Tag Archives: trauma aftermath

Radical self care as upheaval (part 3) – negotiating depression and its aftermath

(In this series of posts about radical self care and/through major life change, I am finally taking some time to find the words for what I’ve been dealing with over the last month, since the birth of my nephew. I am thinking about how and why we choose to survive and how much effort is involved, how and why we choose to take care of ourselves, and how to allow ourselves to walk with all that life throws at us with even a modicum of grace and celebration.)

(Just a heads-up: there’s some talk in this post about negotiating feelings of suicidality — be easy with yourselves and only read what you want to read, ok?)

And then I slid into a pretty serious depression. I don’t know how much I want to say about that here, except that it was both hormonal and historical — it grew out of the long grief I held about my own loss of motherhood, it grew out of shame I felt around my failures as a writer and facilitator and woman, it grew out of sorrow at how long it took for either my sister or I to become parents — all the work we had to do just to survive long enough for our soul’s to heal enough that we could imagine cradling another’s spirit with any determination or self-assurance, how unfair what our stepfather did was. It seems an understatement: unfair. Of course it is. And it’s true.

And then, too, I was dealing with hormonal shifts, a depression that I fall into for about two weeks a month, every month. I cried and cried, every day, for two weeks. I fell deeper and deeper into this depression, so far in that I started to get scared — what was the point of anything, anyway? What difference would it really make if my nephew didn’t have this aunt? It’s not like he would remember me — and I didn’t have anything really to pass on to him anyway, did I? Wasn’t everyone showing me that — the fact that I couldn’t get anyone to sign up for my writing groups meant that I didn’t really have anything to share. (I offer these as examples of what’s going on for me when I’m thick in the throes of depression — not because I really believe that they’re true or because I need them to be negated here.) The scary voice in me that sounds like despair and loss and nihilism took over; I couldn’t self-talk my way out of its arguments, I wasn’t telling anyone what I was going through, and I wasn’t doing the sort of writing that will often help me notice and shift this sort of struggle.

I didn’t see how it could ever be possible for me to live the sort of life I’d always imagined sharing with a child in some way: a life that looked an awful lot like the one I had as a very little girl living in the country in Nebraska (and that I tried to recreate in Maine) — a small life in a house with a big garden; bread rising in the kitchen; sprouts growing on the kitchen window; herbs drying from the rafters; pantry filled with jars of flours, seeds, nuts, spices; long walks through the garden and the surrounding fields or woods, talking about the plants that grew and what work they did in the earth, what work they did in our bodies;  hours every day spent in physical labor; hours spent writing; hours spent walking and reading — I imagined being an adult who knew about the earth, about our environment, and getting to pass on that learning to the child/ren in my life. And then that all fell apart, and I came to the city, and I would never have a child anyway, so what difference would it make if I never learned the names or the gifts of the plants that grew in this new place I now inhabited? What difference would it make if I never lived that long-held dream? I thought about how I wouldn’t ever really be free from what I’d been through, how it would always be with me, and how I couldn’t protect this new child from all the evils this world has to offer.

I knew that the depression was hormonal, but that knowing doesn’t really help — you can’t think your way out of depression, can you? In fact, knowing sometimes makes it worse; I’m thinking to myself, Jesus, pull it together, this is just hormones. And then, because I still feed bad, I become further depressed that I can’t talk my way, can’t rationalize my way, out of this feeling, can’t (at least, all alone) cognitively-behaviorize my way back to wellness.

I put on as good a face as I could for those around me, even when I talked, finally, about how sad and low I was feeling. And when I began to bleed, and the depression abated, I felt relief — and I felt really scared. What if that low came back? I thought about folks who survive horrors, who live a long time with the aftermath, and then kill themselves after twenty or so years after, who looked like they made it, and then suddenly got taken down by history, or by the long and awful work of living in the aftermath of what they’d survived.

I’m talking about this here for a reason: because so many of us struggle with depression, with these voices inside telling us that we’re worthless and that nothing will ever get better, and yet we feel profoundly isolated when we’re in the grip of this feeling. It seems like no one will understand us, no one will want to hear what we’re feeling, no one else has felt as bad as we are feeling. I want to undermine this experience of isolation. I want you to know you’re not alone in feeling these things, just as I’m reminded that I’m not alone whenever I talk to anyone else about depression.

I didn’t bounce into buoyancy, as I often do when the hormones shift. I felt better, but I also felt subdued — I needed help. I didn’t want the depression to fall on me like that again. Because I can’t really afford to go to an herbalist or a physician right now, I went to the internet, and found some ideas for dietary changes and supplements that folks use to mitigate the intensity of PMS or PMDD, and I am trying those now. Suddenly, I’m one of those people with a handful of pills they swallow every morning (thanks to an amazon gift certificate I got for my birthday). Suddenly I am thinking again (link here) about how to prioritize my own wellness. Suddenly I am wondering what it would look like to really take care of myself first, to put my health and wellness at the top of my priority list. Suddenly I am looking at food differently — as something that can support not just my physical but also my mental wellness, or something that can cause me mental and psychic harm.

The truth is, I don’t want to die. The truth is, I still have a lot of living and healing I want to do. The truth is, I am scared enough by how I felt last month — at a time when I should have been as happy as I have ever been in my whole life — to make some radical changes in my living.

Why does it have to hit me so hard before I decide it’s acceptable to concentrate on my own wellness, that I deserve help as much as those around me do?

(Tomorrow’s post: Walking along the Möbius of  major life transitions, and allowing ourselves to feel turned inside out as we do so.)

Radical self care as upheaval (part 2) – finding the time, finding the words

(In this series of posts about radical self care and/through major life change, I am finally taking some time to find the words for what I’ve been dealing with over the last month, since the birth of my nephew. I am thinking about how and why we choose to survive and how much effort is involved, how and why we choose to take care of ourselves, and how to allow ourselves to walk with all that life throws at us with even a modicum of grace and celebration.)

As someone who has again allowed herself to get overly busy, where did I suddenly get the time to spend a full day or two in the south bay with family? Me, who rarely feels she has time to see friends, who is overwhelmed with all that’s involved in running a business alone, who can’t find the time to finish the books she’s been working on for years — suddenly there was time in my week to (want to!) run someone else’s errands, wash someone else’s dishes, clean someone else’s catbox. (Of course, it goes without saying that there was also time to hold someone else’s brand new baby — but everyone can understand that, right?)

It helped that almost none of my winter workshops filled to baseline capacity, and so most had to be cancelled — the financial panic that caused was mitigated by the fact that I had more time to spend with this family that has recently come to occupy actual, physical space in my everyday life.

It also helped that I stopped writing almost completely during the two weeks after the baby’s birth — that opened up a lot of time as well. I couldn’t even imagine sitting down in front of the notebook (not to mention this blog) and trying to find language for what I had experienced and witnessed, or what my sister had displayed — a capacity and resilience and determination that she pulled up from somewhere in the earth, drew into her body, and used to deliver this child. She had a coterie of supporters around her, a swaddle of women holding her as she pushed and rested, and a husband who kept himself in front of her eyes at every moment, reminding her that she could do this, carrying as much as he could with her, encouraging her to rest, to take it one step, one breath at a time. There were no words for what it meant that I could be a safe person for her there in this setting, that she trusted me to be there, given our history, given the history of our bodies, given what our bodies meant for and to each other.

At one point, midway through her laboring, when she was taking one of those sudden naps that laboring women are able to take — so exhausted from the work they do during the contractions that they are able to fall immediately to sleep when the pain subsides and they are given a reprieve — I burst into tears. I was sitting next to my sister, witnessing this majestic capacity, so grateful that she had been able to bring herself to this place in her healing and struggle that she could give herself this gift, this experience and life she’d always wanted: to have a child, to become a mother.

I was remembering who we used to be, I was remembering the girl who couldn’t see herself as worth any love, I was thinking about all the work she’d done over the previous decade to allow herself to get here. I was thinking about how grateful I was that she survived. I was in awe of what she was doing. I had all of our history in my body in that moment, and I couldn’t keep it in anymore and so I sobbed, as quietly as I could, sitting beside her, not at all sure how I could be of use to someone who had the ability to walk with the kind of pain she was enduring. The doula came over to be and comforted me. She thought I was sad about the pain my sister was enduring in this moment. She said, This is just what women can do — what our bodies are capable of. I couldn’t say a thing. I didn’t want the past to be voiced in that room. I could not say, I am crying because I am so grateful she lived long enough to get here — that we both did. I let the doula hug me, and was thankful for her generosity in that moment, even though she didn’t know everything that filled the room around and underneath us.

And I certainly couldn’t even begin to find words to describe what that new human looked like when he slid from my sister’s body, what he sounded like when he first made his cry to this side of the world, what his eyes did when they met air instead of fluid, what he looked like on my sister’s chest. so close to her face and her husband’s face, their looks of delight — these words don’t even come close to capturing the experience, offering it back to them, offering it back to you.

I had a journal I’d intended to keep for my nephew, writings from each day of the first months of his new life. I wrote in it before he was born, and haven’t returned to it. Instead of writing about this new life we were all circling around and inhabiting, I was living it. I didn’t want to pull away and examine what was going on. I wanted to be in the mix. I wanted to be there for every minute of his breathing, and I couldn’t be. I’m not his parent — I don’t live with him; I will never be the primary person in his life — but I could do as much as possible. I’ve put hundreds of miles on my odometer so that I can put myself in that room, with the sister who is my heartbeat, and this new child who now lives inside the breath that my sister and I share.

(In tomorrow’s post: navigating deep depression in the aftermath of a radical life change.)

Day 1: It’s Writing Ourselves Whole Month…

Assata's Affirmation

Oakland graffiti of Assata’s Affirmation

I believe in living.
I believe in the spectrum
of Beta days and Gamma people.
I believe in sunshine.
In windmills and waterfalls,
tricycles and rocking chairs.
And i believe that seeds grow into sprouts.
And sprouts grow into trees.
I believe in the magic of the hands.
And in the wisdom of the eyes.
I believe in rain and tears.
And in the blood of infinity.

I believe in life.

from “Affirmation,” by Assata Shakur

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April 1 marks the beginning of both Sexual Assault Awareness Month and National Poetry Month, and so is also the beginning of what I think of as Writing Ourselves Whole month. (What should our Twitter hashtag be? I like #WriOursWhoMo, but #WOWM might be a little easier to remember.) My intention for this month is to blog every day, to find my way back into a morning writing practice, and to begin to find some words for what I’ve been experiencing since the birth of my nephew three weeks ago.

I have written some, here on the blog, about my relationship with my sisterabout our past, and about our struggle to get to a new and more-healed place now.

I am without words for the transition we find ourselves going through. I need poetry –the practice and the manifestation — now more than ever.

I have no words, yet — I mean, I am trying to find my way back into the place where I could possibly find words for the fact that my sister allowed/wanted/asked me to be in the room with her while she brought her son from the place inside her body to the place outside her body. I don’t have words for that yet. I don’t have words for how grateful I am that our bodies can safely inhabit the same space these days. I don’t have words for how in awe of her I am, having watched her labor around and deliver this child, and watching her unfold gorgeously into her mother-self.

Maybe WriOursWhoMo can help me find these words. This is a month for the poetry of what hasn’t yet been spoken, what we’re not supposed to say, what pieces of our experiences are ready to find themselves into language. This is a month to tap into the language of poetry — our own and others’ — in order to express what has, up to now, been unexpressible.

Audre Lorde, in her essay “Poetry is not a Luxury,” writes, “Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.”

So this will be a month of poems and invitations. This will be a month of tangling with the power of writing for those of us navigating long-term (as well as brand-new) survival. This will be a month of exploring and naming the intersection of poetry and trauma, a month of engaging poetry as an intervention in the trauma we still carry within us.

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One of the ways we’re encouraged to celebrate National Poetry Month is to carry in your pocket a poem you love, and, whenever you get the opportunity, share it with people you love. What are the poems you keep in your psychic pockets — the poems you turn to for sustenance, joy, hope, understanding?  This is one of mine:

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.

You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.

People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.

The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.

- Rumi, as translated by Coleman Barks

(Don’t go back to sleep. Keep writing. Your poetry will feed you, and will become the lifeline that someone else carries in their pocket, too. Thank you.)

grieving what we couldn’t do

Good morning this morning. Here where I am, there are three candles flickering in their glass jars, and the rush of traffic has begun to pick up on the highway a few blocks away; sounds like the tide coming in. The birds are still sleeping, like the puppy. What are the morning sounds where you are?

I am sorry to have been so absent from this space of late. Yes, I’ve been spending as much time as possible with my sister’s new baby. And when not there, with her, being functional in some way, I’ve been– well, crying, mostly. This has been a surprise. I knew that my sister giving birth would be enormously powerful and even triggering, given our history. I didn’t know it would tear open wounds of my own that I thought had long healed.

It’s been hard for me to write during this time; the stuff I’m trying to find words for is big and complicated and layered, and has to do with, among other things, my own loss of a child 12 years ago, and my relationship with parenthood, with mothering in particular. It took me almost a week after my sister’s child was born before I sat down with a notebook to attempt to write anything at all.

Let me not convey the impression that I’m not ecstatic about this small one who’s come into my sister’s life, her husband’s life, my life… my wordlessness has a lot to do with not being able to figure out how to articulate just how amazing is his very existence. Where did he come from? How can he be? My little sister is an amazing mother. She is patient and generous, she is worried and anxious, and she is wholly in love with this new being she finds suddenly outside of her body and cradled in her arms.

I don’t want to be anything other than happy right now. I don’t want to be envious or wrapped up in my own loss. I don’t want to be plagued with thoughts that maybe I could have done this work of mothering after all. That maybe, if I hadn’t had to spend two decades trying to heal, I could have done something more with this life.

When my ex-wife got pregnant, I had been away from the man who’d brainwashed and abused me for seven years; I didn’t understand why I wasn’t all better. She was capable of being a functional adult — why wasn’t I? Why couldn’t I show up better for this part of our lives together?

When I was in my 20s, I did not believe that I could or was meant to mother. I was afraid of harming a child, of being a harm to a child just by the very fact of my presence. It didn’t matter that I enjoyed spending time with kids or that kids enjoyed spending time with me or that I had no interest in hurting a child or that I hadn’t hurt any of the children I’d spent time with. I was afraid afraid afraid. Afraid I couldn’t show up for them, the way my parents turned out not to be able to show up for their kids. Afraid I wasn’t healed enough to be nurturing or spacious with a child. Afraid I was too selfish or narcissistic (as my stepfather had told me) to be a parent. Afraid my stepfather would make good on his threats to claim and violate any children in my life. Afraid I would never write again if I had a baby because I had no boundaries and few skills or tools.

And then there was a baby, an almost-baby. But he did not live. And I have been grieving him all over again this weeks.

What’s reaching out in me are the parts of myself that might have had a chance to flourish if not for being crushed by the heavy rock of my stepfather’s violence. I have spent the last 20 years chipping away at that enormous stone, and after all these years, I’m finding little bits of things still alive — withered and broken, but alive: oh, look, maybe, for all my self-protective storytelling, I really did want to be a mother. I could have been one, and I might have been good at that work, even in the face of all the negative messages I got about women who nourished and nurtured.

I keep imagining maybe I’ve done the bulk of my healing and then, wham, I hit into a brand new vein of loss and shame and grief, and I’m thick in recovery work all over again. Maybe it will always be this way.

What I am feeling these days is joy, yes — and also regret, and sorrow. And anger. I am angry that my big accomplishment in this lifetime is survival; that I have spent my whole adult life not building a family, not building a career or retirement or security, not writing books, not putting down roots anywhere, but instead simply trying to survive and heal from what was done to me when I was a teenager. This is my big work: staying alive in the aftermath. And today I am angry that this has been my life’s work, my magnum opus. I miss what could have been. I miss it in the insides of my arms, against my neck, in the places where my own child’s breath might have been, if I had been healed or functional enough to try again after that baby died.

It is not fair, how much work we have to do to keep going. It’s not fair that we have to devote time and attention to healing that we otherwise might have turned to creative projects or family or work or community change work or something, anything, else. It’s good and important and necessary work we do every time we choose again to persist in our healing.  And, I don’t know about you, but there are days when I wish I could have spent that energy on something else.

Today I will spend the day with a woman and man (my sister and her love) who survived long enough and worked hard enough to find their way to the place of enormous risk and love that is parenthood. And I will be with this small new human, just 10 days old, who only just learning what it means to have a body, to be in this lifetime. I will keep on learning with him.

(No particular prompt today: write as you are feeling drawn to write, ok? Find your way to some words. Thank you for the space you have made for your own healing, and the way you held on to the oldest dreams in you that persist in spite of the violences you’ve had to endure. Thank you for surviving, and for learning to do more than survive.)


grounded just before liftoff


Good morning out there. How is this dark morning treating you? Are you enjoying the fall back into standard time — the light that comes earlier in the morning and dissipates sooner at night?

Today I am nursing a tender, aching back. A year ago, almost to the exact day, I woke up in shock, the muscles in my lower back so tensed up and spasmed that I could hardly walk. I’d never experienced anything like that before and was terrified: had something changed irrevocably in me? Would I ever be able to walk with ease again? I had just left my day job (as in, my last day had been three days before the spasm) — and with it, my insurance — so I made do with visits to community acupuncture, massage, chiropractic care, all followed by a great deal of ibuprofen and frustrated tears. I wrote a lot while dealing with that pain: what I learned about the wisdom held in the lower back and butt, and about how the body communicates in so many different ways. It took nearly three months for me to feel like myself again, to feel some ease with my body — and even then, when I could run again without fear, when I bounded up the stairs instead of crawling, something in me remained vigilant, newly alert, watching for signs of flare-up. And one small muscle, deep inside my body, remained tensed, keeping the outside edge of one leg and foot numb unless I was really, actively working to relax — and even then, I was left with tingling rather than complete release.

Over this last year, I’ve done more to care for this body’s physical needs than ever before in my life. We’ve had to learn to get over our terror of bodywork, to move through that trauma-aftermath panic that left me sure that any person’s hands on me could potentially be harmful. Of course, more deep was the certainty that this body didn’t deserve kindness, didn’t deserve to feel relaxed and well. And then there’s the fact that to be relaxed was to allow my body to step out of its armoring — was to allow myself to be exposed. It’s been scary and sad and painful and gorgeous to step right up to those fears, take their hand, and invite them to walk through the fire with me.

In this past year, my body and me, we’ve had massages and hot tub soaks and saunas and mani-pedis and acupuncture and chiropractic adjustments and hours spent sleeping on sun-drenched sand near the ocean. We’ve adjusted our working sites so that they’re more ergonomically friendly. We’ve tottered less often in bad high heels. We’ve run and swum and danced and loved. And though that tell-tale tingling remained, the spasm hadn’t. Until today, in a much less-intense form than last year’s.

So why this new spasm now? What can I tell you about this today? I’ve slipped back into some bad old habits — carrying too much weight in my shoulderbag, exercising less frequently, spending more time sitting in front of a screen — but more than that, I think, my body seems to be reacting to big changes in my life, changes that are tied to leaps of longing and the possibility of ease and flight — it’s exactly my wing muscles that have tightened. We are scared of this leaping, me and the body — scared of stretching out our wings, scared of falling, maybe even more afraid of lifting into the wind and finding our soar. We — the body and me — are now a year into having Writing Ourselves Whole as our sole work-focus and sole source of income. Instead of tightening up, body, I think we need to celebrate. We have made it, and we are growing.

So as I stretch and alternate hot and cold on those back muscles, I talk to the protective stuff inside me, the parts that just want us to be safe, those parts that understand safe to mean quiet, hidden, unseen, invisible. I listen to what we are afraid of and I write it down, I breathe into and acknowledge it. We have every reason to be afraid. We also have every reason to keep moving forward.

This morning I have work to do: there’re two book projects calling for my attention. In-between sessions at the computer, I’ll lie down, or put my back into the sun, or take a bath or do some stretching. Time to re-situate into a self-care rhythm as we ease these wings out for flight.

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Is there pain in your (or your character’s) body that’s trying to tell you something? Give yourself and that good body some time on the page today — what are the contours and dimensions of this pain? Is it new, or similar to pain you’ve had recently? What might this pain be trying to communicate to  you? Take twenty minutes — follow your good words wherever they seem to want you to go.

Then rest. Be easy with you today. Thank you for what love and spaciousness you bring into the world.

extra:ordinary – Able to Breathe

(Our first submission for the extra:ordinary project (community stories of recovery, resistance and resilience) is from Neil in Canada — so grateful for his willingness to share this story about grace and the ways we keep ourselves alive. Thank you, Neil, for these good words.)

Able to Breathe

For me one of the hardest things was the aftermath. I was sexually touched as a five year old, sexually photographed at six. From seven to twelve I was mercilessly terrorized by a group of school yard bullies. All of these people were known to me. Most lingered in my life for a long while.

One of the strategies I developed to cope with these was the ‘face’ I offered the world: hard working, responsible, never complains, laid back. It got me through to some extent, allowed me to make it to the point where I could look back and start to embrace the hurt and fear and rage and hate. It kept me alive long enough that I could finally heal.

But oh what a cost.

There are few air holes in a mask such as this, not much that lets light in to touch the skin. It’s lonely and distant and, after a while, I came to believe this was how I had to be in order to be loved, valued, accepted. So often, though the most obvious abuse was decades behind me, I felt like I was dying. There were even times when I believed myself already dead.

But I’m not dead – and there’s resilience for you. Here I am, up way too late, letting a reply to Jen’s stunning offer unfold. Here I am writing a bit about what I’ve been through and where I am now. How did this happen? How did I come to a place – after years and years of silence – where I could do this? A lot of hard work and no small amount of grace.

Grace. Let me tell you about grace as I have known it.

Another coping strategy for me has been sex addiction. This has taken me into Twelve Step rooms, where I have sat for many hours listening to “Hi my name is _____ and I’m a sex addict.”

Only recently did I begin to speak in these places of the abuse I endured as a child. One day, after sharing my experience being photographed, another member approached in tears. He had collected such images, it seems, and done jail time for this offense. He now wanted to apologize for what I had gone through. “And if there is ever anything I can do,” he then offered.

It took me months to take up this offer. I eventually called, though, and asked if we could talk. And talk we have: one afternoon a week for the last six months. Both of us sometimes look at one another and wonder what the heck the two of us are doing speaking like this. Both of us are oftimes so exhausted by our interactions that we turn off our alarms the following morning, Both of us have been deeply affected by this experience. Healed in way we could not have imagined.

I have, in many ways, had a tough life. Things have happened to me that no person should have to endure. Sometimes I feel I will never find my way wholly free from this history. Other times, I can feel the shackles loosening bit by bit, day by day. That there is still a life force in me that desperately wants to dance, this does at times shock me. That I can experience the grace of an usual friendship with another who knows very well what I have gone through – well, this makes me thankful and gives me hope.

None of this shows up in any media I am aware of. Yet it is headline news to me. When I find myself able to say a bit more about my past, be a bit more in my present, open a bit wider to those around me – trust! – these unreported occurrences are life changers for me. When I find myself able to breathe or to feel the gentle caress of sunlight on one cheek, these are life givers. Life givers.

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If you want to contribute to the extra:ordinary project, check out the call for stories here.

It’s not your fault

Good Tuesday morning, writers & writers-to-be — the sun is shining outside and the guys who are fixing my car window have got the vacuum running strong and my poor little dirty girl is getting a bit of a cleanup.

What’s outside your window today?

My car was broken into last night. I parked in a busy lot in a bustling part of town, and my sweetheart and headed off to pick up our bit of take out. When we got back to the car, fewer than ten minutes later, a back window had been smashed in and the bag that I’d inherited when a dear friend passed away — filled with nothing more than a couple of writing notebooks and some flyers for upcoming workshops — was gone.

I was quite confused as I approached my little car — I thought, Wait a minute, isn’t that where I parked? Why is that smashed up car in my space? Oh no — that smashed up car is mine.

And then I decided to run around the neighborhood to try and catch whoever it was. I stopped people walking and said, Hey, did you see a guy running past here carrying a brown bag? (Please note my assumptions.) Of course, no one had.

We’d just been gone a minute! How far could they have gone?

I thought I could catch whoever it was. I thought maybe I could get back my bag and what it held — the project notebook filled with ideas and visions and plans for upcoming writing ourselves whole workshops, events and books; the notebook filled with writes still to be typed up for the writing ourselves whole book I’m compiling; the notebook of workshop writes from Saturday’s Liberatory Potential of Erotic Writing workshop up in Sacramento.  I thought I could get back the little (empty) coin purse I’d received from my mother many years ago, and my first business card case that I was so proud of.

The truth is that whoever stole that bag must have been disappointed: no money, no cell phone, no computer. Nothing to try and sell but maybe the bag itself. They don’t even want what’s inside — why couldn’t they have just dropped it at the edge of the parking lot?

My sweetheart called around to window replacement companies, and we came home and shared our take out Thai meal. We watched a movie. We tried to redirect our attention from fury, disappointment and violation to next steps and connection. We went to bed. Neither of us slept well.

I was up in the middle of the night rehashing my choices last night: If only I hadn’t taken the car out at all…; if only I had parked in the first spot I saw, that brightly-lit one…; if only we’d talked to those guys in that car making noises at us instead of ignoring them (were they they ones?)…; if only I hadn’t re-locked the car as we were walking away, thereby letting those guys know which one was ours; if only …; if only…; if only…

I’d done some of this at dinner: I should have taken my bag out of the car, I said. I know better than to leave my bag in the back seat of my car! How long have I been living in the Bay Area? I know not to leave anything enticing in plain view.

My sweetheart said to me, This was not your fault. You didn’t cause this.

Period. No exceptions.

And then I got it: Right. If only I hadn’t been wearing that short skirt…

We smiled rueful smiles at each other. It’s almost impossible not to blame ourselves when we are violated in this way — whether it’s our car, our writing, our home, or our body that got broken into. We have been trained away from putting the blame squarely where it belongs: on the perpetrator.

I tried to remind myself of this during my middle-of-the-night self-recriminations. If only I’d… Jen, it’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It doesn’t matter that you left a bag visible on your back seat — no one should have smashed through your back window to grab it. Period.

What about, If only that motherfucker hadn’t decided to smash in my window and steal from me…?

Maybe you know something about this kind of self-blame, of blame we take on ourselves because the person who should hold it is unknown to us, or won’t accept it. If we are to blame, we think to ourselves, then we can make different choices in the future, ones that will keep us safe. If we can be mad at ourselves, we have somewhere to direct our fury.

It’s not your fault can be hard to believe if we’ve been hearing the opposite message for our whole lives. Today I’m doing some acting-as-if. I’m noticing how deeply ingrained are those stories that we bring on our own misfortune, that we are to blame for the violence committed against us. We are not to blame. It’s not our fault. Maybe if we say it over and over, we will begin to direct our anger, we will be able to put the blame where it belongs.

~~ ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~ ~~

Are you blaming yourself for something someone else did to you? Do you struggle with the message that it wasn’t your fault? Can you take some time to write this today? What are the ways you are taking responsibility for their actions? What if, no matter what choices you made, you didn’t ask to be harmed, you didn’t deserve to be harmed, and you are not to blame? What if that’s true?

I am sending love and compassion to whoever it was who smashed my window and stole my words — at least now and again, I’m breathing in this practice. May they find peace and the roots of peace. May we all find peace and the roots of peace. I’m grateful to you, today, too, and grateful for your words.

enough of the overwhelm

a wall filled with the phrase

(I love you wall, Monmartre, Paris)

Good morning this Wednesday morning. I’ve got cloudy, bluish skies outside the window, a candle casting its flicker across my fingers, some decaf with soymilk. What delight do you have so far today? What are you bringing into the morning from your dreams?

This morning I am thinking about how to navigate the overwhelm. Do you get stuck in the overwhelm? How do you step through the minefield of the lens of overwhelmed? How do you remind yourself to listen to the parts of you that want to take care of you and believe that you’re all right?

Right now, I am caught in the pendulum swing of overwhelm, which ends up looking like a binge mindset. There are many projects on my back burner right now, waiting for me to devote all of my time and attention to them. This is a finals mentality. In high school and college, at the end of the semester and I had finals to study for, papers to write, it was easy to set everything else to the side — nothing else that had a claim on my attention was as important as this job: study for the exam, write the paper, get a good grade. This is a way of engaging with my work that I seem to have internalized, but that doesn’t serve me so well anymore. A novel isn’t a 20-page final paper; a business isn’t an exam that I can cram for, bang out, and be done with. We need different models for ongoing work like this, Jen.

And it’s not as though I don’t know or use other models — I’m able to create a long-term, project-based schedule and use that to make small, steady progress in service to my goals. However, in crisis, that’s not the structure that lives in my bones. That’s not the structure that I am most familiar with. What I know in my bones is binge — binge on work, binge on ‘relaxation.’ Play hard with your friends all day, then stay up all night writing the paper. Waste as much time as possible, then dash out the anthology submission the day before the deadline. Have to be awake through the night dealing with your stepfather’s psychoabusive rantings, then finish your homework on the bus on the way to school, or sitting in front of your locker just before the homeroom bell rings. Work all day, drink all night. Is any of this familiar to you?

When I’ve slipped into the binge mindset, I feel like I’ve lost the ability to modulate, to see the world as anything other than enormous projects that I need to take care of right now. My body gets tight and tense, the muscles of my neck and shoulders ache all the time, and I stop sleeping well. How can I stop and make a plan for the next week when there’s So Much To Do? I can’t see you for lunch — I have to write my book today. (My friends do not say to me, Jen, you know, that’s not really possible — they are spacious with me, even after so much time of dealing with Overwhelm Girl.)

Overwhelm can be an addiction, at least it can be for me: the adrenaline high, the plunge of guilt and shame when it’s not possible for me to get some extensive project completed in a single afternoon — after which I’ll start procrastinating, in service to something that I call self-care or relaxation but looks a lot more like avoidance. The avoidance, of course, adds to my guilt and shame. That particular spiral is a hard one to move away from, and builds the case for the need to binge on work: I’ve put this project off for two weeks! I have to get it done now! Everything else will have to wait.

Of course, that means more gets procrastinated/put off, and sets up the “need” for more binges — and more overwhelm. There’s no end in sight.

Who am I if my schedule feels sane and manageable, both full and in motion, if I’m not introducing myself as Jen-I’m-So-Busy? Who am I if I can take care of my physical and emotional-life needs and can still get writing and workshop tasks done? This is the question: do I deserve for my life to be both manageable and satisfying?

It can take awhile for me to remember that this particular way of interacting with the world/my work is a choice — and I can step out of the whirligig of overwhelm and into sanity/serenity again. Sometimes I have to force myself: set up working dates with friends, go to the ocean and walk slowly along the surf line, write affirmations on sticky notes and tack them up all over the house: what you are doing is enough — who you are is enough, no matter what you do or don’t do.

Isn’t that what it’s about: believing that we are enough? Believing that we deserve peace and sanity? Believing that our dreams deserve steady, consistent presence and attention?

Is that a message you believe? Me either — at least when I’m in the binge mindset. So I do some faking-it-til-I-make-it. I say it anyway. I say it again. I set aside work days and non-work days.

On work days, I sit down in front of the notebook and write a few pages, even when the voice in my head is telling me I should spend seven hours there in my butt, banging out rewrites. I send a few emails, working around the tentacles of the inside binger demanding that I write back to everyone waiting for a response Right Now. Then I get up, I move, I water the garden, I throw the ball for the puppy. Ideally, then, I come back into the play of work: thirty minutes on a book chapter, or one email, or thirty minutes of online research. Let the process come back into some kind of rhythm — I remember my breathing. I let the tide come in and go out. I remind myself that it’s ok to fall off the wagon — I’m not a terrible or worthless person just because I set myself up (again) with too much to do and not enough time to do it in. That’s just my old self, survival-centered self trying to defend my right to exist.

I deserve to exist. You deserve to exist. We deserve our oxygen no matter what we do. And our dreams deserve out gentle practice and kind, daily efforts — one thing every day.

Thank you for your words today, written or not.

dana: what survivors offer each other

I woke up with the phrase, “You don’t owe me anything” repeating, repeating. Was this from a dream?

You don’t owe me anything: you don’t owe me paperclips or postits or charts or rantings or emptied inkpens or chewed pen caps or filled notebooks. You don’t owe me your survival. You don’t owe anyone — not even yourself. This isn’t about owing at all.

Owe is about debt, right? Who told you you were indebted to other survivors?

We others who’ve been raped might’ve walk a path similar to yours years or months or decades or millennia or a few minutes before you but never actually stepped onto the path you’re going to have to traverse. And those who came after you — who started crawling up the long muddy hill after their own rape, moving ceaselessly toward sunlight, toward seaside, toward brambles and muckraking, toward prairie and quicksand and too-dense forest clouded with birdsong — you don’t know what path they’re on, either. Maybe there’s something familiar about where they’re going to where you’ve been but no healing is ever exactly the same.

This morning I am thinking about this idea of owing, and I realize I want another word. Not the language of commerce or debt — maybe something closer to dāna, a generous offering that expects nothing in return, something that looks more like cairns left by a previous traveler: an offering of time, of presence, and of beauty for any future travelers, understanding that no one may ever come this way again but if they do, this offering says: someone was here before you; someone else came this way, this far — in this moment, touching these stones and the intention that shaped them into this form, know that you are not alone.

This sort of offering can be a part of the healing/recovery/reclamation process after an experience of sexual violence — the sharing of and from our own experience out for others, when it is given freely and with no expectations. It can also be a healing thing not to feel that we are required to do this: no one is entitled to your experiences. Can we get away from this guilty language of owing?

What I want to say is this: we learn when we teach — we have to take a thing more deeply into our bodies when we want to help someone else understand it. What happens, then, when we can offer to others our learning/practices around radical self care or the sharp spikes in the nights of struggle? This is about offering, about chance, about saying yes to someone you will never know, who may or may not benefit from our words or experience. We all walk this road a different way, miles and acres and continents and generations of the raped crisscrossing psychic landscapes, struggling not at all zombie-like, now and again touching hands with someone who has something to share. This is a profound generosity, something not owed but freely extended.

Sometimes that offering looks like a history, a map of our own survival. We want to tell about the nightmares and that they will stop–or at least change shape significantly; we want to tell about the years of drinking too much and sex that felt like marionette encounters in the middle of a dust bowl, of friends who can’t hear us and strangers who understood, of the complex webbing that is family and where we placed the cuts that freed us and where we are still tethered — yet our map only covers the landscape of our particular life’s terrain. Someone else would take this map, overlay it onto their own lives, and not recognize any of the landmarks, the mountain ranges all different, the pitfalls and turns and straightaways shifted. Maybe here and there, a short stretch will correlate; here is where we touch hands in the night, as we pass one another.

Still, the creation of the map is of use — we can create an artifact of our trajectory, of the great efforts we have made on behalf of our own lives. We offer this to ourselves first. We point at milestones, telling the stories: look, here’s where I scaled that building with only my fingernails  and a fraying rope; god, was I bruised when I got to the top. Each point on the map is a story we can offer, and in the stories, someone else might hear something that they can use as they go on their own way.

(What would you offer to other survivors? What does your map look like? This could be a prompt for today. Take twenty minutes, write into it, don’t stop or edit — follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go.)

Big love and gratitude for your offerings, for your generosity, for your words.

learning to speak with my dad

jen & dad

me & dad, way back in the Before

This is a Monday morning, with roses in it, and burning-off clouds, and a puppy who has just learned to swim. This is the day after Father’s Day. This is the cool breeze that creates a confluence of culpability.

This weekend I got the new Kent Haruf novel, Benediction, and, in starting to read, returned to the world that is the place that my father is from. He wasn’t born in the High Plains of Colorado, but in the fertile land of middle-southern Nebraska, but it’s small town midwest living just the same. Reading Haruf’s setting and characters, I meet the voice and the cadence of the people I am from, and I meet all the layers of things a generation of folks never wanted to have to talk openly about: abuse, illness, homosexuality, love.

The people I come from show love through acts — they spent a lifetime working harder than a human should have to, tilling soil, tangling with weather, worrying over futures and grow rates and cattle prices; cooking meal after meal after meal, sweeping the same sidewalk, the same front porch, the same kitchen floor, day after day after day. These were acts of resilience, acts of human do-ing: what you did showed how you felt. Why is there any need to say it? Words were just words — it was what you did that mattered.

And if you didn’t say a thing, maybe that thing would un-be. If you didn’t talk about it, maybe it wouldn’t be true. The people I come from will welcome anyone with all of their arms open, as long as everyone agrees not to say aloud what we are all uncomfortable with.

Why do you have to say it? Why do you have to be so brazen? So vulgar?

How can this message come through so clearly when the words are never spoken?

My father comes from this place, this language of action, this complicated relationship with saying and silence. and thus, so do I.

Then, as a teenager, abused by a stepfather who was also a therapist, I was indoctrinated into an overabundance of words: words as deluge, words as battering ram; words as hailstorm, tornado, blizzard.

My father didn’t know how to interact with language in this way. He lived in another town while I was being drowned in my stepfather’s way with words. For so many reasons–the things unspeakable, the things overly spoken– my father and I lost the ability to speak to each other. We had no common ground in our present tense. We spent years talking about Before, unable to find shared language for our Now. Visiting with my father meant trying to become again the pre-raped girl that he’d parented on a day-to-day basis. The currency of our visits was “Do you remember?” The change was in tears, in apologies, in the spaces around the words.

Fathers and daughters–fathers and their children–often feel that they speak different languages. Ours is not a unique circumstance, I know. When my father was a young man, he tried to use the new languages he was learning to communicate differently with his own father, and found that effort — well, if not futile, then extremely challenging. Parents can’t always find their way into the languages their children discover and create in order to save themselves. Is this an everyday pain? Is this an ache we all just learn to traverse if we are going to have any relationship with our parents at all?

Yesterday I called, but I didn’t reach him. I left a message saying happy Father’s day, I hope you are having fun, here’s what I’m doing today — well, have a good Father’s day, and I’m glad you’re my dad. I didn’t try to call him again, or text. I didn’t think ahead to send a card, take some action that would show that I was thinking about him, even though I think about him every day.

I use words altogether more than actions with my dad. And yesterday I said aloud to my sweetheart, I wonder if I will ever stop punishing my father — punishing him for not being able to hear what I wasn’t able to say, punishing him for still inhabiting a landscape and relationship with language that is utterly foreclosed to me now. Punishing him for not opening his mouth wider, for not yelling what his daughters couldn’t even breathe, for being of a people who never yelled at all. I wonder when I will stop punishing myself by denying myself a fuller relationship with the man who taught me about the power of humor, about music and song, about the layers of hope that language can bring. I wonder when I will forgive myself for not being able to communicate with him in such a way that could have “saved” me and my sister. I wonder when I will let us be exactly who we are and decide to learn and trust what shared language still threads between us — terrifying, tender, broken and true.

This is my father’s day write. What does yours look like?

Big love to you today, you who are in the heart-achy aftermath of Father’s Day. Thank you for your spaciousness with yourself. Thank you for your words.