Dear Self

I keep struggling to relate the strange epiphany I had recently. 

As with most epiphanies, it hit me like a ton of bricks and then seemed glaringly obvious.

After my divorce, I decided I was never going to let a romantic partner treat me like a convenience again. There is an argument to made for how selfish my love for him was, but at least I know it was real love. The knowledge that it was never truly reciprocated was devastating, but ultimately survivable. So I dusted off my hands and adopted a meme for a mantra: “I’m not tearing down my walls for anybody. You want in, fucking climb.”

I added the profanity to make it more authentic to me. 🙂

Once I made that leap of logic – that real love was possible and I wouldn’t settle for less than an equal share – I was suddenly extrapolating that to all my relationships with varying degrees of ruthlessness. The outer-circle ties – some friends but even some family –  that had always been so taxing I gently disengaged from.

I applied it to closer relationships, too, and that is a work in progress. As I’ve mentioned here before, love is a verb, and it turns out that most of my family is appalling bad at applying that concept. Realizing that I’ve spent the last 40 years returning and returning to a dry well for life-sustaining nourishment is… well, it’s why I’m back in therapy to be honest.

The epiphany came when I started to understand that expecting my relationships to nurture me meant my relationship with myself, too.

It’s so obvious, right? 

In a culture absolutely obsessed with rugged individualism and “self care”, you’d think that would be the first lesson I’d learn. 

But hold up – psychology has shown us time and again that how we feel about ourselves is directly related to how others feel about us. We’re social creatures and if our social environment is made up of messages of unworthiness, well… 

This is not a new idea. It’s not even particularly revelatory. 

But the first time I treated myself with care and attention and didn’t hear my inner voice desperately trying to justify it in order to keep the messages of unworthiness at bay – that was a revelation. It didn’t come from telling myself to love myself first, or that I deserved anything. It came from doing the hard work of organizing my life to my own benefit. When I say hard work, I mean it all – asking for help, going back to school, getting into therapy, moving, tackling a career instead of a job, and culling toxic relationships from my life. I did all that first, and the feelings of worthiness followed. 

Are following. It’s an ongoing process. 

I wish I’d had access to these lessons 20 years ago. I wish I’d seen self esteem, compassion and equal relationships modeled for me before I turned 40. I wish. 

Time doesn’t move like that for humans, though. All I can do is go forward. And hope I’m showing those things to someone else, starting now. 

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Still Burning

We’re coming up on a year since I went mildly viral with a facebook post just before “Justice” Kavanaugh’s confirmation. It got somewhere in the neighborhood of 8k shares across all media platforms, if you count all the copy and pastes because I was hesitant to make it public at first. 8000 is a nothing number in the internet world. It’s barely a blip when a terrible Buzzfeed listicle can get 80k just by showing up. But it was bigger than I had ever seen.

I find myself reflecting on it now and again, though. As I pointed out in my blog post follow up “New Pompeii”, the original piece (belatedly titled “Lava”) wasn’t well thought out or even particularly well written. It came from a visceral place of sorrow and fury as I watched women everywhere despair of our voices ever mattering. It poured out of me on a Thursday night just before I turned my phone face down and went to sleep. By morning it had resonated with a number of friends and by that night it was resonating with their friends. It took about 4 days to saturate. I copied it to this blog where it got a couple of trolling comments and a few more supportive ones. It spiked traffic here for a few days then, as with most things as ephemeral as digital copy, it faded into the background and finally altogether. 

I didn’t attempt to capitalize on my 15 minutes (more like 15 seconds) of fame. Some of that is to do with my own personality and not being comfortable in the spotlight, but some of it is to do with shame. It reads as white, cis, and able. On the one hand, that’s authentic to me – I am all of those things. The fact that it resonated so acutely with so many others only highlights the mainstream nerve it hit. But for the 8k people it resonated with, how many tens of thousands did it exclude? How many women of color, trans women, disabled or neurodivergent women could have told a more nuanced story that would have resonated with better truth? They weren’t silent, and yet their voices were not to be found as readily as mine. That doesn’t negate the cacophony of agreement that came; it’s just something that weighs on me. 

Fortunately, there have been numerous voices in the conversation since. But I think most gratifying to me is that there continues to be the conversation. I don’t think the lava has slowed. I think I was right that the anger would not abate, that it would advance on the subterranean trajectory it was on, and that putting out the fires would become harder and harder. No one I know has, in the past year, become more accepting or more complacent. It’s true I don’t know a lot of people, but I think even a small sample size is representative. I can’t say that we’re moving forward, but I am damn sure we’re not giving up ground. We’re scorching it first. As conflicted as I am about why my voice was heard so far and wide, I am still proud to have helped give form to the pyroclastic cloud emerging from women everywhere.

I believe we are still burning. Slowly, maybe, but just as inexorable as I predicted.

Walking the walk

Two years ago, I thought I’d be on a very different track than the one I ended up on. I wanted very much to get into the Physical Therapy Assistant program at my local college, and I wanted some help paying for it. I got neither of those things. Interestingly, though, the essay I wrote for the scholarship committee ended up being more true than I meant it at the time. Sometimes the truth is buried – even inside yourself. I wrote this in the spring of 2017.

Entering a college classroom at 41 years of age is an act of courage. Can I keep up with these young, fresh minds? Are my study habits hopelessly out of date? Will I get lost in the technology? Can my sciatica withstand small plastic seats? How many times will I have to go to the bathroom in 75 minutes? Will my kid help me with math? So many questions. The advantage, however, is that my survival rate for scary situations is currently 41 years out of 41 years. My kid tells me that’s 100%. Pretty good average, I’d say. And squaring my courage to enter a classroom is less stressful than facing divorce, moving, and getting my daughter graduated from college. All of which are happening right now and all of which I am also 100% surviving. Sciatica be damned – bring it, college!

I’ve noticed that one of the main differences between an 18 year old student and a 41 year old student are their perceptions of time. The former doesn’t have it, while the latter can think of nothing but. I’ve spent a lot of time raising my child, supporting my military former-husband’s career, and working to fill the gaps in our income. Twenty years is a long time to think about everyone’s needs but your own. But it turns out that the question “What do you want?” has a surprisingly ready answer – I want to help people help themselves. I want to be part of their journey of self-discovery and I want to do it in concrete ways that have nothing to do with platitudes and everything to do with measurable results. I want to do all of this right now – without spending another second wondering if I’m cut out for a career of my own or if this is the right move for my family. It’s true that I “ain’t getting’ any younger” but it’s more true that I’m excited and motivated to finally be making decisions for myself. That’s why physical therapy assistant is the perfect career for me. The program timeline is short enough that I can devote myself to it full time, and the outcome is that I get to spend every day helping people accomplish their recovery goals. 

I’m a goal-oriented person. Need to organize a potluck for 100 soldiers and their families? I’m your gal. Wrangling a busload of 5th graders on a field trip to Washington D.C.? I got this. Write a personal essay asking for money? Boom – outline done! I’m good at getting through the process, whatever the process might be. Sometimes the process requires stillness and compassion and experience taught me I can do that, too. Sit with the young mother whose husband is having shrapnel removed 3,000 miles away? That’s me.  New employee overwhelmed by training and nerves? Take a break and lend a sympathetic ear. Kid overwhelmed by finals, life decisions and the end of their childhood as they know it? Cry with them and get ice cream. At least, that’s what I do when it’s my own kid. (Seems to work, though.) The point is if there’s a finish line, I’m going to get there, no matter what. Whether that finish line is getting through the day my husband left, or graduating a college program for the first time – I know I’m capable of doing whatever it takes to make it there. Winston Churchill said something about it being “the courage to continue that counts” and at this point in my life I have to agree. I have enough successes and failures behind me to truly understand that persistence is the hallmark of character.

A large part of my experience crossing those finish lines is that I didn’t do it alone. Many people find asking for help difficult, but I can tell you from experience that it gets easier the more you do it. Learning how to tailor requests to the source is something I’ve learned through trial and error, and I think I have a pretty good handle on it now. Which is why I asked my friends to help me move, and I’m asking this committee for college money instead of the other way around. Also, I have half the time of the traditional, 18 year old student to pay off loans – did I mention the “not getting any younger” bit? I spent the last 20 years taking care of other people, and I’m proud of that accomplishment. Now I’m asking for help while I take care of me.

Having just completed my first semester of traditional college, I can say that the number of times I have to get up to use the restroom in one class period is (usually) zero. The technology is confusing, but not impossible. I still have pretty good study habits and yes, my kid helps me out. I’d rather not talk about my sciatica, but I admit to hobbling out of the classroom behind my more limber, flexible classmates on occasion. It’s worth it. It will continue to be worth it until I cross the finish line, with courage.