What We Survived

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“What is the thing you are lucky to have survived? I want you to turn to the members of your small group and share with them, and later you’ll be writing a paper on the same topic.”

I felt nervous as I turned to the other three members of my group, already feeling like I didn’t fit in. I was 23 years old and, as far as I knew, the only Mormon kid in my college cohort of social work undergraduates. I was here at Boise State University in a room full of mostly white students, but there were only a handful of men. After high school, I had spent two years on a Mormon mission, and then another two years at a Mormon university. Now I was here among students who called themselves feminists and who sometimes drank alcohol and I didn’t know at all where to fit in. I felt constantly judged for being religious, and many of them felt constantly judged by me because I was religious, and both of those things were probably true. On top of it all, I was hiding the fact that I was gay, way deep down inside, not daring to tell anyone about my terrible shame.

I boldly agreed to go first, keeping eye contact with my group, hoping to find acceptance there.

“I, uh, went through some pretty tough things as a kid and teenager,” I said, sounding confident even though I wasn’t. I chose not to speak about growing up gay, or about my dad leaving, or about the sexual abuse, and instead focused on more recent events. “Um, when I was 16, I remember coming home one day and finding my 6-lb puppy, just this little black scruffy thing named Sammy, literally broken and lying on the floor in the frozen garage. During the day, my stepfather Kent said she had been causing trouble so he tried to toss her outside in the slow and then he slammed the sliding glass door closed on her on accident. He basically just put her down in the garage to freeze to death. I picked her up and could feel her ribs were broken and I cuddled her underneath the blankets in my bed. Kent came down angry and told me to put her back in the garage and I refused and for some reason he left us alone. He was violent and angry a lot during those years, but somehow that was the worst thing he had done.”

The other students in the group had pained looks on their faces, and they shared in this sadness with me for a moment, then took their turns in sharing their stories. One of the students shared a history of being sexually assaulted and then struggling with eating disorders and suicide attempts afterwards. Another student talked about being in the room when her own mother was murdered. The third talked about a horrific car accident that killed three other people and put her in the hospital, one she nearly didn’t survive.

A moment later, we opened the discussion up to the wider classroom and a handful of people shared their stories. One man had lost friends in combat only to be sent home when he was caught in an explosion, one woman had lost her entire home and everything she owned in a house fire, one had been married to a police officer killed in the line of duty.

I remember sitting there with a sense of emptiness and awe as I looked around this room of brave and incredible people. The only thing we had in common was being here in school at the same time, students in a university program. The professor talked about how humans are powerful and resilient and incredible, how we survive some of the worst things in the world and come out stronger on the other side, although we are forever changed. He talked about how, as social workers, we would be sitting with people in their most vulnerable and tragic spaces and helping them find their strength and their truth. And he talked about how even though we survive painful things, we likely have other painful things to survive in the future.

In many ways, this college experience launched my career in trauma work. Over the following years, I have sat with people in their greatest moments of pain, some of it unfathomable. I’ve sat with the woman who had a gun pointed into her open mouth during a bank robbery, the woman who watched her husband commit suicide with a shotgun right in front of her, the man who found his husband hanging over the breakfast table, the mother who woke up from a coma only to learn her entire family had been killed by a drunk driver, the man who lost his entire family during his 25 years in prison, the man who learned of his sister’s death at the hands of a serial killer, the woman whose husband came out of the closet after 40 years of marriage, the athlete who lost his job and scholarship because of one night of careless drinking, and the mother whose son took his own life because he felt rejected by a church for being gay.

If I were to sit in a group now and talk about what I survived, my answer would be much more recent. I would tell about being a home owner with a child, a pregnant spouse, a business, and major religious responsibilities when I came out of the closet and had to start my life over, rebuilding every relationship and learning how to live.

After I’ve worked in trauma several days in a row, I look at the world differently. I see people as survivors, and there is a weight to my eyes. A few days off with sunshine and fresh air, hugs from my children, laughter with friends, savory food, sweat, sleep, sex, wine, inspiration from history, and chocolate in some form or combination is needed to return the optimism.

It is at times a dark and difficult world. And it is a bright and beautiful one.

And we survive both.

 

the Problem with Monogamy

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The truth is, most humans are boiling pots of unmet needs.

As a therapist, I constantly see people come in whose lives are out of balance. I help them list and recognize their needs by using a Medicine Wheel, a Native American spiritual construct that divides Needs into four areas: Physical, Mental, Emotional, and Spiritual.

Physical represents sleep, fitness, nutrition, hydration, and health.

Mental represents being challenged, achieving things, and making progress (including areas related to work and money).

Emotional represents basic human feelings and complex human relationships.

Spiritual represents purpose, inner connection, and involvement that brings balance and peace internally. (Spirituality is separate from religion).

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When all the needs are met, the four quadrants of the wheel are in perfect balance and all the same size. When one is out of balance, it negatively skews the capacity of the other three. Picture four balloons tied at the center that share a limited supply of air; they are only balanced when the air is perfectly and evenly distributed, yet the air is always shifting as needs are met and then unmet.

For example, if you have a poor night’s sleep (Physical), you are at less capacity to do work tasks (Mental). If you are feeling dissatisfied with yourself (Spiritual), you may find yourself withdrawing from your best friend (Emotional).

Small needs are relatively easy to meet and amend. Feeling stiff and sore, then stretch and work out: Physical balance restored. Feeling bored and uninteresting, then select a simple task and achieve it, something easy like washing the dishes or reading a chapter of a book: Mental balance restored. Feeling lonely on a Saturday afternoon, invite a friend to go on a walk: Emotional balance restored. Feeling conflict and confusion within yourself, go outside and soak in the sunlight: Spiritual balance restored.

Moderate needs take more time to meet and lengthier amounts of amendments and self-care. Losing 15 pounds (Physical), surviving a difficult semester at college (Mental), working through some coping mechanisms that have stopped you from recognizing your anger (Emotional), or realizing that your prayers have felt empty lately and you feel far from God (Spiritual).

And Major needs require much longer as we do our best to maintain balance during those times of major difficulty. Recovering from a surgery (Physical), trying to reduce $50,000 in credit card debt (Mental), learning a spouse has been unfaithful (Emotional), or realizing that you no longer believe in the religion you were raised with (Spiritual).

The greatest lesson I have ever learned in my lifetime, after doing therapy for others for over a decade, is that I have to take care of my own needs, and I can’t expect any other person, situation, job, status, or religion to do it for me.

Most humans (particularly Americans) began using “If… then” statements regarding their own happiness and balance.

IF I could fall in love, THEN I would be happy.

IF my spouse would pay more attention to me, THEN I would feel like he loves me.

IF my boss would show me more appreciation, THEN I would start to like my job.

IF I pray every day, THEN I will feel God’s love more readily in my life.

IF I could get pregnant, THEN I would find purpose.

All of these statements set us up for failure, because as humans we fail to recognize that we will ALWAYS have needs. The second we find satisfaction, we have something else we are dissatisfied with. That’s the very nature of humanity: we eat, we get hungry; we have sex, we get horny; we feel connected to our Higher Power, we feel distant again; we learn something fascinating, we get bored.

And so we fall into situations where we stay desperately and painfully out of balance for years at a time. People stay in abusive or loveless relationships, desperately hoping day after day that something will change. People gain forty pounds, then fifty, then one hundred, and they wait for something that will inspire them to change. People continue the same faith practices they have found unfulfilling, feeling selfish and unworthy for even feeling dissatisfied, and hoping they will change. People go to the same job day after day, miserable every night they come home, feeling like there is no hope of change.

They get stuck… and they stay there.

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And this is the problem with Monogamy. Or, frankly, any system that we believe should be the ideal. People develop this idea that they will meet one single person that will rock their world, charge their system, take away all their pain and struggle and that it will last forever. Wanting to be in a monogamous relationship is no problem; expecting a monogamous relationship to meet your every need is a big problem. (Replace “monogamous relationship” with any system in the previous sentence and apply it to you. Example: Wanting to be in shape is no problem; expecting being in shape to meet your every need is a big problem.)

I recognize that choosing Monogamy as the title topic here is controversial, but it’s meant to grab your attention. Did it work?

So Janie meets Charlie when they turn 25 and they have a whirlwind romance. The first year is wonderful. But she finds that sometimes, she wants to go out with friends and Charlie doesn’t like that, and she feels selfish for wanting time for herself with other people. And then Janie has a baby and she is a bundle of nerves and exhaustion for several months, so she and Charlie aren’t connecting and aren’t having sex, and she doesn’t feel beautiful. And a few years later, Charlie starts hating his job and Janie realizes there isn’t a lot she can do to help. And Janie is sometimes attracted to other people and feels terrible about herself, even though she has never cheated. And on and on.

People change over time, and their needs change over time. And the simple idea that one person (or job or religion or status or relationship) can meet every need a person has and can or will restore and maintain permanent balance does an extreme amount of damage, and it hurts all four of the medicine wheel areas.

Individuals who believe solely in a system (like monogamy or religion) tend to see these systems as ideal and the only paths for happiness. They develop the mindset that not achieving that status, within themselves or within others, means a person can’t be happy.

I grew up in a very religious household in the Mormon faith. I grew up believing that there was only one path to happiness: a man married to a woman, active in the Mormon faith, with children. And I grew up believing that wanting or needing anything else was selfish and against God’s will. I was permanently out of balance and I didn’t even see it, but constantly feeling dissatisfied.

And so it is that I share two great lessons with you here.

One: No one person, or system, or belief structure can bring you ultimate fulfillment and balance. You are a complicated universe of needs that require careful balancing and negotiation, day by day and moment by moment.

Two: You have to take care of you.

Maya Angelou once said, profoundly: “I do not trust people who don’t love themselves and yet tell me ‘I love you.’ There is an African saying, which is Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt.

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And so, it is up to each of us to draw out our own Medicine Wheels and to, bravely and courageously, determine what it is we are missing from our lives. Are we out of balance in small, moderate, or major ways, and what will it take to restore balance and peace? Do you need more hopes and dreams? More friend connections? More sex and intimacy? More excitement and adventure? More achievement? And are you at peace with the recognition that what you need today will not be what you need tomorrow?

You are not selfish, or shameful, or broken, or unworthy, or damaged, or hopeless, or evil for wanting or needing more from your life than what you currently have in it. You are a complicated human with complicated needs. The alternative to recognizing and addressing needs is remaining out of balance and dissatisfied in life.

The best kinds of relationships are those in which two healthy balanced individuals who take care of themselves choose to be together. Whether you are monogamous or polyamorous, single or married, surrounded by friends or relatively isolated, Christian or athieist… you can be happy so long as you are taking care of you. And if these two healthy people want to be Monogamous, then they work on it and the relationship can be healthy. Systems can only work when they are carefully chosen, in line with values, and worked toward as beings change over time.

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And yet, all that said, cheating, on yourself or someone else, is never okay. Needs must be met that are in accordance to our personal values, morals, and agreements. Lying to your partner about having sex with someone else is cheating. Convincing yourself you aren’t angry, then lashing out at another person with mean words and excusing your behavior is cheating. Setting physical goals for yourself, then shutting your brain down while you eat an entire pizza later is cheating. Judging others for “sinning” and then excusing your own “sins” is cheating.

Inner balance comes from careful, consistent negotiations and measurements. It is a difficult, and worthy quest. And the alternative is a steady and consistent unhappiness that can last years, decades, or even a lifetime. And life is too short to be unhappy.

I’m worth it. And I think you’re worth it. But then, you have to decide that for you.

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