Sunday, October 26, 2014

Opposite Day

When you were a kid, did you ever pretend it was "Opposite Day?"  Opposite Day, primarily, existed to annoy people, and in my household, it never lasted very long.  On Opposite Day, you did the opposite of everything that was said/asked.  Yes meant No, Up meant Down, In meant Out, On meant Off, and so on.  It was a fantastic little pretend world we created until my mother seethed through clenched teeth, "JUST GO UPSTAIRS AND PUT ON YOUR SHOES" in that scary way that meant Opposite Day was officially over.

The past week, and particularly the past 3 days, I feel like I'm living a string of Opposite Days.  Let me tell you -- Opposite Day was much more fun when the opposites were limited to up/down and on/off...and when it was my mother's nerves I was grating on. 

Opposite Day today started like this: I opened my eyes at 5:45AM and my brain said, "You're so stupid.  How could you have forgotten to clean the kitty litter box last night?  Your sister would be so mad that you're not taking good enough care of her cat."

I closed my eyes again.  I took a breath.  And I thought, "so this is how we're playing again today, huh?  Alright, Brain.  Give me a second.  Then it's on."  I took another breath as my brain began frantically chattering about how stupid I am, about the kitty litter box, about the email I hadn't yet responded to, the phone call I didn't return at work on Friday, about the fact that I am not good enough, smart enough, capable enough.  Thirty seconds in, my body started to panic -- and no wonder, right?  It's 5:45 on a Sunday, and I've already given myself enough grief to last me until Thursday.  I focus on taking another breath, let the dog lick my cheek as I roll over, let my brain tell me that I don't deserve a dog as wonderful as the Mo-Man, and I sit up, exhausted. 

"Okay," I say aloud.  "You've got this."

"Pfffft," says my brain.  "No you don't.  You so don't have this.  You're falling apart.  You didn't even clean the kitty litter box.  You never even made that phone call.  You haven't even gotten UP yet.  You're probably not even going to clean the litter box, are you?  You're not.   Why bother?  If you didn't do it last night, why even bother this morning?  It hardly matters."

And just to spite it, I got up, and I cleaned the hell out of that kitty litter box. 

And this is how it goes.  With everything. 

"Why are you going to church?" my brain asks.  "Nobody wants you to be there, anyway.  Nobody will miss you if you aren't there.  Don't go.  Stay here.  Right here.  Don't move.  You don't have anything to wear.  You look stupid.  And tired.  Nobody wants to see you looking stupid and tired.  Seriously, you're going to wear that?  What are you even thinking?"

So I do the Opposite.  I do exactly what my brain is telling me I can't/shouldn't/won't do.  I get up.  I get dressed.  I find something I feel good in, and I get in my car and I drive to church.  Even though my brain tells me not to talk to anyone, I find the people that I know will hug me and I hug them, because hugging releases happy brain chemicals and god knows I could use a few of those. 
And, for a while, sometimes, I can get my brain to be quiet.  Sometimes, for a few minutes, I get pulled into sunshine and conversation and friends, and I don't have to work so hard to always think the opposite of what my brain is telling me.  The difference, though, is this: when my brain isn't celebrating Opposite Day, those moments fill up my cup.  Even just a hug, or a smile, or a conversation, or a walk in the sunshine will fill up my cup a bit, and I can hold and savor and celebrate that water.  I can express gratitude for that water, and I can be so joyful that my cup is a quarter of the way, or halfway, or completely full. 

On Opposite Day, my cup doesn't hold any water.  The damn thing is so full of holes that, as soon as the water stops pouring, it's gone and splashed into a puddle at my feet.  Friends and hugs and puppy kisses and sunshine fill up that cup, but as soon as the sun goes down, or the friends go home, or the dog decides to lay on the floor, the cup is empty again and my brain convinces me it was never meant to be full.  That I was never deserving of that full cup in the first place. 

Mostly, I am so fucking stubborn that I can make it into an Opposites Game.  Your brain tells me one thing, I do the opposite.  You tell me I can't do something?  Watch me.  I'm not a competitive person with others, but if you tell me...or if I tell me...that something can't happen, or that I won't be able to do something?  It will get done.

I realize that I am painting myself here as something of a pinnacle of strength and determination.  I realize that anyone reading this who has these Opposite Days too, is going to say, "you think you know, but you have no idea."  It smells vaguely of the stench I associate with the "you can pull yourself up by your own bootstraps" lie.

But see, this -- this writing here -- this is part of the Opposite Game.  This is my brain telling me "you can't cope with this, you're so stupid, what makes you think anyone would find value in anything you have to say about this?"

And so I do the Opposite.   I write, even though what would feel good to my heart right now would be to curl up with my head under the covers.  But it's Opposite Day, remember?  And so I'm writing instead, because curling up would mean that the monster is winning.  I've worked too hard today to let that monster win.

Anyone who has these Opposite Days is going to call me a liar.  They're going to say, "but see, if you can play the Opposite Game, then you really don't know what it's like."  And they may be right.  I do not know what their Opposite Days are like.  I do know that there have been moments and nights and days and even weeks when playing the Opposite Game for those 5 minutes before I get out of bed feels like running a marathon.  I do know that there have been moments and nights and days and even weeks when I couldn't play the Opposite Game.  That's why I play it.  That's why I know its value.  That's why I work to become so damn good at it, because those moments when I can't scare the crap out of me. 

Vulnerability feels like a roller coaster drop to me on a good day, but on Opposite Days, it feels more like sky diving without a parachute.  One of the lies my brain likes to tell me is that it's not okay to be honest.  That I should shut down, close off, build back those walls I worked so hard to knock down.  My brain tells me to give up this stupid "bravery" business, that I can't be brave, that I should go back to the me who kept herself safe by closing her heart.

And this is my Opposite.  One of my Opposites.  This is vulnerability, and bravery, and honesty, and opening. 

So I write this because I need to hear it.  And - if I need to hear it - there must be more of us, right?  There must be many of us going through the day making bets with ourselves that start with "you're so stupid, of course you can't...", and doing the Things only because we don't think we can.  There must be more of us -- if only because my brain tells me that I am the only one, and I am choosing to believe the Opposite.  

So if you are living Opposite Days, this is for you.  This is your evidence that there are others of us out there living these Opposite Days, or Opposite Nights, or Opposite Weeks.  Even though we think we can't, we're living, and we're playing this ridiculous Opposite Game alone, together.

And you...yes, I'm talking to You.  You go right on playing, okay?  It doesn't matter how your Opposite Time came about, or if you feel you're just barely following the rules.  You're playing.  If you're reading this, you're still playing.  And we're going to go right on playing until we live into those Opposites and we get our brains back on our side.


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Halloween and Ableism: We can do better

Full disclosure: I have never liked Halloween.  When I was in second grade, I went through a "haunted house" at my elementary school and, while I don't remember the specifics, I remember coming out crying.  The same year, I went trick-or-treating with my family and was extremely frightened by the "big boys" from the back of the bus who wore extremely realistic and gorey masks.  I hated it all so much, I decided not to celebrate Halloween the following year.  I had an on-again-off-again relationship with Halloween for a while -- I honestly just hate being scared.  I cannot, for the life of me, understand the enjoyment most people seem to derive from that experience.

That said, I have a problem with the way we celebrate and sensationalize Halloween in this country.  If people want to be scared, I see no problem with monsters and ghosts, skeletons, spiders, and even a little gore.  I don't have an issue with scary stories, coffins, mummies, or costumes.  If you're into freaking yourself and others out, you go for it.  Seriously.  If that's your thing, more power to you.  I'll be home with a cup of tea, watching something that makes me laugh.

My concern is that Halloween has a distinctly, powerfully, ableist side.  Halloween is not, at its core, an ableist holiday, of course, but there are many, many issues with Halloween today that are inherently ableist...and these issues go completely unacknowledged.  In fact, if I bring up these issues, I'm essentially told that I'm "overthinking" it, or that I just need to lighten up and have fun.  "It's harmless," they say.

From Pinterest
But it's not.  It's not harmless.  We live in a culture that routinely stigmatizes, others, shames, and belittles people with disabilities and their history.  This culture hurts people with disabilities, and it hurts us.  All of us.  Bystanding to this sort of routine and socially accepted violence is unacceptable, and I believe we can do better.

Let's break this down.

Ableism, for those unfamiliar with the term, is the discrimination and marginalization of people with disabilities.  This includes physical disabilities (e.g. cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis), developmental disabilities (e.g. autism, Down Syndrome, intellectual disabilities), and also mental illness and psychiatric disabilities (e.g. bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, addiction).  Our language is riddled with words that are or were once pejorative and hurtful.  For example: idiot, imbecile, and moron were once the categorization levels for intellectual disability (what we now know as mild, moderate, and severe intellectual disabilities).  Similarly, retard (or anything ending in -tard), simpleton, stupid, derp, and cretin all refer to people with intellectual disabilities.  Lame, spaz, crippled/crip are referencing people with physical disabilities.  Crazy, insane, loony, maniac, mad, mental, head case, psycho, and wacko all stem from words or phrases used to refer to people with mental illness or psychiatric disabilities. 

We don't hear about violence against people with disabilities much in the news....but it happens.  A lot.  You can read my post (and lots of links) about two such (older) incidents here and here.  People aren't talking about ableism the way they talk about racism, and sexism, and homophobia...but it's just as real, and it's hurting valuable and important people in our society.  How good can a society be that marginalizes, mistreats, and devalues some of its most vulnerable and amazing citizens?

From Ebay
Halloween (and many, many television shows) instill fear around disability, and particularly surrounding mental illness and psychiatric disabilities.  For example, if you think about any given crime show, the murderer/rapist/"bad guy" almost always gets thrown a label: psychopath, insane, schizophrenic, lunatic.  In the news, when something bad happens, diagnoses are thrown about until one sticks: crazy, autistic, bipolar.  Now think about this: ever seen a positive story about someone with mental illness?  Can you think of a single time when a psychiatric disability was presented positively in the news?  According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 1 in 4 adults will experience a mental illness in a given year, and 1 in 17 experience a severe mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder...and these numbers don't include the fact that roughly 20% of 13-18 year olds will experience mental illness.   The media would have us believe that it's a wonder any of us survive with all this "craziness" and "insanity" around, right?  (Ugh...typing that makes me feel gross).

Halloween is a time for scary things.  It's a time for supernatural, paranormal creatures and, apparently, a time for ableism to run rampant.  Think about it: how many costumes for "crazy" or "insane" or "mad" people/things do you see?  Let's think about costumes of straightjackets.  Mental patients.  Mad scientists.  Psychos. 

The thing that really gets me, though, is the "haunted asylums." 

Pennhurst Asylum in Pennsylvania (I will not link to the website, because I find the video that plays both infuriating and upsetting) is touted as one of "America's scariest attractions," and there are several other such attractions across the US.  In fact, I think the "asylum" idea can probably be found in multiple haunted houses/haunted attractions: one need only Google "Halloween asylum" to find a link to a website selling products entirely for creating your own haunted asylum ( Demented Products for Demented Minds), Halloween asylum party ideas on Pinterest, and an entire page of items to purchase from Party City (including handcuffs, and pictures which read "no one gets out!" in red "blood"). 

Here's the thing, though.  When we talk about skeletons, and coffins, and zombies and monsters and ghosts, no matter how gorey and gross and bloody and violent they get, they are pretend.  They aren't real.  There are not real people behind those stories, not real faces, and real lives that we are exploiting for "entertainment."

Props you can buy from Party City for your very own "asylum"
When we talk about asylums, we're talking about institutions that housed people with disabilities, and in which real people, with real stories and real faces often times suffered horrific neglect and abuse.  We're talking about eugenics.  We're talking about people with disabilities of varying degrees being locked up for their entire lives, never receiving any education or real stimulation, and never being given the opportunity to move out into the world.  We're talking about the fact that this didn't even really to change until the 1960s.  It wasn't until 1972 that people with disabilities were granted the right to live in the least restrictive environment, deeming confinement in institutions unnecessary for the majority of the institutions' inhabitants.  It wasn't until the 1970s that people with disabilities were given the constitutional right to due process, and protected from things like involuntary servitude and involuntary steralization. 

For those who live near me, "Pennhurst Asylum" in Pennsylvania is not so very far from home.  Per its website, Pennhurst was a "state school" that was closed in 1986 due to repeated allegations of abuse.  Apparently, upon release from the institution, a former resident filed a complaint that the conditions were unsanitary, inhumane, dangerous, and that the staff used cruel and unusual punishments.  After investigation, the site was deemed dangerous due to the physical and mental abuse, inadequate care, and the fact that the patients' wellbeing had deteriorated while in the care of staff at Pennhurst.
And this shit was happening all across the country.  In my lifetime, this sort of shit was happening.  We're talking about electric shock therapy.  Surgery without anesthesia.  Restraints.  Isolation.  This is an actual excerpt from the website, which details their excitement about finding the remains of this institution and turning it into a haunted attraction:
 "We have really strived to mix fact with fiction, folklore with fear, to come up with some of our unique room designs. There have been accounts of an old dentist chair that was located in the deep recesses of Mayflower, one of the more notorious dorms at Pennhurst. This chair is a little different than the ones you and I are used too; it has restraining straps attached to the arms, legs and headrest. This chair was reportedly used to remove the teeth of patients that were prone to biting the staff here. Imagine yourself being strapped into this device and having all your teeth ripped out without any kind of medication. This is just one more example of how unique this location is." 
Can I remind you that we are talking about real people...and real lives...and real pain that is now being sensationalized and marketed as an attraction?  Can I remind you that the people who lived at Pennhurst, or any number of other institutions -- they may still be alive and working to live lives in the community after living for 5, or 25, or 40 years in this environment?  What must it be like for them -- or for their families -- to see their lives, their histories exploited in this way?  
I get really worked up about this issue.  This topic can make me angry to the point of tears, and here's why: I have worked with people who lived in these institutions.  In graduate school, I had a side job conducting assessments for each resident's
From Pinterest
yearly habilitation plan at one of the remaining "institutions."  I have read their stories.  I have seen their faces.  I have seen the neglect they withstood, and I have seen the incredible loss and burden they carry with them.  I have seen what people look like after receiving no intervention, too much medication, no socialization, and little engagement for decades.  If you haven't seen what this looks like, if you haven't heard these stories, there is no way you can possibly imagine it.  I carry these people and these stories with me in my heart.
What a privilege it is to be able to erase and sensationalize an entire population's recent history.  What privilege is afforded to us that we are able to ignore the very real and very human pain behind this entertainment, and believe that we can enjoy it as an evening of innocent fun.  What privilege we must have to be able to bypass this dark chapter of our past without a thought as to who we may be hurting. 
And yet...people say, "it's harmless."  People say it's no big deal.  People say it's just scary fun, and all in the name of Halloween. 
But it's not.  This is violence.  Dressing up in a straightjacket, sexy or not, is colluding with history in a way that perpetuates the fear of disability.  Making asylum decorations from Pinterest may seem fun and harmless, but what are you really saying?  Are you, unintentionally, perpetuating the stigma of disability and/or mental illness as something scary, or "freaky," or dangerous?   
So here's what I ask of you this Halloween: just pay attention.  How many times do you see the word crazy or insane?  Ask yourself if the activity you are participating in could potentially be shaming, or othering, or aggressive towards another group.  
People with disabilities deserve to be heard, and seen, and respected as whole beings with inherent worth and dignity.  By using stereotypes about them as costume fodder, and by twisting some of their history into frightening holiday entertainment, we are denying their wholeness, worth, and humanity.
Quite frankly, we just have to do better.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

On my beloved and irrationally loving community

I'll tell it to you straight: I don't deserve the love I have been shown by my "beloved community." 

Now, before you get your panties in a twist, and start shaking your heads sadly, or shouting, "YES YOU DO!" at your computer screens, or frantically typing out your replies of "You are a person of worth and value, how many times do I need to tell you!?!"...please hear me out.  Seriously.  You can argue with me in the comments section when you're finished.

The thing is, I don't deserve this love.  I have done absolutely nothing to earn it.  There is not a rational reason I can point to and say, "yes, see here?  According to the Official Karma Record, I have exactly 476.25 Karma Points, which made me eligible of 3 acts of little love or 1 act of Big Love, so it DOES look like I was due for some love.  That must be the reason."  The fact that I have received -- and continue to receive -- love from this community is literally beyond what I can understand.  I've tried.  I keep trying.  And my thoughts keep coming back to: I don't deserve it...and yet it's there.  It's just there.

Perhaps it's because I am a behavior psychologist and I like having data: I LIKE being able to graph rates of behavior and make decisions based on that data.  I like being able to predict what behaviors will happen.  I am good at looking at the antecedent (what happens before the behavior) and the consequence (what happens after the behavior that either maintains or extinguishes the behavior) and determining why the behavior is occurring, and what you/I /we can do to make it continue or make it stop.  My head understands behavior.

And my heart -- my heart understands gratitude, and she understands how to Be With, and she understands listening, and witnessing, and being present.  I like to think that she understands giving love, and she understands loving.  She understands whole-hearted ways of being in this world, and she understands being present with the good, and the bad, and the ugly things together. 

But I don't understand this love.  I don't deserve it.  I didn't earn it.  There is nothing I could possibly do that would make me worthy of love like this.  I'm driving myself crazy, trying to understand the how of the how, and the why of the why, and I can't seem to get to either.  Yet even as I struggle, the love is there.  It just is.  As though it were the most common thing in the world, it's there.

To put it bluntly, love like this scares the shit out of me.  It makes me want to run away.  To disappear.  To be there in community one day, and then to never come back.  I want to get out before I lose it, before it's taken from me, before everyone realizes I'm not really worthy of it after all.  I don't want to go through the pain of losing that love -- and that surely will happen, given that even its very presence is not rational.  I convince myself every week that I will go to church, and suddenly, inexplicably, I will be alone.  I steel myself for this possible reality every week -- and every week that it does not occur, I feel tremendously blessed.  Lately, I've tried to convince myself that I will go, and I attempt to remain apart.  I'll just go quietly and leave, I think.  I won't talk to people, I won't engage.  I'll just sit quietly and leave. 

But then people come to me and say things like, "I didn't get a hug from week would have been 'off' if I didn't get a hug from you on Sunday." 

And I tell them, "you're right," because they are, and I am pulled into engaging, and loving, and letting myself be loved again.   

From my vantage point in the choir, I can look around and see the faces...or at least the back of the heads...of many people I know and love.  I can watch the simple acts of love and kindness that are done over, and over, and over again on Sunday mornings: hugs.  A hand on the shoulder.  Questions asked.  Conversations had.  Smiles, and laughter, and tears, and everyone just being together in all of the hustle and bustle of singing, or setting up, or setting out snacks, or just standing or smiling or sitting together.  I watch the faces of the children as they leave for their classes, and I marvel at the way they wait for one another, or grab a sibling's hand to help them through the gaggle of children leaving together.  I listen to the words of love and belonging that are said every week, and this week, in the middle of all of that, I had a startling revelation.  A revelation that may be controversial.  A revelation you may not want to hear me say, but I'm going to say it anyway.  (Again, arguments are welcomed in the comments section below).

Sitting in the middle of the alto section today, what I realized was that I was right.  That I could stop the struggle of trying to figure it out: I'm not deserving of this love, this community, this gift of friendship.  In fact, none of us are.  As I looked around, I realized that none of those incredibly beautiful people -- not a one -- was not deserving of love and community, and yet, certainly, there were many people there today who have experienced isolation, and pain, and harm at the hands of another.  Looking at the beautiful people in front of me, I realized that although none of them would ever deserve to be harmed or hurt or lonely or unloved, it has surely happened to many of them.  This, perhaps, is just the other side of that coin: just as no one is deserving of pain and harm and isolation, none of us are deserving of this love.  In order to be deserving of love, there must be some who are not -- or there must have been a time when I or others were deserving of hurt and betrayal and pain.  I don't know about you, but I cannot believe that's true. 

So what I was struck by today was the fact that we are here, together, in this beloved community anyway, loving in spite of the fact that we have felt unloved, and being loved in spite of the fact that we do not deserve it.

This was, strangely, the most comforting thought that could have come to me today: it is a fact that we are not, actually, deserving of this love and community and support and care.  None of us -- not one of those many, many beautiful faces I looked at today -- none of us -- are deserving of the love I have been shown, or of the love I watched them show to one another, or of the love that I feel for them.  And that is precisely why it's there.  The fact that we don't deserve it...that we can't earn it...that is why they do it.  Why we do it.  That is why we show up, and sit together, and sing, and listen, and learn, and share, and why we ask about each other's lives, and why we learn to be with one another.  We don't deserve it.  We didn't earn it.  We do it because it's necessary.  Because if any of us are going to hope to travel through this life, we are going to need to have loved and been loved. 

Earlier this week, I was able to articulate the terrible paradox I seem to be living on the wrong side of: before you know deep betrayal, or hurt, or violence, you never imagine that it could happen to you.  After you know deep betrayal, or hurt, or violence, you can't seem to imagine life happening any other way.  Yet, in spite of that, I can also be loved, and be shown kindnesses that swallow me up in their warmth and holiness.  It doesn't make sense.  In fact, it's actually really confusing, and no matter how hard I try, I will not be able to tease apart the how of that how or the why of that why.  It is irrational, and undeserved, and scary as hell, and also beautiful, and precious, and everything that I want for the world.  It doesn't make sense and that is, exactly, the thing that makes it right. 

Even after that moment of clarity, and even after this writing and thinking, I still feel very much like I want to run away.  I still feel very much like the best possible solution would be to pack my bags and move on before the fact that I don't actually deserve this becomes widespread knowledge. 

But I won't.  Yet.  Instead, I'll try to sit with the knowledge and consideration that I don't deserve it.  I can't.  It will not make sense.  And yet, it exists, and it is precious, and it's the only way to get through this life, and it is mine for the moment if I choose to step inside it. 

There is no how of the how, or why of the why.  It is irrational, and that fact, and that fact alone, is precisely the thing that makes it right.  

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Ten months in: Bravery unmasked

I am ten months into my intention this year to be brave and, fortunately or unfortunately, the world has given me more than ample opportunity to practice this.

I think when I set this intention, I envisioned myself doing things I felt good about.  I think I saw myself doing things that I was scared to do.  I pictured myself feeling proud, and I looked forward to feeling like a strong, and triumphant, and brave person.  When I picture what "brave" looks like, I see a handsome, muscular knight in dirtied, bloodied, roughed up armor sitting atop a huge, beautiful, muscular, white horse.  They look a little worse for the wear, and they also look triumphant.  They look beautiful and muscular and strong and proud, knowing that they have withstood a terrible storm and that they have arrived on the other side, victorious. 

Here is the truth: I don't look like that knight.  I don't look just a little beat up.  I don't feel like I've been just a little beat up.  To borrow a phrase from my grandmother, I'd say I look like I've been pulled through a knothole backwards.

And perhaps the thing the fairy tales never tell us is that, after the battle, the knight experiences insomnia, the horse never lets anyone ride him again, and they both end up in therapy.  Maybe that is the part of bravery that none of us ever sees.  If I have learned anything over the past ten months, it's this: all bravery must have a private face.  If it is real, it must have a too-fast heart, and too-shallow breath, and muscles that shake inside their skin.  It must, right?  It just must.  

Or perhaps I search for these answers purely because my bravery is not beautiful.  She is not muscular.  She does not shout, or rally, or sing and exalt in her own strength. 

Instead, my bravery forgets how to smile.  Forgets how to breathe.  She is built from clenched breath, sleepless nights, a racing mind.  She is powered by aching muscles, repeated mantras, an anxious stomach, and constant self-doubt.  A mixture of fear and action, my bravery acts only because she will not let herself see another way. 

Her only strength is putting one foot in front of the other and trying to live as if bravery is a thing we can live into: as if brave futures are as promised to me as old age, and gray hair, and laugh lines.

More often than not, bravery feels like a mixture of brokenness and vulnerability, and nothing about it feels very ninja heart at all.   Acts that seem to take monumental strength are the smallest steps you can imagine: sending an email.  Talking to a friend.  Accepting love.  Believing in kindness.  Remembering to breathe.

Is this bravery?  Is this -- this thing I keep living and acting within as I tell myself I am practicing bravery, acting bravely, being brave -- is this actually bravery?  Is it vulnerability?  Is it just straight-up fear that I'm trying to mask as something positive?  Is it bravery if the tears hiding under the surface sometimes spill over?  If the body erupts into a temple of shaking cells that cannot find warmth, or safety, or calm? 

I'm choosing to believe yes.  I am choosing to believe that this -- this mess of tears and shaking and tightness and breakdown -- I'm choosing to believe that this is bravery, unmasked.  This is what happens to the knight after he fights the battle.  This is the place the princess resides after she slays the dragon.  This is not Hollywood bravery.  Not fairy tale brave.  It is breakdown, and vulnerable, and tired brave.  It is one foot in front of the other brave.  It is the bravery to act as though you believe you are worthy of love and kindness when your bones tell you otherwise.  It is the bravery to act as though you believe in others' love and kindness, when your very cells tell you to stop. 

Stories of bravery are supposed to be triumphant, swashbuckling adventures of action and passion.  They are stories that are meant to be shared, and heard, and told and retold and loved.

But this -- who would ever want to hear this story? 

Not all brave stories have a heroine at their center. 

This is bravery, unmasked, and real.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Re-learning how to remember

It's been a really, really hard week.  

This poem is one I wrote a few years ago that has been on my mind repetitively this week.  I changed some wording that I never liked...and I still think it's too long...but remembering has a lot of steps, no?

The lines in my head today were: "Remember the details.  Relinquish your fear."

There are so many times you have to learn how to remember, and learn how to remember, and learn how to remember again.  

I'm re-learning how to remember.

How to Remember

Forget about it.
Insist that it's not bad
not important
not infuriating.
Walk through the darkness and feel your heart squeeze.
Push thoughts and feelings out through your pores.
Take your panic and dump it in the garbage can that smells like desolation.
Reach into your chest and find your heart,
a surprising blue color and slimy cold.
Feel disappointed in yourself:
you know despair has never looked good on you.

Grab and pulsate your heart in a rhythm you control.
Convince yourself this is not an act of self-preservation, but insanity.
Keep squeezing, hands bloodied and eyes red 'til others stay away.
Realize they're afraid of what parasite is living in you,
what curse has come over you,
what germ has infected you,
afraid you could be
Push them away.
Feel yourself drowning.
Keep smiling.

Find a mask.
Pick it up and examine it.
Describe it as stoic, with a Mona Lisa expression
that could be sad if you look at it right, but smiles on first glance.
Consider it perfect.
Check the price tag, even though you know your
first-born child, right arm, and a leg would be worth it.
Steal the mask and tell the world you'll pay it off later.
Examine your tools and choose denial as the one with the sharpest edge
for digging your way out of trouble.
Feel ashamed, but know
it's worth it if you're going to survive.

Take the mask to an alley.
Drop it on the concrete and
throw it against the wall.
Leave it in the rain and examine it again.
See that it survived,
take it home and put it on.
Try to assume its persona.
Spend time getting to know
the new you.

Love yourself,
hate yourself,
then start over.
Walk through the darkness.
Breathe in the panic and revel in the night.
Feel a primal destructive urge and turn it inward.
Stop showering and lose your mascara.
Don't eat.
Try not moving from your couch.
Eat chocolate and
don't sleep.
Attempt to never sit down.
Sleep too much.
Never stop smiling.
Grow accustomed to the mask.
Tell yourself it's over.
Wipe your hands and believe you have
moved on.

Go to bed thrashing.
Wake up crying heart-bleeding sounds.
Tell yourself it doesn't matter and ignore your tears.
Sleep, fitfully, and wake again, screaming.
Beat your mattress in frustration and scream again, fully awake.
Scare your neighbors and forget to care.
Stop smiling.

Peel off the mask, carefully, and drop it on the bathroom floor.
Smile as you watch it shatter.
Burn candles at both ends and stare into the flames.
Search for symbolism in sunsets, stars, stairs,
stand on street corners with cardboard signs
begging for spare answers and
come home with an empty cup.

Forgive him.
Say "screw forgiveness" and stop believing in god.
Believe in sunrise, even if you hate it:
it's the only thing that's certain.
Sleep with a pen for the times you need to slaughter him at 3AM.
Write poems on your sheets by moonlight that consist only of the words "fuck you."
Sleep with a flashlight to catch nightmares in the act.
Murder them with your sleep-deprived ferocity.
Stop writing.
Reach into your chest and grab your heart.
Pump its luke-warm smoothness into some semblance of a rhythm.
Wash the pink goo from your fingers and smell shame.
Watch it go down the drain.

Tell your story.
Watch people disbelieve
disrespect you and start over.
Work your way back and tell it again.
Remember the details.
Relinquish your fear.
Realize this is not your shame.
Tell it again, insisting it is important enough
bad enough, and
Reach into your chest and grab your heart.
Feel it pumping its red, healthy blood
and smell courage.
Pull your hands out clean.

Stand on a street corner.
Leave your cup at home.
Hold signs reading "1 in 4,"
and pray for change.
Walk down a dark alley.
Breathe out the panic.
Feel the memory in your bones and
remember you have

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Ways Through It

The Ways Through It

These are the ways through it:

Imagine your body a tower.
Your blood is mortar, your bones turn brick,
you render yourself
A fortress of your own creation,
the mote around your feet grows to ocean.
You push the tide outwards with your hands,
you, the sorceress, the magician, the controller of your universe,
you watch it retreat when it touches the shore 
and bring it back to you. 

Not this.
Your body
is not a tower
has never been armor
has never known how to still
to protect this beating heart
has only ever known
to care for her quietly, and these
are the ways through it:

Imagine yourself a shadow.
A trick of light.
A terrestrial ghost for non-believers
neither seen nor touched- 
people think they saw you once. 
A two-dimensional emptiness that takes up
no space,
you spread yourself thin,
take up only the places that are
walked over, you
know all the motions of a person
living a life.

Stop here.
You earthly body of cells and breath,
you mortal energy of skin and blood
you make this being human
an art of love, of beauty,
you three-dimensional being of real,
how you breathe your heart,
your beating heart,
it is living, you are living,
and these are the ways through it:

Find yourself unwrapped-
there are so many hearts left surprised by you.
Let them be amazed by your open
do not deny this world, there is such
creation within you
you blessed, holy being of love,
this is the only way through it:
the breaking, surviving
the moving, surviving
the healing, surviving
unraveling, surviving
the hoping, and ripping, and cutting
it is here, it is waiting, it is real, and
this is the way through it:

Imagine yourself growing.
Your branches, your stem, your leaves and petals
may be torn and scattered
till all evidence of you is ruined.
There are so many ways out of this life, but this.
This is the way through it:

Imagine your roots.
Your safe roots.
They are deep.
They are reaching,
embracing, grounding, holding,
and this 
is the way through it:

Imagine your roots.
Your roots will never leave
this sacred ground.

Friday, October 3, 2014

What would it mean to believe this?

In working with children with developmental disabilities, my job is to treat the child's challenging behaviors, including aggression, tantrums, non-compliance, self-injury, and property destruction.  My treatment typically consists of first conducting a functional assessment, which is an assessment method through which I observe the child's behavior in a number of manipulated situations to determine why he engages in the challenging behavior (i.e. to determine what function his behavior serves).  During the functional analysis, I observe the child for a 10-minute period, typically with a caregiver, and I count the frequency of the challenging behaviors.  Treatment, then, stems from this: once I have determined the "reason" a behavior is occurring, then I am able to develop a treatment plan that creates a functional way for the child to get that need or desire met.

Like any good research, I also have a control condition to make sure there isn't something else going on that might cause the child to be engaging in challenging behaviors.  In this condition, the child has access to attention, to preferred items, and demands are not placed.  Basically, the parent just sits and plays with the child for 10 minutes.  Typically, there are no challenging behaviors during this condition: the child chills out and enjoys watching "Bubble Guppies" or "Blue's Clues" or playing with beads or puzzles or their Nintendo DSi. 

A few years ago, I worked with a young man with a significant developmental disability who had very significant challenging behaviors.  As with most of my patients, I began with a functional analysis, and we started with the control condition -- the condition in which parent and child sit and play together.  For this particular child, though, the control condition was a mess.  I sent mom into the session room with the directions to "just sit and play as you normally do.  Do not place demands, just sit and talk to him and watch Bubble Guppies together."

He engaged in challenging behaviors throughout the session...but the issue was clear.  In the 10- minute "play" session, his mother placed 60 demands.  That's 6 demands a minute, every minute, and kid was having none of it.  He tantrumed, he was aggressive, and he was noncompliant with just about every demand that was placed.  After conducting multiple observations in session and at the family's home, it became clear that this was their normal: mom just placed constant demands all day, every day.  Even though it led to aggression.  Even though it increased his tantrum behavior exponentially.  Even though the functional analysis was incredibly clear that he only engaged in tantrum behavior when demands were placed...she continued placing demands.

For months, we talked about why he was being aggressive.  I showed her all of my graphs of data supporting this hypothesis.  We talked about how we had to back off on the demands and then slowly increase his tolerance to them.  We talked about how the number of demands she was placing was unrealistic for ANYONE to follow.  We laughed about how even I would probably throw myself on the floor if someone asked me to do something 6 times a minute.  I used analogies about how even simple demands such as "what color is this?" and "where is your nose" are "work" for him, and that he was working 24/7 without much of course he was bitter and resentful.  Mom got it, and she was able to explain back to me why she had to back off, and she understood that it wasn't forever...that we had to just back off to gain some compliance and to decrease the rate of problem behavior.  She understood that even though she was placing 6 demands a minute, he wasn't complying, and that it would be better to have one successful demand and no aggression than to have 6 unsuccessful demands and bite marks.  She saw that he complied with me when I placed demands at low-rates.  And she continued to place all of the same demands.

After months of this work with no change, I knew there was something I was missing.  There was a piece of the puzzle I wasn't seeing, no matter how many ways I tried to explain it.  I thought I was asking the right questions: "what is hard about decreasing the number of demands?"  "What makes it difficult to cut back on the number of tasks you ask your son to do?"  "What is most challenging piece of following through with these recommendations?" 

Her answers were always the same: "It's not hard.  It's not challenging.  I'm trying to do it, I see that it works.  I just can't."

Finally, I called her in for a session by herself for us to really hash things out.  After talking for a good 30 minutes and getting the same answers, I finally changed my question.

"What would it mean for you to not place as many demands on your son?" I asked.  Here, mom's eyes filled with tears.

"It would mean I'm not doing everything I can," she said.  "It would mean I don't care about him.  It would mean I'm not setting him up for success."

We talked about this for a long time, until she said, "I know that what you are telling me is right.  I know it is more important to go slowly now so he will listen more in the future.  But I need him to be successful.  I need to teach him everything now."

"Tell me what success would mean for your son," I said.  "When you picture his future, what does success look like?"

"He will have his own business," she said.  "He has to have his own business."  I reflected internally on her non-verbal 13-year-old son, and considered the feasibility of this plan. 

Very gently, I asked, "What would it mean for you if this is not something that happens for him?  What would it mean if he does not have his own business?"

Here, she began crying.  "If he is not a successful businessman," she said, "my parents will disown me.  Having an adult son who cannot have a job will bring such shame on the family, he and I will be disowned."

And in that instant, everything changed. 

Naming the fear for me, naming it for herself, discussing it enabled her to change her behavior.  After another few months, we were able to end treatment as he was engaging in no challenging behaviors at home or at school.  Mom was able to place a reasonable number of demands at home, and he was able to comply.  Thanks to the simple shift of one question, everything changed.

This question is now one that I use frequently in therapy, and I am rarely disappointed.  It takes us out of the realm of what is happening or not happening, and into the realm of meaning and possibility. 

To the young man who is cutting: "What would it mean for you to find another way of expressing your anger and hurt?"

To the parent who yells that their child does not have autism: "What would it mean for you if autism is an accurate diagnosis?  What would it mean to your child?  What would it mean for your future together?"

To the dad who refuses to stop spanking his 3 year old: "What would it mean to find other methods of discipline?  What would it mean to find other ways of getting your little guy to respect your authority?"

These questions take us so much further.  They often evoke tears, and they take us straight to the heart of the issue. 

I'm so far past exhausted, I can't even see where I passed her.  I'm pretty sure I ran over her somewhere on the highway around Wednesday or so, and I've been running on fumes ever since.  Due to several client cancellations, I was able to come home from work early today and tried to take a nap, but my mind is busy and refuses to shut off -- ever.  I decided to read, and was preoccupied by all of my thoughts about what I should be doing instead: grading papers, writing notes, responding to emails, washing dishes, reading the chapters I'll be teaching in my class this week, ending rape culture and racial inequalities...the list is endless. 

Instead, I laid on the couch with the dog for a bit and made myself focus on being and breathing. 

What would it mean, I asked myself, to just let myself have this time?

I let myself follow this thought further and further down the rabbit hole until I landed on the final question...the one that is hiding behind the walls and resistance:

What would it mean to allow myself to believe that I am worthy of time, and love, and self-care?

Pffffft, I thought, I already believe that.  Come on now...

But do I really?

What would it mean...what would it REALLY mean to believe embody it?

What would it mean for us -- any of us -- to give our souls the time and love they are looking for?  What would it mean for us to admit that we need time to cry, and fall apart, and put ourselves together again?  What would it mean to believe that we don't have to earn this time?  That we have already arrived, are already worthy, are already enough?

What would it mean to accept the fact that our energy is finite, that our body is a resource that can feel depleted, that we need time and care and love in order to survive?  What would it mean to remember, and re-remember, and re-remember that survival is not always something we need to do alone?

What would it mean to remember that it's okay that this is hard?  That all we ever do in this life is practice, and practice, and practice, and hopefully learn to give and receive love?

What would it mean to let ourselves do just that -- to practice, and to give and receive love?

Are you ready?  Can we practice, and give love -- and receive it -- as already-worthy human beings together?

Thursday, October 2, 2014

On kindness, big love, and showing up

Remember when I posted about going to General Assembly?  Something I particularly remember was someone talking about how Unitarian Universalists are the people who show up.  Need something done?  We'll be there.  Need a group to gather to protest, or join in solidarity, or celebrate, or bear witness?  We're there.  An inherent part of our faith (if I can say that...part of MY faith for sure) is to strive to truly live our values.  I strive to really live and act and stand behind and rebel against those things I believe our values say we should live and act and stand behind and rebel against.  Not just when it's convenient.  Not just when someone else organizes a project...but to live it, inherently, as part of who I am in my daily life.  I remember one of the many fantastic people who spoke as saying, "We are the people who show up," and I remember thinking to myself, "if I went down in history, or in people's memories, as someone who showed up, I would have lived a meaningful life."

(If you haven't read the last several posts, you may want to catch up first...start here). 

As a woman, and particularly as a woman who has been sexually assaulted, safety is never a "given."  When your experience has been denied, and your requests for protection have been repeatedly shot down, you learn that safety is a privilege and not a right.  What I learned four years ago was not to trust myself, my instincts, or my body.  I learned over and over again that security can and will be denied.  And I learned that, if I tried to assert myself and fight for my right to safety, I would only ever be hurt.  

However, I also learned to stand in that incredibly hurt and vulnerable place.  I learned to fight back.  I learned how to find my voice -- and I did, over, and over, and over again.

Perhaps the biggest thing I learned, though, was that I was completely alone.  No one wants to stand with the person who has been ostracized.  Who would want to put themselves in that incredibly vulnerable place?  Very quickly, I became good at not asking.  Very quickly, I became good at standing alone.  

I learned that people don't show up.  Even when they say they will.  Even when you ask them.  They don't show up. 

Trust is something I still, clearly, struggle with.  Believing I am deserving of safety and security is something I have to work to truly believe.  The incident of the Creepy Union Rep and the Negligent Security went about like I expected.  Even to approach the issue was hard.  It took having a community behind me to even begin approach it.  When Security told me "no, we can't meet your requests," I was ready to let it go.  I already knew the end of the story, I thought.  My bones are still tired from the last ending I tried, and tried, and tried to re-write.  

But there were differences.  Friends sent messages to follow-up.  They asked in person.  They gave hugs, and they wanted to make sure I knew -- like really knew -- that I SHOULD be helped.  Not just that I "deserve" it (as if I had somehow earned it), but that safety is just something that I SHOULD have, and that negligence or denial of my requests was decidedly not acceptable. 

It was...weird.  It was kind of...uncomfortable, almost.  People, it seemed, were behind me.  Like really behind me.  Not just a couple miles out.  Not just shouting distance.  They were standing with me, and were close enough to touch.

Tuesday morning, I was not a happy person.  I dreaded the thought of calling security: people don't show up, remember?  Even when they're supposed to.  Even when they're right there.  Even when they should.  I had promised myself that I would call them, and I was going to spend the day psyching myself up to do just that.  I got up early and finished some paperwork at home, walked the dog, cleaned up a bit, and left for work around 8:15.  I was enjoying my drive into the city and practicing my songs for choir when somewhere on I-95, in the middle of Handel's "For the Glory of the Lord" my phone binged.  Facebook message.  I glanced down at the message -- from a church friend.  Wonder what that's about, I said in the middle of one of the long strings of running notes I have yet to master.  I looked back at the road, then back down at the message to read the beginning of the message that popped up on the phone's lock screen.  "A couple of us have been talking and we'd like to come..."  

...and I knew -- or thought I knew -- what it was going to say.  My eyes instantly filled with tears, and I did the only thing I could do in that moment.  I took a deep breath to slow down my thoughts and my heart rate.  I looked back up at the traffic.  I turned up Handel.  And I told myself that I was wrong.  That's ridiculous.  There's no way.  Absolutely no way.  Don't be stupid.  You're SO wrong.

When I finally made it into the city, and to my office, I closed the door.  I took a breath.  I opened the message.  And I cried.

She wasn't offering vague promises of violence (which primarily appear in the "hey, I'll come beat up that dude for you if you call me" variety).  She wasn't just saying, "call me anytime" as a promise of future support for when I might REALLY need it.  

She was saying, "I want to be there.  We want to be there.  Please tell me where to go so we can be there for you."  She was offering to stand with me, because my safety mattered.  It mattered to her.  It mattered enough that she was willing to get others in on it.  It mattered enough that others were willing to be in on it.  It mattered enough that she was willing to drive to walk me to my car.  My safety...the safety that didn't matter to Security now.  The safety that didn't matter to the dean, or my advisor, or to my colleagues or my cohort four years ago.  My safety mattered enough that she wanted to stand with me.  She was asking if they could show up.

And I told her no, and I told her she doesn't have to, and I told her I was a snotty mess in my office, and I told her thank you, and thank you, and thank you.

And she said "pfffft."  They were going to show up anyway.

Somewhere between 9:30am and 6:30pm, I had convinced myself: she said they would show up...but they wouldn't.  Really.  Something would happen...they weren't really going to actually show up.  I felt guilty: what if I've just been making a big deal out of nothing?  What if they drive all the way out here, look around, and say, "oh this?  Ha!  You're fine."  What if they told me they were coming...and then they didn't?  What then?

So sitting in the stand-still traffic on 695 (shhh...don't tell), I sent a message giving them an out: "you don't REALLY have to show up.  I feel bad making you drive out's silly."

And she said "pffffft."  And she said that they DIDN'T have to do it, but that they wanted to. 

And they showed up anyway.

I'm not kidding.  They literally showed up anyway, at 9:30 at night, like it was just something people do.  They walked with me to my car, and absolutely nothing happened.  The Creepy Union Rep did not show up.  No one was hiding in the bushes.  No one followed us.  ...but they didn't think I was crazy.  They agreed that it was dark.  That there was no security presence.  That it was unpopulated.  That there were lots of dark recesses for people to hide if they wanted.  That my requests should have been able to have been met.  My body was not wrong.  She was not mixed up, or tricking me, or lying.  And, for once, I didn't feel quite so broken.

There is so much power in standing with a person.  There is so much power in showing up.

My heart does not even know how to process and understand the amount of love that has been shown in these actions.  Even now, after all this writing, words are failing me as I try to convey the enormity of this experience.  The only thing I can say is that, for the past 4 years, as hard as I tried to believe that love is always bigger than anything else, I couldn't.  I still believed that there could never be an act of love or kindness that would be as large as the hurt I had experienced. 

I know now that I was wrong.  There is love, and kindness, and there are acts of solidarity that can warm even the most desolate areas of our soul.  I don't believe in a God...but when I think about the magnitude of this kindness and love, god is the only word I can find that is big enough to fit.