learning to believe: a survivor's journey

this piece appears in the e-zine 'femmes surviving toxic masculinity".

i'm undoing you
from my skin
- rupi kaur

it’s hard to admit this, but the truth is: i can sometimes struggle to believe survivors.

i walk in marches. i support people recovering from sexual assault and abuse. i argue with loved ones and family members when they defend rapists like jian giomeshi. i’ve changed my facebook profile photo to a meme that says "we believe you".

but the truth is sometimes, when it counts, i struggle to believe.

it’s a contradiction, isn’t it? to have curated this zine and admit that sometimes, i struggle to believe. it’s hard to admit, but it’s true.


in recent past i was told by someone i love that the relationship i was in was emotionally abusive. i asked for examples. it was hard to understand what i was being told. i’ve had this conversation before. once with a good friend on a side walk in east van. other times with counselors. i’ve been in several emotionally abusive relationships. i’ve learned from navigating my way in and out of these climates that in this kind of turmoil, i feel a sense of home.

i think of my relationship with my father. he tells me that when i was little he used to hold me to his chest and call me sweet baby names. i tell him i don’t remember this. you see, as soon as i started to speak, as i learned to say no, he stopped wanting to spend time with me. when my parents divorced he spent every weekend with my brother from friday to sunday.  he coached his soccer team.

he never spent time with me because i was "too difficult". one time he threw me out of his house with no shoes on because i questioned why my brother was crying, in front of him. i had to walk to my aunt and uncle's house a few blocks away and ask them to drive me home, my bare feet pressing against the dirty floor mat, hands knitted together across my lap, head hanging down.

my mother told me my dad would never apologize. i waited four months, thinking i could wait him out. i was after all, a child. his child. shouldn’t he apologize to me? i hadn’t done anything wrong. but he has had a lifetime of waiting without apology. he will always be able to out wait me.


being treated cruelly by father figures and the boys and masc folks i have dated;  begging for their limited attention; tossing femmes and women under the bus to quell my deep feelings of scarcity - for a long time, these were my survival skills. the climate didn’t allow for much else: being told i was too much. being told i was exaggerating. being told the other two women i lived with, who were also dating my live in partner, weren’t telling him he was hurting them (though they were telling me), and so (he told me) there was no way it could be happening,  as i claimed it was. as if i just imagined the hours of emotional labour i’d provided to all three of us, not to mention to him.

i struggle to believe survivors because i fail to do the most fundamentally important act of believing: i often don’t believe myself. i turn more easily to wishing i didn’t exist than naming that the patriarchy is smothering me, choking me with a pink lace covered pillow and calling it love.


i’m loud and assertive and small. i’ve worn fake eyelashes and spent a solid year of my life in fishnets daily. when i get upset i’m told to be more calm. i’m told people would believe me more easily if i was more gentle in my delivery. when i name abuse i’m told it must be 50/50.

people point to my anger, to my sluttiness, to conflicts they have had with me in the past - all as ways to look away from the possibility that even a femme as tough and loud and fucking hard as i am could be lulled into a crushing smallness.

that in fact, my strength is precisely what makes it so appealing to smother me.

in kink we learn that to submit to someone is to offer your power at their feet. i do this consensually, to have someone see me as fully human. to have someone hold me in all my tender yearning profound desire to be held. abuse is a similar dynamic, but with consent removed. i’m not saying that kink is abusive, i don’t believe that. what i’m saying is that the same thing that would make someone feel blessed and cherished to have me lie on my back eyes staring up at them with pensive sweet anticipation, is what makes people so desperate to take my power away.

most of the men and masculine folks i have been with who were abusive, liked me precisely because i am powerful. they are drawn to my ability to speak up for myself, to name uncomfortable truths, to advocate, protect and nurture.

i feed them. food, medicine, love, time. i grow and pick flowers and mix them into potions and they feel swept away. they feel in awe of my magic. i feed them and at first, they feed me too. they listen. they touch me just so. they create space for me to trust that they will keep holding me in such a tender caring and thoughtful way. but over time, as we come into conflict, as i start to set boundaries, suddenly the touch changes. they begin to wish i was captive. they leave the cage door open, the same food that nourished me just at the entrance, calling me in.

and every time i've been in an abusive dynamic, i’ve walked in and made a home in that cage. at first it feels safe. it feels like love. it feels like holding. it feels like safe keeping. it feels like lying across my fathers chest as a small child.

but eventually the food stops coming, the bars begin to rust and i cut open my hands struggling to undo the locks.

but no matter what, no matter how dire the consequences, i always manage to break free.


coming to believe myself has been one of the most challenging spiritual experiences of my entire life. in coming to believe myself i've found myself no longer in alignment with people i thought would always have my back. i walked away from almost everything that gave me meaning in my life so that i could define that meaning on my owns terms. i have never sacrificed so much as i did to leave my most recent relationship, but i needed to see that while those sacrifices feel enormous today, if i had stayed the sacrifices would have added up to an immense cost. a cost that would have smothered my spirit like a tarnished silver cup snuffing out a flame.

so instead i'm learning to believe.
one day, one breath at a time.

i'm learning that perhaps being alone is more nourishing than being with people who don't believe me, see the good in me and want to see me heal and speak my truth.

and truly, i'm not alone, because i have all of you. and you have me.
for now and always. and my heart is so full of gratitude and anticipation to keep making magic with you.