And the Storm Rages On

It isn’t easy for me to be vulnerable.

I remember a friend from cohort saying to me once that I was very open by not very vulnerable, and I was upset by that statement, because I didn’t think it fair to separate the two out in that manner.  Being honest was, in my mind at that point, being vulnerable.  Now I understand more fully that there is a difference, and that Chris was correct in his assessment.  It is easy for me to tell the truth, and it is hard for me to be open about how that truth can harm me—how exposing the heart of me is different from exposing the facts of my situation.

I was recently quite vulnerable about the financial situation that I find myself in, and the subsequent challenges that my daughter is experiencing.  I let people know how hurt and frustrated and damaged and judged and punished I was feeling as a result of all sorts of things that are far beyond my control.  And I didn’t shy away and rewrite and edit and try to add decorum or lessen the blow of my emotions.

Overall, the response was positive.  I had a few people who commended my authenticity and vulnerability in stating not just the true facts, but the challenge of my own feelings about those facts.

But there was one response that has been eating away at me for days now, and I can’t help but craft some sort of retort.  I won’t start some strange, heated Facebook argument about it, however.  So, instead I want to address it here, and, hopefully, give it a worthy apologetic.

After lamenting that my daughter was forced to drop out of her educational program just 6 weeks prior to graduation due to financial constraints, and noting that my own challenge of being trapped in cycles and systems that keep me in an impoverished state, rather than offer me the chance to thrive—both of which I consider to be rather unique to me in my particular circles of acquaintance and/or influence—I received this comment in reply:

It’s not just you, Christy.  Nor is or (sic) just single income households. The economy is tough and there are a lot of people that I know right now that are struggling to keep the lights on. 

                I’m so sorry. I know what you’re going through when the stress, the anxiety, disability, and desire all meet in the perfect storm.

                I’m praying for you guys…

And under that was a meme that said:

Sometimes God calms the storm.  Sometimes He lets the storm rage and calms His child.

I later texted another friend that I was “Zen as fuck” until I read that comment.

I can’t fully express how upsetting comments like this are for someone in my situation.  The idea that my situation is just like a whole lot of other people’s situations is laughable.  To normalize what is incomprehensibly abnormal as a strategy to deny me aid is not one that is foreign, unfortunately.  People love to rationalize their refusal to help their fellow humans as “reasonable” instead of cruel or evil in all sorts of ways.  And the easiest way to do that is to dehumanize the person in need—using racism, classism, moral relativism, or some other ism to blame the needy for their own struggle.  That dehumanization is much more difficult when you sat beside said person in seminary classes and your child was babysitter to mine, so you resort to the second easiest rationalization—the “lots of people” argument.

“Lots of people” have disabilities and they…

“Lots of people” are divorced and they…

“Lots of people” are having financial challenges.  “Lots of people” have anxiety.  “Lots of people” want life to be different than it is.  “Lots of people” struggle.

All of this is true.  So, in the mind of the one arguing for the many, the one is simply an exaggeration of or a dramatic expression of what all sorts of people are dealing with.  They “understand”.  They “sympathize”.

Bullshit.

I call bullshit.

And I get to call it because of this ugly feeling in the core of my being whenever I get to read these sorts of comments under my vulnerable posts.

Ironically, just above this comment was a series of comments and replies that talked about how I hate to open up because of the times that I opened wide my arms for a hug and got a gut punch instead.  This “lots of people” comment is a gut punch where there should be an embrace.  And I will tell you why this feels like a gut punch.

My vulnerability is not something that is shared by lots of people.  It is an intimate thing, to share my heart and my deepest wounds and fears.  To say that lots of people are touched in the same way—even if it were true—is a betrayal of my trust.  This comment is akin to a friend confiding in you that they were raped, and you saying, “Lots of people get raped.  I know what you’re going through.  Sometimes you need to let go of shit and let God change your perspective.”

Gut fucking punched.

I’m deeply involved in all sorts of methods for changing my perspective, by the way.  I meditate almost every day.  I practice yoga.  I practice gratitude daily.  I use several mindfulness practices, and I have all sorts of routines in place to keep my heart open, my outlook positive, and my disordered thinking in check.  When I said that I was Zen, I meant it.  I could not have been calmer when I received that offending comment.  And I addressed it in the calmest manner possible:  I ignored it.  I talked to a close friend about how it made me feel, and she supported me through the event and helped me to keep a positive perspective throughout the situation.

So, even after being gut punched by the insensitive rationalizing comment, I kept my cool demeanor.  I didn’t need “God to calm his child”.

But the storm is another story.

The storm should NEVER have been here in the first place, and yet it rages on.

This common little meme, and the saying upon it, are very upsetting for me.  They assume that the things in life that harm us are somehow meant to be hanging around our heads so that God can teach us some sort of lesson in how to keep our cool under pressure.  And I don’t understand where that idea comes from, but it is a terrible sentiment, and we need to put an end to it.

My challenges stem from disabling conditions, yes.  And those disabling conditions might never go away or be cured.  I understand that a certain amount of coping is required for me to navigate life with those conditions.  In that sense, there with always be challenges.

But “the storm” for so many of us can simply go away if people stop using the rationale to avoid helping one another and affect change.

My storm includes a system that doesn’t fully support those in our society who have disability, and only offers me $750 in cash and $15 in food benefits, plus a housing stipend.  Adding those together doesn’t make a livable situation, and I am constantly in need and constantly in danger of losing my home, starving, not having my medications, or some other disastrous challenge.

My storm also includes the challenge of mental illness that has been present since early childhood, and which left untreated for so long has influenced my life in countless ways, making it impossible to consider any decision I’ve ever made one that wasn’t made under duress, and challenging me to figure out who the hell I am, and why.  I don’t need a midlife crisis, because I’ve never had an independent identity—my crisis is ongoing.

My storm includes a divorce from a horrible man, whose damage to my person and my psyche cannot and should not be downplayed, for any reason.  And that also means an absent father is a part of my daughter’s storm—and the storms of our children influence our own storms.  The weight of being a single parent goes far beyond “single income” households—and I’ve generally had a no income household, because of my difficulty with employment due to PTSD.  Having a completely absent parent, who contributes in NO way, is not anything that a person who lives in a two-parent home can ever imagine.  It still infuriates me when married people say things like, “I’m a single parent for the week”, when their partner is away on a trip or something.  Having a partner who is physically absent for a matter of days is nothing like having no partner at all.  You still have all sorts of support, financial and emotional just being the tip of the iceberg.  You can’t imagine none of that being present, ever.

My storm includes debt totaling over $250,000.  Most of that is from student loans, and much of the rest is due to the three years’ time that I spent waiting for my disability claim to be approved.  I was unable to work and waiting for the Social Security Administration to look at the body of proof that I was unable to work and sign off on my meager $750 a month payment.  In the meantime, I had nowhere to turn but credit cards, my dad, and charity.  So, I owe far more than I could ever pay back on my own, but I am not eligible for programs that would forgive these debts.  So, I sit and owe, and the interest just increases the amounts and increases the amounts.

My storm includes the complicated situation where my adult daughter cannot be considered an independent student, according to the rules of the government, but I cannot claim her as a dependent, according to the rules of the government.  This leaves her with a shortfall that other students don’t need to deal with regarding their own financial aid.  She can’t take out more money, but I can’t take out money on her behalf.  Because she is in this weird limbo state, because I am a disabled individual.  This isn’t her fault.  This should not be a storm she needs to weather, because I should be able to provide for her.  But I can’t.

So, my storm also includes the constant feeling of guilt because I cannot offer my daughter enough to put her in a position where she is on equal footing with her peers.  She isn’t set up for success.  She doesn’t have the advantages that her cousins and her friends and the children of the commenter on my post have.  I can’t offer her a chance at starting out at zero sum and working her way up from there.  She starts with my handicap.  She starts at the back of the pack, because I can’t give her an education and rent money and clothing and food and care packages and enough love to make up for the losses that she has suffered and the abandonment that she has felt.  I have loved her fiercely.  I have done and continue to do all that I can.  But it will never feel like enough.

My storm includes shame.  So much shame.  Not being a pure virgin girl, and not knowing how to stop being abused, and not understanding what that abuse even was or meant.  The shame of hiding and the shame of secrets and the shame of difference.  My storm later became one that was volatile and violent and full of rage—so much rage.  I felt like I was the storm, or like the storm lived somewhere deep within me and it was trying to get out and I was desperate to hold it in—failing to hold it in.  And then the storm became the shame of promiscuity and feeling like all of those words that are used to keep women captive—whore, slut, bitch—were the only thing that I could be, tainted that I was.  And it felt good to be used in a sense, until it was over, and then the dissociative state wore away and the wave of shame washed over again and I started holding in the storm again, as long as I could … until the next time.

My storm includes being all the people that you could rationalize away as not quite human.  Homeless.  Addicted.  Divorced.  Unemployed.  Mentally ill.  Using my body as currency.  Shielding my body from blows and then crawling into bed next to the one who wielded them.  Perpetually single.  Having sex with partners that were not my husband.  Having sex with partners who were not men.  The girl who stays out too late.  The girl who mows her lawn on Sunday.  (Oh, yes.  Some people consider that a grievous offense!)  I received anonymous notes about my bad behavior.  I was told I could lose my scholarship for having sex.  I got dirty, side-eyed looks from others.  When I talked to your husbands after church, you would suddenly appear at their sides and pull them in a different direction—like talking to me would lead to me stealing them away to mow lawns and suck on body parts by sundown.  In truth, I was just interesting and unconstrained by convention.  It’s an attractive thing to be interesting and unconventional.  (Translation:  read some books not written by female bible study developers and then discuss the contents with your husband … he’ll be mowing your lawn in no time.)

So, my storm also included years and years and years of not having my needs met. Hence the comments about opening my arms for a hug and getting a gut punch.

I’m still not surprised when I open myself up and somebody hits me hard, instead of offering me love and support.  Unfortunately, it is what I have come to expect.

The dumb thing about that meme is that you don’t have to tell me that the storm might not go away.  I fully expect that storm to fucking tear me to pieces and kill me.  It takes weekly therapy, twenty drugs, a host of friends, and all sorts of self-care strategies to convince me that the storm can be survived.  It takes every ounce of energy I can muster to get up in the morning and face the storm again.  It takes all manner of strategies to be my Zen self in the midst of all this chaos and terror and shame and unmet need.  But I do it.  I do it day after day after day.

I keep on facing it.

And some days the storm wins a little, and I freak out on a new potential partner with a host of doubt and shame and fear.  Other days I wake up and counter that with a bit more of the Zen and apologize and open up and tell him why I reacted that way, hoping that he will meet my need and connect with what I am saying … and not gut punch me while my arms are open.

But I face it.

And your job, as the people who would support me, is not to remind me that there is this big, ugly, terrifying storm that I am working so hard to live in the midst of without losing my shit.  Your job is to do everything that you are able to make that storm disappear.  Your job is to offer support where there wasn’t any.  Your job is to accept me and not shame me.  Your job is to love and not harm me.  Your job is to prove that the storm isn’t going to win, and that we can make all of that crap go away by being better than the crap.  We can change and grow and not hurt one another anymore and counter the falsehood with truth and slay the dragon of cruelty with a sword of kindness and acceptance and love.

That is the only way I know how to continue to face the storm—by trusting that we can eventually find calm skies for everyone.  Without that assurance, facing it is a worthless effort, and I may as well off myself now.  (That isn’t a suicidal statement, fyi.  That is me drawing on the extreme to make a point.)  Because if there isn’t an end to the need and the shame there isn’t really a point in moving forward.  And I don’t mean just the money—I mean the need for understanding and connection and love.  But I define love as “meeting needs”, so the money is a part of the equation.

If you are to assist another, you need to do more than tell them that there is struggle all around them and to work on their perspective.  You need to work to end the struggle.  Because no matter what your perspective is, if the struggle persists, you aren’t doing what you should be doing.  You aren’t helping.

I know that standing up against the storm isn’t an easy thing.  It is much easier to say, “Check your perspective” or to hide in some shelter and hope that the storm passes.  But for many of us—and for me—the storm rages on, indefinitely.  And that storm can’t stop.  It won’t stop without the change of perspective from many other people who are not me.

It is often not the people suffering, but those who are unaware of or those who are causing the suffering who need to change the way that they are operating in the day to day.  I’m usually not the one doing things “wrong”.  I’m generally suffering because of the things that are unjust, not the things that I cannot accept but that are perfectly fine.  And the ones suffering an injustice generally don’t have any power to make the change required to stop that suffering.  If they did, the change would happen hastily and without resistance.  Because, despite the lies that many in power like to feed you, people don’t wallow in poverty and addiction and illness and homelessness and sex work because they want to.  Just like Kanye West is an idiot for presuming that slavery was/is a choice, anyone who thinks that people live in the middle of storms because they like how lightning feels is an idiot.  Those people don’t have the shelter they need.  You must find ways to provide it for them—preferably by asking them how you can best provide them shelter.

Robert F Kennedy once said:

Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

This is the type of shelter-building act that we need in response to those who are in the middle of storms opening their hearts and asking for assistance.  Building currents that sweep down walls—sweeping away the clouds of the storm and bringing, perhaps for the first time, calm, blue skies, should be the goal that we aspire to reach.  Asking people to be quiet and calm in the middle of injustice is not the answer.  Fighting against injustice is the answer, on the grand scale.

And meeting me in my storm, with open arms and an embrace—not a gut-punching meme that seeks to discredit my need, devalue my expression, and normalize an injustice.

When you are met with someone who opens up and seeks to be authentic and disclose their struggle, don’t tell them to sit quietly in chaos, please.  Don’t ask them to be happier with the injustice that swirls around them.  Act to improve their lot.  Strike out against injustice.  Send forth that ripple of hope.

And if you won’t do all those good things, at least stop sending gut punches.

 

Contribute to Christy’s fundraiser here if you wish to help lessen her storm’s raging.  Thank you!

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Avoidance

I’m supposed to be paying bills.

But there isn’t enough money.

So, I am doing this thing that I do.  Some like to call it procrastination, but I’ve started to use terms that are more honest wherever possible, so this thing is called “avoidance”.

When the thing cannot be done comfortably, efficiently, without stress, or with relative ease, I avoid doing the thing.  “Avoidance”.

Right now it is about the bills, because there is stress, discomfort, inefficiency, and a bit of struggle involved in trying to figure out how to make money multiply without a magic wand or the art of alchemy to assist in the task.  I don’t know what to pay and what to leave unpaid.  I don’t know who might be gracious and who might attack the credit score I have been working so hard to improve.  I know that all of the things need to be paid, eventually.  And I know that one way or another, through begging or borrowing or more high interest loans that bury me in even deeper debt, things will be paid, but that doesn’t make the job of maneuvering and managing a too small budget less uncomfortable or less stressful, so I still want to avoid it.

A long overdue blog post is better than an attempt at bill payment … even one that details the stress I feel over the bill payment attempt.

I think that part of this avoidance is built into our DNA.  We didn’t survive as a species by running headlong into danger with great stupidity and zero planning.  We avoid situations that seem like losing scenarios as a matter of survival.  Avoidance helps us stay alive, in many ways, so it can be an excellent mechanism for the continuance of the human race—which is likely a good thing.

But there may also be a negative side to this tendency toward avoidance.  That negative side is the part that I think frequently trips me up and leaves me face down on the proverbial pavement of life.  It is the tendency of our culture to avoid any sort of suffering, pain, or pretense of unease—or dis-ease—whatsoever.  It is the glossing over of the lament in favor of pretending that all is well and good and easy, all of the time.  It is the lie that we don’t just avoid the things that are uncomfortable, but that the things that are uncomfortable don’t exist—and if they do exist, that something is wrong and needs to be “fixed” and fixed immediately.

If you’ve read anything else that I have ever written, you already know that I suffer from chronic illness, both mental and physical in nature.  Something will always be “wrong” with me.  And the desire to either “fix” or deny the existence of the problem is, therefore, always with me.  I’ve found, through many therapy sessions and lots of searching of my own spirit, that this desire is based largely on cultural perceptions.  It is shameful not to “work”, “have a job”, “do something with your life”, “have a purpose”, and it is shameful to “beg”, “live off other’s hard-earned money”, “take what I didn’t earn”, “play the victim”, “act sick”, “sit on my ass all day”, “be lazy”, or not “suck it up”, “get over it”, “take some Tylenol and get off my butt”, “push through the pain”, or to be like “my friend”, “my husband’s cousin”, or any number of other people and “run 5k’s”, “go to work every day”, “take care of five kids”, even though they have [insert one of my illnesses here] “just like you”.

Not only do I cope with my illness every day, but I deal with the public perceptions and the cultural shame that goes along with being chronically ill.

A court has determined that I cannot work—that there are no jobs that I can do given my particular limitations, diagnoses, skills, educational background, work history, symptoms, and the way that those things intersect with the job market in my geographical location.  “There are no jobs.”  That is literally in the court transcript for you to read, if you were to read through the lengthy hours of Q and A that were required for us to get to the point where a judge determined that I am disabled.

But that transcript doesn’t matter to probably about 85% of the people who I come into contact with in my day to day interactions.  It doesn’t matter because of this negative sense of avoidance.  I’m supposed to avoid suffering and illness and flaws and bad shit.  I’m not supposed to acknowledge that, but fix it, and fix it fast.  I’m not supposed to admit that I can barely sit at this desk right now because of the pain in my back.  I’m not supposed to admit that I’m at this desk and not a “work” desk because I am disabled.  I’m not supposed to BE disabled.  I’m supposed to take some Tylenol and get off my ass and run a 5k like aunt Janet from West Virginia!

Because we avoid suffering.  We get over that shit, or we lie about it, or we become the kind of people who complain all the time but only a small, acceptable, mundane amount of complaining that is socially acceptable around the water cooler at our jobs.  Because we are allowed to be moderately miserable all the time if we are still productive.  But real, serious, deeply affecting problems are not socially accepted.  Those we avoid.

I sometimes wonder who decides which challenges are acceptable and which are not.

When all the women have ovaries that stop producing more eggs, we call it menopause and call it normal.  When all the men start having limp, less adept penises and lower sperm counts, we call it “erectile dysfunction” and make a billion-dollar industry out of making them hard again, instead of accepting that aging men can’t always perform sexually on command.  It’s normal for a woman’s sexual function to change, but it is a problem to avoid and be “fixed” for a man?  Who decided that?  The pharmaceutical companies?  The medical professionals?  The sex work industry?  Who made this a thing?

And who made being chronically ill unacceptable but being terminally ill perfectly fine?  That question makes me sound like an asshole all the time, I know.  But it only makes me sound like an asshole because of the perceptions already infused into those terms.  Chronically ill.  Terminally ill.  One is a drain on society.  One is a sainted state worthy of all the compassion.  We all know which one is which.  I’m not the sainted one worthy of all the compassion.  I’m the other.  And I am an asshole for pointing out that there is a bias.  I am an asshole for pointing out that dying faster somehow makes you worthier of care.  (At least in the eyes of many in our society, that is—it doesn’t actually make you worthier of care.)

Who decided that I need a “real job” to be treated like a “real person”?  Who decided that I am allowed to be treated poorly because I am in a state of poverty—or that I deserve to live in an impoverished state if I cannot work due to illness?  Who decided that $750 per month is the amount that a disabled person who has less than 40 work credits should be forced to live on, making this entire post even a thing that exists?  And why do I not get any credits for the early years of my work history when I was delivering papers and babysitting, or for the years when I was working two part time jobs and going to school and raising a daughter as a single parent.  That was more damn work than I have seen most anyone do—ever.  And that doesn’t “count” for anything.  Who decided that doesn’t count as work? Who decided I get $750 instead of $3000 because of those years?  Who decided that my life isn’t valuable enough to be offered what I need to not be sitting at this desk, in pain, avoiding my bills like the plague.

If I had the plague, I would get more benefits.  Because it would kill me.  If you are dying they let you have a better quality of life than if you will live.  Oh wait … not socially acceptable.  We already went over that.

So, this avoidance, this thing that was written into our DNA as a positive survival instinct has somehow become a thing that we use to cover up and shame and deny and harm whatever is connected to our socially unaccepted suffering.  And I don’t know that I will ever get a complete, straight answer about how that came to be, or who determined and decided what was or was not acceptable, but I do hope that I will someday begin to shape the conversation around why we do this, and why we need to stop doing this.

We need to stop avoiding suffering and pain and bad shit that happens, because it happens to all of us.  It is part of the human experience.  And it is an important part of that experience. While much of my suffering was regrettable, and I obviously would choose to go down another path if I could, the person I am today was forged in the flames of that suffering.  Those challenges shaped me.  And they made me a better person.

They didn’t make me a better person right away.  In fact, they led me down a dangerous road to some very dark places.  But that happened when I was trying to hide and avoid and stuff away all of the bad things.  If I had been able to and allowed to cope with what I had experienced as a child, or a teen, in positive ways—expressing the pain and the betrayal and the confusion and the suffering openly and in a safe space—I would have avoided that road and those places altogether.  I might have avoided mental illness and chronic pain altogether.  (Nobody knows what causes fibromyalgia, in distinct terms, so I cannot know that for certain, but it is linked with stress and often presents in tandem with post-traumatic stress, so it is possible that without the PTSD there would be no fibromyalgia.)  Our society’s insistence that pain be hidden likely caused me more pain.

But now that I am in a space where I am able to process and cope with and express all that I should have been allowed to express all those years ago, I am becoming strong and wise and good in ways I might not have were it not for the experience that I went through.

Lament shapes the spirit in beautiful ways.

Pain makes us compassionate, kind, understanding, gracious, loving, connected, and strong.  That is not something that we should hide.  And that is certainly not something we should avoid.

We still shouldn’t run, stupidly, toward danger without a plan.  But there isn’t a need for us to hide and avoid something that makes us compassionate, kind, understanding, gracious, loving, connected, and strong.  Frankly, hiding that seems like a stupid run toward danger … it probably is.  And that is probably why so many things about our society today seem so messed up, in the sense where one person refuses to lay down their “right” for the lives of, potentially, thousands of others.

We are in danger, and we are being stupid.  Because we have hidden so well and avoided so effectively the thing that makes us compassionate and kind and understanding and gracious and loving and connected and strong, that we have become the sort of society that breaks apart and leaves individuals to be slaughtered as “they”, somehow apart from us and without our compassion, rather than feel the pain of the truth—that we have become so unfeeling that we cannot mourn our own brokenness, so we deny it again and again.

We have put some imagined dessert to rights of the individual above the conscious collective of the society.  I now becomes more important than we.  And that is a grave error.

We, the people—that is how it begins.  Not, I the individual who wants a gun and an erection despite the compassion and the biological facts that are required for me to understand the world around me.

“I don’t suffer.  I don’t have pain.  I take a Tylenol and go to work.  I have rights.”

But that isn’t true.  We all suffer.  We all have pain.  We all have days when no painkiller will dull the ache we feel—be it physical or emotional.  And, most importantly, WE have rights—all of us together, in concert, and being accountable to one another.  The only way to accurately see that, is to start to uncover the pain and suffering and to acknowledge it, to express it, to cope with it, and to begin shaping yourself and your life into one that has compassion, kindness, understanding, grace, love, connection, and collaborative strength.

Stop the avoidance.  Embrace the lament.  Feel.  Suffer.  And come out the other side a better version of yourself.

Now, if you will excuse me, I need to suffer through paying my bills.