Invisible Illness: Heartbreak, Healing and Being Enough

I’ve been sick for nearly a decade. But it’s only been in the past two months, since I have finally recovered, that I have come to understand the depth of the ramifications of having an invisible illness. So to all those who suffer from invisible pain, I hope that this makes you feel a little less alone.

Nine and a half years ago I had a baby and everything changed. Not just that magical mixture of sleep deprivation and overwhelming love that all tiny humans inflict on their unsuspecting parents. What I felt was … different.

It started with things like extreme fatigue and a painful distended belly after every meal for the first two years of my child’s life. When I spoke to my doctors about it they smiled that condescending smile and explained that yes, having a baby is life changing in all sorts of ways. It’s just “your new normal” I was told. Try avoiding broccoli and onions. Maybe the baby doesn’t like them. So I did. I eventually eliminated all sugar, gluten and dairy products. I exercised, I went to bed at a reasonable time, I drank lots of water, etc, etc, etc. I did all the things I was supposed to do. And every time I made a big change it would help briefly and then it would slide back and I would dread all food because I had no idea why it made me feel so terrible.

After two years, when I was no longer breastfeeding, it seemed like I was getting a handle on it. The stomach pains happened less often and, while I still didn’t feel like myself in some indefinable way, I tried to adapt to this new version of life. But it was hard. I got sick more frequently than ever before. I gained weight even when I ate well and exercised daily. I felt short-tempered. I wasn’t easily excited. I couldn’t put a finger on it, but I just didn’t feel happy. For years. But I was determined to just power through because it was all in my head, right?

Being the analytical nerd that I am I laid it out for myself in point form. I had a healthy happy baby, a wonderful husband, a creative career I loved. Shouldn’t that be enough? It wasn’t. So I got even more proactive. I did gratitude exercises and volunteered to help others. I made a point to reconnect with old friends and take more trips. I published two novels. I found my tribe of amazing women. I went to therapy to heal old wounds. I meditated. I did everything I could think of to shift my perspective, to make this feeling go away.

But finally, about 3 years ago I noticed that I could no longer feel joy. Everything took on a dark and heavy tone. I could feel the negative emotions, but I no longer got that lingering feeling of lightness or excitement from anything positive. I justified these new emotional symptoms. I told myself I was ungrateful for my beautiful life. I just didn’t have the disposition to enjoy many aspects of motherhood. Maybe I was going through a midlife crisis. Maybe it was my relationship. Maybe it was that life doesn’t look or feel how I thought it would.

And I knew it was taking a toll on my marriage. I could see the disappointment  and hurt in my husband’s eyes. I could feel the disconnect from my son even while playing in the ocean together. I had always been an optimistic person by nature and I heard the constant negativity coming out of my mouth but I couldn’t seem to stop it. There was a point where I recognized that, while I wasn’t entertaining suicidal ideation, I felt no attachment to living. I genuinely didn’t care if I lived or died.

Eventually, it did lead to the end of my marriage. There were things that, had I been able to experience the full spectrum of emotions, might have taken twenty years to bubble up to the surface or maybe never would have. Instead, it all came out. And it was hard. And good. And confusing. And heartbreaking. We both tried as hard and as long as we could, but in the end, we decided that it was better for us to be apart. I am deeply grateful for his continued support, our ability to co-parent, and for the enduring friendship that was always the basis of our relationship.

Apparently it took my whole world blowing up, but finally, it happened. I accidentally healed my illness. Well, it was actually thanks to my acupuncturist that I came across what turned out to be the solution.

She had encouraged me to do her Eating Cleanse program, which is specifically designed to decrease inflammation in the body. By eating foods that are scientifically proven to reduce inflammation and avoiding foods that add to it, it is essentially an oil change for the body.

I was skeptical, but willing to try it. Nothing, in nearly a decade, had worked at all. The first week without coffee did nothing to assuage my doubts. I felt tired and grumpy and resented that I had agreed to do three weeks without caffeine. Then, literally from one day to the next—on day 10—I felt like myself. Suddenly the world opened up before me and I cried tears of relief and … joy. I could feel joy!

Multiple friends commented that I was glowing. Strangers smiled at me at the store. My skin looked amazing. I woke up feeling refreshed and ready for my day. I delighted in time with my son. I felt more engaged in my conversations. And, most significantly, I felt a lightness of being that I hadn’t been able to feel for almost ten years. It was the single most transformative day of my life.

In the two months since that day I have been trying to make sense of it all. Trying to reorient myself in this new reality. To be kinder to myself—knowing now that I wasn’t ungrateful, I was sick. Appreciating the fact that I didn’t give up. Grieving the things I had to give up. And most of all, appreciating that, however long it took, I get to be me again.

It was easy and seemed so natural to blame myself for not being enough. Not being committed enough. Not being nurturing enough. Not being grateful enough. Not being affectionate or loving or happy enough. Because that’s the thing about invisible illness, you can’t just put a cast on it and give it six weeks to heal. When you are the only one who knows the extent of your pain you are also your only advocate. And that is especially hard and isolating when you’re physically and emotionally exhausted and what you need most is empathy from yourself and others.

Today I am grateful that I didn’t give up. I am proud of myself for continuing to try despite my hopelessness. I am proud of myself for holding onto the knowledge that how I felt in my illness wasn’t the real me. I am proud of myself for challenging every single norm and boundary and expectation. I now know my full self in a way I never would have gotten to before. Life isn’t what I thought it would be, but honestly, it’s better than I imagined. My capacity for empathy has increased boundlessly. I am no longer afraid. I am no longer ashamed. I am me. And I am enough. Even for myself.

Sharisse Coulter Has Awkward Conversations (So You Don’t Have To)

I started a web series of interviews with my friends from diverse backgrounds as a way to resist the current administration’s attempts to divide us. There are a lot of challenging conversations to be had and we don’t all have to come from the same backgrounds or even ever agree on everything. What we need is civil discourse. And I figured what better way to demonstrate that than by talking to my real life friends about all the things we’re taught to avoid in polite society.

So in this episode of my series SHARISSE COULTER HAS AWKWARD CONVERSATIONS (SO YOU DON’T HAVE TO) I am talking to my friend, Michelle, about race, raising kids of color in America, feminism and black hair. It’s a lot of emotionally charged ground to cover and I hope that you will enjoy it as much as we enjoyed making it!

 

Want to Have Better Sex? #MeToo

In this MeToo/Time’s Up era and especially since the Aziz Ansari story broke, there has been a lot of discussion about the distinctions between sexual harassment, assault, rape and impropriety of varying degrees. These are important distinctions and I hope much thoughtful conversation goes into parsing them out. But I want to talk about where we go from here. What are women trying to say? What are men supposed to do now?

I have an answer—at least for where we should start. Women everywhere are beginning to examine publicly what we’ve had to deal with personally for most of our lives. We have existed in a world in which our consent has so often been violated that most of us consider(ed) it normal to say no or move away from a guy in an intimate setting only to have him ignore us and try again (and again and again) shortly thereafter. For many of us we didn’t cry on our way home. We shrugged it off, not because it was okay, but because we didn’t expect better. And, in many cases, we’d already experienced much worse and so those smaller transgressions didn’t even register.

We watched movies like “Say Anything” and heard songs like “Baby It’s Cold Outside” and internalized the misogynistic ideas that stalking and coercing and guilt-tripping women into being with the male hero made these men “romantic” and swoon-worthy. For reference, they’re not. They’re rapey AF.

And I get why men are supremely uncomfortable at the moment. They are now being held accountable and called out for acting in ways they were socialized to believe were normal masculine behaviors. And while that is true (to an extent), the examples we’ve set for men and women are horribly toxic all the way around. There is one thing that we—as women—would like acknowledged before we can move forward.

For every perpetrator there is a victim who was there too and knows exactly what happened. She knows the moment the energy in the room shifted. She knows exactly what line was crossed. And men know we know. And that’s a terrifying thing in an era when there might actually be consequences. But there’s good news. Most women aren’t interested in taking down all the men who have ignored our consent or pushed further than we would’ve liked. Nobody’s got time for that.

However differently we each experienced and internalized these incidents, what we need now is an #ImSorry campaign. We want you to do better. But I don’t want to hear “I’ll do better in the future” until I’ve heard “I’m sorry.” It’s time to be specific and repentant. You don’t have to be malicious to hurt someone. You can intimidate or make someone feel afraid without meaning to. You don’t have to be evil to have triggered a person’s fight, flight or freeze response to trauma. We teach kindergartners to apologize for doing things that hurt someone else’s feelings when we know they didn’t mean to. Let’s start the healing by maintaining that same level of expectation for grown men.

Most of the damage women are experiencing isn’t attributable to a single experience. Most of it is compound damage. It’s on society to raise the bar overall.

As a start, I want to hear men acknowledge what so many of us women already know to be true. You have been part of the problem. It has gotten you what you wanted. You knew you were in a gray area and you went ahead with it anyway. We want you to treat us like people who deserve the respect and dignity of your honesty.

To acknowledge that whether intended or not, you are truly, genuinely sorry to have caused us pain. To ask us to explain what you did wrong and how you can do better in the future.

I got a call recently from a guy who wanted to know if he’d ever crossed a line with me. We had an honest and nuanced conversation about it. And you know what I hung up thinking? I hung up feeling grateful and impressed. I was impressed that he would take on such an uncomfortable subject, not knowing where the conversation would go. He listened. He didn’t argue or try to talk over me. He paid attention to what I had to say and then asked how he could do things differently. How could he better understand the verbal and nonverbal cues and pacifications women use in order to say “no” while still being nice and not upsetting the male ego?

Here is what I learned: Sure, I grew up hearing “no means no” but that was never my reality. I was 35 years old when I realized that it wasn’t okay to violate my consent. That I was allowed to say no at any point for any reason. That my “no” should be honored. That freezing and acquiescing instead of risking violence didn’t make me culpable. That I have habitually withheld the truth of my own desires as a buffer. If a guy will keep trying to take my pants off after I say no and move away from him, what would he be willing to do if I said I wanted to fuck him? What if I changed my mind? I would have given up my only card. I would have ended up powerless and vulnerable. So I mitigated that powerlessness by withholding and dissociating and not expressing my true desires.

But that’s not the sex anyone—male or female—should want. If men want women to be enthusiastic partners, then we have to see you respecting us. We have to hear you communicate and see that you stopped moving in when you saw us moving back. We have to feel safe. We have to be safe.

Apologizing won’t fix everything. It won’t stop a lot of powerful men from losing their careers and/or going to jail. A lot of atrocities have been committed and those men need to be held fully accountable.

But for the gray area guys—the Aziz Ansaris—start with #ImSorry. That is how we start to heal, individually and collectively. And, by addressing the fear and discomfort many men have expressed feeling, I think you’ll feel better too. Apologize. Listen. Do better.

People who feel healthy and safe have better sex. So I guess what I’m saying is … you’re welcome.

It Starts With You

I’ve been thinking a lot these last few days about the state of the world and what we can do about it. And then a friend challenged me to come up with THE solution. Rather than dismiss it as merely an insane idea, I took my own advice: I tried. It’s not THE answer. There’s lots of room for improvement. But it’s something.

So first, let’s talk about privilege. It’s basically just unearned advantages. We all have it to some degree or other and learning how to recognize it is one of the best first steps any of us can take. Did you wake up in a home, in a bed, under a roof, with electricity? Did you have enough to eat? Did you have access to clean water? Did you have the opportunity to go to school? Was the school near your home? Did you get to go to college? Do you have a job? Are you healthy? Can you go to your church without worrying that people will label you a terrorist? When you get pulled over by cops do you feel a reasonable expectation of safety? Do you go for a run around your block and not worry about being raped or sexually assaulted?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, awesome! Privilege is nothing to be ashamed of or feel guilty about having. Where there’s no innate merit, there’s also no blame. It’s like being randomly assigned the best parking spot. It’s cool for you. It doesn’t hurt anybody else. But if you shove it in someone else’s face, you’re a jerk. Don’t be a jerk.

There are a lot of real problems in the world right now. A lot of them are manmade. So let’s accept our collective responsibility and start problem solving. While there are many important conversations and actions to be taken, I’ve decided to commit to an experiment. I’m inviting anyone interested to join me.

Everything I read seems to point to the fact that a lot of people right now feel powerless. They feel like their needs aren’t being met. Like they’re of no concern to the society in which they live—the society that is meant to protect them. And this feeling of powerlessness leads to anything from anger to bigotry to hate groups to violence (toward self and others) and even toward authoritarianism.

I wish I had all the answers; I don’t. But I believe that we each have more power than we know. So I wrote this short list of things anyone can do every day to empower themselves by empowering others. You never know how far your small acts will ripple into the world. Maybe you will change someone’s life. Maybe that someone will be you. Maybe if we all feel a little bit more empowered we can turn the violent, destructive, hateful tide, together. Personally, I think it’s worth trying.

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I Had a Sleepover at a White Supremacist’s. Here’s What I Learned.

When I was in third grade I had a sleepover at a white supremacist’s house. His daughter and I were school friends and she invited me over. I didn’t know who her dad was, but I did know that she and I both liked tetherball and reading. That was more than enough for eight-year old me.

I was at my grandmother’s house when my mom said it was time to go. Upon hearing where I was heading my aunt shrieked, “You can’t let her go over there! Her dad is in the KKK!”

I didn’t understand what the KKK was, but I knew from my aunt’s tone that it was a big deal. My mom, clearly irritated by having to have this discussion in front of me, gave a response that I will never forget. She said that she didn’t think it was fair to punish the daughter for her dad’s choices. Plus, with my blonde hair and blue eyes she knew I’d be safe.

As it turned out, he was no run-of-the-mill racist. He had been a grand dragon of the KKK in the 70’s. He spent time in jail for related activities and was, along with his son, fined $12.5 million for inciting the murder of an Ethiopian man. I didn’t know any of this at the time.

All these years later, the most remarkable part of the sleepover was that is was completely unremarkable. Her dad worked in his repair shop out back while we “sledded” down their staircase on a mattress we found in the hall closet. Her mom made us lemonade and cookies. We stayed up late, giggling and chatting, and the next morning my mom picked me up and took me home. By all appearances it was identical to every other sleepover I ever had.

But even in my eight-year old brain, the fight between my mom and aunt stood out. It played on my mind. In an old diary I kept at the time I wrote: “I asked her if her dad was in the KKK. She said no. We played tag.”

While that sufficed in third grade, in the years since I have often remembered this story, reframing it through varying lenses at different stages of my life. Even then I knew that a superficial genetic lottery had been the key to my own safety. But the thing is, I had never met my biological father. In fact, I didn’t know anything about him. And despite being a kid, I understood the arbitrary nature of such a judgment, even if it played out in my favor.

I now have a son the same age I was then. He too has blonde hair, blue eyes and, as he calls it “blonde skin.” His dad has brown skin. My son, his parentage unknown, would also be safe. But I can’t imagine letting him have a sleepover at a white supremacist’s house.

And yet I’m glad my mom let me go. I learned a really important lesson that I feel is even more relevant in today’s current state of affairs.

I learned how easy it is to demonize anyone. It is easy to demonize a white supremacist and his family because of a prejudice against their ideologies and actions. It is easy to demonize any group of minorities or religions or skin colors or political affiliations because of the same. There is a seemingly rational argument to be made on all sides.

But the other part of what I learned is that while I had a perfectly lovely sleepover at a white supremacist’s house, it is unequivocally not okay to condone hatred and violence. Yes, I was safe. And yes, as an anthropologist, I can rationally agree that there is no inherent good or bad in the world. But we all exist within the societies in which we live. And as a society we have agreed upon a set of right and wrongs with corresponding value and consequence. We have argued, legislated and fought wars to protect the values we have chosen to unite us all. So it is upon that framework that we must evaluate any situation with which we are confronted.

I grew up thinking that I didn’t hear any overtly racist or prejudiced language. While I lived in a homogenous area where it wasn’t a major topic of conversation, I later discovered that I was wrong—I had heard it. It had simply been disguised in coded language.

I heard things like: “I like Mexicans, I just think people should go through the legal process.” Or, “ Slavery ended a long time ago. At a certain point you have to take responsibility for your own failure to succeed.” Or, “Affirmative Action is just political correctness taking opportunities from other more well-qualified candidates.” Or, “Families are better off when women stay home and look after the kids. I’m sorry, blame biology, not sexism.” Or the old standby, “Political Correctness is the problem with America. No one can say anything without offending someone!”

Where I went to college there were 98 nationalities represented among 8,000 students. I began to hear that coded language played back in my mind as I met new people who broke the stereotypes I hadn’t realized I’d absorbed. I had to confront my own inadvertent prejudices. And I have to be honest, I was both surprised and ashamed to realize I had them. I honestly didn’t know.

When I heard about “illegals” I didn’t think about the horrors they might be escaping from and how absurd it was to expect them to file the right paperwork. When I heard about mass incarceration of black people it didn’t occur to me that it might be unjust. In my experience the cops were usually justly enforcing the law. When I heard about neo-Nazis or the KKK it didn’t occur to me that anti-Semitism was happening in America. I thought that was a WWII European issue. The only micro-aggressions I took note of were about women, because those affected me.

What I think is happening for a lot of people in this country right now, particularly those closest to the white, straight, Christian, cis-gender, middle class end of the spectrum, is a sudden confrontation with our own ingrained prejudices.

It makes sense that shame is a part of our reaction. We’ve never, as a country, learned how to deal with the truth of our own racist history. And yes, for most of us it’s easy to condemn white supremacists and neo-Nazis. But there is a shadow side as well. A side that knows we’ve heard casual racism, prejudice and coded language used by family members, friends, coworkers and acquaintances. And maybe there have been times we’ve stood up to those people. But most likely, we’ve also remained silent at times we felt we should have spoken up.

I have been confronted with many instances where I wanted to speak up but didn’t. Sometimes it seemed like a lost cause. Sometimes it was an inappropriate setting. Sometimes it could jeopardize my professionalism or safety or create unnecessary tension. It was definitely going to make things uncomfortable.

Thankfully I have a diverse group of friends who have been extremely gracious and patient with me over the years, letting me ask awkward questions and give honest answers without blame. They have been more understanding of my silence in certain situations than I’ve been of myself. They have taught me a lot about my own ignorance, and how I can be a better ally.

So here is what I’d like to offer for anyone else who has ever felt this kind of shame and discomfort: intention matters. If you are listening and trying to honestly learn about people and you stumble over the wrong words, most often people will respond kindly, appreciating the fact that you’re trying. If you hear casual racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, anti-Semitism or any other prejudice, recognize that you have an opportunity to help. If you feel safe in that setting, recognize that that is your privilege. It is your privilege to choose whether to engage or not. Recognize that not everyone has that choice.

Often these things are said without much thought. They’re colloquialisms we’ve grown up with and never contemplated. Like how most kids don’t think about the history of ethnic cleansing when they play Cowboys versus Indians.

Other times they are perpetuated by sheer volume. The less they’re challenged, the more they persist. The more they’re exposed to light—forced through a lens of rationality and fact-checking—the quicker they die out.

We live in an era of human history in which we are aware of our own insignificance relative to the vastness of the universe. We are specks on a speck of dust in infinite space. There is abundantly more that unites than divides us, but we have to be able to confront our own shame and discomfort in order to find peace with one another, and most importantly, ourselves.

I am an optimist. I believe most try to be good people. But good is an adjective. We are all, at a basic level, people. We are only good people when we choose the actions and beliefs our societies have deemed “good.” We can all make kinder, more empathetic choices and earn the adjective we so generously throw around. We don’t have to be perfect, but we can do better. Let’s do better.

Thanks Trump (and the GOP) For Setting Me Free

For anyone who knows me this may seem an unlikely statement for me to make. But don’t worry. It doesn’t represent a seismic shift away from my ideological center. What it does represent is the acknowledgement and gratitude I feel for my worst fears coming true. And that, in turn, setting me free.

It started innocuously enough. I spent my childhood as a tomboy surrounded by brothers and generally uninterested in most of the “girly” things I encountered. I preferred climbing trees and playing in the mud to dolls or playing house. And mostly that was fine—encouraged even.

Looking back, there were small tells, like when I outperformed my soccer coach’s son and suddenly they wanted to separate us by gender. But for the most part I got to exist in a space wherein I was cute enough, social enough and athletic enough to avoid bullying throughout my childhood and adolescence. I mostly just skated through.

I was often told I had a lot of “potential” yet never offered any specific encouragement. I wasn’t told I was “bad” at anything either, though I was subtly pushed away from both math and science, even when my grades didn’t reflect that discouragement.

None of that really bothered me though, because I have always been a person with my own point of view and a clear idea of how I wanted to do things. (This is a trait that has been pointed out to me many times in a not-so-flattering tone.) Mostly, the more I was left to myself, the happier I was.

But a funny thing happens when you’re a girl in this society. In countless ways, subtle and overt, we are pushed to mold ourselves into the Ideal Woman.

The Ideal Woman (for anyone who doesn’t know) is first and foremost hot. She’s thin, but still curvy. She is always well put together but doesn’t care about shopping or makeup. She’s athletic, but doesn’t have any gross muscles that look “manly.” She’s smart, but not smarter than her male peers. She’s sassy and opinionated when you first meet her, but demures into adoring acquiescence once a man has chosen her for his own. She isn’t offended by dirty jokes or swearing, but she doesn’t really need to swear. It’s not ladylike, after all. She has interests of her own, but never hesitates to push those aside in order to support her man. She’s adventurous, but still needs a guy to build her a fire and navigate the trail. She’s successful, but earns less than he does. She’s talented, but never outshines him. She’s sexual, but not slutty. She loves him for exactly who he is, warts and all, but she knows it’s her responsibility to keep him attracted to her. She’ll work out and “get that body back” as soon as possible after growing a human inside of her. And she’s never too tired to give her man love and affection when he’s had a long day. She never bothers him with her own complaints because he’s tired. It’s not his burden to bear. No matter her career aspirations, she is an entirely devoted mother, never resentful of her needs falling further down the priority list. And did I mention? She’s really hot.

In some capacity, we all feel the pressure to live up to this mythological impossibility of Barbie proportions. But it’s not as simple as caring what others think. It’s not something we get to reject outright. Because the desire to fit in is not mere peer-pressure. Belonging to one’s social group, according to all of human history, has meant life. Excommunication has meant death. That is why, when we are told that we aren’t measuring up, it triggers a fear response. What do we need to do in order not to be excommunicated? We’ll do anything! And once that fear is triggered, we are easily manipulated.

So back to Trump and the GOP. Like most people in this country, this past election felt like a death to me—the death of the country I thought I’d grown up in. I had to give myself time to mourn. I went through the 5 stages: Denial (no, this can’t possibly be happening. Surely there’s been a mistake!) Anger (lots of swearing and unproductive venting, feeling like everything I was taught about my country was a lie, etc.) Bargaining (But if he lost the popular vote and the Russians hacked our election, we can undo this, right? What about impeachment?) Depression (full on nihilism-—there’s no point to anything, why bother anymore? Fuck it. Fuck it all.) And finally, Acceptance. Like it or not, it is reality.

So a couple weeks ago I went go kart racing with my brother, Lee and Kai. They were the fast electric ones, not the mellower gas versions, which meant that Kai was too young to race with us. I didn’t really want to go, but I knew my brother would give me crap if I didn’t, so I said yes anyway. Our race consisted of the three of us and three other middle-aged men I’d never met. The employees went over the rules (no bumping, no reckless driving) and then we put on our helmets and got behind the wheel.

The first lap was uneventful, but on the second, one of the guys I didn’t know smashed into the back of my kart at full speed. It shocked me and I looked up at the guy who hit me, who clearly thought it was my job to have gotten out of his way. I looked to the guy waving the flags, but he didn’t hold up the red one—the one indicating that the rule breaker was kicked off the track. On a third lap another guy bumped me from the side and still, nothing from the flag guy.

When the race finished I was in pain. I realized I was going to cry and, not wanting Kai (or anyone else) to see, I went to the bathroom. I felt like I’d been in a car crash. I was in shock. And then I felt anger. I was angry that these guys weren’t being held accountable for breaking the rules. No one cared that they hurt me. No one protected me. No one enforced consequences. What good are rules if no one enforces them?

That was when it hit me. This experience was a microcosm of what the election felt like to me. I was raised to believe I could do anything. I could be anything. If I generally adhered to the societal norms, I would be protected. The rules applied equally to everyone.

But here I was, hiding in a bathroom stall, crying, trying not to make it anyone else’s problem.

Two weeks later I’m spending money on acupuncture, a chiropractor and a masseuse in order to treat my whiplash so that I can work again. I abided the rules. I trusted that I was safe—that if everyone operated within the system everything would work out, it would be fun.

But instead, by not listening to my own instincts and trusting that people generally respect and enforce rules for everyone’s safety, I was reminded that it is all a lie. They didn’t hesitate for a second to push me out of the way. Even when they broke the rules, no one held them accountable. And now I’m in pain and my bank account is a lot lighter as I’ve dealt with the very real consequences. I no longer have a reasonable expectation of protection by those rules.

The election of a liar, a self-professed sexual predator, a man with no concern for anyone or anything beside himself is the antithesis of everything I was taught my country represents. The GOP going along with it and not holding the highest office in the land to even a kindergarten level of civility and integrity is not what I was taught my countrymen do. I was told that they were brave. That they were honest. That they chose the right path over the easy one. I was told that they cared about me.

But they don’t. When I see a group of all white men locking themselves behind closed doors to shove through a secret health care bill that dictates what I can and can’t do with my body I am reminded that this is not what I was told would happen. I was told they cared about me, respected me, loved me. Because these are the men who raised me, coached me, taught me. The disillusionment I feel is significant.

But by making their disdain and condescension undeniable, they actually did me a huge service. So thank you. I can now release my biggest fear.

The system didn’t work for me. I am on my own. And because of that I can stop lessening myself in order to preserve their egos. I can stop laughing at their sexist jokes. I can be opinionated and intelligent and talented and unladylike and even (gasp!) gain or lose weight and still like myself. I can dress up or wear pajamas all day. I can do whatever I goddamn please because I. Am. Free.

And I wish that I could say that I will now go out and change the world. That I will inspire my fellow women to let go of the fear and lean fully into being their amazing, wonderful, smart, funny, talented, weird, gross, beautiful selves. Maybe I will. Maybe I won’t. I’m not clairvoyant and that’s not the point. The point is that I can guarantee that in all the rest of the days of my life I will be fully, fearlessly, unapologetically me. It turns out, that’s the freedom I was seeking all along.

The Girl in the Turquoise Shirt

When I was in high school I spent a week in Tijuana, Mexico building houses for poor people. That trip changed me. Or more precisely, one little girl in a turquoise shirt did.

My boyfriend’s church group was going over spring break and they needed more volunteers, preferably who could speak Spanish. I volunteered. Admittedly, I wasn’t into the whole Kumbaya-by-the-campfire church stuff. My issues with organized religion aside, I just mean to say that I wasn’t divinely inspired nor did I ascribe any religious relevance to the work we were doing. Building houses for people who didn’t have safe homes to live in fulfilled my humanitarian inspiration. I was excited to be there and felt proud of what we’d be doing.

We piled into the van and sped and bumped along the uneven roads. I watched the landscape fly by, having no idea what to expect, and hoping not to screw anything up. The natural landscape was strikingly similar to San Diego and yet there was no question that this wasn’t Southern California.

On the other side of the border the hilltops would have been adorned by mansions with huge windows for admiring the coastal vistas. Here, they were covered in a hodge podge of cardboard, old tires and plywood. Rusted vehicles lined the dirt streets and scrawny dogs skittered along, noses to the ground in search of food or garbage. Large plastic tubs sat in what could generously be called front yards. A water truck ambled along, kicking up dust until it stopped in front of a makeshift structure—more of a fort than a home. Its tenant came out, paid the man, and a hose was set up to fill the house’s water tank.

We came to a stop across from the house with the water truck and an excited woman waved to us, balancing a little girl on her hip as her other two daughters rushed out to greet us. This was the family we’d be helping.

In all, our group was building eleven houses. The neighborhood consisted of a number of small houses plopped on hard dirt parcels of land, constructed from an array of scrap materials ranging from plywood to cardboard to ripped mesh screens and a sagging roof on top. While I’m no expert, it didn’t appear built to code.

We started by leveling out the dirt for the new foundation and set the first two by fours into a neat rectangle that would become the new home’s hard floor. The work was physically demanding and the weather was hot. The mom of the family offered us food and water which we politely declined (as we’d been instructed to do) in deference to our sensitive American digestive tracts.Tijuana 1

The oldest daughter—the one in the turquoise shirt—seemed very interested in our work. She was about ten years old and had a lot of questions for us about what we were doing. We answered as best we could and when she wanted to help mix the concrete we shrugged and reluctantly let her, expecting that she’d try it for a few minutes and then lose interest or get tired.

She worked all day every day with us, carrying heavy supplies, hammering, fetching tools, whatever she could do. She was all smiles. On one of the last days, as we were setting chicken wire for the stucco exterior, a friend of mine offered her a pack of gum.

That was when the little girl in the turquoise shirt did something that still stands out to me, twenty years later. She went around to every person working—not just on her house—but on her neighbor’s houses as well. She asked every one of us if we’d like a piece of gum, without taking one for herself.

I watched her silent act of selflessness in complete admiration. Any one of us could have gone to the corner store and bought ourselves a whole pack of gum. Most of us (myself included) would never have thought to ask anyone else if they wanted any. It was just gum. No big deal. But here she was giving away this precious surplus.

She shared a bed with four other family members. She had a dirt floor inside her home. She didn’t have indoor plumbing. She was poor. And yet … she shared her time, her efforts and her gift with us.

Whenever I hear someone complaining about handouts or lazy immigrants or the poor not helping themselves, I think about the little girl in the turquoise shirt. I think about the first time I recognized my own privilege. And I think about the fact that that little girl understood abundance, cooperation and generosity in ways that I’m still aspiring to.Tijuana 2

 

 

Radical Empathy

I did the one thing this Thanksgiving none of us were supposed to do: talk politics. I engaged with a white male Trump supporter. I did not do it out of anger. I did not tell him he was wrong. I did not see him as my enemy. Instead, I challenged myself to see his pain.

I had recently seen the documentary “The Mask You Live In” about the damaging effects of our very narrow definition of masculinity. When I looked at this man I saw someone who has spent most of his life living up to a standard which may or may not reflect the real him. And I’m not sure if anyone has ever asked him who he is or what he wants. I told him about the film and said I thought he might like it. He was skeptical, but dropped his defensiveness almost immediately. While the anger still dripped from his words, I saw him softening, wanting to engage. I asked him questions. I listened to his answers. And then I said that I felt this issue was at the heart of how Trump was elected. He argued that there wasn’t a good option and that they were both “evil.”

I explained that, to me, that wasn’t true. One candidate propagated hate, racism, misogyny, homophobia and xenophobia and the other has dedicated her life to public service. As one of the people in Trump’s “other” categories we feel that the President-Elect invalidates our humanity. I said that it was impossible to discuss other issues when one’s humanity is at stake. He began arguing, but when I asked him how he would feel if his existence and continued safety were on the line, he shifted. I was surprised. He said he personally didn’t believe any of those hateful things. I said I believed him and asked him to please stand up for anyone who is being discriminated against. As a military man he seemed to take that challenge to heart.

He said, “Yeah, all of us just want to be recognized as fully human.”

“I agree.” I said. My absolute agreement seemed to take him by surprise and he sat quietly stunned for a few moments. Then he stood up and gave me a hug.

I tell this story because, like a lot of people since the election I have struggled to find the words to express how I feel, even to myself. I’ve been working and reading and traveling, talking to people on all sides, trying to reconcile my dwindling faith in humanity with my optimistic nature.

Before the holidays I was in San Francisco working. I stayed with my friend from college, a Cambodian refugee who grew up in California, and her Trump-supporting fiancee.  Inadvertently I found the perfect thing to transform my fear and hopelessness into something new, something productive: Radical Empathy.

I realized that what I have been feeling for months now was paralyzing fear. Fear of oppression. Fear of hate. Fear of fear-mongering. Fear for the planet. Fear for my fellow citizens, both of this country and the world. Fear of hopelessness.

And with every article I read, every person I talked to, everywhere I turned I saw those fears gaining validity. My chest constricted and I couldn’t take full breaths. Tears stung the backs of my eyes, constantly threatening to break the dam of my resolve. I just wanted to be okay. But I didn’t feel okay.

My friend and I decided to go to a Yin Yoga class on my last evening there. For anyone unfamiliar, it is all about breathing into postures that you stay in for many minutes at a time. The purpose is to release the emotional tensions we hold in our physical bodies by breathing into the stretch. It is deceptively simple. As the instructor guided us through the meditative breathing, tears snaked down my cheeks. It was like my body had been waiting to be given permission to finally let go. Not just to let go of the tears, but of judgment too.

I wasn’t embarrassed. I wasn’t self-conscious. I let the tears fall until they stopped. I kept breathing. I let go of the idea that my fear could change or affect the uncertainty of the world. And instead of despair, I felt calm. I felt open.

After the class my friend and I talked with more vulnerability than before. And as we spoke I realized that she and her fiancee were the embodiment of the only thing that is certain to affect change and overcome fear: Love. They accept their differences. They listen to one another’s fears. They explain how the world appears through their own eyes and experience and listen to one another with compassion. Have they resolved their differences? No. Are those differences likely to cause friction at various points in their relationship? Yes, definitely. But they are approaching uncertainty and change with love instead of fear.

I realized that I too am filled with love. And while I don’t agree with anyone who is advocating hate, racism, prejudice, misogyny, xenophobia or to further harm the planet, I see that that is an unproductive focal point.

So I choose to shift my focus. There are many things and people I care deeply about. Instead of worrying about the things and people I disagree with, I am dedicating myself to radical empathy. I choose to transform my fears productively.

Offering love to all does not condone all behavior. The consequences of hate are real and require help to heal. But instead of blaming those perpetrators we must help them see their own light. Instead of name-calling and shaming, we need to empower them. Radical empathy simply means that we recognize that darkness and light exist in all of us. It means that when people give in to their own darkness we all suffer. Humanity needs light.

If we want to live in a more peaceful, equal world, we too have to look past our personal stories and recognize that reacting out of anger and hurt will never accomplish our goal. If we give in to our own judgmental darkness we are no better than those with whom we disagree. We need to see beyond ourselves. We need to be love. We need radical empathy.

We are all likely to give in to fear sometimes. To allow anger to swallow our better selves. So I’m writing this as much for myself as for anyone else in need of a healthy way forward. I need to remind myself that this is how my truest self feels. I need to connect and reconnect to my own radical empathy. Because by choosing love over fear this Thanksgiving I was able to to find common ground with someone I didn’t think I could, and in so doing, I regained a little bit more faith in humanity.

 

Trump Grabbed Me By The PTSD

The first time I was sexually assaulted I was nine-years old. That’s right, nine. To really put that into perspective (as if any should be required) here’s what I looked like at that age. Undeniably sexy, right? Just look at those bangs. Who could resist?img_3897_web

This isn’t something I expected to discuss publicly. Ever. Most people who have known me my whole life don’t know. But in light of current events I can no longer in good conscience remain quiet about something I’ve known to be an endemic cancer in our society for most of my life. Silence gives power to oppressors and I choose to shine the brightest light possible on their darkness of being.

I wish that I could claim to have an unusual or even unique story. At least that would imply that things like this don’t happen that often. But 1 in 4 girls are sexually abused before they are 18, so unfortunately I am neither unique nor unusual.

But the first time it happened to me the perpetrator was a middle-aged man I was taught to trust. While holding me piggyback he fingered my pussy rather than grabbing it, but the sense of entitlement was identical to Trump’s. And he too got away with it. In fact, in my lifetime I have been sexually assaulted on four different continents and they have all gotten away with it.

But you want to know what happened when I told an adult about the first time? I was asked what the circumstances surrounding the “alleged” events were. What was not-so-subtly implied was: How could this be diminished? Brushed aside? How could it be turned into some sort of innocent mistake?

And before anyone reading this gets indignant on my behalf, let me remind you that this is the standard we have set. Look at Bill Cosby. Brock Turner. R KellyMike Tyson. Woody Allen. Roman Polanski. Donald Trump. As a society our kneejerk reaction to all women (and girls) who claim sexual harassment/assault/abuse/rape is to be appalled by the accusation. To assert these men are innocent until proven guilty. To ask what was she wearing? Why did she go back to his hotel room? Had she been drinking? Why didn’t she come forward sooner? She probably just made it up to get publicity or a payoff. As a society our first reaction is to find a way to blame it on her.

So no, I wasn’t believed. I wasn’t protected. But let’s not pretend that being believed and protected is the norm. When 97% of rapists never spend a day in jail, is it really fair to pretend that it’s a crime we deem worthy of serious consequence?

I started this year by Breaking up with the Patriarchy. It’s been a big couple of years for me in terms of facing my own personal demons and learning to reclaim power over my own life and body. My introduction to sex taught me that pleasure, particularly my own, was something to be ashamed of. Healing has been an arduous task that, at times, has completely overwhelmed me. But I am at a point in my life where I can no longer move forward carrying this weight on my back. I need to be free. And just when I’d started to see the world a little differently—to acknowledge the many good and decent men in my life—Trump comes along and unearths the worst of our humanity, reminding me that my fears were always well-founded. That not only are too many men able and willing to treat women as objects rather than humans, but that plenty of people will come out to defend their right to do so.

I dream of a day when our Presidential election will be about policy issues again. When we can engage in civil discourse. But let’s not pretend that this election is about issues. There is only one issue. Are you pro-humanity or not? It doesn’t matter where you stand on any political issue in this election. The current GOP contender has already discussed the size of his penis, bragged about committing sexual assault and offended women, Muslims, Mexicans, African Americans, immigrants, the disabled, and POWs. He has advocated committing war crimes, praised foreign dictators, called global warming a hoax concocted by the Chinese, and dodged paying his own taxes. Under no circumstances can this be considered an election of policy issues.

I understand that many of you may not care for (or even hate) Hillary Clinton. Maybe you loved Bernie. Maybe you loved someone else. They didn’t get the nomination and it’s disappointing that you don’t have your ideal candidate to vote for. I get it. It’s a scary time in the world right now and we need a leader who can navigate through a quickly changing and globalizing world. Whatever your political leanings, I too wish that you were able to choose between ideal candidates.

The current choices may not meet your ideals, but it is also not “the lesser of two evils.” Whatever you think about Hillary Clinton she is arguably the most qualified human to ever run for President in our lifetime. She has a multi-decade long history of advocating for women, children, the disabled, the poor, veterans and minorities. Is it a perfect record? Of course not. She believes the overwhelming scientific consensus that global warming is a real and significant threat to humanity. And to put her in the same category of “evil” as Donald Trump is misguided at best and hateful at worst.

Yes, it would be great if we had a legitimately multi-party system so that more of our interests could be represented. But we don’t. Let’s mark this moment as the point in history when we work to find ways to represent everyone equally. But right now, the reality is that there are are two candidates with a chance to become the next President of the United States.

When I hear people praising Trump or saying they’d rather vote for him than Hillary I feel PTSD being triggered. My body tenses and I find it hard to take full breaths. It’s hard for me to focus on anything else because my body goes into a kind of survival mode. As it turns out, I’m not alone. This has become so common for so many people that thousands of therapists signed this manifesto naming Trumpism “as a threat to the well-being of the people we care for and to American democracy itself.”

A vote for Trump is a vote for the worst of humanity. If that offends you I recommend you take a long look in the mirror and think about what it is that you are allying yourself with. I am personally (and rightfully) offended by your stance. You are diminishing crimes. You do not believe victims. You do not believe your own ears. You are not concerned about my rights as either an American or a human. And worst of all, without acknowledging it, you don’t care about your own either. The only choice in this election is whether you want to be part of the problem or part of the solution? It’s your choice. Whether you actively choose by voting or passively choose by denying the reality that you have a voice, you are still taking a stand. What do you stand for?

Tales of an Introvert Living in an Extravert’s World

I am an introvert. That doesn’t mean that I’m shy, exactly. It’s more that I require lots of time on my own, getting lost in the world of my imagination. That’s part of what I love so much about traveling solo—it’s a perfect excuse to interact when and how I wish and then retract, replenishing my internal batteries when needed. I have always preferred one-on-one time to being in groups and long, in-depth conversations to any level of small talk. For years I navigated these social nuances with relative ease, but now that I work for myself and am a parent I no longer have the ability to just disappear into my own little world, unless I’m traveling on my own. In my self-reflection I’ve become acutely aware that many of my recent struggles stem from being an introvert in an extravert’s world.

You might think that being an introverted writer sounds ideal since writing entails a lot of solo time lost in one’s head, right? Strictly speaking, that’s true. But it’s only one aspect of what a modern writer does. Or a modern human, for that matter. We live in an extraverted era—an era that idolizes those who capture the most attention, regardless of what else they offer (à la Kardashians, Trump and Kanye). This isn’t to say either disposition is better than the other, just that the way our society is currently weighted, it tips in favor of those who flourish with lots of attention and are good at getting it.

Our complex social lives are probably the dominant force in human evolution, driving the evolution of intelligence, creativity, language, and even consciousness. The human reward system, therefore, most likely evolved to be particularly responsive to social rewards.

Indeed, one of the most important gateways to rewards (e.g., money, power, friends, alliances, mates, exploration of the environment) is the ability to capture the attention of other people. Along these lines, some researchers have suggested that extraversion represents a high-intensity strategy for gaining social attention. –Scott Barry Kaufman, Scientific American.

Books need help finding eager audiences and that requires talking to people, doing interviews, signings and (gasp) readings. It requires professional networking and small talk. An extraverted writer would be energized by these scenarios while their introverted counterpart would feel drained. I blame introversion for my gross neglect in terms of marketing my first two novels, but understanding why is only the first step. I still have to navigate the world of marketing in order to reach new readers. And I have to find a solution that doesn’t sap all of my available energy, especially if I want to keep writing more novels. I find myself gravitating to social media and online marketing as a much less draining tool. So thank you, internet, on behalf of introverts everywhere. Everything is easier when I can do it from home in my pjs.

My photography and videography business also requires me to direct people, to keep their energy levels up and to guide them through their insecurities in front of the camera. I love getting to tell visual stories and feel honored that people want me to capture their creativity, families and special moments. But after a shoot I usually collapse onto the couch, exhausted. I love it, but I have to remind myself to build in time to recharge.

And then there’s parenting—between playdates, school activities, sports and sheer time spent with a little human possessing superhuman quantities of energy, I often find myself feeling overwhelmed. It’s not that I don’t enjoy it, I do. I love being a mom—watching my son make friends, try new things and learn to find his own place in the world is immeasurably rewarding. But sometimes Mama needs a time out. And my need for time outs seems to be more frequent than my extraverted husband’s. For quite a while, this aspect in particular felt like a failing on my part. I kept thinking that I should be able to just power through. Tune out the noise. Make endless small talk at the park or school or sports field. But I can’t.

I need time alone. I need space. I need to rejuvenate. Otherwise I’m no good to anyone. And while it may be an era geared towards extraverts, introverts have a different, complementary set of strengths that, when given the energy we need, can quietly fuel the imagination, be a great audience and give others the time and space they need to learn and grow.

I’m beginning to see that it’s not a selfish thing to ask for what I need. Just as an extravert needs to be in social situations that allow them to get the attention that recharges them, I need the opposite. For me, a lot of that comes in the form of travel. In the last couple of years I’ve taken a number of solo trips for just this reason. And while I’ve heard from plenty of people who opine that I’m being selfish and neglecting my maternal duties, I know that every time I come home I am better, more engaged and more connected. That time to myself gives me the space to feel gratitude for the abundance in my life.

Since I happen to be married to a (rather talented) singer songwriter who has learned to understand this about me, I am also lucky enough to now have my own anthem. But the song isn’t just for me; it’s for everyone who needs to follow the call of their own solo adventures.

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photo by Sharisse Coulter

The song is called “Don’t Belong” and the video, which will premier tonight at The Studio Encinitas was filmed by me and edited by Lee. My hope is that it will resonate in the hearts of my fellow wanderlusters and introverts. May you all enjoy whatever it is that energizes you and ignites your passions.

 

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