A place beyond wrath and tears

Outside it is a beautiful, sunny fall day in the desert. I can hear my daughter giggling with her best friend as they run around outside. The house is already starting to smell sweet and savory. It is Thanksgiving and I am filled with gratitude and wonder.

Maybe wonder is not the right word. Surprise? Disbelief? Somewhere there is a word that matches this feeling in my heart. As far as I can tell, I have finally arrived after a long, painful journey from the Land of Broken Toys. And I was broken — so broken I thought I was useless. I could not imagine a life such as this. I did not think joy was real. It hurt to dream.

Why am I filled with this feeling today? Thanksgiving.

I know a lot of people are writing missives about all the blessings in their lives today — food, shelter, health care, and so on. And I have those, too. Once upon a time I didn’t even have those! So make no mistake, I appreciate those blessings. I am grateful for those blessings. And I don’t discount the power of the tangible needs we all have and how vital it is that they are met. I have traveled that road. I know what it feels like to feel the threat of real danger.

But this post is not about those things. Well, not directly anyway.

This post is about the intangible. Because you can go through your life and have all your important needs met and still be miserable. And I have carried all my possessions in a sack on my back and witnessed miracles. So the beauty of life is not just encapsulated in stuff and jobs and paying the rent. Needs are vital but they alone do not heal broken toys.

I woke up this morning and did not feel terror. When I got out of bed, I did not have to worry that when I stepped out of my bedroom that someone was going to hit me or throw something at my head (well, unless you count three-year-olds with bad aim). I didn’t fear that as the day went on people in my house were going to get more and more drunk and that particular drunkenness leads to a pain I prefer not to talk about. When I woke up this morning I was not terrified and I did not immediately construct a plan for how to hide until it was over.

In this life I live now, when I wake up on Thanksgiving — in a home where the vile ways of the old days dare not pass the threshold — it sometimes takes me a second to remember that this is reality and not a dream. The primal warrior in me who survived and survived and survived again has put the sword down — which is something I never thought I could do. That instinctive ferocity is not needed here. This place is well beyond the bruised and broken. This is a place that far exceeds merely being safe (which would be enough). This is the place where joy lives. Maybe not every second of every day, but it’s here. Sometimes I almost think I can touch it.

To borrow a line from one of my favorite poems, I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul. But there’s a place beyond that — a place beyond survival. And I am grateful that I have found it.

Taking power back from internet trolls

Have you seen this story on Salon written by Caitlin Seida? She woke up one morning to find out she was “internet famous” after a photo of her dressed as the eponymous Laura Croft, of Tomb Raider fame (click the link to see the pic), went viral on a website posted it with the intention of fat-shaming the shit out of her.

There I was in full glory — a picture of me dressed as my hero Lara Croft: Tomb Raider for Halloween — but written over the image were the words “Fridge Raider.”

Funny enough, I wasn’t even angry at first. I was actually kind of amused. Who doesn’t laugh at unfortunate shots of poorly dressed strangers? I’ve certainly done it before; the Internet runs on this kind of anonymous scorn. There are entire websites dedicated to the poor fashion choices of random people. And just like me, most of those people are fat.

Seida goes on to share the evolution of her amusement toward abject horror when she scrolled through the comments section, many of which contained variations on theme — that it would be better if she didn’t exist.

So I laughed it all off at first — but then, I read the comments.

“What a waste of space,” read one. Another: “Heifers like her should be put down.” Yet another said I should just kill myself “and spare everyone’s eyes.” Hundreds of hateful messages, most of them saying that I was a worthless human being and shaming me for having the audacity to go in public dressed as a sexy video game character. How dare I dress up and have a good time!

We all know the awful humiliation of a person laughing at you. But that feeling increases tenfold when it seems like everyone is laughing at you. Scrolling through the comments, the world imploded — and took my heart with it.

I feel like a little piece of me just died a little. And like I want to punch the internet in the face.

There is so much wrong with this situation I barely know where to start. We could start with how wrong it is that people can just swipe personal photos off of social media sites such as Facebook with little to no consequences. Or, that there should be a special circle in hell for internet trolls who publicly bully people for sport. But I think we’ll just focus right on the most disturbing part: We live in a culture that not only tolerates but encourages aggressively abuse fat-shaming as a matter of course.

I’ve been a lot of different sizes over the years — skinny, fat, pregnant, strong, weak, and so on. Even now, as I’ve settled into a comfortable weight that is both healthy for me and feels right for my body, I routinely get asked if I’m pregnant because I don’t fit the socially mandated hourglass (small-waist) beauty standard. If there is one simple truth that I have learned after years wrestling with body insecurity (even at so-called “ideal” weights), it is that there is no one-size-fits-all definition of true beauty or true strength. (In fact, your weight may have very little to do with overall health, as studies are finding.)

Let me tell you something. You can waste far too much of your life being caught up in a toxic conversation in your head about what you look like, what your weight is, grey or thinning hair, wrinkles, the size of your pants, and whether or not you want to take your shirt off at the pool. That’s all a straight waste of your precious life. And it is 100% bullshit. Don’t do it to yourself and don’t let anyone do it to you online.

As a journalist, I have interviewed dozens of strangers as they fought life-threatening diseases or faced their own death. And I have sat at the deathbed of people I loved. And never — not one time — did any of those people tell me they were glad they did a certain diet or that one of their favorite memories was that time they fit into that one dress. You know why? Because the stuff of life that really matters has nothing to do with the size or shape we are as we go through it. The people who love us — whether as family, or lovers, or friends, or even colleagues — they love us for all the intangible things we are and do. At the end of the day, nobody who really loves me cares if I am a size eight or a size 28. But they do care about the time I took to be kind when nobody was looking.

Thankfully, more and more of us are remembering to keep our humanity engaged when we go online. As Seida writes, even with all the negative comments, there were those who defended her:

But along the way, in my journey to control something that was ultimately uncontrollable, I encountered something that cut right through the haze of shock and depression: People were actually defending me.

Perfect strangers pointed out that there was nothing wrong with a woman of large size dressing up to have a good time. Some commenters even accurately guessed that I had polycystic ovarian syndrome. The disease is characterized by an accumulation of fat in the stomach, making it look, as one insensitive doctor told me, “like you’ve got a basketball shoved under your shirt.”For every three negative and hateful comments, there was at least one positive one.

In the months since, my attitude toward these throwaway images of mockery on the Internet has changed. I no longer find them funny. Each one of those people is a real human being, a real person whose world imploded the day they found themselves to be a punch line on a giant stage. I speak up whenever a friend gets a cheap laugh from one of these sites. I ask one simple question: “Why do you think this is funny?” Very few have a good answer. Mostly they just say, “I don’t know.” Reminding people of our shared humanity hasn’t exactly made me popular, but it feels like the right thing to do. I know what it’s like to be the person in that horrible photograph. I can’t inflict such pain on someone else.

I’m not going to say that I’m perfect or that I never find something hurtful or inappropriate to be funny. We’re all human. We all have moments when our humanity sort of turns off and we plug into the collective hate machine. I’ve certainly been the target of that a time or two, as a blogger. So it’s nice to know that even when we’re navigating in the often anonymous virtual world, there are folks out there who are still trying to keep it classy.

Against all evidence to the contrary, I continue to have hope and believe in the good in people. And if I can do one thing today, let it be to inspire you to let go of the thoughts in your mind that stop you from seeing your own brilliance and beauty. Your uniqueness is a gift. If you have any doubt, go hang out with an artist for a while and they’ll tell you all the ways you are beautiful BECAUSE you are not like anyone else. (In general, I highly recommend having at least one artist/photographer friend in your life. Their perspective on life and beauty tends to be wonderfully liberated.) Or better yet, if you have a child in your life, go talk to them about who and what is beautiful. I haven’t met a kid (under the age of five) who doesn’t think that her or his parents are practically perfect in every way. And guess what, parents? Your kiddos think that you are the template for beauty in this world. Don’t prove them wrong.

Now, don’t go crazy. Don’t start walking around acting like you are the Supreme Ruler of the Land or anything. But just take a chance and try flipping your perspective upside down. Step outside of your own insecurities and try on the perspective of someone who loves you. You wouldn’t want someone to talk shit about your partner or kid or mom, would you? So why do it about yourself?

And hey, while we’re at it, let’s try to bring a little respect and kindness back to the internet.

Happy Anniversary Tired Feminists!

Another year and here we are all together, Tired Feminists. This year marks three years on this little blog of mine. As usual, I’m late in celebrating. The actual anniversary was last week. Points for trying?

Meanwhile, big changes are afoot, at least for me. As I announced last week, I’m going to be ending my other blog, The Sin City Siren, after the New Year. So … more time for you, my lovelies.

I don’t know exactly what dreams may come in 2014, but I am optimistic. I plan to spend more time on my creative writing and projects and much less time in the daily grind of political writing that occupied my time on The Siren. I’m keen to try new adventures in writing and in life — like learning how to cook and finding my favorite cocktail (more on that soon). Sounds delicious.

In the meantime, let’s say we keep meeting up here when the spirit strikes us. We can talk about tired marketing and stupid TV shows and you can hear my stories of accidental veganism.

Stay lovely.

PS: I’ll be posting the new Feminist Gift Guide soon. If you have suggestions, send ’em my way!

The fear of cooking

I’ve been researching vegan recipes. It’s actually sort of a strange hobby I have. I call it a hobby because I never actually use the recipes I find. In fact, I almost never cook. Hello, I’m the laziest vegan you have ever met!

In truth, it has nothing to do with being vegan. I’ve been doing this — creating elaborate cooking fantasies built on copious recipe research — for years! I put cookbooks on my Amazon wish list and download recipe and food apps all the time. I have so many cookbooks — with pages carefully dog-eared — that they overflow a cabinet in my kitchen. But once I lovingly pour over them, they just pass the time in the cabinet collecting dust.

The reality is that I have a tendency toward a bad combo of complacency and laziness, which translates into a surprising lack of cooking. As it turns out, veganism is an excellent enabler for my cooking aversion! Thanks to Oprah and that week she went vegan on Kathy Freston’s plan, veganism had a whole trend sensation a few years ago. So not only are there scores of vegan cookbooks, but also enough frozen and canned prepared foods at the grocery store that I have essentially not cooked since my daughter was born. (And I use the term “cook” in the traditional sense here — actual application of chopping, heating, combining, etc of foods. No microwaving or pre-packaged shortcuts.) By way of context: My kid is three and a half.

In fact, a sighting of me stirring something on the stove is so rare that a couple days ago my daughter asked me what I was doing. (I was making steel-cut oats, which is barely a step up from boiling water.) When I told her I was cooking, she gave me a confused look and glanced behind me at the microwave. I could see the wheels turning in her toddler brain. But food comes from the microwave. I’m certain she thinks all food is made in the microwave, with the exception of pizza (which is the only time the oven is ever on).

I have no idea why I continue to fantasize about making food at home because it is so rare that I get flop sweat when I think of making food for anyone other than my child and husband. I have no idea about portions beyond three people. (And, to be fair, the toddler eats a wildly varying amount, depending on growth spurts.) And without a recipe to follow — fuggetaboutit.

Since this is a long-term delusion (that I will cook if I have the recipes) that extends far beyond my three years as a vegan, I can only conclude that it comes from a fear of cooking. Or, to be more precise, a fear of failure. And failure is something I am all too familiar with in the kitchen. I have managed to burn things beyond edibility more times than I can count. I have two scars on my right thumb. One is from burning myself in the exact same spot — three different times. The other is from a deep cut that I got from a butter knife … while slicing a bagel. I have set off smoke detectors. Cleared rooms. And I even gave myself food poisoning while pregnant that was so bad I had to go to the hospital to get IV fluids. Combine all that with my hereditary short fuse and, well, it’s best to just hide until the scary parts have passed.

No wonder I’m afraid to experiment in the kitchen! The place is a time-capsule of failure!

And yet … I have to eat every day. And as far as I can tell, kids have to eat every five minutes (except when you put something in front of them). Add to that living with a guy who is training for a marathon and you’ve got a house full of people who are always hungry. Obviously, we get by. We certainly aren’t starving. I can zap a packet of ready rice, followed by a fully cooked chicken breast from the freezer, like nobody’s business. (I am the only vegan at my house.) Add a salad or zap some frozen veggies and I call that good. We always have some kind of fruit and veggies on hand, so I don’t really worry about that part. Then I heat up something for myself in the microwave and that’s dinner. Repeat: Infinity.

But the fact is, I have had very delicious vegan food, prepared by friends or at restaurants. It’s not “good for” vegan. It was actually mouth-watering delicious. So I ask for the recipe. I take it home. I carefully open the cookbook cabinet — with one hand out to catch anything that tumbles out as I open it — cram the recipe into whatever nook I can find and shut the whole thing up. The delusional lying part of my brain is going, “Alright! New recipe! That was delicious. We should totally try to make that tomorrow!” Meanwhile, the completely jaded part of my brain that usually controls things is all, “You’re funny.”

While it doesn’t really meet the definition of irony, there is something sort of funny that as this little head-game is happening in my kitchen every damn day, there is a whole new wave of young feminists out there trying to reclaim domesticity. I’ll leave the arguing about whether or not that is possible or feminist or whatever for some other blogger or some other day. I just have to chuckle to myself that despite the politics of it all, I find myself in my kitchen at five o’clock, staring into my freezer and over-crammed pantry and feeling a sense of panic. Sure, we all have those times when we hate to hear, “What’s for dinner?” But for me … well, I’d rather just fish a frozen dinner out of the freezer and try again tomorrow.

And just to be clear, I don’t think my situation has anything to do with feminism in particular. I grew up poor in a household that was by turns divorced-parent and single-parent driven. Everybody had to work or there was no food at all. And for whatever reason, nobody ever really bothered teaching much about cooking. Sure, I learned how to make pancakes and a casserole (recipe: Velveeta cheese, Spam, noodles, and vegetable of choice). My grandmother, who was raised on a farm and in the old Polish ways, tried to teach me how to make bread once. Eventually, I taught myself how to make cookies. Because I wanted to eat cookies. And I found out by accident that I can make a killer flaky pie crust because my mom was so frustrated while making one that someone had to intervene. This pretty much represents the sum total of things I learned how to cook by the time I was 18. From there I just picked things that I could make from a box, by adding things to boiling water, by zapping in the microwave, or from the freezer (or some combination of all the above).

But aren’t I too old now — and with far too many responsibilities — to still be just fending my way through life? I am a college-educated, grown woman. I’ve been married 17 years. I have a mortgage. I vote and pay taxes. I even lobby for bills. But ask me to make lentil soup from scratch and I get all clammy and excuse-prone. And that’s not even a hard recipe!

So here’s the deal, I’m challenging myself to learn how to make a week’s worth of recipes. Nothing fancy. I’m not going all Julie/Julia Project. I just think that a grown person should be able to cook dinner without having a minor panic attack. I think it will be healthier for me and my family. Maybe I will never grow to like cooking. But if I can get good at a few simple (yet tasty) recipes, that seems worthwhile. I feel like there’s got to be something meaningful in that — not to mention healthier and better for the environment.

Wish me luck! And if you have a good vegan recipe, share it in the comments!

What not to wear on Halloween

I’ve spent a lot of time writing about ways we can keep Halloween fun and interesting without relying on the tired old sexist, and sometimes racist, tropes. But it’s worth noting that there are a lot of pitfalls out there, especially if you’re in the market for a pre-packaged costume.

Here’s my nominees for the Costume Hall of Shame:

1. Ethnic Appropriations

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You know what is fun? Dressing up as an interesting or important person from history, like say Ching Shih, a famous Chinese pirate from the 18th century, or the amazing painter Frida Kahlo. You know what’s not cool and can actually be racist? Dressing up as a stereotypical representation of an entire race or ethnicity. You can’t dress up as “Native American” because Native American is a term that represents hundreds of different nations and tribes scattered all across our country. There isn’t one type of Native American just like there isn’t one type of white person or black person or Latino … and so on. Reducing an entire, varied, multicultural group of people to one stereotype that is made into a Halloween costume? It’s not just lame, it’s incredibly offensive. The same goes for Geisha and “Spanish Princess,” below. Don’t do this.

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2. Body policing

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Costumes that encourage fat-shaming, negative body stereotypes, and otherwise uphold the status quo of an impossible beauty myth can be incredibly cruel and possibly damaging. Although this costume says “Tacky Traveler,” with its emphasis on body weight and shirts that ask where the buffet is, the message is clear — it’s okay to make fun of fat people. The funny thing about this particular costume is that you could do a Tacky Traveler costume that is not offensive and maybe even pokes fun at the way that Americans can be really insensitive when they travel — from an expectation that someone will speak English to refusing to show respect for cultural institutions or rules. It’s not the traveler part of this costume that sucks. It’s fat jokes.

3. Strict gender rules

Princess_Costumes_Target_2013

Copyright: The Tired Feminist

Notice anything about these two screen-shots? It’s all princess all the time for girls and all muscle-bound superheroes for boys. While there is nothing wrong with either types of costume, the question here is why there is such a strict gender code. If there’s one thing Halloween is about, it is the freedom to be silly and to even question the conventional rules. Why not let the boys be princesses and the girls be Iron Man or Superman? Why the discomfort? It’s just make-believe!

In addition, these set up very specific rules about what it means to be a “girl” and what it means to be a “boy.” Remember, kids, gender is a construct. It’s not real. Girl only means “girl” because we decide to agree on certain conditions that equal “girl.” Same for boy. In different cultures and different periods throughout history, gender identities for boys and girls are/were completely different than they are here in America. So how about we give ourselves a break from the strict enforcement of something that isn’t even real — even if it’s just for one night.

4. Sexy Time

Copyright: The Tired Feminist

I enjoy feeling sexy just as much as the next person, but some of the double-standards that are on display in costumes for Halloween are just plain stupid. Now, if going as a Sexy Cop, such as the image on the left, is your thing — good for you. But if your tastes skew more toward realism and you identify as a woman, well, you’re out of luck. On several websites I looked at, the sexy version of a cop was the only option for the ladies. Much like the princess/superhero situation for kids, it’s not so much that I’m railing against there being a sexy option for grown-ups. It’s that it is the ONLY option for women. There’s something really wrong with that. And oh so limiting.

Perhaps Suzanne Scroggins of Take Back Halloween said it best in my interview with her earlier this week:

I started Take Back Halloween when I realized that sexy costumes for women had gone from being an option to being a requirement. None of my friends could find costumes in the stores that weren’t “Sexy” something. I was hearing the same frustration from teenagers and college women, too. What really pushed it over the edge for me was reading posts online from college women who were actually afraid to wear anything that wasn’t sexy. One woman talked about how she was dying to go as Gollum, and she’d come up with a really cool outfit, but she didn’t have the nerve because she knew she’d be ridiculed for not sexing it up. Other women posted about how they had worn non-sexy costumes, only to be harassed and ridiculed by men for “wearing too many clothes.”

People shouldn’t feel limited, or even threatened, out of wearing a costume that feels fun to them — even if that means wearing a lot of clothes as a woman or choosing to go as something that is not sexy-fied.

5. Pimps

Copyright: The Tired Feminist

I know this probably doesn’t need its own category, but I’m doing it anyway. First of all, do we still really have “pimp” costumes in 2013? Secondly, there is so much wrong with this. There’s a  not-so-subtle implication here that it’s cool to be a man who sells women’s bodies for sex. And I want to be clear, I am not saying this is bad because sex work is bad. But it’s pretty clear that these pimps aren’t asking if the people who work for them want to be working for them. These pimps are men who have control over the people who work for them, and sex work that is done unwillingly is not okay. Furthermore, I am saying pimp costumes are bad because they are a kind of racist cultural statement. These aren’t just any men who sell women for sex. These are men who wear the appropriated clothes of a 1970s-era African-American pimp, or “Mac Daddy,” as the costume on the left is called. It’s sexist, racist, and just plain tacky.

The Tired Feminist Awesome Halloween Costume List

Welcome to the newly updated 2013 Halloween costume post!

Clichéd and sexist Halloween costumes have always bothered me. They’re bad for women in a misogynistic culture that seeks to only objectify femininity and never allow it subjective, autonomous space. But they are also bad for a holiday that should be all about creativity, humor, fun, and even a little magic.

When I walk into a Halloween costume section of any store, I am immediately angered and disappointed by the selection. Not just for girls who get slap-a-tutu-on-it costumes but for boys, too, because the gender lines are so damn rigid you could cut bread with it. It’s a trap. And it saps all the creative inspiration from a holiday that has so much potential!

To wit, I have scoured the internet, pestered my friends, and racked my noggin for inspiration to share with you. You’re welcome!

Editor’s note: Please keep in mind, this is a mix of adult and children ideas. Obviously, some of these are not suitable for children.

Lists of kick-ass ideas:

  • Super Heroes (and Villains): Wonder Woman, the Bionic Woman, Elektra, and a HUGE list here.
  • Buffy and Ripley are just a couple of the strong female characters in geek culture that make this list.
  • Katniss and Hermione make this list of strong women from literature. Others to consider: Anne (of Green Gables), Dorothy Gale, and Alice (in Wonderland).
  • Strong women in TV: Veronica Mars (yes!), Maude, Sidney Bristow …
  • An IMDb list of badass women in movies: Beatrix Kiddo (of Kill Bill fame), Sarah Connor, Black Widow…
  • The AMC list of best 50 female characters. Bonus points if you got as Hildy Johnson from His Girl Friday.
  • Try Take Back Halloween for more ideas! Frida Kahlo anyone?

Jobs:

  • Forensic anthropologist, medical examiner, or crime scene tech ala Dr. Temperance Brennan from Bones, Dr. Lanie Parish from Castle, or the many others who populate TV these days. (Great way to encourage your girl in STEM studies!)
  • Cops: Det. Kate Beckett (Castle), Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson (The Closer), Agent Dana Scully …
  • Authors: Alice Walker, Eudora Welty, The Bronte sisters …
  • Historical figures: Amelia Earhart, Rosie the Riveter, Margaret Thatcher, Mother Theresa, Ada Lovelace …
  • Political figures: Malala Yousefzai, First Female US President!, Hillary Clinton, Benazir Bhutto, Michelle Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Condi Rice …
  • Scientists and Inventors: Madam Curie, Jane Goodall, Hedy Lamarr (actress and inventor of frequency hopping technology that enables bluetooth today)
  • More Careers: Doctor, CEO, fire fighter, chef, ninja, astronaut

More ideas:

  • Real Sesame Street characters.
  • Any Wizard of Oz character. (Double points for flying monkeys!)
  • Flying spaghetti monster
  • Any form of contraceptive. (Don’t say it can’t be done.)
  • Scary costumes: zombies, ghouls, monsters, aliens, etc.
  • Pop culture: Phyllis Diller, Julia Child, Liz Lemon, Rachel Maddow …
  • Goddesses/Mythical: Nike, Kali, Guanyin, Joan of Arc…
  • Animals: One commenter on The Tired Feminist Facebook page says her entire four-person family is going as a family of penguins. Fun!
  • Sports: Race car driver, soccer player, football player (because it’s happened surprisingly more than you think), Olympian!

And feel free to liberate some old standbys!

Check out this photo shared by Nerdgasm on Facebook:

Courtesy of Nerdgasm via Facebook

Have your own ideas? Share them with the group and post a comment!

This is not a test. This is the real fucking deal.

Trigger Warning.

You see those words a lot these days on posts and status updates and tweets and such. Trigger. Warning. It’s a caution. It’s a courtesy. It gets used so much it starts to mean nothing. It’s all the above.

I admit, even I grow occasionally weary of the expanding list of things that can trigger people, the warnings that need to be laid plain. And yet, I’m exactly the person who needs them. But maybe that’s why they irk me — just a bit. It’s this idea that we can somehow be prepared for what lies ahead. But anyone who has ever survived a trigger — the free-fall moment you are undone to your atomic level — knows that more often than not the real ones blindside you as you are stepping around a corner on your way to no place special. You’re hurrying to pick up the dry cleaning before they close. You’re texting a shopping list to your partner for the umpteenth time. You just got a flu shot, because that’s what responsible grown-ups do.

Triggers are like earthquakes. They roll up unannounced and unwelcome. They unhinge you from your reality. And they unnerve you with aftershocks that you can never quite be sure are over.

Just like any other day, I took a Facebook break during work. I scrolled through cute baby pics, clever (and mostly not-so-clever) joke memes, and countless political diatribes. I rolled my eyes at the ridiculous weight-loss ads that crop up in my feed, as if I would think that anyone I know would put them there. Do men get these, too? Is this really what being a woman in my late-30s is about — ads for stylish flats, baby clothes, and weight loss secrets? And then it hit me. Right there in my daily routine and my routine thoughts about minor outrages. A photo of the man who sexually abused me for nine years. He had his arm around someone I know. Like … I don’t know. Like he’s just living his life and smiling for the camera because he’s fucking crazy smiling guy without a care in the world.

Bam! Triggered.

I ran to the bathroom and vomited.

Then, because my husband was at work and my child was in daycare, I gently folded myself into bed and passed out. Blacked out. Done. My body shut that shit down. Full stop.

It hasn’t hit me like that since I was in college. But I haven’t seen a photo of him or seen him in person in more than a decade, maybe two. I don’t want to stop and think about that, to add up the years. Because, really, that’s just too much time thinking about the worst person I can imagine. He’s the reason why when I’m in a conversation about some person who loses it and kills their lover or when Lorena chopped that guy’s dick off … this man is the reason why I have a moment of clarity about their hysteria. Because I know what it feels like to be treated with such cruelty and tortured for years, and years, and years until you feel like you can’t think straight. Until you feel like the sanest thing you could do is go into the kitchen, get a knife, and then go chop somebody’s genitals off. I’m not saying I ever did that. I’m not saying I would. I’m just saying, I understand that moment of crazy as perhaps a moment of salvation. I’m saying there are times when you’ve been pushed so far that prison sounds like a vacation.

But Lorena is the exception. Everyday people like you and me are the rule. We tough it out. We survive. In a world that could give two shits about sexual abuse survivors, we soldier on. We put up with a society that constantly tells us to just get over it. Like it’s some kind of bad breakup or disaster prom date story. That again? Can you just move on already?

My God, if it were that easy.

I can go a long time between triggers. Sometimes so long that I forget what a whirling vortex they are. It starts to feel like you’ve conquered something, like learning to fly an airplane when you have a fear of flying. But that is an illusion. The hardest part about being molested is the years and years afterward when you get triggered or haunted or fucked up by it somehow all over again. You experience the trauma on such a deep level that it embeds in your cells. It’s attached to your DNA for life. It’s like a disease that goes in and out of remission. Sometimes it feels like it’s eating you alive from the inside. It’s a blackhole. That’s a lot of cliched imagery. Because even now that I’ve been a professional, award-winning, respected writer for 15+ years — I still don’t know how to describe the sensation of being a survivor. I don’t have the words. That’s how bad it is.

I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read or how many therapists I’ve been to over the past 25 years. A lot. Not enough. Too many. Who knows? I’m a pretty intellectual person. I like to know the reason for things. I’m the kind of person who only gets how to cook something after someone can teach me the chemistry behind it. Oh, that’s why! It’s not because I have any kind of a clue about chemistry. It’s because I have the kind of  mind that never stops whirring. And it just revs up all the louder when I’m confused or afraid or can’t find the words. How can I not have the words? That’s who I am! I’m writer. Everyone knows that. My whole family knew that before I was even in junior high. It was my destiny, as my old, superstitious grandmother used to say. My destiny to tell the stories of people who had no words. So I can’t NOT have the words! Ah-ha! Double negative. I do have the words! … Somewhere? We could be here all night waiting. … Moving on.

This is the intellectual side of me. This is the part of me that reads all over my face and makes friends smile at me and say things like, “I can tell you are always thinking.” Really? Is that actually a compliment? It seems like if you are really smart, then you wouldn’t have to try so hard that people see it all over your face. I mean, babies have a poop face when they are pooping. Is it really a compliment to have a think face? … This is the part that kicks into overdrive and spins out during a trigger-quake.  But the problem with that is, it doesn’t take long for my brain to realize that there is no eminent threat. The danger is not real. Even though the rest of my body is saying that this is not a test. My brain is going, “Nothing to see here! Shut it down.” But the endorphins, and the body’s defense response (quick vomit!), and oh the heart … she is beating. You can’t think your way out of that. You can’t rationalize with emotions. And holy shit are emotions powerful. Crashing in on you. Burying you to your eyeballs. Shut it down. Shut it down!

After all this time and growth and learning and healing and breathing … I would have thought I was strong enough to take a photo by now. I wasn’t really interested in testing that hypothesis, mind you. I just figured I could take it. After everything else, that’s just pixels. Pixels never hurt anybody. They’re not even real. I mean, you can’t touch them. But my God, they can touch you. And I felt all my learning about meditation fly away. I felt all the hours and hours and hours I’ve sweated it out in yoga, chanting ohm, breathing into the wounded places, stretching past my limits — gone. I felt all the tools they teach you in therapy evaporate. I was left defenseless and bare. Alone. Guileless. There was no witty comeback. There was nothing in my head at all. My head was blank. Stopped cold. All I could feel was the rush of panic and then the eventual biology kick in. It was guts and heart and the rush of blood. Because that’s where the old cells are. The old cells don’t even touch the new cells with their evolved, therapeutic ways. The old cells are basic and primal and warrior. Panic. Sad. Vulnerable. And angry. Oh, my old friend Anger showed up just in time. You can always count on Anger to play bouncer to the rush of emotions that want to come storming through the gates.

When my brain did start buzzing again, two memories floated up simultaneously. I remembered that several years ago I had, indeed, talked to this man on my birthday. It was, of course, not by choice. But it happened. And it was terrible. Meanwhile, this other memory bubbled up. I remembered the night my friend offered to kill that man. And, as former military, he was every inch serious. He rather convincingly told me about how it would look like an accident. Just say the word. It was a dizzy feeling. We were driving far too fast down Las Vegas Boulevard. I felt drunk even though I hadn’t been drinking. I remember feeling a kind of fear that I could just say a word. I knew a guy. And it would be done. What was this? The Godfather? I felt fear that it was possible. And I felt fear that even for just the most briefest of moments, I entertained the fantasy. And for all that man tortured me, can i just tell you that to this day I feel guilty about that moment. I feel guilty that for just the space of a breath, I let myself consider what it would be like to say yes.

Why Anger would bring up these memories as the first semi-rational thoughts in my brain … I have no idea. Maybe those are just the ghosts in the machine. A bit of memory flotsam. Just some stuff that shook loose in the quake. A few broken mementos. I felt like somewhere inside my guts I was bleeding internally and for the next three hours I just tried not to throw up again. And then life came rushing in. My family was home and dinner was needed and life events were happening in real time. So time didn’t stop for you? And everything felt loud and bright and hurt. I couldn’t even tell my husband about it until the kiddo was in bed, because how do you even say stuff like that out loud with a three-year-old clamoring for you to color with markers together. And it’s trash night. And that one show starts in 20 minutes. I mean. Yeah.

It was a bad one this time. But the thing I can say is that I got through it. And the tools came back, like muscle memory, sometime while we were watching that show. Something funny happened on TV and I was able to laugh it. And I remembered how to take care of myself in a way that was beyond basic. Maybe I was reduced to my atoms for a moment there — scrambled up in a transporter beam. But eventually I came back to myself. The pieces reassembled. And faster than they ever could have in the past. Because, the truth is, I am stronger now than I have ever been. It doesn’t stop the times when the air gets knocked right out of me and I lose focus on the world for a few minutes (or hours). It doesn’t make it hurt any less intensely. But the duration and the aftershocks, those become less threatening over time. Because even when it is hurting, I know that pain is temporary.

When my daughter falls down, I go to her and if she is not hurt, I tell her to get up, brush herself off, and get back to it. Keep climbing or jumping or riding or running. Whatever it was. Get back to it. Don’t let hard knocks frighten you or stop you. Because life knocks us all on our asses from time to time. And it’s a lesson I’ve had to learn the hard way many times over. Triggers happen. The important thing is to get back up.

If you or someone you know needs help dealing with trauma related to sexual abuse or sexual assault, you can contact the 24-hour RAINN hotline at 800-656-HOPE.