After returning from Morocco, I brought the kids and myself to our regular doctor for a routine check-up. It’s something I have tried to be on top of in recent years, especially as health care professionals used to give me anxiety but avoiding them led to major health concerns. Our doctor’s clinic is located in the hip University neighbourhood of Garneau in Edmonton and sits on the main road, Whyte Avenue, alongside cool teahouses and local vegan eateries. We lived in a high rise across the street for the first half of my graduate studies program at the University and had become patients at the clinic when it opened shortly after we moved to the neighbourhood. The clinic is owned by our doctor, a quiet Libyan man with short curly hair and a skin tone that shouts of the Mediterranean sun.

Appointments have always been a bit awkward with him as a Muslim convert – something about being in a room alone with a brother who has to listen to your heartbeat and take your health history will do that. But I felt better that he was Muslim, in general, and North African in particular because he would know the context of certain things as they pertain to our health – from diet to culture, travel and more.

I remember, at the end of my masters in 2017, in the final push to complete and then defend my thesis, I had spent six weeks writing for 18 hours a day and sleeping on the hardwood floor next to my desk. I was completely exhausted and worn out, hacking away with bronchitis and feeling so run down I could barely keep my head up. I remember being in the defence committee and expressing to the examiners that academia had nearly wiped me out. I went on to pass the defence and celebrated that weekend despite being in poor health.

Three days later, I would enter my doctor’s office on Whyte Avenue and complain of the same issues, asking him to figure out what was wrong with me.

“I just feel a level of exhaustion I have never felt before. Is it possible that this level of work could have done this to me?” I asked him.

He had a knowing look behind his eyes but I didn’t exactly know why in that moment. He ordered a urine test on the spot and after I had gone to the bathroom to get him the sample, he left the room to go analyze it. I sat in the room, swinging my legs as I sat in the chair next to the examination bed, staring at a poster of a man with heart disease. My eyes fixated on the diagram of a clogged artery and the strange manner in which the artist had rendered the man’s face, making him look exaggerated and deformed.

When my doctor entered the room again, he gave a short knock and came in with a small smile on his face.

“Congratulations,” he said.

I paused, confused. “About my passing my defence?” I asked.

“No…” he scanned my face for recognition. “You’re pregnant!” he announced when he didn’t find it.

I sat there in silence, looking back at the image of the clogged artery.

He looked at the side of my face and I heard him calling me as if from far away, “Sister? Sister – are you ok?”

I turned and looked back at him like I was in a dream. “Subhana Allah,” I said because that’s what he wanted to hear.

He nodded uncertainly, scanning my face for clues about my mental state, “Yes, Subhana Allah.”

I left his office with a requisition in my hand to get a blood test for confirmation.

The story goes that I would go on to have an exceedingly challenging pregnancy and a spectacular birth, following which I admitted myself to the hospital for anxiety. While there, they ordered a blood test and discovered that my blood levels were half of what they should be and it was no surprise that I had had to stave off a panic attack immediately post-partum: I was actually experiencing a bodily flashback to when my first daughter was born and I was left to hemorrhage before being sent for surgery. After that discovery, I worked hard to eat more iron-rich foods and take large amounts of supplements to build my blood up.

But sure enough, life creeps in and takes over and suddenly, I was across the world in Morocco, not really focusing on my health all that much. When we returned and I entered my doctor’s office, he ordered a blood test right away and when I came back to hear the results, my jaw dropped.

“Sister, your blood levels are lower than the day after your baby’s birth,” he said.

“What?!”

“Yes, I don’t understand how you have been working out and doing everything you are doing. How do you have the energy for any of this?”

I just sat there, going into my body like my therapist had taught me. I suddenly felt the weight of the fatigue I had been pushing through and ignoring. It came at me like a freight train. I recalled all of the difficulties I was having remembering simple things and how it sometimes felt like people were talking to me through a fog. My mind flashed to the restless sleeps I had been having. The moments of near-blackouts during yoga. The cravings for ice. The overeating. The suicidal rollercoaster that seemed to follow the trajectory of my monthly cycle. I had thought it was all hormonal but realized in that moment that it was all tied to low blood.

I thanked him for his help and left his office with an armload of pharmaceutical iron pill samples that he had given me to try before we took the next step to a transfusion. In a way, I am grateful to now know what is going on but also feel the weight of needing to focus on my health in a more pronounced way precisely when I lack the energy to do so. As I stood in the snow, waiting for my husband to pick me up, cars zooming back and forth down the busy avenue, I thanked myself for making the appointment that would show me what I needed to know about myself. I had been feeling this insurmountable hurdle with so many areas of my health, despite pushing hard to feel better mentally and physically. It was now time to focus on solutions and rest.


16265681_10154323322850753_2679466403133227560_nNakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada.

Trauma is used both to describe distressing events and the human reaction that occurs afterward. It is not simply one singular horrific event in time. It is a series of outcomes that affect every part of one’s being. Reasons for trauma can be large – Holocaust, wars, Residential Schools, internment camps. Trauma can also result from “smaller” experiences – the death of a loved one, a rejection from a friend, a breakup, a car accident. How someone reacts to such events are individual – and the physical, emotional, and spiritual reactions are not usually within our control.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a collection of symptoms that one may develop after a distressing event(s). These symptoms include: re-experiencing the event, avoiding reminders of the event, negative thoughts or feelings, and hyper-arousal. PTSD is a formal diagnosis for intense emotional pain. But what is it like to really live with the effects of trauma, big or small?

“PTSD is a whole-body tragedy, an integral human event of enormous proportions with massive repercussions.”  ― Susan Pease Banitt

I have heard the following from survivors, paraphrased in my own word:. living with trauma is like not living your own life, like not being in your own body; a sense of floating; a sense of complete numbness;  a feeling as though your body is always on alert, as if it will never truly relax. The body is constantly in flight or fight mode, something that one gets very used to living with. Life becomes sped up, or slowed right down, as if walking through sludge. It becomes an existence colored by the quickness and vulnerability of life, and the reality and permanence of death, sometimes leading to the question of “what’s the point?” asked over and over again. Guilt comes easily, trust becomes impossible. One turns to drugs or alcohol to try and numb it all out, or to try to feel outside of the numbness. A life is truly changed.

But what happens when you experience these symptoms, but you are not aware of any traumatic events that have happened to you? Because trauma gets inherited in more ways than one, you may look beyond your past, and to your parent’s pasts, and even to the lives of your grandparents.

The well-known form of passing trauma on is through the way we are parented. The way we are parented as children can form the basis for what we are like as adults. If our parents experienced trauma and are living with symptoms like those listed above, it may affect one’s ability to be fully present as a parent. Moreover, if our trauma is directly from our parents, then we are likely to use the same harsh parenting style on our own children.

But here is the fascinating part. We can also pass on our trauma through our genes, not only our behaviours. Relatively new discoveries in the world of genetics have created a new field of study called Epigenetics. This is the study of the mechanisms that switch our genes on or off, or even alter genes completely without changes being made to our underlying DNA sequence. There are triggers in our environment that will determine if that pesky allergy gene we inherited from Dad will actually be expressed, or if that ability to be social and outgoing that we inherited from mom will be turned off. Backing up a generation or two, the genes that may have been altered in Mom or Dad, Grandma or Grandpa, due to their trauma, can be passed on to a developing fetus. Studies examining children of trauma survivors show that PTSD symptoms, such as nightmares, will manifest under stress, which is linked to inherited trauma through epigenetics.

A very relevant example of how we see this affect our society is in Residential School survivors. Many children today who have not been in Residential Schools, but have parents or grandparents who have attended these schools, are suffering from PTSD-like symptoms that have been inherited.

The good news is that epigenetic changes do not have to permanent. Remember, what you are exposed to in life, and how you design your children’s environment will affect if these genes are expressed or not. Moreover, trauma is overcome, through hard work, perseverance, and allowing trusted human beings to help us undo the responses that have occurred as a result of other human beings. We can heal our relational hurts relationally – in fact, there is some evidence this might be the best way. Everyday cycles can be broken, PTSD can be healed, family legacies can be changed, and genes can be switched. Compassion for this process is paramount.


20181009_113447Erin Newman is a therapist by day, and a writer by night. She is also a parent, student, advocate, artist, and teacher.

What does radical self-love look like?

Sometimes it looks like moving your family across the world so you can finally write a memoir.

For people living with mental illnesses, the emphasis on self-love and some of its assumed performances can be alienating. For people who have C-PTSD or have grown up in dysfunctional homes of continuously traumatizing incidents, the term self-love can ring hollow. As one friend recently said, it simply doesn’t penetrate.

And that’s ok.

In the times when we are stuck in our own programming, even when we have the dual awareness to recognize we are stuck but we can’t do much about it, it is important to realize that putting one foot in front of the other, or even just longing to, is self-love.

It is not actively destructing.

It is still you in there.

For me, a big part of practicing self-love has been doing things for myself, even when I don’t feel the love: booking therapy appointments in advance (even when my brain is telling me it’s hopeless so why bother), booking home support like cleaning services (even when my brain is telling me I am worthless because I need help to do basic things), or any other steps (small and large) I might take towards helping myself continue to survive.

It is a common thing among folks living with mental illness that we can only feel in memory, never in the present moment. Our nervous systems have been trained expertly to shut down in the here and now as a protective mechanism.

And that’s ok.

That is your body loving yourself.

A big part of healing is in rolling one’s consciousness forward to now. In building one’s own safe spaces and then allowing one’s self to feel in those spaces. Even if little by little.

Radical self-love looks like such commitments to survival, even when your brain tells you that you do not want to survive. Radical self-love even looks like simply yearning to take these steps, even when your brain tells you that you cannot go on.

This is an act of radical self-love.

I am set to begin a sabbatical or leave of absence from my advocacy work with Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council (AMPAC) on August 1st.   The community work I have set in motion will graciously be continued by my committee of dedicated directors and volunteers. This leave will entail me and my family moving to Morocco for six months to visit family and make space for the research and writing of a creative non-fiction memoir

About the project:

Why do you want to enter? Simon Levy asked me outside the entrance of the Casablanca Jewish Museum he founded and directed as of 1997. An armed Moroccan military officer stood close by, listening to our conversation. When I replied that I wanted to see the Moroccan Jewish artifacts inside, he seemed surprised, and gestured to the hijab covering my head. He said, it is not often that we have your people visiting the museum, before waving for me to follow him inside.

Five years later, I was sitting in Levy’s old office with the new museum director, Zhor Rehihil, who took over primary curatorship after Levy’s death. We were talking about my research project and dropping names of historians doing work on the departure of Jews from Morocco between 1948 and 1968. I was explaining my interest in the silences of its memory, particularly the anxieties brought on by the Holocaust and a host of other issues largely absent from both Jewish and Muslim memories.

The Holocaust had nothing to do with Morocco, she protested. I let her finish without agreeing or disagreeing, wrapping up our conversation with a promise to keep in touch and update her when my work was completed. As she was walking me out, she looked at my hijab and said, you know, that headscarf will make your research very difficult. Trust, in this field, is a complicated thing.

It was only in wading through the multivocal, emotionally-charged and often painful memories of the departure that I would come to recognize the truth of her observation and how my own work might come to be perceived because of my identities. I also came to notice patterns of belonging and rootlessness in my own story as a convert to Islam, living in a foreign country, descendant from immigrants and married to a man who also gave up his place of origin as a Mediterranean migrant.

The pursuit of homelands, both literally and figuratively, shape my experiences – both a physical and an internal migration echoed in the movement of the people I have studied and how the memory of their journeys is expressed.

What does it mean to search for home as a Muslim convert, wading through established communities? What does it mean to exist as a racialized Muslim woman in Canada, in an era of rising Islamophobia? What does it mean to immigrate to another land in pursuit of the familiar? For myself, my ancestors, my spouse?

Deeper than this, what does it mean to look for home as a wandering soul? I can hear the revolutionary chants of the Arab Spring protesters on the television my first time in Morocco: Jannah, jannah, jannah, Jannah al-wataniya. Paradise, paradise, paraside, Paradise the homeland. 

The project that I am working on is a creative non-fiction memoir, a true novel of sorts, that will braid together these stories of migration and homeland, combining my academic research with stories from my life and those close to me. I am unsure yet if the writing I am making space for will become a graphic novel script that I will commission an illustrator for, or it will remain a work of prose.

I am asking for support while I take some time off from my advocacy work to travel back to Morocco for visual research and to conduct additional interviews for the writing of this work. As I said, my sabbatical begins August 1st and will continue for 6 months. I hope to return to Canada with a complete first draft and have set up a mentorship relationship with a Professor of literature and writing to ensure I achieve this goal.

All I have to offer is my participation. All I am able to do is take each voice in the turbulence of remembering and listen to them equally. I cannot do this without your support.

To learn more about this act of radical self-love and this project, to support it and to access exclusive benefits that I am providing for my supporters, please visit my Patreon account: https://www.patreon.com/homeland/


16265681_10154323322850753_2679466403133227560_nNakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada. 

Anyone who suffers from anxiety, depression, PTSD or other mental illnesses that can be “triggered” knows that there is one thing about triggers that few people understand: it is almost impossible to predict what will trigger you.

We can have some ideas such as graphic imagery pertaining to trauma (hence “trigger warnings”) or certain seasons of the year (see: SAD) but sometimes, something can seem to come out of nowhere and derail months of hard efforts in survival.

The more people that come to recognize this basic truth, the better off all of us will be in dealing with the resulting cascade of symptoms that come from complications with a mental illness. I say this because I was recently triggered by something that I had never imagined I would be triggered by: a mouse.

October is a normal time of year for mice to enter homes in search of warmth and a morsel of food but I still imagined my fortress impenetrable. Probably because last October I was living in an 8th floor apartment and the risk of them was greatly lessened by that fact. So imagine my surprise when I went to the bathroom at 2 o’clock in the morning one night last week and saw one scuttle out of the corner behind the garbage can. It happened so fast that I could barely process it until my brain started screaming one word over and over again: MOUSE.

And pretty soon my mouth was screaming it too and I was beating my husband awake screaming about the vile creature that had dared enter our home. This is all very funny now, but at the time, it triggered a total emotional breakdown during which, I sat on my bed staring at the door to our bedroom, waiting for the satanic rodents to pass by…sobbing…uncontrollably. For hours.

I couldn’t sleep that night or the next and eventually had to go to my mother’s house. By this time, I was totally worn out from exhaustion and worry that regular signs of PTSD started to show in a very pronounced way. I became irritable, snapping at anyone and everyone. I stopped doing anything productive. I wondered if my life would ever be normal again. I wondered if I would have to throw it all away. I stared at nothing without relaxing. Tense and nearly catatonic.

My husband and my mother kept trying to explain to me that it was just a mouse, that it can’t hurt me, that (yes) it would be caught soon, and (no) it wouldn’t come back forever and ever and (no) there aren’t thousands of them waiting to swarm me.

I slowly came to realize that because I was no longer in control of my home environment – the one space I had finally made my own and made sacred – I was also no longer in control of my emotions and mental state. I couldn’t even will myself to relax if I tried. Which I didn’t, because: anxiety.

And this was after months and months of success. Of taking care of myself in ways that I consider self-care. Of dealing with my emotions calmly and dealing with outbursts via appropriate communication channels, or even just apologizing. I became worried that I was back at square one again, like I had just gotten sick and would have to take the long road to recovery once more.

But now the mouse is gone (like actually gone) and I feel a bit better. I can still feel the physical residue of my emotional breakdown in my fatigue and swollen lymphnodes (being stressed to the max kills your immune system), but that will subside and I can come back to myself again.

My point here isn’t to talk about a mouse in my house which I have now expunged forever (hopefully). It is to point out that when you have a mental illness like PTSD, the smallest, most unexpected things can set you off. One minute you are a productive businesswoman, grad student, activist and mother, and the next moment you’re asking your husband if he can stand outside the open washroom door while you pee with your feet up on the toilet seat. While sobbing.

The important thing to realize if you are the loved one of someone who can be unpredictably triggered is that you have to get better at recognizing a trigger for what it is so you can start being supportive immediately.

Signs of being triggered:

  • The person tells you they are having a panic attack or having feelings of terror that are disproportionate to their circumstances
  • The person is overwhelmed with worry and consumed with fear
  • The person states that they feel like they are “going crazy”
  • They can’t sleep
  • They report any of the following signs:
    • Cold or sweaty hands or feet
    • Shortness of breath
    • Heart palpitations
    • Not being able to be still or calm
    • Nausea
    • Dizziness
    • Muscle tension
    • Numbness
    • And others

The only thing worse than an anxiety attack is trying to explain it to someone who doesn’t understand that it is happening or, worse, doesn’t believe you. My family figured that out pretty fast and as a result, this mouse-y incident is something I can now laugh at.

Wishing the same for you,

Nakita


nakitaNakita Valerio is an academic, activist and writer in the community. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta.  Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the 2016 Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as well as the Walter H. Johns Graduate Studies Fellowship. She has also been honoured with the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies in 2015. She has been recognized by Rotary International with an Award for Excellence in Service to Humanity and has been named one of Edmonton’s “Difference Makers” for 2015 by the Edmonton Journal. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and the Vice President of External Affairs with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.

Last night at the AMPAC Women’s Safety Class, Strong Orange Violence Prevention instructor (and writer at The Drawing Board), Rachael Heffernan was putting forms of violence on a spectrum from “bothering” to “life-threatening”. Certain types of violence could fit on multiple places in the spectrum depending on a number of factors, including who is perpetrating the violence. She then brought up the subject of a perpetrator that is all-too-often forgotten: ourselves.

Whenever people take self-defense training or women’s empowerment classes, they are often taught about what to do when you experience violence or harassment from strangers (especially) and, less often, from people you know. Of course, the occurrences of violence (both physical and sexual) are statistically lopsided, meaning that you are much more likely to be violated by someone you know (family, friends, colleagues, mentors), but it still stands that all too many violence prevention courses focus on outward violence and neglect what happens when we internalize violence and direct it at ourselves. Statistics about self-violence (including negative self-talk) simply do not exist.

Before we go there, I want to talk about something else that Rachael brought up because it is an important factor in all of this, especially in “getting home safe” which is the mantra of the class. Very often, our ability to be assertive and stand our ground in the face of external oppression or violence is directly connected to how we value ourselves. Rachael put it best on the car ride home when she said that conceding to anothers’ whims (even if they violate our rights) because we don’t want to “upset them” or because “we can bear the brunt of the pain” is fundamentally flawed logic because it causes or is rooted in self-devaluation. The other person’s worth is deemed to be more than your own.

This is the first instance in which negative self-talk can harm you: in how you deal with harmful situations perpetuated by others. If you are constantly down on yourself, feeling you aren’t worth the time of day for anyone, you are much more likely to put yourself last, even when in life-threatening or dangerous situations. This is a common narrative we hear among victims of sexual assault, particularly when the aggressor is someone they know. Victims can admit that they swallow their pain and just want the whole incident over with, fearing they weren’t “assertive enough” so something like being raped is inherently their fault.

It is never your fault.

And the anxiety and self-rage that comes from feeling like you made a mistake in being assaulted can lead to further self-devaluing and the potential for future vulnerabilities in the face of both external and internal aggressors. This is what we are talking about when we say that people get caught in the cycle of abuse and do not know how to break out.

One place you can start is by stopping violence against yourself first. The way to do this is to recognize it as violence. If you view yourself as an aggressor, you can start to see how violence against yourself also appears on the spectrum from “bothering” to life-threatening. Some specialists recommend viewing your aggressor voice as an adult and your inner self, which it chastises, as a small child. This can help illuminate just how much we bully ourselves.

Bothersome violence might be how you look at yourself in the mirror. Thinking that you have parts that sag or have too much cellulite, or that the body you were given just doesn’t look like every airbrushed magazine or filtered Instagram pic you see online. It could be in how you hear yourself speak in a room full of peers. They are hearing the words flowing out of your mouth and all you hear is how many “ums” and pauses and poor word choices you make and if only you wouldn’t open your mouth in the first place, then you wouldn’t have to worry about it. Or it might be thinking about everything you said and did hours later, or days, or years. At the heart of these ruthless criticisms (which, by the way, we would be very unlikely to accept from anyone but ourselves) is anger.

And anger leads to rage.

And rage leads to more violence.

So much so that you might move along the spectrum from being bothersome to downright dangerous. Negative self-talk gives way to destructive behaviours. It can lead to eating disorders, to binge drinking, to excessive drug use, it can lead to self-medicating with food, it can lead to sex addiction or self-harm like cutting or burning. All of these things are dangerous behaviours that stem from self-rage, that stem from a feeling of anger directed inwards. It might be (and usually is) exacerbated by social isolation – but thinking we aren’t good enough might also cause us to retreat and vice versa.

Dangerous to life-threatening is a slippery slope. These behaviours can easily turn to suicidal ideation or attempts. The slow simmering burn of anger feeds the fires of depression, anxiety and trauma like nothing else.

So, what puts those fires out? How can we stop the violence against ourselves once we recognize it for what it is?

Firstly, realize that this is not intrinsically how your brain works. It has been trained to think this way and it can be trained not to. It is not an easy road, but it is possible and it has to be undertaken to interrupt those negative thoughts and actions while learning to replace them with positive and beneficial ones. It can be an uphill battle with poor self-image messages in society inundating us day after day, but by learning to dampen their voice and raising your own, among other powerful women, we can start to replace those messages.

Getting help is important. Seek out counseling or other mental health-care providers, and do not stop if they tell you that you are fine but you know you still hurt yourself. At my first session on University campus, I told my counselor that I had suicidal ideation in moments of rage which stem from a birth trauma I experienced and she concluded the session by saying that she won’t be seeing me again because I “seem to have it all together”. Another counselor I saw told me I am the highest functioning patient she has ever met and she didn’t know why I needed to see her, even though symptoms of PTSD regularly inhibit my personal joy and daily existence. Do not stop looking for someone to help you. There are problems with the system and how people access it, but continuing to ask for help is a sign that you are healing and removing the obstacle of isolation.

Be holistic in your approach and put your mental health first. Yes, before anything else. Before your family, before your kids, before your job, before your career. None of that matters if you are suffering daily violence and are at risk of hurting yourself. Everything else can wait. Yes, ladies, even your children. Lean on family, on friends, on childcare providers. Get to your appointments, get to the gym, make time to eat well and sleep well. Be shameless about this. These things are just as important for you as they are for your family. Stable mental health creates stable home environments and stability means that your children and spouses won’t ever have to face a day without you on this earth. Do not listen to the lies in your head that everyone is better off without you. That you always screw things up. Your family never, ever, ever wants to see a day on this earth without you. Ever. Just ask them: they will testify to that truth. And if they don’t, or your spouse tells you to jump off a bridge, walk out. You are worth walking out for. You are worth your own safety.

Even though it seems like I am just getting started, I want to conclude with this: be gentle with yourself. Perfection is not an ideal anyone should strive for. Fail and try again. Succeed and try again. Be gentle with yourself as you would expect a kind, loving parent (whom you may have never had) to be with you as a child. Be gentle with yourself as you would expect a respectful spouse (whom you may have never had) to be with you as a lover. Be gentle with yourself as a child intuitively is with their own parents. Be gentle with yourself.

This earth is vast. Its history is long. Its space is immense. Take up your rightful place on this journey and work towards being well. I am with you on that path and I know you are with me too.


This article was written by Nakita Valerio, owner and editor in chief of The Drawing Board. Nakita  is an academic, activist and writer in the community. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta.  Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the 2016 Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as well as the Walter H. Johns Graduate Studies Fellowship. She has also been honoured with the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies in 2015. She has been recognized by Rotary International with an Award for Excellence in Service to Humanity and has been named one of Edmonton’s “Difference Makers” for 2015 by the Edmonton Journal. Nakita is also the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco.


For more information on mental health services in Edmonton, Alberta: click here. For everywhere else, please contact your local health service provider.

If this is an emergency, please get help by calling 911 or medical professional immediately.

This article was written by Nakita Valerio, owner and head writer at The Drawing Board.

Trigger Warning: This article contains graphic information related to assault, rape and birth trauma that may be upsetting to some readers. Prepare yourself for what you are about to read, or abstain until you are able to continue.

Recently, there has been an online movement from survivors of birth trauma in which they are sharing their stories of disempowerment and assault at the hands of members of the medical establishment. These stories are extremely horrific and very graphic in their descriptions. Reading them leaves you with an unsettled feeling in your stomach and an aching heart as you empathize with their pain.

Clicking on these images will reveal highly graphic descriptions. Please be mindful.

I find these stories particularly relevant and powerful for me, as a survivor of birth trauma myself – and as someone who survives the effects of PTSD from that trauma daily. I am proud of these individuals, putting their stories up there for all to see, witness, read, digest… for everyone to stop for a moment and think about a continuing horrific phenomena which knows no global boundaries and has no face, is largely (if not completely) unreported and is all wrapped up in the politics of medical authority and the control over women’s bodies in particular.

There are few other times in an individual’s life which are more vulnerable than pregnancy and birthing. It is not an indicator of weakness to be vulnerable; rather, vulnerability is signified externally by the fact that their bodies go through enormous transformations during this period and the process of birthing happens in such a way that they are more likely to be marginalized in their voice, body and preferences than they would in regular circumstances. A birthing person may have their voice, preferences and body submitted to authorities who use their position to take over the natural process. I want to be clear when I say that in emergency instances, this is critical because intervention can mean the difference between the deaths of the mother and the baby or their lives.

However, such instances also offer the opportunity for serious abuses, particularly because the line between medical necessity and abuse of authority is highly ambiguous and can involve the collision of paradigms, worldviews and approaches to birthing that are highly incompatible. Without getting into that discussion because it tends to be too binary for me (either villainizing mothers or villainizing medical professionals), I want to talk about some of the terminology used in the campaigns for Birth Trauma survivors.

One such term that stands out is “Birth Rape” and it is often red-flagged as a term whose appropriate use is highly contested and may be considered inappropriate in birth-related contexts or others.  These issues can be found in discussion of (more) conventional rape as well and fit into general trends where victims are mistrusted despite the rarity of false allegations (dwarfed by the number of unreported assaults) and the paucity of cases that go to charges and then trial (not always resulting in a conviction). *Breathe* The testimony of women or queer individuals is often disproportionately disbelieved against that of their assaulters or rapists,  with some reserving “I believe you” status for specific demographics who may have been victims of rape.  This skepticism often takes the form of ethnic bias with white people being believed more than people of colour and even less belief being reserved for our indigenous brothers, sisters and two-spirited individuals.

There isn’t enough time in the world to go into the multiple historical narratives that are being enacted as tropes of rape culture in the criticisms of these skeptics and that is not my subject here today. I want to focus on why I accept the term “rape” to describe birth trauma arising from medical assault.

The main reason that I feel people reject this term is because they don’t understand the term rape. Rape does not mean “non-consensual sex.” Rape is a form of sexual assault which involves the penetration of various parts of one’s body against one’s will and without one’s consent. This penetration does not need to occur with an assailant’s genitals to constitute rape.  It can be carried out by violent force, coercion or abuse of authority. It is not “non-consensual sex”. It is not sex.

When stories are told about:

  • doctors who inject women with unnecessary drugs against their will thereby making them less in control, less coherent and more submissive
  • doctors who uttered violent words or performed violent acts on them including swearing at them, berating them, hitting them, jumping on them,
  • doctors who threaten women with C-sections unless they “shut up” (or perform them when they don’t!)
  • or doctors who violently and unnecessarily penetrate women’s bodies with their hands, arms or medical instruments

they are met with reactions that this isn’t rape or that rape is “too serious” an allegation to be related to birthing. I just shake my head. This lack of comprehension hinges on the idea that rape is still somehow about sex. And since birthing is supposedly not a sexual experience, then it can’t be called rape when things go awry, right? These people fail to realize that: non-consensual penetration is rape. There are only sex and birthing on one side, and rape on the other side. There is no in-between.

A contingent reason this is such an issue is because of the stigma attached to challenging medical authorities. The decision about medical necessity is placed entirely in the hands of doctors. And while this is not without some good reason (since they are highly specialized and trained professionals after all), the possibility (and often reality) of transferring total authority over one’s body to other people is deeply problematic. There are a myriad of factors that go into how a medical doctor treats a birthing woman including: personal history, personality, their own abused/abusive pasts, misogyny, ego complexes and much more. Doctors (like all scientists) are not impartial observers as narratives about them would have us believe. They are humans too and they must be humanized – for it is the dehumanized who will perpetuate actions that, in turn, dehumanize others. Doctors carry themselves with them everywhere they go and how they treat someone in such a position as birthing says a lot about their own ethos and attitude.

Do they want to just get the job done or are they willing to spend as long as it takes to ensure a healthy and just birth? Do they not care about the lasting formation of memories that are created for the woman (and her child) in these unique moments? Are they sensitive to the power that they wield and therefore approach such a position with due sensitivities and adequate communications?

Skeptics about birth rape also tend to question if such allegations can actually be brought to criminal charges. Ideally, this would be the case. However, with the current state of affairs, where victims of “typical” sexual assault are rarely believed and therefore rarely report, the added dimension of placing doctors above their patients in terms of authority makes the possibility for criminal proceedings unlikely. Unlikely doesn’t mean impossible. We have a long way to go and the first step towards this is in normalizing these important narratives, in listening to the people they happen to, in believing them first and foremost.

My best friend is an OB/GYN in Cairo. He told me that he had a patient once who came into her birthing experience with a plan and a support team. Internally, he was annoyed because he felt that she was stepping on the toes of his authority and that she might make things difficult for him if things went awry by making too many demands. This friend has an ethos of non-attachment and ego-slaying that I strive to emulate daily. He swallowed those thoughts and gave the woman the space to explain her desires and preferences in a calm manner, without having to make demands that might put someone else’s (ie. his) ego up in arms automatically. The entire time, he continued to check in with her about her plan, letting her know gently where things would have to be altered and changed, leaving her with her power: to digest and understand that these changes were necessary. In other words, he established trust.

This is what is lacking in birth rape. Trust is never formed in such cases. It is annihilated and this is the deepest trauma one can experience. It is the same trauma felt by survivors of rape, by survivors of sexual abuse, by survivors of any form of abuse. For what is being abused but one’s trust? One’s trust that their personhood and dignity will not be violated whether by violence, by penetration, by words or by all three. What is trust but a piece of love placed into the world, sometimes horribly violated?

birth trauma break the silence rape cover

I applaud these individuals for sharing their stories and have been inspired to share my own story publicly as a result. In the end, this experience is just as authentic as anything else and by speaking out about what happened, we might connect the many, many others who have lived through it and are resilient survivors as well. There are a lot of us. May our strength light our paths to a more compassionate and safe future together, and may we strive to respond to the violation of our love placed in the world, the violation of our trust, with justice and more love.