Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Memory, but Not of the Moonlit Variety

So the problem I find myself coming up against time and time again is this: how to live with these horrific images and memories which are burned into my brain? I'm clean and sober, this week it is four years.

The images remain.

If I'd hoped that getting clean and sober and working a programme would somehow magically erase that shit I'd be sorely disappointed. Sobriety enabled me to remove myself from that situation, and every day sober adds a little distance timewise from that place. But the phase I'm finding tricky is the next phase: the cleanup operation. An oiled seabird rescued from drowning won't survive if it's simply pulled from the sea and dumped on the beach, covered in toxins, its warmth draining away through soiled feathers. Similarly, simply being out of prostitution, even out and clean and sober, isn't enough for me to survive in any meaningful way unless I can get the toxic crap left behind by years of abuse and being sold out of my system. I've spent the last 4 years trying to work out just how to do that because until I can change this, it's always there, smothering me, threatening to engulf me at times when it's particularly raw.

This is my Achilles' heel.

Just to clarify: sobriety gives me a hell of a lot. Every day I'm grateful to be in recovery, out of physical danger, not revisiting groundhog day with the terror and the shame and the degradation of being an addict in prostitution. One of the many things sobriety does do is give me a chance to try and work this thing out somehow.

The thought of speaking this stuff aloud, naming things, putting words to the images and sharing them with another human being scares me. But the thought of not doing, and continuing with this stuff rattling around me head, affecting everything, is more scary still.

I have come, as they say, to a jumping off place.

It's incredibly difficult to tease out the truth of what's really going on in your life at the present moment when the past intervenes and tangles everything into one big thorny knot. Every interaction, every response, is informed by my past.

I guess I'm struggling to feel connected to 'normal' life, although I go through the motions. I feel anything but. Nothing devastates trust or intimacy, nothing separates one quite so much as the experience of extreme pornography - being made to watch it and perform in it - and violence. When people have trampled all your boundaries, it's hard not to create boundaries everywhere afterwards physical and emotional to stay safe. They're not hurting me again! They can't get in, can't get close. But neither can you get out. You get trapped. You feel a sense of loss and loneliness, knowing what you know. The pictures in your head remind you you where you've been, what people are capable of, where these things lead, these things you see people laughing and joking about, defending everywhere as harmless. Because they can't, won't acknowledge the damage - the damage done by pornography, the damage done by prostitution - they won't acknowledge you. Your experience makes you invisible.

They've changed the language, see? if something's harmless, and it's a woman's right to be able to do it, then it stands to reason there can be no casualties of it. You're a victim of the language game and of a system which denies women their human dignity by silencing the victims of the system, the exploited, and framing in their mouths the justifications of the pimps and pornographers - she likes it, she chose it, she is responsible for it. End of, no exceptions. Women who will say things that support the sex industry are allowed to remain, courted by the mainstream, paid to tell their 'saucy' stories in women's magazines and in chatshows.

Women who tell a different story are outcasts. Not only have you been abused but you're told that you weren't, that what happened is ok, merely adult entertainment. I have to tell you, being used and abused as entertainment is inhumane.

People who say 'just get over it' are uttering a curse. I want to scream 'how, exactly?' at them but I don't because often these people just mean shut the fuck up up get on with your life which I do: I am clean and I am sober and I get on with my life. The fact that I am suicidal because of this stuff and struggle with PTSD on a daily basis is a matter of supreme indifference to them as long as everything looks good from the outside.

I refuse to shut the fuck up though.

For me, the images remain, the memories remain, reappearing in dreams, and when triggered in everyday life, often with little warning. Healing requires gentleness and the possibility that when you or I speak our story, it may be believed. Currently our society simply doesn't offer that to the survivor of the sex industry.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

A Hand to Help or to Hit?

Someone asked me the other day how to talk to an old friend of theirs who had been working as a prostitute. They had lost touch for a period but now, with contact re-established, she seems distant, unable to accept love and kindness. She seems to be in denial about what happened to her as a prostitute.

In some ways I am well placed to give an insight into this, yet in other ways I am quite lost. I identify with the woman in question, but I don't always know what I need, what would help me to move on. Sometimes it's hard to know when someone reaches out a hand if they're going to help you or hit you, particularly when past experience of reaching out for help has met with more of the latter.

I can still be very mistrustful of people, men in particular, who profess any affection for me, more so if it is romantically inclined. You get used to the johns giving you lines for their own ends. My first thought can still be, you ain't getting anything from me, fucker. Obviously, it's not an attitude that's conducive to great relationships, so it can be pretty lonely. Sometimes, when things are going well, I can make a conscious effort to avoid thinking like this. But inevitably if I'm tired, or scared, or hurting, its my default. The defences go up.

Being vulnerable with someone is an incredibly brave act, particularly if people have hurt you in the past and preyed on your weaknesses. Positively dangerous. Better, always better, to appear hard and uncaring and unmoved. Opening up, and being honest, requires safety, reassurance, and time. I saw my counsellor for 6 months before I began to open up to him. I had to be as sure as I could be that he wouldn't hurt me, of his integrity, his professionalism, his caring. I tested him for any hints of judgment or assumptions about me for a long long time, and even after all that time, and in that setting, I still doubted, and I still felt unsafe. The fact that his attitude towards me remained consistent both before I opened up and as I let small fragments out allowed me to continue. There's nothing more off putting than someone really pushing you to talk before you feel ready, nor than someone shutting you up or misunderstanding if you do talk. It's something of a tightrope walk.

I couldn't have rushed talking about my past, in part because getting my feelings back after trying to switch them off in prostitution and addiction has been a slow process. And then having the words and saying them out loud are 2 different things. I was afraid that by saying these things, it would somehow make them real. I would have to acknowledge that these painful and frightening things had really happened, and then deal with not only his reaction, but with mine too.

I wasn't sure I could handle it. Taking a proper, sober look at what had happened to me was a terrifying prospect. My mind and the drugs and alcohol had managed to numb me enough while it was happening to get through, just. I managed to distance myself from my body to the point that it didn't feel in any meaningful way to be me. Now looking back at my past, I could feel it. My body varied from numbness to shaking and aching with the flashbacks and memories. Muscles tensed and wobbled. At times I would physically vomit.

I felt that if I spoke, the feelings might overwhelm me and somehow I couldn't cope, wouldn't cope. I'd do something stupid and fuck my life up again. I felt I couldn't look another human being in the eye and say those truths, incredibly hard truths, aloud. I thought he'd hate me. I certainly hated myself. I thought he would judge me, and say that I'd liked it, like the abusers did. I think worst of all for me was the idea that in this man's head I was painting images of myself, horrific images in which I was naked and helpless and humiliated and being used as pure entertainment. I felt as if he could see it for real. Because I felt like I was really back there, it was hard to think he wasn't watching alongside the other men. I also worried at bottom that he wouldn't believe me. My ex constantly put that fear into my head, and it can still rattle around there if I'm not careful.

Denial's a tricky one. To survive as a prostitute, it is necessary to construct a network of lies, even to yourself. If you don't say it'll be different tomorrow, tell yourself that you don't care, that this doesn't matter, doesn't touch you, maybe even that you chose it, then how can you get up in the morning and face the johns all over again. To survive being sold and poked and prodded and fucked and told and made to do disgusting, demeaning things by punters, you have to change the experience, and if you can't change what's happening to you physically, you try to change your perception of it in your head, distance yourself, separate off. Your body's being fucked but you reach for the denial - I'm not really here, this isn't actually happening, they can do what they like to that body but it's not me. Trying to merge the fragmented parts of myself in recovery continues to be a slow and painful process, because it means accepting that the unacceptable happened to me, hurt me.

4 years on and I still at times find myself drained of all positivity and warmth, all connection. I feel separate from myself and from other people, cold, malicious and capable of complete self annihilation. There is a strong pull to self destruct and destroy everything that has meant anything to me along the way. It feels like someone has poured ice into my veins and unplugged my heart. I want to push people away, 'though I know when this passes I'll regret it.

These episodes occur when something triggers me and puts me back into my past. I think that underneath this savageness is a whole world of hurt and pain and more loss and sadness than I could have imagined possible before I experienced violence and prostitution.

I hope that there will always be people who will take the time and have the patience to get beyond the damage to the woman inside. I feel privileged that someone asked my advice. Sometimes it's hard to know what would help, or if you're in the position of trying to help someone who's exited prostitution, how to help them. I guess I'd just say that a little love and patience go a long way.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Despicable Me

I was listening to the radio the other day and there was a piece about soldier who shot two of his comrades as a result of his post traumatic stress disorder after they'd been drinking. They were talking about how PTSD can make the sufferer re-experience past traumas. Their messing about had apparently triggered off for him the experience of being under attack in a warzone. So he killed them.

I have been diagnosed with PTSD some years back as a result of the abuse I suffered as a prostitute and battered woman. I remember my therapist saying to me that soldiers often suffer with it, and that people who experience severe trauma may develop it. Symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, and triggers.

I have all of these.

But what the expert on the radio said which really caught my attention was that soldiers who've been in conflict find it hard to adjust to civilian life afterwards, left with all those horrific images of the atrocities they've witnessed emblazoned on their minds. And so they may wish to return to active duty and a combat setting, because there they will be around other men who are experiencing what they are experiencing and who understand.

And there in that one sentence which I caught by chance on the radio I found an answer to 4 years of guilt and shame and confusion. Since exiting prostitution I have at times felt a pull back towards it, in particular when people have refused to help me, or have told me that I chose it ergo I must have enjoyed it. There's nothing worse than having someone explain to you that you're wrong about how you feel, about how things were, that you somehow misunderstood. I could never understand why I would feel pulled back towards something which I found so horrific, and had come to the conclusion that it must be my self destructive urge, which is strong at times.

But what was said about the soldiers made perfect sense to me. Since exiting prostitution, I have found my experiences invalidated at every level, dismissed or denied. I still find, 4 years on, that almost without exception (and there have been very few exceptions, even amongst so called mental health professionals), I have not found anyone who understood what it is to prostitute oneself. Most don't even try.

So the only place I have ever felt truly understood was amongst other prostitutes.

There is not other situation which parallels prostitution, none that attract so little understanding, so much judgment and hatred and scorn. If you're beaten as a prostitute, you deserve it. And if you're raped... can you even rape a prostitute? Surely that just means not paying, and she obviously likes sex well enough or she wouldn't choose to be there. I've been told I chose all this. Well, Angel, what did you get out of that? Take responsibility for what happened to you! I don't fear taking responsibility for past wrongs but I draw the line at being told I wanted this stuff. Nobody chooses rape.

The prostitute stands condemned, both by those who despise her for what she does and by those who argue so generously (on her behalf - they wouldn't dream of doing it themselves) for her right to be an abused woman, to be a prostitute.

It's a desperate place to find yourself.

There was no suggestion by the expert or indeed anyone on Radio 4 that a soldier might try to get back to active service because he enjoyed witnessing the atrocities that had triggered his PTSD and so disconnected him from the general civilian population. Where is this compassion and understanding for the prostituted woman? Why does she among all people get blamed again for being hurt, and told once again that she chooses this because she likes it? There is a complete lack of understanding of choicelessness, addiction, hopelessness, and the trauma that results from being fucked and used and abused and treated as less than human. As a prostitute I was a human fuck doll, the only difference being that I was expected to enthuse over the abuse and take pleasure in it. A blow up doll would've been treated more gently.

It's not so surprising there's a pull to go back, looked at like that. A woman who has been prostituted is a woman who does not belong. Damaged as she is by the experience, she is, simply Unacceptable, a truth too dangerous to handle. If women used in the sex industry don't actually like it, it casts a harsh shadow of doubt across every person's 'right' to wank over women in lapdancing clubs, magazines, videos and on tv, and society isn't prepared for that to happen. So we are used and then discarded, an inconvenience, the human waste generated by a system of perpetual inequalities and abuses.

Being human garbage? Now that's rubbish.