Dear Chelsey: A Letter to My Previous Self.

Dear Chelsey,

Hello. I know, I’m surprised too. We have read lots of time-travel lo-fantasy, and we always wondered what we would be like when we were older.

Here I am. We made it this far, and we’re aging okay, despite our best efforts to self-destruct. Lucky us. It is a good thing we’ve eaten pretty well over the years, even with all the other toxicity we’ve subjected ourselves to. Hopefully we quit smoking soon enough, and have curbed our inebriation choices to a livable frequency and quantity. I’ll get back on that yoga train soon, I promise. This winter was really tough on us, so we’re being gentle and introducing a self-care regimen slowly.

I am pleased to be able to offer you some insight. I hate to say it, because this may come across as “I’m so glad I’m not you”. But I’m really glad that I am not even a moment younger than I currently am, and look forward to being older and having more experiences to draw from. They really knew what they were talking about when they said, “wait until you’re older”, or “listen to your elders”, or whatever other anecdotal advice some older person tried to give you over the years that you probably took with a grain of salt. Salt is a very important grain to take, but it helps to listen too, and we didn’t know that then, as most younger people overlook. We’re getting a better grip now, thankfully, and finally. It is so hard to listen to advice when we’re young and wilful.

We are going to be thirty-five this year, if you can believe it. That’s a third of a lifetime, done. Half, if we’re feeling not as optimistic. I tend to lean on the optimism end of the spectrum, or I try.

You’ve been through a lot, already, haven’t you? I’m pretty sure you were reeling from the things you had been through by the age of twelve, let alone where I am at thirty-four. I assure you, at each of the junctures I am going to acknowledge you at, you were tired. I think we’ve probably been tired our whole lives, and because we didn’t know any different, we just kept plugging along, kept trying, kept telling ourselves we were lucky it wasn’t worse. Now, I have learned about things like trauma-bonding, codependency, and how bad the things you have been through were. We used to talk ourselves out of that. We laugh when we’re nervous, and when we’re scared, because we want it to not be as bad as it is, or are trying to make light of our own struggle.

We gaslit ourselves for years because that was the way others taught us to treat ourselves by treating us as such. We know better now, but slip up from time to time and try not to be too hard on ourselves when we do.

It’s okay that the things that happened to us were bad, even if they weren’t as bad as some of the other things other people have suffered. It’s okay to have been hurt, and to have been unlucky in some cases, and to feel that. We are lucky in a lot of ways and have a lot of privileges, but those do not mitigate the hurt we have been subject to, and glossing over those hurts isn’t helping you move through them, so let’s stop that together, okay?

I’m going to go over some things that have happened, and are going to happen to you, and what I think would have helped you if I had known these things when they happened to me. I will refer to your age at the time of the event, or the instance, so we can keep straight what we’re talking about. That should help this be less confusing.

There may be an overarching theme to the information I am going to give you, but we will see if that emerges while I compile this letter. Who knows, this might even narrow down to one succinct piece of advice.

Let’s start early.

When the girls in your early elementary classes are not being kind to you, don’t worry about it. You’re a curious, communicative, amicable being; you want to talk to everyone, and have done since you gained the ability to speak. Your parents let you run wild at parties and other social spaces, and you made friends with everyone. This is not the way school is going to work for you, and it’s not really anyone’s fault. A bunch of kids are mashed together, coming from differences they don’t understand yet, and they can be mean, unfortunately. These girls are only going to be around you for a couple more years, and then you will find different friends that are nicer and much more supportive. They are probably just trying to work out if they have any power, just like you. There are differences between you and them that have to do with things you don’t understand yet, like class privilege. It doesn’t feel okay at the time; the rejection is palpable, and what you don’t yet understand is that you fall in love with girls. Their disinterest is more hurt-filled than you, or they, understand, because all the Disney movies show girls falling in love with boys. Try not to let this silence you. Keep being yourself, and don’t change so they like you. They are not going to like you anyway if they don’t want to, and they are not a representative set of how women can be in your life. Further, stand with the people those girls are mean to besides yourself. Those are your allies, and you will remember them until you’re me.

Your dad is going to go away for a little bit and you’re going to have to move house when you’re still quite young, at seven. It is not your fault, even though your words were an integral part of how this came to pass so suddenly. This is for the best, and he is just doing what he needs to do to be happy. He will be an amazing father because he is a happy man. He met his soulmate; she is going to be a wonderful support system for you later, so trust him. He will be back, and he will be a really solid parent for you, as will she. They will mitigate a lot of the damage done to you by others in your childhood life, and set you up with some of the skills you will need to navigate hardship. Through this, and through their examples of survival, you will learn profound resilience.

Your mum getting sick, diagnosed when you’re ten, is going to impact a lot of things in your life. She doesn’t mean to be angry at everything all the time. She can’t really help it. She wasn’t socialized to be able to deal with how angry she is at her circumstances very well, and is very resentful of how, now, she must rely on others to take care of her quite a lot. The betrayal she feels by your dad is going to go on for a long time, because it’s a tangible thing to blame. Try not to take that personally, or feel the need to defend him. It will just turn her anger on you, and that’s not really all that helpful. She sees him in you, and can’t not see him when she’s really mad. She mixes this up with all her anger about her illness, and it just compounds and fills her with vitriol. She has been dealt a hard hand, and can’t help but lash out at the closest people: her children. She can’t handle the injustice of it all, at times. Her body is failing her and she’s livid about it, but that doesn’t mean she gets to treat you badly.

You can leave, and you will. When you are ready.

Speaking of Mum, she is going to betray you.

Be ready, my dear. This is going to shape parts of your character, and be a shadow within your personality for the rest of your life.

This thing that is going to happen is going to shape a lot of how you engage with people, unfortunately. Let it wash over you; she is not the way all women are. Try not to let that betrayal shape your perspective of women in general, because you will have strong, supportive ones in your life much later, and you will love them very deeply, as they will you. Trust them, even though the first one to influence you was not trustworthy, as it turned out. I know it will be hard, because the imprinting that occurred with this betrayal is going to be a mountain to overcome, but you can do it. Women will be some of the greatest loves of your life, so start climbing that mountain. It will be so worth it.

Now, let us talk about your relationships with men.

Your first sexual experience with a male person should have been much, much later than it was. It’s not your fault; he’s a broken human, and he didn’t know not to touch children, for some reason.

Oh honey, I’m so, so sorry.

You need to be tough, and at the first sign that he may touch you, scream and tell someone immediately. He will start with just an escalation of affection, which feels really weird but you’re eleven, so you don’t know how to process it.

Stop him.

It will get worse, and he will keep going, keep touching you, escalate the sexual nature of the contact until you stop him. This is horrifically unfair, because you are eleven and no child should have to learn how to fight a grown man’s sexual advances off of them at that age, but you will have to fight him off. You will have to snap him out of the drunken haze that has allowed him to think this is acceptable. Tell people who are safe, and you will know who is safe deep in your heart, until someone listens and helps you. Don’t listen to your mum this time; don’t let her silence you. She is internalizing the responsibility of his actions, and she’s afraid of him, and what he will do if she tries to get him to leave. She doesn’t know how to get him to leave, or if she would be okay if he left, so she acts out of fear and tries to shove what happened down and away, tries to make it disappear.

She demands of you that same burial. She demands that you forget it happened, and ignore it.

Don’t erase yourself.

Tell your friends’ mums, or your dad and stepmum, or both. Just don’t be quiet. The silence will eat away at your soul worse than the impact of the assault itself. It will erode your personality, change you permanently, though not irreparably, but that will take years. I know; four years of quiet almost kills you until you are not quiet anymore, and you find support and retribution. You are so brave, and that bravery saves your life, even if you didn’t realize it at the time.

She does not understand what the silence, the suppression, and the lack of advocation by her, for you, is going to do to you. Years later, she will say so. She will not verbalize any understanding of what happened for you before she dies. Your peace with her will have to be made within yourself, without her.

Yeah, I know. This world is like, really fucked up sometimes.

Go to counselling. Even when you think you feel better, keep going. The days you think to yourself “I think I’m okay today. I wonder what there is to talk about?” will be the best sessions. Those sessions really get into your emotional process, and what you need to be healthy and safe. Keep going.

When your “friend” offers you that bag of drugs in trade for a money loan, think about what you are doing. This decision will evaporate a year of your life, at least, and turn you into someone you don’t recognize. Those particular drugs are the sort that erode a part of you that determines morality. You need that part, so stop using as soon as you can. You will come out of it okay when you’re ready, and you have the strength to overcome this particular bout of addiction, as you will overcome many, but your dad will age about twenty years watching you do this and he really needs that lifetime bandwidth.

When that charming boy you met in a drug-fuelled, or alcohol-fuelled, haze wants you to go to that party with him, or that bar, or his house in that cab, consider your options. Please, don’t listen to him. He doesn’t care enough about you and he will show it time and time again with his actions. Watch him, don’t listen to his words, and believe what you know in your heart to be true about him from watching his actions. He doesn’t see you. You are merely a shade, subtle, in his hero story. This is not good enough.

This particular piece of advice was offered without age or timeline, because it happens so many times, I cannot count them all.

Your dad is amazing. This means you trust men to support you emotionally and take care of you when you are too wrecked to take care of yourself, and they will not meet that bar more than most of the time. Approaching your relationships with men with some skepticism as to their ability to meet you where you are at is very prudent, and you will be alright regardless. You will survive them all, and you will leave them all on your own volition, because you should and you will know when to get out. They aren’t good enough. Whether they become such later is irrelevant, because the damage they are doing to you in their negligence is not worth it.

In fact, This is a key tenet to be mindful of: watch what people do. Don’t listen to what they say all the time. They will tell you stories with their actions, and those are so much truer than the words they say. Watch for the people who do exactly what they say, and keep those close to you.

Have sex with men if you want to, but be sure to check in with yourself and confirm that you actually want to. Do it for you, not because they want you to, or you think they will like you more if you do. They won’t. They’re taking your life-force from you if you’re not into it, and you need that to survive. You could be reliving past trauma by engaging in sexual situations you don’t one hundred percent want to be doing, and that’s hurting you more than you know. You are sensitive, particularly about sexual things, as a result of your history. Stay on top of using protection, and if they have a problem with that, leave. You will get lucky, but there’s no such thing as too cautious. This will fail once, and particularly devastatingly, but again, you are lucky: you live in a country that has legal and safe abortion access. You catch it early, and it is like it never happened.

Your body needs to carry you through your life; treat it with reverence.

It will take you until the time of this letter being written by me, by future you, for you to realize the trauma you have subjected yourself to by having sex with people you aren’t completely into. This will happen over and over again for years. You will have lots of great sex; you will be very into a lot of the people you are intimate with, but there will be as many, if not more people that you’re not. You are a sex-positive person, and this will conflate with your desire, which will lead to a lot of situations that are more “I guess, because I should be into this” than “fuck yes”. “I guess” isn’t consent. The people you were having sex with should have known based on your body language, your intoxication, your hesitancy prior to their coercion, but they went ahead with it anyway. That’s on them, so don’t beat yourself up about this. You are responsible for yourself, but you are also only fifty percent responsible for the interactions you have with others. You are also a conventionally attractive woman, so people are going to chase you. Your boundaries have been historically shaky, so it’s no wonder that sometimes, particularly manipulative and toxic people get in close with you. You get better and better at dealing with this every single day, and I am hopeful that I will continue into the future to get even better.

Here is something very important about that, something that I wish I had known so much sooner than ago:

People getting close to you and your not seeing their negative impact on you until it’s too late is absolutely not your fault.

How other people push you, push your soft spots to see where the weaknesses are, how they covertly cross boundaries in order to get what they want, how they don’t check in, how they take what they can extract from you, how they steamroll over you: that is entirely on them.

People who prioritize egalitarianism, and who care about you, will not do this to you.

You’re not going to find your people until you are in your thirties. Your social nature, the way you easily get close to people and the way you are always growing and changing will lead to you cycling through a lot of social circles through your teens, twenties, and beyond. You will manage to keep a few people for the duration of those years, but most of them will come and go. In your mid-thirties, you will still see some churn, but there will be a core network that challenges you, and nourishes you. The people who are close then will value everything you are, and you won’t have to change or try to muffle any aspect of yourself with them. You will be valued for your headstrong, intense nature and the depth and ease with how you feel. Let that shine, and they’ll be able to see you in the dark. The people who want to take advantage of you will not even try anymore because you will terrify them. They will back away from your fire, as well they should, because you will incinerate them if they get too close. Too often over the course of your life you have been made small and quiet by others, and not only was that an assault on your state of being and your psyche, it was unjust.

You are valuable, and so are your thoughts and feelings.

A thread seems to have emerged, as we both suspected it might. Alongside that of “watch what people do, and see if it lines up with the words they say”, the other is “don’t let people silence you”.

Don’t snuff yourself out your fire. Do not be quiet. Deafen them all with the sound of your voice. Do it to protect yourself and to support people who are struggling in your community.

Be as emphatic as you love, with all of your heart.

Much love to you,

Chelsey

Love-Bombed.

The restaurant was so dark I could barely see him, backlit by some dim lanterns that kept the place moody, warmly toned, but technically visible. There were dark corners where booths held people, in pairs, speaking to each other intimately over the soft piano music. Cutlery clinked against glass or porcelain, subtle. I appreciated that the music wasn’t too loud, since this was the sort of place where people talk about intimate things over their meals; it surprises me to no end how many eating or drinking establishments miss that point. I was taking in everything: the small sounds, the slight taste of wine in my mouth from my last sip. The tablecloth was silky smooth under my fingers as i traced the edge of it for something to hold on to and tried to look him directly in the eye as he spoke, holding his gaze. I wanted to look anywhere else. The walls had beautiful art on them I wanted to study. It was a strange geometrical modernist sort of imagery within which you can see virtually whatever you want. The texture of the carpets was suddenly something I wanted to inspect and find the pattern in. I imagined looking at the ceiling. I wondered if it was interesting, speckled or peaked, if it had an inset to it. My lap, shrouded in black as usual and containing my other hand, the one not tugging on the edge of the tablecloth, but I did not look down. I am sure my nails are fine and do not need my attention, but I want to check. Ignoring these impulses became my secondary focus while my primary was to listen to him. It was considered attentive to look someone in the eyes when they are speaking from the heart, wasn’t it? He seemed to mean what he was saying. I wanted to believe his intentions were good. I think he did. I took note of my own skittish brain. Why can’t you just listen, why are you so easily distracted? What are you doing, mind?

I had been going into any romantic or sexual connection for the last few months with a pretty clear caveat that I was not well-equipped to be relied upon for emotional care or labour until further notice. I was recovering from some relationship implosion trauma and the well I had of emotional energy with which to deal with the feelings of others was very slowly refilling. There was about an inch in the bottom. That is nothing when the image in my head of this well sizes it comparable to a wheat silo.

He was explaining to me, on our second date, that he was in love with me.

He said that he felt empowered by the fact that I was so open and accepting, that he felt safe expressing the feelings he had because he knew I wouldn’t judge him. He also said that he didn’t expect me to respond in kind, that he was just happy to be in my life in a meaningful way.

He said this to me the second time we spent time together in person.

I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I inhaled, and knew, logically, that oxygen should get to my brain, but felt a bit like it would not survive the journey for some reason. Something was constricting in my chest. The air passing through my lungs just wasn’t enough.

I ignored that feeling.

I smiled and thanked him for his sentiment and his kind words. I might have reached out and taken his hand as some gesture of affection, or something to indicate that it was okay. My brain flooded with emotions. I was flattered, but I immediately felt guilty for not telling him I loved him back. I felt some shame. It was happening again. I did not know that the guilt would eat at me until I said it to him a short time later, maybe a couple of weeks. I don’t think I meant it in the way he thought I did, I also do not think I was influenced by him alone. That influence did not just come from the fact that he had said it first, or anything.

It came from everywhere.

Everything I understood about wanting to make people happy by giving them what they want, about the supposed fragility of the male ego not being able to cope with rejection and therefore to reject even a little was an act that could lead to my abuse, or about there being value in loving with an open heart and that the meaning of the word didn’t have to be what is traditionally assigned to it. About gratitude, bravery, honesty, and that love conquers all, or that it is enough. About this being a warning sign.

About ignoring warning signs.

The list went on.

There is a flavour to the “I love you” that follows the one that was too soon to be real. It doesn’t quite taste the same in your mouth as you form the words with lips round over the o’s and teeth coming together with lips over the vee. there’s a sense of the words being pulled from your lips without you quite being okay with it. The feelings accompanying it are trepidation, uncertainty, nerves. As opposed to having freely given them, or that the momentum of them leaving your throat was coming from something deeper inside of you. Something probably like your own agency. Empowerment. Safety.

Sometimes people do things, say things, to garner some sort of response. We don’t even know we’re doing it. I have done this. I have acted particularly in order to get through to an understanding by the other person, based on what I thought they would understand. I am not happy or proud that I have acted in this way. In fact, I’m committed now to speaking as clearly and as from the heart as I can so that people can have the sort of reactions they want to have, and making space for them to do that. But prior to my better understanding of myself and how I communicate, I would do and say things based on a set of information I had that suggested “people” (generally) act a way in response to the act. If i was being critical, I would call my own behaviour manipulative. If I am being kind, I call it influential.

The words are practically synonymous, but I bet a different feeling manifested when you read them each. I had a different feeling typing them. I searched through thesaurus to find words that more accurately portrayed what I meant. I glided over calculation, persuasion, conviction… none of them seemed to quite be so close and yet quite so juxtaposed.

A set of dominos begin to fall with love-bombing. The person who is professing their love might feel a set of emotions based on the fact that they have just revealed themselves in a vulnerable way. Maybe they feel a sense of relief, something akin to an exhale after holding one’s breath for a little while because they are going through a tunnel: a superstitious thing people do. Maybe there is an increasing sort of tension as they wait for the other person to respond to their disclosure. It may have taken every ounce of courage within them to admit it. Perhaps this was the first time they had ever thrown caution to the wind and just, you know, spoke their truth.

Maybe this was their equivalent of standing on the edge of the giant precipice of the unknown, uncharted waters, terrified.

Maybe this is just how they fall in love. Quick, hard, abrupt.

Maybe this is what they do to get the other person to act similarly. Maybe this has “worked” for them a million times.

Maybe they have actually never felt like this before.

Maybe they want me to react.

The person on the receiving end has to wrangle through their own feelings about “love” as a concept: what it means, what the word represents for them, but also how this has happened. Maybe they start to replay through the short exchange of interactions with the other person to scan them for some sense of how this came to pass, and are juggling that along with trying to figure out how they feel, if they feel similarly, whether that’s reasonable, whether it is safe to say out loud in response, but mostly how to react.

Maybe they’ve never had anyone say that to them before.

Maybe they don’t know how they feel about the person, but they don’t want to outright reject them.

Maybe they are used to people falling in love with them as it happens every day, so this is normal.

Maybe they’re terrified of their own feelings, have now been asked to deal with those of someone else, and it’s too much.

My cued reaction, now, is to respond with “what do you mean?”

Fail? On Changing Relationships.

Relationships changing, or ending, is often perceived as a failure. Typically, an intrinsically higher value is placed on the romantic or sexual relationships we have with other people, and when those things change to be not sexual or romantic, it is usually considered a downgrade in significance. That “demotion” is often perceived as bad, or as something broken. I am skeptical of this because whenever I have felt inclined to extract myself from a connection, or change it, things have gotten better. Sometimes this happens immediately, and sometimes it takes a little while for the improvement to set in, but there is always something that makes the whole process a net-positive. So, what failed?

When the end of the agreed-upon terms of a relationship comes, I am quick to apply a light switch metaphor: we are on, right up until we are off. Or, we are off until we’re on. The more I have experienced this switch, the weaker that comparison is for me. It feels more like hitting empty on a gas tank: an emotional vat that fuels the ability to keep going in the reality around you as it is. My brain has traditionally recorded the moments things change, I suppose, I can call to mind these transitional points very clearly. They are seared in my mind’s eye, easily accessed. The impact of them is probably something to do with their clarity in my remembrance. Strong feelings, good or bad, seem to be what we hold on to. Moments of change also seem to stick. So, when a relationship is at a point of major shift, there are ripples in the mind and the memory.

It starts in my fingertips, kind of tingling. It works its way up my arms and forms a tightness around my chest, in my lungs, around my heart. In an attempt to relieve the constriction, I will probably take a deep intake of breath. As I exhale, there’s a sort of release that occurs. It feels like the blood coursing through me is cold, suddenly, and draining away. It is as if I have suddenly realized that the well from which I draw resilience is empty save for a drop of energy reserved for whatever exit strategy is deployed. If I close my eyes for a moment, the blackness is comfortable and familiar because there’s nothing inside me anyway. I can see the edges of my shell, bare, exposed and a bit scarred from the strain of trying to keep the connection from breaking. I feel hollow and devoid of care. This is usually past the point at which it would have been a comfortable thing to leave, because if I had done this sooner I would have the energy to deal with the fallout of the separation. I am usually kicking myself later as I struggle to put one foot in front of the other, or complete simple tasks such as making myself something to eat, or being punctual.

I’m always early except when I am surviving on fumes, if anything. The level of strain is indicative in how late I am.

I could have ended it when there was something left in me, and this would all be easier. Since I kept on until I was completely done, there’s nothing to help me cope with self-preservation after. I’ve probably lost weight, and I’ve probably been sleeping a lot more, or a lot less, for a while. My skin probably has less colour than usual, which is laughable. I am pretty pale already.

I know this feeling well enough that I can recognize the onset, now. I used to be surprised by it as words escape my lips and I hear my own voice echo out of me, foreign. I would hear myself speak and think, did I just say that?

Oh.

The words are in language that represents termination, and usually served very deadpan, or cold. When I reach this point, I haven’t got any time for warming them up anymore.

“I can’t keep doing this.”

“I need you to get your things out of my house.”

“I haven’t been happy in ages. I have to go.”

“Wow. You should probably go.”

“Um, I’m leaving.”

“Get off me.”

“I’m not happy and this relationship needs to end.”

“Get out.”

“I don’t want to be with you anymore in this capacity.”

“I am not going to marry you.”

“I need you to stop.”

“I need to stop.”

“This isn’t working.”

“Really? Okay. I don’t want to keep doing this.”

“We’re done.”

Sometimes I say nothing. I just turn on my heel and walk away, or I hang up the phone. In particularly avoidant moments, I’m walking down the street on a (preferably) overcast day with a coffee in my hand, and I just stop walking in the middle of the sidewalk, and think. Hm. I then will pull out my phone and delete some contact information from it, check social media, and continue on my way.

Sometimes I just cry. There aren’t any words, just sobbing and tears streaming and mascara running lines downward over my face to the corners of my mouth, until I try to wipe away the stains and leave streaks across my cheeks. I’ll find them later when I next meet a mirror. The sudden crying is typically alarming if I’m in the presence of the other party, which is indicative that they have not noticed as the relationship they have with me has become untenable for me to continue as it is. They don’t see me. I’m invisible. Salty tears and smeared makeup under my red eyes, and suddenly I appear to them and we sometimes don’t know how we got here, and where all this salt water is coming from.

I thought we were happy together. Did they think we were happy together? Do we remember?

I thought this eyeliner was waterproof. It says it is on the packaging.

Sometimes that feeling isn’t represented outward by anything at all. Things are just different between me and the other person now. That is strange, when there’s nothing to say or do but just keep on in this alternate way, unexplained differences in speech, contact, familiarity. A slow, silent withdrawal that is barely noticeable until i’m just not around anymore and the other person is wondering when that began. I have been on the other end of that, too. The text message sits unanswered, and they’re just not there anymore.

Maybe they don’t even notice we’re gone; I for them, or them for me.

There is sometimes something left. Pieces of why we were connected don’t get sloughed off with the tears and I have to figure out what can be salvaged. I usually want to remember why I love someone and hold onto that, somehow nurse it back to something positive and functional, even if the connection doesn’t look the same. Usually. I don’t believe that people are inherently good or bad, it is just that sometimes the things they want and do and the things I want or am doing myself no longer align. That’s okay. I want them to be happy.

But, sometimes the withdrawal and need to remove the self is so absolute that everything goes.

He was yelling through the phone at me.

I pace my living room, the carpet soft under my bare feet. I hadn’t put on the stockings he liked yet, and I was supposed to be leaving to catch the train in about 5 minutes if I was going to be punctual. I can feel the garter clips brush against my legs as I move, hanging unattached. My hair is up off my neck temporarily in pins so when I take it down, the curls will be softer. He prefers it down. My makeup is half done: I had been lining my eyes with charcoal in the mirror of my bathroom when my phone lit up. I had seen it out of the corner of my eye on the kitchen counter, only because the rest of the lights in the house were out. I keep my phone on silent, most of the time, and he hates that. He doesn’t understand why I don’t want to be able to answer whenever he calls.

I am late.

I was nervous about this as I answered the phone because he will know I have not left for the train yet. He always wants me to be where we meet first, because I should wait for him for a little while, to show I am committed, and because he should never have to wait for me. Unacceptable. It was really warm out, even in the evening, which he liked because there wasn’t any reason for me to cover up. He would probably prefer I walk around naked, actually, with nothing between me and the world, or him. Exposed and vulnerable.

He had called to give me shit about the date I had been on the night before. He wants to know why I hadn’t answered when he had called before, because didn’t I want to make sure he was doing alright, and why wasn’t I checking in during the date more? Did I have fun with this new guy (what was his fucking name again? right. fuck, what a dumb name)? Was I going to see him again? He didn’t say that was okay. He should make me ask permission to go on dates, and then maybe I would behave better. I was lucky he even let me go. Why did I even want to go on dates with other men when all I needed was available to me from him? Wasn’t I happy with him, wasn’t I grateful? He thought I was going to get over this whole non-monogamy idea once I had a taste of submitting to him, he said. I listened to him go on for a few minutes, and then listened to him talk himself into the reasons why what he wants from me, and for me, was more important than what I want for myself, and how he knew better what I needed.

He thought he knew best what it was that I needed.

That was the moment.

I heard the alarms in my brain. I heard them, finally. They had been going off for months, and I finally heard the frequency that had before been untraceable. It was like tuning a radio. I had been mentally turning dials and then the sirens were sounding and they were just at a wavelength I could not hear before, until suddenly there they were. I wondered how long I had been ignoring them. I stopped pacing and went out onto my balcony, shutting the door. There was a pack of cigarettes out there, and I took one out of its cardboard enclosure, lighting it with a book of matches that was sitting with it. I had left them out here earlier, and would have forgotten them when I left the house. I wasn’t going out, now, so that was fine. I could sit out here and smoke all night, now, if I wanted. I took a drag and allowed the smoke to fall out of my mouth as I spoke, my eyes trailing the horizon and the outline of trees. I heard trains in the distance.

“I’m not coming.”

“What?!”

“I said I’m not coming. I don’t want to see you tonight.”

“Yes you are. We’re meeting in an hour. Why haven’t you left yet?”

“I said, I’m not coming. I don’t want to see you anymore.”

“Wait, what? Hold on, honey, this has gotten out of hand.”

“That is correct. It has. I have to go.”

“But, wait a minute, I didn’t say..”

After I hung up the phone, he called me twenty-six times and left six voicemails. He also texted incessantly almost all night. He begged and pleaded with me to respond, giving reasons related to the dynamic we were in as well as how I owed him that response. He deserved my engagement and attention. It was ridiculously unfair that I was not calling him. What the fuck did I think this was, anyway? I am lucky he cares so much because this is not how these things work.

I responded to nothing.

We talked a few days later after he texted asking if I had gotten my period, and I informed him I was terminating the pregnancy. I found out the day after I hung up the phone on him.

I saw him one other time after that. I ran into him at a bar and he told me he had orchestrated our entire relationship with the intent to push me into telling him no. I felt like a toy that had been batted around by a very malicious animal.

It took me several years to figure out that a lot of what he had told me simply wasn’t true.

I had a friend over for dinner a little while ago, well after this all had occurred. They said they had run into him and asked about me, and he had said I was doing very well and taking good care of myself. They told me this, and I stared at them blankly for a minute before smiling and replying, “yeah, that’s true, but he doesn’t know that. We haven’t spoken in years.” My friend was quite puzzled.

I was not.

The further away from him I am, the better I am doing, and I think that is what constitutes progress and growth.

Success, even.

Violent Relationship Portrayal: An Analysis of Beauty and Grey

More than 50 different shades of relationship abuse are depicted in the best selling trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James, and none of them have to do with bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism or masochism (the interchangeable words that make up the catch-all acronym BDSM). The two series of books have made a significant mark on current popular literature, and continue to be a hot topic with the release of the film adaptation of the first book this year. Published originally in 2012, nearly two decades after The Beauty Trilogy by A. N. Roquelaure (a pen name for Anne Rice), the general public now has something sexy to talk about. What is the opposite of sexy, however, is the casual attitude with which Fifty Shades depicts violence and consent transgression within relationships. Rice produced a set of erotic fantasy novels that, while having their own set of problems around consent, are otherworldly enough in nature to mitigate the reader’s tendency to draw real-life parallels. She achieves escapism and portrays racy subject matter without setting negative examples for kink dynamics in the real world. Thankfully, we are not all princes, princesses, or anything in between on the gender spectrum, susceptible to curses that induce a century of slumber, living in kingdoms in which we are taken into captivity to serve the court as sexual slaves. Although parallels can be drawn and differences highlighted within several aspects of the two trilogies, the distinctions between them are significant. In this essay, I will explore how each trilogy portrays male-dominated power exchange, marriage, sex-negativity, and levels of realism to demonstrate the problematic elements of Fifty Shades, and how Beauty has managed to circumnavigate them, lacking the “beast” of social norms around relationship abuse.

The development of a singular power dynamic, of Christian Grey and his control of Ana Steele, drives the storyline in James’s books. Grey is a rich, powerful and privileged man who uses his wealth and influence to steer Steele first into his bed and later into a committed relationship. He exerts his privilege over her with the purchases he makes for her (a car and a laptop), by seizing control of the company she works for, and by tracking her location through the cellular phone he gives her. He wants her to submit to him completely and allow him to dictate what she eats, the birth control she takes, and what she wears. As Downing emphasizes, “The idea of the woman who is initiated into BDSM by a more experienced, often older man is a long-standing and somewhat ubiquitous trope in both fiction and first-person confessional accounts.” (96) In The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty, the protagonist — Beauty — has many trials and tribulations, and endures oppressive systems of control exerted over her from the start. We get a clear sense of her experience in the beginning, and later we are introduced to the perspectives of others, namely Alexi, Tristan, and finally Laurent, which provide us with a myriad of different power dynamics amongst several gender configurations and sexualities. Beauty is under the control of first the Prince and later Mistress Lockley, prior to her kidnapping by the Sultan. We witness snippets throughout the three books of the experiences of the three men Beauty encounters intimately in a slave setting, experiencing a variety of submissive roles amongst themselves and with others, and some dominant ones, eventually. Ziv writes, “In particular, the work does not problematize gender relations: its main erotic force does not hinge on the power differential between women and men.” (68) This array of power exchange levels the playing field and normalizes alternative relationship styles in a more sexually egalitarian manner.

One example of sharp contrast between the two sets of books is in their treatment of kink within the parameters of marriage. When Christian proposes to Ana in 50 Shades Darker abruptly to prevent her from leaving him again, he is blatantly motivated by controlling her and the situation. Ana requests time to think about it, and by the end of the book they are engaged. 50 Shades Freed begins with them having a long honeymoon in Europe. The marriage depicted is one of compromise; Christian has moved past his tendencies towards kink in exchange for a long-term relationship with Ana. Yet, all of the language used around their marriage depicts ownership and possession, suggesting a imbalanced power exchange in Grey’s favour. At the wedding altar, Christian whispers “Finally, you’re mine,” as they kiss. (20) Beauty and Laurent are the perfect match in Beauty’s Release, “and a good deal happier, I think, than anyone else could ever guess”, Beauty claims at the conclusion of the text. (238) Laurent rides a horse to her upon discovering she has not accepted the proposal of any suitor since she left the possession of Queen Eleanor, returning to her own kingdom at her parents’ demand. There is a strong possessive element in the way these two interact as well, and Beauty craves that possession as much as Laurent does. “I never dared dream of this moment” (235) Beauty says upon discovering Laurent is there to whisk her away as his wife. Leading to this point, every indication is given that Beauty wants to be dominated and controlled. She had been rescued from the possession of a Sultan, and was to be sent back to her family when she arrived at the Queen’s kingdom. But she raged against this — against the clothes she was given to wear, and against being released from her captivity. Her marriage with Laurent was for her a true release from what she would not accept: her freedom. In contrast, Christian Grey inflicts control and possession on Ana throughout the 50 Shades trilogy to her dismay and discontent.

Sex-criticism is making its way into mainstream media as consent becomes a widely discussed point of advocacy, and more and more, equality is being sought out in the bedroom by all genders. In North America, at least, there seems to be an outcry for freedom, and a space to choose to participate enthusiastically in sexual activity with the uprising of consent culture. On college campuses, students are once again campaigning that “no means no” and that people should be able to safely move through their environments without risking assault. Heterosexual women are increasingly empowered to seek pleasure as they see fit — autonomously, not as objects meant to please men.  Dana Goldstein writes, “asking for what you want in bed is a feminist political act.”  In Fifty Shades, Ana is introduced to us as a virginal college graduate; she is portrayed as young, inexperienced, and powerless. Since the books are from her point of view, we are privy to her stream of consciousness which reveals her apprehension around Christian’s domination of her: “I shake my head to gather my wits. My heart is pounding a frantic tattoo, and for some reason I’m blushing furiously under his steady scrutiny. I am utterly thrown by the sight of him standing before me.” (46) For her part, while Beauty is stripped of her autonomy within the first chapter, the inner dialogue we hear suggests that even though she expresses fear of her situation, she embraces the Prince as her love and her role as absolute. In that fantasy world, sexual awakening runs parallel with enhancement and changing for the better (Rice. 16).

We slip easily into a tale eloquently told, and end up down the metaphorical rabbit hole with escapist literature. In fact, we often disappear into stories, rely on them for the fantasy that they offer, even, as a break from the real world. When the real world is perceived in literature, it is that much easier to escape into its romanticism, to lose ourselves in the fantasy. That is the danger in Fifty Shades. The trilogy was written as Twilight fan fiction: a sexy, risqué adaptation geared towards entertaining those with a more normal life. Escapism is wonderful when potentially dangerous scenarios are evident to the reader. However, James has taken a typical romantic trope and spun it in a very unhealthy direction. There are real men in the world who are powerfully wealthy, own companies, and destructively exert their influence on those around them. There are real Christian Greys prowling our cities. The problem with the example set by James is the normalization of violent behaviour towards women. If stripped of his kink and his money, Grey’s behaviour would land him in jail (assuming an effective justice system). Instead, they are married and live happily ever after, we are led to believe. The tone set by a narrative in which everything works out in the end — even after all of Grey’s reprehensible behaviour — is permissive of violence towards women, of class-based power, and of patriarchy. These are very real problems in our world; to spin a yarn that affirms such behaviour to the general public is dangerous and harmful. In contrast, Beauty’s tale of adventures through castles, villages and palaces of sexually charged debasement is clearly fantastic and other-worldly, and subsequently difficult to draw likeness to real life and permissions for behaviour from.

The hold on society that popular culture has is formidable. The wide availability of information via social media and click-bait style advertisement means that people are influenced by what they see most. When something “goes viral”, it is accessed by the masses and amplified to popularity without much critical thought. Ana Steele represents an archetype that many individuals identifying as women can embrace without much reflection. Indeed, her character is hardly unique. Popular culture frequently shoves the trope in our face: boy meets girl, boy pursues girl, boy convinces girl to submit. While it has perhaps seemed harmless for decades — in books, movies, and other media — it reinforces cultural norms that condone violent relationship dynamics and silence the voices of victims. A hypothetical woman could confide in her friend that she is stalked day and night, her phone is tapped to track her whereabouts, or someone comes to her house unannounced after an argument and forces themselves on her. Any good friend would call the police for her if she would not do it herself. This is precisely what Christian Grey does with Ana Steele, and it is touted as romantic, as a love story, and as her good fortune for being swept up by a wealthy, powerful, passionate suitor. In order to move past such damaging norms toward a society that readily accepts the healthy portrayal of relationships, there must be accountability and acceptance of what is not okay. The Christian Greys of the world must be held accountable, so that the Ana Steeles can realize their own power.

Works Cited

Downing, Lisa. “Safewording! Kinkphobia And Gender Normativity In Fifty Shades Of Grey.” Psychology & Sexuality 4.1 (2013): 92-102.

Goldstein, Dana. On Feminism and Sadomasochistic Sex. The Nation, 16 Apr. 2012. Web. 28 Mar. 2015.

James, E. L. 50 Shades of Grey ; 50 Shades Darker ; 50 Shades Freed.  New York. Vintage, 2012. Print.

Roquelaure, A. N. (Rice, Anne) The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty ; Beauty’s Punishment ; Beauty’s Release. New York: Penguin, 1983. Print.

Ziv, Amalia. “The Pervert’s Progress: An Analysis of ‘Story of O’ and ‘The Beauty Trilogy’ Feminist Review.” Sexualities: Challenge & Change. 1994, 46. pp. 61-75 Palgrave Macmillan Journals.