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Recently I published a blog outlining my experiences in the Grant MacEwan Professional Writing program. The blog was less than glowing and I received many responses I expected. One person claimed I was whining and I was doing the program a disservice. Another person claimed I had my aggression dialed up to 11 on a scale of 10”. I honestly expected those responses and they give me a certain amount of pride.

However, there were some people who read the blog and saw it for what it was; one woman talking about 2 years of abuse and bullying by fellow students. These people, whom I am proud to claim as friends, contacted me and expressed sympathy and shock over my treatment. These were the same people who tried to comfort me during my school year and often tried to help put a stop to this abuse. They are true writers destined for great things.

I know some people were upset with my blog. That doesn’t concern me. I learned long ago that a writer cannot be concerned with what others think about their opinions. A writer tells the truth and damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. It’s what gets us into so much trouble and if you aren’t prepared for that, you’re not prepared to be a writer.

What surprised me about the negative responses I received was not the vitriol, but the fact that they blamed me for my situation. I need to say here that those people who supported me and showed their sympathy for me are not the ones I’m talking about. I’m talking about those people who called me a whiner or complained that I didn’t try hard enough.

If you saw someone push someone down on the ground, you wouldn’t turn to the person on their ass and say, “well, if you hadn’t been standing there, you wouldn’t have gotten pushed. It’s really your own fault, you know.” Well, if you’re an asshole you might.

The people who hated my blog expressed one common opinion; it wasn’t their fault so it had to be mine. They never said or did anything bad to me so why was I blaming them? No, according to them they were innocent so the problem had to be me. I was a whiner. I was aggressive. I was negative. In one response the excuse was my social shyness.

So, let me get this right, I was bullied to the point where I had to receive counseling and I had to bring a complaint against an instructor (which I later retracted after I was put in a new class) but that was all my own fault. I woke up shaking most mornings from anxiety and fear but that was my own fault. I considered going back on anti-anxiety meds (thank you to those friends who talked me out of it) but that was my own fault.

 

I should be clear here; I will not take responsibility for someone being an asshole to me.

These people who responded to my blog claimed I was being unfair. They didn’t say or do anything to me. One said she’d been nice to me, how could I claim she was a bully? I was being horrible to them by making them responsible for what a few people did.

No I’m not.

When you become a writer you have an obligation to make your voice heard. That’s being a writer. That’s in the very nature of every single writer in existence. Being a writer means putting your voice out into the world. What in the world do you think a writer is?

This was a program designed to train writers. Writers don’t have the luxury of hiding their head in the sand. So how can I hold them responsible for the actions of their fellow students? Easy. They did nothing.

To those students I say this;

If you saw bullying happening and did nothing, you’re guilty. If you heard of bullying happening and said nothing, you’re guilty. If you knew your friends were bullying and said nothing, you’re guilty. If you knew it was happening around you and you did nothing, you’re guilty. If you suspected it was happening and didn’t stop it, you’re guilty. If you never tried to help the person being bullied, you’re guilty.

It is no longer acceptable to hide behind “I did nothing.” That’s the point. You did nothing. Therefore, you are just as much a bully as the abuser. If you’re a writer and did or said nothing, then that makes you worse than the abuser. You’re a coward and have no business being a writer.

Every single person has a responsibility to stop abuse. It doesn’t matter if it’s a parent abusing a child, a child abusing a parent, spousal abuse, kids bullying each other, a teacher bullying a student or any other type of bullying or abuse. There is one very effective weapon we have against this kind of behaviour; our voices.

When one person speaks against abuse and bullying, it empowers the victim. If you see it or know of it or hear it happening, say something. If not to the bully, then say something to someone in authority; a teacher, a parent, a priest, anyone. Make it known that it’s happening. Don’t blame the victim and tell them it’s their own fault.

Speak out even if you only whisper.

Perhaps the first voice is a whisper, but enough whispers can be as loud as thunder.

So when do you determine a relationship is toxic and you need out?

Any relationship; lover, friend, family, work, whatever. When does it go from slightly abusive to toxic? What’s the line? What do you do when you get there?

A few years back I suffered from medication induced anxiety. I was misdiagnosed with anxiety, put on medication designed to help it and, in a grand feat of irony, began to worsen. The correct diagnosis was REM Behavior Disorder. During this time something amazing happened. Most of my friends exited my life. Two stuck around, but all the others who claimed to love and support me took off. Suddenly they couldn’t deal with me barfing every time I went to the store for groceries and it wasn’t fun when I sat in a corner quietly crying when they took me off to a party. There were times when I made an honest effort to overcome the anxiety and tried to talk to people, but I came off as loud and weird. All those people who swore that my friendship meant a lot to them suddenly left.

At the time it was devastating. I felt alone and abandoned and wondered how I would cope. In that time, the two friends who remained quietly stood by my side during some of the darkest days I have ever known. It’s a horrifying thing to be trapped inside your mind and these two men supported me while I ranted, raved, cried, ran in terror and eventually broke out of my prison. That is a type of friendship that goes beyond words and simple thank yous. To this day I still mist up when I think of these amazing men. When it came time to bury my father, one friend stood and held an umbrella over my head in the pouring rain. He got soaked to the skin so I could stay dry and say good-bye to my dear father.

Now that part of my life is over and I’m able to give back to these wonderful men who should, in my eyes, be given medals for what they’ve done for me. They don’t even have to ask now, if I can help them in any way to make their lives easier or better, I do it. I don’t even think about it. They’ve earned that much and more.

I look back on that time and realize now there were blessings in having endured that. I learned a valuable lesson as to what a friend is and what a good, healthy relationship is. Not everyone can stand to see the person they love or care for go through that kind of thing and I still suffer from residual effects of that time. However, you do what you can for those who mean something to you.

A good relationship is a symbiotic relationship. Each gives according to their abilities and each takes according to their needs (see? Communism isn’t a complete loss). During that period, I needed a great deal and the two men who stuck around gave what they could. I didn’t ask for any more than that. Okay. I did ask that they put up with 10 to 15 calls a day, but that’s just the insanity.

At no time during this period was I toxic to the people around me. I was a problem to myself, but not to others around me. It sounds odd now to say it, but I felt that would be rude. It’s one thing to destroy your own life with your insanity, it’s another to destroy the lives of others. So that was just something I tried very hard not to do.

A lot of dead weight left my life when those other friends left for bluer skies and saner people. One friend was a coke addict and unable to function in a healthy way. Another was so self-centred, he had an affair on his wife and saw his mistress during her chemotherapy treatments. Looking back, I’m glad those people aren’t in my life.

I now have good people around me, including one friend who goes along with whatever zany idea I come up with and plays along happily. I can talk to her in a deep, meaningful way and she can depend on me to listen when she has a problem she needs to air. When I tell her I’ve decided to cultivate a superpower and she gets to pick one, too, she doesn’t even miss a beat. It’s a way we can play and have fun. We watch b-grade horror movies and eat nachos and laugh at each other’s lives and antics. It’s good. It’s healthy.

What do you do, though, when a relationship becomes toxic? For me, it’s my sister. I’m not sure I can describe the situation but I’ll try.

My sister is obsessed with appearances. She has a boxy little house in a boxy little neighbourhood with boxy little people driving boxy little cars and leading boxy little lives. She has an apple tree in the backyard and a trellis in the front. Her grass is always green and her sidewalk always shovelled. She has her friends that are appropriate and they go out for supper or play bridge. They watch movies like “The Notebook” and cry in all the appropriate points. They loved “The Hunger Games”.

I’m an embarrassment to her.

I am outspoken, not concerned with convention and would probably go on a killing spree if I had to live in that neighbourhood. Or, at the least, leave burning bags of dog poop everywhere. I talk about religion and sex and politics. I have several lovers and even (GASP!) have no love of monogamy. I hated “The Hunger Games” and wanted to gouge out my eyes during “The Notebook”. I don’t understand social subtlety (I’m a little like Dr. Sheldon Cooper on “Big Bang Theory”. My friends will actually point out to me when someone’s being sarcastic) and my apartment is usually a disaster.

I could live with all that if that’s all it were. It isn’t.

My sister displays signs of being extremely manipulative and controlling. I have suspicions about this, but as I’m not a professional, I won’t offer any kind of diagnosis. Her need to have everything appear a certain way in her life leads to destructive behaviour. She appears not to notice it or see what she’s doing. Often, in the past, she will blame the reaction to her behaviour on the recipient of her actions. For example, she will make some comment about how writing isn’t a “real” job. When I then become angry and defensive, she tells me I’m “being oversensitive”. I no longer wear certain clothes or talk about certain subjects with her. They become too volatile. She does not know I’m pansexual. She has made it clear that is unacceptable to her and she doesn’t want to know.

My relationship with my sister is toxic. I have reached the point in my life where I have determined that once my mother passes away, she will no longer be in my life (I don’t want to distress my mother as she has Alzheimer’s and wouldn’t be able to understand). From the time I was in my teens to the time I came out of my medication-induced insanity, she has convinced me there is something wrong with me. That I’m somehow defective. In an effort to please her, I have gone from one psychiatrist to another looking for this mysterious problem. Instead of concentrating on my life, my happiness and my career, I have chased after her phantoms. I know this doesn’t sound awful, but when you are bombarded with endless psychological and emotional abuse, it gets to be enough.

She is my sister and people tell me I’m supposed to love her no matter what. What if I can’t? What if loving and supporting her devastates my life as it has already?

I have decided there are times in your life when you need to cut certain people from your life. Even if that’s family. I asked myself the question, does this person make my life toxic? If the answer is yes, they’re gone. My sister creates a toxic waste in my very being that I cannot ignore any longer. Family is important, that’s true. However, my well-being is more important.

June 2017
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