Saturday, May 25, 2013

May 25

This past week has been nothing short of an emotional hurricane and while the winds have tapered down a bit, they are still blowing and I find myself being hit by the debris of my life. The voices in my head seem to have found megaphones. I feel as though I am looking in on myself, trying to connect the I to myself. I feel I have lost myself somewhere in all of this. As I sit here writing, I am fighting the urge to shut down, build my walls and hit the road. It feels like no matter where I step or which direction I move I end up in some sort of emotional quicksand and I can't figure out how to get out of it at the moment. I am trying to stay in the moment and see what there is to learn, but all I feel right now is fear, sadness and disappointment. Even writing is not bringing any pleasure and it just feels like so much work to even hit a key.

I want to go back to bed and pull the covers over my head and wait for it all to go away. The only problem is that I know it isn't going anywhere. The only way through is, well, through.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

In the Fire of Vulnerability

Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren't always comfortable, but they're never weakness.” - Brene Brown

Two months ago, I met David while walking on the beach. In an instant here was there and before we even said hello, I was gone. I can't say exactly what it was or why, it was just sudden and certain. I won't go into a lot of details as I want to keep certain things about our relationship private. The reason I am blogging about it at all, is that he is an incredibly important person in my life. He is one of those people that radiate joy from the deepest part of himself and to be in his presence is to be in the most incredible space. He is the kind of person that gives himself freely, without reservation and because of that, makes me want to do the same. That is the other reason I am writing about David.

Back in late February or early March, I got introduced to Brene Brown. I saw two of her videos on TED (Video 1, Video 2) and what she said resonated so much with me that I had to watch each video several times and then I had no choice but to buy her book “The Gifts of Imperfection” and read it immediately. If you aren't familiar with Brene Brown, she has spent the past decade studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness and shame. While reading the book, I found myself all but screaming “Bring on the vulnerability!” I need to be careful what I wish for.

Almost immediately, I was in situations that required nothing less that complete vulnerability and authenticity. I had to have a difficult conversation with my sister. I had a very bumpy road with my room mate. I had drama with my mom. I had my own things going on in life. And then there was David. I can't think of anything more vulnerable than having massive feelings for someone, letting them in and then stripping off the layers and standing there emotionally naked. I quickly realized I have a love/hate relationship with being vulnerable.

Shame works like the zoom lens on a camera. When we are feeling shame, the camera is zoomed in tight and all we see is our flawed selves, alone and struggling.” ― BrenĂ© Brown

Fortunately or unfortunately, shame and vulnerability go hand in hand. Of course, I didn't believe that when I read it. I was sure I could be vulnerable and emotionally open while leaving shame out of it all. I wonder if there really is anything scarier than taking something that we feel ashamed about and laying it out in full view of someone we love, someone with the power to hurt us. Normally, I like to keep things hidden and to myself. When things go wrong, I go inward. When things get tough, I shut people out. When I get scared, I put up walls. With David, I choose not to do those things. He is amazing at letting me be emotionally bare and making me feel safe. Seeing my own fears and insecurities and walking into them and standing there in full view of someone is beyond daunting. The more I feel I want to run, the more I force myself to remain still. The more I want to build a wall, the more I force myself to remove a brick. This, of course could not happen without the support and safety I feel.

If we share our shame story with the wrong person, they can easily become one more piece of flying debris in an already dangerous storm. - Brene Brown, from The Gifts of Imperfection

There are a few people in my life I can really share my story with, without any fear of judgement. David is one of those people for me. He not only makes me feel safe and protected, he makes me want to tell my story and let him in to places that I had long ago closed off. Every time I face the fear, every time I ignore the voices that start to play and tell me to keep it all to myself, every time I decide to open up, I feel not only closer to him, but freer in myself.

If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can't survive.” - Brene Brown, from Daring Greatly

David and I recently had our first real issue in our journey together. Sitting across from someone and talking open and honestly, without the intention of doing harm, but with the intention of healing was one of the hardest things I have done. When I feel fear, confusion or insecurity, I tend to hurt others. It is one of my “go to” places. So is running. There was a time not long ago when I would have gone. Gone to another state, gone to another country. I have never had an issue leaving one life behind in an instant and starting a new one. Not this time. I chose to face one of my biggest fears head-on. I chose to be honest and I chose to listen without judgment. It wasn't easy. When I felt threatened, I had to tell myself not to shut down, not to react in anger or pain, but to listen and hear what was really being said.

It is easy to tell someone we love them when things are going great. It is easy to reach for a hand when walking on the beach or sharing a wonderful moment. It is terrifying to say I love you when things are hard, and almost impossible to reach for a hand when we have no idea if it will be pulled away.

David's grandma has been married almost 60 years. I asked her a few weeks ago what she felt was the secret. I asked her how she kept it together for so long. Her answer was both simple and complex. She said you just have to stay with it. She said that leaving is easy and staying together is difficult and at times almost impossible. But running, for her, was never an option.

Our stories are not meant for everyone. Hearing them is a privilege, and we should always ask ourselves this before we share: "Who has earned the right to hear my story?" If we have one or two people in our lives who can sit with us and hold space for our shame stories, and love us for our strengths and struggles, we are incredibly lucky. If we have a friend, or small group of friends, or family who embraces our imperfections, vulnerabilities, and power, and fills us with a sense of belonging, we are incredibly lucky” - BrenĂ© Brown

Yesterday, I said “I love you”, ready to not hear it back. I reached for a hand, ready for it to be withdrawn. I wanted to run, but instead I did those things. And David, being vulnerable and emotionally bare, was there. And because of that, we are still here and we are going to be ok. Actually, we are going to be amazing. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Life and Death

It all started with a Facebook update shortly before my forty-second birthday, and suddenly I was transported to another place and time. A time when I was a different person and life was something to survive and dread. Since seeing the update, my thoughts have been preoccupied, reviewing the past, remembering things I had intentionally forgotten, or more accurately, decided I would not think about again.

It was via a Facebook update that I learned my stepdad had suffered his fourth heart attack and would probably not make it. He was on life support with possible brain damage and multiple organ failure. I was stunned when I saw it. I read it so many times I had it memorized.

See, as cold as this may sound right now, I had been waiting for this to happen. Not willing it or wanting it, just waiting. For over half my life, I had been waiting for it. After over twenty years, the moment had arrived and I was surprised to discover I was not so prepared for it. I thought I was, but seeing that update, I realized I wasn’t. At least not as much as I thought.

When I was seven or eight, my parents were divorced and my mom remarried the day after it was finalized. My mother meeting my stepdad was an event that would change not only my life, it would change who I am and who I would become. It began well before they were married. It all started one night when I forgot to take my allergy medicine. I used to have horrific allergies that would come in extreme waves of attacks, causing me to sneeze almost to the point of suffocating. But, like any child at that age, I would sometimes forget my medicine and the most severe punishment I got would be an attack that would normally last ten to fifteen minutes. But that night, things would be different. It was the first time I ever had a busted lip. It was that night that the violence started. It was physical and emotional. In the swing of a hand, I was no longer myself. I was outside myself. I was living in a war zone. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that is the view when I look back. Like so many other families in the same situation, we looked perfect on the outside. We went to church, we were well turned out, well mannered and behaved. But in the privacy of our house, it was beyond a nightmare. Life was a minefield and I was forever stepping in the wrong place.

My sisters and I would be pulled out of our beds in the middle of the night, made to rewash all of the dishes in the kitchen at two in the morning because one glass had a spot on it, or worse, we would all be questioned about who ate one of his cookies and then made to pay the price in some way. The punishment usually fell on me. I knew I would get it anyway, so would sometimes just lie and admit guilt, just to get it over with. There would be beatings because ten cents worth of change would be missing after I went to the store. My sisters and I became servants in the house. We would clean, do laundry, wash the dishes and pick up after him. If he came home and found so much as a piece of lint on the floor, there would be hell to pay. I have been thrown across rooms and there were slaps, kicks, whippings with a horsewhip, or whatever else happened to be within close grabbing distance. Busted lips and bruises were the norm. I failed gym class because I refused to wear the uniform. What nobody knew, was that I was hiding the marks, welts, cuts and bruises all over my body. I went from being a straight A student to making Ds and Fs. I no longer dreamt, I had nightmares of being chased, stabbed, shot and burned alive. It was then I also started poking needles and pins into my skin, to see how far I could push them in without feeling.

As time went on my stepdad became more inventive. He would make up “games” that he thought would help me be a better person. A personal favorite was one where he would say a word and I would have to say the first word that came to mind. He might say “light” and I would say “dark”. There would be a sharp kick to the ribs and we would start again until I said the right answer. And these were not isolated incidents. This was daily life and anything would set him off, as though he was looking, searching for a reason to lose his temper and it could be something as trivial as the TV being on… Or off… Or the traffic. Or the neighbors. Or me knowing the answer to something he didn’t. Or being beat at a game. Or anything at all, really. Life was spent constantly on guard, on high alert, waiting for the bombs to go off. And he did all this in the name of God, always talking about sparing the rod and spoiling the child. We would go to church and I would to pray to God to let me die, all the while playing the part of the cute little boy with blond hair and big blue eyes. I knew all the right lines. I knew every possible excuse for any bruise or cut. The funny thing is, I was never taught those things. I was never told to make excuses, it all just came naturally. It was just what I did. It seemed like the right thing to do.

Sure, he would apologize every once in a while and promise to never do it again, which usually resulted in a bit of a break for a few days, maybe a week. Then he would start again, a little worse than before and it was never his fault. I “made” him do it. If only I wasn’t so stupid or smart or lazy or energetic or whatever. If it wasn’t for me, there would have been no problems in the house. Everything would be fine. I was disgusting and should not have been born.

This was before there was a word for it. Child abuse didn’t exist. There was nobody to tell. I did tell a friend once, that my step-dad hit me and his mom confronted my step-dad. I was twelve years old and after what happened, I only told one other person until I was in my twenties. It happened when I was fourteen. Things had gotten so bad, I decided to kill myself. I had it all planned out and had picked a date. I was a huge bookworm and had read a medical encyclopedia. I knew that a big enough air bubble in the bloodstream would kill me. My stepdad used to make model cars and airplanes and had some diabetic syringes he used to apply glue on the tiny pieces. I swiped one of them and learned how to find a vein. I would practice every day, making sure I could do it easy. I knew I had hit the vein when I could draw out blood.

It was just a few days before I was going to go through with it when I got arrested at FedMart for shoplifting. They were going to call my parents and for some reason it all started coming out. I started and it was like floodgates opened. The security guards at that store saved my life. They didn’t press charges under the condition I left the state until I was eighteen. It wasn’t really a legally binding agreement, but one that would get me away from my stepdad. Three days later I was on an airplane to Oregon to live with my dad and stepmom.

A few years later, when my dad was moving to Kuwait, I went back to California to live with my mom and stepdad. It started all over again. Only it was worse. After two years, I moved out and went back only when I absolutely had to.

A lot of my childhood I have blocked out. I have some memories, but there are many blanks. I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and spent years working through it. It took me a very long time to get over it. In fact, I would actively do things to numb myself so I didn’t have to feel. I was so good at it, I could go for walks in sub zero temperatures in shorts in Colorado and Ohio. I stayed out all night, standing with no coat in a rainstorm in New York in November. Just willing myself not to feel. The only thing I knew how to do was hate. I spent years hating him, wishing him dead and dreaming how I would kill him. When I first learned he had a heart condition, I used to think about meeting him someplace where we were alone and getting him angry enough to have a heart attack. And then I would watch him die.

And then I realized that even though he was not in my life, he was still controlling it and I decided to let it go. Looking back, I can’t even remember the moment, I just remember that it happened. I saw his life and everything he said would happen to me became his own prison. He always told me I was a nobody, that I would never have a life, that nobody would ever like me or love me. And that is what happened to him. He is a miserable person and I doubt there are many people that will genuinely miss him. I won’t.

So yes, I had been waiting for that moment, waiting for him to die. Not willing, not wishing, just waiting. And when that the moment seemed like it had arrived, I felt relief, like it would finally, finally over. I would never have to see him again or get the odd emails asking if we can talk, only to be subjected to more insults and misery. He was on life support and close to death, but then pulled through and from what I heard, was quickly back to his old self.

This morning, a couple of months before my forty-sixth birthday, I received a call from my sister Stephanie, telling me that he passed away. The mix of emotions that went through me are still swirling around and I am not yet sure what I really feel. Part of me feels relief. Part of me feels sad that there was never an apology. Part of me is glad that I had learned to forgive him years ago. Part of me feels that things are finally over. I also feel sad that he chose to spend his life being angry and bitter, missing out on his wonderful daughter and her amazing children.

Most people who grow up like I do fall into the same trap and repeat what they have learned. They become the very people they grew up despising and hating. But not me. For me, the cycle is broken. I have tried very hard to make my life a different place. I try to be kind, giving, compassionate and live my life to the fullest. I try to make a difference where and when I can. This is why I need to see the funny side of things. I know from experience that there is too much pain in the world, too much suffering. I don’t always succeed and I still have a long way to go, my temper can be violent and sometimes quick, surprising people around me, but I have learned to control it for the most part. I have also learned that life is only what we make it. It is not about being defined by a past, but about making a choice for now and for the future.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Being Vulnerable - With Victor Hugo

There is one spectacle grander than the sea, that is the sky; there is one spectacle grander than the sky, that is the interior of the soul.”
Victor Hugo

I am learning that letting someone see you, really and truly see you, is a very intimidating thing. It is requiring a certain level of exposure and vulnerability I am not entirely comfortable with but drawn to at the same time. I spent so much of my life hiding myself, hiding from people, hiding my life and showing people what they wanted to see or at least what I thought they wanted to see. In doing so, I seem to have misplaced pieces of who I really am. I bought into my own act and at some point believed the altered and air-brushed parts of my life were all true. I hid behind the facade of myself for so long, I was not entirely sure I really knew who I was anymore. That is something I am still discovering. I would like to say it all feels fantastic, and a lot of it does, but at the same time, a lot of it sucks. I am both repelled by it and drawn to it in a way I can't explain. In some ways it feels like a death, letting go of what was or what seemed to be and then it feels like the birth of something new or perhaps the rebirth of something that has always been.

In Les Miserables, Victor Hugo wrote, “The branch trembles when a hand approaches to pluck a flower, and seems to both withdraw and to offer itself at one and the same time. The human body has something of this tremor when the instant arrives in which the mysterious fingers of Death are about to pluck the soul.”

I know that feeling of offering and withdrawing at the same time. When thoughts and emotions are in such contrast with each other and then there is the choice. To withdraw into the known of what is, no matter how uncomfortable that might be or offer ourselves to the scary unknown. What makes the whole process even more exciting and intimidating is going through it in full view of others. Normally, I would keep these things to myself. I don't enjoy letting people in, letting them see the nooks and crannies of my life. It scares me. It scares me that they will see something they don't like and decide to leave. I have always had that fear of being rejected, the fear of people leaving. I don't think I am special or unique in that way, I think everyone has that fear. Maybe it is fueled by the fear of being completely alone. Is being authentic and true to one's self worth the risk of being alone? I used to think the answer was no. So much of my life has been spent worrying about what others think, doing what they want, being who they want or who I thought they wanted me to be. The idea of being rejected and alone can be too much sometimes.

I am beginning to realize that it was the fear of being alone that fueled a lot of my life. If I moved, if I left first, I might be alone, but it would be on my terms. And if I was going to be alone, why not be alone in India or Paris or someplace wonderful. Now, I am taking the risk of being alone here. Just here. It sometimes isn't easy staying put, standing firm in vulnerability and the possibility of rejection. But, the more I force myself through it, the more I wonder why I would ever do anything else. Yes, the fear brings up the most terrifying feelings I think I have ever known, but I am finding that if I stand there and let the emotional storm blow through, it will pass and when the sun peaks through again, it is an amazing view.

I met in the street a very poor young man who was in love. His hat was old, his coat was threadbare - there were holes at his elbows; the water passed through his shoes and the stars through his soul.” - Victor Hugo

Today, things in my life took an unexpected turn. For the past two months, I have had star passing through my soul. A man named David has become incredibly special to me. He has become family in a way I never suspected and I love him more than I imagined ever loving again. He is the person who makes me want to be the best version of myself, who makes me want to be vulnerable and seen, no matter how uncomfortable it is, because I know that it will all be ok. But today, I hurt him. I didn't mean to, it happened and now I am left waiting and wondering what it all means and how it will all work out. I seem to be quite clumsy in the area of love, and while I had and have nothing but the best intentions, I seem to have let things go off the rails in a way I never imagined. In just a blink, the dreams I had for the future now seem about to come crashing down. I am not sure how to deal with it, not sure what to do. All I know is that I have to stand here, in the middle of the storm and wait for it to pass. I feel helpless and vulnerable and right now, I can honestly say, I hate the feeling. I hate being open to pain, being open to the unknown. But, I also know, there is no other way to go, but through the middle of it all, hoping for the best, but knowing I have to except whatever may come. I need to have faith while I feel as though I am grasping for threads to hold onto, to keep from drowning.

The power of a glance has been so much abused in love stories, that it has come to be disbelieved in. Few people dare now to say that two beings have fallen in love because they have looked at each other. Yet it is in this way that love begins, and in this way only. The rest is only the rest, and comes afterwards. Nothing is more real than these great shocks which two souls give each other in exchanging this spark.” - Victor Hugo

I met david on a beach in March. In a glance, my world changed. I was no longer who I was moments before, but I was someone better. I let myself jump off the cliff and into the great unknown of love and new possibilities. I wanted to drown in that feeling. Now, I am in alone in my room, a bottle of red wine and music, wondering what will come of it all.

And it is in these moments when I wonder why I deal with vulnerability at all. Why not just build up the walls and keep out the pain? It may be a bit lonelier, but it won't hurt as much. 

Wednesday, May 01, 2013


Sometimes in life, things don't happen the way we want or go the way we think they should. Where once there was a feeling of security and certainty, suddenly there is confusion and fear. I know the latter feelings very well. Several times over the past years, the floor has been ripped out from under me a few times. I know what it feels like to be in the free-fall of uncertainty and vulnerability, wanting to land but scared of the impact. Sometimes, as scary as the free-fall can be, it is nowhere near as frightening as the questions about what is to come. There have been times then it seemed easier to give up, to give in and just be done with it all. But then, for some reason, there is something that clicks, shifts and for some inexplicable reason, there was the hope that things would be ok and the faintest belief that it would all work out.
Just to be clear, I am not only talking about the trials and tribulations in life. Sometimes, the most amazing things can feel as intensely scary as the hard times. In my case today, it is about opening up and putting myself out there, way out there, even though I have no idea what will happen. I feel like there are just so many skeletons in my past, mistakes I've made and things I've done I'm not proud of. I find myself wanting and even needing to show someone and at the same time being terrified of what will happen when they see. I don't know exactly why I am scared. I guess there are just things about myself I don't really like to look at, so showing those things to someone else is beyond intimidating. I am trying to walk in vulnerability and not let it shut me down, make me pull away or do any of the usual things I do when things get uncomfortable. I am trying to let myself be seen, really seen.
Over a decade ago, I heard about sawubona. It is a greeting used among the largest South African ethnic group, the Zulu. In its simplest form, it means "I see you." But deeper than that, it means “I see your being, your dignity, respect, humanity and personality.” It is a word that sees and acknowledges the essence and spirit of a person, thereby honoring the person and who they are. The usual response to sawubona is ngikhona, which means “I am here” or “I have been seen” and like sawubona, means a lot more. It says “My dignity and spirit have been recognized.”
In my life, I learned very early how to keep people at arm's length. I never really fit in, never really had friends until I was older. I knew I was different in ways I could not understand or articulate. I felt isolated, separated. I felt invisible and insignificant. Even at home, I felt like a stranger. Unseen, unheard and unknown. By the time I was an adult, it was something I kept around me. It kept the hurt out, kept me safe. It also kept me lonely, no more so than when surrounded by mobs of people. I wrote about it a few years ago.
On Loneliness - July 12, 2010

Throughout my life, there is one feeling that has always been there. Sometimes it is overpowering and at other times it lingers just below the surface, and I can feel it, waiting. Even now, in the one of the most populated places on the planet, I still feel so lonely. It is the feeling I wake up with, the one I carry around all day and one I feel when I go to sleep. Even when I am laughing, it is there in the background. It is not a feeling of loneliness that is about the longing for the company of other people, but more a feeling that there is nobody who truly knows me, nobody who is truly there.

Sometimes it is the most intense when I am with someone else. How is it possible to physically be so close to someone and yet worlds apart. Why is it the people who are most important to us can, without even knowing it, make us feel so completely and painfully invisible and alone? And then I don’t know what to do. So often I want to reach for a hand, just to hold it, to feel another person, but then there is the fear of them pulling away and the loneliness is so much easier to deal with than the potential rejection that seems inevitable.

And so I go it alone, even in the company of others. I am there with them, but not really, not totally, not in the way I would like to be. I see so many people that seem to effortlessly connect with others and I don’t understand them. I know people think I am that way. They see an exterior that looks shiny and polished, but the fact of the matter is, I have just learned to fake it. I shut people out as much as I can, and when I have to, I put on a huge smile, tell some jokes and tell the world that everything is fine. But it is all smoke and mirrors, slight of hand and it is getting more and more difficult to pull the rabbit out of the hat. When I do talk to people, I am clumsy and give the impression I am making everything all about me. But the fact of the matter is, I am just gasping for air, trying to stay afloat.

I hate feeling lonely, but I am not sure how to feel any other way. I am tired of putting on a smile when all I really want is just to be held, really held and cry. I want to feel safe, heard and seen. But it doesn’t happen and so I go on, waiting and wanting but growing more confident that it is never coming. And I am not sure I would know what to do if it happened anyway. 

For the first time, I think I am beginning to really understand the meaning and importance of sawubona and ngikhona. I am learning they are essential to the life I want to lead. A life that is spent being seen, being recognized and loved, not only in spite of the past, but quite possibly because of it.