Saturday, December 28, 2013

10 years: Death, where is your sting?!

Today marks the 10 year anniversary of the death of my mother, brother, and grandmother.  Many people who know me, may vaguely know what happened, but I don't talk about it often, if ever, because it makes people sad and uncomfortable.  But since it's 10 years to the day, I'm gonna tell the story.

It was Winter Break 2003 and my Daddy's side of the family (minus my uncle and his children) decided to take a family vacation to Edisto Island in South Carolina.  Grandma, my two aunts and their children (two girl cousins and two boy cousins), as well as this random guy one of my aunts was boarding arrived at my family's house Christmas day.  We exchanged gifts, packed up a rented 15 passenger van and Grandma's car and we all headed down to the beach.  It was probably one of the most perfect Christmases I remember having; there was such happiness in the air.  And the week before we had gone to Grandma's house and taken family pictures for the first time in years.  All was right for the first time in a while.

We, 14 of us including me, were staying in a large timeshare house and basically walked to the beach every day, ate, played games, talked, and watched movies.  I imagine this is what normal family's do when vacationing together.  One night we decided to go into Charleston and have some fun.  But people were a little cranky and so we just ended up buying some fresh fish to take back to the house and eat.  I was in the very back row of the 15 passenger van with my two girl cousins on either side of me.  I don't really remember where everyone else was sitting aside from my dad driving and my grandma in the front passenger seat.  Some people were chatting, others were sleeping, others were staring out the window, I was dozing off listening to music holding my treasured CD collection and portable CD player.  It was a nothing-special-ride.

A dog walked into the highway, and my dad swerved to miss it.  What a lot of people don't know is that 15 passenger vans are not, in fact made for passengers.  They are too long and too top heavy, they aren't proportioned for safety, they are proportioned to carry tools and such in the back.  Because the van is top heavy it wasn't able to recover from such an abrupt maneuver, so it toppled over and turned over into the highway median six times (we later learned that even if my dad hadn't swerved and had just hit the dog straight on, the van would have still done something similar because of its dis-proportionality).  This, of course, woke me up in confusion and pain, but as it was happening I quickly realized it wasn't a dream and thought about my younger (six years younger) cousin sitting next to me and how scared she might be so I grabbed her and held her tightly.

Once the van stopped, right side up, strangers rushed to help us out the van because someone thought it might explode.  It didn't.  I was helped to climb out the back through the trunk by a panicky stranger and sat down.  It was awful, it was chaos.  We were trying to find everyone.  I found one of my three brothers, who was eight at the time, and sat him between my legs, I had to lay back a little because my hips were bruised from the seat belt.  As I looked around I was checking off my family members.  I had seen Grandma hunched over in the front passenger seat, my older female cousin was a few feet away telling people to stop touching her and to basically go find someone else.  My dad was pacing, crying, and yelling for different people.  I don't remember much else of people's whereabouts, but I remember my eyes landing on my mom.  She was lying on her back sprawled out with her shirt open, I think there was blood on her head.  I stood up and screamed as I watched people try to wake her up.  My dad tried, strangers tried.  I remembered that my brother was still sitting there, so I sat back down and held him.  We couldn't find my brother Aaron, he was six, and had been tossed the furthest from the van.  The brother I was holding caught wind that we couldn't find his best friend, Aaron, and starting crying begging for him.  I made him a promise that Aaron wouldn't die, that he would be found, but that promise wasn't kept.  I never saw Aaron again, I don't even know where they found him.

It took the emergency vehicles a thousand years to get to us and they had to send so many ambulances because there was so many of us.  I was put in an ambulance with with my male cousin who's three months younger than me and was living with us at the time.  We held hands and I shivered and prayed.  The medic was switching between us asking us questions.  He asked me if I knew this guy (my cousin), if I am or could be pregnant, I laughed and said no possible way; he couldn't put the IV in, I was okay with that.  My cousin and I were put in the same room and we lightly chatted.  People came in and out of our rooms asking questions, looking at us and stuff.  They tried giving me some ibuprofen, but it was 700mg so I asked for something smaller.  This creepy lady came and just hovered in my and my cousin's hospital room, she made me feel uneasy, but I was trying to be optimistic.  I heard my dad from another room give a loud cry.  I was lead to his room, he told me my grandma was dead, I cried, he told me my brother, Aaron, was dead, I cried louder, and he told me my momma was dead, I imploded.  I made it back to my and Cousin's hospital room and told him.  He said something comforting to me, I don't remember what.  Suddenly, the creepy lady's purpose was clear, she was a grief counselor.  She said something, it doesn't matter what, unhelpful.  I felt violated that she was there; I just found out that three people from my family died and she has the audacity to try to say something?! No!  Let me have my reaction and feelings, let me process without a stranger creeping.

Everything else after that was a blur.  We were pretty close to a couple of my mom's sisters so they showed up, we (eight year old brother, 10 month old brother, and me) stayed at one of their houses for some days, or maybe not, time doesn't work properly in these incidents.  People were in the hospital and there were a number of physical injuries from the people who were in the accident.  It was terrible, to say the least.

There's more to the story, but I can't coherently tell it.  But I can say that death has a sting for those who live through it.  Even now, I may feel fully healed from the horrendous event, I feel no grief, I am not mourning, but I will never forget how Death can rip apart your insides and make you think you will never stop bleeding.

But you will.  I have stopped bleeding.  Death does have a strong sting, but it won't always be there; there'll come a time when the swelling has gone down and the poison has drained and all that's left is a tiny puncture scar.  Call it a battle wound.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Victim, I Was One

Today I watched the movie Lovelace; it's based on a true story of a woman who was coerced into pornography by her abusive husband and who became a pioneer of pornography.  The story of this woman, Linda Lovelace, was difficult to watch, yet very eye opening.  It shows the struggle that some people who are victims of domestic violence go through in their relationships; why she stayed, how he got away with it, the cycle of abuse.  And just like that, it hit me: I was a victim of sexual assault.

People (and up until tonight that included me) associate rape, and only rape, with sexual assault, but The United States' Department of Justice's Office on Violence Against Women defines sexual assault as "any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Falling under the definition of sexual assault are sexual activities as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape."  Well, what happened to me is listed in that definition, so that makes me a victim of sexual assault.

It's been around seven years since I was in a relationship with the young man who was my assailant, yet it's taken me all these years to realize what was really going on.  While in the relationship, I thought that since he said he loved me that he did, in fact love me.  Our friends (who might be reading this and if you are please do not reveal his identity) thought we were a cute couple and I just felt lucky to finally be the girl who got the guy.  When he broke up with me I soon realized how unhealthy our relationship was: we spent more time on our physical relationship than we did on our emotional/social relationship.  I also realized that he never really expressed/showed any interest in who I was; he never seemed interested in what I was thinking or what I was feeling.  And I never felt comfortable sharing my thoughts and emotions with him; if I tried to engage in 'deep' discussion with him, I would get shutdown with misogynistic comments about how silly my female brain was and how I was just nice to look at, but apparently not great to talk to.  

He didn't wait until we were settled in our relationship for the assault to happen; in the beginning he would try forcing me to kiss him knowing that I hadn't kissed anyone before and wanted to do so when I felt safe and ready (which I didn't).  One night, I was leaving for the weekend, and us having only ever kissed on the lips before, he forced his tongue in my mouth and later when I tried to talk to him about it, he lied and said that I had done the forcing, I doubted myself 'was he right, did I do the forcing?'.  Once we had progressed to making out horizontally the fondling began.  I can't tell you how many times I moved hands from squeezing my body.  But I thought that since he loved me and I kinda loved him, that I owed him more and more of my body.  You show love with your body; if that's what he wants, then I should show him I love him by giving myself to him.  I remember one night we were making-out on my bed, I was under him and he (without my consent) pinned me down.  I tried unpinning myself, but my strength against this 6'1" man was no match.  I felt confused and unsafe.  Something was unfamiliar and a little scary in his eyes.  This seemed like something he had seen in the porn he lied about watching.  Our relationship became more about just making out and me letting him touch me than anything else.  We barely talked, but the expectation was there that I would lay down and he would almost choke me with his nasty tongue and feel me up.  No one else knew; from the outside we seemed like a good little Christian interracial couple.  I mean, we even went to church together.  The last straw of our relationship was an epiphany for him (he realized that I wasn't going to give him sex) and for me (I realized that this relationship had gotten out of hand, but I didn't know why).  One night we were making-out and the normal heavy petting of me was going on when his strong hands went for my crotch.  I tried multiple times to move his hands, but he pushed back all while looking me dead in the eye: This is going to happen. I should just let him, it doesn't feel that terrible.  I wanted to say stop, and I tried (like I had all throughout the relationship) many times, but it never came out.  I was scared, I had had no voice in this relationship, why would it come now?  After he left I felt guilty and violated and ashamed and physically sore.  I called my best friend at the time and she offered some unhelpful, unhealthy advice.  A week or so after he broke up with me because I want something different from a relationship and I've changed so much.  I was able to breathe a sigh of relief, even though I felt hurt that I would let him use and abuse me and then he would dump me.

Several years later I have a name for what happened, sexual assault.  I now see the pattern my emotions take when I love people: in an effort to love them unconditionally, I doormat my emotions.  I repress them, I hide them, I lock them up, I mask them.  I let myself get hurt continually by people, familiar and strange, and I never tell them because I want them to feel good about themselves and don't want them to feel bad for having hurt me.  This self-door-matting is something I do e.v.e.r.y. single day and is something that's hard to stop because essentially no one feels like a safe person.  If you're reading this and know me as blunt and are trying to understand how this is possible, know that I will share my thoughts on something, but not my emotions/feelings on something.  My thoughts and feelings aren't as connected as others' are.

I've learned a lot today and I am still processing how I feel about this newly realized part of my life, but I will tell you how I don't feel.  I am not angry, I am not ashamed, I feel no less valuable, I am not dirty, I am not guilty.  Something Linda Lovelace said at the end of the movie was that she wants people to know that they can walk out of these (abusive, hurtful) situations a whole person.  And I feel whole.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

on becoming

'Becoming' is the name of the women's ministry at my church.  I thought the name was lame and therefore the ministry was lame.  I assumed the name, becoming, meant that women would be learning how to become better mothers and wives, and mainly sweet, submissive, demure women; my having grown up in the South and in the church lead me to believe that women's ministries were about making their women into the Stepford wives our patriarchal society drools over.  It occurs to me now what a stupid assumption that was considering 1) while (some of) the women at my church are wives and mothers, all of them are unique powerhouses of splendor, wisdom, and worth (they are not objects composed of a sexist society) and 2) the woman who started the ministry is one of my favorite people on the planet because she is so real, intelligent, graceful, and a delightful feminist.  While I was realizing the above about my ASSumptions concerning the women's ministry, the name, Becoming, came alive to me.  While I don't know exactly what the original story was behind the name, it's taken on a meaning for me, so I'm going to take a stab it.

This year has been remarkable.  I have been in deep, deep holes of despair and I have been on the mountain top.  This year has been different from any other year I have ever lived.  For the first time in almost ten years I feel like I have something to live for.  While I have never entertained suicidal thoughts, my mind would often go to the thought of no longer existing.  I used to think about how if I died right then and there it wouldn't be so bad.  But not anymore!  Now I want to see and live the future, my future.  It feels good.

Chalk it up to a quarter of life crisis, but I've learned so much about myself and have become more comfortable with the natural changes that come with adulthood (personality-wise, not puberty, been there done that).  Here are somethings I've learned about myself and how I function this last year.

1) I'm not as extroverted as I used to be.  I used to need people, like feel-deeply-unloved-if-I-wasn't-always-connecting-with-people need people.  I know some people would call that needy, but I really don't think it is.  Extroverted people tend to get their batteries charged by socializing with other people, that's just how it is and there's nothing wrong with it.  Now, I enjoy being alone.  While I still love spending time with others, I now enjoy being by myself and doing things by myself, like going to the movies or going out to lunch.  I now make it a point to spend time with just me throughout each week.  I like keeping myself company, I'm pretty interesting.

2) My brain isn't normal, but that's okay.  Through meeting with a mentoresque person, I have learned that my brain is busier than most.  At any given time I am thinking multiple thoughts about completely unrelated subjects.  I ask and try to answer a lot of questions all while imagining a different world in which to live.  It can be crippling, and at times embarrassing when I've been daydreaming and someone unknowingly snaps me back to the here and now.  But I've always been this way and have come to accept that I have an often unspoken of ADHD.  (Quick soapbox/PSA: People often think of ADHD in terms of the kid who won't shut up or quit moving who is often disheveled and disorganized, but there's the other type in which their brain is running all over the place, like mine, but they have the physical appearance of being attentive and composed, at most a little spacey.)  I have learned how to 'harness' by brain (although most often I try to entertain all of my thoughts because I think they all deserve attention and I may forget about them later), calming my thoughts and focusing on just a few thoughts instead of the multitude pushing their way to the forefront.  It's both strange and a relief to know how my brain is.

3) I view situations in terms of love.  I was expressing my frustration and disappointment with people, and how hurt I often feel by them, when my mentoresque person hit the nail right on the head: I don't think there's enough love exchanged between fellow beings.  I think we have a love deficiency.  When someone is riding your tail in traffic and then speeds by you with their middle finger pointed at you, it's not just because they're an asshole, it's because they've failed to remember that you are a person and that you may be going that speed for a very real reason, you likely weren't trying to anger them.  They forgot to love you even in the midst of frustration.  When someone says something that hurts you, they may not be trying to do so, they might just have forgotten to speak with truth AND love (or perhaps they're like me and very blunt and forget that people like to be buttered up before you drop some truth on them).  Although this epiphany has not stopped me from getting hurt, it has reminded me of how frail we are and how clumsy we can be when we're interacting with others, strange or familiar.  Humans are so selfish, so it's hard for us to love; we have to remember to think of others' needs and even wants before we think of ours.  I try my very hardest and am often met with selfishness on their part, but as much as it hurts I will continue to love.

4) Singleness is fun, I kinda don't want it to end.  A lot of people my age either are in a serious relationship (dating, engaged, married) or want to be.  I have a friend who wants to be married and already have kids by the time they're 30, they turn 26 next month.  So the pressure is on.  I can honestly say that I don't have a deep desire for marriage and family life.  It's in the forefront of my mind, not because I want it, but because everyone won't shut-up about it!  Everyone, just calm the hell down, life can be fulfilling without a partner/spouse.  I used to do the whole pray for my future husband thing and try to 'train' for being the perfect wife for my impending mate, but then I realized how ridiculous it is to tie up your whole reason for self-growth and self-worth in the un-promised hope of a spouse/partner.  Sure it's great to become better, but isn't it better to be better for more than one person?  Say an oppressed or marginalized people group?  My desire for marriage has never been real, it's always been something I thought was inevitable.  It's certainly the norm, but it's not a requirement.  And most definitely not a requirement for a 100% fulfilling life.

So becoming...we are always doing it and it'll likely be challenging.  But, I think, if we're doing it correctly it'll be liberating.  Liberating to know oneself and to not just accept oneself, but to love oneself.