Stopping the Holiday Madness

The Iceman hath indeed cometh to my neighborhood.  I woke up in the wee hours of the morning to the sound of snowplows clearing snow and scraping concrete.  I had grand plans to “get shit done” yesterday until my car got stuck in the alley in a mound of snow.  Well, three inches of snow that had somehow become a mound that my totally hip minivan couldn’t overcome.  I see now why all the locals drive SUVs.  Nothing seems to stop them.  Not snow, ice, flash floods.  Pedestrians.

Hanukkah begins tonight, and I have a To Do list that needs attention before that first candle is lit.  This weekend, however, feels a million times less stressful than last weekend.  You know, Thanksgiving weekend–the first Thanksgiving weekend my mother and stepfather have come to my house in years.

About 11 years ago I had an epiphany.  Our family holiday get-togethers had become so emotionally tumultuous and stressful that I wondered why we even bothered to celebrate them.  What was the point? I tried taking Xanax once just to get through Thanksgiving, and that was a mistake! I took one Xanax in the morning and fell asleep standing up while cooking.  Suddenly, I woke up on the kitchen floor an hour and half later with no memory of how I got there.

The thought occurred to me to just tell my mother, “No, you cannot come over on Thanksgiving.  Celebrate with your husband’s family,” but my mother has borderline personality disorder.  The last time I told her ‘no’ I was a small child.  She slapped me so hard across the face that I nearly sustained a whiplash injury.  Over the years, I’d seen people tell my mother ‘no’.  It never went well for them.  Violence always ensued in one way or another, but eleven years ago I was willing to take that risk.  Either give up celebrating altogether or tell my mother ‘no’.

So, I found some courage, and I told her that we wanted to celebrate Thanksgiving by ourselves in a way that was meaningful to us.  She had in-laws.  Celebrate with them (I wasn’t that blunt).  That was probably one of the reasons my mother stopped speaking to me.  For five years.

So, last weekend, my mother and stepfather drove in from out-of-state to join us for Thanksgiving, and I had a feeling that it would be a less than pleasurable evening.  Over the years, we’ve crafted a certain kind of holiday.  We eat in the evening.  We stay at the table.  We enjoy drinks and desserts.  And then the games come out.  Sometimes we’ve played until early into the next morning, but my mother doesn’t know how to have fun.  She doesn’t have great social skills, and part of that is due to how she was raised.  My mother has also spent far too much time alone as she has aged, and her ability to socialize has slipped.  As her daughter, I observed this, and, as a host, I kept this in mind.

By six o’clock in the evening on Thanksgiving, I knew it was just going to be about getting through the night.  It wasn’t fun.  It felt like playing a social game of Tetris.  People around the table were, at times, acting inappropriately, and I, as the host, had to somehow make the remarks and behaviors fit together to keep the evening flowing smoothly.  I was glad when it ended.  As I cleaned up, I distinctly remembered why I disliked holiday celebrations.

Why do we do it? I ask it honestly.  Why do we put ourselves through the meat grinder that is Holiday Celebrations with Friends and Family if we feel so drained afterwards?

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Ah yes, tradition.  How many awful things have been tolerated in the name of Tradition? Sure, sure, we get to eat some great traditional food like Great Aunt Vera’s dessert bars and Auntie Esther’s bread, but then three of your cousins show up two hours late completely shit-faced and high, your sister-in-law starts talking politics during dinner and refuses to change the subject, your brother starts discussing religion and offends a co-worker you invited, your father is passive-aggressive and upsets your mother-in-law, and then a family argument ensues in the middle of dinner about that thing that happened that one time.  Just like last year.  And the year before that! It’s like a holiday template that must be followed every year, or it isn’t the holidays.

I’m not suggesting that my idea to un-invite my mother to Thanksgiving was the “right” thing to do, but it was a different thing to do.  I wondered what life during the holiday season might feel like if I said, “No one can come over until they stop acting badly.  You want to come over? Then deal with your issues. I’m not having bad holidays anymore.  Can we please start a new tradition?”  You know that you have a real problem on your hands when you start dreading December in June, and that was me.  I wanted to know what an honestly pleasant celebration free of drama, enabling codependency, crippling anxiety, and pandering to pathologically self-centered people felt like.

What does it feel like? It feels wonderful.   There are no more obligatory visits with family members who actually don’t approve of us and actively look down on us for not thinking like they do.  I can spend the month of December making positive plans rather than making plans to decompress from excessive stress.  I don’t have to come up with strategies to avoid my cousin’s husband who likes to secretly grope me when he hugs me, and I don’t have to think of ways to sidestep political and religious discussions that always end in fiery judgment and unkindness.

One key thing I learned from this Thanksgiving is that I don’t have the distress tolerance for “misbehaviors” when the circumstances are already stressful, and this I would suggest is likely true for many people.

This is the most important takeaway.  Somatic complaints are very common during the holidays for this very reason.  Our bodies cannot adequately process the overload of stress which comes in the form of a cortisol assault on your body.  Cortisol is a hormone produced by your adrenal glands.  When you are stressed, your body produces it.  One of the key things that cortisol does is suppress your immune system’s response.  Have you ever had a very stressful week at work or school like completing a big presentation or studying for exams? You’re doing fine and then once the project or exams are over, you suddenly get sick.  Or, if you get migraines, you are migraine-free during the stressful work week, but come Saturday, you’re down with a terrible migraine event.  Why is this?

The symptoms of illness like a runny nose, sore throat, body aches, or nausea are not caused by a virus.  Those are signs of inflammation which are caused by your immune system engaging in a response to fight off a pathogen.  In other words, that’s how you know that you caught a bug.  In the stressful days prior to your symptoms when you were neck-deep in exam prep (or Holiday Apocalypse Family Fun Time), you were already infected with a virus.  Your body’s stress-induced production of cortisol, however, was suppressing your immune system’s response to that pathogen.  So, you had no symptoms of the infection, but you had an infection.  You merely experienced the symptoms of the infection after your stress decreased along with your cortisol production.  The stress causes the spike in cortisol production, but it is likely the lifestyle changes that puts you at risk for viral infection like poor dietary habits and sleep deprivation.  We all eat more poorly and get less sleep during “crunch time”, and that is what invites viral infection.  We simply stop taking care of ourselves particularly when we feel like something is on the line like our jobs, grades, or our sense of self.  And the holidays certainly have a way of doing that to us.

Not managing our stress contributes to cortisol dysregulation which can result in a number of health problems and negatively impact your immune system.  Bottom line: take care of yourself and invest in your own level of happiness and well-being even if it proves to be very difficult.  Why? Because you’re worth it and you deserve a meaningful holiday experience–even if you have a family who disagrees with you.

With that, I bid you a meaningful and healthy December.

 

 

 

 

 

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What’s Behind Victim-Blaming?

I feel like I’m writing installments for a weird soap opera–“Tune in today for the continuation of the saga.  Will there be an investigation? Will the administration give up their lazy ways and comply with Title IX? Will there still be a hearing? What about the other known harassers at the college? What happens when parents get involved? Find out what’s next on ‘The Cowardly and The Compliant’.  Brought to you by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.”

The current situation is not what I imagined when I decided to return to grad school.  Sexual harassment was not on the menu.  Sure, I anticipated that a graduate medical program would be hard.  It should be difficult.  And, when I realized that my harasser was going to continue in his pattern of predatory behavior after a year of intermittent harassment, I anticipated that reporting him would be unpleasant.  Reporting sexual harassment is always unpleasant because you are forced to disclose what has happened to you, and that inevitably provokes feelings of vulnerability and shame.  It also raises internal doubts like, “What if no one believes me?” and “What if I am blamed for the harassment?”– and the oft asked question “Why did you wait to report it?”

The questions that are asked of victims of myriad types of harassment and sexual harassment in specific seem to inherently blame the victim, and I suspect that this is the case because there is a culture of blame surrounding sexual misconduct embedded in our culture.  Anyone who has been sexually assaulted, raped, and/or sexually harassed knows this.  The psychology that arises within victims after experiencing the aforementioned is almost always one of self-blame as well: “Did I do something to make him/her think I wanted that? I think it might be my fault.”  And, too often, others are more than willing to agree with that sentiment–“Well, maybe you were too friendly with him/her.  You are sort of flirty.”  There is, however, something more at play…

“I think the biggest factor that promotes victim-blaming is something called the just world hypothesis,” says Sherry Hamby, a professor of psychology at the University of the South and founding editor of the APA’s Psychology of Violencejournal. “It’s this idea that people deserve what happens to them. There’s just a really strong need to believe that we all deserve our outcomes and consequences.”

Hamby explains that this desire to see the world as just and fair may be even stronger among Americans, who are raised in a culture that promotes the American Dream and the idea that we all control our own destinies.

“In other cultures, where sometimes because of war or poverty or maybe sometimes even just because of a strong thread of fatalism in the culture, it’s a lot better recognized that sometimes bad things happen to good people,” she says. “But as a general rule, Americans have a hard time with the idea that bad things happen to good people.” (The Psychology of Victim-Blaming)

I have encountered this phenomenon for 26 years.  Generally, people are very uncomfortable with the idea that they could do all the right things in life and still suffer.  The summer before I started undergrad in the 90s, I unknowingly lived next door to a man wanted by Interpol for human trafficking and other crimes.  He had multiple aliases.  He was extremely charming and very smart.  On a hot, summer day in August, he abducted me, and I got to experience human trafficking.  I can’t begin to count how many times it has been insinuated to me that I should have known he was a criminal.  I have been told directly a few times that it was my fault.  I understand the reasons.  People cling to the idea that if you do everything right, then you will escape tragedy.

You won’t.  Sometimes the unspeakable happens, and there is no good reason for it.  And, I don’t know about you, but that is hard to live with.  I’ve lived with the fallout of that horrible experience for the last 26 years of my life.  Consequently, on good days, I feel a strange sympathy for the people who blame me for being trafficked or harmed in other ways.  They have to in order to feel safe in the world.  It is, of course, a grand illusion.  I know that, and there is cold comfort in my understanding their perspective.  Still, that understanding prevents me from feeling re-victimized when I have to make difficult decisions like filing a complaint against my college with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR).

And how is that going, you ask?

An investigator with the OCR called me last week for a phone interview.  We talked for an hour and a half.  She said that she would notify me this week via email if their office decided to open an investigation into my college.  I learned last night that the OCR is probably going to investigate my college.  This is not a small thing.  This will likely take six months.  This is a federal investigation.  The school will know that I am the one who filed the complaint.  It’s somewhat anxiety-provoking.  If I’m not currently on their Shit List, then I certainly will be once they get wind of the investigation.

Why did I go so far as to file a complaint with the OCR? I did it because I learned of three other harassment cases at my school that took place within a year of each other, and the administration of the college failed to act in all cases.  Another student also had to file for an harassment restraining order (HRO), and it was granted.  A teacher is currently being stalked by a student, and the student who harassed me also sexually harassed another woman at my school engaging in unwanted sexual touching.  A female student even went so far as to publicly retaliate against another student for attempting to report a student for sexual harassment.  In all cases, the college sided with the harassers, thusly, creating a sexually hostile environment.  By definition, this is discrimination based on sex which is why it is reportable to the OCR; it is a violation of Title IX.  It is also wrong.  Something should be done about it.  I’m in a position to be the person who does something.

As for the dreaded hearing, it is scheduled for next week, but the parents of the man harassing me have requested that we meet.  He is 26 years-old, but it appears that his parents take responsibility for him and his actions.  They do not want a hearing.  They want to have a “sit-down” this week.  None of this feels real to me.  Honestly, I’d just like to go to school and become a doctor, but there are dragons to slay, I guess.

Next week, I have midterms.

Stay tuned for next week’s installment of “The Cowardly and The Compliant”.  Will MJ meet The Parents, keep her HRO, and pass her midterms? Who’s to say…

Further Reading:

“The Psychology of Victim-Blaming” The Atlantic

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Reporting Harassment Matters

Amidst the #Metoo movement and Harvey Weinstein perp walk, one might begin to believe that dealing with the nuts and bolts of reporting sexual harassment would suddenly get easier.  It really hasn’t, but it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t.  You totally should.

Realistically, it might cost you something.  Why? Well, reporting it doesn’t mean that it will stop.  You might actually experience retaliation.  You could get fired if you’re being harassed in the workplace and report it.  Teachers could treat you differently if you’re being harassed at school.  You could become a pariah if the person harassing you is well-liked.

In the past month, I’ve witnessed all of this, and I am trying to figure out exactly how I feel about it.  I was never naive about what could happen when I decided to report my harasser to my college’s administration.  The last time I reported sexual harassment I was fired.  I actually lost my job! The company was in the middle of an IPO, and they didn’t want any trouble.  Rather than fire the harasser, they fired me–the woman who talked.

The best part of this story, however, is that, during that time, I was having coffee once a week with a man who was a former FBI special agent.  We originally met at Starbucks where I often studied.  He was a regular.  I was a regular.  Somehow, his regular coffee visits turned into coffee with me.  We discussed politics and current events, and he liked French literature which is what I was studying.  He always wore a seersucker suit with a bowtie.  His name was Charlie.  He retired from the FBI and became a foremost expert in administering polygraph tests.  Think Robert DeNiro’s character in “Meet the Parents”.  He traveled all over the world administering polygraph tests.  I would try so hard to tempt him into telling me stories about his latest trips, but the man was a vault.  He would just smirk and redirect the conversation.

On the day I was fired from my job for reporting sexual harassment, I went to Starbucks seeking sugary consolation and ordered the most fattening drink they had.  I found a hidden corner table, licked whipped cream off a spoon, and cried.  Charlie came in for his regular black coffee and saw me.  He was always very affable and gentle, but, when he saw me crying, he wasn’t affable at all.  He became the FBI agent.  The interrogation began.  Why was I crying? Who did it? What happened? I told him the whole story complete with the disgusting details of the harassment and the humiliating firing while stuffing a peanut butter cookie in my mouth.  He nodded.  He pulled out his business card, wrote a number on it, and said, “Call this number and tell them I sent you.”

It was a lawyer.  I groaned and told him that I didn’t want a lawyer.  I just wanted to put the situation behind me.  He insisted.  I reluctantly called the number the next day.  The woman on the other end of the line curtly told me that everyone was busy until I said, “Charlie told me to call.”  Suddenly, she said, “One moment please.”

In a matter of seconds, a male voice was on the line.  He arranged an appointment the next day, and I met with him.  As it turns out, the lawyer I met that day was former White House counsel, and he was exceedingly polite and accommodating.  He listened to my entire story.  Had “The West Wing” been a TV show at that time, I would have felt like I was in an episode.  In the end, it was decided that there was nothing I could do.  I was wrongfully fired, but some injustices you just have to swallow.  That never felt right to me.  I think men and women are just plain tired of swallowing against their will.

Ten years later, a class action lawsuit was filed by a class of women in that company that fired me, and they won.  And, I received a check in the mail for a few thousand dollars.  As it turns out, that company made a habit of firing women who reported sexual harassment.  My reporting the harassment–and being fired–established a record.  There is no legal record if you don’t report the harassment.  That is one reason why you must report harassment.  It is vital to establish a record.  In this way, if someone is harassed after you and they report it, the record shows that others have made reports as well.  And, this is how you build a case.

Why is building a case important? Well, in the case of institutions, it becomes vital because an individual case of harassment can rarely take down an institution or, at a minimum, bring disciplinary measures.  Institutions have far more resources in terms of money and legal representation than any one person; but if a group of people (like a class) can show a pattern relating to an institution (like a group of women and my former company), then traction can be made in terms of legitimizing complaints.

In my current situation, I reported to my school’s administration that I had been harassed.  They failed to implement Title IX policy.  I documented that.  My harasser harassed me again.  I documented that and reported it.  The school failed to implement Title IX policy again.  I filed for an HRO and a judge granted it.  My harasser is contesting the HRO, and I have to attend a hearing.  I also reported the Title IX implementation failure to the Office of Civil Rights (OCR).  The OCR has contacted me, and I speak to them this week via a phone interview.  If the OCR decides that my case is not severe enough to pursue, then at least there will be a record.  If anyone else reports anything to the OCR in the future, then my case will be on record and will also establish a pattern.

Proper documentation and reporting are vital even if you are afraid.  In fact, I can guarantee that if you are experiencing harassment, you will be anxious.  I am, but fear of intimidation and retaliation is exactly why harassment in various settings has been allowed to persist.  Yes, this is exhausting.  Yes, I don’t even want to go to school.  I’m weary of looking at the administrators.  Had they done their jobs in the first place, I wouldn’t be in this position.  I can state with certainty that I don’t want to go to court.  Alas, the rest of society is in a position to put a stop to a culture that condones harassment because large numbers of people standing together with a unified voice are far harder to intimidate and retaliate against than a select few.  Maintaining that unity over the longterm is how we will change this culture.

I encourage you to initiate change by educating yourself and those around you.  We can potentially build a world where #Metoo won’t even be a thing anymore.

Sexual Harassment 101: What Everyone Needs to Know (The Guardian)

Resisting Rulemaking: Challenging the Montana Settlement’s Title IX Sexual Harassment Blueprint (this is published in Notre Dame Law Review and provides an excellent “blueprint” for what schools, colleges, and universities should do under Title IX policies and procedures in the context of harassment.  It is also excellent in terms of educating oneself in the language of Title IX and what one’s rights are as well as what one should expect in terms of what Title IX provides.  It is a must read if you attend a school that receives federal funding aka FAFSA funding.)

 

 

 

Developing Grit

It’s been too long since my last post.  Forgive me, faithful readers.

I was not prepared for how I would feel after I reported the ongoing sexual harassment–the Sean Situation.

One imagines that it would be empowering.  From experience, I can tell you that it really isn’t.  For me, it’s embarrassing, and, when you read the numerous accounts of men and women who delay initial outcries, one of the reasons that they do not say anything after sexual harassment and/or violence is shame.  There is something keenly embarrassing and humiliating about being touched, groped, sexually harassed, and verbally harassed.  It is supposed to be that way.  These encounters are not mutual.  They are embodiments of the power differential.  One person has the power to coerce.  The power to push down.  The power to silence.  The power to cause another person to mistrust their own instincts.  The power to shift blame onto a victim.

For me, disclosing these experiences to people in power, to the people who will make decisions on how to proceed, was not ideal.  I felt rather like a curiosity.  The Dean of my school wanted to meet with me.  He read my disclosure.  He stared at me with his ever-present smile and asked, “What do you want me to do?” I felt confused.

That’s the moment I knew that I was going to have to take a strong position.  The administration would not advocate after all for their students even with a perpetrator among them.  I wrote the administration a very diplomatic but strongly worded letter citing their own policies concerning harassment on campus.  I used their own definitions of harassment and sexual harassment and juxtaposed it with my on-campus experiences with Sean as already disclosed for the legal record.  I asked them to implement their policies.  As a result, Sean was reprimanded.  His teachers were notified of his behaviors and will monitor him.

I see him in class every week.  It is impossible not to notice him.  He sits in front of me.

That’s it.

Someone might ask, “What was so bad about that?”

I try not to describe any of this from the mindset of feeling victimized per se.  I don’t enjoy that feeling.  I like feeling strong.  I don’t, however, want to disclose personal information to anyone at my school about my life in terms of my former marriage or the reasons that marriage ended.  After you escape an environment wherein there was domestic violence and abuse, there is something almost magical about the idea of starting over.  Going to a new place where no one knows you.  No one knew you when you were drowning or looked like the walking dead for a few years as you were trying to figure out how to leave.

In a legal disclosure, you must disclose everything that occurred between you and the person harassing you–even why you didn’t report it initially.  In explaining the situation to one of my teachers who has come to know me fairly well, I gave him background information.  I felt compelled to disclose that I had experienced domestic abuse in my former marriage.  This was the primary reason I didn’t report Sean’s behavior for a year.  I wasn’t sure that he was even harassing me.  Compared to what I had been experiencing, his behavior was somewhat oppressive, but I didn’t require surgery for any of it.  My compass was somewhat broken.  That information was passed on to the teachers on the administrative board of my school who are also teachers I see daily.  They now know very personal information about me–information I really wanted to remain private.  In the grand scheme of it all, does it matter? No.  In terms of cultivating dignity, does it matter? It sure as shit does.

Rebuilding a sense of dignity and keeping it might cost you something, and advocacy be it for yourself or others will most definitely cost you something.  Sean won’t be able to harass other people now.  To be honest, I didn’t expect to feel so personally disrupted by it.  I thought I would just sail through it, but I didn’t.  After the disclosure and meeting with the Dean, I didn’t want to leave my house.  I didn’t want to go to school.  I felt some kind of re-victimization by the entire process particularly when I had to tell the school to implement their own policies.  Do the right thing even if only for the sake of doing the right thing!

I think, however, that doing “the right thing” probably always costs us something whatever the right thing happens to be.  It is why it is so exhilarating and encouraging when you see someone do it.  And, it’s why you have to find some kind of identifying strength in doing it in private.  There are many times when we make decisions to do the right thing, and no one will ever know what we did.  Only we know.  We know how much it costs, and we know how it feels not to be validated for it.  You must learn to self-validate and find some kind of strength that endures in the knowledge of your own integrity.  This is essentially grit.

This is the back end of resiliency and character development.  At some point, making better choices and living with integrity become the only decision to make because you no longer care what anyone knows or thinks about you.  You only care about what is the best and most integrous decision for the circumstances–regardless of public opinion or personal cost.

Honestly, I want to be in the company of people like this.  People like this make the world better.  There is no shortcut to this sort of character development.  It happens through suffering and a commitment to bettering oneself in spite of and with it along with a refusal to embrace cynicism and bitterness.

So, if there could be a bright side to closing the chapter on this circumstance, then perhaps it is knowing that I was true.  I know what I value.  I know what I want.

And, you know, knowing what you want is a big deal.  There was a time when I wasn’t sure about anything.

2018 sure has been interesting, hasn’t it?

As always, keep going.  You never know what’s waiting for you around the bend…

Claude and Me

I don’t know about you, but I don’t like people knowing about my deeper, darker trauma history.  I don’t like people knowing that I ultimately ended my marriage because of domestic violence.  It goes without saying that I don’t like people knowing that I was trafficked when I was 18.  Yes, that was twentysomething years ago, but there are aspects of it that still feel like now.  That is how trauma works.  Unprocessed and maladaptively processed trauma remain in the “still happening” box in your brain.  This is why those memories pack such a punch when you recall them or re-experience them.  Your limbic system activates when you think about them.  You sweat.  You have gastrointestinal symptoms.  You might experience a migraine.  You might feel a sudden need to run.  Maybe you get belligerent.  Or, perhaps you lose your words–you can’t speak.  You can chalk that up to that very basic survival reaction called fight or flight (or freeze).  We can thank acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter, for a lot of those symptoms.  It’s all very real.  You are not making it up or wishing yourself ill.

Me? Sometimes, out of nowhere, I have a sudden urge to move house, leave town, and start over with a new identity.  I’ll panic and think, “People know too much about me.  I’m too vulnerable.  I must leave.  Must…run.”  I’ll want to cut off all relationships and flee.  I don’t do that, of course, but it happens from time to time.

I had that experience when I was in California.  I wanted to leave the country.  A gulag in Siberia started to sound pretty appealing to me.  Why?

It all started with this guy…

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Claude the Albino Alligator

I didn’t know that his name was Claude until I started writing this post! That somehow makes this seem funny in a sinister Loony Toons sort of way.  So, I had just walked into the California Academy of Science.  I saw a lot of people gathered around a large open air exhibit.

“Ooooh, what’s that?” I thought.

I sauntered over, and that’s when I saw him.

Claude.  A very large alligator.

An alligator!

I am extremely afraid of alligators.  It all began when I was a very small child.  I was convinced that a gator was living under my bed, and this seemed perfectly reasonable to me because there was a bayou directly behind my house.  Sometimes alligators would emerge from their natural habitat and awkwardly drag themselves down my residential street.  So, every night I had to be careful not to let any of my extremities fall over the edge of my bed lest that under-the-bed-alligator bite them clean off!

Fast forward to my 18th year.  Was I over my fear of alligators? I liked to think that I was, but I wasn’t.  I was fascinated by them, but I maintained a strong fear of them.  It remained visceral for me.  I left Texas after I graduated from high school, and I figured that I left alligators behind for good.

I was wrong.

Human trafficking for the purposes of sex work is talked about today.  Shows like NCIS, Law&Order:SVU, and Criminal Minds use the topic in their plot lines.  The most accurate on-screen portrayals of an abduction and sex/human trafficking scenarios that I’ve seen are represented in the movie Taken.  The auction at the end? Those are very real.  The buyers? Real.  Girls being closed up in rooms, drugged, and raped? Real.  That was very close to my experiences in the early 90’s.  Not much has changed.  What is not discussed or used as fodder for entertainment is the torture aspect of trafficking.  Torture is a very important part of human trafficking because psychologically “breaking” an abductee is important in order to gain compliance and destroy hope.  My perpetrator used alligators.

Alligators.

Do you remember that scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark in which Indy opens up the ancient Egyptian crypt where the ark of the covenant has been hidden for millennia only to discover that the entirety of the interior is creeping and crawling with snakes–his greatest fear?

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That was me.  “Alligators.  Why’d it have to be alligators.”  In retrospect, my perpetrator was a lot like one of those unintelligent Bond villains thinking up creative ways to torture and kill people.  Instead of using something reliable like a gun or knife, he had to try to be showy and egomaniacal and threaten me with being eaten alive by alligators.

Until a year ago, I never talked about the alligators.  I survived the experience and compartmentalized that particular aspect of my time in captivity.  Until last Sunday, I have not come face to face with another alligator since I was 18.

So, how did I do upon meeting Claude?

I froze.  I started sweating.  My stomach clenched.  I almost started crying.  I had no thoughts.  It was entirely a limbic response.  Pure trauma.  So, I decided to just stand there among all the strangers oohing and aahing over this white, prehistoric reptile and let it flow while I told myself the truth.

“I am okay.  I am safe.  That alligator is not going to eat me.  There is no perpetrator here now who is going to throw me down there.  I will never be thrown to alligators.  An alligator does not live under my bed or behind my house or anywhere near where I live.  I am no longer being threatened.  I can look at this alligator and know that I am safe at the same time.”

And then I moved on with the rest of my day.  That was it.  No one knew what I was experiencing.  Just me.

What is the point of sharing this?

Well, the longer that I engage in the healing work (and it’s been a lifetime work at this point), the more that I realize that I have to be my own biggest support.  I have to be my biggest fan.  I am not trying to say that we become self-reliant Teddy Roosevelts who white-knuckle it on the open tundras of life’s hardships.  What I am saying is that we must learn to coach ourselves through the unexpected scenarios that trigger us because sometimes very powerful healing opportunities arise at inopportune times, and we have to take hold of them quickly.  Sometimes our allies are not around, or they are wrapped up in their own healing work.  We must experience and know our strength, and we do have it.

It isn’t romantic.  It will look nothing like it does in the movies.  The theme from Chariots of Fire will not start playing.  No one will high-five you or lift you up on their shoulders.  Most people won’t even know just how hard you’re working.  Just you.  You will probably be judged.  At some point, you’ll feel like a total failure.  You’ll become disillusioned with yourself and life in general.  It will feel like you’re working twice as hard as everyone else just to be average.  Sometimes you might feel like an outcast.  Like you don’t belong anywhere.  You’ll feel ontologically different, and that creates a devouring kind of loneliness that can almost make you feel cold inside.

This is what healing from trauma feels like.  I describe it as such because I have found that when I discover that my experience is common, then I am consoled.  I am not alone.  Maybe I am okay, and in that sense of being potentially okay I find momentum to keep going.

This is why I will always say, “Keep going.  Never give up.”  It gets easier, and it gets better.  There are bad days, but there are good days, too.  And, at some point, the good outnumber the bad, and life starts to feel worthwhile again.  Even when you’re facing down your fears.

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Look how big he is! 

Keep climbing.  Keep going.  Shalom…

 

Saying No is Good

Saying ‘no’ is good.  I seem to rarely do it, but I’ve heard other people tell me this.  I am kidding.  Sort of.

I really find out just how good saying ‘no’ is particularly when I said ‘yes’ but really wanted to say ‘no’.  Do you know what I mean?

If you are addicted to doing the “right” thing and making everyone happy, then I am certain that you know what I mean.

Case in point:

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Aspic.

Someone made this on purpose! And some poor sod said ‘yes’ to eating it even though they would rather have endured a root canal without novacaine.  There they are, smiling at the creator of this disgusting delicious creation, mouth full of cool, gelatinous edibles, and all they can think to say as something slime-like oozes through their back molars is, “Wherever did you find this recipe?”

I agreed to having lunch with my ex-husband.  I should have said no.  I ate the metaphorical aspic.

He was not mean to me.  It was simply too triggering.  It took me a week to process a two-and-half hour lunch.  That’s not okay, but it’s informational.  After a year of post-separation therapy, it was an unexpected means of taking my own temperature in terms of post-traumatic healing.  I’m simply not there yet.

I thought I was.  I overestimated myself.  I don’t think it’s bad to overestimate oneself.  That’s what gets us out of bed in the morning sometimes, but, when it comes to having lunch with a former abuser, it might be good to be prepared.  Funnily enough, I thought I was.

What was my takeaway after the dust settled?

  1. Know your triggers.  I know his methods and wiles, but there is one thing that he does that triggers me.  His victim persona is a punch to the gut every time.  I didn’t realize it until we had lunch.  When he plays the victim, I want to take a sledgehammer to something; or, go into my room and cry for a week.
  2. Have at least one person in your corner who can remind you of what is true about your identity and your circumstances.  This will make it so much easier to come out from under those post-traumatic triggered responses particularly if a run-in with a formerly abusive partner is the cause.
  3. Take care of yourself.  Do what it takes to practice self-care and self-soothing.  The feelings will pass.  They will! I promise.  In the meantime, do what it takes to bring consolation and comfort to yourself.
  4. Look out for ANTs (automatic negative thoughts/thought distortions).  I got caught up in a slew of these last week, and it sucked.  Your brain will always tell stories.  That’s what it does, and, for whatever reason, it’s never an awesome story.  It’s always a catastrophic story involving abandonment, sharks, plane crashes, and some sort of plot from Law & Order:SVU.  Our job is to develop a mindfulness practice (I know, we are starting to get sick of that new buzz word) in order to stop the brain’s sordid and scary storytelling.  This is one of the primary points of mindfulness.  It is to learn to become aware of the brain’s latest plot twist, stop it, and then take control of it in the form of non-judgmental observations and containment.  With practice, this becomes a skill, and we are no longer held hostage to the Stephen King/John Grisham/James Patterson/Nicholas Sparks writing collective in our brains.
  5. Imagine saying no and then put that into practice.  If you are not up to doing something because you know that it will cause you to have a setback or cause a triggered response, then consider saying no.  I’m pondering this myself.  I say yes to a lot of things even though I know that I might be triggered.  I feel obligated, but, frankly, my distress tolerance might not yet match the occasion.  It doesn’t mean that I won’t one day be able to engage in the proposed situation.  It just means that I’m not there today.  And, that is okay.  After I had hip surgery, I couldn’t run for four months.  I couldn’t even walk for six weeks.  So, saying yes to a 5K two months after surgery would have definitely caused a setback in my healing process.  It’s not so different when we’re healing emotionally and psychologically.

That’s what I learned last week.  I sure hope it sticks because the idea of using aspic as a metaphor for anything again is…well…I’ll just say ‘no’ to that.

Further Reading:

 

The High Maintenance Woman and Self-Care

A few weeks ago while I was browsing through Facebook, I came upon one of those ubiquitous quizzes.  This particular quiz was entitled “How High Maintenance are You?” and the women who had completed it were more than happy to post and comment on their results.  They went something like this:

“I got a 2! I must be low maintenance lol…”

“A 2?! I got a 1! I think my car is better maintained! haha”

“I didn’t even score.  Did I shower today?”

“I got a 3 but that was only because I got a manicure for my sister’s wedding.  I would have scored lower.”

“I haven’t had a haircut in over year, and I think I have a unibrow.  I would break the test.  I didn’t even bother…”

On the surface, I can see the humor, but it almost reads like gallows humor.  Are these women serious? You treat your car better than you treat yourself? Notice the competition.  Five women are competing for who takes top honors in treating themselves the worst.  Who practices the poorest hygiene? Who practices the poorest personal grooming? Who cares the least about themselves? This is something to be validated and rewarded? And someone came up with a quiz to measure this?

Let’s think about this from the other end.  Let’s think about the “high maintenance woman” for a moment.  If there is honor in being The Martyr–the woman who throws herself under the bus in the name of Low Maintenance or no maintenance at all, then what about the other end of the spectrum? What of that woman who averages a 5 or above? That woman with the foiled hair, gym membership, gel nails, and spray tan.  She’s probably got a Brazilian wax ‘down there’, too.  She’s following some vegan gluten-free diet or something trendy.  Doing wheatgrass shots and refusing to eat sugar.  Blah blah blah.  High Maintenance.  Who has time for that nonsense? Right?!

The first thing that struck me about this quiz is that men generally don’t do these quizzes.  I rarely hear men ask their friends, “Hey, do you think I’m high maintenance? Do you think that my preferring a microbrew over a Bud Light makes me high maintenance? Do you think my liking socks with no seams and tagless t-shirts makes me high maintenance?” It sounds like a situational comedy.  Change the script, however, to a few women in a restaurant:

“Do you think my preferring a microbrew over a Bud Light makes me high maintenance? I mean, I just prefer it! Do you think that my refusing to wear socks with seams makes me high maintenance? Or t-shirts with tags? They really itch me! It distracts me all day! I can’t do it.  I’m not high maintenance, am I?”

I theorize that you would have mixed responses.  Some people would say, “Yeah, you are high maintenance.”  Many men would just make their choices and feel okay about it.  He likes what he likes.  Why? In part, I suggest, because there are no quizzes and labels such as these aimed at men.  Men have other labels to deal with to be sure.  The idea, however, that women are judged on a spectrum, particularly by each other, for investing in themselves should be shocking.  Oddly, it’s not.  The first time I heard the phrase “high maintenance” was in the film “When Harry Met Sally”:

“Well, I just want it the way I want it,” Sally says.

“I know.  High maintenance,”  Harry answers.

Hmmm.  That’s interesting, isn’t it? In 1989, the year “When Harry Met Sally” hit theaters, a woman knowing her own mind and asking for what she wanted defined “high maintenance”.  In 2016, investing in yourself unapologetically seems to be the new definition particularly if you are a mother.

What does all this mean? What can it mean for you and me?

I used to be a woman who neglected herself.  There was no simple reason for it.  There were a lot of reasons.  I was ashamed of myself.  I had gotten married too young.  I had children too young.  I felt trapped in my life.  I had trauma issues to deal with, and I didn’t know how to do it or where to start.  I had gained weight in my pregnancies, and I didn’t know how to lose it.  I was the primary caregiver to my young children, and I had no friends.  I couldn’t see that there were any resources available to me.  I was very lonely, and I felt like a foreigner in my own body and life.  Nothing felt like mine anymore.  My then husband ignored me all the time.  I felt almost hopeless.  It didn’t feel like neglect.  How I treated myself seemed appropriate.  I just drifted along with the current.  I put everything I had into my children.  That felt like the thing to do.  In reality, the more I put into my children, the more I was erasing myself.  I hated what I had become.  I was so disappointed in my life and my state.  I completely forgot how to truly be myself–how to maintain my own identity and continue to develop it.  It is impossible to maintain and develop yourself if you’re running from yourself.  Personal growth and development do not mix with avoidance.  They are mutually exclusive.  If shame is in the mix, then it becomes doubly difficult.

There is no such thing as a high maintenance woman.  Before you point and say, “Kim Kardashian…”, I will say that we only see what we are allowed to see when it comes to other human beings even more so when commercialism, exploitation, and virtual reality are at play.  As women, we know first hand how hard it can be to try to meet the tacit and spoken expectations surrounding us.  It’s hard enough to meet our own much less everyone else’s.

So, I propose something.  I propose that we all erase the phrase “high maintenance woman” from our vocabularies.  Going further, I suggest that we stop comparing ourselves to other women altogether.  If you like your unibrow and weekly shower, then keep it! You are not lesser than your neighbor who waxes her face, legs, and bikini area and showers four times a day while getting a mani/pedi and Botox while holding the Warrior pose at the same time.  What matters here is that you like yourself, know your own mind, can express your wants and needs, and live a fulfilling life with rewarding relationships.  Your ability to practice self-care and invest in yourself is an expression of the quality of your life and self-esteem.

As women, when we observe other women participating in self-care and self-expression, applaud them because this has not always been available to women.  It is often still not available to women here and in other parts of the world.  So, eschew that quiz.  Don’t do it.  Take care of yourself.  Love yourself.  And encourage and enable other women to do the same in whatever way is most meaningful to them.  If you are not sure how to begin taking care of yourself in a way that is meaningful to you, then I recommend this book:

While you’re thinking about how to do that, consider donating to Days for Girls International, an organization that provides hygiene “kits” for girls in developing parts of the world so that they don’t miss school due to their menstrual cycles.  Yeah, that’s a thing.  Hygiene kits–the most basic self-care for women and girls.  You and I can actually change the lives of girls in other parts of the world by fulfilling this most basic need.  To see this in action, watch this four-minute film.