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handling a handsy cad
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Q: How do you know when you’ve not just won the friend lottery, but you’ve won the friend “Mega Millions Jackpot with multiplier and had the government declare a tax amnesty on the same day” lottery?
A: When your friends help you understand life in a way that brings out the best version of yourself.
Recently I had an experience with a male stranger that made me hit every emotion on the 1-10 scale from gratitude to unhinged rage.
This is the story of what I learned from it, and why.
The Best Version of Oneself
The culture around us is toxic, almost to the point of being impossible to exaggerate. There are so many aspects of modern life where our culture conditions us to have unhealthy reactions—where disproportionate reactions, even PTSD-level disordered trauma reactions, are normalized and treated as an appropriate place to stay.
For example: emails from business offering customers the chance to opt-out of Mother’s Day or Father’s Day emails are now normal. These are a way to solidify a trauma reaction and make it into a permanent, seemingly normal state.
Think about it: what’s the subtext of an email offering 20% off selected items for Father’s Day? The company wants to make money and recognizes that a gift-giving holiday is approaching.
What’s the subtext of an email offering customers the chance to opt-out of Father’s Day discount-offering emails? What do those really mean, and what are they really saying?
Hey Holly! It's FATHER'S DAY soon, and we know that's not an easy time for some people (like you). We respect your pain (you know, the pain caused by your father not loving you, which you hadn't thought about today but we are happy to helpfully remind you!) and if you want us to not send you an email about discounts so we won't cause you pain, let us know! Click here to opt out of FATHER'S DAY emails, since those are for people whose fathers loved them (not you).
I believe that those emails are almost certainly more provocative to people with painful histories between them and their dads than the discount emails could possibly be, but that’s not even my main point. My point is that other people taking action to facilitate avoidance—a coping strategy appropriate only for severe, unmanaged, and presently activated PTSD, and only for the sufferer’s intimate circle to feel or be obligated to effect—is now a normalized part of our culture, between strangers.
I am developing a personal philosophy, slowly, about what it means to be the best version of myself. It’s dynamic and incomplete, changing and growing as I do, but here is one of the bedrocks:
The best version of myself is one that reacts to negative events in life proportionately and from reason, reacting with agency—reacting to what actually happened in the present and not to what the event may remind me of from the past. This idea is using “me” in the broadest sense there, to include my disordered nervous system and unconscious reactions as well as my deliberate choices.
Our culture works against this idea at every turn. It takes constant work not to fall into it, because the critical theory/deconstructionist mindset is such a powerful paradigm (which I have written about before).
As a deaf person, I am supposed to have a “social justice” mindset about “systemic issues of ableism” and react to jokes about deaf people from the context of historical persecution of deaf people and deaf people being considered appropriate candidates for sterilization in the past. As a woman, a male friend saying something snarky about a woman driver is supposed to trigger a condemnation of sexism and cause me to experience some kind of offense or oppression on behalf of all women, instead of understanding his point of view and the experience that initiated the comment.
This sort of thing—always reacting, even in one’s own mind, to personal, individual experiences as if they are avatars of political grand narratives about identity-based groups—is what Wokeness attempts to inculcate with its attempts to “raise awareness” and “educate” and “make change.”
This is a prescription for self-inflicted misery, and I reject it.
I can simultaneously believe wholeheartedly—and I do—in my ability to do any job, despite my deafness, with the help of technology, and in my right to ask my employer for accommodation, and still laugh at deaf jokes, many of which are funny.
My favorite one is too crude for publication.
I have a fifth sense that some of you would be offended and unsubscribe.
Something happened, after which I found myself full of adrenaline, with my head full of white noise, and unable to identify whether I was sad, scared, angry, numb, or some combination of all four.
I went into a disassociated mode, alternating between chatting on Discord as if nothing had happened and staring at the wall, trying to understand my states of nervous system, emotions, and mind.
Mostly, I seemed to just be angry, and only moderately angry, but that just didn’t make sense, somehow.
Which made me think I was light-years away from my own experience.
Which made me think I might be in real trouble.
I texted my friend Josh: “Can you call?”
Because I have absolutely won the friend lottery, Josh knew I wouldn’t send that text if I didn’t need him to call. He called as soon as he read my text, about half an hour later.
I answered, and Josh asked immediately asked if I was ok.
I answered him honestly: “I…don’t know if I’m okay.”
Being a man of exemplary patience (with me anyway, ha ha), he let me tell the story slowly, as I needed to.
I went to yoga, a blessing that has recently returned to my life after a miracle cure from vertigo.
On the way home, I stopped to put air in my tires. I didn’t know (though I do now) that tire pressure sensors in fairly new cars are often insanely oversensitive. I thought it was urgent, so I stopped immediately.
The place I normally stop, with a digital tire gauge machine, recently put a sign over their machine saying “OUT OF ORDER.”
So I stopped at a new place, a gas station I hadn’t stopped at previously, with a type of tire gauge I’m not particularly skilled at reading—one that works in conjunction with the air pump, not separately from it—and a machine that only takes quarters.
I went inside and bought a soda, getting cash back in quarters.
I struggled to understand what I was doing, and the air ran out before I had checked all four.
I went back inside and bought another soda and got more cash back in quarters.
Back outside, I was still obviously struggling. Besides my inexperience, I had left my reading glasses at home.
A man I had never seen before walked up to me and offered to help. I gratefully accepted.
The man did not set off my creep-radar in any way.
He crouched beside my tire and used the pump/gauge combination tool to start working on one of my tires, narrating his steps carefully so I would understand what he was doing. I was mostly following him, but this was a situation that’s hard for me to hear clearly. (Hearing aids amplify everything, and there was traffic going by, and the air machine was making noise.)
Then he went to the last tire.
After he got it started properly, he said something like, “Do you want to finish this one so you get the hang of it?”
I said, “Yeah, that’s a good idea, thanks.”
I crouched down next to him and took over the tool. Perhaps thirty seconds later, he said something I didn’t quite catch.
I don’t know exactly what he said, but I interpreted it as having something to do with the amount of time I was putting in air between pausing and checking the reading on the tool. Something about my not needing to worry so much about overinflating it. Then he reached for my right hand, which was holding the tool.
On the way to my right hand, his hand moved across my breasts, in a manner that was absolutely deliberate.
I was stunned, and it took me between one and two seconds to react.
Flipping the Bitch Switch
I have a “vicious bitch who just might be literally insane” mode. That mode gets activated quite rarely, but when it’s on, I am downright terrifying, including to myself.
Without any conscious decision-making processes being involved, I made a fist and knocked his offending wrist away with it—hard—while snarling these words into his (smirking) face, with venom and a level of rage that threatened murder-if-the-situation-was-different:
“You are goddamn lucky I have the sense not to carry a gun!”
Then I got into my car as fast as I could and left at high speed, only putting on my seatbelt when my car started beeping incessantly at me, by which point I was quite far down the road. I didn’t even look at him again, but I didn’t run him over, so he must’ve gotten out of the way quickly.
The Voices In My Head
Between my sending the text and Josh calling in response to it, my thoughts were contradictory, chaotic, and hard to explain.
Physically, I was full of adrenaline, and my head felt a bit odd.
Emotionally, there was a problem.
The problem: I was, as far as I could tell, fine.
And that made me nervous that I was about to have a crisis.
Living, as I do, with a complex form of PTSD, means that my own reactions and emotions always require my own attention and careful analysis. It takes a lot of self-monitoring. And, since the goal is to have a life and not just a job as Mental Illness Manager, also monitoring the amount of monitoring. (Welcome to Complex Trauma.)
Sometimes I have reactions that are far outside the normal range, especially when a person or situation presents a strong reminder of some events from my past. PTSD is by definition a disorder of false positives: one’s nervous system and emotional responses react to a past trauma and not to the present. With brutally hard work, trauma can be resolved and triggers can have the bullets removed, to extend the metaphor.
Healing, growth, and putting PTSD in the past are all possible, but it’s difficult, complex work, and it can take a long time for trusting your own reactions to become reasonable.
To add another layer of complexity, sometimes my reactions are not clear to me in the moment. I may be too afraid or repressed to react in the moment, but later have a delayed reaction that can be difficult to manage. When that happens, the delayed reaction always includes anger at myself for not reacting in the moment, since that’s born of fear, and I don’t want to lead a fear-based life.
At home, I kept replaying what happened and wondering what I should have done differently, either when it happened or to keep it from happening. (The ideas that not everything bad can be avoided and that I handled an unexpected, stressful situation correctly on the first try, without preparation—those notions didn’t occur to me.)
I noticed, and was grateful, that I wasn’t crying, re-living parts of my past, wondering if I was born under a curse to be a magnet for perverts, or otherwise experiencing the kind of PTSD stuff that a past version of me absolutely would have.
But I also noticed that I was, as far as I could tell, only angry, and only moderately angry. Most importantly and positively—I was only angry at the guy, not at myself. This is a dramatic and positive change, indicative of real progress on my part. (Another friend-lottery-win clue: they point these things out to you when you miss them.)
Despite the activation of my snarling, vicious bitch mode, I didn’t actually wish I had been carrying a gun with which to kill the guy.
I wished, if anything, that I had kicked him in the groin, or elbowed him in the eye, before fleeing. Then on reflection, I realized that might’ve led to law enforcement involvement that would’ve been worse for me than for him.
I didn’t regret my response.
It happened, I handled it as well as anyone could have, I got away.
Something ineffable—something about my being ok with how I handled it—made me think I was doing, or feeling, or thinking, something wrong.
When Josh Called
Josh let me tell the story as slowly and methodically as I needed to, which helped, and by the time I finished the adrenaline was settling.
Then he said, “Well, I think you handled that perfectly.”
I smiled. Josh is a wonderful friend, and I appreciated that he said that. But I didn’t take his comment deeply to heart. He’s my friend, and friends say supportive things in the aftermath of their friends being upset.
But we kept talking, and Josh said something else—something small, a one-syllable word with three letters, but it was a key.
Keys are small things that hold the power to unlock doors…behind which can lie riches.
Josh said, “If you’d slapped that cad across the face he would have absolutely deserved it.”
That was the key.
With that word, a frame went around my experience that froze it and let me see it clearly—both what happened and why I didn’t, at first, understand my own response.
Some combination of my own history, all the brainwashing crap in college, the media, and the wider culture had convinced me on an unconscious level that if something like this happened, it would by necessity be a serious trauma.
I was not supposed to think of it, or describe it, as being touched without consent, or even just groped. I was not supposed to regard it as a gross-but-fairly-minor negative event.
I was supposed to think of this as a sexual assault and a deep, serious violation.
I was supposed to be in tears in the immediate aftermath, and later to have this change my choices in certain ways:
Change clothes after yoga, so if I make any stops on the way home I’m wearing something other than spandex thermal underwear and a sports bra under gym shorts and a t-shirt with words across the chest. Avoid that gas station. Start going to a mechanic and having someone else put air in my tires. Say no the next time a male stranger appears to be offering kindness and help. Internalize this as an example of how vulnerable I am, and by extension all women. Be more suspicious of men I don’t know.
But I didn’t want to do any of those things.
Nor did I feel the need.
Nor do I feel more vulnerable than I did before.
If anything, I feel more empowered.
A jackass put his hand on me and I stood up for myself.
I was not a victim of sexual assault at the hands of a terrifying monster.
I was a grown-ass woman who ran across a handsy cad, refused to tolerate his fuckery, stood up for myself, and left.
Our culture’s insistence on re-casting every interaction between a woman and a cad into a life-altering trauma has been a resounding negative for all of us. The idea might have been that it would make men behave better and cause the trauma women often suffer at men’s hands to be taken more seriously, thus improving things for everyone.
It has not worked out that way.
Reacting to all such incidents as being on par with rape has made women more, not less vulnerable; made good men more hesitant to help protect women from predators; and done little, if anything, to reduce the small percentage of men who are actually predatory.
Our world is not a better place for having lost the distinction between men and rapists—or, in this case, between cads who deserve a slap and a bit of humiliation, and monsters, who deserve to be locked up for life.
I insist on my right to take that distinction back.
On Comments for This Post
As usual, comments are open for paid subscribers. Thanks in advance for skipping any sympathy/empathy/I’m so sorry that happened stuff. It shouldn’t have happened, but it did, and I’m not sorry it did. I was not harmed, I handled it well, and I learned something. It was a difficult lesson, not a tragedy.
About My Substack: I’m a junior data scientist (two years experience and presently job-hunting if you’re hiring). My great love is mathematics, but I also enjoy writing. My posts are mostly cultural takes from a broadly anti-Woke perspective—yes, I’m one of those annoying classical liberals who would’ve been considered on the left until ten seconds ago. Lately I’ve regained a childhood love of reading and started publishing book reviews. My most widely useful essay may be this one, about how to resist the demon of self-termination.
Paid subscribers get access to occasional creative writing posts and, starting with part 2 of the Declaration of Independence, have sole access to a journey I am making to educate myself about United States history. The first entry is not paywalled and is accessible here.
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