Sunday, September 10, 2017

No fate but that we make...questions about the way forward

(Note: although I "published" this post on my blog in September 2017, I actually began drafting the first part of it a few months ago...sharing that detail in case any parts of the post seem "dated.")

When I was a little girl I liked the "Terminator" movies. (And I liked the Rocky movies, and I liked watching Transformers, reruns of Good Times, and Jem. And?!?!?!) Sarah Connor, Kyle Reese, John Connor, the futuristic robots...all of it fascinated me.

Near the end of the second Terminator film Sarah is reflecting over what the future holds for her, for her son John, and for the world.  For over a decade Sarah's singular focus had been on preventing a future laden with destruction from occurring; now everything was new and uncertain. The future, once bleak and doomed, was now full of question marks - unwritten. A blank slate.

In recent times, that sentiment has resonated with me. For the nearly three years preventing a disastrous future occupied much of my thoughts, energy, time, and finances. Like Sarah Connor, the grim possibilities this dreaded future presented were frightening and unacceptable to me and the only rational response was for me to resist with every ounce of me even if a positive outcome seemed unattainable. And yet now it is here. Full of question marks. Unwritten. A blank slate.

"No fate," young John Connor explained to the reformed Terminator in one scene, "No fate but what we make. My father told her this. I mean, I made him memorize it up in the future as a message to her...the whole thing goes, 'The future's not set. There's no fate but what we make.'"

(You can view a video clip HERE that is ~2.5 minutes about why that message about preventing an apocalyptic future was so significant to Sarah. Content warning: No speech, just music. Also lots of death, destruction, violence, nuclear war, and just plain old doom. The movie is still good, though. And because Sarah is just bad @$$, HERE is another clip with her - same content warnings apply.)

(Image is a carving of the words "NO FATE" into a wooden surface. The knife used to carve the words is visible, lying to the upper right corner of the words. Image is black and white/grayscale. Image credit: Terminator Wiki/Benzinga

For Sarah, that concept fueled her and allowed her to persevere through seemingly hopeless circumstances...the idea that future is not necessarily pre-determined; that we can impact what is to come, what is to be, by the actions we take in the present. But what does it mean for me - now? What does it mean for others? What does it mean for the cause, for my people, for my family, for my community, for the future?

The short answer is...I don't know yet. I really don't.

I'm a Christian. So this is probably the part of the post where I would be expected to relate some complex tale of hardship and explain how God still manifested light in the midst of it. This is also probably where I am supposed to be gushing about how much I ALWAYS KNEW God was going to come through for me. How much people need to rely upon and trust in God's Word. How faith and grace can transform near-impossible situations. You get the point.

And there would be nothing wrong with any of those sentiments...except that if I was to utter them, I would be dishonest with both you and myself. Because though I do believe God has been present in my life and has carried me through immense challenges where it seemed impossible to go on, I didn't always know what was going to happen. I hoped, and I prayed, and I worked. I hung on. But I didn't know for certain what the outcome would be. I had no way of knowing, though I certainly hoped. But what was to come...well, that was a huge question mark. An unknown.

And I still don't know. I don't. Some people seem secure in these things. They don't struggle with "what if" thoughts and with doubt and with fear and with anxiety and with the fact that they just don't know what is going to happen. I, however, do. I won't give up. I won't turn away. I will keep going and keep fighting. But I have more questions than answers. And even when the clouds seem to be lifting somewhat...even when the pain is not as acute and I am able to not only imagine, but perceive that the weight is subsiding a little in my own life...even when I give God thanks for visibly working in the storm, I still don't know what the future holds. I still don't know what to expect. I still don't know what comes next. I still have questions.

Questions like how to deal with times when circumstances aren't as bad as you know they can be, but they still aren't good?

And/or when your personal circumstances, though certainly not optimal, are tolerable, but the circumstances of those around you are even worse?

How do you get strong enough to not only maintain your own survival, but succeed in providing meaningful assistance to others to do so?

How do you ensure that you are contributing what is truly needed, that you are empowering others to ponder, seek, express, and own their own needs and solutions are simultaneously being background support, not unintentionally taking over in one's zeal to truly help?

And how to know that you're feeding adequately into the lives of others?

And that you're also developing and not losing yourself?

And how do you do any of this in an authentic way that builds some sense of hope for facing the future while also openly acknowledging that loss hurts, brokenness exists, life disappoints, betrayals sting, people die, trauma scars, and good things end?

And what about when you fall?

When you totally eff up?

How do you mitigate the damage your actions and/or words have caused while extending yourself some grace?

How do you actually revisit hurtful things in your past to "learn" from them in a meaningful way without triggering or re-traumatizing yourself?

How do you reconcile the fact that there are some really jacked up and unsafe people in our "safe spaces" that you will never fully succeed at avoiding because they have embedded themselves into our communities and may never be able to be extracted?

And that sometimes these unsafe, maybe even toxic people actually do good work and/or help others even though you know for a fact deep down they're still POS's? Do you take the good with the bad?

How do you deal with the fact that some of your ways, your habits, your coping mechanisms, your thought patterns, etc are likely unhealthy even though they technically work?

How do you unlearn, truly?

How far can we get without knowing? Without answers? Maybe no one knows. Maybe we'll never actually know?

Is the way forward to accept that we will never really know? That there is no fate except that we make because in order to make it, we have to continue our voyage with what little we know and what little we have, aware that part, maybe a large part of our path appears to be shrouded in shadows and uncertainty?

Monday, July 3, 2017

Second chances? Hell to the naw!

I'm one of those people who fail to respect their own boundaries. The type that falls prey to wishful thinking, to hopefulness, to forgiving too easily. I advise others not to do this, but I struggle to internalize this concept in my own life. So while I am not a big fan of "Do as I say, not as I do," that is basically the message I'm going to convey in this post. That even if I am not a good example of this, I still think it's important. More than important; it can be life-altering. And that message is:

As a rule, don't give second chances.

You can forgive. You can let things go. In fact, it's often beneficial for you to do so, as harboring that pain and those emotions over how you were wronged weighs you down more than the person(s) who wronged you. Try, if you can, to shed that baggage, or at least as much of it as you are able. Free yourself to live, to learn from the experience, to progress in life. But do not give users and abusers entry back into your life. Give people only one chance, and if they blow it, save your next chance for someone/something else. Do not give them a second chance - period. Screw that.

I don't care how truly "sorry" they are and how much they have supposedly "changed." Let them be sorry somewhere else and let them demonstrate the extent of their newfound change with someone else. It is not healthy for you to place yourself back in harm's way for someone else's gratification. The risk is not worth it. The likelihood is that at some point you are going to be hurt again, betrayed again, lied to again, disappointed again, let down again. That's what users do - they use. That's what abusers do - they abuse. Maybe intentionally; maybe unintentionally...what does it matter, though? The "why" won't provide you with any resolution or relief from your hurt.

I like to see the good in people. I like to believe that people can change. I like to believe that people can be redeemed. And maybe they can.

But that doesn't mean that you have to allow them back in. Let them be changed over there - beyond the fence. From a safe distance. Not up close. Not here with me and mine.

You see, when you let people in, you are vulnerable. You are accessible. You are unprotected. They have proximity and opportunity to do damage that would be inconceivable from a distance, and worse yet, you gave them license to do it by allowing them inside. If they have hurt you before, they do not deserve a chance to be able to hurt you again. Because almost almost always they will. And when they do so, they will exonerate themselves. Somehow it will be your fault.

If you are a person of faith, and a Christian in particular, you might be especially in danger of violating your personal boundaries in an attempt to reconcile with others. Don't do that. Don't fall for that. You have a right to say, "No," just like anyone else. You have a right to be cautious just like anyone else. I don't care how many Bible verses they quote and how contrite they might seem; some of the most untrustworthy, harmful people you will meet are those who profess to be followers of Christ. Jesus said that He came that you might have life, and life more abundantly. He never said anything about you having to endure manipulation, hurt, and deceit for others to relieve their guilty consciences. You don't need that, and you don't have to take that. You deserve better.

But it's not just people of faith who tend to find themselves in these predicaments. Many of us do, regardless of our background, walk of life, or our different pasts. For some reason, we somehow suspend our better judgment when it come to some of the most fundamental elements of caring for and looking out for ourselves. We might do a phenomenal job at advocating for and with others, but we all too frequently suck at being able to do the same for ourselves, even thought we should know better.

For example, I recently compromised my standards and allowed an individual back into my life who claimed to have been transformed from within. This is someone from my past who had repeatedly shown that they were unreliable, untrustworthy, dishonest, and dangerous. However, I will admit that even to the trained eye, this time they really, truly *seemed* to have changed for the better. They talked a good game and seemed sincere. They weren't though; they were the same POS that they had always been. They just knew how to mask it better now, and had honed their ability to deflect, conflate, and manipulate almost to a science. Of course they were dripping with "God" talk too. What hypocrite would be complete without that part?

As I contend with the aftermath, I now have to acknowledge that none of this could have occurred without my consent and participation. Somehow I did not value myself enough to prioritize self-protection and chose to elevate the emotional needs of another above that of my own - despite having sufficient previous experience to alert me that this was not in my best interest. Yet here I am...again. Twice bitten, thrice I will die before I ever make that mistake again. And I don't want you to make it either. It can so easily be can so easily be avoided. All you have to do is not give second chances. Why is the teeny, tiny, microscopic, practically non-existent possibility that they might actually be kinda okay worth more than your psyche, your mental health, your heart, your boundaries? It isn't.

We have only one life. There is only one you. You cannot be replaced, and in some cases, if you suffer too much damage you cannot be repaired. You have value. You have worth. If there is only one of you, why give anyone a second chance at anything that has to do with you? One chance is more than enough. Whatever they choose to do with that chance - use it wisely or squander it - is beyond your control. But you CAN control whether you will grant an encore to someone who has proven themselves to be unsafe. And you should choose not to do it. Because the *slim* chance that they will actually not screw it up this time is not worth the huge probability that they will f*<k you over again, like they did before - and will find a way to blame that on you, too.

No second chances. If they don't do it right the first time, they aren't entitled to an opportunity to try again. That's not being unkind, unforgiving, or unrepentant. That's simply survival.

I'm not saying that they should never get a second chance. We ALL mess up; we've all gotten second chances, third chances, fourth chances. I'm not saying that no one will ever get it right or that people never change. They can get a second chance in life. But why should it be with you?

It shouldn't.

Let them reinvent themselves somewhere else with someone else.

Text reads, "Everybody deserves a second chance, but not for the same mistake." Image behind the text is of a busy street in traffic viewed through a rain-streaked window. Photo credit: Love This Pic

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Love is NOT enough: choose you

I used to have a pair of earrings that I absolutely loved.

These earrings were perfect. They were casual enough for everyday wear yet elegant enough for special occasions. They were long enough for me to be able to feel their “swish, swish” sound when I moved my head, but not too long. They were lightweight enough not to create excessive pressure on my earlobes, but heavy enough to remain in place without twisting or flipping around. They were affordable enough for me to purchase them, but not so much that they looked gaudy and cheap.

I loved their smooth, sleek texture and would often run my fingers across their surface. I also loved how they glinted in the light - not overly shiny and showy like some jewelry, but just enough to highlight their simple beauty. I loved their shape and how they were just the right width that I could wear my hair either up or down and they could still be easily seen. They were so pretty, and I loved how they looked, how they made me feel, and how they felt on me. I wore them everywhere. They were my favorite, favorite earrings.

But there was just one problem: my earlobes. You see, I have a nickel allergy.

I’ve had this allergy nearly as long as I can recall - longer than I recall, in fact. My skin reacts to nickel exposure pretty severely, I cannot tolerate having nickel against my skin for very long because it causes painful swelling, peeling, and sores. For this reason I tend to avoid costume jewelry because it is much more likely to affect me. Gold jewelry, especially 18, 22, and 24 karat, is safer for me, as is sterling silver, platinum, and other jewelry that does not contain nickel. However, I really wanted to wear my earrings - even though when I purchased them I realized that they were not made of gold and I knew a reaction was highly likely. I just decided to try to protect my ears as best as possible. I couldn't pass them up; they were too nice. They were such a perfect fit for me, it seemed. Even though other earrings of this type had proven to be problematic for me, I still really wanted this one pair - just this one.

I was told by someone that if I coated a portion of the earrings with clear nail polish and then let them air dry, I should be protected. I was excited to learn that trick, and I tried it. At first, it seemed like it might be effective. But I quickly discovered that it was not. It did work somewhat in that it slowed down the allergic reaction, but it did not prevent it from occurring. It only delayed the inevitable.

I tried to just wear the earrings sporadically rather than wearing them on a regular basis, and I also tried to wear them just for short periods of time and then take them off after a few hours of usage. But neither of these techniques worked well either. I still had painful, unpleasant reactions. I might have had them less frequently than when I wore the earrings practically daily, but I couldn't deny that I still had them.

I tried to just ignore the symptoms, to just “press through” and endure the pain so that I could still wear the earrings. Since it was clear that the pain couldn't be prevented, maybe I could just endure it. I was a strong person, right? Not a weakling. Surely I could handle some displeasure, some discomfort? I knew that the allergic reactions were unpleasant, but the trade-off was not having to refrain from wearing my favorite earrings...wasn't it worth it?

So I wore them, knowing what was going to happen. And it typically happened like this:

  • I would put the earrings on. At first, I would feel nothing other than the sensation/pressure of having something inside of my earlobes. But no pain.
  • Before long there would be a growing feeling of heat. It seemed to originate at or near the holes where my ears were pierced and then radiate outward down my earlobes, both front and back.
  • There would be a tightening feeling, also beginning near the site of my piercing and spreading, although not spreading as far as the heat.
  • Eventually I would grow accustomed to the heat, and although it was still there, I could ignore it.
  • My earlobes would begin to itch severely, especially around the piercing site (front and back side of the hole). Sometimes the itchiness could be alleviated by lifting the part of the earring that was inside my pierced hole up and down, up and down. Other times I might have to move the earring carefully aside and gently scratch the piercing site. If neither worked, I searched for over the counter remedies that could also help me to feel less uncomfortable.

I loved the earrings, but I couldn’t not see the damage that was caused when I wore them. How they caused my earlobes to become noticeably inflamed and reddish in color (and I’m a dark skinned Black person, so it takes quite a lot for any part of my body to become visibly reddened). How my earlobes would swell in size. How my earlobes would not only itch uncontrollably, but throb in pain. How I would develop small blemishes and/or bumps and unsightly discoloration around the piercing site. How when I removed the earrings there would be blood, and sometimes drainage (possibly pus? Ewww). How my earlobes would remain in bad shape for quite a bit of time afterward even after I’d taken the earrings out.

Even removing them was not enough to undo the damage that they caused. The toll that they had taken on my body lingered for weeks even when I had no jewelry on at all, almost like scarring.

It was difficult, but I eventually had to come to terms with the truth that no matter how much I loved these earrings and no matter how much on the surface they seemed perfectly made for me, they were not good for me. The evidence was there that time and time again every single time that I wore these earrings they caused me tremendous pain. It didn’t matter how nice they looked, how they made me feel about myself, how they boosted my confidence and made me feel ladylike or whatever. It didn’t matter how long I had owned them, how much money I had spent on them, how much effort I had gone to in order to still try to find a way to wear them, how little interest I had in any other pair of earrings. None of that mattered.

What mattered is that no matter how much I loved wearing these earrings, to continue to do so was to choose to keep inflicting pain upon myself.  And eventually I had to “wake up” and face reality and realize that it wasn’t worth it. Did I really want to risk developing sepsis, an infection, permanent scarring, possibly the need to amputate a portion of my earlobes, or whatever potential risk factor awaited me simply because I refused to give up these earrings? I had to decide which one I would choose - something outside of me that I loved even though it was harmful for me, or the actual health, my longevity, my best interest. I had to choose me.

I had to let those earrings go.

I couldn’t keep them in my jewelry box either, because to see them would be tempting myself to want to put them on “just for a moment” and I knew that wouldn’t be good for me. Whatever good memories I had wearing those earrings, whatever residual good feelings, whatever nostalgia I had...I couldn’t hold onto that and still hold on to me at the same time. I had to discard of those earrings completely, never to be seen, worn, or located by me again. It was the only way. But you know what? The thing that I didn’t realize is exactly how much those earrings continued to affect me even when I was no longer wearing them and even when to the naked eye it seemed as though my earlobes had finally healed after a few weeks had passed. At first there were no obvious signs of the internal damage all of those instances of wearing the earrings had caused, but in time the fact that there was lasting damage became readily apparent.

Because of those earrings, my supposedly-healed earlobes were now all jacked up on the inside. They were ultra sensitive and they were extremely susceptible to injury even when handled with care. They became inflamed easily and they took much longer to recover than they had in the past. They were so weakened and delicate now, even though they looked the same as before on the outside. They had been changed by that experience.

Those earrings also made it hard for me to be able to wear any earrings at all. For a long time I couldn’t have worn any earrings even if I had a desire to because there was so much damage done to my earlobes by those earrings. Nothing could have gone inside my earlobes until they had a lengthy period of rest and healing, earring free.

Then I finally healed. Technically, I could have started wearing earrings again. But I didn’t. I didn’t even have a desire to wear any, because I couldn’t fathom another pair could ever replace the ones that I had loved. And sometimes when I saw a pair of earrings, I grew a bit apprehensive about thinking about purchasing and putting another pair of earrings in my ears after what I had been through. How did I know it wasn’t going to happen again? Better safe than sorry, I thought; no thanks. It was almost like the trauma had created an aversion to earrings. So I went without earrings for a very long time.

I had once been someone who wore earrings all the time; I was seldom seen without them. Now I was never seen with earrings at all; most people didn’t even realize my ears were pierced because they’d never seen me wear any earrings. Something that had once been a fundamental part of my appearance was now gone - all because of all the times that I had willingly chosen my love for those earrings over my love for my own well-being.

Something interesting happened, though. Several years ago when I was dating the person who is now my husband, he purchased a pair of earrings for me for my birthday as one of my gifts. I had not mentioned anything to him about jewelry; frankly, I’d been hoping for some new books. He had noticed that I didn’t wear nor seem to own any jewelry and decided on his own to surprise me with some. Given that at this time he was a non-traditional college student working in retail, he wasn’t particularly wealthy, so this purchase probably swallowed up a substantial amount of his meager paycheck; it was a very sacrificial and meaningful gesture.

And the way he gave it to me was very thoughtful and romantic; he had created a book of poetry that included various pictures of me as well as scenes of nature as the book’s illustrations, and he had the book typed up and professionally bound like an actual book. Then he removed the earrings from their case, taped them to one of the pages in the first few chapters of the book, and gave the book to me as a gift along with some flowers. I had been pleased with the book and didn’t even notice the earrings until I was flipping through the book the next day. (Such a sweet, creative surprise.)

When I found the earrings, I removed them carefully from the book, held them in my hands, and looked them over. They were beautiful. They were very different than my previous earrings. They were actually different than the type of jewelry I would typically select for myself. But I still liked them. They were gold earrings that had tiny diamonds and amethyst stones (amethyst is my birthstone). They were medium sized. And they were 18 karat gold - nickel free.

They were earrings that I could wear without injury.

I hadn’t even told him (my then-boyfriend, now-husband) about my nickel allergy. The topic had never come up. So it wasn’t like he picked the 18 karat gold jewelry because he had advance knowledge that I needed nickel free jewelry. He just happened to choose it on his own - even though some other type of jewelry would have been a much more affordable purchase for someone whose salary was as low as his was at that time.

Mind = blown.

I was at home alone when I found the earrings. I put them in my ears slowly, carefully, one at a time. I sat still for a few minutes because it felt odd to have a pair of earrings in my ears that wasn’t the pair that I had loved for so long. It didn’t feel bad, but it felt foreign. Strange. Unfamiliar. I didn’t know how to take it and I almost reached up to take them out. Then I stopped myself and decided to walk over to a mirror and take a look at myself wearing them.

I gazed at myself in the mirror, paying especially close attention to the earrings. They weren’t ugly. In fact, they were quite lovely - much more so than my former earrings, truthfully. But I’ll admit that upon receipt internally I felt like they didn’t “do anything” for me. They didn’t sing out when I looked at them. They didn’t cause me to break into a silly, girlish smile and spin around like when I first put on my previous earrings. I didn’t feel the need to twirl them in my hands and smooth my fingers over and over them, and I didn’t feel instantly transformed when I put them on. They were nice earrings and all...but that’s all they were. They were just earrings. There was no magic. No spark.

I walked away, deep in thought. And then I got tied up with a phone call, and then some errands, and then I had to respond to a few emails, and then I realized I hadn’t eaten yet and stopped to make a meal. Though I was busy, throughout all of these tasks there were still a few free moments or two here and there where I had time to think, and when I did, I pondered the difference. I thought of the difference between the two pairs of earrings and how sad it was that this new pair, despite being more costly and fancier, didn’t give me the same “spark” as my old pair. I didn’t really see the point of wearing a pair of earrings if they didn’t create that same exhilarating feeling within me. It seemed like a poor imitation to me, and what was the point?

As I thought this to myself, I shook my head. And when I did, I felt something. The new earrings. They were still in my ears! I had gotten preoccupied with the day and hadn’t realized that I’d never taken them off. I had been wearing them all of this time and hadn’t even noticed. Hadn’t even noticed...because they hadn’t caused me any pain.

I sat in stunned silence as I pondered the profundity of that thought. There was never a time that I wasn’t aware that I was wearing earrings when I wore my previous pair. I always felt them. Their weight, the itchiness, the swelling...I always knew they were there. Was always conscious of their presence, of the discomfort, but I tolerated it because I felt the rewards of wearing them far outweighed the pain that they caused me. But this was a different experience for me, these new earrings. For me to be wearing earrings and be so NOT in at so much comfort that I literally did not even recall that they were there...I had never known what that felt like. It was astonishing.

I sat and thought some more, realizing the error in my former way of thinking. Here I was about to reject the new earrings because they didn’t cause me to swoon, completely disregarding the fact that they possessed other admirable characteristics. They were high quality; they were beautiful; they were chosen and given with love; they contained precious gemstones; they were new and different...but most importantly, they didn’t hurt me.

With my previous earrings I had to accept that they came with pain and that they would always cause me pain. It was part of the package. Yes, they brought me tremendous joy, but they simultaneously brought me massive pain, pain that never went away and actually increased over time. But these new earrings...with them I didn’t have to tolerate pain in order to enjoy their presence. I could simply put them on and enjoy their presence - pain free. I could just be me...just go about my day, and they were a quiet, non-intrusive complement to the rest of me.

No, they didn’t initially cause my heart to sing and cause me to feel all giddy inside like my other pair, but maybe that wasn’t supposed to be their purpose in the first place. Earrings are an accessory item. They are supposed to accentuate, to highlight, to add to an already complete ensemble. They aren’t a necessity, but they sure are nice to have. Maybe the reason they didn’t affect me in the same way is because when I put these new earrings on, I was already complete whereas when I put on the previous ones, I was looking for them to complete things for me, to be the “final touch.” And that isn’t what earrings are made for. As accessories, they are an option - a choice. Unlike an outfit (clothing) which protects the body from the elements, earrings aren't a necessity. They're nice, but they are something you decide to incorporate, not something you are dependent upon to cover your nakedness.

Those former earrings? I didn’t crush them or anything when I discarded them. They weren't - aren't - trash. They might make a stunning pair of earrings for whomever their next owner shall be. It could be possible that there is nothing inherently wrong with those earrings; they’re just totally, absolutely, unequivocally wrong for ME. They’re just bad for ME. But for someone else - some person who can easily tolerate nickel - maybe those same earrings won't cause pain. That someone else, however, is not me.

And I’m not trash either, and I refused to be convinced that I am. I’m not less than, or defective, or flawed because I happen to have a nickel allergy. That’s just who I am. I’m not going to feel sad, guilty, or remorseful about that. I can’t have nickel in my life because nickel hurts me. That’s just the way it is, and I shouldn’t be shamed for that. I want to be whole; I want to be healthy. And for that, I personally need real gold, real silver, real platinum, etc. That’s what works for me. That doesn’t mean I think nickel is beneath me or that people who can wear costume jewelry aren’t equal to me. It means none of that. I simply require something else for me to be at my best.

You can love something. That love can be absolutely, positively, 100% authentic. It doesn’t make it fake; it doesn’t make it a lie; it doesn’t make it a game. But if it hurts, it DOES make it unhealthy for you. It DOES make it bad for you...harmful for you. You see, love is not enough. You need more than just love to survive. If that thing that you love causes you pain, than that love is not for you. Let it go and be open to the real, lasting love that is meant for you. You have to discard the painful love and make room for the love that fulfills. The love that will not destroy you from within but will instead fit seamlessly and effortlessly into your heart and your messy life; the love that will complement who you are and will cause you to glow in a way that only reassuring, stable, and healthy love can do. The love that heals and does not hurt. The love you - and I - always deserved.

Choose you, and wait, my friend. That love is coming. Maybe it is the love you will develop for yourself. Maybe it is love from someone else - a future partner who will cherish you. Maybe it's a spiritual love. But whatever it is, it is coming. And it is real and it is beautiful...just like you.

Image is white text on a black background that states: "Love is not enough." Photo credit: HR Examiner

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Accentuating the Positive

Life can be extremely unpredictable, especially mine. At times, particularly when I’m overwhelmed or experiencing intense challenges, it can be hard to focus on anything other than the current storm. I think that’s a natural part of the human psyche - at least for me. And though it is likely to be uncomfortable to do, acknowledging our struggles, learning from them, and (ideally) growing from them ultimately benefits us, or at least increases our awareness so that we can hopefully be better equipped for the encore - for more problems are sure to come again one day. At the bare minimum, it becomes part of our life story.

But it’s also important to be intentional about focusing upon positive aspects of life too. We will always, unfortunately, face some type of difficulty. However, even in the midst of difficulty, there might be something in our lives that is joyful, even if it seems small and insignificant. We have to make sure that we not only don’t miss the good things in our lives, but that we make an effort to actively search for them. And that we give ourselves some time and energy to revel in them, to rest in them, as much as we are able. Because without those moments of happiness, what does it all really mean?

It’s been a difficult last few days/weeks/months/years for me. Lots of tears; lots of feelings of despair and hopelessness; lots of hurt; lots of betrayal; lots of loss. But there have also been moments of sunshine. I want to take a few lines to write about the things that make me smile.

Like the gleeful melody of my children’s laughter.
Like the thrill I feel when one of my students who has been struggling “gets” a concept.
Like the soft caress of sand on my bare feet as I stroll the beach.
Like the sweet nostalgia that envelopes me when I hear a song from certain periods of my life.
Like the smell of jollof rice and sweet plantains on the stove at my parents’ house.
Like the warm kiss of the sun on my skin on a day that’s not too hot, not too cold, but just right.
Like the rhythmic drumbeat echoing through the sanctuary during worship service.
Like the fluttering anticipation of beginning a book I’ve been eager to read.
Like the sense of release and fulfillment that comes once I’ve completed some writing.
Like the quiet joy I feel if I’m able to help someone, support someone, guide someone.
Like the slow, sweet dimpled grin my baby boy gives me when he sees me.
Like the poorly-concealed pride in my older sons’ voice when he has accomplished a task.
Like the powerful awe/gratitude that pierces me when someone does something kind for me.
Like the tingly, explosive feeling of sharing a kiss with someone you deeply love.
Like the stimulating pleasure of gaining knowledge and being intellectually challenged.
Like the calm, focused peace that sustains me during a service or volunteer endeavor.
Like the buzzing giddiness of getting ready to embark on an adventure.
Like the stable, steady glow of loving and being loved.

If history is intended to establish a pattern of what is to come, I will have battles to fight until the day I draw my last breath. I will have troubles to overcome, mistakes to correct, lessons to learn. Therefore, I will - I must - remember the pleasure. Remember the good. Remember the positive. I need it to sustain me through the bad; I need it to remind me that even though life often hurts, often stabs, often sucks, there is also joy in being alive.

Image is a meme that states, "Enjoy the little things in life...for one day you'll look back and realize they were the big things."  -Robert B. (Background is cream-colored and there is a drawing of a plant with some small flowering buds in the left part of the meme.)

Sunday, June 11, 2017

When Love Hurts: A Story of Surviving Abuse

Content warning: post mentions physical abuse, emotional abuse, infidelity, emotional anguish, dysfunctional marriage, miscarriage, substance use, mention of suicidal ideation, divorce, faith

Once upon a time there was a 14 year old girl.
She met a boy her age, and they connected. And on and off for the next 13 years, more on than off, they were together. She loved him. He loved her. But the relationship, once sweet and loving, eventually became abusive and toxic.

Some of the toxicity might have been due to youthful ignorance and the typical problems that plague young relationships. Some of it was due to lengthy periods of maintaining a relationship long distance at a time when cell phones, FaceTime, Skype, WhatsApp, and most social media didn’t exist. Some of it was due to carelessness; some due to infidelity; some due to baggage and old habits. However, a sizeable portion of it might have been due to the fact that they were initially connected not by common interests or mutual friends, but by a “trauma bond,” which later led to co-dependence.

There were an unlikely couple in the eyes of most people, and it is true that in many ways they couldn’t have been more different from one another. They were different races; they were of a different gender; they came from different socioeconomic classes; they lived on different sides of town; they had different religious backgrounds; their families were from different cultural backgrounds. Yet in some very significant ways they had a great deal of similarities. They had both survived childhood abuse; they had both endured loss; they had both constructed a protective shell to shut out potential predators - but unfortunately, also potential supporters. Additionally, both shared the experience of not “belonging” in the world they occupied and struggling with a sense of being rejected for being “different.” But within one another they found acceptance and support, and from that a strong emotional bond (formed from shared histories of trauma) developed.

Through the years they clung to one another, emotionally intertwined in a way that neither had ever known nor could explain. They often joked about their “twin brains” and how easily they were able to finish one another’s sentences and thoughts. They spent as much time together as they could, sneaking on the telephone late into the night to talk until they fell asleep because neither wanted to hang up. They skipped school a few times to meet in the park or at McDonald’s or to ride buses downtown and walk around...just to be in one another’s presence. They shared similar ideas and had a few (though not many) of the same interests, and they had a deep understanding of one another, which was good. This was hastened by their relationship becoming physical as college began, adding another layer to their already growing bond and further cementing their seemingly unquenchable desire to be near/with one another.

But over time, the boundaries of what had once been their distinct identities began to blur, and they bled into one another. Fused by love, but also by co-dependence, they both lost who they used to be and become something new. Something that was sometimes beautiful, but because they were both broken, it also became ugly - jealous, insecure, incomplete, and unhealthy.

They were young and immature, and they made mistakes. She hurt him, and he hurt her. She cheated on him, and he cheated on her. She lied to him and he lied to her. They split up, but both felt unfulfilled and empty without their “other half” and came back together after a year. In order to demonstrate their commitment to one another, they moved in together. So that they could make ends meet, she dropped out of college, forfeiting her academic scholarship, and began to work full-time, leaving her former life behind to let him know she was serious. They both swore that they had grown as a result of their youthful indiscretions and they would not make those types of mistakes nor take one another for granted any longer. They promised to forgive one another, and for several months after their reunion both were intoxicated by their exhilaration and gratitude at being back in one another’s lives and the promise of a joyful future together, with hopefully marriage and children to follow one day. She figured she would be able to return to school to complete her degree one day; it was a worthwhile sacrifice for the love of her life, and she was convinced he would have done the same for her.

Those initial months back together were like a honeymoon, and it seemed that their love and their friendship was even stronger than before. However, in time the celestial fog of bliss dissipated, and it became apparent that during the time they had been apart the seeds of dissension had taken deep root while the recent “forgiveness” was only surface level. Gone was the ease with which they once interacted and the openness and trust. Resentment, bitterness, and suspicion festered within them - particularly in him, but also in her. Their relationship began to resemble a battlefield, and they were both ruthless warriors; kindness, respect, trust, and compassion were the first casualties. Self-worth, integrity, and fidelity were soon to follow. Their lives became a blur: days filled with quarrels; nights filled with make-up sex, and their hearts and minds both compromised.

She sometimes wondered when she looked at him, his face red and contorted with rage during yet another argument, his fists balled and voice raised, what had happened to her best friend, her soulmate. And whether she cowered in fear, as she did some days, or became infuriated and screamed right back at him, as she did other days, she wondered what had happened to her too. Where had their love gotten poisoned? Why couldn’t they get past this period? When would the unhappiness go away? And how, with everything collapsing upon them, could she still feel such a deep, consuming love for him, even when he filled her with disgust, or anger, or fear?

Things got bad and then they got worse. And yet she still loved him. She broke every rule, every standard she had ever had, for him. She tolerated things she had promised herself she would never accept from any man. She began to hate who she had become, but not enough to be without him. Her love for him, the only love she had ever felt for any man, had grown so large, so powerful, so consuming that it nearly asphyxiated her. And though her self-esteem was shredded and her psyche trampled, he still set her heart soaring and her body ablaze. Despite the tears, the fighting, the pain, the lies, the disrespect, and even the fear, living without him was not an option. Any hurt their union caused paled in comparison to the pain of being apart from him. When they feuded and separated, she could feel physical pain - sharp, stabbing agony in her abdominal region - from his absence. She was co-dependent...she was addicted...she no longer knew who she was without him. She needed his presence, his love, his embrace, his reassurance, his touch to feel alive. She was no longer anyone if she was not part of him. She belonged to him, and he to her, and that was the most real thing they both knew.

He could make her feel so high and at the same time so low. She sustained herself on the good moments. The hours they would spend engrossed in conversation as they lay in bed at night. The inside jokes they shared, and how they could laugh so long and hard with one another that hysterical tears came. The invigorating debates they had about various philosophical concepts. Sentimental moments together on anniversaries, birthdays, and holidays. Nights of passion that still took her breath away and infused her body with ecstasy and fulfillment. Whispered promises to one another, and plans, and dreams, and potential. The good times were so good. She could see the love in his eyes when he gazed at her; could feel the light from his smile. When things were good with them, all was right with the world.

But then there were bad moments, and they increased. Although from ages 14 to 18 years old there were practically none, at age 20, there were a few; by 22 there were more; by 25 there was an equal amount of good and bad; by the time they were 27 the bad outweighed the good. The bad was really bad. Cornering her in the closet where no one could hear her muffled screams when he was in a rage. Strings of lies and inconsistencies, and gaslighting when she dared to inquire further. Disappearing money when bills and rent were due; unusually high mileage on their vehicle; paranoia and irritability followed by erratic mood swings. There was the STI he brought home while denying infidelity. There was the baby he brought home (conceived from a woman he'd been with), and the accompanying “baby mama drama” that ensued as a result. There were the irrational outbursts that were no longer contained within their home and now occurred in front of his family, their friends, and even at her job. There were the constant accusations and the constant manipulation and argument-baiting and threats and games and lies. The broken promises. Even after he made her his wife (in an elopement ceremony where no one else was present but the officiant and staff), the abuse continued, and her despair grew.

He treated her like crap and treated himself worse. She had never been hurt so badly by another human being in her life, especially one who professed to love her. Despite how badly he treated her, she still loved him. And because she knew how sick that was, she hated herself for it. For still loving him even as his “love” was destroying them both. She left him. She came back. She left again. She came back. He left. He came back. She found someone else to be with - a revenge affair that blossomed out of control before she could cut it off, before she could keep from getting caught. He left. He came back. She left again. But she came back. She couldn’t stay away. She always came back.

She couldn’t leave, not really. She couldn’t quell the insatiable yearning for him - to hear his voice, to feel his breathing against hers as he slept, to kiss him on his eyes, to hear him tell her he was sorry and it wouldn’t happen again and he was going to change and please believe in him and he could never love anyone else the way he loved her and that he only hurt her because he was scared to lose her and didn’t mean it. He told her he would kill himself if things ended between them, and she believed it, as she had been driven to try to take her own life during low periods. She saw it dragging both of them down, but neither could get out. He lost himself in weed, in alcohol, in pills, in other women, in porn; she lost herself in anger, in long hours at work, in increasing anxiety and debilitating depression; in food. They conceived, and then subsequently lost, two children through the years, and both parties secretly blamed the other for the loss, converting their grief into bitterness.

They tried to get help. They went to therapists. They went to pastors. They sought advice from friends. They went to church. They bought books. They would make some progress at treating one another better, but it never lasted. Eventually it deteriorated and regressed back to the status quo. She hated herself for needing him and hated him for needing her. She hated that despite all of the destruction, they still had happy moments. They still had tender words for one another and still did kind things for one another and still craved one another’s presence - even in the midst of all the turbulence. It didn’t make any sense - except it did, because nothing about their relationship made sense to anyone, even to them. It was like a dream at times and like a nightmare at times. It felt like neither of them would ever rouse from their gilded cage; that they would continue to drift along, breaking away pieces of themselves until there was nothing left, and still refusing to let go.

Image is a meme with white letters on a black background with text that states, "The heart gets confused when it's constantly told 'I love you,' by the same person who destroys it." -r.h.Sin

But one day she was shaken awake. She came home from work on her lunch break to eat lunch at home, and the phone rang. He wasn't there (she didn't know where he was because at the time he was unemployed, having quit yet another job). She answered the phone. It was a female voice asking for her husband. Assuming it was a former co-worker, she wasn’t concerned by the call, and asked to take a message for him; she was shocked when the person identified herself as his girlfriend and then asked, “Are you his sister?” Heart pounding and voice trembling, she could barely squeak out a reply that no, she wasn’t his sister; she was his wife.

The girl on the other end of the line drew her breath in surprise, and then went silent. And when the girl spoke again, after she apologized and declared repeatedly that she’d had no idea he wasn’t single, out spilled everything. How he had sought out this woman online, and how they had been involved for nearly a month. How the two of them had a romantic out of town weekend planned for the following week. How he told her that he “worked nights,” which is why she had never called in the evening, only during the daytime.

Listening to her husband’s girlfriend apologetically repeating that he had never mentioned having a wife, she was suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of intense clarity. She thanked the girl for her honesty and assured her that she harbored no ill will toward her. Then she ended the call and immediately called her job to let them know she wouldn’t be back for the rest of the day. Next, she called up some of her friends and one of her cousins, told them she was leaving him, and asked if they could help her pack because she was scared he would come home and find her preparing to disappear.

These were the same people she had practically cut out of her life because they didn’t approve of her relationship and she grew tired of their unsolicited advice about how she deserved better and should leave him. The same people she almost never visited or called because the tumultuous relationship with him occupied the majority of her time and energy. The same people who she had told that she chose him over them, and that if they couldn’t accept him, they had no place in her life. She had no one else to turn to but the same people she had shunned for him, and though they could have ignored her plea for help, they all came to help her. Packing hurriedly in order to finish before he came back home, she and her girls worked in nervous silence until one of her friends gasped loudly in surprise...she had found a huge stash of drugs hidden in a cabinet.

More surprises. A secret girlfriend, a secret drug stash IN HER OWN HOUSE...she wondered what else she didn’t know.

Her whole life was a lie.

She left that day.

But she almost fell back under his spell. He called her crying and begging and making excuses, and she nearly fell for it. She took his calls and she agreed to meet with him to “talk things over” and consider whether she would give him another chance. His apologies and blame shifting and promises and gaslighting and word twisting and declarations of love confused and overwhelmed her; his presence weakened her. She found herself in his arms again and her mind scrambled as she tried to make sense of what she was doing. Ashamed of not having the willpower to stay away from him, she lied to her family and most of her friends that she was not in contact with him even though she was. He began to pressure her to formally reunite with him and for them to move back in with one another, and she was running out of excuses to continue to delay things.

She was buckling under the stress; her hair began to fall out and her performance at work suffered, resulting in disciplinary action and a demotion. Meanwhile, he was still making contact with her, and she would often yield, unable to stop herself from answering when he called. They were still living apart, and he was growing frustrated with her attempts to pull away, angrily demanding that she cut off her closest friend because he was male and according to him, "A married woman shouldn't have male friends," and flying into a rage when she refused to comply with his demands.

She had recently began attending church regularly, and eventually confided in some people there about what she was going through. Though she had hidden most of the abuse from her parents, she also decided to confide in her (male) friend and then her siblings, seeking encouragement to help her garner the strength not to answer his calls, not to go see him, not to reach out to him. She didn't know if she was going to be able to follow through as she never had before, and support from others helped boost her confidence that she would be able to do it. That she was stronger than she believed herself to be.

She cried alone in her bed night after night as she began the process of withdrawing from him, of extracting what was left of who she had been and trying to heal. She prayed for strength to stay away from him. Many times she failed. But gradually she gained a bit of strength and was able to resist, to talk herself out of it, to point out to herself the inconsistencies in his words and actions. To be less afraid. To start the process of reestablishing a little bit of her dignity.

It took months to disentangle herself, and even when she finally severed all contact, filed for divorce, and moved to another state, she couldn’t entirely erase him from her mind. Her love evolved into fury at how she had been mistreated and disappointment in herself for her role in allowing it to happen. The anger kept her up at night seething with rage at how much she had lost until she realized that being consumed by anger meant that she was still in bondage, just in a different way - because she still thought about him constantly, but with hatred instead of love. She realized that she needed to move on; she needed to let him go.

But how?

How could she “forgive and forget” and go off into the sunset? After everything that had happened, after she had wasted nearly half of her life? She DIDN’T forgive him for what he did to her. And she would NEVER forget what happened.

How could she ever be released from this? How could she get past it?

Eventually, she didn’t - not really. She worked on forgiving herself for being an enabler and for remaining in an abusive situation. She made efforts to affirm herself, to establish boundaries to protect her from being taken advantage of for “love” ever again, to acknowledge that she deserved better than what had happened and that even though she bore some responsibility for some of her poor choices, it was NOT her fault. She released herself from the guilt that she had harbored for years, let herself off the hook.

She did not release him.

She didn’t want to think about him any longer. He had already taken so much from her, and she didn’t want to devote another minute to him - not even to let herself go through the process of grieving her relationship. She refused to give him any more of her life.

So she disassociated.

She decided it was best to move forward and put it out of her mind as if it never happened - any of it. No "soulmates." They didn't exist...he didn't exist. No longer willing to think about it, she compartmentalized and killed the whole thing off in her mind. Put it - and herself - out of misery. Not another feeling; not another thought. She wouldn't allow it. That period of life was dead, just like he was dead to her.


She buried him - and the whole situation - and piled dirt, logs, bricks, metal pipes, whatever she could find atop the remains to ensure they would never be resurrected. She was done. Screw it, and screw him. Forever.

She went back to college - now having to take out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans and to juggle long work hours to pay for tuition, housing, and living expenses since she no longer had a scholarship to help defray the cost. She devoted her attention to positive things - her schoolwork, her church, volunteering, in time her new relationship - which was a healthy and safe one. She graduated from college and moved again to a different state, and then to another. Life happened - a much more peaceful life than the one which had once been her normalcy. Time passed. She left her twenties behind and entered her 30’s. She became an advocate; she became a wife; she became a mother. She was no longer that lost young woman.

Yet she still was. Because that person was a part of who she was too, and had been a part of her journey. And she didn’t deserve to remain hidden any longer like some secret shame.

So about a year or two ago, she - I - started writing about it. At first just a little here and there; over time a little more and a little more. It was difficult to do at first, and frankly, in some ways it still is. Because even though I am in some ways a pretty open person, this isn’t an easy thing to talk about. It leaves me feeling very naked, very vulnerable. And because I had pushed it out of my mind for so long and because it isn’t part of my present, in some ways it would be easier to just leave it where I placed it. I now have a supportive, loving husband who has never raised a hand to me, has never cheated on me, is not verbally abusive or abusive in any way, and does not mistreat me. I have a family, I have various pursuits that I care about; I have a career. I have a relationship with God and I have greater awareness of self. I no longer live a life plagued with emotional and physical abuse. But I once did, and maybe by talking about it I can help someone else.

Too many people are silent about domestic violence and that only helps to fuel a culture of secrecy and continued abuse - including within the church, but not only there. So many people feel unable to confide in someone else or unable to leave; they feel trapped. I’m here to tell you that I know it isn’t easy to leave, and I recognize that I was a lot more fortunate than many people in that I didn’t have children with him, I had a job, I had people who were willing to help me when I was finally ready to leave, etc - and even with all of those factors in my favor it was still hard for me to leave. So many people have none of those things.

I have daughters. They are so beautiful, so smart, so caring. The idea that they could someday be in an abusive relationship or marriage fills me with apprehension. I don’t want that for them - or for my sons either, for that matter, as abuse can happen to a person of any gender (or of no gender). Sadly, abuse is an equal opportunity entity, and no one is immune.

Abuse changes you. You’re never the same. But although it might have scarred me, it didn’t beat me. It didn’t destroy me. I am still here, and I am free.

And whom the Son sets free is free indeed.