How I Got My Roar Back
by Bronwyn Petry
VOICE. Noun. The sound produced in the larynx and uttered through the mouth, as speech or song.
-> An agency by which a particular point of view is expressed or represented.
I’ve been thinking about voices lately; where they come from, how we use them, and how we are allowed to use them. The more and more I look into it, the more I feel that our ability to use our voice is linked with this idea of space—the more space we allow ourselves to take up in the world, the more our voices feel at home, both out in the world, and in our bodies.
In a way, aren’t voices made up just as much of bone, muscle and blood, as they are of air and sound?
When we communicate the truth of what we believe and who we are, does that not make us clearer—doesn’t that connect us to a part of ourselves that is more intuitive and more in focus somehow?
What I want to talk about, it turns out is how I got my roar back.
As a woman who is differently-abled—I have a mild form of cerebral palsy—as a woman who is a childhood sexual abuse survivor, I am only now beginning to understand the fraught landscape my body has always been—the ways I have been at war with it, the ways people have engaged war with me.
Before I knew the language to describe my body, I was always the person who felt uncomfortable in their skin.
I was clumsy in a way other people weren’t, I stumbled and burned myself, I couldn’t braid my hair. My shoulders were lopsided, so my bra straps were always slipping. I limped. The times my motor coordination failed would fill me with rage—in most ways I was expecting myself to act able-bodied in an able-bodied world, when that wasn’t quite the true story.
Sometimes, when the depression was at its worst, the self-hatred threatened to lift my skin off like a series of blood blisters; at other times, physical pain made it seem like my body was trying to literally evict my spirit.
I lied if anyone asked me about why I was limping. “If people ask about your limp, just tell them that you were in a football accident,” my mom would say, brazenly. We’d go shopping for shoes at Kiddie Kobbler and she would tell the salesperson, “My daughter needs her left shoe one size smaller,” as if it wasn’t anything.
I hated the unpredictability of my body. I just wanted to be normal. I learned early to say things like oops! My hands must have been wet when I broke a glass for the third day in a row, or be the first to laugh at myself if I tripped and fell down. It stopped the questions faster.
But then things started to change. When I was 22, the year after my mother died, my godmother told me that what I had thought my entire life was just a nagging weakness was actually a mild form of cerebral palsy.
For a while—years, even—I probably acted like things were okay, but then they became progressively less and less okay.
I turned into a bit of a workaholic; when I wasn’t taking overtime, there were clubs to go dancing in, and so much drinking to be done.
I went to California during the winter to get over being sad —and arrived when it was just a grey ocean and rain.
When I came back, I started trying to clean myself up—I thought I’d go back to university, go back to that time in my life when I had messed it all up and get it right this time. That was when the first images began to surface: images of someone touching me, looking at me.
I closed my eyes and could see the stars outside my old window, could smell the carpet in that room—but timelines, actual memories, eluded me, and that made me doubt myself, doubt my version of events. Aren’t you exaggerating? I thought. Why are you always so difficult?
But I read up on it; I talked to a few therapists; I found out that a lot of survivors only “find” memories in their 30s, once their bodies have judged enough distance from the trauma in order to feel safe. At first I thought that was a convenient excuse—but then I started to hold up my behavior against that template.
I had the faulty memory; the excessive substance using; the lovers; the running away, always the running away.
The white lies I told. The pretty-fucking-dangerous situations I put myself in—it looked like pretty textbook survivor behavior.
I blamed myself.
When I finally figured out how to ask a few other people if this had happened to them too, they responded, are you sure it happened that way? It seemed like I was the only person who had been touched like that, which meant that there was a reason that I had been picked, something that made me weaker, something about me that made the person that touched me think she won’t tell.
The only thing I could think of that made me different from anyone else was my body: the body that I was unintentionally taught to be ashamed of. The body that sometimes hurt so much it would make me curl over, my arms wrapped around me in an effort to hold myself together. The body that sometimes felt like a trap—constantly breaking down, prone to depression and anxiety and neediness—it had to be the reason I was singled out.
What else could it be—wasn’t I the actual embodiment of damaged goods?
I said things to myself in the quiet desperation of those years that I would wish on no-one—and I started believing them. And I wonder if things would have stayed like that for a while longer if a few things hadn’t happened in quick succession: I ended up in the hospital for what the doctors politely termed “exhaustion”; and a dear friend died of a drug overdose.
Being hospitalized was like a grandmother telling me to take care of you right goddamn now. If you don’t take care of yourself you are seriously going to die. My friend’s death reminded me there was no time for any other bullshit—I needed to act like saving my own life was a priority, because all of a sudden it was.
I knew I couldn’t keep living like the way I had been, but I didn’t know what to do next. This might sound silly, but the easiest way I could frame this for myself was to ask the question, what would your best friend do for you in this situation? They were heartbreakingly simple steps at first, maybe obvious ones, but doing one little thing to take care of myself—one thing at a time—made me take comfort in my own ministrations. I don’t have to love myself; I just have to take care of myself.
Eat a little protein. Go to bed. Take a deep breath. Put on your dancing song.
Every time I took care of myself in some way, it felt like I got a little calmer. And then the idea, of treating myself like my best friend, a sort of why not me? sunk in a little further. I started to see self-care almost as a cumulative thing: the more I did it, the more I would feel good.
The better I felt, the more I was able to take myself into perspective; like, even if the world stresses me out, I’m not going to stress myself out.
And in these very incremental instances of care, I gradually showed my body that I would take care of it, rather than harm or degrade it. And once that happened, I relaxed into myself in a way I never had before.
I had words for all my likes and dislikes, and knew better how to voice them. I got a clearer understanding of how I used to hate myself for something that didn’t affect my value as a person. That isn’t to say it became all rainbows and sunshine after that because it didn’t—that’s not how this story goes—but that I started understanding and knowing my body in a new context. I started seeing its lines as unique, beautiful, strong, just for being mine.
And even though my roar still shakes sometimes, I have it back now: for good.
Bronwyn Petry loves a summer thunderstorm; a hot bath; getting up early, and too many books to count. She tries to have an adventure every day and to go on spontaneous road trips whenever possible. She is married to her best friend. When she is not writing, she is walking her dog, or thinking about her next slice of pizza. She lives, loves, and organizes in Toronto—for now.