46th Story of Transgression: I was Raised by Addict Parents

                                Me at My 6th Grade Graduation

In 6th grade we lived in a one-bedroom apartment alongside the off-ramp of a highway (our building was once hit by a semi truck). Ours was the only residence on a block with a car dealership, liquor store, and mini-stripmall. If I remember correctly, we were living on combined alimony and child support from my dad, which came to about $650/month, in addition to a tiny income my step-dad was making by picking items for a thrift store a few hours a week. Many of our household items came from this store.

My resourceful stepdad, Jay, built a wall of shelves to separate the living room from the dining room and create a 2nd bedroom. My younger sister and I shared the regular bedroom, but we had no privacy since everyone had to go through our room to get to the bathroom and go through my parents’ room to get to the kitchen (though it was certainly better than the 18 ft trailer we lived in the summer prior when I would wake up to my parents having sex).

Our front yard was a concrete rectangle between the two one-story buildings of five apartments each that made up the complex. The ends were contained by waist high metal fences with a gate. When our parents forced us outside for hours at a time so that they could sniff crank up their noses and smoke pot with their friends, my sister and I would bring a cassette player out to the porch and play Madonna or the radio and make up dance routines.

It was the year I started public school after attending a Christian private school since kindergarten. The only music I had heard up until this point were church hymns and Neil Diamond, the one secular singer my mom refused to give up for my dad’s conservative Christianity. As a musically inclined child I quickly fell in love with pop music and the icons coming up at the time – Whitney Houston, Prince, and Michael Jackson. I had a secret dream of joining the drill team at junior high the following year. I was trying my best to choreograph routines, but while I had a good sense of rhythm I was not at all inclined towards choreographed movement. I never worked up the courage to try out. Even if I’d had, we couldn’t have afforded the uniform or any other costs that inevitably come with extracurricular activities.

Sixth grade was also the first year that I had to manage going to school while living in poverty with addicts.

My most vivid memory of this apartment is the night that my parents simultaneously got drunk and high on crank and then fought, which had become our new normal. But on this particular night, Jay, in his ridiculous inebriation, pissed in the refrigerator, which set my mom on a record rampage. The fight ended with Jay on the roof of the apartment building, hooting and hollering like a monkey, and waving a 2×4 around while the police forced him down (were any of us able to look our neighbors in the eye after that?). During another substance fueled argument Jay pushed over the wall of shelves he’d built onto the floor and many sentimental items of my mother’s were broken. He never hit my mom (he was gentle and adoring when not inebriated), but he did take his overwhelming frustration with her out on property. We went through several phones that year.

My other vivid memory is the night my mom was so high that I had to hold her up and walk her to her bed. I was only 11 years old and already our roles were reversed. Little did I know that we would repeat a version of this scene nearly 30 years later, on Christmas night in my own home with my own children, when she was delirious with sleeping pills and pain medication. She knocked over the tree, breaking ornaments, and she pushed the shower door out of it’s frame because she couldn’t walk straight. I had to babysit her for the rest of the night to keep her contained on the couch so she wouldn’t take even more medication and so the rest of the family could sleep in peace. Eight months later she would die in her bed, alone, of an accidental overdose due to those same medications.

My step-dad was a good man, but he was also a maintenance alcoholic since age 17. He drank a case of beer a day simply to maintain during our more peaceful years. He came from an abusive home and then he was sent to Vietnam, which he never spoke about in detail. Like many men of his generation he was emotionally broken and he self medicated with alcohol, along with different drugs at different times over the course of his life. He left my mom for a woman that offered him heroin. He was a tramp before and after he lived with us. He was incapable of a normal life.

My mom, however, was not a typical addict. She could pick something up and then put it down with ease. But she kept picking things up. She believed she needed something outside of herself to save her from her pain. Men. Jesus. Alcohol. Sex and a codependent relationship with an alcoholic. Crank. Jesus. Alcohol. Jesus. Pain pills. Fentanyl patches. And then she died of a medication overdose. She never found peace with herself. Pain eventually overshadowed everything she put her heart into. And while I can blame the medical industry for her death (a future essay), I know that this habit of escaping her pain – pain that included living with the horror of Morgellon’s her last year – played a part in the end.

When I write stories like this, the ones based in memories that hurt, I think about the girl who lived through all of this. At the time it all seemed normal, but now I am utterly amazed by my own resilience. I am proud that beginning at 14 I did everything I knew how to make my life better. I never allowed culture’s story about me or my circumstances to determine my story. And eventually I learned how to create my own safety, as well as how to be safe for my people to be with (because family violence is inherited).

There is a cultural story about a woman having it all, but that story doesn’t apply to me. After having grown up in poverty with addict parents and the repeated traumas that led to Complex PTSD, having it all looks like having a safe home, a healthy partnership, and the financial stability to support a beautiful little life. That’s it. Anything more is a cherry on top of the sundae that is my life today.

Image: I am dancing at my 6th grade graduation in a dress I made myself because we couldn’t afford a fancy dress from a department store and my mom was an excellent seamstress.

Radical Inclusion and the Soul

It is impossible to define precisely what the soul is. Definition is an intellectual enterprise anyway; the soul prefers to imagine. We know intuitively that soul has to do with genuineness and depth, as when we say certain music has soul or a remarkable person is soulful. When you look closely at the image of soulfulness, you see that it is tied to life in all its particulars – good food, satisfying conversation, genuine friends, and experiences that stay in the memory and touch the heart. Soul is revealed in attachment, love, and community, as well as in retreat on behalf of inner communing and intimacy.” Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul

One of my early teachers in radical inclusion by another name was Thomas Moore. In the early 90’s he wrote about our culture’s “loss of soul.” He believes a lack of care for and expression of the soul leads to obsessions, addictions, violence, and loss of meaning. He believes that caring for our soul – and the myriad of quirky ways it expresses itself through our identities, our passions, our homes, our self care rituals, etc. – is vital for humans to thrive. And so do I. I believe we are having crisis of loss of both soul and spirit in our culture. I believe we need to reignite our relationships with our souls, become intimate with ourselves so that we can be intimate with others.

What I take from Moore’s teaching is that accepting everything particular about who we are and how we are moved to show up in the world is vital to our thriving individually and collectively. Radically including our quirks and collections, our kinks and brain differences, and everything else that makes us who we are leads to a sense of belonging to ourselves and with the people who are willing to radically include all of the pieces of us.

My partner and I have a radically inclusive marriage. What that means is that we accept and include every weird thing we do as a part of who we are, whether it’s my need to hand sew dolls while we watch tv in the evenings or his need to eat jalapenos with nearly every meal or the particular ways we both keep house. He radically includes my moody nature and I radically include his need to have a space of his own, even if it’s just a corner where the dining room would normally be. Instead of experiencing annoyance or resentment with one another’s quirky ways, we choose to include them in our lives with compassion, as well as humor when we need to relieve some tension. We are willing to laugh at ourselves and so we are not offended when the other is amused by our weirdness. These particular expressions of our soulfulness contribute to the joy and vibrancy of ourselves and consequently our marriage.

I believe the same to be true in community. There was an openness to quirkiness in sex-positive community that I haven’t experienced anywhere else. Since it takes a certain vulnerability to share sexuality with others, it is easier to be vulnerable in other ways. And since a radically inclusive sex party means that every kind of kink is welcome, everyone consequently feels invited to be the rest of themselves in such a space. Our community was joyous and vibrant because we were not just allowed, but invited to express our soulfulness, whether that looked like a performance on stage or a scene in the dungeon or dancing in a Furry costume or talking openly while sharing a cannabis pipe in the smoking area, we felt free to be and express ourselves in a way that we didn’t experience in the rest of life. That acceptance radiated out beyond parties into community, friendship, and romance.

Nurturing soulfulness in ourselves and in our collective experiences is one of the needed shifts we need to make to heal ourselves of the trauma of oppression. Oppression tells us we cannot be who we are. Oppression tries to crush the soul. Oppression tells us that we can’t express our emotions, dress differently than the norm, transcend the gender binary, queer our lives, or think differently than the mainstream. A world without oppression will mean that each of us can be ourselves and express ourselves as we desire. But it will require that we each rebuild our relationship to our soul, to nurture an intimacy with ourselves as the unique expression of life that we are. And then to spread the radical inclusion of self and soul into the rest of life.

45th Story of Transgression – I No Longer Believe Capitalism’s Story about Purpose

“Passion is for the rich, the rest of us work.” From the Television Show 911

Like many of my Gen X peers, and the Millenials following, I spent a lot of my life thinking about purpose, what I’m here to do. I’ve had a whole lot of ideas since childhood, from astronaut to high school teacher to art therapist to minister to best selling non-fiction author (yes, I believed best-selling to be part of my purpose because purpose and success are all tangled up in capitalism). But now that I renewed my relationship with the ecosystem I live in while simultaneously coming to terms with disability, I’m looking at purpose from an entirely different angle. I believe my purpose is who I am in relationship to the world around me, not what I produce as work. I have lived my purpose in every job, in every volunteer endeavor, in my parenting, in my relationship with plants, and in my relationships with my Beloveds, regardless of my circumstances.

Purpose is a cultural construct that became a primary life goal in the 90s, alongside the idea that work doesn’t have to mean drudgery or corporate compliance. Mythologist Joseph Campbell taught us we can follow our bliss (that’s the first voice I remember saying such a thing) and so we turned finding-our-bliss into an industry where we pay others to help us find our purpose and then turn it into work. Capitalism conflates purpose with making money, which leads to tremendous anxiety and frustration for those who can’t seem to discover what they are “supposed to do,” or those who fail to turn their gifts into thriving work, or those who don’t have the financial/racial/abled/cis privilege to access their so-called purpose through education or entrepreneurship. It also means that we don’t honor those who do work that doesn’t appear purposeful – our janitors and housekeepers, parking lot attendants, fast food workers, etc. The work that is typically considered purposeful is either upper strata services that primarily the middle class and higher can access, or community service work where individuals intentionally choose purpose over wealth because service isn’t honored as a product (non-profit, social justice, spiritual service, etc.). Capitalism’s valuing of purpose focuses entirely on what we do (produce) rather than who we are or what values we live.

I don’t believe it is my purpose to write or make plant medicine anymore than it was my purpose to run operations for service organizations. These are my gifts or passions and I have many that I could turn into work. Purpose is something different. The Universe itself moves toward a singular purpose – to grow and nurture the diversity and complexity of life. That is how humans with our conscious ability to contemplate purpose exist in the first place. It is arrogance to imagine that we have any purpose more important or divine than the Universe that sustains us, and this arrogance may be the end of our species. If we are to survive climate change we need to understand that our purpose is simply to return the gift we’ve been given by reciprocally nurturing life in our sphere of existence, much like Indigenous cultures have done for millenia.

Our purpose is in our relationships, how we relate to humans, non-humans, and our eco-systems as a whole.

Our purpose is in our values – what we value most.

Do we value life or do we value wealth?

Do we value connection or do we value transaction?

Do we value domination or do we value reciprocity?

Do we value short-term individual gain or long-term sustenance for the community?

If we collectively put as much energy into living the Universe’s purpose as we do hustling for our individual purpose, then we would probably have a chance of species survival. But the untangling of capitalism’s belief systems from our innate understanding of our place in the Universe is big work. Capitalism values domination over reciprocal relationship, materialism over honoring the spirit in all things, and infinite growth of profit over nurturing life. Capitalism can’t believe in nurturing life because it would naturally provide a limit to growth and profit. To nurture life we have to sustainably manage resources, but capitalism uses up every resources in its path (including humans)  for today’s benefit without consideration of tomorrow’s consequence (look up the insect apocalypse).

Now that I understand my place within my ecosystem and how ecosystems functions as reciprocal relationships based on generosity, I refuse to believe that my purpose is to play capitalism’s game by turning my gifts into products. I also refuse to believe my partner cannot live their purpose because our circumstances require them to be a UPS driver, a cog in a big corporate machine, for the union benefits that support our lives, my health, and our future. There is enormous privilege in the ability to find one’s “bliss” and tremendous ignorance in believing that everyone can do so within the current system of extreme economic disparity. Bliss isn’t usually a consideration if you come from poverty and have children to support. It may not be a consideration when you have a disabled partner or parent to support, and there may be significant limitations for the disabled or elder person’s ability to work at all. Does that mean a disabled or elder person does not have purpose? Does the entrepreneur who fails to develop a thriving business have no purpose? Between people in poverty and the working class, disabled, elder and trans folk, as well as people who fail to turn their gifts into commodities (most business fail in the first 3 years), there are a lot of people who do not fit into the reigning beliefs about purpose.

The consequences of capitalism’s story about purpose are harmful to most of us. As we untangle ourselves from this brutal economic system, we need to analyze each and every story we are telling ourselves about the world and our place within it. When it comes to work we need to look at the stories we tell about purpose, value/worth, success, and relationship. We need to critique the ways in which we compromise our humanity, and the humanity of others, for the sake of the almighty dollar. We need to look at the ways we commodify the earth that sustains us through generosity rather than transaction. We need to look at the ways materialism has compromised relationship, community, and spiritual life, as well as our future ability to live on this planet.

And then we need to start telling ourselves new stories about our collective and singular purpose – to create and nurture thriving life in everything we do.

Voice and Power

The Word by Meghan Oona Clifford

During our adoption triad healing process with the Alive program last year, our Beloved Friend, who was facilitating, reflected to me the potency of my voice. I have a naturally powerful and loud voice, which can be used as a tool or a weapon (the same is true of my writing).

I used the power of my voice when I played Rizzo in Grease in high school and I could project my voice to back of the theatre to draw all of the audience into my songs. I used it for good when I spoke to and about the Pride and sex positive organizations I co-led and other sorts of speaking engagements I participated in over the years. And I used it for good when I taught people how to create a sense of belonging through radical inclusion. My voice is a strength when I use it consciously.

My voice is a weapon when I use my power and loudness to take up space and be heard in conflict with others. It is a weapon when I yell at my partners. I am aware that I get louder when I believe I am not being heard and/or when I am trauma triggered, but those are not excuses for causing harm. When my loudness is used to try to overpower another it causes hurt and fear. Healthy relating can’t occur if someone is in fear. This is why the Alive program is based on creating safety in ourselves and in our relationships. Some people have triggers around being yelled at because their parents or other authorities used their voices as weapons in emotional and verbal abuse (as my own mother did). Some people immediately shrink when a person gets loud. The last thing I want is diminish or overpower others or contribute to their feeling unsafe.

My Beloved Friend also reflected back to me that when I am in an open and curious space I have a softness that invites people to be intimate with me. And I can see that. I draw people into vulnerability and intimacy with my openness and lack of judgment. I can be incredibly accepting of our humanness and all the complex emotional realities we live with.

And I have a tendency to speak in absolute truths when in conflict (as most people do). When paired with my loud voice I can sound like a know-it-all and put people off. This is feedback I received from several loved ones over the years and it finally sunk in due to my work with the program. When I lose my openness and curiosity, when I put up hard walls and raise my voice, when I become self righteous and contemptuous, I can be intimidating and scary. Again, that is the last thing I want. My heart is wired for connection, not superiority or dominance.

The reality is that no one holds the ultimate truth when two or more people are relating, especially in conflict when our old traumas may cloud our vision. We all have pieces of the truth mixed up with our projections and assumptions. When we are in conflict we need to be able to speak our truths safely so that we can find the kernel of truth between us, which includes using our voice as a tool of connection rather than a weapon. We need openness and curiosity rather than hard edges and insurmountable walls if we have any desire to resolve and repair what is broken between us.

I’ve not spent much time in my life thinking about power, especially my own. But I think it is important to be aware of how we use (or give away) our power, including the power of our voice, in all of our relationships. We each have the power to choose who we are and how we relate to others. We have power in our gifts and our voice that can we can choose to use in the light or be used by in the shadow. We have the power of sovereignty that we direct or allow to be directed by others. Our deepest liberation lies in our own hands, no matter our outer circumstances. This is what Nelson Mandela and Elie Wiesel teach us. When we live from that place of liberation, we are using our power and our voice to ignite and nurture the flame of liberation in others.

44th Story of Transgression: I Allowed a Narcissist-Sadist to Control My Mind

The relationship before I committed to Eros was dangerous and deeply damaging. I struggle to call it abusive because it was a different kind of harm, the kind that plays out between layers of consent in a BDSM relationship. It was also the kind that plays out between a narcissist and an empath, a dynamic duo in emotional destruction. This relationship was the trauma that immediately preceded my Fibro explosion in 2011 and I don’t think that’s coincidental. Fibro is typically triggered by trauma and I think this relationship was the last straw after 3 years of constant emotional uproar, beginning with my mother’s death (also a narcissist) and simultaneous end of my first marriage (to a narcissist…notice the pattern?).

He was a predator rather than someone who hit me. He admitted to hunting me online before making contact to learn how to pull my strings. He flattered me and courted me to gain my trust, then he preyed on my emotional vulnerabilities, using deeply personal things shared outside of our play in our scenes, even though I explicitly and repeatedly drew lines between real life and play. He violated emotional consent in ways I hadn’t considered possible, like using my rape in a humiliation scene. He asked for monogamy, then told me I was never more than a summer fling. He spun fantasies of owning me every day, then gaslit me for having expectations.

I don’t talk about this relationship because most people don’t understand the complex dance between masochist and sadist, and why I would let him do many of the things he did in the first place.   I feel culpable and ashamed because I ignored all of the many red flags to experience the intense arousal and pleasure he elicited in me.

I don’t know how to explain mind control and what it meant to start every day on my knees in surrender to his voice. How it was both comforting and disturbing for this strong, independent woman to let someone direct me to do things far outside my comfort zone and push through my ethical boundaries in fantasy. I became addicted to our interactions so that when he withdrew I went into a fit. I found myself on my knees in despair rather than desire. It was then I knew I reached my bottom as an unhealthy masochist.  

I can’t explain why I am a masochist in the first place, why my sexual desire involves pain, objectification, and humiliation inflicted by people I love. I can’t explain why I love sadists and how they torment me, or the altered state that arises when they play me like an instrument. I just know I am happier in life when I am in a healthy kinky relationship where these dynamics can be played out safely and with great love. I am fortunate now to have a partner who can be caring when I need and enjoys tormenting me when I need. Our light and dark sides are a perfect match.

I don’t believe my history of trauma has anything to do with my kinky nature, other than physical masochism providing a way for me to process big feelings. I believe I was born this way, just as I was born queer. I think instead that my trauma patterns played out in all of my relationships until I changed the narrative with Eros and our adoption triad. The abusive kinky relationship was the last in a long series of unhealthy relationships that began when I was a teenager, most of them not involving kink. I think the exaggeration of the pattern through BDSM helped me to see that my concept of myself as worthy of care was broken In fact, at that time I also had a misguided idea that I was a masochist for God, experiencing transformation through triggers, as if suffering was the only way to heal. I blame Christianity for that, teaching me love was pain and sacrifice. I intentionally put myself in harm’s way in several relationships in order to evolve out of my trauma. It worked, but it was hell getting from there to here.