Friday, September 23, 2016

Unraveling Our Shame Stories: What We Teach Young Girls About Sex

I know that I am not alone in the fact that shame about sex is interwoven into my childhood memories. Many of us, particularly women, were taught to feel great shame around our sexuality.

I grew up in a Catholic household. Sex was a taboo subject and was not something that we spoke about. It seemed to be a great secret and, as a curious child, anything that was kept a secret was even more interesting to me than something that we would talk about freely.

I remember as a 5th grader finding a book in the public library that had a sex scene within it. It made me more curious than ever. There was just enough detail to make me more curious but left me with more questions than answers. As sex wasn't talked about in my home, my only prospect for answers seemed to be my friends. So, I brought the book to school and, while outside at recess, opened the book(a V.C. Andrews book, if memory serves me) to the carefully marked section with the sex scene and we huddled together carefully at the edge of the playground and read it together. One of my friends tried to gently explain to me what she knew of sex(which was very little) and we all sat around rather quizzically, feeling frustrated that we didn't know the answers to this topic even though we all felt, with our budding breasts and sudden interest in boys, that we were quiet grown-up, indeed.

Unfortunately, our huddle got the attention of the teacher, who broke us up and confiscated the book. I was pulled into the principal's office by my arm while being berated the entire way and called a pervert by the sour-faced teacher. I was horrified. I was a straight A student and had been reading adult books for years. My fervent reading had always been praised by teachers-- I had taught myself to read at age 3 and by the middle of grade school, testing showed that I was reading at a college level. The librarian would order in adult books especially for me. It was a source of joy and pride for me. These adult books would occasionally mention sex in a casual way. I had always been rewarded for my curiosity and reading and now, that same curiosity made me a pervert. I didn't want to be a pervert. When my father picked me up and told me that I was an embarrassment to the family, I was so ashamed that I couldn't eat for days. I was full of shame and confusion. I was further confused when I saw the confiscated book on my mother's nightstand with a bookmark in it. Was my Mom a pervert, too or was it just me?

The next year at church, while I was volunteering, I overheard the priest talking to a young high school couple. I recognized them--they were quite popular and well-liked at church and at school. I gleaned from the bits that I overheard that they had admitted to having sex. I was shocked. My only "sex talk" had been the firm advice to "never have sex before marriage". I worried that they would go to Hell and felt my heart racing in my chest. The priest was berating only the girl as the boy sat by quietly, with his head down. I could hear him pounding on his bible as he said words such as "whore" and "beg for forgiveness" while the sounds of her weeping leaked out into the hallway. When they left, the girl walked out of the church with her parents who all were walking as though covered in shame, heads down as they walked the silent hallway. The boy, still in the office with the priest, was now getting peppered with questions about the football team. When he left, the priest clapped him on the back and wished him a good game. The boy left with his shoulders held high, quite the opposite of what I had just seen with his girlfriend. I was left with a sick realization in my stomach that if one had sex, it was the woman's fault and was shameful to the woman alone. I wondered if girls were inherently evil.

I remember a lesson that the priest once gave my Sunday school class. It was about the prostitute that was being stoned when Jesus intervened. Someone raised their hand to ask what a prostitute was. The priest replied simply that it was a woman that had sex with men. I remember us all looking around in confusion. We had recently watched the film at school that was played for all students when  puberty reared it's ugly head(a 1960's reel with video of swimming sperm that so terrified me that I couldn't eat the popcorn that the teacher had so kindly given us as though we were watching something delightful at the theater) and we had realized that our parents must have had sex(after marriage only, of course) to conceive us. I wondered then if sex was always a sin and if women were the only gender that it was a sin for. I was grateful that in the story, that the woman had not been stoned. I wondered what the punishment would be for me in modern day times. I was too frightened to ask.

In high school, I spent a year at a Catholic school. I sat through a dress code orientation led by a nun whose entire body was covered head-to-toe. As she explained that we should wear skirts that "swept the floor" and that "no part of your bosom should ever show", I felt scared. I felt as though she was looking straight at me for much of the presentation and I wanted to hide under a rock. As a naturally very busty and curvy person, I showed some cleavage in nearly every shirt that I wore short of a turtleneck. I imagined my curves disappearing and turning into a tall, lithe woman that could easily cover her curves and her sexuality. The nun completed the presentation by reminding us that "boys will be boys" and it was our job as good Catholic girls to "not encourage them". I had no idea what she meant. When we went to the pep rallies(which were mandatory) and to the football games(football was this school's second God) and cheered for the boys, weren't we encouraging them? Which encouragement was right and which was wrong? Again, I was far too terrified to ask these questions, so I instead gazed at the altar of Mary, the virgin mother.

When I was seventeen, I was raped. Everything that I had learned about sexuality had taught me that I had asked for this and I, not the man who raped me, should repent. I was dripping in shame so heavy that I could no longer put one foot in front of the other. I was certain that I was evil and was deserving of this Hell on Earth and the Hell that surely awaited me in the afterlife. When the symptoms of PTSD began to emerge, I believed that I was going crazy(this was far before PTSD was known to the public). I believed that the vivid flashbacks that I was having of the rape were a punishment from God. I could not bear it. I decided that it was best to take my own life and tried desperately to kill myself. I did not succeed. I lived on and so did the shame.

When I became engaged in my early twenties, I couldn't wait to plan all of the details of the wedding.  When I went dress shopping, the saleswoman at one store asked me if I was a virgin. I was horrified and froze there, standing next to my mother and sister. In response to my silence, the elderly woman pursed her lips and gestured to the rack of gowns that were not bright white, but instead were more buttery, yellow shades of white. She referred to that rack as the "dirty white" gowns and nodded her head with fervency as she told me that only virgins could wear "pure white" on their wedding day. I allowed her to help me as I tried on the "dirty white" gowns, feeling quite dirty myself. At a different shop I later found the perfect gown, which happened to be bright white. As I pulled it on the morning of my wedding, I wondered if just the wearing of it was a sin and if I would be standing in front of my family and friends as an impostor of purity, when underneath I was so dirty.

When I became a mother, I remember watching other mothers with a fervency to fit in. I noticed that most of the stay at home moms were very conservative and wore twin sets and khaki pants many days. I rushed out and bought two piece sweater sets in bland colors and khaki pants that hid every one of my curves. It seemed that hiding my sexuality was the key to being a good mother. The key seemed to be to look like people that would never, ever have sex(which belied the fact that, as mothers, of course we had experienced sex).

It was when the first of my two daughters were born that truly began to unravel my shame around sex. I knew as soon as I held my beautiful daughter in my arms that I would teach her of her beauty and how deserving she is of love and acceptance, not shame for who she inherently is, not shame for the gender of which she was born. I will not embed within my daughters shame of who they are. It is intensely toxic. I will teach them about what a beautiful thing sexuality can be. I will teach them that no action, no outfit could ever entice someone to rape them- that rape is never the fault of the victim. I will teach my son the same lessons and teach him to honor women. I am pushing the pause button on the shame tape that's played itself out since the beginning of time.

I am nearing the end of my thirties. My shame around sex and my sexuality continue to unravel. Old memories sometimes pop up in my mind and, with the clarity of age, I am putting together more pieces of how this shame was built and how it has colored my life. In hundreds of tiny ways, I was taught that my body is shameful, that sex is shameful and that women are dirty. It is one of the most toxic beliefs that one can hold.

I am pushing back the shame in the most powerful way that I can imagine-- by raising daughters that are proud of their bodies, that will learn about sex in a kind and gentle way(with NO shame) and will, hopefully, not carry the weight of this burden. I am releasing the burden of this shame and I feel so much Goddamned lighter without it. It was never my true story, it was simply the fictional story that others felt to smother me with.

Someday, I will be free of this shame. I hope that my girls will fly high without every having to carry it. For, shame is not their birthright-- freedom is.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Parenting and the Hell of September

Ah, summer- days with little to no schedule, all school alarms on my phone turned off and, at the end of the day, easy dinners on the deck with no dance/soccer/boy scouts/tumbling classes to rush off to after the dinner plates have been scraped clean.

Summer is such a lovely season, especially as a parent. I can feel my blood pressure drop and my limbs become loose and bronzed from being in the sun and enjoying life with my children.  Easy-breezy livin'.

And, then...September.


With the end of August and beginning of September(the word is nearly a swear word in my mind), comes back the rush of school and sports and scouts and parent meetings and rushed mornings and rushed dinners and strict bedtimes and early wakings. Phew!

There is no easing in period. No slow moving transition. It is as if a switch was flipped and we go instantly from the ease of summer into the rush of the fall in a single breath.

September- second only to the holiday craziness of December- is a crazed, frantic month. And, not only are we rushing head forward into the busyness, but we are doing it with children whose bodies are not acclimated to the schedules of the busy school year. Bedtimes can take hours as they have become used to chasing lightning bugs in the night of the summer and falling into bed exhausted hours after the time they would have needed to be in bed during the school year. Likewise, waking our children in the wee hours of the morning before the school buses come screaming down our street is like an olympic event, requiring many reawakening and much patience by kids and parents alike.

Each week requires careful planning of activities, school events, meals and the rush of extra activities that September brings- meet the teacher nights, parent meeting for each sport and school, fundraising, school pictures and whatever the heck else is on my schedule that I'm too tired to remember right now.

My iPhone calendar looks frantic underneath it's carefully color-coded schedule. I feel frantic, too.

Don't get me wrong- I'm grateful to have three happy, healthy children that get to experience attending a wonderful school and to be in the sports and activities that they love. I really am. I live a blessed life.

However, I am also so exhausted. Tired in a way that makes me teary and cranky. Too tired to fall asleep at night(before I had children I had no idea that one could, indeed, be too tired to fall asleep. It is a cruel fact). It leaves me gazing into space from exhaustion, daydreaming of summer days past and hopeful for fall days that have moments of rest and joy within them. 

There are days of wonderful joys ahead- playing in the falling leaves, drinking apple cider by a campfire and trick-or-treating through the neighborhood. I was do my best to stay grounded as we rush through September and keep an eye on the simple joys immeshed within the moments between scurrying to and fro. There will be many lovely moments, I am sure.

If you're a parent and are joining me in the harried craze of the September days, I honor your exhaustion. This parenting business isn't for weaklings. And, take heart- summer will come around again soon.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Vulnerability Hangovers

Today, as I shared my final message for suicide prevention week and went deep to share some of the gritty details, I felt so vulnerable and exposed and raw that I felt ill. I still feel ill. 

I feel as though my being is scattered all over the world with every person that read my words or saw my Facebook live post. It left me feeling empty and sad and scared. 

Here in Iowa today is a big day- two of our college teams(the University of Iowa v. Iowa State University) have a football showdown. It's like a state holiday here and everyone shuts down and watches the game. We went to a pre-game party and I realized that every part of my body ached. It hurt to talk to people and it hurt to listen. It hurt to be a part of a group but it hurt just as badly to sit by myself. My body and mind were screaming in every atom of my being. 

We came home and instead of watching the game with my family, I am sitting alone by the fire. It feels better here. 

Years ago if I was hurting this badly, I would've thought that it meant that I did something wrong. I have realized with age, that this vulnerability hangover is natural, too and might actually be a sign that I did something right. 

You see, when you run a marathon or do a new workout, your body hurts. But, we know that means that we are growing new muscles, that discomfort and pain can be a sign that we're getting stronger. 

A vulnerability Hangover can happen when you've taken your life and gone raw and real and big. And, your soul can hurt afterward. Why? Because your soul and your purpose are growing. And, growth almost never happens without pain. 

So, I'm listening to my body and mind that are telling me to seek solace and rest. After all, I've run a soul marathon. It's time to hunker down and allow my soul to strengthen. My spirit muscles are growing. 

It's time to rest.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

5 Lies Your Depression Tells You When You Are Suicidal

Before you read this I want you to know that I'm not just some do-gooder on the Internet that doesn't understand what it feels like to be immersed in a dark hole so deep that you cannot remember the last time that you saw any light. 20 years ago I was in a deep depression and I tried to take my own life seven times. My final attempt to take my own life was nearly successful. So I've been in the deep dark place that you might be in now. I know that the fight for your own life, the fight to stay out of the pain which is unbearable, is a moment by moment fight.

I'm here to tell you that your depression is a liar. I'm here to tell you that there is life beyond this pain. I'm here to tell you all of the ways that your depression and your suicidality is a grievous liar. You mustn't believe the lies for a minute longer. 

Ways that your depression is lying to you: 

1.)Your life is already over. Bullshit. Are you still breathing? Is your heart still beating? Then you are still alive. And, your life is NOT over. 

It may feel as though you've screwed up beyond repair. I'm here to tell you there is no such thing as a life beyond repair. You may have messed up so royally that you believe that no one will ever forgive you. But there is life beyond this pain and there is life beyond whatever mistakes you have made. Please top believing that you are the only one that makes mistakes. Even the most wonderful person that you know has made a big, huge, grievous mistakes. No one is perfect and no mistakes that you have made cannot be overcome. 

2.) Your loved ones are better off without you. This one might be the biggest lie of them all. If you left this earth, especially if you left this earth by your own hands, you would create a hole in this world and a hole in your loved ones hearts that would never ever again be filled. You would create a pain within those that you love that would last the rest of their lives. You may be feeling like a failure right now but I cannot imagine a greater mistake then having your last act on earth be one that causes intense pain for each and every person that you love.

3.) The pain will never end. I know it feels like the pain will never end. I know it feels like each and every moment is years long as you are so mired in the pain. I know that it feels as though you cannot tolerate it for even a moment longer. I know that there is an end to this pain, that will happen without death. I cannot tell you when that ends will happen but I can tell you that the end is there somewhere. You may have to work for it, you may have to get help or take medication or reach out when you want to stay silent, but the end of the pain is out there on the horizon. No pain lasts forever, even the most crushing of pains. 

4.)  You should keep your thoughts about harming yourself quiet. Of course your depression, that beast, wants you to stay silent. Your depression wants to end your life. The black beast wants nothing more than to have you lying in a cold grave. There is great shame around depression, anxiety and suicidality. However, every time one of us chooses to talk about it, we erase some of that shame and stigma. There is no need for you to suffer in silence. Choose to do the opposite of what the beast wants you to do. I'm asking you, I'm begging you, to pick up the phone and call one person and tell them what you're struggling with. I'm asking you to ask for help even though it may be the hardest thing you ever do I'm asking you to give this life another chance before you take your own life.

5.) You're not worthy of love or life. Everyone is worthy of love, no matter the mistakes they've made. And, everyone is worthy of living- there is no qualification match to determine if you should be here. You might only see the negative things right now but if you could see inside the heads of those who love you(yes, there are people who love you- stop letting the depression tell you that there aren't) you would see so many things about you that are wonderful. If you try to talk to a therapist, try a new medication, try some new things to change your thoughts...I think that you will start to see them, too. 

I'm asking you to try to kill the beast, the beast that has been lying to you and whispering awful things in your ear every waking moment. Because there is an end to this crushing pain, because the world needs YOU, because even though you've made mistakes there are people that love you and would be in undescribable pain if you were no longer here. 

I know that you are tired and weary. I know that just getting out of bed seems like an astronomical task. I'm just asking you to call someone you love, right this minute and tell them about the thoughts that you've been thinking about taking your own life. I'm begging you to try some different things and see if you can see the world through a different light.

The world needs you. Yes, you. There is a purpose here that only you can fill. 

Twenty years ago, I nearly left the world by my own hands. I am so glad to still be here. I am happy(not always, but most days), I love life, I have people around me that love me and I am doing my best to make a difference in this world. I am here for a purpose, just like you are. 

Won't you join me on the other side of the pain? 

Please, don't leave us. We need you. Won't you please stop listening to all of the lies that your depression is telling you and take the first step in your journey to the good things on the other side of this pain?

Right this minute, I beg of you to call, text or message someone and tell them how you are feeling. If you cannot bring yourself to say this to someone you love, please use the information below. There is help for you. I swear it.

You can call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or live chat with someone here. These resources are available 24/7.

I'll be waiting for you in the light on the other side of the darkness. It is there even if you can't yet feel it. 

Readers- if you have ever struggled with suicidality or know someone that attempted or completed suicide, I am asking you to comment below with "You are not alone." so that everyone who comes to this page feels a little less alone on a their dark journey that feels so painfully solitary. Thank you. 

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Woman Beneath the Mother

In the years after my three children were born, I lost myself. Slowly and then all at once, the parts of me that I had always held sacred began to slip away.

We aren’t supposed to talk about this loss though, are we? Mothers are to be blissed out in Motherhood, sacrificing all willingly in order to serve our brethren. And, I am blissed out, sometimes. I am grateful to be a mother to the best children on the planet. However, underneath the love and gratitude, aside the constant stream of needs of my three children and husband, and beneath the expectations of what a modern-day mother should be, I was losing myself piece-by-piece. Losing myself so slowly that I did not realize it until the woman that I once was inside was completely gone.

A few years ago I found myself inside a deep depression and was lost for hours each day inside the darkness of contemplation of my life. I realized that I had slowly let go of all of my friendships, so shamed to spend any time away from my children to maintain any semblance of even a solid acquaintanceship with anyone other than those whose circles intersected with my children’s school or other activities. I had stopped writing a decade before and the words that used to spill out of my fingers without heed were now stoppered up somewhere out of my reach. Every moment of my day was about my children, my husband, my patients in my work as a nurse. I was lost inside the rote and rusty movements of service of others, in a pattern so familiar that I no longer had to think much about anything. I felt much like an empty vessel and did not know how to fill myself up again.

At the same time that I was realizing how deeply I was immersed in a sadness and emptiness beyond my own help, a co-worker noted my writing in a presentation that I had given. She asked if I wrote professionally. I had not written more than a professional document in more than ten years. The poetry, short stories and essays that used to spill from my hands unto the page had stopped so long ago that I no longer considered writing to be one of my strengths- my strengths now were all tied up into helping others in a non-creative way. That simple question, however, made me wonder if the words—the words that I used to string together that brought me untold joy—were still somewhere deep inside.

I began to write again, the words rusty and unwieldy at first but slowly coming out of my fingers again like the constant, easy stream that I once remembered. I found myself again on the page. I found that the more I wrote, the freer I felt—unburdened, lighter. I was redeemed slowly, letter-by-letter. With this newfound freedom, I found myself reconnecting with others and burgeoning friendships abounded in my writer’s group and with those that reached out after reading my published work.

My greatest worry—that I would be less of a mother if I spent time away from my children doing things that I love but that did not involve them—were greatly unfounded. On the contrary, I now connect with my children in a more authentic way then ever. I now communicate with them as myself, not the shell of a woman intent on martyrdom of motherhood.

I’m certainly not saying that writing regularly has made motherhood or life simpler in any way. In fact, it is another item that I must find a way to cram into my already frantic schedule. It has not made life perfect in anyway. My children sometimes grumble about me typing away desperately on my computer instead of spending those minutes with them. They also know that Mommy has a passion for writing, a passion for something outside of them.

I am whole again. I no longer feel empty and void of any purpose outside of my work as a nurse and my work as a mother. I am more that any one title that society has slapped on me. I am a mother. I am a wife. I am a nurse. I am a writer. I am so many more things than just these labels.

In my actions—in the late night tapping of my keyboard that lulls them to sleep after I have tucked them in, in following my heart, my passions and my dreams—I am reminding myself with each keystroke of who I am and am, hopefully, inspiring my children to live their lives as who they are not as the one dimensional being that society may expect them to be if they choose to be parents themselves. I will always be Mommy first—always. However, I choose be everything else that I am too. I choose to be me.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Brock Turner is Released, Yet His Victim is Serving a Life Sentence

Today, a rapist will be released after 3 months in prison. 3 months. 3 fucking months. Brock Turner, found guilty on 3 felony counts, served an entirety of 3 months- one month per felony. One fucking month per felony.

This case has taken the country by storm. A culture that has generally turned their heads the other direction where rape is concerned is finally having an open discussion about the pervasiveness of sexual assault and the laxity of our laws. I am grateful for those discussion-- they are long overdue. However, as a sexual assault survivor myself, I know that these discussions come at a cost. The massive coverage of this crime must be intensely difficult for the survivor of Brock Turner's violence. She, a woman who eloquently and bravely wrote one of the most moving things I have ever read to be read at her attacker's sentencing, must be bombarded with the memories of that night of horror whenever she turns on a television or logs in to social media. I cannot imagine. Where can she or her loved ones hide from this crime? It is splashed everywhere. The fact that this coverage is changing minds and will hopefully one day change laws must be little comfort when dealing with something so horrendous and so fresh.

Those of us who were not victims of Brock Turner, but of other monsters, are feeling the pain of this too. With each high-profile news coverage of a new rape victim, we are flooded with memories of our own assault. It feels as though we are being assaulted again. 

We are assaulted again when the press and people seem to blame the survivor and ask asinine questions such as-

 What was she wearing?

Had she/he been drinking?

Did he/she lead on her attacker?

Is she/he sure that they said know? 

Did they fight their attacker? 

None of the answers to this question matter. Not one iota. So, stop fucking asking them.

We are assaulted again every time that a case never goes to trial and the attacker goes completely free. 

We are assaulted again every time that the sentence for the rapist is a matter of days or months for a crime that has given us a life sentence. 

We are assaulted again when people make public excuses for the attacker and care more about the attacker's loss of appetite(as Brock Turner's father was) than the hell that the survivor is going through. 

We are assaulted again when we see the attackers smiling and laughing when they are let out of jail.

We are assaulted again when the attacker goes back to his/her normal life and we feel trapped inside a hell and know that we will never be the same. 

According to RAINN, every 109 seconds(yes, SECONDS) an American is sexually assaulted. Every 8 minutes, that victim is a child. We have an epidemic of sexual assaults. An epidemic of survivors across this country. We also have an epidemic of apathy for those survivors and a culture of forgiveness for the attackers.

We must do better.

We have an entire nation of men and women that are survivors of sexual assault. We collectively hurt and grieve for each new survivor. We collectively hurt and grieve for every injustice- when a rapist goes free or serves little time. We are serving a life sentence for something that was not our fault and they, the attackers, get off so much more easily.

I stand as a survivor and ask for tougher laws against attackers. I implore you to remember that sexual assault is always a violent crime-- even if the survivor knew their attacker or came away with few physical injuries. It is something that will haunt the survivor every day for the rest of their lives.

I am standing strong and asking for change in the way we view sexual assault and treat the attackers. I ask you, survivor or not, to stand beside me. 

If you have not read the survivor's statement from the Brock Turner rape case, it is moving and gritty and worth reading. You can find it here. (trigger warning for survivors- it is brutally honest)

If you are have been the victim of a sexual assault, you can go here for resources and can talk online or via phone with a RAINN staff member.  You are not alone and I swear to you that it will get better. I'm so very sorry.