Burned at the Stake (Trigger Warning)

I was eight. My family had just moved from one small town in New Mexico, up to another. I want to name it, but, if I do it reveals too much about who I am. I keep my veil of safety. Being pale, with red hair and my own inhibitions in communication I was an outsider anywhere I went in this state. In small towns however, there is a generational acceptance and a strong xenophobia. That which is different isn’t just feared it is hated.

The children in this town were taught that red hair meant you were a witch. This lesson came along before I did. The further stigma of not being able to tan implied this further. I remember the attack, though it plays in half segments, like a badly edited movie and I feel like an outside viewer. I was on the swing, trying to kick the tree branch. Despite my fear of heights the Swing was as close to flying as I could get.

The other kids were calling me names again, chanting them at me, one threw a rock. The film skips. I must have fallen, my shoulder was out of place and my legs hurt. I was in a corner now, and I was quiet, I hadn’t learned to make them feel fear yet. They were new threats. The film skips. I hear the bible verses, half misquoted, none of them had actually read the bible they were just paraphrasing their parents.

“You’re weird.” Silence. “We should kill her.” Fear. “She’s a witch.” Confusion. “Thou Shalt’ not Supper a witch to live.” I did mock them back at that point, correcting their mistatement, “Suffer.” Fear. Suffering. I hurt. The teachers who watch and protect the students watched, they did not say a word.

I ran, I could feel the bones in my knees and ankles grinding, my hips hurt and crackled loudly. I could barely walk, a familiar feeling in daily life now. I cried too. No one wants to die. I thought if I died no one would protect my family. They laughed at my terror. I tugged on my teacher’s sleeve and begged, “They said they’ll kill me.”

“Go play.” The film skips. It’s the next recess. The sun is lower in the sky, and my body aches more. My shoulder is still out of place, but so is my elbow. The rope cuts into my skin. My lip is cut, my glasses are broken so their faces are just blurs. “Witch. Witch.” I feel the sticks under my feet, one of the boy scouts is rubbing sticks together to try and start a fire. I am being burned at the stake.

I did not cry then. I thought I was going to die. I closed my eyes, and I did nothing. I did not pray, I did not let myself feel. I just felt things. Mostly, I felt relief. I thought then I would never have to see my father again, or the older boy who had already found a new victim. I thought if I died my mother would be happy again. I thought the world would be a better place.

A sharp pain comes, and I start to cry. It’s not fire. They failed with fire and one of them threw a rock. The film skips. I cried, I knew I was bleeding and I knew too my guardians did not protect me. I had no teachers who cared, I gave up then. I gave up living in my heart. I had already been broken, I had already been beaten. This was just proof that the world was a place of pain and violence.

Proof no one could love a piece of trash like me.

Invalidation of a person. “She’s weird.” I did not scream, and I did not shout. I just waited to die. Why was it taking so long? Why couldn’t it end? Why did no one do a thing to stop them? Was I so very bad that I didn’t get to die? Was I so very bad that I was going to die?

The bell rang, and everyone else went to class. My teacher’s voice came as a snarl, “You will be counted as absent for the day.” She always looked away when the other children hit me, cornered me, and this time she had just watched. She looked away too when she caught one of the teachers raping another girl. This was the same. It all felt the same to me. No tragedy worse than the others, every breath was tragic and full of pain.

The third recess came, I hurt from the sun. “Whore.” I did not respond, I did not look up, I just stayed silent. “Slut.” More rocks came. One of them found a lighter, maybe a teacher gave it to them. The film skips, plays backwards, the insults the same, a chant of hate. The film skips forward. They have a stick that is burning. My ankles are covered with debris, rocks and sticks, a branch pulled from a tree. Dry tinder, dry grass. The lighter is set to the flames.

I wasn’t afraid anymore, I just watched the sticks burn, listening as they cheered. They were killing me, but, they were happy. I wondered if my mother would be angry at me for dying, or if she would be happy that there was one less mouth to feed. I could hear my father’s threats, I could feel his hands on me. Everyone said I was evil, so dying was right. One less bad person to ruin the world.

My feet hurt, but, I just stood there, tied to the tether ball pole. The principle suddenly was there, the film must have skipped again, but, I didn’t care. I just wanted to make them like me, so I would have to die. Then, maybe my mother could love me. I didn’t know she already did. I thought I was bad. I thought that every lie said was truth. I never heard the good, I don’t think it was said.

I heard yelling, I thought it was more hate. “How dare you just watch?” A knife was drawn, I thought the principle was going to kill me. I had been out in the sun all day, I hurt too much to think. The film skipped, he was carrying me inside. The teachers went back to work, watching. “Who did this?”

Silence.

Eventually I told him, all I could remember. I told him, and he cried. I thought that meant he knew I was evil. He called my mother, I don’t know if she answered but she did not come for me. My teacher kept her job, no one was punished. Only my body, my mind. He drove me home, he said he’d do something. I am sure he tried.

When I went back to school the next day, we started to read about the Salem Witch Trials. Everyone laughed about setting me on fire, about burning me. No one asked if I had blisters on my feet, if it hurt me to walk, or commented on the fact that I had blisters on my face. It was funny. The film skips.

It was all my fault, my mother said, if I just tried harder to get along. If I was nicer. The film skips. Years this time. In and out of the institutes I had already been, I was tired of it. Someone called me a witch, I fought back. I did not want to burn again.

The scars are hidden by other scars. No one was punished. No one cared enough. I was just a little girl, I wasn’t like them. I never will be. Over the years, I watched them as an outsider. I watched them live, I watched some of them die. None of illness, it was always stupid and preventable. I watched them age, I listened to their cruel words.

Every year, they reminded me about it, about the time they burned the witch. I still don’t know why it is funny. I was always threatened with a repeat performance, whenever I did not give them their way. My mother asked why I never had friends. Because I was the Witch. I took their mantle, I practiced the craft of hatred. I made them fear me.

I committed acts of violence, and I learned to hate. I never forgot that my siblings watched too, I never forgot that the teachers watched. There was real danger, there was no medical treatment for it. I had to walk to school until my feet healed, with burns. I had to feel the pain. I still feel some of it.

My sister found a half acceptance by selling her body for it. She let the boys do as they would with her. She let herself be their perpetual victim. It helped that she was born to be blonde, blondes cannot be witches you see. Their culture too taught them that the blonde women are the most desirable. My brother never found acceptance, he ran off as soon as he could, starting adult life far too early. Facing different pains than I.

My siblings who were born while we lived there still never quite fit. Generational Acceptance. Their great grandchildren just might fit in. I hope if they do, the town changes from violence and hate to love and acceptance. I never forgot who watched. I can still list the names. I know too, if my principal had not been sick, his age catching up with him and his body failing him slowly, they would not have just watched. He was a good man. One voice trying to teach them to love.

I never just watch. I will open my mouth at risk to my person, if it feels right. I will lift a hand to help someone if I can, or I will find a way to act. I never just watch. A part of me is forever burning, forever marred, and forever marked. I hear often that bullying is harmless. It isn’t. That was written off as bullying. I spent the rest of my educational career in terror for my life. It’s never just bullying. it is sheer and abject cruelty.

Is it just bullying to throw rocks at a person hoping to kill them? Is it just bullying to set someone on fire? Is it just bullying to blind them? Is it just bullying or is that the excuse given to make it alright to watch? What are you watching happen? What do you let someone do, that costs another?

Every word, every fist, every rock and the fire all took from me. Every adult who just watched is more guilty than the children, because the children did not know better. They only knew what they were taught. They were taught to persecute outsiders, to shun those who were different and to fear any slight varient. They were taught that god hates difference. They were taught hatred.

Not many people in that town grow up and function well outside of it. Part of it is the high density of criminals, hiding easily from the law. Part of it comes from the number of illegal immigrants. The lack of proper education, in a state that always falls in the bottom categories, this is the town that scores the lowest every time. The deficits that these children face disable them further than anything ever has me.

They burned me at the stake. I am struggling to forgive, but, when one of them ventures out of their town or when I must enter it’s borders I still feel sick and fearful.

They burned me at the stake. No amount of explanation or justification will ever make that alright. I may forgive them but I will never forget. I will not pity them, I will also not abandon them. If I am given the choice between watching or acting, I will act. I have to, I must rise above the actions of abuse, incest, torture, and pain. I must rise above. I must heal. I give myself this edict.

They burned me at the stake. There was no justice, there was no help, there was no relief, there was no escape. I had to face them. I had no safe place. I had no one to trust. I wasn’t just lonely, I was in a desolate place, beyond the reach of the rest of the world, wrapped in torture. Reality was worse than any horror story I could read. It was all just a nightmare, except that my nightmares ended eventually. I was beyond suicidal, I was beyond help, because no one offered help. I was blamed. I was a victim. I was nothing like who and what I am today.

They burned me at the stake. There is no forgiveness yet, but, I am trying. Each word written here is one word closer to forgiveness. I have forgiven myself for not being stronger, for being afraid, and for being a child. I have not forgiven them for their cruelty. I have not forgiven them for demanding kindness when they felt pain, for denying me my right to be a person. I am trying. If I can forgive them, then perhaps someday I can forgive my biological father.

I might never forgive them.

They burned me at the stake.

Spiderweb has no Spider

March is Brain Injury Awareness month. I have brain damage in my fine little skull, all from untreated concussions, working through the pain, toughing it out and yet, I am never certain what issues spring from what challenges. Since I have autism and brain damage, as well as visual and hearing ailments, what causes what?

Too, when I sit out in the sun for five minutes and note my pustules later, reacting to the presence of the very thing that makes food grow and light fill our world, I have to guess, is this exact blister from Hidradenitis Supprativa, a side effect of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, an actual pimple, sun poiosning as my mother calls it or is it still something else.

Then, with the issues with walking. It could be a side effect of the Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, the Spinal Cord Injury, or just a minor pelvic dislocation, but is it something else? Did falling through that chair do more damage elsewhere that no one can see?

Multiple disabilities are a huge challenge. When i thought I had a single disability, I had unanswered questions. When I thought I had two, I thought the world was ending. Then with three, it all began to feel alright, but with four I was once more mourning, and with five I became angry. With six, I felt as if i should just die. With seven, I just stopped caring about how many I had, and began to fight to thrive. With eight, I found it status quo, with Nine, Ten, Eleven, I began to count it all over again.

I am a spider’s web, everything is connect, everything has always been here it just has a label. The labels are flies, sticking in my webiness, wiggling and shaking things up. So far, the labels have done very little to better my life. Usually they complicate it. If I tell a doctor about more than one disability, they usually give up on me. What right does that give them to deny me a quality of life?

I want to see, I want to hear, I want to live in a world without fear, I want to dance, I want to be just me, yet me is not without disability. I no longer believe in a cure for any of my ailments, except the spinal cord injury. I do not want them. I fear the changes to personality that treatment could’ve brought. Sure, I might not have had it as hard as I have. I might have had more than just a single man to teach me how to be a person. I might have had friends.

Or I might have been worse off. I get tired of able bodied people, those in denial of disability, or those who think we are all cookie cutter identical creatures telling me what works for their disabilities.

I have tried experimental treatments, mostly for my PTSD and they made it worse every time. EMDR, I have no idea what the letters mean but I remember the treatment. It worked for every other patient, so I was just a failure for not becoming magically better. Penicillin allergy even has an example, a doctor wanting to see just how allergic I was, because of course it costs more money to have another medication and money has more value than the patient.

When I was younger, long before my autism diagnosis I had an Occupational Therapist funded by the school. She did teach some neat things, we worked on my fine motor skills, which still suffer, and made earrings. We did all types of activities, molding things in clay, dancing. This was what I did for recess, another bit of isolation granted by my abnormalities. I was lonely, until this program came forth however. There I met the other kids who were a little like me. This woman decided to have my mother take a rubber brush to rub all over me, to try and desensitize me to the world. She did not ask me, she just called my mother in and during school one day she grabbed my arm, while talking to my mother and began to scrub my flesh.

This worked on the other children, so it had to work on me. I started screaming. It felt as if she was pealing off my skin, I screamed, and screamed. She told me to shut up, it would all get better. My mother took the brush out of her hands and asked why she would do that, when I was sobbing. I don’t know the end result of the conversation, but we took that brush home. It was just like the ones sold to wash dishes with, and that is what my mother did with it. I think she chose to lie to this therapist. I do not remember because I went into my head, flashing back to times when my father did try and peal away my flesh.

The sensory overload pains me to ever remember, it wasn’t just a sensory overload it was a flash back and a denial of my right to unique treatment. I never accepted the treatment of this OT again, I went, but I became surly because she wanted me to be like the others. She wanted to scrub me, until I just didn’t care. It did not matter to her that it hurt. I still have nightmares from her scrubbing.

I wish I could say it never happened again, but, she would scrub me herself, at times using this as a punishment. Too often the medical community does this, forgetting that each body has a unique chemistry, each brain a unique perspective. Now I fire doctors who do not listen, they get one shot and that is it with me. I have to be harsh like that to survive.

My cat William, the one with brain damage, has a similar problem. Touching his paws hurts him. He has dangerously sharp claws, cutting me when he doesn’t mean to, but to trim them means to cause him that same sort of pain. I figured this out after I had used our PetoFiler nail trimmer on him, it vibrates, rotates and basically sands down the nails. Sprite loves it. William was in pain for days and I barely tipped the claws off.

Each method for a traditional manicure fails him, I have yet to find out how to protect us both, but knowing what it is like to be tortured by someone thinking they know what is best, I back off. I would rather have cuts than send him into a world of pain. If you are a doctor, reading this, try and remember your patient might feel pain differently than you do. Sometimes I have to go naked because the pain from cloth rubbing against my flesh is as potent as that scrubbing brush.

It was yellow, it was multi-textured, and it is one of my worst nightmares. Those moments are on par with time spent in the care of a diagnosed psychopath. Do not traumatize your patients by thinking you know it all, or that every treatment should work for them. Humanity is full of individual people, not a bunch of identical organisms.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Advocacy (Trigger Warning)

In conversation with one of my young friends I had a revelation. This was about thirty seconds ago. Sometimes advocating triggers flashbacks while I am trying to function. My mind lept then to other people who have to self advocate through PTSD symptoms. It isn’t always a flash back. If you do not have PTSD it might be harder for you to understand being jerked around by past trauma. Therefore I am going to explain, and this is why there is a trigger warning on this post. Sometimes reading about PTSD or other issue related things can trigger people.

This is not from the DSM (Diagnostic Manual thingy) but is from my experience. I may leave things out that apply to you or tell you things that don’t. The problem with labels is they are often not enough to truly explain what something means. Lets say someone shoots a gun. My first impulse is to be very still, not breathing, and praying that my father won’t make the shot. Even typing that sentence my head went into the land of fuzz and my chest is tight. I am taking slow breaths to focus and clear my mind. The trigger is not always a gun but just a loud pop. My brain is stuck on certain points of the abuse I suffered, it has a programmed loop that it likes to play. I have warning symptoms for my flashbacks now, and can often circumvent them.

My reality is in jeopardy from these loops. the weakest symptom is a tingle, intense fear, sometimes I start randomly bleeding. Why do I bleed? One theory a psychologist offered is somatic symptomalogy. Basically my body remembers, and it reacts so strongly to what my brain signals, that it thinks it is injured. This adds to the pain I feel. The pain from invisible injuries is far from phantom. I feel it. The next step after that is the sensation that I am floating, I disassociate and can see the entire world, but I am not connected to it. Usually I then go back in time. I see and feel at the same time, from multiple vantage points my father with his brand new gun, me and my siblings on the couch. I feel the cold metal of the gun pressing against my forehead. My nose stings with the tears I cannot shed.

The loud bang comes, I feel the heat of the bullet, my skin is burned by muzzle flash and I feel a horrible pain as the bullet grazes my temple. I don’t move. I don’t scream. I just stare up into that black hole, smoke pouring out of it and avoid looking into my father’s eyes, knowing he is going to be angry that he missed. I hear every word he screams again, how worthless I am, how I should be dead and must have moved. My sister starts to scream, my brother too but I can’t move. I look into his eyes and I see the blackness.

I still do not remember what happens next, though I have been told he decided to shoot at my sister, but I pushed her aside. I just know he tried to shoot his children, sitting on a couch that smelled like pee, and nearly killed his neighbor because the bullet went off. The cops were called but I took the blame. I said I was playing with his gun when it went off. I lied, to survive.

When I come back to myself I always want to vomit. Instead I focus on breathing. If the nausea is really bad I will take some Rolaids. Sometimes now, after years of effort, I let myself cry. Usually I manage a tear but my brain has yet to grasp the concept of tears. If I am not at home, it is worse to recover. At home I control my environment, I have a bed to curl up in, two soft fluffy cats, and my Person can go elsewhere more easily giving me the time I need to recover.

When I am advocating and flash back, I never know what to do. I try different things, and usually they work but the vulnerability can be debilitating. I flashed back my first time having to seriously advocate to that scene. That is why I chose to relate it to try and explain what PTSD is like. I wish I had simpler words but none can encapsulate just how much there is to it. Sometimes the flashes are different, sometimes I am still an adult but I am trapped, it is worse in some ways because I still feel the pain but I am completely aware that my world has vanished. I am never certain if I am going to hurt someone. I have before, but it has been a long time.

That first taste of advocacy was so bitter. The cops came, and one fondled his gun and my brain shut down. I was afraid, in pain and exhausted. I was being yelled at and deprived of my prescription because I needed my service animal. The cops even saw Sprite follow her training. When I flash she has three tasks, beyond her instinct to comfort me. First, she signals to my Person for help. Sometimes a conversation can end it. So she chirruped at the person of the day, and I had to form the words, “I need you to deal with them for me. I can’t.” Then, she helps me to sit. I had to wait fifteen minutes for a chair, I wanted to scream at them but I tried to stay calm. I was hyperventilating, they took this as my being dramatic. Then, she moves to my shoulder. Her instinct is to sit on my chest, but she might get flung there, I do not handle pressure on my chest well even when not panicking or flashing. Her instincts tell her to purr, to rub with just her face against mine. This grounds me.

The police threatened to arrest me if I did not leave the facility. I knew enough to know they couldn’t but they refused to acknowledge that I had rights. I couldn’t fight, but I had to. I chose then to repeat the law over and over. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t see their real faces for half the time. All I saw was my father and his eyes that reflected no light.

What can you do if you have PTSD and are an advocate? Here is the how to portion.

Step 1. Before you get to the point of advocating, have a support structure. This is a difficult process, because not every person can truly understand what it is to lose your reality. You need to have someone you trust availible, at least to call.

Step 2. If you have medications used to treat the symptoms of your PTSD in an emergency make sure to carry them with you, to keep a back up dose with your support person, and to keep your doctors number handy.

Step 3. Create a kit of items that help forestall your flashbacks. Nothing works for me beyond my cat. I can give her the signal she is trained for when i feel the warnings coming and ground. This is all I have right now, beyond my Person. No meds, just those two.

Step 4. Remember to breathe. Sometimes if you focus on just breathing you can help yourself.

Step 5. If you flash back during advocacy, try and focus on the responses that do not match the memory. This has worked for others, pulling them out.

Step 6. Advocate anyway. I did get the illegal policy over turned at the Pharmacy where I was threatened with arrest. I had to fight for a long time to do it, but, they relented. It is worth it even though it you might feel endangered or might BE endangered by your flashbacks.

Step 7. If you have to, stop. This opposes Step 6. Not every incident can be worked through. You might need to call your therapist, you might need to let your support person advocate for you. This is not a failing, this is merely the team network that advocacy should be.

I am glad to write this how to. I never considered how important it could be, but, in my mind my broken back, my asthma, and my failing eyes are not my most dangerous disability. The worst disability I have is PTSD. At times during flashbacks I have hurt myself, my friends, and reliving the painful memories can also cost me emotional, physical, or mental progress.

Keep in mind the time you are most fragile is just after a flash back. Some people can be triggered more easily, often it is easier to react in rage. Do not minimize your pain either. It is okay to cry, scream, and sometimes to just walk away.

I have done all of the above. Not every incident with advocating will cause a flashback either. Most of my time advocating I am left with memories of victory. My first taste of advocacy is as sweet as it is bitter, because I still succeeded, despite my unabiding terror of these men. My greatest cause was also revealed to me. I am actively fighting to get the local police trained in how to deal with enforcing the ADA. I want my rights protected, I do not want to fear being put in jail, dumped out of my wheelchair and my service animal being put into Animal Control’s care.

That was the threat, and so often is. My heart goes out to any other advocates who suffer from PTSD. I know each person’s PTSD is varied, some may not flash back, some might just panic. Others might not be able to stop their flashes. You can still advocate. Just prepare yourself as best you can.

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