Monthly Archives: November 2013

The Painting

“That is the funny thing about paint.  At the first cold splash of reality it washes away.  And the surface you are trying cover is as ugly as ever.”  —Jodi Picoult

 

In layman’s terms, a cognitive distortion is an extremely exaggerated or irrational thought pattern that perpetuates several different psychological disorders.  It is commonly assumed that these distortions are at the heart of eating disorders.  Personally, I disagree.  Having an eating disorder, to me, is like painting over a picture that has already been created.  The picture on the underside, the thing that is in the past, is ugly, but it’s covered up the incessant need to be “beautiful.”  “Good enough.”  “Thin.”  Take away the paint, and that thing is still there.  It hasn’t been dealt with; it hasn’t been destroyed.  It still hurts.  Festers.

It is always there when you look in the mirror.  

A large portion of people who experience some type of eating disorder are perfectionists.  Perfectionism is shown to be a fairly significant risk factor for the development of an eating disorder, and the levels of perfectionism tend to improve slightly when the person is in “recovery.”  An article I read recently by Anna Bardone-Cone, published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, stated that a fully recovered group of people largely resembled a non eating-disordered control group in terms of their perfectionism, while the partially recovered group more resembled those still in the full throes of their disorder. 

This perfectionism can manifest itself in a myriad of ways, from always having to do things right the first time to needing to earn straight A’s, to having to order your clothes a certain way.  But the disorder isn’t about being perfect. It’s not about being thin. It’s about knowing that there is one thing left in your life that still belongs to you, one thing that you can still control. It’s about having the power to slowly disappear.  

That is the only power you still wield. 

*

Last semester, I took an amazing class in writing creative nonfiction.  One of the last in class journals that we did was about body mapping.  I was not thrilled with the assignment or the world itself that day, so I drew my “body” in the somewhat shape of a gingerbread character.  Lumpy.  Out of proportion.  I’m fairly certain that the first thing people notice about me is how fat I am, I wrote.  It’s certainly the first thing I notice about me—every day.  I had a baby, but didn’t get to bring him home.  I only brought home the fat.  

I remember the first time I realized I was fat.  I was eight and I was in the school lunchroom.  I had a pink Barbie lunch-bag, and the Barbie had that skinny body and perfect yellow blonde hair that can only exist in Barbie-land.  I had a sandwich and a banana.  And maybe some sort of dessert.  I don’t remember.  But there was another girl at the lunch table who looked in my bag and said “You’re going to eat all that?”  Rather than defy her, I walked to the trash bin and threw my entire lunch away.  

Looking back now, I can see that the little girl in the lunchroom that day was jealous of my lunch box.  That’s why she said the things she said.  But it wasn’t so easy to see then.  I lost myself in the mirror, in the desire to fade away.  I remember a quote from the movie “Girl, Interrupted” based on the memoir by Susanna Kaysem, said by a girl with an eating disorder during expressive group therapy:  “I don’t want to be a fucking tree.  I want to be a bush!”  I get her.  All she wanted was to fade away, to disappear.  Into the mirror.

*

I own a small panda bento box.  I went on this weird tangent last year where I was coming up with weird stuff to put in it.  For instance, one time I made spicy peanut noodles.  Another time, I made japanese rice balls.  It was a fun thing I did to keep myself entertained on really long days.  

This semester, I haven’t brought it to school.  I claim to be busy, that I have a meal plan, that I’m this, that I’m that.  I wonder if I’m making excuses.  If I’m slipping.  I wonder.  Do I have to wonder?  Am I forgetting because I’m busy?  Or am I forgetting because it’s the one thing I can remember to do?  What does it mean?  I notice I’ve been getting a large amount of food from my friends, and I wonder what they see.  Do they see me?  Or do they see the me in the mirror?  Is it okay that I sometimes eat and sometimes don’t?  This question seems important right now, and I’m not sure why.  I feel like I’m forgetting.  I worry that I’m lost.

*

I was a bit of a bitch in the throes of the disorder.  I remember one particular conversation with my therapist in high school where she asked me to describe what an apple would taste like.  I refused.  “I don’t eat apples,” I informed her.  “I don’t like the way they get stuck in my teeth.”

“Correction—you don’t eat anything.”  

She offered me a choice then.  Sour cream and onion chips, an apple, and a container of strawberry Yoplait yogurt.  “Pick one,” she commanded.  “You can’t until you do.”

“No.”  I folded my arms stubbornly across my chest and met her gaze dead on.

She folded her own arms and leaned back in a replication of my position.  “That’s fine.  I can wait.”

That was a lie.  She had other appointments; I was not her only patient.  I got up off the couch I was settled on and snatched up the apple.  “How do you know I won’t throw it out the first chance I get?”  I was trying to be as big of a smart-ass as possible.  Trying to save myself.  Trying to hide how sorry I was that I let her down.  I was certain I could live off of caffeine and potato chips alone.  

*

I ask myself often whether I want victory, or I want escape.  And are the two interchangeable?  If my victory is graduating, then that is also when I will escape.  But if my victory is simply surviving…my escape could come whenever.  Does losing everything that I am mean giving up dreams too, as a side effect?  I’m still here.  Does that mean anything at all?

I am reinventing.

I spend my days pondering grad school, wondering if I’m good enough.  Wondering if I will get in.  Wondering if I can get them to like me.  Wondering if I make myself the right fit.  I sit in N’s office and eat candied orange peels and worry that I’m messing up my life.  My GPA.  These things I’ve graded that we’re working on.  I’m terrified that I am wrong, always.  That I will fail.  That I am not the right fit for anything. Someone very wise told me that there is no right fit; I could be horrible and they won’t take me, but I could also be awesome and they still won’t take me.  There’s no perfect formula for this, no solution.  No easy way.  I am juggling too many things, and it feels crushing sometimes.  It’s devastating that I can’t be perfect all the time.

I am always apologizing. 

I live off caffeine.

I run from the past things that I don’t think I can deal with.

I dream of that moment of victory, of escape.  

I am always doing these things, everything I can possibly do, but I worry that they aren’t enough.  I worry that I’m lost.  I worry that I am trying to paint over the picture that is me; that I’m trying to cover up.  Hide.  

Is it okay to dream if you can never reach the dream?  If the dream is way above you?  Do we morph or evolve to fit our dreams?  Or does life just happen; does it just destroy us?  I believe that we make choices, when we are scared.  And these choices are not always the right ones.  Marya Hornbacher writes, “Never, never underestimate the power of desire.  If you want to live badly enough, you can live.  The great question, at least for me, was:  How do I decide I want to live?”

How?  That really is the ultimate question.

Disappearing into the mirror means a long road back and a painting I can’t afford to pay for.

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Odd Girl Out

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My classmate Lissa was having a party, complete with Lisa Frank stickers of fuzzy animals, crafts, and root beer floats.  The works to a twelve year old.  I sat in the cafeteria, watching as she made the rounds of all the girls.  Watching as they opened their invitations with glee, squealing over the pretty colors and talking about what they would wear.  Watching as she went to every girl in my class.  Waiting for my turn.

It didn’t come.  I didn’t get an invite.  I was the odd girl out.

As usual.

It started around fourth grade, I can’t remember exactly.  I had been fairly popular up until then.  The turning point came when I got head lice.  I had to leave school awkwardly one day.  My social life was never the same after that.  I got shunned by a lot of the people who had been my friends, and I never really came back from that.  I didn’t know how to interact with people my age anymore.

From childhood, to adulthood, I became the odd girl out. 

*

I learned a lot from being in a relationship, from being married.  I learned that it was not okay to think for myself.  I learned that my thoughts were not my own.  I let my ideas whither away into nothing.  I learned that I should not have my own opinions.  I learned that I was supposed to go along with the crowd, that I couldn’t be my own person.  I learned that it was never okay to have the wrong answer.  I took these things and incorporated them deep into my soul, into a place where it’s been damn near impossible to dig them back out.  I didn’t see anything wrong with these notions, because they were all I knew.  I still struggle with them.  I can never quite free myself.  

I’ve written often about the moment when I knew that I would marry B.  That moment when, exhausted after hours on my feet at work, I wanted to see him.  I wanted to go to his house and be with him over hanging out with my cat in front of the television.  I wanted it more than anything; I knew then that I would marry him some day.  But when I write about that moment, there’s a detail that I usually leave out.  

I married him because I didn’t believe that anyone else would ever want me.  I married B because I thought it was the only chance I would have to experience marriage.  I married him because I thought that I had no other choice.

And I stayed with him because I knew that I had no other choice. 

*

“Abuse is less likely to occur when partners can make each other happy.”

I stared over the top of my laptop at my professor, completely aghast.  And against my greater control, in tears.  

It’s been a struggle for me to realize that the dissolution of my marriage was not my fault.  That being torn apart was not my fault.  That his lack of happiness was not my fault.  That losing our son was not my fault.  That none of what happened was my fault.  

And here was this person with power over me telling me exactly the opposite.  When my undergrad career has been spent struggling to escape this person, suddenly I was her again.  Suddenly I was that girl letting someone else tell me who to be.  Odd girl out.  

*

I was sitting on my couch when B’s sister let him into the apartment we shared.  I stood up slowly.  “I told you, I don’t want you to come over anymore until after we’re married.”  

“You said you didn’t want to be alone,” he retorted.  “We aren’t alone.”

His sister had disappeared into the bedroom.  

I sank back onto the couch, as far away from him as I could get.

It had happened a week ago, the last straw, the thing that pushed me over the edge.  “You can’t come over anymore until we’re married,” I had whispered that night as he parked in my parking lot.

“What?  Why?” he cried.

“I just…I can’t do this.  It doesn’t feel right.”

His hand tightened on my thigh.  “How can it not feel right?  What does it even matter?”  His nails were digging into my skin.

I was the odd girl out.  The one who wasn’t normal.  Always.  The one who didn’t want to have sex before marriage.  Not normal.  

“You’re hurting me!”  I pulled his hand off my leg and he slammed back against his seat, sulking.  “Look,” I said, more quietly.  “I just think that if we can’t keep…If we can’t keep from doing things, then we shouldn’t be alone.”  I tried to be politically correct in my phrasing to keep him from getting angry, but really, it was him, not me.  I wasn’t comfortable doing anything.  I wasn’t sure I ever would be, especially now.

He shook his head slowly; he obviously didn’t understand.  “Just get out.  We can talk more about this tomorrow.”

I shook my head to clear away the memory.  B had sank onto the couch beside me, despite my efforts to sit separately.  “We should watch a movie,” he continued, as if nothing was wrong.  But everything was wrong.  He just didn’t see it.

I couldn’t tell if it was my imagination, or if he was eyeing the blanket draped over the back of the couch.  I didn’t want to watch a movie with him.  I realized then that I didn’t want to do anything with him.  I didn’t want to marry him.  I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life with him; why should I, when he didn’t listen or even respect me?  “I think we should break up,” I whispered.

We fought.  He told me that he would never let me go.  It was pretty ugly.  I left.

Eventually, he would apologize.  I would come back.  We would get married.

That moment was the beginning of my end.

Things escalated.

We had a fight one day, when I came home from work and he expected dinner.  I wasn’t making it fast enough for him, and he started to call me names.  I threw the potholder in his direction and it clanged off of the guitar that rested in the papazon chair.  “You.  Are.  An ass,” I said as it fell to the floor.  It was the first time I had expressed myself in a long time.  I wished I had better aim.  I wished it had hit my husband in the head.  Not that a potholder would do much damage, but it would get my point across.

“What?” he asked.  “I just…”

“I worked all day, I’m tired, I come home, and this is how you treat me? Are you serious?”

“Well, it’s your job.  To cook.  It’s not my job.”

Nothing is your job.” I spit.  “Absolutely nothing.”

I turned around and stalked back to the kitchen, minus the potholder.  I stood over the pot of spaghetti, stirring it with my wooden spoon.  I thought about our marriage, about the unequal division of pretty much everything.  I kept my mouth shut.  My small explosion was the most I dared to express my feelings.  He didn’t work; I worked fifty plus hours a week.  He didn’t clean; cleaning was a woman’s job.  He didn’t do anything.  Except for what he did to me.

But, I consoled myself, at least he usually let me control the remote.

That was pretty much the highlight of our marriage.  I couldn’t make him happy.

*

“You’re not wrong.  The things that she said were wrong.”

I stared at my stack of papers to grade and my now empty bottle of apple juice before looking back up at T.  “You think?  Because I don’t know what to do.”

“You get someone to advocate for you.  Because some people don’t have enough sense of self-worth to realize the power that they have, which is why there are people out there that will fight for you.  And that’s okay.”

This was harder to hear somehow than the comment itself.  To know that there are people who see that I’m not that girl anymore, that I’m not that her.  That I’m weak sometimes and scared, but that I’m also strong.  And right.  Normal.  Not odd.

When I was a kid, I dreamed of what I thought the perfect life would be.  I pictured the ideal wedding with ice sculptures and flowers and a man that I loved.  I imagined that we would have two children, a boy and a girl, and that they would be just a few years apart—enough that they could play happily together but still have distance when they needed it.  In this fantasy, my family adopted a white German Shepard named Alfie who protected us and gave us fun and entertainment until the kids grew older and moved out.  As empty nesters, my husband and I would retire to Florida, where we would live out the rest of our days in the sun and provide a vacation home for our children and their children.  Happily ever after.

I believed in a fairy tale.  Absolutely none of these things came to pass.  

My life’s not perfect.  But I try to live it the best I know how.  I’m a words girl.  I’m quiet, but I absorb everything.  I notice everything; I take it all in.  My downfall comes from tendency to more remember the bad things.  I’m hypersensitive, and I know it.  I hear some things and they call up a pain, or a memory. 

A loud noise.

A touch from behind.

A word on a bulletin board.

Simple things, but things that can set every nerve cell in my body on fire.  Things that can make me feel like I’m electrified a million times over.  Things that make feel that which I don’t want to feel.  Triggers.  And it feels like I’m the only one who is bothered, the only one who is hurting.  Rational me knows that isn’t true; rational me knows that we all have our own pain.  But it doesn’t feel good to feel like the only one.  It doesn’t feel good to be the odd girl out.  It doesn’t feel good to feel like you’re in a cage, like you’re alone.  Like you’re not normal because of your experiences, because of who you are.

For a moment today, I didn’t feel that way.  For a moment today, somebody told me that it was okay.  That I was okay; that my feelings were okay.

For a moment, I wasn’t the odd girl out.  

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Being Human

Human.  Belonging to man or mankind; having the qualities or attributes of man; of or pertaining to man or to the race of man.  A human being.  Not a thing.  A person.  Nowhere in the definition of being human does it reference gender or race or experience.  Nowhere in the definition of being human does it say one person is less than another.  It’s very black and white on paper; if you look like a human, you are one.  But the world, unfortunately, does not work that way.  There are many people who turn their backs, who won’t stand up for what’s right.

Not me though.  I’m a soap-box girl.  I feel deeply and passionately about a few topics, and while I may be afraid to talk about my own, personal experiences, I am not afraid to talk about the topics themselves.  I’m not afraid to talk about discrimination.  Because it’s horrible, and it’s wrong.

Today I heard three statements that were greatly offensive.  That cut me, deeply.  Society should know better.  But instead, ignorance is rewarded.  Topics that have no business being jokes are pushed into every day conversation; people give no consideration to those they may hurt.  They say the first thing that comes to mind with no consideration for their audience.  There are people who use positions of power to force their opinion onto others.

They forget that we are all human.

*

“Abuse is less likely to occur when partners can make each other happy.”

Interpretation: abuse within relationships is the fault of the victim because that victim did not do enough to keep their partner happy.  Had the victim been good enough for their partner, their partner would have been happy and they would not have gotten hurt.  This is a common misconception that many victims of relationship violence have, and statements like this only help to drive that home.

In the first days of February, 2012, Josh Powell of Washington opened the door to his home, informed his children that he had a “really fun surprise” waiting just inside for them, and swept them from the arms of the social worker who was delivering them for visitation.  With a shrug of his shoulders, he proceeded to slam and lock the door in the social worker’s face.  While the social worker stood outside, helpless to stop him, he attacked his two songs in a blatant act of aggression with a hatchet and lit his gasoline doused house on fire.  All three of the Powells died of carbon monoxide poisoning, adding further to the tragedy that had befallen the family when Susan Powell, wife to Josh and mother of the boys, disappeared in 2009.  It is believed by many that Josh murdered Susan, but her body has never been found.

Even though he was the only real suspect in the disappearance of his wife, Powell was allowed to maintain custody of his two boys for nearly two years after her disappearance.  Losing that custody was perhaps akin to losing the last marble Powell had left in his head.  Not seeing any other way to handle things, Powell lashed out and took the lives of both his children and himself.  Powell didn’t hurt his wife or children because they made him unhappy.  Powell hurt his wife and children because he was unhappy.

The important thing to note here is that the boys did nothing wrong.  They were innocent bystanders, literally pulled into the lion’s den.  Susan Powell did nothing wrong.  She was more than good enough.  She was beautiful.

Josh Powell is the only one in this situation who did anything wrong.  He was anything but good enough.

*

“Date rape is frequently caused by alcohol.”

Interpretation: alcohol causes date rape.  By extension then, if a person drinks alcohol and is then raped, it is their fault because they drank.  This statement plays right into the idea that it is the fault of the victim.  They led the rapist on.  They should have protected themselves.  This doesn’t acknowledge the offender at all.

In Steubenville, Ohio, 2012, a teenage girl went out to a party.  But instead of partying by the definition of the word, she was sexually assaulted, dehumanized, and then blamed by her community because she dared to go after the football players who attacked her.  Her town supported the football players because of their ability to play the game and bring notoriety to the town’s team.  This support even stretched to school officials; William Rhinaman, the director of technology at the local high school, covered up for the football players by tampering with evidence and helping them hide the truth.  Sadly, these things are more common place than many people realize.  On CNN, another case from Maryville, Missouri, was featured where in a teenage girl was raped but her county attorney refused to prosecute, saying “there was not a criminal offense.”  The statement that date rape is caused by alcohol does nothing but perpetuate this cycle where innocent women (and men) are put into this situation.

Date rape isn’t caused by alcohol.  Date rape is caused by some asshat not being able to keep it in their pants.  Whether the victim has been drinking or not, they don’t deserved to be raped.  Nobody deserves to be raped.  It’s a violation of everything that it means to a human being; it’s a taking away of something that the victim can never get back.  It’s a domination of one person over another that should never be allowed to happen.

It’s not okay.

*

“Gays wouldn’t need to marry if they could just cohabitate.”

Interpretation: gays just need to live together; they don’t have any reason to get married.

Imagine, if you will, your partner or child has been in a horrible accident.  You rush to the hospital and do everything that you can to make sure that they are okay, up to and including making medical decisions that are in their best interests.  You are involved; you are included.  You have power in what happens next for your loved one.

Many LGBT couples in committed relationships don’t have that right.  In many states, they can live together to their heart’s content, but they can’t make medical decisions on behalf of their partner.  This differs from a husband/wife relationship in that a partner could be forced to watch their partner on life support with no legal grounds in which to make medical decisions.  Where a husband/wife relationship gives both people the option to make decisions, many relationships on the LGBT side of the spectrum lack this right.  And that’s not all.  In Florida, a lesbian woman lost her partner in a car accident and was then forced to give up the children they had raised together because she was not allowed to legally adopt them.  A gay man lost his partner of several years in the 9/11 attacks, but was not allowed to collect any federal aid because he was not allowed to obtain a legal marriage.  Cohabitation, while effective in some ways, does not give people the same rights as a marriage.  To reserve marriage as something special, something that only “a certain group of people” can obtain, simply isn’t fair.

LGBT people aren’t asking for special rights, or rights that put them above others.  They just want to have the same rights as everybody else.  They want to make decisions for their loved ones; they want comfort and ability.  They want to be with the person that they love.  To say that they have no need to marry is simply offensive.  If you love someone, you love someone.  That’s just that.

*

Human.  Having or showing the positive aspect of nature and character regarded as distinguishing human from animals.  Subject to or indicative of the weaknesses, imperfections, and fragility associated with humans: a mistake that shows he’s only human; human frailty.  The definition of human in no way references gender, race, or experience.  When society blames the victim or denies people the rights that they are meant to have, the person in question loses their sense of being human.  And that isn’t fair.  No one should have to feel that way.  No one should be made to feel like they are less than anyone else.

I read an interesting concept on this phenomena:  If someone is stupid and leaves their car unlocked, resulting in things getting stolen from within it, does anyone say “Let’s not punish the thief?”  No.  Because it’s cut and dry.  Theft is wrong.

So why isn’t rape wrong?  One person forcing another to commit sex acts against their will?  That’s less than car theft?  Why isn’t abuse wrong?  Why isn’t discrimination based on race and gender wrong?  We’re all human; we’re all people despite the way that we look, act talk.  Despite who we love.  Nobody should be treated any differently than everybody else.  Everybody should have the same rights.  But the world doesn’t work this way.  People are ignorant.

I just don’t get it.  When speaking, we can never know who our audience is.  People don’t understand that.  It’s impossible to know the background of the people you’re talking to, the things they have been through.  And there are so, so many things.  Everybody has a story.  Everybody has a thing that hurts.  Like the news story I read yesterday, overweight people, old people, drug users, lonely people, eating disorders, rape victims, abuse survivor, LGBT…et cetera, et cetera.  Everyone has a thing.  And making fun of or alienating a person in ANY form based on these things is just simply NOT okay.

Abuse, of any kind, is wrong.

Rape is wrong.

Discrimination is wrong.

It is wrong to make fun of the overweight, to make fun of the underweight, to make fun of the lonely girl who sits in the corner.  It is wrong to make judging comments about something or someone just because they are different than us.

To joke about people, to casually pass over them in conversation like they don’t exist, like their experiences are trivial, as if it’s the fault of the victim or the person simply because of who they are, says that these things are okay.

Let’s make these things not okay.

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Why I’m Afraid of Graduation

I’m having a moment right now as I try to fall back asleep, one where I am plagued with fear. Of what you ask?

Graduation.

See, I’m getting to this point now where I feel comfortable in my life. That is completely due to school. My professors, my classes, the work I do on campus. I have a niche where I lacked one for so long. My professors have been a saving grace for me in so many ways-academically, emotionally, everything. There are many things that are difficult, but I’m dealing with them. I’m dealing because I’m comfortable. Because I’m accepted.

Everything that I am CRAVES the idea of going to grad school. Everything. But there’s that part of me that isn’t ready to leave. That isn’t ready to jump into the lion’s den. That isn’t ready to find out if I really can have my own life, if I can overcome, if I can rebuild, on my own. If I can be my own person without him.

This, here, is what I know. I don’t know how to leave it. And in the process of trying to juggle my baggage and juggle my semester, I suddenly have this fear. I fear that I won’t be okay. That I won’t make it. That I am not good enough to have my own life.

People come to me for advice. About writing, applying to grad school, passing undergrad…I feel like they shouldn’t. Because I’m breaking down. I should feel good that I’m prepared. That I have the answers. But I don’t. I don’t feel good at all. I just feel scared.

I am starting to be good here. Be okay. But what if I DO get in? What if that doesn’t transfer over? What will I do then, incredibly removed from everything I have ever known?

What if I’m not ready to graduate? What if I screw this all up? What if I’m nothing without him?

The fear is paralyzing. Can’t eat, can’t sleep, going to melt, paralyzing.

Cue the nervous freakout.

Rejuvenation

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“You don’t have to make your heart go.  It just does.  Every breath we take, we’re a new person.  So why not apply this to our souls?  If our body can rejuvenate itself with every breath, why not our souls?”

In Greek mythology, the phoenix is a bird that lives forever by being regenerated or reborn.  It dies by exploding into flame, but then gains new life by rising out of the ashes of its predecessor.  The phoenix is used as a symbol of regeneration or renewal.  Some legends say that the tears of a phoenix provide rejuvenation and healing powers to those they fall upon.

The things about the phoenix though is that it’s like many legends.  Not real.

*

This is not real.  Not happening.  Not again.  

Nothappeningnothappeningnothappeningnothappening.

My mind is racing at ninety miles an hour and I can’t breathe.  I focus, I try to count to slow my breathing, but everything is moving around me in blurry lines.

Nothappeningnothappeningnothappeningnothappening.

I count to 500 and push myself up, but I feel like I’m caving in.  Where I had previously felt nothing, I suddenly feel everything.  It hurts.  It’s too loud.  Too much.

Nothappeningnothappeningnothappeningnothappening.

I am driving.  I shouldn’t be.  I can’t see.  

Nothappeningnothappeningnothappeningnothappening.

I get where I’m going, somehow unbeknownst to me, and someone asks me what happened.  But I don’t have the words.  I know what the answer is, but the words won’t come out.  I would rather disappear.  When they come out, it’s named.  

Nothappeningnothappeningnothappeningnothappening.

Happening.  

Shit.

*

In my class on literary theory, we learned about Lacan’s ideas regarding the real versus the imaginary.  My understanding of this, in layman’s terms, is that only extremely young children can exist in the imaginary.  The imaginary is a pre-language state of existence, while the real is the state that we exist in once we have language.  Once we have given a name to something, it always has that name.  We can never go back to a time when the thing didn’t have a name; we can never return to an imaginary state.  Lacan believed that we spend our lives trying to find that state again, looking for that feeling, that moment that will get us there.  

I would like to go back to the imaginary.  In my head, I picture it as a place where I don’t have to have this as part of me, where is no longer significant, where it doesn’t have a name.

But I can’t go back.  No one can.

*

The eyes that bore into mine are dark.  Stained.  Evil is a stain; it permeates everything that it touches and it stays with me even now.  I close my eyes and I can see those eyes looking into mine, no matter how much time or distance I gain.  They are there.  He is there.

I can’t say the word rape because it means him.  That’s how I’ve named it.  I have trouble writing the word.  And when people say it, it makes me cringe.  It has power.  I have the experience of it.  I have been there, to that ugly place where the word takes you.  To that place where it won’t let go.  

Every two minutes, someone in the United States is raped.  Each year, there are about 207,754 victims.  44 percent of rape victims are under the age of 18.  80 percent are under the age of 30.  54 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to police.  97 percent of rapists don’t even spend ONE day in jail.  Two-thirds of assaults are committed by someone the victim has met previously.  38 percent are committed by a friend, acquaintance, or spouse.

To some people, this means nothing.  But to others, like me, it has a name.  It’s an experience.  And it’s not one they ever want to have again.

*

My life is a journey of discovery.  Right now, my journey is centered around identity and separating who I am from the things that have happened to me.  Part of me wants to believe that these things have had no effect on me, but I also know that that’s not true.  They are firmly embedded within me, threads of a life that tie together and form something that is…me.  I want to shed my memories, like a snake can shed skin.  I am where I am because I what I have done and seen in my life.  I’m in a cool place right now.  But if I could take back the way in which I got here, would I?  Would I still be where I am?  I’ve met amazing people; I’ve done amazing things.  I never would have taken the risks I have if I hadn’t been pushed. 

I certainly wouldn’t be applying to graduate school programs.  

When my literature professor was talking today about rejuvenation and souls, I slipped an old piece of scratch paper out of my bag and started scribbling down her words.  I knew that they were important, but I didn’t know why.  I still don’t.  Rejuvenation for me is not as simple as breathing in and out.  I can’t make what happened to me go away because it’s stuck inside of me.  I can’t make it go away, because I am always reminded of it.  There is always something, every day, that makes me remember.  There are too many things to forget.  And I can’t make it go away, because I don’t know how to let it go.

Webster’s Dictionary defines the word rejuvenate as giving new strength or energy to something.  I want it to be as simple as my professor said; I want to simply breathe in the fresh new air and breathe out all of the bad.  But I can’t.  I can’t because it still hurts.  I can’t rise fully out of the ashes because I am, in many ways, still in pieces.

*

What I want, more than anything, is to be that phoenix.  I have flamed out, and now I want to be refreshed, regenerated.  I don’t believe it’s possible; I let the world tell me it’s just a legend.  A non-truth.  I tell myself the phoenix isn’t real.  By default, it lives in the imaginary.  However, we can still give it a symbol.  We can give it a name.

This means that even though the phoenix is not real, it’s real.  

And if the phoenix is real, then rejuvenation is real.  

So I breathe.

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Threads

I wrote a paper last year regarding how discourse is a prevailing force in the creation of identity.  To this day, it is still one of my favorite papers—not because it’s good (though it is, I think), but because it’s the first time I ever really identified with an assignment.  It was the first time I really started to get myself.  In the introduction to this paper, I compared discourse to Crayola crayons:  “Discourse can be thought of like a box of Crayola crayons.  Crayola continuously invents unique new colors, such as inchworm and fuzzy wuzzy.  When we see a color that we don’t know, we assign  the color to a lesser category in our mind and reject it because we have no prior knowledge of that color.  Without prior knowledge of an experience, or, in this case, a crayon, the experience remains unnatural and not part of our identity.  Once we have seen the crayon and the name on its label, we are then able to know what color to assign it.  Without this assignment of a name, the color does not exist as a category.  This is how discourse functions, bringing us the necessary experiences to shape us into individuals; we give an item power when we name it because we give it existence.  The discourses or experiences that people have and the things that they learn are what make them the people that they eventually become, just like seeing a crayon with a unique name and then associating that name with a color.  Power and knowledge are gained from discourse, and people would be completely different beings without it.  Thoughts, exchanges of ideas, and conversations are unavoidable and affect how people view the things in their every day lives.  Discourse is what forms a person’s individual identity.”

See, I get this paper; I get discourse.  I get it, because there are so many different things that are part of my identity—and they’re not all good.  As a matter of fact, most of them aren’t.  But without all of these different threads, the different experiences that I’ve had, I would not be the person I am right now.  I would not be where I am.  I would not know the things I know.  I would not have the power that I have.  

I have named experiences within my life that I should never have had to name, that no one should have to name.  But I have survived them.  And I’m stronger for them.  The thing about discourse is that I know my strength, and I firmly believe that this is because of what I have endured in my life.  I am strong, and when new things come up I can conquer them because I have named things much more difficult.  I have been shaped into someone who is awesome, and so much more tough than I give myself credit for.  

I’ve been bothered by something for the past few days.  I’m getting ready to graduate, and I met with my advisor to sign up for courses for my final semester.  I only need three more classes to graduate (four to receive financial aid), and I really wanted one of those classes to be Shakespeare.  Not only is our college’s Shakespeare course taught by my advisor (who is awesome), it’s also Shakespeare.  

“Not marble, not the gilded monument / Of prince, shall outlive this powerful rhyme; / But you shall shine more bright in these contents / Than unswept stone, besmear’d with skittish time.”  (Shakespeare, 55th Sonnet)

Beautiful writing.  Enough said.  If you don’t appreciate it, you’ve been living under a rock.  The course is hard—lots of reading, lots of paper writing, lots of discussion.  But my course load next semester was finally going to be low enough in terms of both workload and scheduling that I could make it work.  Until my advisor informed of what would make up a large part of the discussion:  rape, abuse, violence.  Some of it as a comedy.  And I knew then.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to take the course.  I wouldn’t be able to sit through that, but I wouldn’t be able to walk out of class that often.  I wouldn’t be able to be able to maintain a decent grade.  I wouldn’t be able to emotionally take care of myself.  This was something I wanted, for a myriad of reasons, and I had to let it go for my own wellbeing.  I had to sign up for something else instead.  

I beat myself up for it, for a while.  That I wasn’t good enough.  That I was triggered so easily.  That I was still letting people hurt me; that I was always letting people hurt me.  That I would never be okay.  I focused on the bad aspects of the situation, that I am not okay, that I will never be okay, that I couldn’t sign up for the class.  But I can see it now.  I can see that I was so focused on that that I missed the good thing; I had recognized a need in myself.  I had made a good decision in terms of taking care of myself, but I gave myself no credit for that.  I forgot that sometimes, strength comes in just letting yourself be.  Sometimes it feels like I will never really be okay; sometimes I forget that it’s okay to not be okay all the time.  It doesn’t mean that I’m not good enough.  It just means that I’m doing the best I can.  

I was having a text messaging conversation with one of the best writers I know recently, and I told her that she needed to go out and get famous so that I could “know her.”  She responded, “Wait—that’s what I’m expecting of you.”  Her statement really surprised me, that someone who can write so incredibly would infer that I will someday be more than I am now.  I don’t see life in statements of my goodness, but rather in areas where I have failed and lost.  But the funny thing is, I am a good writer.  I hear this all the time.  I don’t understand why it’s so hard for me to see.  I am good at this.  I am good at many things, because I have survived many things.  I am strong because I am still here, because I know the power that I have.

Without all of the threads, without every single piece, without everything I have named…I would not be good at many things.  I would not be strong.  I would not be anything at all.

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I Am

When I think of adjectives to describe myself, confident, articulate, and skilled are not the first things that pop into my head.  That’s not my tape; that’s not the dialogue that plays.  So when I hear it, I don’t always know how to respond.  True or not, it isn’t the norm.  

I am ugly.

Inarticulate.

Today, I cried.  So many reasons.

I am stupid.

I was sitting in my literature class today taking a reading quiz.  I got done early, because I always do.  My mind was wandering, and as I looked around the classroom my eyes came to rest on the bulletin board three feet to my left.  There were several posters.  Two of them were out of date.  But one was new and had never been there before.  “If you’ve ever been the victim of sexual assault, family violence, or a violent crime, there is help.”  And then it listed all sort of hotlines.  

I understand the measure, I really do.  Some people need these things; some people would write this information down and even use it.  But I already have this information, because I have used it.  At the first opportunity, I snuck over to the bulletin board and turned the poster around before tacking it back up.  I stared at the blank side for the rest of class, because I remembered the words from the other side.  

Sexual assault.  Rape.  

Shit.

I am broken.

There is something wrong with me.  

I met with my advisor yesterday about the classes I was planning to take.  We discovered that I only need three classes to graduate.  Among the three classes I had put into my enrollment shopping cart was my advisor’s Shakespeare course.  I’ve been wanting to take this class since I was in my first year of undergrad.  I have always liked Shakespeare, and I’ve already read quite a bit of him.  This class has interested me not only for that element, but also because I have only been able to take my advisor for a lower level course.  I would love to have her as a professor for an upper level; she’s brilliant, I adore her, and I really want to get a solid A on a paper for her.”

“I need to be honest with you,” she said when I told her all these things, the reasons why I wanted to take her class.

“I’m going to shoot myself in the head taking this at the same time as Senior Seminar?”  

“No.”  She leaned back in her chair.  “There’s a lot of work that deals with sexual assault.  Graphic scenes of rape, and we will be discussing these things in class.”

I twitched at the mention of the word rape.  

“Spousal abuse.  Titus.  The Taming of the Shrew.  And I’m not sure this is the course for you.”

I looked out the window.  I had been excited minutes before and suddenly found myself sad in a way I didn’t know how to deal with.  Because it was still interfering.  Always interfering.  I wanted to cry.

“Why don’t you take Eco-crit instead?”

Because I wanted this.  Because I wanted Shakespeare.  Because I wanted to be normal, just once.  Just one time.

I am never going to be normal.

Never going to measure up.

Never going to be okay.

In psychology today, the professor greeted us before opening with “So, how many of you are parents?”  She followed this up with “How many of you aren’t parents?”  After this, she asked “Why have you chosen to not have children?”  And she called on me, of all people.  Me.  I walked out of class before I started to cry.  I leaned against the wall outside the classroom that led to the courtyard, debating going outside but recognizing the fact that it was much too cold.  I sat down on the floor in between the two sets of doors and I watched the trees blowing back and forth and the sun shining and I let tears fall.  

I am a failure.

Murderer.

It’s hard to lose someone you love.  It’s even harder to lose everything at the same time.  And that’s what happened to me.  I lost it all.  The hardest part for me has been the not knowing why my son died.  Why my marriage broke.  What I did to deserve the acid rain that made my entire life disintegrate for so long.  It is in my nature to blame myself.  That’s the tape; that’s what I have been told my entire life.  

I am not good enough.

I am always amazed to learn what other people actually think of me.  In that over the edge moment today, at just the right time, I read beautiful words that someone I deeply respect had written about me.  And my brain had a moment in which it clicked.

I am not broken.  I am not a failure.  I am not lost.  

I cried again.  But because for that moment, that awesomely wonderful, fantastic and beautiful moment, I could see what this person saw.  

I am strong and powerful and awesome, and not just on the days where I feel good.  Every day.  I am these things even when I don’t remember.  I am these things, because other people see them in me.  Other people see me.  

I am.

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Coping

I love you.

There are a lot of different species of animals in the wilderness.  The largest locally is probably the coyote.  Coyotes prey upon animals that are smaller than they are.  There was one coyote in the forest that had an affinity for one particular bird.  He chased the bird through the woods and would catch it every once in a while, rip out chunks of its feathers and give it a little nip.  This was a bird that flew solo, apart from the herd.  An easy target for the coyote.  But the bird was incredibly resilient and always survived; the coyote could never successfully get rid of it, no matter how hard he tried.  The bird always came out on the other side okay.  Or as okay as a bird could be being stalked by a coyote.

Are you okay?  Do you have someone to call?

One day, the coyote drew up a plan.  He set a trap and lay in wait for the bird.  He managed to catch her, and he held her in his great, powerful jaw by the nape of her neck.  As the coyote swung her back and forth, the bird didn’t fight.  She worried it would be harder for her, that she would be hurt more.  She hung limply and let the coyote play with his food.  This is the only option that prey has, to be broken.  To break again and again.  As long as the prey is still there to break, it is still useful.  Still alive.

Tests.  You’re going to feel a stick.  There.  

The coyote licked his prey again and again, enjoying the taste of her on his tongue.  He traced from her ear down to her chin, and when he was done, the coyote left her on the ground in a pile of leaves.  The leaves were bright red, the color of turning seasons.  A stain on the carpet of the forest.  He planned to come back for her later, but she didn’t give him the chance.  As hurt and broken as she was, she pulled herself away under cover.  She built herself a wall of leaves and rock and she hid behind it, in a place where he could never find her.  But memories would stick.  Scars would always remain.

Eyes open.

The wall was impenetrable, allowing only the necessary stimuli through.  A flash here, a flash there.  Artificial light.  A camera.  

Who?

Like the top of the canopy in a forest, only a minimal amount of light is allowed through the wall.  Only that which is very necessary for things to grow.  Move forward.  Prey can run and hide, but not forever.  The scars will always be there, sometimes bleeding and sometimes not.  And predators smell the blood, the weakness.  They come.  They kill.

Prey is always prey until it’s completely broken.

No one.  

Too often, life is like that.  

To myself:  come back.  I can’t fly, my wings are broken.  

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Scar Tissue

In my class on Chaucer, we studied The Canterbury Tales.  I remember becoming incredibly angry in class one day at the attitude of one of the characters, the way that he thought he could treat women.  I hated the Man of Law on a deeply personal level.  I hated that he could get away with the things he did in his speech and nobody stopped him; I hated how much this was like society today.  I whipped up an email that shared my disapproval for the tale with the professor.  I was too agitated and on my soap-box to bring it up in class, but I knew that I need to say these things.

What I didn’t know then was that in just one day, the scars that were so offended at that point would be ripped wide open.  In just one day, I would completely change.

*

Chaucer’s Man of Law has a strong preference for passive and weak women, which he illustrates when he says “Humblesse hath slayn in hire al tirannye / She is mirour of alle curteisye; / Hir herte is verray chambre of hoolynesse” (Lines 165-167).  Custance is so humble that she has no inclination towards tyranny; she is courteous, and her heart is filled with holiness.  Her humble holiness is what keeps her alive; Custance may not receive much in life, but she is allowed to live.  By following the guidelines of what is expected of her, Custance preserves her own existence.  But is it worth it?  Is this type of living really existing at all?  

*

I’m checking back in with you.

I read the message, and I stick on those words.  Checking in.  She’s checking in.  This is good; I can start checking off days.  How many days has it been again?  Crap.  Do I even exist anymore?

If you’re feeling up to it next week sometime, let’s see if we can make an appointment to talk about options.  

I am struggling with options right now.  I am struggling with direction.  I am struggling to function.

I know it may not feel like you have too many right, but you do have options.  We all have options.  Always.  Even if we don’t particularly like any of them terribly much.

It’s like she can read my mind.  I want the words she’s sent to tell me what to do, but they don’t.  I have to do that, and I don’t want to.  I am folded into my bed, wrapped in blankets, with a cat on top of me.  I run my fingers through her fur, lost in thought.  Part of me says this is my fault.  But part of me says I did what I had to do.  

*

Custance allows herself to be treated as an object by both her father and her husband because she feels she has no other choice.  She tries to subtly guilt her father into not sending her away when she says, “Fader … they wrecched child Custance / Thy yonge doghter fostred up so softe” but she then continues by submitting to her objectification with the statement “Wommen are born to thraldom and penance / And to been under manes governance” (Lines 273-275, 286-287).  Custance calls herself wretched daughter, referring to herself in third person, which leads to her identification as an object, and then adds that women are born just to suffer and do what men tell them to do.  However, she never directly expresses outward displeasure at the events that are being thrust upon her. 

*

If you’re not up to talking about this yet, that’s also okay.  You have complete control over when we tackle this.

I don’t think I want to say a word ever.  It’s like someone has taken a knife to my emotional scar tissue and ripped me to shreds.  I feel like I’m dying. 

I’m behind you.  

I don’t know how to respond to that thought, because it implies a forward motion that I’m not sure I can adhere to.  I want nothing more than to stay here, hiding, 

All my best thoughts are directed towards you today.  You are one of the most talented students I’ve seen in recent years and I know I’m not the only one who sees your potential.

I start to cry.  The potential that she mentions, my potential, is gone.  I’ve been silenced.  

*

1 Corinthians 14:34 says that women “should remain silent … they are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says” (NIV Bible).  The Bible states that women should remain silent in all matters and defer to men, and this is an attitude that permeated throughout medieval times of historical record.  Custance allows herself to be used and directed by both men and God, which illustrates an outward devotion to Christianity, but she obeys God simply because she believes that she is supposed to do so.  As a woman, Custance does not believe herself to have any say in the matter.  She stays silent and continually fails to speak out for herself in a direct manner.  Her humility and her endurance go to extremes that no real woman could ever hope to attain.  Her existence itself is a magnet for suffering, and the reason for this parallels the Biblical interpretation of how women should be treated:  as objects.  Following God to the extreme and being a moral, upstanding, Biblical woman does not advance Custance into anything other than heartache.

*

Every step is a choice.  You have control over whether or not you do each one.

Yes.  This is true.  I do.

I unwrap myself from the blankets and grab my laptop.  And I write.  I write about Custance and The Man of Law’s Tale and the land of Chaucer.  I remember how this was a horrible thing for me just a few days ago, the way Custance was treated in the tale.  I remember how struck I was by the similarities between us.  Suddenly, as I write, I identify with her even more.  I remember how I am a good student, how this is what I do now.  I’m smart.  I can’t defend myself, I can’t speak, but I can do this.  

I can do this.

I do homework, I get ahead, because it is the only thing I can do.  The only thing I know how to do.  I write about Custance and her silence, and how she is a magnet for suffering.

I too am a magnet for suffering.

Where I disliked The Man of Law just a few short days ago, now I find myself hating Custance.  And I hate myself right along with her.

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Grief (An External Force)

The lake is calm today.  This time three years ago, it wasn’t.  I remember sitting in this very spot, staring down into the water, and wondering what the waves would do to me if I threw myself on the rocks.  Wondering, but not doing.  Never doing.

Water, like people, has moods that are based upon external forces.  When the weather is windy, stormy, and powerful, the waves are large and awe inspiring.  They crash across the rocks with a force that cannot be described by words alone.  And after my son died I sat here many days a week, watching the waves take over the shore, pondering the idea that an emotion could take over my life.  I could not have saved him.  There was nothing I could have done.  My entire being was governed by a powerful external force.

Grief.

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It comes in waves.  It is a forest with fifty paths that all cut through the trees, different channels and avenues for handling feelings with no clear direction.  It is a body of water with an undertow that sucks you away faster and deeper than you would suspect possible.  It is that red berry on the ground that looks so sweet and perfect to eat, but will kill you the moment you put it in your mouth.

If you let it, grief will bowl you over.

They planted a tree as a memorial to “all the dead children,” and it sits twenty feet from this very spot where I watch the shoreline.  It’s small, with spindly branches, and the leaves are few and far in between.  It doesn’t seem to grow much, and I’m struck by that fact suddenly—the idea that a memorial for children that will never grow up does not grow.  My heart rings with something I can’t describe.  This stunted tree is the perfect tribute.

The tree is surrounded by bricks, and the bricks are surrounded with flowers.  Clumps of purple and red and pink that take away from the fact that each brick is inscribed with the name of a dead child, the brightest of them tries to negate the pain.  Each brick is all that is left of a life.  The flowers are ridiculous to me.  We give flowers to people when someone dies; I had this thought at his funeral that flowers in the case of death are ridiculously ironic because they die.  Everything dies, eventually.  

Between the bricks sprout tiny growths.  Weeds, or perhaps flowers.  Signs of life that will be gone come winter, because everything dies.  Winter brings snow and ice, coating the ground and making it impossible to remember him.  I visit the tree on the anniversary of his death, to place a hand on his brick and be able to touch him.  A simple reminder.  But I can’t find it; the bricks are buried under the snow and I didn’t think to bring a shovel.  

A snowflake lands on my cheek, wet and cold.  I am crying.  I use the heel of my shoe to scrape at the bricks, but I can’t make any headway in the snow.  I get down on my knees and claw with my fingers, but I only break through to ice.  He is sealed away behind a wall I can’t break through, an event I cannot penetrate.  Death.  

I will never locate the brick.  I will never be able to break through.  I will never find him.

The sky is gray.

I cannot ever have him back.

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