Toxic 2.0

I don’t know how to do relationships.

Don’t get me wrong.  I know how to advise about relationships.  I’d make a great family therapist or marriage counselor.  I marry people—to one another, of course—in ceremonies, as the ordained minister with credentials recognized by the state.  Ask me about your relationship and I will give you fabulous advice about how to do your relationship well.

But the second I get involved with another human in an intimate relationship, I turn into a raging lunatic.

I literally chased a man the other night.

Ran after him.

Ran.

People, I don’t run. If a bear chases you, you lie down in a ball and protect vital organs.  If a person with a gun demands something of you, you give it to them.  If bullets start flying nearby, you get your body as flat to the ground and as behind cover as it can get, and you stay there.  Fuck running.  I have not run in years and I don’t intend to start now.  But I ran to catch up with a man who was running away from me.  Literally.

It’s like I give out some sort of inaudible and unintended signal that can only be heard by people who will help me create crazy in my life. A dog whistle of sorts emanates from my person.  (Granted, we usually also create crazy in the bedroom, which is amazing and which I love with an intensity only matched by that of my orgasms.  So, there are definitely perks.)

But I cannot figure out how not to be the most insecure woman on the planet when it comes to being in a relationship of a romantic nature.  And even if the person I start the relationship with is totally secure, normal, and stable at the beginning, I make them nuts by the time we are a couple of months in, because my crazy is so intense that it spreads like a virus.  And I’m not sure how to stop that.

I can keep you from getting my herpes, but not my insane, obsessive notions that I am unlovable and not good enough and being “punked” every time you attempt to love me well.

I constantly think I am being tricked into something.  Into what, I do not know.  But I am convinced there must be some form of deception happening.  How could there not be, given my history?

It’s strange, because I see great models of what a “good man” is all around me.  And I don’t mean that bullshit “real men _____” that accompanies toxic masculinity and the vomitorium that is men’s rights groups.  The last thing I need in my life is some controlling, machismo, hyper-masculine ass.  I’ve been with that.  It didn’t go well.

When I say “good man”, I mean a balanced, thoughtful, feminist, who cares about the world and the people in it, and treats all people with respect, but offers an extra layer of that care and love to the partner in his life.  My dad is one of these people, though he might not love that I call him “feminist” (I mean that you believe in equal rights for all people, Dad—which I know you totally do.)  My “brother”, Adam, is one of these people.  My friend, Luke, is one of these people.  Andrew, Allan, Josh, Brian, Bryan, Matt, Joshua, Dan, Phillip, James, Ted, David, and the list goes on.  Not to mention the long list of good women out there who model great personhood and great partnership for me to follow.

So, I see these good men and women, and then I think I pick one of these good men or women out of the lot of single people out there around me, and then things go really well for the first month, and then…

Then my mind starts to play the game where it thinks that I am not enough, so I need more and more evidence that I am enough.  So, I cling and I push and I beg and I get all sorts of unreasonable.  I know I am doing it on some level, I think.  I used to try to deny it and to believe that I was constantly being gaslighted. (Not that I was never being gaslighted, because there was lots of gaslighting going on in my history, just not at the times that I was creating the problem.)  Now I am more aware of it, and I have come to accept that I have a nervous attachment style—I need lots of assurance that the person I am with wants to be with me and considers me enough.

It has taken a long time for me to consider that valid—that need for assurance.  But it makes all of the sense that I would need extra assurance, given the fact that I was locked into abusive cycles for much of my relationship history, and those cycles told me repeatedly that I was not worthy or enough.  Now, I just sort of wait for the person I am with to start that cycle of abuse.  And when they don’t, I start to become confused and anxious and weird.

That sounds stupid.  To put the words on the page feels really strange.

To admit that I become confused, anxious, and weird when nobody starts a cycle of abuse is terrible.

It is sad.

It is devastating.

But it is so true.

So, I think that I have started it myself.  I have convinced myself that now is about the time that my partner should start to treat me poorly, so I make comments or do things that cause conflict.  I get angry that he leaves to go to his on-call job—even though I know he is on call.  I ask if he is embarrassed to be seen with me, when he and I have just been walking down the street hand in hand.  I push when he asks me to pull.  I go when he asks me to stop.  I accuse him of not wanting to be with me when he is with me.  I do the weirdest things, because I think that conflict should happen now, and he isn’t starting it.

I’m breaking my own heart and blaming him for doing so.

Let’s be fair—bad men broke me.  The toxicity of relationships prior to now was all their fault, and not my fault at all.  I was captive, beaten, raped, assaulted, and abused in all sorts of ways.  They are responsible for that.  And part of that toxicity is seeping into my present, so they are also partly responsible for what is going on with my relational challenges today.  There is no doubt that the breaking that was done before is still affecting me now, and some parts might always stay broken.

But what worries me now is that I fear that I have become toxic.  What worries me today is that my only way of being in relationship has been the way of toxicity, and I might not know how to be other.  I might not know how to be the partner I expect my partner to be, because of the brokenness that lingers and the places that are still wounded and scarred.

What if I have become the face of my enemy?  An enemy that I was in love with, and whom I thought was in love with me, by the way, so I somehow tie love to the war that we were fighting inside our home—inside our life together.  What if I can’t figure out how to love without warring?

How do I love without warring?

I suppose that is the question for which I need an answer.

And that question isn’t easily answered.  Because you can give me the facts and the formulas, and you can tell me how to move forward without warring, and you can tell me how to love well, but that doesn’t mean that my psyche knows how to follow that instruction.

We all have certain areas in life where we act somewhat automatically.  Muscle memory is an example of this.  You don’t keep thinking through the way that you are swinging a bat or whisking some eggs or signing your name or rocking the baby.  Your body remembers those sensations and it starts to do them automatically, without you having to use up conscious thoughts about how or when you perform particular movements.  Your body does the things.

And I have some sort of “muscle memory” about the way I do relationships.  Doing them differently takes rewriting the code that is already imbedded in my brain.  It’s like trying to become left-handed after 44 years of having a dominant right hand.  It’s nearly impossible, and it is excruciatingly difficult and hella frustrating.

It sucks.  And I’m not certain that I am capable of making such a huge change.   I am certain that making that change soon enough to salvage my current relationship will be some sort of miracle, because I have already pushed it beyond a point where anyone should decide to continue trying to love me, know me, or understand me.  Once you literally chase a man down the street, things are likely beyond repair.  If this man returns and states that he wants to keep trying to be in relationship with me, I will likely wonder what is wrong with him, and only become more suspicious.  What kind of man would date someone so crazy??!  Not a balanced, normal, secure man with healthy boundaries, right?

See, I am already planning the next wave of mistrust before I have cleared up the chaos of the last one.  I’m a fucking mess when it comes to doing relationships.

Was I single for twenty years because I was focused on other things, or was I single for twenty years because I knew that this was how messed up inside I was feeling, and how poorly dating would go once I began to pursue it?  It was definitely simpler to have short-term affairs with people in close proximity whom I didn’t find attractive as long-term partners.  It was also morally ambiguous at best, and using people to fulfill my needs in a selfish and terrible way when you didn’t put a positive spin on things.  But it got me through and kept me from having to address all of the things that I am putting on paper now.

It kept me from having to face my insecurity, my dependence on cycles of the past, my inability to move forward in healthy ways, my desire not matching my state of mental health, and the deep and difficult work that I still need to do to find balance and some semblance of “normal” in my life and relationships.  Letting go of that buffer and finding myself leaning into loving someone has opened up all of those things and put my face right up in that shit.  I don’t want to look at it.  I don’t want to deal with it.

It isn’t that I don’t want a healthy, long-term relationship.  I do.  It is just that I have been doing the hard work of dealing with the effects of my past for so many years now, and I am very, very, very tired of doing that hard work.  Opening up my heart to someone means opening up a new set of vulnerabilities and challenges and problems and ugly truths that I need to work hard to overcome.

I am so tired of having to overcome shit.

I am so tired of having to overcome shit.

That wasn’t a typo.  I literally needed to write that twice, because it is doubly true.

It isn’t fair that I am forced to overcome all sorts of evils and errors and offenses and other things that other people placed upon me—things that I did not and would not choose.  I keep fighting to clear away terrible things that I never gave consent for in the first place.  I have to work to fix what other people broke.  I have to deal with things that were forced into my life, and the perpetrators who forced this upon me, for the most part, work at nothing.  Most of them have jobs, partners, good health, financial security, and what look like lives of happiness and fulfillment.  Granted, things aren’t always as they seem, so I won’t claim with certainty that none of them are haunted by their past or struggling in some way.  But I can say that they have much that I do not, and that I do not have those things because of the consequences of their actions.  I need to overcome the consequences of their actions.  And it looks as though they need to overcome very little.

I know that life isn’t fair.  I can hear my mom’s voice saying it each time I think to myself or say to someone, “It isn’t fair.”

My mom would always be quick to remind me that life isn’t fair.

But maybe it should be fair.

Maybe those men who did the bad things should have to make reparations of some kind.  Maybe those men should have been punished for their crimes against me, instead of rewarded by a system that honors the white man above all things and casts victims to the curb as though they were not human.  Maybe I should have been protected from the abusers, or given an opposing perspective, at the very least, so that I didn’t grow up to believe that I am worthless and unlovable and cursed and terrible and shouldn’t be alive.

But life wasn’t fair, and none of those maybes became realities. So, I muddled through the unfairness with my toxic thoughts until I became the maker of my own chaos.  When nobody else was here to tell me how worthless I was, I told myself.

And now that a person is getting close enough to love me, I am showing him that I am too messed up to be lovable.  He didn’t say it, so I said it for him, by chasing him down the street.

He came by to check on me the next day and asked me to forgive him for arguing with me.  He asked me to forgive him! He took the blame for my actions.

I offered him forgiveness.  Things have been strained and he has been a bit distant since then.

I text him periodically, asking if he still wants to be with me.  He replies by saying that he is very busy at work and very tired, but he will call me as soon as he can.

I’m trying to choose to believe that he is very busy with work, and that this is all there is to the story—the truth being the text taken at face value.  But there is a part of me that wants to create all sorts of scenarios where that text isn’t true, and he is using work as an excuse to keep his distance until he can fade out of my life without fear of some sort of crazed retribution.

And, honestly, this post doesn’t end with a nice little resolution and a happy, encouraging anecdote, because the story here is just what I stated:  I’m trying to believe what he told me is true when the “muscle memory” inside of me is screaming objections at that belief.  My mind is shrieking mistrust, and that is how it will continue, unless or until I can find a way of changing that part of my mind and the perspective on my history that leads it.

The truth of the past and the truth of the present are warring.  So, no, I haven’t figured out how to love without warring, because a war is happening inside of me every moment.  Even if I don’t fight with the one I love, I need to fight with myself to keep on trusting and to not let the ones who broke me in the past break my present, and my future.

At the end of this post I am still where I was at the beginning:

I don’t know how to do relationships.

…but I am trying to find a way.  And that is progress of some kind, I hope.

 

 

 

 

UPDATE:

Last night the chased man (definitely not the chaste man–to be clear) called and asked me what I wanted for dinner.  I chose burgers, and he took me out to the best local spot for burgers.

While we ate, I was telling him about the article I wrote about our wild night and big fight and how I feel about being incapable of positive, healthy relationship where I don’t push him into madness and create chaos.  And he said, “I’m going to stop you right there.  No.  No.  There was rum involved.  And nothing you did created that situation.  You didn’t do that. You didn’t do anything.  I know that I shouldn’t be drinking, and I have not had any liquor since the moment I left you that night, and you didn’t … no.  Just no.  Don’t put that on yourself.  Don’t even think that for a second.  I heard you say to me you forgive me, is that still true?”

I nodded in agreement, a tear rolling down my cheek.

“And you did nothing wrong, but if you feel you did I forgive that too.  I think that we can work through this.  I think that we are going to be fine.  I still want to make this work, and I believe that it will.  Unless you don’t want me around anymore?”

“I don’t want that,” was my quick and impassioned retort.  “I want you with me.”

“Then I am with you.  I would never deliberately abandon you.  I would never try to harm you. I am with you.”

And all of the anxious attachment needs were met, and all of the wrongs felt righted, and dinner was lovely, even with tears in my eyes.

Maybe I overestimate my power to destroy things, and maybe I underestimated the power of this man to care for me well.

Later he took me up on a rooftop, high above all the neighboring buildings, and we watched the fireworks.  It was the most amazing display I have ever witnessed!  Perched above the city, as we were, we could see the shows put on at each beach, downtown, in the suburbs, and in the nearby neighborhoods.  It was a 360-degree canvas bursting with light and sound, the winds starting to come up off the lake cooling our bodies, stripping down to our skivvies and dancing to his music and lying on my blanket and laughing.  It was one of the most beautiful nights of my life.

The truth of the past and the truth of the present may still be warring.  They may always be warring.  But nights like these—when someone meets my fear and my failure and my feelings head on and not only answers with the best response but shows me something so positive to replace the negative in my mind—can do something that I hadn’t considered before now.

Nights like these can rewire the brain.  Nights like these can form new memories.

And enough of these nights, added together, can make new muscle memory.

They can reform my system of beliefs about relationships and brokenness and trust and truth and love and commitment.  They can rid my body and my mind of the toxins and replace them with healthier things.

I couldn’t imagine that before last night.

Now I can.

I guess there is a happy, encouraging anecdote after all!

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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!

Five Common Arguments Against Watching 13 Reasons Why, and Why, as a Survivor, I Reject Them

 

Recently, the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why has created what I wish were helpful conversations on my Facebook feed.  But, more often than not, the people who are posting are educators of middle and high school students in small towns.  The reasons why I have those sorts of educators on my feed are simple—I used to live in those small towns.  But when I am looking at these posts, and reading the arguments against the series, I can’t help but become angry and frustrated with the content and the comments.

I am a survivor of rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence.  I have complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and suffer from anxiety and depression.  I have a daughter who suffers from depression and anxiety, shows signs of post-traumatic stress (we don’t yet know for certain if she adopted those symptoms from being raised by me, or if she suffered some violence as a child that we have not uncovered).  Both of us have been suicidal.

Given my experience with these events and situations, I have a perspective that, I believe, needs to be expressed and heard by those small-town educators.  Because their reasons for not allowing students access to this series or the book that inspired the series are not, necessarily, informed reasons.

So, here are five common arguments against the show, and why I reject those arguments:

  1. Students are too young to see depictions of violence, assault, and suicide.

 

I can’t be certain when I started to be sexually abused, because I was a child, and I dissociated from those events.  What I can say with certainty is that I started exhibiting signs of acute trauma by age nine or ten, and I was suicidal by about the age of eleven.  My daughter first needed psychiatric care at age 9.  She was hospitalized by age 16, having struggled with major depression for over a year, and finally admitting her intention regarding suicide.

 

Students are not too young to see depictions of such violence, assault, and suicide.  Students as young as eight or nine years old are experiencing such violence, assault, and thoughts of suicide!

 

There is some sort of desire to ignore that our children are exposed to and experiencing things that we wish they were not exposed to or experiencing.  Even I, being fully aware of all the warning signs of mental illness, didn’t know that my daughter was experiencing certain symptoms until it was almost too late.

 

We don’t want our children to be suffering in this way, so we ignore the signs of that suffering—pretending that the bad things can’t be happening.

 

This does no good for our students.  This does no good for the whole of humanity.  Pretending problems don’t exist has never solved a single problem.  Wishing that our kids are too young to be harmed in this way—battered physically and psychologically, being taken advantage of, being pushed to a place where life is too hard to continue living, being abused, bullied, assaulted, raped—will not make it a reality.  It is ignorant to keep insisting that middle and high school students don’t see this violence every day.  They do.  They aren’t too young to watch a show that addresses issues that they are experiencing.  They certainly are not too young to watch a show that brings the possibility of identifying with characters that are suffering, when nobody else in their life or experience seems to understand or care about what they are going through.

 

As a child, I didn’t know where to turn with my pain.  As a teenager, I didn’t feel connected enough to anyone to admit how dark and dangerous my internal dialogue was becoming.  I pretended to be innocent and outgoing and “normal”, because nobody was talking about things like mental illness or suicide.  I felt completely divided and set apart from everyone around me.  I had nowhere to turn.

 

13 Reasons Why addresses these issues in what seems like a violent and shocking way.  But our children, our students, and the youth in our society are not protected from such violent and shocking events.  They are already experiencing this.  And the series gives them someone to identify with, and offers resources where they can receive help, should they identify with those who are being bullied, assaulted, or raped, and those who are considering death by suicide.

 

The honest address of common experience is not too dark and damaging for the young people around you.  It is an opportunity to feel heard and understood.  It is an opportunity to feel normal, in a society that wants to insist that this violence isn’t normal.

 

 

  1. “Counselors” are against youth watching the show.

 

This is an annoying argument, because there might be some truth to it, but that doesn’t necessarily make it good advice.  There have been several people who are school counselors or mental illness “experts” or social workers who have come out with statements or articles that offer their opinion of 13 Reasons Why.  Some of them say that watching these events can trigger or encourage negative behaviors.

 

This is partially true.  Watching events that you have experienced can trigger symptoms.  This doesn’t always happen, however, and it isn’t always a terrible thing.  Being in a controlled environment, knowing your own triggers, and being aware of the content ahead of time can all limit the triggering effects of viewing such events.

 

13 Reasons Why has very clear trigger warnings before each episode that will portray events that have the potential to harm those who identify closely with such events.  When we were watching the show, one such warning prompted my daughter to ask me if I wanted to watch.  She knew that it might be a difficult thing for me to see.  But I watched.  And I was very glad that I watched, even though it was a very challenging scene.

 

I later commented on a Facebook post that was basically a “counselor response” to the show.  I said that it was the most real and honest depiction of the event that I had ever witnessed.  I found watching the characters go through such events healing and validating, not triggering.

 

Some people will find these episodes and these images difficult.  Some people shouldn’t watch, if they are concerned about triggers.  But, for many who are survivors of such events, this is a show that offers an extremely honest view and allows you to connect to your own pain, your own struggle, and your own healing.  Will all teens be ready to address these issues with such realistic and graphic images?  No.  But will many of us, as survivors, finally feel heard and understood and supported by seeing such clear and unrestrained images?  Yes.

 

“Counselors”, as a blanket statement, could include school officials who haven’t had psychological training, really bad advisors (like the first “counselor” I had as an adult, who told me it wasn’t the fault of my abuser that he abused me, but that “curiosity” is normal), or excellent mental health care providers.  And these people are not knowledgeable regarding every case that might crop up.  There are numerous ways to connect with the material, and while one person might have a bad reaction to things, another might find it healing—as I did.  The point here is that there is no one appropriate or “correct” approach to content like that in 13 Reasons Why.  The best way to consider viewing is on a case by case basis, with the survivor being the one whose voice is heard and the survivor being the one who chooses to watch or not watch.

 

The most triggering movie that I ever watched was Captain Phillips.  It didn’t have any trigger warnings.  And it wasn’t about abuse or rape.  I saw (spoiler alert) Tom Hanks step onto a vessel that was rescuing him.  As he did, he—in an amazing performance—exhibited signs of trauma, because he had just suffered a significant trauma.  I began to weep and shake and shudder.  Seeing him show the shock and dissociation that PTSD sufferers go through, I was feeling all that the character was feeling.  It was awful.  And I may never watch it again, but even with the triggering and the awful feelings, that scene was an opportunity for me to acknowledge and make some sort of peace with my own suffering.

 

There is no way to know for certain what will and what will not trigger or affect a person.  But since bullying, sexual and physical assaults, and rape all have a common thread of taking away the autonomy of the victim, allowing each person to decide and be in control of what they choose to view and not view is important.

 

I’m not a “counselor”.  I’m a survivor.  So, I haven’t gotten a degree in psychology.  But what I do know is that autonomy and identification and validation are essential to healing and coping and overcoming events like those depicted in 13 Reasons Why.  A stranger who claims to have superior knowledge because of a few classes is not necessarily a help, because telling survivors what they can and cannot do, or see, or hear, or cope with can be a retraumatizing event.  We need autonomy.  We need to decide on our own.  And we need to cope with the support of others, not the demands of others.

 

  1. The show glorifies suicide.

I honestly can’t understand this argument against 13 Reasons Why.  I can’t understand how someone could watch such terrible events unfolding and think to themselves, “Wow, I think I should do that.  That is awesome!”

 

If you are suicidal, please seek help.  If you are not currently experiencing suicidal ideation, but have in the past, consider the trigger warnings and make an informed decision regarding whether or not you wish to view the show.  (Again, you deserve autonomy and get to choose the media to which you are exposed.)

 

That being said, the depiction of suicide in this show is horrible, violent, sickening, and shocking.  It is intentionally so.  The producers worked very closely with several medical professionals in their decision-making about how to best portray this event.  And it was intentionally depicted, and intentionally made very difficult to view, because it is a horrible thing.

 

I’ve heard some people say that the show could make kids think that suicide is a good way to get revenge on the people who hurt you.  I cannot comprehend how they come to that conclusion.

 

It is obvious that the main character is suffering from major depression, dissociation, flat affect, and more.  And the “suicide note” she leaves behind is deliberately affecting for those who harmed her.  However, every suicide note offers reasons why the one who died by suicide did so.   Often, those who are left behind to read that note feel guilt, remorse, and a sense that they failed the one who died.  It makes sense to feel that they failed the one who died, because after the life has been taken, you see the signs that you passed over when the person was alive.  You find the truth later.  You can’t always see the pain until the pain has become too much for the bearer of that pain to carry.

 

Hannah, the one who dies in the show, is hiding her pain as often as possible.  And there are good reasons for her to do so.  Earlier, I said that I pretended to be all sorts of things, because the admission that I was suffering from dark and dangerous suicidal thoughts was not something that I felt anyone would understand or accept.  I hid my pain.  I still do.

 

This combination of glossing over slights and hiding pain and suffering creates a perfect storm of struggle.  And the one who is struggling often feels alone in that struggle.

 

The depiction of suicide in this show is precipitated by all sorts of expressions and depictions of the pain that is being hidden and the opportunities missed for others to see that pain.  And it is the “note” recorded on 13 tapes that shows us all of that.  Suicide is an escape from pain.  Suicide is not an act of revenge.  Sometimes there may be an element of “I’ll show them” thought in the planning stages of suicidal ideation.  But that occurs largely because the one who dies by suicide has sought to express their pain on multiple occasions and has not been heard, not because there is a deliberate desire to harm those left behind.  Those left behind are completely cut off in the mind of the one who is considering suicide.  They don’t seem to be able to feel at all, because they can’t see your pain.

Suicide isn’t logical.  Suicide isn’t vengeful.  Suicide is the thing that you turn to when there is no other place to turn.  Hannah had at least 13 reasons to feel cut off from and ignored by her community.  She had at least 13 burdens to carry.  And that weight became too much to bear.

Watching her bear that pain, and watching her end her life because she could no longer carry the weight doesn’t glorify the act.  It makes the act sad and avoidable and gut-wrenchingly difficult to watch.  There is no glory in this show.  None.  There is no glory in that escape.  None.  There is no glory in her pain, or in the way she slowly but certainly breaks down completely, and loses the will to live.  None.

 

If you imagine that young people will watch this show and want to follow in the footsteps of Hannah, you should probably do a bit more research on suicide and suicide prevention.  Because it isn’t the act of death by suicide that you should be most concerned with.  You should be most concerned with the 13 reasons that brought Hannah to that point of desperation.  You should be most concerned with changing the behaviors and eliminating the threats that caused her to reach that point.  Suicide is terrible, but it isn’t really the point of the show.  The point is the reasons.  The point is that there were numerous events that should never have happened.  The point is the ways that her pain was caused and compounded and collected.  The point is not the suicide. The point is the many opportunities to care about others, instead of inflicting pain and violence, that were missed.  And focusing on those things can actually create change and reduce the incidence of suicide—not inspire more people to die by suicide.

 

  1. 13 Reasons Why is not for the vulnerable.

 

Another argument that I am confused by, as a survivor of abuses, is the idea that those who are “vulnerable” shouldn’t be exposed to the series.

 

I’m not certain what the definition of vulnerable, in the minds of others, might be.  It is defined as “susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm”.  And in my opinion, those who are most susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm are the ones who will most identify with, and find validation and acceptance in, 13 Reasons Why.

 

Hannah is susceptible.  But so is almost every other character in the book/show!  There are so many instances of bullying, abuse, rape, denial of harmful actions, misrepresentation, image ruining, slut-shaming, and more that it is amazing that they are all able to fit into one story.  There are numerous people who are suffering harm at the hands of others within the storyline.  There are numerous vulnerable people.

 

I identify with Hannah.  But I also identify with Clay, with Tony, Jessica, Alex, and Olivia.  They all have particular vulnerabilities, and they all experience suffering of some sort throughout the series.

 

I’ve already expressed how the choices about viewing triggering events should be left in the hands of the victims of abuse.  This includes those who are vulnerable.  Because if you are vulnerable, you have likely already experienced the things that are expressed in the episodes of this show.  If you are at risk, you are likely already suffering in some way.  And identifying with the characters in this show can offer much-needed validation of those sufferings and those vulnerabilities.  Connecting with a character can bring comfort and can offer perspective that isn’t always available to us as individuals within these situations.

 

One of the immense strengths of the show is that we see it unfold from the perspective of Clay, as well as from the perspective of Hannah.  And because we see it unfold from multiple perspectives, we can also gain multiple insights, alongside the characters in the tale.  When you are living in a state of vulnerability, or suffering, or abuse, it can be very difficult to see things from varying perspectives.  One perspective begins to shove out all other ways of thinking about the events.  We get tunnel vision.  This show lets those who are vulnerable, who are suffering, who are suicidal, who are being bullied, who have been assaulted or raped, look at the events unfolding from the outside, and allows us to gain perspective.  This is a good thing!

 

For those who have never experienced these events, I can see why you would want to seek to protect the vulnerable from difficult images and serious events.  But because we are vulnerable, we are likely already experiencing these things, and already feeling unprotected.  Allowing us to connect with these characters, and watch them navigate these horrors can be healing, and can offer us support.  Fictions of this type, which are so close to our own experience, can be healing and helpful, and not just damaging or dangerous.  You may not know how much the vulnerable need this connection.  You may be unaware that they need these characters to connect with and find validation.

 

  1. The show is so hopeless.

 

I’ve heard many say that this show isn’t good because it is hopeless.  It doesn’t have a happy ending.  The pain doesn’t go away, and there isn’t any resolution.

 

Exactly!!

 

If you are a person who thinks this show can’t be helpful because it doesn’t resolve the pain of the characters, then I encourage you to consider the life of a survivor of these events.

 

There is no resolution.

 

I was sexually assaulted in childhood.  I’m almost 43 years old.  Nothing has changed.  I’m still suffering from anxiety, depression, and PTSD.  I’m still in therapy.  I’m still on medication.  My abuser still sits across from me at the dinner table, on occasion.  I haven’t spoken to my ex-husband or ex-boyfriend who were violently abusive in many years, but their words still harm me at times.  I’m still aware of the ways that the neighbors and classmates and people in my community harmed me, and then blamed me for that harm.  I’m still an addict.  I’m still incapable of positive romantic relationships.  I’m still a loner, in many ways.  And I’m chronically ill in ways that will affect me for the rest of my life.

 

There is no resolution.

 

Life isn’t a story.  And if it were, it wouldn’t be a fairytale.  Fictions can resolve into nice little packages with happy endings, but life, and especially a life of vulnerability and suffering and abuse, doesn’t resolve in those ways.

 

The story is hopeless, except for Clay’s assertion near the end of the series that “this needs to change”.   The only hope is the fact that we need to begin to treat one another better, and to stop patterns of behavior that harm and break people.  The only hope is that those watching from the outside of this story, the viewers at home with their eyes glued to this drama, would understand the purpose of telling this tale—that we, the audience, need to take up that gauntlet and fight to change the way we treat one another.  We, the audience, are responsible for creating hope and affecting change and stopping these horrors from being acted out in real life.

 

My life is not filled with hope.  My life has not resolved into a neat little box of rainbow’s-end happiness.  My life is still filled with burdens that are difficult to bear.

 

A happy ending wouldn’t make 13 Reasons Why a better story.  A happy ending, filled with hope, wouldn’t inspire us toward change.  It would reinforce the idea that the pain goes away, and the effects aren’t all that bad, and we can ignore these injustices and let them resolve.

 

These injustices won’t resolve.  And the victims of this violence won’t have fairytale transformations.  The only way we get a happy ending is if we stop avoiding this pain, and stop insisting that we aren’t responsible to and for one another in our communities and in our world, and stop ignoring the ways that others are being harmed in every moment, and make the way we act and think and live better.  The only way we get a happy ending is by our own actions.

 

Because 13 Reasons Why is a critique of what we currently do and what we currently allow.  It is meant to give power to the young and vulnerable, and to affirm their circumstances are an injustice, and to demand that we do better at protecting one another.  This show is designed to teach us to stop physical and emotional attack or harm.  This show is pointing out our failures, and begging us to fix what is wrong in the way we treat one another.  This show is the truth we don’t want to see and acknowledge.

 

But refusing to see and acknowledge the truth helps none of us, so I encourage you to watch 13 Reasons Why, to cope with the horrific, graphic truth, and to acknowledge that up to this point, many of us have been a part of the problem.  Then, and only then, can we move forward and find and support effective solutions.

 

As long as some can abuse others without repercussions, we are not yet finding those solutions.  As long as some can abuse others, we are not allowed a happy ending.

 

Face the truth.  Watch Hannah Baker die.  Watch her community reel and spin out of control as they deal with the truths that her 13 reasons expose.  And then make certain that you aren’t letting this happen in your own community.

 

Stop injustice.  Validate suffering.  Heal wounds.  Listen to the victims.  Punish the perpetrators of violence.  And work toward a better world for all of us.

 

 

Letting Go

When you have been hurt by people in the past, it can be really hard to trust people in the now.  And it isn’t the fault of whomever you are with now if someone before hurt you, but it is also not easy to keep the two experiences separate in your mind and heart.  As a result, we often try to control things in new relationship and new situations—to keep things safe and metered and carefully mapped.

But things like love and care don’t flourish in an environment where things are safe and metered and carefully mapped.  Passion can’t exist there.  Trust can’t exist there.  So, by trying to prevent hurt from happening we create a place where the happiest and most healing relating is also prevented.

I’m certainly not proposing that we let any and all experience happen to us, without setting boundaries or ensuring our health and safety.  We definitely need to be safe and have boundaries.  But there is only so far we can take those boundaries and that safety before they transform into something else—something more sinister and potentially damaging.  If we are not cognizant of what we are doing with those boundaries and that safety, they can become control.  They can become an inability to let go.

The other night I had a date.  It was an amazing date.  We had an early dinner and drinks, and there was not a moment of dead air between us.  We talked about all sorts of things, and then we dropped my leftover food off at his apartment on our way to a karaoke bar.  We had tons of fun.  We drank, he sang, we made “friends” with a group of Guns and Roses fans on one side of the bar, and a beautiful mother and her daughters celebrating a milestone birthday on the other.  He held the room captive as he sang, and every single person clapped and sang along with him.  He loved being on that stage, and his excitement was contagious.

Eventually we ate again, because we had been out for so many hours and had so many beers.  We took a cab to another bar, and once more he brought everyone into his state of excitement and his love of song.  And I watched him with pride.  Because between songs he was talking to me.

He was more than talking to me.  He was holding every word, and passionately engaged in conversation, and geeking out on my fandoms as hard as I do—maybe harder.  He was wrapping his arm around me.  He was holding me close.  He was kissing my lips.  And I felt honored to have him there doing so.  I felt blessed by his presence, and I felt privileged to be his chosen companion.  I was certain that he could choose lots of other women, but he was choosing me.

And I still refused to let go.

I didn’t sing on stage.  Which makes no sense, because from childhood I have been desiring the stage, and loving every moment I was allowed and able to sing upon it.  And while I am a bit self-conscious about my voice today, with hoarseness and the breaks of a pubescent boy often plaguing my vocal chords without warning.  But that wasn’t why I didn’t sing.  There were plenty of singers worse than I who took the stage.  And I sang loudly from our little table in the corner, with him at my side.  I didn’t go up because I was pretending I didn’t want to.

I wasn’t pretending for him.  I was pretending for me.

I was pretending I had too much humility or shyness or reservation to perform on stage.  I was making excuses for myself and to myself.  Because being up there meant being vulnerable.  Being up there meant I had no control over the outcome.  Being up there meant opening up and letting loose and letting go.  And I wouldn’t do it.

Later that night, back at his apartment, when I took off my shoes and my sweater and my scarf to be more comfortable and cool, the tattoo on my left arm was in full view.  After having hugged and kissed me a bit, he ran a finger over that tattoo, which boldly declares, “Enough”, and he said, “I assume this is about taking your life back.”  Taking my life back is how I described myself on the media platform where we first came into contact with one another.

He had the right of it.  That tattoo is part of fighting back, and saying I have had enough—that I won’t take any of the bullshit I do not want and that I create my experience from now on.

But that tattoo is also about reminding myself that I am “Enough”, just as I am and without any comment or consideration or care of another.  I am not almost good enough.  I am not lacking.  I am not without value or merit or reasons for pride.  I am, wholly and completely, enough.

And in that moment I started to cry.

I wasn’t entirely sure why at the time.  Further thought on the subject, however, brought me to the place I stand this morning.  I know now that I cried because I wasn’t acting like enough.  I wasn’t letting go and letting my true self shine.  I was controlling and metered and safe the whole night.  I was in the presence of another for only a few short hours.  But in those hours, I wanted to be what he admired, instead of being all that I am and waiting to see if he might admire me.  I wanted to create an ending where I don’t get hurt more than I wanted to create something real and deep and true.  And the moment I felt that was what I was doing, I wept.

Crying on the first date is usually a terrible idea, as a general rule.

But even then he was fabulous, and walked through that moment and moved forward with me to the next.  And a bit later I reluctantly left, wanting to remain curled up in his arms, but knowing that my poor dog needed my attention more than I needed the attention of this man.

The next day, thinking it all through once more, I felt ashamed.  I felt foolish.  I felt the familiar weight of having pretended instead of having let go to be myself.  And last night my text went unanswered, and all I could think was that I hoped that my pretending did not take the opportunity to be with this man again from me.  I hoped so much that my refusal to be vulnerable and true didn’t take away the joy of that night and leave me always wishing for another.

I still wait in hope.  And I hope that this realization will offer me a chance to step up next time, and to boldly belt out songs from that stage.

While I do want to see this man again, there is more to it now than a connection with a potential partner.  There are all these layers of decision that we must navigate in every single moment.  And in the moment, I denied the truth and didn’t let go.  In the moment I played safe and controlled and let the hurts of the past define me, and not the heart and the soul and the spirit of the present.  I sought approval, instead of seeking joy.

Sometimes, when people ask me about my history and what I might regret, I shock them with my answers.  They think that my bad marriage or the night of binge drinking where I was sexually assaulted before morning or my drug use or any number of “bad” or “sad” or “regrettable” decisions should be what leaves my lips.  But it is not those things that haunt me.  Because during that time, when all that chaos was happening around me, I still held fast to me.  I didn’t feel like that woman needed to hide in the shadows.  That woman took the stage.  That woman built her own fucking stage if there wasn’t one to take.  That woman was brave and powerful and wild in ways that her later incarnation has not been.  I regret leaving her behind.  I regret not being her on Friday night.  I regret that I forgot that I am enough.

I believe that this man will offer me another chance.  I believe that he is kind and caring and understanding, alongside being fun and courageous and cuddly and cute.

And when that chance comes, I need to swallow any hint of reservation, of safety, of control.  I need to jump up and sing out and let vulnerability rule the day.

I need to trust that I am still, and always, Enough.

I need to let my heart love.  I need to let my spirit fly free.  I need to find and hold joy.

I need to let go.

 

Documented

Documents and documenting are serious themes in the past few weeks to months.  It is interesting to me the ways that we are forced or encouraged or inspired to document, and all the different reasons that are used to justify or explain that documentation.

I recently had to make a trip to my local office of the Chicago Housing Authority.  I had used their new online participant portal to upload requests for a rent renegotiation due to household income changes in both August and February.  In August, they denied my claim, saying I had not attached documents proving my claim—but I literally uploaded them per the instruction of the site, and had copies and receipts of all the attached information.  Last week, they claimed that I had never made a request in February, and that my mailed documents of proof (which I had mailed to avoid the same result I was met with in August) went to the wrong address (the address listed on their form and web page, by the way).  So, they claimed there was no proof that I ever applied for a renegotiation.

Not true.  I had documents and receipts a plenty this time.  There was no way I was letting the lack of documents be my downfall this time around.

So, I went into that office with an entire folder full of documents.  I brought documents proving I applied with proper documentation in August and was denied.  I brought documents proving I applied again in February, and supporting documentation that I deserved the rent adjustment at that time as well.  And, for good measure, I brought in documents removing my daughter from my household over a week before she moves into her own apartment.  All of those documents were copied and admitted and dealt with by the office manager at the office, and then she said, “Now, the only thing we are missing is two documents signed by your daughter and we can get all of this processed.”

Gaaaahhhhh!!!!

I called my daughter and asked if she would head down to the office after work to sign these added documents.  They closed at 5, and she made it there at 4:45, signed the documents, and in the next 30 days, my mailbox will receive documents that tell me whether or not I am allowed the revision in rent, whether or not they will back-date to the dates of application, whether or not I will receive a refund of the monies I overpaid due to these errors on the part of the housing authority, and a document that tells me to come into the office again and sign about 45 other documents so that they can give me documents to take to my landlord, so that he can accept my voucher sans dependent child document and let me keep living in the same home I am currently living in.

If you thought being poor was tied to laziness, you are an idiot.  I fill out as much paperwork as any doctor or lawyer I know.  I just don’t get paid for filling it out—unless you count rental assistance and food stamps as getting paid, which I don’t, because safe housing and food security are basic human rights. (A fact that most developed countries have embraced and created systems of care to ensure. But not the United States, because we are selfish, entitled brats who believe we somehow earned our privileges—in other words, ignorant assholes.)

And if you thought you heard the word “documentation” enough for a lifetime in my earlier paragraphs, then prepare to be disappointed!

There are all sorts of other forms of documentation that are tied to my disability case.  The disability system is such that you are denied the first time.  Almost everyone not in a wheelchair, nursing facility, or mental ward is denied.  That is just the way it works (inefficiently and expensively).  You acquire documents from all of your doctors, you fill out numerous assessments, you add in assessments filled out by those who know you or live with you, and then you wait for documents that say you are denied.  After the denial documents, you go find a lawyer, and they make you sign about 87 documents because you must sign disclosure statements for every lawyer who might work on your case, not just the law firm, according to the state, effectively requiring the disabled person to sign the same document 4, 5, or 6 times, depending on the number of lawyers in their particular firm.  Then you wait for the exact same assessments to arrive and be filled out another time, and collect the same medical records, but your lawyer asks you to keep them informed of any changes in treatment or diagnosis and to document your wellness or lack thereof, so you give all the paperwork you did last time, plus you begin logging your daily mood, daily function, daily tasks, and any and all changes that happen, to support your case when your redetermination is denied, and then you have to file paperwork requesting a hearing, and get back a document that says you will be given a court date in about 10 to 12 months.  Then you document changes and function and symptoms and such for a year, while you wait to bring all the information amassed in the past three years before a judge.  Who, if we have done all the things correctly, will create a legal document stating that I am, in fact, disabled.

It isn’t difficult to understand, at this point in the post, why I hate documents.  I am so overwhelmed with paper that I sometimes feel it is drowning me, and paper cuts are just par for the course in my situation.  If I don’t have any, I worry that I must have missed some paperwork that needs filling out or filing.

But yesterday I was introduced to a new form of documentation.

Yesterday, two friends came over to help me create a video for my fundraising page.  And we started by documenting things.  One suggested things that we could document, and the other started slowly, but surely, taking video and still footage of all the things.  We started with adaptive tools—the things I need on the daily to live life: special knives and peelers and openers for the kitchen, a tool to tie buttons and pull zippers, various adaptive pens and pencils and cutters (because I can’t use scissors without severe pain and injury), and more.  Then we moved on to the overflowing basket of medications and the daily pill organizers that are filled with multiple doses of many of those medications.  We also printed a copy of my next two weeks of appointments, which required three pages of paper.  And we looked up the list of current illnesses, which wasn’t complete since not all of the things are recorded in the same place, but still took almost an entire page.  Next was physical therapy and occupational therapy papers that show what exercises I am to be doing daily.  We spread them out over the floor, and as I was preparing them I dropped papers that scattered all across the living room.  My friends filmed as I sat and worked to collect and organize this pile of documents once more, and caught on camera the fact that I cannot see some of my therapists due to insurance refusals, documenting that my medical needs are sometimes not met because of money.  And by that time we were all exhausted and decided that we would need another meeting to document all of the ways that my illnesses affect my life—maybe two.

But this documentation, this mini-documentary of my daily life, being made by the son of two documentarians and his fiancé, was eye-opening and expressive of things that I hadn’t imagined.  My life is really difficult.  And there are all sorts of proofs of it.

However, the thing that was most shocking to me was that I am doing all these things.  I am doing my exercises and using my splints and walking in water to get some cardio and eating 1100 calories and none of them sugar and filing all the papers and bringing in all the documents and taking all the medicines and attending four and five medical appointments each week and stretching and meditating and coloring mandalas and doing art therapy and studying nutrition and gardening and using my paraffin bath and doing yoga and writing and more. I am doing far more than anyone might imagine, because I am doing far more than I could have imagined.

When I look at all the things that make up my life, and I am drowning in the sea of papers, and exhausted or craving chocolate or in pain, and feel insignificant and incapable, I rarely look at the proofs of all that I am doing.  I look at all the documents that show I am not “good enough”–poor and sick and lacking.  I don’t look at the documentation that shows me doing every possible thing I can do to be the most well I can be.  I get dragged down by the negative proofs and don’t even consider that there are positive proofs.

While some might not understand the life of the chronically ill person, and will refuse to believe the proofs laid out in my mini-documentary, I know that I am doing so much hard work to live my best possible life.  Whether that means I walked the dog, or I ate vegetables, or I colored for a bit, or I remembered to connect with my breath, relax my face and neck, and engage my core when feeling fearful or overwhelmed on a stressful transit ride, or I washed the dishes, or I asked for help, or I practiced new body mechanics, or I managed to finish an article or blog post, I am doing everything that I can do to live well.

My previous ideas of living well were not good ideas of living well, in many ways.  And when my focus shifted from living out my pain in ways that brought more pain to creating a life that included education and progress and sufficiency and stability, I thought that meant I was on the path to living well.  And I believed that documents like my resume and my degrees and my personal and professional references were the ones that would bring me other good documents, like the deed to a house and paystubs that showed more than three digits before that decimal point and an insurance card that I could bring to the orthodontist to receive services.

But I had it wrong.  None of those documents are proof of living well.  I know plenty of people with bigger incomes and better insurance coverage who are not living well, but are full of contempt and hatred and negativity.  I know plenty of people with lots of letters behind their name from years of education who are completely ignorant on important points.  I know plenty of people who are physically and financially well, but complain every time I see them about one thing or another in their life, refusing to see anything that has good or peace or acceptance or joy at its core and only seeing the negative.  None of those people are living well.

Documenting my life started as a project to garner support from others, by offering proofs of my need.  And, I suppose, that is still one of the goals of the project.  But, it has become much more than that for me.  It has become a proof of the fullness of my life, and the extent of my dedication and strength, as I work day after day after day to live a life of wellness—improving my body and healing my mind in any way possible.  This video will be something that shows others what dealing with constant physical and mental suffering is about, and give them a glimpse of why my financial need is great at this time, and demonstrating why I am incapable of working enough to support myself and depend upon the generosity of others.  But, for me, this video is the catalyst I needed to find self-compassion and to stop denying my tenacious work toward a life well-lived, but accept and proclaim and honor the fact that I am a warrior.

I am not weak, but stronger than almost anyone I know.  I am not lazy, but offer my body the rest it needs to heal and cope and survive.  I am not stupid, but suffer cognitive impairments due to my illness.  I am not reclusive, but work to foster and put energy toward only the best of relationships with the best and most supportive people in my life.  I am not crazy, but deal with multiple mental illnesses that affect my thinking and choices.  I am not playing the victim, but am coping with the ways that I was truly and deeply victimized by all manner of perpetrators.  I am not scared, but am learning to manage hypervigilance and overstimulation and anxiety caused by my diseases.  I am not giving up, but am fighting for every moment of every day to create the best possible life I can live with my challenges.  I am not begging, but I am placing my need before my community in the hope and the trust that provision will be offered in return.  I am not desperate, but I am allowing myself to be vulnerable and open and honest in expressing my struggles.  I am not whining, but I am telling the truth about the realities of chronic illness—and if you think that telling my truth is whining, note every time you complain about a thing, and see which of us expresses more complaint per actual struggle (I’ll bet on you, unless you are dying or also have chronic illness).  I am not lying, exaggerating, or making things up, but I am telling the harshest of realities without any sugar-coating to make it more palatable or acceptable to others.

And I know that it isn’t very palatable or acceptable to discuss any sort of true suffering in our society.  I know that we generally avoid pain, and we lie about who we are and how we are doing on a very regular basis, and we chastise or castigate or cast out any who express in their words or actions or being any hint of the lies we are telling or the avoidance we are seeking.  It is the reason we don’t make eye contact with the pan-handling person on the corner, or look down on the addict or the sex worker, or pretend that we “earned” our privileges and not that we are taking part in a system of injustice that is harming others and refusing helps for those in need.

I wonder, though, if it is possible to truly live well when we can’t look in the eyes of the homeless, or see the addict and the sex worker as our equal, and admit that we have privileges and seek to create a more just system that offers basic human rights to all people.  And I move toward an answer of “no”.  The more I identify with the least and the lowest of the society, and the more I hear people’s judgment and lies and excuses to reject my illness or my need or my deserving assistance, the more I believe that I am living well, and those others are living sad and sorry lives.

I know that I am living well.  I am putting every ounce of energy into being stronger, more able, less dependent, more mobile, calmer, more balanced, thinner, more educated, more aware, and just better than I was yesterday, and I am doing it in a way that doesn’t deny my experience, but embraces the reality with which I am faced and by which I am surrounded.  I am doing it without shame and with honesty and vulnerability.  And I am doing it in ways that recognize my privilege and stand against systemic injustices.  I am living well, and am proud to be doing so.

So, I am no longer afraid of or weighed down by documentation.  I’m learning to embrace the documents in my experience as proofs of transformation and hard work and betterment.  I’m learning to see every piece of paper as a document that shares life and fights disease and seeks equity and justice, even when those papers are also annoyingly redundant and seem ridiculous.  And I am also recognizing that every word I write here, and every thank you note sent, and every photo with friends and family and my dog, and every selfie of a new haircut, and every update or post or page that is put out by me or on my behalf or with me tagged is also documentation, and it is documenting a most beautiful life.

Bring on the paperwork, world.

Paper cuts or no, I am ready to keep on documenting and to keep on being the best and the most I am able to be.  And no matter how many diagnoses come my way, and no matter how many treatments and therapies are added to my daily routine, I am going to keep on adding documents that show a life of wellness—maybe not in my body, and maybe not in my psychology, but definitely in my spirit.

I will live life well and share a record that screams of legacy and not of lack.

Making Enemies and Infuriating People

I have a friend who often uses the hashtag #makingfriendsandinfluencingpeople, which I believe is based on a book about doing just that—using specific strategies to create connection and influence others.  I also believe that it was a book popular within business circles some years ago, so I have suspicions that the influence part was what was stressed, and the getting what you want from others is the point of using the strategies.  I don’t know how much we can then call that “friendship”.  (But I haven’t read the book, so I can’t speak to its tone or effectiveness with certainty.)

My friends—the true and real and lasting ones—are people whom I suffer with and rejoice with through all sorts of circumstances.  And I don’t think that a book of strategy for connections would have been useful in the development of those relationships, because they were forged in fire, in many ways, and that forging was often horribly uncomfortable.  Really, the way that we became friends was by not appeasing one another, and by venturing into dark waters together … some of which I thought would drown us both and destroy our connection.  But the thing about being willing to sacrifice your friendship for the good of your friend is that it strengthens the bond with the people who are best for you, and offers those who would not be your friend through both thick and thin the opportunity to walk away.

I was recently speaking with a dear friend via Skype, and we questioned how we became friends at all, since we were both very closed to connection and guarded and mistrusting and walled off at the time.  But, as we discussed it, I realized that sharing mutual distrust for humanity was what bonded us.  And that sounds a bit weird, but we created a connection out of not connecting.  We shared uncomfortable space.  We were both different.  We were both damaged.  We were both in need.  We both knew frightening dangers and horrible pain and devastating events in life.  And because we shared all of this, we were able to quickly dive into the dark waters together.

Other friends have been less quick to dive in.  Some friendships were not cemented until years without communication had passed, and the realization that the challenges the other had placed upon us were meant to love us, and not to harm us, and the remorse and the forgiveness and the forgetting of the division and distance made the bonds strong.

Suffering plays a big part in friendship, because the best way to connect is to break together and to heal together.

Religious texts mention this frequently.  Warnings against fair-weather friends, and commands to support one another, and models of rising and falling together abound, not just in one religion, but in many.  Life together means a life of ups and downs together.

I think that one of the reasons we fail, and make enemies instead of friends, is that we react harshly when we are incapable of rising and falling together.  When we think that individualism is of high importance, and we refuse to imagine that those falling are doing so because that is half of life, but believe that falling is a moral failure, we speak in ways that harm others.  When we are falling, and nobody will hold us as we do so, we sometimes lash out in what looks like anger, but is truly fear at its core.  When we are afraid of falling, we pretend to be rising, and we become disingenuous and dishonest and untrustworthy, which breaks apart bonds and ruins relationship.

We make enemies and infuriate people when we don’t allow ourselves to enter the dark waters together.  When we avoid the falling half of life, and try to wish away the times of struggle and the dangers and horrors that accompany life together, we cannot treat one another in positive ways.  We make up excuses and judge individuals harshly and create scales of worth and value or hierarchies of wrongs and sins and evils in order to justify our refusal to join one another in the sorrows, and be half-friends who only stand in the moments of joy or praise or pride with others.

I am in a season that lacks joy or praise or pride, and others use the scales and hierarchies in attempts to discredit me, so they don’t have to accept that this season—this falling—can happen to any of us at any time.  They hurt me with accusations and define me with degradations, in the name of fairness and righteousness and, at times, even in the name of god.  And I don’t quite understand the instinct to distance one’s self from the one falling.  It seems like far more work to uphold the excuses and the judgments and the scales and the hierarchies than to simply hold onto one another as we fall and as we rise.

I understand that the dark waters are a bit frightening, and that it takes work to swim through to the other side.  But many of us aren’t offered the chance to ignore those waters.  Some of us have been drowning in those dark waters since we were small children.  Others of us wade in the dark waters daily due to lack of resources or abusive acts against us or illnesses or addictions or living in the midst of violence or deep loss.  But those who have a choice, and those who choose not to venture into that space are failing the ones who are falling, and pretending at goodness by attaching themselves to those that are rising.  Being that fair-weather half-friend makes a liar of you, because your joy and praise and pride is not your own, but it is stolen from another.

As one who has been in the dark waters for a lifetime, I want to share something with you.  It is terrible and desperate and contains horrors … and you should long to dive in.  Making friends and influencing people is meaningless if it is this false, half-friend sense of friendship, and the only influence is yours upon others, and not theirs upon you.  Diving into dark waters builds relationships that last and that stand firm in the face of overwhelming circumstances.  Diving into dark waters, and holding one another while we are falling and while we are rising, offers us the fullness of relationship that superficial connections cannot achieve.  Trust, boundaries, vulnerabilities, honesty, and deep love can only accompany these dark-water friendships.  Everything else is insufficient, and you are missing out on love and life if you don’t have people in your life who are holding you while you rise and while you fall—who don’t attend your struggles the way they attend your happiness, who come to the parties and not the funerals.

This is the fullness of love—the “unconditional” that we hear about, but rarely experience.  Rising and falling together.  Suffering and celebrating together.  And refusing to hold on to any judgments or scales or hierarchies.  Wading in the dark waters, and connecting in the midst of that murky river, with walls stripped down and conditions removed and humility and trust and the knowledge that brokenness is not all-defining, but that we can build a beautiful love from the bits and pieces, is a most fabulous use of time and energy.

I don’t often make friends and influence people.  I live a relatively humble life, and I don’t get out into the world to make connections very often.  And sometimes I make enemies and infuriate people, but not for the reasons listed earlier in this post, but because I push back at people’s refusal to accept the existence and the pervasiveness and the importance of the dark waters, and I try to break down the judgments and scales and hierarchies that some hold more dear than love.  But I seek, every moment, to be the type of person who holds humanity in high regard, and who seeks to hold every human I meet as they rise and fall as a result.

I don’t always succeed.  Because even as I seek to break down judgments, scales, and hierarchies, I was conditioned to hold them in higher esteem than humanity and love.  So I know that it is a fight to continue to hold everyone as they rise and fall.  I know that it isn’t easy.  I know it doesn’t always come naturally at first, and there are days when you will revert back to the scales or judgments by default (and you are usually overcome with shame when you realize you have done so).  However, every moment of that fight and every discomfort that results from diving into the dark waters is worth it.

Love—in the most deep and pure and deconstructed form—is worth it.

Rising and falling together is love.  Meeting needs is love.  Standing together in the darkest of moments is love.  And if you don’t brave being in the deep, you won’t find love.  You will find the half-friends who let you remain unchallenged in the good times, but abandon you in the difficult times.

When the deep rises up and you find yourself wading the dark waters, you want to be held by true love, and friends who are there for the whole of your experience.  And you want to hold onto others as they rise and fall.  Because a deeper, richer, more full life is the reward for holding on.

I want that life.  I want those friends.  I want that love.

Do you?

Dare to dive in.

 

Feeling

I have embarked upon the KonMari method of tidying my home and my life.  And it is a lot of damned work!  To collect all of your things is, in itself, a huge task.  To go through all of them is even more of a struggle.

But it is also a gift.

This morning, I went through all the stacks of paper that have accumulated on my desk as I sought to cleanse the past from my file boxes.  When I initially began this project, I had five stacks of paper:  theology stuff, philosophy stuff, sexuality stuff, resources, and the pile where things I couldn’t decide upon waited for further consideration.  And I fully intended to neatly file the remaining papers, and felt proud that I had accomplished creating a big bag of items to remove from my space.  After I began the art of tidying, and touched every item, and considered whether or not it sparked joy in me, I took those five stacks and narrowed them to about eleven pages, leaving two huge bags that I cannot carry for the trash heap.

Eleven pages.  That is all that sparked joy out of the mounds of items that I had previously thought I must or I wanted or I needed to keep.

The KonMari method is a way of choosing what you love.  And you do this by physically handling every item.  When I first began the process, and began touching each sheet of paper, I thought this would take me years to get through just the items on my desk.  But I was wrong.  I began to know immediately the things that I touched which touched my heart.  I sprinted through the process of cleaning my desk.  It took less than an hour to find the beautiful Wonder Woman covered work surface, and to feel free of all of that paper.

Just touching it let me know whether I loved it or not.  Just the feeling.

I’ve spent most of my life repressing one feeling or another, and in the process became an unfeeling being—untouched by what surrounded me and dissociating from the world and from myself.  Distance from feelings is sort of the norm for a lot of people in my history.  Somehow stoicism and “strength” have been placed in honor and to not show emotion or break down or cry have been ways that people around me approached life.

But that way of approaching life sucks.

Once those walled off places in my being where all the emotions were being stuffed began to crack, a flood of emotion happened.  And with that flood of emotion came care and compassion and love and passion and desire and purpose.  All of those things are good.  But in pushing back the anger or frustration or fear or confusion in my life, I was also making it impossible to wade in the waters of all those beautiful things.  They are all mixed together.  You can’t hide one and hold another.  You either feel or you don’t.

Feeling things can be really difficult at times … especially those times that bring up the anger or frustration or fear or confusion.  But feeling things can also be amazing and awe-inspiring and utterly fabulous!  And understanding that both are natural and normal, and that judgments of “good” or “bad” or “right” or “wrong” are not helpful or correct, but embracing all of them as a part of the human experience, brings great freedom and joy.

I am finding joy in eleven pages today.  I am finding joy in letting go of what doesn’t help me and embracing that which does.  I am finding joy in accepting that things serve us well for a time, and then we must send them on their way.  I am finding joy in touching and feeling and embracing and releasing.

There is another method that I am reminded of during this process.  Morita therapy is something that my daughter introduced me to, and it has become a great help, which parallels my experience with the KonMari method in some ways.  Morita therapy is based in accepting emotions—recognizing them and honoring them, but not necessarily needing to act upon them.  You feel all of the things, and judge none of them as good or bad, right or wrong, but just let them be.  Then you hold what you wish and release what you don’t wish to hold.  You just let the feelings come and go.  You needn’t act upon them.  So, when you feel anger, it is valid, but you needn’t punch people as a result.  You simply feel the anger, let it be present, and then send it on its way.  When you feel anxiety, or happiness, or fear, or peace, or whatever emotion may be present, you let it be felt and validate its presence, and then choose to act or not to act upon that feeling.  This is a rather simplistic explanation of the method, but explaining more fully would take up too many words and too much of my time.  You can easily find more information on Morita, just Google that shit. (Technology is fabulous sometimes!)

So, I sit at my very clean desk, and I think about feeling.  I think about touching my belongings and how easily I can feel whether a thing brings me joy or not.  And I think about touching my soul, and how it should probably be just as easy to know which emotions and thoughts and actions will bring me joy.  But for some reason it isn’t.

I blame conditioning by a patriarchal heteronormative society.

I blame lots and lots of things on conditioning by a patriarchal heteronormative society.  It deserves to carry that blame. It really screws up a multitude of things.

Somehow “strength” became synonymous with not showing emotion—that stoicism that I mentioned earlier.  And that meant building walls.  And even after they broke and the flood happened I kept trying to rebuild the walls.  Society wanted me to, after all.  Seeing and experiencing someone else’s flood makes your own walls crack a little.  So, avoiding anyone’s emotions seems a safe route to keeping your own walled in.  And when you fight for such a long time to patch walls, it becomes a struggle to do anything but … even when you know the patching is futile and robs you of the ability to fully experience joys and passions and loves.  It becomes a struggle to know yourself and accept your feelings.  It becomes a challenge to keep the walls down.  You keep feeling like you ought to put them back up.  And you feel vulnerable when you are walking around town without walls while all the others around you are locked behind rows and rows of brick and mortar.

But vulnerability is strength.  It brings happiness.  It offers you a more fulfilling life. And it frees you to feel all emotions, and to experience the fullness of humanity.

So, today I am vowing to touch all the things, and to feel everything—every part of my life, both internal and external—and to release what isn’t helping me and to hold what sparks joy.

And it is going to be a lot of damned work!

But it is also going to be a gift.