You know that feeling when you’re all bright-eyed about some project you’ve been working on, but somebody’s careless comment suddenly makes you feel not so confident? Well, maybe that’s just me. But I was having a rough time navigating various rejections (and, let’s be honest, perceived rejections) a few weeks back, and it got me thinking about self care for the minor day to day heartbreaks that sometimes come along with the creative life. It occurred to me that someone else out there may deal with this from time to time, so I wrote this piece, Ten Cures for a Creative Person’s Vulnerability Hangover, which, to my delight and honor, was published in The Daily Positive, and I thought I would share it with you, too… just in case you ever have a need for such tips.
Continual verbal harassment.
Chronic, ongoing fear and anxiety.
Perception of being trapped.
Feeling powerless to stop an attack.
Repetition of the above.
These are some of the causes of trauma.
Trauma, in the emotional or psychological sense, refers to “experiences or situations that are emotionally painful and distressing, and that overwhelm people’s ability to cope, leaving them powerless” (Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice). According to the nonprofit mental health resource HelpGuide.org,
Emotional and psychological trauma is the result of extraordinarily stressful events that shatter your sense of security, making you feel helpless and vulnerable in a dangerous world. Traumatic experiences often involve a threat to life or safety, but any situation that leaves you feeling overwhelmed and alone can be traumatic, even if it doesn’t involve physical harm. It’s not the objective facts that determine whether an event is traumatic, but your subjective emotional experience of the event. The more frightened and helpless you feel, the more likely you are to be traumatized.
The DSM, in its discussion of post traumatic stress syndrome, indicates that while this condition is typically thought of as resulting from one major event, an experience of violence or extreme horror, PTSD can also come about from an “accumulation of many small, individually non-life-threatening incidents.” Bullying is one scenario that is noted as a potential cause of what’s referred to as “complex PTSD” (Psychology Today).
What are some of the lasting effects of traumas of this nature – the subtle (or not subtle) forms of non-physical violence that, repeated over time, deeply wound the mind, the heart, the spirit?
Guilt. Shame. Self blame.
Feelings of disconnection from other people.
Shock. Denial. Disbelief.
Edginess. Agitation. Anger.
Avoidance of things, people, places, activities, etc., that remind one of the trauma.
Emotional numbness, coldness, frigidity.
Difficulty in forming close, lasting relationships.
Difficulty in accessing one’s capacity for sexual pleasure.
Abuse of drugs or alcohol.
I read all this stuff, and it is my story. Every word of it is me.
I read it and I feel relief. This is what happened to me. I didn’t make it up.
And then I read it again and another voice inside of me says: Hush. This doesn’t mean anything. This happens to everyone. Who are you kidding? You’re not a trauma survivor. You’re an ordinary person living a relatively privileged life. Trauma is rape, war, having your house burn down. Bullying isn’t trauma. … Well, maybe for some people. But not in your case. You were just a kid in school and that’s what being a kid in school is like. Sucky. Now close that door, shut your mouth and walk away.
I have a Ph.D. in American Studies. My specialization is minority literatures. I used to teach about privilege and oppression in college classrooms. I shared classic works by brilliant artists with students who were adult, educated, intelligent, and in some cases, quite worldly. And it was always this: When a writer described experiences of oppression related to their membership in a group targeted for discrimination due to their race, ethnicity, nationality, economic status, gender, sexual orientation, age, ability, or anything at all, the students cried out, “They’re so angry. All they can talk about is how they’re a victim. The mean old world did this, that, and the other bad thing to me, my family, my great grandparents, my group. OK, well, bad things happen to everyone. Get over it. Nobody wants to hear that shit.” The contempt, the revulsion, was congealed in and dripping from their voices, their faces, their written responses. Nobody wants to fucking hear it. OK. Point made.
It can be awfully hard for someone who experiences privilege in a certain area of life to understand that some of the things that helped put them in the position they enjoy, occurred at the expense of other people, people they’ve never met, people who may live somewhere else in the world or who may be dead now. That it’s not simply a matter of the lucky-blessed-by-fate and the neutral. Privilege means you got yours BECAUSE something was taken away from someone else. Specifically. And in my experience, just about no one wants to have that kind of responsibility put on them. Especially folks who are privileged on one axis – but oppressed on another.
I’m a fat, lesbian recovering alcoholic whose family background is working class (and back before that, just plain poor). With plenty of serious mental health issues in all the branches of the family tree.
You think I want to say anything that’s going to make someone call me a whiner, a victim, a blamer-of-society-for-my-problems? Fuck no.
And on social media. And among my friends. I don’t want a reputation for focusing on the negative. I certainly don’t want to come across as feeling wronged, limited, or damaged by what I see others as having supposedly done to me. People don’t like people like that – at least people I know don’t.
There are these experiences. That shaped who I am. And the way that they shaped me was in the form of trauma.
Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk, a pioneer in the field of trauma treatment, said, “I think trauma really does confront you with the best and the worst. You see the horrendous things that people do to each other, but you also see resiliency, the power of love, the power of caring, the power of commitment, the power of commitment to oneself, the knowledge that there are things that are larger than our individual survival” (On Being interview).
I don’t want to talk about my trauma as something bad that happened to me, some outside force that stunted my chances for a health and happiness. I want to talk about it as a gift my soul gave me, a core set of lessons in the curriculum of my life, something written into the plan for my earthly journey before I incarnated into this lifetime, one of the cards in the hand I dealt myself before birth – in consultation with the Divine, with my guardian angels, with the highest wisdom and guidance available to my spiritual self.
I want to talk about it as something that really happened.
I want to begin to integrate it. So that I can move on.
Dr. Van der Kolk says that trauma is different from other difficult experiences (even the very most difficult ones of all) in that trauma exceeds a person’s ability to process what’s happening, to cope with the emotions, to sustain a sense of safety and fundamental okayness. This effect is compounded when the social or family environment surrounding the traumatic incident(s) does not allow the person to feel what they feel, does not accept the reality that the person is trying to express, essentially, does not surround the person with love, comfort, compassion, care, and reassurance that they deserve to have healing.
In these situations, a person cannot then integrate the traumatic experience as just another story, even if a painful one, in their self-history. The person can’t create such a story because there is no acceptance for it, neither internally nor externally. The person cannot, then, deal with the consequences of what happened, whatever those consequences may be.
The unintegrated experience remains in the body. In the tissues. In the cells. It is a felt memory, one that a person doesn’t so much recall as relive. The words to describe the experience don’t actually exist – even if the experience itself could theoretically be told about in the most mundane of terms. “He called me this name. Over and over. Everyone else joined in. Nobody would talk to me. It lasted for ten years.”
A few years ago, everyone was talking about bullying all the time, especially in queer activist circles. A lot of attention was being given to kids, especially queer ones, who committed suicide after being bullied. The whole “It Gets Better” campaign was started by Dan Savage, and it became viral. People started to talk about bullying, to take it seriously.
I could not participate in those conversations.
I couldn’t talk about my experiences of having been bullied. I couldn’t talk about other people being bullied, because that might lead to my having to talk about me being bullied.
Being bullied. Being bullied. Being bullied. I am saying it a bunch of times right now because the phrase has such a charge for me, because it scares me so much. And for some reason all of a sudden today, I am ready to, I NEED to, face it.
I shut the door tight on that period of my life. I can talk about my struggles around self love, I can talk about almost killing myself with alcohol, I can talk about depression and economic exploitation and all this other stuff, I can go on and on, I have a lot of passion for sharing these experiences that I’ve had in the hopes that what I have learned through those challenges may be of some help to someone else somewhere. But I can’t talk about being bullied because I am still so ashamed.
When someone else comes out about their experiences being bullied, I think they are brave – and that their sharing their stories helps make the world a better place.
When I imagine myself talking about being bullied, I feel exposed. I am too embarrassed to even go there. I imagine it must seem so terribly predictable, so cliché, so obvious. I tell myself that of course I was responsible for how people treated me; I was too shy, too weird, too unskillful in my social interactions, yes, too unattractive. I deserved it. Deep down, well, maybe not so deep down, I believe that I deserved it, I brought it on myself. In retrospect I think I could have done any number of things differently and my life in school would have been different. If I had known better. If I had tried harder. If I had forced myself to not be so … strange. So fucked up. Such an ass. So goody-goody. So difficult to like.
I don’t get to talk about being bullied. Because I deserved to be bullied. That’s how I felt when the conversation came up. How I still feel. That’s why I couldn’t say anything – why I wanted to run away when people started talking about this. All this shame would well up from the pit of my stomach and I would have to swallow it down and it just made me feel like puking.
Then today. At work. I read a blog post by someone who was coming out of the closet and asking her readers what it was that they were afraid to share about themselves. And I read this post on my friend’s blog, talking about witnessing others being outcast at school. And then I was editing an essay by someone else about the culture of weight hate. And then I was re-reading this other article on our company website about trauma and weight gain. And all these texts were crossing my path talking about what the body does to try to meet our needs for emotional healing when our minds aren’t actually able to deal with our traumas.
And somehow it all came together and I just wondered what energy would be freed up if I was able to actually look this trauma right in the eye and say:
I was severely bullied throughout elementary, middle and high school.
Whole classes called me names, loudly discussed my ugliness, threw things at me, excluded me from group projects so that I had to make up my own solo assignments in order to pass.
I hated my existence.
Going to school was a torment. Any time I achieved an honor – such as being selected for the senior show choir – my actual life got worse, as these groups were full of people who missed no opportunity to mock and degrade me.
As is so often the case, telling adults only made things worse, because they belittled my emotional responses and accused me of tattling.
I was a child. I did nothing to deserve the cruelty that surrounded me.
I was suicidally depressed.
Long after I graduated and went on to become a successful adult, I pictured myself jumping off of bridges.
I tried to eradicate myself by drinking.
Luckily, I failed at that.
And here I am. I grew up fine. I have a life that I love, a sweet job, a wonderful home in an awesome city with my beloved partner and my beloved roommate, creative passions, dreams, goals, purpose, service, positions of leadership, a spiritual path. Many friends. Abundant, nourishing community. I’m utterly surrounded by love and support today. There is just about zero bullying in my life, and what bullying does show up is not personal towards me, but simply the outflowing of someone else’s fear.
And I have this trunk in the basement of my psyche that is tightly locked. I stand on the lid so that it stays down, so that I most of the time never even notice that it is there.
But it moves.
It shakes. It vibrates. It is full, full, burstingly full of energy.
I think the energy has actually grown over time.
I think that if I don’t open it, if I don’t look at the contents and see what is in there, I think it might, one day, explode.
So this is me – stepping down off the trunk, pulling out the key that I’d forgotten was there on a chain around my neck all along, putting it in the lock and
to face whatever comes out.
Last year at work, my friend and I were trying to pick an image to go with our company’s New Year message. We both liked this stock photo but weren’t sure if it fit.
“It totally does,” I said. “Look. It’s the baby New Year being born from the lotus.”
“Ooooh,” she said, or something like that. The concept charmed us both — the sparkles of unformed possibility bursting, no, floating, no, rising lightly and cheerfully from the flower that had finally bloomed out of the mud and the tears of the past year.
Well, alas, our idea was vetoed by our bosses in favor of a more traditional narrative, but I held on to it in my mind. I love creating alternative mythologies, and once the story has been spoken aloud, it is in my opinion as valid as any legend. After all, every fairy tale was first made up by SOMEone before going the medieval equivalent of viral. So yes, I sometimes write my own myths and then live by their morals. I claim this as my creative prerogative.
We did use the stock image for other posts throughout the year, and every time I saw it I remembered the baby New Year. And I decided that come 2016 I would use it on my own blog. And so I made an account and bought the credits and and downloaded my very first stock photo, and now I own it.
Which brings me to my theme for 2016: Owning it.
What does that mean?
2015’s theme, that is, the spiritual power I intended to claim by calling up and facing anything and everything in my inner world that stood between me and that power, was Self Love. Anyone who knows me knows I have been plagued (have plagued myself) with an ultra critical, downright mean and nasty inner voice of self judgment for as long as I can remember, certainly since wee childhood. This voice kept me living in a thick, heavy shell, kept me always tearing myself down, pushing myself to exhaustion, never able to fully receive love since I didn’t believe I was worthy, never able to really share my light because I believed I was so insignificant, so annoying, so bad at things, such an eyesore.
I began last year finally wishing to change that, ready to let go of a way of thinking that I had come to understand was warped, dark, self defeating, unhelpful. I made the commitment to free myself from that sticky mental web in which my angry judging self held my heart captive and sucked its energy like a spider drains the life force from a bug.
The challenges came. It was a tough year for my heart. But every time life asked me to do something that I thought I could never find the strength to do, if my deeper guidance whispered that it was the path of self love, I tried my best to do it. I took many steps into the scary unknown, following that faint and mystical light. Sometimes my only criterion for success was that I do it differently than I had done it in the past. And in this way I set about breaking habits.
And as the year went on I noticed these habits, like broken chains, falling away. I began to feel lighter. More confident. Gradually, the balance shifted and the mean voice got quieter and the voice of my heart, my dreams, my inner knowing, got louder, until it was the first voice I heard instead of the last. I began to recognize my heart’s desires as a source of guidance, longings placed there by Spirit to help me find my direction in life.
I’ve come to accept that this voice, this guidance, is true for me. But it’s still a little scary for me to make it the practical compass of my life, to really live by it, especially when it seems to sometimes take me in the opposite direction from the current of the “main stream,” or to go against what I perceive to be the preferences of the people around m
So that’s where I am today. Working on owning it. Experimenting with living life according to my own quirky standards, with taking my marching orders from Spirit as I try to become a little better every day at decoding the instructions that bubble up from the depths of my soul. Just that. Living from my core, my essence. Not claiming to always fully understand the messages, knowing that at any moment I could be totally missing the mark, but trying, trying to hear, trying to hear better all the time.
Having released a large portion of my inner self judgment, it’s time for me now to release my attachment to others’ approval. It’s time to face the degree to which I limit my choices out of the fear of not being liked.
Call me crazy, but this feels like the easier of the two.
When I understand that I have inherent value, I have less drive to find my sense of self worth in others’ opinions. Instead of a survival need, it becomes simply a habit. It feels comfortable, but it’s a false comfort — it’s actually just an attempt at distracting myself from the underlying anxiety, the gnawing fear that I am not and never will be connected to other humans in a meaningful way.
Luckily, I have quit enough habits, enough methods of self distraction, to know that it’s totally doable. And I also know with both my brain and my heart that what I fear is not true; I am beautifully and indissolubly connected with all of life, and with all human beings. And I also know that — to paraphrase Marianne Williamson’s famous quote — it can be far more terrifying to embrace our connectedness, our interdependence, our strength, our beauty, our truth, our dreams, our magic, and to accept the responsibility that comes with our power, than it is to imagine ourselves small, helpless, and alone.
So my intention, my challenge, this year is to own it. To own all of the above. To believe in my worth, my lovability, my vision, and to act like I believe it in front of the world.
And here’s a really odd thing. Since crystallizing this intention a week or so ago, I have noticed a subtle but perhaps significant change in myself. I am normally very, very, um, VERY introverted when it comes to actually talking to people. (As a Leo I don’t have a problem being on stage performing, but as a Cancer cusp + moon I pretty much hate and fear social interaction, except with people I already know and feel safe around, and even then, it can be iffy.) Lately, though, I’ve been — striking up conversations. With strangers. And the exchanges have been — really nice.
It’s like maybe, as I begin to let go of the fear of not being accepted, as I realize that I don’t truly NEED others’ approval when I have my own, I am less afraid of these other unknown humans walking around on earth with me, jostling egos with each other and with me, like we all always do. As I am less afraid, I am more curious. As I am more curious, I am more open. As I am more open, I am less defensive, and I allow more love into my heart.
How funny. By caring less about whether others love me, I actually begin to experience more love.
This understanding, like this new year, is still just a baby. I know I have many layers to work through before I really get this power of “owning it,” before I really feel it as part of me. But those sparkles of possibility rising from the lotus are so hopeful.
I think it’s going to be a really good year.
I have this super clear memory of sitting with my family in a pew near the front of the Catholic church in my grandma’s town, attending Christmas Eve mass. The church was so tiny and narrow that my mom, dad, brother and I filled a row.
The memory is of looking down at my hands, with which I’d recently started to feel the flow of energy, and thinking, “No. That’s crazy. You’re being arrogant. You don’t have anything to say about God or religion or the soul. And if you did, no one would want to hear it. So make like an organ and pipe down.”
Ok, I was a little liberal with the recreation of the inner monologue here. But the key word rang out so clearly in my head that its echoes are still quietly reverberating today. “No.”
The funny thing is, I DON’T remember what insight I’d thought I had, and had wanted to share, before that voice shut me down so tidily. What I remember is how the No had the weight of certainty on its side.
I also remember that it was dark outside the stained glass windows. And I remember how I used to feel, standing outside at night in the winter when it hadn’t yet snowed, standing on a hillside in the heart of a Pennsylvania town that was so small, the glow from porch and street lamps stayed in pools on the ground and the sky remained untinted with light pollution – truly black.
I could feel the soles of my feet connecting with the earth, right through my socks and shoes. My scalp tingled and my skin sparkled and I could almost see energy arcing between my palms when I held them apart.
I interpreted this within the cosmology I was making up for myself, a sort of pagan-inspired universalism. I called the period between the fall equinox and the end of the year “the Gathering Together of Power.” I imagined magic condensing out of the cooling air like fog appearing on a window. I pictured the earth drawing its energy back into itself, down from the grass stems and tree trunks it had animated through the last season. The nights felt crisp and full.
I felt solitary but connected.
Now it’s that season again — it’s the beginning of the time when static electricity zings through the air and composting leaves release their pungent mystic gases and the stars sharpen their points. And again I’m thinking of things I want to say, and again a malignant voice, a voice that is part of my own mind, whispers, Put it away. Close the drawer. You’ve got nothing to add here. Go do something else.
But this time there is another voice, one that’s been slowly awakening over the course of this year of exploring self love. And she doesn’t say no.
She says YES. Yes. Let it out. Say whatever you want. Nobody has to care. This spring arising needs to flow. This time say yes. Say yes. Say yes.
I can hardly believe it’s the last day of this project! It’s been, all in all, so fun to find different ways to look at, photograph, and write about my relationship with my belly. Through this process, I’ve become better friends with it. I’ve held it with a different sort of attention: more tenderness and more curiosity. I’ve come to know it like never before, and I’ve started to undo some deep old conditioning. I’m digging some more positive tracks into my neural networks (which had some ratty old ruts to get out of), and maybe making it a little easier for someone else to do the same.
I still have times when I catch myself thinking harsh thoughts toward my belly. But I notice them more and try to intervene in them more. I think of Masaru Emoto’s work with water crystal photography, which dramatically showed how words, loving, angry, or otherwise, could affect the crystalline structure of frozen water.
The human body being about 60% water, I feel that this is relevant regardless of what effect thoughts, beliefs, messages, etc. may have on anything other than water!
So I took this picture as a way of both speaking the words, and reminding myself to speak the words, “I love you” to my belly. I am sure it has an effect. Speaking love has an impact. It changes things, often on levels I’ll probably never be truly aware of. I hope I will continue to grow in this, long after the project is done, until maybe one day I give up the self-hate habit forever.
Thank you so very, very much for coming along with me on this journey, for your kind words, for letting me know how this has impacted you. If you feel inclined to share this blog with anyone who might be encouraged by it, please do!!! None of these writings are secret — I would love for them to reach more people, if it would be of benefit.
So in conclusion: I’ve had a great time and I’ve turned up some good soil. We’ll see what grows.
Today I’m writing from someplace from which I can’t take pictures: Valley View Hot Springs. I’d already planned to use this day’s post — the next to the last in the series — for reflection on this journey, and now it just so happens that I’m in one of the most wonderful places in the world for reflection, introspection, and transformation. I’m surrounded by magical water showing me glimpses of myself as seen by the fairies.
Perhaps the biggest gift of this project has been how it has encouraged me to look at myself, letting go more and more of the veils of illusion and self deception, coming much nearer to how I “really” look and am … if there is such a thing at all. This looking has brought me also much closer to acceptance of who I am. I feel more empowered ownership of the body that I’ve been given. I feel like I’ve dropped a layer of pretense in my interaction with the world. I’m not as much inclined to try to hide my belly (especially since it’s not possible, anyway!).
I think that after this experience, I may be a little less apologetic for being myself.
I feel more ready to take this body, as it is, as my starting place, and to let it express its highest potential — rather than trying to make it be something it’s not, or berating it for not being that.
There is a true beauty within me, a true joy, a precious heart, a powerful light. I’m starting to see that — and to live as though that’s true of me. As it is of everyone.
In fact I find the more I look for the beauty in myself, the more I see it shining out from all the other human beings around me. As I celebrate it in me, I want to celebrate it in everyone! It’s as though I’ve had a film of fear removed from my eyes, and where I used to see a warped and dark reality, now it seems like everything and everyone is glowing.
So that’s this picture: the reflection in the water shows the true Goddess essence, the twinkles of magic that are always there, but sometimes hidden. At least in this moment, from this peaceful place, I want to live like my true self. That sacred essence created this exact vehicle to walk around Earth in, so let me now get out of its way — let me embrace it and live it like I was meant to do! By the magic of Valley View — let it be so!
I love name-play. I’ve always been someone who’s had a lot of different names. Right now there are about four names that I regularly go by. Some were formally given to me by parents or teachers; some were self chosen for a variety of purposes. More than once I’ve dreamed about receiving a name. One of those once bestowed on me in a dream was the name Mountain.
I do believe that every name I use does describe some part of me, and even when they’re mainly meant for fun, I still think about why that name came to me, what it expresses about me or what it calls me to be.
I’ve thought about the name Mountain at various times in my life, considering what qualities it might point to that I can use. The word conveys solidity, stability, massiveness. It carries a strong earth energy, endurance, physical force. Treasures are buried within it.
Its temperature is cool for a long way down, but fiery at the core. That’s kind of how I see the me that I would like to grow into.
Mountains, to me, are a refuge. I’d like to be that, too.
They offer a higher perspective, clarity; their peaks are close to the heavens.
At certain times of challenge I’ve tried to summon up my inner mountain capacities. Of course, my body shape helps rather than hinders this endeavor; I do not think that’s coincidental.
I’ll tell you this: the mountain certainly provides an ideal for me to aspire towards, and that is plenty gift. And if I acknowledge that the seeds of these qualities exist within me, it may not only ease my path but also better equip me to serve.
I couldn’t ask for more!