Trauma Therapy I: Anger and Release

When I was first released from my week in an inpatient hospitalization program, I felt better. I thought I had figured out the reasons I fell so far off the edge and believed I had the all the tools I needed to start again. My problem, I thought, was that I had failed to properly use my support system. I had plenty of people who loved me and cared for me, but my perfectionism had been preventing me from letting them in to help. While this was true, this was far from the root of the problem.

Upon my release, I agreed to attend a Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP). Literally the day after being discharged from the hospital, I had to show up at the same hospital again and keep talking about my feelings. I didn’t think I needed to be there. My first day, I thought, “I’m way more well adjusted than everyone else. I’m fine. I’ll be out of here in a snap.” (Spoiler alert: nope.) That’s the thing about trauma, though, is that it tricks us into believing we’re fine. Rather, our maladaptive coping strategies trick us into believing we’re fine because it’s the only way we know how to survive. I entered into the Women’s Trauma PHP assuming I didn’t have any work left to do. But I was about to do the hardest work of my life.

The first three days of PHP, I played my perfected role of “good student.” I didn’t disrupt, I listened, I responded when asked but only when asked, I took notes, I was friendly to the other participants. I knew all the answers. However, I had no intention of digging in, asking hard questions, or being vulnerable. I thought if I said all the right things and filled out my daily behavior log consisting of no urges to harm myself or others, I could get out of there and get back to my life. I stressed constantly about when I would be able to go back to work. The more “good” I was, the sooner I could leave. Trauma therapists, though, see right through that shit. So, around day 4, my therapist starting pushing my buttons. Our therapists often discussed how the trauma program would trigger us so we could learn how to deal with our triggers in a healthy environment, but they also emphasized that this triggering was not intentional. It just happened as a part of being vulnerable and interacting with others. However, my shell was so tightly encased, that I have a feeling my therapist had no choice but to grab a stick and poke the bear.

I’m funny when I get angry. Most people yell, become aggressive, or get physically aggitated. I sulk. I think a lot of my issues with anger come from both the fact that I’ve experienced the pain that misdirected anger can cause and also from my relentless Good Girl Syndrome. Because I’ve experienced emotional abuse, I don’t want my anger to ever feel that way to anyone else. In addition, angry outbursts seem like a form of losing control, and if I keep my anger dialed down, I’ll still be able to be perfect. It turns out, though, I’m SUPER angry. If you know anything about the Enneagram, this really shouldn’t be surprising. I’m a 1, and we’re notoriously the most angry number. But we keep our anger boxed up inside to seem measured and controlled.

This is what I did in PHP. For several days, I sat in the corner of each lecture and therapy session refusing to make eye contact and refusing to participate. The program was making me angry. The people were making me angry. My therapist was making me angry. And I was in such a delicate state that it was getting harder and harder to keep all my anger controlled. My second Friday in PHP, I told my friend in the program, “I’m never coming back here.” Later we laughed about it, but at the time I was serious. Anger is the gateway to so many other emotions, like grief and shame, so it’s where many of us start our trauma work. The minute we started to feel angry, the minute our therapist knew she was finally getting somewhere.

I finally moved past my anger the day I shared in group therapy. I had shared in group before, but never anything actually vulnerable. The longer I sat in the program, though, the more I realized that, in order to begin my true healing process, I would have to share some things that I hadn’t shared with anyone. I was terrified. Every day as I sat in group, it pressed harder and harder on me that I wasn’t going to get through this program if I didn’t start being vulnerable. I would rehearse what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it when I was falling asleep at night. I didn’t even know how to make the words because I had spent so long trying to pretend that this particular thing hadn’t happened to me that I had started to forget about it. The fact that I had kept it shoved down for so long, though, was a huge source of my trauma.

One morning, I finally decided to share. I think, probably, I was so exhausted from being angry that I figured I had no choice but to let go and actually work the program. As I shared, I stared at the table in front of me, tears dripping off of my face, my breathing shallow, my hands clamped together in my lap. I felt no better, in fact I probably felt worse, but I had done it. Next came the worst part. The sitting in it. Our program therapist was very fond of telling us to “sit in it.” Because of my maladaptive coping strategies that I used to survive years of trauma, I had forgotten how to feel negative feelings and just feel them. Most trauma survivors, upon feeling negative feelings, use behaviors like substance abuse, self harm, avoidance, partying, or over working when we start to feel this way. We spend most of our time just trying to stay alive. In PHP, our therapist challenged us to feel without relying on these behaviors. She told us we were in a safe place to feel all of these emotions: we had mental health professionals around us all the time and we had a built in support system if we were unable to handle the feelings. The only way out was through.

(to be continued in a part II – there’s a lot to cover here, y’all. stay tuned.)

One Year Queeriversary

One year ago on July 3, 2018, I came out publicly for the first time. Even though I felt ready and had been waiting for that moment for over a decade, I still felt terrified. I remember writing my coming out post on the couch in my living room and being unable to hit “publish.” Eventually, I had to close my eyes, take a deep breath, and click.

Life has been a tangle of messes since last July, only some of them related to queerness. I just finished my partial hospitalization mental health program and am trying to integrate back into my everyday routine. I feel a combination of devastation and rage every day while I watch children get caged, women dismissed, trans women killed, and black voices silenced. I constantly wonder if I’m doing enough to help us overcome all this darkness. I’ve endured some difficult family conflict through cycles of anger and silence. In some ways, living my life as an out queer person has been a drop in the ocean.

In other ways, though, the luxury of being myself in the midst of all this roughness has made it more manageable. Last fall, I experienced Pride for the first time as an out person (Pride in Atlanta is in October…it’s a long story). I made my partner take pictures of me on every corner and wore every rainbow, sparkly thing I could fit on my body. I knew the queer community was bearing it’s own struggles – inclusion of trans voices, inclusion of POC, rallying around a central goal post-marriage-equality. But it was all to sparkly and new to me for any of that to tarnish the rainbows in my eyes. I was queer and you couldn’t shut me up. It was beautiful.

In the wake of my coming out, I received message upon message from other closeted people from every corner of my life. People I hadn’t spoken to in weeks or years contacted me to say, “Thank you for reminding me that I’m not alone.” My own long and arduous journey to being comfortable with my bisexuality was brought to mind as I talked with people who were still struggling to hold queerness and Christianity at the same time. It made me feel like, even though I was a baby queer, I still had valuable things to say to my community.

The past year, though, has also challenged my self worth in profound ways. In February, I the General Conference live stream at work day after day, waiting for my church to decide its fate. In the end, the United Methodist Church chose exclusion over love. As I watched the final count of votes project onto the screen, I fell to the floor in my kitchen, sobbing. I had given hours and years of my time and thousands of dollars to an institution that I believed could support me in making the world a better place. But instead of acceptance, what I received in return was pain and rejection. Many of my queer Methodist friends and allies remain in the church, and I am so grateful for their continued work to change this broken system from the inside. Right now, though, I am too tired and hurt to give any more energy to an institution that refuses to ordain me and the people I love. Right now, I can’t fight anymore. I am angry. I need a place where my personhood will not be up for debate. I haven’t found that home yet, but I know it’s out there.

Being out for a year has been a roller coaster, but I am most thankful for the small things. My freedom to post memes about bisexuality on Twitter, the bi flag in my pencil cup at work, my t-shirt that says “Jesus was Bi.” I don’t have to pretend to be an ally anymore. I am free to stand up and say, “These things apply to me. This community is mine too.” While my life is not nearly as risky or revolutionary, I feel a kinship this season with Marsha P. Johnson and her contemporaries – tired of being told who to be and where to stand, in pain but able to fight injustice, imperfect but willing to throw up my hands and say “I’m here and you can’t get rid of me.”

6 Women in the Woods

I rarely take vacations. On occasion, I’ll take a long weekend to go to the beach or a friend’s wedding, but the only time I’ve taken off more than two weekdays in a row was when I had the flu. So, clearly, time off is not my strongest form of self care. However, I recently came across the opportunity to go on a writing retreat with one of my grad school professors, and I immediately contacted my boss to confirm my time off before I could back out.

I spent four days at Lake Logan in the mountains of North Carolina with five other women, all at least a generation older than me, many of them mothers. It wasn’t shocking that I was spending the week with a group old enough to be my grandmothers, but what I learned from them was comforting in a way that was unexpected. I went on the retreat to write. I had been feeling stuck in my writing, both in terms of subject matter and because I had been struggling to make time for my writing. I wanted to take advantage of four days with no obligations to churn out a backlog of poems. I accomplished this, but I was offered so much more.

Each morning, we spent time writing together from a prompt, then sharing our writing and giving feedback. I’m a member of a long-standing writing cooperative, so this process was familiar to me. However, I’ve spent the past five years with more or less the same eyes reviewing my work, so the fresh eyes of these women were a blessing. They were not tired of hearing about the same three traumatic things that had happened to me, and this allowed me to find new wonder in my own story. Hearing the stories of strangers also allowed me to open up more space inside myself and shake loose some long-forgotten stories. I wrote about things I’d never written about before, mainly because I’d forgotten they had happened.

Each afternoon, we had time to ourselves. I usually spent my time hiking or doing yoga, napping, and reading. The silence was astounding. I live with two roommates and I work at a social service agency, so my life is not often quiet. At the lake, though, it was. I couldn’t distract myself from the hard things by re-watching Parks and Rec again because there wasn’t any cell phone service. I couldn’t avoid rest because there was nothing for me to clean and no roommate I could go to the next room to chat with. I was forced to sit alone, and it was hard.  It forced me to introspect in a way I haven’t in a long time.

Each night, we sat around and drank wine and told stories.  Hearing about the lives of women forty years my senior made me realize that I will never have my life together. These women are mothers, grandmothers, and retirees, but they are still figuring it all out. One woman recently decided to go back and get another graduate degree despite the fact that she will soon retire. A retired episcopal priest relayed to the group how confused she is about her identity now that she isn’t working. A woman from rural Georgia recounted her difficult relationships to us and the things she had learned. At my fingertips, I had a treasure trove of wisdom. And the wisdom, essentially, was nothing – that I will never really know what I’m doing and that’s ok. That with each stage of life I will continue to be confused and feel like I’m making things up.  We are always learning as we go.

Each of us expressed feeling tired of conforming, tired of doing what was expected. The other women told me I would care less and less what other people thought of me as I got older. At one point, someone exclaimed, “I’m so tired of being nice! I’m so fucking tired of being nice!” And I thought, yeah…same. Forty years from now I won’t care if I was nice. I will care if I sought healing, had hard conversations, chose adventures, and stood up for myself. I’m still learning how to do these things, but the women on this retreat made me feel as though I was ahead of the curve. “At least you’re dealing with your demons now,” they told me. “It took us years to get here.” So, for now, I will continue writing, not really knowing what I’m doing, but knowing that no one else does either.

On our last morning, perhaps my favorite woman on the retreat gifted me a gold necklace with a small circle charm hanging from the chain. “When I look at you, I feel like things have come full circle for me,” she said, “so I want you to have this.” Each time I wear it, I think of her and her small service dog who loved to lick my hands, and I know that I am headed somewhere important, even if I’m not quite sure where that will be.

The Wilderness of Church

The damage done to me by the religion of my upbringing only began to surface in my memory over the past year or two. By reading about the experiences of my other exvangelical peers, I realized that I, too, had been led on and manipulated by a church that I thought was my home. Until recently, I had never thought of myself as a part of the exvangelical community. I still wouldn’t describe the church I grew up in as evangelical, as it was mainline Methodist in many ways. However, many of the teachings, particularly in my youth group years, were full of evangelical beliefs.

Growing up, some of these beliefs were naturally repugnant to me. The church’s stance on LGBTQ people, for example, was something I’d always bristled at. The language was never violent, but it was definitely a “love the sinner, hate the sin” type of theology. It turns out I was a closeted baby bisexual the whole time (surprise!), which explains a lot of the inner conflict I felt around the teachings. Other aspects of the evangelical teachings of my home church, though, stuck with me, even through my college years. I read every book by John and Stacey Elderidge, a couple who notoriously writes about relationships that are sustained by strict gender norms. Really, all you need to know is that on the home page of their website, the scrolling information touts taglines like “Battle, Beauty, Adventure: What makes men come alive?” and “Beautiful, Pursued, Irreplaceable: What makes women come alive?” barf. As I entered my first romantic relationships, I thought I was meant to be pursued by men, and if I wasn’t being pursued, it was because I wasn’t offering enough of an allure. I specifically remember requiring my boyfriend during my freshman year of college to meet me at the top of the stairs in my dorm, literally making him go on a physical “adventure” just to say hello to me. I thought this would keep our relationship alive. Add to these relationship standards my belief in the teachings of purity culture, thinking for decades that my worth was proportional to my virginity, and you can imagine how all of this distorted my self worth.

I spent a lot of energy in seminary deconstructing these beliefs about myself and my place in the world. I was liberated from my concept of a privileged, male, white god and was introduced to the God of the oppressed. For once, this felt like a God who understood me – a queer woman. Religion finally felt like a thing that encompassed me and not a box I had to force myself into. But as I began life after seminary, the United Methodist Church was falling apart around me. Not even a month after graduating, I went to General Conference 2016 and witnessed my church’s inability to confirm my full humanity. Though I was still in the closet at the time, I knew I was bisexual and I had many queer friends from seminary who were doing incredible things in ministry. However, it was going to take more than one conference to disillusion me.

After being commissioned as a Provisionary Deacon, I started a job working with people experiencing homelessness. With each step toward ordination, though, I struggled time and time again to fit my creative, nontraditional ministry into the guidelines set by the church. After several years of this, I thought it best to go on leave from my ordination process and consider if and how I could best do the ministry to which I felt called. Then, at beginning of my second year of leave just a few months ago, I watched my church tighten restrictions even further on LGBTQ clergy and relationships. With one foot out the door already, I was angry and hurt by an institution that I had once been so determined to make better.

I am still angry. I am saddened as I watch all of my friends from my ordination class get approved for full ordination. If I had stayed on schedule, I would be getting ordained this summer with them. Instead though, I sit in the wilderness wondering if I wasted three years of my life getting a degree that I will never be allowed to officially use in the church of my childhood. I wonder if the grass is greener on the other side in another denomination and I wonder if all of this trouble is worth the pain anymore.

This wilderness is lonely but I’ve been here before. The deconstruction of faith is heartbreaking but necessary for the forming of a new and better thing. I am inspired while I watch many of my queer siblings and allies fight for change, but I know that I can’t do that work myself anymore. I am tired, disillusioned, and confused. It feels like so many things are broken, but the church has historically been broken many times. For now, I wait on God to see what she’s up to in the next promised land.

Why I Stopped Shaving

header image: Cathyrox

When I was in the seventh grade, I couldn’t wait to shave my legs for the first time. Despite the fact that my leg hair was still blonde and whispy, I knew that many of my peers had smooth legs and I wanted them too. Shaving seemed like something intensely personal that I needed to discuss only in whispers. The day I set aside to shave for the first time, I told a friend at school that I was excited to get home from school that day. When she asked why I replied, “I just am.” Shaving had the mysticism of sex combined with the taboo of menstruation, at least in my mind. It was something women did but never talked about.

It wasn’t until high school that I first began to question why it was that I was required to shave off my body hair. I went the whole winter of junior year without shaving my legs, wearing pants each day. My high school boyfriend asked me when I would start shaving my legs again, and I asked him why it mattered, since no one could see them. “Because I like your legs and I want to see them,” he said. I think he genuinely meant it as a compliment, but, thinking back, it makes me feel gross. This interaction solidified my growing suspicion that shaving was an activity that women did for men, not for themselves, and that, if I was going to be considered attractive by the opposite sex, then I better keep shaving. A few weeks later, when the weather started to warm up, I did shave my legs again, eager to reveal them to my boyfriend from their hairy, wintry prison.

Despite a short period of weird grunge in high school when I wore only boys pants, I’ve always presented as highly feminine. I like makeup, wearing skirts, and the color pink. So, I followed the script set by the women before me. Every day I would shave under my arms and several times per week I would shave my legs. Throughout years of knicks, razor burn, and Nair mishaps, it never occurred to me that I could just NOT do it anymore.

Every summer, I spend several days in Hot Springs, NC at the Wild Goose Festival. Two years ago, I met a fellow queer woman at the festival and noticed her armpit hair. I had always assumed that, if I grew out my body hair, I would look disgusting and mannish. However, this woman was beautiful and I thought her body hair only added to her ~*Earth Goddess Aesthetic*~. I doubted I was cool enough to pull it off, but I stopped shaving my armpits at Wild Goose that year, partially because I usually don’t shower during the 3 day outdoor festival, but this year I continued my no-shave experiment when I got home. Two years later, and the experiment is still going. It wasn’t as though I made a dramatic decision on a specific principle. I just stopped shaving and never started again. I found that it didn’t make me look gross like I thought it would, and, if anything, it made my armpits healthier. No razor bumps, no burning when I put on deodorant after a shower, no irritation when I run in a tank top. Essentially, my laziness turned into feminst rebellion and self-confidence.

My decision to stop shaving my legs was similarly unremarkable. During some medication changes last fall, my depression was particularly bad, and I decided to give everything in my room with which I could harm myself to my roommates as a safety measure. One of the things I gave them was my razor. After a few weeks, I was feeling better and asked for my things back. However, my leg hair had already sprouted, plus it was November, so I decided to let it grow. This week, for the first time since I was 12, I wore a skirt with fully grown leg hair, and I loved it. I could FEEL THE WIND. At first, I thought something was on my leg and I kept looking down, but I eventually realized what I was feeling was the natural little feelers sticking out of my calves.

I’m not trying to tell everyone to stop shaving. I don’t care what you do with your own body hair as long as it’s making you happy. Middle school me was pumped to have smooth legs. It made me feel glories. But adult me is tired of spending time in the shower removing hair and wasting plastic. I’m tired of men and capitalism telling me how my body should be. But if shaving is what makes you feel like an empowered super-lady, do your thing, girl. Shaving is a personal decision. Maybe my 12-year-old self was onto something. Removing body hair is intimate. It can be seasonal like cycles of the moon. It can be empowering. And it can be painful. Do what gives you power, and do it because you owe your body the best you can give Her.

Purity Rings & Other Lies

I was 13 when I put on my first purity ring.  It was silver and read “TRUE LOVE WAITS” in small block letters.  I loved that ring.  It was a symbol of my faith, my loyalty, my ability to perfectly follow the rules, and my worth.  I’ve always been a sucker for following the rules.  As Monica from Friends would say, “The rules control the fun!”  I loved the rules.  The rules shaped who I was.

I looked forward each year to the “sex talk” we were privy to at youth group.  All of the girls were hearded in one room and all the boys corralled into another.  The boys were lectured on the dangers of porn and masturbation.  The girls were told that sex would be magical if we would only wait until we found our one true soulmate, married him (always him – it was also heteronormative), and then had sex for the first time on our wedding night.  I looked forward to this weird, predictable litany because it reminded me every year that I was doing what I needed to do in order to be a “good Christian.”  I thought God would love me more if I followed the rules.  And every year I was reminded that I could check off another box on my Heaven Checklist.

What I didn’t see was how unequipped I actually was for a relationship.  We spent so much time talking about purity that I never thought to ask any questions about conflict resolution, loving communication, or how hard it is to try to understand the inside of someone else’s brain.  I thought that if I waited for my soulmate, everything would be perfect.  There would be no need for communication skills because I had saved my body for my one true love and that meant nothing would be able to tear us apart.  Everything would be perfect.

It turns out that relationships are SUPER HARD.  Even good, healthy relationships are (one more time for the people in the back) SUPER HARD.  I love my partner.  He’s the most kind and understanding person, and I know that we love each other deeply, but there are still times when we want to strangle each other.  We’ve had to learn how to ask for what we need, how to use “I feel” statements so that we aren’t constantly accusing each other, and how to talk through a conflict to arrive at the seed that it was really about.  I never learned how to do any of this in the church.  I had no idea that I needed to learn it.

Even more concerning is how my purity culture upbringing did not teach us about rape culture.  If anything, it perpetuated it.  First, the fact that we learned about our sexualities in gender separated rooms should really say more than enough.  The inherent belief that men have an unquenchable sex drive and women just want to be told they look pretty is the root of rape culture.  By learning about sexuality as a whole community, we could have fostered some of the communication piece we were so desperately missing.  Purity culture also taught me nothing about how to communicate what I want – whether I want to have sex or not, what to do if I don’t want to have sex, and what to do if I’m forced to have sex I don’t want to have.  It was presumed that all sex within marriage would be consensual.  (Hot tip: it’s not.)  There will be times that your spouse or partner wants sex and you do not and if you don’t know how to navigate that, it will be damaging.  

Furthermore, saving myself for marriage meant saving myself from all sexual encounters, even those that are unwelcomed.  There is an element of victim blaming in purity culture that is more than disturbing.  While it was never spelled out this clearly, it was only logical for me to presume that rape only happened to women who were actually asking for it – their clothes were slutty or they were drunk or they had been sexually active before.  All of these things fell under the category of not saving oneself, and that essentially negated assault as a possibility.  Being assaulted destroyed purity just as much as having sex with a high school boyfriend.  No matter what the situation, it was all the woman’s fault.

Purity culture has damaged so many relationships.  I’ve watched friends get married at 20 to avoid having sex before marriage only to get divorced a few years later.  I’ve watched women endure physical therapy well into their marriages to teach their vaginas to actually enjoy sex without pain.  I’ve watched people be exiled from their faith communities because of premarital pregnancy – planned or unplanned.  I’ve watched members of the LGBTQ community hide for decades (myself included) because of the heteronormativatiy preached within purity culture.  Purity culture hurts all of us.

I threw away my teenage purity ring long ago, but when I found out about Nadia Bolz-Weber’s plan for a vagina statue, I bought an identical ring on Amazon to throw in the fire.  If I’ve learned anything in my exodus from purity culture, it’s that we need to burn it to the ground and resurrect the ways we teach our children about their bodies.  Because if we want the next generations to fix this broken world, they first have to learn how to love themselves, their bodies, and their peers.  Following the rules will not do this for them, just like it didn’t do it for me.  Rings are easy.  Love is hard.