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It has taken me exactly 20 days to write this blog, because I needed that much time to process and digest the emotional gift that was May 26, 2018.

Before I tell you about that, however, we need to go back a bit, to September 2017.  I will be honest, that was a horrible month. The five years preceding that month were also horrible. I won’t get into all the details, because I’m still not there yet. But I will share that I was sexually assaulted many years ago, that isn’t necessarily new information, me sharing my story (or parts of it) has been imperative in my healing process and my work with the Breaking Free Foundation.

The assault left me with PTSD, as rape often does, and some other side effects that have ultimately led to the demise and diminishing of many relationships and friendships. In September 2017, I finally got my day in court. Getting there was hard, and I will never lie about that, it was very hard. At one point, even my work with Breaking Free Foundation and my friendship with Theo [Fleury] was also attacked.

Again, I’m not ready to share all the details of that day, still feeling handcuffed by the whole experience. But I will be honest in sharing with anyone who is reading this, that that day in court was nearly worse than the assault. I felt battered, sick, empty and I left that very long day without the one thing I still had up until that point—my voice.

It silenced me. And when the #metoo movement started making waves, I was so proud of all of the incredibly brave men and women who were coming out and sharing their stories. But I still felt unable to speak. Still vocally paralyzed.

Recently, my best friend shared a dream she had about me. A dream where she was at my funeral, trying to speak my truth for me because I had not been able to while I was alive. That was so hard to hear, and I was really struggling with this the weeks leading up to May 26th, 2018.

Fast forward. Myself and our Executive Director, Shandra Carlson, were invited by two amazing women, Amy Monea and Angie Payne, to host one a special BFF Meet-up at the Rafter U7 Ranch (a facility where these women host equine therapy sessions, among other things). I was so excited to go! I love animals and horses and I was dying to learn a bit about equine therapy, which I had heard nothing but amazing things about.

Well, nobody came. So “work” was off for Shandra and I, so Amy and Angie asked if we wanted to be treated to the authentic experience and try out a session. OF COURSE, our answers were an enthusiastic YES!

Having Romeo’s eyes on you from the minute we walked into the arena might be worth mentioning? I only say that because of how it impacted me before we ever started. He “had your back” from the very first eye contact.

We started off with pulling oracle cards (or whatever you want to call them)… boom. Here it begins, mine was titled, “Exclaim”. The second line reading, “For a while now, you have been swallowing your personal truth”.  I honestly laughed out loud at this, which I truly believe is what most of our Breaking Free family would have done at that moment if they were there because the cards always know!

Angie and Amy co-facilitated a very emotional therapeutic experience for both Shandra and I. When it came time for me to face my demons about the? trial, magic unfolded before our eyes. I won’t give it all away, but the role of my attacker and the system as a whole, was being played by an object in the room for role-playing sakes. Fancy, a beautiful white female horse, strutted towards it and faced it head-on.

She was tall and strong and she didn’t flinch. Even when the dogs started barking like mad right in front of her, trying to throw her off, she just stared at it. She was everything I felt I wasn’t in that moment, and I fell apart. Wow, it was a big moment.

To wrap up the session, Shandra and I were asked to join Fancy and Romeo (a handsome, strong male horse) in the round pen. Angie and Amy instructed us to stand in the middle and just let the horses do what they need to do.

I was facing Shandra, and my back was to the horses so I couldn’t see what was going on, but I could see her face and tears filled her eyes. “Oh my god”, she said. “What!?” I asked.

All I could feel behind me was the two horses suddenly brushing their noses up and down my back, almost like they were comforting me. I think if two animals that big came toward me like that in the wild, I would honestly be a bit frightened, but it was the most soothing and safe experience I’ve ever had. They were gentle, and they just wanted to let me know I was okay. After they finished caressing me, they walked in front of me and just stood there, as if in a protective stance.

Even as I’m writing this now, it’s still emotional to think back to that moment. And trust me, I am not doing it justice right now.

Shandra, by the way, was one of the amazing people from my “other family” (Breaking Free) who were in court to support me that day in September. So it was very meaningful that she got to share this moment with me. Even though I still feel a bit silenced, I got to speak a lot that day and I felt a thousand pounds lighter leaving the ranch.

To the three women, the two horses and the energy in that ranch that day—thank you.

———

Amy and Angie: you ladies are such a gift. You allowed me to be so vulnerable with you and I felt as if I had known you both my whole life. What an incredible thing you both do and I am so glad I got to experience this type of therapy first-hand.

You can learn more about Amy Monea and Angie Payne’s work at their respective websites:

http://www.equineenrichment.com

https://linktr.ee/heardwellne55

 

 

 

I was seven. He was a monster. That monster was my brother.

It’s both a blessing and a curse how your mind helps you remember and helps you forget.

How can you not remember? To live beside someone, in the same house, like nothing ever happened.

I was 22 and eight months pregnant when I did remember. I ran into him at a family wedding (my hubby’s family, not mine) in a hotel bar, in a small rural town. We were not close. We were a large family, with multiple divorces. It had probably been 10 years since I’d seen him. We chatted. We caught up. All’s good, right?

Things started to change. I was angry. Remembering things so painful, that they could actually break my brain. The most beautiful time of my life was marred by these memories. Did my stress during pregnancy affect my child? My child, who grew up to have severe mental health issues. Did my anger during her infancy damage her? These memories too, haunt me.

I told. I told my husband. He was supportive. I told my parents. They were detached, indifferent and unresponsive. That’s it. All over. I told. It would all get better. Right?

Wrong. I’m not proud of who I was. I wasn’t a good mother. That makes me sad. I have two beautiful children who deserved better. Could I have given them better? No. I was the best I could be with who I was at that point. I love my girls. I tried to make them perfect. They were perfectly dressed, perfectly clean, perfect manners. The perfect I never was. I was broken.

Fast forward 12 years and my husband and I are going to marriage counselling at the request of my not “perfect” daughter. She was not my version of perfect, she was perfectly her.

Relationships for me have always been a struggle. My marriage was no different. However, not halfway through the first session with my husband, I realized I needed to see a therapist for myself.

She knew, the minute I walked through her office door, she knew.

I’ve gone to many hours of therapy. I’ve confronted my abuser. I have PTSD, ADHD, Social Anxiety Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder and probably a few other letters. I have planned to kill myself. On a daily basis, I don’t want to be here. I just want the pain to go away. I’d never do it. I know I won’t. After losing my dad five years ago I knew I could never intentionally inflict that pain on anyone.

I distance myself from my friends. I am the queen of excuses and cancelling plans. I want someone to talk to. But really, who wants to talk about “This”? We are supposed to open up, help break the stigma. Very idealistic.

I just want to feel normal. To be able to have a job, friends, be able to carry on a conversation. I keep trying new meds, different foods, and new therapy techniques. Next week I start EMDR Therapy.

* Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is an integrative psychotherapy approach that has been extensively researched and proven effective for the treatment of trauma. EMDR is a set of standardized protocols that incorporates elements from many different treatment approaches. To date, EMDR therapy has helped millions of people of all ages relieve many types of psychological stress.

I have high hopes. I will keep you posted!

Sheri Gray

* https://emdrcanada.org

Five in a Five Part Series by Sandra McDonald

Boys, this is a really rough time for you, hey? For a minute there, it looked like one power-hungry victimizer might act as a lightning rod of all of mankind, allowing other attackers to skulk off into the shadows unnoticed. But the word is out: assault happens.

You might be feeling a bit demonized? A little freaked out? What if someone accuses you of a #MeToo offense? What if you’re guilty? What if you’re not guilty?

And how are you managing the chilling memories of your own trauma? Are you ok?

Some of you need to be called out. You know who you are (and you’re definitely not reading this blog).

Some of you will be wrongly accused (maybe you already have been?). That will unjustly upend your world.

Some of you are the long-silent sufferers of wounds so deep and frightening and life-shaping. You didn’t ask to have your own memories yanked out from there hidey-holes, but two little words, a hashtag, and a media explosion, and now you’re face to face with your own ghosts and monsters.

You certainly don’t deserve to be hated, blamed, or shamed for just being male, but it’s a little tense out there right now. Our current culture is so tough on you: you’re either Homer-Simpson-sluggish or Trump-Weinstein-lecherous. You are the buffoon, the emotionally bereft slug, the power-mongering tyrant, the hammer-wielding superhero. Gone are the days of being just a regular, God-fearin’, hard-workin’, nice guy.

Would you consider re-writing that narrative? Your story is important.

Right now. In this conversation. You might have your own #MeToo chapters in your story?

How can we, as a culture, make space for men to be men to be men. What does that even mean today? I have three sons that, I have to tell you, I’m scared to death for. Did I do enough to teach them the value of their gender identity – in all of its masculine, feminine, and something-wholly-other goodness? Did I teach them the value of all humanity? The need to respect, validate, and truly hear the stories of their Others? Will they be at ease in their own bodies, with their own thoughts, and in engaging wisely and generously with the world – as men? Will they manage their need to be respected and powerful in the world, and will they do this without attempting to master another person along the way?

Your story. As brother-father-son-victim-abuser. We need to hear it just as badly as you need to give voice to it. There are people who will listen, without judgment to the scariest bits of your history. And if those bits include hurting others, don’t make a shiny apology, using words to gloss over bad behavior in an effort to distance yourself from hard truths. But don’t take on responsibility where it’s not yours to bear, either.

Contribute. Learn. Listen. Validate. Believe. Tell the truth of your experience. Know your own hungers. Own your hungers, and learn to manage them in ways that do not bring harm to any other person. You are not a monster. You are a man. #MeToo can be made a thing of the past with your work to that end.

Four in a Five Part Series by Sandra McDonald

#MeToo is an exposure of men behaving badly – and at great cost to the security, well-being, and identity of women. It is a match-flare flash of light into the dark corners of long-kept secrets. A sudden, alarming glimpse of the danger faced by most (all?) women at some point in their lives.

It is right that long-silent victims have an opportunity to bring their own violation out into the light (where it will lose so much of its shaming power). Your experience has made you stronger, more courageous, more fearful, more resolute, more timid. You’ve been marked by it in one way, or another.

Do find a safe and loving space to share your story. We might argue that social media isn’t the most secure place for that vulnerability. But your dear friends, a trusted advisor, a mentor, a space like BFF – it is important for your healing, and the healing of your world, that you tell your story.

#MeToo and #ItStopsNow are also a  testimony to the wrenching truth that women have just not been there for each other.

I well know what it is to be the one powerless woman in a room full of powerful men. I know how they use their bodies, their language, and their money to keep an intelligent, resourceful, get ‘er done gal in “her place.”

And I know what it is to be one of many women in a room, looking hopefully from one face to the next, thinking “Surely these women will stand with me for what they know must be done here?” only to see, immediately, that their heads are bowed and their lips are silent.

“Maybe if you weren’t quite so opinionated they would agree to make changes/adjust policy/implement procedure.”

“If you just talk more like a man they’ll be more willing to listen to you…”

“Oh, you just misunderstood his intentions.”

“It sure wouldn’t hurt if you just showed a little ankle…”

I was part of a community of women that knew exactly which ones were being hit by their spouses. It was an open secret, amongst the women, that Sally’s husband had gotten “a little carried away” with Sue…but it was all just a misunderstanding.

Your story can help change how men interact with women. More importantly (?) it may help change how women interact with one another.

But not if we leave it as a hashtag one-liner out in the Twittersphere. What is our part, girls? In our homes, our relationships, our places of employment, and the way we spend our dollars? We don’t need more blog posts, news feed buzz, or clever kitty-cat headbands. We do need to put action and choice and instruction (with some maturity and cool-headed sass) to the dogged work of adjusting the mindset of a culture. A global culture.

Three in a Five Part Series by Sandra McDonald

Have you found yourself tangling with unexpected memories of your own sexual history these past few months? Yeah, me too. In fact, #MeToo has compelled my own experience with unwanted touch and talk burbling right on up to the surface. I didn’t invite these thoughts. But here I am: thinking about my 47 years through the misty lens of long-quashed memories.

In “Your Story” I noted (in over-simplified terms, for sure!) that we communicate in the pattern of our own generation. I’m somewhere in the middle of, “Shhhhh. Nice girls don’t talk about such things!” (Words sternly spoken by the matriarch of my family. We also sit legs graciously crossed. We do not pick our noses in church. And we never, ever cry.), and “Don’t use those words – that’s my trigger!” I’m learning sensitivity to, and pushing against, this position just a bit…but that’s a different story, Resilient Friends. You’re stronger than you know!

This means that I share easily about some things, but there are many things that I, for the sake of propriety and the protection of the bullies in my life (What a strange propensity we have for this, right? A jumble of terror and politeness.) feel more comfortable remaining mum about.

I am not a beautiful woman. No, don’t protest that. Not even out of politeness. I’m not being self-deprecating or hateful. I am not pretty. I am prone to chubby with small eyes, thin lips, and a too-stubby chin. I’ve got a set of great birthin’ hips (read: broad and well-padded). My wobbly bits have always been strangely wobbly and I have never turned the head of a boy with the flip of my hair.

And I am a victim of sexual shaming and inappropriate touch. How I missed being more violently assaulted I cannot tell because there were some near misses.

“You fat cow!”

“You have hands like a man – look how big they are!” (One of the church elders made it a weekly point to meet me by the coat racks, my back pressed against dangling jackets and stacks of Bibles, to comment on some aspect of my physical appearance. Eyebrows too furry, waist too narrow, dress too short/too long/too lacey/too plain. And big ol’ man-hands.)

“You eat enough to be a farm boy!” (For Gramma, whom I revered, love and loathing were baked, equal parts into cookies, and squares, and ooey-gooey cinnamon buns.)

“You’re filling that top out really well right now.” (This by a man, lolling, legs-spread-wide in his church pew, as he leered at my milk-engorged breasts after the birth of my first son.)

“Come here. Sit on my lap. I want to show you how much God loves you.”

My stomach turns to jelly as this memory lurches to mind. He was a man 30 years my senior. A professional counselor working from a Christian retreat centre. I was 17 years old and feeling lost. My upbringing was staunchly patriarchal (that is, man is the head and woman is the submissive, weaker second), and subjugated (men lead, women serve). It did not, for even a second, occur to me not to obey.

And these are just a few of the encounters with men. It is the stories of women, one after another, from as early as I can remember, putting me in my place with shaming, hate-filled, “If only you were born a boy” intent that has heart-scars twinging with confusion and self-deprecation just when I least expect it.

My story is riddled through with religion, sex, morals, ethnic background, and shame, shame, shame.

But it doesn’t stop there. I am the mother of three sons. I am a neighbor, a friend, a wife, a relative. I am a listener and a story keeper. Countless women and men have shared their stories of one-off assaults and chronic abuse at my kitchen table. Of rape, incest, verbal assault, and unwanted solicitation. And I’m asking myself, “How have I contributed to the continuation of shaming-into-silence?” To listen to your story with full-hearted compassion and the willingness to look for resources is one thing. But is there more for me to do to ensure that cycles of abuse cease? How do I more capably advocate for healing for victimizers? How can I hone my language to ensure this conversation is being given space (carefully, gently, boldly) and then sacredly held? Did I (and here my heart stutters and my lungs fail with sick fear) do enough to teach my sons the honor due all of humanity? All races, genders, religions?

My story goes well beyond creepy men and handsy boys into a life where it is (desperately) important that I make space for women and men like you to bring some of the hard stuff out into the light of day. By getting what’s on the inside out, in a space that is wise and patient and free of judgment, we can heal hearts and quiet minds.

You, too. BFF can help.

Two in a Five Part Series by Sandra McDonald

I am a woman of a certain age. Not quite a senior. Not quite a young woman. The generation before me talked about nothing. Compelled to silence by strong (read: threatening) hands, the social mores of their day, and the hopelessness that comes from deeply entrenched belief that their story will not make a difference, their inner voice says, “What difference would it make if I did talk about it?” #MeToo is a bit baffling and alarming to the ones who’ve gone before us in building a tidily polite society.

The pendulum is swinging to the extreme opposite of that rigidity. The generation following mine talks about everything. Nothing is private, sacred, or off-limits. #MeToo makes sense and there’s an understanding that paying attention to Self is legitimate, normal, and even useful.

You fit somewhere in this mix, too, hey? For reasons that are good enough for you, you have openly spoken of your trauma, your broken spirit, your fear for the future. For reasons that are good enough for you, you have kept your experiences tucked well away from the eyes and ears of even the people who know and love you best. You wouldn’t dream of speaking them aloud.

Your story is your story. You carry great courage through your day (and you know it takes courage just to get out of bed some mornings!). The goodness that is deep within you is always ready to bring light and hope right out into the open in this dark world. Your humor and uniquely-yours point of view? It’s going to be the thing that helps make the world a softer place for someone else.

You are resilient. Do you know that about yourself? You probably don’t feel resilient, but consider what you’ve come through – and here you are! Still breathing in, breathing out. Sometimes that’s enough. But you’re moving past that, too. You’re loving others. You’re considering loving yourself.

That is a bit of sticking point, right? Loving Self. For some of us, that’s a far off and distant land – the stuff of fairy tales and whimsy. Or, more darkly, impossible: to love Self would mean considering who that Self is. And we don’t think that person is worth knowing at all.

While our newsfeeds explode with stories of assault, intimidating powers-that-be, and stories of intimate violation your own story has been pulled to the forefront of your thinking. You didn’t invite it. But thoughts you’ve avoided for years, forever, are suddenly squarely in your line of sight.

It’s ok if you don’t know what to do with that today. It’s ok if want to talk about things long-silent. Your experience is your own. It’s ok to find someone who is safe and present and selfless to share how you relate to the cultural story. It’s also ok if you don’t want to talk about this yet.

If you are ready to talk about the very complex ways that you have been impacted by trauma (and that trauma may not be sexual in nature), you are not alone. There are listeners, friends, and professionals nearby. Your story is important. A healing and moving-toward-wholeness You will ensure that the generation that comes after us…and the one that comes after them…can focus their energies on other things.

First of a Five Part Series by Sandra McDonald

#MeToo is not a new movement, but it is new to Hollywood, and that means that, for this brief moment, it has grabbed the spotlight, our imaginations, and talk show conversation. The other night I watched an interview between a comedian and a famous actor. The former boldly challenged the latter to account for accusations of inappropriate touch. The latter, panic-eyed and breathy, choked out scripted lines (carefully shaped to reassure that he meant no harm, he doesn’t remember, he’s appalled that anyone could ever think…), decrying the shocking extent of sexual victimization in his industry.

But you, BFF reader, are not surprised by the reach of sexual assault, rape, or inappropriate touch and language. You already know that it can happen to anyone. Anywhere. And it happens at the hands of the powerful, the rich, the frightened, the poor. It is perpetrated by those who know better and who glory in the control they wield. It is perpetrated by those who were victims first, and who, truly, may not know any other way to be. It continues in closets and corners and offices and public spaces. It’s happened to you, and to the people you adore.

Maybe you’ve even contributed to this not-so-secret secret shame? Courage, friend. We all have. If only by our silence, the turning of an avoidant gaze, you and I share in this part of the human condition.

Organizations like BFF have had boots on the ground on these issues for years. They’re doing the good work of making space for conversation, helping us to find the language to shape and understand our own stories, and moving us forward in finding wholeness.

You have a role in this conversation, and in changing our world. If you are a man or a woman who has wounded another, it’s time to make things right. BFF can help with that. If you are a woman or man who has been wounded, will you give yourself permission to consider moving toward healing? There is space here for you, for your story, and for the restoration of your heart, mind, and body.

If you are the loving Other of one of the above, you are not powerless. Be the loving, attentive, and aware listener that your Hurting Person needs. Your part of hearing and helping is no small thing. Feeling inadequate and overwhelmed? That’s ok. This is really big stuff! But you can give to a work that is equipped to provide professional care. You can make it possible for the people who are courageously walking alongside the hurting to keep doing what they’re doing.

It’s ok if you and I are not comfortable putting ourselves out there on the front lines. It’s not ok for you and I to pretend that the people we love, and who love us, have not been marked by this.

Whatever our engagement in this (temporarily?) public conversation, let’s move things forward together. Then, when humanity revisits this conversation in the decades to come, it will have been propelled forward by good work done in our time.

In the age of #metoo, people seem to be left with more questions than answers, and among the most popular question I hear lately is “what is consent”?

Believe it or not, there is a lot of debate around consent lately, especially with the media circus highlighting the revolving door of accusations surrounding people in the public eye. But fear not, consent is actually very simple and I am going to (hopefully) make it even more clear and dispell some of the myths surrounding consent.

First thing’s first, and this is of utmost importance — consent is not about saying “no”, it is about saying “yes”. This is not up for debate. If someone doesn’t tell you to stop, it does not mean you are invited to keep going. Carrying out a sexual act without consent is what is called sexual assault.

According to the Criminal Code of Canada, sexual assault is any sexual activity without consent, regardless of whether there are physical injuries or a weapon used. [Calgary Communities Against Sexual Abuse (CCASA)]

A common myth surrounding the #metoo movement is the claim that victims may be lying about being sexually assaulted. Here is the truth about that one — only two to eight per cent of rapes are falsely reported, the same percentage as for other felonies. [1]

Even if you have a relationship with someone, consent is still required. Sexual assault is not about “stranger danger”, 86 per cent of sexual assault victims know their perpetrator. Also, a person under the influence of drugs or alcohol cannot consent to sex. Further to that, committing sexual assault while under the influence of drugs or alcohol does not excuse the crime.

If a person’s decision-making abilities are impaired by drugs or alcohol, they are not able to consent to sexual activities. Being under the influence of drugs or alcohol is not an excuse to commit a crime; a person is still responsible for their actions no matter how inebriated they are. [Calgary Sexual Health]

Consent is all about communication and that communication needs to happen every time. Giving consent to kiss is not giving permission to have sex. Having sex with someone is not giving permission to have sex every time. Another thing to note is that you can change your mind about consent at any time.

For more resources on consent and sexual assault, check out these resources:

[1] Rape Victim Advocates