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.

catching up

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Wow. It’s been a while. I left this and kinda forgot about it. A lot has happened in my life since 2/24/15, so I’ll try to highlight it quickly.

In March of 2015 I came out as queer to my parents, my siblings, and my extended family in 24 hours. Do not recommend. I then began the process of coming out at my school, which was terrifying and freeing–I attend a conservative Christian university not known for tolerance.

From May-July 2015 I traveled through Costa Rica and Nicaragua. I met a much more diverse group of people than I’d ever met before, and I realized that not everyone cared about who I loved. It was shocking to me that it just didn’t matter to people. They liked me independent of my sexuality. That trip was amazing and eye opening and freeing.

In August, I started college again, along with a new job at a new nursing home (but no overnights; I care about my mental health more now). School was a bit difficult to get used to after the freedom of Central America. In addition, a lot of unfortunate events went down with administration at my school where they harassed gay students and were generally awful. It took a toll on my mental health, and I dealt with enough depression that I couldn’t stand doing much. It has been a while since this hit, and it sucked, but thankfully I’m doing some better.

In November, in the aftermath of the drama with my school, a group of two fellow students and I created a presentation for conservative Christian schools who wanted to support their queer students regardless of theological positions. We proceeded to network, push, shove, cajole, beg, plead, present, build alliances, and work our tails off to see this move forward. (To date, it’s doing better than we ever thought.) It is difficult at times, but has been really worth it to feel like we are contributing tangible betterment to our university’s culture.

December I spent at home with my family, which went surprisingly well. I biked over 120 miles in two weeks, taking every opportunity to hit the road. I also rested, read, and refreshed my soul. I learned that I am in introvert and need a lot of recharge time or I will not be effective at anything and my soul will not be peaceful.

In January I started student teaching, which I thought I might die from but I’m still living through. It’s getting better, but I am not sure it’s what I want to do forever. That’s ok, though, because I don’t have to do it forever. I am enjoying the 6th grade math class I’m in now.

In February I was accepted to the Episcopal Service Corps program in Chicago, the Julian Year. I will be spending a year living in Chicago and focusing on personal and spiritual transformation and growth while serving at a social service agency and living in community. I’m excited! The interview process for the ESC was actually one of the most interesting experiences in my life. It was so amazingly affirming. My sexuality wasn’t a liability, they were excited about the work I was doing at my school, and they didn’t exclude me from Christianity just because I was gay. It was freeing and welcoming. I ultimately got offers from 6 different programs, and it was incredibly hard to choose just one–but in the end the Chicago program seemed like the best fit. I am thrilled and can’t wait to graduate and move on to new things.

That’s a summary of my life so far–hopefully I will continue to update this blog a bit more frequently. I’m probably the only person who reads it, but it’s a good reminder of my life so far and helps me mark progress and see growth.

Peace.

eating disorders, take 4

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If anyone has followed all that rambling…wow. You are long-suffering. I’d probably like you as an irl friend.

All that aside, I really don’t know much about eating disorders. I know some about my eating disorder, and what I know is that it requires me to keep constant watch on both my food and my feelings. They’re so connected. The only way I can keep them healthy, though, is to be honest, every single day.

Every day, every meal, I stare down my monsters. I eat because I know it is good for me, with the hope that one day I’ll eat because I want to. I rejoice every time I am able to listen to my body and know when I’ve eaten enough, or eaten foods that satisfy my palate and my stomach. I pay attention to my feelings, and when things feel like they are spiraling out of control I reevaluate what my idea of control is and if it’s a healthy one or not. Then I make a list of things I can take charge of. Then I call someone and am honest with my struggles and successes. They offer me an (often metaphysical) hand and I follow them back to the light.

Eating disorders are not about food, and they are all about food. This is life. We talk about things that are really not about themselves at all, even when they are all about themselves–alcohol, drugs, sex, self-harm. The only way I’ve found to escape the cycle is to acknowledge that I am a whole person, blood and fears and sweat and tears and dreams and goals and bone and muscle. One part of me hurting will make all of me hurt. I cannot exist as a purely spirit being. I need all of me. The only way to make sure I have it is to care for my stomach as well as my spirit.

eating disorders, take 3

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Man, all that is depressing. I’m ready to get to the less-depressing parts. 🙂

Eating disorders, simultaneously, are all about food and nothing about food. On the one hand, they are really about control. On the other, they involve food–a fundamental part of us and one we cannot escape. (I once heard someone talk about imagining a life where we didn’t need to eat three times a day, but that was clearly a pipe dream.) Thus, my parents could take me to as many nutritionists as they wanted to, and threaten me with all of the negative consequences; but if I still felt like food was the one thing I could control, I wouldn’t budge. At the same time, I could work on not controlling everything in my life, or realizing what was healthy taking charge and what was toxic control; but without a blueprint for how to rebuild healthy eating habits, I was screwed.

For me, rehab provided both of these things. Let me take a break for a minute here and point you to a TedX talk I recently heard and loved. Glennon Melton, of Momastery fame, gave a talk at TedX Traverse City titled “Everything I needed to know in life, I learned in a mental hospital.” Replace “mental hospital” with “rehab” or “treatment” (or just add them, because I’ve had experience with all three), and you have a talk I could give. One of the points she articulate quite well is the fact that when you are on a psych ward you really have nothing left to lose. Everything you are on the outside is immaterial. In the psych ward/treatment/rehab, you have no masks or capes or coping mechanisms left. You’re naked, so to speak. Which feels terribly, terribly frightening. It is you and your demons, face to face. Your scars, your fears, your monsters, your pain–you don’t have any insulation anymore. But that is not all.

In rehab, you also have other people. And you may not like these other people. You may hate them, or hate how they talk, or be scared of them because of prejudice, or scared because they are seeing you at your bottom. But they are there, and they are not going anywhere. In that safe, controlled, unfortunately-rare setting, you can choose one of two things: open up, be honest, be scared, be real–but SHOW UP–or shut down and pretend you still have your cape and refuse to get help.

I am not perfect. I spent a fair share of time in the shut down mode. But what I eventually learned was that I couldn’t afford it. I could not afford to not get help. I was going to die without out it, inside and outside. So I took that terrifyingly scary first step.

Back to how it applies to my ED: I have had to work on both pieces–the out of control feeling that spiraled me into it and developing healthy eating patterns that sustain and nourish me. But I absolutely cannot have one without the other. I need to be honest with my life. I have to show up in the “brutiful”-ness of live and live the pain and joy and fear. I can’t numb out–it’s too risky. And it sucks. And some days I have no clue what I’m doing, in eating or anything else. But I try, and pretend to be a normal person, and take care of myself, and call someone else who can tell me the truth when I can’t, and I stand back up.

Practically, I had to cut way back on checking my weight. I still do it at times, because…I can’t not, even though I know it might be better. But I’m not a slave to the scale. I check it, and I get off and call someone and am honest and then I go about my life. I eat normally, and when I’m in doubt I make sure I get carbs, protein, and fat at each meal and hang in there for when I can go back to eating by gut feel (literally). Here is the interplay: when I am having a bad food day, I have to make sure I talk about my feelings with someone so that I can keep the food from going crazy. If I have a bad feelings day, I have to make sure I’m eating enough to stay present to feel my feelings so that they don’t engender a food shut down. They’re a toxic, interrelated, crazy mix I can’t afford to mess with. And that is why I have learned to take care of my mental health as closely as my physical health.