My mother - E.A. Jay - warrior woman
Photographer unknown, likely 1943
One of the many strange symptoms arising from PTSD, and there are many, is the memory of previous traumas re-lived emotionally as though they are occurring again in this moment. One night this past week, I remembered, in full detail, the evening my mother passed away, even though she died 34 years ago in June when I was just 20 years old.
My eldest brother and I had both been visiting her - a rare occurrence as we generally took turns so we needn't be there every night. We had taken her outside to take in the late spring evening air where she likely had a cigarette. We took her to the cafeteria for a yogurt and back up to her room where we waited on the bench outside her room while the nurses readied her for bed before we came in to say goodnight.
Suddenly, one of the nurses came out and spoke calmly yet urgently, "You need to come in now. It's happening." ...Or something to that effect. I remember not understanding her. What was happening? What was all the fuss about? We were just sitting with her and chatting, even though it was difficult to understand her words because the ALS had affected her speech.
Nonetheless, we dutifully followed the nurse back into my mum's private room where I immediately gained understanding of what was happening. There she lay, struggling for breath and speaking words that sounded to me like, "Hold me up. Hold me up." Over and over and over she repeated it and so we did it. Chris and I on either side, we held her in a sitting position in her bed. Wherever she was going, she wasn't wanting to go there lying down. That wouldn't have been her style.
We come from a long line of warriors. She was tough, my mum, tough but refined as well. Fine clothes, fine wine, a love of the arts. She was something, but that evening, she was my mum and I, her 20 year old daughter. She didn't know I was gay - well, she knew but it hadn't been discussed. It showed in her obvious disappointment in me and my lack of femininity. I felt as though I were a bear in a tutu when forced into a dress.
Chris and I, both gay - 2 children out of 4. That seemed perfect to me but not to her.
That night I felt so much anger, frustration, disbelief and terror as we telephoned overseas to tell her sister and her mother, her niece and nephew, and everyone here - "She is gone."
It was horrifying and right to be there as she passed away. Horrifying, because I was so young and I didn't know what to do or how to be. We'd been caring for her, Chris and I, for two and a half years, but I don't suppose you are never prepared - even for an inevitable death. I felt as though she didn't know me very well nor did she appear to approve of the woman I was becoming, but she did love me fiercely, the child she had brought into this world and it was right for me to be there that night, if for no other reason than that.
I went off the rails after she died. I developed full-blown agoraphobia and was lucky enough to get into a treatment program at the very hospital in which my mum had spent her last year. It took me years and epic amounts of counselling to get myself back on track.
By the mid 1980s, I had already been beaten on the streets of Toronto for looking and being different, been sexually abused as a child, sexually assaulted as a young woman, harassed in my workplaces and shamed in my college - to name a few of the crimes and indignities.
The PTSD has been building as a result of these experiences. I work with good medical professionals and I have worked on and off with the same psychologist in Victoria for the past 20 years - and many before her. Sometimes I've had extended health benefits and sometimes I haven't, but I've paid thousands (not an exaggeration) in order to be a functioning and, at times, exceptional being.
It's so sad to me that all this has been triggered by a method of information sharing. I think we can do better together. We can be kind and careful with people when causing upheaval.
We are delicate beings who want to do well. Let us support each other in doing so. Let us come together in strength, diligence and the desire to care for one another. Let us move away from fear - fear of difficult conversations, fear of trusting one another, fear of everything. Let us bring all of our individual threads together to make strong cloth.
I didn't do this to myself. I have done nothing wrong to be sick like this. I am not a pariah. I deserve love and support and wellness. I am doing everything in my power to be kind and true, strong and well. I will give these things to myself because I deserve them. I share my story here in the hope that others will feel less alone if undergoing similar experiences and because I want to be seen and heard.
I have had to be very busy while I have been laid off. There is an enormous amount to figure out and do - even answering the enquiries of the kind people who want to know what happened and what I am going to do and how I am and if I have yet done this, that and the other. Please know that I am grateful for the concern and care.
Even without the triggering of the PTSD, the entire situation is stressful and painful. With the PTSD, it has taken every ounce of my energy and strength to get up and get through each day.
I ask myself why I am writing this, sharing such personal stories: probably like everyone, I just want to know, "Can you see me? Can you hear me?" And "Does what I say mean anything to you?" (paraphrased from Oprah)
I just want you to say "yes" to these three questions and mean it. I want you to acknowledge the path has been difficult and continues to be difficult, that I have survived and often thrived despite significant harms. Acknowledge that at every workplace I have had two jobs: the one I was hired to do and the one of fighting to get to the same starting line as everyone else because of my lack of gender and my sexual orientation. I don't need to hear "Isn't it better now?" and "I can't believe that happened!" Oh, it all happened alright and more - more that I may never mention in a public forum and, yes, it is better now (here anyway), but that does not negate the brutal history and harm done to the lesbian and gay community.
...But could you just say this anyway:
"Over the years, you got the short end of the stick. I've made errant assumptions and made thoughtless comments and you have been held back from opportunities because of who you are and people have isolated you because you are a woman who doesn't subscribe to gender assumptions and expectations that do not fit. I acknowledge the harm..."
I could keep going with a script, but I can't. I'm sick of, and sick from, asking for the acknowledgement that I have been treated as "less than." I know you're sick of hearing me ask for it. I just need to find a way around it. This mountain ain't moving in my lifetime.
I can no longer take the punishments that having a voice around gender and sexual orientation have brought. I just want to do a good job in a quiet space and hope and pray I will be left alone to feel safer in my life than I have before.
It's 2016. This lesbian is stopping her fight. I need and want a quiet and peaceful life.
I will continue to write and I will continue to post on this blog, but no more about this for now. I am weary and I need to heal.
I'm off to the ocean to watch the waves make sand of rocks upon the shore.
-Gillian Cornwall, c. April 24, 2016
Gillian Cornwall, c. December 2012