Can’t Find a Better Man

The half growl/half crow of Eddie Vedder has long been a part of my own, personal war cry.  It both fed and poured out my teenage angst—my frustration with the things that were senseless, wrong, and unjust in the world, and my desire to be free from all of the pain and confusion and devastation that those things caused me.  I felt deeply.  Eddie did too.  You could sense it.  And you could echo it as you sang along.

Better Man was one of the songs that I connected with on a spiritual sort of level.  There were others.  And some even more deeply felt than this one.  But this one came to mind today, because I still feel the same angst at times.  I still know the challenges of being that one in the song—that one who can’t find a better man.

If you don’t know it … well, if you don’t know it you are either too young or too old or just plain Amish, I suppose, because Pearl Jam has been around for longer than my child has been alive (21+ years), and they keep putting out new music and touring the world with old favorites in their sets as well.  But, in case you have decided to go the way of Patrick Star and you live under a rock, I will let you know a bit about the lyrics, and the basics of the song.

She lies and says she’s in love with him; can’t find a better man.

It’s a woman, waiting alone in bed for some man who clearly sucks at being a partner.  She practices what she will say—what boundaries she will set, and what angry rant she will set forth when he finally dares to come home in the wee hours of the morning—but when he actually arrives, she pretends she is sleeping.  She keeps his failure and her misery to herself.  It feels like her fault that she chose him, and she does love him.  And somehow, they have this symbiotic, albeit unhealthy and unfulfilling, relationship that they both continue to choose.  And she echoes over and over:  Can’t find a better man.  Can’t find a better man.  Can’t find a better man.

If you’re like me, you can’t help but sing those words instead of simply read them.  They come to life in your head, in Eddie’s voice. And if you are even more like me, you remember singing those words and meaning them with so much truth that it pained you, and you weren’t entirely certain how to feel when the song came on, because the pain of the truth and the release of the singing it were also tied together in this strange way that worked so well.  Turmoil and beauty connected in a way that only the most broken of us can see, acknowledge, appreciate, and even love.

I felt Better Man so deeply not because I was in a relationship with someone at the time who mimicked the song’s poor partner, but because I was somehow already identifiable, before the terrible partners started lining up in my life and experience, with that woman.  Can’t find a better man.  Can’t find a better man.

Like a fish knows swimming is his mode of transportation, I knew that I deserved to struggle through bad partners—I would live this out, and this would be my pain.

How did I know that?

Pearl Jam, Ten, was released on August 27, 1991.  Twenty-eight years ago, I was still in high school, and I hadn’t had a “real” partner at all. I would start a relationship with my first “boyfriend” not long after this album’s release and have sex for the first time about six months later—if you could call it that … it was more like awkward penetration with mutual dissatisfaction.  And throughout that year, even though I was coming of age and starting to figure out that sexuality was even a thing, sheltered in extreme ways from all its forms and expressions, I had no concept of bad partners the way I would just a handful of years later.  Yet, before it happened I knew.  Eddie sang it the way I felt it, and I still understand it as deeply and with as much truth today.  Can’t find a better man.

Part of the challenge in my own situation, I think, is that Calvinism and the last bits of Dutch puritanism were so pervasive in my little sub-culture.  I knew, even when my conscious mind had repressed every single synapse of sexual abuse, that I was “damaged goods”, impure, unclean, sinful, tainted … you could say it a hundred different ways and it all hurt the same way.  Something in me knew that there was this stain on my reputation, according to the religious and cultural views that were held by those around me.  Of course I would not be worthy of a better man.  I was sullied by debaucherous sins.  “Good” men want “pure” women.  Obviously!

The other part of the challenge was the terrible partners that did start to line up in my life.  They only reinforced the idea that I deserved crap partners who treated me with disrespect, put hands on me in violence, didn’t give me the option of consent—either by force or by coercion and manipulation—and generally just acted like assholes.

How did I end up with this line of losers?  It’s a chicken/egg conundrum that we may never solve.  Either my low esteem attracted the sharks, or the sharks lowered my esteem until I was weak enough to pull under and drown.  But the how and why don’t matter a whole lot, unless you are an anthropologist of some sort.  What matters more is the effect, which was proving to me the stain on my reputation must be evident to all, and I am being punished for it, and given what I deserve.

I can’t find a better man.  I don’t deserve a better man.

And eventually, having remembered the abuse and having been flooded with images, feelings, flashbacks, nightmares, and all of the confusion, rage, and fear of childhood trauma returning to my memory from the deep recesses of my mind, I didn’t want better men.  I wanted dirty, dangerous men who would offer me the opportunity to use sex as a tool for inappropriate coping—reliving traumas through promiscuity and increasingly risky sex.  Better men didn’t pull your hair and pound their pelvis against your ass and call you names and do all of it while another couple had sex in the same room—the other man getting off on watching your face as you were being ridden like a bronco and his own partner looking on, infuriated that everyone in the room was focused on your pleasure and pain.  Better men didn’t pass you on to their friends after they had finished so that another could take advantage of a woman still in the throes of passion when the first man was already spent.  And I happily climbed atop another penis, grinding my pain into men as if my hips were a confessional and thrusting organs were penance I needed to endure until I felt clean again.

But no amount of sex brought me to a place where I felt clean.  I still felt undeserving of the love of a better partner. So, I settled for partners who claimed love but offered insecurities, control, abuse, lust, addiction, avoidant behaviors, and a plethora of negative and damaging behaviors that reinforced the idea that I didn’t deserve love, and a soulmate was somehow outside of my reach, while everyone else around me was allowed to find that “perfect” lover.

Can’t find a better man.  Don’t deserve a better man.  Unworthy of a better man.  Incapable of a better man.  The list of disordered thoughts goes on and on.  And the disordered thinking continues to this day.

I’m still settling for a man that needs “fixing” and babysitting and diagnosing and repeated forgiving for the same error.  I’m still not taking my own good advice, and I’m dating “potential” instead of finding a fully actualized man who exhibits the fullness of his potential in his current circumstance—he doesn’t have the potential to get his shit together; his shit IS together.  I still date men who aren’t the men I want to have and hold as lifelong partners.  And in some way, this must be tied to the idea that I don’t deserve that partner.  I cannot achieve that relationship.  I don’t get to have the better man.

Can’t find a better man.

Some part of me longs for the better man.  Some part of me has all sorts of desire for being in relationship with a loving partner who treats me with respect and equity—a person who offers me compassion and kindness and honesty and love.  And then there is this other part that cannot shake the Dutch Reformed purity bullshit that says I am not white like snow with an untouched vagina and therefore cannot find happiness with a partner who offers me those things.  The dirty of Calvinism doesn’t wash off, and the damage of childhood sexual trauma isn’t something that I can recover from with my PTSD diagnosis, so I sit in the muck of disordered thinking nonstop.  I sit in that muck and I get sucked into unhealthy relationship after unhealthy relationship, because my conscience is a liar and my good advice extends outside of myself and not inward.

The fact is, I won’t find a better man until I find the better in me.

It is here—the better in me.

In fact, good and better and best should define me.  They probably do to most others—the non-Dutch Reformed ones—who encounter me.  I’m not covered in stains, as Calvinism would have me believe, but am a woman who does now, and has always, fought for equality, love, goodness, kindness, rights for all, life, grace, freedom, justice, and all sorts of positive qualities.  I’m overflowing with love and compassion and care for others—all sorts of others, and not just those who look like, act like, and believe like I do.  There is so much better in me.  And such better deserves to be met with better.  This amazing woman definitely deserves a better man … or a better woman, as the case may be, because letting go of my early religion also let me grab hold of the truth that my sexuality is extremely fluid and not fixed.  Regardless, a better man or woman belongs in this picture.  The previous pain that Pearl Jam helped me express is not a pain that I should have ever felt, and I should always have believed that a better man or woman was waiting just around the corner for me, and we would share a beautiful life.

But I didn’t believe that.  I wasn’t taught that.  Eddie Vedder saw or knew or related with women like me, who didn’t believe that and were not taught that, and he sang our pain.  If only he could have offered a correction instead of a correlation and showed me that this wasn’t my anthem but a lie to which I was listening.  Maybe he did mean to show me that, but I didn’t see.  Instead I held the belief that this was my plight and my burden to bear.  I didn’t have people who were correcting my error or replacing that lie with the truth.  I had more and more affirmation that I was a stain and stains deserved to be tossed to the trash bin and left there with the rest of the unclean things.

Can’t find better.  Can’t be better.  Am not better—ever.  No amount of goodness can transcend the one bad thing, even when the bad thing was your victimization and far beyond your control.  Give up now, Christy, because there is no redemption here.  There is only purity and not purity here, and you are not pure.

I recently had the amazing opportunity to visit with a young woman who is living in a situation near to the one that I grew up within.  She mentioned to me an abuse that she suffered, and then said something along the lines of not letting it ruin her.  “Some people let it mess up their life.”  She said she wasn’t one of those people.  But later in our conversation tears welled up in her eyes and she told me of challenges with feeling unheard, and like her parents were not dealing with issues affecting the family, and a number of other things that I felt after suffering abuses as a child.  It is messing up her life, whether she intends to let it or not.  And part of why it is messing up her life is the same reason it messed up mine—the inability of others to find empathy, compassion, and understanding, and their insistence upon seeing the world in black and white, instead of recognizing and honoring the fact that we all live in complex circumstances and hard and fast “rules” or dichotomies of good/evil, or virgin/whore, or right/wrong don’t make sense.  Beyond not working, those strict dichotomies harm innocent people, and reinjure those who are already victimized.  They mess up lives.  They destroy lives.  They convince young girls (or boys) that they will never find a better man (or woman), because they are not deserving … because being a victim has left them stained for life—dirty, bad, and impure.

Not only do I deserve a better man than the ones that have been in my life in my history, but I deserve an amazing man or woman as a life partner.  I deserve that because I am not stained and dirty and impure.  I am an amazing woman, with talent, grace, empathy, passion, perseverance, love, and beauty that are unmatched by most.  I don’t say that to brag or because I am egotistical and narcissistic.  I say that because it is a truth that was hard to learn and needs to be remembered.  I also say it because it is something that many others need to hear and accept.

I am not impure, dirty, damaged, and stained.  I am a victim of horrific and terrifying crimes against my person.  My brain was literally malformed as a result of childhood sexual trauma that was ongoing and created captivity-like conditions, making my brain nearly identical to that of a holocaust survivor.  My hormones, my stress responses, my gut health, my brain chemistry, my bladder and bowel control, and more were harmed by this trauma, and more trauma happened as I was retraumatized when people didn’t believe my claims of harm, doctors broke confidentiality, I was forced to interact with my abuser, my family refused to allow me to speak about or address the abuse, gaslighting and victim-blaming became commonplace, violent abusive relationships resulted from my deep need for connection tied with my inability to form healthy connection due to my complex post-traumatic stress symptoms, and more.

All of this was me being victimized.  None of this was me being impure.  If there were lines that were crossed and bad things that were done they were done by my abusers, the people who didn’t listen when I cried out for help, the doctors who didn’t know how to help and didn’t refer me to someone who could, the family who refused (and still refuse) to address the issues afflicting me and us, the church that pounded the drum of purity so loudly that a young girl was shamed into silence about sexual assault and rape, the “friends” who chose to support the denial of the perpetrator and not support my claim of abuse, the people that told me to “give it to Jesus” and it would be gone who made matters worse by not getting me the help that I needed from medical professionals, and the many people who refused to give up their dichotomous thinking in the face of my pain and struggle and confusion and help ease my suffering.

But if you are one of those people, I don’t judge you, and I don’t blame you.  You were likely (and perhaps still are) stuck in a space where that black and white thinking was affecting your judgment.  You didn’t mean to wrong me, I am sure.  You didn’t know better.  And when you know better you will do better.

I hope that what I write here today will help you know better.  I hope that it will help you move toward doing better.

I don’t want a young woman to come to me and tell me her secrets because she can’t be heard in the space where she lives, just as I couldn’t be heard in the space where I grew up, and where the worst possible things happened to me.  I don’t want that beautiful woman to be holding on to those secrets until she is 40 years old, because she feels impure and shamed by a community that sees things in such black and white terms that it cannot give love to the wounded and the wronged.

I share my story, in part, to heal my own wounds.  It helps me to get it out on “paper” and to release it from the places where it has been hidden for all of these years.  But I also tell it for all of you.  I tell it so that if you are the young men and women who have also been harmed in this way, you can know that you deserve a better man, or a better woman.  You are not impure.  You have no stain.  You are perfect and pure and good.  Someone did something terrible to you.  You deserve justice for that wrong, not shame.  And if you are one who hears of a person or from a person who has been harmed in this way, listen and support that person.  Fight for justice on their behalf and be certain that they receive the aid that they need.  Never support the perpetrator because it is easier than supporting the victim.  Never place blame on the victim.  Never treat a victim as though they should carry some shame.  They do not.  They have been wronged, and they deserve better from you than what I received.

I’m dating someone now.  I’m not always certain that he is my better man.  He has a lot of challenges.  I have a lot of challenges.  It makes things volatile at moments.  But I don’t see things in black and white, and I know that he was a victim of lots of wrongs, just as I was.  So, we work at loving one another, the best way we know how.  He cares for me and he tries very hard to be the best he can for me.  And he is open, honest, and working very hard to be the man that I deserve in my life, because he knows that I am an amazing woman.  That is much more than any man has done for me in the past, so I am happy in this relationship now.  If that changes, I no longer feel tied to shame and insecurity and the idea that I am not enough, so I can walk away without reservation and seek out a better man or woman.  And that is miraculous, given all that I have been through.

I still love to listen to Vedder croon out the words to Better Man.  I still sing along with my teenage angst somewhat intact, but it is more a memory of what was than a feeling of the moment.  I know that I have a better man.  I know that I can find and that I deserve better.  I am not the unclean and impure that should be shamed.  I am the overcomer—the strong, the determined, the loving, the understanding, the one who learns and shifts and grows and fights and finds life, no matter the circumstances she is offered.  And no matter the circumstances you have been given, you can fight to overcome in numerous, amazing ways as well.

We don’t win every fight, of course.  I’m still disabled and suffer from PTSD.  I still have several family members who refuse to discuss the events of the past.  There are many who would still shame me for my actions—like having sex outside of marriage, or smoking weed to manage my fibromyalgia pain.  But what other people want to consider shameful doesn’t matter much to me anymore, because I know my heart and my intentions.  I know that I am a good person who does all that I can to promote equality and justice.  I love deeply, I seek to respect all, I honor the beliefs of others as long as they do no harm, and I work toward creating a better world in any way I am able.  That is what matters.  Lines in the sand, black and white thinking, and rules that shame and harm the innocent do not matter.  Your heart matters.  Your intent matters.

So, let go of shame, call out victim blaming, call out gaslighting, and speak your truth.  Bring evils to light and bring justice to every situation you are able.  Don’t hide.  Tell your story.  And, of course, find a better man—with or without the Pearl Jam album in the background.  (Just kidding—definitely with the Pearl Jam album in the background!!)

Thanks, Pearl Jam.  Thanks, Eddie.  And thanks to everyone who helped and still helps me to step outside of Calvinist shame and to step into the love and light of who I am over and above the victimization that I have experienced.  I am a better woman every time I take that step.

 

 

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Done

In therapy on Monday, I said to my therapist, “I’m done!  I’m done.”

And that was immediately followed by the expression, “I don’t even know what that means, because I am not going to kill myself, so I don’t know what I am done with, per se, or what I am quitting, exactly.”

I’m relatively certain that was followed by an “ugh” and a deep sigh … and probably dropping my hands to my sides in a dramatic fashion that symbolized my giving up.

This morning, as I updated my fundraising site, I once again expressed that I can’t go on.  And when I am talking with friends or family about serious topics, it comes up as well—I can’t keep doing this.  I’m done.  I give up.  I can’t.  I can’t even.

I don’t know if other people feel this level of frustration.  I don’t know if it is a “normal” thing to be overwhelmed by life that you do not want to keep going forward with the living.  And, like I mentioned above, that isn’t a suicidal ideation or proclamation.  I don’t want to die.  I just don’t know how to keep on living in this current state.  I don’t want to do this anymore.  I want a different sort of living, I suppose.

Many people want a different sort of living, I suspect.  There are always goals and changes and opportunities that we are reaching toward.  We see an article of clothing, or a car, or a home improvement project, or a new bit of technology, or some other thing that we want and we strive toward it.  Or we admire a person or a way of living that we see outside of our own self and culture, and we seek to emulate the qualities and characteristics of that person or place or way of being.  We want something different—something “better”.  This is true of pretty much all of us, whether we are seeking more, or less—the minimalist or the consumerist lifestyle.  We are working toward something that we currently do not possess.  We are seeking change.

I think that what I feel, however, and what a lot of people in marginalized spaces or situations feel, is a bit different than that sort of desire and that sort of change.  There isn’t just a drive to be different.  There is a desperation.  There is an evolutionary demand for fighting to survive.

I was watching the show Sense8 on Netflix the other night, and there was a line that struck me.  One of the characters said that he realized he was slowly dying of survival.  And that resonated with me so much that it brought me to tears.  Because it is not only my situation, but the situation of millions of people like me.  We are slowly dying of survival.  And I am just coming to realize it, like Mr. Hoy on Sense8.  It is breaking me.

Nothing has broken me so much that I couldn’t get back up and keep fighting.  I have more sequels than Rocky Balboa could ever have.  Even if he keeps training up new, young recruits until his death, I’ve still got him beat in the comeback department.  Over and over and over, I survive what the world throws at me.  But that is the best and the worst thing.  I survive.  I survive.  I survive.  And that isn’t enough.

We aren’t meant to survive.  Not just to survive.  Not only to survive.

We are meant for love and beauty and good.  We are meant for the Arete of the Greek philosophers, so long ago.  We are meant to thrive, to create, to live, to love, to transform.  And surviving doesn’t let you do those things.  Surviving makes you cautious, paranoid, isolated, resourceful, resilient, manipulative, strong, intimidating, disconnected, dissociated, and a great fighter.  And some of those things can be positive qualities—most of them can be positive under the right conditions.  But those of us who are fighting to survive are not living under the right conditions.  We are living under the worst fucking conditions, which is why we are working so hard to survive.  And the skills that we need and master to survive are not skills which help us to thrive, create, love, and transform.  Those skills aren’t the ones that offer us the love and beauty and good.  We survive to death.  We just keep on making it past the obstacle that is most immediately harming us and our life, and then looking to the next obstacle.  There isn’t room for anything but the fight.  We fight, we fight, we fight, we fight, we fight, we fight, we die.

Because fighting obstacles doesn’t change the world.  Creating new systems and eliminating the ones that are harmful and unjust changes the world.  Developing programs that increase wellness and decrease poverty, sickness, and violence changes the world.  But we don’t have the opportunity to create and develop, because we are so busy surviving.  We are so busy fighting that we don’t have the resources left to create and develop.  We don’t have what we need to thrive.

And the people who are not surviving—the people who don’t live in our situation, and don’t feel the weight and lack the resources and don’t fight the obstacles every moment of every day—don’t spend their energies (for the most part) creating and developing the systems that would change the situations of those of us who are marginalized.  Because they aren’t the ones fighting the unfair fights, over and over and over again.

At some point, you stop wanting to fight.  I’ve reached that point this week.

I can’t do it anymore.  I can’t keep fighting battles in a war that I know cannot be won.  The futility of the military action in Vietnam comes to mind when I think about what I feel today.  So many young men were injured, killed, and left with life-long mental illness because of that action.  And nothing was won.  There was no “victory”.  The westside of Chicago is the Vietnam of my age.  The southside of Chicago is the Vietnam of my age.  But the “enemy” isn’t quite as clearly defined here.  The enemy is us, and we are also the one battling.  It is a strange thing.  It is a confusing thing.  And while I don’t understand why we are fighting battles against ourselves in our own cities, and I don’t understand how we, the victims, are blamed for the fight, I do understand that we are fighting to survive this war.

And we are slowly dying of survival.

The thing that is crazy about all of this—well, one thing, because there is so much crazy about this that I cannot even begin to express all of it—is that it doesn’t matter that I am too tired and too frustrated and too raw and too pained to go on.

I need to go on, or I need to die.

And my instinct—my evolutionary imperative, coupled with my very high dose of antidepressant medication—will keep me alive.  I can’t give up, even though I want to.

I can’t choose to be done.  I can’t be done.  I need to fight the next battle.

So, where does that leave me?

Done.  But not done.

Do I work hard to develop hope, just so it can be dashed once more?  Do I adopt a rote series of movements and dissociate from my actions, protecting my heart from more pain, but closing it off from love and good and beauty in the process?  Do I fight hard and believe that this time will be different, only to find another obstacle on the other side, and to break down once more?

I don’t know.

This post doesn’t wrap up in a sweet little bow.  It ends in a sorrow.  It ends in a question.  It ends in a desperation and a struggle that doesn’t seem like it will ever end.

And that sucks.

I don’t know what comes next.  I don’t know how I will respond to the next moment—the next challenge, the next need, the next unpaid bill, the next overdraft, the next pain, the next fatigue that cannot be overcome, the next spike in my heart rate, the next gunfire heard, the next overdose witnessed, the next rejection, the next extension, the next continuance, the next whatever the fuck gets thrown my way.  I only know that I have one option:  to face it, and to fight it, and to hope that I can overcome.

If you don’t know what that feels like, you should seek out someone who does.  Listen to them.  Learn from them. Help them. Try to find ways to develop and create systems that help and do not harm them.  Offer them the chance to thrive, instead of allowing them to slowly die from surviving.

I don’t know the end to my story.  My journey continues.  A new friend told me this morning that “my best version” is coming.  That gave me a tiny glimmer of hope, and reminded me that the end isn’t here until the end is here.  And this day, I believe, is not my end.

So, I am still moving toward my best version.  I hope that version includes creation and beauty and good and wisdom and love.

For now, I fight on.

Bravery

I was thinking a lot the past few days about what it is to be brave.  I had a friend tell me that I am brave, and the next morning I was engaged in a guided meditation to help me be less afraid.  I am always afraid, in a sense.  PTSD keeps your system in a state commonly referred to as “hypervigilance”.  Basically, you are always assessing for threats, even in environments where there is little or no danger.  And your body and your mind and your spirit are always feeling threatened by everything.

And all of that is totally justified by some form of trauma, but it makes being brave a difficult thing, while also making simply stepping out your door a step toward bravery.

There are lots of conflicting, dichotomous, and counterintuitive things about this illness, so the whole scared/brave thing is just one, but it often gets me thinking.

I remember a day when a friend labelled links to other friends’ blogs with one word descriptors, and mine was Brave.  I think I cried when I read that.  I never feel brave.  I always feel chaos and fear and indecision and doubt and whatever other anxiety-ridden thing you can think of.  Every moment.  Every day.

And it isn’t a fixable thing, really.  You cope, but your brain chemistry was altered at a critical time in your development, so there isn’t really any fixing the problem.  You live alongside it, and you delve into it, and you learn skills to combat it, and you find ways to rationalize it.  You never end it.

Yesterday, I went to the geneticist and then to the lab.  For the next month I will wait to find out if I carry the gene that likely caused my mother’s dementia, and find out if I might also have indicators of other dementia.  That was the act that was considered brave, but somehow it was the easiest thing I did.  And maybe that is because the other things I did had elements or consequences that I might have some control over.

I have no control over my genetic makeup.  That ship sailed over forty years ago.  And if I have the gene, I have Alzheimer’s to plan for and work against, so there are things I can control after the fact, but I can’t control the result of this test.  There isn’t a way to mess it up.  It either is there, or it isn’t there.  And knowing has consequences, I suppose, but not knowing has them too.

The other things I did yesterday, like going on a first date and going to a new pool and finding my way when I got lost in familiar surroundings, seemed harder.  I felt less brave when I walked in the door to that gym, or stopped to open up my map application to find my way, or met a new man who may or may not be a good man, or got on the bus, or let that man drive me home, or stepped out my door, or started a conversation with the other naked girl next to my gym locker, or did anything that day.  And maybe that is simply because my genetic makeup is like my PTSD.

It isn’t a fixable thing.

And I can learn to cope with it, but I can’t stop my genes from being my genes any more than I can stop my brain chemistry from being my brain chemistry.

In my mind, I’m not brave.

I’m honest, and I’m practical, and I’m self-aware. And maybe those things masquerade as bravery, but they aren’t.  I face what I must because I must, not because I am stronger or better or braver than the people around me.  If I had a choice, I wouldn’t face half of what I have faced in my lifetime.  But I didn’t have a choice.

So, I guess if the definition of bravery is facing what you must, I could be considered brave, but it isn’t a state that I see myself in.  It isn’t how I would characterize myself.

I am a survivor.

I fight my way through life, and I don’t back down from the challenges that come my way.  But what I feel—what is deepest and most prevalent during those moments—is not bravery, but fear.

There was a moment in my history where I stood over a man, with a sword at his throat, and demanded freedom and justice and an end to his tyranny.  That sounds like an epic tale of a brave knight, but I was terrified in that moment, and after, when I was safely away from the situation, I cried and shook violently as the adrenaline of the moment left and the terrified aspect came to the surface.  My demands had been met, yes.  But the way I felt in and after that moment was indescribably bad.  I didn’t talk about it until years later, and even then I had to have another clarify that the moment was real—that I didn’t dream it.  Afterward, I dissociated from the event, because I was that frightened.

Fear motivates many of the things I do or have done.  I’ve been divorced for 19 years not because I was brave enough to leave my abusive husband, but because I was afraid enough to run for my life.  I’ve raised a daughter on my own, not because I am a brave woman, but because I was afraid of what might happen to that daughter in the care of another.  I’ve survived homelessness, and sexual violence, and physical violence, and living in impoverished areas, and going back to school as a non-traditional student, and working in stressful environments, and physical and mental illnesses because I have two choices.  Survive or don’t survive.  Live or die.  Make it through or don’t make it through.  And I wish that I believed it was more nuanced than that—that I contained within my being some strength that others cannot draw upon, or that I had many options but chose the best ones to get me to today.  But I don’t think it was.

Most of my life has been lived in a state of laser-focused survival instinct.  Most of my life there were the two choices.  Leave or stay.  Fight or flee.  Live or die.

Over and over and over and over, I just choose to live.

So, yes, I went and faced the fears of the genetic testing and the unfamiliar gym and the first date, but I wasn’t necessarily brave during any of those parts of my day.  I just had to choose to live, like always.

And we are all meant to survive.  The instinct is so ingrained in us that even those who choose to die, struggle in the act of doing so.  Their bodies and their minds seek to stop that death from happening.  We are designed to keep fighting, keep reproducing, keep eating, keep drinking, keep breathing, keep going.  So, either we are all brave, or none of us is brave, from an evolutionary perspective.

I just do what I was designed to do, and I keep going.

There was a day several weeks ago where I didn’t want to keep going, but I did.  I kept saying aloud, “I can’t do this anymore.”  But, it turns out that I could do it, that I could persevere, that I could keep working and keep trying and keep fighting.  My instinct to survive took over, and I did what needed to be done to keep living, even when I didn’t want to and didn’t believe that I could.

I’m not brave.  I just follow my instinct to survive.

Sometimes I hear people comment that bravery is not the lack of fear, it is moving forward in spite of your fear.  And, to some extent, I can allow that by this definition I might be brave.  I keep moving forward in spite of my fears, but I don’t think I do it consciously, and with purpose, and in ways that I find noble or exceptional.  I just don’t know how to live in a state other than fear, so I have to push through it or I have to stop living.

That might sound strange to anyone who isn’t hypervigilant and trying to reintegrate disparate parts of the brain inside their head, but to me it makes all the sense.  To me, living is being afraid.  The absence of fear is death, and overcoming fear is an impossibility.  It will always be there.  And I might be able to use mindfulness and mandalas and yoga and CBT and all sorts of other things to cope with that fear, but it will never go away entirely.  And I have two choices: live in fear, or stop living.

I go on.  I always go on.

A month or two will pass, and I might have huge relief that I may not become like my grandfather and my mother, slowly slipping away until I am a shell staring into nothing, or I might have the knowledge that I will absolutely become like them, and work to put in place safeguards that give me and my daughter the best chances at choosing the way we deal with becoming like them, and choosing whether or not to risk creating another generation of those long, slow ends.  And I might have no conclusive evidence of risk or not risk, and simply have to wait and see if I lose my mind when I am old, like everyone else.  But none of those options include a caveat that says I might not go on.  Because I haven’t survived all of these things and gone on and on and on to give up on my survival instinct now.  I will go on.

And I don’t believe that makes me brave.  I think it makes me human. I think that when it comes down to it, and we are faced with survival or death, we all do what it takes to survive.  The actual doing may be harder for some than it is for others, but we all choose living over dying by default.  And I would rather live in hypervigilant fear, going out into the world and chancing whatever it offers me, than not live at all.

So, tomorrow, I will face another day, with new fears and new challenges or old fears and old challenges, but I will face it.  And though I don’t believe I am braver than the rest, I know that my commitment to facing what comes is strong and resolute.  I will go on as long as I am able, and in the best way possible.  Even if that time and that way are both filled with all sorts of reservations and anxieties and fears.

And to all the people who are thinking today that you can’t go on, it isn’t true.  You can go on.  You were designed to go on.  Whether you are brave or afraid, you will still go on.

 

Don’t Struggle, Just Stab

There are several ways of being in the world, I suppose.  We all choose in every moment how we will interact with the world around us.

This morning, I emptied a container of one of the two chemical-laden delicacies I allow myself–flavored non-dairy creamer (the other is processed cheese…because it melts so beautifully and reminds me of my grandmother, which is probably another story for another day).  Do not fear!  I was at Costco the other day and have a pack of three more bottles in the back of the fridge.  But the crux of our story is not the creamer itself, but that little foil seal that covers the bottleneck to ensure freshness and no leakage.  That little foil seal can open up worlds of understanding.

You see, in general, I stand for several minutes pulling on the tiny flap of foil that pretends to be the secret to removing the seal.  You are just supposed to pull that flap, and voila, it opens, right?  Wrong. I end up pulling with my right hand, then pulling with my left, then pulling with my right again.  Then I begin what we will call the “pep talk stage”, where I begin to offer myself encouragements:  You can do it!  Just hold tightly and pull steadily.  You’ve got this.

The next stage is called “pep talk two” and shifts my encouragements to self over and begins encouragements of the bottle seal:  C’mon!  You are almost there.  Just peel back a little more.  You can do it!

And then, finally, we reach “frustration”:  Why in the fuck can’t I open this thing?  Is it so hard to make a seal that opens?  We can send people out to live in space, but we can’t invent a seal for the coffee creamer that you can open!  AAAaaahhhhhh!

And there we have it folks.  This is the way I interact with my world, on the regular.  This is how I live.

There are myriad reasons why I turned out to be a person who fights at a thing.  I was sort of born a fighter.  My mother realized this early on, and it plagued her for many years to come.  I needed a “why” to stop my fight—a really good explanation or reason for the end to my search or struggle.  Another person’s word that it was easier to tie with “bunny ears” than in the convoluted way I was approaching tying my shoes was never good enough.  I needed to struggle with those shoes for years to get to the way I discovered was easiest (which turns out to be bunny ears).

I think the two most affecting reasons for my struggling attitude, however, are stubbornness and intellect.  One is usually seen as a positive, and the other as a negative.  But, often in life, I see them conversely to the way many might.  Stubbornness, which is usually considered bad or wrong or unhelpful has gotten me through many a difficult situation.  When you are oppressed or captive or addicted or overwhelmed in any way, stubbornness can be your savior.  Being stronger in will than my opponent got me through not only debate team, but through years of abuses and marginal living.  I kept up the fight some days only because I was too damn stubborn to lose—too damn stubborn to die there in that bad space.  And the other reason, my intellect, is definitely often a positive thing.  I am so glad that I am capable of abstract thought and love to dive deep into research and just tend to be smart (sorry for the horn tooting there, but it is true that I am smart).  But, the desire to know is often the desire that gets me into trouble as well.  I want to know how that feels or see how that works or decide for myself which is the best way to approach an idea … so I have to do all the things and explore all the ways of approaching that idea on my own, which has gotten me in spaces where I would rather not be.  If people could have said to me, “drugs are bad”, and I could have accepted that as true without further investigation, I wouldn’t have found my great joy and deep struggle with cocaine.  But because of my intellect and that desire to explore ideas to their conclusion, I did find that joy and that struggle.  Lucky for me, the stubbornness to not be controlled by a substance has won the day for about 5,500 days in a row now. (One day at a time!)

So, today when I needed to open the coffee creamer, my stubborn and smart started getting together to fight the fight and open the foil, once more—because this is obviously a regular occurrence.

But, something about the way that I have interacted with the creamer for the last 25 years suddenly seemed ridiculous.  Suddenly, I was tired of fighting the foil.  And I said to my self aloud, “Don’t struggle, just stab.”

Don’t struggle, just stab.

Where did that come from?

I’ve spent every foil opening experience in the same way.  I’ve always tried until I succeeded.  I’ve always kept up the fight.  But not today.  Today I chose a different way of interacting with my world.  I chose a different way of being.  I chose a knife to the foil.

Now, this choice might seem insignificant to most.  But it isn’t.  It is significant because this is a core way of being for me.  It is deeply ingrained in my psyche to fight.  A core belief is that fighting is the only way out.  And it is coupled with other core beliefs, like you have to make it on your own because others won’t help, or not engaging shows a weakness, or life is a series of conflicts, or only the strong survive.  All false beliefs, by the way, but core beliefs are not quick to change. And mine were shaped in some terrible circumstances, so rooting them out and finding them so that you can change them takes years of facing those terrible circumstances again.  It pretty much sucks to do that.

I am doing exactly that.  I am facing years of terrible circumstances and trying to find ways to interact with those things differently, and to see myself and my world in a better way.

Stabbing the foil embodies the change that is happening in me.  Don’t struggle, just stab.  Take the easier route to your desire.  Give up the fight.  Yield.  Do the smarter not the harder thing.  Win by letting the foil win.

Learning to engage life and thought and people and things in new ways is really difficult work.  But, the foil is evidence that I am learning to do just that.  I am doing that difficult work, and after years of doing it am seeing results.  I like those results.

I took a knife and stabbed that foil—killed that shit.  And it took mere seconds to accomplish. And I don’t feel like I lost the fight.  I feel like a winner!  I am patting myself on the back (figuratively, not literally, because the neighbors may be watching)!  I am looking at all the ways that offering myself the easy option might change the world for me.  Finding Mr. or Ms. Right Now, rather than keeping up the struggle to find Mr. or Ms. Right, letting Luke lift the groceries when he knows I am exhausted rather than trying to be stronger and less tired, realizing that swimming and bathing and eating and writing a bit can be my weekly activity rather than trying to return to the concept of “better” that causes me to strive for more strength and more strength of will than I am able to obtain in this disabled body.  I choose how to interact with the world, and I am starting to choose letting it all go.  Don’t struggle, just stab.

Unfortunately, this mantra won’t literally work in all situations.  When I am frustrated with my brother, I can’t just stab … at least not in the literal sense.  (No killing relatives, people!  I am in no way promoting actual stabbing in all situations!)  But maybe in the figurative sense, I can just go the direction he wants to, even though I am aware that he is going the wrong way. I don’t have to convince him he is going the wrong way, but can let him figure that out on his own.  I’ll just turn up the radio and enjoy the scenic route. And that way I haven’t lost anything. But I’ve won on the inside, just like I did with the foil, and can figuratively pat myself on the back for not engaging in futility.

Don’t struggle, just stab.

And I know that my stubbornness is still a gift that will get me through the tough times.  And I know that my intellect is still a gift that will bring me joy and difficulty.  But I know that I get to choose when to fight and when to not fight.  And I get to leave behind any of those core beliefs that are false, as soon as I am able.  And I am changing on the inside, and learning to be a better form of me.  I’m letting go of some of the instinct to approach the world with anxious striving, and learning how to approach it with a quiet knowing—seeing the chaos but not being drawn into it.

I don’t need to react in the ways that society expects me to react.  I don’t need to react in the ways I did before, even when before was just yesterday or earlier this morning.  I don’t need to react at all, if I don’t want to.

We choose the way we interact with the world around us.  And I am choosing more wisely and in ways that help instead of harm me.  I am choosing not to struggle and fight and churn and flail through life.  I am choosing to just stab at the foils of life—deleting that Facebook friend, or ignoring that comment, or choosing joy in the moment, or letting my inner child be my outer adult, or sliding down banisters instead of tiring on the stairs, or smiling instead of scowling as I walk through the subway tunnel, or offering peace instead of lecturing when my daughter is having a bad day, or offering myself kindness instead of chastising my lack of productivity.

Don’t struggle, just stab.