Thursday, October 1, 2015

On Missing My Mom

One weekend a while back, I felt like calling my mother. I sat on the floor and typed this instead, wiping away the tears before they could drip on the keys.

[My mother],

I wanted to go dancing tonight but I have a cold and my chest aches. My period started today. And I’ve been crying a lot because I had my first breakup this month. (I know, right? You had how many breakups as a teenager? No wonder you didn't want me to date.)

So we ordered pizza. We watched cartoons on Netflix and B--- and I did one of the sticker mosaic pictures you sent her. The two of us enjoy doing art projects together. Art rests my mind and soothes my feelings when the ends get frayed. And you’ve found so many easy crafts that are fun for us to work on together.

I wish it was fun for me to do things with you. I wish we could hang out together and make pretty things while we talk about life. I wish I could trade the mom role for the daughter one, and show you the things I do and have you smile and tell me how impressed you are and hang them up to display to everyone.

I wish you could be proud of how brave I’ve been this week.
  • I went back to the Spanish class—the one I had to drop two years ago before I knew I had PTSD—and I think I’m going to make it this time! The professor seems smart and kind and calls us her sweet pumpkins. I love her for that. 
  • I had a pap smear, and got blood drawn for my first ever STD tests, and even asked my doctor to look at ____. I’ve wanted to ask a doctor about that since I was 17 and I only just got up the nerve. I may even have surgery! I remember how much hospitals and doctors used to frighten you. Don’t you think I’m brave?!
  • And I spent a whole morning at the abortion clinic. The same clinic where Dr. Tiller used to work before some religious terrorist murdered him in his church. I had to drive past some male terrorists to get into the parking lot. They were trying to intimidate me with Bible verses and gruesome pictures, and I so wanted to give them the finger. But I knew that wouldn’t do the women I was there to help any good, so I restrained my feelings and ignored the ignorant haters. I watched the security guard inspect my purse, even the zipper pocket still full of condoms from the relationship that isn't anymore. 
 I was compassionate and non-judgmental and a little scared and still very emotional. But I tried to be professional and mostly I was just there with those women on a very difficult day of their lives. And I was there because of you. You and your fifteen (sixteen? more?) pregnancies. I know you can’t appreciate that, but how I wish you could. After all, you taught me how to do things you believe in even if no one else gets it.

It felt like autumn today. My roses are still blooming but I saw a golden tree branch amongst the green this week so I know crisper days are around the corner. Today felt like the sort of Sunday to go pick apples and drink cider. I miss the Michigan colors. And the sandy trails. If it wasn’t uncomfortable to see you, I would want to drive up and eat pasties and go hiking and roast marshmallows and look at the stars. But it wouldn’t be any fun if you had to hold your nose to notice the things you like about me. :(

I’m so proud of my girls. I learn so much from them, and I love that they are their own people. They think and feel differently from me and in some ways I can’t even relate to them. But they know I love them and care about them and am there for them. They can ask me about anything and come get a hug whenever they need one. From here on, I am just winging it, for there is almost nothing from my girlhood beyond eight years old that I desire to repeat in their experience.

Did you know that I’ve taken up coloring? I even draw pictures once in a while—usually to calm myself. And I just crocheted a scarf—wrong season, I know, but there’s nothing like the repetitive movements of hook and yarn to work out tangled emotions.

I have realized this year just how emotional a person I am. It’s as if my feelings were stuffed deep down below my reasoning for years and have just been tumbling out lately. There are so many and they are so strong! Some days it’s a wonder they don’t tear me apart!

I miss you, Mom. Maybe I've always missed you.


Monday, September 28, 2015

Middle School, Memories, and More Healing

My son started middle school in August. I knew he would face an adjustment period, what with lockers and classes all over the building and having to make new friends. What I did not expect was how his year would affect me. His sister went through sixth grade two years ago, after all. His teachers' names are familiar, their email addresses in my contacts list. I know his schedule, the pickup routine, the homework expectations. It's old hat by now, right?

But for weeks it's all I can do not to burst into tears when he comes home and begins telling me about the challenges of his day. My throat constricts and I silently pull his head in to my chest, squeezing my eyes tight to keep them from spilling over his hair. Then one day I realize that my tears are not only for him, my brave and sensitive boy who's growing up fast. As I watch him navigate the mysterious and labyrinthine corridors of his new school, my inner child is reliving what should have been my first year of Jr. High at his age--the year we joined ATI and became truly isolated from the influence of the outside world.

Every time we drove by the Jr. High school when I was a kid, I used to imagine what it would be like to attend. To get off the bus and walk those halls, surrounded by other young teenagers in denim jackets. It was a frightening fantasy, but an exciting one. I didn't know that I would be allowed to experience Jr. High, but I pictured it just the same.

And then, the summer before I turned twelve, we moved to the country on the other side of town. Ever since kindergarten, there had been friends next door to play with. Now we could see only one other house from our yard, but no children lived there and the adults were gone all day. We had fields and woods and a barn to play in, but it was just the five of us kids, ages two to eleven, playing together every day. We didn't have television, stayed away from the cinema, and the old radio with a spoon for an antenna was kept tuned to the network from Chicago's Moody Bible Institute.
Dad quit his job after the move and started his own business from our house. No more trips to see his office or stories about the other engineers he worked with through the week. Sundays became our primary social event: though we went to church, the handful of other children were all younger than me, and we didn't have Sunday School. (When we changed churches later, we were only allowed to go to Sunday School or youth group on special occasions.)
Our jovial dentist patted us on the shoulder once a year; we saw our Catholic doctor even more rarely. I never saw a counselor or took a test to assess my educational progress. Our family friends were all other homeschoolers. The most worldly people I knew were my uncle, whom my mother taught me to wary of, and my grandparents, who drank coffee, watched PBS, and accepted evolution as science.We saw them about twice a year and they were always careful not to criticize my parents. 
The summer of 1987 my parents also enrolled in Gothard's ATI program. We had been homeschooling pioneers, and I'd adjusted to that. Mostly I taught myself math and English and science from textbooks and read all the history I could get my hands on. Now, though, everything changed.
Acquiring good character, rather than knowledge, became the educational priority. Gothard's Wisdom Booklets, with their confusing questions and loosely-connected propaganda, took center stage. Dad switched our grading system to adapt to the weekly report forms we had to fill in and mail to Headquarters. I studied Greek vocabulary and Puritan sermons alongside my elementary-age siblings. Washing dishes, vacuuming carpets, and Bible memorization counted as school time.
For the next eight years, my academic progress was neglected, and with neither peers nor professionals who could instruct me better, I lacked long-term achievement goals and any standard to which I could compare my work.

Middle school is a tough place to be almost twelve. My kids have days when they wish they could stay home and study with just me. They've come home and cried when the stress of holding it all together seemed unbearable. But they have already developed social and learning skills that took me decades longer to acquire. In some subjects, they have already surpassed the work I was doing in "high school". And tackling hard assignments and facing their anxieties has made them stronger people than I was at twice their age!

Some days I envy my kids' educational opportunities. Other times I mourn the schooling that was kept from me in the name of my parents' god. I'm constantly grateful for the circumstances and people that led us to schools where our kids can learn and grow so much.

Most mornings I wrap my arms around my son and squeeze him tight before he hoists his backpack. I am supporting and reassuring him, to be sure, but I am also understanding my wistful younger self, telling her that I see her and love her, that her need to explore and understand her world will not be neglected again. That while her story had some sad parts, it turns out okay. And that from here on, she gets to write her story.

It's a choose-your-own-adventure!

Saturday, September 26, 2015

On Healing and Managing Triggers

Three years ago I didn't know what "triggers" were. I thought PTSD was something that affected soldiers. I never used terms like grounding, self-care, inner child, or trauma. I'd never done a yoga stretch and I owned but a single coloring book. I've learned a lot since then!

A couple months ago, I ran smack into a multi-pronged trigger that nearly took my breath away. This time, though, I had a whole toolbox of resources to help me stay afloat through the swirling emotions that threatened to overwhelm me.

I got out of the house right away and spent time looking at art. At trees. At the sky. I went walking multiple times a day. I talked with my therapist. I leaned heavily on my support network of friends around the world. No need to pretend I was okay. I let them comfort and heal me, receiving their gifts of soothing words and music. As we shared our secrets and heartaches, we strengthened one another.

At home, I did a jigsaw puzzle, crocheted a scarf, baked cookies, cleaned cabinets. I drew pictures, painted, colored in my coloring books, wrote in my journal. I danced. I did yoga. I swam and went ice skating. I sang loudly in my car. I pounded out my feelings on a poor pillow. I chopped up a tree! I sought solace and guidance and escape in stories--stories about grief, about love, about growth and change. I watched new movies and old favorites.

I kept offering my body nourishing foods, even when everything tasted like cardboard and nibbling a sandwich took an hour or more. When I found a dish that tempted my appetite, I allowed myself to indulge, thankful that I could appreciate the experience. I cared for my body by seeing doctors. I loved it by buying clothes that express who I am now. Clothing can carry so many emotional associations that a new outfit can feel like a baptism!

I smelled flowers, touched tree bark, listened to birds, watched squirrels and butterflies in my backyard. I gave long hugs and asked for them, too. Chris and I spent hours and hours talking on the porch in the twilight (and drank many glasses of wine!).

In the past, major triggers have wrapped me in a cloud of foggy numbness. This year, though, I've felt an array of conflicting emotions simultaneously, each one distinct and insistent. The intensity of feeling has been overwhelming at times--but I found it helped preserve my sanity to assign my varied emotions to different inner voices: The child within, for example, is lonely and scared, the bitch always sarcastic. The big sister in me is bossy, the mom often anxious or driven by guilt. The drama queen thinks she's going to die, while the journalist believes each human experience, however painful, will be invaluable in the future. And the sexy tart, oh, goodness me!

And instead of being stuck in hyperarousal, my nervous system is responding to all strong stimuli--however happy or upsetting--with tears. I have not cried so much (or in front of so many people) in years, yet it feels...cleansing. I have felt more alive this year, even with the triggers, than I have in a long time. More human. As if a long-sealed part of my heart has cracked open and is finally healing from the inside out. 

Other times, I've only managed to survive the immediate trigger. But this time around, I've been able to go far deeper into the emotional flashbacks. One sense of anxiety and loss has called up so many others from across the years and I've found myself weeping over decades of unacknowledged sadness, separations and stresses I still might not have fully mourned had it not been for this summer's jolting trigger.

I could have protected myself better. I could have guarded against being hurt or reminded of the past. I could have made myself less vulnerable. But I took the risk of living my life instead. And as upsetting as triggers can be, I'm convinced that working through them can make us stronger. None of the time I invested in recovery and managing past triggers was wasted, and this time won't be, either!

I'm still using my coping strategies as needed. Still crying and growing and leaning into the feelings that arise. Still learning new things and being patient with myself.

But what a fabulous year it has been!

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Feminist Homemaker

"And what do you do?"

It's an innocent question, neither nosy nor rude. One that pops up in the most casual of introductions all the time. And yet it can haunt some of us for hours afterward.

Why am I a stay-at-home mom?

I found myself mulling uneasily over this question after a conversation this summer exposed my own doubts and I got defensive. When I am uncertain, I tend to flounder and feel guilty. Should I want a career? Should I want to stay home?

When I was homeschooling, the justification was simple. I was already doing a "job". (In hindsight, it's apparent I wasn't aware I had other options.) I have no regrets about those early years of pottytraining and naptimes and going to the park and teaching my little bookworms to read. Still, now that they're older and in school all day, I've felt the need to rethink my reasons for not earning a paycheck.

My feminist values tell me that I need to be pulling my weight, that I should have the resources to support myself instead of being financially dependent on a relationship. I'm also afraid of perpetuating an outmoded patriarchal family model or unhealthy expectations of what a mom should look like.

However… not working does not automatically put me in the same category as Michelle Duggar. :) And I'm privileged to know other ardent feminists who are unemployed, by choice, for various personal reasons. And so, I ponder.

As for expectations, my children see me pursuing knowledge and new skills. They see me involved in the community. They see me actively promoting equal rights for women. They see that Chris and I have independent interests and relationships. They know women working in a variety of fields. And they know every family operates by its own rules.

Chris and I have shed patriarchy gradually and embraced gender equality together. While there has been some shading and blending as we've adapted to these values, he remains our household's breadwinner. And yet, we are a symbiotic team. We eat better food less expensively because I stay home and cook (our meals average $1.25/person!). He can focus on his career from eight to five and college classes on weekends because I can run the errands, take the cars for service, schedule appointments, shop, and sign the field trip forms. I can take classes, volunteer, exercise, help kids with homework, and cultivate supportive friendships because he brings in the income. And since he currently works at home, we get all kinds of extra moments during the day to connect as friends, freeing us to better focus on the kids when they are at home.

While extra income could ease some stresses, we are financially comfortable enough. If I worked part-time, my earnings would quickly diminish in higher food, fuel, and insurance bills. If I worked full-time, we would have more stress around daily school pick-ups and drop-offs. I would have much less time for the self-care that helps me manage my mental health. And instead of relaxed evenings together, we would have to pack all the laundry, shopping, organizing, and meal prep into that time slot.

To us, that time to just "be" after dinner and homework is worth more than we would gain if I went to work. It is a matter of what we value most this year. Our schedule and priorities are always evolving and we are open to change. But for now, we are savoring that closeness and flexibility.

On a personal level, overcoming years of emotional trauma and cult mind-control has been a long journey and there are still days when the demands of motherhood on top of that seem overwhelming. I'm grateful that I've had the option of concentrating on those aims without trying to hold a job at the same time.

Reflection on my domestic role has been time well-spent. These days I find myself prouder than ever of what I do and of the ways I contribute to our family's well-being. I am a feminist homemaker: a cookie-baking, jelly-making, youngster-shuttling thriving woman who thinks for herself while advocating for the right of every woman in our community to make her own choices.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Living Life: An Update

Some of you have kindly inquired about my absence from this blog.

With Bill Gothard now publicly exposed for the predatory mountebank he is, the Duggar family under media scrutiny, and groups like Homeschoolers Anonymous championing every child's right to a non-abusive education, my compulsion to write has greatly diminished.

With boundaries protecting me from toxic relationships and much old emotional trauma finally expressed in a coherent fashion, my health, physical and mental, has dramatically improved. The past feels far more distant than it ever did before. For months, I was afraid to say this aloud in case everything fell apart again, but now that the year is half over, I'm feeling more confident. :)

So, while other able communicators have been blogging about the toxicity of ATI and fundamentalist Christianity, about abusive homeschooling and cult recovery and gender equality and raising kids without religion, I have been off having adventures and new experiences!

I had my ears pierced in March--a milestone made even more special because Chris and my little brother were there to celebrate it with me.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt came out on Netflix and we watched the entire series in just a few days.
I had my first martini.
I made a new friend.

Dancing together on "prom night" last mont
Chris and I kept taking dance lessons in April. He has now passed me in his understanding of the lindy hop steps. Dancing continues to be both challenging and fun. I'm glad my therapist prescribed it. :)

We're learning new steps in the dance of our relationship, too. Changing the pattern, adapting to one another, feeling our connection, moving apart and coming back together.

In May, Chris and and I drove across the country to see my little sister graduate with high honors--the first female in my family to earn a bachelor's degree. I was so proud of her, and a little envious, too. And I am so grateful to the dear friends who supported me through that very emotional week!

Then school let out. We went on a beach vacation and had more family adventures:

At our house, summer break means picnics, swimming, board games, playdates and parties, trips to the library, handwriting and typing practice, cooking lessons, and sometimes even ice cream for dinner. I'm helping my tweens find the volunteer opportunities they need for school credit. So far they've helped paint a theater set, sorted donated infant clothing, and made blankets for a special needs early education center.

Having three kids home all day is sometimes exhausting. How did I ever homeschool??

And speaking of school, I've dusted off my Spanish textbook. Next semester I return to complete the college course I had to withdraw from three years ago. I knew the term PTSD back then, but thought it was something that affected soldiers. What an educational journey it has been!

I do intend to finish writing our courtship story, eventually. But lately it's been more important to me to enjoy my relationships, or even a large glass of wine. To savor good feelings and allow myself to experience less comfortable ones. To risk disappointment. To practice being human and encourage my kids to do the same.

There are probably more words inside. They will come out when they are ready.

In the meantime, there is life to be lived.

         There are cuisines to try, drinks to taste, and music to hear.
                                   People to love.

                      Dances to learn.

                                        Places to explore!

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Resilience: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

I wrote this post months ago, but am only just posting now:

A new comedy series released on Netflix in March resonated strongly with me and dozens of my homeschooled friends. Some of the reactions I saw posted on Facebook were: "fantastic", "awesome", "amazing", "so much to love", "WOW", "so good", "SO REAL", "best show ever", and "painfully funny".

Whether or not we were raised in actual cults (we certainly don't get branded as anything as exotic as "mole women"), we identified with so much of Kimmy's story as written by Tina Fey and brought to life by Ellie Kemper.

Reviewer Alissa Wilkinson found herself relating to Kimmy: weird [Christian fundamentalist] upbringing got me used to the idea that I would never be like everyone else. It also told me that there was a lot that life could offer me that I never expected. You think the future's never coming, and then it does. The world's going to end, and then it doesn’t — well, then. Life can begin.
Flor Edwards was reminded of her own experience growing up in a cult:
I resolved at some point that, as Kimmy so aptly puts it, "The worse thing that can happen has already happened." I was going to have to find my way, like Kimmy, to cope with this world that I was unprepared for.... Like Kimmy, I learned to cope by learning to understand people.
Kirstin Murray Kyner, another survivor of Bill Gothard's homeschooling cult, wrote:
The theme song for "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" says, "they’re alive, damnit…Females are strong as hell.”
And so are we. We're alive, damnit. We’ve crawled up out of that hole, and however hard its been, whatever baggage we carry, we're alive.
We're strong as hell. Maybe we've been broken. But like Kimmy, we can also be unbreakable.

A few critics have complained that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is just too darn cheerful for a story about a woman with an abusive past. Other films have explored the darker side of being part of or exiting a cult. The BBC miniseries Signs and Wonders, Shyamalan's The Village, the harrowing drama Martha Marcy May Marlene, the indie production Paradise Recovered, and the documentary I Escaped a Cult all come to mind. Each of these has played a part in my recovery and are excellent in their way.

But, speaking as a cult survivor, we know the traumatic parts already. We are acutely aware of how hard it is for the real-life Kimmys to make their way in an unfamiliar world.

What we needed were the laughs. And Kimmy Schmidt, with her mile-wide smile and eye-popping wardrobe choices was just what the doctor ordered.

After watching several back-to-back episodes, though, Chris and I did have to turn off the TV and take a break. Some of the situations were a little too real, hitting places in our psyches that were still painfully tender. While those scenes failed to trigger a full post-traumatic reaction, they did highlight some wounds from our cult experience that weren't healed yet. 

Still, I mostly found the series, with its emphasis on Kimmy's resilience to be empowering. I could relate to so much, though the story was presented as an extreme situation. No one thinks of me as a "mole woman"--my parents appear normal to outsiders and we certainly never lived underground--but as I watched I still felt like Tina Fey was telling my story, in a way, and that was extremely validating!

I found the humor a little uneven, but there was so much I *did* enjoy. And comedy has always been used to open people's minds, so I think it's a good sign when some jokes (the racism portrayed in the show, for example) make us uncomfortable. Because that unease makes us think about *why* it feels off and pushes us to confront uncomfortable truths about our society or even our selves.

I look forward to seeing what happens to Kimmy and her friends in the next season.

"Life beats you up, Titus. It doesn’t matter if you got took in by a cult or you’ve been rejected over and over again at auditions. You can either curl up in a ball and die… or you can stand up and say, 'We’re different. We’re the strong ones, and you can’t break us.' "   
--Kimmy Schmidt

Monday, April 13, 2015

Violence Against Children

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month.

I grew up in an abusive home.
Love and warmth and fun were there, too, but it was a very conservative, "born-again Bible-believing" Christian home where violence against even very young children was part of our parents' religious practice.

We were beaten frequently with wooden rods, both as punishment and to remove foolishness from our hearts. Beatings (we called them "spankings" then, but they were very painful, sometimes extended, and usually left bruises) were sometimes concluded with hugs, assurances of how much we were loved, or with a prayer to the God who required my parents to hit us for our own good. For years after we were deemed too old to spank, we watched or listened as our younger siblings received the same "discipline" we could still feel in our own bodies. And we were traumatized.

It took me years, even decades, to admit that my siblings and I were abused. And in that time, despite good intentions and preventive safeguards, I ignorantly perpetuated some of the same abuse toward my own kids. Recognizing the difference between training and abuse was a slow process, aided by plenty of reading (the Love & Logic series, numerous memoirs, Charles Dickens, child development, the effects and treatment of trauma), movies (Jane Eyre, Nicholas Nickleby, Lost in Yonkers), and talking to therapists.

It was painful to accept that some of what I had believed to be responsible parenting was actually abuse. Painful because I didn't want to be an abusive parent, and painful because I didn't want to believe that I had had abusive parents. But even if my parents had the best intentions, they did abuse us, nevertheless, using violence, intimidation, shame, and isolation to control our behavior.

(For a full-page version of the above graphic, and other helpful tools, visit The Duluth Model website.)

Therapist and educator Robbyn Peters Bennett is the founder of
In her TEDxTalk titled "Violence--a family tradition", Bennett describes the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, which linked toxic stress in childhood (including the fear of being hit) with social, emotional, and physical problems--and even reduced life expectancy--in adulthood.

"Spanking is sanctioned violence against children." --Robbyn Peters Bennett

  • University of Michigan study found that "spanking is ineffective, and only further exacerbates aggressive child behaviors".
  • Canadian study warned that spanking could cause "long-term developmental damage" to the brain and even lower a child's IQ.
  • Other research has linked spanking to destruction of children's mental health, increased delinquency, and a higher likelihood of physical abuse.
  • Researchers at Duke University found that "childhood anxiety actually gets worse when parents are very loving alongside using corporate punishment".
  • 46 countries now protect minors from corporal punishment.

The science is in, and spanking is out. If I had realized that spanking can damage the brain's ability to self-regulate, I would not have paddled my children when they were young. Unfortunately, many American states still allow educators to hit children in public schools, a situation Charles Dickens was deploring way back in 19th-century England.

Years have gone by since I discarded the spanking sticks, but my children still tell me that I am a nicer, kinder, calmer, and happier mom than I used to be.

As I unlearn childhood lessons and practice treating myself with kindness, patience, and respect, I have become gentler with my family, too. We all benefit from a home that is nurturing and safe, a space where each individual's right to his/her body is respected.

Last year, while helping with a local volunteer project alongside my daughter, an older man made a joke about spanking. I winced, but my daughter paid no attention. When the man looked confused by her lack of response, I found my voice.

"She doesn't know what you're talking about," I said, with a trace of pride. "We raised her right," I added, to make sure he felt my disapprobation.

I fervently hope the tradition of violence against children in this country will cease with my daughter's generation. It has gone on long enough.