gentle hands

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I’d wanted to ask her for months. We’d go to the beach, go to a show, walk around a park. Her hands were so close. So soft. I wanted to reach out and touch one. Wrap my warm fingers gently around it, firmly, carefully.

But I didn’t know. Would she be offended? Maybe she didn’t think about me like that. I mean, we only hung out every weekend for hours. We texted every day, extensively. We looked into each others’ eyes sometimes, her eyebrows arched just a little in a knowing glance, one I always broke by looking away. “But what if she doesn’t really like me?” I fretted.

“I could show you my judo moves,” I texted one night. “Throw you right out on the floor. Pin ya. Chokes. I’m getting kinda good!”

“Please only use gentle hands around me :)” she replied, the emoji a harbinger of playfulness.

“I promise. Only gentle hands.”

“What could you do with gentle hands?”

“I could…hold yours? gently”

“That would be nice :)”

Wait. She said…I can hold her hands? I can finally reach out and just grab them?

“Only gentle hands, then, when I see you. I’ll hold them gently :)”

She was gone that weekend, cities away. I was in turns elated and terrified of the prospect of seeing her again. Nervous, I parsed the brief conversation 9 ways to Sunday, scrambling to determine any hidden meaning, or to make sure that she really meant it.

On Monday afternoon she got back to the city. “Hey!”

“hey”

“what’s up?”

“just laundry. working. nothing big, haha”

“thought it might be fun to pop over for a few if you’re not busy”

“sure! I mean, if you don’t mind my laundry…”

“cool. I’ll come over later, then?”

“see ya then!”

Frantically, I cleaned my room and reread our text exchange. Was she coming over so I could hold her hand? How would I know what to do? Had she really meant that text? Lacking a bed frame, my mattress lay on the floor. I fussed around, tidying up my furniture less room into a sterile space of ambiguity. I fluffed the two pillows I owned and straightened the quit, a gift from my grandma.

Finally, she arrived. “Aquí,” my phone buzzed. I ran downstairs and opened the door. “Good to see you,” I smiled as I hugged her. A chase, discreet side hug–only one arm, though I angled my body toward hers. This, to me, signaled a “more than friends” hug.

Once ensconced on my bed, we pulled up Netflix. Ah, the ubiquitous Netflix and chill. Tucked next to each other on the narrow double bed mattress, we marathoned through “Master of None.” I tried to pay attention to the show–after all, I’d never seen it–but I kept getting distracted by trying to figure out how to make my move. How does one hold someone’s hand for the first time? Three episodes in, I was even more anxious than at first. I wanted to hold her hand, but I was too nervous to take it, even though it was less than an inch from mine. And if I didn’t figure out how to hold it soon, she was going to leave and the moment would be past. And did she even want me to hold her hand? I mean, that’s what I inferred from the texting convo, but does anyone really know?

Mustering all my courage, I slipped my hand over to hers. The back of our palms brushed against each other, settled. Seizing the slight moment of courage, I crossed my hand over hers and wrapped my bony fingers around her soft ones. Heart racing, I held my breath.

And then, she squeezed my hand and held it firmly, yet gently and carefully, just like I was holding hers.

Months of tension escaped my body. I was holding a girl’s hand. She was holding mine. And the universe was a better place.

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anxiety

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Most days lately I feel trapped. I’m in a box, a glass box, watching everything happen around me without being able to latch on and engage in it.

Or I’m stuck in my head, holding it together to outside appearances while to do lists, responsibilities, jobs, and things I’m supposed to be remembering swirl around me. I can’t figure out enough of what I need to be doing to even make a list, so I hunker down, sleep whenever I can, and hope desperately I’m not missing anything too important. I forget about classes and deadlines. My students suffer patiently with me through my flightiness.

I feel like I can’t catch my breath, can’t get my finger hold in reality. It’s scary and terrifies me so much I just hunker down and try to forget I have things to do. That coping mechanism only increases my anxiety, but I don’t know what else to do.

Lately anxiety has been holding on to me more and more tightly in more and more insidious ways. I can’t shake it. I can only observe as it takes over my body.

Will it be okay? Or is the world really doomed?

reclamation

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I’ve been taking self-defense classes for several months. During that time, I’ve learned so much about my body, being in it and feeling it, being comfortable with it. Much of that like relates to the fact that it’s a queer self-defense club where I can exist safely and comfortably in the odd genderless space I fit into best. I don’t get that luxury often in life, so I cherish it. There, I’m not “she”–I’m “they.” I don’t get separated by gender, called Miss, presumed to be something else. It’s refreshing.

Today we were working out and a frame of motion between the sensei and another student caught my eye and mind. We were practicing the most basic of things, rolls. In order to take falls and throws safely, you have to spend hours practicing how to roll correctly. My partner and I were both having trouble with the form–we didn’t curl our shoulders in enough as we hurtled through the air, inevitably jamming them as we landed on the somewhat forgiving mats.

The image that caught my eye was of sensei placing her hand on my partner’s head as she grabbed her opposite arm to guide her upper body through the roll smoothly. With the upper half of her body correctly placed, the rest followed through.

As I watched, I found my brain flashing back to my days as an evangelical Christian. I remembered watching countless people baptized. They stood in the baptismal pool, usually dressed in white, next to an elder. The elder placed his (never a woman) hand on their head and held one of their hands as he lowered them into the water and lifted them back up. It was a ritual that awakened shame in me every time, as I’d frequently been told I wasn’t good enough to be baptized.

Sitting on the mats in the stuffy room at the LGBT center, I watched sensei’s hands, mesmerized by the memories they conjured in me. The motion–hand on the back of the head, firm pressure downwards, control of the arm–was eerily similar to what I’d been indoctrinated with as a child.

Watching it as an openly queer, agonizingly agnostic adult, I felt bittersweetness flood my body. Being queer, for me, has been intricately linked to reclaiming words and habits I’d been told were sinful and disgusting. Today, the motion I’d linked to Christian baptism as a child seemed to come full circle. Instead of imagining the words of the waters of baptism–“I baptize you in the name of the father, the son, and the holy ghost”–instead I saw a different kind of new birth happening. Comfort in my body, in my queer identity, in my right to stand up for myself, in my genderlessness, in my strength–all these things were things I grew into, at least in part, in this club, with this sensei. In a way, her hands on my head, on my arm–these were the harbingers of a new kind of life for me, a life bursting with vibrancy, pulsing with vivacity, abounding with colors.

In a way, ’twas a baptism into queerness, an affirmation of the way I’ve chosen life, and life abundantly.

Memories

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It’s funny how stuff keeps coming back. The compulsion to reenact trauma is intense sometimes. It’s usually not a good thing to act on, and when I do, it generally creates more layers of trauma.

And then there’s the church. Layers. Layers of guilt and shame, mindsets I don’t even realize I’m presupposing onto others around me, institutions and individuals. The fear of hell and the fear I’m doing something wrong. Scarcity mentality. Terror of things that are new, different. Really, it’s a brain wiring thing. I really want a brain scan. I want to see how my grey matter compares to people who didn’t grow up being scared to death all the time.

Sometimes I make new and better memories. I can’t always tell which experiences will make new good memories or new bad ones. I am sometimes pleasantly surprised. Sometimes things get worse than before. It’s hard to know ahead of time which ones will be which, though I’m getting better at telling.

Someday I hope the pile of good memories outweigh the bad ones.

Changes

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This summer was a transition, it’s true. But the real transition came when I moved across the country–2200 miles across the country–in August. I don’t know why I thought it would be easier than it was, but I did. I didn’t expect it to unearth old issues and wounds, reopen scars, and generally throw me into a state of turmoil and disaster like it did.

I still don’t know all of what did it. The pain and confusion started building in the summer. Probably, the combination of change and a safe place unlike I’d known before cracked the wall I kept around my emotions and feelings. I started to grieve, most likely, and it came out all sideways. I got incredibly anxious and stressed. I would rock for hours, a kinetic coping strategy I hadn’t used in public in years. I was angry and teary and sensitive–and there was no rhyme or reason. I couldn’t figure out why.

I’ve never really felt anything about the sexual assault I experienced as a child. I mean, I talked about it. It happened when I was four, random strangers (a statistical anomaly), but the atmosphere of my home and my utter lack of understanding about sex and anatomy kept me silent for years. While in nouthetic counseling with a highly unethical counselor, I finally talked about what had happened. However, since I was seeing her for general anxiety, depression, an eating disorder, self-harm, and a compulsion for reading erotica and masturbating, the revelation (and her resultant violation of confidentiality and professional boundaries in forcing me to tell my parents) was shrouded in the guilt and shame she heaped on me for the consequent behaviors I was in therapy to try to cure. In some ways, I felt like my parents and the counselor were more concerned about getting me to be “good” and stop those things than they were about the abuse. I mean, they cared, but they were more angry with me for doing “bad” things than they were that I’d been violently assaulted as a child. Or maybe their ways of caring just didn’t compute for me. Either way, instead of being angry about what happened, I just felt more shame and guilt about who I was and what I’d done.

Victim-blaming is shockingly blatant in fundamentalist Christian circles, which I was part of at the time. I heard everything from the fairly common “you need to forgive because you’ve been forgiven” to “as a child, you were still at fault because you harbored a grudge against God in your heart by not telling your parents and seeking help. You chose to hang on to being angry with God and cope in ways that were sinful and wrong, even as you realized they were sinful and wrong.” I was attending the same church as the counselor—I’d started going because I wanted to spend more time with her—and I was not allowed to attend the church without a “babysitter” (I was 17-18 during this time) because of my “sin.” Instead of acknowledging my hurt and pain, I was given more and more shame to carry.

And back to the issue of me wanting to spend more time with the counselor, I had a weird relationship with her. She invited me to join her family for dinner, family time, etc. She would physically hold me, which I found very comforting as an adolescent who’d never really had safe touch in their life. She’d let me cross all sorts of time boundaries, overstaying my sessions and calling her all the time. She was, in a way, the first person I’d trusted, the first person who had shown me so much attention and affection, and I craved that with a vengeance. I wanted to trust her so badly that I kept trusting even after the warning signs of trust violation glared at me over and over.

And I think in the end, I never got a chance to be angry. I never felt anything. I was so busy feeling shame for my coping mechanisms that I didn’t have time to feel anger or sadness about the assault. People who should have been angry in my life were too busy judging and trying to manage my coping mechanisms (by telling me they were wrong) to be angry at what had happened with and for me. And so I passed it over. In the ensuing years, I went to treatment, I went to therapy (with good therapists) and I didn’t ever deal with it because it just wasn’t yet safe to access those feelings and emotions. You have to have a safe container, I think, or else your brain continues to shut that out, to blind you to the memory, to act like it didn’t happen.

This summer, I started to feel safe again. I started to feel like I could trust, even though it terrified me. I had someone who loved me, held me, was angry at my abusers and not me, told me over and over and over that I was good and my coping mechanisms were not bad and that I was lovable and worthy of love. I hadn’t had that before. It gave me a safe container, and I started to feel the anger and pain I had suppressed for years. I knew that each night, I could go home and be held, even if I was angry or sad or being difficult. I got to be a kid who was cared about.

Then I moved 2200 miles away. It’s not unusual for a 23 year old to move across the country, but since it came just as I started to feel safe, it threw everything off. I couldn’t hold it together. I was oscillating wildly between all sorts of emotions and I couldn’t self-regulate. On top of that, I had a hostile housing environment and a lot of unsettled issues with that. And I didn’t realize how much it would mess with my head.

It sucks, honestly, I know that trauma, PTSD, is unpredictable. It can hit when you least expect it. Is this what I have to deal with the rest of my life? How many other layers are hidden underneath there, to be unearthed at random times in my life? I don’t know. I wish I did.

Ghosts

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Transitions are hard. I know this, objectively. I still wasn’t prepared for how hard the transition I just experienced would be.

This summer I lived with a couple I’d met in college. They were older, between my grandparents’ and parents’ ages. I tried to live at home, but that lasted all of about 2 weeks before it was clear that it was compromising my mental health. I started having flashbacks; I had trouble separating the past and present and would start to melt down when either parent got angry. Along with that, my parents were still trying to figure out how to tell my younger siblings I was gay–which would have included them telling them I was going to hell. I couldn’t relax.

I was working at a summer program which was stressful as well, though it ended up being an ultimately good experience. I had a great co-teacher and and a couple good coworkers, despite the creepy and aggressive guy I worked with and the insane director.

Since I wasn’t living at home, I started to relax. For the first time, I had a friend over without supervision. I watched a lot of movies. I learned to let people touch and hold me safely. I practiced better self-care. I started to believe that I was worth caring about. I reluctantly let myself be taken care of. It was hard. I missed my siblings, even though I saw them every week. I didn’t know how I could live without seeing them all the time. I felt guilty for not being at home with them, but I desperately wanted to have a safe place. And where I lived was a safe place.

But transitions, even to better and safer places, come with pain. In my case, not having to live on high alert ate away at my constant guardedness, and I started to feel things I thought I’d dealt with. Turns out, “dealing with” things and “intellectually acknowledging there were problems” are different. I started to hurt, deep inside, about things I thought I was “over”–not being held as a kid, or being told I was loved, being hit and yelled at, being forced to take on adult roles as a child. The contrast of living in a place where I was treated with respect and dignity, given autonomy, and unconditionally loved just made the deficits I’d grown up with even sharper. Even though I’d graduated, I still didn’t have much autonomy or respect at home–there was a list of expectations I was expected to adhere to if I lived at home in the summer. I’m not talking about reasonable chores/paying rent/etc.–who I could have over, being home for family dinners, not talking about certain things, church–control tactics. These had been part of my life for so long I’d forgotten what it was like to not have them. In fact, I’d never lived without them. I couldn’t believe that love and acceptance, hugs, autonomy–these things were “normal” in families.

Growing up in a home that is emotionally neglectful is hard. It makes you think you’re crazy for wanting to be loved, told that aloud, hugged, and kept safe. Growing up in a home with no expectation of privacy and no respect or autonomy breeds a system of deceit and fear. You can’t ask questions, so you try to find out things on your own–not always the best tactic. Growing up in a home that is physically abusive makes you cringe at the most innocent motions from other people and feeds a deep mistrust of and simultaneous overwhelming craving for the approval of authority figures. And it’s all super confusing. Living in the middle of that and trying to figure it out hurts and is messy and awkward. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. In the middle of trying to figure your issues out, you have to live with the consequences of others’ actions in your life–and still manage a job, school, social life, and all the other obligations of being an adult.

And it’s hard. It’s messy. But when you start to do that work, it is incredibly rewarding and deeply fulfilling.

Moving On

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So clearly, I never got around to catching up. Instead of trying to summarize the last months in depth, I’m just going to give a general snapshot and attempt to jump back in.

I’m currently living on the West Coast doing a year of service program. I didn’t exactly expect to find myself here, but it is turning out to be a good thing. There are always problems (the staff at this program are horrible…passive-aggressive, unconcerned about the well-being of interns, ignorant of the meaning of personal/professional boundaries…I could go on), but the benefits are starting to outweigh the costs. I’m teaching at a low-income mostly Hispanic high school, helping to develop an ELD program. I live with 4 other crazy people, but we all manage to survive each other and enrich each others’ lives. I think.

I’m enjoying being closer to the ocean and the much more liberal atmosphere around here.

But yeah. That’s been the last 8 months in a nutshell. Still very gay, still very stubborn…not much has changed.