Saturday, October 29, 2016

Under the Mask

I sat in a brewery last night with my husband. We don't get out much without the kids and I was trying to sink into the moment and enjoy myself. I was sipping on yummy beer and listening to a man play piano and sing. I should have been happy. And, yet-- I felt melancholy.

The piano man was delightful, really. He was singing popular songs but changing the lyrics so that they were often funny and upbeat. The brewery was full of lively, tipsy people singing along and laughing. The mood in the brewery was upbeat and full of life. I didn't feel full of life, I felt sad and wanted to be still and quiet.

One thing that I usually like about small, neighborhood type bars is that people relax, have a few drinks and often have conversations about serious things. As an introvert and empath, I loathe small talk and long to dive deep under the surface and talk about the dark things that swim where they can't be seen. Yet, last night the mood was different and I felt an expectation to put on my face of false cheer, the face that I am often required to wear when I wonder outsides the confines of the walls of my home. It is exhausting to constantly be someone else.

There was one moment of the night were I sat at the corner of the bar and had a talk with someone about how suicide had impacted our lives and what we wanted to do to help prevent it from impacting others. That, oddly, was the time of the night that felt most real and true to me. All of the small talk and giggling over silly songs felt false. I just wanted to talk on a real and true level with someone instead of skirting over our pain without acknowledging it. It made me feel even more sad to realize how alone I felt in this feeling with people around me in celebration and that I only felt "at home" when talking about such serious things.

I often feel overwhelming sadness. I always have. As a young child, I would cry whenever a classmate was sad or hurt. I became very familiar with my parents or teachers telling me to "stop being so sensitive" or to "stop crying". I learned to wear a mask that would belie the pain that was constant under the surface.

When I was a teenager girl, in the months following my rape and in the midst of multiple suicide attempts, I dropped the mask. I was too swallowed by the blackness to care what people thought of me. I became awash in my emotions, blasting out sadness and anger at anyone in my path. Years of pain were coming to the surface and was far too tired to hide it.

Even though I was drowning in the black beast of depression and would nearly succeed in taking my own life, there was a freedom in no longer hiding the pain. I wore all black, as if in mourning of the girl that I used to be and took to chain-smoking and drinking cheap vodka straight from the bottle out of a paper bag and had a death-stare that warned all around me to not come near. It finally felt as though my outsides matched my insides.

In the months after my final suicide attempt, I was in a day treatment program at a local hospital. Yes, in the psych ward. What shocked me most there was that this place was not full of society's rejects. It was full of straight A students, a star football player, a quiet young girl that was a genius and was on track to go to college at a very early age...they were like me. The ward was full of kids whose bodies and minds were full of extraordinary pain but felt burned to appear perfect always on the outside. We were the best actors and actresses of all, but our veneer had finally cracked open. Our darkness was exposed to the world. We were terrified and thrilled for the world to see what we really were underneath.

Over the past twenty years I admit that I've begun to hide under the happy veneer again, especially after having children. I wanted to be the kind of mother that my kids would be proud of and, at times, have tried nearly desperately to fit in with the other moms, which meant wearing a mask of sunshine and happiness. Of course, its not always a mask and I have found happiness in my life. However, I have and always will have a shadow side. I am a highly sensitive person that feels the pain of others acutely. It is a blessing and a sickness. It hurts profoundly and yet it also makes me a better mother, nurse, writer and friend. It makes me who I am.

So for Halloween this year I will watch those around me parade around in costumes to hide who they are and pretend to be someone else for one night. I will do something different. I will take off the heavy mask of false cheer that I carry around all year long. This Halloween, I will go out into the world as someone new-- as myself, happy and yet always a bit melancholy. It's who I am, underneath the false mask of perpetual happiness. And, it feels damn good to strip it off for a day.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Refugees and The Lessons They Teach Us

I have always been a book fanatic and buy books, both new and used, and have a house in which every shelf is swimming with novels and tomes of non-fiction. Having a home full of books that I can pluck from a shelf at will has always made me feel measurably abundant. That is, it did until the day that I met a new refugee family.

In my job as a public health nurse I work with many refugee families, helping to ease the transition from years of life in a refugee camp into the startlingly different life as a resident of the United States. Working with these families and hearing their stories of their former lives has been one of the greatest blessings of my life.

This day I walked into the tiny apartment of a new refugee family with an interpreter at my side to bridge the communication gap. I was no longer startled by the stark emptiness of the apartment, as I had been when I was new to working with those in poverty. As a direct contrast to the consumer society of America, refugees come here with nothing and are grateful for every simple pleasure- the roof over their head, food on their plate, the lack of gunshots outside their window- and often live in tiny, low-income apartments without a single piece of furniture. This apartment held only a single chair and a shelf proudly nailed into the opposite wall.

The solitary chair was immediately proffered to me, with reverence. I never fail to be humbled by the grace and kindness offered to me in these homes. I declined to sit on the chair and instead sat on the worn carpeting, the family and my interpreter and I forming a circle in which their preschool-aged daughter, born amidst gunfire in the middle of a military uprising in their home country, spun within as though we had made the circle for her joy alone.

They did not stop their daughter from her joyful dance as many American parents would have- cautioning their daughter to sit quietly and let the adults speak. Instead they grinned and laughed and we all watched her spin and giggle. The conversation came in stops and starts as it often does while communicating with an interpreter, as we discussed their health, doctor referrals, food supply and community resources. The daughter continued to spin and giggle and we smiled at her with each pause in conversation. The family seemed to light up at my apparent joy in watching their daughter and this shared joy created a kinship beyond the fragile bonds of a nurse on her first visit to their home. There was a moment of pause and the father met my eyes and gestured to his daughter, “There is nothing so beautiful as a child who has no fear, no?” he said as the interpreter scrambled to interpret into English. The world stood still for a moment as I measured the words in my heart and nodded yes, at a loss for words, imagining the life that she had lived in her first few years.

He stood on shaky legs from sitting cross-legged for so long and walked over to the solitary shelf tacked to the wall. On it sat a single book, one of the books made for toddlers learning to speak with one picture and its accompanying word on each page. He handled the book with a reverence that I had never seen someone hold a book, even though I surround myself with bibliophiles that love books with fervor.

He sat, again completing our circle, and opened the first page. On that page was a photo of a perfect apple and he pointed at the picture, saying in clumsy English, “apple”, and nodding for his daughter to do the same. She stopped her spinning for the moment and carefully annunciated the same word in beautiful English.  They completed each page of the short board book in the same way. When they were done, he replaced the lone book on the shelf and bowed to it as he walked away. I thought back to my shelves stacked with books and suddenly did not feel abundant, I felt gluttonous.

He somberly said, though the voice of the emotional interpreter, “My daughter will learn English and go to school and live the American dream. “ I watched her dancing with such joy, no longer encumbered by the violence in her homeland or the constriction of the refugee camp, and I knew that he was right, she would find her own version of the American dream.

I was humbled and inspired and reminded of the importance of literacy and vowed to stop hoarding books and share them with those who have few and to treat each and every book with the reverence that I saw that day. Even more importantly, I was reminded of the American dream and how it still lives today in the heart of every citizen, whether born on this sacred soil or across an ocean.


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

To Sexual Assault Survivors They Are Not "Just Words"

Last year, after twenty years of silence, I came forward as a survivor of sexual assault. It was one of the hardest things that I have ever done. You can read my original post here.

Last week, I was paralyzed by the comments made by the Republican candidate for president. He was bragging about sexually assaulting women.

I waited for his followers to be horrified.

And, then waited some more.

And then realized,in horror, that they were defending this man and coming forward in droves stating that this was "just words" and "just locker room talk" and that, they too, have said such things and heard such things and as Scott Baio said-- we should just "grow up".

Why was I surprised? After all 1/3 women in this country have been sexually assaulted and 1/6 men have, as well.( I think these numbers are actually low- nearly every women that I know has been assaulted) The abusers, so infrequently prosecuted, must be out there somewhere- everywhere. Here the abusers and their protectors now were, out in the light. I suddenly felt more unsafe that I have in years, scared moment-to-moment for my daughters, for all of us.

Still, frozen in my grief which now felt fresh again with the painful things being said everywhere about sexual assault, I chose not to write about it.

When Kelly Oxford wrote a tweet calling for people to join in with their sexual assault stories, I cried as I read the MILLIONS of tweets. I realized for the first time that I am not only a rape survivor but that I had a list, a fucking LIST, of times that my body had been violated and that I had been told to keep quiet about it. Still, I was too frozen to write here, even after I joined in the chorus on Kelly's Twitter wall.

However yesterday, a member of my own family posted a meme stating that the words spoken by the Republican candidate for presidency were "just words". This person, knowing that I nearly took my life in my pain and grief after being raped, decided that it was okay to post such a thing knowing that I would read it. It felt as small as an ant, easily crushed under the weight of the words on the meme and every like that was posted underneath it.

Today, I speak

When I was a girl, maybe 7 or 8, a friend's father would always hug me uncomfortably close and lay his hands on my chest or bottom, sometimes even underneath my dress. We had just watched a Berenstein Bears video about inappropriate touching and I knew to tell an adult. I did. Three adults in fact. All of them said that I was just being "dramatic" and that Mr. --- was a nice man and I must have misunderstood. I kept being sent over to play with his children. That man would later be convicted of molesting dozens of children.

When I was 16, I was involved in a serious car accident. I was strapped to a spinal board, immobilized  with an oxygen mask over my face so that no one could hear what I was saying. In the back of the ambulance was my dad and a volunteer medic. My dad sat at the end of the ambulance, calling family members over the rush of the road noise and the beeping of the equipment. The volunteer sat on a bench next to me, his knees pressed against me. He first tentatively pressed his hands against my breasts as we rode over bumps and I thought that it was unintentional. Then, he became more brave, eventually slipping his hands under my shirt and fondling me while watching my dad to be sure he wasn't caught. I kept asking what he was doing and tried to wiggle away, but was strapped down and he pretended not to hear me. He stopped when my dad put his phone away. When I arrived to the hospital I shared my experience with the ER nurse, who told me that I must have misunderstood. I later heard her talking in the hallway with other nurses saying that several patients had similar complaints about this man. The nurses seemed very upset but I am unsure if any action was ever taken against him. I was learning that I did not have a voice against men who touched me. I learned that I was "dramatic" and prone to "misunderstanding".

When I was 17, I was brutally raped. In the aftermath, doctors, nurses and police officers would ask me questions over and over again like "what were you wearing?", "why were you drinking", "were you a virgin" and "did I try to turn him on". I chose not to press charges, an action that will haunt me for the rest of my days. A police officer assured me that a young women who had been drinking would be torn to shreds in court and that he would never be convicted. I learned that a young women drinking while underage was considered more of an offense to many than being a rapist was. I hid the  experience of that rape for twenty years, the shame of it becoming heavier with each passing year.

These occurrences, particularly the rape, have colored everything in my life since. I became a nurse and a writer to help others crawl out of the blackness that I lived in for years. I cannot separate myself from the sexual assault survivor inside of me.  Every cell of my being has been permeated with those violent acts. This is who I am now, who we-- the millions of sexual assault survivors-- are now. We get to have a voice, too. 

Every time that you minimize the braggart's words when he is so proud of his sexual assaults as "just words", you are telling us that our experiences-- our assaults and rapes-- do not matter.

Every time that you tell us, the survivors, to "stop being so dramatic" in our horror of the words being said, you are telling us that our feelings and horror and revictimization do not matter.

Every time that you tell us to "grow up", you are telling us that being offended by sexual assault and the bragging of it is childish and we should be seen and not heard as good children are told. We are told that we cannot be vocal as women, as survivors...that we should simply shut up in order to make you more comfortable.

Every time that we are told that we should dismiss this as "locker room talk", we are frightened. Are men everywhere bragging about sexual assault casually as they dress for a workout? We already know firsthand that the perpetrators are out there, but now our world seems terrifyingly full of them.

Every time that you deflect others' attention away from these words with your "but, but, but... so and so did THIS and that is so much worse", you are reminding us of why victims do not come forward and why the attackers are not persecuted and jailed often; because we live in a society where rape, even violent rape,  is viewed as a minor crime and is just "boys being boys".

I am a single sexual assault survivor who is standing here before you and begging you to take a second look at your words before you repost a meme or make a status about how bragging about sexual assault is "just words" or tell a survivor that she is being "dramatic" or to "grow up" because we are rightfully emotional. I am a lone sexual assault survivor who is standing up for the many that are too afraid to stand publicly, knowing that we are still a society who will shame and demean us. I am one sexual assault survivor that knows that there is an endless sea of others standing, loudly or quietly, beside me. 

Words matter. They always have and always will. Choose wisely. Someone out there is feeling every word in the most painful and personal way. As you think about the people on your friends list, remember always that many of them are survivors of brutality that you may not even be able to imagine. Reach down inside and have some compassion and understanding for us, too. You've so easily been able to find compassion for a man who is proud of being a sexual abuser... I hope that you have some compassion left for the survivors, too. 

If you are a sexual abuse survivor and are struggling, please reach out. RAINN provides online chats and phone support 24 hours per day. You are not alone, Loves. You matter and you are needed here. You can find RAINN here

Friday, October 7, 2016

To The Moms With Messy Homes and Happy Kids

Am I the only one that admires a certain group of women from across the schoolyard?

You know the ones- Perfect hair, perfect looking kids, works full-time but somehow manages to be the classroom mom, volunteer at various charities across town and cook amazing organic meals from scratch that she uploads to her Pinterest-worthy blog every night.

Hell, I'm tired just typing that.

Well, this week I had an opportunity to talk to two of the moms at my kid's school in the "Perfect mom's club". And, do you know what I realized? They are just as screwed up as I am. Maybe even more so. My screw ups may be ever so apparent in my habitually disheveled appearance, the fact that my house is chronically messy and that I have dressed my youngest daughter up twice this year for picture day ON DAYS THAT WERE NOT PICTURE DAY.

God. I am not rocking this mom gig.

Earlier this week I posted on my Facebook page about my shame around a messy house and then did a Facebook Live about it(going live is uber scary). And, apparently some of these moms read my blog(this is also scary). Some lovely women that I've never spoken to before approached me and wanted to let me to that they, too have messy homes. I was in shock because, frankly, these women- with perfect hair and makeup, stylish clothes and shiny minivans- ARE FLAWED JUST LIKE ME.

*insert audible gasp*

I guess the good news is that the perfecto moms aren't always rocking the perfect mom gig, either. They are just better at not letting it show. I am thankful to these brave mamas for showing me the imperfect lives underneath. It is a lung-filling, heartwarming reminder of the fact that we are all so much more alike than different. A reminder that everything that I worry about is something that so many others are worrying about at the same time. That we all want to be perfect parents but that is not something that could ever be possible for imperfect people in and imperfect world.

So, this is me. The mom with the messy house and the happy kids that feels that she's screwing it all up everyday. I just didn't realize that the Perfect Mom's Club felt that way too- that, as hard as they try, they're screwing this mommy gig completely up.

Color my mind as blown, ya'll.

So, I guess I learned a few lessons this week.

-Things aren't always as they seem.
-We're all imperfect.
-We're all doing the best that we can and that's really all our children care about. That we're trying and we love them.

So, I'm off to drink a glass of wine and celebrate a week of heart-affirming lessons.

*Pours all of a glass and raises her glass for a toast*

Here's to all the Mamas with messy homes and happy kids. May we all be a little kinder to ourselves. We're doing the hardest job in the world, after all. 

Exhausted by Numbers

I'm so tired of counting.

Counting the steps that I take everyday and the calories I've eaten and measuring my worth by the sum of the numbers left at the end of the day.

I'm exhausted by measuring. Measuring my benefit to the world by the size on the label of my jeans, by the number on the scale.

I am weary of tracking. Tracking the likes on my most recent Facebook post or the number of followers on my blog to determine if I was of value today.

I'm tapped out by the shrinking. The shrinking of my soul with every calorie and step and like counted for the day. By voice in my head that mocks me when the number on my scale rises or the number on my Fitbit doesn't meet the goal for the day.

I'm overwhelmed by the numbers. Digits flying to and fro in my mind but never really amounting to anything that matters in the world. I'm living a life consumed by numbers, statistics and sums that won't matter a damn bit at the end of my life. Numbers that really don't matter a damn bit now. And, yet, still- I am consumed by them.

Today I am firing my inner accountant and setting out to find a replacement that works to build me up instead of tear me apart from the inside out. I'm ready for an accountant of joy, that takes stock of the things in my life that matter: the things that will be spoken of after my death, the things that impact those around me in a positive way. There are plenty of those things to count and it is fine time that I forget about all of the other damn numbers.

I hope you will join me. Let us shuck off the numbers in favor of gathering ourselves up in love and tapping into the joy underneath the constant judgement- the joy that's been there all along and has been whispering for us to find it again.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Five Ways to Make Busy Mornings Easier

I think most parents have been in the situation of having mornings that are frantic or anxiety-filled or full of frustration. Mornings that can end in tears with both the parents and children feeling lousy about the start for the day.

Mornings, particularly during the school year, can be challenging at many homes. If you are experiencing this, you are certainly not alone. I know that the commercials and sitcoms show parents that are perfectly dressed in tidy business suits baking up pancakes and bacon for their smiling, happy, easy-to-wake-up children. Maybe there are actual, live houses in which this is a reality but I know that I certainly have never been in a home like this!

I have three children, all at different developmental stages- grade school, middle school and high school. The struggles for each of them are different, both because of ages and personalities. I also have a highly sensitive child who experiences anxiety in the morning, particularly around school. There have been times that my heart would start racing at the sound of my morning alarm as, even in the very first moments of the day, I was feeling anxiety and dread at what was to come over the next couple of hours. It is a terrible feeling and horrible way to start the day.

I've learned a lot about how to support my children in the morning to ensure a smoother start for all of us. I'm still learning. I'm sharing today the tips that I've learned that may be helpful to your family.

Center yourself first. 

We all know that our children sense our moods and follow our lead, no matter their age or personality. I've found that if I spend time centering myself and getting my mood in a positive place BEFORE waking my children, that it can have a massive impact on the entire mood of the house. 

I now set my alarm just a bit earlier than I need to wake my oldest kids to get ready for school. Before even getting out of bed, I list things that I am grateful for(in my head, still cozy under the covers). I set a daily intention for a peaceful and happy day. Some days I do a very short yoga routine(I personally do Tara Stiles routines off of youtube), a short guided meditation or simply sit and have a cup of coffee in silence before my kids wake. What works for you could be anything that you enjoy that takes just a few minutes everyday. 

Be prepared. 

It seems obvious, doesn't it? Yet, we are so tired by bedtime that the idea of setting out outfits and lunches seems like the furthest thing in the world from what we want to do. I struggle with this but realize that if I do a few simple things in the evenings, such as packing lunches and placing them in the fridge(or at least figuring out which kids want hot or cold lunch), setting out outfits or reminding each child to pick out clothing and preparing each child for their day by going over their schedule(tests, quizzes, extracurriculars, etc) can make a MASSIVE difference in the morning.

Before bed, ensure that homework is done, bags are packed and the kids are ready for the upcoming day. One of my kids sometimes sleeps in the clothes that she is going to wear the next day so she can lay around in bed for a few more minutes in the morning. It works for her and no one knows this little secret of hers(well, at least no one did before I wrote it in this blog post!).

Have a routine of positivity

Are there things that put your children in a great mood? For my kids, it means a solid breakfast(which doesn't necessarily mean me cooking- it can be a low-sugar cereal with fruit), positive music and a low-stress morning. 

We have a playlist of positive, up-beat songs that we all like that we often listen to(and sing along with) on the way to school. It helps us view the day ahead from a place of positivity.

Allow a Buffer of Extra Time

If your mornings are constantly strained by time, even after preparing carefully the night before, you likely need to set that alarm back a little earlier. Yes, I hear your groan. It's already hard to get yourself and everyone else up at the crack of dawn, isn't it? You'd be surprised how much easier an extra 10 minutes can make in your morning routine. Of course, this also means that bedtime should be rolled back, too by the same amount of time. 

Place a List of Reminders Near the Door

Do you have a child(maybe ALL of your children) that is consistently forgetting something- gym shorts, their band instrument, the signed permission slip for the upcoming field trip? Make a list of reminders- which day they have band and gym, due dates for upcoming assignments, etc. to place on the front door so they can see it right before they run out the door for the bus. I started with a pretty white board on the door, but we've ended up using post-it notes just as often. You can make this as pretty as you want it, but it really is effective. We  also place things like band instruments by the door the night before so it is nearly impossible to forget them in the morning rush. 

Leave the Morning on a High Note

Make the last words to your children as they walk into school or rush out to the bus loving ones. I've recently noticed at school drop off that many parents are tuned into their phones and are missing this important moment. Just as we set the tone when we wake our children, we need to set the tone as they go into their day so that, upon reflection, the last memory of the morning will be a no-stress, loving moment with a parent. 

Get off of your phone. Put your own to-do list aside for a moment. It will all still be there when you are done. Hug your kids. Tell them you love them. Tell them what a great day they are going to have. Remind them that you can't wait to see them at the end of the day. 

Even if, with every tool in place, you had a rough morning you can still have this moment of peace and love with your child. After all, the days are long but the years are short. We blink and they grow up on us. It is in these little moments that we remind our children that, no matter the stress, we are in this together and they always have a loving place to fall- in your arms.