Thursday, August 25, 2016

God’s Gift

By Annabeth Leong

(CN: Harassment, self-harm)

“You can’t just walk around like you’re God’s gift, cuz you ain’t.”

The voice is strong and cruel enough to cut through the fog of my self-loathing and tear-soaked worry. I glance up and realize this thing has been said to me, by a guy standing on the porch of his building, just to my left off the sidewalk.

I’m too broken today, too lost and fragile, to do anything but nod mutely and keep walking, a little faster now.

I think back, replaying the last few moments and focusing on my surroundings instead of the thoughts inside my head. “Hey, beautiful,” he’d said, and I guess that must also have been directed at me, though I didn’t notice at the time.

I can piece the narrative together now. He “complimented” me, and I “ignored” him, so then he lashed out and insulted me.

Today, the insult strikes me deep. You ain’t God’s gift. You ain’t. You can’t just walk around.

I know. The cruel voice confirms what my heart was already telling me. Tears slip down my cheeks. This isn’t supposed to be a big deal. I’m supposed to walk this sort of harassment off. Maybe not even see it as harassment.

Today, I can’t. I can’t just walk around.

***

I’ve been thinking about cutting myself for about three months, toying with the thought the way I sometimes press at a scab or a bruise. It hurts, but I also can’t seem to quit that imagery.

It’s been more than a decade since I actually cut myself. I trust myself not to turn thought into action. I go to therapy. I’m so much more aware of how my brain works and what I can do about it.

Still, the thoughts have been ever-present lately. They’re wearing me down. I barely have energy to do anything. It feels like a miracle that I get dressed, that I eat. I know that not everyone can when their brain is working this way. I tell myself I’m lucky I’m so functional, that I can still work a little even though I miss all my deadlines.

I’m fighting with someone dear to me. I don’t want to share the details here, but the fight has turned nasty and impossible and deep. Nothing I do is right, no matter how hard I try to come up with something helpful. I can’t do what this person wants of me. They are telling me how hurt they are, and I feel like a villain. A villain who ought to go away. Who ain’t God’s gift to anything or anyone. Who ought to die, or at least be physically maimed. It can hurt so much when it feels like your insides don’t match your outsides. I want to hurt this body so my pain can show. You can’t just walk around.

Today, I feel so delicate, like a page that’s so old it’ll crumble if you breathe on it. I need to do something good, something safe. I ask my partner if I can meet them at the train station. I put on clothes and let myself out the door and start to walk there, partly because I’ve cried so much lately that I don’t feel I can see well enough to be a safe driver.

I try to keep it together, to look around at the world. I know it’s important for me to remember that things exist outside my brain. The sun still shines. The grass still gets overgrown. Whenever my attention slips, though, I’m back to the old, evil treadmill: Why can’t I fix things with this person? Why can’t I just do what they want? Why can’t I just be good enough? I want to hurt, I want to hurt, I want to hurt. I see the razor blade in my mind. I remember how I used it, those handful of times I crossed the line. What was going on when I did that? Was I finding courage or losing courage?

“You can’t just walk around like you’re God’s gift, cuz you ain’t.”

I know. I know. I’m so sorry. I know.

***

I’ve written essays about harassment before. I’ve written about the ways it makes me feel unsafe and exhausted. I’ve tried to explain how it isn’t a compliment even when it uses words that overlap with compliments.

But this is the worst I’ve been hurt by harassment that I can recall. This is worse than the time a guy groped and harassed me at my favorite movie theater, leaving me nervous about returning there to this day, despite knowing that’s illogical. This is worse than the time a guy interrupted me while I was trying to comfort my crying girlfriend, so he could hit on us. This is worse than the time a guy followed me with his car while I tried to run away, and I had to plunge through overgrown bushes to escape him, and then when I called the police later they asked me what I was doing walking on that road at that time of day.

The reason it hurt so badly, I think, was entitlement. Right then, I didn’t feel entitled to live, to breathe, to be in the world without being hurt. I needed a little entitlement. I needed it to be okay that I couldn’t satisfy the person I was fighting with, to see that I still deserved to exist and be loved even if I wasn’t what someone else wanted me to be.

If I had been walking around like I was God’s gift, that would have been a huge victory for me.

That insult, though… What that guy said to me was an effort to take down someone he saw as entitled. “You can’t just walk around like you’re God’s gift, cuz you ain’t.” What was I doing that seemed so entitled to him? Walking down the sidewalk? Breathing? Having breasts? Not responding to his demand for my attention?

I felt guilty, even, when I realized the insult (and the “compliment”) were for me. Had I hurt his feelings by being so lost in my depression?

I’ve learned enough now to know better than that, at least. That guy felt entitled to my attention. That was the entitlement. He said, “Hey, beautiful,” and thought I owed him something for that. I was supposed to look at him, at least, or say thank you, or somehow respond.

How dare I think I can walk past him without paying that tax of attention? Who said I had any right to get so caught up in my own thoughts that I wound up walking down the street without being available to every person around me? Who gave me the right to have my own mind, my own private problems, my misery when someone else wants me to be sexual and fun.

And I can’t help thinking these things go together a bit. I want to believe it’s okay for me to breathe, to walk, to be, to not always do what someone else wants. But I go outside, desperate and hurting, running to my partner for comfort, and get told, “You can’t just walk around like you’re God’s gift. Cuz you ain’t.”

I know.

***

(About a week after this happened to me, I found out about the new National Street Harassment Hotline. From the website:

A growing body of research shows that street harassment negatively impacts women emotionally. It can be traumatic for them, especially for survivors of sexual abuse. “Mild” street harassment can escalate into physical harassment without warning and many women and some men have an underlying fear that verbal harassment will become physical.

I would add that people of all genders can feel this way, and trans and nonbinary people can also be particularly vulnerable.

Anyway, if I’d known about this then, I probably would have called the number that day. I thought I’d leave this link here in case anyone else needs it.)

12 comments:

  1. Of course you're God's gift! You're just not God's gift to that sleaze ball, who doesn't deserve a gift.

    I wish there were some way for all of us to make better choice as to whose opinions matter to us, but even if we know that on one level, we can't maintain it on every level.

    When it comes to street harassment, I've never been in the kind of position that you are, so I don't have any advice worth giving. I'm too old now to worry about it, and even when I was younger I was more apt to get comments about how unappealing I was, but of course those can hurt, too. It didn't happen often once I was out of my teens. By the time I was 40 I didn't give a damn. In your case, the main thing is to keep safe, so please do.

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    1. Yeah, I definitely wish I could set permissions on when I care what other people think or say. It's pretty much the opposite for me in real life—I tend to be ready to stand firm or not.

      I can't wait to age out of street harassment. How old do I have to be for that? Really looking forward to someday being an invisible old lady.

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  2. We rarely see ourselves as others do. We are our own harshest critics. And women, especially, take it personally when a relationship is having trouble, because it's our God-given job to keep things going well. If we don't, then we're failures in all aspects, but especially as women. I say God can keep his jobs because we're only human, and keeping ourselves going is exhausting enough, without having to be responsible for others as well.

    Don't buy into that patriarchal bullshit! Pain can be borne, but only if you feel strong. If you don't feel strong right now, talk to someone who cares, whether you pay them to listen to you or not. Realize that your sense of self doesn't have to depend on someone else or their opinion of you. You have to love yourself more than anyone else ever could, because you live in yourself, you ARE yourself. There has never been a you before, and never will be again. Your "you-ness" makes you special, and to hell with anyone who doesn't recognize that.

    I used to tell my kids that the outside world was lined up on the other side of the door, just waiting to tear each of us down. In our house, it was our jobs as a family who loves each other, to build each other up, and to provide unconditional love. That way, each time we walk out that door, each of us is wearing the armor of a warm, fuzzy coat of love that helps in deflecting the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." Please remember your uniqueness and feel loved. I've never met you, but I can give you some love. Feel it wash over you. Love and hugs, honey.

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    1. Thanks, Fiona. You've got a bunch of good stuff here, and I'll do my best to soak it in. Thanks for the hugs. Back at you.

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  3. Give yourself the credit you deserve, Annabeth, for being self-aware enough not to give in to old, unhealthy desires to punish yourself for someone else's transgression. That took a huge amount of strength, not to mention insight. The funny thing is, though I've never been even slightly tempted to self-harm (anorexia is a different dynamic), I understood, even felt, the attraction in your description. When the emotions become just too difficult to bear, making the pain physical seems like an appealing alternative.

    You are entitled to respect. You are entitled to pleasure, and joy, even if someone you care about says you aren't. You have every right to "just walk around".

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    1. "You are entitled to respect. You are entitled to pleasure, and joy, even if someone you care about says you aren't. You have every right to "just walk around"."

      Thanks, Lisabet. That's added to my things-I-sort-of-want-to-tattoo-on-my-arm list.

      I wanted to write this post partly because I realized entitlement had started to seem like a dirty word to me, like something that was never okay, but the ways you've mentioned are ways I really need to feel entitled.

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  4. Annabeth, I agree with what everyone else here has said. I remember being amazed to be told by guys I knew (not exactly friends) that women like me were driving men crazy by "flaunting" our bodies -- walking around in public space as though we were entitled to do it, and supposedly gloating over the sexual frustration of men who wanted access to us and couldn't always get it. Like Sacchi, I've largely left street harassment behind as I've grown older, but I'm sure it's still happening, as you've reminded us. Please believe that we all admire your honesty and your talent immensely. We certainly think you are God's gift to this blog. :)

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    1. Thank you, Jean. :) I endeavor to continue to be so.

      Today I was musing on some kind of counting tracker about street harassment. I had to take my car for service today, and so walked to and from the mechanic's shop. In the course of those two fifteen minute walks, I got harassed three times. I'm in a better mood today, so it didn't disturb me the way the incident I described above did, but I still find it amazing that I can't be outside for thirty minutes without being harassed multiple times.

      I started having a fantasy about some kind of thing where I get people to agree to donate to some organization every time I get harassed. Don't know if I'll actually set that up, but lately I'm just feeling really sick of not being able to walk down the street and be left alone.

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    3. I still find it amazing that I can't be outside for thirty minutes without being harassed multiple times.

      And it's my guess that most men have simply no idea of the frequency and pervasiveness of this crap. I know I didn't, until sometime in the past decade. Sure, I knew that women encountered this disgusting abuse, but I just didn't realize the scale and extent and near-universality of the American woman's experience in this—I had no idea that for many women it's every fucking day. Nor did I fully understand the range of forms it takes, some of them disguised as "nice" behavior. (I bet a lot of men who would denounce catcalling don't understand why encouraging a female stranger to "smile" is also harassment.) It's thanks to social networking that I became more fully educated about this—it gave me the opportunity to listen to women talking about street harassment in a way I'd rarely heard my many women friends talk about in other contexts earlier in my life.

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    4. And since this is a writers' blog, I should also mention that having a more complete picture on this topic made me question some of the ways I'd handled certain moments in my fiction. I mean, I'm pretty sure anyone reading my work would gather that I'm a feminist and I care a lot about respecting women; but in erotic fiction, there are those moments where someone might be approaching a stranger in a way that, in real life, wouldn't be cool. In erotica—at least my erotica—the deck is stacked insofar as we can trust that the party of the second part will welcome the attention from the party of the first part; but having a better understanding of what a huge issue unwanted attention is in the real world has sometimes made me wonder if those scenes would ideally have been set up in a slightly different way, to avoid the "male protagonist hits on female stranger" paradigm altogether. And, as a songwriter, I actually took down one of my recordings—a song from 2006 that I took down around 2014—because, though if one thoroughly understood what I did and didn't have in my mind when writing the lyrical scenario it would be "fine," I had come to feel it was too open to misinterpretation in an area that I'd come to realize was so, so sensitive and important.

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    5. I think it's really good that you asked questions and adjusted the way you approach this in your work. I have approached by or approaching a stranger fantasies, too—harassment doesn't change that. It's just that, for me, those stories are only hot if safety questions are addressed, or if the story deliberately doesn't address safety issues and there's an explicit darkness there.

      And evolving is what we all do. There are things in my old stories that make me cringe, too—body shaming comments, for example. I think we all keep learning, and keep writing, and bring our newfound wisdom to bear as best we can. :)

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