Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Love. Forgiveness.

I seem to be having nightmares more frequently of late.  Last night I wasn’t hungry, but I wanted to eat.  I didn’t know what I wanted.  I knew what I didn’t want – I didn’t want protein, carbs, fat, or sweet treats.  I didn’t want food.  But I wanted to eat.  I did not eat.  Instead, I watched an episode of Babylon 5 with David and went to bed after a glass of milk.  This was a compromise on my part – I was no longer full from dinner and it tasted delicious.
And last night I dreamt again about my sister.  This time it was the tennis ball.
I must have been 12 or 13.  It was after she moved home from foster care and before my parents reunited.  And some stupid fight broke out over a tennis ball.  A tennis ball that didn’t have an owner and with which I was playing.
And of course, this was utterly unacceptable to her.  And she demanded that I give it to her and to the neighbor who was her best friend at the time.  And I refused.  I knew she would try to take it anyway.  She always demanded anything she wanted and if she wasn’t given it, she simply took it.  Always.
So it was with the tennis ball.  She demanded it.  I didn’t want to relent this time.  I wanted to stake my claim.  It didn’t belong to anyone.  I had been playing with it first.  I wasn’t done with it.  I had been enjoying myself.  I wanted to continue to play.
When I wouldn’t give it to her, she hit me.  And she kept hitting me.  She hit me until I was lying on the floor in the fetal position, curled around that tennis ball, unwilling to let her take yet one more thing from me.
And so she left.  She and her friend left the house.  And just for good measure, she kicked me in the eye on her way out.
And she kicked me so hard that the blood vessels in my eye ruptured.  And the white of my eye was stained with ruby spots of blood.  And my mother was at work until 11:00 that night.  So, when she returned home the next morning and I told her what had happened and had her look at my eye, of course it was my fault.  I should have just given her the damn tennis ball.  And besides, what was I talking about?  My mother couldn’t see anything wrong with my eye.
But I went into the bathroom and looked again.  And there they were – those red dots of blood.  And sure enough the neighbors asked what happened to my eye.  And people at church on Sunday asked what had happened to my eye.  And no matter how many times I made my mother look at my eye, she couldn’t see it.  There was nothing wrong.  Why hadn’t I just given my sister the tennis ball in the first place?
My sister continues to do the same thing today – always striving to take from others what she wants, believing that she can’t truly have it for herself if she does not have it all.  If I am happy in my relationship, she finds some way to disparage it and to claim that her own happiness in her relationship is greater.  If I take pride in my academic accomplishments, she insists that they amount to nothing of value in this world and that she has accomplished what truly matters in life – reproduction.  If I take pride in my vocation, this sacred and holy work that I love, she declares that my faith tradition is invalid and she alone has divine knowledge that is worthy of being held.  If I hold to my faith and tell her with all genuineness that I am happy she has found a faith tradition that is meaningful to her, she switches faith traditions, enters into my own, and declares how much more she is getting from this community than I ever did.
And I’m tired.  I am not in competition with her and I’m tired of being set up for a competition that I have no interest in.  And I’m tired of the continual reworking of the story when I tell her I won’t compete and I’m happy that she’s happy and that nothing in my life is a poor reflection of her, just as nothing going on in her life changes my own experiences.  It still never stops.  She still demands all the tennis balls, never mind that she has no tennis racket and never learned to play the game.
I woke up this morning with an idea in my mind that was, all at once and in equal measure, both wonderful and terrifying. 
It was this: I never have to see my family again.
I never have to see my family again.
I never have to see my family again.
This, of course, breaks the first rule of my family – loyalty to your family is everything.  It also means stepping outside the bounds of the second rule of my family while appearing to keep in holding with it – inside the family, every man, woman, child for themselves only.
I have my own life in a place far away.  I have a new family that I am building with D – one built on love and respect and the belief that there is enough for everybody and nobody needs to hoard it all or to deprive everyone else.  I never have to see my family of origin ever again.  Though I would, in fact, happily spend time with my mother or either of my brothers circumstances permitting, of course.
There is something liberating in this truth and yet the power to make such a bold decision overwhelms and terrifies me.
It used to be that when I meditated, I focused on the movement of my breath.  “In.  Out.  In.  Out.”  Lately I have been trying something new.  Two thoughts that carry on, distinct and separate, but wholly entwined and dependent on one another.  “Love.  Forgiveness.  Love.  Forgiveness.
I have been focusing on these ideas as I try to enhance my capacity to love others and to extend forgiveness to those who have hurt me.  Today, I breathed in love and I breathed out forgiveness.  My mind was drawn to the possibility (the glorious possibility) that I can choose to never see my father or my sister again.  I brought my focus back to my breath.
And I began to cry.  Choosing not to allow abusive and bullying people into my life is an act of love for myself.  When those bullying and abusive people are family, I would have to forgive myself for breaking the family rules.  Love.  Forgiveness.  In.  Out.  Love.  Forgiveness.
And the possibility that just maybe there are tennis balls enough to go around.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Falling In Love is a Risky Endeavor

I was seven and my sister was eleven when Star Wars, Episode VI, Return of the Jedi aired on network television (NBC).  Our whole family had been looking forward to it and we were all going to sit down and watch it together.  We had previously watched Episode IV and Episode V, A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back respectively, when they had aired on network television in previous years.

The thing about Start Wars is, I enjoyed.  And enjoying anything was dangerous in my childhood.  It was an open invitation to abuse from my sister.  I still remember her long flannel nightgown with the ruffled hem and her copper-blond hair with the frizzy tight curls of an ‘80s perm.  My own hair was platinum blonde until middle school and continued to grow in progressively darker as time went on.

I don’t remember any specifics of this – just knowing that my sister always found an excuse to quash my joy.  She could never stand to allow anyone to be happier than her.  In fact, she could never stand to allow anyone else to be happy at all, regardless of how happy she was.  Not much has changed in the past 28 years.

When I was young, sleep was my defense mechanism.  I could sleep through anything.  I slept through an extraordinary amount of domestic violence that my father enacted against my mother.  Beatings, humiliations, at least two attempts at murder.  My siblings witnessed all of these – I only saw the aftermath of the majority.  I slept soundly and deeply and nothing could rouse me until my mind and my body told me it was safe.

What I remember most from Star Wars, Episode VI is the Ewok Village.  I wanted an Ewok more than anything.  As an adult I can’t really remember what purpose they served the film and, with a hefty dose of cynicism, I suspect their sole purpose might have been a marketing ploy – one more way to sell kids on the idea of having their own piece of the wider galaxy and one more way to get parents to part with $20.00 for a toy that cost $0.20 to make.

As an adult, I’ve tried watching Star Wars at least four times.  None of my friends can believe that I didn’t fall in love with the movies growing up – just like they did!  What no one seems to realize is that being the focal point of so much abuse from my sister made falling in love with anything a risky venture.  

Every time I’ve tried to watch any of the Star Wars movies as an adult, I’ve fallen asleep within 15 minutes of hitting the “Play” button.  It does not matter how awake and full of energy and verve I was when I sat down.  The music and the opening credits and introduction of Luke Skywalker and I’m fast asleep.

D is equally as horrified by this gap in my film knowledge as every other friend I have.  This is, for him, a fatal flaw.  It’s not a deal breaker.  But it is a fatal flaw.  With the new Star Wars movie coming out next month, he’s determine to rectify what he sees as failure of in my upbringing and introduce me to Star Wars all over again and help me fall in love with Star Wars like he did and like so many of my other friends did.

And I’m trying.  I managed to stay awake through the entirety of A New Hope.  I don’t really remember much of it from that viewing two weeks ago.  It was after watching Episode IV, however, that D settled on a theory for my failure to connect with and deeply love these films: it’s the music.  So much of what makes Star Wars what it is is the soundtrack.  If I could just let myself experience the music, if I would just open myself up to it, I could find some glimmer of the love he has for it.

So, we tried.  Or rather, I tried.  We sat down the other night to watch Episode V, The Empire Strikes Back.  "Remember," he said to me, "pay attention to the music.  The music is what makes the movie."

To stay awake past the three minute mark, I paid half attention to the movie and half attention to a game on my phone.  When I ran out of lives on this “match three” game, I handed my phone to D and tried to give all my focus to the screen.  

To keep myself awake, I tried to connect the dots of what was going on on the screen.  What were the gaps, would they be filled in, how much did I remember, how much did I forget, would any of these questions be answered?  D grew frustrated with my incessant questions as I spoke over the dialogue of the movie at some critical junctures and asked me to at least hold my questions until each scene I was questioning had ended.  I tried.  I barely kept my eyes open.  

I couldn’t tell you now, 20 hours later, how it all ended.  I just don’t remember anything after the tauntaun and Yoda.  Though typing this now helps me to recall Luke’s foolish rescue venture, the trap, and his fateful final scene with Darth Vader, losing his hand, jumping to his possible death and being saved by Leia and Chewbacca in the Millennium Falcon.  (And I only know the name of this ship because my best friend named her car in college after it and I was humiliated publicly for not getting the reference).

I couldn’t lift my legs sufficiently after the movie to make my way to bed with any kind of ease.  Upon making reaching the summit of our staircase, I headed to the bathroom, peeled my contact lenses from my weary eyes, and brushed my teeth.  A few minutes later, I crawled into bed and fell fast asleep and deeply asleep, my body curled around D’s pillow for comfort.

When D came to bed about an hour and an half later, I did not notice.  I woke up several times in the course of the night, restless and uncomfortable.  I was surprised to find him beside me and to find that he had reclaimed his pillow in the process of making his way to bed.

What I remember most from what D calls “anxiety dreams” and I called “nighttime resurrections of my nightmarish childhood” is flashes of images.  That frizzy permed hair.  The ruffled hem of that flannel nightgown.  Pain in my body and the feeling of having my soul pillaged.

Of course I can’t connect with Star Wars.  Falling in love with anything is a dangerous affair.  Of course I don’t connect with the music.  I don’t really connect with any music.  She stole that from me, too.

But I’m learning how to fall in love again.  And this time I know that it’s safe.  So maybe there is hope for Star Wars.  But D shouldn’t hold his breath.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

An Autobiographical Reflection on Suffering

TW for sexual violence.....

It was Halloween, October 31, 2007.  I had just started my last year in seminary.

Seminary was a difficult time for me.  I didn’t really fit in at Union.  I was a conservative Evangelical, attending a conservative Evangelical church, going to a small group Monday nights and helping out at services twice on Sundays.  I was a student leader in an internationally known, conservative, Evangelical student ministry and was attending meetings and leading a bible study every Friday night.

Every morning I would get up at 4:30am and go running in Riverside Park.  I would return home, shower, eat breakfast, and have my morning devotional.  By 6:00am I was studying and doing homework.  I had classes in the morning, clinical hours at the hospital in the afternoons.  I was in bed every night by 8:00pm when I wasn’t at a small group or church or leading a bible study.

I was also depressed and feeling isolated.  My colleagues were going to dinner at the time I was going to bed.  They didn’t read their bibles or attend small groups.  They were liberals who supported pro-choice legislation and marriage equality.  Apart from attending the same school, we had nothing in common. 

I had good fellowship with the student ministry I was serving across the street, but I only saw them once a week, on Friday nights, when I was particularly exhausted at the end of a long week and wanted more than anything to just crawl into bed.  I was treated with suspicion at church in spite of my service and confession of faith because I attended that liberal “cemetery.”

This particular Wednesday night, I went out with some friends from the hospital after my clinical hours.  I had been recently developing a closer friendship with one of the unit assistants and counseling her on the inappropriateness of her living with her boyfriend – particularly as she considered herself to be a Christian.  This particular Wednesday night, we went to a local bar, for some drinks and revelry.  It’s like an Applebee’s – but with better food and karaoke set up in one corner.  I've never been one to drink much or often, so I stuck to club soda.  

A clarification:  That I was drinking club soda is not included to indicate that women who do choose to consume alcoholic beverages and who are assaulted have contributed, in anyway, to their victimization.  It is merely included as fact of the evening.

At the bar, there were a lot of people, wearing a lot of different costumes; it was Halloween, after all.  I went as a chaplain – last year of seminary, a CPE student; see how that works?  There was a man in the bar who was not unattractive, and who struck up a conversation with me. We talked for a bit, and decided some kissing might be a pleasant way to pass a few minutes.

Frankly, I prefer not to do my kissing in front of other people.  It's personal and intimate, and no one really wants to see me sucking face with a total stranger anyway, so we headed somewhere more private.

As I lived just up the street and he was visiting friends from out of town, we headed to my apartment.  I made clear up front that I was interested in kissing only.  He agreed that this was acceptable.

We made it back to my apartment, and I showed him to the restroom.  When he re-entered my room, he was stark naked and standing between me and the only door.

He proceeded to forcibly remove my clothing, shove me up against my bed, and force me to lean over the bed.  Using one hand to hold my torso down and yanking my hair back with the other to the point that my airway was constricted and I could barely breathe, he forced my legs apart and he raped me, penetrating every part of me.

When my dog, my five pound Yorkshire Terrier, Willy Wonka attacked this man, he stopped, let me up, grabbed my dog, and threw him into the wall across the room.  Willy Wonka slid down the wall, stood up, shook his head, and renewed his attack.

Seeing this man lunge for my dog again, I called Willy Wonka quietly to me and locked him in his kennel where he would be safe.

The attack continued, and I was pinned to the bed, on my back.  Blissfully, I could breathe again.  In theory.

In reality, I was crying so hard I could barely catch my breath, as I pleaded and begged this man to stop.  "No," I said.  "Please, no.  Not that.  Please, don't.  Please, stop.  I don't want to do that."

This is not suffering.

This is horrible.  This is horrifying.

This is violation.

This is violence and invalidation and pain.

This is hours of desperation to survive.

This is not suffering.

Suffering comes later.

Eventually, he left.

I am alone. 

Not even God can enter this place and touch my fear and pain and trauma.  God is as absent from this place as I am broken.

I sit in the shower crying, scrubbing my skin raw.  I crawl into bed, my skin and hair still wet.  I stare at a wall.  Willy Wonka curls up by my feet.  I hide from the world.  I try to hide from myself.

Rinse and repeat.

I called my best friend the next day.  I cried.  I told her it was a one-night stand.  Who would believe that I had been raped?  I had spent the evening in a bar, where I met a man, and a few hours later, invited him back to my apartment for some private kissing.  What did I think was going to happen?  Did I really expect that he would listen to me when I said kissing was all I was interested in?  He'd left the bar and his friends and traveled to my neighborhood.  Did I really think I had a right to expect that he wouldn't pressure me into sex, or take from me what I had clearly told him I would not give him?

A digression:  Rape culture tells women that if you go to a bar, meet a man, take him home for some casual kissing, and you are raped, it's your fault, because everyone knows that going home with a stranger is the equivalent of consent.  Except it is not consent.  Rape is never the victim's fault.

Rape culture convinces women to believe this lie.  I bought into for nearly a year.

Suffering comes the next day and every day for the next month as blood pools in the toilet every time I have a bowel movement.  Suffering comes every year for the next six years when, for two weeks every year – one week on either side of the anniversary – blood pools in the toilet every time I have a bowel movement.

Suffering comes six days later when I have consensual sex with the lawyer.  I did not want the assault to be the last time a man ever touched me.  I knew this would be the last time a man ever touched me.  I feel contaminated, tainted, dirty.

Suffering comes sixteen weeks later when I go to the doctor to be tested for sexually transmitted infections.  “Why did you wait so long?”  Most sexually transmitted infections can be cured.  Herpes cannot be.  It’s uncomfortable, but there’s nothing to be done about it.  HIV cannot be.  It’s deadly, but it takes eight weeks for the viral load to be detectable in the blood.

“It’s been longer than eight weeks.”  I couldn’t get out of bed.  I’ve been depressed.  “Because of this?”  No.  Because Tim’s death superseded this.  “Who was it?”  Somehow “Spiderman” seems like an inadequate response.  I hadn't gotten his name, and it's not as though he left a business card or phone number when he left.  I tell my doctor, honestly, that I do not know.  Why does no one believe I do not know who did this to me?

"Was it someone you met in a bar?  Someone who works at your school?  An acquaintance, perhaps?  This was date rape, wasn't it?"

A digression:  date rape is a bullshit made up term for the purposes of minimizing the horrifying experience of being violently sexually violated by someone you know, because it does not fit the cultural (mis)conception that rape is an act that is committed against a certain type of woman, committed by a certain type of perpetrator.  

Date rape is a bullshit made up term used to communicate to a woman that her experience of violation and assault isn't really rape because if she knew the man who assaulted her, she must have done something to indicate she was okay with it.  Something like inviting a man she'd recently met in a bar back to her apartment for a little bit of kissing in private after making clear the expectation that kissing was all that was going to happen.

Suffering comes a year later.  My therapist is on maternity leave and though I was confident I could manage for six weeks without an appointment, the first anniversary comes and I am overwhelmed.  I am bleeding.  I am terrified.

I make an appointment with the back-up therapist she’s given me a number for, her office mate.  “How do you know it was rape?”  I said no.  I begged him to stop.  I pleaded for him to stop.  I cried the whole time.  I said no.  “Maybe to him it was just rough sex.”  Why do I have to keep justifying the validity of my experience?

Suffering comes when I say the word “rape” because I am immediately in that space again, terrified, choking, hoping merely to survive.  I use the more generic term, stating vaguely that I’ve been sexually assaulted.  It softens the reality of the brutal attack on my body and lets me pretend that some part of me is not irreparably broken.

Suffering comes six and half years later when I try to do CPE again.  Being in a hospital ED is at times terrifying.  I talk to my supervisor.  His slow, southern drawl can be comforting.  I explain how I had been out with friends on Halloween.  I had been depressed for some weeks and was trying to find ways to connect with others.  We went to a bar in Washington Heights – a local joint.  “I bet you never made that mistake again.”  There were a lot of things I stopped doing after it happened.

Suffering comes when my family members and friends learn of this and become angry with the man who did this to me.  Why has it suddenly become my role to comfort and reassure them that I am okay?

Suffering comes seven years later when I meet my partner and I continue to have flashbacks. 

Suffering does not come when, early in my relationship, I ask my partner how he can be so okay with this and the fact that it impacts our relationship.  “It happened.  And it happens way too often.  It does no good to pretend otherwise or to punish you for the way it affects you.”

Suffering comes when my partner touches my hair during intimate moments and my neck and shoulders tense as terror floods my body, tears begin to pool at the corners of my eyes, and I silently remind myself that this is not the same.  My partner is touching my hair gently.  My partner is not pulling my hair.  My partner would never pull my hair.  My partner will not hurt me. My partner will not harm me.

Suffering comes when I say nothing to my partner in the moment because I do not want him to think he’s done something wrong. 

Suffering comes when I work through it alone, in the moment when I am least alone, because I do not want to let what happened then affect the life I am living now.

Suffering comes when I consider cutting off my hair because maybe then I can cut this memory out of my life – this memory that lives in my skin, muscle, sinew, bones.

Suffering comes when I miss the waist-length hair I had the day it happened and I remember that cutting it off once before did not work.

Suffering comes when, two weeks later, I finally work up the courage to ask my partner, “When you touch my hair in intimate moments, you would never pull my hair, right?”

Suffering comes again when he answers, “Of course not.  I just like feeling your hair between my fingers.” 

We are lying in bed; I am curled up against his side.  Though I prefer to rest my head directly on his chest, his chest hair often tickles my nose.  He refuses to shave the line of my profile into his chest hair.  I’ve asked.  The duvet rests between my cheek and his chest.  I am grateful because I know he will not feel the tears that roll down my cheek and fall to the cover.

“You know I want you to tell me if I ever do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable, right?”

Suffering comes when I tell him yes and know that I will not, when I realize that I will deal with this alone, just as I lived through it alone, just as I survived it alone, just as I have dealt with it alone since it happened.