Romantic rejection, gendered blame, and narratives we need to change

I wish I could have read this post in middle school. A great response to a difficult situation that is all too common. The one thing I would add is: No one is entitled to your body, ever.

Tutus And Tiny Hats

I’ve been reading so much–probably more than I should–about the Isla Vista shootings. There’s been so much important analysis of Elliot Rodger’s misogyny and racism. There have been so many women sharing their stories of everyday sexism, harassment, and abuse–and their experiences of not being believed by men. There have been reminders that stigmatizing mental illness and Asperger’s syndrome is not the answer. I’ll be rounding up the best of these pieces soon.

But what jumped out at me is the tiny, innocent kernel of pain hidden somewhere deep inside Rodger’s twisted worldview: the pain of romantic and sexual rejection. And the ways that men and women are socialized to deal with that rejection differently. (I will note that this post deals with the socialization of men who date women, and women who date men. As a straight woman, I can’t speak to the experiences of queer people, but I…

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Curtains

I wish I could pull the wool from their eyes, even if only for a couple of seconds, so they could see each other and feel the love we all share. Because every so often it falls from mine and suddenly everything is so much clearer. I look around full of wonder and joy at all the colors and sounds and sensations of life, content to be a part of it all… And then the curtain falls again, and it’s all gone. I feel empty.

~ Ziya to Fox in the pool on Monday.

Detachment

My mom’s side of the family is having a reunion, which will be over tomorrow when we all go our separate ways again. It’s been a crazy hectic experience and I’m glad I got to spend time with them… and I’ve had enough of them to last a lifetime until the big family wedding celebration Fox and I are planning for November.

Over the course of our time here, I’ve realized that Mom is the sane one among her siblings, and I’m about on par with my saner cousins. My relationship with Mom is the epitome of functionality compared with the relationships my cousins have with their parents.

Let’s just take a moment to let that sink in.

This whole thing has really put a lot into perspective for me. I’ve seen (and heard my cousins comment on, with a calm acceptance) our complete and utter lack of effective communication. I’ve been cut off in the middle of my sentence a million times, as though the person I was talking to had no idea I was even speaking. I’ve heard so much about everyone else’s anger, anxiety, and dissatisfaction with their relationships and the relationships of others that I’ve lost touch with my own emotions and relationships. I’ve silenced myself to avoid contributing to the mess of negativity because I realized that adding my opinion won’t help or change anything. I’m completely avoiding one of my aunts, and my uncle as a result, because I just can’t deal with all the negativity surrounding the two them. I don’t think they’ve even noticed.

I’ve also had my mother stand up for me, asking what I’d said or repeating it to make sure others heard and accommodated my needs. She also said she was proud of me for standing up for myself when I wanted to do something Fox was unsure about. Fox has done his best to be supportive and avoid adding to my stress, but this trip has been overwhelming for him. He’s not used to the level of insanity that’s normal for this family and he hasn’t been able to get enough sleep. Yesterday he was saying he needs a vacation from our vacation.

If I could do it all over again, I’d bring my audio recorder so I could play back highlights from this reunion for Wakana.

Before I share some of them, here’s a visual reference so you have some idea whom I’m talking about and how they’re related to me. Circles are females; squares are males. I’m highlighted in red and have a weird shape because I’m gender queer. An X through a shape means the person is deceased. Two parallel diagonal lines means the couple is divorced. The gray dashed line means the couple was never married but live together and have a “romantic” relationship. The numbers (e.g. 70s) and the word “teen” refer to the approximate ages of the people they’re near. I didn’t include family members who weren’t present for the reunion.

 

a series of circles and squares connected by horizontal and vertical lines to show family relationships on Ziya's mother's side of the family

part of Ziya’s family tree

On Wednesday, my cousin “M” brought my aunt “A”, Mom, Fox, and me downtown and we went to a bar that had dueling pianos. We were all stressed from traveling and “A” had had a particularly hard time, but we were able to relax and enjoy ourselves. The music was fantastic and I loved observing how the pianists were engaging the crowd while singing familiar feel-good songs at the top of my lungs. We decided to leave about the time I got tired of people bumping into me (and started feeling anxious because Mom had said we were giving the bar a bad reputation by being old and taking forever to finish one drink.)

On Thursday we went back downtown to see the art, hear the music, and visit the shops. “M” drove my cousin “U”, Fox, and me; “A” drove in her car with her boyfriend “B” and Mom. First “A” was saying she needed gas, then she didn’t want to stop where “M” suggested, then “B” started pressuring her to get gas after we passed the last convenient stop so she insisted that we find some as soon as possible. We ended up driving several hours out of our way, relying on “U”‘s GPS to find our way downtown; the trip took more than twice as long as it should.

“M” kept saying “A” was going to be mad at her for this and that, adding to the stress. I wanted to tell her I do that too and how I cope with it, but every time I opened my mouth I got interrupted. I decided it just wasn’t worth the effort to try and have a meaningful conversation with either of my cousins.

By the time we got to our destination, “A” was too pissed off at the world and in too much pain to enjoy being downtown. She and “B” sat on their own while the rest of us did our best to enjoy ourselves. I got to do most of what I wanted and Mom did her best to support me in having a good time, but I was weighed down by negativity. I didn’t like the pictures she took of me and I felt judged for buying souvenirs and I was judgmental toward some of the establishments we passed.

We stopped in an outdoor area with excellent live music where I wanted to sit and enjoy myself, but I was also dehydrated. While we were buying bottled water Fox decided to get an additional item; that took some extra time. We came back into the area where we could listen to the music near the end of “What a Wonderful World”; I’m so glad I stopped to listen because it was excellent. The singer even did the Louis Armstrong voice “oh yeah” at the end and he was spot on.

We settled down next to the rest of the group and Mom said it was time to leave. We all thought the musicians were going to take a break, so leaving made more sense than waiting around for them to start up again. I was overcome with frustration: I was angry that I’d missed the music and angry at myself for wasting what time I could have spent listening to it buying something. I just wanted to get out of the situation; there was no more enjoyment in it for me. But the musicians started playing another song, so when Mom asked if I wanted to stay I said that I did. We listened to the one song and then left. I appreciated everyone’s willingness to stay, but felt very embarrassed about losing control and guilty for imposing on them. Hi, shame.

Thursday night the cousins, including “O” (“U”‘s sister) and “J” (“M”‘s son), convened. We bonded over playing Apples to Apples and talking about our parents. “U” said that “A” and “B” were just like his and “O”‘s parents (“C” and “D”); that’s about when I realized that Mom is the sane one among her siblings.

On Friday we were supposed to go to “M”‘s house early and take pictures with her son “S” before attending his high school graduation. We were waiting for our ride when we found out “C” (who is blind, has mobility issues, is accident prone, willfully fails to follow directions, and has a reputation for falling on purpose) had fallen in the shower. She was sitting on the handicap seat engaging in normal shower activities when the seat disconnected from the wall, causing her to fall and hit her head.

So my uncle “D” and cousins “O” and “U” had to take “C” to the hospital. My concern for her (along with everyone else’s, far as I could tell) was tainted by anger that she was drawing attention to herself and away from “S” on his big day, anxiety that we wouldn’t get to see “S” graduate, and confusion regarding when we were going to leave (if ever.) On top of all that, “M”‘s husband “K” was stranded on the way home from his daughter’s graduation in another state, so we weren’t sure whether he’d be back in time to see “S” graduate.

“D” left “C” at the hospital so he could drive “A”, “B”, Mom, Fox, and me to the graduation. Fox and I had to sit in the far back of the vehicle as we drove in bumper-to-bumper traffic, which made me feel dangerously nauseous. The graduation was great (if a bit loud) and leaving was about half as stressful as getting there had been. “D” tried to back out of his spot while “A” was still getting into her seat behind him. Once that crisis had been resolved and “D” could back out safely, his sisters kept yelling frantically at him about everything. My attempts to calmly warn him about people walking behind us went unheard.

Finally we were creeping along and I was making every effort keep my heart in my chest and my lunch in my stomach. I don’t even want to know what my mom and her siblings were saying to each other. There was no room in the conversation for me, nothing I said would have made a difference (or been heard), and listening to it was doing nothing but hurting me.

And then I remembered one word: Detachment. That word has saved many lives on this trip. “M” and “O” try to remember not to “engage;” when they all start in I just tell myself, “Detachment.” Detachment allows me to maintain some sense of myself, even if it’s as the eye of the storm that is my dysfunctional family. They’re all going to do what they’re going to do and say what they’re going to say and feel how they’re going to feel. It doesn’t matter what I think they should do, and saying something isn’t going to make any difference. I can’t stop them from barging into my room and loudly spouting negativity all over the place with no regard for my existence, the fact that they’ve interrupted whatever I was doing, the fact that Fox was trying to sleep, etc.

All I can do is try to remain aware of what I need. When “O” walked in and started yelling in my mother’s direction about how her parents were treating each other, I asked her to take the conversation somewhere else or at least give me a chance to get out of the room before continuing. She decided to leave; I felt horrible because I realized I’d be horribly stressed if I were in her situation and I’d prevented her from venting. We later apologized to and forgave each other; it felt good to have an honest respectful conversation where both sides listened to each other. (I’d had a similar one with Mom earlier, too.)

Saturday was the graduation party, which was fun. “U” bought my beverages of choice on the way there. There were kids and adults playing, tasty new foods to try, a very nice older woman with a soothing voice and interesting stories to tell, and I actually got to spend some time with my uncle “D”. We watched Rise of the Planet of the Apes as the party slowed down and people went their separate ways. Once it was just the family again we played Phase 10. Fox won, “J” came in second, and I came in third. The only thing that truly upset me the whole game was that “A”, who complains incessantly about everything, was giving Fox a hard time for being frustrated when he got stuck with a lot of points. Who wouldn’t be?

Yesterday we attended a festival that would have been a lot more fun if I’d known where the interactive activities were, instead of just wandering around in the hot sun looking at interesting items I really shouldn’t buy and waiting for people. I made the most of it by dancing to the live music that was playing loud enough to hear it from just about anywhere. That was fun. Mom bought me the souvenir that I’d been seriously considering.

We went downtown again so “O” would have a chance to explore, unhindered by her parents. It was a short excursion, for which my feet were grateful. I took advantage of the opportunity to “fill in some of the gaps” in my previous experiences downtown and would say I’ve had my fill for this trip. I hope “O” and “U” (and everyone else who was with us) also enjoyed themselves.

It’s very upsetting because “C” can’t do what she keeps saying she wants to without a lot of assistance. In my opinion it’s not safe for “C” to go to the areas we’ve explored because the sidewalks are uneven and riddled with dangerous holes. But when I suggested to “O” that she look up a guide for tourists with disabilities, she calmly informed me that “C” is too stubborn for anyone in her immediate family to benefit from such a resource. They are all stuck catering to “C”‘s every whim and risking their own health and safety by taking her around an area that lacks the accommodations she needs. And she won’t listen to them when they try to, say, guide her away from the random hole in the middle of the street where a person with excellent balance and coordination could still fall and break their leg. It’s a nightmare.

I decided then and there that I wanted to have nothing to do with “C” going downtown, even though it left me with nothing to do on my last day here. “M” is with them, “K” is working, “J” has school, “S” is on vacation with his friends, I need some space from Mom, “A”, and “B”, and Fox and I don’t have access to transportation other than our own feet. Now that I’ve vented I want to go to the pool and swim for a while, or at least go outside and enjoy the fresh air.

I have a few hours before dinner, when the shit will probably hit the fan again. At least I found my riot gear.

I just can’t take it anymore! I went for a walk yesterday and it was gorgeous and I felt great but at the same time I felt horribly sad and empty. I knew then that I need meds because my mood was completely incongruent with what I was experiencing. And I tried so hard to stay in the moment but the past and future kept barging in and in the present I was crying.

I tried to get information about how to access the services I need but my insurance said to call the state and the state wouldn’t answer. Worse my insurance keeps calling me then hanging up without allowing a human to talk to me & if I call them they can’t transfer me to whomever I’m supposed to talk to. Mom keeps saying to call the psychiatrist whose info I have but I’m terrified of being rejected as a new patient and/or experiencing the same frustration my insurance has been giving me.

Mom keeps saying I should be in the moment, move on with my life, maybe I’m not seeing the right therapist, and we have a family history tied to biological factors. Clearly ignoring it is not the answer but it feels like that’s what she wants me to do. Just hide it away again and be a good student and get a job and be a good daughter who stays in her box. That’s not me it’s never been me and she all but told me outright she refuses to see it. “It’s not black and white. I need this to be simple.” Gender is not simple! But it’s also not that hard to understand if you’re willing to listen. I could explain it until I’m blue in the face and she still won’t hear a word I say. “You need to tell me what to call you.” “Call me a person.” “But that doesn’t fit.” EXACTLY! But it is what I want so will you please try it once before asking me to cut off my arms, legs, head, and stomach to fit inside the tiny gender box they handed you when I was born!? There is so much more to me, so much more that goes into even this one small part of my identity, than my genitals! How can they determine what you call me? Seriously looking at a baby’s genitals to determine anything about them other than whether they need to be cleaned and/or receive medical attention is perverted, disgusting, and barbaric!

On the plus side now that I’ve written this I no longer want to cut myself. There is nothing wrong with my body. My body is innocent, it should not become a victim to society’s stupidity. I’m… angry really doesn’t cut it. Furious might work… I’m furious with society.

Why “Fixer Upper” is my Favorite Song from Frozen

Disney’s Frozen is a fantastic movie and if you haven’t seen it yet you should go do so now, then come back to read this post. It’s also a great place to start talking about shame, which I perceive to be a (if not the) central theme of the movie.

This post contains spoilers so, seriously, if you haven’t seen the movie yet go do that and then come back. It’s definitely worth whatever it costs, I promise you.

Okay, so, let’s take it from the top.

We don’t really know anything about Anna and Elsa’s parents, except what little of them we get to see at the very beginning of the movie. Clearly they’re frustrated with Elsa for regularly turning their home into a winter wonderland. They’re also terrified of the safety risks involved in allowing her to play with Anna unsupervised… which, wait a minute, they shouldn’t be doing anyway. Young children need supervision, whether they have special powers or not. Where were all the adults throughout the protagonists’ entire childhood? But I digress.

The parents reach out to the trolls for help in order to save their younger daughter’s life, and that’s where the true problems begin. The Elder Troll introduces secrecy by altering Anna’s memories so she won’t know that Elsa has special powers. The King decides (and we never see the Queen disagree) that Elsa should be hidden from the world until she learns to “control” her powers… by which he actually means until she can hide and/or repress them.

I feel the need to point out that Elsa is in control of her powers and can do absolutely amazing, wonderful things with them… until something happens to stress her out. That’s the only time her powers get out of control, because they are tied into her emotions. Fear, anger, sadness, and other emotions that are considered unacceptable in society are very very powerful and difficult if not impossible to control. But we need them; they motivate us to do something to create change when it becomes necessary for our survival.

A huge part of raising children who don’t have potentially-deadly ice-manipulating powers is teaching them to identify, accept, and find safe ways to express their emotions. Those of us who don’t receive adequate training are more susceptible to mental illness. From what I can tell in my own life, I learned that there was something different about and wrong with the strength of my anger, sadness, fear, and other emotions. I never fully learned to respond to and express them adaptively – that is, in ways that benefit me without hurting or manipulating other people. Every time I lost control I received the message (from the adults in my life) that I was being bad. This further confirmed in my own mind that I was, inherently, bad.

I still believe that I am bad, and I fear every moment that people will see it and attack or abandon me.

Wait. Stop. I’m writing about Frozen here. Elsa and her parents and Anna.

The King gives Elsa a pair of gloves but otherwise does nothing (that we see) to teach her how to conceal her powers. He does nothing to teach her how to not feel – or, more realistically, to take the edge off, such as through meditation. All he ever teaches her (that we see) is that she shouldn’t use her powers – that she shouldn’t even have her powers – and that she shouldn’t feel. (“Conceal it, don’t feel it.”) Basically, the King teaches his daughter that she shouldn’t be herself at all.

The King teaches his daughter that she shouldn’t be.

When Elsa does feel, she’s doing something wrong, and since she can’t stop feeling, then clearly there’s something wrong with her. When she feels the powers come out against her will so that’s something even worse that’s wrong with her.

The Queen never steps in to stop what the King is doing or to try a different approach. The parents never reach out to anyone who might be able to help with any aspect of their daughter’s plight. They keep it all hidden, even within their own household.

Secrets, secrets, secrets. They are our worst enemy.

Anna grows up never knowing why her sister won’t come out and play with her; she thinks it’s because Elsa hates her or can’t be bothered with her. Anna learns that she’s unlovable because the person who should be the closest to her won’t give her the time of day. As soon as someone shows interest in being with her, she agrees to marry him.

Finally, LOVE! I can’t let it get away or I’ll never find it again!

I’m still writing about Frozen, honest.

So Elsa’s spent the majority of her life trying to stop being, failing miserably, and taking that failure as further proof that she shouldn’t be. She’s also spent it deprived of any opportunity to express her love for her sister or experience her sister’s love for her… which pretty much traps her in exclusively feeling the very emotions she’s supposed to not feel. In other words, she’s fallen victim to shame. And anxious depression, by the way.

Meanwhile Anna’s spent a larger majority of her life going stir crazy, believing that her sister doesn’t love her, and possibly (probably) internalizing the message that she is unlovable. Another victim of shame.

All because of a stupid, completely unnecessary, counter-productive SECRET that their father wedged between them… Why? Because he was faced with something he didn’t know how to deal with and he was too ashamed to admit it. He needed to present a strong, decisive front. Perhaps the Queen never defied him because she didn’t want to shame him… or because she was also too ashamed to admit that she didn’t know what to do, either… or because she was too ashamed to admit and reveal to the world that her husband didn’t know what he was doing.

This would be a great place to begin a discussion of the different pressures society places on men and women and how gender is related to shame. I want to keep this post focused on Frozen as much as possible. However, I strongly encourage readers to write about social pressure, gender, and shame in comments or your own blog posts; if you choose to do the latter please let me know and I’ll be happy to link to your specific relevant post. I also encourage discussion of the roles family can play in perpetuating shame, particularly from one generation to the next.

Which brings us to “Fixer Upper” and why it’s my favorite song in Frozen. Go ahead and take a break from reading to watch the scene it’s in on YouTube; I think we can all use a break from the heavy topic of shame. (The link will open in a new tab.)

 Fixer Upper Movie Version Frozen Disney

The term “fixer upper” is commonly used to refer to something (e.g. a house) that has some problems but is, overall, well worth the time, effort, and other resources it requires. At its core, this song argues that we are all worthy of love.

Perhaps even more importantly, it urges us to perceive each other as worthy of love.

The trolls are definitely fixer uppers; they get so caught up in their own excitement about the idea of Kristoff getting married they don’t listen to what he and Anna are actually trying to say… not to mention that they assume the two are ready to get married in the first place. They also fall into the all-too-common trap of tying love to romance when romantic love is not what anyone truly needs – especially not Anna and Kristoff at that moment.

That said, they provide an excellent antidote to shame: love, and more importantly honesty.

The trolls spend the first 2/3 of the song being painfully and embarrassingly honest about their perception of Kristoff, over-sharing about his flaws but also pointing out some of his positive traits as well. I love it when they point out that he needs “healing hugs” – who doesn’t?

They call him a fixer upper, admitting that he has flaws and announcing their acceptance of those flaws as well as everything else that comes together to make Kristoff who he is. He doesn’t have to do anything to earn their love and he doesn’t have to hide any aspect of himself, either. He just is, and they just want the best for him.

My absolute favorite part of the song begins at 2 minutes 33 seconds in the above YouTube video. Here’s a link directly to that starting point; it will open in a new tab. I’ve also included the relevant lyrics (by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez) below:

We’re not saying you can change him
’cause people don’t really change.
We’re only saying that love’s a force
that’s powerful and strange.

People make bad choices
if they’re mad or scared or stressed.
But throw a little love their way
(Throw a little love their way)
and you’ll bring out their best!

True love brings out the best!

Everyone’s a bit of a fixer upper;
That’s what it’s all about!
Father! Sister! Brother!
We need each other
To raise us up and round us out!

In other words, it’s not about changing the other person to get rid of whatever you perceive to be their flaws. It’s about loving them with their flaws. The lyrics outright acknowledge that people get angry, scared, and stressed; these emotions interfere with decision making. What’s the solution? Love! (including forgiveness)

I really like that they mention family relationships to show that love isn’t exclusive to romantic couples; they’re actually not talking about romantic love in this song. The love in question is love between family and friends; compassion. We need each other’s support; that’s nothing to be ashamed of. As Olaf explains later in the movie: “Love is putting someone else’s needs before yours.”

And what does love do? Well, in Frozen it saves both sisters’ lives and gives Elsa the key to controlling her powers. (“Love thaws.”) According to the trolls, it brings out our best. It is by loving Elsa through her actions that Anna saves the day and enables her sister to finally accept and express herself without hurting others. Elsa is able to love her family and subjects by using her powers responsibly for their enjoyment.

Maybe Anna could have done it without hearing the lines I quoted from “Fixer Upper” above, but I interpret that as a turning point for her. Prior to that point she was trying desperately to get Elsa to be kind to her. Afterward (and after learning that she is loved by Kristoff – therefore perceiving herself as lovable), Anna is able to forgive Elsa and do what is necessary to save her sister’s life. She’s not thinking about her own needs in that moment, and she’s overcome her fear of death. That’s, wow, that’s amazing. I never really thought about it that way before; I always identified more with Elsa.

I really hope Frozen – and especially “Fixer Upper” – will empower the loved ones of people with mental illness (diagnosed or not) to love us powerfully and unconditionally: forgiving hurts, supporting our efforts toward growth/recovery, and most importantly reaching out for help. Frozen is a perfect example of how devastating shame can be… but also how powerful love is; ultimately, love thaws the shame that would keep us all frozen.

listening to shame

Shame definitely plays a huge role in my anxious depression. The TED Talk is a great starting point, and we need to explore this topic in a lot more depth for any meaningful change to occur. I’m terrified to commit to this, but I intend to explore how shame manifests in my own life and its affects on me. I’ll be blogging about it over the next couple of weeks.