Life, with a Side of Triggers

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As the title suggests, this post needs a trigger warning for those who have experienced sexual trauma. This post also contains explicit content.

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This post is about to get real, very real. As I browsed back through my blog post history I realize there is one piece of my life that I have not really touched on since I started this blog in 2011. And now it’s time to talk about it.

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For anyone who’s suffered abuse in the past there are triggers that can bring you back to the awful moment(s) of the abuse, make you feel waves of emotions you’ve tried to suppress, take away your breath and ability to think clearly.

The worst thing about triggers is that you don’t know when one will happen or what will cause it. In fact, the trigger itself doesn’t have to be frightening or traumatic to make a person recall a traumatic memory.

Take IHOP, for example. I hate IHOP. I hate hearing about it, seeing an advertisement of it, driving past it. There’s nothing wrong with the place itself, in fact, I used to love its chocolate chip pancakes with lots and lots of whipped cream. But IHOP was where we ate the night he raped me. And now, I hate IHOP.

It was Wednesday, October 3rd, 2007, college night at IHOP. A small group of us sat at a booth, mostly friends of his. We left at 2 am and headed back to his place where a group of us were going to watch a movie. There was no group. There was no movie. There was no going back to life as it was before that night.

A person never fully gets over something like that. Please don’t misunderstand me, there is so much healing, beautiful, releasing healing, that can happen. I’ve witnessed it, I’ve experienced it. But, as other survivors know, the memories still linger below the surface, no matter how many years have passed. And that’s why triggers are so scary.

In May of 2010 I went with a group of mostly female students from my university to Morocco. The country, the language, the landscape were beautiful but I was not prepared for the amount of sexual harassment that I would experience. We walked around in pairs, wore loose clothing, and even tried to cover our hair but nothing dissuaded the young harassers.

Sometimes they would stand in groups and yell and whistle at us. Sometimes they would follow us, whispering in our ears. Sometimes they would grab us. Once, I was walking with my roommate and one of the men who was following us grabbed me by the elbow while whispering obscene things to me.

I lost it. “GET THE FUCK OFF ME!” I yelled, jerking my arm out of his grasp. “Don’t fucking touch me!” I let out an exasperated cry as tears of anger flowed from my eyes. The group of men stopped, astonished. Then they dispersed. That type of harassment is hard for any human being to deal with but, for me, every time someone said something explicit to me it took me back to that night in October 2007. The night I felt like the most worthless piece of shit.

“Shut up, bitch, stop talking,” he had said. “You’re talking too much.” So the words “no” and “please stop” were too much? They were too much?!

I think this is also why I have such a visceral reaction to street harassers. I’d had a violation of my being, my body, and my spirit and the notion that someone would try to violate me again in such a public space infuriates me beyond belief. For a while I even had a hard time when men would smile at me on the street and whenever a man would open his mouth I’d assume he was about to harass me.

I also had, and still have, a hard time with crowds of men, especially on the subway. The side seats leave you facing outward toward the throngs of people standing and when many or all of the people surrounding me are men I get nervous. From where I am seated my face is directly in line with their genitalia and I suddenly am petrified that one of them will grab my head and push it to their crotch.

When a trigger hits you it can be debilitating. You can feel your breath restricting, the room spinning, and you just need to get out and find space to breathe. I watched the movie For Colored Girls in college with a friend of mine who is also a survivor. It was a powerful, intense film with a rape scene that nearly made you vomit. We sat in my car afterward and I held her as she shook, the trauma of that trigger taking over.

I was so grateful to the professor of a film class I took who warned us when films may be difficult for certain people to watch. I approached him once after class and told him I could not see the upcoming film or join the discussion because it would trigger too much trauma for me. And he let me miss it, no questions asked.

If you find yourself in a situation where a trigger may arise there is nothing shameful about removing yourself from it. In fact, it is an act of courage and strength. It’s an act of knowing and loving yourself. Triggers will come and they will go but you can’t live life in fear of them. A life lived in fear is not a life lived at all.

Some of the most resilient, beautiful, bold souls I know are survivors and they’ve experienced pain you can’t imagine and you better believe they experience triggers. But they are strong, so strong, even when they don’t feel like they are. They are strong because they push through, they love anyway, they hope, they cry, they strive, they fight, they don’t give in and they don’t give up.

A friend of mine shared with me recently about her experience with sexual assault and how she didn’t want that to be the defining piece of her life story. And I fully empathize with that. It is a risk we take as survivors to tell people our stories.

I have shared so much with you in my blog that I’m sure there are many words you could use to define me: victim, suicidal, depressed, neurotic, pessimistic, hopeless. But I would hope the words survivor, empathizer, lover, dreamer, bold, brave, and open also come to mind. But if I’m being really honest, I don’t really care what your labels are because I know my worth and the worth of my story. And no label or abuser or trigger can undermine that worth.

God, the Painter

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One moment I am scouring my fridge for leftovers and bustling around my kitchen and the next I am caught off guard by vivid strokes of pink and orange, purple and blue, yellow and gold suddenly pouring through my kitchen window.

I stop, enraptured, craning my neck to see over the buildings and tree tops. Barely visible at first, the colors slowly build and glow until the sky is ablaze with light. God the painter is at work again.

I wonder if she, like me, gets done with a long day’s work and needs to let loose a burst of creativity.

I picture her like a seasoned artist, apron covered in patches of paint, some fresh some old, brows furrowed with focus, eyes glistening with delight, as she sends another streak of fiery color across the sky.

Maybe this is God showing emotion through creation. Maybe God’s tears aren’t really the rain; maybe they are bursts of burning color that cause us to stop dead in our tracks, reflect a moment, appreciate, even take a picture.

Or maybe if God’s tears are the rain, then vibrant sunsets are her laughter.

Either way she reminds me that in something as ordinary as the passing of another day, there are still miraculous sights to behold.

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Whiplash

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I often find my heart torn between many worlds. I’ve written before about how I’ve left pieces of my heart in different places, with different people, and I’ve never fully gotten any of those pieces back. Some pieces, despite the pain, I’m glad to have scattered; they keep me connected to those I hold dear. Others, I grieve the loss of, wishing I could have those precious pieces of myself back.

At this time in my life, I find my heart being mostly torn between my hometown of Greencastle, PA and Philadelphia. When I am home, my heart beats with my family and my partner and there is nowhere else I’d rather be in those moments. When I am in Philly, my heart beats with my church family and community and I feel a sense of belonging and purpose.

My boyfriend and I have been in a long distance relationship for over a year and while the distance is relatively short (3 hours) in the scheme of things, it is still nearly unbearable at times. We try to visit each other every few weeks, him driving up or me taking the train down.

We often talk about how we wish would could just do mundane things together whenever we feel like it– he’ll do the dishes while I’ll fold the laundry, we’ll peruse grocery store aisles for meals to make together, we’ll laze around on the couch in the evenings.

When we do get to see each other it’s always a whirlwind weekend– go here, visit there, make the most of every possible second. Then, a train ride or car drive later, it’s over and, in the silence of my apartment, the familiar lump rises in my throat and my heart feels as though it will burst.

It’s like whiplash, just when I have settled into place I am jerked back into another and my heart never really has time to heal. It aches and yearns and loves and longs and sometimes I just wish it would cease. But isn’t this part of life and part of love, the longing, the aching, the embracing? If not for the whiplash, the sense of grief and the sense of rapture, I would never know how deep and rich love truly can be. And that, my friends, is beautiful.

For These

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For butterflies in the warm summer sun

For the sound of a pebble breaking the surface of water

For a warm cuddle on a cold morning

For a cool breeze on a warm night

For hot coffee in a mug

For rising up singing

For leaves crunching under foot

For giant snowflakes slowly falling

For bare feet in cool grass

For breathing deeply

For laughter

For candles glowing in the darkness

For holding hands around a food filled table

For fond memories

For family

For hands cradling dirt

For wandering in the woods

For climbing a mountain

For chopping vegetables

For picking flowers

For jumping into cooling water

For getting lost in a captivating book

For loving and being loved

For deep conversation

For seeking peace

For the embrace of the Divine

For companionship

For rest, for community, for love, for hope

For these things I am glad to be alive.

Sandstorm

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It’s like burying your feet in the sand. At first there’s warmth and pleasure as your scrunched toes dig deeper into the earth, disappearing beneath the service of the thousands of tiny, soothing grains. Then, as you slowly pull your feet back out, the tiny grains stick to you and scrape against your skin as you try desperately to wipe them off. So you leave them there.

That’s what depression is like for me. Sometimes I want nothing more than to sink into my misery, to fully immerse myself, and dig my toes down into it. It’s comfortable there. But, as I move around in it, the tiny particles of misery start sticking to me and as desperately I want to rub them off, I don’t want to pull my feet out.

It’s like when you have a bruise or a scrape on your body and you keep pressing on the wound, even though it hurts. Something about the pain compels you to go back for more. So you do.

The worst is when someone tries to pull you out of your pit. They rationalize your situation and reason with you. They remind you that life is more than here and now and that you can choose what to focus on. And, damn, is it irritating!!

Because you know they’re right. And you hate them for it because it means you have to rub the grains of misery off and that’s no easy task. They cling to you, they cling to everything! You try to rub them off with your hands but they cling to those too. You try to wipe them off with a towel but they just scratch at your skin. It feels easier to just stay and wallow than to face what you have to do to free yourself.

But after you’ve rid yourself of the sand, your clean, dry feet feel fresh and new. You dangle them out in front of you and wiggle your toes; a smile erupts on your face, a giggle escapes your lips. And suddenly you remember what it’s like to be free and how good it feels to want to stay that way.

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Renaissance Woman

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She’s gorgeous and so well spoken, the kind of woman who commands your attention when she walks in the room, simply by her presence and confidence. I find myself captivated when she speaks because her words come out so eloquently. Why didn’t I think to say that?

She took the seat next to me in class yesterday. We sat awkwardly during snack time while most other people browsed their phones or huddled in groups. I have to know her story. So I struck up a conversation.

Her passion is working with indigenous people through education. She’s taught on a Navajo reservation in Arizona and worked in Ghana and South Africa. She’ll get her Master’s soon and, after that, her Ph.D. She was born in Nigeria but has lived in the U.S. most of her life.

“And you?” she asks.

What to say after that? I’m usually pretty confident but when I perceive someone to be more intelligent or put together than me I tend to doubt myself. Here it goes.

I tell her that I graduated university in 2011 with a degree in Peacebuilding and Development, that I volunteered with a non-profit in NYC for a year called the Community Development Project, that, since moving to Philly, I’ve worked mostly various part-time jobs for a church and a bakery and a small non-profit, that I now work at Penn.

“Wow, a renaissance woman.” She said with a smile.

I laughed, a little too loudly probably. More like rundown woman. Or restless woman. Or broke, depressed, and hopeless woman.

I was shocked that a person who I perceived to have it all figured out found something fascinating in my life story. And it struck me how important it is to take a step back and look at your life through someone else’s eyes– you never know where someone will see beauty where you see brokenness.

I Just Betrayed My Soul

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She was there again today. I could smell her as I approached the bathroom door. Pushing it open, I felt the breeze of the open window, her way to try to keep her smell down.

She stood at the sink, wetting and soaping paper towel after paper towel. She glanced up from behind her hood as I came in.

She has to recognize me. This is the third time I’ve run into her like this, just she and I.

Young, she looks really young. Or maybe it’s just her short stature that makes me assume that. She’s wearing the same clothes as the last time. And the time before that.

I pushed open the first stall door and saw her bags of things. I had forgotten that the first stall was the one she usually uses.

So I went a few stalls down. She shuffled to the first stall and slammed the door. I heard the unmistakable sounds of scrubbing.

I quickly washed my hands and left. What to do, what to do?

A trusted coworker told me I had to tell someone. “This is a university. There are students here and this could present an unsafe situation. I mean, we ourselves had to get background checks to work here.”

He’s right. I know he’s right.

But I could pretend like I didn’t see anything.

But this is the third time I’ve seen her; it’s becoming a pattern.

But she’s not hurting anything.

But what if something happened?

Ignoring the ache in my stomach, I dialed Facilities, “Hey, I feel terrible saying this…”

J came up about ten minutes later and we walked down to the bathroom. I went in to “wash my hands” and, sure enough, she was still there. I confirmed it with J and he went in to kick her out. I went back to my desk and nearly cried.

J is like me, he didn’t want to do it either. “I saw a homeless man last week sitting on a heated grate and I let it go.” But he also understood that he’s bound by the university rules.

“I feel like I just betrayed my heart,” I told him after she’d gone.

What kind of revolutionary am I? What kind of human being am I? What kind of Christian, woman, friend, social justice advocate am I if I see someone in need and tell the system on them?! I am so ashamed. So. Ashamed.

I’m a piece of shit. That’s what I am, an absolute piece of shit. I hope she can forgive me.

I just betrayed my soul.

We Who Believe in Freedom…

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Race. Four small letters, one powerful word.

Race. The four letter word and social construction that has been used for millennia to subjugate a sector of people to lower class, lower than human status.

Race. The four letter word that white people rarely think about but, when they do, they become terrified, defensive, or both.

Race. The four letter word that’s created the biggest divide in our country for centuries.

Last week I had the privilege of participating in a confrontational workshop on race and dismantling racism with the organization POWER (Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower, and Rebuild). For two nights, an intergenerational, interfaith group of around two hundred Philadelphians from various socio-economic, racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds came together to talk about race.

We welcomed one another, questioned one another, challenged one another, and called out one another. There were moments when the facilitator asked us to get together with someone we didn’t know and ask each other “the hard questions.”

During one of these moments I sat with a woman named Julia. A mother and grandmother nearing her seventies, Julia was one of those women who exhibited such warmth that you immediately felt at ease with her. She was one of those fancy women whose eloquence and style drew you in. Born a black woman in the south, she’d seen and felt a lot of pain in her life.

As we pulled our chairs closer together, the facilitator asked us to tell our partners something that is difficult for us to say, something real. So I went for it.

I told Julia about growing up in a mostly white, middle class area where I learned and internalized racism I never knew I had until I was an adult. Without being told explicitly, I grew up believing that having white skin was the absence of having a race. I grew up with an internalized, irrational fear of certain black men that I didn’t ever realize I had until I lived in the city. And when I discovered that, despite all my education and aspirations of social justice, I was racist, the shame was incredible.

knew better so why did I still have these fears and subconscious feelings? I felt like once I knew and understood my own racist thoughts and where they came from I should be able to turn them off and suddenly be free of them. But it doesn’t work like that.

Julia listened to me intently with concern in her eyes before quietly saying, “I’ve felt these same things as you, just the other way around.” She told me how she had mistrust and fear for white people, how she knew she was and had been racist and felt shame for it, and how she grew to love people and work through her fear and hate.

But she also told me that you can’t just change over night. “It takes time. Yes you know better but you spent years internalizing things that will take more than a few days to tear down.”

After our conversation, the facilitator asked for volunteers to share what they had discussed. With Julia’s permission and encouragement, I stood, shaking like a leaf, and shared our conversation. The facilitator listened to me and challenged me and then asked how many people in the room felt the same things I did. And as I slowly spun around to look at everyone, nearly every hand was raised.

So many people claim that racism is over. “But we have a black president! But we abolished slavery! But we had the Civil Rights Movement!” But nothing.

As a 94 year black woman shared in one of the breakout groups, “I’ve been on the face of this earth since 1920 and nothing’s really changed all that much.” One person, on this earth for nearly 100 years, has witnessed astounding changes in culture and technology and lifestyle all around her, but when it comes to racism, nothing’s really changed that much. That should make us sick.

So what the hell do we do? Racism is a disease that has eaten away at the very core of our society and infiltrated our systems and policies in ways that have reverberated for generations. It took time to build and will take time to tear down. But it’s not impossible.

First, take a good hard look at yourself. Dismantling racism starts with recognizing your own implicit, explicit, and internalized racism and owning up to it.

Have conversations about race. Talk with anyone and everyone. Start with your family and branch out to friends and neighbors. Talk about race with someone of another race and ask them what they need from you and people of your race. Tell them what you need from them. Talk about racism with people of your own race. Just talk about it. Racism needs to be addressed in relationship.

Educate yourself. Read books, watch movies, and listen to podcasts by people of other races. Learn about how racism has affected our nation’s history and present. Diversify your news sources in many ways and I’m not just talking about race (this means you, CNN devotees!).

White people: shut up and listen. Recognize your privilege. Yes, you have privilege.

Recognize that dismantling racism is a work of redemption. It will take grace. It will take patience. It will take raw honesty. It will take vulnerability. It will take courage. It will take everything you have.

The system is trying to separate us. Will you let it? 10408710_10152667699797029_8492523859005790968_n Ella’s Song

Refrain: We who believe in freedom cannot rest

We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes

Verses

Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons

Is as important as the killing of White men, White mothers’ sons

And that which touches me most is that I had a chance to work with people

Passing on to others that which was passed on to me

To me young people come first, they have the courage where we fail

And if I can shed some light as they carry us through the gale

The older I get the better I know that the secret of my going on

Is when the reins are in the hand of the young who dare to run against the storm

Not needing to clutch for power, not needing the light just to shine on me

I need to be just one in the number as we stand against tyranny

Struggling myself don’t mean a whole lot I come to realize

That teaching others to stand up and fight is the only way my struggle survive

I’m a woman who speaks in a voice and I must be heard

At time I can be quite difficult, I’ll bow to no man’s word

Aching Bones

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Of all the forms depression takes, this one may be the worst, simply because it’s so confusing.

I am getting things done around the house and enjoying an otherwise relaxing Sunday when I’m hit hard by crushing waves of sadness coupled with incredible exhaustion.

I put down the blanket I’ve been crocheting, unable to continue. The only thing my body and mind are willing me to do is sleep. I crave sleep with a power that seems to flood over me from some unknown but powerful source.

I slept fine last night, had plenty of sleep. Also had plenty of coffee today. This makes no sense.

But I give into my cravings and try to sleep, unsuccessfully, for nearly two hours but sleep will not come. The heaviness in my body and my very bones and is almost excruciating.

Finally I sit up, frustrated and more exhausted than before, and waves of intense sorrow and dread wash over me. There is no reason I can conjure up for why I feel this way. There is no explanation. The feeling simply is.

Tears pour down my face as I try to move my exhausting, aching, unwilling body and mind to do something, anything, but everything seems so hard and sleep seems like the only answer.

That or alcohol. These bouts of intense, unprovoked depression leave me with an incredible desire to drink the pain away. Of course I do not give in to this (at least not fully), in part because alcohol is expensive and in part because I know deep down it is not the cure for what I’m feeling.

But what is? I have no idea. I just continue to sit in an aching stupor, begging and praying for nighttime to come and bring relief through sleep, the ever elusive promise of sleep.

2015 is for this

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If you know anything about me you know that I LOVE to wallow, and I mean w-a-l-l-o-w, in my despair. Don’t get me wrong, I hate being depressed and anxious as much as the next depressed and anxious person but there is something about plopping myself down in the middle of that pile of shit called self pity that I just relish.

Sick, I know.

Well, I’ve been relishing and wallowing lately in the muck of my life (the usual: student loan debt, uncertainty about the future, all around money woes), just waist deep in the self pity, until a lovely reminder blindsided me yesterday.

I was running late for work (which, mind you, NEVER happens) and I was tearing my room apart (which, mind you, ALWAYS happens) to find my copy of Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I’m auditing a course this semester and need to have the book read by the 20th and, for some reason, I HAD to start yesterday on my lunch break. I may be a forgetful person but I also have a one track mind and that track was on finding that book!

Of course it was on the bottom of my bookshelf, smashed between two large books I’ve probably never read and never will. I took a second to flip through it, because, as everyone knows, every time a book is picked up it must be thumbed through and smelled, and a postcard fell out.

It was from a college friend and I had all but forgotten she’d ever given it to me. On the front was a woman walking down a rocky, barren, mountain path with the quote, “In the world through which I travel I am endlessly creating myself.”

On the other side was an excerpt from the poem “Say Yes” by Andrea Gibson, one of my favorite spoken word artists:

When two violins are placed in a room

if a chord is struck on one violin

the other violin will sound the note

if this is your definition of hope

this one is for you

the ones who know how powerful we are

who know we can sound the music in the people around us

simply by playing our own strings

you have a drum in your chest that could save us

you have a song like a breath that could raise us

like the sunrise into a dark sky that cries to be blue

play like you know we won’t survive if you don’t

but we will if you do

play like Saturn is on his knees

proposing with all his ten thousand rings

that we give every single breath

this is for saying yes

And this followed by a simple note that read: “Megan- you are astounding, beautiful, strong, a light for many. THANK YOU.”

Somewhere along life’s journey I have lost sight of what makes my heart beat, what makes me astounding and beautiful and strong and a light for others. But I aim to shake off the mud and reclaim what is mine. 2015 is for this.

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