The Tinker Bell Complex: On Love, Labels and Trauma

Love is a label.

Content warning: BPD, CPTSD, Splitting, Abuse

“Fairies have to be one thing or the other, because being so small they unfortunately have room for one feeling only at a time.”

― J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

I can’t recall when I started compartmentalising myself. We all do it to some extent. We have different roles to fill and parts to play, for different people and contexts. It’s functional for both business and pleasure: in any kind of relationship, people usually like to know what to expect from us. We tell stories about ourselves to each other, and by amplifying some narratives, we obfuscate others to be who we need to be at the time. It’s convenient.

We strive for narrative continuity, but human experience is non-canonical: perhaps the only trait we share is that our selfhoods are constantly in flux, subject to the ever-changing balance of nature and nurture. So, is there really such a thing as a sense of self?

When I talk about my struggles with identity, people tell me to worry less and vibe more. They say that no one knows who they are or what they’re doing. My generous interpretation of these responses would be to assume that the speaker has been through similar struggles with selfhood and emerged on the other side, but it’s perhaps more likely that they’re lucky enough to have never needed to worry about it.

I know there is such a thing as a sense of self, because I recognise its absence.

A self exists in boundaries – the separation between the self and the other. The absence, or violation, of boundaries negates selfhood. Without a sense of self, we can’t protect ourselves, or make decisions in our best interests. Love without boundaries is annihilation.

Who am I, alone, in an empty room? Will I be the same person when someone enters it?

Boundaries are how we negotiate our desires. But, what if we don’t know what we want? What about when what we want change? It is impossible to account for, and define, our multiplicity. But we try.

What do I mean to you? Who are we to each other?

We compartmentalise ourselves to simplify things, then attempt to articulate it in language, reducing ourselves to a label. A label is a social contract. A promise. Promises are safe, promises are terrifying. Promises can be broken. Broken promises break hearts.

How can I believe you love me when I don’t know who me is?

It’s best not to think about it. I wish I didn’t have to think about it.

*****

I have been in a process of rebuilding a self that trauma destroyed, or cultivating a self that trauma didn’t allow to grow. I, like many of us who are affected by BPD/CPTSD, am in a constant process of stitching together parts of me that look like they might fit, until one day, maybe I’ll feel whole. Whenever I find out something new about myself, I feel robbed of all the years I’ve lost to negation. The worst part is that it feels like I did it to myself, because it’s something my mind did to cope.

Splitting is something that people who have BPD, and function in neurodiverse ways, do as an unconscious survival instinct. In relation to other people, it looks like idealising a person, then devaluing them.

This is summarised poorly in articles about BPD by the phrase: “I hate you – please don’t leave me.”

Splitting makes love complicated: the object of your affection can be the best person in the world one day, then your enemy the next: a stranger at best, a malicious antagonist at worst. But, if they are your favourite person, the connection remains constant. Some survivors learned to do this when our caregivers or loved ones—who we trusted the most—broke that trust in an irredeemable way. We split the person in two, so that we can keep the best half of that person, and the memories of them, untainted by abuse. Our minds tell us that it was not the one we loved who betrayed our trust, it was that other person, that bad person we don’t know. These feelings don’t go away, but we try and forget them. We hold the pain inside us to preserve the idea of a love we wish we had – the kind of love that we deserved. This painful, ambivalent ‘love’ informs that which comes after it.

Literature on ‘splitting’ is easily found, and the way I’ve described it above is both my experience and commonly theorised. What I’ve seen less of, however, is how ‘splitting’ can impact the self.

I have been splitting myself for as long as I can remember. There was the survivor: capable and resilient. This person did not have needs, nor articulate emotions. I was not the kind of person who ‘bad things’ had happened to, or someone who needed anyone. As I started to remember my trauma, and began to heal, I realised there was a different self beneath the mask. Someone intensely vulnerable, incredibly angry, lonely and longing for connection. As I got to know this person, I realised that I had made a stranger of myself. I hated that person, and I wanted to hurt them. Then I stopped hurting them and started to listen to them instead.

It wasn’t/isn’t easy. When parts of me started to awaken, they did not get on with each other.

Tinker Bell screenshots, images and pictures - Comic Vine

I tell people I have a ‘Tinker bell complex’: I lack emotional nuance. I feel things so strongly, that, without a lot of emotional regulation work, I can only feel one thing very hard all at once, which makes it difficult to know who I am and what I want from one day to the next.

If I don’t know who I am, how can I ever get what I want? Will I ever be happy?

As someone who is genderfluid (Non-binary? Femme presenting trans masc?) and bisexual (Pansexual? Gay? Demisexual?) and poly? or monogamous? I have a lot of different things to feel. Things I haven’t figured out yet. All of these different aspects of myself awakening felt like a problem, not because they existed, but because I had erased them for so long. Each aspect of myself cried out for attention one at a time and VERY LOUDLY. I had compartmentalised myself so much, that I didn’t (and don’t) know how all the parts function together.

How can I promise to love you if I don’t know who I am, or how I love?

Perhaps I shouldn’t have tried to solve the problem ‘dick-first’. I tried dating and dating apps, assigning each of my compartmentalised selves a label. But labels are not shortcuts to understanding – people fixate on the label they’re most interested in, and treat you in relation to the stereotype that they associate with it. Dating apps, like me, lack emotional nuance.

I tried to solve a problem of identity by experimenting with my sexuality. I assigned myself labels in an attempt to define myself in a way that would make me palatable. Labels that should have been empowering turned into another way to objectify myself. At first the labels were for me – to fill in the blanks that trauma had erased. Then, they became more about who I am to other people. What I’ve begun to realise is that I’m not responsible for people’s perceptions or desire of me. I exist independently of that.

My sexuality has always defined me; I use it to (unsuccessfully) connect with people, but sex should not be conflated with love or platonic intimacy. As a survivor, I’ve always found it hard to tell the difference between them – to feel seen and valued as a person, rather than a fuck toy, and to treat other people the way they deserve to be treated too.

Sex is complicated and makes things complicated for me. It feels dangerous and vulnerable and nuanced in a way that it never has before. Managing those emotions is too overwhelming. I’m not equipped to manage my own, let alone anyone else’s feelings.

Sex was the story of my life, now it’s just a footnote. 

I’m shedding most of the labels I’ve accumulated and replacing them with ‘queer’. The community and connection that comes from the mutual understanding I have with my queer friends is enough acknowledgement of my identity. I am who I am, not who I do.  I would rather be a friend, than a sex object.

And as for love…

I want a love that transcends labels. I want a love that acknowledges and desires every fractured piece of me.

I want a love that isn’t annihilation.

I want our love to be a promise, a promise that we’ll change – together.

The Velveteen Rabbit: The Story of a Toy Who Became Real

Reflections on gender, trauma and hypersexualisation

Content warning: this blog covers and includes internalized misogyny, sexual abuse, discussion of age gap relationships, unsafe sex, allusions to bodily harm (cutting) and the butchering of a beloved children’s book.

The Velveteen Rabbit is the story of a toy who comes to life. The story begins when the Rabbit is gifted to a boy (of course). At first, the Velveteen Rabbit is very lonely; the boy doesn’t notice him and he struggles to make friends with the other toys. The other toys consider themselves Real things, they are mechanical so they already know how to function, they don’t question it – it’s part of their machinery. The model boat works like a boat. It floats, it has a use: it’s real. The Velveteen Rabbit’s purpose is not quite as obvious. He has neither seen a Real rabbit, nor has been modelled on one, for he has no hind legs. The Velveteen Rabbit is a Rabbit that is not a rabbit.

The Velveteen Rabbit - Wikipedia

Ce n’est pas un lapin

Life is quite bleak for the shy little Rabbit until he finds companionship with a toy horse who shares his wisdom with him. They take part in this famous dialogue:

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit.

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

The Velveteen Rabbit is taught to associate being Real with his interactions with the boy. The Rabbit’s existence is contextual and contingent on the boy’s playing with him; he becomes a rabbit when the boy treats him like one. But he’s not a rabbit. He’s still just a toy. He’s not Real. He only feels that way because he doesn’t know better.

I don’t blame him. I didn’t know better either.

Ce n’est pas un lapin

As someone who has always struggled with their identity, much of who I was, was shaped by context. I was raised as a girl, I went to a girls’ school, I was a ‘late-bloomer,’ not confident enough to come out as bi, and advised that I should sleep with some boys so I could ‘make up my mind’.

So that’s what I did.

I learned about sex by fucking men.

Maybe that’s OK if you’re educated about the emotional gravity of it. Maybe it’s OK to learn about sex by fucking if you’re dating people closer to you in age, or at least people who are kind. Learning about sex by fucking probably isn’t the best idea when you fuck older men who don’t care about your feelings, or even worse, manipulate them. My first boyfriend treated me so badly that, to this day, I’m relieved that I’d previously lost my virginity during a one-night stand in a tent. I might not have known the guy, but at least he made sure I was OK and had a nice time. It was one of my most empowering fucks: I will always have VFest (how beautifully apt).

I think that continuing the trend of one-night stands would have been better than what happened to me. A 29-year-old man probably shouldn’t cut a nineteen-year-old girl, even if she asks him to. I still have the scars.

It’s hard to come back from that.

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

There’s something extremely thrilling about that mixture of sex and danger. It creates such a potent high that it’s almost irresistible not to chase: that’s why we have BDSM – all the chemical rush, with managed risk, fully informed consent and appropriate aftercare to manage the sub drop. There is a difference between good but risky BDSM and bad, dangerous sex that feels good in the moment. It’s the difference between being a sex subject and a sex object. If you play with a toy too hard and for too long, then drop it when you’re finished with it, that toy will most likely break.

Ce n’est pas une femme

And I did.

I wanted someone to put me together again. So I met a boy closer to my age and we started planning our wedding on the second date. It was all very romantic at first. Then things got cOmpLicAteD. I was so used to being picked up, played with, and dropped on a whim, that finding someone who held me tightly and didn’t want to let go felt safe. It’s easy to mistake control for love, when you don’t know what Real love looks like.

That night, and for many nights after, the Velveteen Rabbit slept in the Boy’s bed. At first he found it rather uncomfortable, for the Boy hugged him very tight, and sometimes he rolled over on him, and sometimes he pushed him so far under the pillow that the Rabbit could scarcely breathe. And he missed, too, those long moonlight hours in the nursery, when all the house was silent, and his talks with the Skin Horse. But very soon he grew to like it-

I was functionally a wife and almost a mother. I think that on an unconscious level I believed that having such a defined role would make me feel more like a ‘real woman’. All we were doing was playing house and the longer I pretended, the less I performed and the more I became. I became someone I could not recognize.

And so time went on, and the little Rabbit was very happy–so happy that he never noticed how his beautiful velveteen fur was getting shabbier and shabbier, and his tail becoming unsewn, and all the pink rubbed off his nose where the Boy had kissed him.

Ce n’est pas une femme

When I left, it was difficult to know who I was away from the relationship. I felt real for a while, but I wasn’t Real. Toys are only real when they are being played with. I only felt like a woman when I was fucking some guy. I wanted the feeling that it gave me, I wanted to feel real all the time.

Having a high sex drive and hypersexualisation are two different things. Having a high sex drive is normal and healthy, hypersexualisation is a term used to describe having a dysfunctional relationship with sex. I have both – that’s a dangerous combination. As explained in a video by Survivor Tribe, I wasn’t having sex in a healthy way, in fact, I was absent a lot of the time. It was more Toy Story than Velveteen Rabbit; I was so used to being treated like an object, that I became one. As explained in the video, I felt my only value came from my sexuality: how I had been treated, in combination with my socialised femininity, made me feel as if I was a thing to be used by men. It made me feel seen, but only as an object is seen – in the context of its use value. Male gaze innit. Thing is, whatever my reasons, I wasn’t seeing them either; aside from literally disassociating during sex, I was as they say ‘hitting it and quitting it’. I was so used to sex being a game that I forgot that other people are Real. I was objectifying them – making them my toys. Then something strange happened: I found someone I didn’t want to quit. I found someone I wanted to talk to.

“I suppose you are Real?” said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled. […]

“That was many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”

Ce n’est pas une femme

I wish it was as easy as finding the right person and suddenly feeling whole. I thought that maybe being with someone like that – someone who really saw me – would make me stable again. Maybe having a healthy relationship would make me a normal, a Real. It didn’t work like that. Things started to get better, but they also got more difficult. I was scared of what the relationship might do to me; I was terrified of losing myself again.

The Rabbit sighed. He thought it would be a long time before this magic called Real happened to him. He longed to become Real, to know what it felt like; and yet the idea of growing shabby and losing his eyes and whiskers was rather sad. He wished that he could become it without these uncomfortable things happening to him.

I was also scared of losing him. It felt like, that by sleeping with him, I had put an expiry date on what could have been a wonderful friendship. I am a better friend, than a girlfriend, but maybe that’s because I didn’t want to be a girlfriend. I hadn’t been entirely honest with him, because I still wasn’t being entirely honest with myself.

I got scared. I started dressing femme when I didn’t feel like it. I was so used to my value being in my sexuality that I assumed that was all he liked about me. I felt like if I didn’t perform femininity I would lose my relationship. I turned myself into a toy: only this time, I wanted to break myself. It had been easy to maintain the illusion when I was hooking up with people, but glamour is hard work. The performance became exhausting, and he noticed. I’m not used to men caring about my feelings: it was very annoying.

Ce n’est pas une femme

I never intended to ‘come out’, but I couldn’t keep living the lie. At the same time, coming out felt like giving something up. It felt like I was letting go of an identity I had been desperately trying to cling to.

He thought of the Skin Horse, so wise and gentle, and all that he had told him. Of what use was it to be loved and lose one’s beauty and become Real if it all ended like this?

It didn’t end though. I hadn’t given him enough credit. He said that I am who I am. Gabe. He was hoping my coming out would be a nice thing, rather than a stressful thing. He wasn’t surprised… But, I had kind of come out on social media first in the form of changing my pronouns on Twitter and aggressively sharing every pro-trans meme that drifted across my timeline. Funny how I felt safer there in what is ostensibly a public space – I suppose I have intimacy issues.

I’ve used social media a lot over the past couple of years. Part of me thought it was because I got a thrill out of posting hypersexual statuses and getting comments from cishet men. I began to realise that wasn’t the part of social media I enjoyed. They were not who I was posting for. I was posting for… my trans and queer friends.

“They were rabbits like himself, but quite furry and brand-new. They must have been very well made, for their seams didn’t show at all, and they changed shape in a queer way when they moved[…] instead of always staying the same like he did. […] the Rabbit stared hard to see which side the clockwork stuck out, for he knew that people who jump generally have something to wind them up. But he couldn’t see it. They were evidently a new kind of rabbit altogether.”

I like Facebook, because that’s where all my trans friends are.

I’d been in denial and in hiding for so long that I thought I’d never been a part of a queer community and it took until lockdown for me to realise that the queer people in my life were there and had been supporting me the whole time. I didn’t want to come out to a cisman first, even a cisman I love. I was doing something for myself, even something that felt like putting my relationship at risk. I also didn’t come out to individuals because I didn’t want to make trans people feel as if they had to educate, or validate me, but I wanted to tell them so badly. I wanted to tell them how much they mean to me. So I’m telling them now. You are the role models I never knew I had.

“He was a Real Rabbit at last, at home with the other rabbits.”

I was concerned about writing this because I didn’t want to add another trauma narrative/dramatic coming out story which could shape the cishet perception of queerneess. I also don’t want to imply that femininity and masculinity are specific things with corresponding traits. I also didn’t want to write a coming-out post that leant into the politics of passing, to end with a masculine photograph, to somehow prove my transness. What I’ve come to understand is that being non-binary doesn’t mean I have to give up my femininity: the thing is, that version of femininity was never Real to me in the first place. Being a ‘woman’ was just something I used to do.

But femme, masc, androgynous… These are things that I am.

“Wasn’t I Real before?” asked the little Rabbit.

“You were Real to the Boy,” the Fairy said, “because he loved you. Now you shall be Real to every one.”