YOLO

I’ve wanted a tattoo for a quite a few years. Every time I planned to get one, I ended up not following through because I couldn’t settle on what to get. I wanted a Phoenix, because if it’s significance in rising from the ashes. But it would have to be a reasonably sized tattoo, and I wasn’t sure I could handle something that intricate on my first go.

I thought about getting a butterfly. Once again, for its significance and relation to growth. But butterfly tattoos had gained popularity, and I didn’t want the meaning to get lost in the hype. But I always wanted something to symbolize my freedom.

Then when I got sick, I was told tattoos were a no go. Too much risk of infection, I assume. So I didn’t think about it for awhile, until the other day. I filled out a short get-to-know-you thing out of boredom. One of the questions asked about tattoos, and I wrote no. When my friend saw it, she said we should go and get my tattoo. Admittedly, we were both overly tired and I was not in the best frame of mind. But when I thought about it the next day, I really wanted to do it.

I’ve had to avoid so many things in my life. Can’t get vaccines anymore because my body isn’t strong enough to fight them. Can’t eat high-risk foods, like raw vegetables, because any contamination can make me sick. Can’t be around anyone who may be sick.

But what’s the point if I still get sick anyway? I can’t live in a bubble. I can’t avoid everything that will hurt me. So why deprive myself of something I wanted just because it might make me sick?

Just a day before, I had gone to a buffet — Golden Corral to be exact. They don’t have those where I’m from, so I was a little excited when I saw one here. Buffets are not good for me — not only because of the higher risk of contamination, but because most of the foods there aren’t good for my GI Isaura. But I said fuck it, I want to go. And we did. And I suffered for it, as I expected. But even through the discomfort and pain, there was a sense of joy in doing something I wanted.

So I took another risk. Today, I got my first tattoo. It wasn’t anything ornate or fancy. I didn’t want to take too much of a risk.

I couldn’t think of a more meaningful tattoo. The date I ran away, and birds of freedom. It’s a constant reminder for me, in those times when I do want to give up, to remember how far I’ve come from where I was.

Shelter

I am exhausted. Physically, mentally, and emotionally. Possibly the most exhausted I have ever been.

Social services found me a bed at a homeless shelter today. It’s a temporary shelter — 30 day max stay. It’s on the other side of the county, in an area I don’t really know. But it’s a bed. There wasn’t much else they could do. I don’t qualify for any assistance because I am in the small percentage of people that fall within all the loopholes of disqualifications.

I’m trying to pick up the pieces. I’m trying to catch up with all the school work I got behind in when I was hospitalized. I’m trying to figure out if I’ll ever find a stable place to live. I’m trying to figure out how I’ll pay my bills.

I hadn’t cried until today. I’ve been pretending to be strong, when inside I’ve been a mess. It finally came out when I was sitting at social services and they told me I would be going to a shelter. It finally sunk in that I was homeless and alone.

It’s really hard to see the positive in anything in times of crisis. I could totally see myself having a complete meltdown. I could see myself giving up entirely.

But I have so much support. Friends, some I’ve met and some I’ve only known online, have continued to be supportive throughout these last a several days. Phone calls and emails have helped me get through the day. People have donated money to help me with transportation and food costs. And their messages of hope and gratitude for how I’ve helped them brought me to tears.

To those that have donated and help me in any way, I am incredibly grateful. You have given me hope.

I’ve always been the person who helps everyone. It’s hard for me to be the person in need. It’s hard for me to focus on myself and not caretake for others. When I first came here to the shelter, I donated half of my clothes. Because even in the chaos of my own happenstance, I felt that I had to give back in some way.

I don’t really know what’s going to happen anymore. But all I can do is hope that this experience has some kind of deeper meaning that I just can’t see right now.

Six Months of Stability

Last Friday marked six months of stability for me.

I use the term stability loosely, because in quite a few ways, I am anything but stable. My health is kind of a mess. My eating disorder has hit some pretty low lows. My emotions waver from non-existent to overwhelming. I’ve been spending 30 to 40 hours a week in intensive group therapy. I am not exactly the picture of stability here, and I know that.

But stability is much more than that. For me, stability started the day I found a safe place to live.

I didn’t realize it at the time. I thought that when I ran away from home and moved down here, that was stability. But I mistook freedom as stability when it really wasn’t. It was a change in environment, an improvement in many aspects, but it wasn’t stability. I tried so hard to move forward by going to therapy twice a week, yet I was still struggling. I was stuck because I was spending all of my energy trying to manage the stress in my environment that I had nothing left to put towards managing myself.

It took a long time (and a bit of outside influence) for me to realize that the way I was living wasn’t healthy or stable. So I worked (with help from others) to change that. I changed my environment. Things started looking up; not great, but getting there.

But that didn’t last, because after a month, I ended up broke and homeless. Well, this is great. Now I am the most unstable I have ever been. I was about to give up. But then, a friend stepped up and offered me a place to live. And that’s when the real change started. Because it was way more than just a place to live.

These past six months have been some of the hardest, yet some of the best months of my life. For the first time, I am living somewhere stable. I don’t have to hide in my bedroom. I don’t have to sleep outside. I don’t have to worry about how I’m going to eat because there is always food available (whether or not I am willing to eat it is another story, but…progress). I don’t have to worry about getting yelled at, or put down, or hurt. I can make mistakes and still be cared for because care isn’t conditional here.

I’m not used to this life. I’ve never had anyone there to tell me I need to eat, that I need to take my medication because I’m getting sick, that I need to go to the doctor, that I need to go to treatment. It’s a completely different dynamic. Before, I could just self-destruct and it wouldn’t matter because no one would notice, no one would care. That’s just not the case any more. I don’t just affect me; I affect others.

There’s been so much change over these last six months. Even though my health has declined a bit, I’ve managed to cope with it somewhat well. There are still (many) times when I need a push to take my medication or to make a doctor’s appointment, but I do it (eventually). I experienced the loss of the first dog I came to love last weekend and I’ve been able to grieve his death with spiraling out of control. That was a first for me. I also had support, and I was able to support others. Another first.

Even in the hardest times, I’ve managed to find happiness in the smallest things. Playing with the dogs. Going out to dinner with the family. Shopping at Walmart on a Saturday. Watching TV with a friend. Playing cards with the kids. Baking cookies and making dinner for the people I care about. These are the things I try to remind myself of when I want to give up. The brief glimmers of something better. The somethings I was never able to do, let alone enjoy before.

I take pride in the small accomplishments. Making it through the Costco parking lot without freezing from fear. Sitting through dinner at a restaurant without having an anxiety attack. Shopping in the grocery store without running away before I’m done. Eating a meal in its entirety. Going to a party without getting drunk. Trying new foods. Going to places I’ve never been before. Little things that no one really celebrates because it’s normal for them. But it has never been normal for me.

Yea, I’m a mess. I can’t work. I survive off medication. I spend most of my days in therapy.

But I’m not the same mess I was before. I have safety and stability. I have food on the table. I have people who listen to me and help me. I have reasons to not give up.

I guess I’m a little more organized chaos and a little less clusterfuck.

Art

I haven’t been able to write much. There’s a lot going on, both inside and outside of myself. I’m hoping to write soon.

But as I continue working to get words on my screen that make sense, I thought I’d share some artwork (though I’m not sure it qualifies as art) that I’ve done in my time at PHP.

I’m not an artistic person. Sitting in an art class makes me want to flee. But it’s not an option when you’re in group. You have to do something.

The first time I was in art, the therapist asked us to create something surrounding the words “I am”. While most people went right to drawing images, my mind went to writing words. But every word that was popping into my head was negative. It wasn’t that those words were untrue — they were my reality for a very long time. But they weren’t anymore. I didn’t want to ignore those parts of me. They still made up who I was. But I am more than that now. So for each truth of my past, I wrote the reality of my present. The totality of who I am.

That was one art class down. Only dozens more to go. So I decided to do a collage. At first, I chose to do one because it would take up a lot of time. I could spend several (collective) hours just flipping through magazines, killing time so I wouldn’t have to do anything artsy. And that’s exactly what I did. I flipped through at least a dozen magazines, cutting out whatever stood out to me. Words, phrases, pictures. Before I knew it, I had a whole baggie full of magazine clippings.

As I went through what I had cut out, I realized that every thing I chose had a purpose. Words that described me. Phrases that inspired me. Pictures that I liked. This collage is me. Every piece has a meaning. Each section is a story. Past. Present. Future. It’s me.

I may not have been able to write much these last few months. But these are my words; just in a different form.

Fired (Up)

I came home Monday afternoon expecting to enjoy the rest of the day — the anniversary of my freedom.

I checked the mail and saw a letter from my employer. I opened it. There was a piece of paper with my name and information on it, with directions for filing for unemployment, with a permanent separation date of June 6th.

I never quit my job. I wanted to go back as soon as I could. I never wanted to be out in the first place. When I passed out at work that day, the manager told me I would not be able to come back until I had medical clearance in writing. I told her it was going to take me awhile to get it, and she said that was okay — that my health was first priority. And I have been trying ever since to get a note, but because of my history of heart issues and fainting, no one wanted to take on the liability and told me I needed to see my cardiologist.

So I planned to wait until my next appointment, which was then cancelled because my cardiologist decided to leave the practice on short notice. I rescheduled with my original cardiologist, but the earliest appointment I could get was July 11th. Fine. I figured everything was okay because my manager told me to take all the time I needed.

When I got that letter, I didn’t understand what happened. No one contacted me before this. No letter, no phone call, no e-mail, nothing. As far as I knew, everything was still okay. I had no idea I was going to be let go. I never lost a job before — not like this.

It was hard enough for me to leave the job I had for nearly two years, the job I got just weeks after running away. But that was a choice I made in order to have a better, safer life — and a place to live. I was in control.

But this was not in my control. This was not a choice to leave. This was being fired. Through the mail. On the day I was supposed to be celebrating my freedom.

I tried to suppress my emotions, I tried to push it in the back of my mind, to try to think about it another day. But that didn’t work out so well, because I ended up in tears. I was angry, frustrated, and upset. What did I do wrong? I didn’t abandon my job. I was good at it. I performed well even in the few weeks that I was there. And I did everything I could to try to get back, and I was still trying. But it wasn’t enough.

I felt like a failure. I can’t keep a job. I can’t even keep myself upright. How am I supposed to get another job? How am I going to pay my bills? No one wants to hire someone who was fired, and surely no one wants to hire someone who passes out frequently. Not disabled enough for disability, but not able enough to work. It’s occupational entrapment.

I managed to stop crying for a little while, but any chance of enjoying the rest of the day was gone. I made it through dinner, but then I felt the same emotions coming back. I went outside. I wanted to badly to run away, to take my cigarettes and smoke my feelings into numbness.

And it took everything in me not to do that, because I knew it wasn’t going to solve anything. I knew it was going to affect other people, and affect me. So I sat with my emotions and a bottle of beer. I let myself cry. I let myself be angry.

Then I looked up at the sky. I watched the fireflies fly. I watched the neighbor’s dog waddle through his yard. I looked around me. Peaceful. Quiet. Freedom. For 29 years, the only way I could watch the sky was through my bedroom window. But that wasn’t my life anymore. This was my life. Full of feelings and losses, but also full of fresh air, fireflies, and the freedom to see life from the outside, instead of inside my window.

I was still upset, still angry, but it no longer overwhelmed me. I came back inside. I sat on the couch and watched TV. I ended up falling asleep there, with one dog sleeping behind my head and another sleeping right at my side. And I couldn’t imagine life any other way. Safety, a family, friends, a home, dogs, and freedom.

I’ll figure out the rest, somehow, some way.

Two Years of Freedom, Part 3: Growing

There are many aspects of growth. It’s really complex when you think about it. Just because something grows, doesn’t mean it’s thriving. There’s growth in surviving, too. But it’s a different kind of growth. It’s not full. It’s not healthy. It’s growth that never reaches its full potential.

I’ve thought a lot about growth. When I think about the first 29 years of my life, I know I grew. Physically, emotionally. But that growth was stunted by the environment I was in. I was in survival mode. I grew in ways I had to in order to stay alive. But that didn’t make me healthy. That didn’t make it all right.

And then I think about where I am now. Two years of freedom; two years of tremendous growth. I wrote a commendable thesis, graduated college, established my support organization, started grad school, became a notable writer, co-wrote a book, and even started work on a second. It’s no longer about surviving. Now it’s about thriving.

But even that tremendous growth could not have occurred without the darkness I experienced before it. The losses I experienced, the grief and the pain, they were part of my growth, too. They were sitting underneath the roots of my existence this whole time. It just took the right environment for the real growth to take place. It took light to overcome the darkness.

When I first thought of burning those cards and letters, my initial plan was to bury the ashes in the yard. But as I thought about it more, I found it to be too dismissive. Even though I let go, those feelings and those experiences were still a part of who I became.

So I saved the ashes, and I spread them across the bottom of a planter. Then I added in some dirt. And then I placed the stones of what I’ve lost on top. They were the stones I have been holding on to for almost a year now: Family, mother, father, self, support, love, purpose, and hope. These were the losses I experienced in childhood, the losses I was still experiencing even after I ran away.


I no longer needed to carry those stones with me. In a way, I was letting go of them. But I was also acknowledging what has come from them. I lost my family, but I’ve been making a new one along the way. I lost my mother, but that loss has pushed me to help others. I lost my father, but that loss has driven me to take better care so I don’t end up like him. I lost my self, but I am working to find myself again. I lost support in more ways than one, but somehow that loss sent me to where I am today, surrounded by supportive people. I lost love in the sense that I never got to experience it before, but now I have — through those people who continue to support me. I lost my purpose because I believed for so long that I had no purpose. But I have found my purpose in using my experiences to help others. I lost hope a very long time ago, as a child who grew up believing that there was no way out of the pain but to die. But I now know what life can be; I know that I don’t have to die. All of these losses created me. They led to my growth.

And now they are supporting a new growth, because above the eight stones, I planted eight peace lilies.

I chose that plant specifically, because in many ways it was symbolic of my life and growth. Peace lilies can survive with very little water and very little light. But darkness slows its growth. It doesn’t grow as fully and beautifully in the darkness as it does in the light. It survives in the darkness, but thrives in the light. Just like me.

The peace lily is also a symbol of grief, of innocence and rebirth. And in many ways, my freedom has been a rebirth. What lies in the dirt below the seeds, my losses, the ashes of my pain, they are what came before me. They are what led me to my new life. Parts now unseen, hidden below, but nonetheless affecting.

I no longer carry those cards, those letters, those gravestones, or those stones with me. They are all part of the base in the growth of beautiful new flowers, just as they are all part of the growth of me.

My peace lilies are growing in the light now, just like me.

No answers

I call my dead father’s cell phone. He never answers, because he’s dead and the phone is disconnected. But I still keep calling. I still keep hoping he answers the phone.

I’m not sure why I keep calling. There’s just so many things I want to say to him. There’s so many questions that I want answered. But he’s dead, burned to ashes, gone away forever.

Why didn’t you stop her? Why did you help her? Why didn’t you protect us? Why did you become just like her?

He leaves me with no answers.

Sometimes I call my mother’s cell phone. She never answers, either, but she’s not dead, and the phone isn’t disconnected. It just rings and rings then goes to voicemail.

I left her a voicemail once. I told her I was sorry for being a failure, for being a bad daughter. I asked her for forgiveness.

I wanted her to answer. I wanted her to tell me she missed me. I wanted her to tell me she loved me and that it was all just a big mistake. I wanted her to tell me she was sorry, too. I wanted a mother. I wanted her to give me a reason to live, because in that moment, I had planned to kill myself, and I wanted to feel an ounce of love before I died.

I still call her, hoping one day she will answer. But I don’t call her to apologize. I call her because I want answers.

I want to know what I did wrong.  I want to know why she hurt me.

I want to know how she lives every day knowing what she did to her children, knowing what she did to others. How does it not eat her up inside? How does she get through the day feeling worthy enough to still be alive?

I want her to know how I live every day, constantly reminded of what she did to me. I want her to know that I am eaten up inside. I want her to know that most days, I still struggle to find myself worthy enough to still be alive.

I want her to know she broke me. Every time she raped me, beat me, burned me, bruised me, made me sick…she shattered me.

I want to know if she knows that. I want to know how that makes her feel. I want to know if she even feels at all.

I called her again the other day. I didn’t want to ask her anything. I didn’t want an answer.

I wanted to tell her I didn’t need her anymore. I wanted to tell her goodbye. I wanted to tell her fuck you.

Because now I know the problem was never with me. It was with her.

Sometimes, there are no answers. And sometimes, there are answers hidden within no answers.

A Letter to Us

Dear younger parts and me,

I know things seem really scary right now. It’s okay to feel scared. I’m scared, too. You had to be scared in the past, because there were a lot of scary things and scary people. But you are safe now. We are safe. You don’t have to be scared anymore.

I know that mommy made you believe that you were sick. She told you that parts of you made you bad. I know she made that part of you hurt really bad. I know she made your heart hurt, too. I’m so sorry she hurt your body, and your heart. Little girls shouldn’t have to hurt like that.

I know you wanted so badly to be a boy. You thought that it would make everything better. You believed that it would stop mommy from hurting you, that you wouldn’t be sick anymore, that mommy would love you like she loved R. I’m so sorry you felt that way. But it was never your fault. You were never sick there. You were never bad just because you were a girl. Mommy was wrong. So wrong. There was nothing you could have ever done to make mommy love you. She was the sick one. She was bad. Not you. It was never you. You were always perfect. You still are.

I know you’re still so scared of mommy hurting you. You still try to protect yourself from her hurt. I’m so sorry you don’t feel safe. Little girls deserve to feel safe and loved and respected. Mommy shouldn’t have stolen that from you. You deserved all the love and respect and safety in universe. I wish I could have given it all to you then, but I can give you them now.

I know that mommy made you think that your body was not your own. She controlled your body and your mind. You had no other choice. I’m sorry she made you believe that lie. But you have choices now. Your body is yours. These are your toes, your feet, your legs, your arms, your fingers, and your eyes. This is your hair, your nose, and your mouth. And this is your vagina. It belongs to you. It’s part of your body, just like all of your other parts that make you, you.

It isn’t sick or bad. It doesn’t deserve to be hurt. It deserves to be taken care of, just like you. In order to take care of it, we need to go to the doctor. Just like the doctor that takes care of our lungs, and another doctor takes care of our feet, we need a doctor to take care of our vagina. It’s not bad or wrong to go to the doctor. All of those things that mommy said, they were wrong. She was wrong. She was just trying to scare you, and make you feel bad. I’m sorry she lied to you. You are not — and never were — dirty or bad. The doctor knows that, too. The doctor just wants to help us, and make sure we are healthy and strong. The doctor won’t hurt us. She won’t make you feel like mommy did. I promise.

I know you are afraid. You’re just a little girl. Mommy made you do things that children should never have to do, or see, or know. I’m sorry she did that to you. But you don’t have to do grown-up things anymore. You don’t have to hurt anymore. You don’t have to be scared or ashamed. Mommy isn’t here, and you can be you now. A beautiful, kind, loving, healthy, wonderful GOOD little girl. Mommy can’t take that away from you. She tried, but she didn’t know how brave and strong and courageous you were. She didn’t know the amazing little girl you grew up to be.

You can be that little girl now. I can take care of the big girl things, like going to the doctor. I will keep us healthy and safe. I will make sure that we are okay. I promise.

Thank you for being so strong. It’s my turn now.

Love,

KJ

She doesn’t know

I sat on the toilet Thursday afternoon, fully intending just to pee and go back to work. Instead, I ended up crying. Alone. In the bathroom stall. For 15 minutes.

I was okay before all of that. It was Thanksgiving day. I went to see a movie in the morning just to engage in something to pass the time. Then I went to work, and I was busy but being busy was good. It kept my mind occupied as much as it did my body.

But it was in that moment, sitting alone in the bathroom in silence and inaction, that my mind began to wander. Then my reality sank in. It was Thanksgiving day and I had no one. Everyone else was eating with their families, and here I was alone, crying on a toilet.

It took me awhile to get myself back together. I managed to stop crying a few times before bursting into tears again. I told myself if I just went back to work, if I went back to being busy, that I wouldn’t have to think about the sad stuff and I would be okay. I got up, washed my face, and went back out.

I noticed my manager looking for something in my area, so I went over to see if I could help. She was checking something I had already fixed. No problems. Then she looked up and noticed my face, still red from my earlier crying. She asked me if I was okay. The question I’ve always dreaded.

I could have lied in that moment. I could have said I was fine just like I said I was fine so many cries before, for the last 30 years. I could have pushed her away and that would have been that. But I didn’t. I stumbled with words for a minute, before I finally said no, this is a hard time for me.

I felt myself starting to cry again, but I tried to contain it.  She came forward to give me a hug, but then stopped. Then she asked me, is it okay to touch you? I could have cried in that moment, but not out of sadness. Here was someone offering me support. Here was someone respecting my boundaries, respecting me. This was different.

I told her it was okay, so she continued to give me a hug. I needed the comfort, as awkward as if felt for me. I felt supported and cared for. I knew I didn’t have to hide. If I needed to cry, I didn’t have to go and do it alone on the toilet.

And I did cry, a few more times that afternoon. But the sadness didn’t consume me. I wiped the tears away and went on. My coworkers supported me. They told me it was going to be okay. You are here with us, now. They were right.

There were several hugs that night, in the moments I desperately needed them, but also in the moments I didn’t know that I did. My work people were there for me. They made sure I was okay. And even though I was only scheduled to work until late afternoon, management let me stay a few more hours so I wouldn’t have to be alone.

When I finally made it home that night, I sat in my bed and cried. But I wasn’t crying from sadness. I was crying because I realized I had found what I thought was missing. I thought I had been without a family, but I have a family. It’s a family made up of amazing coworkers, great friends (online and offline), support groups, sometimes frustrating roommates, and weird people I’ve met along the way. But it is my family, and more of a family than my parents ever were.

And that’s what my mother doesn’t know.

She only knows the weak little girl she hurt and abused.

She only knows the broken woman she took advantage of.

She doesn’t know I have love and support and acceptance and understanding and all of the things that I didn’t have before I ran away.

She doesn’t know I found strength.

She doesn’t know I’ve been gluing myself back together, piece by piece.

She doesn’t know she can’t break me anymore.

It won’t work. I won’t let it. And neither will they.