Letter about the word no

2nd of August 2019

Hi A

This week someone told me we always have the option of saying no. And I didn’t know how to tell him why that felt so wrong. Because if we are able to talk we are physically able to utter the word no. But you and I know all too well that saying no isn’t always something we can do.

Sometimes we aren’t safe to say no. Sometimes we are pressured. Sometimes we feel too unsafe or that it is dangerous to say no. Sometimes people won’t hear our no. Sometimes they don’t care. Sometimes saying no has very bad consequences. Sometimes we protect ourselves best by not saying no. And when protecting ourselves by not saying no becomes something that happens too much or too long we forget that no is an option. And no disappears from our vocabularies. And when people remind us that we can just say no, there is a huge disconnect. Because what they say makes sense on a purely logical level, but practically saying no is associated with fear, danger, repercussions, pressure and emotional violence.

I didn’t know how to tell this man this. Because I don’t know him well enough. Because I have no idea if this idea would even register with him, if he would acknowledge my experience or dismiss it. And conversations like that feels difficult because of cause I have the physical ability to say no. But for most of my life I didn’t have the emotional or mental ability to say no. Because for years of my life the word no was a dangerous one.

I spend almost seven years of my life with a man, a friend (not a boyfriend), who would turn every no into a bargaining. I would have to hold on and hold on and hold on. If I didn’t say yes he would push and push and push till I finally gave in to the pressure. There was no stopping him. No might hold him back from acting on some things for a while, but he would never stop pushing. In the book you and I helped writing I called him the Wolf.

For those almost seven years I faced emotional violence every time I said no. I faced the boundary being pushed and my no disrespected. I faced countless counterarguments from him about why my no wasn’t valid or why I should change my mind or begging and pleading to reconsider and be open to maybe later or some other time. And that over time that wears you down.

I have never felt like saying no was something I could just do. It is difficult. And even though some people have tried to convince me that the word no is in endless supply and I will never run out, I do run out of energy to say it. To find the no inside me. To remind myself that saying no isn’t unsafe. To face the fear, that is on autopilot, and then set aside the fear and try to say no. Saying no is a dangerous task. It is a very conscious one when we have experienced what we have. The amount of no in the world is not the problem. It’s giving ourselves permission to use it, after years of other people telling us we have no right to it and after years of unreasonable consequences every time we tried.

I remember saving my no. Only using the word when it was deeply necessary. I had two things I would always say no to. Everything else was something we could negotiate. Not because I wanted to. But because I needed to keep enough no for those two things. And the Wolf never stopped pushing on those two things so I kept needing them for this, and I never had enough to save some up for later, for the less bad things.

That is what emotional violence does to us. Make no mistake. Emotional violence is violence. A scary subconscious violence that is so difficult to defend yourself from.

For years I had nightmares about the Wolf. At first I had nightmares about the physical things he did to me. But then I started to fight back in my dreams. My best memory of this is the nightmare where I interrupted his actions and threatened to castrate him. And when he got angry I laughed at him and asked if he couldn’t take a joke. I still find it funny to this day that I managed to dream up that kind of response. It’s so out of character for me.

But then the nightmares changed. And in those he never hurt me physically. He just crawled into bed next to me, put his arm around me and whispered in my ear. And I froze. I never knew how to protect myself from his words. From this lack of physical assault. It felt like an assault on my mind, but kicking him or screaming at him wasn’t helpful. My fighting back through that kind of violence was the wrong response, but I didn’t have a better one. My nightmares have changed a lot over the years. I can often track where I am in my progress or in my feelings about him from my nightmares.

It’s too late to correct the man I talked to earlier this week. But I wonder what I’ll do next time someone tried to claim we always have the ability to say no. If someone puts a knife to your throat and tells you that if you say the word no they’ll kill you, you have the ability to say no. But you are risking your life if you do. (I know we’re both suicidal enough to say no in that situation, but you get the point). We are not free of the consequences of our no. You and I know that better than some people.

But the two of us need to learn that saying no often isn’t as dangerous as we were lead to believe. That is a hard lesson. Because our systems have deeply encoded our autopilot to react to the need or desire to say no with fear. Fear that at some point in our lives were justified. There was a point when the threat was real.

I don’t know how to feel safe again. And neither do you. But we’re working on it. And I am here to offer you a safe space where you can say no and where there won’t be repercussions for listening to what feels right. And I won’t be mad or take it personal if the fear of saying no makes it impossible. Because if I push you to say no that’s no different from someone else pushing you to say yes. It won’t be a free choice.

I know you are not entirely free of emotional violence. Some days I’m not sure if I am. But we have made great stride to become it. And I am proud of both of us for our work.

Our support of each other means so much to me. I feel strengthened by your support and by being able and allowed to support you too. I’m not sure where the road to the endless resource that is the word no leads. maybe we’ll never reach that magical land, but just get to a place where we are more free and able to use it, even if it’ll still be difficult. I’m don’t know how we’ll get there. I am absolutely sure we’ll stumble a lot on the way. But I believe we can help each other there, even though we each have to walk out own road there.

I believe we’ll both get better. And getting our no back is an important step. One that get’s more difficult when people around us doesn’t recognise that it can be taken away, because we then end up feeling like we are at fault or failing when no isn’t in our vocabulary. And we are not. We both had parents whom didn’t freely allowed the word no. None of us have grown up with that ability. But we’re allowed to build the ability for our selves. We are allowed to make the ultimate rebellion and claim the word no that our parents and other people in our lives should have given us as a gift from the day we were born.

Thank you for helping me find my no.

Looking forward to hearing from you.