Dances with Dragons

It is no secret that I love the HBO hit series Game of Thrones.  George R.R. Martin is genius in so many ways, and the show follows suit.  And for many reasons, I wonder how Martin connects in the ways that he does to the plight of the marginalized in his medieval and magical imagined society.

One of the ways that I identify with the characters in this series has to do with the plight of the woman.  Not one woman in particular, but a great variety of women in a great variety of situations.  Raped, owned, captive, forced to do and be what another bids you to be—all are ways that women in the stories suffer due to their perceived weakness and their lack of agency.  But we don’t stop there.  We go on to tales of power and strength and cunning and a capacity for greatness in the lives of these fictional women.

I sometimes feel like a fictional woman.

That might sound strange.  I’m not bipolar or schizophrenic and manifesting with delusions that I am a character.  I simply bear burdens that I rarely hear about in true tales.  My life is an epic tale already, and I assume that I am still only about half way through my life, barring the development of fatal disease or the collision with a truck that might end it a bit early.

I’ve gone through so many things in my life that it is difficult to believe that they all truly happened.  I wonder how I survived.  I wonder if I have some cosmic draw upon the evils of our society.  I wonder whether the story has a glorious end, or whether the bad things will keep coming indefinitely for the rest of my life.

I sometimes feel like a fictional woman, because I have never met another who can relate to all of the things with which I relate.    I feel like this life is impossible, not plausible, and maybe a bit crazy—this life of struggle after struggle and story after story.

The marginalization, lack of agency, and captivity that the women of Westeros experience feel like real things for me.  There are moments it is too real for me—when I have my hand clamped over my mouth in shock and my stomach feels as though it has dropped out of my body, leaving an empty, sickly cavern in its place.  Being owned, being abused, being captive: these are things that I know intimately.  And most women don’t have that intimacy of knowledge and connection with all of the bad things you might imagine.  Most women have experienced some marginalization or lack of agency, but not with all the forms of marginalization and lack of agency you can imagine wrapped up into one package.

So, who imagined my story?  How did it become this epic tale that recounts the plight of each and every woman who crosses the pages of Martin’s imagination?  When did I become the poster-child for trauma and trial?

I think the answer is staring me in the face.  And I don’t want to name it—I don’t want to name him, because that will make me feel the unwarranted guilt of calling out the wrongs of those who made my story go so “wrong”.  Because somewhere, deep in my psyche, I still feel responsible, and I still feel shame, and I still feel confused, and I still feel like I need to protect those who harmed me.  That is crazy, and more than just a bit so.  That is a lot crazy.

The startling thing here is not my responses to trauma and trials, but that my responses are considered less acceptable than the actions that brought about those responses.  Molesting your family member, or sex without consent, or smacking around a non-compliant partner, or treating a woman like property are all less offensive to many than my psyche and my ways of coping with the traumas of my life thus far.  Even more startling is the fact that my depression and disability, which are directly related to those traumas, are seen as the marks of a dirty, lazy, crazy, messed up, burdensome, whining, free-loading, fuck-up.  My disabled status is more criticized than the ones whose actions caused my disabled status.  I am attacked for having been attacked, and not just being fine with that.  I am attacked for having been wounded and not just putting a Band-Aid on that shit and going ahead with life unaffected.

The ways I relate to the women in the imagination of Martin, and their portrayal by the producers of Game of Thrones, are ways that express the greatest possible struggles in life.  But I also relate to the women becoming something stronger and more powerful and more able with each passing event.  Hard things make strong people.  And I hate sentiments similar to that statement, in some sense.  I don’t believe that the divine offers us challenges to strengthen us or prepare us or make us useful in the lives of others.  I don’t believe that triumph follows trials, necessarily.  I don’t believe that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.  There are plenty of things that didn’t kill me that made me broken and weak and wishing that death had been offered instead.  But, I cannot deny that some of my strength was forged in the fire of evil attacks upon my person and my psyche.

I don’t want to say that I am better because I was treated worse than most.  That simply is not true.  I am far worse off because of the poor treatment I was subjected to in the past.  But I have also developed some great skill in coping and in fighting for justice and in being a beacon for those still caught in a cycle of dark, dangerous mistreatment and marginalization.

One doesn’t negate the other.

I’m a fucking mess who learned lessons in being amazing.  They exist in tandem—the broken and the brave.

And you don’t want to process that last statement.  It fights against the dichotomous thinking that we have been programmed toward for centuries.  Either/or thinking is rarely the best line of thought.  Both/and is the way that the world actually offers itself.  I am both broken and brave, at once.

The women of Westeros are broken and brave.  They are overcomers.  They fight to gain their freedom, their justice, their right to be whom they choose and not the ones they are told to be by others.  But the knowledge of trauma and its effects upon its victims lets me know, with certainty, that these women are also irreparably broken.  There are some things that you never forget.  There are some things that never stop having a hold.  And that hold doesn’t need to propel us toward evil and revenge and perpetual suffering.  Sometimes those things that have a hold are the inciting motivation for our desire to find justice and agency and bravery.  But they still have a hold—they still take a toll.

The thing that I need to keep remembering and reinforcing in my own life is that it is alright for those things to have a hold and take a toll.  It is okay to suffer the effects, and it is okay to fight for freedom from those effects.  And those two things can happen simultaneously.  I can allow both the bravery and the brokenness to exist and to be honored and to be experienced and to be felt deeply.

I am allowed to be both/and.

Sometimes my ability to press forward toward a goal of peace and justice and healing is inspirational.  Sometimes my inability to cope and overcome and heal is just as inspiring.  And it is so and should be so because I am both/and.  I am both a woman of strength and a woman who copes with weakness.  I am both a victim and a victor.  I am both broken and brave.

Learning to celebrate the difficult parts of your life and your person is not easy.  I’m certainly not to the point where I do so with consistency.  But I am closer to celebration today than I have been in a long time.

The challenges are difficult for the women of Westeros.  The moments of champion are many for these same women.  One doesn’t negate the other.  One informs the other.

In the same way, my challenges inform who I become and how I live in this world.  The bad things are not negated by the good.  The lessons don’t erase the loss.  The struggle remains real, even when it seems like I am overcoming, because there are those things that hold on—the things I can’t forget. And those things are a part of who I am, not just a part of who I once was.

Allowing yourself to be both/and, and accepting the brave and the broken equally, is not simple in its execution.  It is ridiculously hard.  It is something that I want to do, but that I am constantly told by my society that I should not do.

“Get over it.”.  “Let it go.”  “Just forgive and forget.” “Look at the bright side.” “At least you haven’t experienced [thing that one deems more crappy than your experiences].”  “There are children starving in Africa.”  “Focus on the future.”   All are well-meaning sentiments, and all are telling me to stop being the person that I was shaped and developed into, and to ignore and subordinate the majority of the things I have experienced.  And I think that desire to ignore and subordinate the broken and the bad things is a conditioned response.  I think that our society tells us that value is tied to good things, and those who experience bad things are people of little worth, or of poor character.

That is a terrible, incorrect, and damaging view—that struggles are the result of poor choices by lesser beings.  That is the root of every “ism” that we experience in our society—racism, classism, sexism, ableism, ageism, and more and more.

Instead of feeding the fallacy that my challenges are evidence of my personal failures, I would love to see a society that can live in the both/and.  I would love to feel that my challenges are just as valued as my moments of champion.  I would love to be treated as a whole—a woman who has trauma and trials and triumphs.  I would love to be accepted as I am, without judgments that minimize the effects of my past experience or tell me to cover up wounds for the comfort of others.

The thing is, I cannot cover up those wounds.  I am covered in wounds and scars, and those don’t disappear.  They might heal a bit, or stop openly bleeding, or be less pronounced over time.  But they never disappear altogether.

I have a scar across my lower abdomen from a childhood surgery.  It used to be a big, hip to hip, thick, red scar.  Now it is lower and thinner and just a touch lighter than the skin around it.  It seems to have shrunk quite a bit, as my body grew, I aged, and time passed; but that scar is still present and always will be.  And that is a part of my whole.  That scar is a moment in time etched on my body for life.  That scar is tied to psychological effects and physical limits and family dynamics and the response of my community.  That scar says all sorts of things about who I am and where I have been and where I am traveling now.  Because it says all of those things, it is important.  It is as important as this moment or any moment to come.  It shaped me and created a way of being and a way of reacting and a way of living that I would not have without it.  So, it needs to be honored and held and accepted and loved as an important part of me.

Identifying with women who overcome the worst challenges and become champions is something that most of us can do on some level.  But it takes a lot of deep consideration to understand the ways that the trial and trauma shaped the triumph.  It takes a lot of understanding to see that the victories are often bittersweet, because of the place where the moment happened, the change came, and the suffering informed the future actions that brought us to the victory.  That understanding is so needed.

Accepting my past is imperative to being in my life today.  Honoring my struggle and refusing to hide or ignore what is difficult to cope with is necessary for me to survive, to thrive, and to continue working toward moments of victory.  Being a champion doesn’t mean you are not still the oppressed and challenged and broken woman in some ways.  And acknowledging both the brave and the broken in me is so important.

Because none of us are only our triumphs.  All of us are both/and.  We are all light and dark, commingling in a storied history.  And it is time to begin celebrating that storied history.  It is time to sing and dance and toast to the storied history that includes both trials and triumph.  It is time to see the characters before us—both fictional and not—as both/and.  It is time to honor the whole person, and end the practice of trying to bleach the dark bits in our histories and our hearts.

I am working hard to love all of the parts of my life and myself.  That work is made harder by those who insist that the hard times and bad times and horrors that have been and are being endured should be hidden behind false smiles and kept behind closed doors.  I need for those around me to be willing and able to accept all of me, and to look at the hard times and bad times and horrors without recoiling in shock and disgust.

There is a moment when a character in Game of Thrones, Sansa Stark, is named by her challenges.  Her name—her title—is questioned because she was forced into marriages against her will.  The power and influence she might have is called into question because she is no longer a woman who holds her family name.  She replies by claiming that she is and always has been a Stark.  She did what she needed to do to survive, but that didn’t make her into someone other.  She has changed, but she is also the same.  Her history and her present are both tied into one.  She is twice married, but she is still a Stark in her heart.  She is both/and.

I think that it would serve each of us (and likely the whole of the universe) well to respond to and respect the both/and in the lives and personas and stories around us.  I believe that the acceptance of the light and the dark, the trial and the triumph, the challenge and the champion, allows us to celebrate who we are without the question of worth, value, purity, influence, or power.  Being who we are, wholly and completely and without shame, is only possible if we accept both/and.  I cannot celebrate and dance and play and love and live in the ways I want and hope to while others force me to question whether my value has been reduced as a result of the history I carry with me into today.  None of us can truly accept ourselves or others until we acknowledge that the dark and the light commingling is a part of our humanity, and that, regardless of what we are currently experiencing, we are still valued and loved.

We need to become a society that does not place value on one and not on another.  We need to be able to face what seems like it must be fiction due to the enormity of the challenge, and still smile and offer kindness and show love.  We need to be people who celebrate the whole.  We need to accept that the same character who is sold/married to solidify an alliance is also the Mother of Dragons.  And we need to celebrate her in both of those moments—the terrifying and terrible wedding night, and climbing atop a great beast and flying to the rescue—in a way that does not deny part of the story.  We need to find a way to accept that all have value, in each and every moment.

I identify with these characters, because I am forged in burning flames.  I have a storied past, and those moments shape this moment and the moments to come.  And I am determined to figure out the way to both dance in the darkness and dance with dragons.  They are equal parts of me.  They do not disappear, and they cannot be hidden.  They are parts of a whole, and should be honored as such.

Join me on this journey.  Let us learn to dance in darkness.  Let us dance with dragons.  Let us be both/and.

Bravery

I was thinking a lot the past few days about what it is to be brave.  I had a friend tell me that I am brave, and the next morning I was engaged in a guided meditation to help me be less afraid.  I am always afraid, in a sense.  PTSD keeps your system in a state commonly referred to as “hypervigilance”.  Basically, you are always assessing for threats, even in environments where there is little or no danger.  And your body and your mind and your spirit are always feeling threatened by everything.

And all of that is totally justified by some form of trauma, but it makes being brave a difficult thing, while also making simply stepping out your door a step toward bravery.

There are lots of conflicting, dichotomous, and counterintuitive things about this illness, so the whole scared/brave thing is just one, but it often gets me thinking.

I remember a day when a friend labelled links to other friends’ blogs with one word descriptors, and mine was Brave.  I think I cried when I read that.  I never feel brave.  I always feel chaos and fear and indecision and doubt and whatever other anxiety-ridden thing you can think of.  Every moment.  Every day.

And it isn’t a fixable thing, really.  You cope, but your brain chemistry was altered at a critical time in your development, so there isn’t really any fixing the problem.  You live alongside it, and you delve into it, and you learn skills to combat it, and you find ways to rationalize it.  You never end it.

Yesterday, I went to the geneticist and then to the lab.  For the next month I will wait to find out if I carry the gene that likely caused my mother’s dementia, and find out if I might also have indicators of other dementia.  That was the act that was considered brave, but somehow it was the easiest thing I did.  And maybe that is because the other things I did had elements or consequences that I might have some control over.

I have no control over my genetic makeup.  That ship sailed over forty years ago.  And if I have the gene, I have Alzheimer’s to plan for and work against, so there are things I can control after the fact, but I can’t control the result of this test.  There isn’t a way to mess it up.  It either is there, or it isn’t there.  And knowing has consequences, I suppose, but not knowing has them too.

The other things I did yesterday, like going on a first date and going to a new pool and finding my way when I got lost in familiar surroundings, seemed harder.  I felt less brave when I walked in the door to that gym, or stopped to open up my map application to find my way, or met a new man who may or may not be a good man, or got on the bus, or let that man drive me home, or stepped out my door, or started a conversation with the other naked girl next to my gym locker, or did anything that day.  And maybe that is simply because my genetic makeup is like my PTSD.

It isn’t a fixable thing.

And I can learn to cope with it, but I can’t stop my genes from being my genes any more than I can stop my brain chemistry from being my brain chemistry.

In my mind, I’m not brave.

I’m honest, and I’m practical, and I’m self-aware. And maybe those things masquerade as bravery, but they aren’t.  I face what I must because I must, not because I am stronger or better or braver than the people around me.  If I had a choice, I wouldn’t face half of what I have faced in my lifetime.  But I didn’t have a choice.

So, I guess if the definition of bravery is facing what you must, I could be considered brave, but it isn’t a state that I see myself in.  It isn’t how I would characterize myself.

I am a survivor.

I fight my way through life, and I don’t back down from the challenges that come my way.  But what I feel—what is deepest and most prevalent during those moments—is not bravery, but fear.

There was a moment in my history where I stood over a man, with a sword at his throat, and demanded freedom and justice and an end to his tyranny.  That sounds like an epic tale of a brave knight, but I was terrified in that moment, and after, when I was safely away from the situation, I cried and shook violently as the adrenaline of the moment left and the terrified aspect came to the surface.  My demands had been met, yes.  But the way I felt in and after that moment was indescribably bad.  I didn’t talk about it until years later, and even then I had to have another clarify that the moment was real—that I didn’t dream it.  Afterward, I dissociated from the event, because I was that frightened.

Fear motivates many of the things I do or have done.  I’ve been divorced for 19 years not because I was brave enough to leave my abusive husband, but because I was afraid enough to run for my life.  I’ve raised a daughter on my own, not because I am a brave woman, but because I was afraid of what might happen to that daughter in the care of another.  I’ve survived homelessness, and sexual violence, and physical violence, and living in impoverished areas, and going back to school as a non-traditional student, and working in stressful environments, and physical and mental illnesses because I have two choices.  Survive or don’t survive.  Live or die.  Make it through or don’t make it through.  And I wish that I believed it was more nuanced than that—that I contained within my being some strength that others cannot draw upon, or that I had many options but chose the best ones to get me to today.  But I don’t think it was.

Most of my life has been lived in a state of laser-focused survival instinct.  Most of my life there were the two choices.  Leave or stay.  Fight or flee.  Live or die.

Over and over and over and over, I just choose to live.

So, yes, I went and faced the fears of the genetic testing and the unfamiliar gym and the first date, but I wasn’t necessarily brave during any of those parts of my day.  I just had to choose to live, like always.

And we are all meant to survive.  The instinct is so ingrained in us that even those who choose to die, struggle in the act of doing so.  Their bodies and their minds seek to stop that death from happening.  We are designed to keep fighting, keep reproducing, keep eating, keep drinking, keep breathing, keep going.  So, either we are all brave, or none of us is brave, from an evolutionary perspective.

I just do what I was designed to do, and I keep going.

There was a day several weeks ago where I didn’t want to keep going, but I did.  I kept saying aloud, “I can’t do this anymore.”  But, it turns out that I could do it, that I could persevere, that I could keep working and keep trying and keep fighting.  My instinct to survive took over, and I did what needed to be done to keep living, even when I didn’t want to and didn’t believe that I could.

I’m not brave.  I just follow my instinct to survive.

Sometimes I hear people comment that bravery is not the lack of fear, it is moving forward in spite of your fear.  And, to some extent, I can allow that by this definition I might be brave.  I keep moving forward in spite of my fears, but I don’t think I do it consciously, and with purpose, and in ways that I find noble or exceptional.  I just don’t know how to live in a state other than fear, so I have to push through it or I have to stop living.

That might sound strange to anyone who isn’t hypervigilant and trying to reintegrate disparate parts of the brain inside their head, but to me it makes all the sense.  To me, living is being afraid.  The absence of fear is death, and overcoming fear is an impossibility.  It will always be there.  And I might be able to use mindfulness and mandalas and yoga and CBT and all sorts of other things to cope with that fear, but it will never go away entirely.  And I have two choices: live in fear, or stop living.

I go on.  I always go on.

A month or two will pass, and I might have huge relief that I may not become like my grandfather and my mother, slowly slipping away until I am a shell staring into nothing, or I might have the knowledge that I will absolutely become like them, and work to put in place safeguards that give me and my daughter the best chances at choosing the way we deal with becoming like them, and choosing whether or not to risk creating another generation of those long, slow ends.  And I might have no conclusive evidence of risk or not risk, and simply have to wait and see if I lose my mind when I am old, like everyone else.  But none of those options include a caveat that says I might not go on.  Because I haven’t survived all of these things and gone on and on and on to give up on my survival instinct now.  I will go on.

And I don’t believe that makes me brave.  I think it makes me human. I think that when it comes down to it, and we are faced with survival or death, we all do what it takes to survive.  The actual doing may be harder for some than it is for others, but we all choose living over dying by default.  And I would rather live in hypervigilant fear, going out into the world and chancing whatever it offers me, than not live at all.

So, tomorrow, I will face another day, with new fears and new challenges or old fears and old challenges, but I will face it.  And though I don’t believe I am braver than the rest, I know that my commitment to facing what comes is strong and resolute.  I will go on as long as I am able, and in the best way possible.  Even if that time and that way are both filled with all sorts of reservations and anxieties and fears.

And to all the people who are thinking today that you can’t go on, it isn’t true.  You can go on.  You were designed to go on.  Whether you are brave or afraid, you will still go on.