Putting ourselves out there with a crowdfunding campaign for our little Humboldt wedding is a real big vulnerability for me and I’m experiencing a bit of a vulnerability hangover with anxiety thrown in. It’s an experiment in hope and trust, two things I haven’t allowed myself to feel for a long while. It’s hard to trust in the goodness of others when you’ve been betrayed. Choosing to do this so publicly after the recent workplace betrayal feels like a much needed act of resistance to cynicism and further isolation.
It would be easy to just give up and stay hidden in our cozy nest, the two of us against the world. However, even though my lizard brain and frightened heart says otherwise, I know deep in my bones that community is the antidote to pain. We belong to each other, which doesn’t just mean that everyone belongs to me, but it means that I belong to everyone. It means I am worthy of safe space, respect, and kindness. It means there are people who hold me in their heart like I hold them in mine. We’ve already received two donations and many shares and we are incredibly grateful to be seen, held, and loved. Whatever unfolds from this moment, this is already a beautiful community experience we need to heal.
Respect – Merriam-Webster Dictionary
A feeling or understanding that someone or something is important, serious, etc., and should be treated in an appropriate way.
What 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.
I 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