Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Healing is Not Linear

It's been twenty-two years since my rape, and now more than ever I am embracing the phrase, "healing is not linear". In retrospect, I can see that there were years that I really broke through the pain into healing and other years when my healing was on pause. I believe that both the healing years and the resting years have been equally important to me in the process.

This year has been a healing year. When I say that it's been a healing year, I don't mean that's its been rainbows and butterflies. I mean quite the opposite in fact. Healing years are years full of pain as I dredge up the memories and emotions that feel heavy and as sticky as black tar. In doing the work to clear the darkness, I am often taken to the depths of hell and back. But, then-- after, I am so much lighter, more free. It's worth the trip to the darkness. 

Healing often comes to me in strange ways. A song on the radio can provoke a vivid memory. Connecting with someone from my past can cause forgotten moments to bubble up into my mind. Books and blog posts from others who've had similar traumas can make me feel less alone in my brokenness. 

This week I had a revelation that came in a similar unexpected way. I'd been hearing my rapist's voice in my head for weeks. He was telling me that the sway of my hips as I walked was an invitation, that he'd known I wanted it. These were the words that he said to me in the minutes after the rape, as he continued to hold me down. I believed him. After all, I'd been "trained" my whole life to believe that sex was evil and that women were the root of it, by the Catholic church and, in particular, a certain priest who seemed to loathe all females, by the beliefs of my family and society... in a million different ways. I took the responsibility for the rape onto my own heart. 

Back in the present, I wondered why these words were playing through my head, but assumed that they were being brought up to heal and I was trying to do the work and face the memories, journal, meditate and talk it out with friends that I trusted not to judge my process. 

Then, the epiphany of why the words were coming up. I was walking down the pet aisle at Sam's Club(Yes, epiphanies can happen in warehouses-- who knew?) and I noticed the woman walking in front of me, her hips swinging naturally and strongly side-to-side. I heard the voice in my head repeating the awful words about my hips being an invitation. I felt my presence going to my own body, walking stiffly, body straight. I felt an awakening come over me. For over two decades, I have held my body as tautly as possible while walking, careful to move my hips as little as possible. I have unconsciously believed that I would be raped if I swayed my hips "in invitation". I invite you to try walking like this, particularly if you are a woman. It is unnatural and painful. However, I have truly walked like this for decades with no conscious awareness that I was doing so. Even as a nurse who is trained to observe the gait of others, I somehow have never noticed myself doing so.

As this revelation washed over me, I relaxed my body and tried to walk naturally. My body felt stiff and out of practice as I allowed my hips to sway with the movement of my legs. Every step felt a bit like freedom and tears began to leak down my face as I mourned for the woman-girl who had felt that she needed to walk in such a painful way for two decades so that she unconsciously avoided attracting another rapist to her. I continued to walk through Sam's Club, avoiding the eyes of those who must've wondered why I was crying as I walked. It felt as though a metal serpent that had been curled around my spine inside my pelvis for all of those years was releasing me from its grip. I suffer from intense neck pain nearly twenty-four hours per day but could feel my neck loosening with each sway of my hip. 

I checked out, still crying, and went out to my car and allowed the wracking sobs to take me. I pounded at my steering wheel and allowed the anger that I've held in for so long to rise up. I screamed out(yes, while still in the parking lot and hoping that they wouldn't call the police!) a whole lot of fuck yous to the universe. 

Fuck the priest who told me that sex was evil and woman were always "at fault" for sexual encounters because "boys can't help themselves, it's biological". 

Fuck the fact that my only sex talk was that prenatal sex was sin and women who have it are whores. 

Fuck the man who molested me(and many of the other children in my neighborhood)for years while spouting bible verses and telling me how I temped him(I was 6). He used to call me Eve, as though I was asking him to eat forbidden fruit. 

Fuck the man who hunted me down and raped me after my 17th birthday party and then managed to convince me that I was the one at fault. 

Fuck the police officer who told me that if I wanted to press charges for the rape that he would also press charges on me for underage drinking(in a tone that let me know that mine was the bigger sin). 

Fuck everything and everyone that made me believe that I couldn't even walk like a normal human being if I wanted to be safe. 

It felt really good to let all of the anger out(okay maybe not all, there is still some in there). I was finally calm enough to drive myself home, where I put on some sex-soaked music and danced around my house, swaying my hips as much as possible. There are lots of dance parties, hip-swaying walks and hula hooping in my future. This hips have been held hostage for too long. 

It also has me reflecting on what society and organized religion continue to teach women. If anyone has found this blog post and is healing from a sexual assault of their own, I want you to know what I wish someone had told me those years ago in the fresh hell of my own assault: There is nothing at all that you can do to entice someone into raping you. There is never, ever a reason that the assault was your fault. You did not deserve this. Also, my loves, I swear that its going to be okay. Reach out to someone and start your own journey of healing. And, be kind to yourself when the journey to healing feels slow or even completely stuck. Healing is not linear and the human experience is weird as all fuck. Sending you so much love. 

If you are struggling, RAINN has a wonderful hotline and chatline where you can speak to a kind human twenty-four hours per day-- 

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Good Mother

As a child I often longed for sick days. As the eldest of three children and with two working parents, sick days were the only days that I had control of the television, with no one else around. I would change the channel from the cartoons that most children favored to the channels that played shows directed to stay at home mothers. I wasn't interested in the game shows, where overly tan hosts  smiled with blindingly white teeth or the soap operas which all seemed to loop the same plot themes of love triangles and cheating husbands. No, it was the commercials which held my interest.

I would read during the television shows, biding my time for the next commercial to come on. My heart would race as the ads finally flashed across our tv, streaming into my living room where I was sprawled on the couch under the safety of my bedroom quilt next to the tv tray lined with crackers and 7-up that my mom placed there before leaving for work with instructions to call if I needed anything. I knew that I didn't need the soda or the crackers to heal; I needed the calm of the houses in the commercials.

I would watch these commercials so raptly that my book would often fall out of my hands. The warm light of the television showed houses that were perfectly tidy, cozy and safe. The mothers on those commercials, dressed tidily in pressed pants, twin set sweaters and a single string of pearls, gazed lovingly at their children, smiling brightly as they mopped their already shiny floors with some product that promised to make their home the envy of the other mothers. Everyone in these commercials were so HAPPY. I filed away the details for my future.

I would be happy. My children would be happy.


My oldest child was born in 2001. I was twenty-two years old, both an adult and child somehow sharing a body. I prepared for his birth not only by readying the nursery for a baby, but also by buying myself sweater seats, dusting off the pearls that my grandmother had given me and ensuring that the curtains in the kitchen let in enough sunlight to make it always sufficiently sunny. 

I would be happy. My children would be happy. 

When my son was born, warm and finally in my arms, I was happy. My heart was bursting with more love than I ever had known that I was capable of. The c-section hadn't gone well and the nurses had forgotten to give me pain medication and though I felt battered and beaten in my body, my soul was singing for what felt like the first time in my life. It was all coming true. 

I would be happy. My children would be happy.

Two weeks later, as I dozed with my newborn baby in my arms, my husband called to tell me that planes had been driven in the World Trade Center. I turned on the tiny television in our bedroom just in time to see the first tower fall. Our son was a terrible sleeper and I hadn't slept more than an hour at a time in weeks. I wondered if I were hallucinating. I watched the news all of that day and into the night before the familiar image of the american flag came on the television along with the national anthem that always played before the station went black for the night. The notes pierced my heart and I woke my son to nurse him even though he wasn't hungry. 

The pregnancy had been hard and for the last few weeks of my pregnancy all that I had thought of was giving birth and having my body back to myself, without the pain and discomfort. Now, all that I could think of was opening up the healing incision in my belly and placing my son back in for safekeeping.

 I slept upright in a chair with my son in my arms for weeks. Grandparents and great-grandparents came to visit, warning me that I was spoiling him and I would regret it when he would never let me put him down. I had no desire to put him down. If the world was going to end, it would end with him comfortable in his mother's arms. I had brought a child into an unsure world and I was swallowed up in the grief and mourning of the world that I had imagined for him. 

Weeks later, the news stopped streaming into our home twenty-four hours per day(this was before the minute-to-minute news cycle that we have today) and regular programming commenced. I got up out of my chair and lay my son in his bassinet for his first nap out of my arms. I turned on Martha Stewart and devoured her housekeeping advice as though it would save us all from the terrorism that haunted our dreams. The modern day commercials no longer held much appeal for me, but Martha had a way of making me feel that everything would be okay. 

I would be happy. My children would be happy. 

I was so grateful for my perfect son but fear ate at my belly every hour of the day. The sound of planes overhead, which was quite frequent due to our proximity to the airport, made my heart race and would send me running into my son's room to grab him into my arms. I learned to drown out the sound of fear with my vacuum, pulling back the vacuum carefully at half of the speed that I pushed it forward per Martha's direction, dragging the old carpet into tidy lines. 

I would be happy. My children would be happy. 

Most of my friends did not yet have children, so I tried to meet other mothers in the community. Not a one of them wore a twin-set and pearls. They did all share the same haircut, shoulder-length and perfectly tidy with no flyways and all drove oversized SUVs or shiny minivans even though they all had only one child each. My small, used sedan seemed old and tired in the same way that I did sitting around a table with these women. Sleep was always the topic at hand. The women took turns talking about how little sleep they had gotten in the past week, month, year. I nodded along, also exhausted. When my turn came I admitted that my son had taken a two hour nap the day before and I had napped with him. All of the women congratulated me on the extra sleep, then exchanged silent looks that made me realize that I had misstepped. Sleep deprivation was the contest at hand and I had lost. I left more exhausted than when I came. I wasn't sad when the call inviting me to the next coffee date never came. 


I was happy. Mostly. My son was happy. Two more children came along, beautiful perfect daughters. 
Being a mother was a greater joy than I'd ever imagined. And, yet...I wasn't perfectly-coifed-and-smiling-while-I-mopped-the-kitchen-floor-in-my-bright-kitchen happy. The fact that I couldn't give my children this perfect, sunshiny life ate at me in the most unspeakable way. 

For years I've filled the hole where the dreams of this life used to live with food and alcohol and lots of other unhealthy things. I've made my own self-flagellation a religion of sorts. I've smiled on the outside while I screamed on the inside. I've been the classroom mom, the PTA mom, the mom that my children's friends adopted as their own when their own moms were absent. I've won that sleep deprivation contest three hundred times over in my desire to be everything that I could for my kids. Yet, still that hole inside me remains. 


As a nurse, I have the great pleasure of working with pregnant and parenting moms. I've realized that each of these moms has their own dream of what motherhood may look like for them. I haven't yet found a mom who has realized her own dream of that perfection. 

Social media has drawn a razor-edge along motherhood, challenging each of us to try unsuccessfully to rise to the level of perfection of the Facebook galleries of shiny children, tidy homes and skinny thighs. We compare our real, imperfect lives with a single moment of curated perfection in the lives of another.

Motherhood, in many ways, has become much harder in the sixteen years since I first became a Mommy. I've never quite learned that I cannot reach the impossible bar that was created in my mind all of those years ago as an awkward and sad child, dreaming of a better day. In fact, in many ways I've raised the bar higher for myself. 

We joke about this, without really getting to the meat of the problem. Moms joke with one another about their "mommy sippy cups" filled with wine, to take the edge off of the pain of our own imperfections. Moms used to beg Calgon to take them away at the end of a long day, but moms today are blotting the pain out all together with the subtle clink of a glass after their children are off in bed. We scroll mindlessly through Facebook daily, even though it makes us feel worse instead of better. We curate Instagram perfect galleries of a life that isn't quite real. 

Are we happy yet? Are our children happy yet?

I'm so tired. So. Damn. Tired. I'm mostly happy, too. Still, not a single day in my own motherhood have I met the impossible bar that I've set for myself. So, I'm also ashamed and sad and chubby from my self-medicating with alcohol and food and lonely and in constant physical pain and so many other not-happy adjectives. 

So, today I'm committing to stopping self-medicating the pain away and facing it head- on. I'm committing to being honest with myself about my short-comings but also giving myself a damn pat on the back for all of the many things that I am doing well. Most importantly, I'm lowering the fucking bar that was never, ever going to be met by me or any other mom. I'm going to try a hell of a lot harder to love myself with the ferocity that I love my children. I'm going to love the little girl inside of me that was dreaming about all of the wrong things on the search for peace.  

I hope that you'll join me. 

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Life as a House

Sixteen years ago, with my first child incubating in my warm belly, my husband and I bought the house that I'd grown up in. We were newly married and my parents were moving out of the home and kindly offered us a very good deal on the house if we wanted it. We eagerly said yes, this offer giving us a way out of the tiny apartment that we shared in small-town Iowa that had no room for the baby on the way.

When we moved in I was entering my third trimester and wasn't allowed much lifting. I carefully directed the friends and family that were helping us to move in, firmly resolved to place everything where it had been when I lived there-- the silverware placed in the same drawer, the beds and dressers matching up with the lines on the carpeting where there successors had once lain. It felt like moving home.

As the years passed, the sameness of the home seemed as much a burden as a comfort. With the birth of my second child, a beautiful daughter, I struggled with postpartum depression and anxiety. With this new mental health condition also came a resurgence of the PTSD that I had struggled with since being raped at seventeen. Memories began to percolate up, haunting replaying of the violence that long ago night.

This house, my current home and the one of my childhood, became a reminder of the bedroom that I'd come home to the morning after the rape, of the bathtub in which I'd cleaned up the blood in the aftermath. Other ugly childhood memories also resurfaced and the house that I'd spent so many hours carefully making a home became my prison. I was constantly redirecting my thoughts away from the memories that haunted me like demons in the night.

Later that year, I jumped upon plans to remodel our home as if changing paint colors and removing old carpeting could wipe clean my memories. We added an addition on to the home which allowed my husband and I to move out of the room that had been my childhood bedroom and into a new master suite. I felt a sudden and sweeping worry the day that we moved my daughter into that room as if her presence in the same room that held so many wicked memories would taint her in some way. I calmed this worry by choosing one good childhood story per night to tell her as I tucked her in. She came alight in the memories that had happened in this bedroom, in this home and in her own backyard. I came to remember myself, as well.

Over the years, I have taken care to make this home my own. It is nearly unrecognizable from both the outside and inside to those who knew it years ago. We have added many memories within these walls in this years, in the best years of my life as I raise my three amazing children with my loving husband. This home is so full of love that sometimes I wonder if the windows will burst with the pressure of holding it all in.

I am still sometimes haunted by the memories of this home. Just a few weeks ago as I scrubbed my kitchen floor, I was reminded of scrubbing my own vomit off of the same spot the morning after my nearly successful suicide attempt in the weeks following my rape. I was thankful in that moment that we had long ago replaced the worn and stained linoleum with the current hardwood flooring. That fact made it easier for me to redirect my things to better thoughts, like when my son took his first faltering steps on these same floors.

Much like my own body, this house has endured violence and anger, love and compassion. I think of this home in the same way that I imagine my life-- as if it were an old journal, beaten and used but still with many blank pages remaining.  I remind myself that what truly matters isn't the old stained pages, unable to be erased, but the crisp pages that await the story waiting to be told there.

If my life were, indeed, a house I wouldn't want my story to be told anywhere else.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Reclaiming My Birthday

Today is my birthday. I am 39 years old. I haven't celebrated my birthday for the past twenty-two years and that has nothing to do with a fear of getting older.

Twenty-two years ago, on the night of the celebration of my seventeenth birthday, I was raped. This means that this week is both a celebration of the day of my birth and the anniversary of the night that my life was changed forever.

For years I've been asked why I don't make a big deal about my birthday. It's fairly easy as an introvert to deflect those questions by saying that I don't want attention on myself. The truth isn't one that comes out easily in polite conversation.

Over the past year as I wrote my memoir, I realized just how many things were taken from me the night of my rape-- my own feelings of safety, my self-confidence, the ability to listen to songs or watch movies from that time(as it brings back memories) and so many more things. In many ways, I buried my seventeen year old self that night and had to start over as a new person.

This year, I am reclaiming my birthday. I am celebrating my life and all of the accomplishments in it, unabashedly. I am also determined to reclaim some of the other things that the rape and the PTSD that followed it has stolen from me. And, with each and every reclamation and celebration, I'll been sending a big fuck you out into the Universe to the man who tried to take everything from me.

Happy Birthday to me!

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Why I Don't Want to Hear Your Scary Story About My Diagnosis

A couple of weeks ago my son was diagnosed with Lyme Disease. He came home from Scout camp and several days later had the trademark bullseye rash so we immediately took him in and had him started on treatment, hopefully soon enough that he will not have ongoing symptoms.

I posted publicly about his rash and diagnosis in hopes to spread awareness and help others notice if they find a similar rash on their bodies this summer. (You can find that post on Facebook here if you are interested). Within minutes of making that post, I began to be bombarded with people's comments, messages, texts and phone calls. It seemed that everyone that I had ever met had a scary Lyme story to tell me.

It was awful and inappropriate, however well-meaning the comments were. As a nurse, I well know how bad Lyme Disease can be. I certainly didn't need the reminders, again and again, while my son was being treated. It honestly set off a terrible anxiety that we did not need.

In order to set boundaries and let people know that the stories were overwhelming me, I made a post on my private Facebook page asking that people stop sharing the scary stories. The responses to that post were of even more people telling me all about the awful Lyme Disease experiences that they have had, as though they had not even bothered to read my status or, worse, that they did read it and still felt compelled to share the story of their sister's boyfriend's cousin who is has now been bed bound and is in constant pain due to Lyme Disease.


It's oddly as if people are so conditioned to tell us their sad and scary medical stories that they cannot help themselves. Any woman who has been pregnant knows this phenomenon all too well. From the moment we tell the world about our pregnancy, we are bombarded by horrific birth stories as though the stories themselves will strengthen us for childbirth. They do no such thing, of course. Instead, many women become utterly terrified of giving birth instead of feeling empowered by the women around them.

As a nurse, I have also experienced the frustration of my patients as their loved ones tell them about the essential oils that can "cure their cancer," the alkaline diets that "chase away dementia" and vitamin d drops that "work better than therapy and medication for severe depression". For many with chronic illness, it becomes damn near a full time job just listening to all of the suggestions that seem benign or helpful on the surface, but are often exhausting and simply confusing to the patient, not to mention often lead them to buy unnecessary and sometimes expensive "therapies" that most often do nothing at all to help. I've even had patients stop much needed therapies in favor of essential oils or expensive vitamins only to lose progress on fighting their illness. It seems that everyone is an expert these days, proudly bearing degrees from the College of Google Searches.

What is this compulsion? Why do we do it?

I don't have an answer to that. What I do know is that it must stop. We may have a story that we'd like to tell or a therapy that we hope might help. However, we must first ask ourselves if it is helpful and ask the permission of those suffering first. A simple, 'Would you like to hear about my "insert loved one here" 's experience with your illness?' or a 'I've heard about a treatment that may be helpful, would you be interested in hearing about it?' would suffice. It's quite likely that they've heard enough "experts" spout off on the subject for the time being.

Maybe in the sea of "experts" desperate to unload their experiences, they've been waiting all this time for a single, listening ear.

I often say that if being a nurse has taught me anything, it is that at the core of who we are, inside and underneath all of the bravado, each of us is just a scared little kid begging the world not to be alone in our darkest hour.

 If we are to be a true friend, maybe we can find it in ourselves to shine light onto our loved ones instead of throwing them into a deeper darkness. This is the time to keep our ears open and our mouths shut. 

Saturday, June 17, 2017

A Nurse's Truth: In Healing You, I Healed Myself

I have had a life-long struggle with self-worth. I remember, even as a young child, feeling ever so different from those around me. It felt deeply lonely and it forced me to wonder if I had a place in this world.

This feeling of lack persisted into my adulthood. It became so strong in my teen years that I heavily contemplated suicide and wondered if I were even worthy enough for life itself. I felt empty, drifting through life with no reason at all.

As college approached, I mulled over many different careers: writing, teaching and nursing among the many choices. There were many things that attracted me to nursing, but the sticking point was that I wanted to make a difference. I desperately just wanted to be worthy of life, worthy of existence and helping others seemed the only way to find that.

I received my degree and my license as a Registered Nurse and set out to help others, wishing desperately to help others. In this past decade I believe that I have helped many, although I had been naive about how many there would be that I would not be able to help. What I did not expect is how serving others would help myself. That my helping others would go far beyond giving me a feeling of worth-- it would make me whole.

Nursing gave me a way to make a living by helping others and has allowed me to live beyond existing only for myself and my family. It has given me many things: confidence, knowledge, connection, purpose. 

However, my patients themselves have given me ever so much more. Getting to know and care for my patients, even the challenging ones, has been one of the greatest blessings in my life. Nurses and other health care professionals see patients on their very worst of days and it is astonishing how quickly you bond with people and the stories they tell you. My patients have honored me with their honesty, with their shortcomings, with their vulnerability, with their pain. Making a space within myself to carry their stories inside me has made me a better person. My heart and the depth of my compassion has grown each and every year of my practice.  

I still feel lonely often. My heart often feels broken open at the injustices of this world. Everyday I wonder if my work has been enough to truly help my patients.

The knowledge that I do have, the knowing that pushes me through each day, is that I am not alone in my suffering, in my loneliness. This is a lonely world full of imperfect people like myself. Separately we are imperfect, with jagged edges and voids of space looking to be filled. Together we fit together as puzzle pieces, our jagged edges fitting perfectly with the broken edges of another.

My dear patients: In embracing your imperfections, I have embraced my own. In honoring your stories, I have honored my own. In loving you, I have found a way to love myself.

There is a parable from the bible that is oft quoted in healthcare- “Physician, heal thyself.” I say, with complete honesty and gratitude, that in healing you, I have healed myself.

And, for that I will be forever grateful.


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

American Dreams

As a public health nurse I spend my days visiting low-income housing complexes to see my clients, many of whom are refugees or immigrants. At one of these apartment buildings, I struck up an unlikely friendship with a young Burmese woman who was a fairly recent refugee and spoke little English. She wasn’t a patient of mine but she often sat on the broken concrete front steps as her young daughter played nearby and we developed a budding, if awkward, friendship. Over a year or so we would have hesitant talks as we each stumbled and tried to understand each other with no common language. She was taking an English as a Second Language class(ESL) and delighted in the opportunity to try out her skills with me each week as I walked into the building to serve her neighbors.  As the year passed, her English became better soon she was telling me about her family and I was telling her about mine.

Her favorite topic to speak about was her  “American dream”. She told me that in the refugee camp, she and her family(the few that were still living) would sit around and pass the time by dreaming of which country they may get chosen to go to. The years passed slowly in the camp and they thought up many dreams. They imagined that if they were able to go to America, they would live in a home of their own with green grass in the front yard and a pool in the backyard.

Now, here she was in America, living in a dilapidated apartment crawling with cockroaches and rodents and surrounded by people who did not want to employ her or form a relationship with her because of her lack of English and unusual dress. Yet, she never seemed disheartened. She would often have a folded up picture carefully torn of a magazine that showed a house with a bright green yard or of a sparking blue pool. Her dreams were alive even amidst the bleakness of her current residence.

One morning as I arrived, she came running out of her apartment-calling Nurse! Nurse!(I introduced myself as Mandi, but still she insisted on calling me Nurse). She proudly came over to me and pulled out her tiny, outdated flip phone. She said that she was still saving for her own home but would soon go live with her sister until she could afford her own. Her chest puffed up proudly as she said that her sister and her husband had purchased their very own home. She was so incredibly proud that she her smile was ear-to-ear.

Her happiness was contagious and I couldn’t help but smile as she found the blurry, poor-quality photo inside her old phone. We both squinted at the screen and I saw a tiny blue home with a green yard. I told her what a lovely home it was.

She continued to grin as she told me, “Nurse,  you haven’t seen the best part yet!” She scrolled to the next picture and again we squinted at the screen. The photo showed a tiny plastic, purple pool in the small backyard. Inside the pool a young girl sat proudly in a blue bathing suit and surrounding her were the feet of many adults, dipping their hot feet into the cool pool.

At first, with my jaded American eyes that are used to opulence, I admit to being saddened at the meager sight of this miniscule, plastic pool-- the kind of pool that could be purchased at the local big box store for less that the pay of a single hour’s work. But my heart opened as I heard the sweet woman next to me exclaiming that her sister had her very own pool. I realized that what I was seeing was not a kiddie pool at all. It was the very manifestation of a simple and beautiful American dream.