It’s only dusk and I can already hear fireworks going off in the distance for Independence Day–the day in which citizens of the United States celebrate winning the war against England for the right to govern themselves. It is seen by many as a day to celebrate the independent spirit, the rights of the individual, and freedom of religion and thought. And yet, many do not have the freedom that the United States claims to value.
This lack shows up in many ways; some large and some small. This past week I was reminded that I don’t have the freedom to make my own decisions about how I handle my work because I am an employee of a large corporation. The reminder left me shaken, and with an anxiety in my chest that took my breath away. Whenever an emotion creates an overwhelming sensation in my body, I remember a line from a book in Margaret Atwood’s Madd Addam series.
If you’ve never heard of Margaret Atwood, you probably have heard of one of her most famous books, The Handmaid’s Tale, which has become a hit series on Hulu as well as a symbol of the importance of combating misogyny. The Madd Addam series tackles a different social problem–the human destruction of the earth. Some of the characters end up becoming members of a fictional group known as God’s Farmers, who form an earth friendly and sustainable commune. Whenever things go wrong in the story, the leader of the God’s Farmers says “Let us put light around it.”
Let us put light around it.
Those words stuck with me long after reading Madd Addam, and I started using them in my own life. As I struggled with anxious chest pains last week, I closed my eyes and imagined the pain surrounded by a healing, white light. Slowly, the pain began to shrink, and eventually nothing was left of it except for a ball of white light in my chest.
While this technique is highly effective inside my own body, putting light around it doesn’t necessarily change things out in the world. However, it does change how I feel about them. So, I thought I might devote this blog post to putting light around the intensely difficult experience of the world in 2020, in the hopes that it might change how we all feel about it.
First, let us put light around a deadly global pandemic that has killed over 500,000 humans throughout the world. Let us put light around those grieving for their dead family members and friends. Let us put light around the sick. Let us put light around health care providers who risk their lives every day to help those suffering from this deadly disease. Let us also put light around the people who have lost their jobs due to the quarantine, and those who are afraid about how they are going to pay their rent or mortgage, and how they are going to feed their families. Let us put light around the lonely people who haven’t had any true human contact for months.
As I write these words there are tears in my eyes for so much suffering, and yet imagining light around these problems does seem to ease the pain a little.
Let us also put light around a social system that doesn’t offer the same opportunities to everyone, and that often works to block people from succeeding based upon the color of their skin, their gender, or their sexual orientation. Let us put light around George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, and so many others who were killed due to the racism inherent in the system. Let us put light around the families and friends of those who have been murdered. Let us put light around a police force that is having to face itself and ask hard questions about how to change. Let us put light around the people who have risked their own safety to go out and protest the injustice in the system. They have been heard, and we are grateful for their voices.
Let us put light around those who are dealing with sexual harassment, rape, domestic violence and sex trafficking. Let us put light around a social system that is biased towards the abusers–a system where rape kits–representing the most horrible day in thousands of women’s lives go unprocessed. Let us put light around a system where rape victims find it almost impossible to get justice–a system where, instead, these victims often find themselves accused of lying, or of trying to get attention. Let us put light around a society where women who are beaten by their partners are asked what they did to deserve it, and told to stop provoking the beatings. Let us put light around 16-year-old Chrystul Kizer, who killed the man who was sex trafficking her, and now faces life in prison. Let us put light around the abusers, the misogynists, the traffickers, and the rapists in hopes that they can see the error of their ways.
Let us put light around a medical system that often seems to be more about profit than about treatment. Let us put light around the patients seeking help who are turned away because their ailments aren’t easily diagnosed. Let us put light around medical providers who lack compassion for the sick. Let us put light around the people of color who are unable to ask for pain medications without being accused of drug seeking. Let us put light around the women who are unable to ask for care without being accused of having mental health problems. And let us put light around the medical providers who are doing their very best to help people in spite of being overworked and under-supplied.
Let us put light around a political system that divides a nation, divides families, and divides friends. Let us put light around those who want to vote, but cannot. Let us put light around the bullies that assume they know better. Let us put light around those that hold their thoughts to themselves in order to keep the peace.
Let us put light around the LGBTQ+ community. Let us put light around a society that condemns people for their sexual preference or gender identity. Let us put light around the victims of hate crimes. Let us put light around Matthew Shepard, who was brutally murdered because he was gay. Let us put light around those who hate gay and transgender people, for surely they suffer too.
And finally, let us put light around ourselves. Remember that you are always your first priority because you are a member of the human race and inherently deserving of your own love. Embrace yourself, for your relationship with you is the most important relationship in your life.
This isn’t what I was planning to write about today, and I’m feeling extremely nervous about what I’m about to say. I’m worried about accusations that I’m a privileged white woman who can’t understand what the African American community has gone through at the hands of some of the police force, and those people would be absolutely right. I admit that I am privileged as a white person in the United States, and I feel ashamed of it.
Yet, events in the news recently, including the murder of George Floyd by police, and Amy Cooper consciously weaponizing a call to 911, make me feel ashamed and helpless in the face of murderous hate by people who look like me. If the world were not in the middle of a pandemic, I would be looking for a march to join, and creating picket signs, but things being as they are, I feel compelled to use my blog to make a statement.
As I thought this morning about what I wanted to say, I considered how I could possibly say something insightful about a criminal justice system that is not truly about justice because the people in it do not apply the rules evenly. Then, I thought about the rioters in Minneapolis and what they must be feeling at this time, and what they must want, and I found my answer. Please bear with me while I connect the dots.
One of my heroes, Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson, the celebrated astrophysicist earned my devotion when I saw a clip of him answering the following question, which was posed by a gray-haired white man:
“What’s up with chicks and science?”
In the film clip, the room erupts in nervous titters of laughter, and the man smiles, smugly. The mediator asks if anyone wants “to field if maybe there are genetic differences between men and women that explain why more men are in science?”
Neil Degrasse Tyson speaks up and says the following wondrous thing:
“I’ve never been female, but I have been black my whole life. So, let me, perhaps, offer some insight from that perspective, because there are many similar social issues related to access to opportunity that we find in the black community as well as the community of women in a white male dominated society.
When I look at–throughout my life–I’ve known that I wanted to do astrophysics since I was nine years old–a first visit the the Hayden (sp?) planetarium . . . So, I got to see how the world around me reacted to my expression of these ambitions. And, all I can say is, the fact that I wanted to be a scientist, an astrophysicist, was hands-down the path of most resistance through the forces of . . . society. Any time I expressed this interest, teachers would say, ‘Oh, don’t you want to be an athlete?’
I wanted to become something that was outside of the paradigms of expectation of the people in power. And, so, fortunately, my depth of interest was so deep, and so fuel-enriched that every one of these curve-balls I was thrown, and fences built in front of me, and hills that I had to climb, I just reached for more fuel, and I kept going. And now, here I am . . . one of the most visible scientists in the land, and I want to look behind me and say, where are the others who might have been this? And they’re not there.
I wonder, what is the blood on the tracks that I happened to survive that others did not because of the forces of society that prevent it at every turn–to the point where I have security guards following me as I go through department stores presuming that I am a thief. I walked out of a store one time and the alarm went off, and so they came running to me. I walked through the gate at the same time a white male walked through the gate, and that guy just walked off with the stolen goods, knowing that they would stop me and not him. That’s an interesting exploitation of this–what a scam that was!
So, my life experience tells me that when you don’t find blacks, and when you don’t find women in the sciences–I know that these forces are real. I had to survive them in order to get where I am today. So, before we start talking about genetic differences, you’ve got to come up with a system where there is equal opportunity. Then we can have that conversation.”
Neil Degrasse Tyson’s comparison between the forces that oppress African Americans and the forces that oppress women resonated with me, as did his description of the barriers that are put in front of both of these groups of people to keep them from realizing their dreams. So, I’m going to talk about this issue from that perspective–from the perspective of a woman in a white male dominated society. While I realize that this isn’t perfect, and I do recognize my privilege as a white person, I feel that it does give me some insight. I’ve never been African American, but I have been a woman all of my life.
I grew up in a conservative, Christian, white family. Every Sunday, we would get up early, get dressed up, and go to church. I went to Sunday school, was an acolyte, and was confirmed as a Christian before I really had any life experience. One of the messages that I absorbed from this upbringing was of strict, traditional, 1950s style, gender roles. I have no idea if my parents meant for me to absorb this, but I did. In my mind, the perfect woman was married and took care of her husband and their home by cooking and cleaning. She also stayed home to raise their children. In return, the perfect man worked outside the home, payed the bills, and benevolently loved his family.
When I married my high school sweetheart at age 18, I had every intention of becoming this mental picture of the perfect woman. As I write this, I cringe a little at my 18-year-old naivety, and I know now just how ill-suited I am for the type of life I thought I was supposed to live.
The first week of my marriage, my beautiful mental picture was destroyed by an act of domestic violence, although I didn’t recognize it as that at the time. The man I’d married became angry with me over a minor issue that I offered to fix. Instead of allowing me to fix it, he started screaming at me, calling me names, invading my personal space, and pointing his finger in my face threateningly. Terrified, I backed away from him until I came up against the living room wall, where he pinned me and screamed at me for what felt like 20 minutes. I was certain that he was going to hit me, and I braced myself for the blow. It never came, and I told myself that the incident was a fluke. It wasn’t.
The same scenario repeated over and over, escalating in severity and frequency. I began to dread my husband coming home from work, and at the same time I tried to fix the situation, and create the life I’d expected to have when I married him. I told him that the way he was treating me was wrong, and that he needed to stop losing his temper and threatening and berating me. Instead of listening to me, he took my confirmation Bible off of the bookshelf and turned to Ephesians 5: 22 through 24 and read to me:
“Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands as to the Lord. For a husband has authority over his wife just as Christ has authority over the church; and Christ is himself the Savior of the church, his body. And so wives must submit themselves completely to their husbands just as the church submits itself to Christ.”
While my husband looked at me with triumph in his eyes, my entire worldview crumbled around me.
As far as he was concerned, he could do whatever he wanted to me with impunity because it was the will of God.
Now, you’re probably saying that isn’t the intention of that verse, and coming up with all kinds of reasons why what he said was wrong. And you have a point. If someone could use the Bible, which I’d always believed was a tenet of kindness and compassion towards fellow humans, to justify abusing me, there was something terribly wrong with this foundation. In that moment it sunk into my soul that the world I’d been raised in was built on a foundation of misogyny.
I wonder how many African American people have had this moment of realization that their world is built on a foundation of racism. My sense is that most of them do considering this country’s history.
Eventually, that man left me for another woman. Sometimes I worry about her, but I’m glad that he left because I don’t know how much longer I would have stayed with him, or how much more damage I would have allowed him to do to my psyche. The damage was bad enough as it was. After he left, I went through a terrible depressive episode where I couldn’t stop crying. As a Highly Sensitive Person, it doesn’t take a lot to bring me to tears, but that depressive episode was way over the top. I once cried over a pair of slippers in a department store. It was so bad that I went to the doctor thinking that something was medically wrong with me, and he had to explain that this was depression. I’d had no idea.
The doctor prescribed antidepressants and referred me to a therapist. I was terrified of therapy, but with my doctor’s encouragement, I went anyway. Therapy helped me to build a new foundation for my world. Ever since my now ex-husband had shattered the foundation I’d been raised with, I’d felt un-moored. My therapist helped me to release the internalized misogyny of my upbringing, and I was so relieved to feel solid again that I decided to become a therapist myself so that I could help others going through similar experiences.
As I went through the process of getting my Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology, and then getting the 3,000 supervised hours of treatment that I needed to have under my belt in order to take my licensing board exams, I happened to get an internship at a domestic violence shelter.
My faith in God had already been shaken, and I no longer attended church, but I hadn’t released my faith yet. However, my experience in that shelter moved me all the way out of Christianity. One after another, these horribly abused women, who had severe and chronic physical problems from the abuse they’d suffered, told me that they had gone to their pastor, rabbi, or priest for help, and had received the same message: “If you were a better wife, he would stop abusing you.”
This message is bullshit.
I can tell you first-hand that nothing a woman does in an abusive relationship leads to the abuse stopping, because the abuse is not about the woman’s behavior. I did everything I could think of. I made elaborate meals. I cleaned the house with a toothbrush. I feigned interest in things my ex-husband cared about. It made no difference. Later, I learned the truth. Abusers abuse because of their own internal state, not because of anything the victim does.
I think this is true of racism as well. Racists hate because of their own internal state, not because of anything that their victims have done.
While I worked in the shelter, I started my own personal survey course in religion. I read about the major Middle Eastern religions: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. I also read about Eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism and Taoism. For a while I suspended choice, but over time I settled on Buddhism because it seemed to be the kindest of the major religions. Still, it didn’t quite fit.
Recently, I’ve been exploring the history of the ancient goddesses, and I’m in awe of their power. I’m in awe of a society that revered such powerful females, and I want to live in that society. I think I’m a pagan.
I haven’t told my family how I feel about Christianity up to this point, but they read my blog. (Perhaps only they read it). So, in a way I’m outing myself, which is a bit terrifying for me. So, why am I telling you this? I’ve been holding these feelings secret in my heart for years. Why now? And what do these experiences have to do with what is happening with the Black Lives Matter movement and the riots in Minneapolis?
Well, I’m telling you this to illustrate the process of changing one’s mind and worldview. I went from being raised in a conservative Christian family to being a liberal feminist because of a series of experiences that showed me that what I’d been raised to believe didn’t fit the facts of my world.
It takes time and pain and a willingness to talk to those that you wish to understand, just as I did with the women in the domestic violence shelter. It also means a willingness to experience the rejection of the people in your life who wish to maintain the status quo, just as I’m now risking the judgment of my family.
Even when the status quo is shameful and cruel and unjust, separation from people with a different worldview, and fear of being ostracized by your social group, can often keep people from admitting the wrongs right in front of their eyes. Even if they do admit them, often people will say, well, racism is terrible, but I can’t do anything to stop it.
I’m here to say you can. If I could confront the inherent misogyny in my culture and my religion and choose to turn away from it, you can take the great leap of attempting to understand why someone whose world shows them nothing but hate and violence might choose to tear that world apart in a riot. You can talk to those who have experienced hatred and hold space for their pain. You can shut down people who tell racist jokes. You can do your best to examine your own bias and admit that it is there. You can see that the world that you live in is not the world that others live in. Changing yourself is the first step, and it spreads from there.
“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man [or woman] changes his [her] own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him [or her]. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.” – Mahatma Gandhi
I realize that I’m a few days late, but I have some Valentine’s Day thoughts to share. Valentine’s Day is always a difficult day for me, whether I’m coupled-up or not. This year I’m not in a relationship, so I had plenty of time to reflect on past romances. In the initial incarnation of my book, I’m Sick, Not Crazy, I weaved in a subplot of my relationships getting healthier as I did the things that made my body healthier. However, after some initial feedback, it looks like that plot may end up being my second book, but since this is my blog, and I can write whatever I want, I have a few things to say about love.
When I was 18 years old, I married my high school sweetheart. Even writing that line makes me feel painfully embarrassed, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. We’d been dating the entire four years that I was in high school, and I was raised in a conservative Christian home, so marriage seemed like the obvious and right next step. I was excited to get down to the business of being a wife, but the very first week that we were married, I realized I’d made a grave error. My ex-husband was in the Marine Corps, which had been the source of small problems between us while dating, but after the wedding, he began treating me like a drill sergeant treats a recruit.
During that first week of our ill-fated marriage, he became angry with me because I forgot to do something that he asked me to do. It was a small something, and I offered to do it as soon as he brought it up. Instead of accepting my offer to complete the task, he backed me up against a wall and screamed in my face for what seemed like a half an hour. I held my breath and closed my eyes, bracing myself for the punch that I expected, but didn’t come, while tears streamed down my face. Not only did I never forgive him for that, but it happened again . . . and again. Over the six years that we were married, he humiliated me in public, spoke to me like I was an idiot, screamed at me, and generally abused me. I didn’t realize that it was abuse at the time. I believed what he told me; that it was my fault, and if I could just be better, he would treat me right, but no matter what I did, things failed to improve. Now that I’m a therapist, and have training in matters of power and abuse, I realize that he didn’t abuse me because of anything I had done. He abused me because of him; because of his own internal feelings, and there was nothing that I could have done to change them. When I was 24 years old, he left me for another woman that he’d gotten pregnant, and I was relieved.
After my ex-husband left me, I met a man at work that I’m going to call Justin. There was an instant and strong attraction between us, and after he put up some initial resistance, we started dating. One day I was putting on makeup in his bathroom before work, and the bottle of liquid foundation slipped out of my hand, flew through the air, and splattered everything around me, including the carpet. Frantically, I started trying to clean it up, hoping to have it done before Justin saw, but I heard Justin coming into the room, and my heart started to pound. My ex-husband would have lost his mind over something like that. In his mind, there were no accidents, no mistakes, and no forgetting. Instead, Justin laughed and started helping me clean up the mess. I fell in love with him, hard, in that very moment, and our relationship is one of the more positive experiences of romances I’ve ever had. Justin and I had beautiful long talks about everything, and I believe that he loved me just as strongly as I loved him.
Unfortunately, he kept finding ways to sabotage the relationship. He told me that he didn’t ever want to get married and have children again (he already had two daughters from a first marriage). At age 24, I definitely envisioned having children of my own, so I broke up with him. However, he kept changing his mind, and after breaking up and getting back together over and over again for the next 10 years, he finally proposed marriage. We started planning a wedding, and I thought that I was actually going to get the relationship that I had always wanted with a man that I thought I couldn’t live without. It wasn’t meant to be. A few months before the wedding was supposed to occur, Justin announced that he was going to move to Texas because his ex-wife was going to be retiring there after getting out of the Navy, and he needed to be near his daughters.
If they had been little girls, I would have completely understood, but they were aged 16 and 18, and I was in the middle of establishing my career as a therapist. Plus, I was never going to be in a relationship again where my needs were not considered. Justin telling me that he was going to move to Texas, and that I could choose to either come with him or not, triggered my abuse trauma. I didn’t have the language for it at the time, but I felt it in the deepest part of my being that I couldn’t form a life with a man who didn’t talk to me before making a decision about where we would live as a couple. I gave the engagement ring back.
Justin contacts me here and there, but we’ll never get back together. Not because of his moving to Texas just before we were supposed to get married, but because of what happened afterward. After Justin left, I felt bereft and didn’t know what to do with myself. I needed something to put my energy into, and I found it in the local San Diego swing dancing community. The love I’d felt for Justin easily transferred to dancing, and I was dancing 4 to 5 nights per week, until one night a man I was dancing with dipped me so roughly that I sustained a serious whiplash injury. Within a week of the injury I was so sick that I couldn’t keep any food down, my vision doubled, and my cognition was so wonky that I couldn’t even make basic decisions, like whether to turn right or left. This went on for over a year, and at the worst of it, I was certain that I was going to die, whether of starvation, or by my own hand, I wasn’t sure, but I wanted to say goodbye to Justin before it happened. I called him and told him that I was sick. His response was to tell me that he couldn’t keep doing this. I didn’t expect him to do anything except say goodbye back, but instead he made even my illness about himself. That was the moment that I knew it was really over between us.
After a year and a half of an illness that nearly killed me, I was walking down the street toward Mission Beach and I met a man we’ll call Andrew. He was beautiful. Probably the most attractive man that I’ve ever dated. We had a lot of fun together, and traveled all over the world: Australia, England, France, Thailand, and more. Andrew and I moved in together after 3 years of dating, and lived together for two years before I moved out. Living with him was impossible for me. He spent all of his time in front of the television, completely numbed out. The TV noise was overwhelming to my sensitive nature, and living with someone so absent made me feel more lonely than being alone.
After moving out, I decided that I must be doing this dating thing completely wrong. I’d missed the training that most people get in early dating by being with my ex-husband so young, and for so long, so I did what I always do when I need to learn something new–I took a class. Dating coaching was extremely helpful and motivating, and I spent most of my time outside of work on dating apps and going on dates. After an exhausting few months of fruitless dates, I met a man I’ll call Steven, and fell crazy in love with him. Steven was almost divorced when I met him. If he’d told me on the first date that he was in the middle of a divorce, I wouldn’t have gone out with him again. Unfortunately, he waited until a few dates in to tell me, and I was already hooked. I’ll never know if Steven felt the same way about me that I did about him. I believed that he did for the 10 months that we dated, and he was the one that initiated each next big relationship step. He suggested that we go on a trip to Kauai together. He suggested that I go with him to Connecticut to meet his family. He suggested that we move in together.
That last suggestion ended up being the death knell for our relationship. Steven lived about a 40 minute drive away from me with no traffic. With traffic, it would have taken me about an hour to get to work from his place. He worked about a 10 minute drive closer to where I lived, so it seemed logical to me that we could move somewhere in between where I lived and where he lived and we would both be happy with our commutes. However, Steven’s comment about where we should live was, “I’ve decided that I’ll watch the condos across the street and we’ll move in there when one opens.” You’ve decided? Flashbacks to Justin deciding to move to Texas, and my ex-husband backing me against the wall to scream in my face whenever I did something he didn’t like engulfed me. After giving it a day or two to think, I approached Steven and told him that his location posed difficulties for me, and that we should talk about where we would live together and make the decision as a couple.
This proposition seemed completely reasonable to me, but in my heart I had already decided that if he insisted that we live in his area, I would drive the hour to work each day because I loved him so much. All that I wanted was for him to be willing to talk to me about it.
Instead of talking to me about the issue and coming to a resolution, he told me that he “didn’t have it for me,” and that he really wanted to re-engage in fighting with his ex-wife. I was beyond shocked . . . and heartbroken . . . and broken.
It’s been over a year since then, and I’ve been engaged in the deepest and most intense self-healing work I’ve ever done, and that’s coming from a licensed psychotherapist. What I’ve discovered about myself is that I’ve been relying on others for my sense of value. This strategy was the one that I was taught by movies, and songs, but it’s unsafe because I can’t control the behavior of these other people. When they leave me, I lose my foundation, and I’m left shaking and alone. Unfortunately, I’d been abandoning myself for these others all of my adult life, when what I really needed to do was stay with myself and love myself first. Loving myself first sets the model for the love that I receive from others. When they see how I love myself, they know that they have to love me with that same intensity and kindness, and nothing less will do. Most importantly, if they leave me in the end, I still have myself to love, and my foundation is still strong.
I don’t know what your history is with romance, but no matter what is going on with you, I invite you to also love yourself first, and to cultivate your relationship with yourself. The more you’re good to you, the more that you will inspire others to be good to you. Best of all, if you are your own best partner, you won’t be hungry for love, and you will only accept the very best.