Friday, November 27, 2015

PTSD and higher education

Today, my department hosted a panel on mental health in university classrooms. Super necessary, and for the most part, reasonably informative. This was probably critical info for people who don't have much background in supporting students with mental health disabilities. The first two presenters were clear, and offered an overview of available resources that we could refer to. The last one, however, I feel was very problematic. The main part of his talk was ok - not the approach to accommodating students that I personally would have used, but it was fine. The trouble was after a faculty member asked what he thought of trigger warnings.

Our guest speaker doesn't like trigger warnings, because he doesn't find them effective. OK, I can see that, because they really aren't as effective as we'd like to hope they could be. The trouble I had was in his conceptualization of PTSD. He has been diagnosed with PTSD; so have I. We clearly have different experiences of it, but also different conceptualizations of the condition. I am distressed that he made out his perception to be indicative of everyone with PTSD.

He told us that people with PTSD are less sensitive than other people; numb. To a degree, yes, that's true - but we aren't numb to recalling our trauma. Instead we're numb to so many other things around us. He said that people who respond emotionally to depictions of trauma (and in this case his example was rape) don't actually have PTSD, but are merely upset about what happened to them. That's where I vehemently disagree. He talked about triggers as, for example, the little things - like if you're assaulted and you can smell onions nearby, you might be triggered by the smell of onions. And, yes, of course you might be. But that doesn't negate that you might still be triggered by, for example, a movie screened in class with a rape scene.

When PTSD was a challenge for me (it's not so bad recently), I could be triggered by little things that you'd never guess: things that were in the room at the time, that remind me of things he or I were wearing, smells, the pattern of the floor tiles. Things that I could run into, without warning, in a huge range of situations. They are bizarre, and specific to me and my experience. But I could also be triggered by perhaps more obvious things: the facial expression and body language of a man who knows he is about to get his way; phrases that connote pain and struggle. The sights and sounds that are fairly specific to rape or other bodily trauma. And lots of survivors, even with quite different experiences, will still find these things triggering. Think of if you break a glass: just because there are small fragments that end up under the oven that you find only years later does not negate that there are also fragments right there, under your nose. You still have to be careful not to step on any of them.

Monday, November 23, 2015


A friend and I were talking today about the assaults at UBC, and how we need a coherent sort of policy/procedure for dealing with sexual assault in our department. I asked her whether she'd know what to do/who to approach if she were assaulted by someone at school; she was pretty quick in saying that she'd go to the police. And on one level, that makes sense, because that's what we're taught to do. But to the best of my knowledge, many (all?) the UBC women didn't approach the police, initially. As an assault survivor, that makes more sense to me. 

With other crimes, when you talk to the police, you are a plaintiff, a witness, and so forth. In rape cases, your body becomes a crime scene, disembodied from the rest of you. That's where the trouble is, to me, in going to the police: I didn't go, because I didn't want the terrifying scrutiny of every inch of skin that reporting would entail, when I had already been so violated. I didn't want to be a patchwork of pieces of forensic evidence, didn't want photos taken of everything that was bleeding and torn. Because once those pictures exist, you become bleeding and torn, in the eyes of the law, and yet are also scrutinized as a potential liar, with your body being what they use to judge your character and the veracity of your claims. 

It's supposed to be criminal justice, but it just feels like an extension of the crime.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Certain feelings stick like glue

Today, I went to a poetry reading - an event I normally really enjoy when I attend, and I loved the work that the poets read. However, for a reason that I'm not entirely certain about, nobody sat next to me. I came alone, but it was a packed room. There were people standing at the back and sitting on the floor at the front, and yet nobody sat down next to me. Odds are it's nothing, but after being the kid who nobody wanted to sit next to or play with, that empty seat hurt in a way that, years and years later, I can't even quite describe.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

If it happened here, there would be little difference

A disturbing article came up tonight on CBC, regarding the University of British Columbia. UBC expelled one of their history PhD students this week, after half a dozen of his classmates came forward with reports that he had assaulted them over the past couple of years. It took months for the department to do anything, and their chair (a woman whose work I hold in high regard) reportedly was more inclined to cover up the incidents than to do anything about them. As a graduate student in a history department at a different university, that hit home pretty hard.

I will preface what I am about to write by clarifying that there has been no direct threat to my physical safety within my own department.

In my department, we have an MA student who is rather volatile to his peers. He is the self-appointed ruler of the graduate computer lab, accosting certain other students when we use the facilities. Over the past two years, he's hovered over me and called me an "entitled bitch" while I used his preferred computer (not his own machine, just the one he liked the best - and the only one available when I entered the room), swore at me in the halls as though it was a manner of greeting, blocked me when I tried to navigate the halls using a mobility scooter, muttered "looks like you're getting what you deserve" when I came in once with an IV line for a medical treatment. In short, he's nasty. His poor behaviour, while not physically aggressive, is unwelcome and has been ongoing for approximately two years. Over a year ago, I spoke with my thesis supervisor, our graduate chair, and the university human rights officer. Well, it's not a human rights issue, supposedly. Supposedly, there's no rule against being a world-class jerk to your peers. The human rights office suggested mediation. My supervisor suggested, after he sent me a profanity-laden email, that I ask him for coffee to see if we could work things out (I did, and his emails escalated; she was evidently taking him to be a more reasonable person than he turned out to be). The graduate chair listened sympathetically, but ultimately did nothing that I know of. Nobody followed up with me, perhaps thinking that if they didn't know about further incidents that they could pretend that everything had somehow resolved. It hasn't - I've just gotten fed up with advocating for myself, so instead I've been waiting for him to either drop out or graduate, which should be quite soon now.

The result is that, since April 2014, I have only used the computer lab when I am reasonably sure he isn't on campus, or when I'm accompanied by a friend. I avoid passing his office late in the day when there aren't many people around. Since he works at the library and a couple of weeks ago refused to check out a book to me, I now make sure I don't go to that library location on days when he might be working there. The onus has fallen on me to avoid him so that I don't have to listen to his profanity and insults. I am fairly sure that I am physically safe in the department, but I do not feel emotionally safe there, and have not for some time now.

I am not the only graduate student who has issues with this particular man. He behaves this way to a few other people, and will make quite nasty comments about a particular faculty member to anyone whom he thinks might listen.

I know that this is worlds away from sexual assault. I'm not trying to make an equivalency here. But from the complacency that I have seen from my department, and their inaction in making any sort of tangible change to address his behaviour, I can say that I have exceptionally little confidence that my department would do anything differently.

The faculty I've mentioned here are good people. I like them, and respect them. This isn't about them - if they were personal friends of mine rather than my professors, I don't doubt that they'd be doing what my friends have done (go to the lab with me if I can't avoid printing something so that I don't need to be alone with him; urge me to report incidents; listen to me ranting about the whole situation). This is about an institutional culture that has silenced even some quite justice-oriented faculty, because we work in an environment where a man moving through the program and getting a degree unobstructed is more important than a woman not being berated and harassed.

So in short, if someone predatory (or with a very skewed idea of what constituted consent, in any case) came upon my department, I truly think it would have played out the same way. The question is how to change that culture, so that we can make sure that it doesn't happen here.