Principles of Healing

Hi everyone!

As you all know, I’m in school studying my little heart out to become a doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).  If you’ve followed this blog for any amount of time, then you know that I tend to write about what I’m doing in my life, and this blog has seen me through most of my major life events.  I have really wanted to write about what I’ve been learning in my program because TCM integrates with my worldview so well in terms of how humans exist.  We are not a sum of our parts.  We are so much more than that, and TCM accounts for that in its treatment modalities while also acknowledging that there are parts to consider, too.  In other words, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, but the parts exist within the whole and exercise great influence on the whole in its unique context.

So, I started another blog wherein I could write about what I’m learning in TCM medical school along with other significant topics that I’ve been asked about related to health and healing; topics that simply don’t fit well on this blog.

If you are interested in that, then you can find me wearing that particular hat in the blogosphere here: Principles of Healing.

And, once again, I thank all of you for reading.  I made it through the last three years, in part, because I could come here and write.  I can’t thank you enough.  I wish all of you every wonderful thing…

Shalom, MJ

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Living with Intention

I receive many emails asking how to fix a loved one.  It might be a mother with a personality disorder or a partner or family member with alexithymia.  In both cases, I have been that self-same person on the search for solutions.  I have asked the same questions: What can I do to fix this? Is it me? Can I fix myself so that they will love me? Can I fix them by giving them books to read or directing them to resources? Maybe they had bad modeling as children and just need to be loved better, and I’m the one to do it!

I have loved someone with a disordered personality that kept them out of reach, distant from me, isolating me on a loveless and lonely island.  For years, I dove into the treacherous sea of uncertainty and swam to distant coastlines in an attempt to rescue my own mother from her mental illness.  I came bearing recommendations and suggestions that I swore would help her.  I only roused her inner demons and exacerbated her illness causing her to throw me back into the black waters which promptly washed me back onto the rocky shores of my tiny island.

I loved another person who seemed to thrive on isolation and personal inertia.  From the moment we returned from the weekend in a hotel we called our honeymoon, he holed up in a room and rarely ventured forth into the outside world.  He preferred fantasy over reality.  He disdained my presence and cultivated an impoverished sense of love and relationships while also developing a deluded and grandiose sense of self.  It did not matter how hard I tried to enter into his personal poverty or what riches I offered him.  He rejected everything.  He preferred his own distorted interpretation of the world.  He chose himself even over his children.  Whether he lacked the capacity or the will, it did not matter for he simply did not act.  He remained as he ever was.

What then? The heart wants what it wants and loves whom it loves, but then what? When the truth becomes apparent, and when will it become apparent? When you ask for it.  When you want it. And, what is this truth? It is not your job to change people.  It is not your job to fix people.

It is your job to change and heal yourself.  

It is our job to develop our personalities and our character so that we are continually becoming the kind of people with whom we would like to partner either platonically or romantically.  This is no small task.  It is so much easier and, honestly, far more fun to look at other people and pick them apart.  It’s vastly entertaining to scrutinize and judge our acquaintances and even our partners.  That smug feeling we experience when we climb onto our high horses is like taking a hit of heroine.  It’s addictive.  Why? Here is an interesting take on judgment:

“At some point in our life, usually in childhood, some external event causes us to separate from that true nature. That separation from love creates in us feelings of specialness or inadequacy, leading to loneliness and as a result, fear. So we project it outward in the form of judgment.

We know we are loving, interconnected beings, but in our separation we live in a dream state, shutting off our connection to our loving truth. This separation establishes the ego’s perception of a false self based on judgment. We grow to believe deeply in the false perception of ourselves in order to feel safe in the world of separation.

Deep down, and without realizing it, we judge ourselves for separating from our truth, leading us to feel ashamed and guilty. That unconscious guilt is so painful that we have no choice but project it outward in an effort to end our suffering. By projecting judgment onto others, we deny and repress our feelings of guilt. Subconsciously, this makes us feel even more guilty because we know this judgment is not who we really are. The guilt we feel from judging others is then projected right back onto ourselves, and the vicious cycle beings again. This the judgment cycle.

I cannot overstate this: Judgement is the number one reason we feel blocked, sad and alone. Our popular culture and media place enormous value on social status, looks, racial and religious separation, and material wealth. We are made to feel less than, separate, and not good enough, so we use judgment to insulate ourselves from the pain of feeling inadequate, insecure, or unworthy. It’s easier to make fun of, write off, or judge someone for a perceived weakness of theirs than it is to examine our own sense of lack.

 

Judgment is an addictive pattern.

 

Judgement is an addiction response to deep-rooted trauma. The first trauma is the separation from love. From a spiritual perspective, choosing fear and separation over love dissociates us from our truth. We become fragmented in this state of separation and lose our connection to our inner being. In this disconnected state, we inadvertently turn our back on our inner being and become obsessed with an outward projection of who we think we are. Feelings of guilt and sadness wash over us, because deep down, we know we’ve turned our back on love. But we can’t fully understand our guilt, so we do whatever we can to avoid feeling it. This is how the cycle of judgment becomes and addictive pattern.

When we avoid our guilt and suffering by projecting it onto others, it’s a way of numbing out. Like any good drug, judgment will anesthetize our pain and redirect our focus. It can even get us high. Gossip is a great example. Whenever you get together with friends to talk about another person in a judgmental way, you’re avoiding your own core wounds. You’re using judgment as a drug to numb your own pain and get high on someone else’s. Gossip is especially nasty because it gives us the illusion that we’re bonding with others, when instead we’re just banding together to heap all our pain onto another person.

Gossiping can give us a buzz because it provides temporary relief from self-judgment and attack. We repeat a self-judgmental story on a loop all day long: I’m not good enough. Why did I make that mistake? I’m ugly. I’m not smart enough. And so on. All these self-inflicted behaviors are just another form of addiction. We unconsciously choose to judge rather than feel the pain beneath our wounds.

But notice I said that our self-judgmental story is played on a loop. That’s because it leads nowhere! Getting on the path to healing requires us to feel the discomfort—but we’re way too scared to go there, so instead we gossip or judge ourselves as the victim feels safer than facing our wounds. This I show self-judgment becomes an addiction.

The addictive pattern is further fueled by our denial. We long to feel better but deny that judgement is the problem. In fact, we see judgment as the solution, as a way of protecting ourselves. Our unconscious belief system keeps us stuck in the judgment cycle because we’re terrified of facing our own pain and suffering. We use judgment to protect ourselves from exposing our deepest wounds.

The repetition of judgment is habit-forming. If you repeat a behavior over and over, you strengthen your neural pathways. In time that behavior becomes second nature. The more you repeat the pattern of judgment, the more you believe in it. You create your reality with the thoughts you repeat and the beliefs that you align with. When judgment is your belief system, you’ll always feel unsafe, under attack and defensive. If you’re going to change the habit of judgment you need to change your core belief system. Our aim is to find our way back home—to find our way back to love.” (From Judgment Detox by Gabrielle Bernstein)

Stopping any self-destructive cycle and engaging in a truly honest personal inventory with the intention of self-betterment is difficult but virtuous.  Asking the question: What do I really want from a friend and partner and then committing to developing those very qualities in oneself is, in my experience, the path to actually ending destructive relationships and beginning healthy ones.

Why? Well, as you begin to grow into healthy behaviors and ways of relating to yourself and other people, you will organically grow out of unhealthy patterns of behavior.  Self-destructive behaviors will ebb, and the people in your life who were attracted to those qualities in you will migrate away from you because you will naturally also move away from them.  Simply put, your orbits will change.  This kind of growth is a process, and processes take time.  It is not something that happens immediately, but it does happen when you commit to your own process of improvement and growth.  After a time, you will see that destructive people have left your life.  You may also be forced to make difficult decisions like ending relationships that were always bad for you or have become so over a period of time, but this is part of growing up and into living life with intention.

When you live your life with intention, you discover that you cannot make another person meet your needs; you cannot force another person to stop hurting you.  You can only move away from them and choose to live your life among different people who share your values.  And, this is essentially what people are emailing me about: How can I make my loved one share my values? How can I make the person I love stop valuing neglect or gaslighting or exploitation or selfishness or their own personal inertia? How can I make them see that what I value is better? You can’t.  If you don’t share the same values now, then you likely never will.  Take the temporary hit, gather your momentum, and keep going.  You will find other people in the world who do share your values and will love you, and you will love them, too.  You really will.

I don’t say any of this flippantly or without compassion.  I have done everything that I’m suggesting, and I know all too well just how hard it is.  I also know what life looks like “on the other side”.  It is worth it.

Keep going…

 

Circumstantial Alchemy

I like to write useful posts, and I’m going to try to spin this “leaden” topic into gold as it were.  I think I can do it.

I am certainly getting many opportunities to engage in circumstantial alchemy at my college. I have to confess something.  I had a rather disheartening interaction with a fellow student yesterday, and, because I process through writing, I thought I would write about it.

I’ve not written a lot about my health issues (at least I don’t think I have).  My personal view of my health journey has always been that I’m a healthy person fighting off illness rather than I’m a sick person fighting to be well.  That paradigm has kept me optimistic and positive.  Sometimes, however, when you’re dealing with an unrelenting, chronic condition or many unrelenting, chronic conditions, there are trying days, and the illness(es) wins a few rounds.  Truth be told, I’ve been a healthy person fighting off illness since early childhood.  I’ve spent months that probably add up to a few years of my life in hospitals, and I carry multiple diagnoses and see four specialists outside of my primary care physician just to manage all of these diagnoses.  Frankly, I became a bit discouraged because I wondered if I actually had one unknown condition that was the umbrella diagnosis manifesting as all these other health problems.

Last year, I ended up in yet another specialist’s office seeking more help because I suspected I had stumbled upon the X factor–the unknown umbrella diagnosis.  I was, thusly, diagnosed with Mast Cell Activation Disorder/Mast Cell Activation Syndrome, and it could very well be the foundational problem underlying every other health issue I have.  It is also a giant pain in the ass.  My doctor moved quickly to get the right protocols in place so that I would stop experiencing anaphylactoid reactions every few weeks, and she connected the dots between her diagnosis and the other specialists’ diagnoses.  That was a huge relief.  She indicated that it was indeed quite possible that I didn’t actually have all these other conditions; it may all be a mast cell disease at play.  I was both shocked and awe-struck.  I left her office with an Anaphylaxis Action Plan in place.  I now wear my Medic Alert bracelet all the time.  Everyone close to me knows how to administer an Epi-Pen, and my very long list of allergens is up to date.  I get monoclonal antibodies infused at the hospital every four weeks, take Gen 1 and Gen 2 antihistamines daily in addition to mast cell stabilizers.  I follow a low histamine diet.  I do my best every day.  And yet, as most of us know, sometimes your best is not good enough.

Sometimes things still happen like stress or viral infections or food contaminants.  Or, a nurse doesn’t administer an infusion correctly, and a mast cell activation event occurs that leaves you in bed for 10 days sending you to the ER for fluids, Zofran, and steroids.  I didn’t know that could happen!

(Actually, two nurses mistakenly injected Xolair directly into my abdomen intramuscularly! Like they were rabies shots!!!)

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I don’t know, Liam!

It was while I was lying in bed last week feeling like I was run over by a truck and working myself into a nice, foamy lather over missing a week and half of classes that I comforted myself–“Your friends at school will get your notes for you.  It’ll be okay.  Your teachers know you.  No, you’re not a slacker.  You won’t fail out of grad school…”

So, finally, here is my confession.  Here is the lead.  When I was finally able to return to school, I greeted the people I knew and thanked them for putting notes in my mailbox.  I approached a friend I’ve spent time getting to know, and her affect clearly indicated that she wasn’t interested in talking.  I thought that she could be distracted, but then I realized that she was not interested in talking to me.  I moved to end the conversation; my final remark was a movie recommendation and she almost scoffed, “Well, at least you did something positive last week.”  Whoa.

Did you catch that? That’s shame right there.  Whether she knows it or not, she was condemning me for being sick last week.  For not meeting her criteria of engaging in “positive actions”, and embedded within that sharp retort was blame: “It’s your fault that you’re sick.”  She then went on to ignore me–to distance herself from me–a perceived sick person.  And, from an anthropological perspective, this is very mammalian–unless, of course, you’re an elephant.

“Some scientists studying wild elephants have argued that, in addition to cooperating for survival’s sake, the creatures are capable of genuine empathy. Poole recalls, for example, one elephant flinching as another stretched her trunk towards an electric fence; it was fortunately inactive at the time but had been live in the past. Elephants often refuse to leave their sick and injured behind, even if the ailing animal is not a direct relative. [Joyce Poole, one of the world’s foremost elephant experts and co-founder of the charity ElephantVoices] once observed three young male elephants struggle to revive a dying matriarch, lifting her body with their tusks to get her back on her feet.” (Scientific American)

I felt as if a stone were in my stomach for the rest of my class.  Like my heart had dropped low down into me.  I was disheartened and disappointed.  I did not understand this social interaction at all until just moments ago as I was trying to write this out, but I see it now.  There was no compassion, and I don’t say this because I feel entitled to it.  I merely observe it.

Living with a chronic illness is…weird.  It’s too easy to say that it’s hard.  For me, it’s not hard exactly.  I find it strange.  There are days in which I feel perfectly fine.  I don’t have any pain, and I’m almost not fatigued at all.  Of course, my diet is very limited.  I’m practically a vegan because I can’t tolerate most animal proteins particularly bovine meat and milk.  I have celiac disease so that means no gluten, and I’m deathly allergic to quite a few fruits and nuts.  And now what with the MCAS diagnosis, I have to pay attention to foods that are “histamine liberators”.  There are days that it feels very complicated, but, for the most part, I don’t really mind.  Every day that I don’t literally almost die from anaphylaxis, I’m truly grateful.  I’m not one to think in terms of fairness or justice because that smacks of a victimization.  Illness is part of the human experience.  Is it fair? Well, I cannot answer that.  Suffering is part of life.

What I have gleaned from my experiences with long-term, chronic health issues is empathy and compassion for people who suffer from, well, just about anything.  To quote John Mulaney, adult life is so goddamned weird.  We do not have the privilege of foresight.  We don’t know what lies ahead of us, but we do have the opportunity to cultivate a better personality with a richer substance and character that allows us to meet the unknown with courage and resiliency.  And, what of this unknown? You may never get sick and stay sick a day in your life, but someone you love might.  What’s more, they may do everything right and still never heal properly.  Then what? Will you blame them? Tell them that they aren’t positive enough? Good enough? Strong enough? Dedicated enough? X enough? Will those well-meaning judgments most likely intended to spur them on to try harder actually help them? No. Why? If a person with a chronic illness could heal from trying harder to heal, then they would already be better.  Trust me.

We are all human in the end and will shuffle off this mortal coil.  Where then is the gold from this lead? I think that it is to be found in the howHow we live.  How we treat others.  How we view others.  Even how we go about experiencing our diseases and disorders if we have a chronic condition.  The one thing we are guaranteed is that we will all come to be intimately acquainted with suffering in either ourselves or other people.  What then? Compassion.  It is the only legitimate response.  It validates, legitimizes, heals, and grows connections.  Compassion mends the broken places and bridges the divides.

What of the people who blame, shame, judge, alienate, invalidate, and ostracize us for things that are no fault of our own? Well, sometimes we learn how to be better humans by observing others make mistakes.

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If I wasn’t fully present to the reality of compassion and its utter necessity in the world before, I am now.  I don’t feel angry at my fellow student.  Oddly, I feel grateful.  Her impoverished response acted as a mirror for me.  For those of us who do deal with chronic conditions whatever they may be, we need to have compassion for ourselves because sometimes it’s in short supply.  For me personally, I want to continue to develop compassion in my character and be mindful to exercise it.  Unfortunately, you can count on other people to judge what they do not understand, and many people do not understand chronic illnesses particularly people who have been healthy for most of their lives.  It is a lonely place when you are your most frequent and best advocate, but sometimes that is the road set before you until you find your tribe.

And, so, I will raise my voice today to join the other voices of compassion.  There is absolutely no shame or reason to accept judgment if you have a chronic illness.  Regardless of the overflowing fount of opinions in your life and the world at large, you deserve compassion, kindness, empathy, and a safe place to land where good friends will love you today.  Just as you are.

Keep going, MJ

 

 “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” 
― Dalai Lama XIVThe Art of Happiness

Generalized Anxiety vs. PTSD Anxiety

I have devoted a lot of space on this blog to writing about PTSD, C+PTSD, and healing from trauma.  I’ve been honest about my own journey towards wholeness.  What I share here is an attempt to elucidate the emotional experience behind C+PTSD in specific the anxiety experience.

What I can say for certain about healing from C+PTSD is that it is like a disease that remits and exacerbates.  I can go a year and not devote any time to thinking about the man who abducted and trafficked me, my time in captivity with him, or the events that happened to me therein.  I rarely think of my father or stepmother.  My mother doesn’t come to mind much either in the context of her abusive behaviors.  The domestic violence I experienced in my former marriage is no longer foremost in my mind.  It’s not the people or specific events that dog me now.

So, what is left after you deal with the details and process the events? What is left after therapy because there is something left?

I’ve had a hard time defining the quality of what remains until a friend sent me a link to this article yesterday:

We Can’t Keep Treating Anxiety From Complex Trauma the Same Way We Treat Generalized Anxiety

Vicki Peterson, the author of this article, writes:

No one gets a prize for “worst” depression, anxiety, trauma or any other combination of terrible things to deal with, and no one should suffer alone. With that in mind, there is a difference between what someone who has Complex PTSD feels and what someone with generalized anxiety or mild to moderate depression feels.

For someone dealing with complex trauma, the anxiety they feel does not come from some mysterious unknown source or obsessing about what could happen. For many, the anxiety they feel is not rational. General anxiety can often be calmed with grounding techniques and reminders of what is real and true. Mindfulness techniques can help. Even when they feel disconnected, anxious people can often acknowledge they are loved and supported by others.

For those who have experienced trauma, anxiety comes from an automatic physiological response to what has actuallyalready happened. The brain and body have already lived through “worst case scenario” situations, know what it feels like and are hell-bent on never going back there again. The fight/flight/ freeze response goes into overdrive. It’s like living with a fire alarm that goes off at random intervals 24 hours a day. It is extremely difficult for the rational brain to be convinced “that won’t happen,” because it already knows that it has happened, and it was horrific.

Those living with generalized anxiety often live in fear of the future. Those with complex trauma fear the future because of the past.”

This is absolutely true, and most therapists don’t seem to have a clue that there is a difference.  Perhaps this will help someone reading this…

I live with a smoldering anxiety that never leaves me.  It peaks when I’m happy.  Oddly, it ebbs when I’m too busy to pay attention to what’s going on around me, and I suspect that trauma survivors try to stay so busy because it prevents them from feeling this particularistic type of anxiety.  When I’m struck with the evanescent beauty of a moment, fear creeps in like a thief and begins to steal my joy.  I do not know how to escape any of this.  It might be strange, but I’ve tried to make friends with it.  I’ve wanted to understand it in an effort to defuse it.

As Ms. Peterson has said, I don’t fear because I’m generally anxious.  I do not have an anxious personality.  I fear because of what I’ve known.  Because of my past experiences.  When the worst-case scenario has already happened to you, then who’s to say it won’t happen again? Yes, I’ve survived extreme sexual torture, a kidnapping, human trafficking, and years of abuse in my family of origin.  I was duped by my ex-husband for twenty years and sexually assaulted by him.  My former therapist told me that I could clearly survive anything.  My brain fears that I will have to do it again.  Over and over again.  This is the flavor of anxiety that belongs to trauma survivors.  This is the nature of PTSD and C+PTSD anxiety.

I do practice mindfulness, but becoming mindful does not shut down my anxiety.  It often only makes me more aware that I’m fearful and feeling helpless.  It can promote the very hypervigilance I’m seeking to escape.

The remedy for both anxiety and trauma is to pull one’s awareness back into the present. For a traumatized person who has experienced abuse, there are a variety of factors that make this difficult. First and foremost, a traumatized person must be living in a situation which is 100 percent safe before they can even begin to process the tsunami of anger, grief and despair that has been locked inside of them, causing their hypervigilance and other anxious symptoms. That usually means no one who abused them or enabled abuse in the past can be allowed to take up space in their life. It also means eliminating any other people who mirror the same abusive or enabling patterns.

Unfortunately for many, creating a 100 percent abuser-free environment is not possible, even for those who set up good boundaries and are wary of the signs. That means that being present in the moment for a complex trauma survivor is not fail-proof, especially in a stressful event. They can be triggered into an emotional flashback by anything in their present environment.

It is possible (and likely) that someone suffering from the effects of complex trauma is also feeling anxious and depressed, but there is a difference to the root cause. Many effective strategies that treat anxiety and depression don’t work for trauma survivors. Meditation and mindfulness techniques that make one more aware of their environment sometimes can produce an opposite effect on a trauma survivor.  Trauma survivors often don’t need more awareness. They need to feel safe and secure in spite of what their awareness is telling them.”

Feeling safe and secure, for me, is key.  Safety and security in my relationships and environment seem to be the cure.  I know why feelings of relief and happiness trigger feelings of fear and, sometimes, emotional flashbacks.  My father deliberately cultivated feelings of happiness and relief in me in order to overturn them and further engage in abuse.  He was a pathologically cold man.  My mother’s emotional and personality disorders caused constant instability in our family environment.  As soon as any sort of happiness was achieved, it vanished just as quickly due to her inability to maintain a consistent mood or affect.  She also attempted suicide numerous times.  As soon as any family member felt relief that she might be doing better, she would attempt suicide again or lash out in talionic rage against someone in the family.  Nothing in my family life was ever predictable.  We consistently waited for “the other shoe to drop”.  I grew up on edge.  If there were ever a moment of happiness, I knew that my mother would ruin it.  Or my father.  That has proven to be true over the years.

Consequently, when I feel this rising panic borne of this nebulous but constant fear that follows me everywhere, it isn’t generalized.  It is quite specific, and I find myself saying, “I can’t go back to that.  I can’t do that again.  I won’t do that again.”  And, I feel frozen and terrified as if an old enemy has found me.  I feel a strong urge to cut all ties and run away mixed with a terrible almost existential fear that I will live out my life completely alone.  And, yet, I know that this will all pass.  It is, as I said, like an exacerbation of an autoimmune disease–an autoimmune disease of the mind and soul.

With that said, what is to be done? Well, I have therapized, read, studied, and pursued many roads over the last twenty years in order to answer that very question, and I’ve had a fair amount of success.  For the survivor of trauma, however, consistently establishing safety and security in your myriad environments and relationships is the number one thing to do to defuse anxiety and flashbacks related to trauma.  This will always be the first and last step.  It is also the first question to ask when you feel that familiar fear rise: “Do I feel unsafe or insecure anywhere in my life or in any relationship?”

I hope that this has been helpful to you.  Ms. Peterson’s article has been very helpful and validating for me.

As always, keep going…

Shalom, MJ

The Masterpiece Within

As I’ve been taking a brief respite from blogging to gather my thoughts after the sexual harassment problems crescendoed, some interesting things moved to the foreground.  And, you can always count on me to share them if there’s something valuable in the mix.

My boyfriend was in town for two weeks.  As with any relationship, you are usually discovering new things about each other as the relationship grows.  I really enjoy that aspect of relationships.  So, a few days before he returned to home base, the whole family went to a water park.  My youngest daughter was fully prepared to drag him around to the water slides, and he was game for anything.  The weather was perfect for the day’s activities.

It should be noted that my boyfriend is athletically gifted and a natural competitor.  He has successfully competed in many sports and earned a black belt in aikido.  He was a free diver and is a very strong swimmer.  So, when he casually challenged me to a race in the pool, I suspect that there was an expectation that I would lose.  I am not known for my athletic ability.  I don’t discuss athletics or past athletic glory.  I don’t usually like competing.  I am the last person to join a team, and I’m afraid of projectiles.  I feel awkward most of the time.

As we gripped the edge of the pool preparing to race, bets were made on who would win.  I’m pretty sure everyone bet on him.  Except I smoked him.  By almost an entire body length.  Everyone was shocked including him.  I wasn’t.  Why? Well, this leads me to the reason for this post.

I was a competitive swimmer in my youth.  Not just a run-of-the-mill competitive swimmer.  A “prodigy”.  I hate that word, but that’s what he called me.  Who is he? He was my coach, Mike*–a former Olympic swimmer.  Mike approached my stepfather during one of my practices to tell him that he would like to coach me personally; he felt that I had the potential to compete internationally.  Of course, my stepfather became enamored of him and the idea of it all.  Thus began the pressure and the time commitment.  I trained 8 hours a day.  It was brutal.  I swam because I loved it.  I did not love training.

Something else, however, was going on.  Mike was a pedophile.  Every time he would get into the water to adjust my stroke he would slip his hand into my swimsuit.  He must have sexually touched me fifty times or more.  I remember feeling confused, helpless, and violated.  Finally, however, I felt angry so much so that one day I got out of the pool and left the facility.  I quit training altogether that day.  Without an explanation.  My family was extremely angry and held it against me.  The beloved pedophile coach? He didn’t say a word.  My high school coach? He was livid.  No one understood my decision aside from Mike–he knew why I stopped training.  Everyone else continued to bombard me with the same question:  “Why would you throw away your gift?”

I didn’t know how to self-advocate with words when I was that age.  I was surrounded by male athletes and aggressive adult men.  My mother had borderline personality disorder, and my father and stepmother were also very abusive.  Walking away was the only thing I knew to do in terms of self-preservation.  I never competed again, and I never told anyone what happened.  I just absorbed the accusations and the label: “You are a QUITTER.”

It all came rushing in this week after I gave my boyfriend a beat down in the pool.  My daughters saw me swim.  My youngest asked me with awe how I could swim like that.  My other daughter asked me why I didn’t swim anymore.  And, I remembered.  I never even discussed any of this in therapy.  It’s not something I think about.  It feels like a gossamer memory.  Like it almost happened to someone else.  Almost.

Consequently, I have been thinking on it for the first time in over 25 years.  What is there to be learned, if anything, from this old memory making itself freshly relevant? I was reading a rather timely commentary written by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Kt MBE in which he discusses the idea of inheritance and identity (“The Lost Masterpiece/ Pinchas 5778”).  Rabbi Sacks tells the story of a man named Mr. Onians who spent his life collecting paintings from estate sales.  At the end of his life, he had amassed a large number of works that had to be auctioned off after his death.  His children saw little value in his collection even though these paintings were so valuable to their father.  What no one knew, however, was that there was a lost masterpiece in the collection of mediocre canvases, and Rabbi Sacks’ retelling of how this was discovered makes the reading of his D’var Torah a bit exciting.  He brings his story around to a passage of Torah (Old Testament) wherein the spies returned from their reconnaissance mission in Canaan full of fear proclaiming that it was impossible to enter it, thusly, causing the people to declare that they should return to Egypt with a new leader.  Well, everyone declared this except for five women and Caleb and Joshua, the two spies who felt confident that Canaan was totally “doable”.

But, who are these five women? Zelophedad’s daughters.  I have never heard of this guy or his daughters! Why are they special? I will let Rabbi Sacks fully explain the importance of both the lost painting and Zelophedad’s daughters:

“A great art expert, Sir Denis Mahon (1910-2011), was looking through the catalogue (of Mr. Onians’ paintings) one day when his eye was caught by one painting in particular. The photograph in the catalogue, no larger than a postage stamp, showed a rabble of rampaging people setting fire to a large building and making off with loot. Onians had bought it at a country house sale in the 1940s for a mere £12. The catalogue listed the painting as the Sack of Carthage, painted by a relatively little known artist of the seventeenth century, Pietro Testa. It estimated that it would fetch £15,000.

Mahon was struck by one incongruous detail. One of the looters was making off with a seven branched candelabrum. What, Mahon wondered, was a menorah doing in Carthage? Clearly the painting was not depicting that event. Instead it was portrait of the Destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans. But if what he was looking at was not the Sack of Carthage, then the artist was probably not Pietro Testa.

Mahon remembered that the great seventeenth century artist Nicholas Poussin had painted two portraits of the destruction of the second temple. One was hanging in the art museum in Vienna. The other, painted in 1626 for Cardinal Barberini, had disappeared from public view sometime in the eighteenth century. No one knew what had happened to it. With a shock Mahon realised that he was looking at the missing Poussin.

At the auction, he bid for the picture. When a figure of the eminence of Sir Dennis bid for a painting the other potential buyers knew that he must know something they did not, so they too put in bids. Eventually Sir Dennis bought the painting for £155, 000. A few years later he sold it for its true worth, £4.5 million, to Lord Rothschild who donated it to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem where it hangs today in the memory of Sir Isaiah Berlin.

I know this story only because, at Lord Rothschild’s request, I together with the then director of the national gallery, Neil MacGregor, gave a lecture on the painting while it was shown briefly in London before being taken to its new and permanent home. I tell the story because it is so graphic an example of the fact that we can lose a priceless legacy simply because, not loving it, we do not come to appreciate its true value. From this we can infer a corollary: we inherit what we truly love.

This surely is the moral of the story of the daughters of Zelophehad in this week’s parsha. Recall the story: Zelophehad, of the tribe of Manasseh, had died in the wilderness before the allocation of the land. He left five daughters but no sons. The daughters came before Moses, arguing that it would be unjust for his family to be denied their share in the land simply because he had daughters but not sons. Moses brought their case before God, who told him: “What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right. You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father’s relatives and give their father’s inheritance to them” (Num. 27:7). And so it came to pass.

The sages spoke of Zelophehad’s daughters in the highest praise. They were, they said, very wise and chose the right time to present their request. They knew how to interpret Scripture, and they were perfectly virtuous.[1] Even more consequentially, their love of the land of Israel was in striking contrast to that of the men. The spies had come back with a negative report about the land, and the people had said, “Let us appoint a [new] leader and return to Egypt” (Num. 14:4). But Zelophehad’s daughters wanted to have a share in the land, which they were duly granted.[2]

This led to the famous comment of Rabbi Ephraim Luntschitz of Prague (1550-1619) on the episode of the spies. Focussing on God’s words, “Send for yourself men to spy out the land of Canaan” (Num. 14:2), Luntschitz argued that God was not commanding Moses but permitting him to send men. God was saying, “From My perspective, seeing the future, it would have been better to send women, because they love and cherish the land and would never come to speak negatively about it. However, since you are convinced that these men are worthy and do indeed value the land, I give you permission to go ahead and send them.”[3]

The result was catastrophic. Ten of the men came back with a negative report. The people were demoralised, and the result was that they lost the chance to enter the land in their lifetime. They lost their chance to enjoy their inheritance in the land promised to their ancestors. The daughters of Zelophehad, by contrast, did inherit the land – because they loved it. What we love, we inherit. What we fail to love, we lose.” (“The Lost Masterpiece/Pinchas 5778″)

I am going to come at this from a different angle than Rabbi Sacks because he compares the paintings to Judaism which works well.  As a Jew, I appreciate his midrash of sorts.  I, however, want to make a different suggestion in terms of identity based upon Mr. Onians’ vast collection of mediocre paintings, and I’ll use my experience with my coach as a jumping off point.

After I quit training with Mike, many people thought poorly of me.  In my family, being labeled a “quitter” was probably the worst thing you could call a person.  I disappointed a lot of people, and many people in my community looked down upon me not to mention my peers.  For years, I was told that I didn’t have what it takes to accomplish anything meaningful because people perceived that I had quit when things got hard.  The social injury was real as was the shame.  They were missing information.

And this phenomenon has followed me.  My family judged me harshly when I ended my relationship with my mother.  No one could fathom that the woman they knew publicly was monstrously abusive to the point of homicidal behind closed doors.  So, I was labeled as “a bad daughter”.  A “quitter” of relationships.

When I finally ended my relationship with my father, who was my first abuser, his wife told everyone they knew that I was a prostitute.  A prostitute! I suspect that’s the worst label she could come up with at the time.  Consequently, there are still people in a small Texas town who believe that I am somewhere in the world earning a living as a sex worker.  It is ludicrous.

What’s my point?

We might find ourselves surrounded by mediocre people and circumstances much like those paintings.  Or, worse, perhaps we are surrounded by the human equivalent of velvet Elvis paintings and Dogs Playing Poker.

Velvet_Elvis_Presley_painting.jpg

We have to find the “masterpiece” in the mix, and it’s damn hard particularly when you’ve been labeled and victimized.  Furthermore, I don’t know one person who doesn’t bear at least one label and hasn’t been victimized at least one time.  So, what do you do then?

Using my experience as an example, I did not throw away my “gift”.  I simply chose not to share it because the price was too high.  Sure, I could have been trained by a former Olympian and potentially gone on to compete on the world’s stage, but Mike would have stolen my budding sexuality and innocence from me as payment for his coaching.  I already had a father who had done that to me.  I didn’t want to relive it in the pool.  What everyone else interpreted as quitting was really self-advocacy.  I preserved myself, and I never internalized what Mike did to me.  I left it behind and also left the experience intact.  I was not a quitter.  I was an overcomer.  Therein lies the “lost masterpiece”, and that masterpiece gets to be inserted into the larger part of my identity.  It was a bad experience, but it did not contribute to a degeneration of my internal identity.  It helped me form a stronger sense of self.

We must, at some point, look at who we are now and who we are becoming with intention, the past be damned.  In order to change our trajectories in life and head in the direction that we want, it is vital to examine the metaphorical canvases surrounding us.  Like the Onians family, did we collect them? Who put these images on our walls? Do we need to take some down? Get rid of all of them? What have we inherited that we actually never wanted? There are masterpieces in there somewhere to be sure, but where are they? How do we identify them? Lastly, what do we love about our lives that we want to bring forward with us, and what do we wish to leave behind? We will inherit what we love.  In order to do that, we must decide what we find lovable first.  And that means taking a very personal inventory.  We may not be who we once were.  It is not possible to walk long distances and explore new possibilities in someone else’s shoes–even if those shoes were once ours and just don’t fit anymore.

“I won’t tell you that the world matters nothing, or the world’s voice, or the voice of society. They matter a good deal. They matter far too much. But there are moments when one has to choose between living one’s own life, fully, entirely, completely—or dragging out some false, shallow, degrading existence that the world in its hypocrisy demands. You have that moment now. Choose!” 
Oscar Wilde

 

*name changed

 

 

 

 

Comic Relief

Life has a way of hitting the Reset button, and I must admit that I appreciate that.  And, honestly, this Reset is too good not to share.

One might perceive that I am all Doom and Gloom what with writing a blog like this, but that is far from the truth (In fact, I just spent ten minutes dancing to K-Pop in my bedroom as a study break.  I highly recommend BTS’s “Illegal”).

Anyway, after the visit to the Respondent’s attorney this morning to sign the settlement agreement, I went to visit my lovely esthetician for some *ahem* personal waxing.  I just wanted to feel like a normal human being again, and, besides, I already had the appointment scheduled.  I felt it was time to get my focus back.  There’s nothing like having hair ripped out of sensitive body parts to do just that.

Brazilian waxing is an odd experience.  I won’t lie.  I am by nature a very modest person.  I hated labor and delivery for this very reason.  All those people sauntering in and out of the room while your body is on full display? I never grew accustomed to it.  I could say it’s my disposition combined with being raised by stoic Scandinavians in a very gender-biased Southern culture.  The advice I was given for almost all contexts of life was, “Remember to keep your knees together, dear.”  Consequently, the fact that I can even lie on a table in a Figure 4 position and tolerate hot wax being poured and torn off my lady parts is an authentic victory for me.  I feel empowered and ultra-hygienic when I leave my esthetician’s house.  It’s one of those luxuries that I don’t take for granted.

So, there I was today, lying on her table, recounting the past month’s events as she loudly empathized with me.  She’s like my Jewish auntie: “Oy, no! Did he really? I can’t believe it! What did you doooooo?” ::rip::

As I waited for her to finish, I looked up at the ceiling.  It was then that I saw it.  A spider.  Before I could say anything, he descended directly onto my chest.  I managed to yell out, “SPIDER!”

My esthetician shrieked and started hitting me in an attempt to kill the spider.  I was stuck on the table.  There was wax on me, and, you know, I had no pants on! Where was I going to go? I couldn’t offer any assistance at all.

“Did you get it? Did you get it?” I asked, feeling helpless.

“No…no….not yet…no,” she quickly answered.

More hitting.  Then shoving.  It crawled on my arm.  I felt it.  I screamed.  Then, it crawled under me.  She shoved me to the side of the table.

“Is it in my hair?” I asked beginning to panic.  I am somewhat terrified of spiders.

“I got it!” she exclaimed.

For a moment, we were silent and wide-eyed, and then we started laughing almost hysterically.  I’m not sure why.  I think that she is afraid of spiders, too, and we were experiencing a massive dump of stress hormones.  I felt ridiculously vulnerable lying almost buck ass naked on her table while a spider crawled on me, and she had to kill an insect she feared.

I gave her an extra big tip and left her house feeling a little more like myself than when I arrived.  So, I’m hitting the books, studying for my first midterm tomorrow, and getting on with things spiders and settlement agreements be damned.

And thank you for sharing the journey with me.  I have appreciated that more than I can adequately say.

Shalom, MJ

 

 

 

Meet the Parents

If you are new to my blog, I will bring you up to speed.

In January 2017 I enrolled in 4-year graduate degree program in order to specialize in Traditional Chinese Medicine and integrative medicine.  A month after I began my program, a man in my program began harassing me.  At first, I brushed it off as obnoxious behavior, but I started changing how I dressed in case it was more; I was anxious.  I stopped wearing make-up and started wearing hoodies, ponytails, jeans, and Converse sneakers.  In other words, I dressed like my 14 year-old.  Alas, he continued to target me including unwanted sexual touching and battery.  This continued intermittently for a year.

I documented every encounter in detail.  I reported it to my college’s administration, thusly, beginning what has come to feel like the Battle Royale.  The college administration would not implement Title IX procedure or policy due to cronyism.  I had to attend classes with him, tolerate continued nonverbal harassment, and then finally another confrontation.  Finally, I petitioned the court for an Harassment Restraining Order (HRO), and it was granted although temporarily because the Respondent (the harasser) contested it meaning I have to appear in court for a hearing.

This brings me to the present.  His family asked to meet with me in order to reach a settlement agreement to avoid the hearing.  Initially, I thought, “Why would I do that? I’m going to do my best to keep that HRO.”  Then, I spoke to another woman at my school who has endured the same process.  I’m incredulous.  What are the odds? Two women in four months filing for HROs from two male students in the same graduate program? I then opted to file an official complaint with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), and, after a telephonic interview and review of my complaint, they will be officially investigating my college for discrimination.

So, yesterday, I met with the Respondent’s family for three hours at a local restaurant.  It was surreal.  They don’t want a hearing.  They want to reach a settlement agreement.  It was long and exhausting, and, to be honest, I truly empathized with them.  I’m a mother.  I understand their point of view.  They were honest with me.  They recognized their son’s deficits and his wrongdoing.  It must be noted that his family is from another country and culture.  Their culture’s family norms differ from popular American family norms.  If an eldest son commits acts like he has towards me, then it brings shame to the family as a whole; and, the family as a unit takes on the debt–not just the individual.  I understood this, and this is largely why I agreed to share a meal with them.  I am not litigious by nature and prefer negotiations when at all possible.  As a lawyer who is near and dear to me said, “If you are litigating, then both sides have lost.”  The pending hearing would require litigation.

They did not bring their attorney with them.  I mirrored that as a sign of cooperation.  And, what I can say with complete confidence is that you should never attempt to do anything like this without an attorney.  They wanted me to sign a contract agreeing to drop the HRO.  They were very concerned that their son’s life would be ruined with the label of “harasser” or “sexual harasser”.  As concerned as they were for me and my sense of safety, their concern was always first and foremost for the future of their son.  I expected that.  Parents are the best advocates for their kids–even when their kids behave very badly.

I had to push quite hard for strong contractual stipulations and be able to defend my position in a persuasive way in order to convince them.  I succeeded on the points that mattered the most, but the experience did not feel empowering.  I felt blamed somehow.  They blamed me because I sought out the legal system for help because their son would not respond to “Stop,” and “Leave me alone.”  This morning as I negotiated on the phone, his father asked me, “Are you trying to ruin his life and future?” I paused, took a breath, and answered, “No, we are in a settlement agreement because your son refused to comply with the school’s code of conduct and violated his second warning.  He is now suspended for a third violation and restricted by an HRO granted by a judge.  He is ruining his own life.  I’m merely insisting that the document I sign is enforceable in a court and protects me and your son.  Isn’t that what you want, too? Legal protection for his interests?”

After that, the negotiations went smoothly.  I am not thrilled with any of this.  In the end, the Respondent will continue on with his life and educational privileges, and I will have absorbed the wrongful acts.  It doesn’t feel just enough.

I have been sitting around in my pajamas all day today.  I have midterm exams next week, and I just don’t care.  That will pass.  I will rebound, but what I can say is that this is the “real” reality of sexual harassment.  The other woman at my school who was forced to file for an HRO? Her harasser will return to complete his education after she graduates.  My harasser will continue his medical education as well.  What are the truly meaningful consequences for these men for harassing two women for over a year? What kind of medical practitioners will these men become?

I am profoundly troubled by the unknowns, but this is what I do know:

Never sign anything without consulting your attorney.  

Also, attorneys cost not a little money which is likely why victims of harassment probably don’t receive the advocacy they deserve nor report the harassment.  It has been a pain in the ass the whole time complete with insomnia, panic, anxiety, and crying jags.  And, it’s not over.  The OCR investigation is only just beginning, but I’m ready for it.  Appropriate changes will be made and enforced–by the Feds!

At least when I leave this school, I’ll have left a mark on it–for the better– even if my harasser still gets to attend classes there.