Thursday, February 23, 2017

Reflections on Eleven

When I was eleven years old, my mother had a discussion with our next door neighbor about me, in front of me that I remember pretty well. The neighbor was asking how old I was and they both agreed that eleven was just about the perfect age. My mother revealed that I still played with barbie dolls (I was mortified and considered myself too old for dolls even though my bff and I had so much fun with them, it was our little secret we never told) and both women went on to wax poetic about the age of eleven, how much they had enjoyed it, how sweet they had been, how much they loved spending time with their mothers and how simple things were before the complications of teenage angst came along.
I have never forgotten this conversation and it had a profound effect of me as a young girl. I haughtily did not consider eleven to be a perfect age. I was frustrated and wanted to do things and be more grown and felt as if my brain was always more adult and mature than my body and no one took me seriously because I was only eleven.
I had listened intently to every word those women had said, though I don't think it was anywhere near a very important conversation or that it had reached the level of something significant but nevertheless had revealed something very important about my mother and though I chastised her soundly when we got inside for embarrassing me by telling the neighbor I played with dolls, for some reason it always stayed with me.
When each of my daughters reached the age of eleven, I have recalled this conversation and replayed it in my head. I can remember tossing around the seedballs in my back yard while pretending not to be paying attention so that I could listen longer. Time has convinced me that my mother was right in ways I could not understand that day. The age of eleven might be perfect for mothers and daughters for their relationship is more pure than it will be ever again. It is the last time we will look at our mothers before the cloud of hormones overtake us and rush us into a resistance. It is the time before everything changes in that relationship when we both want to be with one another. it is the time before I didn't have to see my mother as a woman, not understanding womanhood and being sure she could still do anything because she was more than human.
Isabella is my last daughter and though that conversation will be with me forever, this is the last time I will look into the familiar eyes of the eleven year old that is a small representation of the me that I used to be, and the girl that my mother was, and the barest glimpse of my grandmother and her mother. In her eyes, I feel that precious purity of what was and hope for what will be.

Friday, January 27, 2017

The De-Escalation Choice

Last night I was driving uber at my usual time and hanging out near the bars and college. Around 3 am I picked up a solo passenger. He said "Can you wait one extra minute while I get some water?" I said "Sure"

I'm going to call him Floyd.
Floyd returns with a cup of water and gets in the front seat. This is pretty common for single riders so I won't say I over worried about it.
He asks me how I am doing, then he offers me some of his water. I thought this was kind of weird but I say no thank you and keep driving. It's kind of a regular, very usual conversation about the work he does and who he is and all that until suddenly, Floyd says.
"Hey, why don't you come over and smoke some pot with me?"
This is not really the first time I have had this offer. It's usually a little more tentative or respectful. And it's pretty easy to turn down. One time a group of bachelorettes wanted me to eat breakfast with them at Eat Rite diner and I truly thought about it because they were a lot of fun.
I figure he's drunk and lonely, so I just say "That's awfully kind of you, but I have to drive the rest of the night and I can't do that high."
Floyd then starts attempting to convince me.
I say "Thanks, that's really nice of you, but I'm going to say no." But honestly, I am out and out lying at this point because his offer isn't nice or kind. It's rude and threatening.
And Floyd isn't having that "no" word.
He takes out some money (a ten or a twenty, I think, I didn't look) and places it on my dashboard.
"There, I've paid for your next ride, you can come in, just take one hit and leave. I just want to smoke with you."
And now I am realizing he thinks he can buy me.
Like a hooker? I'm truly annoyed now. But I bring out Bartender Vanessa who knows how to make a cranky customer calm down. I start the de-escalation process by just letting him talk and allowing him to think for the rest of the ride that he is getting his way.
I start wondering what this scenario looks like as he tries to shame me into going inside with him. I just stop saying no for the rest of the ride because I have already said it at least three times.
I think about all the times this has happened to me before. I start going back in my head to the incidents of times I said no when a man has not respected me.
I've come a long way with the word no.
When I was a teenager, this kind of pressure was extremely difficult for me and I ended up in some situations that were extremely uncomfortable. When I was fourteen, I was nearly date raped by another fourteen year old. He escalated quickly. That is another story but I feel as if it might have been my first experience with not just lack of consent but repeatedly saying the word no and some asshole just not hearing a word you say.
I realize I have two choices on how to deal with this.
The teenage Vanessa was meek and quiet and tried to "nice" her way out of things. It always ended up making me feel weak. The Vanessa in her twenties started to feel her feminist power. She learned to say to the gropey guy in the bar "Get your hands off me." and walk away. She has real chutzpah! She gets it. She can say no to any inappropriate stranger. But she is terrible saying it to her friends. She lets them walk all over her sometimes. Even worse, this Vanessa ends up in some brutally abusive relationships with very pushy men. I think about all the ways I have had to say no in my life and every time I say it, it comes with guilt.
Why is that? Why do I feel shitty for saying no to a clearly inconsiderate person who has no respect for me or my feelings? I have no idea.
Is it the empath in me that knows I am wounding his ego and can just feel all the insecurity oozing out of him. He had struck out at the bar, was feeling all those feelings that were coming at me and now this uber driver was telling him no. How dare she.
I don't want to feel all that. He is now saying to me "When is the last time you did something like this? You need to do this."
And I am quietly super annoyed now, but I keep that smile on my face and even throw a laugh in there. Does he really think I live some dowdy, boring life and I need HIM to provide me with some pot smoking couch sex? Yes, he does. He doesn't know me at all. He hasn't bothered to ask one thing about me. I am the four am chick he thinks he knows is as desperate as him. Except I am not. And in the light of the car, I can feel his loud, sweaty, needy feelings.
But I am better at no, now. I can do this. But most of all, I have to do this. I have to get him to get out of my car and get myself out of this potentially dangerous situation. I start to review my self defense techniques. I take a deep breath as I pull up in front of his place. The money is still sitting on the dashboard. I'm not taking it. I realize I have two choices about how to say no to him. There is the firm, aggressive "Get the fuck out of my car." that I really, with every fiber of my being want to say. I want to do that. I am a strong woman and I have been so disrespected in the last five minutes that I want to make a super strong statement about "No means no." But I am not at the bar and this is not a public place. And I am more vulnerable in this place.
I might need my anger next. I may need to get scary and crazy in a minute.
He starts off with "Okay, let's go."
I decide to go with firm, business like Vanessa. She de-escalates without judgment. She thanks people kindly for the interest. She says "fuck you" inside her head while telling him to "have a nice day." and smiling.
I said "Look, Floyd, like I said, I appreciate the offer, But no."
I think about pulling the husband card but I hate that. It takes away so much of my power as a female to say something like "my husband/boyfriend is waiting for me/ he'll be here any minute" but don't think I won't use it or have any less respect for women who do use it. It's sitting in my back pocket.
My arsenal of how to say no is swimming in my head. I am ready.
At this point, I have chosen to use deescalation and it is making me feel like a shitty, weak, bad feminist. Just tell him NO MEANS NO. Show him your power! Using the words "I appreciate the offer" is just the worst. I want to choke on those words. Fuck those words. Get out of my car, you inconsiderate piece of shit, trying to shame me, trying to coerce me, refusing to hear any of the words I say. But I fight the shame down. Try this first, I tell myself.
And ladies, I say this to you--- if he won't hear the word NO from you in this polite circumstance, he isn't going to respect you later at any point.
So Floyd says "I guess you think that something is going to happen and I can see the reasons that you might not want to do this."
Code, I think he might be setting me up for an assault of some kind.
Yes, Floyd, I do think this. And you know I think this. And I think this because this is exactly the scenario in which it often takes place. And your platitudes of trust me mean nothing to me. Because I have been in this situation a thousand times before. And I'm not flattered and I don't think you find me attractive and I don't give a shit about your feelings right now because you haven't given mine a single thought.
Yes, Floyd, I think about the other girl who might have gone into your apartment and you served her some drugged drink and she woke up hours later, sore on the floor with her pants around her knees. I think this. It may not be true or accurate, Floyd. You might believe you are charming enough on your own but I know one thing about you at this point. No means nothing to you, so I expect more of that. I expect if I go into your place and smoke one hit of a joint with you, and I say "I have to leave" because this is what we agreed to. One hit. I expect that you will not honor that by saying "see you later" Instead, I expect that this one interaction leads to more of "no thank you" and you not hearing that little word a hundred more times. Because I know this one thing about you. Floyd, you haven't been nice about me saying no. In fact you have been coercive and brutish. Every tactic in your arsenal is to shame.
So I don't respond to him trying to reassure me that I'm not going to get assaulted because - whatever dude, it's not like you're going to be honest with planning a sexual assault!
And maybe you are just a harmless dickhead but guess what-- I'm not willing to take that chance.
So- I'm sitting in the car trying the de-escalation tactic first.
Floyd takes the money slowly off the dashboard. "Really?" he says, dripping sarcasm.
As if I give a shit about that money.
"Yes, Really." I respond.
He holds the money above his wallet and repeats "REALLY?"
And I say "have a nice night"
And you all know what I meant by that.
He puts the money away.
Then, I breathe a little sigh of relief as he gets out of the car without any more fight. He thinks he has humiliated me by taking away the money. I laugh a little on the inside as I drive away.
Now, I realize that there are some of you that are going to tell me "you need to stop doing what you're doing, you are going to end up in a worse situation next time, it's dangerous."
And I am going to tell you something-- just by living your life, anything could happen to you. Being out at night does not mean you will get raped or that you are at a higher risk for rape. I realize that some of you will never be convinced by this but shit can happen to you anywhere. I could just as easily have been able to de-escalate that situation as it could have spun out of control. I think about this all the time because I have to. And in spite of all the preparation and thought, this may not save me.
I made a choice to go with de-escalation. I often make this choice. I'm trying to feel good about it but it still makes me feel sometimes as if it's the weak thing to do. I want to say to men, stop asking me to make that choice, to have to decide between my dignity and my safety and just respect the word no. Because it all comes down to that and if that would happen. If every single person would just do that, I wouldn't ever have to be in that position because my consent, whether it is consent to come inside your house or consent to kiss you or consent for anything. I should not have to fight for the right to be treated with common respect. This was not a date. It was a ride. Fortunately 99% of uber riders understand that. In more than 100 rides, this has not happened. It is not common. It's literally more common that this happens to me when I am out in socializing that some guy just randomly disrespects me.
I'm not going to lie about it scaring me. It scares me. But I refuse to let fear of something that might happen stop me from living my life. But it gave me plenty to think about.
And the best part of what happened was that I had a plan. I had an arsenal of self defense. I had an idea of what I was going to do and how I was going to handle that situation and there is no part of knowing this kind of thing that makes that not helpful.
So, I would encourage everyone to play out that scenario, I want guys to play out that scenario, to understand what that feels like for us, too.
I encounter more levels of having my consent disrespected in a thousand small aggressions a day. And my most ugly fear in that if I don't attempt to de-escalate, I will somehow inadvertently incite your anger and this anger will kill me. Though there is not one thing I can do to make sure you don't become angry. Floyd's anger was always out of my control.
I feel soon I have to take this to the next level and look at how education is dealing with this and think about my role in it. And to those that will say to me, "how can you put yourself in that situation?" I say this to you- I did NOT put myself in that situation. Floyd put me in that situation. Let us be clear in that now and forever.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

You always remember the first time you vote

Voting. When I was growing up, it was something I was going to do when I was eighteen. That was a given. My parents always let me know how important it was to cast a vote. Society told me how special it was that we got to vote. My school taught me that it was a privilege to vote and other countries didn't have the right to vote. I grew up somewhere between cynicism and optimism about our future and our government. My father was very pessimistic and angry and always spoke very negatively about government. I often heard the sentence "Guess I'll have to hold my nose and vote for this guy." What was the point in that? Why would you vote for someone you had to hold your nose around.
I maintained my optimism in spite of this.
Growing up, I did not see a lot of women in politics right away. When I was born, it was full of white men in office and I just kind of thought-- women must not want those jobs. Not that we couldn't have those jobs but that we didn't want them. Because I was optimistic and I had a working mother who, frankly was kind of badass and I was sure that if not me, women could do whatever they wanted once they broke out of their shell.
I watched my mother push back against the patriarchy every single day. I watched it wear her down and then she would gather strength and go after it again.
Frankly, it didn't seem like politics was a job any woman would want. Talk about thankless with no reward. That was what I saw as a little girl. I wanted to do something artistic though. I did not yet understand how those women in politics were going to change what my world looked like.
As English Professors, the Liberal arts seemed about as far away from politics as it could get. And I had no concept that my mother did not have maternity leave. I had no concept that in fact, our political system was going to change every life in our country. Some for the better. Some for the worse.
No one in my house ever discussed with me WHY it was important to vote.
I wasn't interested in any of it because no one really explained to me why I should be interested in it, why it was going to make a difference in my future.
As I approached my first presidential election, I was twenty one. And suddenly when I had a voice I knew it was important. I had not wanted to vote in the smaller elections when I first turned eighteen. (I realize now I probably should have but I wanted my first ever vote to be for president) I had not even registered until the summer before the presidential election. But coming up on my first election, I did not ask the advice of either one of my parents. My mother would always say that her vote was private and she did not have to tell anyone who she was voting for. In fact, as outspoken and opinionated as both my parents were, they taught me very little about what government was. And frankly, except for some high minded and bloated ideals, school had taught me very little. I was never told- examine the issues, look for things that you care about. I was taught in a dry and boring way what government was. Look, it has three branches. The President is commander in chief. This is the song where a bill becomes a law. I was not even sure why I should care about any of that.
BUT IT IS IMPORTANT TO VOTE. (Okay, but why?) It just is!!!
Cause that is your constitutional right.
Cause...cause... no wonder people don't vote.
In history class, women getting the vote in 1920 was kind of a footnote (at an all girl school, that seems disgusting and disgraceful in retrospect, they should be ashamed of this, the section on this barely covered it)
So, who did I turn to? My friends.
I had some smart friends, some friends who did a lot of self educating and lots of reading.
I had one friend who loved to read biographies.
I was not interested in biographies. She wanted to give me the highlights of women getting the vote and I tuned her out. Because that history was dry and who cared and whatever, it didn't matter. She was going to tell me some boring shit, I thought. So, I did not learn that totally fascinating and engrossing, interesting history for several years.
In fact, I think I was frustrated that I was turned off from history by some dry ass terrible teachers. It makes a difference.
There was one friend who I was talking with a great deal during the election year. She was about five years older than me and we discussed a lot about who was running and what they stood for and it kind of opened up things for me. I listened to her, I was influenced by her, I asked her questions.
There were not a lot of people I could ask in my life.
There was no way I was talking to my dad. Politics made him angry. He was going to end up screaming about the goddamn government. Or he was going to talk until I fell asleep from boredom. The conversation would only go one way, the way he explained everything with his narcissistic one sided point of view. He was very knowledgeable but he was not going to share this wisdom in any kind of accessible way. If I asked questions I would be ridiculed or screamed at or he wouldn't be able to hear me.
Once in sixth grade, I was doing a report on the Nixon administration and he just hollered names and facts at me and I wrote things down. He ended up ripping the paper away from me and writing things down for me. God forbid I be involved in the process. Or learn anything.
I know for sure he did not treat his students like this. But he treated me like this. I never went to him for help on anything. That was the last time. But this for me was government.
I felt the pull to KNOW something, to figure it out, to understand it in some real way. I didn't want to get into the voting booth and just hit choice A or B without knowing anything about either person. I had heard some speeches, but I didn't trust that rhetoric. I was at least smart enough to know that these two candidates were presenting their best sides. I needed to know facts. I wanted to cast the most intelligent vote.

That year, I was pregnant. I was due November 2 and the following Tuesday was election day. I was late, I was overdue. I was up all night in labor. I knew I was in labor. Early labor. The kind that takes a really long time to get going. I knew I had hours to go but it was real.
So, there I was at seven am, miserable, in pain. Feeding my son breakfast and weathering through small but steady contractions.
I didn't say anything to my dad. He tends to panic and it was nowhere near time to go to the hospital. So, I kept my mouth shut. Pretty soon, my dad started pestering me, though.
"Are you going to vote?" he asked
"Yes." I responded.
"When are you going?"
"I don't know. Today." I responded, dripping with sarcasm.
"When, today? Because I would like to vote and if you're going now, I could go later. But if you're going later..."
I couldn't take it. He was going to keep talking. Meanwhile, there was another nasty contraction.
"Can I have breakfast?"
"Are you going after breakfast?"
I resisted the urge to murder him on the day I was voting for the first time. That was not the type of irony I needed in my life. I wondered briefly if I could be acquitted because I was in labor. Temporary insanity. Extreme duress. Nope. Not worth it.
"I'm going now." I announced.
I put on my comfy sweatpants and a clean sweater and maybe even some makeup. I can't remember if I put on makeup. I think I did, it seems likely. If I wasn't nine months pregnant, I might have walked up there. It was only three blocks away. But I drove. The line was not that bad. I remember expecting much worse but there were probably only about fifteen people in front of me and the whole process went pretty quickly. The entire thing took all of about twenty minutes. I punched a bunch of holes through a card and presto, I was done. I handed my card in and it was all over. Huh. That seemed like no big deal. I had hesitated over my choice in the last moment. It was so final. Was I sure I wanted to vote for this guy? Was I positive? It seemed like I didn't know enough, that I was still rather woefully ignorant of everything I needed to know. And I was right about that.
That process spurred me to know more. To understand more. To take my vote as seriously as I should.
These days I actively discuss politics and policies with my children. I don't expect my kids to vote for the same person I vote for, but I feel like they have a pretty good grasp on what is going on. They have much more information but the downside to that is that they also have much more misinformation. Satire websites that they are taken in by, opinion pieces that are slanted. Whole tv channels that only present one side of the story. And lies and more lies. It's hard to figure things out.
What means something to me now is that I finally found the story of how women got the vote. I finally became interested enough to let go of the boring history teachers and the past prejudices I had and I saw a movie called "Iron Jawed Angels". (A small reason why I know that movies are not just entertainment but they change the world) and it changed me and the way I looked at my vote.
In 1776, we declared independence and waged a war which (eventually) gave all male white citizens the right to vote. Somewhere around a hundred years later, black men got freedom and a right to vote (which people spent a lot of time surpassing and shutting down and all the rest that went with that but that is another story). And women, all women, white women and women of color had to fight and demand and be jailed, beaten, force fed, etc. Suffrage sounds like suffering to me. But if not for these women, I would have no right to vote on November 8th. And this woman running, just four years shy of one hundred years of having the right to even vote would not have the right to seek political office.

And representation in government is crucial. No matter how you feel about this election, having people from different backgrounds, people of color, different genders, different sexual orientation, these things matter. Because of the people, by the people, for the people means all of us. So the representation of all of us is important.
The hardest thing is finding people who actually care and are not just self serving fame and power whores. Because to be in government is to serve a community. To do your best for the people you represent. High minded ideals. And politics is made of lies and back room deals and unsavory things. Sometimes they mean well and the law of unintended consequences steps in and bites you hard.
But every now and then something wonderful happens. Slavery is abolished. Women get the right to vote. The Civil Rights Act. Gay people get the right to marry. Pre-existing conditions no longer matter when seeking health insurance. Every now and then some amazing piece of change happens and I marvel that it happened.
And these things happen because we voted for people who were integral to making this happen. So, yes, your vote does matter. It's a small piece of a larger world and it belongs to you and only you. Try to use it wisely with your best conscience and your highest ideal. When I walk into the voting booth, I stand on the shoulders of those women who suffered before me, who believed it would matter to me that I was represented and knew that I could change the world with one vote. I know that their battle was worthwhile, that their sacrifice for me humbles me and I honor it.
For all of you, this should be meaningful. To make your vote a part of history.

Monday, September 19, 2016

How we connect when we serve

Last night, my daughter asked me a question, kind of a simple question. She said, "Did you like being a hotel manager?" Immediately, I said "No."
Then, I gave it a little more thought.
The real answer is sometimes I liked it. Most of the time I was bored out of my skull and there were times, I outright hated it but I got to thinking about the parts I liked and the parts that made a difference and spilled over into other parts of my life.
The parts I liked were these. I like learning new things, I like feeling competent at my job. I take pride in doing things really well and the thing about being a hotel manager or a restaurant manager, a server, a bartender, all the things in the hospitality business was that I did those things really well. I excelled at those jobs and I liked doing things that I do very well. People didn't want me to quit. I was almost always offered obscene raises (relatively speaking) to stay in those jobs and keep doing them. But I couldn't stay happy. It got old, it got stale, it became the same. The challenge was mostly gone and once it wasn't a new thing I was learning, I realized I was just miserable again because I had only been distracted from the thing I was supposed to do.
But back to the parts I liked. I loved working with people. I loved meeting new people. One of my favorite things to do was to do something that made someone really, really happy. So, whether it was getting them to a hotel bed in a beautiful room where they were comfortable or serving them a warm and delicious meal or giving them a perfectly created drink that that person had been craving all day. I loved that. If someone was unhappy, I would work extra hard to find that magical thing that would create satisfaction somehow. I would move them to another room that was awesome. I would bring them a luscious piece of dessert. Sometimes, all I would do was just care enough to listen to the problem and make a safe space to communicate it.
In my job, I would create a connection and create a happiness that had not existed before. I would be a conduit to serve something greater in this world. Sure, a lot of times our interactions were brief and seemed meaningless but I knew that a smile to a weary traveler, it meant something, if even just for a moment and understanding the value of that was one of the reasons I was good at my job.
It would wear me down, though. It's really hard being that empathetic in a job like that. People will just take and take all I gave and I would be left swimming in pain sometimes.
I got the residue of their anger, their frustration, their snappish rude behavior. And often I took it home with me.
And when I would reach the point where I was numb or desensitized to everything at the job, I would often leave, both as an act of self protection or because I was no good to the public doing a half ass job.
So, why couldn't I keep it up? Well, it's exhausting and it isn't my true calling after all. I have always known this, but when my daughter asked me that question the other day, I thought about it in a way I had never really realized before.
When I make movies, direct or act in plays, write a story...I'm doing the same thing. I'm connecting to the world in a way that makes people happy. I'm using all of me and what I am good at to create good feelings in others. I am directly connecting with people in a way that makes them smile or cry or think or feel.
We used to have regulars in the restaurant and business regulars at the hotel. In the hotel, they were away from home and I was often fascinated with the way people would behave when they were far from their home life. Sometimes, the railroad guys would come and sit in the lobby and tell me their stories. I loved that.
When certain businessmen would checkout, they would ask me to take off the $50 in dirty movie charges off their bill so they could pay cash. No one needs their boss to see that on the bill, and I would do so with a poker face, all the while thinking, he didn't look the type or he looks exactly like he would be totally into that. And I would scroll past the titles, "Barely Legal" or "Hot Nurses" because you never know what someone is hiding anonymously far away from home.
And I would think to myself about how many stories there were to tell that lived inside these people, how many people were just lonely or meeting up or finally coming together after a long separation. Valentine's Day was an adventure, so many high hopes of a perfect night and there I was the quiet witness to what goes wrong and what goes right.
I realized that in many ways hospitality is another art that connects us. I still love to cook for people, to create food that makes them warm and satisfied, to serve a cold drink or a warm hot chocolate. I want to create something superior that will connect me to the world in more ways. This is how I serve humanity. I have been called to a higher calling, but in the simple ways I was taught to do this. This is why serving is worthwhile. It has taught me tolerance, patience and to manage lots of personalities. I have been taught to quietly listen to the troubles of others and try to find a way to fix a problem, and if that cannot be done, just to listen and comfort. There are times when all you have to do is just understand.
It also has shown me that people who are operating from the ego and not from the place of connection, these people are missing out on that real joy. If you're in it for the applause, the attention, the superficial- that won't last. To create and share, that is when I realized I was on track. Even the solitary writer puts pen to paper to push her thoughts out into the world. I do this to serve and to connect.
In a way, every thing I have ever done has been to serve and connect to the world, to share in a higher consciousness, to understand humanity better and when I make people happy in some way, I find extra joy. There are lots of stories out there waiting to be told, I may not have time for all of them but I am grateful to have witnessed them all.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

How the Silence changed Everything

In 2002, I finally got to do my study abroad trip that I had wanted to do for a long time. I was so excited, three whole months in London, all the theater I could handle in a big city. No car. No phone. No kids. No television. I was beyond thrilled to be doing this. My mom had just the month before purchased a flat in Central London since she worked over there so much and she was letting me stay there for the duration of my time in London. This was great. I didn't have to stay in the dorms and I didn't have to have a roommate. Part of the reason I was doing this was to experience what I had missed out on.
When you get pregnant at 17, there isn't any time to transition into adulthood. You just do it fast and you get it while crying in a corner and feeling overwhelmed in between taking care of a newborn and dealing with your parents and the rest of the world telling you that you better grow up now. Which I did. Without really even thinking about it. And I started college before my son was even a year old because I knew I had to get my shit together or just be one of those single mom statistics. One day I looked up and noticed everyone else was having a very different college experience than I was. Parties. Late night conversations of the soulful figuring things out variety. Self discovery. Epic mistakes that didn't involve you messing up your kid's life while trying to figure out your own.
I had gone from a turbulent and traumatic household with my parents to a turbulent and traumatic year of living with my drug addicted, verbally and physically abusive boyfriend and several certifiably insane roommates to getting pregnant and moving back in with my parents when I was about six months along. I brought two cats and a bunch more emotional trauma than I had left with. From one loud household to another and then back again, this was my life.
I had dropped out of college twice and after a long break, a terrible job, and many painful changes, I was back. My life now included four children of my own and a loving and stable relationship. I no longer lived with my parents and suddenly I was desperate to finish my degree. This was my third and final attempt to finish college. I would successfully end up with a degree, graduating on the Dean's List with a solid GPA to be proud of. But it was a rocky road to there.
My college experience was not like the others. I could never start my homework before ten pm, after the last child had given up the last gasp of "One more drink of water." and me yelling "Get back in that bed right now!" Luckily, I was a night owl naturally and I loved being in college. I loved my teachers, I loved my classes, I loved learning and reading and writing everything. And I was old enough to appreciate my teachers as peers and not some mature people who intimidated me.
When I got on the plane to London, right after we hit cruising altitude, I started to cry. Part joy. Part terror. Part guilt. I would miss my kids, though I knew they were in very good hands. Between my long time babysitter, my parents and my boyfriend, and the rest of the village, those kids were going to be more than fine.
This is one of those things men do all the time. They go out of town for business or school or any number of reasons and no one blinks. It's different for moms. Probably always will be. I hope not but the fact is people just look down on you. It happens. I don't care. I've never been a PTA mom or a traditional mom and I wasn't about to start caring what anyone thought of me. It's too exhausting. I had already been a teen mom, a statistic, a person to be judged one way or another. I was beyond giving a damn. My life was what it was. I could only live it the way I thought was best. Trying to please anyone is beside the point.
I waited a long time to do this study abroad. Until I thought things were reasonably stable. I chose the summer program because it was the shortest and would require the least time away from the kids. But, I knew I wasn't going to get points for that! I was still leaving.
Part of the reason I did this was to do this cool theater program in London but I admit, the large part of this was to go back and find that transition path to adulthood that I had missed out on. I was going to be a grown up, with a small apartment, in college, taking care of just me. I was going to live by myself for the very first time in my entire adult life. It was always something that I had felt was missing in my life. And I had given up getting it back. I thought, maybe this is something I will experience when all my kids have moved out and I am on my own. Maybe then it will happen. But more and more desperately I wanted to stop resenting everyone and everything that interfered with my solitude. I wanted some quiet to finish a thought, to write a play, to just leave the house without a multitude of planning babysitters and feeling as if I was stealing time to myself that was limited. I wanted to be able to sleep in the next day or say I feel like going to see a movie without second guessing my ability to for sure get a babysitter or feeling closed in and frustrated because there was never enough time.
I'm sure to some of you, that sounds incredibly selfish. I chose to have kids. I chose to be a single mom. (Let us not even deal with the fact that there was no single father sharing that burden) I didn't opt out of it, I wasn't as careful as I should have been. YES, I get it. I have been suitably punished for having underage, unprotected sex. I do not need anyone to remind me of the consequences of my actions because I lived with those beautiful children every single day. I was responsible and diligent and I made the sacrifices. So- please, spare me the lecture some of you are forming in your brain.
But I am very self aware of needing what I needed no matter what anyone else thought I deserved or should have in my life. And what I needed was a stretched out length of time that was not a vacation. I needed to take care of just myself. I needed to find myself without the noise. I needed to figure out me inside of just me, with no one tugging at me or needing me get the picture.
So, I arrived in London on a Sunday. It was my birthday and for the first time in my life, I spent my birthday alone. I followed the directions my mother gave me about getting from the airport to the flat and dragged all my luggage up the the fifth floor. I put the key in the lock and opened the door to my life for the next three months. I think I did a joyful lap when I first got in the flat. Gone were the tears-- but what was there instead was silence.
The first thing I wanted to do was turn on the television. But there was no television. I was sure there must be a radio but I couldn't find it. Eventually, I did but the batteries were dead. Now I was surrounded by this eerie quiet and I had no idea what to do. London is a huge city. Busy. Populated. But the flat was silent as could be. I could hear no traffic. No chatter. No noisy neighbor. No friendly meow. No ear piercing, crawl up your spine, escalating, vibrating, pound into your brain stem screaming child. Just this dead quiet. You would think I would welcome this. Instead it was causing me stress and anxiety. I needed noise. Where were batteries? What did I have to do to make this radio work? What the hell was this??
I ran around the flat in my exhaustion for twenty minutes thinking there must be batteries. There were not. I finally fell into a fitful nap of frustration with no television to lull me to sleep. I was too exhausted to search the streets for some place that sold batteries. England is not like here. You can't just go to Target for your every need. There is no Target. It took me two solid weeks to find a can opener. I finally discovered one at a hardware store around the corner... but I digress.
This silence, this thing I hated, this thing I was afraid of, this thing I did not understand, it grew on me. Yes, I did find music and noise and a way to live. I learned to cook for one person. I took much pleasure in being able to do my homework any time I wanted but the biggest and most unexpected thing that happened was that I learned to embrace the silence. And in the silence, I found my own thoughts, my own voice, my own needs and desires and quiet yearnings of my soul. I found the answers to the interrupted questions I had been asking myself. I found twenty seven books to read. Sometimes, I just turned off the radio so I could hear the thinking going on in my busy brain. It turns out that silence does not really drown out the world as I feared, but opens your senses wide.
When I returned from London, I was a different woman. I was more confident, more physically strong from all the walking, more thoughtful and more sure. The resentments I had were gone because I had been granted enough time. I'm so glad I had no television to distract me. I'm so glad I didn't really make any friends. I went out to eat by myself. I read the Evening Standard. I went to the theater and movies by myself. Sure, I did a few things with people but mostly I just reveled in how cool it was to just be with me. I felt as if I had finally grown up. Crossed that invisible passage to adulthood. I wasn't hanging on to anything any more. I wasn't just thinking, how long will it be until I can get out by myself again (this is part of what postpartum depression does to you, something I would discover much later), I was spending time enjoying my kids in a way that was a revelation.
Sometimes, when I am on road trips, I deliberately turn off the radio to feel the silence around me. I think through plot points and engage my imagination. I plan out the next day. I access the thing that has me stuck and work it out while I chew it over. The silence changed me. The alone stitched me together. The silence seeped into the cracks in my soul and filled me up. Maybe I would have found another way without that, but I feel strongly that I knew what I was yearning for and what I needed in many ways. But I never suspected my greatest need would be silence.

Friday, September 2, 2016

The Range of Normal

This morning I got on the scale and smiled. The number on the scale, determined by the powers that be, was a number telling me that I am no longer considered overweight. I am now a normal weight for my height. After struggling with my weight for the last ten years when I developed a thyroid problem, this is fantastic. Finally, real progress. From my highest weight, I have lost 41 pounds. This was not easy. It came with ups and downs, some plateaus and a bit of bouncing around but this time, all the way, it has been steady progress. No backsliding. No quitting.
As a person who has spent the majority of her life underweight, having a weight problem is weird for me.
In grade school, I was mocked and teased all the time for being too skinny. I was constantly told to eat (believe me, I ate, I was neither anorexic nor bulimic) Turn sideways and you'll be invisible. A strong wind will blow you away. Have a sandwich. You're a stick. Are you anorexic or what?
I guess I was OR WHAT.
But that was who I was. I was comfortable with her. In spite of was people said about me or how rude they were. I was totally fine with people making fun of me. I understood they were rude and stupid. And it was nothing my real friends would do, so I didn't care. I liked me and I liked who I was. Occasionally, I would kind of wish I was more of a normal weight but for the most part, it was cool, I was good with who I was and what I looked like. I accepted it.
I was the thin girl, the skinny girl. The girl who could have multiple babies and snap back into shape in no time at all. I had a terrible diet. I ate junk food and sweets and probably had an overactive thyroid. I was tired all the time. No energy. The only time I really took care of myself was when I was pregnant or nursing.
In my early thirties I finally gained some weight. Even though I was still considered a normal weight, I was unhappy to not be in the lower range. I guess years of soda drinking had finally caught up to me. Still, it wasn't that bad, I just wasn't comfortable. So I changed my diet and gave up soda and fast food and without too much difficulty I lost about twenty pounds and felt great. I had lots of energy and was eating healthy and feeling great. It changed everything. I became less depressed and was pretty comfortable with who I was. Then, I got pregnant with number five. It was different from all the rest of the pregnancies and I gained a lot of weight. My starting weight was also higher than it was with the rest. So, it was no surprise that after I had the baby, I was pretty big. I wasn't that worried at first. It's the kind of thing that nursing and time and getting more active usually takes care of. And I had already learned how to eat well and keep my body working for me. But nothing worked. So, I joined a gym. I exercised every day averaging two hours a day. I started waitressing again. I lost some weight, things looked good. But I was anxious, tired, frustrated and I couldn't keep the weight off. It kept creeping back. I had to be excessively vigilant and somehow when I had quit smoking, came a vicious sweet tooth that I couldn't keep off me. I felt out of control. I tried all the regular diets. Dr. Oz. South Beach. 17 day diet. I tried trainer and nutritionist recommended diets. I asked my doctor what to do. He tested my thyroid and put me on medication and I thought-- that will be the answer. It will be the end of it. It wasn't.
In all this time, I never overate. My portions were reasonable, though I did have a sweet tooth. That usually consisted of one dessert or one small piece of chocolate. I never binged on anything. This was the way I ate for my whole life and it was never a problem. Sometimes I would get sad and eat more. But never a whole pint of ice cream or an entire pizza or anything crazy like that. Just maybe an extra piece of pie or a second dish of ice cream.
I had no idea what happened to me.
In desperation, I gave up all sweets for two months. I had moderate weight loss. Nothing crazy or great. When my mom got sick, I just gave up trying everything. She needed me and I couldn't focus on myself and I was too sad to even deal with it. But I covered most of this in a different blog.
That is how I got to the place I was.
Here is the thing about this diet. I'm so happy with the lifestyle change that came with it. I just don't much care about being sugar free. It's actually really fine.
I'm happy for having the fat back in my diet and feeling like I am eating really great food.
The thing is, I almost gave up this diet after three weeks. I decided not to weigh myself for five days. I could feel the progress, knew my pants were looser and right out of the gate had lost weight. But after five days I had gained back two pounds. I was really upset. I hadn't done a single thing wrong. No cheating. No varying. I had done all the right things and I had gained weight, anyway. I was ready to just quit. I had been through so many disappointments that I just decided the diet wasn't working and I was failing at it. This was going to be just like all the rest of the diets. Terrible. I started to get depressed. I called my best friend who had been doing this diet for longer and was really getting thin.
She said the best thing. "Push through. It's working. You need to start drinking more water and you'll get rid of that weight. Sometimes your body just takes a minute to reorganize, then you'll start to drop again."
I added about four more glasses of water a day and she was right.
To think I almost gave up. 41 pounds lighter and I almost gave up because of a small setback.
In the last month, I plateaued a little bit. Bounced back and gained some back. I added more activity and drank more water. I pushed through. The scale isn't everything. My clothes continue to get looser. When I exercise, the day after I might weigh a bit more because of inflammation. My body reorganizes and then I have a drop. So, sometimes I go up a little. I push through. I stay the course. I stick to the plan.
I do this because this diet makes me happy and this lifestyle makes me happy. After ten years, I feel that I have a way to finally get rid of the weight that doesn't make me miserable. And I am starting to like the way I look in the mirror. I started this diet nine months ago. It was my new years resolution. The first year I have been able to really keep it when it came to weight loss.
PUSH THROUGH. Don't lose hope. Keep trying. Find your solution. I just don't know if this is right for everyone but it sure is right for me. I'm still quite a few pounds from my ultimate goal but this is my first goal today. To find normal. To know that TODAY I am a normal weight. I am no longer overweight. I am not there any more. That is behind me. Finally. And hopefully, because you never know what the future holds. I learned a lot by going through this. It is humbling. I never made assumptions about people I knew that were overweight but now I really feel that I understand in a whole different light.
I don't know that I am grateful for this experience yet. Perhaps someday I will be. Perhaps not. Life gives you experience whether you want them or not. I just push through.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Why Depression isn't really a battle

At this point in my life, I am not currently and have not been depressed for a long time. I spent a significant and lengthy time in my twenties falling into it again and again. Much of it was undiagnosed postpartum depression that lingered far longer than it should have. Especially when I had multiple babies one after another. Depression convinced and re-confirmed for me over and over that I was a terrible and worthless mother. The cycle was evil. Unfortunately, I had friends and former boyfriends who were so abusive that they more or less confirmed these fears for me. I don't hate them. They had their own demons to deal with. It just did not help.
Eventually when I was not depressed, I found ways to be the mother I was supposed to be, that shockingly, I found that I could be, that finally I had the energy to be.
Depression was always cyclical for me. I could feel it coming on, I could feel it chasing me, I would always try to fight it off but like the coming storm, it usually came anyway.
Recently a friend posted a status that said, he never felt he had battled depression but yelled at its back after it stole his emotional lunch money. This was painfully accurate.
I live in quiet, silent terror of depression coming back all the time. I have not been functionally depressed in over ten years. But I have always felt I have no control over it. It could just ride in at any time and completely trainwreck my life. This knowledge, this fear-- It's not going to stop me from living my life. I'm just aware that demon is hanging around and to feel safe from it is crazy. She can just show up whenever she feels like it and kick my chair out from under me and sit down right in the middle of my chest.
It's kind of like how I am going to walk at night, even though sometimes it scares me. I refuse to live my life afraid of what might happen. Especially when I recognize it is irrational. Sure, I could get mugged. But is that a reason not to go somewhere? I could get mugged right at home. Nope, I'm going out.
So, yes, depression could come after me but my life is too important to me to be held hostage by that.
Oddly, one thing that worked for me was permanently changing my diet and getting rid of all fast food. Quitting smoking. Quitting soda. Adding in healthy veggies and exercise. Is this why? I don't know. Maybe it just went away. But that is when it went away and has not come back significantly since that time.
I don't think in any way this is the answer. Depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain. But food and exercise have an effect on the chemistry in your brain. Maybe it balanced mine. Maybe something else did. I'm never going to know. Perhaps there was something in what I was eating or what I was doing that was poisoning me. No idea. I mean, depression runs in my family, so there is that. And there is not one person I'm closely related to that doesn't deal with it, some worse than others, some are more functional than others.
The other thing that helped me was following my life path and pushing everything else out of the way to pursue the creative work that feeds my soul. It keeps my healthy, happy endorphins flowing. But I don't even begin to have the answers.
Therapy also helped a lot. I had some really good cognitive therapy with a really great therapist (and I went through a few to find the right match) Do two things. Try to do the things that your therapist asks, even if it is hard and get rid of the ones that make you feel bad about yourself. Find a good match.
Honestly, I just wanted to be happy. I know that most of us just want to be happy and no one should expect to be happy all the time, but being happy is worth fighting for. And try to get out of your own way to be happy. Sabotage is a killer.
Here is the deal, though-- this is what depression was like for me.
For all the battles in my life, and there have been many, I have stored up my energy and gone in sword and shield in hand. I have stood my ground and struck blow after blow until I emerged, bloody sword in hand, standing on the dragon.
Depression isn't like that. The first thing it steals is your energy, so you try to pick up the shield and you lack the strength to hold it. The first wave of attack comes after you and you hold up your arms feebly as it pelts you, and the raindrops fall all over you. Now, you are soaking wet and vulnerable. You start to shiver. The next thing it steals is your confidence. You're never going to be dry again, you can't find the sun behind the clouds. What if it isn't there? All you can do is run around and try to find shelter but your strength is gone, and your fears are raw and in between the waves of fresh assaults, all you can do is duck and cover and beg for a break in the weather. Finally, things calm down and it's just kind of gray all around. So, you try to get up, but it has stolen your strength, your confidence and now it attacks your hope. It's pointless to get up when all you are going to find is more of the same malaise. You start to believe that it is always going to be gray. It's best to just stay still, if you try to get out, you will just end up in a storm again. Just stay here and do nothing. It's the safest thing to do and you have to survive. Just keep breathing, that is the best you can do. Yep. And sometimes it steals the will to do that.
So, for me, I always kept this tiny box of hope stored somewhere in my rational mind. Because while the assaults came for my rational mind, I was at least able to save a tiny corner. Not everyone has this luxury. But I always told myself-- this is the sickness talking, this is the disease lying to me-- and I was somehow able to just get through the physical malaise and steal tiny bits of energy enough to keep going.
I always believed the sun was behind those clouds even though I would often not see it for months and months and I always felt damp and weighed down. I had a strong box in my head that refused to give up and give in. Somehow, I was lucky enough to have built something sturdy enough to withstand the attacks. You build it when you're strong, when you feel good about the world. You build it when you don't think you'll need it. And I always needed it.
So, for those people that think depression is just being sad. It's really and truly not. The truth is, my brain has just been through a storm or the stomach flu and my reserves are depleted and it is everything my body can do to just get up and take a shower. The lie is that I had no energy. I have no reserves. I have no fight. It is just a lie that depression tells me. My hope is hiding behind that cloud, I just couldn't feel it or see it right then.
This is just what I went through. I cannot and will not speak for anyone else. If you want to argue with me about depression, I literally do not want to talk to you about it. Your struggle is your own. I'm not going to pretend to know. I know that mine is similar to some and completely different from others. I have never been medicated for depression and hopefully will not need to be. I think some people really benefit from medication. Everyone has to do what personally is needed to try to get better.
This is only my story. And it is only a little piece. I hope it helps in some way.