Monday, September 3, 2018

#metoo

I was just barely 16 when it happened. For the last 27 years, I have gone back and forth between wondering if he had been a stranger, taking me at knife point, would the experience have been less traumatic? Maybe then, the effects would have been limited to just being afraid to walk alone at night. But this was someone I knew - who I thought I knew well. He was the first person I felt safe opening up to about my childhood trauma. He was 19 and was volunteering by helping our creative problem-solving team, so we stayed up late many nights, building things together, talking about all manner of things. I was attracted to him, but never imagined he felt that way about me. So when my friends warned me about him, I did not listen.

There was, in my mind, no reason he would think of me like that. Certainly not, because my ballet teacher had shamed me when I was 5 or 6 years old for my abdomen, which stuck out much more than the other girls'. Certainly not, because in elementary school, several boys called me "Amy McBunnyfreak" for my large incisors and love of rabbits. Certainly not, because my close friend's mother had expressed concern for her daughter's weight when we were in middle school, and I was even heavier. Certainly not, because that one guy in middle school called me fat in front of my peers. Certainly not, because just the year before, in dance class at school, a classmate had asked me if I was pregnant. Certainly not, because I was one of the only girls in my high school with braces and glasses.

I have wondered, over the years, if he knew the full effects of what he did, because I was not the only one. He liked virgins. Someone told me there were 14 before me. I knew two of them. Did he get to know the soul of every girl before he degraded and discarded her? Did all of them say "no" like I did, under the influence of alcohol, and unable to defend herself? Did he prey on the ones with insecurities?

*****

I remember the day when the #metoo movement started. I remember thinking that it was great that women were finally speaking up, and also thankful that I had left social media, because I didn't have to concern myself with solidarity over an issue that was still actively eating me on the inside. A few months later, I would tell the only male friend I have had in twenty-five years, in the context of a discussion about the movement. It was terrifying being this vulnerable, even though it only took a minute. I am sure I was shaking.



The details I shared of my life with this guy - my hopes and dreams - my personal struggles - I had never shared with anyone before. So, when he used me for whatever validation he was looking for, and then discarded me - the effect was that I felt fundamentally broken. Fundamentally unlovable. Fundamentally worthless.

*****

Last week my husband was walking alone in the park by our neighborhood at dusk. He came home sad and upset that two women he encountered on his walk were clearly uncomfortable when he passed them. One had stepped off the path to dial on her phone, keeping a close eye on him. The other stepped well off the path with her dog and watched my husband pass. For years, my male doctors kept suggesting that I walk several times a week not just to lose weight, but also combat depression. It took a hypertensive crisis on January 11, 2017 to get me to face Fear of Walking Alone Dragon. Two weeks later, I began attending community college with my son, and so I felt safe walking around campus by myself when he was in class.

I still had trouble wanting to walk around my own neighborhood - one I chose for the safe feeling it gave me - by myself. So, I started walking regularly with a girlfriend. One day, I thanked her for walking with me, sharing that I realized I was afraid to walk alone because of several things I witnessed over the course of my life.

The worst of these was when I was 17 years old. I was fueling up my pickup truck at the Conoco station a few blocks away from my house when a homeless man offered to wash the windows on my truck. Well, he didn't so much offer as he started to actually wash them. I told him, "No, thank you," but he continued. I barely had money for gas, let alone money to pay him for washing my window.

"Leave her alone!" I suddenly heard. I looked up from the pump and saw another man, pointing a gun at the window washer. A gun. I can't remember if I paid for the gas or not, honestly. I got in my truck and drove down Colfax a few blocks, where I knew I would find a police officer. He immediately called dispatch and left for the Conoco station, so I don't know what happened after that.

That was the closest call, but I also witnessed two assaults from the front windows of my homes - one as a teenager, and another as a young mother when I first moved back to Colorado. For some reason, people yell when I'm walking, even if I am with my husband. Maybe it is not at me (although it has happened enough when I am all alone, I always wonder).

So, just walking alone feels like an act of bravery to me. This fear has impacted both my physical and mental health in a profound way.

It was interesting, last weekend, seeing my husband finally "get" how it is to walk through the world in fear. As a woman.

"Are women just always afraid?" He asked.

"Yes," I said. "I am, anyway."

After a few months of walking on campus, I felt confident enough to walk around a nearby sculpture park while my son was at class in Windsor. I walked there weekly on Sundays. Sometimes I would call my friend on the phone while I walked, and other times I would enjoy the sound of nature. One week, I became aware that there was a man walking fifteen to twenty feet behind me. I tried to walk faster to stay ahead, but quickly realized that I couldn't keep his pace. We were in an area with no other people, and no cars. If I could just keep up the pace until the trail came out onto the main road, I would be okay. There would at least be witnesses, I thought. I walked on the main road, passing two women and their children taking photos on the bridge. I rushed through their picture, apologizing. Then, I got to a fork in the road where I could either turn to continue the trail loop, or stay on the sidewalk along the road. I looked over my shoulder.

"I'm not following you," the man, who was now only about 10 feet away, said.

"Oh," I said, feeling like a tremendous idiot. "Sorry - past life experiences!" I shrugged. My mind was swimming. What if that man had been my son?

Or my husband.

Neither one would intentionally hurt a woman, I am sure of it. They are both acutely aware of the extent of the damage done to women by men.

So, for years, I have avoided men as much as possible. It's not hard, really, being a stay at home mom. Exposure to men occurs so much less - the ones I see with any frequency are my friends' husbands, and ones in a professional capacity (doctors, dentists, mechanics, store clerks).

For some reason, I didn't worry about older men. If they looked like my grandfather, and worked with lots of people physically every day, certainly they must be safe, right?

*****

I have gained and lost weight over the years like the tides. The first time I lost a lot of weight was through walking and counting calories, over the course of about two years from 1998-2000. Then I became a mother. I then slimmed down again through breastfeeding from 2004-2006. The weight came back as I threw myself into cooking nourishing meals for my children, and so in 2009 I lost it all again with a regimented exercise program and a low-carb diet. The weight came off so fast that my hair was falling out, and an extreme depression set in, so I added back carbohydrates in order to heal, and in the process, got up to my highest weight ever.

This time, I decided, I would take a moderate approach. The word "sustainable" became the cornerstone of my health routine. It has been challenging, where I live (everyone is on a diet and belongs to a gym, it seems), to dig my heels in and defend my sustainable approach. If I am tired from not enough food, lack of sleep, injury, too much drama, or because I am getting sick, I take a break from exercise. I try to walk 3-6 times a week, getting at least 6000 steps a day. Six thousand isn't very many, but it's enough that I have to put some shoes on and get out of the house.

I think often of my female ancestors who didn't have gym memberships, knew nothing of intermittent fasting, and lived to be at least 80 years old, despite exposure to significant lifetime stress and lots of second-hand cigarette smoke. They weren't concerned with what their long lost acquaintances from high school were thinking.

After my moderate routine was fairly well established (it is difficult to maintain over the holidays and the hottest months of the year), I found a physical trainer to give me a routine.

I chose my trainer specifically because I knew she and I would see eye to eye on nutritional requirements, but also I knew that she was not in the business of getting people "jacked" but trying to help people heal. Still, though, I expected she would give me a routine that would keep me busy while my son was in class, so I could use the rec center. What she gave me was so sustainable, it was ridiculous. The first time I did my exercise routine at school, it took me 45 minutes to change into my clothes, do the routine, add interval training, shower, and get dressed again. So, I decided to just do it at home, to make it a lifelong habit.

The struggle here has just been eating enough, and getting the right food, and feeling strong enough to do the very simple routine. Last spring, I made the mistake of pushing myself to do it when I was frustrated about something, and I hurt my shoulder, badly, trying to work out some stress.

My personal trainer helped me deal with the shoulder pain using some energy healing and hypnotherapy, but it was stubborn and kept coming back. So I went to see my chiropractor, who I hadn't seen in years.

This is when I would learn that even Grandpa sometimes isn't safe.

*****

I thought I was asking a professional question when I inquired if the size of my chest could be causing the shoulder and neck pain I was experiencing. I mean, he's a doctor, right? The weight had melted off the rest of me, leaving my breasts larger than they had ever been, so it seemed like a reasonable question.

The conversation got weird, fast.

He started talking about his own chest, and the chests of his friends. He asked me if I was thinking about getting a breast reduction.

And then, he sat down beside me and put his hand on my upper thigh.

"What?" I thought. "Is this really happening? This isn't happening. It's all in my head."

*****

A female friend recently talked to me about responding versus reacting. I had never really thought about the difference between these two things, because I realized I do neither. I realized, when she was explaining the concept to me that, "Oh, I am a freezer."

"A freezer?" she asked.

"Yes, a freezer. I do nothing." I explained.

In talking to other women about what happened with my chiropractor, they were all surprised that I did not do anything. But this response, or lack thereof, is common for survivors of abuse, I learned. Furthermore, the personal and private nature of most abuse makes survivors end up questioning their sense of reality. I now see a therapist at least once a week so I can tell her about my life, what happened, and how I responded, in large part because some of the things that have happened to me are so unbelievable I worry that it is all in my head. That's why they call it "crazy making."

In the months since this has happened, I realize how my silence over the years has enabled abusive relationships on many levels. And, thanks to therapy, and witnesses, I know I'm not imagining these things.

I looked at my silence as a way to remain easygoing and likeable. Maybe, on some level, it helped me feel lovable, at least consciously. But I wasn't loving myself, so I really wasn't lovable.

*****

The Universe is funny. Sick funny, I think, but still wise and wonderful. One of the ways I have been able to work through this tremendous pain, and still accomplish anything, is by being a life-long learner, and looking for lessons in my experiences.

When I was born, my mother was sure I was going to be a boy. She knew that she would name me "George" after my two grandfathers, George Graves, and George Robert McMullen. I always felt like I had escaped a fate worse than death since I didn't like the name George. But now I see how I have a little bit of St. George in me, and it probably would have been a great name for me, had I been male.

So many times in my life I have had the sensation that in following my intuition, questioning the status quo, I have been both foolish and brave. When this happens, I feel both exhilaration, and terror.

Writing this is one of those times.

*****

The last two years have been the most psychologically difficult in my life so far. One of the things I learned during my homeschooling years is that keeping busy helping others is a way for me to avoid facing my Dragons. Since my inner St. George actually loves the business of slaying Dragons, I am really good and finding unsuspecting Dragons to slay.

But when I finally slowed down a few years ago and had to be content just being for a while, the Dragons got a lot bigger, and a lot scarier. Like this #metoo Dragon.

Several situations, all at once, would force me to look at how focusing on pleasing everyone else was robbing me of my self worth. I made the decision to speak up. I spoke up for my kids, so they could see how to advocate for themselves. And, over time, I finally started speaking up for me.

I lost several friends, with whom I had abusive relationships. In trying to please these people, I gave them all the power in the relationship. There was a common thread - if they needed my help, they were aggressive and even forceful in their use of my time, which I enabled. But when I needed reciprocity, they were nowhere to be found. The relationships were slowly eroding my sense of self worth. My own needs were unimportant, it seemed, because their problems were worse, and I was not even deserving of an answer when I would reach out for connection.

I have thought, "I should have been voted most likely to be ghosted when I was in high school."

It was just a pattern, right? Sharing myself completely with someone, and then being ignored. Actively ignored. Avoided. Sometimes silence can be violent.

In these friendships, I constantly felt like that fly in the blue guy's soup on Sesame Street. An annoyance to the blue guy, and to Grover (the most lovable monster - who wants to annoy the most lovable monster?), and to the kitchen staff, and even to the contents of the soup, which were going to be wasted.

When I feel like that, I know it's time to speak up and let go, and that that is also an act of love, because letting people behave in abusive ways without speaking up lets them continue behaviors that absolutely make them hard to love, and make it harder for them to love themselves. Life is full of difficult discussions. I think it's important to have them.

*****

I developed early, so the comments about my breasts also started early. My middle name is Elizabeth, after my biological great-grandmother who raised my grandmother and mother after her husband committed suicide during a very long battle with tuberculosis during the depression. Adah was a gentle-hearted woman, standing not even 5 feet tall, with a generous chest. Her mother, Edith, for whom my sister was named, was slender and tall. My sister and I resemble our respective namesakes.

In high school, my sister was popular, always had a boyfriend, and a very close-knit group of friends.

I kept myself busy with clubs and after school activities, on the periphery of the various groups. I had one close friend from most groups, and was rarely invited to things, unless a friend needed a sober driver.

I was Miss Congeniality. For real. I participated in a pageant in high school and won Miss Congeniality.

So it is interesting to me that the majority of my body image issues have nothing to do with my relationship to men, and everything to do with my relationship to women. Being around women all the time for the last 12 years has done a real number on my self-worth.

Why?

Because, I swear, women hate their bodies. It is almost impossible to spend time with a woman socially without her complaining about how she has recently gained weight, or how she is bloated because it is her "time of the month." Discussions of what constitutes healthy and not healthy food is always a favorite subject. I have been very careful about what I say about myself around my daughter because I do not want her to have the same insecurities I do. But I have two family members who would regularly discuss dieting, juice fasting, and one of them even refused to eat anything but celery for a whole weekend while visiting. I was always nervous that my daughter was in earshot, and I worried that she would pick up their insecurities and hold herself to some ridiculous standard the way they did. They are both thinner than I am by several sizes, and so when that was going on regularly, it was nearly impossible for me to come away from being with them without totally hating myself, because in my mind, they were way more beautiful than I was.

Here is the really disturbing thing. Like I mentioned before, I am used to being ghosted, being treated like I am invisible. I mean, who wants to spend time with a pathetic SAHM who doesn't know how to have a good time? Everyone clearly wants a MILF! During the times when I lost weight, the craziest things happened. People I had known for a long time didn't recognize me. Certain people seemed intimidated. They called me beautiful. They wanted to know what I was doing to lose the weight. The cashier at NAPA hit on me when I was buying washer blades. The tire guy flirted with me. Women were kinder than usual. The tour guide in Prague suggested a kinky rendezvous under his breath. A guy bought our couple friends and us several rounds of drinks, while going on and on about my dimples in front of my husband. An older man in Australia in a bar went to a liquor store and brought me back a bottle of wine from his home town. I hadn't even exchanged words with him. Everyone was flirting with me, telling me how nice I looked. It was weird, because I was the same person on the inside. I can see how if one was accustomed to this treatment, it could be quite confusing if the treatment suddenly stopped. For me, all the attention made me confused, and a little sad. That is the hardest thing to accept about life, I feel - that ultimately people subconsciously treat you in proportion to how beautiful they think you are, and could care less about who you are on the inside.

And so we do this to ourselves - judge ourselves by our outward appearances, rather than by loving our whole selves. It is a terrible shame.

*****

So, to deal with the burning junkyard of existential crises in my mind (thank you, dragons, for setting everything on fire), and also my screwed up shoulder, I turned to contemplative yoga and meditation.

Soft woolen blankets, Indian meditation music, and my instructor's soft voice would help my soul, breath, and body finally relax. For a while.

My instructor looked at my website and decided to ask me if I would do line drawings of the yoga poses for her. I was flattered, and it seemed like an easy task.

We got together before meditation class to take photos of the poses. I thought maybe she would do the poses, but when we got there, she was wearing her baggy pants, and my fear was confirmed when she asked me to set up in shavasana.

"I must not look that bad." I thought.

Later in the week, she sent the pictures, and I was mortified. Mortified.

I was laying there, spandex-clad, little left to the imagination. None left to mine, that's for sure.

"I cannot do this." I thought. "No way. Is this a test? This must be a test. She must know. She's a guru. She wants me to push through this pain and fear." She probably had no idea.

Several other really difficult things happened that week when I was bloated and needed to be alone. The week before, I had been contacted about the acceptance of some of my writing into a book, but the pain of having to face the reality of pictures of my body in spandex, and several other intense psychological developments overshadowed any joy that brought. As the moon became fuller, the shadows took over my mind.

The funny (not funny) thing about mental health issues is the tremendous amount of guilt associated with just having those issues. Anything hurtful I have ever done has been at a time when my Dragons have hold of me somehow. Those Dragons - Fear of Failure, Fear of Rejection - tend to rear their heads when I haven't been taking care of myself. They really like to come out and play at the end of my menstrual cycle when I need most to care for myself. Because I am a caregiver, I desperately need this time to be alone. Maybe if I had a red tent tribe to sit around with, eat ice cream, and watch sappy movies with, I wouldn't need to be alone. Being alone allows me to have a little heart-to-heart with the dragons. It helps me to accept they are there, and that they are not all of me. If I don't get time alone, the worst dragon of all comes out, Fear of Permanently Screwing Up My Kids. This one is the worst because it tells me that my mere existence is screwing them up. When Fear of Permanently Screwing Up My Kids comes out, I know that I am in the state I call Not Fit for Public Viewing.

Fear of Permanently Screwing Up My Kids Dragon is much, much less likely to come out to play if I have been doing things that make my heart happy. When the Obligation Meter is near full, and the Satisfying Experiences meter is low, Fear of Permanently Screwing Up My Kids is ready to burn the whole house down. Feeling rejection while simultaneously having committed oneself to drawing pictures of one's own body falls squarely under Full Obligation Meter territory. So, I did not handle extended family obligations on top of all that very well. Lets' just say that Fear of Permanently Screwing Up My Kids Dragon was like, "Let's do this thang! You have some kerosene, right?"

So, instead, I sat with Fear of Permanently Screwing Up My Kids Dragon, and we had a little heart to heart about how whenever it shows up, when I win, I am stronger for my efforts. Ultimately, I feel tremendous guilt for bringing kids into a fundamentally screwed up world where they will be judged for their looks and used for their kindness, and think how great it would be to clock out, but then realize that each second here is a damn gift, and that with the great pain is always great joy. And I have so much left to learn. I locked myself in the guest bedroom for a whole day and studied something new, spent lots of time laying on the sofa in the quiet, and also meditated. When I felt strong enough, I worked on some art. I know, when I can bring myself to work on some art, that everything is going to be better.

*****

Having vanquished Fear of Permanently Screwing Up My Kids Dragon again (thankfully its arrival is not a regular thing, since I keep a close eye on the Obligation and Satisfying Experiences meters), perspective fully restored, Fear of Rejection and Fear of Failure Dragons were way easier fights.

"How do you eat an elephant?" a friend once asked me. "One bite at a time."

Humor often helps me feel a little braver, so I thought of something funny to draw to help myself feel better. A yoga hippo. I drew it in my head, doing warrior pose. It made me happy. I imagined Martha from the children's books George and Martha, doing yoga.

Then, I realized, a line drawing abstraction like what my instructor wanted was not going to give away too much. I just had to open the files again in my art program, swallow my pride, and start.

I told a few good friends what I had to do, and they responded in ways that let me know it would be very difficult for them to do. I am pretty sure they aren't survivors of sexual assault, but I know most of them have body image issues of some kind. One friend asked me, "So, what are you going to do?" And I said, "Well, I am going to have a good stiff drink and get to it."

So that's what I did. And, most importantly, I breathed.

It was terrifying. Every step of it from opening the file, to selecting the tool I was going to use, to tracing the first curve of my body. This body, that gave life to two people. This body that has known both pleasure, and pain, and nearly died twice.

But with each line I drew, I saw a beautiful me. I saw the peaceful me, who loves herself, who cares and feels deeply. I saw the me who will drop everything to be there for a friend when that friend is experiencing pain. I saw an Empress, The Divine Feminine, in myself. I was a freakin' Fertility
Goddess. Take that, Fear of Failure and Fear of Rejection!

I realized that the rejection, the ghosting, and the abuse I experienced over the course of my life are not a reflection of who I am. They are a result of the insecurities of others - those behaviors are how other people protect themselves from rejection, ghosting and abuse. It's a power play, an act of self-protection, for them, and they don't realize how it propagates that same behavior through society. And, I saw that the way to break that cycle is to learn to love myself. Loving myself makes it easier to let go so I don't fall into the same behavior pattern.

As long as a person is actively trying to better him or herself, in the attempt at self-love, I can forgive them for mistakes of all sorts. But if the relationship is like Einstein's definition of insanity (doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results), then I have to honor myself. Otherwise, it is just a dragon-feeding exercise.

And I'm here to slay dragons, not feed them.

That's what makes me worth it. That's what makes me lovable.

#metoo

Namaste.