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A Very Merry Christmas and the Unforgettable Penguin Massacre: A Guide to Surviving Christmas

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While babysitting my friend’s children, I decided to get into the “festive spirit” by doing some Christmas baking. Since the kids are still young, I decided to aim for something easy and manageable. I went to Pinterest, my usual source of inspiration and saw marshmallow penguins listed under easy kids Christmas baking. “Perfect!” I thought, “the kids will love these and they are super simple!” Staring at the image of these nicely presented penguins I got started, with baby on my hip and the other little helping to dip the marshmallows in the chocolate. What ensued from my grand plans was quite…well, distressing…. what was meant to be an endearing colony of perfectly decorated marshmallow penguins ended up being a scene from a Pixar/Horror movie project gone wrong! I’ll let you see for yourself:

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I posted this picture on social media and got quite a few laughs…I still chuckle thinking about it. But in some ways this Christmas baking mishap sums up my overall experience of Christmas. The idea of Christmas, I mean, the picture perfect idea of Christmas, gives me fuzzy feelings with nostalgic memories of picking out a Christmas tree, eating mince pies and getting up at 00:01 to open my presents from Santa (since it was officially Christmas Day!) I do have some positive memories associated with Christmas but I also struggle around this time of year.

Christmas can be hard for many people. In my case the actual day is associated with a very traumatic experience for which I am still recovering, the holiday season also triggers feelings of loneliness and depression; while the festive cheer, talk of family and expectations to be happy are suffocating. Each year I try to do something to reclaim Christmas for myself and I surround myself with my Canadian family to help with the loneliness, despite that, it remains a really hard, triggering time of year. It’s a bit like the penguin massacre, my epic Pinterest fail; the vision of what it should be does not live up to reality. Slowly I am trying to make room for my hopes for a warm enjoyable celebration and the realities of my own Christmas experience this means allowing myself time for enjoyment and room to grieve. As with each year, I have make a Christmas plan anticipating what I may need to cope and feel supported. This involves spending time with loved ones in Canada; making time to grieve; arranging appointments and check in’s with people, planning for alone time, taking care of myself physical, mentally and spiritually; finding opportunities to laugh, making myself a stocking…the list goes on. Making a detailed plan can be helpful if the holidays are hard for you and of course this looks different for every person, but I thought I would leave you with a guide to surviving the holidays in case you struggle too. And if you are not someone who struggles with the holidays…that is great, I am glad, perhaps this guide may be helpful for a loved one or it may bring more awareness. Whether Christmas is generally an enjoyable time of year, one you dread or somewhere in between, my hope is that your heart would experience peace in some little (or big) way this coming week.

The helplines are specific to my city but the tips still apply.

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P.S. for those of you wondering about my travels, an update is to come. I am now back in Canada and will be posting written and photo reflections in the coming weeks now that I have time to process and share. It was just too hard to do on the road.

Life with PTSD

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The Pinnacle List

A friend on Facebook has been doing the 22-day Push-up Challenge to raise awareness for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Her efforts are simple yet significant. Seeing her daily posts has inspired me to do my own speaking out about this issue. I write this blogpost in the hopes that it can shed light on the issue of PTSD by providing a relatable description of what it is like to live with the condition for people wanting to learn more about it or for others struggling. Trigger warning: the following refers to sexual violence, living with flashbacks and related mental health issues.

I could tell you all the medical facts, signs and symptoms of PTSD but you can read that in a book or online, I want to tell you want it feels like. I have been living with PTSD much of my life. I developed it as a result of ongoing childhood sexual abuse and consequent rape as an adult.

Living with PTSD means dealing with flashbacks on a daily basis. If I was to try to describe these flashbacks, I’d compare them to being surrounded by those gaudy, bright billboards like the ones in Times Square. On these neon boards, for all to see, replay the most terrifying and vulnerable moments of your life. You try to carry on with your day, trying to forget about those moments but the billboards are there, replaying it all in full living colour (in HD, I might add!). Your try to get away from the billboards but they follow you around, perfectly situated in your line of sight, always projecting those images onto your daily interactions with others. It reminds you of the shame you felt, the terror of that moment and how vulnerable you were….And still are?!

In complete sensory and emotional overload you try to turn the boards off but you can’t find the switch. The replay, like a vivid nightmare, blurs and distorts reality. In fact, it’s so real, it’s hard to remember that the billboards are only in your imagination. You forget what they are showing are only replays; instead it feels like you are being traumatized over and over and over and over and over and over and over……again. The flashbacks aren’t just visual though; all your senses are engaged. Your whole body feels the memory as your brain re-experiences the trauma through the same neural pathways.

When I have flashbacks it actually feels like I am being attacked—as if the perpetrator’s body and his hands are there, on me, sometimes I also hear sounds or recalls smells…its disgusting. All this comes together to create an experience where physiologically, there is little difference between the actual trauma and the re-experiencing of it. I have to fight to remind myself that, ”I am safe, its just a memory…” Logically I know this but that knowledge only adds to my frustration at not being able to convince my brain and body otherwise. I wish I could stop having these flashbacks and though I have developed ways to cope I still deal with them EVERY day. Sometimes I try to avoid situations that trigger these memories but it limits my life. It’s like trying to cross a mine field not knowing where to step, just waiting for a mine to blow up in your face but hoping desperately it won’t.

My body is in a constant state of hyperarousal. Hyperarousal for me feels like that moment before you go over the edge of a rollercoaster or the feeling when you brace yourself in a car accident or near miss. Your whole body ramps up ready for action, your stomach jumps out of your body. Take that feeling, bottle it and let it ferment for a couple decades and that’s what hyperarousal feels like in my body. I can actually feel my nervous system vibrating. It’s exhausting! The nervous system is not meant to be stuck in the flight, fight or freeze response long term. But mine is. It puts stress on my physical health manifesting through chronic pain, fatigue and digestive problems. This only adds to frustration with a body that seems to constantly betray me.

The memories I battle, the times I was sexually abused, the rape; they are things I want to forget, it hurts…I have no metaphors or comparisons to describe that pain. I want to move on…oh, I cannot tell you how much I want to move on! Sometimes people mistake my symptoms of PTSD as proof that I want to live in the past, want to wallow in self-pity. People can get impatient…initially they are sympathetic, making lots of promises of support but when you do not “progress” fast enough, have a few too many bad days or aren’t able to “just quit being so negative”, those people get frustrated, they feel helpless, they get weary. I don’t blame them. For them hearing about the abuse for the umpteenth time gets tiring, it gets old…fast. You explain that you have had a flashback and to them its nothing new….you have them all the time! But for me, it is new. It is real and it feels like an emergency! When I say I have had a flashback or a nightmare, what I actually mean is… I was just raped, assaulted, abused all over again!

Yes, there’s no question, I want to move on. That’s why I get up each day, hope kind of drags me along somehow. Hope that I can live my life well, be free to pursue a bright future, interact with people without fear, shame or distrust. Hope that one day I can spit in the face of sexual violence and plan for life without this. You see, I have big plans. Plans to fight injustice, plans to have my own family, plans for world domination, you know…the usual! I have even begun walking out some of these plans. Still, I spend hours imagining the things I want to do with my life. I guess, my imagination has become are great tool for survival when it is not working against me!

I try to be as creative as I can in finding coping tools. I go through phases with what works; everything from weighted blankets or playdough to watching comedies or playing with cute animals or equally cute kids! I have also had some amazing supports, walking with me along the way. I have friends who have become family, other survivors who just…get it, and some incredible professionals who have gone above and beyond to fight alongside me; they have reminded me to keep going, they have listened, cried and laughed with me….even in the most inappropriate of times!! Haha!

Living with PTSD is hard, I can’t and won’t give you a watered down version of its challenges. It is dark, it is disgusting and it is messy…sometimes even though I have come so far, I think about giving up. I lead a fairly normal life—I go to work, I study at university and I am involved in all sorts of local/international community work. That’s what most people see, and it’s a testament to how far I have come! Yet I live in a dichotomy of strength and weakness, past and present, hope and hopelessness. They don’t cancel each other out, they just are. I have learned to live, even thrive, despite PTSD but it doesn’t make it a single bit easier. Despite that, I would never trade who I was when I first started getting help to who I am now. I have come so far but I hope for so much more. I don’t know what the “end” result of this healing journey is; all I know is that Hope calls my name. It wakes me up from my usual nightmares and tells me to get up and keep going…and…I guess, I do!

If you or your loved one is struggling with PTSD…I am so sorry… It sucks, doesn’t it? I hope you can get help, really good help…the kind of help you deserve. I hope you find yourself surrounded by people cheering you on. I hope you can be gentle with yourself..I hope you can muster up the strength to keep going. I hope you find ways to overcome this, to thrive, to enjoy life. Let’s hope together!

 

First Stop…Philippines

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I am sitting in the airport in Manila after a lovely rest in their new capsule hotel! It feels good to have a moment to decompress and reflect upon the past couple weeks here in the Philippines. It has been a contrastingly heartwarming and heartbreaking experience.

IMG_8823Tondo, Manila

While staying with friends in the impoverished area of Tondo, Manila we took part in some outreach programs for children and families living on the streets of Ermita (red light district) and Divisoria. It’s hard to fully describe the sensory overload of that area; the stench of rotting garbage and feces mixed in with the suffocating pollution of the city. Yet in the midst of this stench and filth, countless children sleep; sometimes on a piece of cardboard, sometimes on the wet, muddy concrete; almost always huddled together in a comatose state of sleep with the aid of glue or from many nights of having to block out the sounds of the streets. Waking these children up for breakfast is one of the most sacred experiences I have had in my life.

kids sleeping philippines

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Photo credit Grace Smyth

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As the children sleepily emerge, I am faced with the sight of dozens of children; some clothed, others naked, many covered in infected sores, all caked in filth, gathering around the soup pot, ready to eat. Little children carrying babies, toddlers barely able to walk wobbling across the busy street, the sight of this is a snapshot of everything wrong with this world. Yet as always in the midst of excruciating darkness, hope still remains.

Precious* is a perfect example of that hope, she is a 12 year old girl who came along with us to serve breakfast. As we hopped out the tricycle Precious pointed to a heap of children sleeping and said, “That’s where I used to sleep”. I was speechless. I had the pleasure of staying in the Tondo home where Precious now lives. A family in the “projects” in Manila took her in. After the feeding program Precious wept explaining how her life has been transformed since being adopted into this family, explaining she see’s her “old self” in her friends who still live on the street. As she cried, in my social work head, I worried that returning to the streets to help serve breakfast was further traumatizing Precious, yet this was a girl determined to see her friends and help them in small ways now that she had gotten help, how can you argue with that? It was inspiring to see the way Precious’ new family had taken her in despite their own financial struggles. It made me think about the potential of community fostering in developing countries instead of initialized orphanages. I have read some material about this happening in a slum area in Cambodia. I will have to read up on it!

The injustice of poverty rears its head in many ugly ways here. Bono coined the term “stupid extreme poverty” “where in the world of plenty, a child can die for lack of food in its belly.” (2004) The term is fitting for many living in poverty here.

In the local government hospital children lie in rusty beds with make shift IV’s and oxygen masks. Jo Jo, a six-month-old boy was screaming in his mother’s arms when we walked onto the ward. His mom was distressed, unable to console him and clearly ill herself. I work with and spend time with lots of children and babies; you learn to recognize what each cry means. I had not heard Jo Jo’s cry before though its meaning was unmistakable; it was a distressed cry that went beyond the usual hungry or fussy cry; it was unnerving. As his mother passed him into my arms I saw his little mouth trying to suck the air while his mother hurriedly put a small scoop of formula into a bottle and watered it down to nothing. His mother explained that Jo Jo had bacterial meningitis but that she was going to take him home because she could not afford the treatment. I asked the translator how much the treatment cost – about 60 CAD. I stood there with a hole burning in my pocket knowing that I had the local equivalent to that in my wallet. I have read books on poverty, learned about how throwing money at situations isn’t the answer, how going in with a white saviour complex only creates more damage…. and I agree, but then I found myself standing before another human being in need of a mere 60 CAD. How can I stand there with that money in my pocket and not help? I would give that money in a heartbeat to a friend, why not to Jo Jo and his mom? What if by giving money I wasn’t satisfying some white saviour complex and instead was correcting the injustice of stupid poverty where in a world of plenty a child can die for the sake of $60? A few of us ended up paying for Jo Jo’s treatment and were able to provide funding for another baby as well. I did so through a third party, the local organization who works in the hospital. They have a fund to help families in need. Yesterday while working with the hospital program, I was able to visit Jo Jo; he looks like a different child! His mother had a peaceful smile on her face as she held sleeping Jo Jo. His mother explained in broken English that they were being discharged, as Jo Jo was well enough to go home! How is it that only 60 CAD can make such a difference, that it can mean life or death for some while it is pocket change for others? I learn about injustice and poverty in the classroom, I watch documentaries and read books about it but when holding the embodiment of that injustice in my arms it changes everything.

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Jo Jo and his mother, ready to go home. Used with permission

*Name changed to protect privacy

 

 

BSW Practicum: More than meeting the requirements

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From July 2016 to January 2017, I’ll be traveling around the world as part of a practicum for my Bachelors Degree in Social Work. I will be learning about community approaches to tackling sexual violence in South Africa, Nepal and Malaysia. Additionally, in typical Jane-style-travel Ill be making a lot of stops along the way including: Vietnam, Cambodia Laos, Thailand, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Kenya, Qatar, India and the Philippines.

This experience provides an opportunity for the following:

  1. Learn from local survivors and advocates who are addressing sexual violence within their communities.
  2. Collaborate at a grassroots level to train communities to support trauma survivors and prevent sexual violence.
  3. Gain an understanding of trauma across various cultures.

This blog will be a space to share stories, moments of learning and reflections upon this experience. I will try to post reflections on each stop along the way.

C is For Canada – Sexual Violence in our Communities

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Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Painting

I was tempted to write about Cambodia for this post. I love Cambodia and have spent a significant amount of time researching and trying to understand sexual violence there. Despite my love of Cambodia, I decided to focus a little closer to home, Canada. It is easy to focus on countries that seem less “advanced” or “poorer” than our own, it creates a false sense of security but we need to wake up to the realities of sexual violence in our homes, schools, faith communities and towns. Sexual violence is everywhere, and while it is uncomfortable to acknowledge this, its critical we do.

Canada is waking up, at least a little. Recent publicity surrounding people like Jian Gomeshi and Bill Cosby, seems to have opened a large can of worms. People were shocked when information was first brought to light…how could such a respected and influential person do these things, he seems so nice! Wouldn’t it be so much easier if predators looked like predators? Remember the child catcher in the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? If only all predators looked like that, we would be so much safer ! Unfortunately, sexual offenders look very normal, they don’t have long pointy noises or offer children candy from their white vans. Instead, predators look like normal people, because on the surface they are.

I want to give you a couple Canadian statistics about sexual abuse and sexual assault.

1 in 3 girls, and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused as a child.

1 in 5 women in Canada are sexually assaulted.

90% of survivors of sexual abuse/assault were attacked by an acquaintance,friend, partner or relative.

Source: Saskatoon Sexual Assault and Information Centre 

I want you to do something really courageous.

Take a second to look over these stats again, think of those you love, can you picture their faces? These stats don’t represent strangers they represent your loved ones. 1 in 3 girls you know and love are, or have, experienced sexual abuse…1 in 5 women you know will or have already been sexually assaulted…and chances are you may also know the person assaulting them. Friends, sexual violence thrives in secrecy and isolation. I know its painful to imagine that people we care about go through this. I know it is terrifying to think that our friends, relatives, partners, and leaders are responsible but please, I urge you, be brave enough to acknowledge sexual violence in your own community. Until we are willing to confront this reality, sexual violence will continue to thrive.

If you would like resources or information about sexual violence in your area (whether Canada or beyond) feel free to contact me.

B is for Bolivia – Child Sexual Assault

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B is for Bolivia

In his book The Locust Effect, Gary Haugen sheds light on the horrors of sexual violence in Bolivia:

“In [Bolivia], a country of 10 million people, where tens of thousands of sexual assaults against children occur every year, from 2000 to 2007 the criminal justice system was able to convict fewer than three perpetrators of child sexual assault per year. If you sexually assault a child in Bolivia, you are more likely to die slipping in the shower or bathtub than you are of going to jail for your crime.” – The Locust Effect

According to a recent UN study, Bolivia has the second-highest level of sexual abuse in all Latin American countries. By some estimates, less than one percent of child sexual assault cases actually end with a sentence.

Things are changing though, here is Yulisa’s story courtesy of International Justice Mission

The ABC’s of Sexual Violence Around the World

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Woman in Herat, Afghanistan via Shutterstock.com
Woman in Herat, Afghanistan via Shutterstock.com

Well it is officially Fall! After taking the summer off, its back to blogging!

This year I want to go on a little journey around the world highlighting the different forms of sexual violence that women and girls face every day. There are many “hot spots” around the world when it comes to sexual violence but the plight of females in many countries goes unnoticed. I hope I can highlight some of these. As you come on the journey with me I want to make two things clear. 1. Sexual violence whatever form or perceived extremity is horrific, playing comparison games is futile and cruel. 2. Sexual violence is a global, local and familial problem for us all. We need each other if we are to end it. On that note…lets start at the beginning….A!

A is for Afghanistan – Rape and Punishment

Rape and domestic violence are major problems in Afghanistan today. An article for the New York Times stated that “Up to 90 percent of women in Afghanistan face domestic abuse, usually by a close relative. Although this is technically illegal in Afghanistan, the law is rarely enforced due to customs that treat women as the property of men and allow men to do with “their” women as they please.” The article also noted that domestic abuse and rape often go hand in hand. The Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) Law in Afghanistan makes sexual violence illegal. However, the law is rarely enforced and some of the nations governmental figures accuse the law of being anti-muslim because it criminalizes practices such as forced & child marriage. (UN Report)

One of the first successful rape cases just last month saw a man sentenced to prison for 20 years for raping a 10 year old girl. Though this case was seen as a success, it did not come without its challenges. After this 10 year old girl was raped, she had to be protected from her family after it was discovered that her own family were planning to kill her in the name of honour. Honour killings are a common response to rape in families -“rape victims are themselves murdered by their families in honour killings because male members of the family see the lack of chastity in their women as an object of deep shame.” Source Until 2009 rape was not even illegal. Instead, rape victims were often prosecuted under Sharia law for adultery and zina (a term for unlawful intercourse including non-martial intercourse). Women for Afghan Women (WAW) who sheltered this girl has a video outlining some of the issues faced by Afghan women both in Afghanistan and North America.