Extremely Abbreviated Description of One Female’s Pain

1

Last year, a doctor’s aide took my vitals. I sat at ease in a chair, until she told me matter-of-factly that my heart was beating fast enough to warrant a trip to the emergency room.

Had I exerted myself before going to the doctor, she wanted to know. I hadn’t. The hospital where this doctor was located was out of the way, inaccessible by public transit, so I’d taken an uber to the front door. I’d even taken the elevator to the neurology clinic, shamefully choosing not to walk the two flights of stairs from the main entrance.

“No,” I responded.

“You’re lucky we caught this. I’ll have the doctor talk to you right away.”

2

The only reason anyone caught my heart abnormality was because of my headaches. They’re migraines, technically. I’ve always gotten them, at least since I was a little kid. I’d long ago given up on doing anything about them. But after I had one so bad that I fainted and wound up in the hospital with a skull fracture, I was forced to go through the motions of seeking the cause of the pain. I soon gave up on finding the cause – rather, my doctors soon gave up. So I sought medications that might at least relieve the pain. That’s why I was at a neurology clinic getting my vitals checked.

It feels tired to write about being a woman with headaches, but that doesn’t make it any less true. And it is tiring to be a woman with headaches. I am tired of it.

3

I write too often about fracturing my skull. I reference it compulsively. Only when reading Leslie Jamison’s essay on female pain did I admit to myself why. Jamison quotes from a memoir by Lucy Grealy, a woman who had childhood cancer and whose face was disfigured by it, cause for the title of Grealy’s book: Autobiography of a Face. In it, Grealy writes, “I was excited by the idea that something really was wrong with me.”

“Grealy had been craving the identity-locus of damage even before it happened to her; and was happy, as a little girl, when trauma first arrived,” writes Jamison.

For the first few days in the hospital after fracturing my skull, I was torn between fear of dying and self-pity. These are related feelings: self-pity follows from awareness that one is too young to experience fear of dying, and this acknowledgement often strengthens that fear, goading a person to think of all that she will miss should she die.

For me, this manifested as yelling deliriously at a nurse. “You don’t understand, I can’t have a head injury!” I screamed, trying to keep her in my field of vision despite being strapped into a too large neckbrace, which forced me to look straight up at the white ceiling if I wanted to minimize the cutting pain the brace caused as it sliced into my too small, too thin collarbone.

“I finally have a job where I need my brain” I yelled, no longer able to see her.

When the nurse reappeared in my line of vision, I told her to let me check myself out of the emergency room. If I left, I reasoned, the injury would cease to exist. If I was someone not in a hospital, I would no longer be someone who needed to be in a hospital.

I lost consciousness before I could hear her response. Maybe she didn’t respond at all.

I soon acclimated to my new existence as someone confined to a hospital bed, someone who understood how to use a bedpan and who no longer cringed at the needle stuck into her arm every four hours by a blurry amalgam of nurses, made indistinguishable in the darkness of late sterile nights when she, or he, woke me from sleep to prick me for another blood sample. A new feeling came over me, not unconnected to fear or dying or self-pity, but distinct: I felt grateful. Something very bad had happened to me, something no one could deny was terrible. I had a traumatic brain injury. I might not recover. The doctors told me I had a brain hemorrhage. They told me that my spinal fluid could flood the space between my spinal cord and my skull, and that this could kill me.

I did not cease to fear for my life, or wish I hadn’t gotten hurt. But given that I had, I felt precisely what Grealy felt. I was excited by the idea that something really was wrong with me.

4

I know better than that. I know I should be what Jamison calls a “post-wounded” woman. “Post-wounded women know that postures of pain play into limited and outmoded conceptions of womanhood,” she writes, and it’s true.  I fear my parents will read this essay and misunderstand me. That they’ll be hurt, or horrified, because they haven’t read Jamison’s essay, or think my excitement about being an authentically unwell, tragic woman compares in magnitude to my resentment and self-pity about my health. It doesn’t.

And yet…

And yet, I have a new wound; one I could be accused of choosing to prolong for the sake of pity. Ever since fracturing my skull, I’ve become paralyzed at the thought of making an appointment with a new doctor, or keeping up with the old.

I managed it for a year or two. I saw the neurologist, who gave me three different sets of pills for my headaches. I saw the ENT specialist, who explained to me that while I might never get my sense of smell back – a loss that came from a piece of my skull slicing through the nerve endings that translate odor into scent – I might. He wouldn’t say anything more definitive, surely fearing litigation. I saw a therapist, who saw a young woman so wounded as to be unfixable, so she gave me some pills, and I stopped seeing her.  I saw a specialist who was supposed to tell me why I felt dehydrated all the time, which, combined with the migraine, had caused me to faint in the first place. He cut open my lip and sewed it together again, testing for Sjogren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that was the only explanation he could think of for my dehydration. I can still feel the stitches through my face. When he told me I’d tested negative, I saw someone else, who gave me pills to take three times a day, pills meant to stimulate saliva so my teeth wouldn’t decay, the enamel eroding and rotting the bone at an accelerated rate. I saw a dentist, who saw a thin girl with no enamel left on her teeth. “Are you bulimic,” she asked, adding that repeated exposure to stomach acid erodes one’s teeth. Even when I explained my condition, she seemed to still see a bulimic. I saw my new primary care physician, who helped me coordinate all these doctors, until she didn’t.

So now, I see no one. For the most part, this is okay. But when it comes to the heart abnormality the neurologist found, I never saw a cardiologist. It was over a year ago. I can’t seem to make myself schedule an appointment. When an ex saw me continue putting off the call that could have gotten me an appointment, he first tried to help. Then he gave up. We broke up, with him telling me to “see the doctors already, I don’t understand what is so hard about that.” I told him I would.

When I told the guy I see – “I wouldn’t call us ‘dating,'” he once told me, so I don’t – that it’s been over a year since a nurse discovered my heart abnormality, he told me I should see the doctor. I didn’t respond.

Jamison would probably add me to her cases of women dwelling in woundedness. She would be right. But I’d add – and so would she – that it’s more complicated than that.


Note: I’ll incorporate this essay into a longer piece elsewhere, but I wanted to share it as is in the meantime.

 

My Neighbor

There’s a homeless encampment across the street from my apartment. It’s been expanding since I moved in. At first, it was a sleeping bag and a cardboard sign, hardly noticeable. It’s been accumulating stuff ever since: blankets, a sleeping pad, bags, trash. Stuff.

My room’s been accumulating stuff over the same period of time too: books, clothing, empty coffee cups, receipts, flyers for protests.

I walk past the encampment every day, watching it expand as my life expands here too. There’s hardly ever anyone there. Occasionally, mid-day, I see a rail-thin woman’s head peeking out from under the assorted blankets and sleeping bags. She’s always asleep. When I walk by late at night – 2, 3 am – she’s isn’t there.

I’ve never seen anyone talking to her, or touching any of the things. I live a block from a busy subway station, on the border of Brooklyn and Queens. But no one seems to mind the increasing space taken up by my neighbor’s belongings.

Occasionally kids marvel at the stuff as they walk by. There’s a school at the end of the block, so we get a lot of foot traffic. One time, a little girl stopped to look more closely at the pile of trash (I do not call it trash as a judgement, but merely to speak of what much of it consists of now, as it grows: plastic bags, food wrappers, empty cups). Her mom, or older sister, or whoever, tugged on the girl’s shirt, hurrying her along the way adults do when teaching a child how to behave in public. That was the closest I ever got to seeing someone acknowledge the encampment.

New York housing is a nightmare, which I sometimes think is why no one looks perturbed by the woman’s accumulating stuff. The inability to live, to pay rent so as to avoid sleeping outside, is a fear the majority of the city’s residents have, so we can relate. Rents continue to skyrocket, with people pushed further into the distant edges of boroughs. We all then commute in, creating a dilemma for our cities with their failing infrastructure.

Here, that dilemma is becoming a crisis. The MTA is ridden with dysfunction: trains shut down without notice, leading the agency to advise passengers to stop going to work entirely, promising to begin an ‘awareness campaign’ of emailing employers to encourage this ‘solution.’ A video went viral the other day of passengers trapped on the F train, the footage more evocative of a zombie thriller than real images from one of the world’s wealthiest cities. The Governor, Andrew Cuomo, refuses to address the issue, ignoring the thousands of “FIX THE SUBWAY” replies his voters leave to his every tweet. The post-industrial city suffers under its own contradictions: advertised as a post-material economy and under girded by austerity, the city still relies upon the ability of real people to travel through real, not cyber, space, to our real jobs.


I started this essay a few days ago, intending to make it some meditation on public transit or housing. But this evening, on my way home from dinner, I walked by the part of the sidewalk where the encampment should have been. The sidewalk was immaculate; my neighbor’s stuff nowhere to be seen. I stopped walking, with no idea what to do. Had the woman moved on of her own accord? Had someone – the city? a business? a vigilante? one of my other neighbors? – thrown it all away while the woman wasn’t there? I looked around, but no one else seemed perturbed. No one else was even looking in my direction, the foot traffic as steady as ever. There wasn’t a trace of the stuff left. There was nothing I could do. So I crossed the street, put the entry code into my apartment building, and walked inside.

The First Week

I feel like I’ve hardly had time to breathe this week. I don’t even get out of bed sometimes: upon waking, I open my laptop and start responding to emails, DMs, slack channels, facebook messenger. The sun goes up and then down again as I sit, hunched, glued to the screen.

Just in my tiny slice of the world, Trump’s impact is already being felt. Unions are pulling out of organizing campaigns. Colleagues who have been helping organize our union may be stuck in Iran. Friends are losing their jobs, their research funding, their confidence that any of our work matters.
 
And they’re right to be afraid! It’s scary to imagine the damage this administration will inflict in lives lost, progress undone, bonds of solidarity disentangled. Yet if we give up, the disasters will only multiply.
 
As for how Trump is impacting our movements, I can only speak about labor. In the face of will be a multi-pronged attack – mass privatizations, federal right-to-work laws, and the loss of the NLRB – what’s becoming clear is how little leadership union “leaders” offer us. In the face of attacks the likes of which we haven’t seen in nearly a century, leaders are huddling together, turning inward when we need precisely the opposite.

So, what does that mean for the grassroots? It means that at the end of the day, we only have each other and the camaraderie and strength we’ve built as workers to think on our feet even as institutions and laws dissolve around us. If unions care about the labor movement, they’ll transfer organizing skills as quickly as possible to workers, they’ll admit new ways of thinking into their ranks. And if not? Well, we’ve been here before, before we built unions and pushed for legal protections and all the rest; we can do it again.
 
I’m confident the same can be said for the feminist movement, the anti-police brutality movement, the environmental movement, and every other social movement that’s been under siege this week. Established institutions, be they the Democratic Party, unions, or non-profits, will try to accommodate the new administration as best they can, throwing those of us who can’t fit into the administration’s deeply limited bounds of acceptability under the bus. And we’ll have to be distinct from these backroom deals: more mobilized than ever, more democratic than ever, if we actually want to build a resistance that can force concessions and reversals from this administration. We’ll have to welcome in the flood of people who want to fight the agenda on offer because after all, the only way any of us learned anything was through struggle, so we can’t expect the thousands flooding into our movements to be any different.

No matter what those at the top do – and all indications that the Democrats are the worst of the worst when it comes to spineless collaboration with the right – we can’t forget that we, the people on the ground and in the street and the workplace and the clinic, are the ones who built each and every worthwhile institution in this country. We forced labor protections into law. We created underground abortion networks until we freed up enough room for above ground clinics to operate. We welcomed refugees with open arms.

It’s scary to consider how much today feels like what I hoped was a long-gone era of reaction. But now more than ever, we need to remember our history. When it comes to everything Trump and his ghastly bands of ghouls are hellbent on destroying, we built it all in the first place. If need be, we can build it back up again. That may not be the sexiest message on offer, but it’s the truth.

what’s needed

This is scary, and it’s absolutely right to be upset and afraid. But if you aren’t involved in political organizing, now (okay, if not today, tomorrow) is the time to start. The only way out is through and if I feel any reassurance, it’s only because I know so many people who work tirelessly to fight like hell for all of us. They have my back and I have theirs.

But those of us with legal cases from or visibility in anti-police brutality organizing are few in number and so fucking vulnerable – there are still people locked up for arrests that happened at anti-racist marches or events, and so many more paying fines and serving probation. Beyond that are the millions more behind bars for being black, being brown, being poor. They need us and we need them.

Check out all the orgs in the Movement for Black Lives coalition, also DSA/ISO/SA. In Boston, talk to Mass Action Against Police Brutality, the Boston Coalition for Police Brutality, Boston Feminists for Liberation, or Youth Against Mass Incarceration. Join up with Black and Pink if they have a chapter where you are. Join, support, and build unions.

We need all the help we can get.

And for the record, the Democrats continue proving how useless they are. Clinton and Obama can wish Trump all the luck in the world but you know we aren’t waiting a minute to start organizing against him and everything for which he stands.

being watched

I woke up on the cold concrete floor of the coffee shop. It was May 2, 2014. A wave of weakness had overtaken me as I moved through the line of customers moments earlier. When I reached the register, my vision narrowed to a pinhole, then faded to black.  Now, looking up from the floor, I saw an old man – the cashier who was handing me my change when I fainted. His eyes were on me, his hand doing the sign of the cross over my body.

As I propped myself up on my elbows, lifting my head off the floor, he told me not to move. It was only in retrospect, weeks later, that I realized he’d been doing a stroke test, hoping my eyes would follow his finger as it moved before my face. I wonder if he told the paramedics I’d had a stroke.

Everyone else in the cafe was watching me, and watching him watching me. It was the closest I’d been to being on stage since my years as a gymnast. Back then, as a kid, the force of eyes on my body was grounding. Balance beam was my best event, and it was in arenas where the crowd was on all sides that I excelled. I’d imagine their eyes gluing me to the four inch wide surface, the force of so many gazes powerful enough to defy any of my wobbles or slipups.

After I recovered enough from my fall in the coffee shop to leave the house by myself – one, maybe two months later – I tried to walk to a nearby park. It was summer in Boston. As I walked, dressed in black jeans and a tank top, my usual modest outfit despite the relentless heat, I felt the eyes of each man I passed flicker over my body, resting on my eyes, my lips, my collarbone, my chest. I’d forgotten what it was like to exist in public. Fifteen minutes into the walk, I could no longer breathe. I changed my route, heading instead to the nearest store that sold sunglasses. Maybe that would stop me from feeling the pressure of these men’s eyes on me, allow me at least the appearance of refusing eye contact.

I wore the sunglasses every time I stepped outside after that, only retiring them when winter came.

Monkeys at the zoo get stressed out by the presence of visitors. Until recently we didn’t know why, but experts from the University of Melbourne found that it’s the presence of eyes on them that is the source of anxiety. Researchers placed five monkeys in an enclosure with a one-way screen that prevented them from seeing visitors, while the other half remained in their regular unmodified enclosure. The screened-off monkeys were 68% less likely to display aggression. Concentrations of chemicals linked to stress were a third lower in this group than among the monkeys that could see people watching them.

Summarizing the theory behind a panopticon, a design principle created by Jeremy Bentham as a cost-effective way to structure prisons that involves placing all cells in sight of a central guard tower, Michel Foucault writes “”He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.”

In the panopticon, the prisoner becomes the guard, so much so that the actual presence or absence of guards becomes irrelevant, so long as the belief in the guard is instilled in the captive.

When he sent me the email about why he was killing himself, Kevin said he saw himself as he existed in my eyes, or at least, how he imagined I saw him: bloodstained from his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I can’t live as a monster,” he wrote. If he’d given me the chance, I’d have told him I didn’t see him that way. But maybe it was enough that he’d started looking that way to himself.

That was New Year’s morning, 2014. He hit the send button at 2am, four months, one day, and ten hours before I fainted.

These days, I don’t wear my glasses when I’m out in public. I cannot see much beyond three or four feet in front of me. I can see the world, but it’s out of focus. I can’t make out faces, recognize friends. Most importantly, I can’t tell where anyone is looking. If men’s eyes consume me, I’d rather not know.

I am writing this essay in O’Hare, my laptop balanced awkwardly on my knees. After starting to write, I run out of complimentary wifi, so I give up and turn back to the book I have with me. It’s Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss. In an essay on life in the Midwest, Biss writes, “Another friend of mine, a black woman, once described to me her experience of walking through a Wal-Mart in rural Iowa, where she was stared at until she could not bear the attention anymore. Her husband suggested that she take off her glasses so that she could not see the stares, and that, she said, had helped.”

Tonight, from the plane, the city lights below look like tinsel for a Christmas tree, strands of yellow-orange and white winking at me. Without my glasses, I can’t see anything but the tinsel.

Domestic Violence and the Anti-Police Brutality Movement

Listen to a police scanner for a few hours and you’ll notice a pattern: there are a lot of calls about domestic violence. In fact, there are more calls about domestic violence than anything else.

No surprise; many of us already know domestic violence is common. Yet the subject has been largely absent from discussion in the movement against police brutality.

A significant wing of the movement wants to ultimately abolish the police, or at least render them redundant: defunded, demilitarized. But the number one reason we invite cops into our communities despite knowing the dangers we expose ourselves and our neighbors to by doing so remains outside the purview of the movement.

Domestic violence is exceedingly common, but that doesn’t make it any less terrifying when it happens. When a loved one, more often than not a man, inflicts violence on his partner or family member, more often than not a woman, victims or bystanders have very little time to take action to minimize the harm. Who can blame them for calling the police, the rapid-response force our society has in place for just such emergencies?

At this point, it’s important to acknowledge how futile calling the police can be, even if one doesn’t object to the police at an institution. In an astounding number of cases, cops respond to domestic violence calls by arresting the victim, or both the victim and perpetrator. They can insist on arresting someone even if, as Matthew Desmond points out in Evicted, it results in the eviction of the victim from her residence.

And lest we forget, many cops are perpetrators of domestic violence themselves. Studies have found police officers abuse their loved ones anywhere from two-to-four times the national rate. This heightened proclivity for violence – whether preexisting their time on the force or a product of cop culture – means cops are hardly the group we should look to for help in situations of domestic violence. Further, research finds cops commit sexual assault and violence against predominately women, predominantly vulnerable women – i.e. women of color, working class women, and sex workers – at alarming rates. These are the same women disproportionately affected by domestic violence.

All this adds up to a sense that when shit hits the fan at home, calling the police can be a recipe for disaster.

The anti-police brutality movement enters at this point in the story, rightfully pointing out that calling the police, particularly in communities of color, places you and your community at risk of police brutality. Prison abolitionists proclaim a need to stop allowing police into neighborhoods. One thinks back to the Black Panthers chant: “no more pigs in our community!”

If we want to make these demands more than slogans, we have to think about what an alternative system for addressing domestic violence, a problem afflicting all of our neighborhoods, would look like.

I’m not even close to the first to think about this. In 1979 in Boston, where I live, residents of Roxbury and Dorchester, predominately black neighborhoods, instituted a system of safe houses to offer an alternative to calling the police for victims of domestic violence. The safe houses – indicated by a green porch light – were open to people escaping violence at home, promising a safe haven in the home of a community member trained in handling domestic abuse victims.

This system prefigured today’s complex of non-profits, some of which offer similar, if more formalized, spaces for victims of domestic violence. Unfortunately, safe havens cannot address those few moments when violence erupts at home, nor do they enjoy the robust backing of the state, reliant instead on grants and philanthropy for sustenance.

I don’t know the answer to what changes we can or should demand of the state that might render the police unnecessary in situations of domestic violence. For the moment, many people don’t call the police in situations of domestic violence for all the reasons I’ve mentioned –cops are ineffective, cops threaten further violence, cops can be cause for eviction, etcetera – preferring to come up with whatever liveable compromise they can in a difficult situation. But to pretend this isn’t of relevance to a movement against police violence and for police abolition is to sweep the concerns of victims of domestic violence under the rug, something we, in these intersectional times, cannot possibly countenance.

Storytelling

In a review for The Baffler, Amber A’Lee Frost takes a recent anthology on college sexual assault as a jumping off point to touch upon some concerning weaknesses in “the conversation” about sexual assault. Frost’s piece addresses a few issues I want to emphasize.

First, focusing on campus sexual assault without mentioning, as Frost puts it, the existence of “an outside world that’s even less safe” than campus is a problem. It’s one that stems from the class bias that comes with a focus on college campuses, particularly elite university campuses. Life at these institutions is far from representative of the average college student’s experience, much less the average sexual assault survivor’s. And there’s nothing wrong with that! But if we want to improve women’s conditions in society at large – and I believe we do – feminist movements on campus need to perpetually push back against this distorted focus, as the media, courts, police, etc will always privilege certain voices over others – this much we know.

I say ‘we’ because I’m part of these movements – on my campus as both a mentor to undergraduates and someone dealing with a university that’s inadequately addressing sexual harassment and assault  (boy could I tell you some horror stories). While we have the most power to force change in our own institutions, we need a more effective strategy of leveraging the spotlight on campuses to agitate for more resources in society at large for addressing sexual assault. That means increasing the options available to those who have been raped or assaulted other than going to the police (who are a source of violence against women in a number of ways), arguing for universal health care, rolling back the attack on women’s reproductive rights, and fighting for affordable housing so people can more easily leave those abusing them.

Second, the packaging and delivery of survivors’ stories deserves criticism. I don’t mean criticism of survivors but of the publications profiting off their pain. Frost writes expertly on this and its connection to the economics of the online publishing industry, and her piece made me think of this one from last year. It’s about how some women can only get published by writing about their trauma. As a young woman toying around with writing myself, it’s clear I could get published writing about being sexually assaulted. But that would entail committing myself to a future where anyone can learn intimate details of my life with a quick Google search rather than when I’m ready to tell them. I admire anyone who writes such stories but I can’t help wanting to burn down the outlets that greedily churn that shit out for clicks without concern for the women offering up their trauma.

Which brings up a related point: that the debate around sexual assault is overwhelmingly about stories from survivors can be both a) an improvement from when we ignored this problem completely as a society and b) a serious issue when it comes to my dude’s eternal question: what is to be done? As Frost writes “while these acts of public testimony are crucial, and therapeutic, for survivors, readers of We Believe You are curiously left asking much the same question that one of the victims here raises: ‘What am I supposed to do?'” She describes the anthology as leaving its reader directionless, and my years as a feminist in Boston – a college campus-centric city if there ever was one – feel similar. A lot of smart people write about why it is that a focus on the individual rises to the fore in the age of neoliberalism, which can accommodate – and sell! – individuals’ stories but not structural change, so I won’t try my hand at it. Instead, I’ll point out that this focus on the individual is pervasive when it comes to just about any feminist issue: abortion? Shout it! Sex work? Tell us whether you feel empowered!

I don’t want to disparage the people who support these strategies – fighting stigmas is good and I support them as people – but I am concerned with the strategic power of a focus on stories. I think it’s a shaky foundation for a movement. If all is predicated on what survivors want, what do we do when survivors disagree? It’s a bizarre parallel to the essentialized view of oppressed groups I wrote about the other day, where differential claims within “the black community” or “the trans community” become impossible to parse. I agree that it’s unproductive to judge the way any particular individual handles their assault; where I disagree is with the idea that this means we can’t discuss the efficacy of movements against sexual assault and the solutions they propose. It’s exactly this sort of critical analysis that Frost is doing in her review. People interpret their experiences differently, be these experiences as a woman, a person of color, a rape survivor, any combination of these identities, or anything else. What we as a movement must do is analyze the problems we’re facing and work out the best way forward.

A good friend of mine, one of the hardest working feminist organizers I know, has lately taken to saying that it’s wrong to say there is a feminist movement today, because there isn’t. I think she’s referring to the absence of collective feminist struggle – we have feminists, but not a feminist movement. I don’t think she’s entirely wrong. I don’t know what we do about that – I’m thinking out loud here – but we need to take her provocation, and Frost’s, seriously.