Warning…despite the goofiness about 1990s music and a gif from Disney’s Lilo and Stitch as the visuals at the beginning, this post is kinda serious…it might contain triggers for abuse survivors…and it’s probably a little on the long side. Read at your own risk.
Before she was Blake Shelton’s girlfriend and making country duets and being a judge for a couple seasons on The Voice, Gwen Stefani was the lead singer of this 1990s/2000s ska/grunge/punk band (I know…but that’s all I’ve got for describing them), No Doubt. And their first big hit was called Just a Girl. I have complex feelings about No Doubt and Ms. Stefani now as an adult, like I do about a lot of things and people I loved in my youth, but that song came out when I was in high school, and I fell in love with it. I’ve always been drawn to lyrics that put out feelings I’ve always had trouble expressing. Namely frustration, and maybe even anger, that there were a different set of rules for me than there were for the guys I knew, and that I was expected to put up with shit from other people because I am a girl. Particularly in relationships with men, but also the paternalistic, infantilizing way parents, school administration, and even government treat girls and women. We’re watched over and put into a box. We’re given fewer rights and less autonomy over our own bodies and lives and decisions than men, and women of color are actually even further controlled and repressed than me, because racism compounds this stuff.
Those lyrics, “I’m just a girl in the world…that’s all that you let me be…” and of course, the iconic, “I’ve had it up to HERE…”
I felt those lines. I still relate to them. I often think, ‘I’ve had it up to HERE.’ So onto this weird post that’s not really about this song. It’s about my well developed social anxiety, and how it’s always held me back, but in this odd way, I guess I’m also grateful for it, because it’s protected me from the shit so many women I know are expected to ‘take.’ This post is about how so many women I know have ‘I’ve had it up to HERE’ lines that cover a lot more distance than my line does. They’ve tolerated a lot more badness than me in how other people treat them. They’ll not only tolerate a higher level of badness, but they usually won’t even point out that they are experiencing badness. (If I haven’t just walked away from uncomfortable badness, I’m more like Lilo. If I’m going to attempt to tolerate your badness, you’re at least going to know it’s there and that I expect it to shrink.)
I’m friends with many intelligent, driven, strong women with what I’ve always considered to be healthy self worth. I’m ONLY friends with good women. And, unfortunately, I’m friends with a lot of women (these same women…who are good, and intelligent, and strong, and have what I always thought was healthy self esteem, etc….) who have put up with amounts of abuse in relationships that are unbelievable to me. I’m writing about this today, not to share other people’s stories. They aren’t really mine to share, but you readers don’t know who I really am, so there’s no way you can identify my friends. I don’t feel like I’m violating privacy by sharing my thoughts here. What I’m really sharing is my relation and reaction to their stories, anyway.
I’ve been thinking about this all week since I had lunch with a friend I’ve had since 7th grade. (As much as I hated middle school…my best ‘real life’ friends all came from that time in my life. Go figure). We hadn’t seen each other or chatted in a while, so our conversation wandered all over the place. Our sons go to school together, so there was some school stuff and parenting. We talked about our husbands and what wonderful men they are. We talked about the state of the world. We talked about the food we were eating. And of course, we talked about old times, because we’ve been friends (HOLY SHIT!) for almost 30 years, and we have a not-identical-but-definitely-similar frame of reference for knowing the same people and experiencing the same events. She told me a story about her high school boyfriend. I’ll be real, I wasn’t a big fan of his when we were in high school. I didn’t think he was a First Class Jackass or anything back then; I just didn’t like his energy, so I didn’t associate with him at all, and I thought she could do better (and she has…thank goodness she didn’t marry that kid). She told me about some rather serious stalking behavior and intimidation, and she told me about one instance of physical assault that was terrifying to hear about, even 20+ years removed from the event. And then she said, ‘That was my line.’
I was anxious for her after she shared that tale with me, and I was desperate to lighten the mood for both of us, so I made a semi-self-deprecating joke. “Wow. My line is way, way, miles behind that. I’m all, ‘That guy looked at me weird one time, so…” We both chuckled. I’m glad she laughed. And I’m glad she’s now married to a man who would never treat her that way. And I’m glad she had a line. That she decided to leave and get out then. Some women don’t. They take the badness longer. The badness continues to escalate. She didn’t take it anymore; she drew that line. I’m proud of her.
And I have a friend who’s been in an unhappy, emotionally abusive marriage for at least a couple of years. She’d made plans to leave at least once before, but didn’t. Her ‘I’ve had it up to here’ line moved a few times. Farther out, not closer in. And then he put his hands on one of their children in a scary, threatening way. She said, ‘I had to get here to admit what was really going on.’
Again…I’m afraid for her. I really hope she stays on the ‘getting out’ path this time. I hope this time, ‘I’ve had it up to HERE,’ keeps repeating for her.
When I worked outside the home, I worked with two women who were survivors of domestic violence. They were afraid of their husbands. Both of them came to work with visible markers of physical abuse, and I knew both of them were suffering regular emotional abuse too. Their partners kept them from friends and family…monitored their communications and movements…held them up to a set of expectations they themselves wouldn’t adhere to, setting them up for failure they could later ‘punish’ them for. One of these women, I was close-ish to. I encouraged her to leave. To report things. To do something other than take more pain. But I know how hard it is to make any sort of significant move when you’re afraid. You have to reach your ‘line.’ And she hadn’t reached hers. I told her I felt lucky that I’d never been in a relationship like hers. Because (like my other two friends, actually), I always saw her as a confident person with high self worth, and I…wasn’t. But she saw ME the way I saw her, and she saw HERSELF the way I saw me. “Luck has almost nothing to do with it, Jen. People can tell with you. They can tell by your energy. You wouldn’t make a good victim. They can tell that.” I thought about what she said a lot at the time, and I’ve been thinking about it again this week, with the reminders from my other friends. Most people, upon meeting me, really can tell where my line is. And maybe that contributes to that ‘intimidating’ descriptor that’s been used for and about me that I’ve never fully understood.
Again…my ‘line’ is a great distance farther ‘in’ that these women’s are/were. I’ve walked away from people in my life for addressing me in an aggressive tone of voice one too many times (read: that number is different, depending on the person and the circumstances, but it’s always a SMALL number of times). And I credit (what a strange word to type here, but that’s the truth) the hyper-vigilance my lifelong social anxiety created.
My friend right now who is still ‘in’ her relationship, but at her line (I hope) is (GOOD!) seeing a counselor, and she said the first question the counselor asked was, ‘Do you feel safe at home?’ I’ve thought about that question a lot since she talked to me. My parents talked to me in hurtful, loud voices a lot, particularly my mom. They used me or ignored me. All of our interaction was emotionally negative and confrontational or nonexistent. And as a kid, I couldn’t get away from that. It’s not like you can just walk away from your parents unless you want to be homeless. It was painful, and a pain I couldn’t escape, but even with as unhappy as I was at home, and with all the faulty, hair-trigger coping mechanisms it caused me to form for future interaction with other humans, I can honestly say, I never would have answered that particular question ‘no.’ I never felt ‘unsafe’ at home. Just really unhappy and anxious. That was painful enough for me to WANT to leave.
I know for many people, their upbringing creates a pattern…that they seek out the familiar, even when the familiar hurts. Maybe it even lays the groundwork for them to stretch those pain boundaries farther. For their ‘line’ to be moved back more and more. But my anxiety has made my line shorter. It makes me notice slight changes in facial expressions, in body language, in voice tones and volumes, in word choices, in frequency of contact in order to avoid that pain. I know I’ve walked away from people I could have maybe worked things out with…in romance, in friendship…because of this hyper-vigilance, and that’s perhaps a real cost. It shows as ‘cold’ and ‘heartless’ and ‘intimidating.’ Even the sort of perceived positive sometimes adage, ‘Jen doesn’t take any shit,’ is sort of antagonistic and keeps at least a percentage of good people out of my life, I’m sure. But it’s also led me to never tolerating ‘this hurts,’ much more than a tiny bit, from anyone I CAN get away from. I never get to ‘really scary’…I never get to feeling ‘unsafe.’ Because my line is set at ‘uncomfortable and unhappy.’ The truth about why I don’t tolerate mistreatment isn’t because I’m a bad ass, or smarter, or stronger, or tougher, or whatever-er than other women (people). It’s because my anxiety leads me to choose flight over fight and freeze when people hurt me, even a little bit. My anxiety tells me to walk away and distance myself from people at the micro aggressions instead of waiting for the macro ones to occur. My anxiety and my memory and the way my brain works making connections and identifying patterns make me slow and wary to trust and slow and wary to forgive…but they also really do protect me in a tangible way. And I guess…strangely…this week…maybe I’m a feeling a little thankful for my pronounced social anxiety.
I’d certainly never recommend developing anxiety to anyone for any reason. It’s not a healthy defense mechanism. Instead, I’d recommend taking intersectional feminism seriously. Women shouldn’t have an expected level of suffering abuse they have to take in order to interact with men. People in general shouldn’t be expected to tolerate abuse from perceived authority figures (parents, employers, government policy or officials). And people shouldn’t have to have honed anxious hyper-vigilance and response mechanisms to avoid abuse, either.
The utopian end goal I guess would be for no one to have an, ‘I’ve had it up to HERE,’ line, because no one would intentionally hurt them or box them out from their own happiness and fulfillment.