Pure As the Driven Slush: Heather Corinna's Journal and Diary, Online since 1999

Archive for July, 2011

Monday, July 25th, 2011

(Cross-posted at the Scarleteen blog)

I want to tell you something very personal about me. Not because I want to. I really don’t want to. But I’m going to do it anyway.

It’s one of those things where even though it’s incredibly uncomfortable for me, I feel like sharing despite my discomfort might be able to make a positive difference. And since this has to do with something where I believe others have been making a positive difference in a way I, myself, have not also been able to, it seems the least I can do. I’ve been largely silent around the Slutwalks. There are a few reasons for that, but the biggest one of all is that what inspired them simply struck me much, much to close to home. So, my silence has not been about nonsupport of the walks. In more ways than one, it’s been about my stepping out of the way of them in part based on my own limitations.

If you’re triggered by candid stories about sexual or other forms of assault, this may be triggering for you. I know it still is for me, very much so. Telling this story in this kind of detail remains incredibly difficult for me, despite many years of healing, help with therapy, help and healing found through helping others and a lot of support. It’s not a story I tell often, because even just typing it out or saying it all out loud makes my hands shake and my heart race and turns me into a bit of a mess for a bit of time after I do.

I keep hearing or reading people say things like that no one really gets told the way they were dressed makes them at fault for their assault, despite about a million evidences to the contrary, and knowing far more than one person personally who has had that experience.

Conversely (and oddly enough, sometimes from the same people who say that first thing), I keep reading people stating, despite so much great activism around this lately, that how someone dresses IS what “got them raped.” Or that they were raped because of their sexual history, their economic class, where they live, how they talk, how they do or don’t respond to men, how they identify or present their gender — anything BUT the fact that they were in some kind of proximity to someone who chose to rape them, which is exactly how, and only how, someone winds up being a victim of rape.

A few months ago, I had an apparently politically progressive blogger who would not stop talking to me on Twitter about the “rape outfit” of an 11-year-old girl whose rape case I had linked to. He, without my asking him anything about it personally, expressed he felt she would not have been assaulted had she been dressed differently. He called whatever it was she was wearing a “rape outfit.” Hearing about the fact that I had my own “rape outfit” at 12, or that, when my great-grandmother was raped and murdered in her home at the age of 76, her “rape outfit” was a housecoat, or that the “rape outfit” of young boys sexually abused by priests was often their super-salacious Sunday best; equally not hearing my firm requests to please not keep tweeting me with misogyny which I found deeply upsetting and hurtful seemed to only make him more excited to keep saying what he was. Even reminding him I was a survivor myself didn’t slow him down. Only blocking him worked. I’m quite certain he left the conversation with exactly the same beliefs as when he started it.

These things we read and hear don’t just come from one group of people: some men say them, but so do some women. Social conservatives say them a lot, but progressives say them, too. People who assault people, of course, will often voice things like this or other things to do all they can to avoid responsibility. But even people who have been victimized themselves will sometimes say things like this. Sometimes — and, I’d say, probably most of the time — that’s about internalizing the messages they got. Sometimes it’s about feeling a need to have another victim be at fault for their assault so that they can feel less like they, themselves, were at fault for their assaults, even though no victim is at fault for being victimized. More unfortunately, than I can express, rape culture is one of the most globalized kinds of culture there is.

I keep reading and hearing and seeing people who, so far as I can tell, and intentionally choosing to misrepresent or deny the core issue of what the SlutWalks are about: activism working expressly to try and counter deeply harmful and endangering attitudes expressed about rape and rape victims like those of Constable Michael Sanguinetti, who, in January of this year, speaking on crime prevention at a York University safety forum said, “You know, I think we’re beating around the bush here. I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this - however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised.” (This is why the word “slut” is so prominently featured in this activism, because it is this comment which directly inspired the first walk.)

I wish I had never heard a police officer say anything like that at all. I also wish that if I was going to hear that, it had been the first time I had.

In seeing so much nonsupport for the walks and people who have participated in them, I started to worry that being silent might be interpreted as being nonsupportive, which is the last message I’d want to send. I’m going to talk a little bit about the walks in this blog post and another in another few days, but I want to start by telling you what I’m about to tell you, if for no other reason than to do what I can do in support, because there are things I can’t do yet, things which others can and have.

When I was 12 years old, I was sexually abused for the second time in my life. The first had been a year before, when I was 11. Then, I was molested by an elderly man who cut our hair in the neighborhood. I didn’t tell anyone. I wasn’t even totally sure what had happened to me, nor what to call it. It was 1981, I was 11, and all I knew was whatever it was felt horrible, scared me intensely, and was not okay. But I also got the message that telling anyone about it wasn’t okay, and seemed to feel some message that because it happened to me, it must have meant there was something not okay about me, too. The home environment I was living in enabled these kinds of messages constantly and was itself abusive in other ways, so I did not feel safe at that point saying much of anything, let alone disclosing something like this.

A year later, I was alone cleaning up the art room of the day camp where I was a junior counselor at he end of the day. Because the building was still open, someone was likely at the front deck, but that was very far away, and otherwise, the place was a ghost town. The only reason I was there so late is that I’d often stretch out those days as long as I could in order to avoid having to go home.

I’m going to tell you what I was wearing now.

What I was wearing wouldn’t matter and wouldn’t have mattered, to anyone, in a much better world then I lived in then and we still live in now. But it did matter to someone at the time, in a way that messed me up just as much as my assault itself did. In our cultural context right now, or perhaps in someone else’s view, it would seem clear that what I was wearing had nothing at all to do with my being assaulted. In fact, now, in our cultural context about what is and isn’t “slutty” dress, what I was wearing may be seen as indisputable proof that I did NOT ask for rape or deserve rape, even though nothing anyone wears or doesn’t wear proves or disproves that in actuality, which is clear when people are rubbing more than two hateful brain cells together in their thinking process.

It was summer in Chicago then. It’s hot in summer in Chicago. I was working at a camp, and I also had to bike back and forth, so I needed to be work-appropriate, even at 12, but also able to move around easily and not pass out from the heat. If it had been totally up to me, I’d probably have been wearing less than I was so I was more comfortable on the ride home.

But as it was, I had on gymshoes. I had a fairly loose white t-shirt on with the sleeves carefully rolled up, my typical uniform of the time (because big t-shirts are more cool if you roll up the sleeves, everyone knew that). I had on red chino-eqsque shorts that ended just above my knee. I was an early bloomer physically, so whatever I was wearing, there wasn’t then, as there isn’t now, any hiding that I’m a person with an hourglass shape and curves. Would that there had been: after what happened the year before and having been teased at home about my development, I often tried to hide parts of my body as I could. I probably had on some lip gloss. I had chin-length feathered hair that year, gone blonde from being out in the sun.

A group of much-older teenage boys, probably in their late teens, came into the art room started talking to me, and asked what I was doing there. I told them, then they asked how I got back and forth from the camp to home. I remember that as I said I rode my bike, I’d wished that I could take it back. I could feel a lack of safety in the air right then. I wished I had said someone picked me up. They asked if I wanted a ride. I said no, thank you. They asked a few more times, making a bit of a game of it, but a very pushy game. I said no a few more times then said I had to go get something and ran out.

I went and hid in a bathroom stall down the hall for what felt like hours but which was probably only minutes. I didn’t go to the front desk and try to ask for help. There are a lot of reasons for that, but the biggest was probably that I had already learned in my life that being in danger was normal and that not being helped in being safe was what I could most typically expect from people. I had also learned already that sometimes telling when I was in danger only got me hurt more.

When I came out of the stall, I went to the bike rack to get my bike, planning to speed away as fast as I could and unlocked it in a hurry. But those boys drove up behind me in the van they had, physically attacked me and dragged me away from my bike and into their car. (Typical perhaps of a tween mind, I remember having a hard time later figuring out if I should be more upset I got hurt — assault or rape were not words I had at the time — or more upset that in the midst of all of this, my bike had been stolen because it was left unlocked.)

I have very hazy memories of what happened next, memories I have never fully either formed or recovered, that only show up in mushy, jagged pieces in night terrors I have had about this over the years. I will honestly say I am glad I have only hazy recall of what happened in that van, and that while parts of my body have always made clear they remember, much of my brain never has. A day later, a big, nasty bump welled up on my head, so I’ve always figured I got knocked out, and the rest of my lack of memory can be attributed to shock.

The next thing I remember was finding myself back on the curb near the bike rack, scruffed up, shirt ripped feeling incredibly sore and strangely soggy in places. I went back inside to the bathroom and was bleeding from my rectum. I think I managed to wash my face, but that was all I could manage. I was incredibly confused, disoriented and still scared to death, not knowing if anywhere was safe,if those boys had left, nothing. I went to the pay phone and called my mother, who also called the police before she came over. All I was able to voice was that I was very scared and hurt and needed someone to come to get me now.

I went back outside and sat on the curb in front of the park where a lot of people were, hoping I’d be safe there and that my mother would find me. She arrived about the same time the police did, who I didn’t know had been called. I know I was completely incoherent, and I don’t believe I was able to express anything anyone could understand. I suspect what I said was something to the effect of, “Guys. Said no, no ride. Hid. Came after me. Grabbed. Van. Scared. Hid in bathroom. Woke up on curb. Are they gone? What? Are they gone?” I know, though, however incomprehensible my words, it could not have been missed that I was in shock, nor that I had clearly been attacked in some way. Over the years, I’ve looked for rationale and reason of why I got so poorly served, but I always give up, knowing all too well how very, very many victims of sexual assault have had the same experience, and that it isn’t something with rhyme or reason part how poorly sexual assault is treated in most of the world.

While my memories of my attack are very hazy, my memories of what came next have never been. I’ve often wished they, too, were hazy.

The police and my mother talked for a while before anyone even talked to me or asked how I was at all. I sat shivering on that curb, holding my knees, watching a crowd form around us, people at the park starting to pay more attention, feeling more and more freaked out. My mother came over and asked if I was just scared, if the van was still there. I looked around. It wasn’t. I said no, I thought it was gone, I hoped it was gone, please let it be gone. For whatever reason, she said more than once “So, nothing happened? You just got scared?” and I remember not being sure how to answer that because it felt confusing, and like there was some kind of cue about a right answer hidden in there. Then two of the police stepped over, and talked with my mother again, instead of me, and I heard one of them say, half-looking at me, half-away, that I really shouldn’t be wearing shorts that short because if I did, I could expect to have trouble with boys.

I also know and remember that with those words, I suddenly got a little more clear, the clarity you get from having just felt unsafe, thinking you might be safe, and then all the more acutely recognizing you are not, and determined to say absolutely nothing to them or my mother about anything. I agreed that okay, sure, yeah, I just got scared, I was fine, please just get me home, fine. You’ll just make a note about the van, and I should call you if I see it again fine (and yeah, right). How on earth could I have felt safe saying to any of them in that space that I was bleeding from my rectum and I didn’t know why, something already incredibly vulnerable for me to share in the first place? How on earth could I say that I think what just happened to me was like what had happened the year before that I’d told no one about? So, I didn’t say anything. Not to anyone, not until a handful of years later when ever so slowly, I started telling people, scared to death every time I did.

That I didn’t say anything at the time and for a long time shouldn’t be surprising. It’s about all the same kind of things that keep most survivors from reporting or disclosing.

Here’s the part where I think it’s very, very important that anyone reading anything like this knows three vital things.

These are not opinions. These are facts. I can’t stop you from denying they are truths and facts, but you have to know that if you do, you do so from a place of bias or ignorance because we have all the evidence in the world that they are true. We have not just the story of someone like myself but mountain of stories from survivors like myself and survivors different than me, from sound studies and research and loads of “rape prevention” tips that made so many people feel like they were safer who learned the hard way that those tips didn’t do a damn thing to protect them. All they did was control them, make them feel more scared of living, more distracted by all the things they felt they needed to think about to be safe and then and they just wound up getting hurt anyway.

The only factual part of disputes to what I am about to say is that it is absolutely a fact that we still have a long, long way to go when it comes to the way most of our world and many of the people in it treat rape and those of us who have been assaulted and abused.

1) I was not assaulted because of how I was dressed. Those long red shorts and sneakers were not why I was assaulted. But. The person who was wearing a short skirt and heels when she was assaulted wasn’t assaulted because of how she was dressed, either. Even if I had been wearing something else entirely — like the housecoat my great-grandmother was, a burqua, a nun’s habit, overalls, skinny jeans or business attire; even if I was not a woman with a vulva, but a woman with a penis dressing in the clothing I felt was representative of my gender as a woman, but some of the world disagreed with me, and felt I was cross-dressing, how I was dressed would not have been why I was assaulted, nor would my assault have been prevented had I just dressed differently. That’s not because there is one way to dress that “gets you raped” and one way to dress that doesn’t. That’s because the thing that “gets someone raped” isn’t a thing, it’s a person who chooses to rape you and what you do and don’t wear is something we know does not matter and have loads of hard data that has made that clear fro a long time now. People have been raped wearing everything in the world people can wear, and the vast majority of the time people are raped, they aren’t wearing what those who blame them consider “provocative” clothing in the first place.

The idea or statement that how a victim was dressed had anything to do with their being raped does not reflect the realities of rape and rape perpetration, only the realities of victim blaming and rape culture.

2) My rape was a “real” rape. It was not a “real” rape just because my attackers were strangers to me, because there was physical violence involved, because I was so young and had not yet chosen to have any kind of sex yet outside of furtive kisses and some clueless dry-humping with a girl friend at 10, because I struggled and probably yelled no, because I was a girl, because I managed to be assaulted in ways that now, at this point in time, most people recognize as “real rape.” It was a real rape because people really did something sexual to me without my consent and against my will because they wanted to do it and either didn’t care I didn’t, or wanted to do it because I didn’t want to. That is why my rape is a “real” rape, and is also why someone who is raped by their husband at home after church has experienced a “real” rape; why someone who is out at a party in clubbing gear, drinking cocktails, who says yes to something sexual, but no to something else but whose no is ignored has experienced a “real” rape; why someone who is worn down by verbal coercion and finally gives in to sex they do not want has experienced a “real” rape; why a man who is sexually assaulted, whatever the gender of his perpetrator, has also experienced “real” rape.

Rapes are real in all the ways rape can happen, not just in the ways that some people are most comfortable acknowledging, or the ways which do not challenge people to have to consider that rape culture is not only real, but more pervasive, widespread and more a part of anyone’s life, ongoing relationships, and perhaps even personal behavior than anyone would ever like to have to acknowledge.

3) All I have said here has a whole lot to do with Slutwalks and the aim of slutwalks. All I have said here has a whole lot to do with who gets impacted by the kinds of statements and attitudes the walks aim to call out and challenge, how deeply we can be impacted and how those statements and attitudes not only do not help people protect themselves from being victimized, but how they hurt victims and can even put people in greater danger.

All I have said here is exactly about telling women that if they dress a certain way, like sluts (or hos, or harlots or loose women, or whatever word du jour of similar sentiment fits your era, culture or community) they deserve to be raped or are asking to be assaulted. All I have said here is not some kind of strange exception where the woman involved was treated that way but wasn’t dressed “like a slut,” because all I have said here is a textbook example of the fact that the idea of what “asking for it” is is completely arbitrary except for the part where so incredibly often, the mere fact of having been raped means, to someone, if not a lot of someone’s, that a victim must have been asking for it.

I want to finish today by saying one more thing I think is critically important, and another big part of why I’m sharing what I have with you here, despite it all being so difficult for me to say so visibly.

I didn’t attend any of the Slutwalks. I probably won’t. I’m nearest to Seattle, and had some personal issues with some of ours here that were part of what kept me from it, issues I really think are personal and individual enough not to be relevant or important to anyone but me, especially with the bigger picture in mind. I also have some more political issues, but that’s something I’ll talk about more in my second post about this.

What I want to mention now is the one big thing that kept me from attending any of the walks, and that is a lack of courage and resiliency. I need to acknowledge that I have lacked a level of courage and resiliency around this which some other people who have attended these walks have had, and which I cannot possibly express my great admiration and respect for. When I see photos of them, read their words, think about them — survivors like me, who probably have similar or even the same wounds, but went all the same, some even wearing what they wore when assaulted, I am overcome with awe and humility and gratitude.

I know: I have talked about being a survivor very publicly before. In many ways, I am very strong around this, especially since my most harrowing assaults are hardly fresh: they happened a long time ago, and I’ve had a lot of time to heal. But in some ways, I am not strong around this. In some ways, I am still broken in places that haven’t yet become strong or whole. In some ways, I am not brave around this in ways that others have been or can be — or heck, know they aren’t but are so amazing, they do it anyway.

I thought about attending a walk wearing something as similar as I could find to what I was wearing that day when I was 12. And I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I just couldn’t open myself up to even one person, saying or writing in a place I could hear anything at all about the way I was dressed and my assault, whether the statement would be that I deserved to be raped because of what I was wearing, or that I didn’t, but some other woman did. I am just not that strong, mostly because hearing what I did, when I did, how I did wounded me just that deeply, that almost 30 years later, I can’t even put on a damn pair of shorts to wear in public without a meltdown, even though I can easily get naked in front of, well, pretty much anyone, or wear almost anything else I might want to with emotional comfort.

I need to say this twice: there are women who attended Slutwalks who DID wear exactly what they were wearing when they were assaulted; who did wear what someone told them made their rape their fault, despite it undoubtedly being scary and painful, because they recognized how powerful it could be for them and for others.

I had to stop for a few minutes after I typed that again, because the bravery and integrity of that action literally makes me breathless. There are survivors who did what I could not do, cannot do, because they know how important it is, to them, to people like me, to everyone. There are those who did what I could not do, who I firmly believe have done something that might seem small, but which is, I think, major. Something that will make it less and less likely a 12-year-old girl, wearing whatever it is she is wearing, who already has been done the grave injustice of rape, will never, ever hear anyone say that their clothing — that ANYTHING — made being raped their fault.

Any of us can have whatever options or ideas or feelings about this activism that we like. We can disagree about some of it, or the way a given person has or hasn’t executed it, but I just don’t know how it’s possible not to recognize the potential power of what so many people have been part of with these walks, nor to ignore how much participating must have required of some of the speakers and other attendees.

So, if there is anyone out there who organized or attended a walk who interpreted my silence as nonsupport, I hope you know now that it wasn’t. If there is anyone out there who feels worn down or unappreciated by the critiques or the resistance, know there is someone right here whose s/hero you are, in a way that someone who usually has no shortage of words has a hard time even articulating the depth of. If there is anyone out there who was brave in a way I couldn’t be, and who got torn down for it or spoken to in exactly the ways that I feared I would, I can’t tell you how sorry I am that after all the courage you probably had to muster up, anyone around you couldn’t manage to have just a fraction of the integrity and care and inner strength you do.

But know, too, there is someone sitting right here who believes that while you should not have ever had to take yet one more hit around this, I believe that in taking the risk you did, you’ve done something that not only will help make it less likely others have to, but you’ve humbled someone who sometimes arrogantly thought she was as brave around this as someone could be by raising the bar.

(P.S. I ask that you please tread gently in the comments on this, if you’re going to leave one, and in whatever you might say if you’re going to blog about my story at all. Like I said, this is something where I feel incredibly vulnerable. I think it’s safe to say it’s something where anyone would, so I’d hope anyone addressing any candid story from any survivor would be sensitive, cautious and thoughtful. I hate to even have to ask something like that at all, because, you know, we shouldn’t have to. But like all too many survivors, especially those who tell their stories and speak up, and as someone who has been burned before when being visible and vocal about her rapes, I know that we do have to ask, and that even then, sometimes even just asking winds up resulting in harassment. I sincerely hope that doesn’t happen this time around, but feel the need to make that ask. Thank you.)

Wednesday, July 6th, 2011

I very recently started some coaching to help me develop some balance between my work and my life, and to help me create better separation between the two.

It’s probably more obvious to everyone else than it was to me that I needed that, but to give you an example of just how clueless I can be about this, my coach and I were setting a goal so that I could, eventually, get down to a workweek that looked at lot more like 40 hours a week instead of the more typical 60, and even 70 I wind up putting in sometimes.

In doing that, she asked me if I could describe what a day when I was working 40 hour workweek would look like for me.  In my usual Corinna lead-first-with-mouth-next-with-brain fashion, I opened my mouth to immediately speak and said, “Well….”

And then nothing came out. In the back of my head, a very annoying Musak version of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence” started to play, because silence was all I had going.  Finally, when I reached the sub-basement of the elevator of my mind, I mumbled, “Shit, I have no idea.”

This seemed ridiculous. Surely it had just been a while, and I couldn’t remember.  So I asked her to hold on a second while I collected my thoughts, and flipped my fingers through the card catalog of my life.

Last decade or so: yeah, no 40 hour weeks there or anything even close. Plenty of years where I wasn’t even just working this one job, including the two years where I was killing myself — but feeding myself, and keeping my organization afloat, both hardly unimportant — by working three.

Let’s try looking at the pre-web years. The year before I started all of this?  Nope, three different jobs.  The couple of years before that? Teaching jobs, nannying jobs, my internship and the farmer’s market gig during the summer on top of all that.  Nope, back to that 60 hour+ week during those years.  I know it’s not even worth considering the years I was running my little school, because even in the five days a week it was open, I showed up every day to prep at 5:30 or 6 and didn’t usually leave until 6 or 7, then showed up one weekend day to clean it.

That gets us to the college years, during which I usually took around 27 credit hours a semester and worked close to full-time on top of that to pay for school and my own bills. When I was in high school, because of the kind of school I attended, we had a longer school day than most, and I worked part-time then, too, so no 40-hour-weeks then. During my gap year between high school and college I think I actually did have close to a 40 hour workweek, but since a whole lot of that year was spent in an LSD-induced haze, I a) have few memories of that year and b) think the ones I have are perhaps a little bit suspect, since some of them contain things I’m fairly certain did not exist in reality.

That gets me to early adolescence and childhood.  While I’m very sure trying to visualize how those days went is of limited use regardless, the fact of the matter is that even during a lot of them, I got up incredibly early, often going to the hospital with my mother hours before school started, so I don’t think I even experienced a 40-hour “workweek” as a child.

Which all led me back to my initial answer: “Well….shit, I have no idea.”

I’d like you to share a rerun of the moment I had in my heart and my mind when I realized it was true that I earnestly had absolutely no experience in my life, neither as an adult nor a teen or even a child, of not being overworked and overextended, and pushing past what is a pretty common limit for an awful lot of people; of having overwork and overextension be my absolute normal, to the point that I couldn’t even access anything in my usually vivid imagination to pull up a picture of what having a life that wasn’t like that could or even might look like. Enjoy the moment with me next where I was whacked a few hours later by what utter insanity that is and how very, very long it has taken me to realize that.

Mind, it’s not like my experience with this is all that atypical for someone like me in terms of my usual economic class, trying very hard to just pay the basic bills and keep my head above water. I come from immigrants, so there’s also that to take into account. I’ve also always worked in at least one of three fields: education, activism and healthcare, which are all legendary for paying very little while demanding a lot from their workers. But do most people in those kinds of situations not even recognize that their normal is….well, too much?  Again, color me clueless.

Setting aside the past, and keeping in the present, one of the big questions is this: why DO I work so many hours?  Over the last year and change, for the most part, I get paid the same whether I work 40 hours or 80 hours.  It’s not like I see an increase in financial support for what I do when I work more hours, like people notice and say, “Hey, that ED seems to be working way more hours than usual, I’m going to donate or donate a little more.” I think most of the time, people just don’t even realize that I’m the person doing most of the work that I am to even consider my work hours, why would they?

When other organizations are short of funds, short on staff, but high on people who want and need services, what do they do? They have people wait longer out of necessity and cut back services: they do not ask their staff to add more and more hours without additional pay or benefits to try and have one person do the work of ten.  They do not suggest that a staff person should just give up their whole life to do their very best to get as close as they can to working 24/7. That is because they are reasonable, fair and probably don’t want their staff to drop dead.  Go, them. Would that my own boss were such a smart cookie who gave that kind of a shit about me.

But she’s really, really got to change or else it’s going to be time for me to find a new boss.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been doing okay. Moving out here to the island has allowed me to live in a beautiful place where everything is not constantly breaking at a reasonable rent. No, I don’t own a house or a vehicle, but as always, that’s okay: those things are my normal, too, but they’re fine as normals. Working more isn’t likely to put those things within my reach. I don’t have the healthcare I need, still, but there’s nothing I can do about that.  Overworking also won’t give me access to that, it just makes me need it all the more. I can pay my rent and my bills every month, I don’t have to worry about being unable to afford to feed, clothe or shelter myself. I can even sometimes give the people in my life in a far worse spot than me a tiny bit of financial support sometimes: less than I’d like to, but hey, as someone not even middle-class, being able to do anything at all is a boon.

I’m actually in the position right now to have a really beautiful life if I want it, if I allow myself the time and space to enjoy it and live it. I’m living in a place I love being in, with someone I adore.  For the most part, my life currently is blissfully free of drama or crisis. I’ve had the opportunity to learn to just be happy, rather than in a constant struggle, be it financial, interpersonal or emotional. It’s even possible that sometime in the future, I might be able to find a way to bring Briana and Liam — who are both part of what I consider my core family in the world — over here, but to commit to that, I’d need to, and want to, commit to having the time to really help with Liam and be around for him. So, my little pipe dream is a beautiful thing, but this sense I’ve had that would be no problem is delusional, since as things have stood, I clearly have yet to learn how to make that kind of time. Promising it to a little kid and his mother when I don’t know if I can deliver it would be unconscionable.

Let’s take another trip to The Department of the Painfully Obvious. I have had pretty much zero time for any of my creative work.  I can manage a little bit of time to sit with an instrument and strum on it some, but have had little to none for more than that, to create (or even publish what IS created!) any visual art, or even just fiddle around to get those juices flowing, to put any real time into writing that isn’t directly related to work. I was an artist before I was anything else in this world, and it’s so vital to who I am and to expressing and exploring who I am for me, and yet.  And yet.

There’s more, but those are the core issues, and they’re pretty overwhelming all by themselves.  But the good news is, I know all of this now, I am painfully aware of all of it now, even if that awareness is in its infancy.  The even better news is that I’m committed to making positive changes and have started doing that.

The first goal is for me to get to a 55-hour workweek. Over the last week, since setting that goal, with one day shy of that week today, I’ve clocked 48 hours.  If I work  only a 7-hour day today, I’ll have met that goal for this week.The week before this I clocked around 70 hours, so that’s a pretty massive improvement.  Now I just have to stick with it which, of course, is a lot easier than it sounds.

It’s been a nice week.  I’m finding that at least once, I have actually felt the kind of sense of accomplishment in packing less into a day, and ending it on time, as I often feel in packing in more than seemed possible and working superhuman hours.  I’ve had some of the kind of time I’ve wanted to have for my partner.  I’ve had some of the kind of time I’ve wanted for myself. I feel slightly less relieved by the idea of being run over by a Mack truck because if I were dead, I’d finally be able to get a nap.

I’m also starting to see some of the things that keep me in this mess.  For instance, while I’m usually really excellent about limits and boundaries in my personal life, and in my professional ethics, I’m recognizing I’m actually very bad with both when it comes to work in the sense of what’s asked of me, what’s asked of myself and what (read: how little) I ask of others. I ask much, much more of myself than I ask of others, and I think the trick is going to be to find what’s in the middle of those goalposts, and move each side closer to it.

I’m also finding out I’m less immune to what others think or say about me around my work than I thought.  For instance, we did go ahead and put up a notice that response time for direct services at Scarleteen will now be slightly longer sometimes out of necessity.  There was some background gossip around that somewhere that I know was about something to the effect of how much I suck, and I was finding that really, really bothered me, even though I know I don’t suck and I also know that anyone who’d make that kind of judgment is clueless about the level of work I do myself and we do as an organization, or what it takes to run it all, especially for this long with so few resources to draw on. Why do I care so much, especially when the chances are that anyone being critical hasn’t put half the time and dedication into their work as I’ve put into mine?  And why am I putting so much of my own esteem into work, and so little into life anymore?  Must to fix.

Guilt is clearly another big trigger for my internal overwork beastie. When the emails keep piling up to the degree there is just no way for me to answer them all in a day, sometimes at all; when people are asking me to do things for them, their projects, their orgs, and usually for free; when I set a limit or politely decline things I’d love to do but just can’t because I am out of hours to do them in and people don’t back off, rather than feeling pissed, I feel guilty. I want to be able to do all of these things, and I’m very unforgiving of myself when I can’t.  So, rather than dismissing or getting mad at people who won’t respect my limits or take some time to get a sense of how much I’m already doing before they even ask for something (or hey, try and ask for things only when they can make a sound offer that compensates me in some way), I internalize and get made at myself and refuse to let myself off the hook.  Even when I know someone has figured out how to trigger a guilt response in me or is clearly looking to do that, I still have to talk myself through why that’s uncool, rather than just falling in line and acting of of guilt.

Of course, there’s also the fact that this is something I need to learn. I am, as I now know, an absolute beginner at this.  I do not know how to work a typical, full-time workweek. I do not know how to have this kind of balance, both because I haven’t usually had the opportunity and because the few times I have, I didn’t take it.  I have to learn how to do this, and my ignorance has been a barrier.  I have to ask for help with this, so I can learn, rather than asking for help with all the work I manage, which can feel like the same thing, but it really, really isn’t.

There’s going to be more, of course, but I think one other thing that’s on the list of things that keep me stuck here is one of the toughest to face, speak or even think about, which is that the person I usually want to be is really not a person I — or anyone who doesn’t want to kill themselves — can be. If and when I am only highly valued or appreciated because I do more work than others and will give up everything to do it, that is not a good thing. That’s a serious problem.  I can’t control whether or not that’s the yardstick by which others measure me, but I can control whether or not I use it with which to measure myself, and I have got to stop doing that. I not only cannot be that person and be healthy and whole, that person isn’t so great, anyway. I’m more than that person. I’m someone who has always had the capacity for a lot of joy, even when things are awful, and who has been really dedicated to milking everything I can out of life, living it completely and fully and with great wonder and abandon and delight. I can be that person, who has value AND still work to the degree I need to to support myself and to the degree I can to do the good things for the world and the people in it that are so important to me. But I can’t be that person, that whole person, if all I do is work and if when I work, I am working so much and so hard that when there is finally a minute when I am not working, I am too physically, emotionally and intellectually drained to do anything else.

I think I’ve mentioned in the past that a while back, my mother found this newspaper article about a relative of ours from 100 years ago. The headline read, “Man Drops Dead After Stint of Shucking Corn.” (For serious. Clearly a writer who thought subtlety was for sissies.)

The story was about how said relative was purportedly feeling really, really sick all day, but had a history of being a very hard worker, and was not going to make an exception that day. He made clear to his co-workers that until all that corn got shucked, he wasn’t going to leave work. So, he did it: he shucked all that corn. Then, as the headline so delicately reports, he dropped the fuck dead.

I feel certain there was a moment in there where dying must have felt very satisfying. A long day of farm work when you are literally taking your last breaths is hardly the best day ever, so it being over — like, really over — must have been awesome for a second.  There may have even been a moment in there where he felt quite satisfied, thinking that he won the Martyr Olympic Gold for finishing his work even though he also finished his heart in doing so, which probably no one else on the team that day could say for themselves.

But I also have this funny feeling that there may have been another moment, probably the very last one, where he had a sudden, likely awful, realization that he just spent his last moments above ground on earth shucking fucking corn for pennies; spent his last day creating a challenge for himself that seemed laudable at the time, but was about the worst, most pointless use of a last day on earth there was. When he had that moment, he probably felt like a total asshole.  Then he died, that assholic feeling being the last he had. It was perhaps paired with the vain wish he had had just one more nanosecond to leave a tip for someone later on down the line like me that his story was not to be interpreted as an aspiration or inspiration.  Rather, it was a warning not to be so damn stupid as to think that last ear of corn matters more than giving someone you love a hug, rolling down a sunny hill, having a laugh, drinking a cool pint, eating the corn instead of working it, or just appreciating the value of your life as something much, much more than merely being She Who Works Herself to Death.

He didn’t leave that message, alas, and some of my family members indeed saw this dude as some sort of hero. When I first saw it, I did too. I thought, “Yep, that’s us, aren’t we so awesome in our badass workiness?” I thought that because I was an idiot who somehow wound up with a Protestant work ethic that would make Luther feel like a hack, even though we don’t even come from Protestants (though I’d be lying if I didn’t say we do come from some idiots, so maybe that explains it).

But I’m starting to get that unwritten message now. I’m going to learn how to leave the last ear of the damn corn unshucked if it…well, if it doesn’t kill me.