Tenderloin to Castro

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After a pleasant flight to San Francisco, my boyfriend and I took a long Lyft ride into the city, sharing the car with another couple, two lawyers from Los Angeles, in town for “my middle school best friend’s baby shower!” The flight had been relaxed and comfortable, the plane only about 1/8th full, giving everyone plenty of space to spread out and relax.

We had pre-arranged a place to stay in the Tenderloin, an area on the north-eastern side of San Francisco, weeks before. It was described as a comfortable condo in an up-and-coming neighborhood. It was only later that we had learned from friends that this was one of the more dangerous areas of town. The Lyft driver let us off in front of the entrance to our condo, a gated doorway nestled in between an Chinese laundromat and an ethnic food store of some kind. A man in bandages sat on the sidewalk outside, a woman in a wheelchair was bundled up in tattered blankets, and a man with no teeth eyed our suitcases suspiciously.

Our host met us at the door, jogging down the block toward us from his work like some kind of super model. He was tall, lithe, and black, well-dressed with an incredible smile. He was also very straight. He greeted us with enthusiasm, said his name was Taye, and showed us into his tiny condo. He lived here, he explained, and worked at a start-up company down the road, one that was launching a new merchandise-sharing app. He liked to rent his condo out to guests and then go stay with his fiancee at her place. He showed us how to use the shower, invited us to eat the food in his fridge, and then rushed off back to work.

The condo was small. A kitchen counter with appliances, a sofa bed, a window, and a small enclosed bathroom. But this was San Francisco, and the place would do. The boyfriend, however, felt nervous in this neighborhood, and wondered if we would feel safe coming and going at any time of day. I wondered how I would spend my time in the 2 hours after I woke up and before he did without a different room to move into. Those early morning hours can be both a blessing and a curse for me.

After a few minutes, we realized how cold it was in the condo, and noticed there was only one blanket on the bed. I messaged Taye quickly about it, and he responded quickly that the heater was broken. He said that if we get cold, we were welcome to run the oven at a high temperature an just open the door, that it could warm the place up. I told him I didn’t feel safe doing that for three full days, then he recommended that I rent a heater. His start-up company liked to connect people with each other. I would just need to provide him with my Email address and full name, then download an app, and he could get a heater lined up for me that could be delivered in 1 to 4 hours, and I quickly responded that I would not be doing that.

The boyfriend and I had a good laugh for a bit. The last time we traveled together, to Minneapolis, we had an extremely negative experience with Airbnb. We had paid for a room and the host had never shown up, and it had taken the company several hours to get us new accommodations, ones that turned out to be extremely inconvenient. But between the sketchy neighborhood and the very cold room with no blankets, I decided to call and complain. The suggestion to run the oven, and the instruction to download an app, it all just suddenly felt very weird.

Airbnb took our complaint, and noted that the listing online had indeed advertised that a heater was in the room, something that I felt shouldn’t have to be requested at the prices we had already paid. They then reached out to Taye, giving him a deadline to call back within. Taye then called me, wondering why I was calling the company when he had been trying to help. He said he would order the heater for us, fine, we just had to wait there for it for 1 to 4 hours, and I told him we wouldn’t  be willing to do that as we were on vacation. He then frustratedly said he would find a way to get it there. Then Airbnb called back, saying Taye hadn’t called them back and that they were changing our reservations.

It happened quickly after that. I sent Taye a message explaining what had happened, and I left 10 dollars on his counter because we had used his shower. I felt bad right away, he was going to be out the money we had already paid, and likely fined by Airbnb for not having a heater. (The oven, the app, I reminded myself, but I still felt bad.) Suddenly we were being moved to a nicer area of town, our unpacked bags being put into a new Lyft to the Castro. Rushing away from Taye’s place, I felt like I had stolen something and needed to get out of the store before the employees noticed. We rushed hurriedly out the door, dreading the possibility of seeing him.

Before we arrived at the new accommodations, I received a series of frustrated messages from Taye. He said he hadn’t done anything wrong, that he had gone out of his way to bring us a heater because we had complained, and that he had entered the apartment to find a ‘measly ten dollar bill and a note’ waiting. Initially, I felt terrible and awkward, but soon we were being introduced to Jose, a kind man who lived with his husband and rented out his beautiful basement apartment. There was coffee and snacks, a huge beautiful bathroom, a comfy large bed with pillows and blankets, and a living room where two giant stuffed bears sat on the couch. It was inviting, spacious, and comfortable, like a home away from home should be.

Surviving Trauma: learning from Elizabeth Smart

When Elizabeth Smart was 14 years old, an evil man who called himself the prophet Emmanuel found an open window in her home, sliced open the screen, climbed inside her bedroom, and took her away from her family whispering threats in her ears. He marched her up to a high hilltop in the mountains above Salt Lake City where he raped her, as his wife watched. Over the next nine months, he systematically raped her, abused her, starved her, forced her to drink alcohol, kept her in isolation, and threatened her and her family again and again and again. At times, he and his wife paraded her in public in a white veil, threatening her if she spoke up or ran away. After months on the mountain in Utah, he took her to southern California, and on their journey back months later she was finally rescued by the police and returned to her family, the man and his wife going to jail (I simply refuse to use the kidnappers names in this entry).

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Before her kidnapping, Elizabeth was an innocent and spiritual Mormon teenager, who played the harp and loved her family. And after her rescue, Elizabeth took a bath, hugged her family, slept in her own bed, and woke the next morning ready to live. Using horseback riding as her therapy, as well as her belief in God and family, she has gone on to be an advocate for girls and women rescued from captivity, and she is speaking out against the “rape culture”, where systems are set in place that increase sexual assaults against women by doing things like teaching abstinence only in schools or teaching children to follow spiritual leaders at all costs. Now a wife and a mother, Elizabeth has written a about her kidnapping, and she details how she never gave up hope, how she healed, and how she has moved forward.

Toward the end of her book, Elizabeth discusses how she has much to be grateful for. She survived and returned to her family after only months; her kidnapper was a stranger and not someone in her family, someone whose photo hangs on the wall of her home to be looked at every day; her kidnapper was apprehended and locked away; her family surrounded her with love and hope and support and optimism.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited children, roughly 800,000 American children are reported every year; that is about 2000 per day. The majority of these are runaways or family abductions, with nonfamily or stranger abductions happening far less frequently. While I can’t personally verify these statistics, it is safe to estimate that hundreds of thousands of people go missing every year, and most of them we never hear about. That means there are hundreds of thousands of families every year who sit there in pain, wondering, hoping, going on with their lives feeling broken and empty with no answers. It is hard to sit back and realize the vast extent of things like child pornography, kidnapping, sexual exploitation, and human trafficking, but all of these are alive and well in our country and the numbers are much more vast than we can simply comprehend.

Many of my clients come in to therapy because they have undergone a trauma. Trauma is a difficult thing to describe or quantify. Three women may get into a minor car accident: one may walk away completely fine and never think of it again, one may walk away and have nightmares for a few weeks, and the last may walk away feeling fine only to realize later she has panic attacks when she tries to get into the car again. We can understand each of these reactions, and we recognize that trauma impacts each person differently at different times in their lives.

In my therapy office, I see so many examples of trauma, all of them sad and devastating. A woman who saw her mother murdered by her father, a man who had a gun put in his mouth in a bank robbery, a teenager disowned by her parents for being transgender and kicked out into the streets, a woman who was hit in the eye by her husband when she found out he had been cheating on her, a woman whose husband and only child were killed by a drunk driver while they walked to the park, a young child whose parents were both killed in a car accident, a college girl who was sexually assaulted by her best friend. On and on and on.

We all have some traumas in our lives. Sometimes we rebound quickly, and sometimes it takes a much longer time. And at times, traumas change us forever, alter us into a different person. Yet traumas don’t have to ruin us or break us, even when they change us. A man who loses both his legs in combat can have a happy healthy life with full relationships, but he is altered and changed from who he was before. A woman whose 16 year old son takes his own life can heal and embrace life even as she forever aches for her lost son. A woman who experiences a double mastectomy in order to survive breast cancer can go on to be healthy and happy with healthy relationships and confidence and sex appeal though she is forever different.

Some traumas completely heal in a brief time. When I was 20, I was pretty violently mugged and knocked unconscious (I’ll have to tell that story here sometime). For a few months, I was scared and in pain. But in time, I was completely healed, both physically and emotionally. Growing up in a religion that promised a cure for my homosexuality has taken me much longer to overcome; it tainted my self-esteem for decades and impacted all of my relationships through childhood, adolescence, and college, and through my early adult life. That trauma changed me, yet I still have a happy, healthy, and well-adjusted life.

Elizabeth Smart is a hero of mine. It takes a special person to tell her trauma to others, to stand up and fight back, to raise awareness, to save lives. I can think of other heroes, Judy Shephard and Dave Pelzer come to mind. But Elizabeth tops that list for me. She is a courageous and powerful force for good in this world.

People sometimes tell me that they believe things happen for a reason, that God allowed a trauma to happen to them so that they might learn. Personally, I can’t line myself up with this premise, that a God allows rape, kidnappings, murders, wars, and suicides in order to teach small personal lessons. I think sometimes things just happen, sometimes as a result of our life choices and sometimes as a result of the choices of others, but they happen nonetheless. I do believe in resilience, however. I believe that no matter what a person goes through, they can rebound and learn and grow and come out stronger.

Elizabeth Smart assuredly has.

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