Thursday, February 4, 2016

What's My Name?

What's your name,' Coraline asked the cat. 'Look, I'm Coraline. Okay?'
'Cats don't have names,' it said.
'No?' said Coraline.
'No,' said the cat. 'Now you people have names. That's because you don't know who you are. We know who we are, so we don't need names.
―Neil Gaiman, Coraline

At the beginning of the new year, I began exploring the mixed feelings I have about my name. I spent January puzzling over it, playing with ideas, experimenting, feeling slightly disoriented each time a cashier asked me to sign a receipt.

Judging from my friends list, the yearning for a fresh identity is not uncommon among my homeschooled peers. We know after all, that we are not the "arrows", the culture warriors, the virtuous men and women we were expected to be. Some resent the meaning of their given names, some crave anonymity or have safety concerns, some want to sever ties to an abuser's name. Some change their names to escape expectations tied to gender roles. Some simply want to define themselves.

I adopted Jeri as a nickname a few years ago because I wasn't ready to put my real name all over the internet. I liked that it was short, secular, and gender-bending in the vein of Little Women's Jo March. It was easy for strangers to pronounce and it fit easily on a name tag.

I first tried the new handle at Starbucks (because what did it matter what I told them to write on my cup?) and then when I met new people locally, because they weren't acquainted with my family of origin ("Yes, all our names come from the Bible; no, they don't all start with J.") and, as I transitioned away from Christianity, I was weary of the questions my given name always raised ("It's from the Hebrew, think Jerusalem. No, we're not Jewish. Or Amish. Or Catholic."). Eventually, for convenience, I switched my name on Facebook and even toyed with the idea of of changing my name legally.

Jeri feels very much like "me" these days. She's liberated and brave, sexy, self-determining, compassionate, engaged in the community. She dances and practices yoga. Jeri has friends. Jeri has adventures. She is a left-wing version of what my teenage self hoped to be!

But Jerusha is a lovely name. The name of a Palestinian queen (well, a king's mother, anyway--not quite the same as a queen!), according to Jewish mythology. It's unusual, and almost nobody can pronounce or spell it right away. When I hear it these days, I'm usually in a doctor's waiting room and the nurse has to guess whether I'm Hispanic, black, or Caucasian.

Lately I've missed Jerusha a little, even though electronic devices like to put a red wavy line underneath her as I type, as if she's wrong somehow. She's getting eclipsed by Jeri and I've realized I don't want to lose her.

Jerusha is more introverted and she feels more deeply. She is the bookworm who imagined becoming an artist. SHE experienced my childhood, is connected to my siblings, and fell in love with "Chris" (another name-identity story in itself!). Jerusha had to fight her way out of the cult, break up with an abusive god, and learn how to be a gentle mother while accepting not having one herself. Jerusha is strong, resilient, and cautious.

I now have people in my life who know me by one name or the other. But the most important people are acquainted with all sides of me. I don't want to be the "before" and "after". I want to be both. There have been a few moments over the last year when I felt Jerusha was merging with Jeri and those moments felt very powerful and healing. I want more of those! So I've been pondering how to further integrate the two versions of me.

In recent months, I've reconnected with more people who know me as Jerusha but are accepting of the way "Jeri" has evolved. Hearing them use my given name has caught me off-guard a few times, but it's also felt reassuring--friends building me a bridge to help connect my identity with my history.

My parents didn't give me a middle name, so Jerusha is what I have to work with, and I'm not going to part with it. I put it away for a while while I worked through a lot of emotional baggage, but now I'm ready to dust it off again and see how it feels.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Fear of Being Ignored

My friend Darcy wrote a beautiful post last month about no longer being afraid. Her words resonated with me as so many of my anxieties have melted away over the last year. 

I, too, have become more comfortable with the darker, most intense shades of myself.

I stared down numerous fears in 2015, and won.

I tried things I'd been told would harm me, and they turned out to be healing instead!

I realized how often I based choices on a fear of future regret, and began to inhabit my present more than my future or past. 

But as lesser fears retreated, one of the last Big Ones loomed into focus. 

An enormously healing moment came one autumn day in my kitchen when I could finally, tearfully, verbalize to Chris my deep-seated fear of going unnoticed, of not being missed, of not mattering outside the walls of my home. I'd been grieving the end of a relationship--and with it many lost relationships from the past--and had at last been able to put the dread into words.

Sure, it's silly, but I've spent years wondering who would even know if I was gone. Would anyone but relatives show up for my funeral? I've fretted over this question for years. I've lost sleep over it. The fear was part of my drive to accomplish something, to achieve something, to leave something noticeable in my wake. And it was part of what made the loss of even a single young friendship seem devastating.

As is often the case, finally speaking this fear's name aloud shrank it to powder and its dust soon blew away in a breath of reality.

Because as soon as I could express it, I could see how false it was. Yes, for a variety of reasons, the anxiety was real. But these days I can see that it was a trick, left over from decades of longing for connection and understanding. 

While I may have felt neglected, isolated, or silenced in the past, those words hardly describe me now. I am bold, colorful, irrepressible, with a strong and articulate voice. I am seen, I make a difference; even my absence is noted. And those who want to ignore me have to work at it!

My deep-seated fear of going unnoticed blinded me to the numerous people who do notice me. In the weeks that followed that afternoon in the kitchen, my eyes opened to the many ways others participate in my life. And I began to value friendship differently, seeing that even short or shallow relationships can hold life-altering meaning. That some moments matter more than whole months. That friendships come in a host of flavors and it is never a waste to demonstrate care or compassion.

Road trip to visit a friend!
One year ago, I cried because I couldn't think of any friends I could telephone if I was having a rough day. Today, I have them! Friends who look out for me and check on me, friends I can ask for hugs, friends I have fun with, even friends I can talk to in the middle of the night. And not only do I have friends, but fans, admirers, maybe even a few adversaries! I'm participating in my community, interacting with people not because of shared political or theological allegiances, but because of how our lives intersect.

The world seems a far less frightening place than it once did. I'm grateful for everyone who has reached out to me, kept me company, taught me new things, given me a chance, cheered me on.

As Hugh Grant says in one of my favorite movies
"If you look for it, I've got a sneaky feeling you'll find that love actually is all around."
Now when I feel a twinge of anxiety or sadness, my first thought is, "But look at all the people who notice me now! I'm not alone; I get to share life with all these other human beings who care about each other." 

And it gladdens me. Every time.


Friday, December 11, 2015

The People You Meet

"You will be the same person in five years as you are today 
except for the people you meet and the books you read."  
-Charlie "Tremendous" Jones

I've forgotten most of the motivational speakers who came through Gothard's training centers, and Charlie Jones was no more memorable than the rest, but occasionally a gem sparkles through the rest of the bullshit. The line above is one that stuck with me and still rings true.

For most of my life, my best friends were... books. As socially isolated as I was, authors--living or dead--were my greatest outside influence. I didn't so much read books as assimilate them. Reading was my lifeline as I sought to build a sustainable life outside the IBLP cult, and later, outside Christendom. 

This year, however, books took a back seat. I checked out library books and returned them unread. I attended book club discussions on stories I hadn't even opened. I bought a book, had it signed by the author, and it lies, still-new, buried under a stack of paintings on my desk. Because this year I started living my own story. 

This year was about people

This year was about connection

It was about building new friendships and proving old ones. Finally meeting Facebook friends I felt I knew already. Visiting in people's homes, getting to know their kids and their pets, eating and drinking and dancing together, sharing music and art. Teaching and learning from each other. Retelling our stories. Standing together against injustice and abuse. Laughing, crying, hugging, feeling anxious... being vulnerable and even getting hurt.

One interaction at a time, my friends have influenced the way I cook, the way I dress, the way I shop and spend money, the music I listen to, the shows I watch, where and with whom I spend my time, the way my family eats, how we handle conflict, how we have fun.

And I'm not the same person I was last year. Because of the people I have known in 2015, I am different. Because of my relationships with other people, I am far more myself! I feel more alive because of the people who have shared life with me.

Friends have made difficult things bearable and pleasant ones intoxicating. They've kept me grounded. They've nudged me to try new things. Each time the threads of our lives cross, whatever the circumstances, they create something that wasn't there before.

Some connections were deep and others shallow; some encounters were short-lived, while others have lasted longer. Some friends have left their mark on our whole family. Some people who said they were friends changed their minds later, though I continue to enjoy the gifts they shared. Others showed that they're in for the long haul! 

People and relationships were not highly valued in my cult upbringing. I saw few models of lasting friendships between adults who weren't related. Friendships with peers were dismissed as unimportant, even harmful. I was taught to be selective, to sort people into categories and associate only with the "best"--those who shared similar viewpoints and experiences. Relationships were discarded when they became uncomfortable or when values clashed. I hope I am finally growing past that. I appreciate all the kindness and open-mindedness others have shown me this year, and I want to spread it around as best I can.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Regrets--From the pen of an ATI Survivor

Many of my closest friends today are fellow survivors of Bill Gothard's ATI homeschooling cult. Many of us are the strong ones, the ones who keep fighting to recover what was stolen from us. When we get together, conversation flows easily because of our shared experience. So much does not need to be explained! 

We may appear to be thriving in many ways, but no matter how long we have been "out", our victories are marbled with deep pain and anger at the myriad life-altering lies we were sold.

Another survivor of ATI recently penned these poignant lines, addressed to the disgraced cult leader who manipulated first our parents, and then us. I share them here with the writer's permission:


They're not my own,
These nagging pricks of conscience
That insinuate waste, loss, and misuse
Of dreams, talents, time, resources, relationships,
And my very self.
Not my regrets,
They're yours.
Because I was innocently eager to follow the right,
And you were seasoned and shrewd.
And you saw,
As I could not,
My potential, my passion, my energy,
My limitless capacity for loyalty.
And you took them.
All of them.
For your own purpose and under false pretense.
How was I to sense the emptiness in your promises?
How was I to discern insincerity in your earnestness?
How was I to detect the ruse in your disciplines?
How could I see the end of your beginnings?
How could I know to run
When I'd barely begun to walk?
My youth I spent chasing your dreams.
My strength I spent fighting your battles.
My gifts I spent supporting your endeavors.
My loyalty I spent defending your reputation.
My time I spent separated from all the people
You failed to value.
And I regret
That your designs on my youth
Kept me from
Chasing the dreams in my own heart,
Fighting battles for the vulnerable,
Providing for the needy,
Defending the defenseless,
And investing in relationships with people
Whose experiences lend balance to my own.
All these burdens of regret
Are yours to bear.
And yet you deny them,
Heap them back upon me with added blame,
Walk away in your illusion of innocence,
And leave me to sift through them,
And bear the full weight of them.


Saturday, November 7, 2015

Emotions: Leaning In

I've been learning much about my emotions this year. But now that I'm in tune with that crazy kaleidoscope of feelings, what am I to do with them??

Several months ago, I confided to Chris that I didn't even know how to take responsibility for my own emotions. In some ways, I was an emotional toddler. Unconsciously, I was still blaming my moods on other people or circumstances, or at least looking to those close to me to help me manage my emotions, as if my emotional state was their problem, too.

It's been years since my therapist introduced me to the term "differentiation", the process by which we become autonomous individuals, separating from our parents and caretakers to stand as our unique and independent selves. When she brought it up, I was struggling to differentiate from my family of origin. I was emotionally enmeshed with them far longer than I should have been.

Practicing new yoga balance poses lately has gotten me thinking again about differentiation and "supporting" myself. I feel strong when I can support the weight of my own body unaided. I want to be able to do the same with my emotions.

When we married, I thought emotional co-dependence was a healthy state. Couples were supposed to merge into "one", right? I was fully prepared to become my husband's emotional conjoined twin. And, indeed, it worked for us for a while. But as Chris and I differentiate more and more, I'm proud when I can share my emotions without making him "carry" them.

Now, when I recognize my children naturally differentiating from Chris and me, I feel both unsettled and proud. As a mom, I've tried to help "contain" their feelings for them until they could learn to do it for themselves. But learning to do it for myself is another skill entirely!

When I was younger, I put a lot of energy into repressing "negative" emotions or transforming them into more acceptable ones. As I become more self-aware, I'm trying to own my feelings, whatever they are, and lean in to them.

Last year I found myself in an extremely angry stage. I didn't want to stuff or deny it, but I still didn't know what to do with it, besides writing it out. Since holding emotion inside eventually makes me sick or gives me panic attacks, I needed some new strategies!

Most of the time, leaning into a strong feeling, like kneading a knotted muscle, allows me to work it out until I find emotional equilibrium again. Fitting an action to a feeling helps to ground me and keep me from getting "stuck in my head" or stressed to the point of panic. Below are some of the solo strategies I've since come up with to both acknowledge a strong emotion and allow my body to feel it in a constructive way.

Angry: Chop vegetables. Pull weeds or dig roots. Pound something. Break something (throwing china at concrete feels great; tie it up in a plastic grocery bag first and you won't even have a mess). Run or work out. Listen to angry music and sing along loudly. Ruthlessly clean out a drawer. Write a letter you'll never send. Drive with the windows down. Shout into the wind.

Sad: Sit in a quiet corner and cry. Listen to melancholy music. Watch an emotional movie. Read a sad memoir. Ask someone for a hug. Drink hot tea. Wear black.

Anxious: Wrap up in a sweater, a scarf, or a quilt. Talk to someone--by phone or text or face-to-face. Practice yoga and observe your ragged breath. Take a walk and listen to your thoughts. Are you afraid of being with people? Of being alone? Name your fear and speak it aloud to someone else. Color a picture.

Glad: Listen to music. Sing. Dance! Watch comedy. Bake a cake. Give someone a hug. Fly a kite. Skip. Pick flowers. Buy yourself a treat. Post a selfie.

Disgusted: Close Facebook. Unfollow or unfriend, if necessary. Go for a walk and observe nature in all its violence, decay, and beauty. Write in a journal. Weed a flowerbed or plant something, imposing your own arbitrary sense of order and beauty on your world. Create art.

Sensual: Wear something sexy. Photograph yourself nude. Masturbate! Flirt. Listen to Madonna hits. Go dancing. Offer a kiss to someone special.

Lonely: Sit on a bench by yourself. Cuddle a stuffed animal. Snack on something you'd usually share. Watch a romantic movie alone. Pull out a memento of someone you miss. Take a solitary walk. Look at the stars.

Drained: Change into comfy clothes. Watch Netflix or play a game. Drink a beer. Take a bath, or a nap.

Content: Sit by a fire. Sip a glass of wine. Flip through a photo album. Kick off your shoes.

Of course, these are all things that help me. Your list will probably look completely different.

When I felt sad this week, I got out a jigsaw puzzle--a surprise from Chris last winter on a day when I was feeling down. Sitting down with a puzzle in the middle of the day is an acknowledgement that I need cheering. As I connected the pieces, I let my sadness move through my body and dissipate on its own.

More than ever before, I am aware of how much I need other people in my life. Some emotional waves and triggers are big enough to knock me off balance and I need support from friends to stay upright. But I hope I'm learning how to stay grounded through the everyday emotional breezes that sometimes used to overwhelm me.

Stronger and stronger every day!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

On Giving Thanks

November means turkey, Pilgrims, and giving thanks. Most years I've kept my own tradition of listing the things I'm grateful for. But this year's list is going to have a new twist.

A few weeks ago, my neighbor invited me along to her yoga class. As we stretched and then rested our muscles, the instructor suggested meditative thoughts as well. "Thank your body for what it is doing for you. Thank yourself for taking this time..." I don't remember what came next because my eyes were already beginning to puddle.

For months, my heart had been flooded with a sense of gratefulness. This has been an epic year for me, and I am thankful for each person who has participated in my life: family, friends, neighbors, enemies, strangers. I feel a debt of gratitude to so many; even individuals I don't speak to anymore, or who don't speak to me, have given me gifts that I treasure daily.

But to be grateful to myself? That was a new thought!

It's been sixteen years since Bill Gothard terminated my employment at his cult headquarters and it often seems that I must have recovered from the brainwashing by now. But then something small, like a sentence in a yoga class, triggers a cascade of thoughts and associations and helps me identify and shed yet another layer of Gothard's influence.

My mother drilled the importance of Gratefulness into us as children, and when I was a little older, Gothard emphasized it to his followers. Gratefulness had been known to cure depression, he said. His oft-repeated definition still springs to mind:
Making known to God and others in what ways they have benefited my life.
We also learned Bill's definition of Humility:
Recognizing that it is actually God and others who are responsible for the achievements in my life.
Together with other parts of the Institute's cult program, these "character qualities" helped to stamp out a sense of volition or self-determination. We were to clay to be shaped, vessels to be used, sheep to be led.

And yet, this year I took the reins of my life in a new way. While there have been many supporting roles, the lead part is mine. My growth and happiness today are the result of my own choices.

I was bold.

took risks.

I colored outside the lines and wrote my own rules.

I scared myself and held on anyway. I followed up. I put in the effort. I invested in my happiness and let go of what was choking it. I allowed myself to have fun. I said "yes"--though not as many times as I wish I had!

Looking back to my twenties, I walked away from the cult. I abandoned fundamentalism. I researched birth control, studied science, found a therapist, started college. I enrolled my kids in school. I made new friends. At some points I had a friend cheering me on, other times I felt alone. Each step forward was one I had to take for myself.

The changes I am now so proud of were watered with my own sweat and plenty of tears.

This November, I give thanks to my self. For being strong. For being resilient. For digging deep and discovering who I wanted to be. For doing what was necessary to heal old hurts and reclaim what was mine. For signing up for daring adventures and learning new things. For taking up space and spending time. For standing up for myself.

What can you thank yourself for today?

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Light, Darkness, and Rainbows

Rainbows have always delighted me--from the expansive arcs appearing in a soft summer shower, to the subtle flashes trapped in the spray of a lawn sprinkler. I spent long moments as a child observing colors swirling on dishwater bubbles and in greasy puddles, as well as the brilliant shades thrown against my mother's bedroom wall when the morning sun hit her crystal prism.

Like a kitten chasing a laser pointer, I would try to "catch" the rainbows in my palm. Sometimes the colors were compact, like candy drops. But when they struck at an angle, they would elongate, the colors stretching or even breaking off from the rest altogether.

Until recently, though, I never thought of myself as a rainbow.

Growing up in Christianity, I was taught to see personal character in binary terms: darkness or light. In the words of the King James Bible, the "works of the flesh" were opposed to the "fruits of the spirit". Goodness came off as monochromatic, like a black-and-white movie, hues varied only by the degree to which we demonstrated the expected qualities of godliness. (But at least it was Light. The Prince of Darkness was evil personified. We feared inadvertently falling under his power. In God the Father, we were told, there was no darkness at all.)

In the IBLP cult, we invited people close to us to rate our character according to Gothard's coveted 49 qualities. We were encouraged to tell our friends about their weak points (euphemistically called "blind spots", because we assumed they must be unaware of their flaws) and ever sought to attain a higher "score" for ourselves, approaching closer to pure goodness. I've long since ditched Gothard's ideals as the mere preferences of an immoral predator, but that sense of seeking some kind of perfection has persisted in my subconscious.

Lately, just as I've begun to understand simultaneous conflicting emotions as expressing different faces of my personality, I'm also seeing that personality as a colorful rainbow.

For years I've cherished my own glass prism, looking forward to the times of the year when the sun reaches the right angle to stream in our front windows. The swinging crystal splits the light apart and sends it dancing around the room in drops of vivid color. Sometimes I still try to catch them on my hand.

Like the sunlight, I am made up of a spectrum of colors. I am neither goodness nor corruption. I am sparking with the energy of dozens of dancing rainbows. I am red and blue and green and gold and every shade between. Perhaps it took the complex new angles and emotional fracturing I've experienced this year to expose more of my "facets" and untangle the spectrum.

I have a "warm" side and a "cool" one. I am fire and ice, curiosity and caution, passion and compassion.The colors have always been there, but now that I see them in consistent patterns--always displayed in relation to one another--they are far easier to understand. None defines me, but all express me. I'm not trying to attain a moral ideal, only trying to learn how to let my own unique light "shine" in ways that don't harm anyone else.

Still--for my first real Halloween party, I left the rainbows to the rest of my family. I wore the color that never shows up in a rainbow. The color that represents Darkness, which we feared above all and warned ourselves about while reciting in unison the spooky words of Jesus: "If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!"

Reveling in a new appreciation of all the shades of my character...

...I wore black. :)