Helene Combe

Through my journey as an English teacher and a language learner

About gaslighting

A mere 24 hours ago, my Twitter friend Natalie (if you stop by this article, thank you so much for your words!) shared an image about gaslighting, and what it looks like. Unfortunately, it only brought back to me some bad memories that, for years, I tried to repress. But as it’s been now 10 years that I left his sorry ass, I guess now it’s the time to open up a bit.

Gaslighting, what on earth is that? I guess some people call that ‘narcissistic perv’ or something like that. It’s a form of abuse and manipulation, where the victim doubt their reality. That what happened to me, and to numerous people, who probably, like me, still feel a bit guilty about it.

My mom loved my first serious boyfriend. He was everything she could dream of, and back in the day, we had troubles communicating. She loved him so much that everything he said was just golden. I guess that’s why I couldn’t escape my very own nightmare that easily. It’s been ten years, and she still blames herself over it daily.

It started slowly after all, so I was not sure that he was really trying to cut me off my friends. At first, he encouraged me, made me feel seen for the first time, loved. I was happy for a while, that’s true. And then, I realized there was a huge gap between what he was saying, and what he was doing. He started to tell me that I couldn’t hang out with my friends without him. He didn’t want me to have male friends. He called my damn mother the day I told him to fuck off, and went for a beer with a male friend. When I told that story to one of his friends, he shrugged and said that my boyfriend was just jealous. “Just Jealous?” I couldn’t have my own friends, those who tried to resist where automatically cut off. ‘They don’t treat you right,’ he was telling me, ‘they don’t accept me as your boyfriend, so they don’t accept you.’ Slowly, I didn’t have anybody else but him.

We moved to another city, and I started a prestigious internship in the fashion industry. It was, back in the day, my dream (I was 22!) and I was immensely proud of getting this internship. When I got the phone call, he couldn’t be happy for me, because he didn’t have a job. Nobody was calling him back. So I didn’t celebrate getting my internship. Anyway, we moved, he still didn’t have a job (he was playing video games all day long), and my internship was very, very, very intense. It was not what I had imagined, I had to work long hours, and every time I was coming home, here he was, berating me. In addition, my coworker started to harass me, morally, and I felt like sh*t at home and at work. When I was telling my bf about him, he responded that ‘at least, I had a job.’ I left my internship right before Christmas. We spent Christmas at his family: his mother greeted us with a charming ‘here comes our unemployed couple!’ I never wanted to choke anybody before her, but I surely did that day. I’ll never forget it.

It took me almost three years to realize what he was doing. I couldn’t be sad, because he was sadder. I was crazy. Nobody could love me as much as he loved me, because I was crazy. He didn’t pay the rent for two months because he wanted to alienate my parents, and make me choose between my parents and him. I was shutting down. Every time I was saying something, it was wrong. I took a night job at a burger joint to financially support us, because he was still not working, and he blamed me for working late. I felt inadequate, vulnerable, weak. I hated myself, and my inability to defend myself.

He did not cut me off from my dad, even though he truly tried. He knew my dad was my main support system, so he actively tried to cut him off, and almost succeeded, to be honest. Ultimately, his mom wanted us to move with her and I refused. We were arguing about this, when I told him I was going to my best friend’s, as I was tired of arguing and he raised his hand to hit me. He raised his hand and I knew exactly what would happen. He would apologize, send me flowers, give me gifts and hit me again. My whole life flashed in front of me, and I saw exactly what could happen if I let him.

I hit him first. I took my purse and ran.

He knew what he had done: when I came back to grab my stuff, so I could sleep at my best friend’s, he said nothing. I got my own place, my parents and my best friend helped me move out and as he was looking at us with a depressed look on his face, my best friend told him to go to hell. My dad was so happy she did that he brought her flowers the second we left the apartment.

It was hard for me to get out of this. He was such a huge part of my life, I had lost so many friends because of him, I felt so alone sometimes. I must admit that following our split, I partied a lot, to forget what had happened. He tried to come back, came a few times to my place to make me forgive and forget. I was finally able to cut ties, despite being traumatized by the whole experience.

The first time I talked about my experience to someone, this someone told me that hitting him before he had hit me was a mistake. It was not: I saved my own life that evening. Abuse is extremely serious, and it’s because victims are not believe that the amount of deceased is rising.

It took the guy I dated a year after my ex YEARS to make me feel okay, comfortable, beautiful, interesting. This guy became my husband, and he could tell you that what I suffered from was close to PTSD. It’s been ten years, and only now I realize how lucky I was to escape. I made it out, I made a decent life for myself, and most of all, I’m happy with who I am.

So, in which language do you think ?

This precise question was asked by one of my students a few days before the end of term break. I had told the class a few seconds before that I was talking in English to my daughter most of the time, and this question was among others :

  • Is it hard to switch between languages?
  • Do you have to focus when you talk to her in English?
  • Why don’t you have an accent when you speak?

I know I looked puzzled and a bilingual student answered to one of the students: “you don’t think, you just switch, it’s natural.” The first student insisted then : “but you must think in one language over the other, right?” I finally answered that it depended on the situation, on the context, that it was not linear at all. I knew she wanted to know what was my dominant language: French or English?

Being bilingual in a (mostly) monolingual environment means being asked a lot of questions. France is ambivalent when it comes to bilingualism: one language must dominate the other, you cannot have the same level in both, ammirite?

Bilingualism doesn’t have a clear definition, Grosjean still writes wonderfully interesting books about it, but in my case, in France, I can see that it mostly depends on how people perceive bilingualism. For example: A is born into an Italian family, where the grand parents were talking mostly in Italian, surely A is bilingual? A heard Italian since birth, clearly A has a high level, so how come A is flunking Italian classes ? How come A cannot translate easily from one language to another? (insert surprised Pikachu meme here to understand the absurdity of the situation)

Let’s take another example: B is born in a French family, Mom and Dad spoke only French. B liked English, so watched movies in English, read in English, and studied extensively English. B cannot be bilingual, right? Because B learned the language? So, it’s not the same thing than being bilingual? Even with a IELTS test score at 8 (out of 9), B is still not considered fully bilingual in English, because you know, Mom and Dad were French. Hey, B, stop showing off!

You get it: A is my father’s example, B is mine. I am SICK AND TIRED to hear that I am not bilingual because my parents speak only French, while I am able to read Joseph Conrad in original version, to watch a program about economic stakes and to write a damn MA dissertation in English. My father, on the other hand, who is not able to hold a conversation in Italian at the bank (for example) without checking Reverso, who cannot write a damn sentence, is considered bilingual.

Dear monolinguals, since you master only one language, you just can’t get it. Language is not fixed, it evolves, and it’s not encoded in your DNA. Yes, my dad was raised by his Italian grandmother, who mostly spoke about everyday life, but he went to school in France. Yes, I was raised by a French mother who knows literally 5 words of English (lift, morning, evening, Saturday, Sunday – that’s it! But she pronounces them perfectly, at least) and by a father who blurted out some Italian words from time to time. But I went to school in France, in the UK, in the US. Bilingualism has many forms, but dear monolinguals, stop trying to put us in boxes.

France is quite hypocritical when it comes to bilingualism too: if you are bilingual in Italian, Arabic, Portuguese, people will just shrug and go on with their lives. But say you are bilingual in English (or German),and people go wild. Are you from this country? How did you become bilingual? Are you really bilingual? The prestige is not the same, you see.

I define myself as multilingual: I can read, listen, write, speak in French, English and Italian. It is not that uncommon; once again, monolinguals are not the norm, bilinguals and multilinguals are. But in any case, the question remains the same: what is your dominant language?

Let’s talk about tokophobia

I am fairly sure that you read this article thinking “what on earth is tokophobia and why is an English teacher writing about it?” Well, today, I decided to write about something close to home, something extremely personal, related to my new life as a mom.

Tokophobia, to explain quite simply, is the primal fear of pregnancy and to give birth. It’s way more common than we think and nobody talks about it, like we are supposed to be ashamed of it. In my case, I wasn’t scared of pregnancy, not even worried, despite the fact that my first trimester was actual hell. But I was (I still am) TERRIFIED to give birth. I could feel it in my entire body. I couldn’t wait to meet my child, but the idea of giving birth was making me sick. Physically sick.

It’s not something that happened overnight: I have always been afraid of giving birth. As a kid (around 4 or 5), I was already worried and I asked my mom if it was painful. She said ‘yes, but you forget once you have your baby’. Cut the crap, I knew I wouldn’t forget at all. I am extremely sensitive, I suffer from endometriosis, I had a trauma as a toddler (you don’t want the details, I swear, but it involves me falling and getting stitches where you don’t want to have stitches). Giving birth the natural way was a big fat NO.

When I got pregnant with my daughter at the end of 2020, I openly said to my OB-GYN that having a natural birth was out of question, and that having a C-section was the only option. He shrugged, and probably thought I was being eccentric. I met my midwife, I had the exact same discourse (I even included gruesome details), she asked me a couple of questions and then continued to explain to me all the steps of a natural birth. In France, you can’t simply ask for a C-section, you need a medical reason: my trauma, which I was able to talk about, was as real as a scar, but was not taking into consideration.

I never envisioned myself giving birth naturally: I told every professional that it was physically impossible for me. I didn’t want to tell them how to do their jobs, no, I wanted them to understand that psychologically, I couldn’t give birth naturally. I wanted to be heard and helped.

Up till my 8th month of pregnancy, Baby was badly positioned, and at the beginning of June, my OB-GYN told me that if she wasn’t moving soon, I would have my C-section. I felt so relieved, I felt the weight off my shoulders. I could breathe again. But at the following ultrasound, mid-June, Baby was positioned perfectly, and I was back to square one. I explained, once again, how scared I was, how the concept of episiotomy was terrifying (just thinking about it gives me goosebumps). Do you know what I have heard when I said that I was scared of episiotomy, to the point of having a phobia? ‘You shouldn’t.” Would you say ‘you shouldn’t’ to someone who is arachnophobic? No. ‘Giving birth is natural.’ Every time I heard this sentence, a part of me was screaming. I know it is. I didn’t ask for this crippling fear, I am trying to fight it and these platitudes are not helping.

Despite my plea, my request for a convenient C-section (that’s how it’s called in France) was denied and I started to look elsewhere for help: acupuncture, meditation, sophrology, I was even looking to get hypnotized (my appointment was scheduled but I gave birth in the meantime). I was fighting my phobia, I was trying to overcome it the best I could. Then, following a stressful OB-GYN appointment, out of the blue, I was induced.

I won’t go into details here, because it’s irrelevant. What is relevant to my story here is that my body shut down. My baby wasn’t growing anymore, my placenta was calcifying, I had to give birth, and my body shut down. Three times I was induced within 24 hours. My body didn’t respond. I had fake contractions at first (looks like real contractions, feels like real ones, but nothing moves), but soon enough, it stopped; my baby, on the other hand, was doing great. Strong heartbeat, strong moves. Nothing to worry about for now, but I had to deliver.

With my consent, my midwife broke my waters manually. My husband was holding my right hand, my OB-GYN my left. The second it happened, I wished to die. I couldn’t give birth naturally. I would be scarred for life, I wouldn’t be able to be intimate with my husband anymore, I couldn’t have more babies (it’s not the plan anyway, but you have the idea) if I was having a natural birth, even with an epidural. I cried so hard after, I thought I wouldn’t be able to stop.

I finally calmed down, the anesthesiologist came, but I just couldn’t stop thinking. Would adrenaline be enough? When my OB-GYN came back to check on me, I saw his face becoming pale. Nothing had moved. The baby had to be delivered today, the whole calcified placenta thing was getting dangerous but my body refused to move an inch despite everything. I went through all this for NOTHING. This time, I looked at him and I asked him, begged him, to get a C-section. He agreed that it was the best decision, and a mere thirty minutes later, my daughter was born.

Tokophobia is not known. Giving birth is natural, why would someone be afraid of such a natural act? Once again, would you tell someone who is afraid of snakes or spiders that they are natural creatures that you shouldn’t be afraid of? I heard about women who were afraid, who refused to push and had to deliver with vacuum help. I heard about women who cried the whole time. Until it happened to me, I never heard about a woman whose body literally shut down by fear.

I warned every professional I had met that I was afraid. I wish I had been heard earlier, instead of feeling alone and afraid during most of my medical appointments and my birthing classes. I suggested early on that I see a therapist who would ensure that I was not faking it: I wouldn’t have heard that all I wanted was a ‘convenient’ birth.

But here’s the thing: having a C-section is not convenient. My belly was cut open, it’s not convenient, that’s even the opposite. I wish I wasn’t afraid, but it’s not something I have control over. I preserved myself, and my mental health, by requesting a C-section, and I am glad it happened: it is what matters after all. I didn’t give birth naturally, but I kept my sanity, and for that, I am eternally grateful.

Can I speak to your manager?

This sentence was not heard in a supermarket or in a random store, no, this was the title of an email I received a few weeks ago at school.

Let me give you some context: I have been teaching in a French business school (we are offering more than only business courses but it’s easier for me to explain this way) for two years now, and I am Head of Department since September 2020. France’s educational system is crumbling, let’s be clear, the high school diploma (baccalaureat) doesn’t mean anything anymore and the current Education secretary basically destroyed the whole idea behind (it used to be a national degree, not it depends on your high school, say hi to inequalities). Anyway, as the term was over, we (the Director of Studies and I) checked everybody’s report card, and discussed to warn some students about their results or their behavior. Nothing out of the ordinary so far.

Contrary to popular belief, we do not enjoy warning a student about their bad grades, or bad behavior. I am teaching at this level because I don’t want to deal with angry parents unable to see that their precious little angel is a brat. Above 18, in France, parents cannot say anything: if they do, I’ll literally won’t answer, as the student is responsible for himself (in theory), but I am always available to my students. They know they can reach out easily if they encounter a problem. My point is, we sent an email to a student, who I had talked to numerous times this year about his low grades and his really bad attendance, to tell him that he had failed some classes and had to take them again the following year.

Bear in mind that I told him more than once (since February!) that if he continued this way, he would fail, and he became a fully fledged slacker nonetheless. So after calling us to blame online classes and the whole covid mess, as the title implies, he sent me an email asking for the manager.

We are still talking about a kid who doesn’t work, doesn’t show up to class, has an atrocious GPA but he wants to speak because obviously, according to him, he shouldn’t fail. No, we (the teachers) have been mean to him personally because we don’t like him. That must be the reason. Of course, it’s the reason. Also, he is paying, therefore he cannot fail. My DoS didn’t appreciate the email and answered back that since it was a school, and not Walmart, there was no way he could speak to the manager. Guess the kid’s reply?

“I’ll find a school where I’ll be more considered.”

Be my guest. Since Education is a lucrative business, and a wicked one I might add, I was not surprised by his reaction. This student will indeed find another school, but that doesn’t mean he will get his degree at the end (especially since it’s a national one). The problem is quite simple actually: since it’s a business, the student is treated like a client, after he is paying, right? Learning something, anything, is not even the point here, since it’s obtaining a piece of paper. You probably roll up your eyes now, but think about it, if you browse a bit the internet right now, you’ll find dozens of online “degrees”. There is nothing to learn here, no exams to take, of course, since it’s entirely empty. Sure, you can brag about the degree, but at the end, where are the skills?

Education is getting emptied, and my little blogpost is not going to change anything, since most governments right now are clearly not interested by it. I am an old-fashioned gal: I studied for my degrees, I had to reach a certain level to obtain them and when I decided to become an English teacher, I didn’t decide to scam people by getting a fake TEFL certificate (the kind FB advertises every five minutes). I could have, since it takes approximatively five seconds. But, no, I can’t accept a student who thinks he can speak to the manager because this is not Target, this is school, and it still means something to some people. Learning still means something, you can’t fake it, even though dozens of online ads are telling you otherwise.

Dear students, you can appeal your teachers’ decisions to the headmaster, that’s your right. But if we are indeed failing you, it’s not because we want to bully you, since we have nothing against you personally. You deserve to fail, especially if you have been warned numerous times before to adjust your grades/behavior. Education is not free, but you are not entitled to anything here. And if you can’t accept that, I guess you better find another place to go, but be sure that you will have a hard time later in life. It just won’t be my problem anymore.

Be proud of your accent

A few days ago, I watched a YouTube video from a French woman who was explaining that her dream was to speak perfect British English. She knows how to speak English already, she has a quite decent B2/C1 level but she was saying that she was « ashamed » to speak English because of her accent. That she « wanted » a British accent and that she would be ready to pay a lot of money to be able to do so. I felt incredibly bad (and sad) for her, knowing that a lot of people feel the same, ashamed of their accents. 

We can thank native speakerism for that I suppose. A lot of non natives are truly ashamed to speak English, despite their perfect command of the language, because all they think about is their accents. 

A student asked me last month if her accent was assessed at the spoken exam. Like we could assess an accent, because apparently there is a scale of acceptable or non acceptable accents I am not aware of. I said «no, of course, but pronunciation will ». Do you know what she answered ? « Oh, it’s the same. »

Mmmh, no ? Not at all ? Most students are confusing the two of them and for this precise reason, are trying to modify their accents.  Pronunciation is NOT about accents.

Non-native speakers are constantly bullied because of their accents. One of the first questions we are asked after telling our names, for most teachers, are « where do you come from? » and « how come you learn English like that » among others. 

I spent only a short time in the US but I felt bad every time someone was asking me about my accent, which was literally every two days. And I am privileged: I am a white woman, 6ft tall, with blondish hair. My name can be perceived as American, despite being Italian (Pattio) and French (Combe, even though I met people with the exact same surname in Britain too). It was not to make fun of me that people asked about my accent: it’s because it’s socially acceptable to ask about an accent and to consider that one is better than another. AND IT SHOULDN’T BE. It’s an invasion of privacy, plain and simple, and it shouldn’t matter, especially since I am intelligible. That should matter way more: intelligibility is key, accent isn’t.

That’s why a random French lady, educated, with a decent English level, wishes she speaks with a British accent, despite the fact she is not at all British, that she went to the UK only a few times and that it is NOT her. Why would someone who spent her entire life in Paris would have a British accent?? It doesn’t make any sense, if you think about it more than a second.

Be proud of your accent. Be proud of who you are. Be proud of your successes. Dear NNST, you mastered a language well enough to teach it, that’s amazing! You should be celebrating your achievement, not being ashamed. Teach your students to be proud as well: learning a language is tough enough as it is.

« Older posts

© 2022 Helene Combe

Powered by Jonas ChopinUp ↑

Pin It on Pinterest