Home Remedies

I grew up with a utopian level of healthcare. My dad worked for a tech company that invested in things like in-office swimming pools, free gym memberships for the entire family, and health insurance plans that had a $0 copay for all services. Literally zero dollars. Needless to say, I took my health 100% for granted as a kid.

My dad was laid off during the economic crisis when I was in college, and though I never went entirely without healthcare, I did have to start paying for it and being much more strategic about when and where to seek it. Before delving into my feelings about home remedies, I’d like to note that I am a huge proponent of getting medical care when you need it, and of making that care accessible to everyone. I believe in building networks of providers who can offer a therapeutic relationship rather than an authoritarian one, and I work to spread knowledge to my students and community about who those providers are. I keep a record of queer- and trans-friendly providers in my area so that when one of my students needs medical help, I can point them to a provider they can trust, instead of leaving them on their own to mine providers’ websites for clues on whether they will provide affirming care. For many, having access to an affirming provider on the first try is critical, because feeling unsafe while seeking medical care makes a person doubly vulnerable, and much less likely to try again.

Over the past few years, I’ve seen specialists for several serious issues, including chronic joint pain, a searing ovarian pain that comes and goes with no regard for my menstrual cycle, and severe anxiety and PTSD. For issues like these, quality professional care has made the difference between a life where I needed help standing up from a chair, and a life that feels like a life again. (Side note: sometimes you have to FIGHT for quality care, especially when your symptoms have defied the typical explanations–more on that, perhaps, in another post.) There have been many times in the past few years when I’ve had to pause and be grateful for my ridiculously low-paying job because at least it comes with good health insurance–a privilege that I have learned to organize my life around holding on to.

However, because it’s still hard to afford copays when you live below the poverty line, and because, as a survivor, it is not my first instinct to bare my body to strangers for inspection, I have become more attuned as an adult to the difference between situations that require professional care, and situations that I can handle on my own. I began thinking about that distinction when I read a first edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves. I was surprised by the animosity the authors had toward the medical field, and how they despised that doctors held all the knowledge about women’s bodies. I didn’t identify with their experience because I felt that I knew quite a bit about women’s health, from a variety of sources including school health classes, my parents, and an American Girl book called The Care and Keeping of You, which every kid in my neighborhood had copy of. However, as I read through that first edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves, and then through seven subsequent editions (I ended up writing my master’s thesis on it), I realized how much I actually didn’t know–or wouldn’t have known if not for the incredible feminist health collective that continues to update and publish the book.

Ultimately, between reading Our Bodies, Ourselves, and asking incessant questions of my midwife friends and the doctors who oversaw my five egg donation cycles, I learned so much about reproductive health that it actually changed the way I approached my medical care. Whereas before, mysterious abdominal pains would send me immediately to WebMD or the doctor’s office, afraid for a variety of organs whose location and functions I didn’t really understand, I ultimately learned to differentiate between a sharp pain in my intestines (caused by gas) and a sharp pain in my ovaries (caused by scar tissue from the egg donations). One of my midwife friends even gave me her extra speculum, and I learned what my cervix and the inside of my vagina look like. All of these things made me feel empowered to decide when I needed to see a doctor (like to diagnose the ovarian pain) and when I just needed to lie on my left side and wait five minutes for gas to work its way out of my system.

What really excited me, though, was when I began to realize that the distinction between home remedies and profession medicine is, in some ways, a false distinction. I started thinking about this when I read A Midwife’s TaleLaurel Thatcher Ulrich’s incredible analysis of the diary of Martha Ballard, and 18th century midwife. Early in my PhD research on the history of reproductive medicine in the United States, I found an obstetrician’s logbook from the same era. I realized that the two practitioners were using the same substances (like the rye-grown fungus called “ergot”) to treat their patients–one in the woods of Maine, and the other in a New Orleans hospital. In short, if you go back far enough, medicine was herbal remedies. Before pharmacies sold drugs, apothecaries sold herbs–the same herbs that women like Martha Ballard grew in their gardens. As we’ve come to rely more and more on doctors, hospitals, and a very scientific-seeming medical world, we’ve lost some of those healing knowledges that our foremothers were raised on–even though those were the same knowledges that in many ways informed the creation of our medical field.

However, it is interesting to note that not all of these home remedy knowledges have been lost–even to the bougiest city-slickers around. Do you drink coffee to help you wake up? Did your mother feed you prunes or fiber cereal to help you poop? Have you ever eaten a spicy pepper and noticed how it cleared out your sinuses? It’s not as if we don’t understand the ways in which natural substances can affect our bodies. It’s just that it doesn’t always occur to us to turn to them.

As I’ve started looking into home remedies, I’ve begun to feel a greater sense of friendship with my body. A few years ago, I felt like my body was an enemy–something that constantly hurt and made me miserable. I spent all my time and money trying to get it taken care of–facing a range of providers from angelic to creepy and triggering. I hated my body for what it put me through, both physically and emotionally. But once I started taking its upkeep into my own hands, I began to love it more, and ultimately to identify it as mine, and as me. If I’m having a sore throat, I now go to the cabinet for honey and ginger instead of to the urgent care clinic for a long wait and a rote repetition of “take three Advil and wait it out.” If I have a yeast infection, I use yogurt and apple cider vinegar instead of paying a $40 copay for an appointment, a lab test, and a pill. If I have a headache, I drink two full glasses of water and wait. If I’m feeling anxious or restless, I take a 15-minute walk in the sun instead of a klonopin. If my digestion is off, I listen to my body’s cravings, and usually it tells me what it needs. I have teas for almost every occasion, and most of the time, they help.

I no longer feel that I have to turn my body over to someone I may or may not know or trust to get care. In fact, the more I learn and take care of my own body, the more I’ve been able to demand the healthcare that I need. Even just tracking my menstrual cycle and paying attention to how my body reacts to foods has made it possible to cut many rounds of appointments out of my diagnostic care because I can confidently tell my doctors that my joint pain does not respond to changes in my gluten or dairy intake, and that I don’t think my ovarian pain is due to cysts. Though I certainly don’t know as much as I would like, I want to learn everything I can about my body and how it works, and to take care of it by myself whenever I can.

Being able to handle my body’s day-to-day healthcare needs on my own–without turning automatically to drugs or medical professionals–has made me feel whole and healthy. I feel like an ally to my body, instead of an enemy. I have learned to trust that if it’s hurting, it’s usually trying to tell me something, not trying to make me miserable. I still go to the doctor when I need to; diagnostic imaging and certain medicines have been essential to my health. But knowing that I can use materials from the earth to heal my body from day to day has been healing to my soul as well, and in a way, has made me feel like the earth itself cares about me and wants me to be well.

How about you? Does your family have any remedies that have been passed down through generations? Are you as obsessed with apple cider vinegar as I am? How confident do you feel in understanding and responding to your day-to-day ailments? I’d love to hear from you!

xo

~Girl Integrated

Change is gonna come, Pt. 1

Wow y’all,

I asked some questions in my last post that felt unanswerable at the time, like “how do you get through a period of stagnation in your process,” and “what does it mean to be working on it?”  Due to a wildly unexpected plot twist in my life, I can now offer answers to both questions, at least as they pertain to my life. I’ll tackle the first one here.

How do you get through a period of stagnation?

By being brave and honest.

My integration progress went dark for about a year and a half–the same amount of time that I knew (in the deepest, most repressed corner of my heart’s subconscious) that I was not in love with my partner. He was a kind, loving, and entirely admirable person who treated me with the care I needed. He was patient and gentle, if insecure, when it came to my struggles around sex and intimacy. He was everything I had taught myself to hold out for. But he was also a man, and I’ve never been attracted to men.

I came out as a lesbian in middle school, nearly fifteen years ago, (and three years before my abuse began, in case you’re wondering.) I can honestly say that was the last time I was truly confident in my sense of self. I know most people struggle in middle school, but I had an excellent time. I had a fabulous group of queer lady friends, who kissed each other in the cafeteria as a political act. I had a basement full of microphones and electric guitars. I had a professional-quality makeup kit with eyeshadow in every color of the rainbow. My childhood was dripping with privilege, I know, and perhaps because of that, I rocked at being a queer kid. What I sucked at was being a queer adolescent.

In high school, my friend group split up, my parents and I began to fight, and I became deeply depressed. I threw myself into classical music and academics–the two endeavors that had always been my steadies, but that certainly didn’t earn me any status among my peers. When a cool older guy from LA started putting the moves on me, it was the first time in a long time I had felt interesting, let alone cool. It didn’t bother him that I was gay. It added to the thrill of the conquest. It made me cute and quirky, a precious little vulnerable enigma. I sometimes re-imagine those years, starring me as a fierce lesbian superhero who kicks patriarchal ass and takes names. But I wasn’t. I was a sheltered, dweeby only child who had once dipped her toe in coolness and wanted it back. I wanted to try weed, alcohol, and popularity.

Unfortunately, my abuser gave me all of that. He also gave me lessons, both explicit and coded, on what a proper girlfriend does (keeps her mouth shut but her lips perfectly glossed when his friends come over, makes herself constantly available for sex, initiates it just frequently enough to make him feel wanted, but not frequently enough to tip the power dynamic in her favor). And he taught me what a proper girlfriend does not do (says no, asks what he’s been up to, or gives him a boner without giving him an orgasm.) I was a kid. I was a gay kid. I was a gay kid who kissed her BFFs in the cafeteria and braided their hair at sleepovers. I had no idea how I was supposed to behave with men. So I believed him. I took his word for everything. He told me I was a prude and a nag, so I became a sex doll and a silent statue. He told me my intelligence was a turn-off, so I stopped sharing my opinions. He told me nobody else would ever put up with me–I was too broken, too crazy, too annoying. So I stayed and stayed and stayed until my body and soul were pounded to a pulp. In the end, I left him because he misplaced a $20 ring I had bought at Disneyland. Somehow, that was the thing that finally made me think I deserved better.

After that, I dated girls exclusively. I dated a girl who, in retrospect, was probably a psychopath, and who had every cartoon character imaginable tattooed on her arm, complete with erect dicks. I dated a girl who was smart and beautiful, and who threw tantrums, binged on drugs, and pined for her ex. I loved her passionately and in vain. I briefly dated a girl whose father had abused her, and who pounded me with gigantic dildos until I wept and shook and couldn’t explain why. I dated a girl who ran a feminist music camp for girls and went to Harvard Law, and who called me emotionally unavailable and asked me to go to therapy. I pushed that girl away.

When I met the guy I eventually got engaged to, we were both hurting, both hated sex, and both desperately disinterested in love. We told each other secrets, laughed til we cried, moved in together, went to couples therapy, and got engaged. He was sweet, safe, and wonderful. But he wasn’t happy, and neither was I. He thought he was disgusting, and when I didn’t want him to touch me, he knew he was disgusting. He thought he was unlovable, and when my body froze in response to his kisses, he knew he was unlovable. We had a strong and reliable partnership, but I wasn’t in love with him and he knew it. But I didn’t, not for a long time. I knew I was too broken to have good sex, so I accepted that I wasn’t having it with him. I knew he treated me better than anyone else, so I accepted that I felt no passion. Passion was a privilege that I didn’t have the energy to hold out for.

As I was planning our wedding (and after we had secretly gotten courthouse married in a panicked attempt to regain a sense of stability after the Trump inauguration), someone from my past came back–the smart, beautiful girl whom I had loved desperately, but who couldn’t make room for me in her heart next to her drugs and her ex-girlfriend. Strangely, my fiance and I were living in this girl’s hometown. She had moved back there to heal herself and had heard through the grapevine that I was living there. She had spent the last five years wishing she had treated me better. She wanted to apologize.

Her apology was wonderful. And so was her smile and her new shoulder-length haircut, and her tiny tattoos, and her hug that made me feel like old friends. We were old friends. We had known each other at our worst, so we saw instantly how we’d both grown. She knew me as a lesbian, an identity I had given up on due to my straight engagement. She knew me as a strong and spirited girl who, last she knew, still had love to give.

Parts of my body that had been numb for years started to melt in her presence. My skin felt electric when her fingers were still an inch away. My head swam. My heart swam. I started daydreaming, imagining what my life could have been if only I hadn’t gotten secretly married that very month. It was agonizing, feeling my body and my heart come alive, and knowing I had missed out on this possibility by mere days. After five years, how could she come back so forcefully, and such a split second too late? We only hung out three times before she asked me if I could love her again, but I had never stopped.

It wasn’t her, per se, who ruined my marriage. The marriage was doomed before it started. It was her, though, who made me remember what love was supposed to feel like, not just in the heart, but in the body. For the first time in five years, I felt like maybe it could be okay to have a body at all, that my body could be something more than a vessel for my pain. She made me feel joy and hope, and in the end, it was these feelings that made me leave my marriage. It was the discovery that I could feel sexy, feel desperately attracted to someone, feel like I wanted to know my body and to share it with someone. But now I knew (or was reminded, I suppose) that these are feelings I feel for women.

I told my secret husband the truth, and once I told him, my life became a landslide. I broke his heart. I moved out. We got our marriage annulled. I gave up our dog and got a cat. I told my parents the secrets I’d been hiding for a decade. I took a new full-time job. I picked fights with my therapist that ended in breakthroughs.

The truth will set you free. That’s one of the only lines I know from the Bible, and one I expect I’ll remember forever. I was afraid to tell my truth because I knew it would ruin the life I had built with my fiance. And it did. But I never could have predicted how things would start clicking into place when I finally told it. I love my new home, my new cat, my new job, my new coworkers. My family and friends have accepted my landslide with love and support. I’m not saying my life is easy now. I have hard days. I make mistakes. I get triggered and have panic attacks. I get lonely and restless living alone. I live paycheck to paycheck trying to cover my rent and expenses by myself. But each day, I wake up knowing that at least I’m sure I’m me. And nothing, in years, has felt as good as that.

Have you ever had a secret that you kept from everyone, including yourself? How did it affect your health? Is it possible to both know something and not know it at the same time? Has someone from your past ever re-entered your life and shaken things up? Has anyone else ever gone back in the closet after coming out? I want to hear about the crazy plot twists of your lives, because life is so weird sometimes, and sometimes we forget that that’s okay.

Love always,

~Girl Integrated

Working on it

After over a year of willfully neglecting to think about my trauma, I’m back! And what a year it’s been. I’ve had sex with my partner exactly twice and that’s about how many times we’ve brought up the subject as well. Because, y’all…DENIAL! AVOIDANCE!

I’d love to pretend that having a blog about processing sexual trauma makes me some kind of expert on the topic, but in fact it does not. Like most sexually traumatized mortals, I lapse into periods of denial and avoidance, which allow me to survive when life gets too busy for me to face my trauma history head-on. Sometimes those periods last way, way longer than I’d like.

There was a time in our relationship when my partner and I talked about sex all the time. It followed the period of time when we actually had sex all the time. For a while, we talked and talked about it, trying to get back to the fantastic sex life we had in the beginning. Sometimes it helped. Sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes we tried crazy new things. Sometimes I didn’t want to be touched at all. But now, we’ve hardly touched each other for over a year and we feel like we’ve said everything there is to say a million times. We both want more of a sex life than we have, but my trauma has been inhabiting my body in a most unfriendly way, leaving me feeling utterly unsexy, and my lack of desire has, of course, made my partner feel lousy as well. Our relationship is excellent aside from sex. We talk about everything. But when it comes to this topic, we’re so exhausted that we just ignore it.

To do right by my partner, myself, and the life that we’re building, I feel like I need to work on my trauma, and I keep promising my partner that I am, or at least that I will. But it’s hard to really say what “working on it” means. And if I’m being honest, I don’t think I’m working on it at all. I’m trying to stay afloat in graduate school, working several jobs to make up for my department’s lousy funding, bouncing from specialist to specialist in search of a diagnosis for my chronic joint pain, rescuing baby parakeets, and planning a wedding. I consistently bring up any topic except sex in therapy. It’s not like I don’t have other things to talk about.

But that doesn’t change the fact that our sex life has been stagnant for over a year. And it doesn’t seem like improvement is on the horizon unless I can somehow start fulfilling my project of integrating my trauma history into my present life. But how does one do that? Do I expose myself to triggers so I can cry it out? There’s not a graduate student in the world who has time for that. Do I talk about my trauma with my partner? Whenever I do, it only causes our pain and insecurities to resurface, leaving us feeling desperate and disconnected. Do I track down my abuser and rewrite my story by finally standing up for myself and letting him know how disgusting and pathetic he is? That would require being in contact with him, and that strikes me as both unpleasant and unsafe. (Last I heard, he was selling meth.) Do I throw my heart and soul into teaching so I can help my students become strong, kind feminists in the hopes that they’ll never inflict or receive the kind of pain that I experienced? Sure. I do that every day. But teaching can consume however much time you are willing to give it, and when you give it all your time, it starts to look suspiciously like an avoidance mechanism. So what the hell does it mean to “work on my trauma?”

Does anyone have a viable definition of “working on it?” Have you had a period of stagnation in your process, when it felt like things would never get better? How did you get through it? How have you reconciled the urge to avoid with the need to process? Shower us with your wisdom!

~Girl Integrated

Shame is the worst.

I’ve been feeling very uncomfortable with my sexuality recently, which has been really confusing. In the past few weeks, I feel like I’ve taken some major steps forward. I’ve had some really productive and honest conversations with my partner, I’ve talked to my therapist about feelings I had been afraid to name out loud, I’ve realized that I no longer feel angry at myself for “letting” the abuse happen (a feeling I’ll speak more about in a future post), and I’ve even bought some new sex toys with my partner, which I am genuinely excited to try. It seems like everything should be adding up, and I should be feeling better than I ever have sexually.

But I’m just not. I haven’t felt turned on very much recently, and in moments when I have, it hasn’t lasted very long. I am trying to practice being present with my partner and focusing on the sensations in my body when we are being sexual, but recently, we haven’t been getting very far before I become deeply uncomfortable, though I can never quite put my finger on the reason. Sometimes, even when I’m doing something completely un-sexual, like watching a show or doing the dishes, I find myself feeling profoundly sexually uncomfortable, as if some part of me has suddenly remembered, for no particular reason, that I sometimes engage in sexual acts, and is deeply disturbed and embarrassed by that fact.

It’s a confusing feeling because it’s very vague, yet very intense. It doesn’t come with images or memories of any particular sex acts, real or hypothetical. It’s just a hazy yet extremely uncomfortable sense that there is something vile and disgusting about my sexual self. It’s such a powerful feeling that sometimes I find myself closing my eyes and gritting my teeth just to get through it. Sometimes it is so overwhelming that it makes me feel sick.

I want to know where this feeling is coming from. Have I always felt it? Did I feel it as a kid? Or did it only begin after the abuse? I know I have felt it before, but I don’t remember it being so frequent. Or perhaps it was, and I just wasn’t ready to notice it or name it until now.

I am pretty sure that this feeling is shame, though I am surprised by this because I absolutely do not believe that sex is shameful, and I do not consider myself to be ashamed of my sexuality. Questions of sex have been central to my academic work for years, and I long ago became comfortable thinking, writing, and talking about sex. And while I didn’t receive the most sex-positive parenting, nobody ever went out of their way to tell me that sex was bad or dirty or forbidden, and honestly, I think my parents would be horrified and very sad to know that even as an adult in a committed relationship, I am struggling with such intense feelings of sexual shame.

While my parents and educators could certainly have given me a better toolkit for building a confident sense of my sexual self, I know that most of the shame I feel was probably instilled in my by my abuser. I don’t have a lot of specific memories from that relationship–forgetting has allowed me to survive until now (more on this in a future post)–but I do have a vivid memory of being deeply embarrassed when he reprimanded me for not showing enough excitement during sex, complaining that I didn’t seem “into it” when he acted on me. If he didn’t know any better, he said, he might think that I didn’t want to have sex with him. In response, I made a concerted effort to initiate sex more frequently to prove that he had nothing to worry about. This resulted in him calling me a nympho, another moment that is vividly ingrained in my memory. In both moments, I felt deeply ashamed of myself and my sexuality.

Cognitively, I recognize that he put a lot of work into manipulating my sense of self. He shamed me into being constantly sexually available and putting on a convincing act for him, and he shamed me when I showed any actual sexual autonomy. He may have been despicable, but he wasn’t stupid. He used shame as a tool to get exactly what he wanted. I was always available when he wanted me, and I initiated sex just frequently enough to maintain his ego and keep him excited, but I never went too far and forced him to recognize me as an autonomous individual with a sexuality of my own. During that relationship and for a few years afterward, I truly believed that as a woman, it was my job to be sexually available for pretty much anyone who was interested and to put on an appearance of wild sexual excitement for the benefit of whoever was acting on my body. I felt legitimately ashamed when I failed in putting on this act–when the thought even crossed my mind that I would rather not sleep with someone, when it occurred to me that I wasn’t actually enjoying a sex act, or when a sex partner seemed to notice that something was off or asked if I was okay.

I don’t remember when exactly I realized that I had been brainwashed. I’m sure I began to realize it during my first gender studies class, called “Men and Masculinity.” I do know that it felt powerful and important to me to intellectually identify my abuser’s manipulation as manipulation, and to conclude that my only sexual obligation was to identify and speak up for my own needs, desires, and limits. My sex life and sense of self certainly improved with that realization, and I felt that I had really reclaimed myself and my power from my abuser. Recently, however, I am realizing that though I may have intellectually reclaimed my sexual self, the lies and insecurities that my abuser taught me are still flowing through my body and sometimes shaping my emotions.

Perhaps I am a little afraid of my own sexuality because I know how much sex can hurt, and perhaps this shame is so powerful right now precisely because I am doing so much work to overcome that fear. Maybe some old survival instinct within me is making a last-ditch effort to stop me from moving toward sexuality (read: vulnerability) again. At any rate, I am tired of it. Everything in me wants to have a free and comfortable sex life, to try new things with my partner, and to trust myself to participate in sexual touch without panicking five minutes in. I feel like I’ve done so much work on this lately, yet the more I do, the less I find myself able to actually have sex. It seems like everything is falling into place, except that these moments of intense shame are now standing in the way of what I’ve been working toward. I am so over it, but I don’t know how to make it stop, or whether I have to just wait it out, as I have done with so many of the other strange and confusing phases of this integration process.

Does anyone else have these seemingly random moments of shame? Do you have a sense, in your own life, of where they come from? Do you have any strategies for getting through those moments or replacing the shame with more pleasant feelings? Was there a time when it stopped happening, and do you know what changed? I’d love to hear from you!

~Girl Integrated