The Cracks in Orienting to Niche Roles — how we hurt our relationships

This month marks four months since starting my professional transition, and it has been accompanied by a burst of renewed emotional energy. I’ve been surprised by how my pace has fluctuated, markedly by needing longer time to prepare for and rejuvenate after social interactions. Connected, how unavailable I’ve felt for returning to opened introspection. Buckets like the book I’ve been working on and originally wrote by hand. This week I resumed typing it, picking up my thinking from these months a year ago. Seeing a level of inner clarity, I would have at the time described as confused and cluttered.

I’ve been following the news surrounding Lt. Governor Fairfax, and rereading Vanessa Tyson’s statement. After coming forward with allegations of a sexual assault, the media hit refresh on the dynamics of our public reaction of sidelining survivors within their own narratives. This backdrop makes it central to hear Dr. Tyson’s words from her own lips and pen, in an effort to momentarily cancel out the larger rhetoric and how it influences our critiques and questions.

I’ve been affected most strongly by two excerpts from her published statement in the Richmond Times Dispatch.

“After The Washington Post decided in March 2018 not to run my story, I felt powerless, frustrated, and completely drained. Again I tried to bury memories of this painful incident and focus on my work and my students.”

“Mr. Fairfax’s suggestion The Washington Post found me not to be credible was deceitful, offensive and profoundly upsetting. He has continued a smear campaign by pointing reporters to a 2007 educational video in which I talked about being the victim of incest and molestation. In that video I did not talk about being assaulted by Mr. Fairfax. This, of course, is not proof that he did not assault me. His reliance on this video to say the opposite is despicable and an offense to sexual assault survivors everywhere.”

Culturally we have amnesia around these two patterns, the one of being erratically ready to hear survivors’ allegations when they come forward, and the one of expecting survivors to document the totality of their histories at once and in public.

The coping strategy of being silenced is not ironically silence, making attempts to fade yourself and your disclosure out of view. You can picture this as a literal folding in, hoping to avoid any additional aggression, rejection or scrutiny. The collective forgetting from your community, or our public memory, creates a boundary for what can be spoken, until the boundary changes in what it requires of you. Specifically, the media scrutiny judges a survivor’s silence and hopes to rattle you into engagement.

Once again, a community withdraws its support for a survivor, while using the theme of believing survivors to justify not believing this individual one, only to follow that up with solicitations for additional public disclosures and commentary from and about survivors.

In noting this calcified pattern, I found myself busy rereading my reactions to these dynamics from a year ago, while also reflecting with more clarity and more vocabulary on my own patterns of responding to these tactics personally. Patterns that are easier to see with more distance and adjustment to transitioning relationship shapes.

I hear in my own words internalized responses to having my judgment challenged, and frequent examples of acting against my gut.

This time a year ago I was negotiating how and what to share from my personal history in a range of relationship types, as a girlfriend, as a friend, as a trainer, as an employee, as a patient. I was noting moments in myself where I couldn’t name what my distress was coming from, because I was too routinely hearing that I couldn’t or shouldn’t trust my thoughts or feelings as credible. I was getting mixed messages to share my experiences but not share them, to share my needs but not to need those things, to let others support me but not expect them to know how or be good at it.

I hear these refrains in the backdrop of being in both a post surgery and pre surgery crossroad, stemming from an injury that was severe enough that I needed to move out of my apartment, and unfolded in a way that exasperated my mental health for a very sustained period, introducing triggers that required disclosures and outside support.

My throat gets caught on how much we misunderstand histories of sexual violence as ongoing stressors for survivors and those relating to them, as well as impacted differently by thresholds of day to day stress and conflict. The self-awareness it takes to note for a romantic partner or a room of students how your trauma is affecting you currently is something we easily mock and negate, as seen in Fairfax’s insinuation. Rather than seeing the complications and layers, we see only unshared details. We grab onto the coattails of internalized shame and self-doubt and tell survivors that they are right not to trust themselves in what they perceive as real, offering reasons to discredit their account of an experience.

For me last winter, I negotiated this dynamic from doctors, from colleagues, from my partner, from friends, straddling triggers associated with disclosures I’d already made, and stress rooted in harmful ways they were interacting with me. There was no room to draw boundaries in the present because the onslaught of sequential crisis responses offered no breaks in intensity. There was always someone ready to reinforce the self-doubt I was feeling, rooted in needs I was less able to meet independently, and more at the mercy of their openness to supporting me and reassuring me that the risks I was taking were the right ones. Ready to offer explanations of how my trauma response was displaced and overblown, stemming from harms that had already come and gone.

Confronted by reactions I couldn’t keep to myself, I was ambushed by forced disclosures. Frenzied from my own haze, I told myself that other people had a better understanding of what I was reacting to than I did. I told myself that my gut reaction wasn’t about anything real, and I did it over and over and over.

My subconscious now reminds me of statements like, “He strikes me as so safe”, or “You’ve healed too much”, or “This isn’t like you” and I see my resistance to those assessments with more validity. I recall instances where I sought advice from trusted sources that coached me to distrust my gut. I recall the reality of creating a blur out of clarity, because what you feel clearly isn’t affirmed by your environment, and because what you do with that clarity suggests you don’t believe what your body is telling you.

When I zoom out from my emotional responses, I hear these patterns with a secondary lens. I consider the relevance of our individual roles, expertise and professionalization in how we apply boundaries, and how we organize information and communicate that information with each other. I consider the relevance of situationally learning what to place your trust in and what to prioritize in setting boundaries and making decisions out of our ascribed expertise. I consider the distress that my body offered as a signal, but I responded to as irrelevant. I confront the learned alienation of my inner consciousness when challenged by outside influences, or when applied to experiences that call out occurring harm.

There are varied and concentrated attempts to appeal to your irrationality in an attempt to minimize culpability and introduce ambiguity in how we recognize violent behaviors. Importantly, those attempts occur in relationships and in our inner dialogues with ourselves. When violence has already occurred, survivors are expected to volunteer those experiences, but also anticipate being challenged in every detail. Those challenges are meant to be understood as in good faith, when past experiences paint them as part of the ongoing violence and trauma that results. Trauma that is subject to being rigorously questioned.

Against this backdrop of heightened scrutiny, survivors are sidelined as trusted narrators while those accused are granted every benefit of the doubt. Faith is selectively granted, and the rhetoric of being trauma informed is allowed to work against the survivor, becoming the reason for why we’re not open to hearing from them or sharing their first-person accounts. Attaching to internalized blame and shame. Reinforcing the nagging feeling that the persistent distress in your gut isn’t an indicator of anything credible; not as harm, not as information about your environment, not as bodily wisdom, not as a detail to note or respect. Embellishing the narrative that waits at the ready to silence survivors when they speak out, and rationalizing the impulse of the media to question and scrutinize you repeatedly under the guise of reporting neutrally. The same guise that weaves into professionalized biases and practices. The same guise that weaves into personal relationship patterns, and produced internalized beliefs.

When you have a voice in your head that distrusts your judgment, that feels like a burden, that feels like they are to blame for violence that targeted you, you are primed to believe outside voices that mirror that belief to you. When being triggered is a daily reality, new harms aren’t specified as new or separate. When asking for or receiving support is not integrated into your relationships, it is distressing to feel dependent on your community for support needs you can’t meet independently. When your professional expertise is pitted against your personal self, silence makes sense, and a reluctance to be further exposed or questioned.

When the outside response reinforces the same conclusion, there are fewer reasons to question what it projects to you. There are fewer safeguards from internalizing what your community concludes. And yet, with some distance, what is made clear is the tactic of gaslighting that is woven into your inner circles, and the ones with the largest media attention. What is clear is that there is a purpose in encouraging you to distrust yourself, and adopt the narrative that wants to be accepted and viewed as credible.

Against this backdrop we hear Dr. Tyson’s critique of Fairfax, “I cannot believe, given my obvious distress, that Mr. Fairfax thought this forced sexual act was consensual.”

In spite of every tactic to silence and confuse her, Dr. Tyson does not yield her first-hand experience to us. She turns our attention to the gaslighting that we are each complicit in, and too easily swayed by.

In her own words, “With tremendous anguish, I am now sharing this information about my experience and setting the record straight. This is the only statement I and my legal team will be making.”

Writer. Thinker. Facilitator. Advocate. Invested in accountability for power based violence, creative initiatives, and meaningful, nuanced dialoguing.