CW (content warning) Stigma, human trafficking, substance abuse, antidepressant medication, suicidal thoughts, gender and sexual expression, mother wound, trauma bond, child welfare system, intergenerational trauma
Multiple people who are very close to me expressed hesitancy when I first mentioned the idea of sending the twins to the respite centre for families in crisis─ elders and peers alike. They didn’t outwardly call me unfit but there was absolutely an unspoken stigma in their responses. Why were they hesitant? Why didn’t they see the benefit to such a service? Was I projecting my shame onto their responses? Furthermore, why the fuck are any of us placing stigma on things that have such great potential to heal whilst glamourizing the things that destory, like drinking alcohol, doing drugs, or pimping girls/women?
The circumstances that I described in my first book, “The Teen Sex Trade: My Story”, were mainly received well. Thankfully, I come across more supporters than naysayers but still I face stigma as a survivor of human trafficking. The stigma is in the victim blaming. I’m told that I’m lying and exaggerating the truth but what does it serve me to do so? The money and fame that I’m assumed to have don’t exist. Those who participate in the “No Snitching” code of the streets accuse me of dry snitching. Why is the stigma associated with me as the survivor? Why isn’t the stigma put onto the trafficker? When will we stop glamourizing men who use and abuse women and call it a hustle? It’s mainly been Black Nova Scotians that shun me for speaking my truth about being pimped. They are the only people I know not appalled at what happened to me. Instead, they are appalled that I had the audacity to write a book about it.
We can’t change the world unless we change ourselves¹
When it comes to stigma, there are countless ways to perpetuate it. Whether we do so consciously or unconsciously doesn’t negate the harm caused. There is a particularly high perpetuation of stigma in the black community. Some of the reasons for this, that I’ve seen, is largely due to outdated traditions, lack of (access to) information, trauma, survival based living, and a false sense of superiority. Despite the fact that all of these reasons have a specific origin, that doesn’t mitigate the stigma that we perpetuate.
Black people are the most resilient people I know but we are not invulnerable. If we don’t get comfortable with being uncomfortable, we’ll prolong the healing required to end intergenerational trauma. The first step to recovery is admitting that we have a problem. We have a problem with passing judgement when we have no place to. We’re the pot calling the kettle black.
Many of us are not ready to have the conversations we need to have where we need to have them. In holding ourselves accountable to our thoughts, actions, and behaviours, we begin to change the narrative. It all starts within and it starts at home. How many times have you heard that the state of today’s children is the fault of the parents? Well, where do you think the parents learned how to parent and so on and so forth? At some point we have to break the cycle but if we never make ourselves aware of the things that perpetuate stigma, we’ll never have the desire to change it. We can’t change the world unless we change ourselves.
Social stigma and health
Stigma is social shame. It can surround products, certain infections and diseases, states of being, mental illness, etc. One of the largest stigmas that I’ve come across is likely the stigma surrounding health. There is even stigma surrounding something as personal as womens’ vaginal health. Socially, we are expected to smell like flowers and fruit 24/7 when in reality, a vagina has an array of smells given the fact that it is a self cleaning organ. Still, men and women alike will shame a woman for having vaginal issues such as yeast infections or bacteria vaginosis. When I was pregnant with my twins, I suffered from chronic yeast infections for seven out of the nine months. My doctor attributed it to the surge in hormones. I was wildly embarrassed and had no idea that this was common amongst pregnant women. Despite the fact that these types of issues can develop from something as simple as changing your laundry detergent, the stigma says that if you experience these imbalances, you are dirty. The idea of this is simply not 100% true. Of course, hygiene is a factor but it isn’t the only factor. Oftentimes, stigma surrounding mental illness is way worse.
The essence of stigma, simply put, is a lack of correct information. There are many reasons why someone may not seek or have access to information. The word “stigma” isn’t an individual concept; it’s an umbrella term for unwarranted feelings and harmful perspectives. Those feelings include shame, disgust, misunderstanding, and disgrace. We harbour these feelings based on false and blanketed perspectives.
For instance, when I spoke to my doctor about potentially accessing medication, I had a preconceived notion that it would make me suicidal. Where did this belief come from? I don’t know a single person who committed suicide because they were on medication. My belief actually stemmed from those commercials that said, “Are you or someone you love feeling depressed? Try (insert medication) today! Side effects may include: dry mouth, upset stomach, suicidal thoughts, and diarrhea”. The narrator would always speak super fast when listing the side effects or the side effects would be written in small print across the bottom of the screen. I’d never sat down and talked to a licensed professional about the realities of taking medication. I was just listening to half truths and coming up with my own ideas. Thus, my perspective became harmful! It was harmful to me because it prevented me from getting the help I so desperately needed. It’s harmful to others because whether I express it or not, those preconceived notions led me to believe that whoever is taking medication is at risk of a whole array of things and they shouldn’t be taking it. WHO AM I TO MAKE THAT CALL FOR ANYBODY BUT MYSELF? Nobody!
Tolerance vs. Acceptance
We are hardwired to pick up on social cues of acceptance, tolerance, and/or disdain. Those social cues are what allowed me to pick up on the energy that those who I’d confided in about my plans to utilize the respite centre didn’t approve! In turn, it only makes sense that I give off social cues of my own. Stigma is the spoken or unspoken social cue of disapproval! Unchecked and uneducated disapproval is the breeding ground for all types of phobias and isms.
Within the last two years, I spent a lot of time in isolation. Motherhood and abusive relationships have a way of doing that to you. In those years, I spent a lot of time reading about different people’s experiences. I started to learn more about pronouns, gender fluidity, and sexual orientation. Transgender and nonbinary folks were somewhat of a mystery to me. I had a preconceived notion that those who identified as such were choosing to. For what reason? What did I think would be the benefit of choosing to be something that was constantly under attack? I have no idea but that’s what I thought. I didn’t agree or care to understand. In attempts to appear inclusive, I would tell myself that if I was ever in a position of power, I wouldn’t deny anyone a position or experience based on their gender or who they choose to love. I would also tell myself that their experience is not for me to understand. These thoughts were actually a mask for tolerance versus acceptance. That is, until I had children of my own.
You can’t possess people. You can only experience them²
Let me be the first to say that I never should have needed to be blood related to anyone in order to see their humanity but that’s where I was. Looking at my beautiful, small, vulnerable children, I knew that there was nothing in this world that would make me stop loving them. Before I ever set eyes on them, I knew that no matter which end of the spectrum their gender identity or sexual orientation was on, I would love them. I told myself that I wouldn’t agree with it but I would still love them. But, how could these two things coexist? Love is not tolerance. It is acceptance. I don’t own my children. I don’t own their identities or experiences. I can’t love them and tolerate them at the same time. With that being said, I still hold certain ideas that are harmful. My only way up from here is to continue to work through the stigmas that I perpetuate by seeking and accession information.
Healing the mother wound³
Prior to a very public, humiliating, anger filled argument between my mother and I on Facebook, no one outside of my circle knew that I had a strained relationship with her. It has been six months since I spoke to my mother aside from a quick phone call where I had to contact her in order to get a hold of my nephew. I went to Nova Scotia for three weeks and did not visit her once. I have written about the dynamics between us on a few of my blog posts, including, It Takes a Village to Raise a Child, Home is Where the Heart Is, and Mother, Connecting to Land. In doing so, I have faced stigma from strangers and family, near and far, including my father. The stigma is the expectation that I should maintain a relationship with my mother, no matter how toxic, because and I quote:
- She’s my mother
- I only get one mother
- She’s going to die one day
- She brought me into this world
- I owe her something for providing for me as a child
- I’m going to regret it once she’s gone
- She isn’t going to change so I should accept her for who she is
- She’s been through some things that I don’t know and/or don’t understand
- I should let bygones be bygones
- I should forgive her for what’s happened in the past
I’ve heard all of these excuses and then some. Every guilt trip someone attempts to take me on is rooted in a lack of correct information. This lack stems from feelings of disapproval, shock, shame, assumptions, and misunderstandings. If any of those same people had even an inkling as to why I feel the way I feel, maybe they would feel differently.
Part of the process in healing my mother wound is remembering, analyzing, and fact checking, the memories I have of my mom and family. I don’t have a connection with most of them and I refuse to apologize for it. I wish things were different but they’re not. I’m expected to have a sense of loyalty to someone who has never done anything for me, aside from what she had the responsibility to do as my parent and she could barely do that. Whatever her reasons, it was/is not my responsibility to disregard my mental health for the sake of keeping up appearances. People expect me to overlook my mother’s “shortcomings” (for lack of better terms) because of the reasons stated above. Fuck that!
Nobody wins when the family feuds⁴
I used to have an extremely strong sense of loyalty to my family. My loyalty to them wasn’t earned. It was mostly driven from a place of fear. It was a fear of losing them, being alone, being disliked, and telling “our business” to the wrong people that kept me quiet. And, for what? That loyalty kept me from getting therapy as a child, which I probably needed. All to grow up and not have any of them at my side when I need someone the most? My mother has four other children, in addition to myself, and I don’t talk to any of them. Without going into specifics, each of them have been detrimental to my mental health in some way.
Growing up, I thought that no matter how fucked up things were, at least we had each other. As an adult, I can see that my connection to my family unit, regardless of the fact that we’re blood related, was a trauma bond. In disassociating from them, I am choosing to connect to my true, authentic self─ the self that is due to blossom outside of trauma bonding. People try to guilt trip me into believing that nobody wins when the family feuds but I do. I win.
For the last 16 months, I’ve been going back and forth with FOIPOP (Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act), Former Child in Care Inquiry Services, and the Department of Community Services, trying to obtain my file from the time that I spent in the foster care system. This is a fairly new system, introduced about two years ago. Depending on whether you were in temporary or permanent care, you can apply to one of these agencies to obtain your file. Most recently, I’ve been working with a woman from the Department of Community Services. While I wait to receive my entire file, I was provided with an almost 20 page summary spanning 27 years.
My hope in reading this summary was to get a better understanding of my family dynamic from the things that I remember and the things I was too young to comprehend. I thought that after I read the summary I would be able to make a decision on if/how I would rekindle a relationship with my family, particularly my mother. The reality is that I’m no closer to making a decision than I was before reading the summary. I was able to gain a better understanding of my parents’ addictions, which is something I hadn’t planned for, but it honestly made no difference. If I were to allow the guilt to settle in and internalize the excuses people have made for my mother, having the receipts should have solidified the excuse that she has been through a lot of things and I should let bygones be bygones but no. The longer I continue to accept things that harm my spirit, the longer the cycle of intergenerational trauma continues.
To what do I owe the honor?
I have 20 pages of receipts in my possession that prove my mother’s incompetence at various times in my life. I could flip the whole shit on its head and expose everything but I don’t owe anybody that proof. I only owe myself understanding. I felt inclined to overshare certain information from the summary in attempts to get my readers to understand that things really are as bad as I think they are. I also felt inclined to protect certain pieces of information. Why? To what do I owe the honor? I don’t! It is an honor to have access to someone’s life. It is an honor to be chosen, to be loved. It is an honor to earn someone’s loyalty. This is why I cherish my chosen family and friends so much. They don’t love me because “that’s what they should do”, they love me because they want to. They see and value me. The only thing that is going to save me, along with self love, and access to professional resources is their love.
Fuck the stigma
Although I’m getting better at overstanding different people and their experiences, I have a tendency to view the world in black and white. You can either be this or that. You are either good or bad. You either get it or you don’t. Stigma is either black or white. You’re either healthy or unhealthy, clean or dirty. You’re either gay or straight. You either have honor and loyalty towards your mother or you don’t. It’s either “family over everything” or nothing. What they see or what I know, feel, and remember. Truth is, the majority of the world exists somewhere in the grey. I’m not going to understand everything but it’s my duty as a human to at least try. Everything is not my battle to fight. A lot of things are simply not my business but for the things that are, such as my mental health and the experiences I’ve had with my mother, I say fuck the stigma. I only want to surround myself with those who are good for my mental health. Those who aren’t good for me are being let go of and falling away, instinctively. I have no fight left for that which doesn’t serve me. I release all things that aren’t for my highest good. In the most humble way possible, “Fuck you!”
I’ve come too far from where I started from⁵
I’ve come way too far to ever turn back now. The words that I’ve put out into the universe are already ruminating in the minds of those who have returned and will return to me in the form of my soul tribe. Together, we will heal and end the cycles of intergenerational trauma. I’m still that little girl who needs her mom but I’m also a woman and a mother myself. My children need me. I can’t bow down to the stigma that prevents me from blossoming and thriving. I’m no longer interested in discussing my mother wound from a place of seeking to be understood by those who already have their minds made up about me anyway. I’m only interested in healing, whatever that may look like.
I still get angry. I’m not immune to emotion. When I was writing this last night, I was angry that I had to sit in my feelings and sort them out by myself when my mother was likely somewhere drunk, oblivious to my suffering. Furthermore, I began to have self destructive thoughts, placing blame on myself for being one of the common denominators in the deconstruction of my family. I started to wonder, “What’s wrong with me?” Had I not been on antidepressant medication, those self destructive thoughts would have leaked over into today. Instead, I had the capacity to recognize that I was tired and simply needed a break from writing, and so I went to bed.
With the information that I have at this point and potential access to more, I asked myself, “What’s next in healing and moving forward?” Now that I have a handle on my depression, I’m looking forward to working on myself and enjoying my children. I will continue to share my work. I will continue to step outside of my comfort zone in order to connect with new people and build new relationships. As I prepare to move back to Nova Scotia, I’ll be mindful to prioritize my mental health while tackling the stigmas that I face, particularly in healing my mother wound. I’ll take extra care to honor those experiences that are different from mine, even when I don’t understand. My main goal is to be happy because I’ve spent too much time being unhappy and that aint it, sis.
1. Quote, Notorious B.I.G¹
2. Quote, Nipsey Hussle²
3. A term I learned from the work of Stephi Wagner³
4. Song lyric, Family Feud, Jay Z ft Beyoncé⁴
5. Song lyric, Can’t Give Up Now, Mary Mary⁵