I Rebel Against the Culture of Exclusion

breaking_chains-208145743_stdI live on the margins because I cannot conform to a culture that demands repression, suppression, and oppression in order to belong, a culture based on exclusion of self and other. My deepest rebellion is against the idea that we are not acceptable in the fullness of our complex humanity. I have been rebelling against the oppressors of our humanity since I was a teenager and recognized that what mainstream culture was selling did not resonate with what I know to be true in the depths of my being. Humans are beautiful in their fullness. Living from a place of wholeness is the healthiest for body, mind, heart, and soul, and wholeness means embracing the parts of ourselves we experience as broken.

I’ve learned that when people don’t like me it’s because I tell the truth about what is real rather than hide under a polite veneer of conflict avoidance. I’ve lost jobs and friends because I am unable to pretend that we don’t have big hard feelings as part of our experience. At first this was a big hit to my confidence. But now I’ve decided I’m ok with it because a leader worth supporting or someone who truly cares for me wouldn’t ask me to exclude a piece of myself to make them comfortable.

I tell the truth about what is real because I love and accept every part of this being human. I love your gifts and I love your neurosis. I love you smiling in the bright light of day and I love you sobbing as you sit on the bathroom floor in the dark. I love you when we have a deep conversation and I love you when you can’t look me in the eye. I love you when you are satisfied and I love you when you act out because your needs aren’t being met. All I ask is that you meet me at the table without violence to be real together and find solutions for conflict that come closest to meeting all of our needs.

I understand that this thing called life is both beautiful and brutal. I know that most humans are both good and broken people. I know every self destructive behavior is based on an unmet need, likely a need that was not met by the people who were supposed to provide nurturing and care. And I just want to be real about it. I need to be real about it. We need to be real about it. We need to cast off the shackles of a culture that says we have to repress ourselves and oppress someone else in order to belong. We need to create and nurture spaces where it is safe to be brave and be all of ourselves.

We Have a Problem with Respect

Respect Merriam-Webster Dictionary

A feeling or understanding that someone or something is important, serious, etc., and should be treated in an appropriate way.

respect posterWhat I am learning about respect is that it isn’t only a feeling or understanding that someone is worthy of being acknowledged and treated as if they matter, it also means acting on that understanding. It means treating people with respect through your words and actions, whether it’s the people you live with or the people you share a country and a planet with. It is a sort of holding space for the complexity of humanness.

Respect is the basis for inclusion. A lack of respect leads to bullying and other harmful behaviors. I don’t know that we can all love everyone, but I do believe we can all respect everyone for their complex humanity. You cannot include people in your vision, your community, your nation that you don’t respect, that you don’t acknowledge as a human equal to you in their deserving of dignity and safe space to be who they are, whether they are a birth mother, black, trans*, autistic, a refugee from Syria, a person with unusual fetishes, or the person without a home that you pass on the city street every day. All of these humans are more than the one label we give them, which is in itself a sign of disrespect if we fail to also acknowledge that we all contain a multitude of labels within our complex identities.

Relationships and spaces are not safe for anyone if they include disrespect and bullying.

I experienced disrespect in many ways this past year. I lived with people who thought it was ok to ignore me when I spoke to them, to criticize me for how I cleaned up their messes, to not participate as a partner in caring for the home and let everyone else clean up after them without a word of gratitude, and to bully me for my introversion and birth mother grief. I shared my child with people who thought it was ok to violate our agreements and use my relationship with him as a weapon when I didn’t do what they wanted, and then cast me as the abuser. I worked for people who thought it was ok to ignore my requests to be valued, to dismiss my ideas and attempts to bring value without conversation, to ignore and neglect me, and to lie to my face on multiple occasions to protect themselves from confrontation. I was repeatedly given the message that I am not a human worthy of acknowledgement and respect, let alone safe space to have my thoughts and feelings about my experience.

But this isn’t about blame. I own that I passively endured much of this disrespectful behavior, until I stopped doing so by speaking up and telling the truth, moving out of the shared home, and ending the bullying relationships. I know I allowed myself to be disrespected because I didn’t believe I was worthy. I believed I had to earn attention, respect and love, because that’s how it felt with my mom. I believed being ignored, neglected, criticized and bullied were part of love, like it was with all of my parents growing up. I had to learn to respect myself before I could stand up for myself.

The events mentioned above were all in the past year. I could go back into my life history and find endless examples of ways I allowed myself to be disrespected by one night stands and long time lovers, by leaders I served and community members I served as a leader, and by so-called tribe who seem to believe bullying others is their psycho-spiritual right (taking the idea that everyone is a mirror of ourselves so far that they can say whatever they want to people and if the receiver is hurt by it then they are simply projecting their own stuff – it’s brilliant really because gives adult bullies the perfect justification to wreak emotional havoc on those around them and them shame their victims into feeling they are lacking in their psycho-spiritual development for reacting).

On the other hand, with Eros I experience tremendous respect and safe space for ALL of myself. In fact, he taught me some lessons in respect. He helped me learn to respect myself because he showed such incredible respect for me and he actively encouraged me to have respect for my self care and healing process no matter how it unfolded. And because I used to have a tendency to try to control how the house looked through criticizing him. He spoke up for himself and how it hurt his feelings. When I understood my impact on him I  worked to stop the behavior. In recent months we have only been disrespectful when we’ve been triggered by a conflict and our trauma fueled defenses take over. We are learning how to communicate gently when we are hurt so that we don’t trigger each other. The we avoid all the pain that comes from trauma fueled conflicts. I can’t say we’ll never fight again, but it’s rare. We don’t even get annoyed with one another anymore. We’ve learned to respect each other’s complexities, including the quirks that used to drive us crazy.

It’s the same with an intimate friend that I interact with nearly every day. We both believe deeply in community and inclusion, and our relationship has always been based on a deep mutual respect. There has not been neglect, bullying or criticism. In several years of friendship we’ve only had one significant conflict when we needed each other at the same time in totally different ways and were both disappointed. Over some time we came to a respectful understanding of one another’s experiences and returned to our intimacy.

Now that I know what a relationship based on healthy mutual respect is, I’m not interested in relationship with disrespectful people anymore. Especially bullies. I’m unwilling to passively and quietly endure disrespect from people who claim integrity and inclusion. I will no longer diminish myself and compromise my emotional safety to make others comfortable. I will no longer silently witness people use language and labels to diminish other humans, making them one dimensional and easier to treat with disrespect.

From now on I will stand up for myself and for the people in my life and in the world. I will speak up for respect because I don’t think the rampant bullying and emotional abuse and victim shaming in our culture is ok. I don’t think it’s ok that workers fear their bullying bosses and students fear their bullying teachers. I don’t think it’s ok that people feel smaller with their bullying friends and lovers. I don’t think we should stand back and watch these dynamics happen between people without speaking up for respect and inclusion in all of our homes, classrooms, offices and public spaces.

While I greatly appreciate the movements to include specific communities – women, people of color, lgbtq people, refugee people, people with disabilities, etc. – the reality is that we need to learn how to have respect and create safe spaces that include ALL people.

One of the ways to grow respect for marginalized communities is when a director casts a film/tv show/play or a conference organizer plans keynotes and panels, they should be considering potential inclusion of every visible type of person where it’s possible and appropriate.  There are actors and actresses of every color and nationality. There are experts in every field that have disabilities. Respect grows when identities are visible, their stories are told, and their authority is acknowledged.

When we write and tell stories we should be considering how to include the stories of marginalized identities as part of community narratives rather than focusing on specialized narratives for each identity.  Why do we need a queer literature section and an African-American literature section? They should be included in our libraries and bookstores, classroom syllabi, anthologies and magazines as part of the human narrative. This is how respect grows, with opportunities to learn about one another and hear each other’s stories. We learn we are so much more alike as humans when we are exposed to the complex emotional stories of others.

For myself, as I work with the conundrums of belonging and radical inclusion in a culture of division and exclusion, respect will be one of my foundations for creating safe community spaces, whether through my writing here or interactive art installations or conversation circles or whatever else I come up to further this work. This lesson was hard won and I plan to use what I’ve learned to building stronger and healthier relationships in this new stage of my life.


Stripped by Self Love

Art by Tara McPherson

I am being stripped down to the essentials by acts of loving myself.

A couple years ago I gave up my third child and full-time motherhood, my hometown community, and my professional standing for a special kind of family based in a radically open adoption.

About 6 months ago, after suffering disrespect for my experience and grief as a birth mother, I gave up the family and relationship with my birth son to restore my emotional well-being and heal my lifelong experience with emotional violence and trauma as languages of relationship.

In both cases I chose to abandon everything in order to stop abandoning myself. Loving me and choosing me for the first time in my life is stripping me down in a way I could have never anticipated.

When I started looking for work in Portland I said that I wouldn’t settle for an administrative support position again, and yet here I am in support positions for two organizations that are giving me opportunities for deep learning on many levels. But also, because I am not in any sort of leadership position, I have both the mental and emotional space to process my losses and traumas. I have the spaciousness to find my emotional footing for engaging with life beyond work and my relationship with my partner. While my ego has taken a hit, I don’t really care that I’m not a manager, I just want to work with people who have integrity and be of value to the people I serve.

When Eros and I first moved in together I said that I didn’t want to live in an apartment after living in houses for years, and yet when needing to save myself trumped personal preference we found an apartment in a spectacular neighborhood with natural beauty on all sides, ability to grow a container garden, and no drawbacks to apartment living (even the walls are thick so we hardly ever hear sounds from neighbors).

Then I said I couldn’t imagine living without a car because of Fibromyalgia pain and quality of life reasons. Now I’ve given up the car. Although there is an inevitable increase in pain after a couple weeks of walking at least 1.5 miles a day to accomplish life, I am feeling really good about the decision. Why did we give up the car? A car is a significant financial commitment that is no longer hanging over our heads, which feels liberating in regards to money and how much we have to work to sustain our life choices. It’s also the most significant negative environmental impact we were making. We’re learning how to do something different and live with more integrity regarding our values. We live in a city with the best public transit system in the country, as well as walkable neighborhoods that meet most life needs, several car-sharing options, and grocery delivery from our favorite local market. We really have no need of a car.

And honestly, I think this is just the impetus I needed to get serious about moving my body. While I made many lifestyle changes for the better the past few years, regular exercise has been a real struggle for me. It requires a discipline that I don’t seem to have, even though the medical establishment says that movement is critical to managing Fibro pain (it’s hard to imagine that when you are in pain). So now I’m forced to walk at least a mile every day just to get to work, or get groceries, or almost anything else. The unexpected gift is that I feel strong and capable in a new way.

It turns out what I’m stripping away are limitations. I had limited ideas about my body. I had limited ideas about where and how I could be happy. I had limited ideas about what life could be like after losing my son. I had limited ideas about who I am as a mother, a professional, and a person.

As time passes I am recognizing a steady, quiet joy at the core of my being. I am noticing how easy it is to access that joy through simple things like flowers and writing and sharing life with my partner. I am noticing that getting through each day with grace is enough. I am noticing that the accomplishments of my past are enough to know that I have lived my life well and my ambition is shifting to simply living my purpose. My purpose is to create belonging, for myself first and then for the other lives that I touch. Although when you think about our culture, it’s actually quite an ambitious purpose. I’m even struggling with it working for an organization whose mission is to build community and yet they believe they have to exclude our members from anything involving our donors. It’s not inclusive or honoring the whole person to say it would be problematic for the people we serve to interact with the people who support the organization. Belonging is a human need that isn’t being met. I want to change that.

I am noticing that being stripped of my limitations is giving me a sense of expansive liberation. I feel free from obligations and expectations, both interpersonal and cultural. I feel free to live a simple little life with my Beloved until I’m ready for something else. I feel free to decide what comes next in my professional and creative careers. And I feel free to speak and act in my truth – because I really have nothing left to lose.


Art by Tara McPherson

The Story Changes Direction

Fork in the Road by Ry Meehan
Fork in the Road by Ry Meehan

When I started outlining my memoir I thought I had a perfect little package with a happy ending – the special family formed around my birth son. Now that the circumstances of our adoption have drastically changed for the worst (I no longer have a relationship with the adoptive parents or my birth son), the shape of my memoir (and my whole life!) needs to adapt, not just regarding the decimation of everything I invested my heart into the past three years, but also concerning my relationship with God/Universe/Sacred/Mystery/Whatever.

Am I still a mystic if I no longer believe in a god beyond the Grace Between Humans? A mystic is a God Lover and I don’t know that I am one of those anymore. Except that I deeply love the Connection Between All of Life, the stuff of Oneness. I know that is real, but my relationship to what is Sacred and Mysterious in this world is currently burning in the crucible of a faith crisis. I have no idea where my concept of God will end up next.

While I had tons of notes and an outline for the book, I am going back to the basics because the framework is changing. Rather than being focused on the path of the radical mystic, it’s going to be focused on my search for belonging while living on the margins of madness, motherhood, and mysticism. These three themes are woven into my story from birth, when I was born to a 17 year old mad Christian mystic. My mother never identified as such but it’s all over her story. Madness in the form of narcissism, depression, and addiction; and mysticism in the way she kept returning to her profound love for God, to the point of attending seminary and becoming ordained late in her life. My mom was a God Lover through and through.

These themes continue into my own life. The way I was mothered seeded madness inside of me, in the form of Borderline Personality Disorder and/or complex PTSD (I am currently learning that what I always thought was BPD may be a form of PTSD instead or in combination). Having a brain that didn’t develop appropriately because of on-going emotional abuse requires significant work on my mind and behaviors to be capable of healthy, long-term relationship of any kind. While I am now highly functional and capable of healthy relating, I still struggle with remnants of old perceptions and triggers. Perhaps I always will. The way I was mothered also determined the way I would choose to mother my first two children. Providing safe space for my children to develop into healthy, self-aware adults became my number one value and priority in life. All of my life choices from ages 17 to present were rooted in what is best for my children. Finally, growing up with a mother and adoptive father who deeply loved God in their ways, I was born and raised into my own deep love for and faith in the Divine. I didn’t remain within the confines of the Christian faith, but the story of Jesus is still my favorite religious mythology. Whether or not I continue to identify as a mystic, mysticism as a spiritual path and practice until now impacts everything that I am.

As far as living on the margins, the edges of society have always been my home. My life experience has been simultaneously limited and expanded by poverty, childhood trauma, emotional abuse, mental illness, addiction, teen-single-welfare motherhood, sex positivity, BDSM, polyamory, large body size, and a variety of other circumstances, experiences, and values that put me far outside of the mainstream.

Now I am learning how to live on the margins as a betrayed birth mother trying to find where I belong in a culture that damns me for placing my third child for adoption in the first place, no matter the circumstances, and thus won’t honor my grief in losing him when the promise of unrestricted intimate relationship with him was stolen from me. My partner and I are alone in this unusual loss and grief that defines so much of our daily existence as we do whatever it takes to heal the gaping hole that’s been left in our hearts.  The people who love us don’t know what to say and we don’t know how to talk about it. We only have one close friend in Portland, so we don’t even have anyone to hang out with. We are working towards being able to afford therapy in a month or so, but a paid counselor is not the same as a community holding us in our grief. It’s really hard going through this on our own.

Belonging has always been elusive for me, both because of internal and external causes. I see the ways that I sabotaged opportunities to belong by maintaining my invisibility and independence (defense mechanisms learned in childhood), and the ways that I have actually been excluded from relationships and experiences by others. Now I am feeling completely lost because I don’t even know where to look for local community that has both the desire and capability to hold us while we are navigating this place between the life we believed we were living and radically different life we are adapting to.

For now I write because I know my words belong on a page and my story belongs in the world. I just know this to be true, that I belong here now for my own sanity if for nothing else. Our unusual open adoption love story is transforming to something else. I don’t know what exactly it is now or what it will be in the years to come. I just know I don’t want to permanently frame it as a birth parent betrayal story. I refuse for that to be the story that haunts my youngest son for the rest of his life. As Lucy Kalanithi writes in the afterword to When Breath Becomes Air, what happened to us was tragic but we are not a tragedy. While “our” story returns to being “my” story and may no longer be “worthy” of national press, it is still has value and complex lessons to decipher about the nature and capacities of loving as a broken human.

The Heroine’s Journey: I am an Emotional Mountain Climber

540361_10201504920558445_1441567995_nI am struggling as I live between two opposing forces – the desire to build community with my son and his adoptive parents, and the desire to run as far as possible from the birth mother bruising of mine-and-not-mine every day. My heart is being pushed and pulled between conflicting needs, a daily wrestling match that leaves me emotionally exhausted and withdrawn.

I crave this family, the belonging, and the sense of purpose I have found here. And my heart aches daily as our son simultaneously cements his preference for Mommy and shifts toward the independence of toddlerhood.

Despite the perception in popular books and movies, the Heroine’s Journey looks different than the Hero’s. Women undergo journeys of awakening and self definition, but it is often an internal process that happens through our emotions and our intimate relationships rather than through confrontation with forces in the world. Heather Plett says that feminine rites follow a pattern of containment, transformation, and emergence (vs the masculine rites of separation, transition, and reincorporation). I am currently between containment and transformation, waiting for emergence to occur.

I have come to understand that I am an emotional athlete of sorts, an emotional mountain climber. Much like people who train to endure, and even enjoy, the growing pains and discomfort of intense physical adventures (marathons, surfing, skiing, etc.), I am trained to endure and enjoy the growing pains of seemingly unbearable emotional circumstances. The traumas that often damage and break other people are just added weight to the barbell my powerful heart can bench-press.

I experienced life as deeply emotional and profoundly painful from an early age. I score at least a 7 on the ACES test regarding childhood trauma, although there are many more traumas that aren’t listed. I also have an unusually deep capacity for empathy, meaning I feel other people’s emotions in addition to my own. Imagine what that is like when everyone you are a developing child/adolescent and everyone you love is suffering in a significant way. And I’ve worked to recover from Borderline Personality Disorder, also known as Emotional Intensity Disorder. I am running a lifelong marathon to maintain my sanity, emotional regulation, and the chance to thrive in a healthy family dynamic.

My Heroine’s Journey is a map of how to navigate the world with a raw and open heart. I don’t wear emotional armor to protect myself. I don’t know how. Instead, when I am too raw for exposure I hide in my bedroom, my sanctuary, away from people. I am not interested in fighting – not other people, not my own demons, nor the world’s evils. I am passionate about creating and nurturing justice, reconciliation, and belonging through acts of love and generosity. As part of my training, I strive not to turn words into weapons against others when I’m hurt and angry, whether beloveds or strangers. I’ve spent my entire adult life disarming the triggers that can transform my typical gentleness to verbal violence.

One of the primary challenges for people with Borderline is that we have difficulty living with opposing truths, called dialectics. The term’s dialectical means a synthesis or integration of opposites. This is why Dialectical Behavioral Training (DBT) is vital to recovery. Through my research I’ve learned that I consistently provide my own DBT by confronting opposing truths over and over, often on purpose, in order to learn how to regulate my thinking, feelings, and behavior in relationship. For instance, my experiences of polyamory required embracing the opposing truths of my desire for big open love and my abnormally strong fear of abandonment (another BPD trait). I could simultaneously feel compersion and jealousy. I could be deeply frightened and keep choosing love anyway.

Physical masochism is also a dialectic. I surrender my body to experiences of pain from someone who cares for me. Pain, pleasure, love, and fear usually weave together to carry me into ecstasy. But sometimes the physical pain gets wrapped up with my heart pain and I have an emotional release, where something that causes me deep heartache becomes more bearable as the pain is pushed through me with a flogger or a cane. This happened over the weekend when my fiance and I played a relatively mild BDSM scene,  the day after I read a memoir excerpt from a birth mother in an open adoption. Seeing myself in the mirror of her particular words and phrases brought my pain to the surface so that the slightest stimulus rubbed me raw and left me sobbing.

The emotional strength training I put myself through the last 20+ years gave me the ability to make an impossible choice – to give mommyhood to a beloved friend and  retain my place as a different sort of mother in my child’s life. I live the dialectic of mine-and-not-mine with my son every minute of every day. I feel the biological and emotional pull to be his mommy and I keep my distance to allow another woman to be the foundation of his safety and belonging. I ache because he favors her now and I am immensely grateful that I don’t often have to endure all of the hard parts (irregular sleeping patterns, tantrums, etc.).

I try to nurture connection and distance at the same time, both with my son and his adoptive parents. I truly crave the intimacy of chosen family and intentional community. I also choose to live with them because I desire to lighten the burden of full time parenting and help them afford a nice home in a good neighborhood with all of the related benefits. After so many years as a single mom, I don’t want our son’s parents to ever feel alone in their care and responsibility of him.  Yet as my relationship with our son shifts I become more withdrawn, spending less time with the family. I focus my attention on the parts of my life that aren’t so painful and complicated, like my relationship with my fiance and my book creation (and a good dose of television).

I am living in this family dialectic, navigating it mostly with grace, and yet I worry that I am not doing enough. I worry that I am not present enough, connected enough, or co-parenting enough. Because my work in the world is now focused on belonging, I am learning about the psychology of community and the practices that are required to keep community functioning in vibrant ways. Yet I refuse to act on these knowings with those closest to me because I am frightened of my own vulnerability. I don’t know how to be this raw with other people. In my journey to find emotional stability I have always lived in my own head – and bedroom – when in pain. It is how I contain myself, keep my emotions from overwhelming others. I have no idea how to be in this strange place I now live between love and pain in a home and intimate relationship with other adults.

Some days I feel like a fraud. Who am I to write about courage, connection, and community when I can’t yet find the strength to bring my own vulnerability to the table with those closest to me? I was able give a child from my body, I can give my work to support my family, and yet these past few months I can rarely share myself with them.

The focus of my self work these days is to hold myself in the same compassion and acceptance that I give others. I am working to stop beating myself up for falling short of my own high standards for conscious living and relationship. The truth is that to evolve from suffering a mental illness that will not allow opposing truths to living peacefully in a situation that is built of opposing truths is a significant accomplishment. It is in recognizing how far I have come these past 20 years that I  see I need to give myself patience. I am in the endurance race of my life. I will be living in some form of this dialectic with my son and his adoptive parents forever, whether or not I continue to live in the same home with them. I have plenty of time and safe space in which to build my emotional muscles with people who love me no matter what I bring to the table on any given day. I am already enough simply by choosing to be here and contributing in this home with this family.


Image by Flickr Artist Christian Thompson