When I was twelve years old, my parents had an altercation that led to their final separation. There were a half dozen or more prior separations where my father would leave for stretches of months and return with empty promises and move himself back in. On this occasion, there was a knife involved, a suicide attempt and a state of utter and complete exasperation. A steady, vicious fight began at 8:30 in the morning over a sullen bowl of cereal and ended with a police call to our apartment to keep the peace before 5pm, about 8 hours later.
After being asked which parent I liked better repeatedly, I clutched my three year old brother into my arms into a full, maternal embrace while he screamed, looking the most frightened I’d ever seen him. Both my parents shrilled, bawled, fought and paced in and out of rooms. At the end of the afternoon, I recall sitting on my parents’ bed while my dad fussed with the dressers collecting his clothes. The air stiff, yet suddenly barren and quiet while my dad sorted a ‘keep pile’ and a ‘throw away’ pile of XXL t-shirts.
He unfolded each t-shirt to show me, asking me if I wanted any of them as night gowns. In his hand, was a joke t-shirt of the Trix cereal rabbit and a quote,
“Silly faggot, dicks are for chicks”
I sat there shrunken and sickened, my back curved into a shamed posture looking at it, looking at him, and looking down again. I took the shirt and shrugged.
That t-shirt stayed in my dresser for years to come, staring at me every evening when changing into my sleep clothes, chiming in my head, “Silly faggot, dicks are for chicks”, chanting at me while I fell asleep with the intonation of the commercial slogan. Then again to harangue me, when I woke up.
My mother was taught by my grandmother a few heavy lessons about sex. She was told, that people shouldn’t do it; even if you’re married, you shouldn’t enjoy it. Sex is dirty and it is wrong. So she never spoke of it since, and never fully loved herself. Not until 40 years or so later.
My grandmother grew up in Wagmatcook, a Mi’kmaq First Nations reserve in Nova Scotia, before the Women’s Rights Movement and before First Nations people had citizenship or political rights in post-colonial Canada. A child survivor of rape and incest, alongside her sister, she learned that her body was shameful and that sex was a weapon. She learned that alcohol abuse is a sturdy armour against the wounds of her body being stolen. She learned that blackened out, drunken rage and escape is a stealthy callous that could toughen her skin, so that nothing could get in again.
My father and his siblings were taught violence, anger and shame at a young age, but I don’t even know the full story. Regular beatings and intermittent bouts of foster care are some details that I do know. A religious, French-Catholic upbringing infused with the belief that children should be perfectly aligned soldiers bred within him the building blocks for hatred and intolerance for race and sexuality. The abuse buried whoever that child was so deep, the adult within him never emerged, as I remember him best typified with tinges of fear, anger and rampant paranoia as soon as anyone would get close to reaching him emotionally while he construed numerous manipulative, smoke tricks and desperate tactics to conceal any of his vulnerabilities. He quickly learned the similar penchant for alcohol and substance abuse.
I remember hearing a story about my paternal grandmother being chained to a radiator for weeks on end by her feet, by her husband, my grandfather. But the only time I remember meeting my grandfather was during the late stages of schizophrenia/dementia near the end of his life, writhing in a hospital bed when I was ten years old or so. And I don’t remember meeting that other woman at all.
Somewhere in this history, I exist.
I’m somewhere in here, protecting my abusers and protecting my abusers’ abusers’ behaviour because I love them. I’m here somewhere, quietly watching and listening and trying to find a solution but I’m afraid of what might happen if anything changed. I’m somewhere lurking in the corners of karmically written family scripts. Somewhere in here, I was taught to be silent and to protect myself by saying nothing at all.
This is considered a coping mechanism for psychological and physical abuse. Where my voice never counted, and there were never right answers. This is where I could never predict my parents’ moods, and if I would be told I have no right or reason or entitlement to any opinion because everyone ELSE had it worse than me. Somewhere under there, is a girl that was taught that she had no value if she brought home an excellent test because it wasn’t perfect enough. If my work wasn’t perfect, I would have to do it again. And I would sit at the table until I was perfect. I would sit at the table until someone was happy, but nobody was ever happy, so I sat there forever. Part of me kind of feels like I’m still there.
Somewhere under here, is a girl afraid of getting beaten and sent to her room several times a week for not being hungry while her teeth chattered by a tv tray. Somewhere inside her, is a sour, acrid lump in her throat shoving down fear, shame and tears stinging and getting stuck in the epiglottis like spoonfuls of cold, gelatinous mashed potatoes. Somewhere she is six years old sitting down on the couch and being yelled at to move out of the ‘seat’ of someone bigger. So she sits somewhere else and is told to move out of that seat as well because someone bigger belongs there. And somewhere under here, is a girl who was ridiculed and shamed inside of her own skin, made to conceal her emotions, to tiptoe silently through the hallways and hide in a colouring book and a mystical imagination until it was safe to come out. Somewhere in here, is a girl that walked slowly, trying to be as small as possible, with her hair brushed into her face because she didn’t want anybody to see her eyes, her face or worth.
I somehow, keep wondering, when exactly it will be safe to come out.
Somewhere beneath the history, I watch everyone barely floating, gasping for air and I can’t quite fucking figure out if I’m watching everyone else from afar, or if I’m drowning with them.
At twelve years old, I received a fat lip for being caught with lipstick that I hid in my jewellery box. I was told that a daughter that looked like a tramp and a slut wasn’t wanted. There were no discussions about it before or after, nor did anyone at my school notice what I looked like coming into school the next morning. At 19, I became a makeup artist.
At fourteen, I started an online relationship with a twenty one year old woman from New Hampshire. I would receive her handwritten letters in the mail, and feared the day that someone found out. At fourteen, I began cutting, burning and starving myself as a way handle my invisibility, repressed anger and inability to talk to anyone. I developed a body dysmorphia that kept me from leaving my house because I believed I was too ugly to walk the streets and that people would make fun of me. I would look at myself in a multiple-angled vanity mirror numerous times a day in my bedroom trying to break my nose and trying to change my face to look like other people that weren’t me. (I stopped self-harming at age twenty-three.)
At fifteen, I moved from my hometown to a new city because my mother was being stalked. I was incredibly lucky for school teachers, mentors and blessed with a best friend who understood me and sent me letters from home every day. Her life wasn’t too much different from mine and we instantly created family within each other. We had an eleven year long friendship and I have boxes of her memories, her biography within hundreds of envelopes and dozens of rolls of film. In her, I found writing and a soulmate. With these graces, I began to resuscitate myself from the breathless shell of a being I was. She was with us until May 16, 2010 and did not survive addiction and borderline personality. Her story remains untold but I have her handwritten biography.
I found myself in those letters, I found myself in music, I found myself in art, and I found myself in lovers. I learned only recently, that people shouldn’t have to retrieve themselves from the beneath the buried souls of other people.
And somewhere in here, I know that although I raise the topic of old wounds, that my family is beginning to heal because we are slowly opening the dialogue. And somewhere in here, I know that as I grow more at peace with the past, so do the people who have marked me and we can let go of the cords of the past.
In grade school, the teacher would go around the classroom asking everyone their nationality. This question always confused me because I never knew what I was or what a nationality was. I would answer, I am Indian. Because that’s what everyone told me I was. But nobody explained to me what Indian was. My teachers would squint and confusedly look at me and tell me that I’m not Indian, because I wasn’t Pakistani or Hindu like the other children in my class. So I never answered that question again until 2010, when I acquired First Nations Status after the Amendment of Bill-C3.
Today I understand, that nobody knows what Indian is. Because we are a nation that wasn’t meant to survive colonialism. Today I understand, that my “nationality” was a silenced commodity. We were trained to forget who we are. So my family cannot tell me the story. Today I understand, that the things that my family saw and went through, was a secret because they didn’t want me to see or experience what they went through and they can’t utter the words or they can’t remember. And sometimes I don’t know what I am because nobody could tell me. They cannot describe the murders and the rape and the violence. We still can’t really talk about death. And we can’t talk about the homicide of my uncle who also happened to be disabled and homosexual in 2005. We also can’t talk about intrafamily violence, assault and homelessness. It often even feels like claiming our first nations identity, we will be ridiculed, mocked and blamed for systemic racism and hate crimes. We can’t remember our names and our language because the words were beaten out of us, and our relatives were forced to watch their brothers and sisters die by the hands of the clergy, nuns, ministers and school teachers in front of them for speaking, being and existing.
To me, this is The Oral Project.
Today I understand that I am indigenous. What bothers me, is that indigeneity is defined as belonging to a nation, originating or occurring naturally in a place; native. I struggle with this, because everyone has told me that I do not belong! I do not belong in Canada, I do not deserve my heritage, my right to speak or my right to advocate for myself. I am blamed for being a victim of systemic abuse. I am told I do not belong because I am a woman for similar but not identical reasons. And I am told I do not belong because of my sexuality. I have been told that mental illness is invisible and nonexistent. I have lost jobs, hidden myself and withdrawn from society because at times due to my experiences with mental health. I cannot handle the altitudes and fast-pacedness of my environment and I usually find ways to avoid situations that will cause me distress or anxiety. I have been unable to explain to people when I need help. Often I see that many people go through the same. We don’t know how to ask for help, and cannot take breaks and time off because we weren’t taught to value self-care, or even granted the awareness that mental illness is a legitimate health and well-being issue with alarming concurrent death toll statistics.
So tell me please, where do I belong now? Now that I am aware, now that I have healed myself, now that I love, now that I nurture others and listen to those like I wished to have been listened to?
Tell me who I am now, that I have fought for my rights and the rights of others to speak up for themselves despite odds. Tell me who to be angry at, now that I have forgiven my family for the injustices done unto them. Because I have no anger inside of me anymore, just a burning fire to give other people the sense that they deserve to exist and be, exactly as they are, nuanced, diverse and imperfect.
Because they are victims too and their life is just a mirror reflection of mine.
Tell me who I am, now that I have claimed my identity. And tell me please, who protects me now that I am an adult? Who do i fear, now that I provide for myself?
Tell me who I should be afraid of, because the truth is, despite knowing I’ve been bisexual for over fourteen years that I’ve never truly come out publically until this moment?
I’ve had sexual relationships with men and women. I’ve had long term relationships with only men. I’ve had multiple accounts of group sex and I’ve had many open exchanges of affection. I have never hidden this fact or these encounters. I do not feel judged by this personally, but it does make me feel vulnerable to mention it. I think gender roles have poisoned society by making us reject our primal urges, identifications and natural responses to sharing life and our environment. I don’t believe sex is a thing to be ashamed of. I don’t believe that our bodies are dirty. I don’t believe that we need to unify with only one human being. I don’t believe we only have one soulmate. I don’t believe one person’s views, values and beliefs are right for everyone. I don’t think it is wrong to seek happiness, pleasure, freedom, love and I think it comes in many forms. I don’t believe in forcing anyone to do anything they don’t want to because you feel insecure or emotionally vulnerable in a relationship. I don’t believe in emotional blackmail within monogamy, but I do believe in loyalty and honesty. I am not promiscuous and I am not a cheater, I just believe that spirits should love one another and to suppress our outward expressions for the human race is a bit counterintuitive. I don’t think affection is something to be reprimanded, but I do think deception and manipulation is something to be reprimanded. There is a difference between these details. I don’t call myself two-spirit, though that is a first nations term. I do think we have many capacities within us as is ascribed to gender and I believe we should honour our gender and love the mixture of qualities that make us who we are. I just prefer to call us souls.
I know who that person is inside and out, the one buried underneath history, excuses and tangled webs of loving forgiveness. I love that hollow little girl, and I love who I find now filled up completely with confidence, magnanimity and a lust for life. After years of growth, resurrection, and choosing to not be ‘small’, ‘invisible’ and ‘silent’, I have taken myself back for me.
When people look at me on the street, I feel like they view me as a lucky, priveleged and entitled person. Sometimes I feel their jealousy as they look at my blonde hair and my thin figure and the smile on my face. I feel often that it is the only way I can level the playing field, is to westernize, “caucasianize”, beautify and civilize myself. Sometimes I feel them judging my confidence and my positivity because they think I am unscathed. Once someone told me that they think I think that I “have it easy, lucky little girl”. I definitely am lucky to be me. I am lucky to know suffering, I am lucky to know pain, I am lucky to know oppression, racism, sexism, classism, and shame. I am lucky for those who have done me wrong, because now I know justice. I am lucky to know survivors. I am lucky to know those that didn’t make it. They have created the strong person I am now. They have created the will to educate myself, they have instilled in me the will to create myself, they have driven me to speak up. They have created a voracious monster of an activist, advocate, artist, writer and healer. Your body is your vessel, you must love it, you must use it and you must own it.
If you don’t own it, you let them win.