Bank Robbers

Bankrobber

The scariest bank robber I ever came across wore a mask and carried a gun. I never met him personally, but I saw the pictures. He wore a Halloween mask (not unlike the one in the picture above, which was worn by an actual bank robber in Pennsylvania a few years back) and he entered the bank aggressively, brandishing his weapon.

The man in this particular robbery hit at least two banks in Salt Lake City, a few years ago. He walked into both banks arrogantly, careful not to touch anything, and he pointed the gun at the helpless tellers, demanding money. He knew what he was doing. He asked for cash from secondary drawers, knew to demand no trackers, and brought in his own bags. He climbed behind the counter and pointed his gun at people’s heads, even into their mouths, promising to come back and hurt them if he was caught. He was gone in less than a few minutes and fled.

Of course, the police caught him, but it took them a little bit of time. The aggression of his actions, with a weapon and threats, escalated the crime to the highest levels with nearly maximum sentences. Bank-robbing is federal crime automatically, but using a weapon and delivering threats escalate the crime, though taking hostages, or hurting or killing someone, would obviously result in a more severe sentencing.

As a clinical social worker, I’ve worked the last 15 years doing crisis response work, on the side from my professional business. Though I’m self-employed, I make myself available to businesses who have been impacted by crises. Tragic employee deaths, suicides, corporate downsizings, industrial accidents, and, yes, bank robberies. Bank robberies, over the years, have been the most frequent crisis I get called out to. At this point, I’ve been to the sites of dozens of them (they happen more often than what people think), and I usually arrive just after the FBI has left). All of them are traumatic in their own way, and it is impossible to walk out of one of them emotionally unscathed.

But this man, this selfish, scary, arrogant man in a mask, he spent two minutes trying to get some quick cash, and then he lost everything, facing decades in jail. But for those he hurt, those half dozen people that he threatened and frightened, for them, this experience lasts forever. He never saw them, he only aimed the gun and then ran. He didn’t see them as humans. He didn’t realize that one of tellers would later break off her relationship with her fiancee because she couldn’t handle the nightmares, that one of the men would turn to alcohol to avoid the flashbacks he was having from the war, that an older single mother would quit her job because it was too scary to return, or the young man who suddenly couldn’t get the image out of his head about how his father used to beat him. The robber didn’t realize that some of them would be forever altered by this.

Most bank robberies aren’t this abrupt or violent. Often the robber is quiet, quick, or even apologetic. They are sometimes under the influence of drugs, or mentally ill, or just plain desperate. They might stand in line like a regular customer, walk up to the counter, calmly, and pass a note. They may or may not imply that they have a weapon in their pockets, a gun up their sleeve, or even, as one robber pretended, a bomb strapped to his chest under his shirt. They might simply rush out of the store as quickly as possible. One robber I’m aware of hung out in the bank branch for nearly thirty minutes, stating he was waiting for someone, before he finally handed his note over.

Bank robbery notes themselves are fascinating. Some are short and direct. “THIS IS A ROBBERY! PUT ALL THE MONEY IN A BAG AND DON’T SAY ANYTHING TO ANYONE!” Some are apologetic. “I’m so sorry to have to do this, but my family is starving. Please give me $2000 in twenties and tens as fast as possible. And don’t call the police!” And some fill an entire page with detailed instructions. “This is a robbery. Do not call the police. Do not signal anyone for help. There is a gun in my left pocket. Before you read any further, raise your left hand in the air to indicate understanding, but do not look up at me. After raising your hand, I want you to take the bag I am placing on the counter and then…” The notes might be legible in lined blue ink, monstrous scrawls in black marker, or even pre-typed on carbon paper.

Bank employees go through a rigorous training in order to work in banking institutions. They learn protocols for how to handle it. They are taught to remember as much as possible, to comply with all possible requests, to focus on safety first, and to get the robber out of there as fast as possible. They are told not to argue, to keep their voices calm, and to call the police in a calm manner afterward, giving them all the details possible. But no amount of training can prepare you for the moment a man (they are almost always men) comes in with a note, an implied weapon, and a threat. Adrenaline kicks in, trauma is triggered, and the heart rises in the throat, and sticking to the training is not always easy.

Immediately after the robbery takes place, the bank tellers have to notify the police and authorities, check on the customers who have been impacted, shut down the branch, and then write down everything they remember. They have to be interviewed by the FBI agents who arrive, provide descriptions and details, make camera footage available. This can take hours, and generally they don’t have a chance to even call their families before that is over. Regardless of whether they are angry, scared, anxious, panicked, numb, or triggered, they have to follow these protocols. And then they have to deal with the trauma for the following days.

Imagine going home to your car after a robbery and having to drive home. Imagine getting home and facing your family. Imagine closing your eyes for sleep that night, images flashing in your brain as you wonder if you locked the door or not. Imagine having to walk back into the bank branch the next morning to start the new shift, all over again. Imagine checking the news repeatedly to see if the police have caught the guy yet. Imagine worrying every time that you leave your branch that your coworkers might get robbed while you are gone.

I enter banks differently now. I view the tellers, young and old, with new respect. They aren’t paid well, and often don’t have a lot of support, yet the put themselves into these dangerous situations generally because they love customer service and they are dedicated employees. Sitting with them in the roughest moments, after their traumas, is difficult, but it is my supreme honor.

Your Villain

villain

“You’re the villain in my story.”

You said this with derision

With a gnashing of teeth

And a wringing of hands

And exasperated wails

Memories of everything we’ve shared

Replaced

Tossed into a bag labelled “PAIN!”

And selectively viewed from behind

Only the darkest of glasses.

 

And after you finished

Listing my sins

You finally looked at me

I saw you there

You seemed wounded

But also

Smallhurtpatheticshallowmean

Incomplete

Like you were still rooted

Fixed tightly

In the past.

 

I responded with a list of facts

Rebuttals

Keeping it clinical at first

Until I started to shake

And then the tears

Big crocodile tears

(Why crocodile? Named such

For their size?

Or for their sharp teeth?)

And then the gasps for oxygen

The tight shaking stomach

My spoken words coming out

Jagged, with too many syllables.

 

“You-have-no-idea-

what-it-is-to-come-out-

to-lose-everything-

to-start-over-

to-change-every-relationship-

to-redefine-yourself-

my-mother-my-sisters-my-nephews-

my-sons-my-friends-my-clients-

my-home-my-job-my-marriage-

my-God!”

 

And then I looked back at you

With my hands clutched

Protectively

Around my center space

And my eyes went cold.

 

“Make me a villain if you must

If you need someone to blame

To shame

To toss aside

To justify your pain

Make me the villain

And never change

Never forgive

But if I must be your villain

I will be the very best kind of villain

With complex motivations

Contradictions of character

With love and ego and worth

And triumph

And progress

And strength.

 

“You can see me forever standing there

Twirling my moustache

Cackling ‘Muhahahahahaha!’

Over the melodramatic organ

As the train barrells down on you

At top speed

And you, the damsel

Tied down and only able to call out

‘Help me! Save me!’

 

Do this if you must

But recognize,

When you are ready

That there is no train

And I have no moustache

And there are no ropes.

 

It’s just you there

Lying down on the tracks

Screaming for help

And never looking up to realize

That I haven’t been standing there

For years.”

Rape is a Verb

IMG_1344

abduct. abuse. molest. violate. pillage. spoil. plunder. devastate. loot. ransack. rob. 

In graduate school, I was hired by a feminist professor to create a group on campus called CEASE. It was meant to be a club where men could get together and discuss the impact of their violence against women in society. The teacher had received a sizable grant to create this club. In my interview with her, she heard about my experiences as a Mormon missionary and my volunteer opportunities as a student in undergraduate school, she asked about my professional experiences and educational passions, and she looked over my impressive GPA and letters of reference. She then offered me ten dollars an hour, for up to ten hours per week, to create this group.

maraud. raid. snatch. raze. ruin. wreck. consume. damage. demolish. disrupt. impair. 

I had always been interested in men’s issues. As a survivor of sexual abuse myself, I had read text books devoted to men’s healing, and I’d become aware of the concepts and struggles behind masculinity. I’d watched powerful documentaries on the same topics. The culture of men was one of bullying, of hyper-masculinity, of always being the toughest and the strongest. Men was encouraged culturally to demonstrate their power, first over women and then over other men, particularly ones who were weak or more feminine. Words were used to constantly shame others, to show power and position, to come out on top. Women were called bitch and slut, weaker men were called fag and sissy. The expectation to be strong started at birth and was reinforced in the school districts and homes, and then well into adulthood.

shatter. annihilate. crush. desecrate. desolate. despoil. exterminate. sack. smash. 

Men filled the prison systems to overflowing. Men committed atrocities in war. Men murdered. Men hit. Men raped. Men molested. Men committed violence. Men ruled the world and smashed all else beneath their feet, and they fought to maintain that power at any cost. Old movies and television shows were filled with jokes about men being forced to hit their wives to keep them in place. Entire cultures were built on men finding sexual pleasure while denying women theirs. Slavery, atomic bombs, concentration camps, hate crimes. Entire cultures of violence and horrible atrocities committed by men toward women and other men. The implications of this in organized religion, in sports culture, in Hollywood, in video games, in laws, in distribution of wealth, in cartoons, in big business, and in quiet family homes was immeasurable across time, and immeasurable in today’s society. My mind spun as I read and learned about men, and their culture, and what they were capable of. And I was now being asked to start a group and engage men on these topics.

overthrow. wrest. absorb. deplete. devour. dominate. squander. command. control. 

I had no idea how to compute all of this information as a 24 year old student. My experiences with men had been strictly within my own spheres. I was a white Mormon kid, and nearly all of my interactions had been with other white Mormon guys, or as a consumer of white American media. Every one of my experiences showed me that men were the leaders, the teachers, the rulers, the guides. Men were presidents and bosses, hunters and rulers. Women were meant to be in the home, to be mothers, to work if they had to and then only in fields suited for women, perhaps as teachers, nurses, or social workers. Occasionally, women were accepted as leaders, but only when men weren’t available; queens when there were no kings, mothers as heads of household when there were no fathers. I began to realize that nearly every part of my upbringing reinforced the ideas that women should stay silent, be pretty, and step aside so that men could do the work and run the world on their terms. I’d fully participated in this culture without even realizing it. And my new awareness came at tremendous discomfort and pain.

monopolize. influence. reign. scour. eviscerate. disembowel. subvert. empty. exhaust. 

I began reflecting upon my personal experiences of men in my life. At 12, I had been given the Priesthood, a religious authority I would carry with me for as long as I remained a worthy Mormon. I was given a lineage of my Priesthood, stretching back to the origins of the Mormon church, from man to man, passed down to me. Ordinances in the church could only be passed from men on, and authority to do these ordinances only from man to man. In addition, I had the last name of my father, who took his name from his father. I carried with me masculine rights and expectations. I would grow up to throw balls, to serve a Mormon mission, to marry a woman who would take my name, to father children, to choose a career and support a family. I had to do all of these things in order to be a successful man. On top of that, even if I liked men, I would pretend to like women. For that is what men did. And while I did this, girls were meant to do the opposite, to be smart, pretty, and ready for a man to come along and give them purpose in their lives.

drain. dump. consume. destroy. suppress. waste. extinguish. bulldoze. wreck. erase. 

And yet the men in my own life were, universally, the people who had hurt me. There were good men in my life, to be sure, men of power and strength, grace and kindness. But it was a man who had molested me. It was a brother who bullied me at home, and male peers who bullied me at school. It was a father who had abandoned me. It was a stepfather who had ruled over me with fists and shaming words. It was male church leader who had told me I must keep quiet about my homosexuality and seek to cure it, and another who had later told me it couldn’t be cured, that I would just have to learn to live with it. It was men who surrounded me on the street, mugged me, and knocked me unconscious with fists. It was men who called me sissy, fairy, and fag. No single woman had been unkind or had hurt me. It was men, all men.

topple. wipe Out. pulverize. dismantle. obliterate. trash. crush. bankrupt. injure. mar. 

The research showed statistics. It talked about the rates of sexual assaults on college campuses, in families, and in church. One study reported that the greatest fears expressed in groups of women were fears of being raped or attacked by men. The same study stated that the greatest fears expressed in groups of men were fears of being laughed at, or seen as less than, by other men. Women were afraid of men, and men were also afraid of men! It was here that I first became aware of how scared a woman is walking to her car at night in a dark parking lot, or of being alone in an elevator with another man, or of being watched in a bar be predatory eyes, or of being alone with a male authority figure. I became aware how women were blamed for their own rapes, beatings, or assaults, dismissed with scorn and told they should have known better than to speak up, provoke, flirt, or be alone. It was here I first learned that there is an entire society, an entire culture, built on Rape.

hurt. overwhelm. wrack. unmake. upset. undo. total. level. break. dethrone. dismiss. 

With this new awareness came great shame. I sensed a deep awareness of my own complicity in this, through participation in this culture of rape. It seeped into every section of society. I had never been violent, had never committed a rape, yet I had remained ignorant and unaware of the wider issues. I had participated fully without realizing it. And I realized I had been completely denied an education. I had never been taught more than this, never made aware of the truth. Because men controlled education. Law. Health care. History itself. The entire world was built on rape.

abolish. expel. decline. disband. dissolve. dispatch. disperse. divorce. repudiate. push. 

I returned to the teacher after my first few weeks of research, feeling overwhelmed and despairing. I can’t possibly do this, I said, I don’t know how. And she told me that my helplessness was good, that that was the perfect place to begin a group like this from. I needed to feel helpless and overwhelmed. I needed to be willing to listen. I needed to realize that men didn’t know what was happening around them, that their rage was unjustified and inexcusable, yet also needed to be expressed. Men needed to be held accountable, and also needed help, treatment, understanding, counseling, and love. How else would we make make change in the world, she asked.

supersede. assault. defile. thrust. wrench. twist. wring. extort. invade. debauch. punish.

And so I made up fliers, advertising a weekly support group, a lunchtime meeting where we could discuss topics in a safe space. For men only. I handed out brochures at the local fraternities, put up sign up lists in dormitory hallways. I went to sports games, visited other group organizations, and talked to peers. I planned out topics we could explore, preparing content. Men and religion. Men and pornography. Men and fatherhood. Men and sports. Men and movies. Men and sexual assault. Men and alcoholism. Men and bullying. Men and video games. There was more than I could cover in a year, but the group had to start somewhere.

befoul. profane. pollute. ravish. captivate. enthrall. restrict. ambush. beat. hit. hurt. 

And on the first week of the group, no one attended. I visited classrooms and advertised. On week two, no one attended. I created an online forum and posted in social media groups. On week three, no one attended. I stood outside the library and handed out fliers. On week four, no one attended. I continued reporting to the professor about CEASE, and she smiled and told me to keep notes on my planning and efforts. Se reminded me that some effort was better than none, and that even if no one attended, I was trying and I was doing a good job. I felt helpless and frustrated, I said. Think of how women feel, she said.

infiltrate. stab. strike. advance. aggress. bash. bat. beset. blister. brain. bust. clip. 

I held sixteen meetings of CEASE in all, and no one ever attended. I continued attending classes and writing papers, taking tests. I had an internship where I helped children who had been hurt by men, or who had been neglected by women who had been hurt by men. The world around me felt evil. In time, I graduated, and I became a therapist. I worked with veterans (hurt by men) and victims (hurt by men). I worked with sexual offenders and victims, rapists and victims, domestic abusers and victims. In nearly every session, there was some example of men hurting women, either in the direct story of the client or in their family. I regularly felt overwhelmed, hurt, and exhausted. The way violence by men, the way rape infiltrated every level of humanity hurt my heart.

clock. club. combat. kick. thrash. whip. slog. mug. punch. rush. wallop. whop. knock. 

In an early conversation with the professor, she asked me if I had an understanding of what women went through. Without telling her I was gay, I told her that I knew how it felt to be bullied for being different and to have someone treat me unfairly. I told her I had been molested and that no one had really taken it seriously, and how I didn’t feel like I could talk about it much. And she told me that I understood better than most men, then explained that in her experience, most women experience what I’d experienced in far greater quantities, and that they often felt helpless and powerless, and that it was far more frequent for women of color.

snuff. crucify. martyr. harrow. persecute. torture. torment. excoriate. rack. wrong.

Yet I also began to realize that while most men are never held accountable for their actions, are never prosecuted, and are never punished. But for those that are held accountable for sexual harassment, for battery, for domestic violence, for aggravated assault, for sexual assault, for murder… for those who have consequences, they are punished with fines, suspensions, or jail sentences. They aren’t offered treatment. They aren’t given an education to make change. Instead, they are penalized. And then they turn around and blame women.

inflict. offend. confine. spank. chastise. incarcerate. flog. exile. cuff. chasten. blacklist. 

It’s 2017 now, and I have worked as a therapist for nearly a decade and a half. My experiences in my office haven’t changed. I can hardly count the number of survivors of rape, assault, and molestation who have crossed my path, struggling to survive after being hurt by another, nearly always a man, and on occasion by a woman who has been hurt by a man. The modern media is full of headlines about atrocities that have been there all along. Every day there are stories of police brutality, murders, human trafficking, war atrocities, mass shootings, and sexual assault, and they are, every one of them, stories about men’s violence against women.

accost. fondle. injure. maltreat. hinder. meddle. misuse. caress. grope. squeeze. stroke. 

Every day lately there are stories about women’s experiences with men in power scattered across the media. Drugs dropped into drinks to make rape easier. Coercion and abuse of power. Quick gropes during photographs. Lewd words and labels. Threatening invitations in hotel rooms during work trips. Drunken encounters. Rape has become a topic for nighttime comedians to crack jokes about, and people are constantly feeling helpless, inundated by these stories.

paw. pet. grab. clutch. manipulate. maneuver. exploit. direct. massage. upstage. eclipse. 

And yet it is the stories in my own family that horrify me more. In a recent conversation with my mother, she told me about being a teenager, when a man entered her place of employment and thrust an envelope of pornography at her, moving as if to grab her, something she narrowly escaped. Decades later, she still remembers how this made her feel. And she, the survivor of abandonment and domestic violence at the hands of her husbands.

outweigh. govern. rule. dictate. boss. handle. outshine. overbear. override. sway. 

I think of one of my sisters, who had a boss harass her daily in her workplace. He would comment on her breasts, wonder about her sexual prowess, use lewd and offensive terms, and refer to his penis on a regular basis. She would come home daily, to her husband and children, shaking, scared, humiliated, and embarrassed, knowing that if she spoke up about this, it would be her word against his and that she might lose her job.

subjugate. tyrannize. enslave. tame. suppress. compel. squelch. quash. snuff. stamp. 

I think of another sister, who made friends with a neighbor and her husband, and how the husband would sometimes corner my sister, exposing his genitals and telling her how she could have him and his wife would never have to know, and how the same man got her phone number and would send her suggestive comments and photos of his penis. And when my sister finally grew bold enough to speak out, how her friend blamed her, choosing her husband’s side.

stifle. withhold. bottle. shush. silence. overpower. crack. bludgeon. whack. zap. shoot. 

I think of another sister who, as an adolescent, sat down in the bathtub privately only to have her stepfather enter the room, his eyes lingering as he stimulated himself through his clothing, before apologizing, saying his entrance was an accident. This same man constantly shamed her for her size, calling her fat and ugly during moments of anger, and offering her love and encouragement when he felt happy.

murder. assassinate. behead. butcher. decapitate. execute. massacre. slaughter. slay. 

I think of my recent family reunion, where I saw a creepy older relative, a man in his 70s, tell one of his nieces that she had ‘the best ass in the family’ as he grabbed her from behind, the same man who had commented on another niece’s breast size, the prettiness of another, the development of another. When I brought this up with another relative, I learned that many of the young women in the family have learned to never let themselves be alone with this man, how they felt objectified and uncomfortable, but how they didn’t want to speak up because they felt like that would hurt the man’s relatives.

strangle. choke. asphyxiate. drub. electrocute. eradicate. finish. garrote. hang. split. 

I think of my ex-wife, who told me stories of early development and being treated differently as an adolescent by boys who sought to exploit her for having breasts. I think of her stories as a student in high school and college, among students and teachers with wandering eyes and passing comments about her figure. I think of her stories as an employee in professional settings, where men would condescend to her because of her gender, using insulting tones, names, and phrases to speak with her.

knife. stab. liquidate. smother. screw. lay. shag. bang. bonk. hump. score. copulate. 

I think of the friends who confessed to me, in high school, that their fathers had hurt them, molested them. One told me of how her father used alcohol to get her sleepy, and how she woke to him touching her naked body when she was ten. One told me how her father had been coming into her room a few times per week to masturbate over her as she slept, and how this had gone on for years. One told me how her father would buy her gifts and tell her she was his special girl before and after he removed her clothing and had sex with her. All of these stories from one classroom in one high school in one small town in Idaho.

fornicate. mate. procreate. flatten. tarnish. disfigure. defame. embarrass. muddy. tar. 

I think of stories from colleagues and co-workers who have been sexually harassed by clients in academic settings, in doctor’s offices, in restaurants, in emergency rooms, in job interviews, in their own therapy offices. I think of their stories where they felt unsafe with strangers, co-workers, store managers, police officers, and friends. I think of how they’ve been cat-called or ogled at the gym, at stoplights, in public parks, over Facebook, in bars, and while walking down the street. And then I realize that if I’ve ever felt harassed or judged unfairly, it has been in isolated encounters, a handful of times over a span of decades, not constantly and pervasively across my life span.

plague. sadden. trouble. wrong. handicap. encumber. dishearten. overthrow. hound. 

And my thoughts return to my clients, hundreds of them over the years, who have been victimized in these and many other ways, men and women both, all hurt by men, and the culture of rape that surrounds them. Some have been raped by dates, some by brothers, some by husbands, some by boyfriends, some by fathers, some by strangers, some by bosses. Some of them have been raped serially, over and over for years, by the same man. And some have been assaulted by many men over the years. Some come from families where their sisters and mothers have been raped, and they fear that their daughters too will be raped.

pollute. smear. stain. sully. contaminate. discredit. debase. libel. pervert. warp. cheat. 

I think of women who through life as shells of themselves. Some remain in long term relationships with abusive men because they are afraid they won’t get to keep their children if they leave. Some don’t speak up about their rape for decades, if ever, because they feel like no one will believe them. Some dull their pain with alcohol, or purging, or unhealthy relationships, or drugs, or promiscuity, or religion. I think of women who have been taught that their looks, their ‘virtue’, or their ability to bear children are their sole sources of worth.

castigate. cheapen. reprove. immure. expel. batter. buffet. lacerate. scourge. smack. belt.

A few weeks ago, I sat with my sister in a coffee shop in Burlington, Vermont, and we talked about the rape culture headlines filling the news lately. We talked about how awful and incapacitating it is to read these headlines. I shared with her how many of my long-term clients in therapy were spending weeks just discussing how the news headlines were reminding them of their own traumas, and how at the same time they felt they were being validated for the first time. And I shared that everything can be boiled down to one single word, Rape, and how everything extends from there.

blight. blemish. abase. bastardize. decay. putrefy. suborn. reduce. fix. disfigure. lie. 

“Rape is a verb.” I said it aloud in conversation. It implied action, direct or indirect. Rape is something done. And yet that simple four letter word carries with it so many other words. A civilization of billions has been built upon that word, one spanning hundreds of years, and one that surrounds us now.

decompose. animalize. seduce. tempt. betray. deceive. persuade. entice. coax. swindle.

I took out a piece of paper, opened up my computer, and found an online thesaurus. I typed in the word Rape and I began copying down synonyms of the word, writing furiously. I wrote each word, then began clicking on the associated verbs, writing down those synonyms as well. My list expanded from one page to the next and then onto a third. My head began to ache. The words were ugly, violent, and vile. They were full of hate and pain.

steer. entrap. bait. hypnotize. mesmerize. question. belittle. denigrate. disparage. vilify. 

I wrote hundreds of words. After hours of writing, I finally stopped. I wasn’t finished. There were too many words in the language that related to destruction, murder, pain, violence, humiliation, domination, coercion, and sexual gratification. There were far too many shades of red and black. I ached, looking at my hastily scrawled words, all of them ugly in this context.

belie. blaspheme. blister. calumniate. curse. roast. revile. scorch. plaster. cripple. 

And then I thought of my sons. My ex-wife and I are working hard to raise sons who are feminists, who believe in equality, who treat women with respect, who vote thoughtfully. We have open discussions about race, sexual orientation, and feminism, and they are kind, thoughtful, articulate, and respectful children. Yet these boys, they are still subject to cartoons, interactions with children in school, video games. They aren’t immune. They get in arguments sometimes, and they play with other boys on the playground. And although I reinforce equality, non-violence, love, expression, and communication, they still sometimes punch, hit, and threaten. And every time it breaks my heart.

maim. rend. traumatize. shatter. sabotage. bruise. mutilate. wound. wrong. cheat.  cane.

But I will keep teaching them, and I will keep educating myself. I will keep educating myself. I will keep asking questions of my female friends and loved ones. I will listen. I will share, without judgment. I will believe them. I will have the hard conversations. I will hold those accountable who make others feel safe. I won’t hide. I will openly discuss and share, even when it makes people uncomfortable. I will be furious at the people in power and the ones who say they feel powerless yet still hurt others. I will strive, and push, and shout. For there are far too many synonyms for that ugly four letter word, all of them verbs, and verbs imply action. It will take action to fight back.

paddle. clobber. sock.  whip. strap. goad. horsewhip. cajole. barricade. lash. push. whale. flagellate. vanquish. kill. subdue. trounce. muffle. censor. erase. evade. omit. forget. puncture. maim. sabotage. bruise. mutilate. wound. wrong. cheat. harass. vex. stalk. haunt. hunt. chase. pursue. insult. provoke. humiliate. snub. smear. underestimate. taunt. mock. silence. gag. muzzle. mute. stifle. deaden. hush. interfere. conclude. end. break. block, pause. barricade. cease. discontinue. finish. cancel. terminate. restrict. pierce. penetrate. cleave. drill. enter. intrude. gash. plow. prick. slit. slice. slash. puncture. probe. spike. incise. bore. infiltrate. rupture. diminish. disturb. mortify. shock. bother. trouble. annoy. confound. malign. blacken. soil. stain. dirty. color. corrupt. putrefy. brainwash. prostitute. traffic. indoctrinate. bully. intimidate. torment. hector. kidnap. snatch. steal. pilfer. pirate. pitch. purloin. swipe. thieve. palm. pinch. life. kill. slay. poison. drown. exploit. take. justify. condone. rationalize. maintain. excuse. acquit. exempt. exonerate. indulge. forgive. pardon. tolerate. spare. relieve. whitewash. overlook. appease. discount. mollify. forget. ignore. omit. evade. 

RAPE.

Healing

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Healing from something means you never quite heal. In order to heal, there is a recognition and an acceptance that damage has been done and futures have been altered, and then there must be a slow and deliberate choice to walk forward from the events that caused pain. Healing means realizing that you have been hurt and that you will never be okay again, while simultaneously realizing that you are definitely okay, and that the sun continues to rise as the Earth continues to rotate.

For example, when I work with victims of abuse, I see them using all kinds of tactics to avoid the pain they feel from it. They can tell themselves that what happened to them wasn’t as bad as what has happened to others, making it easier to push their own pain away. They can focus on taking care of the needs of others to avoid their own needs. They can drown their pain in work, or alcohol, or co-dependent relationships, or religion. They can scream and rage at the world for not giving them an easier break after what they have been through. They can learn to hide in plain sight. But none of these are healing, and all of them can go on for a lifetime.

As a therapist, I’m astounded at how often victims of abuse come forward, much later in their lives. Rarely do I hear stories of violent sexual assaults, instead I hear stories of coercive date rape, of fathers convincing their sons to do special favors or visiting their daughter’s rooms after mom has fallen asleep, of babysitters who took advantage while parents are gone. And the younger the child at the onset of abuse, the longer the duration of the abuse, and the greater the severity of the abuse… well, the more impactful the damage seems to be.

I myself am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a male family member. As a child, when these events took place, I had no context to understand what had happened or why it was a problem. But years later, when I approached adolescence and began experiencing sexual attraction, and I realized my attractions were toward men, I began to realize how impactful the abuse had been. I reasoned internally for many years that the reason that I was gay was because I had been abused, and that reinforced my religion’s principles that homosexuality was something that could be cured. I learned to avoid pain through helping others, through work and school achievements, and through religious devotion.

I told my family about the abuse in a rather dramatic moment on a Sunday afternoon over dinner. I was in trouble for something trivial, like dropping my fork, and my step-father snapped at me, and I snapped back that maybe he should go easier on me because of what I had been through as a kid. It was a bombshell, and I’d rushed off to my room, but just a few days later, everyone stopped asking questions and stopped talking about it. It became the big family secret, at least it felt that way, a thing that was known but never to be discussed.

Years later, while I was a Mormon missionary, struggling with crippling depression over my inability to stop being gay through church service, I began journaling about my abuse for the first time. I wrote down everything that happened. I had vivid flashbacks to that time in my life. I checked out books from the library about healing from abuse, and I kept them hidden from my companions so that they wouldn’t know what I was reading. Over time, I grew to separate out the abuse from the other areas of my life. My being abused, for example, had nothing to do with me being gay, yet it did negatively impact my feelings about being gay. I did a lot of crying at the time, and then I put my journals away and kept them there for years longer.

And then, in my mid-20s, I started going to therapy. I wasn’t ready to come out of the closet yet, but I was ready to heal from that portion of my childhood. I told my stories about what happened, I learned how they had impacted me, and I learned that I would never quite heal from them. As my therapist at the time vividly put it, “You are never going to wake up one day and say ‘I’m so glad this happened to me!’, but you can wake up every day and say ‘That sucked. What happened to me was horrible. And I’m okay. I’m living life on my terms, and I survived, and I’m okay.” I learned not to compare my abuse to the abuse of others, but just to let my story stand on its own. I learned to recognize the impact it had on my development. I learned to embrace myself with whatever I was feeling, be it scared or furious or devastated, and I learned how to feel the feelings and decide what to do with them in healthy ways, rather than avoiding them or pushing through them with unhealthy habits.

I received a surprise phone call from my mother yesterday. She and I talk nearly every day, but this time she had a different tone in her voice. She told me she had come across some photos of me as a child, and she’d been thinking about that day at the dinner table when I told everyone I had been abused. She apologized, sincerely and sweetly, for not being there for me at the time, for not getting me into counseling then or at least asking me what had happened and how it had impacted me. We had a long conversation about things, and I told her that I accepted her apology, and that it was beautiful of her to offer it. And I told her that, these days, I give little thought to the abuse itself. It changed me, it altered me, and I’m not happy about it. It still makes me feel gross and in pain when I remember it. But I’m doing fine, and I’ve created a wonderful life for myself. I help others with their healing. I’m a good person who is working hard to make a difference in the world. I have love and light, people that I love and people who love me. And I’m a father.

And that conversation led me to thinking about my children, one turning nine soon and one newly six, and I realize that I was that small when abuse was happening to me. And the sharp jab I get from that realization teaches me once again that I’ll never be okay from all of that, and that, once again, I’m completely okay. I’m okay because I let myself feel the pain, and I choose what to do with it. And I choose to help.

And that, for me, is healing.

the Band Bus

 

 

 

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As the bus sped along the southern Idaho freeway, hurtling toward home, I looked outside at the dark horizon and yawned. I was exhausted.

I was 16 years old, and a sophomore in high school. Early that morning, all of the members of the high school pep band had gathered at the high school and boarded the bus, and then we had driven several hours from south-eastern Idaho to south-western Idaho, where we played upbeat songs for a sports team during their match. The school fight song, “Wooly Bully”, “the Hey Song”, and other inane tunes still blared in my brain during the long drive home. My clarinet was safely tucked into its case underneath the seat.

Sarah sat next to me, a senior. She played the flute. I didn’t know her well, but I’d always found her nice. She was quiet, a good Mormon girl, modest, friendly. Pretty in a homely kind of way. Toward the back of the bus were the more raucous kids, wild with laughter and teasing each other, blasting music and playing cards. Sarah and I sat at the front of the bus, among other kids who just wanted a quiet easy ride. The unspoken rule was that the more well-behaved students sat closest to the bus driver, and the more wild ones sat farther away.

The bussed had lulled into a steady dark drive, only occasional chatter now. I wasn’t really aware of anyone around me. I just felt the vibrations of the wheels against the road and listened to the sounds of traffic, and I pulled the pillow I’d brought from home up next to me, resting it against the window and pressing my head snugly into it. We wouldn’t be home until past 2 am, and I hoped to sleep the rest of the way. Sarah had a pillow also, and after trying it out behind her head and then on the seat in front of her, she asked nicely if she could rest it against my arm.

“That’s fine,” I yawned again, and she pressed the pillow against me and was soon sleeping. I fell asleep not long after that.

A few hours later, I woke up as the bus pulled into the high school parking lot, a building designed, on purpose, to look like a spud cellar, a building that housed potato on farms. Our high school mascot was a potato, and the architect had apparently felt this would show school spirit. I slowly came aware and realized that Sarah’s pillow had shifted downward until it was in my lap, and she lay there sleeping soundly, bent at the waist. My pillow, meanwhile, had moved to her shoulder, and I had been sleeping soundly there. I tapped her on the shoulder, indicating that we had arrived, and we both gathered our things and got off the bus, stretching the kinks out of our backs and necks along with everyone else. It the the middle of the night, and winter, and I pulled my coat tightly around me. As pre-arranged, a friend gave me a ride home, and I immediately went inside, changed to pajamas, and went to sleep.

School was back in the next day, so I only slept a few hours. I woke up at 7, got ready, and headed in for my usual schedule of classes. History, Math, English, Economics, lunch, Seminary, Band, Theater. The day felt a lot like it normally did, routine and easy. I did my homework, bantered with my friends at lunch, and visited my locker to change books between classes.

It helped that things at home were quiet right now, routine. It had been a few weeks since Kent, my step-father, had lost his temper and thrown all of my mom’s things out on the front lawn, screaming insults and terrible things to her while Sheri, my little sister, and I had cowered in our rooms. Usually, after one of his violent and angry spells, things got really good for a while. Kent was a great father figure in between those spells. He made meals, took us to movies, and planned family events. There was always the threat of another storm, but for now things were okay, and being at school felt safe.

And then it was time for band class. I entered and took my seat in the row of clarinet players, getting out my instrument, assembling it, and attaching my reed. With the flutes in front of me and the saxophones behind me, we waited for the band leader, Mr. Marr, to begin class. He walked out of his office, took his place in front of us, and then started to yell.

“It has come to my attention from those who chaperoned your pep band trip that some of you in this room took advantage of the fact that I was not there to engage in inappropriate behavior! The things I heard about some of you doing on the bus last night were unacceptable! Reports like the ones I received, they do not reflect the morals and standards of this band at this school! And if you think I don’t know your names, then you are wrong, I hear things. I know what happened between people like Chad and Sarah on that bus!”

He continued yelling, but I didn’t hear another word. My head filled with cotton and my stomach immediately became nauseous. What was he talking about? What had he heard? That we fell asleep in the same seats? Had someone made up a rumor about us? My heart was thudding wildly as he stopped yelling and angrily lead us through our band routines for our upcoming concert.

For the rest of class, I only pretended to play. I couldn’t calm down. I’d felt all those eyes on me, some of confusion, some of concern. A few times, Sarah had looked back at me, her face pale, and we’d exchanged looks of utter bafflement. What had he heard?

In time, the bell rang, and people made their way out of the room toward their next classes, having only four minutes to get there. I put my instrument away and waited as the room emptied. Then I walked over toward Mr. Marr’s office to ask him what he had heard.

Without even waiting for me to speak, he looked up at me from his desk. “I don’t want to hear it, Chad. What you did was not okay, and today is not the day to talk to me about it. Try next week when I’ve calmed down.”

My mouth was dry. “But, sir, I didn’t do–Sarah and I barely even– we didn’t–” I was stammering, unable to finish a thought.

“I said not today! I don’t want your excuses! Now go!”

He shouted and I rushed from the room. My fingers were shaking as I fumbled at my locker, putting my instrument away and grabbing supplies for my last class. I felt like running away. Being yelled at like that, it felt too familiar, like everything that was going on at home, me being screamed at when I hadn’t done anything wrong. I walked on autopilot into the theater class, seventh period, and took my seat in the front row. The bell rang and students around me were laughing and chatting. I just clutched the desk, my heart in my stomach, my skin tingling, feeling nauseous.

Mr. B, the drama teacher, stood in front of the class to introduce what we would be doing that day, but he didn’t get far before the tears started falling from my eyes. I sat there and wrapped my arms around myself, hoping no one would notice, but then I started crying harder. Little gasps escaped my mouth, and a sob escaped my throat, and suddenly I was sobbing, quietly and then more loudly. I gripped my desk and bent my head forward and just sobbed, my body overcome with anxiety at the same time. And then the sob was a small wail.

Mr. B emptied the classroom quickly, moving everyone into the auditorium, instructing my friends Lynda and Jill to stay with me. One grabbed tissues while the other rubbed my back, telling me it was fine, it was fine, what’s wrong, you’re okay, it’s okay, calm down, you’ll be fine. A minute passed, then two, and then my stomach seized, and I bolted out of my chair and rushed down the hallway, making it to the bathroom just in time to vomit.

Jill and Lynda waited for me outside and walked me back to the classroom, where Lynda asked me, “What in the hell is going on?”

I bit my lip, unsure what to say. “Just, things aren’t great at home, and just got in trouble in band for something I don’t even know what, and I’m tired and–”

Within 20 minutes I was home. I ignored Kent when I entered, said I wasn’t feeling well, and went to bed, my puppy sleeping on my knees. Sarah and I never talked about what happened. I never again asked Mr. Marr what he heard. And while I’d never had a breakdown like that before, I still had a few more to go before Kent was out of our lives once and for all.

Repressed Memories

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“So I have this client who thinks that something might have happened to her when she was a kid. She wonders if she might have been abused or something, but she doesn’t have any specific memories.”

I nodded. “Okay, and is that something you are exploring in therapy?”

The clinician I was supervising tapped his pen against the pad of paper, collecting his thoughts. “I’ve been looking into it some. If there are repressed memories, it seems there are a number of ways to discover them and heal from them. Hypnosis can work, dream journals seem to help, regular meditation. I’m just not sure that I’m all that equipped to help her. I’m brand new in this field.”

“The operative word in your previous paragraph? If.”

I watched him write the word IF on his paper. “If. If there are repressed memories.”

“Right. She doesn’t know if there are or not. If there are repressed memories then hypnosis and those other methods might help. If there aren’t?”

“Then there wouldn’t necessarily be anything there. Okay, interesting.”

I let him collect his thoughts, then began asking questions. “So the first thing to wonder, why does she think she might have repressed memories?”

He smiled, enthusiastic. “I actually asked her that question. She had a decent childhood, so far as she remembers, but some traumatic stuff happened to her later on. Now she is realizing there are blank patches in her childhood memories, so that leads her to wonder if something bad happened and her subconscious mind blanked it out.”

“Okay, good job exploring that with her. There certainly could be repressed memories. In times of trauma, for adults or kids but particularly for kids, the brain can enter a mode where the person shuts down for a while or where they kind of leave their own body in order to survive. There are also times when the brain can hide or omit memories from the consciousness as they would be too disturbing to the person. When those memories show up, it can be in the form of flashbacks or panic attacks, and it usually happens after something triggers the trauma memories, or, ironically, the memories can show up during times of safety, when everything feels comfortable and okay for once so the memories are able to finally come to the surface.

“But the key here is she doesn’t know if she has repressed memories. She might and she might not. She’s simply wondering at this point if there might be. During the 1990s, there was a lot of repressed memories topics showing up on talk shows and soap operas, and suddenly everyone was coming forward as having repressed memories. It became kind of a craze. But wondering if something bad might have happened in childhood, or even wondering if more memories should be there where there aren’t any, that doesn’t mean there is any evidence of repression.

“Of course, it also doesn’t mean that there isn’t.”

The clinician clicked his pen in frustration. “So what do I tell her to do?”

I smiled, knowing this would annoy him. “What’s the first question we always ask ourselves?”

He rolled his eyes. “‘What is my role here?'”

“And your role in this case?”

“Is as her therapist.”

“So what is your job regarding this?”

“My job is to help her meet her goals. We are working on getting through depression and PTSD.”

“Right. So your job is to help her talk about it. Which you are already doing. Help her talk about her trauma, about why she thinks she might have oppressed memories, about her actual childhood memories. Then explore with her the options of other treatment methods if she feels they can help. There is hypnosis, there are mindfulness groups, there are dream journals. All of those take effort, time, and money, and she can pursue any of them that she wants to. But regardless, your job is to be there with her, week to week, whenever she is in front of you and needs help.”

“Okay, right, but are repressed memories an actual thing? Is that something you have come across?”

I moved my tongue along the inside of my cheek for a moment, thinking of the best way to answer. “Well, yeah. But it isn’t as simple as all that. Trauma can impact a person in a myriad of ways. It can show up as anxiety, as depression, as apathy. It can result in withdrawing from relationships, in sexual promiscuity, or in crippling fear. We can research trauma for years, but we can never have a clear mapped path that shows its results on a particular person. Even if we understand how a trauma effects someone, that effect can change with age or time or stress. Someone can live with trauma unseen for years and then have it show up much later in life.

“Here, I’ll use a personal example. When I was a kid, I went through a period of sexual abuse at the hands of a family member. For years, I didn’t understand how serious that was. As a kid, I also knew I was different from other kids, but didn’t know what that meant. As an adolescent, when I began to realize I was attracted to boys and not girls, I didn’t have any context to understand this, so in the beginning I automatically assumed that the abuse was causing the attractions, when in fact there were no direct correlations.

“When I was 20, and on my Mormon mission, I hit a slump of pretty low depression. Life was very much routine. I was mugged and knocked unconscious one day, which was its own separate trauma. But something about that particular incident seemed to knock something loose, pun intended. I began getting flashbacks after that back to the abuse from when I was a kid. Full on trauma flashbacks. Like in my brain I was the young kid for a while, then I would come back into my own adult skin. I wrote down everything that was happening, in detail, to get it out of my system, and after a couple of weeks, the flashbacks went away.

“So using that example, we can see the impact of trauma on development, and we could run down the list of trauma symptoms. Yet those symptoms showed up differently in childhood and adolescence than they did in adulthood. And a separate trauma caused me to have flashbacks of my childhood trauma.”

The clinician was scribbling notes. “So would you call those flashbacks that you experienced repressed memories?”

“I wouldn’t, actually. But some could. They were memories that, for whatever reason, I had to relive in order to move on. And they were repressed. But they weren’t forgotten, or omitted by my subconscious. I had no sense that parts of my childhood were missing, yet they were also memories that I avoided completely because they caused me discomfort.”

“Okay, okay.” He underlined something on his paper. “I get it. It’s complicated. We can study the topic, but it’s gonna show up for the individual person in different ways at different times. And my job is to be there with them, talk it over, help them meet their goals and explore their options.”

“Right.”

He gave a deep sigh. “What we do isn’t easy, is it?”

“It most certainly isn’t. But we get to help people who ask for help. And that makes it worth it.”

A Good Person

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All right, let’s talk about the word ‘good’ for a moment.
Okay, what about it?
I just googled the word ‘good’ and there are several different definitions.
Okay.
I am going to read each definition out loud and I want you to tell me which of the definitions are merit-based, which ones are based in measurements of values and morals.
Okay.
Okay, definition 1. ‘Good: to be desired or approved of.’
That’s merit-based.
2. ‘Good: Having the qualities required for a particular role.’
That’s merit-based, too.
3. ‘Good: Possessing or displaying moral virtue.’
Merit-based.
4. ‘Good: Giving pleasure; enjoyable or satisfying.’
That, too.
5. ‘Good: that which is morally right; righteousness.’
Merit-based.
6. ‘Good: benefit or advantage of someone or something.’
That, too. Are any of these not merit-based?
Almost done. 7. ‘Good: merchandise or possessions.’
Merit-based.

Okay, awesome. Now what does that teach us?
I’m not sure what you wanted me to get out of that.
Seven different definitions of good, all based on merits, values, and morals.
Yeah, I got that part.
So let me ask you a basic question. Are you a good person?
I try hard. I work hard. I care about the people around me. I try to do good things, but it never seems to be enough. I still get my heart broken. I’m not sure I’m good.
But that didn’t answer the question. Are you a good person?
Sometimes.
Nope, try again. It’s a yes or no question.
I’m either good or I’m not? It’s not that simple!
It is that simple. Are you a good person? If you answer yes, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have struggles or heartbreaks or challenges. It just means at your essence, at your core, you are a good person. You have value. Are you a good person?
Yes?
That sounded like a question.
Well, I think that is the answer you wanted, isn’t it? For me to say I’m a good person, even if I don’t believe it?
It’s not about what you think I want to hear, it’s about what you believe. Do you believe you are a good person?
I’m honestly not sure if I can answer that right now.
You and I are both parents, let’s start there. You know what it feels like to hold a brand new child in your hands and see the ultimate innocence and potential there. Can you remember what it feels like to do that?
Yes, with both of my children. It’s a wonderful feeling.
Are your children good people?
Yes, of course! They are kids!
Do they make poor decisions sometimes? Do they challenge your patience sometimes? Are they difficult sometimes?
Yes.
So does that mean they are only good people when they are making good choices? When they listen? When they aren’t being difficult?
No. They are good always, even when they have struggles.
Okay, there we go. And I believe the same thing about you, and about me. I have struggles. I make bad decisions sometimes. I get sad and angry and grumpy and tired and disconnected. And at the same time, I am a good person. I’m not better or worse than anyone around me, I’m just me. I’m just human. And at my core, I’m a human who tries hard and does my very best and who is consistently trying to better myself.
I see it in my children. I see it in you. I just have a harder time seeing it in me.
Well, you’ve had a lot of years with a lot of pain. You’ve had people who have hurt you, who have taught you that you only have value if you follow the teachings of the Mormon Church or if you are never sad or if you do as you’re told. People have told you over and over at times that you are ugly or unworthy or difficult or not worth it. And somewhere along the way, you started to believe that.
But what if they were right?
Would you ever love your children with those conditions? Would you ever tell them they they are only good, that they are only worthy of your love if they are always well-behaved?
Of course not. I could never do that to them.
Okay, so the big goal we need to be working on is helping you believe those things about yourself that you believe about your children.
That… sounds nice. To be able to do that sounds nice.
I know you don’t believe in God anymore, neither do I, and I know being a Mormon was hard for you. But beneath all of the struggles you had in that Church, there is one truth that is the most beautiful that is at the essence of all of their doctrine. That core belief is that you were created as a perfect daughter of God and that He loves you unconditionally and sees you as a being of ultimate potential. He sees you as you see your children. It isn’t based on how happy your marriage is or how many hours you serve in Church callings or how strong your testimony is. It is infinite and unconditional love.
I remember feeling that once.
Can you still feel that now? Can you still see that part, that version of yourself? The part of you that exists, that sees you as good, with potential, the way you see your children as good, with potential?
Yes. I can feel that.
So tap into that, and that is where we begin to heal. We have a lot of work ahead, but that is where we begin.
Okay. I can feel it, it’s there.
Let’s try one more time then. Are you a good person?
Yes. I am. I’m a good person.
Okay. Hold tight to that. Now, now is when the healing starts.

 

Numb

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It’s been a painful and very strange week. One of those weeks where I spent a lot of time glued to social media, unbidden, because that is how we experience the news lately. The events in Orlando impacted me on a profound and painful level. I was outraged and the selfish and bigoted Tweets sent out by calloused politicians, I was horrified by the stories of the victims whose lives were cut short right in the middle of living, I was saddened and exhausted by the long painful rants and speeches by friends who were in pain.
My kids weren’t with me this week. I think that would have helped. They approach the world with sheer joy and wonder. But they were camping with their mom, out of reach even by phone, leaving me to my own devices.
And the stories of the survivors coming out now, their wounds beginning to heal but their hearts far from it. Working as a counselor and spending time absorbing the pain of others as they process through their own struggles and feelings, many of them related to Orlando as well.
And now it is Friday morning and I sat down to write, something that always helps me sort out how I’m feeling. I searched my brain for topics to write about, stories I want to tell. I have a long list in my brain. But after several minutes of staring at a blinking cursor on the keyboard, I realized this was the story, typing about the general realization that I’m numb. And tired. But mostly numb.
There has been a tremendous amount of joy this week. I attended a local vigil in tribute to Orlando and hugged dozens of friends who were grieving with me. I had meaningful conversations over coffee with a few friends. I made major progress on a book project that I’m working on. I exercised and felt confident. I saw outpourings of kindness from strangers over social media who were loving and supportive.
Numbness is a natural state for me after days of feeling too much. My body just reacts with numb after a while. It’s that feeling where you can’t quite sleep and you can’t quite sit still and you can’t quite find the motivation to do anything, where you roll with the punches of your day: gym, coffee, do the dishes, fold the laundry, one foot in front of the other. I’ve been eating nutritious foods and soaking in sunlight and drinking water and doing all of the right things but it is still taking its time, and taking its toll.
Tomorrow the sun comes up. I’ll be with my kids again and we wiill play in the park and sing songs and draw pictures. We will go on treasure hunts and tell stories and count bugs on the sidewalk. They are my greatest salve and balm and remedy.
I see the good and wonderful and bright in my life more clearly than ever. I embrace slow and steady positive change over time. I measure myself where I am against where I was and I just keep climbing. It is a beautiful world. It is. Despite terrible and painful things at times, it is a world of incredible beauty and love.
I’m better at taking care of myself these days, letting myself be numb for a bit and letting myself find joy, setting boundaries where I need to, prioritizing my insides before I can do that for others.
At this point, it is impossible to tell what the long-term impacts of Orlando will be, but I believe that they will be positive ones politically, that gun control laws will change, that politicians will stop conceding to the NRA, that LGBT people will be better understood and more widely embraced. For me, I’m not sure what I’ll learn yet, but I’ll come out of all of this changed, altered a bit, more aware of both the darkness and the love that exist in the world.
But first, I write.

when silence surrounds you

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close our eyes in any space, and all that remains is sound

outward: soft electric whirs, the distant sound of traffic, gentle wind on tree

and inward: resonant heart thumping, breath in nostrils, digestion

 

these same sounds carry us from highway to mountaintop

they are immune to the heartbreak and soul ache,

persistent through sleep and stress and sanity

 

in this sought-out silence, amidst the chaos

we realize childhood truths,

we sort out spiritual deficiency,

we heal from the deepest wounds,

and we realize that those from far away may love us still.

We are Miracles, All

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One of the great lessons I have learned as a therapist, hearing human stories from every age and perspective, is simple:

In any given moment, we are as authentic as we know how to be. And the only moment we have is this one.

Picture a piece of string, fixed to one wall and stretched to the other.

This is your life. One small strand, whether you live to be 2 or 102.

We have a certain amount of control over that life span, with healthy living choices and self-preservation. Yet we are very fragile creatures, subject to injury and disease and depression, and sometimes to the poor or violent decisions of others.

And that timeline string follows rules. You can only move chronologically along it, from left to right, like flowing water. Each moment you exist feels real and vibrant and full with whatever you are feeling and experiencing. And then another moment goes by and the one you were living becomes memory, for now you are living another.

Along this timeline, we can look back at what has passed, viewing it from our present. And we can look forward with wonder or dread, also from our present. But even those moments of reflection and wonder are quickly replaced by another.

And so we face each moment with the amount of authenticity we are equipped with at that exact moment.

When I was five, and I sat in the driveway at my house feeling like my world was going to end because my mom went to the store without me… well, that’s easy to smile about now, but at that time, the pain was intense and real.

And when I was thirteen and my face broke out in terrible acne, and I looked at myself in the mirror with horror and anguish, that was real.

And when I was twenty-two and felt overwhelmed by college finals mixed with a full-time job and mounting bills and religious obligations, and I felt I would crack, that was real.

And when I was thirty and held my oldest child, newly born, in my arms for the first time, and my heart expanded to twelve times the size, and I felt elation and fear and responsibility and love beyond anything I had ever known, that was real.

And when I was thirty-four and I dropped off the divorce papers to the courts, and I grieved my marriage and my faith deeply while looking forward with steadfastness and strength and resolve and hope, that was real.

And now I’m thirty-seven, and I’m sitting in a coffee shop, and it’s cold and dark outside, and a policewoman sits next to me looking weary, and my coffee is luke warm, and my soul feels inspired, and… well, this moment is real as well.

I have been through some terrible things in my lifetime. We all have. It’s part of the human condition. I have ached and cried and hurt and struggled. And I have been through some wonderful things in my lifetime. We all have. It’s part of the human condition. I have rejoiced and basked and thrilled and sang.

And each and every one of those moments are moments that I have lived, authentically. And each of them has passed, as they will continue to do so until my timeline is complete, and I know not when that will be.

And the end of life, people say the same things, lessons learned with full perspective: that we should live for the now, that we should live without regrets, that we should be ourselves and be true to ourselves, that we should embrace our loved ones and spend time with our friends, that we should travel and love and dance and climb.

No one, with perspective, wishes they had spent more time in pain, more time grieving losses, more time surrounding themselves with those that do not love them, more time in debt or disease or obesity or anguish or abuse.

We must, simply put, lean ourselves toward love.

I have had times in my life where I felt I wasn’t worthy of love, happiness, or peace. I felt burdened down by financial expectations or weight or religious requirements or relationship responsibilities or physical constraints. And there will always be things to hold us back. It takes a very careful balance to find love and peace for the beings we are, and to work on changing and amending our beings toward happier realities over time.

For if it took me four years to put on eighty pounds, it will certainly take me more than four days to lose it. I can’t erase tens of thousands of debts overnight. If I have suffered from heavy depression for years, it may take several months to get used to feeling hope and joy again. If I have hurt others with my choices, it will take time to reestablish trust. And if I have lost a loved one, a period of grief is necessary for healing.

The quest to find ourselves in a happy present is a noble, difficult journey. And once the present is found, we have to continue finding it, for it is always new.

But oh, what a worthy journey, when we find ourselves on new horizons with the sun on our skins and the air in our lungs, for we are miracles, all.

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