Shadow of Death

I was floating in a pool, my eyes rising above and then below the water line.  I remember a figure looming over the side of the pool, stooping down to look at me.  Next, I was in an ambulance, being told to keep my eyes open, but wanting more than anything to close them as I squinted against the sun.  I felt tired.  I was two years old and just wanted to go to sleep.  I remember being hooked up to all sorts of monitors in the hospital. My first memory.  Nearly drowning.

For a long time, I thought I wasn’t afraid of death, that it didn’t affect me.  I thought because I had experienced so much loss at such a young age, I was immune to grief.  My mother died when I was five years old, my gradfather when I was six.  Both of my grandmothers died when I was in middle school.  At some point in my coming of age, I began to take pride in my ability to absorb death and keep moving forward.  Funerals did not make me sad.  I was fine.

Simultaneously, though, my fear of my own death ran wild.  I developed nighttime anxiety.  I had trouble falling asleep and experienced what I can now identify as panic attacks.  I was convinced that I was going to be murdered.  Any sound in the house startled me.  I developed strange obsessive rituals to protect myself.  I pulled my blankets all the way up to my chin, reasoning that a murderer couldn’t get to me if I was covered up.  I made elaborate plans to hide in my closet or escape out the window if needed.  I also developed a fear of flying.  I first got on an airplane at 8 months old, so air travel wasn’t new to me.  Sometime in my teenage  years, though, I became convinced that the planes I traveled on would fall out of the sky to a firey death.  I was also afraid of swallowing pills – afraid I would choke on them.  I hid the vitamins I was supposed to take in a container in my bathroom so I wouldn’t risk suffocation.

My indifference toward grief was somehow counter-balanced by my obsession with keeping myself alive.  For the past decade or more, I felt shame for these obsessions.  I had never experienced anything life threatening, I thought, so why was I so afraid?  I lived in a safe area.  We had never had a break-in.  I had never so much as been in a bad car accident.  Why was it that I was experiencing such paralyzing fear of scenarios with which I had never come into contact?

Two weeks ago, my grandfather died.  He was sick for a long time and hadn’t been verbal for around a year, so in some ways I had been mourning him for a while.  I was asked to give a eulogy at his service, and I was glad to write and speak about him for my family.  However, as I looked around at my grieving family, I realized I was the only one not overcome with emotion.  Maybe part of it had to do with my need to keep it together in order to speak, but I know it was more than that.  Somehow, I had come to compartmentalize my relationship with death.  I could deal with the loss of others, but I had never learned to reconcile my own mortality.  And how could I, if my first memory is nearly drowning in a pool?

I am still learning to hold these things together.  I feel more sadness about leaving the ones I love behind when I die than I do about losing them.  I’m not sure what to make of that, other than to love them well while I can.  If loss has taught me one thing, it’s that living with secrets only brings about regret.  I am still frightened of my own mortality and pain, but the only way I have managed to release the fear is to know that I have no control.  I can try as hard as I want, but I still won’t always be able to protect myself or the ones I love.  So, all I can do is love them well, so that when I’m gone, they’ll know they were cared for.

I Am Afraid of Men

TW: sexual assault, emotional abuse

I can’t say when it all started, exactly.  When I’m on the train, when I’m walking down the sidewalk, when I’m in a store – I am always on guard.  I put on my “resting bitch face” and my sunglasses and my headphones so no one will bother me.  I feel much safer when I’m surrounded by only women.  This doesn’t mean I hate men.  I love my father, I love my partner, I love my male friends.  I am not afraid of them because I know them.  They have proven to me that they are trustworthy.  But sometimes, even the men who find their way into my inner circle are not trustworthy.

I was emotionally abused for years by a previous partner.  He told me what I could or couldn’t wear.  He expressed an irrational, jealous rage if I ever spent time alone with a male friend.  When I went to seminary and developed into a budding feminist, he told me my views were wrong.  He yelled at me for taking naps when I was tired instead of spending time with him.  He used guilt to control me.  At first, though, he was charming.  But after a few months of sweeping me off my feet, he became distant and inaccessible while also needing to know everything about what I was doing so he could keep tabs on me.  Our relationship went through cycles of growth, but he always returned to his controlling patterns.  He taught me that relationship does not mean I should not be afraid.

I was sexually assaulted by a friend.  I’ve written about this experience before, but it’s important to emphasize that this didn’t happen to me in a dark, damp alleyway with a scruffy stranger.  Like many women, I was assaulted by someone I knew.  We had a budding friendship and I was developing feelings for him, but he still took advantage of me when I was vulnerable.  He taught me that friendship does not mean I should not be afraid.

If I haven’t even been able to trust the men closest to me, it is not wonder that I feel afraid to walk down the street.  I feel my body tense and my heart race each time I pass a man on the sidewalk, bracing myself for catcalling.  When I get on the train, I look for a seat next to a woman.  When I enter a public restroom, I look around to make sure there are no men lurking in the corners, waiting for an unsuspecting woman to enter.

I work at a social service agency, and we primarily serve men.  Whenever I have to walk through our lobby, with rows of men waiting to receive services, I clench my jaw and ball up my fists.  I worry about being grabbed.  Instead, I usually get comments about my body or asked for my name followed by a “mmm” or a “damn”.  While we are currently working to improve what safety looks like in our organization, for the reasons I mentioned as well as several others, it wasn’t until this week that I came to the realization that I am constantly afraid.  I am afraid in my workplace.  I am afraid on public transit.  I am afraid walking to my apartment, even in the daytime.  I often create scenarios in my head so that I have a plan prepared if something bad were to happen.

All of this fear is exhausting.  Being in a spaces with only female-identifying individuals is like letting out a breath I’ve been holding in.  I don’t worry about my body.  I don’t worry that my smile will be misinterpreted.  I want to feel this way all the time.  I don’t want to hold all this fear in my body.  But until men can prove to me that they are not a threat, I continue to clench my teeth and ball up my fists.  We are learning every day about more reasons to fear men.  For the past few months, it seems like every morning there is a new name to add to the list of famous sexual harassers.  It’s hard to face a world of men when I hold my own sexual trauma and constantly hear about the trauma of others.

But I don’t want to feel this way.  We don’t want to feel this way.  Women do not want to be afraid all the time.  So, men, prove us wrong.  Be kind.  Be vulnerable.  Show sensitivity.  Do not be defensive.  Open yourself to the possibility that you don’t know everything.  Listen to what we have to say.  Do not assume we owe you anything.  Do not say something to a woman you don’t know that you wouldn’t say to a man.  Stop catcalling.  Make sure your coworkers are being fairly compensated.  Be confident enough in your sense of self that you do not see a strong woman as a competitor to be squashed.  Be our partners, not our hunters.

Disclaimer: This piece deals with gender in a binary way.  I apologize to those who are trans, genderqueer, and nonbinary.  You have a place in this conversation too, but I cannot speak to your experiences of gender, so I have not included them here.  Please speak your own truths to better inform all of us.

On the Three Year Anniversary of my Sexual Assault

*TW: assault, abuse, anxiety and panic*

The semester had just begun and I felt like I really had it together.  I was organized, I was going to the gym each morning, I was ahead on my school work.  But things were not as perfect as they seemed.  I was beginning to doubt my long-term relationship with my then-boyfriend, “Ethan”.  I didn’t feel like I could be myself.  In retrospect, I now know that I spent years in an emotionally abusive relationship, consistently being told what I wasn’t allowed to wear, who I could hang out with, and that my opinions were wrong.  After months of built-up doubt, I finally told Ethan that I needed time to think about what I wanted.  He didn’t take it well, which is understandable, but amidst his consistent attempts to control me, his negative reaction pushed me away even further.  I wanted out but I had attached myself to him for so long that I wasn’t sure I could make it on my own.

The next day, I went to work at a restaurant, anticipating celebrating at my friend’s birthday party afterward to blow off some emotional steam.  I hadn’t eaten much that day.  Distraught about the conversation I’d had with Ethan, I didn’t have much of an appetite.  Despite this, I showed up at the party after my restaurant shift and had a few drinks.  I vented to some friends about what was going on in my relationship, and I got some good advice.  After a few hours, though, I lost most memory of much of what happened that night, but I do know how it ended.

As the party winded down, I made what I thought was a responsible decision to stay on my friend’s couch after the party and not drive home.  I knew I had no business driving a car, plus it was extremely late, and I planned to leave in the morning once I had sobered up.  However, I wasn’t the only one who stayed.  A guy I knew from school, “Jacob”, also stayed.  Admittedly, I had developing feelings for him. This was part of the reason I had begun to question my existing relationship with Ethan.  I thought it was important for me to figure out what I was missing in my current relationship that led me to develop feelings for other people. I now know the answers to that question: kindness, communication, freedom to be myself.  But at the time, I just thought I was a bad person for having feelings for someone else, when in fact I was being manipulated and emotionally abused by Ethan.

That night after my friend’s birthday party, I was excited that Jacob had decided to stay.  We were alone together, and I hoped we would talk and get to know each other a little more.  But that’s not what happened.  Because I had not yet sobered up, things happened that night that I did not consent to.  My feelings for Jacob did not make these things okay.  My lowered inhibitions did not make them okay.  What should have happened was this: Jacob, noting I was intoxicated and emotionally vulnerable, put me to bed on the couch and told me to rest up. What did happen was: I stated what I didn’t want, but he insisted that it was okay for him to those things. I don’t know if I said “no” or “stop”, but I do know that Jacob told me what he was going to do to my body instead of asking if it was okay.  I know that I told him there were things I didn’t want to do and that he did them anyway.  But instead of realizing I had been sexually assaulted, I spent months thinking that I had cheated on Ethan.

I woke up the next day in a constant state of panic.  I couldn’t breathe.  My heart was beating out of my chest.  Partly due to what I perceived as my failure to be perfect and partly due to what I did not realize was a violation of my body, I felt unhinged.  This past Sunday, I felt anxious and panicky throughout the whole church service I was attending.  I was confused until I remembered the feeling of showing up the morning after my assault, to my internship at that same church, exactly two years ago.  I had felt dirty, shameful, unworthy.  I thought I had done something terrible that made me a failed pastor and a failed human.  I’m not really sure how I moved forward the rest of that semester, but in many ways I’m still recovering. I hate that I still feel the need to use fake names to protect these men or to protect myself from them.  Moving toward forgiveness for both of these men is a daily struggle.  I still don’t know how to offer forgiveness in a way that doesn’t justify the things that happened to me.  Others often say that forgiveness is actually for me and not for them, but I have trouble framing it that way.

I no longer feel like a failure because I know what happened was a result of abuse and assault, not a result of my own moral failings. I needed to get out of my relationship with Ethan in order to fully be myself. I needed to realize what Jacob had done to me in order to be able to heal from it. I still deal with the anxiety and panic that I hold in my body from these experiences. But on this 2-year anniversary of the most terrible thing, I do have the ability to look back and know how strong I am to have survived this. I can look back and see how far I’ve come in managing my anxiety. I can look forward and know that I am now in a relationship with someone who values me as I am, shows me kindness, and doesn’t try to take control of me. I can also look forward and imagine a future where forgiveness is possible, and I think that’s a good place to start.

Becoming Minimalist

I have always been a “just in case” type of person.  My dad taught me this.  If you go camping with me, I have bandaids, stomach medicine, a pocket knife, and an emergency water purifier.  When I go to protests, I bring bandanas and a small jug of milk in case of tear gas.  I’m a stellar bridesmaid because I bring a make up bag that has everything from a Tide-to-go pen to bobby pins.  This might seem like a lovely quality but, in reality, my desire to be prepared for all situations stems from anxiety.  There is no need to fear the unknown if I am prepared for all situations.  But it is impossible to be prepared for all situations.  I have experienced plenty of things that I was not prepared for – sexual assault, the loss of my mother, failing relationships – and I have a feeling that with each personal tragedy I’ve steeled myself to be more prepared “next time.”  My emotional and physical arsenal of “just in case” items has become too large.

For upwards of five years, I’ve wanted to shrink what I own.  When I entered seminary, I had the goal of getting rid of an item each time I bought a new one so that I wouldn’t amass any more volume, but rather simply rotate out the things that no longer served me.  I didn’t stick to this resolution, but I also didn’t have much room to grow.  My first apartment in Atlanta was shared with two other people and two cats.  My current apartment is a whopping 500 square feet and is also shared with two cats, so you can probably see the issue here.  I do not have the luxury of space in which to keep my “just in case” mentality.  I barely fit what I own into the space to begin with, so I do not have much room to grow my possessions.

Perhaps the most influencing factor in my transition toward minimalism is that I work with people experiencing homelessness.  Every day I see people who are carrying everything they own in a backpack while I come to work concerned if I’m wearing the same shoes more than two days in a row.  My daily encounters with people who have nothing have taught me two things about my own scarcity mentality: first, that it is possible to survive on much less than what I have and, second, that I have more than enough.  Each time there is a special event, I do not need to buy a new dress.  When I can’t find a sweater in my closet that looks like the one I saw my friend wearing, I don’t need to buy a new one.  It is possible to be content with the things I have because what I have is more than enough.

This past week I participated in the #winter10x10 challenge hosted by Instagram influencers Caroline Joy Rector and Lee Vosburgh.  The guidelines of the challenge were to select ten items from your existing wardrobe including clothing and shoes (but not including accessories, undergarments, and coats) and create ten different outfits out of these items over ten days.  I was a little bit terrified of committing to the challenge, which felt ridiculous considering that I see people every day who have been wearing the same clothes for weeks, but I was.  I not only survived and enjoyed the challenge.  (Find me on Instagram at @meowitsbrenna to see my outfits!) It also served as a catalyst for me to finally begin the process of becoming more minimalist in what I own, keep, and buy.

I started with my clothing.  As per suggestions I found on Pinterest, I made four piles of my clothing: 1. Things I love that fit me well and I wear often.  2. Things I like but don’t wear much or don’t fit me as well as they should.  3. Things I want to give away.  4.  Things to trash.  Using this process, I cut my wardrobe nearly in half.  I expected to feel uneasy and anxious (what if I needed one of the things I gave away “just in case”?), but instead I felt liberated.  I felt organized.  I felt at peace.  To ease the process, I put pile two away in a container under my bed.  If I don’t look for or miss any of these items over the next three months, they’ll go in the give away pile too.

I now have three bags of clothing to sell and giveaway in my trunk and a newly organized room.  I was afraid to take this leap because of my anxieties about preparedness, disaster, and scarcity.  However, if I can grow to accept that I cannot be prepared for all situations, I allow myself to live with only what I need as well as learn to be a more spontaneous person.  If you know me well, you know that I like to have a plan.  I’m not the type of person who just “wings it” and “rolls with the punches.”  Everything is written down, prepared in advance, and has a place.  But I’m learning that things can come together even when I am not properly prepared and that they can fall apart even when I am.  Having a closet full of clothing that I only wear a third of does not protect me from pain.  But getting rid of things that no longer serve me can both allow me to let go and meet the needs of others who really are experiencing disaster.  I plan to go through everything I own over the next few months, getting rid of things I haven’t touched in years, and hopefully also shedding some of my own pain and anxiety about the unexpected.