First off, I haven't forgotten about the "Birthday Breakdown" this year... I've just been too busy Alyssabbaticalling (yes, that's a word), and haven't quite gotten to it!
But many have been asking me for a copy of the speech I gave at the Women & Children's Shelter's December 6 Vigil on the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, so I am posting it here. Admittedly, I did go a little "rogue" and missed a couple of things, improv-d a bit on others, but here's what I was working from, anyhow. A friend was able to capture some bits on her camera phone, clips available at the bottom of this post.
This is a t-shirt someone (okay, my therapist) gave me, when she heard I was giving this speech. It's from the first Vigil:
It will take much more to silence us. And I've got a lot to say – hope you're comfy!
Thirty years ago, I played cello for a memorial shortly after the Montreal Massacre. I’ve attended or participated in a Vigil every year since. And, I can look back and see just how much has changed in my own life since December 6, 1989 — but I’m afraid that I don’t see quite so profound a change in the world around me.
Which is why I’m here today, raising my voice again, as a long-time supporter of Women’s Shelters in general, a current monthly donor to the Barrie Shelter, a proud feminist and advocate for women and children everywhere, and… a recent client of the Barrie Shelter. And a few others.
Once upon a time, I’d have joked here about being a slow learner. But I’m learning to be a little kinder to myself. And to recognize all that I have learned, and unlearned, over the last few decades — thanks, in no small part, to the Women’s Shelter.
Because they aren’t just about emergency beds — although those are essential. They’re also about education, empowerment, counselling, legal aid, finding housing alternatives, employment, whatever it takes to get you to a safe place, not just physically, but emotionally as well. To give us the tools and teach us the lessons some of us didn’t get in those “years before five”… or twenty-five… or forty-five, or… whatever.
And probably the biggest lesson they taught me? I MATTER. They cared — not just about keeping me alive, but wanting me to actually enjoy being alive. Which was huge, and highly unusual for me.
Five decades compressed into fifteen minutes: [ed. note: oops!]
I grew up in a family that was riddled with addiction and abuse — domestic violence, incest, and what I now know to have been profound verbal and emotional abuse. I was surrounded by narcissists, borderline personality disorder, a whole lot of post-traumatic stress, and many other mental health issues — all of which went untreated, because good families don’t need outside help.
I learned, early on, and in many ways, that my needs and well-being meant nothing when they came up against other people’s desires, and the need to present ourselves as one big perfect, happy family.
And even though my family would regularly brag to others about how smart and strong and talented I was, and spoke often about how girls can do anything, and I could be anything I wanted to be, I somehow still knew that my interest in my cousin’s dinosaur books was not very girly. And when I said I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up, “have you seen any girl astronauts? Besides, I’d first have to get an engineering degree, which my cousin said girls couldn’t do. That was the day I decided to be an engineer — uppity feminist, age eight.
I also watched my grandmother, who was very smart, and strong, and independent, a great musician, with a brilliant business mind, constantly defer to my grandfather, support his music career, let him take credit for creating the shows she actually produced, handing over control of the corporation she owned to the man of the house — despite everyone knowing he was lousy with money — putting him on a pedestal she revolved around, while everyone pretended he’d worked his way up there, all by himself.
I learned that when my mother snuck into my room in the middle of the night, that I should comfort her without letting her know I knew she was crying. I learned when my father snuck into my room in the middle of the night that I could just disappear into the ceiling so I didn’t have to cry. I learned how to watch for cues of the next mood change, and navigate my way through, or better yet, head it off before the explosion happened. I learned to watch the number of empties, and the levels in the liquor cabinet, to help predict explosions. I learned to monitor the suicide notes my mother kept in her bedside table, right next to the nail clippers. I learned to be as perfect and helpful and indispensable and invisible as I could be — to quietly make everything run smoothly, but let the adults think they were doing a great job.
And on that day in grade six when I left my diary on the coffee table, open to the page that included what I’d eaten for lunch as well as “Dear Diary, I wish Daddy would stop raping me” — that day I was sure would blow everything sky-high, put an end to the abuse, and give me a fresh start — that was the day I learned that there was nobody who was going to look after me. Nothing changed. Well, I was now also responsible for making sure my little sister didn't become "damaged goods" like me. But other than that, nothing changed.
Just like fourteen women were murdered, and nothing has changed. What the hell does it take?!?
See no Evil, Hear no Evil, Speak no Evil. Take responsibility for everyone else’s bad behaviour. Keep everyone’s secrets. Rescue everyone from their pain. Don’t acknowledge my own. Fulfill everyone’s desire. Don’t have any of my own. For god’s sake, don’t have any needs that I can’t fulfill on my own.
So in the fall of 1989, I had gotten the hell outta town. Because that’s all it takes, right? Everything would be so much better, once I got away from my family, right? Fresh start!
I was at Queen’s University — a school I’d originally been attracted to for its engineering program, but at the last minute, switched to music, much to my mother’s dismay. So when the news came through on December 6 that a gunman had targeted and killed fourteen female engineering students, my very un-feminist reaction was that I was so glad I hadn’t gone into engineering. My mother told me not to be so dramatic, it was an isolated event, perpetrated by a madman, stop making such a big deal out of everything.
But that wasn’t even the first thing to ruin my fresh start. Earlier that year, Queen’s had made national headlines when the boys’ residence reacted against the university’s “No Means No” campaign by putting up their own signs, including such gems as “No means more beer”, “No means do her harder”, “No means get down on your knees, bitch”. Two of those boys were my classmates.
Even before that, there was Frosh Week, which the school had gone to great lengths to declare was safe for everyone. We crawled through the mud, second-years tossed water balloons, made us do pushups. People would paint our faces and make us guess whether it was the “tricolour” of ArtSci, or the purple of engineering. If you got it wrong, it was insults and more pushups. This guy came over to me and painted a bunch of swirls on my face. I guessed “Tricolour!” — stupid frosh, guess again. “Purple!, go Engineers!”. “Wrong again, dumb frosh — but what you guys expect from a girl with cum all over her face?” And we all laughed, because who wants to be the party pooper at Frosh Week?
But Sean didn’t laugh. Sean stood up, “hey, that’s not cool, man”, took me aside, found some water, washed off my face, made sure I was okay, as I pretended to be okay.
I loved that boy. Fell in love with him on the spot. His kindness, his compassion, his integrity. Loved how safe and comfortable I felt with him, and how he made me feel so cared for. Loved him so much, that there was no way I’d ever want to burden him with “Damaged Goods” like me. I knew Sean deserved so much better. I was not worthy of Sean.
Now, that drunk guy who made out with me, dancing on the pool table at the Grad Club? HE was more my level. Rob. Rob, whose best friend, after he found out we were dating, bought him a button that said “when all else fails, lower your standards”. Rob, whose favourite word was “superior”. Rob, who was not just an engineer, but was now back in school to pursue his MBA — thereby making him the man of my mother’s dreams. I was so lucky that someone like him would want someone like me.
And, to my credit, I did see SOME of those giant red flags — but swept them aside as just being my over-sensitivity, my inability to love, or the perennial favourite, my “trust issues”.
My father died in my final year at University. I was sure that was the end of an era — with him gone, I could start fresh and my life would be better from now on. I married Rob right out of school. I still wasn’t sure I really wanted to, but figured he was my only chance at happily ever after. And besides, all brides spend the months before their wedding throwing up, right?
I threw up a lot after the wedding too. Despite meeting me in music school, Rob thought my purpose in life was to be his maid, chef and arm-candy. He and my mother found the perfect house, which I bought for us with the money I’d inherited from my father. I ignored the alarm bells, ‘cause I didn’t want to disappoint anyone. Even after buying a house, I still wasn’t doing enough for him. His anger and disgust with me started seeping out in public, escalated even further when we were alone.
Until the day he threatened to kill me. And you’d think my primary reaction would be fear, but I was actually giddy in that moment. Because FINALLY, I had a “real” reason to be unhappy, and it wasn’t just because I didn’t know how to be a good wife, or that I wasn’t trying hard enough. You aren’t supposed to give your wife death threats. Duh.
Rob and my mother disagreed – I obviously just needed to try harder. The problem with our marriage was obviously that I was a flakey artiste with lousy housekeeping skills.
I have no idea how I still had the strength to leave, anyhow.
I never even considered a Shelter at that point — I had no bruises, he’d only THREATENED to kill me, hadn’t followed through, so that didn’t count, right? I wasn’t an abused woman, just a lousy wife who was all broken and twisty inside, and didn’t know how to love.
My mother sent me to a psychiatrist, to fix me — which was probably the best thing she ever did for me! I worked through a lot, including deciding that perhaps I shouldn’t let my mother make my romantic choices for me — I mean, she was the one who’d married an alcoholic paedophile who used to see giant Coke bottles chasing him home at night; and then left him for her Psychologist, who later lost his license and went to prison for his own set of sex crimes. Surely, I could do a better job with my own life decisions.
I set out to live life on my own terms. I started playing more gigs, started my own publicity company, hung out with people who seemed to appreciate me and what I could do. This guitar player, Nick, set his sights on me and started with what I know now to have been “love bombing”, a common tactic for a narcissist, but for me at the time, it felt like I was finally being adored, seen, loved and appreciated for the flakey, broken artiste that I was.
Besides, my mother hated him. So he was obviously perfect.
Pretty soon, the adoration stopped — other than the occasional glimmer of hope to keep me hooked — and I started tap-dancing and trying hard to earn it back. Because I was determined to prove my mother wrong, prove that I was lovable.
In the meantime, my therapist convinced me to go no-contact with my mother. The family took sides, and I also lost my sister, aunt and uncle who had always been so close. Nick became my family.
So I overlooked the new red flags that popped up. Nick’s unpredictable anger. His predictable anger if I questioned him or his greatness. The way my stomach felt on the bad days. But if could keep up with him at the bar, he didn’t really have a problem, right? The money that started disappearing from my dresser… then my wallet… my bank account. I got really good at navigating through the mood swings, good at creative financing, finding plausible explanations for everything. Making him look good. Taking responsibility for his bad behaviour. Not needing anything from him. Giving him everything I had.
We got married. Fresh start. Three days later, two officers, wearing bullet-proof vests, guns drawn, came into my living room to arrest him for living and working in the country illegally. And there was actually a part of me that was relieved that he might be deported and I wouldn’t have to be married to him after all. But there was no way I was going to let my mother think she was right. I liquidated every last dime of credit I had, posted bail, and hired the best immigration lawyer in the country to keep him here.
I sold the house, we moved to a cheaper one in a village of 1200 where I knew no-one, and didn’t have time to make friends, I was too busy trying to keep a roof over our heads, teaching, working at the library, running my publicity company. Nick’s anger escalated. I tried harder. He started blocking the doorway so I couldn’t get out of a room while he raged at me. Or the stairs. He started “accidentally” slamming doors or drawers closed on my hands. Slamming doors in my face. Punching the walls around me. But he never actually hit me, so it wasn’t abuse, right?
One night, when he was out with the boys, I discovered over a dozen green garbage bags worth of empties hidden around the garage. I tried harder. Later, it was a bag of syringes. I tried harder.
My best friend Ali gave me the number of the local Shelter. I told her she was crazy.
A few weeks later, I called, but hung up before anyone could answer. Called again — someone answered, and then I hung up. I did this for days, until I finally was able to sputter out “I think I’m being abused”. The person on the line waited for me to get control of my tears — I was sure she was going to tell me I was just being over-sensitive, and should stop being so dramatic. But she gave me the address of a coffee shop in a nearby town, and said she could be there in 20 minutes.
Over the next few weeks, we worked out a strategy to safely get Nick out of my house and my life, and the country. I received one-on-one counselling, group counselling, I took workshops, I was given legal assistance, food, clothes, confidence, and slowly added a whole new set of tools to my emotional toolbox. I learned about healthy boundaries, how to recognize and deal with narcissists, and started to trace all the patterns I’d been repeating, and go back and heal a lot of old wounds that had reopened. Discovered the signals I’d been giving out about what I would and would not accept in my life. My fridge was covered in big signs “Not My Responsibility!”, and “No Rescuing!”
I was a boundaries NINJA. I knew what I wanted, I knew what I was worth, I knew what I deserved.
I started writing again. Started composing again. My new friends convinced me it was time to stop being a side-musician and take the spotlight. I started touring as a solo performer. One guy BEGGED me to let him produce my first solo album. I was living my best life. Thank you, Women’s Shelter!!!
In the middle of recording that album, my grandfather died. Something the entire family had been waiting for, so we could finally be out from under his control and start fresh into our happily ever after. (I came by my magical thinking honestly.) But we learned a few more truths about him and his control over the family, the deceptions he’d been weaving, and all the harm he’d caused. Old wounds were reopened. My trust issues? Poofwaaaa!
But the producer of my album had fallen in love with me. And Don was definitely NOT a narcissist — he was pretty much the POLAR OPPOSITE of my grandfather (also named Don). This Don was self-effacing, uncomfortable in the spotlight. He loved that I was smart, and strong, and independent, and could do anything I set my mind to. He didn’t want to tear me down, he wanted me to take my space, and shine. He had his own income. We had similar trauma histories, he despised what Nick and my family had put me through; he got me, he really got me. Everyone loved him. Fresh start!
And yes, he did need me to compromise a bit on my values, but that was just temporary, while the dust settled on his own crisis. And yeah, there were more red flags… but surely I was just looking for problems that weren’t there. He checked all the right checkboxes.
He started to get more and more down on himself — I worked hard to boost his ego, but it didn’t seem to make much of a difference. My career was taking off, while his didn’t seem to be going anywhere. I dimmed my light, just a little, just for a little while, until he felt better about himself. I set out to make him succeed, bought everything he needed, did everything he needed. And yet, somehow, he managed to sabotage every opportunity I lined up for him. Whenever I expressed my frustration at this, he would start calling me by his angry and abusive ex-wife’s name. So I stopped expressing frustration. He kept feeling worse about himself, I kept dimming my light, just a little more, just a little longer. Don’t worry, this won’t last forever.
I could keep up with his drinking, I didn’t find any needles. No empties — I mean the bottles in the liquor cabinet seemed to go from full to empty pretty quickly, but they weren’t hidden anywhere. I never realized all the things a person can be addicted to, not just substances. Some of them sound pretty benign, some even sounded kinda fun. They’re not.
How did I get here again? I’d checked the lists, I’d tried so hard, I gave him everything he wanted. Did I have a giant “CODEPENDENT” sign flashing above my head?!?!? Yeah, kinda… DID I JUST LISTEN TO MYSELF?!?!?
Eventually, I figured it out. Realized that hiding my light and betraying my integrity had done nothing to make Don feel better about himself, or prevent his addictions.
I stopped making myself small. That didn’t go over so well. I found myself slumped on the kitchen floor as he pounded the cupboards above me. He didn’t mean to do it, it was just his trauma. He wasn’t an abuser. Right? After one particularly terrifying night, he finally agreed to go on antidepressants. So I bought our dream home in Barrie, to make a fresh new start. Which lasted a little while, until they escalated to the incident that his therapist and mine described as an attempted murder-suicide. And even then, it took me five more months and several more attempts at finding the magical cure, before I finally understood that I was not responsible for his bad behaviour. And I had to save myself.
I called the Shelter, and didn’t hang up. One part of me was bracing for them to say “holy hell, Alyssa, how have you gotten into this mess AGAIN, have you learned nothing?” But they didn’t. They gave me the help I needed. Without judgement. They helped me get back to safety, and to myself.
Now it’s over two and a half years later, and I have learned so much. Changed so much. I trust my gut. Put my wellbeing first. I know that I’m not responsible for anyone else’s behaviour. I know I matter. I know I’m freaking loveable. I don’t have to earn compassion, I don’t have to earn kindness, I don’t have to earn basic human decency. I know I deserve all of that, as a bare minimum, and believing I have the right to exist doesn’t make me a raging narcissist.
No more magical thinking. There are no miracle cures, there are no fresh starts, we can’t leave it all behind, we just have to learn the lessons we carry within us and keep ploughing through. It’s a continuous story, not a new book. Nothing’s erased, we just follow this wild and crazy path and keep growing.
December 6, 1989 to December 6, 2019, I am still the same person, but I have changed so much. And I wish I could say the same thing for the world around me.
Just a year and a half ago, a man intentionally drove his van into women in Toronto, killing ten people, and was hailed by his fellow Incels for his contribution to the Rebellion. One of our former City Councillors initially jumped at the opportunity to blame religious terrorism and immigrants — once the news broke that the attack was gender-based, that the terrorism was not based on religious fervour, but on hatred of women, that Councillor went conspicuously silent.
Similarly, when another local political leader was recently accused of inappropriate sexual behaviour, many in this city went up in arms — not about his behaviour, which was already widely known even to this newcomer — but against the women who came forward with their stories. Using the same damn rhetoric that has been used throughout the ages to silence and shame those who dare accuse powerful men of questionable behaviour.
Just a few years ago, a group of us learned that an internet celebrity who called himself “The Slut Whisperer” was going to be performing downtown. His claim to fame being that he would get girls really drunk, then film them performing sexual acts and post these videos on the internet. It took a few dozen of us to get loud and get this “show” shut down. Resulting in one of the young protesters having to get police involved after she received death threats in her home and at her workplace. Photos of her from parties a decade earlier were circulated. Immediate silencing and shaming, not to protect a powerful man, but to protect a snivelling little frat boy who had actually gained fame and fortune for being a total misogynist asshole.
He was being defended and lauded. In some corners of our community, the Incel Rebellion is lauded. Women who speak up are vilified. Women who speak up are shamed into silence. Too many of our leaders are silent when it comes to terrorism against women.
Thirty years after our country’s worst act of terrorism, and NOTHING HAS CHANGED. Women are still being killed for being women. We are still fighting for support from our community leaders. We are still scrambling to serve all the women on the waiting list for an emergency shelter bed. We still don’t have enough dedicated shelter beds to deal with all the victims of human trafficking coming through our city. We are still being bombarded by same old silencing and shaming and minimizing rhetoric.
Thirty years, and we’re still here? No means shame her harder? No means I’ll mow you down with a van?!? No means I’ll fight for the right to charge admission to slut-shame you? No means more death threats? I’m sorry, but this is SOME BULLSHIT!!!
My call to action is TO CALL IT OUT. To shout from the rooftops. To write songs, and stories, and one-woman shows. To stop protecting other people’s secrets. To stop apologizing for expecting basic human decency. To tell my story, and help other people tell theirs in safety. TO BELIEVE THEM WHEN THEY SPEAK UP. To support them when they speak up. To call out the silencers, to call out the abusers, to show women they aren’t alone, to show women they aren’t to blame for their abuse, to show women that WE MATTER.
And you guys, you men who are here. I love so so much for this. Be Sean. Stand up and say “hey, that’s not cool, man.” Join our voices. Amplify our voices. Show us we’re being heard. Help us make the changes we need to see before another 30 years go by.
If I can learn, if I can change this much in 30 years, or even the last three, then surely, our community can start to change as well. We have to.
We have spent far too long living in shame and silence. We’ve got a lot to say. WE MATTER.
Part 1 (started part way through the speech):