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. :)

Friday, October 23, 2015

Emotional Flashbacks and C-PTSD

Call them "triggers".

Call them flashbacks.

Sometimes they surface as painful but distinct memories. More often they manifest as a sudden hazy but overwhelming feeling... of doom? Of danger? Of despair? A feeling of something being wrong. A disturbance in the Force, perhaps?

Feelings of panic. Why is my heart racing? Now I'm sweating. I must be having a heart attack. Or a stroke. But I'm driving! Will I cause an accident? I feel like I can't breathe. Is my face red? My chest is so tight. Maybe I should pull over. Is my throat swelling?!

Pain. My muscles are tightening against my will. My joints hurt. I woke with an awful headache. My temples are throbbing. My ears are pounding/ringing. My jaw is clenched. My neck is stiff. Chest pain!

Confusion. Spacing out. Mental fog. Dizziness.
Those words won't stay still. Is this grocery aisle spinning?
Those lights are so bright, I can't see.
Have the lights always been so dim in here? I can't see.

What did he just say? I'm trying to concentrate but I can't think. 
That word--I can't remember that word! But I know that word! It has three syllables; it starts with "c"! What's wrong with me? Maybe I'm losing my mind. Something is seriously wrong!!

Desperation for an escape route.
I need to get out of this room, this seat, this car. 
I can't go in there. 
This place is too crowded.
This place is too open.
I'm getting off the highway at the next exit.
I can't stay here. I need to find people. 
I need to be alone. 
I need a drink. 
I need to sleep. 

Sudden anger. Inflexibility. Inability to cope on the spot.
Why would you do that?! I can't believe you would treat me like that!

Hyperarousal. Exaggerated startle response. Jumpiness. Oversensitivity to unexpected sounds or touch. Difficulty calming down. 

Many of us lived with these symptoms for years before discovering what they were. And even a diagnosis of anxiety or post-traumatic stress is only the beginning of learning to manage daily life. Like many other abuse survivors, I've spent years learning to cope with triggers and deal with panic attacks.

One therapist explains it this way:
"A trigger is an external or internal stimulus that activates us into an emotional flashback. This often occurs on a subliminal level outside the boundaries of normal consciousness, and is why recognizing flashbacks is both difficult but crucially important. External triggers are people, places, things, events, facial expressions, styles of communication, etc., that remind us of our original abuse or abandonment in a way that launches us into reliving the painful feelings of those times... When trauma has been severe or we are in an especially depleted state, resemblances can even be scant – perhaps all unknown men or authority figures trigger fear, or anyone noticing or looking at us triggers toxic shame."
--Pete Walker  (FAQ about Complex PTSD)

I still get triggered. Much less frequently now, but flashbacks are not really avoidable. My house is replete with triggers, after all. My fellow survivors know how external triggers can lurk in the most innocuous of places: a playlist, a fragrance, a bookstore, a menu, a wallpaper print, the fit of a sweater. And internal flashbacks, like shades of grief, can seemingly arise out of nowhere, interrupting even the happiest of times.

What has changed about my triggers is how I quickly I can recognize them. After decades of blowing off my emotions, I am learning to pay closer attention to my feelings and emotional shifts. Instead of my body having to go into full panic mode to get my attention, I can often sense subtle changes and respond before my nervous system maxes out.

This week, I was having a great time ice skating on my birthday. Feeling the cold air rushing against my cheeks, the blades beneath me gliding evenly against the ice. Moving my body to the rhythm of the music. Enjoying being myself while sharing an experience with my family. And then, out of nowhere, a snapshot from long ago showed up in my mind. I suddenly felt... sad. Overwhelmingly sad. So sad that tears began to spill out. And I let them come.

Once I accepted that I was sad, it was easy to understand why. I sat down for a minute to sniffle, get a hug, regain my equilibrium, and wipe my face. But after a few minutes of teary release, I was fine again.

Sometimes a flashback happens as I stand at my kitchen sink. Today one visited as I stepped out of my daughter's school conference. I felt a sudden sense of gloom, as if I'd stepped under a cloud. Deep inside, my heart ached. But somehow recognizing and labeling the feeling was enough to keep it from getting worse.

When I got home a few minutes later, I knew I was merely experiencing a flashback. Even though there was nothing upsetting about the conference itself, it's no secret that for many of us homeschool survivors, the education system is fraught with triggers! My inner child needed to be heard and reminded that she is safe.

Fortunately for me, Chris came upstairs at that moment and wrapped me in a soothing hug. I cried for a few moments and the cloud moved on. (If he hadn't been there, I could have gone to my next door neighbor for a hug, or done yoga poses, or colored, or written in my journal until the flashback passed.)

Afterward, I took time to celebrate my small victory. Gazing at the autumn leaves, chrysanthemums, and the last roses of the season from my back patio, I sipped a glass of wine and meditated once more on where I am and who I want to be.

Over the last few years I have practiced being honest, and loud, and brave. I've gained experience in standing up for myself and standing up for others against bullies who want to mistreat them, shame them, or take away their rights. I've practiced being my own parent. Self-protection and self-compassion were both new to me!

I'd like to spend the next year learning to self-soothe, strengthening my ability to be patient, and gentle.
Patient with myself as I take charge of my own well-being. Patient in relationships.
Gentle with my body, and more sensitive to my heart.
Gentle with others who are quietly but doggedly fighting their own hidden battles.

When I was a teen, and sheepishly even after I swore off all other Christian rock music, I loved the song "The Warrior is a Child" (Twila Paris), about looking stronger than one feels. Well, I finally found a secular replacement for that song in Madonna's "Joan of Arc". It has been a favorite this year:
"I don't want to talk about it right now
Just hold me while I cry my eyes out
I'm not Joan of Arc, not yet
But I'm in the dark, yeah
I can't be a superhero right now
Even hearts made out of steel can break down
I'm not Joan of Arc, not yet..."
Sometimes flashbacks turn us inward because we don't know who else is "safe". But this year more than ever, I've found that the more vulnerable I am with other people, the safer I feel. More often than not, the person I risk trusting also reveals a glimpse of their own secret wounds and insecurities.

This life thing is painful and none of us make it through without at least a few scars. Whatever our inner struggles, we are not really that different, even though our anxieties may make us feel that way!

We may not feel like superheroes most of the time, friends, but we are strong and getting stronger! And we're not alone. In the words of Sue Monk Kidd, "When we set out on a [survivor's] journey, we are often swimming a high and unruly sea, and we seem to know that the important thing is to swim together--to send out our vibrations, our stories, so that no one gets lost."

Courage is like a sourdough starter; the more you feed and share it, the more there is for everyone. When you, my friends and readers, let me know how you are learning to thrive despite your pain and even using it as a fuel to generate good and beautiful things, you inspire me to keep moving, too. Let's keep cheering each other on and signaling to each other from whatever point we've reached!



Saturday, October 10, 2015

Parentified Children and Phryne Fisher

Chris and I have been enjoying Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries on Netflix lately. We adore Phryne Fisher, the smart, sassy, fierce, curious, capable, and self-assured lady detective. She's everything I want to be. And damn sexy to boot!

Miss Fisher with her ward, Jane

We were unwinding with glasses of wine in front of the television the other night, my head resting on Chris's lap. When the tears began to spill silently down my face, he didn't need me to explain; he'd seen it, too.

Jane, an at-risk girl being fostered by our heroine, had gone to visit her recently-surfaced birth mother.

Jane's mother wants to be loving and nurturing. They cuddle and read a story, she bakes Jane a cake. After years of neglect, this attention . But we soon see that Jane's mother is too needy to look after herself, let alone her daughter. Fearful to the point of paranoia, she ends up trying to jump from the building, endangering Jane who valiantly keeps her head and protects her mother until help arrives.

Miss Fisher takes her exhausted protégé's face between her hands. "You're safe now," she assures.

Supported once more by sane and capable adults, Jane allows herself to break down.

"She wouldn't listen to me! I tried," she tells Phryne, tearfully. But quickly, in her mom's defense, "She's not mean. She just needs me."

Of course our heroine takes both Jane and her mother home, where she is able to show Jane that other adults can assist with her mother's care. Jane, knowing her mother's inability to care for herself, is afraid of her mother being hurt.

But Phryne knows that a child ought not be saddled with responsibility for a parent's health or safety.
"We'll find someplace where she's happy."

And Jane trusts her to make good on that promise.

* * *

I sniffled through the entire scene because deep inside, my younger self identified with Jane. I understand what it is to feel needed by a fearful mother. To feel endangered by her paranoia. To feel both helpless yet responsible for the well-being of one's primary caregiver.

In what therapist and author Pete Walker calls "a tragic role reversal", the abused or neglected child may become "as multidimensionally useful to the parent as she can". This can become such a habit that "hints of danger soon immediately trigger...abdication of rights and needs."

Since recognizing this pattern in my own behavior last year, I've been working to relearn healthier relationship skills. It's not as easy as flipping a switch, and often feels like trial-and-error, but I'm making progress! That night, we both knew the tears were one more piece of the restorative grieving process.
"Grieving ... tends to unlock healthy anger about a life lived with such a diminished sense of self. This anger can then be worked into recovering a healthy fight-response that is the basis of the instinct of self-protection, of balanced assertiveness, and of the courage that will be needed in the journey of creating relationships based on equality and fairness."  --Pete Walker

As we get to know Phryne Fisher throughout the season, we realize that she also identifies with Jane. Beneath her confident exterior, she also carries a traumatized little girl with an exaggerated sense of responsibility. Her ability to nurture Jane grows out of her need to assure and comfort her younger self.

We turned on the TV expecting to be entertained, but we got so much more. Thank you, Miss Fisher, for modeling the way adults should care for the children in their lives, for one another, and for themselves.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Comment Policy

It's time for a friendly reminder that this is a blog about my personal journey out of Christian fundamentalism.

My audience is primarily others making the same journey, as well as those curious about the effects of fundamentalist homeschooling in general, and Bill Gothard's teaching in particular.

My path has taken me away from theism altogether. I do not attempt to de-convert my readers, and I wish my readers would not try to re-convert me. If you think I have rejected all gods merely because I have not yet tried yours, please refrain from saying so.

Attempts to proselytize or to apologize for the sincerely-held beliefs of my parents will be deleted as readily as we dismiss Jehovah's Witnesses who come to our door.

Thank you. :)

Another Halloween

For as long as I can remember, Halloween has made me uneasy.

The end of a Michigan October was generally dark and cold; fallen leaves rotted in wet clumps and the trees looked skeletal. And as born-again Christians, when the pumpkins began to show up on front porches, we pulled out our own favorite "ghost stories" every year. When I was little, there were scary rumors about tainted candy and pets being stolen for Satanic rituals (yeah, I actually looked those up on last fall). As I've written before, Dad picked me up early from school on Halloween so I would not have to participate in a costume parade with my classmates.

One year in our attempt to be "salt and light", I seem to remember Mom handing out healthy snacks (raisins, perhaps?) and religious coloring books. Another year we substituted a harvest-themed costume party. Then came more tales about the Druids making bonfires, and demons living in jack-o-lanterns, and of course we knew that God commanded the execution of all witches and wizards which was why we couldn't read fairy tales. For years after that, we kept our front door dark and pretended not to be home on Halloween night. In our fervor to avoid contamination from occult associations, we were as superstitious as the ancient pagans!

Later, after Frank Peretti's novels gained popularity, we imagined we could sense stronger "warfare" between supernatural armies at that time of year. (Especially when we spent the week fighting past fake spiderwebs and graveyard displays to leave pre-election flyers on people's porches.) We boycotted an October church party that included a hayride at a pumpkin patch. Later still, Reformation parties became popular Halloween alternatives among our friends, some even dressing up as the leaders of the Protestant church in 16th-century Europe.

Last year's "Creeper" jack-o'-lantern
After Chris and I got engaged, I remember a conversation we had about holidays. I wanted to know what to expect from this man I was going to spend the rest of my life celebrating with. So I quizzed him, over AOL Instant Messenger, about his family traditions. How did he feel about Santa Claus? Halloween?

He told me he'd grown up going trick-or-treating, and expected our future children would do the same. The thought made me a little panicky. But he was to be the spiritual head of our household, so I tried to mentally adapt.

In the early years of our marriage, I bought candy and tried to get into the holiday spirit, but mostly failed. Sugar, darkness, and spooky stuff just weren't doing much for me. My toddlers were disturbed by the ghoulish displays at the grocery store, and I didn't blame them a bit! When pint-size ghosts showed up at our door, I tried not to cringe. I still associated Halloween so strongly with evil that I found church Halloween parties disorienting. "Christian" witches and mummies really confused me!

Even after concluding that supernatural evil was a myth, I shied away from the gore and the pervasive theme of death and decay. I read Dracula and Neil Gaiman novels in a gentle attempt to build up my tolerance for horror. Yard displays of gravestones or spiders or body parts no longer seemed evil to me, but I still couldn't see what attracted otherwise normal people to such things!

I tried to ignore the icky stuff and concentrate on the costume angle, but my imagination never took me very far from reality. After all, I'd spent most of two decades wearing outfits that would pass for costumerie in mainstream society! All I had to do was pull together a few stronger pieces from my real-life wardrobe and I could have stepped out of Leave It To Beaver, or Little House on the Prairie.

Last year was the first time I actually stepped beyond what I thought of as my real self.

The thought of a costume party was way too much for me to handle--I stayed home rather than venture outside my shell or risk seeing anything scary.

But, on a whim the morning of Halloween, I bought a witch's hat and assembled an all-black outfit out of my closet. I played with different facial expressions for the camera and posted this selfie to Facebook.

When the kids walked through the neighborhood that evening, I went along, wearing the hat. Strangely, it was kind of fun! And stranger still, friends shared how the costume reflected a side of me that they recognized even though I didn't.

As I've been exploring less familiar sides of myself this year, I find myself appreciating the fun of costumes in a new way. Most of us have enough facets that we can identify a little with healers and helpers at the same time that we identify with witches, warriors, and waifs. We may have a little bit of sexy waitress inside, as well as a silly hot dog.

My kids knew exactly what they wanted to be this year. They see Halloween is their chance to identify with a favorite character or to create one of their own. I like the idea of Halloween giving us an opportunity to embrace a part of ourselves that we may not actually even accept or understand. Perhaps one that contradicts the way we live the rest of the year, or an ideal we aspire to.

This month, we took our first family trip to the Halloween costume store. I'd always been too intimidated by the window displays to venture in, but this time I was feeling brave. And once inside, my imagination began to stretch! Chris kept losing me in the store as I moved down aisle after aisle trying on masks, gawking at costumes, picturing myself with assorted accessories, and perusing the dozens of exotic make-up options.

And this year, to my great surprise, the spooky Halloween displays have not troubled me. I still have no need to decorate my own yard with corpses or giant spiders, but I understand how it can be fun, and even a little empowering, to wear our insecurities on the outside for a change, to reveal our darker sides, to make light of the horrible fears that have haunted our species through the ages.

So bring on Halloween, with its ghosts and candy and costume parties and traditions passed down since the celebration of Samhain. :) I won't be hiding in the basement anymore.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Living From the Heart: My Other Side

On our drive to school one morning, my daughter pointed to the toys dangling from her backpack: a plush pink pony and a devilish red Lego cat. "These are the two sides of me," she observed matter-of-factly. "This one is my good self, and this one is my dark side."

I looked up from following the road to stare at the mini-me in the passenger seat. Two sides, yes! What a profound thought!

Of course I always knew that I had a "dark side", but from an early age I was taught to "crucify" that part of myself. There was black and there was white. Sin and righteousness, good and evil. And we sorted them out the same way we sorted the characters in the Proverbs into categories of foolish or wise.

Numerous homeschool assignments rated our "virtue" according to Bill Gothard's preferred character traits. A perfect score meant an absence of those characteristics Gothard found unsavory: tardiness, slothfulness, fairness, extravagance, restlessness, loneliness, anger, and resistance, to name a few! (Looking back over the list today makes me shudder! It was a steaming load of bullshit, but for ten years, we took it very, very seriously.)

And so, as a teenager, I obediently discarded those "illegitimate" parts of my personality, or stuffed them down deep. A poster mounted outside my bedroom charted--in pink and blue print according to gender--acceptable aspirations. The sorts of things I might choose to become? A faithful scholar, an excellent home manager, an obedient daughter, a teacher of good things, a wise mother, a virtuous wife.

Subconsciously, I think those ideals were still defining me until last year.

But this year... I am intentionally exploring the rest of myself...
My less-than-wholesome side!
The facets of my personality that have no place in the Proverbs 31 model.
The parts that had to be squelched to be a "godly" woman. 
So far I have liberated:
...a bold risk-taking heroine,
...a flirtatious and sensual "harlot", inner bitch who swears and speaks her mind,
...a scared little orphan who misses her mom and longs to belong,
...a provocative artist yearning to create...
And I'm sure there are other aspects of me still hiding. I rather hope there is an actress in there somewhere!

Frankly, some facets of my personality intimidate or embarrass me and I feel like I ought to apologize for them. But at the same time, they are helping me grow as an individual. They are coming to my defense when I would otherwise cower in fear. They are broadening my horizons, offering new adventures and experiences. They are helping me discover my passions and showing me how to have fun. They are leading the way as I learn how to live from my heart instead of merely from my head.

And oh, the conversations I have with myself these days!

My sexy self has gotten me into so much "trouble", in the best sense. My heart got cracked open. More on that later.

The familiar "mom" voice: "It's not like you weren't warned! You knew the odds going in and you accepted the risk."

Drama queen: "I feel like I'm going to die!"

Passionate poet: "But you're not dying, are you? That feeling you feel? That's being alive. Sometimes it hurts like hell, sometimes it feels like heaven. Sometimes it's both at the same time, or all over in between. Isn't it amazing to feel alive?!" [begins humming song from Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood]

Feminine feminist, interrupting: "I guess so. Remember how excited you were to have your own birth story? Not that pregnancy was so fun, but afterward... I finally felt like part of the sisterhood of adult women. And I'm proud to have finally gotten to share this human experience, too. Most people have a breakup story, after all. This is my experience and I'm grateful to be having it. It shows that I'm living my own life!"

Bitch: "[censored]!"
(I have journal pages devoted to the things she says, in hopes that they won't actually come out of my mouth without warning--ahem!)

Journalist: "Don't forget that someday your kids are going to have their hearts broken. You need to lean into this experience and etch it into your memory so you can pull it out and relate to them when they need you to understand. Just like you used to imagine having a teenage daughter when you wrote in your journals as a fifteen-year-old. You never wanted to forget what that age felt like, and how misunderstood you felt."

And speaking of teenagers, I've felt like one this year, in so many ways! This delights me, because the ATI cult robbed me of a normal adolescence. I had believed that phase of emotional development gone forever, but this year I was given the greatest of gifts—the chance to experience some traditional rites of passage as if I were a teenager for the first time. One of those was exploring my own sexual and emotional autonomy. I went on my first "date"!

Of course, like a teenager, I was unprepared and didn't know what to do with all the wild new sensations, but the adventure was a gift all the same. It felt as if I'd unlocked a new level in the game of life, with access to powers and even weapons I'd never tried before. I tapped into my feelings in a new way and found them a regular cataract of contradictory emotions that threatened to overwhelm me, just as I used to feel torn apart by emotion when I was much, much younger. And yet, somehow listening to my feelings feels far healthier than attempting to dam up the "bad" ones or use reason to shut them off.

Living from my heart rather than my head has had a cost. I've been forced to confront my deepest insecurities, evaluate my values, scrutinize my motives. It was messy and I saw some ugly things. My "dark" side was sometimes clumsy and graceless.

In the parlance of the courtship cult, I "gave away" a bit of my heart--and it got predictably hurt. It has scrapes and bruises it didn't have before, but it also has stretch marks, because it grew. I learned a lot about the nature of love. About my own resilience. That friends keep on caring. That there can never be too many hugs. That many humans are kinder than I imagined, the world a safer place.

2015 will go in the annals as a year of intense feeling and exquisitely painful growth--and every bit has been worth it. It's been a year of active transition as I discover how I want to live and who I want to be.

This is a season to rest quietly, to look inward and ponder. To absorb the many lessons learned from an independent relationship with an incredibly brave and generous individual. To process the changes and ask what they mean, even as the ripples continue to slowly spread.

Most days, I like this newer, updated version of my self! She feels less "right" but more real. More open, less rigid, and therefore less fragile. My anxieties have receded this year, in both number and potency. I spent so many years fearing the shadowy places of my own heart, having been warned that following my heart would ruin my life. Now that I've embraced my less decorous traits, I realize they are part of my strength, not a threat to it.

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.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015


Recently a friend described a situation as "awkward" and I laughed.

Not because it wasn't true, but because I spent decades developing a resistance to awkwardness. It's not that I don't still feel it, I just have a vast collection of awkwardness to compare against and as a result, I probably disregard awkward feelings more than some.

Because awkward is keeping a chamber pot under the seat of the family van.

Awkward is a family of seven camping inside a Suburban with said chamber pot.

Awkward is bringing the family plunger when you stay at a hotel.

Awkward is showing your grandma your new cotton swim-dress and matching pettipants.

Awkward is being mistaken for a reenactor's child at a historical park because of your dress and sunbonnet.

Awkward is dead flies dropping from the sticky flytape coils above to the kitchen counter when guests are present.

Awkward is being the only one wearing a dress and bloomers at a public beach, or at a swim party.

Awkward is swimming with your brothers in an outdoor hotel pool--you in a blouse and denim skirt with tights, them in rolled-up pajamas.

Awkward is the housekeeping staff gawking when your whole family swims fully-clothed in the indoor pool in the center of the hotel courtyard.

Awkward is abandoning the beach as soon as normally-clad swimmers show up.

Awkward is your mom placing a rolled-up comforter down the middle of the hotel bed to make sure you and your twelve-year-old brother don't touch.

Awkward is your family being invited to someone' home for a meal and your father accepting, then informing the host that your family follows Levitical dietary prohibitions against pork and some seafood.

Awkward is you trying not to enjoy it too much when an elderly relative serves ham anyway and your dad decides it would be more godly to eat it than to refuse.

Awkward is returning and exchanging the Narnia book you won as a Sunday School prize.

Awkward is your mom substituting "special" for "magic" in the poem you are to recite for the kindergarten program.

Awkward is not quite explaining that you're afraid to watch Titanic with your aunt because you heard there was nudity in it. (Because at 23, you've never seen nudity in a movie. So you hide in her guest room with your brother instead.)

Awkward is your family of eight standing and filing out of the church pew during a vocal solo--again. It is standing around the lobby not making eye contact with the ushers and then filing back into the empty row and taking sermon notes as if nothing ever happened.

Awkward is being instructed to write a letter (for "school") to a church family protesting the Halloween party they are hosting for the church at their farm. And wanting to hide from said family every Sunday from then on.

Awkward is looking stupidly at expectant trick-or-treaters who show up at your family's home when you've forgotten that it's even Halloween. What to say?

Awkward is writing a thank-you note for the Christmas gift your parents wouldn't let you open.

Awkward is turning the placemats face-down when celebrating a family milestone at Chinese restaurant.

Awkward is your dad telling the server not to bring fortune cookies.

Awkward is your sister telling you to stop shaking the bed you share, when you're masturbating.

Awkward is explaining to homeschooled friends...
  • ...why you aren't allowed to read Anne of Green Gables.
  • ...why you don't use Saxon math.
  • ...why you don't have a Christmas tree.

Awkward is a carload of strangers stopping at your house to tour your mom's organized closets.

Awkward is the cashier saying, "Good luck, whatever you're hoping!" when your virginal self is purchasing a pregnancy test for your mother.

Awkward is forcing a smile back for the cashier's sake and saying, "Thanks!" before driving home in the family Suburban, stomach knotted.

Awkward is asking the restaurant staff to lower/shut off the music. Extra awkward points if you are in a foreign country.

Awkward is not knowing what grade you are in.

Awkward is asking your younger brother if your shirt is "modest".

Awkward is being the adult in charge while your mother gives birth upstairs.

Awkward is waking up to find a test tube of umbilical cord blood in the refrigerator.

Awkward is going to the laundromat with your teenage brother to wash linens from a homebirth, because the ancient septic system at home has given up.

Awkward is being wedged between your grown brothers in a car back seat while wearing shorts for the first time as an adult.

Awkward is being a university student and not knowing the name of even one of the Beatles.

Awkward is trying to make out with your fiance without letting your lips touch.

Awkward is a plane ride with your new fiance, wondering when he wants to hold your hand for the first time.

Awkward is saying goodbye to a good friend without touching them.

Awkward is being the only single girl at church:
  • with bangs,
  • or wearing jewelry,
  • or not wearing a headcovering.

Awkward is your parents awarding you a high school diploma (backdated fourteen years) in front of your three kids.

Awkward is church leaders asking your family not to attend anymore. More awkward is still running into their family members socially.

Awkward is a family friend coming to the door and your mom only talking to him through the nearby window.

Awkward is reading your teenage diary, or your family's old Christmas letters.

Awkward is standing in the moonlight gazing down at the Golden Gate Bridge on the cusp of turning 21, with your... dad.

Awkward is realizing you were once a bridesmaid in a gay man's wedding.

Awkward is being "caught" watching a Jimmy Stewart movie with your college-age friends and fellow cult members--and trying to figure out how to apologize to whom for what.

Awkward is your toddler deciding that a dinner with company from church is the place to share her [limited] knowledge of penises.

Awkward is realizing that your wedding photos are too triggering to display anymore.

Awkward is explaining to a classmate who saw you having a full-fledged panic attack on the side of the road minutes earlier.

A photograph may capture a memory, but awkwardness sears the deeper emotional experience into the brain. And that's not always a bad thing!

We love to watch how others manage awkward situations--in sitcoms like Seinfeld, for example, where Kramer seems impervious to embarrassment, while George appears to lean in to it. And the more uncomfortable the scenario, the better we remember the episode, grateful that it isn't happening to us. My daughter used to cringe when we watched The Andy Griffith Show, Barney Fife's character embodying her worst fears of humiliation. Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean is even better, completely and, yes, awkwardly, unaware of how horribly uncomfortable he is making everyone around him.

So, a little awkwardness? Sure, it's an inevitable part of trying new things, having complex relationships, living a full life. We encourage our kids not to fear harmless awkwardness, and sometimes they give us surprising opportunities to model the nonchalance we preach. While embarrassment might make my face redden for a few minutes, I'm a lot more resilient than I think!