I am not every negative thing that has happened to me or been said about me. I am a patchwork girl. I am pieced together from fragments of memories, experiences, and stories. I have been created by all the people I’ve ever loved or hated. And all the people who have loved and hated me.
In my classes, I am currently working with my students to defuse the danger of the single story. We are watching the TED talk, The Danger of a Single Story by Chimamnda Ngozi Adichie:
In it she says,
“The consequence of the single story is that it robs people of their dignity.”
This idea that having a single story told about us by people in power is an idea that still touches me deeply. Right now I am moved by this idea because I am still struggling to come to work each day and see someone who told a single story about me, consequently robbing me of my dignity. Despite this, it was actually by accident that this unit came about. I was talking to my students about the shooting that happened in Florida and many of them discussed how the outcome would have been different if the shooter were of a different race. But, they also, perpetuated the single story that all school shooters are “rich, depressed, white guys.” This, to me, was a rich teaching opportunity. Because, as I said, I am about teaching humanity. If my students learn nothing else from me, I hope they learn how to be critical thinkers with big hearts. I knew they wouldn’t get that if I let them believe in a single story without questioning their thought processes and how they, themselves, have also been subject to the danger of the single story.
As I am asking my students to write about a single story that has been attributed to them, it occurred to me that perhaps it might be cathartic for me to complete my own assignments: to not only write out the single stories told about me but the stories that really make up the mosaic of who I am.
The Single Story of Mental Illness:
As someone with mental illness, I often become my mental illness in the eyes of others. I’ve talked in depth about this here. But, it isn’t just the medical community telling this story. This is the story told about me in my workplace now, as well. It is incredibly disheartening to know that now, every absence, every tear, every bad day is a possible sign of suicidal ideation. I have been robbed of my dignity. I am no longer a person but a walking illness.
“To insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience”
Rewriting the Mental Illness Narrative:
By seeing me as only my depression, my coworkers are depriving themselves of the possibility to see me as so much more. I am a talented teacher (despite walkthroughs that might suggest otherwise; I don’t play by their rulebook). I challenge my students. I am the go-to person for technology (though that skill I kept hidden for a long time). I am a research guru (if you want it found, I can find it). I am incredibly well-read, if you need recommendations for books to read or articles to go with a lesson or essays to use as mentor texts, I’m your woman. I am incredibly creative. I am exceptional at making games that go with lessons which would otherwise be incredibly bland/boring. My brain makes connections that other brains often don’t, probably, in part because of my mental illnesses. This does, however, mean that I also sometimes miss the obvious. But, that is a minor price to pay for all the awesome ways my brain works.
The Single Story of Weight:
When I was at my heaviest, I was close to 200 pounds. This is not something I’ve ever actually “said out loud” or posted in a public forum. To put that in context, I am 5′ 3″ (almost 5′ 4″) so the ideal weight for my height is somewhere in the 120-130 range. At this weight, my doctor “diagnosed” me as obese. It went on my insurance claim.
I don’t suppose I ever really realized my weight was a “single story” before having to go to the doctor for something completely not weight related. No matter what I went in for, no matter how clear I made my symptoms, and no matter how textbook my symptoms were to a specific illness, it was always, “I’d like to test you for diabetes.” This was solely because of my weight and never had anything to do with my presenting symptoms. When I weighed 120, which was most of my adult life, that never happened to me. Now that I am back down to 130, again, it isn’t ever a weight thing. Now, I’ve reverted back to being the psychosomatic case. There really isn’t any winning in the medical community, it seems. But then, I’m telling a single story about them now, aren’t I?
Rewriting the Narrative about Weight:
Even though I’m no longer at that weight and it is not my story anymore, it was a part of my story so I’m including it; also, it is a part of many people’s story right now which makes it an important topic to discuss. The single story of weight tends to mean that people aren’t genuinely seen. I was most definitely invisible when I was heavier. That was kind of the point for me. But, it still came with challenges. I knew that if I ever had anything really serious wrong with my health it would be missed, because they weren’t looking in the right places. I wasn’t a person. Society deemed me ugly, fat, insignificant, lazy, etc. I missed out on jobs I was incredibly qualified for and I genuinely believe this was part of that narrative.
All of this meant that people failed to see and acknowledge some of the more beautiful aspects of getting to know me, because you can’t get to know someone that you don’t see. Society couldn’t have been more wrong about me. I am ambitious. I am well-educated. I am worthy. I am beautiful (in the, we are all beautiful way). My weight doesn’t take any of those things away; it doesn’t make me any less valid as a human being. I am no less worthy of love, though, I’ll tell you… I didn’t receive much love when I was heavier. Part of the attention I have received after losing weight is what drove me to therapy in the first place. Men were pushing my boundaries again, trying to entitle themselves to my body. It freaked me out. But, I’m not letting that be my narrative either. I’m painfully learning how to assert boundaries in my current body.
The Single Story of Sexuality:
This single story actually has two parts: the rape victim (the one who asked for it) and the lesbian. As the rape victim, people ask me what I was wearing the night I was raped (though this happened many times, one time was more violent than others and causes me more challenges now). In fact, I have a photo, I can show you:
Nothing provocative but it literally does not matter what I was wearing. I was not asking for it; no one asks to be raped. But there is a very clear narrative about the rape victim and if I were to tell anyone I would inevitably be met with either pity or disbelief. In the category of pity, the person believed me but their response still felt dehumanizing. It made me feel even more disempowered, though I know they meant well. In the case of disbelief, it usually came in the form of blame: well you asked for it, you must have wanted it, maybe you consented but you didn’t remember. But, here is a fact for you, if I was drugged and too drunk to consent, it was not consent.
The other side of the sexuality narrative is that I’m a lesbian. Surprisingly, these two parts go together. Do you know how many men I have encountered who’ve said that they could convert me with their fantastic penis? Apparently, I’ve just not had the right phallus for my yoni. I do wonder sometimes if this is part of why I was raped that night; did he think because I was a lesbian I was a threat? Did he think he would convert me? Was he angry at me because I got more women? Did he just want to exert power over me because I didn’t love men? Was he trying to make me forget the woman I was in love with at the time? I know these thoughts might be a bit irrational but they have occurred to me because this is the society we live in… still! It is 2018 and I am still asked, “so who is the man and who is the woman?” I’m still questioned on how I have sex. I am still objectified if I walk down the street holding hands with another woman. I can only imagine what kind of images are going through certain people’s minds as they leer at us together.
Rewriting the Sexuality Narrative:
I am not a rape victim anymore, or at least, I’m working my way toward something different. I am working toward becoming a survivor. I was not asking for it and though I am still haunted by the events of that night, that event does not define me. If I let that define me then I let him keep the power. And, I cannot. I am working to take my life back. I am still working to re-write that narrative. Despite being dehumanized I am a human who deserves dignity that was not afforded to me that night. I am not to blame. My body may have reacted in ways that I wish it wouldn’t have, but that doesn’t make it my fault. I don’t deserve to be disgusted with myself. I deserve to feel loved and safe. I deserve to feel like I can be touched in a way that isn’t about power and that isn’t about sex.
And maybe that love and safety and touch comes in the form of a lesbian relationship. I have just started dating again and trying to find some of the passion and compassion I have lost along the way in life. But, a part of this is accepting that I am way more than how I have sex. I am way more than just a “guy” or a girl in a same sex union. I am someone with wants and needs and desires. I am not an object. Deep down, I am a romantic. I have within me a deep well of love, just waiting to be tapped back into. Who I love and how I love them is my choice. I decide that and I own it. Because my love is just as beautiful as any other form of love. How can love be anything but beautiful?
A Plethora of other Single Stories:
The sad thing is… I could keep going on and on. I have been the domestic violence victim. I am the almost mother. I am the quirky (dark and twisted) artist. I’m the introvert, the bitch, the mean girl. I’m the girl with scars. I’m the tattooed black sheep. I’m the former pageant girl who had an eating disorder. I’m the girl whose body was used as a sex toy for most of her young life. I am a survivor of a dysfuntional, abusive family. I am the daughter of a narcissist. I am the daughter of an alcoholic. I am all these “negative” things, sure. But, I am so, so much more.
I am the woman who was strong enough to leave a man she once loved, because his “love” was painful. And I knew that wasn’t the way love was supposed to feel. I am someone who has carried life inside me and seen that life perish. I have experienced a pain so real and raw I thought I could die. But, I am the woman who came out on the other side of that pain. I am the artist who creates with others in mind. I am the woman who uses art to give voice to things that I and others struggle to voice. I am a woman who has faced her demons, time and time again, and not yet backed down. I am a woman with depth. I’m quiet because I’m lost in thought. I am dreaming big dreams. I am imagining a better world, a peaceful world. I am scarred but my scars are a topography of stories. I am the woman who has the strength to keep choosing to live even when the pain threatens to take me down. I have never been the quintessential pageant girl but I did buy into the skinny culture. Yet, I have learned to appreciate and love my body for what it is, what it has been, and what it does for me. I am confident. I am grateful to claim the label, yogi. My body is strong despite any past attacks on it and any present illnesses. My body may have been used as a sex toy but I get to reclaim the power that was taken from me. I get to choose who loves and touches my body now. I am the woman who is brave enough to say, my corporeality, my passion isn’t something that can be taken. My zeal can not be, could not be taken from me. I was a child who had dreams despite being consistently hurt. Maybe my dreams were a gift of that hurt. When my body was used, I would drift off to space. Become weightless. I was a child who wanted to be an astronaut. I am now a woman who wants to make a difference. I may have come from a dysfunctional family, with an alcoholic father and a narcissistic mother, and this may have made me codependent. But, I am also more resilient because I came from that family. I am a problem solver. I am a critical thinker. I know how to read people. I know how to nurture. I am intensely caring and compassionate. I am intensely loyal. Yes, I have to learn boundaries on that care, compassion, and loyalty, but it’s there already and that’s something I’m proud of. I am proud that I am still surviving and fighting despite all the negative stories threatening to flatten my experience.