A tale of animal activism, PTSD and those bullies from our past . . .

358So. You are walking down the street and against your better judgment you cut through a group of people demonstrating for animal rights. You try not to look at the posters of dairy cows and you avert your eyes as the “crazy vegan hippies” approach. You almost make it through the gauntlet of outstretched, color brochures when you hear a person behind you make a snide comment about the tastiness of veal, bacon, leg of lamb, etc. and one of the women demonstrators loses it. Just freakin’ loses it. Goes ballistic on the guy (who really thought he was being original and/or funny despite the BILLIONS of jerks who have used the same stupid line already . . .) with an hysteria usually reserved for being left at the alter. The other demonstrators drag her into their fold and calm her  while the stand-up comic throws out a few more witticisms about the beauty of McDonald’s quarter pounders, and the onlookers disperse, muttering about crazy vegans.

Most of the world will shake their heads and laugh and grumble about over-the-top pesky vegans/environmentalists/tree huggers or whatever. I see them and my heart hurts because most of the time, these are the victims of PTSD, generally from bullying. I would guess that a huge percentage of animal lovers who work on their behalf, especially farm animals, have been bullied during their lives. There are a lot of reasons to believe that, only partly because I am one of them. Here’s why . . .

Empathic people, or empaths, are those who are super sensitive and feel other people’s pain, confusion, anger, etc. I am one of them. If you have this particular gift/curse/double-edged sword in your personality portfolio you are predisposed to being bullied. Why? Because when someone is beating the crap out of you, either emotionally or physically, the pain of that abuse is overwhelmed by your sympathy for the person beating the shit out of you. You know their brother is a heroin addict, their father abuses their mother, a close relative died and left them shattered. Empaths are the perfect walking targets for bullies. We try to rationalize what they are doing, talk it out, and even feel guilty for being the kind of person who causes that kind of behavior to come to the surface in a person. What an empath has trouble doing is fighting back in their own self-defense.

Empaths, by nature, tend to love animals, who are fellow empaths wandering through a terrifying world filled with people who want to hurt them. We are all created of one spirit, humans and animals alike, and empaths know that, feel it deeply. We spend our childhoods studying birds hopping through our yards and worms burrowing into the soil. We spend our adulthoods taking care of robins with broken wings and moving worms out of the street and back onto the nearest lawn. We even take on animal characteristics in self-defense when we are being actively bullied.

When I was in 6th grade, maybe 10-years old, one of my “minor” bullies came up to me as I was leaving the schoolyard to walk the terror-infested mile home.

“Why do you walk so stiff with your back so straight?” he asked.

I didn’t answer. All answers are bully fodder, so I stiffened my back a little more, if possible, and walked quickly and steadily home (don’t run . . . don’t ever run . . . it’s like giving a lion reason to chase and they are always faster that you are . . . running is an invitation for skinned knees and elbows when they tackle you . . .) but even at that young age, he made me think. I did walk with my back straight and stiff, I knew nothing else, and that was in preparation for those who inevitably followed me home, usually in groups of two or three (and occasionally dozens,) taunting me about my ugly hair and taking turns running forward, punching me in the back and pulling the aforementioned offensive hair. Brace yourself and keep walking. Sure, you’re crying. If they couldn’t make you cry, what would the fun be? (BTW, those who don’t cry are hardly targets.) We are a sensitive bunch, we empaths. Anyways, this particular response is a passive self-defense measure that I call “turtling.” You are, in effect, tucking yourself into a hard “turtle” shell, both physically and psychologically. You are learning how to temporarily shut down your emotions and even physical pain in order to survive the current trial, which is getting home without reaching the point of having to “play opossum.” You are laying the groundwork for your future response as to how you address situations in which you are personally attacked, and when triggered, causing PTSD, you immediately turtle, withdraw into your shell and move steadily away from your attacker. If, however, your attacker is so brutal they break through your shell and you reach the point of hysteria, the next logical animal-inspired defense is “playing opossum.”

An empath doesn’t reach the point of playing opossum easily, at first. We see through our attackers. We know their pain. We try to help them understand what they are doing is wrong, that it’s hurting people. They may take your efforts seriously for a few minutes, but in the end, they go for the throat. Why? Because bullies are seldom empaths; their world focuses around their own pain and what they must do to assuage it. Yes, they are a selfish bunch. They don’t know how to release pain from trauma on their own, so they bully until they get the required response from their victim and only then do they have the release they so desperately need – which is your hysteria. If a bully gets you on the ground, sobbing, they are generally satisfied. Sure, they may give you a few more kicks to the kidneys before they move on, but the required emotional release, through you, has been achieved and they can move on. The opossum is playing dead. It’s the bully’s orgasm, and it will hold him/her for a while, until their internal pain builds up again and they have to come back for the next release. In the end, playing opossum is yet another PTSD response to more severe attacks in the distant future; when someone attacks you on the deepest level, you can immediately drop to the floor and opossum, in effect, cutting to the chase, giving your attacker the release they need, and skipping what can be hours of brutalizing. Hey, we do what we must for our survival.

If I have given you the idea that empaths are a bunch of sissies, falling apart at the slightest provocation, you are wrong. We generally only fall apart when it’s time to defend OURSELVES. If you mess with the ones we love, we will go totally ape-shit on you. We know what it’s like to be persecuted, battered both emotionally and physically, and we will do whatever it takes to defend our loved ones, both human and animal. This is why an abused wife will stay with the husband who tortures her, but throws him out on his ass if he beats up her dog. This is why the empath who is the mother of a child who is also a sensitive will completely lose it on the adult who falsely accuses him of something (in my case, I went ballistic on a parish priest who said my son had lied when I knew for shit sure he hadn’t – don’t F*&% with my child, I don’t care who you are – I won’t back down until one of us is dead!) And this is why we can’t help but be driven to save the animals, we who cannot save ourselves. We understand exactly what it’s like to not be able to save ourselves. Terrified cows standing in line at the slaughter yard cannot save themselves! Chickens in tiny cages at live markets cannot save themselves! The hysterical woman at the rally who screams about the raping of dairy cows often knows about rape first-hand. She is an empath, desperately trying to stop another living being from enduring the kind of pain she has carried for far too long. It is part of her therapy, to be the one she prayed would save her, yet never arrived.  And if she couldn’t save herself, maybe she can save another living being from her pain. The woman who loses it at the animal rights rally (when yet one more would-be comic starts talking veal parmesan) is the one who can carry the pain that has been dumped on her, but never the endless pain inflicted upon a veal calf.

Can we be fixed, the walking-wounded empaths who carry a lifetime of pain on our weary shoulders? Nope. Because we will always feel the pain of others and count it as more valid than our own. Most of us will have layer upon layer of PTSD from our traumas and will always use the same old coping skills we developed in our youths. It’s ingrained in us on a cellular level; our DNA dictates it.

It sucks to be us, no question. Our only hope, the only way we can survive (and more of us commit suicide than you could ever imagine) is to channel that energy in a way that makes us feel that we are saving others from similar pain. It’s the only arrow in our quiver. When you see that “crazy vegan” on the sidewalk, demonstrating in front of your favorite ice cream parlor, please understand, more often than not, he/she comes from a place of intense pain and has shown up to try to spare another living being their agony. These activists put aside their turtling and opossoming and throw themselves out in public, knowing they will be mocked and criticized, and for the noblest and most selfless of reasons.

Now that you know who we are and how we ended up being that thorn-in-your-side with a sign (and a possible raging case of PTSD,) when all you’re trying to do is buy a dip-top cone, is there anything you can do to help, aside from the obvious change in diet? (Pretty please?!) Sure. The best way to create a generation of well-balanced, non-reactive demonstrators is to not be a bully (because we activists will not go away – may as well help us be even-tempered!) PTSD is the most difficult mental illness to address; results from therapy are spotty and few sufferers have positive results without pharmaceuticals. Empaths with PTSD are a particularly difficult “fix;” fighting back may inflict pain on another and WE JUST CAN’T DO IT ON OUR OWN BEHALF! Teach your children to be kind to the “odd” ones at school. Teach them by example, by practicing tolerance of everyone. Everyone!! And smile and take the brochure the activist offers you. Why not? maybe even mention that they are “very brave” to place themselves in the line of fire out of love for their fellow living creatures.

You may never know how brave these people truly are, especially when they lose it right there on the sidewalk. I know the darkness whence it comes, and I know how hot the truth and light of day can burn.

Peace to all, and keep on lovin’!

Kathleen Schurman and her husband, David, are owned by the animals of Locket’s Meadow Animal Sanctuary where they spend their day feeding, mucking and passing out hugs to their “babies.” Then feeding and mucking some more . . . It’s not a living, but it is a “loving”! 

One thought on “A tale of animal activism, PTSD and those bullies from our past . . .

  1. Such a powerful and eye-opening post! I know exactly where you’re coming from. I was bullied in school for six long years and it got so bad I attempted suicide at age 14 and almost didn’t make it. It took me a while to become confident, happy and whole again but I did it. Now, I use what I went through to advocate for young people who are bullied today. It’s how I’m able to find closure to what were the worst years of my life.

    Thank you so much for this post! You don’t know how much it resonated with me.

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