Of Letters and Our Former Selves

Dear 19 Year Old Emily,

Firstly, please don’t blame yourself for what I’m going to tell you. It’s not your fault. You were doing the best you could with what you had. There’s no fault in that.

He’ll be your first. You’ll be his first. He’ll be the first one to tell you that he loves you. You’ll tell him that you love him back.That’s how these things go. You’ll slowly lose everything you care about because that’s what Good Girlfriends do. Theater will be gone. Dance will be gone. Before you know it, your life will revolve around him. Then you’ll take a step back and think maybe you should end it with him. You’ll choose not to because all of your friends are dating all of his friends. You don’t want to lose your friends, so you decide to stick around. All of his friends will marry all of your friends, so you’ll lose them anyway. You’ll just lose them later than you thought. You’ll find yourself doing things you don’t want to, like drinking, because that’s what Good Girlfriends do. Good Girlfriends go along with their boyfriends because, somehow, their boyfriends know better than they do. They don’t. You’ll want to say something, but choose not to. It’s easier to not speak up. You’ll just take the drink. It’s easier to keep doing things and slowly getting used to them. You’ll forget that you didn’t really want to do them in the first place.

You won’t remember the exact date and neither do I. You will remember what happened. As usual, by that point, you’ll be mostly drunk. He’ll decide, for whatever reason, he wants one of his friends to come watch you two. At first you agree because that’s what drunk Good Girlfriends do. Then you’ll change your mind. You’ll tell him no. He doesn’t listen. He lets his friend keep watching. Instead of fighting back, you’ll just lie there. It’s easier. Don’t blame yourself for always taking the easy way out. You don’t know any better. That’s okay. You’ll fake it, just to get him off you and get his friend out of the room. To add insult to injury, his friend will tell you both that it didn’t really do anything for him. You’ll feel humiliated for no reason. There’s a word for what happens that night.

Rape.

You said stop and he refused to listen. As time goes on, you’ll start to hurt yourself. You’d gotten a few piercings here and there, but nothing terribly exotic. You figured you were in college so why not get your belly button pierced (that’s what all girls do, right?) and more piercings in your ears. The piercings will get more extreme. You’ll get your nipples pierced just out of spite. He said he didn’t like girls who had their nipples pierced. I can see now what you were trying to do, even if you can’t. You want to break up with him, but you don’t want to be the one to pull the plug. So you start doing little things like that to push him into doing it for you. Then, one morning your senior year, you’ll wake up and decide to get a tattoo. Before that day is over, you’ll have your first tattoo. Then you’ll get another. And another. And another. You’ll graduate. He’ll move back home. He doesn’t want you to be his girlfriend any more, but he still wants you to visit so that he can still prove to himself that you’re at his beck and call. Eventually, it will end. Your pain won’t. You’ll just keep hurting yourself. You’ll drink too much. You’ll sleep with anyone. You’ll get more tattoos. A part of you will know something is wrong, but you won’t be able to quite put your finger on it. Then he’ll call you.

He’ll ask you to go to lunch with him. He’s in town with his new girlfriend and wants to see if you were free. You’ll agree to go just to prove you’re “over him”. It won’t work. He’ll just tell you how great his life is now. He’ll tell you all about his new girlfriend. He’ll point out that’s she’s a redhead just like you are. He’s got the upper hand and he knows it. It will end up making things worse rather than better. I don’t blame you for trying. Again, you don’t know what else to do.

You’ll kick yourself for not having your shit together. For what it’s worth, I don’t have my shit together. I’m not perfect. I’m not who you think you’ll be when you’re my age. You think you’ll be married, just like all your friends are doing. You’ll wish you had been thrown in the pond, too. Trust me when I say that had you gone through with what you thought you wanted, you’d be divorced. I want you to know, in the end, you made the right choice. It won’t feel like it at the time. You’ll feel left out. You’ll feel like you screwed up along the way. There are days I still feel left out. Then there are the days where I question if what I’m supposed to do is what I really want to do. You scoff at me, but you’ll get there. Again, a little tiny part of you has always questioned if what is supposed to happen is really the best thing for you. You’ll do the right thing for the wrong reasons and the wrong thing for the right reasons. You and I are the same. We like to remind ourselves, even in a tiny way, that we aren’t the kind of girl (woman) who does what’s expected of us. You just take it to a little more of an extreme than I do. That’s okay. You’re still a teenager. Though there are days I still feel like a teenager, too.

I know what I’ve said is upsetting. I know what I’ve told you is more than a little hard to swallow. You’ll get through it. I promise you will. You’re smart. You’re tenacious. While what I’ve told you mostly about what you’ve lost, I want you to see what you’ve gained. I don’t want to spoil the surprises and the breakthroughs you’ll have. I know you hate surprises, but these are worth the wait.

I love you, even if you don’t.

XOXO,

30 Year Old Emily

Of mood swings and keeping your hands to yourself

There was an incident at work last week which could have resulted in disciplinary action against myself and one of my employees. It was a completely bullshit issue and didn’t result in anything other than getting us both pissed. When I was letting her vent, I had an epiphany. She said something about people in other areas violating the dress code & not getting written up. This had no relation to the issue we were supposedly getting written up for. It hit me.

Defend yourself, but don’t change the subject.

I’m very guilty of this. I’ll get in trouble for something & immediately try to find something worse that someone else is guilty of, then point to them. “Well, I did this, but she came in with her boobs hanging out and nothing happened to her!”. What did that accomplish? Nothing. If you didn’t fuck up, defend yourself, but don’t make an example of someone else. The same applies for when you do fuck up. Dragging someone else into it, especially someone who is completely irrelevant to the situation at hand, doesn’t help your case.

Last fall, I was dealing with a royal fuck up. I was prepared to stand in front of the board of directors and explain what happened. It didn’t end up coming to that, but I was willing to explain myself without pointing fingers. It wasn’t entirely my fault, but I had a heavy hand in it. As much as it sucks being a grown up and admitting our mistakes, it looks worse to try and shift the blame. In this case, the accusation was unfounded and flat out unfair. I was given the chance to defend us and simply stated the facts. I didn’t blame anyone else. I didn’t drag other areas into it. The facts of the matter outweighed the small error that turned into the threat of something that would be in our HR files for all eternity. I also had a little help from my friends. 😀

On my mental health front, it comes and goes. I’ve been largely keeping up with my “to do” list. My knee has started acting up, so exercise has been difficult. I have been showering or taking a bath daily, brushing my teeth, putting on makeup, and keeping myself groomed. I’m either writing or blogging every day. If I’m watching TV, I’ll have my knitting with me. Still keeping plans with friends on a somewhat regular basis.My sleeping is hit or miss. I try to listen to my body as best I can. I was asleep at 945 on Thursday night. The night before, I kept having nightmares and waking up every few hours. When I would start to move, that would wake up the kitten & she would keep me awake until she settled down again. I’m still having mood swings, but my therapist said that was normal. I tracked my moods just in the course of one day and I hit 5 or 6 different emotions. I do the best I can with what I have. I’ve found that going to work has helped. If I just sit around or lie in bed all day, I stew. Stewing is only beneficial for tough meat. I would like to remain tough, thank you.

I have my people I check in with daily. I have a very good friend keeping an eye on me at work. I really can’t express how grateful I am for all the people who love me, put up with me, or just can’t figure out how to get rid of me yet. When I’m angry or upset, I remind myself of where I was 5 years ago. I couldn’t feel anything. I couldn’t even cry. I was constantly having seizures (though I didn’t know they were seizures at the time). I was doing dangerous things because I couldn’t think of anything else to do. When I’m sobbing over a broken nail or spilling my coffee, it’s hard to remember that. Then I can look down at my arms and remember how far I’ve come. At least I can cry over a broken nail or spilled coffee. I’m not staring at a bloody stump and thinking “Hrm, maybe I should do something about that bleeding.”. Sometimes it’s not about what you can do, but what you can’t do.

XOXO!

Of black dogs and dirty blondes

No matter how much therapy you’ve had or healing you’ve experienced, there’s a little piece of darkness always lurking around in your head. I happen to call mine Hailey. I haven’t heard from her in a while. Recently, she decided to pop in again. Sometimes it’s due to an actual stress and sometimes it’s just because it’s a day ending in “y”.

It started with the nightmares. Two full days of every time I closed my eyes, I had a nightmare. They ranged from mildly disturbing to waking up sweating making sure that I still had all my teeth and / or limbs. Then I started craving a margarita. Even in my previous life, margaritas weren’t my thing. If I happened to be at a Mexican restaurant or it was a Cinco de Mayo party, then sure. Left to my own devices, it was vodka or wine without a second thought. I could brush both of those off fairly easily. Then came the real kicker.

I wanted another tattoo.

I’ve been retired, as it were, for almost exactly 4 years. I started my final tattoo on September 11, 2010. That was my phoenix, a fitting end to that particular part of my life. I could picture the hypothetical new one in great and gory detail. It was a black and white line work tattoo of the famous Alice in Wonderland illustration with the Cheshire Cat. Mind you, I was never an Alice in Wonderland fan. It was on the back of my left calf, taking up almost the entire space. I saw it exactly how it would look completely finished and fully healed. That’s what jarred me back into reality. I wanted to hurt myself again. She was there, waiting patiently for me to see her.

Fighting her is like fighting a Chinese finger trap. The more I struggle to get loose, the tighter her grip becomes. Instead of pitching a fit and trying to beat her back into the dark recesses of my head, I talked to her. She presents herself very simply. She offers things that seem like simple choices, but are deeply destructive. It’s under the guise of helping me get through whatever it is that’s troubling me. She promises the darkness is a good place. After all, don’t gems grow in caves? It’s easier to blend in the dark. In the light, every harsh detail is visible.  Isolating myself from things and people I truly love is for the best. They can’t hurt me if they can’t see me. I listened to all she had to say before offering my response. She presents herself as a false goddess, offering the impossibility of a quick fix.

There is no such thing as a quick fix. She’s eloquent, to be sure. The darkness has done its part to shape me like a gem. I respect those solid crystals for what they are. It’s easy to hide in caves. It’s easy to shut down again. I won’t argue that point at all. I refuse to give up the light I’ve worked so hard to see. It’s not hers to take. It’s easy to take something from someone who doesn’t care. After all, they won’t fight you for something that doesn’t matter. It’s harder to take away something that matters. Of course, if that something is left outside after the walls have gone back up, she can take it and wander off without me being any the wiser. I don’t like that game. I’ve never liked to share my toys. Just read my kindergarten report card. I refuse to let her take away my light along with the people and things that I love. The wall has to stay down so I can protect what’s rightfully mine. It took a strong shake to see what she had already taken. In pieces, I can begin to take those things back. She and I will always coexist, for better or worse, ’til death do us part. All it takes is one little hole, one little rip, for me to walk away.

And then I cried.

I may have set myself up to be hauled off to the looney bin by giving my depression a corporeal form. At least I would be in good company. JK Rowling created the Dementors. Winston Churchill had his black dog. I have a green tinged, gaunt, greasy haired blonde named Hailey. For us, at least, it’s easier to discuss depression as a physical being. It’s also easier to communicate it to others who don’t suffer depression. Show, don’t tell. Perhaps the beasts of depression should have their own twisted support group as well.

[Disclaimer: Yes, I have spoken to my therapist and I will be seeing her next week. No need to fear that your faithful author will do something rash.  As always , this is a solely anecdotal story. I am not a mental health professional qualified to give advice regarding depression. I’m just here to offer the little bit I’ve learned.]

XOXO!

Of holding hands and making plans

This post all but bent my brain backwards. It was an absolutely fascinating read. It’s written by a gay, devout Mormon who is married to a woman. More than rethinking a traditional marriage, it made me rethink what it means to be gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Are you gay if, post puberty, you hold hands with someone of the same sex and they *aren’t* in danger of falling off a cliff? Are you gay if you, also post puberty, sleep in a bed with the someone of the same sex? Or are you gay simply because you’re sexually attracted to someone with the same equipment between their legs? If the first two are true, then slap my ass and call me a big ol’ lesbian. As for the third one, I’m of the opinion that *everyone* is more attractive with the addition of a fig leaf. 😉 

Back when I was first trying to figure out why I was self destructing, a male therapist I tried out asked me where I thought I fell on the Kinsey scale. It seemed like a completely out of left field question when I was in there for another issue. After I found a therapist I liked, she explained that survivors will often find a shift in their sexuality, either temporary or permanent, after their abuse. It could be eschewing everyone who is the same sex as your abuser. You could shut down completely and it doesn’t matter who is interested. It could be, as was my case, anything resembling a human being with a pulse was fair game. “Down there” was irrelevant. In the grand scheme of things, I did always lean more toward men than women even though my abuser was male.

Will was doing his level best to show his frat brothers that he wasn’t gay. I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned that before or not, but he caught a lot of flack from the house. I’m not 100% sure why. Nothing about him screamed “GAY!”. If I’m comparing him to my first boyfriend who did come out, he was a standard straight dude. Even though I could never prove it, he was asserting his masculinity by having a girlfriend who would dress in skimpy outfits and make out with other girls. I was his beard. It wouldn’t shock me at all if I found out he ultimately did identify as gay. There’s no value judgment there, just a statement. For all I know, I’m completely making this up in my head and it has absolutely no basis in reality. It’s just a gut feeling that has been hanging out there for a very long time. I could be looking for a reason when there isn’t one.

Tying into my last post about Robin Williams, my absolute favorite expression of love on film comes from The Birdcage. Nathan Lane’s character (Albert) has stormed off because their son doesn’t want him around when his fiancee’s uber conservative parents come to visit. Robin Williams’ character (Armand) goes after him and finds him at a bus stop. Without narrating the entire scene, Armand tells Albert that he wants to be buried next to him because Albert has always made him laugh and he wants to be able to laugh forever. He then presents Albert with a legal document making them equal partners in all aspects. I tear up every time I watch it. And it’s between two men. That, dear readers, is truly transcendent.

XOXO!

P.S. My dad’s second hip replacement went very well. He’s back home after less than 2 days. Cue a GIANT sigh of relief.

Of Disney villains and unwitting allegories

Spoilers ahead for Maleficent:

Boy & I saw Maleficent last weekend. I’ve been pretty excited for it if nothing else for the costuming. As a friend of mine aptly put it, it was essentially  a 90 minute MAC commercial. Overall, I really enjoyed it. Maleficent definitely wins for the best Disney villain. She turns into a dragon. ‘Nuff said. I haven’t seen the animated version in probably 20 years, so I didn’t remember a whole lot of the plot. I love the idea of origin stories. I’ve seen a lot of complaints floating around the Internet that Disney missed the mark by making her all too “nice”.

What Disney managed to do was present an excellent example of recovering from rape trauma. It’s a standard setup. She falls in love with a boy. He says he loves her. Then he drugs her and rips away her identity by cutting off her wings.  He shamelessly exploited her feelings for his own gain. Once the shock wore off, she was out for revenge. Revenge is something that’s a good idea in theory, but a terrible idea in practice. There’s a reason it’s a fatal flaw in just about every work of literature. Instead of empowering someone, it leaves them open to all kinds of poor decision making. They’re so blinded by the motivation to hit their abuser right where it hurts, they don’t notice what’s going on around them. Maleficent set out to exact said revenge by cursing the king’s daughter. For argument’s sake, let’s say the animated version captures her during this point in the recovery cycle.

The animated Maleficent is borderline sociopathic. She’s all for torturing and cursing innocent bystanders with no remorse. Again, this isn’t at all uncommon for survivors. Three years ago, if someone had told me I could dish out whatever punishment I saw fit without any legal consequences, I would have done it. After a little time, I wouldn’t have been able to look myself in the face. I would have allowed myself to stoop to his level. Tempting as though it may be, once the high wears off, you’re left with whatever regret and pain that resulted. In the process of ensuring Aurora stays alive to fulfill the curse, Maleficent begins to see the error of her ways. Aurora’s only fault was being born to a rapist. She watches this little girl grow up only to realize she screwed up by cursing the wrong person. The animated Maleficent didn’t have this kind of empathy and it ended up killing her. This version gave the viewer an alternative. While she sees her mistake and tries to lift the curse before it’s too late, she can’t. Aurora falls into the coma just like Maleficent promised 16 years earlier. This is a very important turning point. In recognizing your humanity and the humanity of your abuser; good, bad, or ugly, it makes the wound a little easier to close. If you continue down the path of revenge and no remorse, it will kill you.

This is also where Disney turned the true love’s kiss trope on its head (Boy says Frozen did it first. Hipster). Maleficent makes her apologies to the comatose Aurora, kisses her on the forehead, and walks away. As she’s walking away, Aurora wakes up. In the final battle when Maleficent gets her wings back, her identity is restored. By this point, the king has totally lost it and it results in his own death. See what I said about revenge, kids? Then, as they say, they lived happily ever after.  She got back the part of herself she lost and kept going. While most of us will never literally get back what we lost, it’s a step.

Well played, Disney. If it wasn’t intentional, I tip my hat anyway. Maybe someday the target audience will realize the parallels. Until then, I’ll be borrowing that epic hat.

XOXO!

Of old flames and text messages

In less than a week, Boy & I will be setting off to sit in a field for 4 days listening to a bunch of obscure bands. This is also known as going to Bonnaroo. For those unaware, it’s arguably the largest music festival east of the Mississippi River. One of my (many) ex-boyfriends is big into obscure music & introduced me to a lot of the artists playing the festival. I was curious to see how many of the acts he had recommended to me and if there were any I missed. I have a bunch of my old texts from previous phones saved in my email (thanks to Boy for figuring that one out for me). Along with musical advice cached in those old texts, I found a girl who offered a very, very sobering view of early to mid trauma recovery.

A history of my drinking goes something along this timeline. I graduated from college in 2007. By that point, I was already a heavy drinker. My abuser and I were in the same year. He moved back to New Orleans and I stayed behind. I was just out of college, so it wasn’t weird. I kept up my heavy drinking habits until 2010. By that point, most of my friends rarely drank unless it was a bachelor / bachelorette party. I did my first stint in AA for about 9 months starting in 2010. I bounced on and off the wagon from the summer of 2011 through 2012. I finally broke the cycle last year. For reference, this ex and I met in 2009 and broke up after about 5 months. We reconnected again for reasons I don’t remember in 2012. As I read through the old messages, I got a painfully stark view of who I was. I only outright mentioned a hangover once, but I knew I was omitting many more. I would text him at all hours of the night. If he minded, he never said anything. If anything, he encouraged the behaviour. He’s 15 years older than me with 2 kids. I know he got a contact high off of having a party girl ex sharing pretty much everything. That’s not a jab at him even if it sounds like it. He knew just how hard I could party and how much detail I was willing to share. If I ever see him again, he’ll recognize the outside (I’m pretty damn hard to miss). The minute I open my mouth, though, he wouldn’t recognize me. There was a time where I would have been horribly embarrassed to read those texts, much less openly share the basic content. Until recently, I had the hardest time looking back at that girl and forgiving her actions, mistakes, and shortcomings. Now I look back at her and only feel sympathy and sadness. You know that piece of paper with the target that says “bang head here until pain stops”? That was her method of trying to stop the pain. Then the numbness wears off and it’s back to drinking, disordered eating, and fucking anything with a penis and a pulse. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Given both the stereotypes and literature sent to us by the Bonnaroo organizers, there will be no shortage of alcohol and drugs. The 2009 me would have spent the whole time completely wasted looking for aforementioned penis and pulse and ditching whoever I was with, scaring the hell out of them in the process. The 2014 me will slather myself in sunscreen, pull up a chair, and enjoy the music; all while staying properly hydrated. As nutty as it sounds, I’m glad to have that perspective. I don’t kick myself for what I did. Rather, I can bask in what I do today, the memories I’ll get to actually remember, and appreciate someone from my past who introduced me to a whole genre I would have otherwise missed. 

I’ll try to remember to set everything to auto-post while I’m off. Let’s see if I’ll actually remember it.

XOXO!

Of the trade-beauty for ashes

My very first guest post comes from Carrie. She’s a bright, loving, and all around awesome gal. I hope you enjoy her words and her voice.

The Trade: Beauty for Ashes

I recently read a quote that said, “Can you remember who you were before the world told you who you should be?” There was no author listed, just a simple question, yet profound in the same sense. For days I have been meditating on these thoughts: Who was I before my rape and assault? Who was I before I was a survivor? Who was I before recovery, support groups, therapy, and other survivors that were such a crucial and integral part of my life?

Recovery brings a variety of emotions parading on whim through your heart—grief, sadness, anxiety, anger, worry, jealousy, bitterness, and frustration to name a few. I have allowed myself to feel each and every one of them because I know now that I must in order to continue to heal. It hurts though. And since lately, I can’t seem to remember “who I was before,” and the hurt has turned to unrest.

Those who know me know my faith is my lifeline. One scripture I am fiercely clinging to promises, “[God will] comfort all who mourn and give them a crown of beauty instead of ashes.” In Biblical times, it was customary to lie in ashes during great times of mourning and difficulty. So when the people of that time had a problem in their lives, they would literally sit down in a pile of ashes. There was no mask, no putting on a brave face. I love that. Life is real. Terrible, unspeakable tragedies occur all around us on a daily basis. It is inevitable that you will experience pain. It won’t always be painful. There may be nothing initially beautiful about ashes, but there are heartfelt moments and amazing people you meet on this journey. I have experienced love, acceptance, and understanding as never before, and I truly believe we can all trade our ashes for beauty. Even if you are not spiritual, the metaphor can still be powerful.

What about the recovery—the trading hurt for healing part? I may not still be in the ashes of my assault, but I don’t feel like I’m anywhere near understanding or seeing the beauty from it either. Can I just be honest? The waiting, the healing—It is the most difficult, most excruciating experience I’ve ever been through, even more so than the assault itself.

This is the hard part to write about because the wound is still so fresh. Although it’s been years since my trauma occurred, some days it still feels like yesterday. Small things turn into huge things. A simple task turns into an unexpected, complicated mess. My therapist, who is a saint, keeps telling me to, “Be kind to yourself.” But, I’m angry! I’m frustrated! I want to shake off the ashes and never look back. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t happen that way. It is a trade. This recovery is a process, and I have to be patient with myself.

Getting upset when I can’t physically or mentally show up for friends and family bothers me the most. I’m hard pressed to have patience with myself during those times. Let me share a recent example. There was a holiday party after work that I had been looking forward to for weeks. Parties and gatherings are overwhelming for many, as well as myself, but I was actually anticipating a fun time with some coworkers and friends. Well, it didn’t happen. After work, I had a panic attack complete with those voices telling me how much of a failure I was, how I would never be enough, how people were going to see how incompetent I was at my job, that I was a mess, and so on. Staying for the party was out of the question. I rushed home and collapsed in a ball sobbing uncontrollably for the better part of an hour. But here’s where the story gets good and I am trying to focus—You know those heartfelt moments and amazing people I wrote about earlier? One of my friends texted asking me if I were feeling better, but frankly, I was a little over life at that point. Well, she told me to come over right away. She sat with me and listened. Her husband made me grilled cheese and a cup of tea. I was probably there for three hours, and it was just what I needed to keep going and keep trying. She refused to let me give up. She and her family are just several of the many amazing people who have opened their hearts and homes to me and have prodded me lovingly along on this journey.

Brene’ Brown, a renowned author, researcher and speaker states, “Owning our story can be hard, but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky, but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” Brene’ also speaks a lot about courage and says that the true meaning of courage is to tell your story with your whole heart. Well, I am working on that. I want to tell my story with my whole heart. Why? Because in the midst of lying in and dusting off ashes, there are beautiful moments. There are amazing people who see the beauty from your ashes even when you can’t and especially when you can’t! I don’t want anyone to forget that or get too mucked down in the ashes that they can’t see those moments happening!

So back to the original question, “Can you remember who you were before the world told you who you should be?” If you can’t, that’s ok. While you’re searching, experiencing this ride we call life, stop often. Recognize those little moments and that joy that comes from connecting with people who truly care for you. Allow yourself to feel everything, but also allow yourself to begin trading your ashes for beauty. I am speaking to myself as much as to you. Listen to those whom you love and let them sing your life song to you when you can’t remember the words. That is part of authentic recovery and those moments remind you of everything you truly are.

Thanks, Carrie. Beautifully said.

XOXO!