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Mental Health, Misogyny, and Toxic Masculinity

Saturday triggered the bejeezus out of me.  

          And I'm not using the term "triggered" in the modern new-agey snowflakey buttercuppy kind of sense – as someone who has spent the last several decades learning to live with her complex post-traumatic stress injuries, I am fully aware of the difference between being psychologically triggered and merely a little annoyed, thank you very much.

 

          It started when I saw the (sadly, unsurprising) news that last week's massacre in Nova Scotia had started as domestic violence.  Which the media twisted into being a rampage that had been sparked by "a domestic dispute".

 

         HEY, MEDIA:

A domestic dispute is arguing over which way the toilet paper roll gets hung,
or how best to allocate the family budget.
It does NOT include one of the parties having to run away from said domicile
to hide in the woods until 7am.  

The latter is ASSAULT, or DOMESTIC VIOLENCE (although the addition of "domestic" has always bothered me, as it often seems to be used to make the violence seem not as bad as if some stranger hauled off and punched you in the street).  

          Then, I was masochistic enough to read some of the comments (I know, I know...), which included such gems as accusing the woman who had to hide in the woods until 7am of being a part of the murderer's plot, or at least somehow responsible for it; another who was happy that the December 6 massacre was no longer Canada's worst (so we wouldn't have to hear from all those yammering feminists again); not to mention all these armchair pundits coming out of the woodwork to declare this to have been a random, unpredictable "snap" by someone with obvious mental health issues.

Sigh...

 

Okay, I'm going to go into further detail in a sec, but if you want to just skip to the punch line(s), here we go:

  1. If you re-read paragraph #2, you will recall that I have spent the last several decades with some pretty damned serious mental health issues.  And yet, I have not murdered a single human being.  I haven't even hit one.  And while I now have lots of tools and knowledge to help keep my C-PTS symptoms at a low murmur, even at my wildest, bat-shit crazy moments, neither murder or violence were ever, EVER even a remote possibility for me.  There's a reason for that.  (Oh, keep reading, you didn't think I'd give the ENTIRE punch line away this early, did ya?)
     
  2. For the last couple months, women's shelters and other organizations have been warning us all that the current self-isolation guidelines, mixed with stress and uncertainty over the pandemic, were going to create a tremendous rise in domestic abuse and femicide.  And we'd already seen those rates ramping up – at least, those of us who were paying attention.  This wasn't a random act, it was predictable and predicted.  Not because men would, in their boredom, suddenly decide to become abusive during isolation, but because those who were already abusive would, in a time of stress and uncertainty, escalate their behaviour, and the only target available would be the woman forced to stay in isolation with them, with no workplace or friend's place to safely and excusably escape to, even for an hour.
     
  3. Using the term "mental illness" as an excuse for misogyny and toxic masculinity is just plain wrong, and perpetuates the damned problem.  It's about bloody time we call it what it is, so we can start to prevent these very predictable occurrences from occurring.

 

          With these frustrations whirling through my head, I decided to take my dogs (and myself) out for a nice, long walk, to try and untangle some of the threads for myself, walk off the stress, and get some fresh air.  It was a gorgeous day, lots of folks were out and about, getting their provincially-mandated daily dose of exercise and fresh air.  As has become the custom, my fellow walkers and I would keep an eye out for folks approaching, suss out which party had the easier method of getting out of the way, and use either words or body language to say "don't worry, I'll go around", so as not to stress anybody out.  All, that is, except the group of teenaged boys on skateboards, who not only felt entitled to plough their way down a straight line, no matter who was there, but also entitled to their choice of finger gesture and curse words at whoever deigned to remind them of the 2-metre rule.

          Frazzled (yet slowly awakening to another angle to the tangle), I cut through a park, and headed to some less-travelled back streets.  Checking my breathing and other self-grounding techniques, as I got further away from the chaos, both internally and externally.

          Which is when a grown-assed man, who felt the need to ride his bicycle on the sidewalk, instead of the devoid-of-cars road beside me, rang his bell and yelled at me to get the dogs out of his way.  (Keep in mind that my dogs' leashes are 2 metres long.)  He showed zero sign of slowing down or, heaven forbid, moving to the road, where grown-assed men are supposed to ride their bicycles, so I gathered the dogs close, and tried my best not to inhale the cloud of sweat, and cheap beer, and tooth decay that whooshed by me.

          I was so done.

          A few blocks later, as we respectfully took a wide berth around a group of people talking in a driveway, a man stepped forwards to gleefully cry "oh, what a beautiful face!" and give Jasper (one of my dogs, who was more than eager to accept) a loving head-rub.  Then instantly looked horrified, backed off, and said "oh my god, I just touched him, I'm so sorry!" (and put his hands up to his face in embarrassment – double oops).  I don't know if it was relief at finally running into a man on my walk who gave a crap about my well-being and was strong enough to admit his mistake and offer a genuine apology, or if it was because I was already primed by my earlier experiences to just play nice, but "oh, that's okay, don't worry about it" came out of my mouth, a few seconds before I realized what was coming from my mouth, not to mention before I could will the words back in where they belonged...

         A text from a friend on the way home – had I seen the article about how much that councillor had charged his city expense account for his self promotion?  And did I read all his quotes in the article, which essentially spoke of how entitled he was to abuse the system so brazenly?  So entitled, he didn't even realize how badly he was coming off in his quotes.  Oh lordy, I have such little patience for middle-class male entitlement these days...

          More angles for the tangle.  More unravelling.  An essay almost completed in my head, by the time the pooches and I made it to the front door.  I opened up my laptop to start writing it all down.

          But I'd left Facebook open, so as the laptop awoke, the first thing I saw was the "memories" post from April 25, 2017:  "Grateful for good friends who remind me I'm strong, but don't require me to be." 

         Oh my, I'd forgotten all about it – and nobody but the friends I'd mentioned would have known the true meaning of this post – but that was the day I'd finally decided that I could no longer live in fear in my own home.  Emancipation day.  The day I'd irrevocably decided that I was going to do the things I needed to do to be safe again – most notably, not allow my then-husband to return home when he was released from his mental health and addictions residential treatment program.

          Seeing that well-timed Facebook Memory, the obvious hit home.  Most likely the reason for the original tangle and triggered "braincloud" I'd been fighting all afternoon.  The cold, hard truth:

THERE.  BUT.  FOR.  GRACE.  

         The reason why I was so triggered by everyone confusing domestic abuse with mental illness was because believing in that confusion had almost cost me my life.

 


 

       You see, April 25, 2017 was the day I knew I was going to get the hell out of my marriage, but my then-husband didn't know it until a full week later – neither did most people, save a couple close friends, my therapist, lawyer, and contact at the local shelter, plus D's social worker for his residential treatment program, all of whom gave me the help and advice I needed to get out as safely as possible.  It was D's doctors who started to break the news to him slowly, at first telling him he shouldn't be taking his next weekend pass home.  The social worker, who has apparently seen this so many times, warned me of the paths he would likely follow once he learned I was leaving (he did), and warned me that if he revoked my next-of-kin status (he did), that they were legally not allowed to warn me if he discharged himself early – so take a week to prepare before making the news final. That week gave me time to install security cameras on the house, to upgrade my alarm package, to contact the local police to make sure they treated any distress alarm as serious, to gather keys to various safe houses, to put a safety plan and team together, to organize a place for him to live temporarily when he was released a few weeks later.  I was told the legal notice of separation would be held by his doctors so he could read it under supervision.  My nightly ritual began to include taking the flour sifter out to dust the perimeter of my house, so I could see any footprints in the morning, because I was warned that men with his particular type of mental illness were most likely to "snap" in the months  – or even years – after being "rejected" by their partners.

         I had had such high hopes for this treatment program.  That it would be the magic bullet that gave us our happily-ever-after (yes, I've written about my magical thinking before).  But, as I found out shortly before April 25, D had been lying and faking his way even through that treatment, arguing his entitlement to not follow the rules set for everyone else, raging at me when I caught him in lies, raging even harder when – after learning that he'd been keeping a different, well-curated set of lies for each of the people in his life – I shared my discoveries with his doctors.  Texting me his rages when I stopped answering the phone.

         I had been trying to get D into this program for four years, at that point.  As had his personal trauma therapist and our couple's trauma therapist.  The reason why he finally agreed to go was because of that fateful day of December 5, 2016, which they and my own personal trauma therapist later referred to as a failed murder-suicide.

         Yes.  You read that correctly.  A failed murder-suicide (with me being the failed-murdered, in case I really need to spell it out to you) IN EARLY DECEMBER, and yet it still took me until the end of April to do what I needed to do to keep myself safe.

         Because that attempt on my life wasn't his fault, you see, it was because of his mental health issues.  Just like all the things that had been leading up to that moment in the previous four years.  Just like all the red flags I'd seen long before that, but shoved down to the bottom of my consciousness, because the poor man had mental health issues, and needed my support.

         That was the only attempted murder-suicide (that I know of), although there were several frightening incidents in the four years before that.  The shelter had been on my speed-dial and in my GPS all that time, and I'd hidden a small overnight bag away, which I'd re-pack seasonally.  But he didn't mean to rage, or punch the wall beside my head, or turn red and ball up his fists while yelling at me – he was only out of control because of his mental health issues, and how dare I be upset about his behaviour when he was seeing a therapist and working hard and getting better?  (I'm not quite sure what his definition of "better" was... from my perspective it was getting worse and worse, I'd just become an expert in tiptoeing around it – though not expert enough to avoid that day in December.)

         Yet, now that I'm three years out, and my head is clear, I can see that Every Single Issue in our marriage that was blamed on "mental health issues" was, in fact, so deep-rooted in the freaking patriarchy, it baffles me how quickly I was convinced to accept misogynistic abuse when it was labelled as mental illness.  (And surely I'm not the only one.)

 


 

         At first, it was merely annoying stuff.  Anything that was mine, he called "ours", anything that was ours, he called "his"; when he told stories to friends about things that involved the both of us, I was regularly omitted from the narrative.  When I objected, it was explained that he was still shell-shocked after leaving his abusive marriage (I now question just how abusive his first wife really was – perhaps she was, as I became, simply fed up with being constantly lied to and treated disrespectfully, and had had the audacity to speak up for herself, as I quickly learned not to do.), and needed to assert his independence.

         Another early complaint was his insistence on opening the door for me – which is not to say that I object to anyone holding doors for anyone when it's good and helpful.  But he held doors to PROVE how considerate and chivalrous he was.  If it was easier for me to open the door myself, he'd get upset that I hadn't let him.  If I held the door for him when it looked like it would be helpful, he'd roll his eyes and make fun of me.  This became annoying rather quickly.  But then there was that day when he saw me opening the door for myself, ran over, and knocked me to the ground in his haste to prove how chivalrous he was – when I didn't thank him, his tantrum rivalled that of a four-year-old.  In later years, he would push me aside to hold the door, then slam it in my face.  If I objected, I was just trying to make him look bad.

         He moved into my Orillia house (without actually contributing anything towards said house) and it suddenly became his house.  To the point where, shortly after the day that became the beginning of our end (more on that in a moment), as we were finishing off a rehearsal with friends in a nearby church, he invited them – and me – to come back to his place for a visit before the concert.  They looked at me, confused.  I looked back at them, sheepish.  Later, when we were alone, he shrugged and said "I don't know what happened, what's wrong with me?"

         There was nothing wrong with him that hadn't already been going on since the very beginning of our relationship, when he had explained away the I-me-my-mine language as a result of his feeling inadequate as a man, since I was the provider of the "family", or inadequate as a musician, since I was so talented; or inadequate in business, or social graces, or whatever other masculine insecurities he had.  That day at the church was just the natural progress of his never having been able to handle the lack of conformity to his vision of gender norms in our relationship.  Man should be the provider.  I should let him feel like a man by letting him take credit for my contributions and erasing myself from the picture.

         And all of these, and other, seemingly benign (although, really???) "symptoms" at the beginning of our relationship magnified as well.  At first, it was just me tiptoeing around his insecurities, as he healed himself from that supposedly-abusive first marriage (poor, depressed baby).  Later, if I got annoyed at a lie or broken promise, he would accuse me of being just like his first wife, so I learned to spare myself the drama and let it go.  Gradually, it grew to me voluntarily handing over any excess in power I was perceived to have, lest he feel "unmanly" and react badly.  Let him believe he had power over me (which, I guess, I was letting him have, after all), lest he start to emotionally spin out of control.

         When I bought our "dream home" in Barrie, it again was called his.  When people assumed it was his salary that had paid for it, he didn't correct them.  I knew better than to correct them.  Wouldn't want anyone to know it was the "little lady" supporting us both, and make him look like less of a man.

         Already, I hope you see how labelling his inability to accept a flip of gender stereotypes as a mental health problem allowed his controlling behaviour to not only continue, but escalate.  Which it did, in many ways, almost imperceptibly during the first four years of our relationship, followed by a faster acceleration in the first couple years of our marriage.

 


 

         Behaviours that I'd identified as passive-aggressive or otherwise controlling escalated.  Broken promises or "small" lies explained away as his just protecting himself from the anger I (justifiably) felt when discovering that I'd been lied to or otherwise betrayed.  Eventually I clued in – and explained to him – that I hadn't been angry before discovering the betrayal, that he was already lying and betraying me when he called me "sweetness and light" and gushed about how un-angry I was, and wouldn't have been nearly as angry with the truth if it had been told in the first place.  Nevertheless, it escalated to the point where even he could see it wasn't making any sense, and offered to go for treatment.  When the treatment wasn't working, he said he wanted to go to a month-long self-help retreat that he thought would help him with all his emotional blocks and unhealthy behaviour.  He came home from that retreat saying he'd learned so much, and was ready to be the man of honesty and integrity that he knew I deserved, and he would be 100% trustworthy from that point on.

         A week later, I started to learn of all the deceptions and infidelities that had been happening since the very beginning of our relationship, back when he called me "sweetness and light" and gushed about how kind and compassionate I was (yet still blamed his previous behaviour on the anger I later felt, when I realized that our entire marriage and the previous seven years of my life had been based entirely on lies).  The next week, still more revelations – after wearing me down out of my "never again" attitude to marriage, it turned out he'd already broken over half of his wedding vows, even as he'd been writing them.  Gone through the rest before we'd even hit our third anniversary.  Up to and including the month-long affair he'd just had on my dime, as well as arrangements for a few more "self-help retreats", also on my dime, with his affair partner.

         All of which were, essentially, the behaviour of a man who felt entitled to do what he wanted, to have what he wanted, and to say whatever it took to get what he wanted.  AND YET...

         I was told – by several people, including our therapist at the time (later fired, because she was truly a nut-case) – not to just give in to my gut reaction and get the hell out of this marriage, because that would be knee-jerk and selfish.  Because the poor baby wasn't REALLY a serial liar and cheat, he was simply unable to control his misogynistic behaviour, due to his MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES, and I should instead stand by my man, through sickness and health, like those vows it appears only I was expected to take seriously.

         I mean, the song itself is bad enough, but do I need to remind you the ironic story of the woman who sang "Stand By Your Man"?

         Over the next few years, when he would rage at me for not trusting him, for catching him in more lies, for remembering his affair, for remembering his other infidelities, for not thinking he was perfect, for acknowledging to others he wasn't perfect – all that was explained away as mental illness.  ALL OF IT.  I should try harder to be supportive, so as not to trigger one of his outbursts again.

         Mental illness, you see, is treatable.  It gives you hope that if you find the magic cure, it will all get better.  It allows us to ignore the obvious – that I was, as the good little wifey I was supposed to be, expected to subject myself to four more years of escalating abuse in order to support his "wellness", rather than scream a hearty "fuck you" to the patriarchy and its inherent toxic masculinity.  To dare claim that I should be treated with compassion by the man receiving free room and board (and car, and guitars, and preamps, and... and... and...)

         Mis-labelling D's bad behaviour as mental illness allowed him to continue to behave badly.  Allowed him to play the victim of his own choices.  Allowed him to hold ME responsible for his own bad choices.  Implored ME to be more patient, more understanding, let him get away with more, give him more, expect less.  To sacrifice my own mental health in the hopes of helping his.

         Why?  Why were SO MANY PEOPLE willing and eager to hold up his supposedly fragile mental health as all-important, while expecting me to sacrifice my own?  

         And yes, this has been a personal story so far, but the massacre in Nova Scotia has shown us – at least, those of us who are willing to look closely – that I am most certainly not alone with this story.  The freaking comments sections (don't look) show us just how many want to hold a woman responsible for her partner's bad behaviour, to blame his premeditated choices on mental health issues, to point their fingers at shiny things to blame on instead of taking a cold, hard look at the underlying poisons in the water we are all swimming in.

 



         Misogyny is sick, yes.  Patriarchy is sick, yes.  Toxic Masculinity is sick, yes.  But a man behaving in the toxicly masculine way the misogynistic patriarchy allows (and expects) him to behave is NOT mental illness.  And we need to stop pretending it is.

Misogyny and Toxic Masculinity are a sickness of society, 
but they are NOT mental illness.

         Labelling – and excusing – D's abusive behaviour as mental illness nearly cost me my life.  It did, in fact, cost me 11 years of it – plus the three years I've had since to recover from it.

         Labelling – and excusing – the Nova Scotia mass-murderer as mentally ill nearly cost his partner her life.  Cost 22 other people theirs.  Has already cost the lives of so many recent victims of femicide under this period of self-isolation.  Has already cost the health, well-being, and souls of many other women, as they worry "who's next?"  While we pretend this man was an anomaly, we fail to protect the women currently enduring misogynistic abuse.  We fail to protect the future victims of femicide.

         We fail to protect the silent woman in the passenger seat whose deaf husband somehow hears her breathing pattern change, over the radio and road noise, decides it means she's judging his driving skills, and decides "I'll show her" by playing chicken with the fully loaded transport truck coming in the opposite direction, then swerving last-second towards the passenger van waiting at the stop sign.  Which... yeah... in that moment, was probably not a sign of stable mental health – however it wasn't much different than what had been going on in the previous years and, in hindsight, was pretty much the inevitable conclusion of ignoring seven years of fragile and toxic masculinity.

 


 

       Let me get back to my initial Point #1:  Even in my most un-hinged, highly-triggered, emotionally unstable moments, I have never killed, nor wounded, nor even contemplated killing or wounding another person.  Yes, there were many times I considered self-harm.  And suicide.  But a murder-suicide never flickered across the realm of possibility.  Certainly not mass murder.

         Because murder, or murder-suicide, is only a flicker across the realm of possibility if you believe you have the right to control another person.  If you believe you have the right to control another person's life.  If you believe you have the right to decide whether they live or die.

         That is power-over.  That is toxic masculinity.  That is the fucking patriarchy.   

         The belief that men naturally have the right to control a woman's body, or behaviour, or thoughts, or life, is an inherent part of the patriarchy.  Saying that a "domestic dispute" was to blame for a man's murderous rampage, ignores the fact that that man already thought it was okay to cause harm to his partner, to cause harm to others because she "made him" angry enough to kill people.  Once again, I've been plenty angry in my life – but I've never used my anger as an excuse to do horrendous things to others.     

         That patriarchal system allows abuse to flourish.  Even now, as a murderous rampage is being painted as an unhinged reaction to a domestic dispute, the system continues to blame the (initial) victim, to make her responsible for her partner's horrific behaviour.  Maybe if she'd just hung the toilet paper the way he preferred... maybe if I'd held my breath that entire car trip...

         The vast majority of mass murderers are male.  More often than not, white middle class males, who have had entitlement, power-over, misogyny and toxic masculinity held up as not just allowable, but desirable.  Who have been trained to see women not as equals, but as property, prizes (early on, D would actually call me his prize – I should have seen it), conquests, chattel.  Who already believe that whatever they do is justified, if the result is that they get their own way.  Who already believe that they are not just the most important, but the only important character in their own story.  Who believe that when they've had enough, they have the right to take everyone else down with them.

         I know a lot of mentally ill people, both male and female.  They have never killed anyone, either.  Neither have they used their mental illness to justify violence against their spouse.  When they've "snapped", when they've lost control, they've not gone down that road, because they didn't already hold the core beliefs you have to hold in order to go down that road.

         While the mass murders in Nova Scotia this month were an extreme example of this trajectory, this event is sadly, not surprising, nor was it unpredictable.  As I stated in my initial Point #2, the women's shelters and other organizations have been warning about accelerating violence since the self-isolation began.  I can no longer pretend not to see the red flags that were waving, leading up to that drive in that December.  We collectively have to stop sticking our heads in the sand and ignoring the red flags and warnings that are being shouted around us daily.

Domestic disputes do not cause domestic violence.  
Domestic disputes do not spark mass murder.

         This violence is the inevitable conclusion of a trajectory that begins when we hand out the get-out-of-jail-free cards of "boys will be boys" and "oh, how did she make him do that?", when we fail to hold poorly-behaving boys and men accountable for their own choices and actions, when we teach them that they have the right to control others, when we indoctrinate them with the philosophy of power-over, when we fail to call them on their sense of entitlement and lack of empathy, when we make excuses, smooth things over, turn ourselves into pretzels to avoid their fury and then come face to face with it anyhow and write it off as out of their control.

         The water we are all swimming in is poisoned.  It will kill us all if we don't call it for what it is.  If we don't face it and examine it, and do everything we can to fix it.

         If we keep pretending incidents like these are unpredictable flukes, sparked by domestic disputes, we are failing everyone.

 


 

         In Toronto, the rate of domestic violence has increased by 22% since the beginning of the pandemic – and that is a region that still has services, albeit limited services, available to the women who need them.  We know that rural communities at the best of times have fewer resources available for women, and that the rate of abuse and femicide is actually higher in the "sleepy little towns".  In part, because of the isolation, in part because firearm ownership is more common.

         I have been counting my blessings since this pandemic began that it's happening now, and not 3+ years ago.  I am also counting my blessings that D had no interest in firearms, and that his "out of control" did not have such weapons available.  I can imagine, all too well, what could have happened, and what is and can be happening to women throughout my community.  I can only imagine the extra level of fear in an abusive home where those weapons are available.  Expanding on this facet of the horror is probably best left to another essay, by another person.  Suffice it to say that mentally ill people don't commit mass murder.  Mentally ill misogynists with access to weapons commit mass murder.

         Stop blaming this massacre on mental illness.  Stop blaming this massacre on a "domestic dispute".  Call it what it is – the inevitable trajectory of unchecked Toxic Masculinity.

And support your local Women's Shelter,
check in on your friends and neighbours,
and raise your voices to stop the trajectories 
BEFORE they become dangerous.

 

The Women and Children's Shelter of Barrie gave me the advice I needed to get out safely – they are accepting donations here.

A Canada-wide directory is located at ShelterSafe.

The Canadian Public Health department has information on Family Violence here.

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