Full Circle

At the end of my freshman year of college, I hit a rough patch with depression. I didn’t recognize the depression because I felt about as depressed as I normally did, but more tired, more anxious, more on-edge. As a newly hired RA for the upcoming academic year, I had one responsibility: to pick up a book that was assigned for reading over the summer.

Instead of retrieving the book from the pick-up location, as I was instructed to do in at least three reminder emails, I dealt with depression and finals and went home for the summer with no book in hand. Halfway through the summer, I emailed the Director of Residence Life at Miami (my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss), asking to have the book sent to me. The director replied promptly, and instead of offering to send the book my way, told me I would have to meet with him in order to pick up the book. Shortly after our email exchange, I made the trek to Oxford to meet in person. I shook with terrified anticipation as I waited in the lobby of the Office of Res Life, knowing my first impression as an RA was not representative of who I was as a person or who I would be in that position. About 30 seconds into my conversation with the director, I was in tears. Not just tears…heaving sobs.

Despite the director’s efforts to calm me down, my guilt won out and I cried through the entire 30-minute meeting. With a kind (albeit pitying) smile, the director assured me that he only wanted to meet to make sure I would be a good RA, that my mistake wouldn’t be habitual. I left feeling determined to do the absolute best that I could and then some.

Roughly three years later, I recounted this narrative with another Director of Residence Life (minus the bit about the sobbing) in response to an interview prompt asking me to talk about a past mistake. With my hair up, blazer on, necktie in place, and portfolio open on the table before me, I gave a brief summary of the incident and the lessons I took from it. About a month later, the same director shook my hand after offering me a position as a Resident Director to begin this July.

Walking to my car this afternoon, I crossed paths with Miami’s Director of Res Life. He asked me about finals and I told him I only had one more and then I’d be done. We talked briefly about how the time had flown by and then the conversation took a different turn. “You’ve done great,” he said, “I hope you enjoy seeing all the ways you’ve made an impact here.”

We parted ways for maybe the last time and it was all I could do to not burst into tears for another 30 minutes.

Lessons on Letting Go From PTSD

The past several weeks, I’ve been worse than normal at responding to texts and emails, but have become hyperactive on social media; I’ve been sleeping less, eating less, and feeling low on energy. It’s easy to attribute all of this to the whirlwind of pre-graduation life as I prepare to bid farewell to the places and people I’ve come to love over the past four years, but the truth is I’ve been battling it out with PTSD.

When I bring up PTSD, people probably think I’m talking about my sexual assault. Sometimes that’s correct, but the bulk of my trauma-related difficulties have to do with a series of events that occurred repeatedly over an extended period of time, starting prior to the assault. The trauma I experienced was entirely emotional/psychological, which  (ironically) makes the mental health piece harder for others to understand than it is when I talk about my assault, which was more physical.

Without going into too much detail – it’s a long and painful story – I experienced repeated abandonment and rejection by a number of people who were supposed to care about me over a span of many months (or maybe years…I’m still not quite sure when it started). Since then, I’ve dealt with extreme difficulty in feeling worthy of connection.

It’s normal for people to flow in and out of our lives and given where I am in life as a young adult, people are in and out fairly frequently. But sometimes, the loss of a person (I’m referring to social loss, not death) triggers my PTSD by bringing up feelings of abandonment and rejection.

Even though I consciously know that I did not deserve the sh*t that went down years ago, I still very much believe that something was my fault. There must have been something I could’ve done differently to prevent those things from happening, to prevent everyone from leaving. Because of this, I often go into relationships trying hard to show the other person how much I care about them and that I’m worthy of connection.

And when people don’t stick around – either temporarily or forever, because we go separate ways, or they find me burdensome, or they simply need space – all of the old traumas come welling up from within. My mind scrambles to understand what happened, why, and what I can do to make it better.

Do they hate me or do they just need space? If they hate me, why? If they need space, in what ways did I take up too much? Was it that panic attack? That awkward thing I said? Was I burdensome? Was I rude? Can I make it better? If so, how? If not, why? Is this disconnect permanent or temporary? How can I do better? How can I prevent this from happening again?

Unfortunately, the ebbing and flowing of people is a part of life and unfortunately, it brings the feelings of abandonment and rejection back to the surface for me. I’ve gotten better at managing it over the years (#therapy), but it still affects me. This time around, it comes with flashbacks, insomnia, decreased appetite, decreased energy (which insomnia and decreased appetite do not help), mood swings, and sporadic social patterns. It’s my brain attempting to un-shatter after experiencing rejection by another person with whom it tried to connect.

However, I have a support system I know I can count on, I’ve been reminding myself to eat, I’ve been journaling before bed to help me sleep, I’ve spent some time in nature, and I’ve prayed some.

On Tuesday, my therapist and I came to an awesome conclusion about these situations: I need to let go. I need to let go of the idea that I should go out of my way to “make” people like me – they either like me or they don’t; it’s out of my control – and I need to let go of the people who leave. As my therapist put it, “You have a lot of love to give and if they don’t want it, it’s their loss.”

In the next few days, I’ll begin saying more good-byes to people I care deeply about. Some will be good-bye for now and others good-bye forever, but I hope they’re good good-byes. I want us all to leave knowing that we are worthy of each other’s connection. That we are enough as we are. That I am enough as I am.

Maybe then I’ll sleep a little easier at night.

Stuff I’ve Been Reading Lately (+ My 2017 Summer Reading List)

Sunday was World Book Day, so this post is a tad late, but books are always important, right? I want to talk about some new additions to my bookshelf over the few months, as well as list some things I hope to read over the summer, but I’m not planning to create a detailed book review; I just want to share a few of the reasons I think these books were great.

Stuff I’ve Been Reading Lately

  1. The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
    This fiction novel takes place in post-WWII Germany and involves a romance between a woman and a young boy. It’s scandalous, but not in the way it probably sounds on paper…there’s depth. It was part of Oprah’s Book Club, so it’s got some merit.
  2. Daring Greatly by Brené Brown
    If you aren’t already a fan of Brené Brown, watch her TED Talk on “The power of vulnerability” and be enlightened. Brené is incredible. Whenever I meet another person who appreciates her work, it’s an opportunity for instant friendship. This book got me through the grad school interview process. Go read it. Now.
  3. Lavender by Christopher Poindexter
    Wonderful poetry. Unfortunately, it’s currently sold out on Amazon, but I suggest getting your hands on a copy ASAP. Selections from this book informed some of my recent poetry and I continue to look to Poindexter’s style for inspiration. A current student in the grad program I’m entering this fall recommended it to me during my interview days in Indiana and inadvertently got me started on a poetry kick.
  4. Stuff I’ve Been Feeling Lately by Alicia Cook
    Also amazing poetry. Also recommended to me by the same person who suggested Lavender. The poems are honest and emotional as Cook chronicles her journey through addiction recovery…and as if the poems themselves weren’t enough, Cook suggests a song for the reader to listen to with each one. Invest in some tissues.
  5. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
    I’ve read this book multiple times and it doesn’t get old. Cisneros writes from the perspective of a young Mexican-American girl caught between childhood and adolescence. It’s humorous at times, sad at others, and raw throughout. Like the poetry books, it’s a quick read that really packs a punch.

Stuff I Plan to Read this Summer (and know very little about)

  1. Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur
    Good poetry.
  2. We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
    While the author recently faced criticism for perpetuating transphobia (disguised as “feminism,” nonetheless), I’ve heard awesome things about this book and its commentary on the importance of feminism in contemporary society.
  3. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
    This one connects current race issues in the United States with the country’s history and illustrates how race as a social construct has acted as a foundation of American society since the beginning. Coates focuses especially upon how race-based U.S. society disadvantages black people in particular.
  4. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
    I honestly don’t know much about this novel other than that it highlights issues of race, immigration, and culture. It’s written by the same author as We Should All Be Feminists (above) and has received strong reviews.
  5. Behold the Dreamers: A Novel by Imbolo Mbue
    Written by a Cameroonian immigrant, about a family of Cameroonian immigrants, this fictional story illustrates the triumphs and challenges faced by immigrants in the U.S. during the 2007-2008 financial crisis.
  6. Nevada by Imogen Binnie
    I first saw this one at a cute little bookstore in Indianapolis in February and it’s been on my mind since. The protagonist is a queer trans woman in NYC, and while I don’t know much beyond that, it has some pretty solid reviews.
  7. Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudie Rankine
    This one talks about seemingly small racist aggressions (aka microaggressions) as they appear in everyday life in the twenty-first century. Rankine explores the effects of racism in modern day society.

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.

unnamed

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.

unnamed-1

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.