Posts Tagged ‘challenges’

“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”    ~Maya Angelou

I’ve done a lot of reading and attended some trainings over this winter on the topic of trauma and trauma informed care and here’s what I have learned so far. When someone is in the middle of a meltdown, the thinking part of their brain stops working. No lie. The science is there. Kids, teenagers, all of us. It just stops. Decision making skills? Out the window. Language? Gone. Nothing above the brain mid-line is in gear–only the parts that can feel and act—or react.

This new learning caused me to notice the questions that we ask of people at those times. I’ve done it in my job over the years. “How can I help you?” ‘What do you need?” The questions are innocent, an outpouring of our desire to support and assist people we care about. They can’t engage in those questions with us, though. Their brain has turned off. They can’t answer a question like “What do you need” when they can’t access the upper part of their brain where language lives. We are asking them to do something with us that they are literally unable to do.

I am reminded of a Ram Dass book one of my graduate school instructors shared with us that talked about the helplessness of the helping professional. That book was written before we even knew any of the neuroscience that is driving our understanding today. Back then, it just resonated with me that sometimes the most important thing you could do with someone in crisis was to honor them by witnessing their pain. Just be with them. I have carried that message throughout my career.

Working with LGBT youth, sometimes the most important thing we can do is to honor them by witnessing their pain. We, as the agency staff, have no access to their family home. We have limited access to their school, and then only by invitation. We meet kids in tremendous pain who are being verbally and physically harassed, assaulted, threatened…kids are dealing with trauma on a frequent basis.

Neuroscience is also telling us now that people who experience trauma in childhood (abuse, neglect, parental mental illness or addiction, sexual assault, witnessing domestic violence, natural disasters, and a few others) develop cognitively in a different way than do people who do not experience trauma. The more trauma, the more different the brain and the more likely for health and mental implications in adulthood. The science is fascinating. Take a look at a quick, easy and interesting overview by Dr. Nadine Harris Burke. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=95ovIJ3dsNk&t=577s

I wouldn’t have to scan the brains of some of the LGBT kids we work with to know that there are some differences in development going on there. We know there’s been an uptick in harassment and assault in the last couple of years (https://www.glsen.org/sites/default/files/GLSEN%202015%20National%20School%20Climate%20Survey%20%28NSCS%29%20-%20Executive%20Summary.pdf). We know there’s been, at best, benign neglect of their needs, and, at worst, open hostility toward LGBT students, especially trans students.  We also already know that LGBT youth make up between 20% and 40% of the kids who are homeless and on the streets every year, particularly high on the T, most particularly on trans youth of color. Newer research tells us that LGBT kids also comprise about 20% of youth who are incarcerated.  (Should we place bets on how many of those kids were homeless before they were locked up?)

Those are some mindblowing stats when you take into account that we make up…what….maybe 10% of the general population? Conservative stats say 5%, but let’s be generous and say 10% for the hell of it.

Now let’s add one more twist. Where’s my bugle? This information should come with a bugle blaring to announce its arrival. According to Dr. Caitlin Ryan, researcher at The Family Acceptance Project, and Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, one of the leading trauma experts in the world, all is takes is one person.

You read that right. All it takes is ONE person who hears, one person who witnesses, one person who honors and believes to begin to relieve some of the effect of that trauma. That’s one school counselor. One school nurse. One social worker in individual session. One mom. One brother. One neighbor. One volunteer at Youth Outlook or Big Brother/Big Sister. One person who is safe and trustworthy and respectful can provide an opportunity for rewiring a brain that has been traumatized. One person can be the protective factor that stops a desperate kid from making an attempt on their own life.

Wow. Think about the power you have to affect a kid’s life. Not just their life right now, but if you listened to Dr. Burke’s TED talk, you know it’s the power to affect a kid’s life throughout the life span. It’s not about the question at that moment of crisis: “What do you need?”  or “How can I help?” Remember, in meltdown mode, none of us can actually process that question.

Thirty years into this, although I see what Ram Dass meant, I don’t know that I would limit my description of this as helplessness when we watch someone hurt. It has honor. It has meaning. True enough, we may not be able to stop it from happening, but being there with someone while he/she/they hurt, holding space for them to have their experience safely, has the potential to change cognitive wiring. We can get to those pesky questions later. First, we just have to be. We are amazing critters—both what we are as individuals and what we have the ability to do for one another.

Yes, Dr. Angelou. I agree. When we know better, we do better.

Childhood Trauma Family Courts - 2015

Written almost two years ago as we embarked on the Don’t Pee Here adventure. I’m sad to say that so little has changed and yes, people ARE still freaked out by seeing someone with short hair washing their hands in the women’s restroom. Two years is a long time to wait to pee. You should try it sometime.

Urban Tidepool

A couple of months ago, it was major news that a bill was proposed in Florida to prohibit transgender people from using public, single-sex restrooms that do not match the sex they were born as. I saw arguments for and against, and eventually the story disappeared into the cyber dust that gets stirred up as new stories are generated and we move on to the next thing vying for our attention.

In the Huffpost article I read most recently, the bill’s author talked about the loophole in the current ordinance that prompted him to write his proposal, speculating that “…but [the ordinance] creates a giant loophole for criminals, sexual deviants and sexual predators to walk into a shower, a woman’s locker room under the cover of law.”  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/02/09/florida-transgender-bathroom-law_n_6645910.html

Yeah? Hmmmm….

Last week, I offered training at the middle school of a neighboring town on the current trends in working with…

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Seventeen years ago on the first Saturday in October, I sat in a park in Naperville, shivering and uncomfortable, dressed too lightly for how the temps dropped after the sun went down. I was at a Take Back the Night rally for domestic violence awareness, one of the first assignments of my brand new job running an agency for LGBT youth. I was living in new state (one I wasn’t particularly fond of) and taking on my first executive director role which scared me down to my socks.

Much has changed in the seventeen years I’ve held this job. I’ve been here long enough to watch Gay Straight Student Alliance groups open in almost every high school in that first county where we worked, to watch Don’t Ask, Don’t tell take a nose dive and to watch the United States Supreme Court address same sex marriage rights. Yesterday, I handed off stacks of brochures and other materials to one of the agency interns who is covering that annual rally this evening. Yesterday, I led a training for a group of new volunteers, the thirty third group of volunteers whom I’ve trained to do what Youth Outlook (www.youth-outlook.org) does.

I came to this job from working in the HIV field in the days before drug cocktails were introduced, when HIV was still an almost immediate death sentence, when PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophyaxis for HIV prevention) could not even have been imagined and fear was the letter of the law when it came to unprotected sex. In my first year in that position in the HIV field, thirty two of the people I worked with, friends, co-workers, and clients, died. Many of them were alone, abandoned by their families, and some of them had AIDS dementia eating holes in their brains as they walked around the group home naked and urinating down heat registers, losing all sense of the people they were before they got sick. My graduate degree in social work did not prepare me for that. It did not prepare me to follow men around with towels to place gently across their laps in my efforts to afford them some privacy and some dignity. “Would you mind if I just set this here? Is that okay for you?”

It was a challenge to leave that position given what I saw of the opportunities to be of service to people who had rarely—and in some situations, never—experienced having support and it was even more a challenge to move halfway across the country to do it. I’m not sure I would have worked up the nerve on my own.  It was only after conversations with my closest friends that I realized taking the position running an agency for LGBT youth was the next logical step in my career.  As one friend observed, “What a privilege to go from helping people die with dignity to helping people live celebrating who they are!”

Since the days when the board of directors first hired me (despite the fact that at 32, I looked more like Harry Potter than Daniel Radcliffe ever did), this job has been about creating space that is safe, celebratory, and empowering. Surrounding myself with like-minded folks, the reach of that safe space has grown from one county to five counties, covering more than 2200 square miles, and pushing from the edge of Chicago into a rural IL farm community where I have to bet that LGBT issues are not often a topic at the dinner table.

Our growth as an agency is wonderful, no doubt. The number of our programs has grown from two in 1998 to seventeen at the end of this last school year, with a waiting list of programs we’d like to launch but need additional funding and people power to do well. All good. Who could complain? But I wouldn’t say that’s the best part. Maybe the best parts are things like what I saw happen this week when a thirteen year old boy joined me to do a community education program and spoke openly for the first time about being bullied to the point of not wanting to use his school’s bathrooms because they were not safe. As if it weren’t enough to hear his moving story, I also got to watch him receive a standing ovation for his presentation from the hundred or so professionals who were there to hear him.

Or maybe the best parts are the changes I’ve been here long enough to see in relation to parenting and parent acceptance of LGBT kids. Ten years ago, it was rare that I’d hear from a parent. If I did hear from one, it was likely to be along the lines of, “My kid cannot attend THOSE groups. My kid is not allowed to be gay.”  It’s entirely possible they said those things because I DID look like Harry Potter. It’s kind of hard to tell. But, I digress. So after hearing such comments back in the day, I would chuckle to myself and think, “Yeah, you let me know how that goes, okay?”  Now when I hear from parents, it’s one of two things. First, they want information about the drop-in centers. And second, they tell me things like, “I know my kid is gay. I’ve known for years. I love my kid. I want my kid to be happy. I just don’t know what to say or where the resources are!”  This, we can help them with!

It is an act of revolution to create space that allows youth to take hold of their futures in a positive way. It is an act of revolution to listen to them actively and work with them to affect change. I stand in awe of our revolutionaries and admire the people who effect change in non-violent ways—by holding hands, giving congratulatory thumps on the back, offering a shoulder to lean on. Such an approach allows people who struggle to regroup and then continue on with their cause, a natural and nurturing recharge process.

If you’ve read any draft of Urban Tidepool, you know that one of the questions I raise is how we, as adults, come to find room in our hearts and lives to give, to support, when little or none was provided to us. When I think about that question in terms of my professional roles and the relationships formed therein, I know such space was created for me in multiple settings, through multiple professional mentors and supervisors. I look at what Youth Outlook does today…at the young man speaking with dignity, wit, and great insight of the efforts made to wear him down, wear him out, make him less than, and his refusal to be made less than…and every day, I thank the people who created safe space for me, so that I, in turn, may help create safe space for him. For his friends. For the people he hasn’t met experiencing similar situations.

Seventeen years ago, a gentle revolution started in a park in Naperville and I brought to it all of the tools and all of the arms of my mentors and supervisors who taught me about interconnectedness and respect. They would never have dreamed of allowing me (or Harry Potter) to experience those jobs, those roles, and those worlds as if in vacuum. Tonight, the revolution continues, and gentle warriors in the form of soft-spoken 13 year old boys change the course of schools and communities. There’s no fife player. There’s no drummer. We are blessed that there has been little blood shed. What there is, is a lot of hand holding. A lot of back thumping. And a hell of a lot of shoulder leaning. This is how our revolution progresses.

“What a privilege to go from helping people die with dignity to helping people live celebrating who they are.”

Until you’ve led your own revolution, you have no idea.

And just for chuckles, since it IS LGBT History month, the Harry Potter look-alike photo from the summer I was hired as Executive Director:

Harry Potter

Lead with Your Light

Posted: September 4, 2015 in Blog
Tags: , , , , ,

Sometimes I find social media overwhelmingly negative, a stream of snarky political comments, ongoing complaints about ailments, insults, and verbal attacks from total strangers. Sometimes I also find that it’s the right move to close my laptop and stop reading. It’s curious to me that we (the global “we”) have this platform to share good news , to wish each other well, to celebrate those things that are going right in our lives, and yet so much of what I see posted is negative.  It makes me wonder two things. One—have we really gotten so lonely that the only way to get our emotional needs met is to dump complaints on Facebook?  Two—have we just gone so numb from communicating that way that it no longer strikes us as odd to advertise things we used to keep private? And okay, it makes me wonder a third thing—what if we did chose to talk about what’s right and worth celebrating as much or maybe even more than we talk about what’s wrong?

In one of her older books, Caroline Myss talks about this as victim language. Your victim language knows and seeks out my victim language, and together we keep the culture of being victimized alive.  How can we ever stop being victims if that’s only language we have?  This makes me ponder where the language is for survival. For thriving. For happiness. Are we losing our capability to experience those?

And yet, I know this cannot be true. I have several friends who are dealing with serious issues right now, including one who is receiving chemo for one of the grimmest kinds of cancer.  None of these warrior women post their challenges to Facebook or send out tweets about it. They are, instead, taking each day as it comes, and finding joy in what they are able to find joy in.

Yesterday I was left humbled and speechless by a text from the friend receiving chemo.  It included a photo of her, head newly shaved because most of her hair has fallen out, with an expression on her face that can only be described as “totally her”—beautifully bald and appearing to be laughing. The next couple of texts talked of wanting to go out for pizza with me soon. She’s almost ready.  I’m in, whenever she feels up to it!

We all have options about how we meet our challenges, no matter how big. I have been most fortunate to be able to surround myself with warrior women who meet their challenges head on and find joy in that process. While they are focused on the joy, very little scares them. Instead of shrinking up, they actually expand. They opt to share their internal light with the people in their lives, surrounding us –even filling us—with a warm, white glow when we’re with them…and if their light is strong enough, even when they are not with us.  You know these people. We all do. They’re the people it feels good to be around, and you may not even realize why.  The way I have to come to think of them is that they lead with their light.

Such warrior women are reminders for me about who I want to be in this world. We all have that light. What we choose to do with it is up to us. It isn’t a matter of simply following the light, although that’s never a bad idea (unless you’re starring in the movie Poltergeist). It’s bigger than just following it. What would be different in our collective world and in your own private world if we chose to lead with our light? Is it possible that we would then become those kinds of people that feel good to other people?  Would we end up, even inadvertently, sharing joy?  What if sharing joy and light were the standard?

This is not to say that we shouldn’t share our concerns, fears and grief with other people. That all makes us the very real people we are. Fear, grief and anger are very real things that can take us off our feet sometimes. This is more a question of focus and of where/how we choose to share both celebration and difficulty. True connection, as experienced in emotional intimacy, builds us up. I believe it adds to our capacity for depth of feeling, including joy.

It is an intentional thing, both the cultivating of the light and the leading with it, even in times of tremendous difficulty. As we head into a new season of restoration and reflection, I wish you time to consider leading with your light and the presence of joy and the depth of feeling in our world.  And in yours.

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“Ohana means family. Family means nobody is left behind or forgotten.”

Simultaneous truths can be difficult to grasp, especially since we are engineered from the time we are tiny people to buy into binary systems on lots of topics. If we believe Point A, then we must not believe Point B. What happens at those times when Point A and Point B are both true for us?

I’ve wondered many times about my own experience of “family” since starting to write Urban Tidepool. It being a subjective experience, there’s no way to know how it compares to other people’s experiences of “family”, of having family and being with family. I wonder how other people attach or not, commit or not, process that movement from the outer social circle of acquaintance to the inner circle of being considered family of choice.  I assume people do that differently than I do, at least the processing part.

On a broader scale, I’ve wondered about and dabbled in researching how orphans experience family later in life. In the mental health field, we now have the ACE test that encourages clinicians to consider the later-in-life physical health implications of childhood trauma.  Most of the information that I’ve found so far on the later-in-life effects of growing up without parents focus on kids in orphanages in third world countries—certainly a respectable topic that warrants research but nothing that fits what I’m looking for.

Oddly, the comment that stands out the most for me is from a Disney movie. Well, for folks who have met me and actually watched Disney movies with me, it probably isn’t odd or any big surprise.  The comment above, from Lilo and Stitch, comes from a bittersweet scene in which Lilo clutches a photo of her deceased parents and makes that statement to Stitch in her efforts to attach to him and to have him attach to her, suggesting that she is recalling something that one of her parents used to say. We all have our own understanding and varying levels of tolerance around what family should do and be. For Lilo, it included a four-armed alien “dog” who bit his own tail and rolled himself around the room like a tire when he was upset. Hey. Who am I to judge?

Creating a family where there is little or– for some folks–nothing left of one’s biological family becomes a declaration of life. While I can’t say that my experience of “family” is like or unlike anyone else’s, it is safe to say that most of us are healthier beings if we have a sense of attachment and connection. It keeps us from biting our own tails and rolling around the room like a tire. No. Don’t ask me how I know that.  That’s a topic for another day. Or another book.

My sister-in-law once observed to me, “Most people are lucky if they go through life and make one really good friend. You’re surrounded by them.”

Damn right.

The curious part of that fact is that I don’t typically seek these people out. I have noticed time after time that the people who come to play the most important roles in my life are not people I’ve gone looking for, and in some cases, I have actively resisted meeting or getting to know them.  A partner? Not on your life! A mentor? No way! A best friend? None for me, thanks! A PRIEST? Get real! A coach?  Oh hell no! The universe has such a great sense of humor! It is seemingly unfamiliar with the trust issues that many orphans carry into adulthood and drops people on to our paths to mess with the tidy, compartmentalized set-up of our lives.

Or as a friend commented to me a while ago, “You don’t have an issue with trust. You bought the whole damn subscription.”

Again. Damn right. That happens. Ya learn to work with it.

So back to the simultaneous truths I was talking about before we meandered down Memory Lane…

Creating a family of choice as an adult is a celebratory act. We survived. Whatever it was that separated us from our bio family—death, divorce, mental illness, addiction, family reaction to our coming out, we survived it. And we came out the other side still whole enough to want to make some connections with people we care about, and still whole enough to want to be cared about. They are enormous steps for people who have purchased that subscription to the Journal of a Universal Lack of Trust to acknowledge the wound left by loss, to resign ourselves to the knowledge that nothing and no one can ever heal that wound and it’s just something we are all gonna live with for the rest of our days, to admit that we are changed by those experiences and– dammit all—despite all of that, we still want to be and appreciate being connected to other people.

It’s never an easy feat.  On my more cynical days, I ponder why anyone in their right mind would continue to pursue important relationships with people when important relationships with people are exactly the difficulty in the first place. How do we balance such cynicism, punch through the unwillingness to trust and experience closeness AND risk that loss over and over again? Granted, the later losses look different, and probably feel different as adult coping skills and cognitive development kicks in…but the risk remains. Why open yourself up for it?

Because, dammit. This is what we’re here for. It’s what makes us gloriously human.

“Ohana means family. Family means nobody is left behind or forgotten.”

So I don’t know if I experience this like other people.  Family, of origin and of choice, is both the greatest gift and the greatest challenge to face.  The connections I celebrate with my family of choice bring joy and warmth and acceptance to my life. The connection I share with my sister, my remaining sibling, allows me a sense of history. I do have a past. I was a child—or at least a very short adult. She holds some of those memories in a way that no one else on the planet will ever be able to do. It’s a beautiful thing. And simultaneous truths…the disruption of those connections summons a grief that can feel endless. The pain is exquisite and peerless, echoing previous losses as is the nature of grief, and the only way out is through. I am not embarrassed to say anymore that such grief can and has taken me off my feet.  That’s the risk each time and it’s part of the lighthouse I elected to move back from the eroding shoreline (https://urbantidepool.com/2014/11/15/moving-a-lighthouse/).

Point A.  Family is about exuberance and joy.

Point B. Family is about risking profound loss.

Simultaneous truths. Every day, I commit to making space for both of those concepts and seek the balance between the two, while not biting my own tail and rolling around like a tire. No. Sorry, there’s no photo of THAT.

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I met my first warrior at Corner Bakery on a cold, grey afternoon in 2007.  She’d been recommended to me by two colleagues who thought she’d be able to help with some of the work our agency was doing at the time around funding and fundraising. I was still fueling my caffeine habit and over several cups of hazelnut coffee, we introduced ourselves to each other and began to see where our professional puzzle pieces fit together.

She announced, laughing, that she knew we’d be friends forever when I showed her a photo of my Golden Retriever, Zach, before I showed her a photo of my partner, and then she told me about her King Charles Spaniels before she told me about her husband. She asked all the questions I expected, offered help on several fronts and made a few suggestions about places I could dial back and ask the board members to step up.

She fell in love, she told me. With the agency’s mission, with the stories of the kids I told her, with the volunteers and board members she met, with that picture of Zach and my description of him. She wanted to commit something to us—something tangible and long lasting.

The more I learned about her, the more I wished for a Vulcan mind meld, in which all of the knowledge she’d acquired over her years could be transplanted into my brain. She served on the boards of national social justice and human rights organizations. When she told me how we could better do something, I paid attention as if in a scene from the old TV show, Kung Fu.  “As quickly as you can, snatch the pebble from my hand…”  Just when I thought I had it figured out how to best snatch the pebbles out of her hand on the topic du jour, I usually ended up my nose in the dust, and she’d go wandering nonchalantly away with her handful of pebbles intact. And usually laughing at me. Most often, laughing at me.

Then there were days we did not laugh–could not laugh.

I shared with her some comments made by some of the youth group members about the agency being the whole reason that they were still alive. There was no laughter that day. There was a fierceness, a protectiveness, an outrage that drove our conversation that these kids she thought so much of were at such risk of harm—by others and by themselves.

There were no excuses after this conversation. Not by me. Not by board members. Not by staff. Everything boiled down to one thing—“How much do these kids’ lives mean to you?”  Being tired was not a reason not to achieve. Not getting something done—indefensible.  She got it in a personal way that I hadn’t seen anyone outside the agency ever get it. “How much is Tim’s life worth to you? Or TJ’s? Or Sarah’s?” And to me, “I know you FEEL this. Now make ME feel it with you.”

She was the first person to tell me that I, too, was a warrior. There could have been no greater compliment.

In my mind, she stood 6’ tall and wore a black leather duster coat that reached almost to her feet, sweeping in and out of town for our meetings. Her presence was huge and disarming. In reality, she barely reached my shoulder and I had to lean over to hug her good bye. She came to the agency to volunteer. She became my mentor and she taught me about commitment, about passion, about willful love, about disobedience and rebellion couched in compassion, about waging peace and cultivating respect for all the people on our paths, and about deep, fierce kindness that I could see touched everyone around her.

“When you can snatch the pebble from my hand, it will be time for you to leave.”

I never did get that damn pebble, but it seems not to have mattered. She picked me up, dusted me off and called me a warrior anyway. There will be no greater compliment.

Pay attention on your next trip to Corner Bakery. Or Panera. You never know where you might run into a warrior unexpectedly who might want to commit something long-lasting to you or –as happened for me–who might change your view of your whole self. Don’t let the absence of the leather duster coat fool you!

pebbles

I spent a few days on the Outer Banks last week, a gift from a friend who owns a vacation property in Nags Head. Beyond being just a fun place where you can show up pretty much anywhere as you are, the area holds a lot of sentimental value for me. It is the last place I spent a block of time with my brother –the Major, as I call him–before he was admitted to the transplant unit to wait for his new heart. It’s where we planned to return for our first fishing expedition when he got said new heart— one of those all day charters where we could catch fish as big as ourselves and spend hours wrestling it into the boat. I stood on the grounds of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse on Thursday, feeling at once a curious combination of having come home to the candy-cane striped landmark and longing to go home to a place that ceased to exist when the Major didn’t survive long enough to receive his new heart.

That lighthouse survived. In fact, that lighthouse was relocated, in its entirety, so that it could.

Think about it. That whole structure was MOVED. All 208 feet of it.

In the summer of 1999, after about a decade of planning, engineers removed the front steps from the structure, ran tracks across the grounds, jacked up the lighthouse, and started the move along those tracks. Well, I’m sure it was more complicated than that, but not being an engineer, I’ll give you the tourist’s take on the move! It took 23 days to move the entire lighthouse 2900 feet in 5 foot increments, the tallest brick structure ever moved in history.

We all have them, you know. Lighthouses, I mean. Those structures in our lives that warn us of danger, warn of us of the Diamond Shoals just beyond the shoreline.  Don’t go beyond this point—this is not safe. Observing that rule keeps us safe…until just like in Cape Hatteras, the sand begins to erode, threatening to topple the structure and destroy what we’ve built our lives around. And then, just like in Cape Hatteras, ya gotta get your hands around that 5000-ton lighthouse and ya gotta move it.

My lighthouse was and is the writing of Urban Tidepool. When I started writing, in the summer of 2011, I told no one. Only my spouse knew I was putting some of my history into writing.  As I wrote, I was convinced that if I ever managed to get published, that I should never do that under my real name. I had a pen name all picked out. Fear drove the decision. My history could never be allowed to associate with the person I’ve become. Too much risk to my job…too much risk to my life.

Except for one thing. That’s my story. That IS what happened. Those things ARE what I saw and what I lived with.  They’re mine. If I take away any of those stories, would I be the same “me” that I am now? Those were not great experiences. Some of them were awful experiences.  But all of those combine to make me the “me” that I am, and most days, I like this me.

I went back to the drawing board on the pen name. Maybe I didn’t need one.

As I wrote, I often felt like I was slogging through emotional wet cement.  I wrote the chapters not in chronological order as I supposed most books were written. I wrote as memories came and pulled other memories up. I’d sit with my laptop, the scene running in my head, trying to capture the events and the words of what played out on those days so many years ago, and I’d be IN that scene. I’d be there.  I was sitting on the couch or the dining room table of my home, sobbing, and completely unaware that I was sobbing as I wrote what I remembered.  I dredged up things I hadn’t thought about in 40 years.

The engineers removed the stairs from the front of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

My usual routine was to write a chapter, tear it open, get it down, then read it to my spouse before I sent it out to my reading team. I’d read with a foot in both worlds, being here on my couch and there in 1979 or 1982, repeating the words that were said to me, or that I had said, reliving humiliation and injury and loss.

The engineers ran tracks across the ground.

When I began to tell a few more people that I was writing a memoir, a great number of them observed to me, “Oh, that must be so cathartic!”

Not exactly.

I’d walked around for more than twenty years believing that my career was merely a house of cards and as soon as people really knew who I was, really KNEW where I had come from, (really knew I hit that nun that one day), that my career would collapse. People would not wish to associate with someone who’d done such things.

The engineers jacked up the lighthouse.

It tore everything open, this writing. I came nose to nose with stories I’ve wanted not to think about since I was eight years old—not that I really WANTED to think about them back then. I came nose to nose with the things I could see now as an adult…pick up in my hands and turn all around and see…and think, “Wow, that was really f*cked up.” And I was going to put that out there for people to know about. Not because I think I have tons of answers for how we can all move forward through such circumstances (because I don’t) but to raise questions about how we can do better what we do for kids in our careers. My lighthouse was standing at the edge of the beach. Could telling my story offer anything to improve what social workers and teachers are trained to do? Could it generate conversation among other folks who are not social workers and teachers, but maybe do something else…like coach soccer on Saturday morning or tutor kids who need a little extra help in one area of their schooling?  I thought maybe it could. I kept writing.

Mother’s death. Family violence. Addiction. Animal torture. Father’s death. Homelessness. High risk behavior. Terror. Rage. Devastation. Friends. Connection. Hope.  Breaking open. Survival.

The engineers started to move an entire lighthouse along steel mats, 126 feet per day, in 5 foot increments.

I finished the first full draft in January 2013. In February 2014, more than a full year later, I met a friend for a Coke on a Saturday afternoon and, looking over the edge of the glass at her, I said, “I think I’m having a meltdown.”

She nodded and replied gently, “I’m not surprised that you’re having a meltdown after writing that. I’m only surprised it took you this long.”

I knew in the process of writing that my healing from what happened when I was a kid was still underway. I had put those stories away for a long time, believed in the lighthouse and never went past that point, and finally the shoreline was starting to erode.  I didn’t know that there would be a healing process then from writing about it or how it would affect the people around me as they navigate this process with me.  Sometimes ya gotta get your hands around that 5000-ton lighthouse and ya gotta move it.

It took 23 days and the engineers set the lighthouse down in its new location fully intact, safely away from the eroding shoreline.

It’s taking longer than 23 days to move my lighthouse. The engineers working with me are an admirable group of people with seemingly endless patience, just as deserving of an award as the engineers who moved the Cape Hatteras structure. Allowing my lighthouse to stand on an eroding beach wasn’t the best choice I could have made. Sometimes the only way to change that is to be jacked up, nudged to a new location and set down on a new foundation.

Lighthouses. We all have ‘em.

Cape Hatteras lighthouse_edited-1