Friday, May 18, 2018

Seeking Comfort

TW: discussion of death and violence.

NOTE: this may be a more disorganized post than usual, but I feel it’s important to write it down, and get it out into the world – out of my head, and onto paper.

I can tell you when, and why, my PTSD really started to take me down.

The damage started with that first fatality when I was a park ranger. But then the damage was compounded by a series of other fatalities that same summer. And further compounded by other seeming impossible dramas and near-tragedies that turned my life upside down – and shattered my conceptions about how the world works.

I never was able to catch my breath. Every day felt like a street fight, for a few years after that one pivotal catalyst. I was lost, and angry, and fearful every day. I hoped that bad things wouldn’t happen on my watch. I hoped that if they did, I would be able to stay present. I hoped that if someone’s life was on the line, my shortcomings would not lead to their death.

I felt like Life kept smacking me down. And every day I had to get up and fight all over again. I had no idea what was going on, or what to do with myself – so I would get up and fight again.

But it wasn’t until I left the park rangering that the PTSD really took hold. Once I no longer had to fight to stay alive, all the fight went out of me.

It became too difficult to fight, too difficult to do more than get by. Sometimes too difficult even to get by. All the anger and angst and fear turned inward, and I collapsed.

Unable to escape the reality that Life COULD be too hard, unable to escape the fact that loss was as inevitable as it was permanent, I lost my incentive to fight. I lost my incentive to risk.

I am armed with too much knowledge of all the things that can turn bad, all the ways events can turn to tragedy. That knowledge pushes me away from risk, and towards safety and comfort.

How many people live out their lives hiding from Life and all that it can take from you? How many of them have been helped by platitudes such as, “it’s better to have loved and lost then to never have loved” – any? How many of the walking wounded have had enough of the pain, and just want a bit of personal peace?

So it becomes about a constant seeking for comfort and safety. Well, safety is only an illusion – so comfort temporarily brings the illusion of safety. In my home. In my bed. If I’m fortunate, in nature. There is no illusion of safety out in the world – women get attacked, children get shot, people die in car accidents. And of course safety at home is also an illusion – you still get the phone call that brings you to your knees, or violence comes into your home. And most certainly the news of sworn enemies killing each other, of neighbors vilifying each other, of a government cheating us and lying to us, makes its way into our living rooms.

Escaping into good fiction, watching children and animals playing. A big slice of chocolate cake, or tall glass of merlot. A soft pillow and the sound of rain. These things bring at least momentary comfort.

The deeper comforts we crave, the kinds that come from being vulnerable and making connections and taking chances, come at too high a cost. Safety is an illusion. So while we know this isn’t how we want to live out our lives, we settle. For the easy, familiar, and guaranteed comforts. No matter how fleeting.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Embracing our Anger

Many of us believe in the importance of becoming our authentic selves; unraveling the layers of societal expectation, dogma, and shame.

I have found though that many who espouse this as a worthwhile effort set conditions on how our authentic selves should behave.

I want to be clear that I have nothing but love and respect for my parents, know them to be loving and generous people, and I most certainly do not blame them for childhood lessons that have followed me into adulthood. Still, we humans are profoundly impacted by our childhood experiences – at home, at school, on the playground, in our neighborhoods. And however we are impacted by those childhood lessons – whether we cater to them, defy them, or learn to disregard them – they helped shape our inner and outer selves.

I was raised to be compliant. As a child I was taught to respect adults, even if they were strangers to me. I was taught that children are not allowed to express anger; in fact they aren’t allowed to feel anger. I was taught that women too are not allowed to express anger. Men can freely express anger; it’s women’s job to soothe the troubled waters.

We really have no reason or excuse ever to make waves. If we want to address a problem, we must do so with patience, finesse, and diplomacy. We respond to their aggression with reason, to their outbursts with gentleness. And we slowly try to make them change by finding the perfect words, the perfect approach, and the right time.

I worshiped at the altar of perfecting my oratory skills. Well into adulthood I believed that if I could find just the right words and put them together in just the right way, and of course deliver them in a non-judgment, non-forceful way, then I would be understood. When this was not the result, I simply worked harder on my skills of debate and presentation. I could fix this. I could fix it given the right words.

Throughout my life this approach has been met with approval: from family, strangers, our culture at large. It is my responsibility to make people understand. Especially if they are men, they cannot be expected to be particularly sensitive or reflective or collaborative. It is my role to ease them into understanding, and I will never be successful at that unless I am calm and gentle.

My first recollection of channeling my angry side was during my time as a park ranger. It is difficult for most people to imagine a supposedly bucolic profession as being one big stimulant to the angry part of the brain. But that was what it was for me. The bread and butter of the job was telling people to stop doing what they were doing: put your dog on a leash; use the toilets, not the trees; stop pulling branches off of live trees; pick up your trash; stop being so loud when the rest of the campground is trying to sleep; don’t throw apples at the deer; and definitely don’t drive into a herd of elk to get a good closeup. Every other aspect of the job was fit into the spaces of time between being professional killjoy.

Combined with the role of being professional killjoy was the impossible position of being a women enforcement officer. If my approach was anywhere from 0 to 8, I was ignored. Once I escalated to 9, I was reported for being too stern. It wasn’t just the park visitors, but my bosses telling me simultaneously to be more stern, and not so stern. There was no sweet spot.

And the ways that people developed to destroy these precious bits of natural space, single-minded and oblivious, kept the angry centers of my brain constantly provoked.

Being angry all the time most certainly did not feel good, nor did expressing my anger. Still, I knew that something important was stirring inside me.

After I left rangering for good, I realized that I still had a lot of anger. Anger about childhood events; anger about my early adulthood; anger about the events of my ranger days; and anger about current situations. All my life I had “taken the high road.” I had done it because I was taught that was a superior response, and because women don’t express anger, and because I was afraid of the repercussions if I responded with anger. Sometimes that fear was of physical repercussions, but mostly it was fear of disapproval.

When I looked back on the oh-so-many times that I had responded with quiet respect to been wronged, I did not feel accomplished. Even years or decades later, I felt like the person had really deserved a good scolding or telling off. I regretted letting them get away with it; I regretted not telling them the things they deserved to hear; I regretted keeping all that anger inside and turning it against myself.

I was angry. And it was justifiable, righteous anger. I wanted to be acknowledged for, supported for, my anger.

I wasn’t.

When I would talk with a friend about someone who was bossing me around or belittling me, I would share my desire to call out that person on their misbehavior. The friend would respond by asking what my goal was. But they already imagined they knew. Surely my goal was to get this person to come around to my way of thinking, and change their behavior. And if I approached them with anger, that would never happen. So what approach could I take that would be more likely to get the result I wanted?

It took a while, but finally I realized that my goals had changed. Sometimes, my goal wasn’t to change the other person or their behavior at all. Sometimes, my goal was to be true to myself; to honor my anger. Sometimes, saying my piece was far more important than anything that might happen as a result.

We live in a capitalist, patriarchal society. Men belittle women. White people belittle people of color. Bosses belittle workers. I knew full well that speaking my truth angrily to a boss would not get me a promotion. But if that boss was a manipulative gaslighter, the only choice that honored me and my struggles was to tell them.

Those of us who call out misbehavior know that we are often criticized more than the one misbehaving. Many types of misbehavior are simply accepted, because they are part of the system, part of how the world is. And if I choose to challenge the system loudly, even those who would change it (quietly) feel threatened.

Overall I’m a very patient person. I’m respectful and diplomatic. Soft-spoken and even cautious. I have to watch against being too modest and self-deprecating. And when I speak out, I rarely do so with a raised voice. But I do so with a steely determination and brutal honestly that definitely gets across.

I have lost jobs. I’ve lost friends. I’ve lost opportunities. And in some cases I’ve been sad about this. But I do not have regrets about finding my anger, and putting voice to it. By honoring my anger, I honor the parts of me that were the most forcefully suppressed. I honor all of me.

I am angry. I am an angry woman.