Sunday, June 29, 2014


I went to a community event with a new group of friends Thursday night. Some of the individuals have been in the community longer than I and some were newer than I.

Brand new that night was an individual I'll call Bill. Bill seemed polite enough, so when he friend requested me the following afternoon from our community page on a social networking site, I thought nothing of it.

When he messaged me a "hello," I responded. A "How are you?" opening and an honest response of "Sunburned" led to flirtatious banter. This was a bit sudden for me, but being an occasionally overly friendly individual and sometimes flirtatious individual, I didn't have an issue with light banter.

Within a few exchanges however, Bill's remarks stopped being light banter and became distinctly, yet subtly, sexual. I told Bill not to get dirty with me, that banter was fine, but he'd crossed a line. To this, Bill responded, "I love banter. But at some point you have to shit or get off the crapper."

Time to shit or get off the crapper fewer than 10 hours after I met you and 35 minutes into our first conversation? Time to shit or get off the crapper when my profile online clearly indicates that I'm not interested in ANY kind of relationship other than friendship? "Friends with Benefits" was an option and I did not choose it.

Immediately, I sought to steer the conversation away from anything even remotely sexual. Forget light banter, forget subtle flirtations, forget friendly conversation. I signed off without so much as a good-bye and went about my day.

Thinking on it later, I was actually quite upset. I talked to my person, Eddie, with whom I am beginning, really have tentatively begun, a relationship. "Am I being overly sensitive?" I asked. "I was really uncomfortable."

"If you're not comfortable, I'm not comfortable. And all things considered, from the way this is going, I'm actually gravely concerned. This is how we're going to address it online - this is how we will label our relationship online. If you're okay with that. It might seem a little extreme, but it should send the message that you have interests elsewhere and end the unwanted attention. My only regret is that I can't be there physically to protect you."

I was 100% okay with this resolution. And so, the next morning, I headed to a coffee shop, accessed the internet, and updated my relationship status as we'd discussed. I felt better. Territory MARKED; all others beware.

This did not stop the unwanted attention. Another message that could have been read in a manner that was completely non-sexual or very sexual. I can assure you that it was intended as the latter. I chose to respond as though it were the former. I chose to make clear that Bill's overly sexual attentions were not welcome. I thought I was clear.

And then last night's party.

My friend John and I have been hanging out a bit lately and we were both on the early side in arriving. John asked about my profile update and things with Eddie. I gave him a brief rundown of what had happened with Bill and how Eddie had recommended we address it online. "If you'd asked me, I'd have offered to stand in to protect you," John said.

"That's actually why I'm telling you the whole thing now," I said. "All of this happened after we had ice cream yesterday. Since Eddie is 800 miles away, and Bill has indicated he will be here tonight, can you act as my buffer? Will you be Eddie's proxy?" John agreed immediately.

We began to socialize with others, chatting with each other and wandering individually to other people and conversations. I was feeling comfortable and safe and genuinely enjoying myself, though I was as nervous as I ever am in social settings in which I don't know many of the assembled.

When John rejoined me, I touched his arm a few times, a casual affection because I'm comfortable with him and because I wanted him to know what my "comfortable" touch felt like.

"I don't know what that touch means," John said to me.

"That was just casual, friendly affection," I explained withdrawing my hand. "I didn't mean...if it bothers you...I'll stop."

"No," John said. "It's fine. You can touch me. I just wanted to know what you were communicating."

I explained that most, if not all, of my touch was likely to be casual affection. "If something happens and I feel unsafe, I'll touch you in a very different way."

"How will I know?" John asked.

"You'll know," I told him. "If you have any doubt, I'll tell you that's why I'm touching you."

Shortly thereafter, John and I were joined by Victoria. We were chatting and headed outside for a few minutes so that Victoria could smoke. Not long into our time outdoors and Bill showed up with two other people. I recognized him immediately though he was still some forty feet away.

Everything in me began screaming. Internal red flags waving frantically, alarm bells pealing loudly, icky tummy feelings. All of it. Absolutely screaming. Frantically, I clutched John's arm. "That's him?" he asked quietly.

"Yes," I whispered back.

John immediately shifted himself in front of me, using his body to block access to me. He stepped up onto the curb, placing himself slightly above me and making himself seem larger. He allowed me to pull his arm around my waist and hold his hand behind my back.

As Bill and the other two people with him approached our group, he paused. Everyone introduced themselves to Victoria who introduced herself to these three. Bill pointedly ignored me.

Maybe he had finally, blissfully, gotten the message. Maybe he saw John's protective stance before me, arm around me, and understood that I was not to be approached, that his attentions were unwelcome and everyone in that particular circle knew that this had been communicated clearly.

Once Bill and his group had moved inside, Victoria turned to me. "What is going on? What was that?" she asked, intense concern lacing her voice, as John said, "Yes, I knew what that touch meant."

I explained the situation to Victoria and told her I was pretty sure it was being handled. "If he bothers you again, these are the people you can ask and they will take care of it," Victoria said, listing off eight or ten people.

Feeling more confident and comfortable, I began to relax again as John and Victoria finished their conversation and we headed inside.

Once inside, our group split up. We each sought new conversations. Before long, John and Victoria were deep into focused conversations and I was interacting with a few new people, while keeping an eye, generally, on where my "safe" people were.

And this is the moment, when John was physically removed from my presence, that Bill chose to show up. Immediately he attempted to strike up a conversation.

Fortunately, the woman to my left remarked on something that I had an interest in and I was able to use that to turn from Bill's attentions and begin asking her more in-depth questions. Thankfully, Bill moved on. But not all that far. He took a seat directly between me and the door and I was clearly in his line of sight. Soon, the woman with whom I'd been conversing moved on.

I thought briefly of finding John, but I needed to get out. NOW.

One of the safe people Victoria had named was walking by. I quickly got his attention. "When he's done with his conversation, will you please let John know that I left a little early?" I asked.

"Yeah, absolutely," the man said.

"And would you be able to walk me to my car?" I asked, beginning to tear up.

"Of course," he said. He escorted me out of the building and through the parking lot to my car. "Is everything okay?" he asked.

"It's fine," I said. "I just had a really uncomfortable interaction with someone online yesterday and they're here tonight, and they approached me and I just really need to leave."

"If you're sure you're fine," he said, "but connect with me through the community page. If you decide to give us a name, we can address it directly and make sure you aren't bothered again." I thanked him for his kindness and headed home.

On my drive home John called to check in and I explained how Bill had approached me as soon as John himself was completely absorbed in conversation elsewhere, "That to me was just absolute confirmation that my internal alarms were right," I said. "That he waited until I was isolated from the person he knew was looking out for me."

"That kind of pisses me off," John said, "and you're right. That he waited until you were alone to approach you is absolutely confirmation that he is unsafe."

Next, I explained what had happened to Eddie, that I was safe, on my way home, that the community had my back tonight, and that I would be sending a very strongly worded message to Bill when I got home that he was not to approach me in person or online again as he had not respected the boundaries I'd established.

By the time I had composed and sent this message to Bill, a general message had been posted to our community board about the expectations for community engagement. Above all, safety for the members of the community is priority. Perhaps it was coincidence. Perhaps the individual posting heard what had happened and wanted to clarify for EVERYONE what is acceptable and what is not.

Regardless, I'm grateful that I have a community that is concerned with the safety of its members, new or seasoned. I'm grateful that I do not have to justify my internal alarms to this community. I am grateful that I am part of community which clearly states that it is acceptable to be friendly and flirty without the expectation of any sexual or physical contact. I'm grateful that people will not only tell you they'll take care of individuals who continuously violate an established boundary, but that these same people WILL take care of (i.e. remove from the community) individuals who continuously violate established boundaries.

Bill has as much right to be in this public space as I do. However, Bill does not have the right to use intimidation and subtle threats (through isolation and boundary violations) to frighten people. And that's exactly what Bill was doing.

I met Victoria for the first time not 15 minutes before Bill arrived. If she picked up from my body language that something was SERIOUSLY wrong, there's no way in hell Bill didn't know. If John was using his body to physically block access to me, there's no way in hell Bill did not intentionally seek me out when I was not in immediate contact with John.

I am grateful for Victoria, John, and Eddie. I am grateful for the bouncer who walked me to my car. I am grateful for the way they treated me in the midst of this.

I did not have to explain or justify my feelings. I did not have to justify or defend the fact that I had engaged in banter. There were no questions about why I was wearing a red dress and 5 1/2" heels if I didn't want sexual attention from men. There was no hint that the choices I had made had invited the unwanted attention. There was no suggestion that I was being overly sensitive or unfair or that I should give everyone a fair shot. There was no indication of doubt concerning the veracity of my experience. There was not a single word uttered that would in any way justify or excuse Bill's behavior or seek to blame me for any of it.

Whether I stay in this place or move back to where I come from, I am grateful for this community. Whether I stay or go, I am grateful for these new friends. Whether I stay or go, I am grateful for this safe space. Whether I stay or go, I am grateful that I have people in my life who, regardless of personality differences, will "stand behind [me], next to [me], or in front of [me] when it comes to matters of safety." Whether I stay or go, I am grateful for the time I have in this community.

I am grateful.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Kindness Epiphany

It was a painful kind of day, Thursday.

The day had not started painfully. The day had started beautifully, full of hope that smelled of iris and honeysuckle; ripe with love that was full and soft and sweet as mango picked from the tree at its peak. I opened my heart to another and with hands outstretched, offered myself to them. I felt no fear. Only certainty that the step I was taking was right and good and lovely.

I did not receive a response. But then, I did not need one. I had offered myself freely and completely as a gift. No strings attached. Should that gift be rejected, I knew there would be a sting, but I was also fully confident that such pain would be survivable and I would be better for having risked the gift of love in the first place.

Then, I went to the place of interruption. At first it was okay. I knew I would be okay and I was still brimming with the joy of having stepped beyond my self-imposed fortress and invited another to see me.

But then, in a small, cold room, full of other people, I was confronted with the memory of that interruption of death into life which had so disabled me for so long. I was confronted with the interruption that had kept me from talking about the interruption. And it was in my chair.

A place of comfort and continuity and safety in a situation so full of people that the anxiety of not being able to attend to the presence of all at once could only be mitigated by that seat in the room so that I could focus on each speaker directly and still hold  the whole in my periphery -- as much for my own comfort in not being startled by sudden movement or noise from behind and to have a clear view of egress, as by my desire to attend to those who might want to speak but may not have been seen by anyone else.

My chest began to constrict painfully with anxiety. Because I was not able to mitigate it by taking a place of security that would allow me to pay attention to what was being said, I stood apart. It seemed there was no safe room for me in the circle. I thought briefly of asking to have my need for this space honored, but quickly rejected it, as a previous attempt at engagement about the chair had ended in derision and previous engagement with the particular individual now occupying the only safe place in the room had ended in a verbal attack so violent, I defended myself vociferously for fear I would be swallowed whole by the feelings of shame that erupted when confronted by the dichotomy of being asked for vulnerability and being verbally run over and diverted in every instance in which I chose to say those alien words that strike fear so deeply in my heart my throat closes off and I can scarcely breathe: I need....

Twenty minutes and report was delivered and we were free for 15 minutes until the start of the next activity which would be safer. I retreated to a quiet space and reminded myself that what felt like an attack was not; what felt like an intentional denial of my safety was not. I tried. But my muscles had started to ache and my joints were getting stiff. Pressure was building in my eyes.

And then the questions. Ten people all asking. Yet, whenever I would answer, they didn't seem to hear; when I would try to clarify, someone else would begin speaking and I would be shushed for interrupting their interruption. Falling silent, I would wait until they would finish so that I could go back and say, "I need you to understand, that's just the presenting symptom. I want you to see and know the source that underneath it all it's really about this and I've been trying and trying and trying for weeks to tell you this most important part of who I am and I'm trying and trying and trying to trust you with the single most sacred thing in the world to me because it's here, in this time and place that that sacred experience and the loss of it is making it impossible for me to connect because it's bigger than I expected and I didn't know if you were safe, but I was told you were and I'm trying! I'm trying so hard to trust you with this so that you might see me and then judge me or not, but if you do you'll at least be judging me for who I am, not for who you think I am, and if you don't judge me, if you just accept me, then I'll know that I'm safe and I belong, if you would just let me explain."

But by the time the other person had finished talking, another jumped in, and then before I could clarify, I was asked another question and I tried to hold it all together, but now my anxiety is so high that my fingers are aching so badly I can barely think of anything but the sensation of pins stabbing through my knuckles and the fire in my fingertips and I can't look to the person on my right as they ask their next question and still see the person on my left because I had chosen to edge a few inches out of that safe space because I really do trust you even if you don't see it, and now I'm trapped and I can't retreat and the questions just keep coming and there are so many voices in the room I can't begin to understand how I can possibly answer whatever the question was while other people try to explain the dynamics and I am told, "But what's important isn't what anyone else said or did. What's important is that you understand why you responded that way."

"I know exactly why I responded that way," I say. I've been trying to tell you for four weeks and no one will listen or let me find the words, in the moment, to clarify and then the moment is gone and there isn't a chance to go back and I'm being attacked with these questions that won't let me go back and now I feel like an electric current is running through my whole body just under my skin and it hurts and  the back of my throat is closed so tightly I can't swallow and I can barely breathe and I want to throw up because my stomach is roiling and I can hear the blood rushing in my ears and my brain feels like all of the electricity running beneath my skin is ending there and it's building until I can feel everything in me begin to short-circuit.

"Can you tell me why then?" a gentle voice asks me. And I know somewhere in the recesses of my mind that this voice is one that will hear, but I feel like a wounded animal, caged and beaten and desperate to be left alone to heal and recover.

"None of your business," I say with cold finality. And then silence. And I know that it's bad. I know that I've thrown away my chance to be understood. That gentle voice looks taken aback, surprised that I would pull so violently away at this moment. I've been trying for weeks to tell you this most important part of what this experience is for me and no one has listened. Everyone has spent an hour in an all out assault against me, nine to one, and now, now that I am at the end of everything, you ask me to open my heart that I've desperately been trying to show you for a month. You ask for the vulnerability everyone has actively rejected at every turn.

Beaten, broken, bleeding, I can't process the gentleness in that voice. All I know is that I am alone in this place where no one has been willing to know me; I am beaten and terrified and will do anything to protect myself; and opening my heart one more time hoping again that this time you might understand is not possible.

In that moment, I do not hear the gentleness as an earnest desire to understand. I hear it as a call to submission before you deal the fatal blow. "Tell me so that I can finally destroy you entirely."

"None of your business."


I am wrong.

I have to make this right.

But there isn't time.

And there are more voices and we're being ushered out, and I hope, I fervently hope, maybe next time I can make it right. I can go back and explain. I can tell you that I know you asked for all the right reasons and I missed it and I want to tell you so that you'll know because I want you to know, because even if you don't accept it, it's important for me to say it to you so that I will know that I have taken the risk and offered myself and regardless of the outcome, I know there is joy in the offering. I want you to know the joy of knowing who I am and I want the joy of knowing you. I want to start over. I want to begin again and I want to tell you, "THIS (the relationship, the life that was interrupted by death that left me incapacitated) is what I hold most dear in life and you deserve to know this, because we are all going to be living with this sacred experience in the next seven weeks and it's going to be here and you are going to feel it and you have a right to know what it is."

Shortly thereafter I learn there will be no next time.

Maybe with the intense trauma response I've been living with for the past four weeks it's better. I know that it's physically and emotionally safer than continuing without change. But I wanted the chance to make that change.

I want the chance, now that you've finally asked me, to tell you that this is a very painful but very welcome interruption. I want the chance to tell you that I don't know how to be in this space of welcome pain because I've spent my whole life trying to mitigate pain. I want to ask you, "Will you walk alongside me in that as we journey in this place together?" I want to tell you, "Wherever you're at in your journey, I'm willing to walk with you, too!"

But there will not be a next time.

After it all, I went to a movie. I entered the theater through a side door and saw kiosks in the lobby. They only take cards. I wanted to pay with cash.

I approach the customer service counter and ask the woman behind the counter where I can get a ticket. "We've got the kiosks right there," she said with a smile and a gesture.

"Oh, no. I mean, I wanted to pay cash. If possible. I have a card. I can certainly use it, I was just hoping...." I feel flustered and unsure.

"Cash payments can be done outside," she tells me.

"Oh. I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to bother you," I tell her, realizing that once again I'd made a mistake. "I didn't realize... I'm not from here and the set up is different...." I want her to understand that I tried. I really did try. I just didn't understand.

"I'm not really supposed to," she says, picking up on my distress, "but I'll let you pay here just this once. Since you didn't know. In the future, though, just remember cash outside, cards in."

"No, really, it's okay," I tell her, beginning to cry at having inconvenienced her and overwhelmed by her willingness to break the rules for me. "I'll just go outside to pay." I turn to leave the desk.

"No. I'd really like to. It's okay. I just know that not everyone would, and I wouldn't want you to be turned away again."

Tears are streaming down my cheeks now, and the delicate skin just beneath my eyes begins to sting as the saltwater hits the microscopic tears that the abundance of tissues used earlier in the day have left. "I'm so sorry," I sob to her. "I don't mean to cry. You haven't done anything wrong. I'm just having a really hard day."

"Oh, honey," she says, "I don't know what's going on, but I do know for sure it'll get better. Eventually, it always does. And I'd like to help you have a better day. I really want you to go to the movie as my guest. No charge."

"I can't...I don't...It's too much...Thank you," I say as she hands me the ticket.

"I'll say a prayer for you," she tells me, a sure sign of where I am in the country. "Theater 16, just to the right. It'll be just a few minutes until they start seating."

As I walk away, humbled by this unexpected generosity, feeling worse that I've so inconvenienced someone with my tears that they felt the need to care for me in the only way they could, I heard Jesus, clear as a bell, ask me, "Do you really believe that you are so undeserving of kindness?"

I begin to sob in earnest now and make a hasty beeline for the family restroom where I can keen and wail with the pain of this softly spoken truth. Perhaps if I were to believe that I do deserve kindness, from myself and from others, then I could accept invitations to know and be known as the gifts they are and not reject them as fiery arrows of attack from an unknown entity.

Now I know. I know that it is my own deep sense of unworthiness that has kept me from being able to declare, "Here I am, world! I trust you to treat me kindly, because we all deserve a bit of kindness, including me! But if there's a misunderstanding, it's okay, because I trust it isn't intentional and just maybe if I'm willing and you're willing we can figure it out together. But if we can't, it'll still be okay, because I know who I am, and that is enough."

I want to go back. But it simply isn't possible. All of the unspoken words that have filled me up for the past four weeks are spilling out of my fingertips with no one left to witness.