Me in a Dress?

I planned to write a post about wearing dresses to some end-of-semester events this spring. I was going to touch on how I felt about it (actually not as bad as expected), how this wasn’t me becoming somehow “less” queer, and how my gender identity was still valid when I wore a dress versus pants and a tie…even if I actually wanted to wear the dress.

Then, I realized I didn’t need to justify those things to anyone. The end.

On “13 Reasons Why” as a Sexual Assault and Suicide Attempt Survivor…and a Mental Health Advocate

The Netflix series, “13 Reasons Why” has garnered quite a bit of buzz and media attention since its debut just 20 days ago. I’d heard of the book (by the same name) upon which the series was based, but had never read it. Knowing the premise of the book, I went forward with a mindset of caution and curiosity. I did not allow myself to judge the show until completing all 13 episodes, but was anxious to see how it addressed such nuanced topics as mental illness and suicide.

For starters, I do not recommend watching the series if you are experiencing a period of depression or thoughts of suicide, and I advise approaching it with caution if you are triggered by themes of sexual violence and/or suicide. Even though I am no longer suicidal and am usually okay when talking about suicide and sexual assault, I found myself feeling emotionally drained over the four days that it took me to watch the series from start to finish. It was a lot.

As a survivor of sexual assault:

From the perspective of a sexual assault survivor, I was glad that the show addressed  rape, sexual assault, and sexual violence so thoroughly and demonstrated the adverse effects that have on victim/survivors’ mental health. It contained multiple scenes in which sexual violence was depicted in a very upfront, very real manner, which was both good and bad.

Often, it seems that movies and TV shows leave those events up to the imagination of the viewer or show them in a very stereotypical manner that reinforces commonly held misconceptions of what sexual violence does and doesn’t look like. It was nice to see characters who had experienced traumas similar to my own represented onscreen as complex people whose narratives branched outside of victimhood.

On the flip-side, the assault scenes were incredibly difficult to watch. I could have skipped through them had they become too much to handle, which was not the case, but they brought a lot of my personal assault experience to the surface. Hearing other characters’ reactions to the assaults also struck a chord because of their similarities to some of the responses I received years ago.

As someone who struggles with my mental health:

From the perspective of someone who has struggled a great deal with my mental health and once came dangerously close to dying by suicide, I appreciated some aspects of the storyline and wasn’t very fond of others.

“13 Reasons Why” did a great job of showing how seemingly unrelated incidents in a person’s life can accumulate and lead to distress and how it’s easy to overlook all of the stressors feeding into a person’s experience when we only see a fraction of what other people are dealing with in a given moment. However, in doing so, it also minimized the fact that emotional distress can result from a single incident or as a result of no clearly-defined occurrence.

The suicide scene was also tough to stomach. I read that they wanted to show the whole thing in a detailed and painful manner so viewers understood that suicide isn’t worth it, but I believe there are other ways to convey the same message. The scene definitely brought back feelings of sadness, regret, and shame that I experienced following my attempt – feelings that, for the most part, I’d been able to leave behind.

As a mental health advocate:

Firstly, the perspective of a general viewer, “13 Reasons why” was entertaining, intense, and made me want to watch more. The fact that there were only 13 episodes was also encouraging as I knew I would finish it in a reasonable amount of time…it actually incentivized me to watch it more quickly than I would most series on Netflix.

However, as a mental health advocate, I’m not too pleased with how the series handled such sensitive topics as suicide and mental illness. For one, mental illness itself was never discussed. At one point, Clay’s parents present him with a bottle of pills (presumably antidepressants) to help him out of his emotional slump, but there is no conversation about mental health, mental illness, or help-seeking. Some people do not realize strong the connection between mental health disorders and suicide with 90% of deaths by suicide being people with diagnosable mental illnesses. Failing to mention mental health explicitly was a missed opportunity for potentially life-saving education of the masses.

It also portrayed Hannah, the protagonist who ultimately dies by suicide, as dramatic, selfish, and out for revenge. The show itself is a drama, but it depicts Hannah’s cries for help more as attention-seeking behavior than actual indications of suicidal ideation. Perhaps the show was hoping to bring attention to the fact that help-seeking behavior is often minimized or mistaken for attention-seeking, but I felt that it was reinforcing the stereotype rather than challenging it.

Additionally, none of Hannah’s attempts to reach out prove successful. While there is a need for more understanding and education regarding response to help seeking, the total lack of support for Hannah may make some viewers hesitant to reach out for fear that no one will care enough to help.

Lastly, the suicide scene was graphic in manner that nearly every expert resource I’ve encountered for talking about suicide discourages. The general concept is to never show a suicide in detail and to refrain from talking about the means by which a person dies by suicide. “13 Reasons Why” captures Hannah acquiring the materials necessary to take her life, gearing up to do so, and ultimately escaping emotional pain through suicide. The series does not highlight alternatives, it does not talk about available resources, it does not show a person exhibiting proper crisis response behavior.

“13 Reasons Why” does not glorify suicide, per se, but it presents it as the only option in times of distress. It doesn’t show people how to ask for help or how to assist a friend. It sensualizes Hannah’s suicide. While the series does not necessarily portray suicide as fun or light, it fails to approach the topic through a prevention lens, thus skirting around mental illness, reinforcing suicide stereotypes, dramatizing suicidality, and ignoring a significant opportunity for prevention education at the viewers’ expense.

Climbing

WordPress provides word-of-the-day prompts for blog posts, but I’ve never written a post based off the prompt before, so I’ve decided to give it a try…today’s word is “climbing.”

A fun fact about me is that I’m afraid of heights. Actually, terrified. I don’t do roller coasters, ferris wheels, or airplanes and I do my best to avoid bridges. My mom is the same way, so I blame genetics (…and a traumatizing bungie jumping experience I had at age 12).

Despite this, rock climbing – especially bouldering – excites me. Indoor bouldering does not involve reaching the same heights as regular rock climbing, but it requires some comfort with the idea of falling. If you slip or decide you can’t hold on any longer (which you will), the only option is to let yourself fall.

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Falling several feet onto a padded surface might not sound scary, but when trusting gravity is your only option, it can feel unsettling.

The thing about bouldering is that both the climb and the fall are challenging. That’s why I sometimes spend long periods gripping the holds, even though it’s impossible to climb any farther. As humans, we are wired to avoid dangerous situations, even when there’s no “real” danger involved, so instinct tells me to keep holding on.

Like bouldering, life is a sequence of climbing and falling. We’re always working toward something – grabbing on and pushing off, strategizing and hoping and sometimes holding our breath as we get there. Occasionally, we have to force ourselves to let go, other times we jump willingly, and then there are times when the decision is made for us and we find ourselves in free fall without a chance to prepare.

And usually, we end up being okay after we fall. We get up, chalk our hands, and begin again, becoming stronger climbers and safer fallers with practice.

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Good Friday Reflection on Lent

I was raised Catholic and still consider myself to be Catholic, but prior to this year, I’d never really done Lent. As a child and teenager, I’d think of superficial (and often unimportant) things to give up, but the Lenten promises rarely lasted the entire forty days. Abstaining from meat on Fridays was usually the only practice I kept through the entire season.

Even though Catholic faith was always an important part of my life and my identity, Lent never felt particularly significant until recently.

As someone who struggled a lot with religion over the past few years, I wanted to reconnect with the Church and embrace the beliefs and practices that had been such constants in my youth. I really missed it, but was waiting for the right moment to jump back in. That moment came on Ash Wednesday.

It had been almost a year since I’d stepped foot in a church, but I felt excited about attending the afternoon mass and receiving ashes. Even though I’d only been to mass at St. Mary’s in Oxford one other time, the structure of the Catholic mass and the familiarity of the songs and prayers made me feel as though I’d just come home after a long time away.

I decided that instead of choosing to give up something for Lent, I would do something extra: I’d work to reunite with the faith I’d become so separate from. This promise included attending church weekly, praying often, and generally being intentional about practicing Catholicism and integrating it into my life.

I attended church every week, except for one during which I was very sick. I began wearing a cross necklace, which I hadn’t done in years. I paid attention to the readings and searched in the Bible for the ones I really liked so I could underline them and return to them in the future. I also worked to put more trust in God, be merciful, and understand how my queerness and Catholicism intertwined.

There’s still quite a bit of work to be done: I’m certainly not perfect at any of it and don’t expect that I ever will be. But I learned a lot about the Church, my faith, and myself in the process and realized that being Catholic is just as essential to my identity as any other facet of who I am.

In a lot of ways, coming back to the Church as an adult allowed me to develop a deeper appreciation for it and a new understanding of the traditions I took for granted as a kid. This year, the Lent, Holy Week, and Good Friday actually meant something to me. At mass on Sunday, chills crept down my back when we sung “Were You There” and I felt the significance of Christ’s death.

Sometimes, the thought of the past several weeks – and of the learning, richness, and discovery that lie ahead – causes me to tremble.

Uprooting // Replanting

“So, what are you going to do for yourself?” I ask that question often. It’s part of my response to loved ones who’ve gone through something difficult or are currently stuck in a rough patch. However, today during a discussion about transitions and changes, I found myself on the receiving end of that question: What am I going to do for myself?

I’ve shared some info on self-care in the past, but this isn’t necessarily a self-care post; it’s more of a self-renewal post. What am I going to do to make the most of what I have right now? More specifically, how am I going to take ownership of the next couple of months as I transition out of undergrad and into graduate school?

I don’t have a clear-cut plan, but I’m someone who likes rituals, ceremonies, and tradition. It’s how I find closure.

I have in mind a small list of things I hope to do before graduation: catch up with old friends, eat at my favorite restaurants, revisit places where I made good memories. I also want to take a last walk around campus and one final drive to and from the boathouse where some of my first college experiences took place. I’ll take detailed mental pictures of the route.

But then there are the new things: the experiences I will intentionally create without ties to the old things left behind or the new things to come. I anticipate that these experiences will come in the form of short trips to Cincinnati and Columbus, day hikes in nearby forests, and visits to my future home of Indianapolis so I can get to know the city and make some of my own memories there before graduate school takes over. I’m fortunate to be in close proximity to all of these places.

The foundation of my Miami experience was unfortunately shaped by some things that occurred before I even started attending the school, which made the adjustment even tougher than it should’ve been and tarnished many of the things I might have otherwise enjoyed. I’m determined to dig up my roots  and replant them so that they may deepen and spread, unobstructed by the things they’ve already started to wrap themselves around. It’s not too late to start again.

Even though much of my past hasn’t been entirely my own, the future holds incredible possibility and I’m excited and optimistic at the prospect of shaping it with my own hands.

I matter.

Despite promises to do otherwise, my past several posts have been about fairly heavy topics. The past few months have been stressful and strange as I navigate the transition out of undergrad and into whatever the next year holds. During periods of high stress, my mind zeros in on the negatives in life and nearly blocks out all of the positive things that abound. That’s the reason for the tone set by most of my recent posts.

This post also carries a somewhat serious undertone, but I hope it helps set my blog in the direction I originally hoped it would take. My intention was that this site would provide a space for me to write about life in general – the good and the bad – not just the bad.

Over the past couple of days, I’ve been gradually experiencing a change of heart in terms of how I approach the world: I realized that I matter. It was a simple and seemingly obvious realization to make, but one that had never quite felt true for me.

I matter no more than everyone else, but also no less and because of that, I deserve good things no less than anyone in the world. I deserve care, compassion, and kindness always. I deserve hope, healing, and help when I need them.

I deserve to love and to be loved by people who are ready, willing, and able to love me just as much as I love them.

I deserve respect.

I deserve dignity.

I deserve second chances.

I deserve to have a voice in conversations that affect me and the way that I exist in the world.

I deserve to have a voice. Period.

I deserve healthy foods and enough sleep and a family who loves me. I deserve hugs and shoulders to cry on and friends to celebrate with. I deserve time by myself and time with others…time spent inside and time spent outdoors.

I deserve things that haven’t come to mind and won’t appear on this list.

And no, I won’t get all of these things all of the time because people don’t always get what they deserve. In fact, no one in the world has all of these things all of the time, but everyone deserves them nonetheless. I do, too…because I matter and I’m worth it. And that’s not selfish.

Recognizing this doesn’t make the difficult things less difficult, but it makes me feel stronger, happier, more empowered, less shoved out, less flattened, and entirely worthy of the space I take up. Because yes, I deserve that, too.

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I just got home from a trip to Kroger during which I debated between a 4-pack of mini margaritas and the triple sec and strawberry mix I needed to make my own margs at home. In case you’re wondering, went with the second option. The plan was to come home, crack open the bottles and make something to drink that would help me forget. However, last minute, I had a change of heart; I need to feel this.

Tonight, my university hosted Take Back the Night, which is a series of events that honor victims/survivors of sexual assault and other forms of sexual violence. At 6pm, survivors and allies descended upon a small room in the student center to share stories and offer support. I shared my assault experience at the same event last year. It was so healing and empowering that I almost looked forward to telling it again this year (as strange as that may sound).

I spent the majority of today planning what I would say; I mapped it out with bullet points in my journal and practiced saying it aloud in my car. But when I arrived at the speakouts, I decided to remain quiet in order to leave space for the voices of others who had not yet been heard.

I left feeling raw. Exposed. Naked. I felt as though it had just happened all over again; the memories were palpable. Listening to the experiences of others brought me closer to my own experience that talking about it normally does. When I talk about it, I have control over what parts I bring to the surface, what parts I remember. But hearing others recall similar incidents caused me to think about the things that I normally don’t think much about, the parts I normally don’t bring to the surface.

I was assaulted in my residence hall room by a man I knew during the first semester of my freshman year of college. It was November. Only three months out of my entire college career occurred pre-assault. The experience has played in the background of the majority of my time in undergrad. Due to the measures I chose to take immediately following the assault, my attacker still attends my school. I see him everywhere. I saw him this morning.

I don’t write about this on the internet often because it’s probably so deeply personal and protected that I don’t want it to end up in the wrong hands.

Lots of things happened after the assault. I talked to lots of people: friends, my RA, my school’s Deputy Title IX Coordinator. I was numb. I cried only once and pretended like it wasn’t a big deal. I equated strength with toughness.

During my sophomore year, I took a class on narrative writing. For one assignment, I wrote about several important life events from early childhood up to the assault. It was the first time I’d written about it for another person to read and it had been nearly a year. When my instructor (who I love to this day) returned the graded piece, I encountered loads of positive feedback and eventually discovered a comment on the very last page where I’d described the assault: She said, “It is a powerful ending but as a reader I don’t like that it ends with you defeated.”

Initially, I took the comment rather defensively. I’d just exposed a very vulnerable part of myself and she didn’t like it? Besides, I was defeated. I didn’t change the ending before submitting the final draft.

Only recently have I begun to realize what my instructor wanted. She didn’t necessarily want me to change that part of the story; she wanted me to write more. She didn’t want the story to end there. She didn’t want it to end with me defeated because I wasn’t.

I’m not grateful for my assault. When it comes to these types of things, there’s no silver lining. But my story didn’t end there.

Inspired by my RA’s support, I applied for and landed an RA position. I began going to therapy regularly and eventually attended a support group run by my therapist. Through the group, I came to own the label of survivor and understand what that meant for me. I found that I was able to relate to and offer support to other victims/survivors in a way that non-victims/survivors might have trouble doing. I took that realization and ran with it.

In the summer before my junior year, I worked with another student to co-found a mental health organization on our campus. One year later – in the fall of 2016 – I spoke about my experience at another survivor-oriented event called the Clothesline Project and cried about it for the second time. This August, I will be pursuing a master’s degree in Higher Education and Student Affairs.

My story did not stop. Don’t get me wrong: There were hella bumps in the road. There still are. I can’t go certain places or look at certain things without thinking about it and it crawls into my mind at the most inopportune times. But the story is still going.

Tonight, I sat in a room with at least 30 other people who had been crushed and torn apart in many of the same ways I had. 30 other people who knew what it felt like. 30 other people all hurting and healing together. And none of their stories had ended there.

This is choppy and probably disorganized and maybe laden with typos, but it was necessary. And I just finished crying about it. For the third time. Ever.