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

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

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.)

 

 

 

Filing for an Harassment Restraining Order and Title IX

I never thought I would entitle a blog post as such, but, alas, I now know how to file for an HRO–an harassment restraining order.  I’ve been writing about sexual harassment in my medical school program because I’ve been experiencing it for over a year now.  I’ve followed every procedure to the letter, and the harasser will not stop.  He has escalated to making veiled threats against my children.  He is a 26 year-old dude for crying out loud.  Only five years older than my daughter!  And yet he has fixated on me.  It has created a very strange reality; I’m actually afraid.

On Tuesday last, I went out to dinner with another student who has experienced similar circumstances in our program, and I had a wonderful time.  She is a very courageous woman who has navigated the legal system with the help of an advocate from a local women’s advocacy center.  I felt profound admiration for her tenacity and deep anger for the injustice of her situation.  As she narrated her story to me over dinner, I could scarcely believe it.  A restraining order? Against a fellow student? In our school? And the very next day, I had to do the exact same thing.

The student who has been harassing me escalated his behavior.  I felt paralyzed.  Lo, guess who was just a room away.  My new friend who was just with me the previous evening.  She swept in and took me to the women’s advocacy center.  I disclosed the situation to two advocates, showed them all my previously filed legal documents with the Office of Civil Rights, the legal disclosures filed with the school, and personal documentation of his past actions.  The advocates unanimously agreed that the best course of action was to fill out and file an HRO.  In this way, the police could act upon my behalf, and steps could be taken to keep me and my minor children safe.

Can I just say that none of that felt real to me? I felt out of body and triggered by the entire circumstance.  I was having a problem speaking words.  But, I did it.  I filled out the HRO and printed out every piece of supporting evidence for the court.  My new friend and another woman from school went with me to the courthouse on Friday morning as I filed the HRO.  At that point, it is a petition for an HRO.  A judge has to grant it.  We went to a diner across the street, had breakfast, and waited together.  The court called me a few hours later.  My hands were trembling when I answered the phone.

The judge granted it.  I now have a restraining order against my harasser.  He has 20 days to contest it, and, if he does, I have to go to a hearing with an attorney.

There are obvious reasons why this situation is unjust and wrong.  I could go into great detail about it, but I won’t.

To me, however, there is one reason why this situation has been really good.  I have experienced the support of fellow women in a truly meaningful way in the context of social injustice.  There have been people in my program who have looked the other way and pretended that nothing was going on.  Teachers and administrators as well.  Even worse, other students have observed the harassment and buried their heads in the sand so to speak.  The community at large has condoned the harassment, and this is what perpetuates it.  Think about it.  If an entire workplace of employees protested sexual harassment, then would it continue? If an entire university or college protested sexual harassment and violence, would the administration continue to support the student perpetrators? Consider Penn State.  Well, they couldn’t.  They must get tuition from somewhere.  Sexual violence, hatred, and bigotry are as much a community problem as they are an administration problem.  One blames the victim while the other condones harassment and violence through silence.

It’s a difficult subject because once you start to speak up on behalf of someone else, you start to become an advocate; and advocacy will always cost you something.  You could experience retaliation.  Other people may distance themselves from you because they associate you with the people you are advocating for–guilt by association.  You could become a proxy representation and begin to receive more abuse than anyone else.  Look at Martin Luther King, Jr or Harvey Milk.  Advocacy doesn’t end well sometimes.  There are risks, and, let’s be real, who signs up for this? No one.  But, who signs up for harassment? No one.  Someone has to do something.  Don’t they? Who’s going to be the person who stands alongside victims and say, “I stand by you.  This won’t continue.  I’ll do something about this”?

Here’s the thing.  Nothing will change in a meaningful or permanent way if we don’t start standing up for one another.  And, I’m not necessarily talking about change on a macro-level.  I’m talking about micro-changes.  Using my college as an example, there is an established and documented pattern of sexual harassment within the school environment as more than one student experienced it.  We also experienced and continue to experience an apathetic response from the administration.  We are referred to law enforcement if we need help.  One might say, “Well, that is the school’s right.  They don’t have to help their students deal with harassers.  What’s the problem?”  Good point.

The problem is that if a school receives federal funding, then they must comply with all Title IX laws concerning discrimination.  Under Title IX, sexual harassment falls under discrimination, and the legal language is very specific about definitions and what a school is required to do about it.  If a school does not comply with Title IX, then they are in violation of it.  They have broken federal laws.  If a school is aware of discrimination and fails to address it, then they are not in compliance and must be investigated.

This is where documentation and reporting are absolutely vital.  The more people who are willing to report what they see, the better.  The more people who are willing to do this in a legal sense, the better.  Victims of harassment on school campuses can get little action from the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) without documentation.  This is, however, how real social change comes about.  We’ve seen it happen right before our eyes this year what with the Weinstein Effect.  Story upon story came forth, thusly, destroying Harvey Weinstein and Miramax Entertainment.  Witnesses finally came forward to corroborate other witness statements.  It was never one big event that took down the giant.  Just a community of people who stood up for each other in real time and risked something.

I, therefore, challenge you.  We can’t complain about sexual harassment and terrible bosses, fellow employees and students if we ourselves won’t say anything or support another person experiencing it.  If we see it and know about it but fail to do anything, then how are we essentially different from the harassers? We are creating the environment that enables the abuse.  Social injustice will not stop until the environment that supports it makes no room for it any longer.  That begins with you.  And me.

Title IX: Know Your Rights

The Office of Civil Rights and Harassment Complaints

About the Office of Civil Rights (OCR)

 

Reporting Sexual Harassment and Trauma

In a state of anxious frustration, I wrote about sexual harassment a few month’s ago.  Another student was sexually harassing me, and my school’s administration was less than stellar in their handling of the situation.  Well, they really didn’t handle it.  The situation is still “pending” in that other women have come forward with similar complaints about the same student.  I have learned that this student is a known offender, and the administration had known about his propensity to harass women for at least a year if not longer prior to my complaint.  And, they did nothing.  What’s more, he is studying to be a healthcare practitioner! Do you want to spend time alone in a room with a guy like this? I do not.  Alas, my school seems oblivious to the implications of graduating a predator, and I’m personally very alarmed by this.

I’m profoundly troubled not to mention I have two classes with this person. He sits directly behind me in one them and mouth breaths the entire time.

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Or, he turns around and stares directly at me glaring in a menacing way.  Either way, it is uncomfortable and disconcerting. Knowing now that the school administration lied to me about his history of harassment fires me up.  I am taking action, but, at the same time, I feel tremendous anxiety about doing so.  And this is where the rubber meets the road in terms of how both men and women must deal with social injustice in institutions.

Why is it so difficult and fear provoking? When faced with taking on an institution like a corporation or a college, why do so many people weight the costs and decide to absorb the inequity of the injustice?

The first reason is because institutions tend to exist well after complaints are made against them largely because they have almost infinite resources compared to complainants.  They often have a fleet of lawyers on retainer compared to the sole advocate that a complainant brings to the table.  This alone is often enough to deter a person from pursuing a complaint.  Institutions have financial resources that dwarf an individual’s bank account, and they have the will to go the distance in terms of the legal process.  Most individuals don’t have the time, energy, or money to devote to that process.

The second reason many people don’t pursue complaints against institutions is fear of retaliation.  People need their jobs, and students need to finish their degrees with the favor they’ve earned from their teachers.  Filing complaints can often obliterate favor, provoke bullying, and get you fired.  I was once fired from a job after I lodged a complaint of sexual harassment in my workplace.  The harassment was prolonged and severe.  A man in my office actually locked himself in the women’s bathroom with me and forced himself on me and engaged in forced sexual touching.  The company was in the middle of an IPO.  Rather than fire the man for harassment, the company fired me for saying anything.  This culture of gender discrimination is common, and it has become evident the world over what with the cascade of revelations following the Weinstein Effect and the #metoo movement.  So many men and women tolerated the intolerable for fear of retaliation.

I filed an official complaint with a governmental body that oversees colleges and universities, and I’m very fearful.  My fear is based in past experience with sexual trauma, and this is the third reason people often don’t report sexual harassment.  It provokes latent feelings of fear associated with past trauma that were never fully resolved.  In my case, it is so difficult to resolve the original trauma.  It is known on my blog that I survived human trafficking.  I was abducted when I was 18 years-old by a neighbor who masqueraded as a real estate agent.  In reality, he was a participant in an international human trafficking ring.  He was wanted by Interpol and other international law enforcement agencies.  I was taken across the country to a port city to be sold at auction.  Yes, there are super-wealthy men in the world who actually get together and bid on women in order to buy sex slaves.  If you’ve seen the movie “Taken”, it was startlingly similar to that except Liam Neeson didn’t rescue me.  I ran for my life and succeeded against all odds.  It was by far the weirdest and worst experience I’ve ever had.

I never had a chance to accuse my perpetrator in a court.  I did, however, live in fear of his finding me and taking me again for years.  He became the amorphous fear that haunted me.  He became the ultimate retaliation.  My escape and survival represented the complaint.  I was convinced that he was going to rain vengeance down upon me for staying alive.  Consequently, I learned to stay hidden in my life.  Don’t complain.  Be quiet.  Swallow mistreatment.  While my experience is extreme, it’s not difficult to make a comparison to other experiences.  When we have experiences in life that cause us to feel fear in terms of speaking up and self-advocating, we may discover that absorbing mistreatment is the better path if only to get us through the moments.  This might be adaptive in those moments, but, later on, this can become a habit.  This habit can become maladaptive later causing us to become victims of mistreatment and abuse.  We lose our ability to self-advocate and even begin to invite mistreatment largely because we lack a standard for how we should be treated.  We will tolerate anything because we are too fearful to say ‘no’.  And the fear is no longer valid.  The original object of our fear is long gone.  But, the fear remains, and the fear is no longer purposeful.  This purposeless fear is what I feel today.  It’s real, but it serves only to limit me.  It is purely trauma-based.

This is why I’m such a fierce advocate of healing trauma.  Our post-trauma brains served us once.  We survived our traumas, and that’s brilliant.  We should feel proud that our brains and bodies did that for us.  At the same time, post-trauma responses often become self-limiting because they do not serve us once the situations that cause trauma pass.  We must learn to deactivate the mechanisms in our bodies that keep us locked into Trauma Brain and Trauma Body so that we can do what must be done like report sexual harassment or advocate for those being victimized and not get triggered while doing so.

I do not know what will happen now that I’ve made an official complaint.  I’m not happy about this situation, but I did the right thing.  That has to be enough for now.

 

 

 

Jerry Seinfeld on Pain

It might be springtime where you live, but we just got hit with a doozy of a blizzard that dropped over a foot of snow on us.  And it’s still snowing.  Go home, Mother Nature.  You’re clearly drunk.

I thought I would use my time wisely indoors, but I didn’t.  After studying like a maniac for my hellish finals I crashed.  I decided to watch “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee”.  Now, I loved “Seinfeld” the TV show, but Jerry Seinfeld the man doesn’t seem quite so affable playing himself.  He’s a bit of a trope really which disappoints me–guy gets rich and famous and doesn’t have to pretend to be a good person anymore because he can buy favor and has more money than he can spend.  You can observe this in the episode with Trevor Noah which is worth watching just to listen to what Trevor Noah has to say.

While Noah and Seinfeld are having coffee, Seinfeld does say something rather notable, and it threw me a bit because, to date, I haven’t heard Jerry Seinfeld say anything noteworthy.

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He illustrated his point by saying:

“When you stub your toe on the foot of the bed, that was a gap in knowledge.  And the pain is a lot of knowledge really quick.  That’s what pain is.”

That is an interesting perspective on pain.  Very rational.  I like it.  I tend to be emotionally driven; so, I appreciate a highly rational perspective on pain.  It brings balance to my overly internalized process which often becomes dangerously introspective and too contemplative.  Perseverative even.

Of course, there is no wisdom here concerning how to deal with whatever new information is causing pain.  It is merely another perspective.  Void of blame and accusation.  I think that’s why it’s appealing.

You may find it to be a useful perspective the next time you stub your toe in real time or metaphorically.

Lunch with My Mother

Well, I did it.  I saw my mother and stepfather.  I wasn’t nervous at all until about an hour before I had to leave, and then it hit me.  I was suddenly scared that she was going to be unkind to me.  I was also scared that I wouldn’t have what it takes to withstand it.

My mother’s unkindnesses usually began as passive aggressive comments about my appearance, and, for some reason, I always experienced that as more painful than most of her other criticisms.  It’s so high school, I know, but I think that’s why I found it hard to bear.  Growing up, we put up with a lot of social garbage.  We don’t expect to come home to it as well, but my mother was the ultimate Mean Girl.  I feared that I was about to go out to lunch with that persona again.  Frankly, I’m over that, and I’m really over pandering to that to keep the peace.

But, it doesn’t mean that the remarks don’t sting.  They do because mothers have a way of making them feel very personal because they know us.

In my previous post, I described my mother like Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of Joan Crawford in “Mommy Dearest”.  That’s accurate.  Socially, however, my mother used to be very much like Lucille Bluth, the mother on “Arrested Development”:

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My mom…on a good day

Two of my daughters wanted to see my mother as well, and my other daughter decided to externalize her anger towards my mom twenty minutes before we had to leave causing conflict between all of us.  I was functioning at capacity at that point.  It made the drive to the restaurant a time of “trying to get one’s shit together” rather than a time to just relax.  In other words, I was trying really hard not to cry.

When we arrived, I saw my mother and stepfather sitting in the restaurant, and I froze for a second.  My stepfather hasn’t changed.  He’s hardly aged.  It’s the weirdest thing! My mother, on the other hand, has aged a lot.  In ten years, she looks to me like she’s aged twenty years.  She looked frail and small.  The girls went ahead of me, and, as soon as they saw us, they stood up.  My stepfather started tearing up right away and hugged them.  My mother told them how much they’d grown and how beautiful they looked.

Pause: I have never heard my mother tell anyone that they look beautiful.  She never gives compliments.  That startled me.  I was starting to wonder if she might say something nice to me.

Play: She came over to me and hugged me.  She then said, “Oh well…don’t you look…older.  And all grown up now.  And…older.”

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Older? Really? That’s what she has to say?

I sat with it for a minute.  Older.  Of all the things to say that’s what she went with.  What makes this funny is that I joked with friends that she was going call me old: “I’ll wager that my mother is going to say I look old or something,” and, sure enough, she did! It could have been so much worse and, in times past, usually was.  So, I moved on in the moment.

The lunch lasted a long time.  Everyone behaved.  I saw my mother as just a woman.  She was no longer this powerful perpetrator who had power over me.  She was a woman with health problems whose health was declining.  She didn’t say anything new or unusual, but she still clung to a certain narrative particularly about me:

“Aren’t you glad I so strongly encouraged you to take Latin now that you’re in medical school?”

She has always taken credit for that and brings it up whenever she can.  I just nod my head now.  It doesn’t cost me anything at this point to let her have it.  She did indeed encourage me to take Latin I.  Not four years of it.  It doesn’t matter anymore.  It’s time to let it go.

There was no drama.  There was very little jockeying for power.  She appeared to really want to try to reconnect without the past bad behavior.  We all saw a movie after lunch, and then we parted ways although she was her typical self when she told the guy filling our popcorn order to layer the butter:

“Young man, I want you to layer the butter.  Laaaaayer it! Do you understand? Really layer it.  I want it layered! Layer the butter!”

Classic mom right there.  You know what? I have never had popcorn so perfectly layered with butter.  That kid spent so much time trying to layer that popcorn with butter because he could feel my mother’s eyes boring into his back! I just stood back and watched.  She has zero assertiveness problems.  NONE.

All in all, it was a positive experience, and I didn’t feel triggered.  My daughters had positive experiences as well.  She didn’t display any past borderline behaviors, and my stepfather was, as always, himself.

I did feel very drained when I got home as did my daughters.  It was emotionally exhausting.  I have final exams this week, and I couldn’t study at all.  I could hardly process a thought.  I think the significance of the event didn’t land until yesterday.  I woke up feeling completely trashed.

I don’t know when I’ll see her again, but I know that they will want to visit.  I feel okay about that at this point.  I’ve worked really hard to achieve this state of mind.  A few years ago, I would not have imagined ever feeling that a day like that was possible not because of my mother per se but because I couldn’t imagine feeling well enough emotionally.  I honestly didn’t feel triggered by her–even by the remnant behaviors that would have triggered me in the past.  Calling me “older” would have bothered me simply because it could be perceived as a criticism of my appearance, and I used to be hypervigilant to things like that.  My mother’s demands upon the guy at the movie theatre would have triggered me in the past because that’s how she was towards me all the time.  I would have identified with him too much.  Her mentioning Latin class for the millionth time would have triggered me because my mother overly identified with my accomplishments always taking credit for everything I did.  It was as if she were me, and I would have felt diminished and engulfed by her.

But now? It all felt irrelevant.  I told my friends that she called me “older”, and we all laughed about it–a lot! My boyfriend didn’t hold back either.  People filled in that gap for me so that what she said wouldn’t find a place in me.  I don’t need my mother’s approval or emotional support, and most of the trauma associated with her has healed.  It is very possible to achieve that given time and effort–as much time as you need.  I’ve needed over a decade.

So, if you find yourself estranged from a parent and harbor even a flicker of hope that perhaps you will one day see them again under better emotional circumstances, don’t give up that hope.  It’s possible.  I don’t say this with a Pollyanna-esque attitude.  I am in no way BFFs with my mother.  It was one lunch, and it went well.  That may be all that we ever achieve.  Quarterly lunches if that.  I may not see her for another year, but I feel very good that I did see her.  It feels like an accomplishment.

I wonder if that’s because I’m older…

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Becoming Strong

Today is a momentous day.  I see my mother at noon today for the first time in almost ten years.  At least I think it’s ten years.

I have some long-time readers who will know that this is a big deal.  I have many readers who aren’t familiar with this situation.  To quickly recap, my mother has Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and clinical depression.  I have always had great compassion for her.  I spent most of my life feeling responsible for her well-being to the point of parentification, and, due to her inordinate fear of abandonment and simultaneous fear of engulfment, my mother exploited my natural people pleasing disposition to an abusive degree.

I was a non-entity growing up.  I was only allowed the personality, will, and opinions that she permitted me to have.  I was all at once The Good Child, Bad Child, and Scapegoat*.  My role changed according to her momentary whims.  I have written extensively about BPD on my blog, and I fear repeating myself.  I also don’t want to stigmatize the diagnosis as it’s already a charged one pregnant with assumptions and implications.

What I want to discuss is achieving a reality in which one could see a formerly close family member who was also a perpetrator of profound abuse.  How is something like that possible? There is a reason BPD gets a bad rap.  While the disorder can express itself in various ways, when it expresses itself through manifestations of talionic rage bystanders are in danger.  Emotional dysregulation is a hallmark of BPD, and this emotional turmoil manifests in myriad ways to loved ones.  Children are the most vulnerable to subsequent trauma.  So, how does one move from a post-traumatic state to a confident state of mind? Or, at least, confident enough for a meet-and-greet? That is a valid question.

A few friends are not thrilled that I’m meeting with my mother.  They know the stories of her past behavior.  They have witnessed her fight every boundary I put up.    For those of you with a close family member carrying a BPD diagnosis, you’ll be able to read between the lines here.  For readers who are not familiar with anything I’m attempting to gently imply, I’d recommend watching “Mommy Dearest” if you are at all curious.  Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of Joan Crawford is spot on in terms of representing a woman with BPD, *Queen/Witch subtype.  My mother is a *Queen/Witch, and my mother behaved a lot like Joan Crawford in this film.

So, what have I been doing for the past ten years then that helped me heal?

I made a career out of going to therapy.  While my father was abusive in his own right, my mother’s abuse proved to be the most psychologically pervasive and damaging.  She was in my head.  I used to have crippling social anxiety because I could almost hear her voice in my head criticizing me largely because my mother openly ridiculed me publicly by critiquing my appearance throughout my adolescence.  My hair, my face, my teeth, my body, and general appearance were all in her crosshairs, and she looked gleeful as she crushed me.  It was as if she had to humiliate me in order to feel good.  She was a bully.  So, I spent years dealing with everything that she did including her rages which caused her to act out extreme physical violence against other people.  Her public sadism is actually what I’m most anxious about today.

I practiced being assertive.  This is still very difficult for me.  I was not permitted to say no or have a differing opinion with either of my parents.  I recall saying no to my mother only one time.  She slapped me across the face so hard that my head snapped back.  My father was a Green Beret and Army sniper in Vietnam.  You just didn’t say no to him.  Ever.  I grew up very afraid of authority, but, at the same time, my natural personality is assertive and a bit contrary.  I will stand up for myself and other people.  So, part of the recovery process has been looking for opportunities to be assertive even if it’s only returning coffee drinks that have been made improperly–something that makes me sweat.

I stopped being friends with people who were exploitative and took advantage of my nature.  What do I mean by that? People who are naturally kind are easy to exploit because we will absorb relational inequities believing that somehow our personal sacrifices will help the other person.  Believe me, they won’t.  We will build the bridge to get to the other person in the relationship because of an empathetic nature.  It is, however, worth nothing that women  have a tendency to do this more than men due to social gender biases as noted in this study– A study by the Harvard Business Review(link is external) showed that only 7 % of female MBA graduates attempted to negotiate their salary with their new employers while 57% negotiated.

“I was raised to be an educated, polite, and respectful girl. You might have been, too. I was taught to think of others and their well-being. I consciously made an effort to treat others how I wanted to be treated. In short, I was always trying to be a good girl.” (Are You a Good Girl?)

I was definitely raised like this.  It wasn’t a choice.  It was a necessity.  For survival.  There are men who were raised like this as well, and I don’t want to discount that.  I have met men who struggle with something like The Dutiful Son.  They, too, must be educated, polite, and respectful always thinking of others and their well-being, willing to sacrifice themselves and their interests for the benefit of their family.  The “Good Girl” phenomenon isn’t isolated to women.  This spans the gender gap.

I also thought that this was the way of the world:

“I naively thought this was the way everybody was raised. I assumed everyone would go out of their way to treat each other well. I thought we were all living in a world where we respected each other and each other’s choices. I thought being considerate towards others would mean others would be equally considerate towards me. Turns out, I was wrong.” (Are You a Good Girl?)

I re-examined that assumption because I discovered in the past ten years that many people are not interested in personal development, bettering the world, or even being kind.  There is a lot of brokenness in the world, and needs often drive behaviors far more than intention:

“…there have been plenty of people who saw my being polite as an opportunity to test my boundaries. There have been many who saw my being kind as a sign to trample all over me. Apparently, when you’re seen as a good girl, people think they can get away with anything, because they know you’ll continue to behave like a mature, respectful adult regardless of what’s thrown in your face.

Worst of all, I found myself getting sucked into the role more and more. I tried so hard to please everybody around me. I checked in with people to make sure they were OK with the life choices I was making. I said yes to things I would never dream of doing on my own. I became an obsessive perfectionist, especially when it came to how I presented myself and what I did. Best of all, I pretended to enjoy all of this and did it with a smile on my face. Sometimes I was so deep in it that I started to mistakenly believe I did. It was terrifying and exhausting, all at once.” (Are You a Good Girl?)

Does this ring true for anyone? It’s an interesting description, isn’t it? Living a life without personal boundaries.  And, it’s all too easy to do that when you come from a family wherein you were not permitted to have any.  I think that building a life with appropriate boundaries, starting at the identity level and moving outward like rings on a tree, is the most important thing you can do for yourself and your relationships when you come from an abusive family of origin.  After that, learning how to enforce them in the context of interacting with people particularly with people who will challenge them comes next.

What does that look like? Life coach Susanna Halonen lists concrete actions to take that will go to building and reinforcing personal boundaries:

1. Ask for what you want and deserve.

Want to take on a new project at work? Ask for it. Want a raise or a bonus? Justify it to your boss. Want better treatment from your inconsiderate friend? Tell them.

2. Say no.

People will always ask for help. You probably do, too, as do I. There is nothing wrong with that, and nothing wrong with helping. Unless you’re exhausted. Wiped. And burned-out. You can’t say yes to everything, and you can’t help everyone. You have to put yourself, your health, and your well-being first and foremost. If you don’t, there will be nothing left of you, and then you will be able to help no one.

3. Speak up.

If somebody disrespects you, don’t ignore it. If somebody is being rude, point it out to them. If somebody tries to change you, tell them you’re happy with who you are. If you don’t speak up, nobody will hear you. If you don’t put boundaries up, people will keep pushing them. Be brave, be bold, and be loud.

4. Stand your ground.

There is nothing wrong with living your life according to your values. There is nothing wrong with making the life choices that are right for you. There is nothing wrong with you. Believe that — and stand tall with it. People often try to influence your life trajectory or give clear opinions on what they think you should do, especially if you’re a good girl. Don’t let them sway you. Thank them for their input, and tell them that you have made your decision based on what you think and feel is right.

5. Treat others how you’d like to be treated.

Transforming from a good girl to a strong girl doesn’t mean you start being rude. You will continue to be polite, considerate, and respectful — but you will no longer do so at your expense. (Are You a Good Girl?)

My final thoughts on this might be that personal development is a lifelong process as is healing.  Some things stick around in our minds.  We do not forget them, and I’ve concluded that we should not forget certain things.  It is important to remember the profundity of our past experiences so that we always know our own strength.  Recovery and healing are so much harder than many people understand and yet here we stand.  So, we cannot forget.  You are resilient today because you were once hurt then.  And that is ultimately why I can see my mother today.  I withstood the worst that she was capable of, and none of it got the best of me.  I’m still me.  There is no power in that place anymore.  That is why I remember.  Your former battlegrounds and fields of defeat can become the place where you ultimately forge your greatest victories.  The places where you overcome, shake the dust off your feet, and walk away.

May you forge new victories as you keep going.

Further Reading:

Annual Rituals

We celebrated Passover last night with the customary Seder–the ceremonial dinner for the first night or first two nights of Passover.  My house is usually the gathering place.  It is a big job.  Traditionally, the preparation that goes into preparing one’s home, kitchen, dishes, and even inner self for Passover is daunting.  In many observant homes, there is separate dishware that must be used during Passover.  One’s house must be cleaned thoroughly (“kashered”) in order to rid the house of “chametz”, or any kind of leavened bread or leavening.  All uneaten and unopened leavened food products must be donated while opened and partially eaten leavened food products must be disposed of.  The kitchen must be thoroughly cleaned, and there are detailed instructions on how to do this.  I learned just last week that the Israeli army just replaces all their metal kitchen shelving with Passover shelving.  When Passover is over, out comes the non-festival shelving.

I have kashered my house a few times.  The result? My house was clean.  It felt clean, but I was exhausted.  It helped me, however, experience the spectrum of Jewish observance.  Today, I can’t be that observant although there is something about going through all your kitchen shelves and drawers and thoroughly cleaning them that scratches a particular itch. It cannot be about what is “good enough” though.  It is about preparing my mind and heart for what this particular Seder will speak forth.  What does that mean?

Every year, the Seder is different.  For those of you who are still mystified by what I’m saying when I say “seder”, the Seder is essentially a meal directed by a liturgical ritual.   The word “seder” itself means “order”, and we follow the order of this customary Passover meal from a text called the Haggadah.

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Every guest at a Seder usually gets a Haggadah from which to read.

It is the same order every year because the Haggadah tells the same story–the story of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt and God’s deliverance of the Jews from slavery.  I like a very meaningful, thoughtful Seder because one of the key elements of the Seder is to read this story as if it were happening to you.  In fact, the Haggadah that we used stated: “In each generation, everyone must think of himself or herself as having personally left Egypt.”  The texts are supposed to be read as if you are living them out.  This is why they remain relevant.  What could be analogous to your life experience in the present? Who are you in the text? Who is your personal Pharaoh? Are you experiencing a metaphorical plague? Do you feel enslaved to something and require help or intervention? Do you feel hopeless?  As our Haggadah said, “Our Seder goal is to relate personally to the Passover story.”

I remember going to a Seder at synagogue a few months before my marriage ended.  I felt on edge, scared, and almost hopelessly uncertain about my future.  My oldest daughter was about to graduate from high school, and I had three other daughters to think about.  I needed surgery for an injury I sustained from my now ex-husband, and I had no idea how I was going to keep going forward.  What did that Seder speak forth at that time? I looked around the table I was sitting at and saw people around me who would help me.  I saw a community.  I slowly began to realize that I would not leave “slavery” alone.  I would go out with a group.  I could try, and I did.  Only two months later.  My life, three years later, has changed dramatically–for the better.

What did last night’s Seder speak forth? At the end of the Haggadah, we read this:

“Redemption requires our participation.  The Midrash says that God did not split the sea until one person, Nachson Ben Aminadav, took the first step into the water.  If we take the first step, God will help us the rest of the way.” (A Family Haggadah)

Whether or not people believe in God’s intervention (or even a Divine) need not detract from the greater meaning of the experience.  There are Jews who do not believe that God intervenes into the affairs of mankind.  What I want to emphasize here is that action is required in order to obtain any sort of freedom from that which creates personal inertia and bondage.  It can be almost terrifying to take first steps particularly when a big life choice is at hand.  Divorce? Marriage? Career change? A confrontation that might drastically change a relationship? Moving to another part of the world? Going to therapy for the first time? Choosing colleges? Dating again after a long-term relationship? You name it.  If it feels daunting and freezes you up in your life, then you’ve got a personal Egypt.  In my experience, taking first steps often creates momentum and opens doors.  I am experiencing this phenomenon right now in my life, but so often we don’t experience a fulfilling or meaningful life because we are stuck.  We feel paralyzed or too fearful to take a first step.  Or, we don’t know what the first step even is.

Engaging in the annual Seder ritual can prepare our hearts and minds for self-examination.  If we have a relationship with God, then the Seder sets aside time for conversations about very specific situations in which we can listen to what God might say to us about our very personal Exodus story.  If we are not theists, the Seder is still of value because the ritual itself provides time to reflect, look back, and then look forward.  Because the Seder is an annual celebration, we experience an opportunity to track the trajectory of our lives, and this is what I find so interesting.  I can look back a few years ago and recall what I took from that particular Seder–what I internalized as a much needed truth and encouragement.  Yesterday, I contemplated where I had been and where I was going in the context of my present circumstances.  I hope everyone who attended our Seder was able to enjoy some contemplation even though a Seder at our house is a little more like a festival celebration at the Goldbergs.

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We are a house full of women who are a little too down to clown most of the time. 

We try to be solemn and honor the sacred, but, in the end, it just ends up like that.  My daughter’s boyfriend joined us.  One man in a room full of loud, opinionated women.  He said very little.  I’ll crochet him a Pokemon yarmulke for next year.  He’ll fit right in.

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Making time–even if it is once a year–to contemplate your path and examine your state of freedom is a part of the Seder experience.  You do not have to be Jewish to make this idea a part of your life.  It is rewarding, useful, mindful, and helpful in terms of crafting a life that not only fulfills you but contributes to the betterment of the world around you.

It is another way to enjoy life so that you can keep going.

Being Julius Caesar

Did everyone make it through the Ides of March intact? When I was in high school, I was the only student in the history of my school to study Latin 3 or 4.  Nowadays, schools would delete the offering, but I guess the school administration just forgot about the classes.  I signed up for it and was promptly put in the corner of the Latin 2 class.  There was no curriculum to speak of forcing Ms. Jennings, my Latin teacher, to make it up.  She decided that translation was the way to go.  So, for two years I translated Ovid, Catullus, Cicero, and, my nemesis, Virgil–author of The Aeneid.  I was that kid who sat in the back of the classroom and talked to no one.

In the middle of all this classical, academic conviviality (I do not include Virgil here), we Latin students were forced to re-enact ancient Roman practices from time to time.  During December, for example, we had to run around the halls yelling, “Io Saturnalia!”  You can imagine that this might have caused a ruckus.  Ms. Jennings liked the juxtaposition of ancient life and modern, and she really liked to insert ancient traditions into our modern ones.  I won’t even discuss what she did with Easter.  But, the Ides of March was like giving her center stage.  The Ides of March was a date on the ancient Roman calendar that corresponded to March 15th.  In the ancient Roman imagination, the Ides of March was roughly equivocal to the American April 15th in terms of emotional weight.  You know, tax day.  Except to the Romans, March 15th was the day that you must settle your debts.  It bears a similar weight, doesn’t it? On April 15th, all Americans must settle their debts with Uncle Sam.  The Ides of March then became the perfect day to assassinate Julius Caesar in the Senate.  Sixty senators were seeing to it that Caesar settled his debts with Rome.

Every March 15th, the entirety of the Latin classes had to run around the school pretending to be the sixty senators conspiring to find and assassinate Julius Caesar.  No one wanted to be Julius Caesar.  Where was the fun in being murdered by a pack of overzealous high schoolers while muttering, “Et tu, Brute?” during feigned death throes?  I, of course, had to be Caesar.  I didn’t exactly participate.  I tried to evade capture.  I was scolded by Ms. Jennings for eluding the assassination: “The Ides of March was not an assassination attempt! Now, go out into the halls and die gloriously!” It felt personal.  Being a placeholder for Julius Caesar.  I didn’t want to be assassinated particularly by a bunch of underclassmen who were still figuring out how to conjugate sum (I was a total Latin snob in high school I admit with shame).  Alas, I had to die, and I resented it.  I resented it because the two people playing Brutus and Cassius, the assassins, lorded it over me for weeks in typical teenage fashion.  Their account of how they found me, how I died, and their ultimate victory over high school Rome became bigger, badder, and more ridiculous with each taunt and retelling.

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This is exactly how I felt.

I’m annoyed even now as I retell this story.  What’s even funnier is that when I am presently forced to participate in group activities, I immediately remember being Julius Caesar.  I remember how much I hated it.  I remember how it felt to be stalked in the halls.  I remember how embarrassed I felt to have to wear those ridiculous togas made of bedsheets (yes, we had to do that) to every class.  I went to an urban Texan high school! No one lets you live that down! I didn’t sign up for that nonsense, but we were graded on our participation; and I was Julius Caesar destined to die on the Ides of March–in the hallways during passing time. O the mockery!

Why do we do this? Remember the past when we experience life now or even try to plan an upcoming event? What does a past event like the Ides of March Latin Class Extravaganza have to do with my future participation in a group presentation on ovarian cancer? This has something to do with it:

“Professor of Psychological and Brain Science Kathleen McDermott, of Washington University, cites results of brain scans demonstrating that when subjects imagine potential future events it is the memory processing centers in the brain that light up.

Further, subjects with amnesia are unable to imagine the future. We have to look back in order to look forward. Harvard psychologist Daniel Schacter asserts: Memory is set up to use the past to imagine the future.” (Re-story Your Life)

I love this explanation.  When we plan, imagine, and attempt to engage in anything, our brain relies on past events and experiences to support us in terms of expectations and potential futures in order to, in a way, help us erase uncertainties.  Humans don’t do well with uncertainty.  So, our brains, whether we know it or not, do a lot of the heavy lifting for us by connecting past stories together to weave a narrative flow that will help us predict an outcome.

But, what if we don’t have good stories? Or, in a specific case, what if I’ve only had bad experiences with group projects, and I’m now being assigned a group project? What do you suppose my new narrative will be? What feelings will become intertwined within the potential futures my brain brings forth? Realistically, I know that I will not literally be assassinated, but the entire high school endeavor was one of awkward disempowerment and feeling singled-out.  That defines “high school” for many people.  I know people who still struggle with the emotional impact of their high school experiences due to the narrative mark it left upon them.  If their past narratives are never re-examined, then how do you suppose they approach new life experiences when their past narrative identity is still partially rooted in such negative events? If I never re-examined my Julius Caesar experience, would you want to partner with me in a group? For real, would you? I wouldn’t.

This idea is applicable to so many life experiences.  One single event can change our narrative–the story we tell ourselves about ourselves and our place in the world, in our personal relationships, and even our relationship with ourselves.

So, how do we incorporate this idea and make it work for us?

“Our stories are always shifting, moving and incorporating this moment and the next possible moment. Our stories are fluid.

Psychologist and storytelling researcher Dan McAdams explains that our stories make up our narrative identity. But we don’t live one story or one identity. Instead, this narrative of self is ongoing, always integrating the latest information and developing into something new.

McAdams:

The stories we construct to make sense of our lives are fundamentally about our struggle to reconcile who we imagine we were, are, and might be in our heads and bodies with who we were, are, and might be in the social contexts of family, community, the workplaceethnicityreligiongender, social class, and culture writ large.

So how exactly do we take on the challenge of rewriting our story? We can start by seeing ourselves “in the middle.”

Like all good plots, the middle of our story includes themes that form a coherent narrative. But the unsettling secret is that each of us is both the protagonist and the narrator of a story in which we have no idea what will happen next.” (Re-story Your Life)

There it is again.  That dreaded uncertainty.  What is going to happen to us next? Recall the research.  We can only imagine what will happen to us next by relying on our past memories–that’s the part of your brain being used when you imagine your future.  So, for crying out loud, what then?

I’m going to rely on Willy Wonka for guidance:

“You can’t get out backwards.  You have to go forward to go back.”

“For many of us, the uncertainty that comes with middle age brings an inclination to solidify the story. In the effort to control our anxiety about change, we form a kind of crust over the current. In time the crust hardens. We set the past: this is what happened, these are my regrets and these are my triumphs, no need to look back any further. What’s done is done.

Next we fix the future with our expectations and demands: this is what will happen. We expect to live without further twists or evolutions. While this may calm our anxiety of the moment, we deprive ourselves of creative involvement with our becoming.

Since plot twists are the secret to a great story, we need to get creative with ours.” (Re-story Your Life)

If you want to go back and look at what is hindering you, then you have to begin to move forward.  You can’t go back to go forward.  You have to go forward to go back.  You will only know what you are afraid of, what is paralyzing you, what your greatest struggle is, and from whence they originate when you begin to try to leave your residence.  Looking forward gives us a reason to look back–to gauge our starting point.  Looking back continually is futility because we gauge nothing except where we once were.  It provides us with no present perspective or even trajectory.  It only provides distortion.  You don’t even gain new information.  No one makes a plan with old information.

It sounds daunting, doesn’t it? But, what is left? I could remain Julius Caesar in my mind whenever I’m called upon to do a group project dragging my past into my present effectively demoting myself perpetually.  That is very un-Caesar-like.  Or, I could create a better narrative for myself in which I engage the uncertainty while also feeling certain that no one I work with will ever try to hunt me down in a high school hallway again while wearing a bedsheet toga in order to mock stab me.  This I actually can feel certain about.

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KILL JULIUS CAESAR!!!

The idea is absurd, and I deliberately chose an absurd example to better elucidate the idea.  What we so often fear will overtake us will not, or, if it could, it will not affect us in the same way because we are not the same person now developmentally, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.  We are very different people in the present than we were in the past, but we recall the past with the perspective of our past selves rather than with our more developed present perspectives.  So, while what we fear could, for the sake of argument, happen again, we would respond very differently because we are far more resilient and capable because we have lived life and matured–we have gained skills.  It is in this exercise that we discover our deficiencies.  If we find that in going forward we truly are hindered by a lack of skills or an inability to recall the past from the present due to pain or trauma, then we have new information.  From here, we can create a new plan of action and implement it.  And, this new plan of action is actually moving forward.

This is a very big idea to be sure.  I sit with it a lot.  It is, however, such a powerful idea.  We have immense say over our potential futures, and our influence comes from choosing to move forward even when it’s hard and scary.

Go forward to go back.  This is a very effective way to keep going.

Resources:

Re-Story Your Life: The ongoingness of being

Choosing the Healing Path

To bring you up to speed, one of the reasons I started this blog ages ago was to process having a relationship with my mother.  My mother has borderline personality disorder (BPD), but she also has other co-morbid disorders.  When I was growing up, my mother had sadistic tendencies.  In fact, my mother used to meet all the criteria for Sadistic Personality Disorder, excepting the last one, which was removed from the DSM before publication of the DSM-IV:

 Maladaptive patterns of motivated behaviour, usually evident for at lease several years.

 Enduring, pervasive, maladaptive patterns of behaviour which are usually recognised before or during adolescence.

 It is long-standing and its onset can be traced to adolescence or early adulthood, but is not due to drugs (of abuse or medication) or to a medical condition eg head injury.

 The behaviour pattern is inflexible across all personal and social situations and significantly impairs their social or occupational functioning.

 Has used physical cruelty or violence for the purpose of establishing dominance in a relationship (not merely to achieve some noninterpersonal goal, such as striking someone in order to rob him or her).

 Humiliates or demeans people in the presence of others,

 Has treated or disciplined someone under his or her control unusually harshly, e.g., a child, student, prisoner, or patient,

 Is amused by, or takes pleasure in, the psychological or physical suffering of others (including animals),

 Has lied for the purpose of harming or inflicting pain on others (not merely to achieve some other goal)

 Gets other people to do what her or she wants by frightening them (through intimidation or even terror),

 Restricts the autonomy of people with whom he or she has a close relationship, e.g., will not let spouse leave the house unaccompanied or permit teen-age daughter to attend social functions.

 is fascinated by violence, weapons, martial arts, injury, or torture

This additional disordered component of her personality, I suspect, made her that much more impossible to live with.  What I have always asked, however, is: Are the above pervasive patterns of behavior motived by sadism or fear? Some of the behaviors listed above, aside from the last one, are not uncommon in BPD but are also not motivated by sadism but rather a crippling fear and a need to control.  With my mother, it was both.  It depended upon which persona was calling the shots in the moment.  Was her Witch persona dominating her mood, or was her Queen persona at the forefront? If you could determine that, then you would know the motivation and what you were in for.

She refused treatment for most of my life, and, when she was forced into treatment after a suicide attempt, she masterfully played the part of a depressed woman deceiving her treating psychiatrist, thusly, never receiving the correct diagnosis or treatment.  I have described knowing her as living under a Reign of Terror.  It is strange in retrospect to feel love for someone who is so dangerous and malicious.  In her worst rages, she could become homicidal.  To everyone else, however, she was charming, lovely, and the life of the party.  No one in my family believes me when I try to convey just how bad it really was behind closed doors.  They just hound me and ask, “How is your mom? Why don’t you just reconcile? Forgive her.”  If only it were that easy…

So, it is no surprise then that my mother writes me a letter annually.  I don’t speak to her anymore, and I won’t let her see my children.  That was over ten years ago.  It’s funny how something starts.  She got angry at me because I made a suggestion about her business.  She decided not to speak to me.  That was her M.O.  Typically, when my mother would run off to her room to sulk and freeze me out, I would seek her out and kowtow.  The kowtowing was very important.  She had to see a certain kind of degradation to accept me again.  If I didn’t do this, I would be subjected to days of a slow-burning rage that would eventually explode.  Then, I would have to kowtow and take responsibility for her feelings anyway.  This time, however, I didn’t call her.  I went against a lifetime of programming and refused to act out that toxic script.  I thought perhaps that she would eventually call me.  I am her daughter after all.

She never did.  For years.  In all of that I finally saw the reality of our relational dynamics.  I was the engine of our relationship, and I also saw how co-dependent it was.  I was a classic enabler mostly because I was terrified of my mother.  I would do anything to avoid rousing her rage.  Anything.  I lacked any distress tolerance for it.  I still struggle with tolerating displays of anger.  My first response is to run away as fast as I can.

My mother waited for something like 4 years to call me, and when I asked her why she waited so long, she said, “I got angry.  I’m not now.  So, how are you? I want to visit.”  Four years.  I was so angry at her nonchalant attitude and entitlement.  I told her to go to a therapist and figure out why what she was currently doing was wrong.  I then ended the conversation.  Since that phone call, the letters have been arriving.  Usually in December.  Some of them are twisted and strange.  Some of them blame me for her misery.  Some of them plead with me.  The 2017 Letter was different.

This letter was either written by another person, or she’s been in therapy.  She acknowledged that she has engaged in abusive behavior.  She acknowledged that she put me in harm’s way.  She acknowledged that I would live with the effects of her abuse for the rest of my life.  She apologized.  My mother doesn’t say things like this.  I was shocked.  She asked if we could talk.  I thought about it for six weeks.

I decided to send her my email and cell number.  She has not reached out except to wish me a pleasant New Year.  After years of letters begging to see me, beseeching me, she is silent when an open door is presented to her.  I suspect that she is waiting for me to call her–as always.  Finding that reality is the same makes me sigh.

I will not call her, and my choosing not to call her isn’t because I’m stubborn.  It is because it is not my responsibility to make amends.  It is hers.  Part of the very difficult process of making amends is making those very difficult phone calls.  No one wants to do it, but that is part of the process.  Were I still enabling her, I would spare her the suffering and make the call.  But, I see now that this very particular kind of anxiety and suffering associated with making amends are exactly what matures people.  It is a consequence of their choices, and people have to be very familiar with the consequential experience.

I don’t feel responsible for my mother’s emotional state anymore.  I have felt released from that relationship for years, and I don’t expect anything from her.  I don’t expect her to come through for me, be better than she is, or even do an ethical or moral thing.  I expect her to still engage in needs-driven behaviors meaning that if doing something meets her needs, then she will choose that over doing something to meet the needs of another person.  And that need could be the off-loading of her rage or relying on everyone else around her for emotional regulation.  It could be almost anything really.

I don’t feel angry towards her anymore.  I feel at ease.  I do, however, feel disappointed.  So much was possible and went unrealized.

My description of my mother is not meant to be representative of BPD.  She is herself.  My experience with her is unique unto itself.  So many people grew up with abusive parents and have either walked away or are still trying to figure out how to navigate those relationships while also attempting to find their own peace and healing.  What I can say is that it is possible to heal and experience peace after an abusive childhood.  It won’t just happen though, and time doesn’t heal you.

You heal you.  Your active engagement in a startlingly truthful process is what heals.  Seeking it out ruthlessly and fearlessly no matter what it costs you.  Staying willing.  Pushing through.  Partnering with people who will tell you the truth about you and how you live and do relationships.  Finding a community of people who model healthy interpersonal habits and love.  This is what heals you.  And, getting rid of the relationships that are slowly (or quickly) killing you.  You can’t choose life and death at the same time and expect to thrive in your life.  Death will win out every time because we continually operate at a deficit and never move forward.  That’s the definition of survival.  That isn’t how one wants to live if the goals are healing and expanding.

That is something I have learned along the way.  As always, keep going, and don’t forget to choose life as you do.