Helene Combe

Through my journey as an English teacher and a language learner

Category: women (page 1 of 3)

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.

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.

Being angry is my new normal

But at the same time, after reading this article, you should understand me. I have already discussed on my previous article the difficulties I encountered during the first trimester of my pregnancy. Unfortunately, it turns out that my prepartum depression is not the only problem I’ll have to face. No, really, human stupidity is getting way worse on the scale.

I know, I’m hard on people sometimes. But let me give you some examples of sentences people have said to me the past four months, and you will probably get it too. Piece of advice: if you don’t know what to say to a pregnant woman, especially one who is struggling, just shut the hell up. Because it can harm way more than you think.

Oh, you’re 9 weeks pregnant? You could still lose it.

Bear in mind that the day this person said that to me, I had just confessed that the reason I was on sick leave was depression related to my pregnancy. I know that most miscarriages are happening during the first trimester. But I am already down, I don’t need a reminder that on the top of it, I could lose my baby. I am not sure I could forget, nor forgive, this sentence, ever.

Are you sure you’re having only one baby? You’re so big already!

I envy women who can hide their pregnancies: I couldn’t after my second month. At 8 weeks of pregnancy, I had people already commenting it because I couldn’t pretend that I had eaten too much anymore. I know that my belly is big, no I am not expecting twins, and yes, I know that my baby will be big. At the same time, I am 6 ft tall, what do you expect anyway?

My female friend A. didn’t feel tired at all during her pregnancy (sentence said by a guy)

That’s amazing, I am genuinely happy for her but I don’t give a crap. I feel like hell, I sleep 18 hours a day and I can’t have a proper conversation because my braincells can’t connect together. Don’t rub my nose into other people’s supposed perfect pregnancies or I’ll bite.

Oh your cat died? Well, it’s not like your baby died.

What on earth is wrong with you? Let me give you the context: my husband and I adopted a kitty, almost seven years ago, who was ALWAYS with me. During my first trimester of hell, Mallow spent his entire life with me in my bedroom, never leaving my side. Okay, I think he was mostly enjoying the bed, but anyway, he was a constant in my life. And he suddenly died from blood poisoning, when I was 16 weeks pregnant. You can imagine how crushed I was; I mean, it doesn’t take a psychology degree to understand it was like the end of the world for me. And you want me to imagine now that my baby died instead? What are you, clinically insane?

I hope you will have a natural birth (sentence pronounced by a guy).

You hope? Why do you feel concerned by this anyway? I am terrified of natural birth, I am crossing all my fingers to have a C-section, and guess what, I won’t discuss that. It’s just gross and it’s not your damn business.

And finally, my favorite, when will you start trying for a second baby?

This sentence, which I have heard a lot lately (from students, colleagues, family), is purely the worst. I am not even halfway through my first pregnancy, which will probably be my only pregnancy anyway. How can you feel the right to say something like this? Even if you don’t know a single thing about me. Maybe the person in front of you had 5 rounds of IVF before getting pregnant and knows that she won’t be able to do it again emotionally or financially. Maybe the person in front of you doesn’t want anymore children in any case. Maybe it’s not your problem?

I have to admit, I wasn’t ready for all these remarks or other sentences. I didn’t think that people wouldn’t comment at all, but even if I suspected that it could become a topic of conversation, this invasion of privacy just drives me mad. I just want to scream HOW CAN YOU THINK IT’S OKAY TO SAY THAT? Emotionally, I am having a lot of troubles dealing with these remarks, and I know that I am cutting myself from people (decent people, who never dared to say something like the previous examples) to protect myself. It will probably get better but for now, my normal state is to be angry at the world.

And yes, we are adopting a new baby cat.

I should be happy to be pregnant, but I’m not: let’s talk about prepartum depression

My entire adult life I have been told that I would struggle to conceive.

I have been diagnosed with endometriosis at age 24, after years of complaints from my parts, and numerous hospital stays. My symptoms were very common, but debilitating for years, before my then-new gynecologist took me seriously. I had lost hope until that moment, when I finally switched to a period-free birth control. I still experienced pain, on a lower level, but more importantly, I could fully function again.

In June 2020, my husband and I, after discussing the matter for years, decided to start a family. I stopped taking my birth control, and the pain came back, albeit more bearable. But that was not the most complicated thing I had to deal with: I wasn’t ovulating. It’s quite common to be clumsy when it comes to understand when you are or are not ovulating but in my case, the answer was crystal clear: I wasn’t.

You can easily imagine what went through my head at this time: I was doomed, natural procreation would remain a dream for us, that we had to go through IVF. My gynecologist helped me understand a bit more what was happening and remained reassuring; I was indeed ovulating the day I saw her. So the machine was working! It was just a matter of time!

It was indeed just a matter of time. But by late November, early December, I wasn’t thinking about my ovulation anymore; as I experienced some Meniere’s episodes. I have been diagnosed with Meniere in 2015, and I know how to live with it; but this time, my usual tricks to calm down didn’t work. I couldn’t teach anymore(too much screen can trigger an episode), I couldn’t drink coffee, I was just stuck in my bed with my fluffy and then obese cat.

My blood test results didn’t take long to arrive; and my HcG levels were up the roof. I was pregnant! But why wasn’t I happy. On the inside, I had million questions, but I mostly hated everything: the fact that my body was weak, that I couldn’t even stand up, that I was sleepy all the time, that I wasn’t myself anymore. I felt like a giant incubator and I was NOT happy about it.

I questioned everything in my life at this moment, and wondered if I really deserved this baby after all, considering how appreciative I was of the situation. I was not throwing up, like a lot of my friends were at this stage of their pregnancies, but the rest was as bad. Imagine being so weak that you can’t even put on your socks; that was me for WEEKS. I felt useless, a waste of space, I thought I could never come back from this dark place. I just wanted everything to stop so I could be myself again.

My doctor was reassuring; these symptoms should fade away around week 12. And he was right: they slowly faded away, and by week 15, I was myself again (I’m on week 17 right now). I really missed being myself, and I can’t even believe what happened to me. I feel guilty that I just wanted to stop everything, pack my things and leave on another continent to start a new life (yeah, I went that far). I feel grateful now that the first trimester of hell is over. I also feel grateful that my ultrasound went great and that despite what happened to me, our baby is doing amazing.

Do I understand why people are still trying to have a second kid after the first, now that everything is okay? Nope. I feel mostly traumatized by what happened and I am not sure that I could survive something like that again. Ironically, I am now, for the first time in my life, really comfortable within my own skin, which is a very strange feeling.

I wasn’t emotionally prepared to what could happen to me, and I am fairly sure women in general are not emotionally prepared enough. We are talking a lot about physical pain we can experience during pregnancy (back pain, huge tummy etc…) but we are definitely not talking enough about the psychological scars it could left us.

What about languages?

That’s one of the first questions my students asked me yesterday.

They know, as you probably know too, that I recently started my master in Applied Linguistics. Last Tuesday, France 2 broadcasted a documentary about languages and immigration, so they thought of me. The whole idea of that documentary was bilingualism and biculturalism: exactly what I am studying right now. The conversation was extremely pleasant, and we all had something to add on to it.

One of my students totally blossomed during that conversation, and explained her whole life story. Prepare to be blown, because I was, and I totally admire her.

She was born in Bulgaria, from Armenian parents. She learnt Armenian at home, but her childcare center was run in Bulgarian, so she picked up some Bulgarian. By the age of 4, she was able to speak with ease these two languages, but her family moved to France.

In addition, she learned French at school, continued to speak Armenian at home but stopped, little by little, to speak Bulgarian. Her two older sisters though, they continued to speak to each other in Bulgarian, just to annoy her! She totally forgot Bulgarian, and French became her dominant language, as she had to work in that language. She continued to speak to her parents in Armenian, and to write to her family back there in their language, by her own will (her sisters gave up at some point). She is now forced to check her vocabulary on a dictionary, as she lost her parents, and so reduced considerably her practice.

As you can guess, she added English to that mix, when she was around forty, because she was interested by the language itself. She practices once a week in my class, and told me yesterday that she spoke better English now than Armenian! Her level is English being a strong B2, she could totally live in England as well (and before Brexit, she was thinking about it!)

She is 68 years old, and managed to function in four different languages. If that’s not inspiring…

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