it’s kindly meant. But offerings of sympathy seem odd to me sometimes. What can you say? Is this a compliment or is it something else? Should it make me feel weak in some way? We all heal or we don’t. I know it’s never that simple. Healing isn’t one straight line from here to there. But we either start to get better and keep striving in that direction or we don’t.

It’s weird sharing information, and knowing that it hits everyone differently. After starting this blog I got a couple of threatening messages–apparently someone didn’t like that I was writing about violence and recovery, or they didn’t like that I slammed hunting. I don’t know. It’s not that I don’t care any longer what people think. I do care, more than I should. I’m just starting to understand that I don’t control their reactions, only they do. We take the information and what we do with it is our own.

June 21, 2007

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Revisited

Posted in post traumatic stress disorder, recovery, violence at 1:32 pm by nevavegan

We rented and watched Munich a little while ago. It was a well-made movie and really did convey the twisted ways war, politics, and vengeance can overcome intrinsic good and compassion. The overwhelming paranoia that grew throughout the movie was palpable, becoming almost its own character, growing, changing, suffocating.

That feeling, not feeling safe wherever you happen to be, is such a real thing to me, and sadly it’s familiar to many people all around the world.

When we first learned about post traumatic stress disorder it was in relation to war veterans. These were men, many of them practically children, who were sent abroad to witness atrocities, kill fellow human beings, and watch their friends die.

My grandfather fought two official wars, World War II, Korea, and one undeclared war, the Cold War. When I say he fought the Cold War I really mean that in every sense of the word. He is very tight-lipped about most of his experiences, giving only small anecdotes here and there. For example, he never really spoke about his experiences as a pilot in WWII, but at one of his birthday parties a friend of his made some joke about the time my grandfather’s plane was shot down. I wanted to know more, but he just turned away and said it really wasn’t a very interesting story.

So after all of this, after he left the military, my grandfather was plagued with nightmares for years. According to my grandmother he insisted on continuing to sleep with his hand gun under his pillow, until they were finally able to break him of that habit. My grandmother described being terrified that my grandfather would awake from a violent nightmare and start shooting before he realized he was at home and safe. My grandfather in his waking life was a gentle person. He wasn’t prone to rage, he didn’t drive aggressively, if someone tried to provoke him he walked away rather than fighting. But in his sleep he yelled and flailed and apparently even punched and kicked at the air. The after effects of trauma following him, however deep he tried to bury them in his mind.

My father too is a veteran and bears the scars of seeing things nobody should ever see.

This topic is timely right now as well, when we wonder how to reintegrate soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan into civil society. At times it seems almost hopeless to think that we train people to turn off their compassion and to kill other people, and then we expect them to return home seamlessly, get jobs in construction, solve problems with words not violence… Of course for many veterans this might not be so hard, but for others it’s nearly impossible. My father described the court marshal proceedings against a fellow soldier that he observed. This man told my father that he simply couldn’t be kicked out of the military, in fact he felt he needed to remain in Vietnam. His chilling words were that he had found he enjoyed killing people and while this was acceptable “in country” he just couldn’t go back to the states and live among normal people.

Once we flip a certain switch, how can we unflip it?

Of course Post Traumatic Stress Disorder isn’t just about war, it can affect anyone who has witnessed extreme violence, has survived a brutal attack, has been abused, or maybe even people who have been bullied over long periods of time.

Maybe it’s the time of the year. I, myself, have been having a lot of nightmares lately and waking up exhausted.

I wonder what happens to children growing up in violence plagued neighborhoods. What about those growing up in countries where genocide is allowed to continue unchecked for years. My area has a high murder rate. The local ice-cream man was shot for a few dollars as he tried to sell popsicles (luckily he was rushed to the hospital and survived). How can a young mind grow and bloom when their friends are gunned down senselessly, when they never feel safe?

What kind of world are we building here? Do cultures themselves acquire post traumatic stress disorder?

June 15, 2007

Where We Build Monsters

Posted in animal advocacy, real life, recovery at 10:59 pm by nevavegan

In 1938 Neville Chamberlain conceded Czechoslovakia to Hitler in a policy that has since been called “appeasement.” This went down in history as a one of those great mistakes. War was not avoided, only postponed until the enemy was stronger.

Since then many leaders have made use of this example to justify a policy or deride another country’s choices. What we sometimes lose sight of is how we use appeasement in our daily lives.

It’s certainly not wrong to compromise and seek ways to get along with others. In fact it is our ability to do this that allows us, as social animals, to live in such large groups, share resources, and hopefully find non-violent solutions to our disputes.

The trouble arises when, as was the case with Chamberlain and Hitler, we find ourselves trying to appease someone who is on a fundamental level un-appeasable. When you’re dealing with someone who cannot be made whole, who cannot be satisfied, and wants to inflict harm, there is no solution through compromise to be made. Yet, people still cling to this idea that if only we understood a little better, if only we tried a little harder to talk it out, everything would be fine.

Now imagine sitting down to have a little chat with a serial killer about how he really needs to stop killing the neighborhood children. “I understand your desire to kill children; and I’ll just look the other way as you kill the ones you’ve already got locked up in your basement. But after that you really need to stop. We all want a nice neighborhood and nobody likes seeing all those bodies lying around. Think how the parents feel.”

Ludicrous right? Not one of us can see anything worthwhile coming from that discussion. If we’re picturing this in our minds we’re imagining hitting that serial killer in the head with anything at hand, dialing 911, and then leading those trapped children to safety. Of course. We all recognize that there are situations in our own lives where we just can’t negotiate. Not because we don’t believe in negotiation, not because we want to prove how tough we are, but because we know negotiation and compromise must be a two-way street, must be based in integrity, and require some level of sanity. Minus those things we aren’t even negotiating.

We can recognize this in lesser situations too, this thought process doesn’t need to take place in a horror movie. I knew a woman who was kicked out of her church because she kept spreading malicious rumors about other people in the congregation. The minister spoke to her about it, he counseled her about gossip, and as time went on he came to the slow realization that she simply liked spreading rumors and all her promises to stop were worthless. She didn’t care that she was hurting people, she didn’t care that she was hurting the church. She had become so divisive in the congregation, driving her victims out of the church and creating fights between those who believed her and those who didn’t, that the minister simply couldn’t allow her to participate in church any longer. At some point you just wake up and realize it’s never going to work.

In fact by negotiating we make things worse in those situations. We teach manipulative, malicious people how to act like they want to solve problems. They learn the right words to say, but never absorb the ideas behind them. We give them power and time to do bad things, so that when we finally wake up, it’s a lot harder to try to fix the wrongs we’ve allowed to continue. We in essence build monsters by letting people go on doing terrible things.

The reason why I bring this up is because like with the prior entry “You are an Object” I’m building a base to explain other things. This understanding of when we need to negotiate and when we can’t is so important, but also very treacherous. The last thing we want to do is “declare war” in situations that would benefit from mediation, negotiation, or plain old-fashioned listening. We also don’t want to try to negotiate when we aren’t talking to someone who can’t be negotiated with.

I try to think about these tricky balancing acts in my life and also in animal work. Right now we’re thinking about this in our neighborhood with the cat poisonings. On the one hand we want to get tough and go over to our suspect’s house and threaten him. That would mean that we would believe he’s beyond any hope, that we believe the only way to address this situation is through force. On the other hand we want to distribute information to tell people that a) poisoning cats is cruel, b) it’s illegal and c) there are humane ways to reduce that cat population and get some of the more bothersome behaviors under control. Maybe there’s some way to combine the two approaches, but I’m not so sure.

It took me a really long time to learn that there are things I can’t fix, people I can’t reach. What I do with that lesson is hard to determine.

June 13, 2007

Lesson The First: You are an Object

Posted in abuse, borderline personality disorder, mental health, recovery at 6:36 pm by nevavegan

I’ve been working on this forever, and I still don’t feel completely comfortable posting it. What I’m doing here is delving into a huge topic, which is so big and requires so much background that it’s almost not appropriate for blogging. However it’s extremely important to me, so I’m going to give it a try.

I’ve been reading a lot of blogs and articles lately about sexism and violence against women. There are a lot of theories floating around out there about violence and general and violence against women in particular. I’m really not qualified to comment on many of these theories. I keep adding titles onto my reading list and I hope that shortly I’ll be able to say more in a much more authoritative manner.

What I do feel qualified to say is that the topic of mental health should be central to this discussion. There is an epidemic in our culture of untreated and often ignored mental illness, and one side effect of pretending this problem doesn’t exist is rampant violence and abuse. This includes abuse of all types, verbal abuse, physical abuse, stalking, and so on.

In animal work, as in feminism, as in the fight against violence, or to improve situations for poor and displaced all over the world, we often find ourselves using the word “objectify.” We use this to explain how someone is able to make a living from hurting animals, or how someone is able to do unspeakable things to another human being. We talk about the ways in which the media or certain philosophies objectify women, minorities, or animals.

But for me, the word objectify has another meaning and it really shakes me to my core. Because there are people out there who carelessly objectify others and can be woken up to the harm they’re causing when they hear the stories of the exploited. But there are also people who by reason of mental defect cannot do anything but objectify others. These are people who are completely cut off from empathy.

When I’ve tried to explain this to some people the first thing they think of is a serial killer, a sociopath, and that is one example. However, most people affected by this are not serial killers, but they are still dangerous to us in various ways. I feel like when that guy tried to grab me and force me into his car while I was out walking, that I was probably dealing with a sociopath at that moment. What I didn’t know was that people who are much less obvious might also view me (or you, or your sister, or your son, or their cousin) as only an object to be used and then discarded. These people might be able to put on a great show of empathy, but they usually do not feel it.

I will never forget that afternoon in the therapist’s office when I described a particularly abusive episode from my past and she brought up a topic that would change the way I thought about everything: Borderline Personality Disorder. I left her office and got several books, hit the internet hard, talked to friends, talked to strangers in support forums, and started wrapping my head around this topic.

My first reaction however was to run back to the therapist and hold up a book. Pointing to a paragraph I read to her “victims of abuse often develop Borderline Personality Disorder as unresolved trauma accumulates.” What does this mean, I wanted to know, does this mean that I might have Borderline Personality Disorder?

The therapist patiently explained that while many people with BPD do have histories of abuse, the diagnosis of the disorder is based more on their distorted thinking and erratic behavior. There are certain criteria they must fit to fall under this disorder. There is also an entire continuum of disorders, such as other personality disorders like narcissistic and histrionic, and then other mental illnesses like bipolar disorder. A person can have bipolar disorder with one or two traits of BPD, or they can have BPD but exhibit traits also of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Very few people are a perfect textbook case of any one mental illness, there are degrees of severity and a whole host of symptoms from the common to the rare.

The therapist reassured me that I didn’t show symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder, which was exactly what I needed to hear. We all need to keep an eye on our behavior and getting the green flag that I’m not mentally ill doesn’t mean I can do and say whatever I like all the time. However, it does feel good to know that I haven’t inherited a serious mental illness.

The trickiest thing about personality disorders is that people with personality disorders often don’t fit out stereotypes of how “crazy” people look and act. People with personality disorders, again on that continuum of severity, can hold down demanding jobs, don’t mutter to themselves or forget to bathe, don’t wear tin-foil helmets. They can be charming and nice; they can seem perfectly normal much of the time.

The main thing that will distinguish the personality disordered from the “mentally healthy” are the things going on inside their heads that the rest of us can’t see, like disordered thinking and unusual reactions or distorted emotions. Most important though is the complete inability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. The thing that you or I would notice would instances of unusual behavior that are hard to classify.

The reaction of a “normal” person (I put normal in quotes as there is a wide range of thinking styles and personalities that differ greatly but are considered ok, ie not mentally ill) to being around the personality disordered is often to start to wonder if they themselves are the crazy ones. Those of us who have been through this often use the phrase “welcome to Oz” to describe the experience, because suddenly you find that all the things you believed about human behavior and how the world works simply don’t apply.

As I said earlier there are varying severities of personality disorders, and it’s very hard to generalize about all people affected by them. Some people with milder cases do feel empathy sometimes, but find it hard to connect to that feeling during the worst times when their disorder really acts up. However, if we are discussing the just the most serious cases, and just those that fall under the definition of Cluster B personality disorders, we are talking about people that are very mentally ill. Even if they don’t necessarily act like they’re mentally ill, there are some extreme problems going on.

Because I grew up with a parent that falls under this definition, or to be more exact a low-functioning, out-acting Borderline Personality Disordered individual, I more or less grew up in Oz. Everything is backwards and upside down and nothing makes any sense. A further consequence of growing up in this environment was that later, as a teenager and then an adult I didn’t always pick up on the fact that some people around me weren’t behaving in normative ways or were engaging in damaging behaviors. Those things were actually very familiar to me. In other words I’d built up a tolerance to crazy in the same way other people have a tolerance for heat or cold. I didn’t really notice it any more.

The downside of not picking up on the fact that others had personality disorders was that people with personality disorders certainly picked up on my tolerance. To some of the most ill, my tolerance, my patience, and my vulnerability were like a drug, and so I attracted some pretty damaging people into my life. The therapist says that people who have been abused have a lower pain threshold sometimes. We might put up with more abuse than others would, but we are also totally crushed by it. Because we are already hurting, insults and harsh words are like rubbing salt in an open wound. A person who hasn’t learned some degree of helplessness by being stuck in a home with an abusive parent will likely stand up and defend themselves. For those of us who have learned, time and time again that there is no escape and that to defend ourselves makes things worse, we tend to ball up and wait for the attack to be over.

For years and years I asked myself “What did I do wrong? Why do people I love hurt me?” But the question was the wrong question. The fact was there was nothing I could change to alter those situations. The people who hurt me hurt me for disordered reasons that make no sense to normal people. Those reasons varied from enjoying the feeling of power they got from reducing me to tears to lashing out against imagined hurts. For someone in the grips of paranoia, simply being myself or smiling or insisting on being treated with respect could be the trigger for an all out attack, in some cases verbal, in some cases slander, in some cases physical. But the real issue is that the reasons never mattered, and staying in a damaging situation wondering why the same bad things kept happening was simply a waste of time.

Since this realization I’ve witnessed friends go through the same thing, wondering why a relationship simply won’t work no matter how hard they try, wondering why someone in their lives keeps hurting them over and over. Why doesn’t matter. When you realize someone in your life tries to crush you when you’re happy and uses moments when you’re down as an excuse to kick you, that’s all you need to realize. Just get out, get away. Move, don’t leave a forwarding address, change your phone number. Whatever it takes, just get out.

Some will argue that it’s not the fault of people with personality disorders that they have this mental illness and it’s unfairly punitive to them to cut off contact. I agree it isn’t their fault. Many have been victims of abuse themselves, though abuse doesn’t cause personality disorders and most people who are abused will not develop personality disorders. In fact, recent studies utilizing brain scans on people with Cluster B personality disorders show that their brain activity is altered as compared to someone without a personality disorder. Whatever the cause: genetic, organic, psychological, we can all agree that nobody ever asks to suffer from a serious mental illness. And certainly in cases where someone in our lives wants to get better, does not have such a severe case, and is not continually harmful to us, there are good reasons to support them during treatment. But that’s not what I’m talking about; I’m talking about the cases where people are severely affected, harmful to others, and very resistant to treatment.

The reason that this is so bad is that to people severely affected by cluster B personality disorders, such as Borderline Personality Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or Antisocial Personality Disorder, I am an object. I am something to use for their amusement, or for their personal gain. But they don’t feel empathy toward me and they never will. They don’t worry about how I feel. They might enjoy my pain or they might be indifferent to it, or so lost in their own confusing world they’re unaware of anyone else’s pain, but the point is that I don’t matter.

With that as a starting point, there is no fixing it. Anyway I’ve rambled on in this impossibly long entry, because this is the building block to things I want to post about in the future. I want to talk about how ignoring mental health is harmful to our society. I want to talk about abused animals I’ve rescued personally and wondered how a person could break a rabbit’s bones for example. I want to talk about why bystanders are afraid to confront abusers. I want to talk about how concepts of objectification and ownership affect all of us. But this is the first step, to talk about the worst of it and where it comes from, and then later I can talk about how these things go from a place of mental illness and confusion to taking up residence in the minds of the otherwise healthy people.

June 8, 2007

When You Find the Need to Survive

Posted in animal advocacy, recovery, rescue, survivors, veganism at 1:13 pm by nevavegan

There is a danger in being too emotional sometimes, that we can lose sight of logic, or trust or gut instinct against all reason. So when I get really emotional I try to find some way I can do a sanity check. I used to joke that somebody should invent a mental thermometer, so I can do decisive home sanity check for myself. Like I’d look at it and say “Ok, in the green, I’m fine.” Or “Ooops, it’s in the red, I’d better take a step back, calm down, and rethink this.”

Wouldn’t that be great? Of course we’d all be taking them to work to secretly sanity-check our bosses!

So, with that disclaimer at the opening, prepare for an over the top emotional blog entry that’s so emo your computer monitor might start sweating huge bloody tears or something.

The thing I wanted to write about is why life is important, not just suffering or protection from suffering. I mentioned this before in my entry on feral cats; the idea was that I can’t be sure I won’t die tomorrow, I can’t be sure that death won’t be horrible and gruesome. But I’d still prefer to take my chances with that than to get a painless lethal injection today.

Taking this a step further, as much as I deplore the conditions on factory farms or in slaughterhouses, and as much as I’d like to see those conditions improved, I still stick to the basic idea that no matter how humanely it’s done, it’s wrong for me to kill an animal because I like how he tastes, or I want to wear her skin, or for sport or entertainment. Just as it would be wrong for someone to kill me because they enjoy the act of killing, or because they want what I have, or they want my body, or any other perceived benefit to eliminating me. Even if my death were sudden, without fear or pain, a single gunshot to the head before I even knew what was happening, even so it would be wrong.

Like many people, I also had a moment where time seemed to slow for me and my very life hung in the balance. With the kind of crystal clarity that sometimes comes in a moment of extreme crisis I suddenly knew that it was a very real possibility I wasn’t going to live through this. My whole being cried out that this was not right. I HAD to live. I wasn’t able to consider the finer points of whether my life was worthwhile. Some people have told me that in moments like that they thought of their loved ones and how missed they would be, or the good they wouldn’t be able to do. I can’t claim anything so noble. Something much more basic kicked in for me, a desperate survival instinct that NEEDED to survive above all else. If I was badly hurt, ok. If I was disabled, ok. But I couldn’t give up, I wanted and needed to live and it wasn’t even a choice it was something felt in every molecule of my body.

Before this I had had some minor experience with those I knew making peace with death and accepting it. I always assumed that when it was the right time for me, I would make my peace. I had a cat named Bernard with advanced cancer when I was only 14 or so. Right before we had him euthanized he wasn’t able to do much but lie on his soft blanket. When I said goodbye to him, he looked back at me with this look of exhaustion, but also love, and also extreme calm. Shortly after that happened, my family had a party and there was a great big gooey cake. My great uncle James was sitting on the couch and asked me to get him a piece and said “be sure it’s an end piece with lots of frosting, a corner is best. If you can get a frosting flower on it, I’d like that.” When I brought him his cake I leaned over him and our eyes met and I was struck by a single thought “that’s the look Bernard gave me right before he died.” Within days my great uncle died, quite unexpectedly, but I just knew. When my grandfather died, it was a shock to all of us, but I was struck by the memory of how he’d looked at me the last time I’d seen him. I’d thought that look of peace and calm had been happy memories as he talked, but I began to see a pattern. And I could only hope that when my life was at an end the calm and love and peace would descend on me too and I’d let go with grace.

But in those moments where I felt my own death coming, there was no peace, just the monumental will to live. Perhaps we could say it simply wasn’t my time, I don’t know.

When I began to rescue animals in earnest I started to notice sometimes when an animal seemed to have given up completely and when they hadn’t. Around this time I took a very ill cat, Q, into my home, only to get a death sentence from the vet a couple days later. She tested positive for FIP and her liver was failing. The vet advised me to say goodbye and then bring her in.

Q was so sick; she was lying on a cat bed, thin in all the wrong places, swollen in the opposite and still wrong places, weak and feverish. And she lifted her head and looked at me, and the look was not peace or acceptance, but overwhelmingly “I want to live.”

Some people think I anthropomorphize too much, but in this one I really don’t doubt myself. I had a very sick cat who wanted more than anything to survive, which should be a no-brainer. Most of us want to live. Some give up after horrible illness; some live a long life and give up in old age… But most living things want to continue to live. We all know this, don’t we?

The end of this story is that Q went through crisis and it was terrible, and then slowly she improved (with a holistic vet, not the original vet). Then later she had a relapse and was very ill again, but managed to pull through again, and has now been with me for 6 ½ happy years. We don’t know eventually what will happen, but it was certainly worth the effort.

I bring up Q’s story because sometimes in all the debating about animals and how smart they are or what they need or notice, we somehow miss this common sense thing: they want to live.

Sometimes when advocates of humane farming talk about killing animals they say things like this: “Since the animal make the ultimate sacrifice for us, we have an obligation to treat them well.” Aside from just the weirdness of the word sacrifice, which makes me think of ancient, obscure religious rituals, this way of speaking glosses over an important fact. The animals aren’t sacrificing themselves, they aren’t lying down their tired heads and going to sleep, they are being violently killed and they want to live. They want to live so badly that sometimes they manage to escape slaughterhouses, which are designed after all, almost more secure than prisons, to prevent escape.

I wonder how intelligent people sometimes manage to twist their brains into knots and think silly things like animals only care about whether or not they are in pain, not if they live or die.

Recently the creek near where I live overflowed its banks during a bad storm. The next day while walking my dogs I noticed puddles that looked like they were boiling. On closer inspection I found that about 100 fish and crayfish and miscellaneous water creatures (I counted as I saved them so I’m pretty sure of the number) were writhing and suffocating in rapidly drying puddles about 20 feet from the creek. I got to work, grabbing out the fish and rushing them to the creek. Even though they were in agony in the puddles, in desperate straights they resisted all my attempts to grab them. They preferred to stay in a stagnant, warm, drying up, oxygen-deprived puddle to being caught by me, who might eat them. And these were small fish and animals we’re talking about. I was finally forced to run home with the dogs, and return by myself with a Tupperware, spoon, and other implements to scoop out the fish and get them into the creek. Their struggle for survival, in an animal so different from us is instructive. They would rather be in pain than die, they feared and avoided death. There’s no other explanation to me at least.

I felt something like recognition in me. I’ve been where you are, I told them. Not that they could hear or understand me. I just saw myself in that moment.

One more note. I wrote this yesterday, but revised today. So imagine my surprise when I discovered another blogger wrote something similar yesterday. For a more straight-forward and logical examination of the topic check out this entry on Abolitionist Animal Rights.

May 31, 2007

Burnout, Depression, and Trauma in Animal Work

Posted in animal advocacy, burnout, recovery, trauma, violence at 5:31 pm by nevavegan

I must be a really bitter person, or maybe it’s my birthday coming up, but I seem to be just full of negative posts lately. I’m so sorry.

NOTE: This post contains descriptions of violence which may be upsetting or triggering to some.

Disclaimer: The following will just be some personal observations on this topic, as I’m not really qualified to discuss this beyond my own experience.

As Pattrice Jones has written, activists are particularly prone to trauma and need help in dealing with it. As animal advocates we are often in situations that are not healthy for anyone and naturally psychological stress is the result.

Pattrice states in her abolitionist-online interview that much of what we refer to as burnout in the movement is actually depression. Long years of discouragement, seeing horrible things over and over, it all adds up. That depression can be paralyzing and hold us back from action. It can also spur non-productive or even self-destructive action as well.

I don’t want to name names here, so I will be purposefully vague, but I have seen a number of leaders in the animal rights movement give small presentations on coping with burnout. In other cases the question of burnout arose in discussion periods following some other talk. While I appreciate the sincere efforts of those individuals I often found their comments rather unhelpful. Over and over I heard “We all suffer burnout and depression, but we just need to remember that the animals are suffering more, and so we should pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and keep going.”

At the time I found such a statement something that’s very easy for a person in a position of power to say. I don’t doubt that these leaders also suffered depression and stress and trauma, but as they were steering the ship, so to speak, their experience differed. Because being in a position of power gives that person a feeling of control and purpose. That can to some extent counteract the helplessness some of us in the ranks felt. I do think it’s harder in many ways to keep up the level of involvement, despite crippling depression, if your only role is to follow instructions. Especially if sometimes you doubt the wisdom of those instructions but know that you have no say in forming policy or direction.

I do also think perhaps these leaders should think twice before taking their own advice. I firmly feel that the way to deal with trauma, depression, and other mental and emotional health issues is to get help. People don’t realize when they’re in this fog how distorted their thinking might be, but I don’t think people who ignore their own mental health will make very good decisions or ultimately be terrific leaders or role models. It’s possible that people who are ignoring their own mental health and suffering crippling depression might treat others very badly without even realizing it.

I also suffered depression related to my work with animals, but my post traumatic stress disorder was something else, relating to an unconnected attack. One thing that is important to know about someone suffering trauma is that additional traumas tend to hit in different ways and can be particularly destructive.

As an example, I participated in a protest where I was asked to handcuff myself to a door. I did this, and within seconds of handcuffing myself to the door a security guard grabbed me by my neck and I blacked out. When I woke up I was in the street lying on my face, only I actually didn’t know where I was for a little while. And again, like the last time I was knocked out I was so incredibly nauseated and my head hurt so badly on coming to that I pretty much could not speak and couldn’t think about anything else. After a little while I remembered where I was and I realized that my hand had been pulled out of the handcuff a wide strip of skin was missing from the back of my hand and I had a smaller cut on my wrist. The police arrived asked the security guard if I was alive, and he said I was drunk (I was not, but he was hardly going to admit he’d knocked me out) and so the police kicked me (not hard) to try to get a response out of me, but I was still unable to respond.

This was a particularly bad experience naturally, made worse by my traumatic memories of what had happened to me the last time I’d been knocked out. When the police realized how badly I was hurt, they let me go, and I had to find my way back to the organizer of the protest so I could reclaim my purse and keys and go home. He didn’t voice any concern about my injuries and expressed no sympathy or regret, just the usual platitude that sometimes people get hurt at protests and of course the animals suffer more. Then he said he was in a big hurry to get to a party so he couldn’t speak to me further.

I naturally knew the animals suffer more, but I was not in great shape for a while. I also had no health insurance at the time so I just went home and poured alcohol over my hand and bandaged it up the best I could. I tried to use my really old, bad camera to take some photographs of the bruises on my neck, but no charges were ever brought against the security guard.

That was the last protest I did for that particular organization because I came to believe that they put their activists in dangerous situations (I was told prior to the protest that this was no big deal, it would go very quickly, and while there was a chance I MIGHT be arrested, most likely nothing was going to happen) and then couldn’t even muster a sympathetic word for them when they got hurt.

But the end result of this was that some time later I was asked to participate in another protest for a different group and ended up getting a little roughed up at this one as well, though not badly. And though I was not the only one roughed up by any measure, it just hit me really hard and I had a full blown panic attack.

Sigh, I know this is starting to sound like all I ever did with my time was get beaten up, but this was at a time when I was going to so, so many protests, often several a weekend, and so out of hundreds literally, two went bad, one of those very, very bad. So it’s not like I was getting hurt at every, or even very many protests.

After my panic attack I wanted to continue volunteering for that particular group, but I just knew I couldn’t any longer participate in protests. However, while I was expressing my desire to help in somewhat safer ways to another activist with that group, he said that probably it was not a very good idea because the leader of that group apparently was not happy with how I’d conducted myself. What I was told was that it had been said in a meeting, in front of all the “important” people with that group, that I was “a stupid fucking bitch who fucked up everything and shouldn’t be allowed to work with this group anymore.” And so I didn’t do anymore work for them.

While I was sad that my panic attack may have created difficulties for anyone, I can also look at it objectively and know that because my panic attack was internal (ie I wasn’t screaming or out of control, I just absolutely had to get out of there that very second) and because it took place outside of the public eye (no potential members, or employees of the store we were protesting, or passersby observed it) that in the larger scheme of things it was probably not that bad. Furthermore I thought I was being proactive in identifying something I shouldn’t do (protesting) and trying to find something else I could do.

Now this would simply be a sad story about how I messed things up and couldn’t work with a couple of groups any longer, except that I started hearing similar stories from other activists. They felt shunned if they mentioned that their particular emotional issues precluded them from certain actions, while they thought they were just being honest about what they could and couldn’t do. Others felt that if they asked for any kind of consideration or sympathy after bad experiences they were treated as if they were whiney or weak, and similarly felt excluded from participating further.

It used to be (and sometimes still happens) that when activists feel pushed out from another group where they volunteer or work, they try to go form their own group, so they can be in charge. But I can’t say that the proliferation of groups has done much to help activists deal with trauma or depression. Instead I’ve seen many examples of the new leader of the new group now turning to his or her new volunteers and telling them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and stop whining. So the cycle perpetuates.

I can’t really come up with any explanation for it except for this one article that says people in charge often simply can’t empathize with those working under them. But it seems largely ineffective to completely neglect the emotional health of volunteers and allow them simply to be driven out from the movement or fade away. I suppose most groups just hope for continuing new crops of fresh, young volunteers to replace those that simply can’t go on.

Additionally I have to wonder if some of these seemingly unpleasant reactions from those in charge are related to their own levels of trauma and depression. If these leaders are themselves suffering from post traumatic stress disorder or severe depression, these mental health issues can flatten their experience and distort their perceptions. They may find themselves so stretched to the breaking point that they are really unable to spare a sympathetic word or thought for anyone else. Their depression might push them to a point where they are seeing the whole world in black and white, ie you’re either with us or against us, you’re either part of the solution or part of the problem, you either agree with me or there’s the door. It seems terribly inefficient to me for people to ignore their own emotional wellbeing to this extent.

To go back to the comments also that we just need to get over ourselves or pull ourselves up by our bootstraps seems to me to represent a fundamental lack of understanding of post traumatic stress disorder. We’d all love to simply push it out of our minds, and I was successful in doing that much of the time. The very nature of flashbacks however is that they force themselves into the conscious mind at inopportune times. These are vivid memories of trauma that feel extremely real and like they’re happening right now. Nobody can simply pull themselves up by their bootstraps to deal with that, people with PTSD need help. You wouldn’t try to fix your car by yourself with no training or experience and how much more important is your mind?

Interesting conversations and offensive posts

Posted in abuse, recovery, violence, women's issues at 12:18 pm by nevavegan

Some thoughts here might be controversial, hence the title: offensive posts. I’m trying to honestly look at issues that affect my life and probably affect the lives of many others as well.

One thing that I try to keep in mind as I wander through my life is the concept of equality. Not that all of us are the same, because that’s patently ridiculous, but the idea that the differences between us don’t automatically rank us on some kind of hierarchy. Instead we all bring different things to the table and in an ideal world our different viewpoints and different skills could fit together like a jigsaw puzzle and we’d all be able to contribute and participate.

Then the cold hard world shows her face and I know that all around me I’m surrounded by people who in one way or another are cut off from participating in our common culture. The sense of powerlessness became palpable in some communities. In other situations, people with all the trappings of being important may in fact feel very shut out. They keep their ideas to themselves, potential contributions are never made.

Clearly the “isms” can shut people out of participating in society: racism, sexism, ageism, and the not-an-ism, homophobia. Some people struggle against these forces and insist that their voices matter, others get discouraged and retreat to the quietness of family, chosen family, or small communities where they can feel accepted.

There also comes with this the strange phenomenon where people start to think that prejudice is acceptable, if it’s good prejudice. Yet in any case, to assume that we know something about someone based on external factors, like race, gender, age, or socio-economic status is always prejudice. Because quite literally we pre-judge them. We think we know who they are and their capabilities before we ever actually get to know them.

This leads me to another point. I have been thinking lately about the topic of how women hurt each other and hurt children, and yes, even hurt men. Which is a no brainer, because women are human beings, and all human beings probably hurt someone else at some time, and there are some human beings who practically make careers out of hurting other people, and then there’s the whole spectrum in between.

But when I’ve talked to some of my friends in the past about female on female abuse, or child abuse perpetuated by mothers, I often run into this wall. Many of my female friends will insist that women are natural nurturers, that we are automatically filled with compassion and love. So if a woman turns violent or abusive, it is only because she herself has been abused to the breaking point.

I rankle at this because 1) I do think most abusers were abused themselves, but this applies to men as well, and we don’t tend to excuse their behavior because of that. Instead we ask that they act like adults, get help, and take some kind of responsibility for their actions, and 2) Women can be pretty awful sometimes even in the absence of abuse (again with that being human part).

This lead me to a fascinating exchange with Angie Reed Garner, and I just have to quote her, because she said it perfectly:
“I have always thought that one of the primary ways that women are stunted and deformed by sexism is that there is a lack of literature and general awareness in the culture about the ethical issues pertaining to women’s behavior. There is more about how women go crazy, but not much about how women fight against each other and children for power, control and resources.”

How very, very true. We decry sexism and yet at the same time we allow certain damaging behavior to go totally unchecked because we are attached to the myth of the perfect mother, the madonna and child, the female angel of mercy. So we cannot accept the idea that women also fight for power and prestige, and that they may backstab, slander, or shun other women to achieve those goals. We don’t like the idea that a mother might look over the limited resources of her family, and put herself first and her children last. We give a resigned sigh when a father spends his money on alcohol and doesn’t pay child support, but we neglect the whole concept that women might make similar decisions.

I want to explore this topic more over the next couple weeks, well not just this exact topic, but aspects of sexism, aspects of abuse, and just the general lack of research and documentation on issues within female culture in this country.

I also got some information from the moderator of the Survivors forum, though I’ll leave her anonymous for the time being. As expected, she said, most members when they sign up for access report abuse or attacks perpetrated by men. But it was not so lopsided as you might expect. She told me the split is about 60/40 in favor of men as the abusers. Further she said that about 25% of the community is actually male, which was a surprise to me as most males in the forum are very, very quiet. I expect though that rates of abuse for men, especially men abused as children, are probably fairly high, but just going on anecdotal evidence from my own experience, men are less likely to seek therapy, and less likely to join support groups or forums.

I’m not sure where all of that fits into my thinking other than a kind of general “wow, our culture can be violent.” But hopefully I’ll be able to form more thoughts on the topic as time goes on.

May 16, 2007


Posted in recovery, violence at 3:45 pm by nevavegan

After posting “Your House Is On Fire and Your Children Are Gone” I got a couple emails expressing support but also asking some questions. It seems appropriate to answer some of them here, out in the open.

Keep in mind these are just my answers and might not apply to everyone.

The first, and perhaps obvious question is: How do you get past something terrible happening and live a normal productive life?

Funny thing, I guess this all depends on your definition of productive, or normal for that matter. I’m ok, and sometimes I’m not ok, which is really just like anyone else. Everyone has something in their life that they mourn. Some might have more than others, but it’s perfectly normal to get upset, to get angry, to be sad. We hope those things don’t take over our lives naturally, but there’s no possible way to be happy every single moment of every single day. So I’m hoping the balance pushes over into the positive in the final accounting. I’m pretty sure it does.

I felt like for a long time I was waiting for some kind of revelation that was going to make everything alright. Then I realized that wasn’t going to happen. There’s no way I can twist everything around in my brain to turn it into a positive, to make it ok. But that was the revelation: I don’t need to ever be ok with this. I can go on the rest of my life and still say I wish nothing bad had ever happened. And I can be sad about what I lost as a result, but not be sad all the time. Not accepting it doesn’t have to hold me back from healing. In fact it was liberating, because knowing that it will never be ok has helped me to let it go. I don’t have to keep revisiting it because I know now that it accomplishes nothing, but I can revisit it if I want to, understanding the pain involved.

This probably doesn’t make any sense to anyone else, but it is a good thing.

I’ve had a lot of people talk to me about how important it is to forgive, and that approach seems to work for some people. Forgiveness was never my issue, since to me maybe forgiveness came too easily at first, like a reflex, something I did without thinking. I think I looked on forgiveness as a way to bury what I couldn’t deal with. So it was like “ok, I forgive” now I can shut that door forever. Not so helpful. It took me a long time to come around to the idea that forgiveness doesn’t have to be automatic and it’s never simple. Some things in life are unforgivable, and it doesn’t make anyone flawed if they don’t or can’t forgive. Things get better, with or without the forgiveness, with or without the big revelation. It’s slow going sometimes but totally possible.

Another aspect of course is getting care and appropriate therapy. Many people who are traumatized never get help because they can’t afford it and there are no reduced cost options in their area. Some people get care that does more harm than good, sadly. Some types of therapy simply aren’t appropriate for trauma. So we all need to push for more care, more affordable care, and more beneficial care.

The next question was: How do you ever get to the point that you can trust other people again?

I sort of touched on this in the post about hypervigilance, though that really provides no answers ultimately. Trust is a case by case basis. I’m not required to trust anyone I don’t want to trust. Of course all of us, not just people who have experienced trauma, sometimes misplace our trust. It’s helpful to remember that this is just something everyone goes through, not just us.

On the survivors forum someone recently made the comment that when something really bad happens you certainly learn who your friends are. This is true, you do realize who you were once close to that are just too wrapped up in their own stuff to be there for you. You come to understand who holds ugly, often demeaning views about people who have been traumatized. And you realize who can actually be there for you and who can at least try to understand these issues. But it’s so important to remember in all of this that the people who can’t get it aren’t violent people (well at least, not necessarily). They are people going through their own issues. So, we can still trust a lot of people, while at the same time understanding their limitations.

We can also trust by degrees. Like I can trust a neighbor enough to chat with them outside, but if I’m not comfortable letting them into my house with me because I don’t know them well enough to be alone with them, that’s my choice. Nobody can demand trust. It’s fine to hold trust back, even if the person later turns out to be perfectly nice, if there’s anything that makes us uncomfortable.

One thing every abuse survivor has to keep in mind though is that we’ve been conditioned to put up with things that simply aren’t ok, so we don’t always pick up on warning signs from people. It’s vital to understand the idea of boundaries, and that people who ignore or trample boundaries, even if they seem like nice people, are putting up a huge red flag.

I still regard the person who acts out violently as an aberration, the minority within the population. They seem more numerous than they are because of the wide swaths of suffering they leave in their wake. I have to believe that in order to remain sane I guess.

I read that psychologists estimate that 10% of the population lack the ability to feel empathy for others, and often lack a conscience, due to personality disorders like anti-social personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and extreme cases of borderline personality disorder. So 90% of the population does feel empathy for others. More than that, a good amount of that 10% are probably not physically violent, though their disorders no doubt cause problems with interacting with others.

Next Question: Where do we go from here?

Um, you’re asking me where we go? We go vegan of course!

Just kidding. It’s a start, but it doesn’t address the whole big mess of issues. The problems of violence are deeply rooted and intricate. It’s possible for people to understand on an intellectual level all the reasons they should not be violent, but still resort to violence when they’re under pressure, feel threatened or undermined, or when their “road maps,” their plans of how to behave and cope prove inadequate for the crisis at hand. This is why you can have parents who “know better” resorting to slapping or spanking their kids. In a moment where their intellect fails them they reach back to the earliest things they learned. And what they often learned from their own parents was that if kids won’t cooperate parents hit them until they do cooperate.

But many people find ways to avoid that trap. They realize that it might be an issue for them, so they actively seek the tools and information that will help them avoid violence.

I think it’s as important to teach kids life skills as it is to teach them other skills. Schools should be teaching ways to solve conflicts without violence, and how to let conflicts not be solved sometimes. Kids also need to learn about boundaries and how to respect other people (real respect, not the term that is tossed around that often means afraid of), so that they can understand that they don’t get to control other people and other people shouldn’t control them.

Also, as a society we need to stop tolerating violence. In so many situations you’ll find that someone who commits a really violent act has actually been violent for a long time. However, they manage to keep on being violent because people cover up for them. They get friends to lie for them, they intimidate witnesses, the courts or schools or counselors don’t really put any pressure on them to change. So they might have been enabled for years of increasing violence while most people, people who would not be violent themselves, looked the other way. So as a culture we need to stop tolerating and reinforcing violent behavior.

Beyond that, I don’t know. There are no really easy answers.

May 1, 2007

Accepting What Isn’t Acceptable

Posted in abuse, animal advocacy, recovery, vegan at 2:09 pm by nevavegan

Just an odd little note. I have no idea who is reading this blog. I really thought nobody was reading it, which was probably true for the first few months. Now I think a few vegans drop in and check on it, because I love, love, love to read vegan cooking blogs and I comment. Apart from that, I have no idea who is reading or why. Should that make me nervous? Should I feel less open?

My original intent had been to follow along with the weekly writing assignments from the survivors forum, but to post them here, not on the forum. This was partially because my answers always somehow come back to animals and veganism. Suddenly I feel less comfortable with bleeding my angst all over the internet, and yet, I don’t want to abandon the original idea just because I’m paranoid that someone who doesn’t have my best interests at heart is reading.

Blogging is a weird thing, huh? I thought I’d stick all my writings here. Stuff I was sort of proud of but didn’t have a home elsewhere. I thought that if other vegans found something of value, or other people who’ve found themselves in similar situations to mine, all the better. Some of the stuff here winds up being formal essays; some is just meandering mind-dumps.

Well, that was a long opening note. Here’s the real topic.

Those of us who have encountered abuse are often trained from a very young age to accept things that are not acceptable, that are harmful to ourselves, that are harmful to others. In much the same way, our culture indoctrinates us from a young age to accept doing harmful, cruel, even terrifying things to animals. We are told this is simply how things are and we can never, and shouldn’t want to, change it.

This is especially true for me in many ways. I’ve written prior to this about abuse issues and I won’t rehash them here, except to say that emotional and verbal abuse is a form of brainwashing and can set you up for a lifetime of regarding the aberrant as normal.

When this comes to animals, my story might be a tad different than other people’s. I’ve mentioned before that my father is a hunter, and when I was growing up I raised beautiful chickens and ducks that my parents killed and served us for dinner. I remember sitting on the floor next to the body of a lovely deer, stroking his fur. I remember piles of dead ducks and geese, rabbits even. I went fishing myself as a child.

This was something huge to overcome, to get to a point where I was able to see that something that was acceptable, admirable even, to my family was not acceptable to me. It’s not easy to break away from the mind set in which one is raised.

For me the environment was the wedge issue. I grew up surrounded by beauty. As a child I’d go to the pond on my great uncle’s property and there were so many frogs, I had to be careful where I stepped. So many song birds of every color and old magnificent trees to climb. Then one year the frogs just weren’t there. There were older frogs, but all the little frogs were just missing. The shallow waters no longer teemed with tadpoles. It seemed like I saw fewer and fewer birds. Then the trees started dying from gypsy moths. Then I read in the newspaper about the rainforests being clear cut to graze cattle, and how all these species were going extinct as a result. I read that our song birds had no place to go during the winters anymore. That’s the day I resolved to give up eating cows. And when I read about all the pollution from poultry farms, I gave up chicken as well.

That was the first chink in all the armor I’d built up around myself. So often we’re so terrified that we might be wrong about something that we can’t even consider the ideas logically. It’s silly actually, that so many people subscribe to this view that we are either right about everything or we’re wrong about everything and therefore bad people. We don’t want to believe we’re bad people, so we refuse to ever reconsider any of our actions or habits in the face of new information. It’s actually a symptom of mental illness, but I find it widespread among the otherwise sane as well.

Once you allow that one moment of doubt in, there’s a possibility that the whole web of rationalizations and lies will fall too. I found myself, now that I wasn’t looking forward to a steak at my next meal, able to realize: hey, I don’t need meat to survive, there’s nothing “natural” about the way we raise and butcher animals, and hey, I’m actually pretty happy doing this. You know, another of those jaw meets floor moments.

Meanwhile, I see all around me people that are less accepting of death even than I am, people who love animals, but who continue to eat animals because of all that armor they wrap around themselves. These are the people who don’t want to hear terrible stories about how animals live and die. They don’t want to see pictures. They really don’t like the thought of dogs and cats dying in animal shelters. But they are able to insulate themselves from those truths and continue living as they have always lived, because to change would mean admitting something was wrong in the first place.

And so they say things to me like “The Native Americans were very good to the environment and they ate meat” (yes, and show me a hunter/gatherer in NYC) or “I’m really comfortable with my position in the ecosystem” (and how does your luxury house, 2 cars, high rise office, and buying imported foods fit in the ecosystem?). But at all costs, we cannot be wrong, so we have to bend our minds around to force the unacceptable to be ok.

Of course, I think I’m right about veganism, but I’m still wrong in so many ways. Part of making peace with my own mind was understanding that I have been wrong before, and will be wrong in the future, and that it isn’t about being perfect and always right, it’s about doing what I can and learning from my mistakes. I think veganism is a good starting point because it helps on so many levels: it saves so many animals and prevents so much environmental harm. But I still need to do better in other regards; it’s a process, not an end point.

A sort of funny concept to me is the stereotype we have of the curious toddler and the exasperated parent. It’s in movies, TV shows, books, and ads. “But why?” the small child asks and the parent sighs and says “Just because. That’s what we do.” But what if we took that question seriously? “But why do we eat meat?” and the answer isn’t “Because we just do” but is something more like “I don’t know, I never thought about it. Why do we eat meat?”

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