Monday, March 21, 2016

Sister Christian and the Bully Days

"Sister Christian
 Oh the time has come
 And you know that you're the only one
 To say

The song came on, after a flash of premonition. It popped into my head, just as the DJ said the theme for the morning was songs related to family. Goosebumps rose on my skin as the first familiar notes played and internally I shivered.

I had just been thinking of the song the previous night. It came out in the summer of 1984, the summer before I started 8th grade, I was twelve going on thirteen, and it spoke to me. It spoke to my pain and struggle in my emerging adolescence, my tender-hearted confusion, but most of all my loneliness.

I was reminiscing about that time purposefully after a couple close friends had suggested I do some writing about my experience being bullied in middle school. I was lying in bed, drifting there, letting flashes of feeling, smells, sounds, sights emerge, bone deep memory rising to the surface, and that song came playing from the depths of memory, almost haunting. My heart dripped with something close to longing for it. I felt the old familiar belly ache, like being punched squarely in the gut, breathless and penetrating.

"Where you going?
  What you looking for?
  You know those boys
  Don't want to play
  No more with you
  It's true."

It's true. Those boys did not want to play with me, nor did the girls. I was a loser, a geek, a reject. I didn't have the right clothes, the right hair, the right anything. I was picked on ruthlessly most days, other days mostly ignored, nonexistent, a nobody. I had a couple friends in the same boat as me. We clung to each other like girls overboard, in a cold and punishing sea.

What I went through in those middle school years we now call bullying, back then it was called teasing. Whatever you call it, it hurt like hell and ripped my young confidence to shreds, buried it alive, screaming. And honestly, at that time, there was no intervention to be had, it just didn't happen.
Even today it seems like a nearly impossible problem to overcome, adults can step in and attempt to intervene, it can help or hurt, but the damage is often already done. The damage goes deep.

I was teased about my clothes even though we wore uniforms, Catholic school. I didn't have brand names, and I sported K-Mart tennis shoes not Nikes. My face and body took constant hits, my hair, my teeth, how I smelled. I was called a dog, ugly, flat chested, freak. I always had to worry about getting a seat on the afternoon bus, as everyone piled in, usually no one would let me sit with them. I was consumed with anxiety every single day. My heart would race, jaw clenched, biting back tears or shrieks, stuffing things down into a widening chasm of ache and razor sharp pain, buried in flesh. Some events blaze in my memory, but the whole of it seems blurred, like a dirty smear on my own reflection. It is hard for me to fill in all the details, who said exactly what and when. Like many traumatized people, I tried to block it out, had to block out what I could, or perhaps I would not have survived.

"Babe you know you're growing up so fast
 And mama's worrying that you won't last
 To say let's play
 Sister Christian there's so much in life
 Don't you give it up
 Before your time is due"

Every time a kid commits suicide and it is attributed to bullying we all collectively gasp in horror. We wonder how such an awful thing could happen. People question why no one did anything, why no one knew? The bullying often goes unseen. It happens when people aren't looking. It happens in the bathroom, in the hallway, on the playground, in quietly passed notes and whispers, in sideways glances, in isolation tactics, and now, under cover of social media.

The victim of bullying is silenced by shame and humiliation, not only from the perpetrators, but also by not being seen, and when the problem is seen, it is often minimized. I think people may have noticed that I was being "teased", but the conventional wisdom was to scold the teasers, tell the victim, me, to brush it off, or toughen up, and that was that. Problem solved.

It did not solve my problem. The pain I endured was excruciating, and I did think about death, about running away. I just wanted to escape somehow. My favorite part of my days was sleep, and each night it seemed I had just closed my eyes, barely rested, and the alarm would throttle me to the beginning of another round. Another insult laden punch in the gut, or waiting for one, at any moment, around any corner. So much fear and pain, and brewing underneath that, anger, rage.

I was torn between hating my classmates intensely, violently, and on the other hand wanting desperately to win them over, somehow.

The summer of 1984, I loved the song Sister Christian and the video pulled at my heartstrings, it struck every lonely chord. The video featured a beautiful girl who seemed like me, a bit lost and lonely, apart from the crowd, trying to catch up. She had blonde hair cut in a bob, she wore a school uniform quite like mine. At the end of the video, she jumps in a car with the cool kids she has been wistfully watching, and is laughing and happy as they drive off into the sunset.

The summer of 1984 I cut my long, and very uncool hair, one of the objects of my taunting, into a Sister Christian bob. I managed to procure a pair of Nikes and some cheap make up. I thought this could be just the thing to save me from yet another year of dejection and wounding. I was wrong.

I got crushed.

"You're motoring
  What's your price for flight
  In finding mister right
  You'll be alright tonight"

Body shaming and sexual degradation are among the most punishing and cruel things that can be done to a young teenage girl. I was a late bloomer. I am small chested. That became the aim of a lot of cruel jokes, jokes that are abuse. I remember one day we had indoor recess and someone decided to draw depictions of my body and my best friend's body on the board. She was very tall and big chested, I was short and flat. They shot two birds with one stone of insult and shame. One person drew it, but everyone laughed. I wanted to disappear.

I remember, another time, a popular boy feigned asking me out in front of a bunch of kids. I told him to shut up, no way I was falling for that shit. He proceeded to laugh and say he had thought about tossing a dog a bone, but on second thought...gross.

The final insult, among so very many, happened at an eighth grade graduation party held in the school gym. Some of the kids, I don't even know who, or don't remember, made up these fortunes, like who we would be in the future. There on stage it was announced that I would be named "most shapely woman" in some year or another. I didn't register the minute detail. It was a dagger in my underdeveloped chest. They thought it was all in good fun. I wanted to go "Carrie" on all their asses. I wanted to crush them under a concrete wall of insult and injury, I wanted to bust jaws so no more words would come out. I wished they would hurt deep in their chests, bellies and bones the way I did. I wanted to hurl objects right out of my inner storehouse of injury and anger, now bloated and pressurized, explosive, if I had had the power of telekinesis I would have, but I did not.

Instead I turned it inward. I hated myself. I shut down. I became sullen, withdrawn, depressed, and oh so very angry. The impact of this bullying would continue to ripple through my life, and contribute to years of addiction and self destructive behavior. I spent high school and most of college stewing in self hate and hate for the world. I nurtured a contempt for life and those who seemed to skip happily through it. I was so fractured and emotionally hobbled that I longed to either escape or lash out. I tested limits with increasingly risky behavior. I wanted to spit in the eye of the world, because the world did not have a use for people like me. I clutched onto resentment and fell headlong into the darkness of despair. I alternated between numbing out and exploding in rage, other times crying uncontrollably, grief stricken, fixed in a straight-jacket of  unstoppable pain. Depression and anxiety tossed me deep into a suffocating undertow.  Yet there was a part of me that wanted life, that refused to be destroyed. I put my toe right up to the edge of the cliff, but never went past the tipping point, never fully opened to the impulse to jump. For that I am grateful.

I have continued to struggle with depression and anxiety my entire life, in part because of those years of torment. The bullying is not entirely to blame, but it was a major factor. It wounded me terribly. It contributed to my descent into years of deeply damaging behavior, and vicious self sabotage.

At the age of twenty I began the arduous work of healing and recovery. I decided I would fight for myself, that I would lay claim to my truth and my value. I put my feet on the path of the warrior, and I have taken a journey out of the darkness and toward my own light. It is really hard work, to this very moment. I slip and fall regularly. More importantly I have learned how to get back up.

"Sister Christian
  Oh the time has come
  And you know that you're
  The only one to say
  But you're motoring
  You're motoring"

Years after that final humiliation in the gym, I got an invitation to a class reunion. I was married to my loving husband for several years by then, we had our son Mason, and I was early in my second pregnancy. I wanted to go, but I was terrified. I didn't know if I could handle seeing them again, to be near them, to let them see me, and give them a chance to hurt me again. Stephen said I should go, so they could see how good my life had turned out, how awesome I am, and to prove that they did not get the best of me. He thought it would be an opportunity to finally get closure, and he would be right by my side.

As we crossed the street to the bar, it was cold and rainy, the wind whipped sharp and biting. It echoed the atmosphere of my emotions. I was scared, I recoiled at the thought of their faces and voices, part of me wanted desperately to turn and run. But the warrior part of me was dying to step into the room tall and strong, shining in my vitality, in my pretty dress with my strong legs, and my warrior heart. My mere presence would be my testimony to the strength of me, and it was.

I chatted and smiled, I spoke confidently about my life, what I had accomplished. I bragged on my husband and our growing family and showed off pictures of our beautiful baby boy.

One classmate actually apologized to me for the horrible way I had been treated, and for the part she had played in it. That was powerful medicine, the acknowledgement, even more than the apology. It was like finally hearing that I was not invisible after all, she saw me. It is something to have someone bear witness to experience, even over a decade after it happened.

That night I faced demons; demons in the forms of people I once knew, demons in the form of feelings and fears, demons of a girl deeply wounded. I faced it, and by doing so, another level of healing could happen.

After getting through the small talk I felt somewhat avenged, set free. So I took my perfect as it is body, baby bump and all, to the dance floor and I let it fly.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Getting Past the Gag Order

the moth in the dark
flutters like the lost dew drops
and then goes away

~haiku I wrote in third grade

Our words are our most potent tools. Language is the most transformational force in human experience, and it deeply informs our relationships with each other. Words have the power to create or destroy, to foster peace or ignite war, to heal or harm on every level. I have always felt a great kinship with words and writing in particular. Writing gave me my first truly impactful experience of feeling seen, of having talent, of being an intelligent artist. Words, for me, have always been rooted in a desire to express feeling and to create beauty. I have been writing poetry since I was a child. My poems, whether expressing joy, sorrow, anger, or despair, whether rising from my light or my shadow, have always had this quest for truth and beauty at the heart of them. I have evolved over the years as a writer. I write both prose and poetry now. I write to heal, I write to understand, I write to reach out. It is a quest for authenticity, truth, vulnerability and connection.

Sadly, I see, and have experienced, all too often, words, both spoken and written, being used to harm, to control, and to abuse. Bullying, gossiping, and all aggressive and passive aggressive misuses of the power of language are hugely destructive. This is a degradation of our most powerful possibility, it devalues our human gift, it puts us in the bondage of hurt and shame. It has driven me to continue writing, pushing my edges, and risk creating and expressing from my heart.

One of the most challenging things about writing with the intention of sharing publicly is what I would call gag orders. These are not orders of the official kind, but ones that come from, often subtle and implied, social conventions, statements of judgment around vulnerability and transparency, advisements to not rock the boat, the threat of outright bullying, and the often abusive intrusion of trolls. I have actually experienced only parts of this personally, I have never been trolled, but I know it is out there, I know it can happen. It does, and the mere chance of it occurring, often causes me to hesitate, to consider and reconsider, and to be honest, it affects my writing. Knowing that a wrong word, idea or opinion could result in rejection, judgment, and even brutal verbal assault, has kept me from saying things full on, it has kept my writing smaller than it wants to be. I know I am not the only writer who lives in that fear, it takes great courage to go beyond it.

These external forces and implied gag orders contribute to another silencing force, this one even harder to break through, the binding strictness and doubt that comes from within. My inner struggle is a choke hold that goes right into core wounds. Those places of inner hurt and self doubt that are sensitive and raw, my feelings of unworthiness, stories I carry about my lack of ability and intelligence, my fear of being wrong, my fear of being rejected. Ultimately, my fear of finding out that after all this questing for truth and revelation, that I will finally be confronted with my inadequacy, that I am just not good enough.

As a child I often felt like the moth of my haiku, fluttering, a bit lost in the darkness. I didn't fit in. I was awkward, different. I never won at the math fact games or geography quizzes. I got my first ++ grade on that haiku, with two gold stars to boot. I was surprised to hear I was really good at something. I often spent recess time on my own, not unhappy, in my own world. A moth searching for something in the dark, searching for myself. Then, as a young teen, I was verbally bullied at school, my sense of safety was shattered and fear became overwhelming. I flew into the darkness, I made myself hard and untouchable. I shut off parts of my heart, and became angry and numb. External and internal gag orders issued. Command received.

Over time, and with a lot of hard work, healing has happened. I have come out of that shell and found my voice again. I am finding more and more courage to speak, and to come back to my writing. I have received support and guidance from fellow travelers on this path to truth. I am reclaiming myself. I forge ahead, learning about skillful communication and potent expression, the medicine of words.

Words can be used to heal and they can be used to cause harm. I want to be a healer, a medicine woman.

I have given people some genuine and solid advice about their struggles with their own gag orders and choke holds, both the external and internal kind, as they are intimately related. We have all grown up and been conditioned to self censor, to be polite, to hide our truth, to some degree or another, and then we take that into all our relationships and interactions. This is not just writers or artists I realize. We all deal with these gag orders every day. We end up becoming both enforcers and victims of these rules and regulations, and they keep us from true intimacy and deep understanding. I have advised others to be bold, to be vulnerable, because the only way to change this is if people start taking the risk to speak their truth. That advice is correct and I stand by it, but I also understand the fear that rises up when I stand in front of the potential consequences myself.

If I reject these gag orders and allow my writing and my way of being to evolve, if I allow my voice to grow, if  I commit to that journey of vulnerability and truth, if  I show myself and allow myself full expression of who I am...if I do that...I do risk rejection, judgment, insult, trolling...I may upset people, I may lose friends, but in my heart I know what there is to be gained as well.

If I do it, I get freedom.

It is that simple, and that powerful. When we step out of the shadows, and reject the gag orders, then and only then, can we learn, together, about right relationship with ourselves and each other, about a life of action and sincerity. Powerful communication is transparent and vulnerable, it is not ruthless or violent. Freedom of expression is not a license to harm others. In fact, it is about sharing our own experiences and feelings, and taking responsibility for them. It has no room for scapegoating, blaming or shaming. We will make messes of course, no doubt, we will make all kinds of mistakes, but mistakes, when we are living and speaking in truth, can be opportunities to grow and evolve.

If we unshackle ourselves, and claim our right to speak and be heard, and also commit to listening to each other, we all win. We get freedom. We will know about compassion and love. We will be empowered and safe in each others company. We will stand in truth and honesty. What could be better than that? I know it is a long road ahead to get there. It is a dream. But, if one by one we begin, and grab the hand of those near us, we can get there. I am sure we can.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

good ol' days

  your good ol' days
  don't seem so good
  with stretchers for broken bodies
  and your boot heel crushing the heart
  of a dream

 you'll say i'm too young
 too young to see
 the real world
 the cold world
 the world you call home

in my soft middle age
you see weakness
i have my battle scars
and i refuse to fall

in my feminine form
you see frailty
you see difference as
the rungs beneath you
to step on

but we are gathering before you

women and men
of every color
every background
a multitude

you can have your good ol' days
we are marching on

your good ol' days
don't seem so good
cuz you froth at the mouth
at their memory
and seethe all the way
to the angry skin
of your screaming face

are you afraid?

i glimpse a scared child
hiding there in the crease
of your furrowed brow
a little boy

you told that girl
standing her ground
so courageously
to go home to her mommy

do you need yours?

in the dark night
of your good ol' days
did you cry out
for her arms?

have you been on that stretcher, broken?
who put their heel on your heart?

if you take us back
to your good ol' days
when the walls are built
and the bodies are broken
when the stretchers have taken out
all of the casualties
of your so called righteous battle

you say we will be great again
i wonder what we will remain

when the destructive dust settles

and we do rise
from those ashes
still a people
but torn at the seams
of our very souls

who will hold you then?

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Change of Momentum

I have been struggling for a number of weeks now with a fairly intense flare up of depression. The weather had been dark and rainy for many days, causing me to feel heavy and unmotivated. I took to my couch whenever I had a chance, and soothed myself with excessive portions of Netflix, binging and numbing at its finest. I became increasingly unhappy with myself, feelings of self doubt and inadequacy occupied my mind, my body wracked with a profuse ache, so the cycle goes. Depression had the momentum.

Fortunately, I have been through this enough to know that I am stronger and more resilient than depression is. I have discovered over the years a skill set that works to assuage the crushing force of a depressive cycle. Depression comes and depression always goes, and I know how to push against it and take back my life force. The momentum always turns back to me in the end. I win.

Today I can say the momentum has fully shifted, and the fog is lifting. I got through the dark days by giving myself permission to be, and at the same time, digging into my disciplined will to do the things I know I must to create a pathway out. First I told my support people, my husband and a few close friends who understand and have my back. Second, even though I spent a lot of time couch bound I also moved my body. I went for runs, danced to a song or two, did my yoga practice. I also kept my commitments to yoga classes I teach, and the immensely important work of being a mom. These are the things that get me through.

And then, the clouds parted, the sun returned, literally and figuratively. My mood began to lift and shift, but some heaviness was holding on. Then over the weekend my patient and persistent husband got me out, on a beautiful day, to do something I used to love to do, but had not done in a long time, and was now afraid of trying anew, getting on my road bike. The last time I rode my bike was over three years ago, and the last time I got on my bike was to participate in a triathlon. My loss of cycling touches a greater nerve, that being, feelings of loss of self I have experienced in moving abroad, a loss of ground, cycling being one thing among many that seemed to have become an, "I used to...".

We drove to a riverside bike path, traffic free and flat. Even there, I told Stephen about how nervous I felt, afraid in reality. What was that fear? Fear of falling, fear of failing, those are fears that stalk me, and here they were again. But I got on my bike and I began, first with great hesitation and over the ten mile jaunt with a blossoming renewal of confidence. Moving through fear to reclaim joy. Moving steadily through the dark patch knowing that the light is returning. Momentum shifts.

Today the rain and dark have returned, and knowing where that can take me I put on my running shoes and went seven strong miles. It felt invigorating, I felt powerful. I am keeping the momentum on my side. I know that another challenging time will surely come, and I will be ready to take it on.

But for now, in the present moment I know who I am, a strong and vital woman with so much to give, that is the truth. It is the truth of each and every one of us, even though sometimes we can't see it, the essence of us can never be lost. That is what I have learned, what I know in my heart, and I extend it to you.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

a call to courage

where there is breath
life reigns victorious
a heart yet beating
drums a call
to step into the circle
and dance

the soil of the heart may grow despair
but also births deep roots of joy
dig out the stones from the field
a bounty of color will flower
that is the richness of life