[tw: allusions to sexual violence, domestic violence, religious abuse; descriptions of bullying and abusive friends, invalidation of asexuality. Heavy warning for abandonment trauma.]
On some level, I know other people don’t feel that way about me. That these are just my own insecurities, formed from so much abuse, so many attacks from a lack of understanding both asexuality and trauma, and how they can coexist—how my asexuality is used against me by my abusers, and my trauma is used to invalidate my asexuality.
On some level, I know there are people who really like and respect me, and really do want to be my friend. And yet.
So often, it has been my experience that whenever I truly open up about how I’m doing and my experiences, I am met with a stunned silence. Or worse, confusion. “But I thought you were…?” Or still worse, judgment. An off-hand dismissal, a suggestion that I “should get therapy” with no understanding of just how hard it is to find a therapist who does more good than harm, more helping and less being educated—I’ve found one, finally, but it’s taken several years. And even when the suggestion of therapy is made by someone truly concerned about me, there’s often the question lingering in the back of my mind of whether this person thinks that therapy might “fix” my sexual orientation, but is just too polite to suggest it.
And when I vent about my problems to a friend who seems genuinely concerned and wants to be helpful… it usually turns out to be a one-time thing. There’s a suggestion, a statement of support, a “you can call me anytime!” or a “you know I’m always here for you!” but it’s misguided. In some cases, it is not even a genuine offer, but just a vague way to show support by someone who feels obligated to nominally give it. If I actually try to take up that offer, I might find someone who avoids me, someone who is not nearly as interested in being friends with me as they like to pretend.
Most of the time, though, such statements of support probably come from someone who means well. But as it turns out, they didn’t know what they were getting themselves into when they told me I should feel free to talk to them about anything. They push for details. “Tell me everything!” Like it’s gossip, not serious abuse. I usually don’t tell them everything.
Talking about it doesn’t even really help me much, I’ve found. When I do, my friends usually are shocked, horrified, or angry. The angry reaction is the worst. They don’t usually keep it to themselves—they tend to go on about what kinds of violent acts they’d like to commit against my abuser(s). That’s threatening to me, because if someone actually did confront them—even just verbally—I would have to deal with that fallout, and most likely, they would receive the angelic response of a perpetrator determined to convince them he’s not. So then I have to defend him, because even though what he did is indefensible, more violence would really not help. And even when anger is not the way a friend responds, it still usually ends with me trying to minimize my experiences, or having to comfort them instead.
So I get the sense that I am such a burden to other people, if I speak honestly. Even my partner sometimes does it—unconsciously and unintentionally. She occasionally gets more upset than I am when I try to talk to her about my experiences or something triggering comes up—possibly because I’ve processed that experience to some degree already, but she hasn’t. Or if she’s not actually more upset than me, then she at least feels more free to express how upset she is to hear about the things that have happened to me. That re-centers her experience, her reactions, not mine. She realizes she shouldn’t do that and she’s worked pretty hard to stop. But whenever it’s happened, it’s only reinforced the idea that I’m too much of a burden to speak honestly.
When I was a child, I learned not to tell anybody about how my dad would mistreat me (and my sister, and my mother). The one time I told a group of friends about it, they got offended that I would ever wish something would happen to him so that it would stop. I’m not sure if that was the tipping point, or if they just already didn’t like me for other reasons. They stopped inviting me to sleepovers, and then at school the next week they would make a point of talking about what fun they had in front of me. They made a list of all the things they thought were wrong with me, and recited it to me. Among the things on the list was that they thought I was “just pretending” to be bisexual—at the time, I didn’t know asexuality was a thing, so “bi” seemed like the best descriptor. They didn’t like that I didn’t join them in crushing over guys—or girls, or anyone. And aside from that, the gist of it was that I was just generally bad—at everything. Then, after all that bullying, they decided they just weren’t going to associate with me anymore.
Those were not the only girls who bullied me in my youth, but they were the only ones who did so that I had considered friends. They were also not at all popular girls—I was essentially ousted from a group of fellow outcasts. Nobody noticed or cared. I learned that I was neither entitled to friendship, nor deserving of it.
This experience severely hampered my ability to relate to others on any serious level. I learned that if I ever talk about what happened, I would be blamed for it and I would lose all of my social support. So I didn’t. I related to others only based on shared interests, never acknowledging the deeper pains of life. Combine that with not actually being allowed to dress in the way I wanted, or even have any video games other than Pokemon (which I was only allowed to have because I learned how to emulate it)—because my mother insisted that nearly everything I liked was “against our religion”—and also combine that with being ace and having no possible way to relate to an increasingly sexual peer group, and… well, I had one close friend (K) who stuck with me through all of that. The rest grew distant.
Eventually, even K turned on me. I was always there for her, always giving, never asking for much in return. When we were in college, rooming together, she got a boyfriend—who I suspect became abusive—and suddenly started actively avoiding me. When I asked her to please make time to come hang out with me (and our entire group of friends) again sometime, she got viciously defensive, accusing me of being jealous and having a crush on her. I wasn’t the only person she did this to. Any girl who ever remotely showed interest in other girls and expected her to keep up with her end of the friendship would be accused of having a crush on her. It was extra unpleasant for me because I’d explicitly told her I didn’t even understand what a crush was, and had never had anything like it. She should have known better, but she immediately started invalidating my asexuality—to other people, behind my back.
It called everything into question. I started wondering if K had never even liked me at all, whether she just considered me a pity friend she couldn’t say no to—I knew she had other friends she considered such, because she’d told me. Had she been saying the same thing about me to other people this whole time?
That wasn’t the end with her. We had a falling out, but years later I reached out to K again. Part of my willingness to forgive her came from seeing evidence through a mutual friend that her once-boyfriend—then husband, now ex-husband—indeed was abusive. I know from experience that things are often far more complicated than just an allosexual/alloromantic person not valuing friendship enough to continue a friendship once they have found a romantic partner. It could have been him isolating her from me more so than any decision of her own. So I got back in touch with her. I talked to her about abuse quite a lot, confiding everything that had happened to me. She said she was so sorry she hadn’t been there for me, and vowed to always be there in the future. For a while, it was nice to have her back.
Then the replies to my texts again got fewer and farther between. Finally, one day, I signed on to Facebook to see what was up with her, and simultaneously discovered that K had unfriended me, and that I had a message from my perpetrator—apologizing for “ignorance” (as if that was the real and only issue) in the wake of the House episode.
So forgive me if I’m especially slow to form friendships. If I’m distant, it’s usually because I feel like no one really needs or wants to hear from me, and especially not the most honest truth—which, moreover, would make me especially vulnerable when revealed. It doesn’t really matter how close we’ve been—remember, I still feel like too much of a burden even to my partner, who has been a constant companion for the past seven years. I think it’s actually quite accurate to say that sharing problems with others inherently gives them a burden—the question is, are they truly willing and able to shoulder it?
When friends think they are able but actually aren’t, when they try to relate to me only by inviting me to vent, it doesn’t usually lead anywhere. I still feel like they don’t really want to hear it, and it also seems like they don’t actually like my company on its own merits. That they’re just trying to be supportive, because they feel obligated. That may not be true, but I’ve learned that whenever I tell people about the things that have happened to me, our friendship tends to change. It becomes “I’m always here if you need me” instead of “hey, let’s spend time together!” People focus so much on trying to help me, trying to take up my burdens, and then feel awkward because they realize they don’t know what to do at all. Then they get distant. And all the while, the venting isn’t even helping me—and might be making things worse.
So I try to avoid getting into it as much as possible. And yet… if I keep completely quiet about my experiences, I would not be able to sustain a friendship at all. There would be too many questions I can’t answer. Being a survivor of all kinds of different forms of abuse starting from childhood and continuing on colors everything. To not at least mention that I’m dealing with that sort of trauma feels so dishonest to me, and makes me feel so alienated from whoever I’m trying to form a new friendship with that… well, if I can’t be honest about that, I will let the friendship fade.
Being asexual as well makes it all just that much more complicated. Because obviously, outsiders tend not to understand, and from within there’s pressure to present asexuality as being completely separate from trauma, and sometimes a sense that “you’re making us look bad if you talk about this.” But… asexuality is deeply bound up with my trauma. Pretty much everyone who has ever been abusive to me and known about my asexuality has targeted me for it, used it against me in some way. Always. It’s like, the very first thing that people reach for when they want to hurt me, is invalidating my sexual orientation. Even before I knew I was asexual. Why is that? And how can we possibly examine that question unless we dare to talk about it?
This is my first set of observations about friendships. I’ll have more another time, but it’s a hard topic, so it may take months. In the meantime, I hope people benefit from examining these dynamics—especially if you are friends with a survivor.