Last time on Queer Crip Love Fest, we revealed my personal biases and came down firmly on the side of Team Dog. But because I know my audience, I concede that cats, too, must have their day. Leah* is a 43-year-old software engineer and cat mom, and she reached out to me with one of the most powerful stories we’ve featured yet.
I was raised in a very abusive household. I survived incest by both my father and mother, and at 17, I escaped by going to college 600 miles away. I got fibromyalgia the spring of my freshman year. I struggled to keep up with classes because the alternative was moving back in with my parents, which I ended up doing after sophomore year anyway. A few months later I met the man I ended up marrying. He was abusive but he supported me when I was unable to work or go to school. After almost 20 years with him, I managed to escape and I’ve lived on my own since. It’s a constant struggle to support myself but I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I feel like for the first time in my life, I can finally be my true self. I consider myself a baby queer because I’ve only recently come to grips with my asexuality.
I couldn’t have made it through the years of therapy and coming to terms with the incest without my cat, Mr. Pants. I adopted him when I first moved in with my ex. He wasn’t the world’s smartest cat but he was incredibly sensitive. He could be sound asleep in another room but if I started crying he’d come get in my lap and purr until I felt better. The year he died, I adopted Sweetie Pie, another big, beautiful tomcat. He’s not quite as empathic as Mr. Pants, but he earns his name every day.
This was most expansive QCLF interview to date, and we covered so much more than I was able to include here: navigating the workforce while disabled, the relief of a correct diagnosis, internet friends, service animals, and more. Because this is Autostraddle, I’ve condensed our conversation to focus on queerness, disability, and cat stories.
I love that you consider yourself a “baby queer.” What’s it been like to come out as asexual later in life?
I’m not sure what it’s like to come out at the “usual” time of adolescence or early adulthood; not that there’s a typical journey, but mine’s certainly unusual. One thing that’s difficult to understand about sexual assault and abuse, like what I’ve been through, is that humans are wired to respond to certain touch no matter how we may feel emotionally. All too often perpetrators use that against us. It’s a painful and difficult thing for victims to cope with, this feeling that our own bodies have betrayed us.
For a long time I didn’t even know asexuality existed. Then I thought that I couldn’t be asexual because for me it’s not all asexual, all the time. I still masturbate now and then. I can imagine having sex but if given the opportunity I couldn’t work up the enthusiasm. I’d rather have a deep, thoughtful conversation or tell dirty jokes until sunrise.
I haven’t come out to many people. Most people assume I’m straight, especially if I mention past hetero relationships. I have a lot of straight privilege, and I know it. On the other hand, asexuality comes with its own set of stereotypes. People assume that we’re missing a precious piece of our humanity. I’ve heard people say that if they lost the ability or desire for sex they’d want to kill themselves. There’s a lot of crossover with disability there, too. Like somehow our lives are less than or not worth living, when we know there’s so much more to life.
I get that a lot with disability, too. My disabilities – fibromyalgia, depression, and anxiety – are invisible. When I tell people I get a lot of “but you look so healthy!” or “but you seem so normal!” First off, what the hell is normal and why do I need to be it? Second, how am I supposed to look? Do I have to be in a wheelchair? Do I need a cane? What will it take to convince you I’m not making shit up?
Oh yes, been there. So many times!
My therapists have always come at my sexuality like it’s something I needed to work on and heal from. To some extent that was true — I had a huge amount of guilt and shame I was carrying around that actually belonged to the people who hurt me. I remember one therapist saying “It’s enough that you want to want to have sex.” I’m sure that’s very useful and reassuring for most victims, but it messed me up. Even now, I want to want to have sex. Every movie, TV show, or romance novel is telling me I want to want to have sex. Of course I want to be like everyone else. Of course I want to please my (hypothetical) partner. And yes, even an asexual person can enjoy sex now and then.
“People assume that we’re missing a precious piece of our humanity… There’s a lot of crossover with disability there, too. Like somehow our lives are less than or not worth living, when we know there’s so much more to life.”
My sexuality isn’t something I need to overcome. It’s not something that’s broken or missing or was stolen from me. As far as asexuality goes, the psychology community is still stuck in their old attitudes about queerness being a mental illness.
Even in disability communities, people can throw “asexual” around like a slur — as if it’s only a negative stereotype, and not something we could actually be.
I have a lot of the gold-star asexual traits that keep most people from questioning my sexuality: I’m cis, socially adept, I’m attractive, I’m sex-positive, I’ve had hetero sex, and I look under forty. On the other hand, I’m a disabled victim of sexual abuse — but people don’t know that unless I tell them. For years, therapists and psychiatrists told me that that when I got better I’d feel sexual again. When that didn’t happen I felt like I must have done something wrong. It wasn’t until I felt like I’d healed from most of the abuse and I still didn’t want sex that those feelings were valid.
“I could be ace as fuck one day and attracted to someone the next; it doesn’t change who I am.”
It’s kind of like when I first got sick and everyone told me I was making it up or just lazy and I started to believe it. There’s so much societal pressure to be straight and to want sex, of course we feel like rejects or losers when we don’t fit that mold. I think non-cishet people are better at thinking outside the box because from the get go we’re forced to question society’s idea of what love means. I could be ace as fuck one day and attracted to someone the next; it doesn’t change who I am.
I want to talk a little bit about dating. As a disabled person the thought of dating, especially dating cishet men, is exhausting. Disabled people are twice as likely to be victims of interpersonal violence and I never want to go through that again. I believe my ex targeted me because of my disability. Intimate partner violence is all about power and control, and it’s easier to control someone who’s disabled.
For most of our relationship my ex didn’t want me to work. Over the years I learned to cope with my disabilities, healed from my trauma, and was better able to function. A few years ago my ex decided that I should work and he should stay home. I don’t entirely know why but he seemed to think that it was something I owed him, since he’d done it for me. In a healthy relationship people don’t keep score. We don’t look after our partner because we expect to be compensated down the road.
In a way that was the last straw. I decided that if I was going to work that hard, it would be for me.
I don’t think I’m in much danger of becoming a victim again. For one thing, I know what to look for. More importantly, for the first time in my life I have self-esteem and I don’t take shit from anyone. But it’s still exhausting to be on guard and be ready to fight back if someone crosses my boundaries.
“I decided that if I was going to work that hard, it would be for me.”
Does disability affect how you experience love also?
Being disabled, especially becoming disabled as a young adult, has taught me things that most people don’t learn until later, if at all. When I first got sick I used to make plans for all the wonderful things I’d do once I got better. It took some time, but I realized that life is too short to wait to do wonderful things. Maybe I can’t go skilling or backpacking the way I used to but I still love the outdoors. Instead of backpacking I’ll go for road trips, long drives through the mountains or the prairie or the desert and see the beauty of this country. I love to garden and bake and I even make berry jam. My garden is pretty accessible, too. I grow tomatoes and other crops in a self-watering planter.
At least with friendships, I find that being disabled forces you to find out who really cares and who doesn’t. I can’t predict when I’m going to feel good and when I need to stay home and rest. That makes planning ahead, even for the weekend, tricky. The friendships that lasted are with people who listened when I said, “Even though I keep canceling at the last minute, please don’t stop inviting me.” Even though it’s hard for abled people to understand what my life is like, the ones who try are the ones I keep around. They don’t say stuff like, “Well you made jam all day last weekend. I can’t see why you can’t come to my party.” They figure out that disability isn’t black and white; it’s a continuum.
“Even though it’s hard for abled people to understand what my life is like, the ones who try are the ones I keep around.”
What kind of support did you have in recovering from trauma?
I’ve been in therapy for about 20 years, so I have a lot to say about that. When I first started to recover my memories, I was very suicidal. I didn’t want to die but the pain was so bad I felt I couldn’t go on. Plus I had become disabled only two years before, had to drop out of school, was stuck living with my abusive parents—it was a mess.
I spent eight weeks, first inpatient and then outpatient, in a unit for victims of sexual trauma. The program was amazing. I’m sure I wouldn’t be alive today if I hadn’t had some kind of help. There’s something so powerful and healing about sitting around with other victims, swapping stories, making the darkest of jokes about it, and laughing your asses off.
I’m glad you had a positive experience; I know a lot of disabled people (including me) have complicated relationships with hospitals and that kind of thing.
Overall, yes. Day by day, it was difficult. That hospital was excellent but there were issues. A friend of mine got her hands on a plastic knife and scraped the hell out of her shin. The nurse decided she wasn’t going to treat it because it was self-inflicted and it got infected. The very first morning I was there, the nurse came in while I was sleeping and took blood. Can you imagine doing that to a victim of violence? I woke up with a needle in my arm and freaked the fuck out.
What? Ugh. Although truthfully, I can’t say I’m surprised.
That’s one thing I’ve learned as a disabled person. Even when I was on Medicaid I could find good health care providers, but I had to go look for them. I don’t think most people get that—how it’s a full time job just to get and keep public services when you’re disabled.
That gets overlooked so often.
The best therapists I’ve had are the ones who push me. Any good therapist will be supportive but the best ones really pay attention to what you’re saying — and not saying — and challenge your assumptions. They get you to think about how you think. It’s the reason I’ve been able to heal from so much trauma, to learn to really love myself and have healthy relationships with other people.
I wish I could bring a pet to therapy. For years I brought a stuffed tiger with me instead. I’d take that tiger with me when I had to get well woman exams, too. To hell with what people thought of a grown person carrying around a stuffed animal. Mr. Pants was jealous of that tiger.
I love that animal companionship has been so powerful for you. Tell me about Sweetie Pie!
He has his own origin story. Back in 2008, I moved from Colorado to Iowa. The day after my ex and I moved in, Mr. Pants got sick. He was only 13, but he died of cancer two weeks later. I was devastated. He helped me get through the worst of the healing from my childhood trauma. He was super special.
I started volunteering at my local animal shelter in Iowa. (They’re awesome and deserve a shout out: the Animal Rescue League of Iowa in Des Moines.) One day I was visiting with the cats and spotted this big, beautiful guy. I opened the cage and started to pet him. He immediately turned upside down and licked my nose. It was like he’d decided I was going to be his mom now.
He’d had a rough time of it, too. I don’t think he’d ever been inside a house before — he was fascinated by the toilet! He was really scared of dogs and thunder. So I was gentle with him and he was gentle with me and the rest is history.
Oh gosh, that’s wonderful. What is it about animals that feels so comforting and healing?
I learned from an early age that it was dangerous to trust people. Because of severe allergies, I couldn’t have a pet until I was a teenager. I was lucky enough to be able to take riding lessons and I loved being around the horses. I’d spend hours in the barn, brushing the horses and talking to them. Touch is such a powerful and underrated thing, especially for victims of abuse and people with disabilities. Animals are one way for us to find the love and affection we so desperately need in a safe way.
“There’s something so satisfying about having a limp, drooling cat asleep in your lap. It’s such a powerful sign of absolute trust and love.”
Cats have been elemental to me learning about healthy boundaries. They tell you where the line is and enforce it. It’s a beautiful thing. I think animals teach us humility. If we want to communicate, we have to learn their language. Like with Sweetie: I approached him slowly, let him sniff me, and said hello in a cat-friendly way. That’s why it took him all of 30 seconds to decide he wanted me to rub his belly!
I’m glad that people seem to be getting better at accepting the deep bond between people and pets. Some people have more superficial relationships to their pets and that’s fine, but for me it’s always been a deep, mutual friendship. Yes, sometimes Sweetie just wants me to feed him, but he loves me for more than food. There’s something so satisfying about having a limp, drooling cat asleep in your lap. It’s such a powerful sign of absolute trust and love. Maybe I’m like a cat because I don’t trust easily and I can appreciate what a gift that trust is.
“You can’t tell me animals don’t get sarcasm.”
For years my ex felt safe to me because at least he never hurt me sexually. The abuse made me feel unlovable, but my cats have proven to me every day that’s not true. And cats aren’t like dogs; they’re a little more conditional with their love. Even if they love you, they don’t pass out in your lap unless they trust you. To me, love feels like a warm, limp, happy body in my lap and sounds like purrs.
My cat likes to tell me he loves me by acting like I’m the worst cat mom in the world. I think it’s a cat thing. Like when we were driving a thousand miles in the U-Haul and he hated every minute of it. I knew he was okay because of the way he’d glare at me. You can’t tell me animals don’t get sarcasm.
Yup! Now that I’m older, I get the Crazy Cat Lady label sometimes. But because of my experiences, it’s easier for me to think outside of “normal.” I’ve lived such a difficult, challenging life. I see people my age giving in to societal or family pressure and doing what’s expected of them, whether that means going to college, picking a career, getting married, or having children. My experiences pushing myself to my limit in college showed me that there’s so much more to life than work. I learned early that if you don’t feel good, nothing else matters much.
*Leah is her chosen pseudonym.