Shame

Shame

Earlier this February I visited Chicago for the Midwestern Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, and Asexual/Ally College Conference (MBGLTACC). During the weekend we were there, the Alphawood Gallery housed an exhibit—Art-AIDS-America. The travelling exhibit displayed pieces of art created primarily by HIV+ gay men in the 1960s-80s.

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Peter Staley, an active member in the fight against AIDS and a leader of the organization ACT UP New York, was a keynote speaker at the conference. Myself and a small group took the bus to the exhibit after witnessing Staley speak. Seeing the man I’d learned about in person was shocking for me. The exhibit was even more visceral.

We walked through the museum with a grim sense of kindred. Everyone in my group was queer; we all felt a strong connection with the history behind the AIDS epidemic. Each of us is an advocate. We have all worked with a variety of queer students, as well as others; we have heard stories and seen things that others outside of the community rarely have to witness. With this in mind, we felt we might have a small idea of what it was like during this time. And when we walked out, we walked out with stark images in our minds of the suffering experienced by those with AIDS and their loved ones.

There were many pieces that drew my attention. A bloody band aid taped to a piece of paper. Words and silhouettes projected on a wall moving through each other and sharing almost indecipherable poetry expressing the pain of the unknown. A newspaper printed with the words if he were alive today, if she were alive today, if they were alive today…

The one that struck me most: a metal fence with thousands of ribbons tied to its posts.

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It’s cliché to say, but this piece stopped me in my tracks. It was so stark and accessible. I stared at it, tilting my head back and forth, taking it in.

I noticed a basket off to the side. It was full of ribbons and strips of fabric. All in faded, dusty colors that were once vibrant. I stepped closer and read the sign next to it—if you have lost a loved one to AIDS, please take a ribbon and tie it to the gate in their memory.

I looked back at the fence and its many posts completely covered in ribbons. I thought of this piece of art travelling from city to city, each time gaining hundreds of ribbons from shaking fingers.

I walked around the fence and took in the rows upon rows of ribbons, tied tightly and loosely, overlapping, crushing into each other, gently intertwined, long, short, fraying, stiff. I wondered what it must feel like—so many years ago, or today—to lose someone you love to the terrifying, stigmatized virus.

And for the first time in years, I remembered Chris.

Chris was my dad’s gay best friend. His story was about as cliché as it got, and either despite or because of this, it rang true with a passion. Though not the way my dad told it. He cited his memories in mocking tones the day he forced me to come out, sitting forward in my desk chair, eyes fixed on me. It was March of 2013. He used the story to prove how gross and yet insignificant it was to be gay. He used the story of someone close to him to disrespect my community and my identity.

Listening in the moment, I was struck with fear and shame. I was terrified of being mocked, being spoken of the way my father now spoke of his friend. I was ashamed of being part of a culture so clearly ridiculed. I was ashamed to be the person that I was and always had been. I was ashamed to have discovered myself.

Staring at ribbons upon ribbons on the second floor of the gallery in Chicago, Illinois, on February 18th, 2017, I conjured up an image of the man I’d never met.

I now stood unashamed of who I am. I pieced together what I knew of the queer experience combined with what I knew about my father’s lifespan.

It would have been in the 80’s. Kansas City, Missouri. “Small-town,” southern-Midwest queer life.

Chris. Isolated. Maybe thinking there was no one like him. Did he have any gay friends? A partner?

I imagined a young man, maybe in college, whose friends knew he was gay. In the 80s—no small feat. My dad described the job they both had in a fast food place. How Chris loved the ice cream machine and wanted to make all the shakes. How that was considered the girl’s job. I imagined the young man with an apron and a silly server hat, grinning at the cold metal spinning and pouring. I imagined his “gay hands,” with the signature quirk of the wrist, as he handed over the frosted class.

“And then Chris got AIDS. And Chris died.”

My dad didn’t even know the weight of the history behind those words, but tossed them out with a flippancy that should have shamed him, if only because he was talking about someone who used to be his friend, who had died.

Chris. Did he know anyone else who had died? Was he the first of his community to go? Or was he trapped watching his friends dying around him, knowing that he would join them—slowly, agonizingly, disgustingly. I thought of the pictures around me. There was no hiding the blood and pus and mucus and skin lesions and the wasting and drooling and haunted eyes and pain.

I imagined him lying in bed shaking and sweating. I imagined him in the doctor’s office naked with black spots on his skin. I imagined his bones sticking out at the joints and his face drawing longer and longer lines below his eyes. I imagined him alone or with friends despairing at his side. I imagined him crying with pain and anguish as he watched himself and others around him succumbing to what would have been an unavoidable fate.

How long was Chris dying? Who took him to the doctor? Who cleaned his sheets? Who brought him food? Who stood by his bed? Or was he alone?

Did my dad ever visit Chris? Did he talk to him? Did they write? At what point did they part ways? My father spoke of the death and the funeral as if it came up unexpectedly, as if he’d had no idea his friend was sick and dying until it was over.

“His mom called me, and invited me to the funeral. And I went, not because he was gay, but because he was Chris.”

Because Chris was something worth appreciating but his queer identity was not.

My father was loving half a person. He was appreciating the pretty parts. The funny images of him at the ice cream machine. His apron. His hat. His gay smile. But my dad didn’t want anything to do with the rest of it. The needles. The sex. The blood and pus and band aids and sweat and night terrors. What about the pride and fear and isolation of being gay?

My father told the story of his friend’s death as some kind of cautionary tale. Almost like the sex ed teacher in the movie Mean Girls—“If you are gay, you will get AIDS, and you will die.”

Using his dead friend’s suffering to convince me that being gay was as gross as a disease.

As if being Chris was somehow separate from being gay, as if dying from AIDS was the inevitable outcome, and no one would mourn the half of you they didn’t want to see.

In Chicago that night, I picked a ribbon from the basket and found a place, low on the fence, in one of the few small spaces left over, and tied my tiny piece among the many others, one sad story among many, one aching cry among the millions of half-mourned lives.

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Why did my dad tell me the story of his dead gay friend the night he piled words together to gut the integrity of the community I’d just gotten a hold on?

Why did he use the story of his friend’s suffering to throw spite in my face, as if the suffering itself didn’t matter, but the aftermath was some kind of triumph on his end, the noble straight friend ignoring the deceased’s identity and avoiding the stories of the pain?

My fingers left the ribbon on the metal pole and I walked to stand inside the circle the fence was making, turning and staring again and again at the faded colors, the faded lives around me, gone but not forgotten.

I thought of Chris’s death and who took him to the mortuary, who collected his ashes or who threw him in a black trash bag and left him with the other bodies of the other dead gay men?

And my mind turned to ashes and the images of a crowd of people singing and screaming outside the White House, throwing the ashes of their loved ones through the gate and chanting, shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame

My father made me feel ashamed for something five years later I was proud of. I wanted him to feel the shame he should have felt when all he felt was pride in what he saw as altruistic pity for his dead gay friend.

I keep the pictures in my head and the voices I’ve never heard, say his name. And a shame that should be felt by those who permit the suffering when they turn the other cheek.

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Theater Seats

I’m always particular about where I sit in a movie theater. It’s different from watching movies at home—at home you can move around if you need to, get up to use the restroom and find a better spot when you get back if the first one didn’t work out. But at a movie theater, it’s not like there’s a bunch of couches and chairs and rug space in a natural formation. The seats are all smashed together and in a line, making moving around inconvenient and uncomfortable. Once you pick your spot, you’re stuck there the whole time unless there’s an intermission, which happens less and less lately.

Who you sit with can define your movie watching experience. Despite this, when groups go to see movies, they don’t seem to care as much who they sit next to as they do at home.  It’s just a mad scramble in a half-lit room trying to find a row with enough empty chairs to fit us all. It’s an intense bundle of seconds for me as I try to predict where each person will sit in relation to everyone else, timing my movements to make sure I claim the spot I need before things shuffle around again.

I need to sit with someone I know on at least one side. That is, someone I like. I’m not always in a group filled entirely with people I like. It might not even be that I don’t like them, but sometimes I want to share this particular movie experience with someone specific. Plus, I need to sit next to someone who won’t judge my leg twitches and constant fidgeting. Ideally, it will be someone who appreciates my side comments and adds their own, who lets me hide by them when things get intense. I want to be able to cast a significant glance their way and see knowing eyes looking back, rather than just awkwardly look at the side of their head and to see them still staring at the screen.

If I see a movie in a house and the experience is disappointing—if people don’t engage with me or I get embarrassed—it still sucks, but at least I didn’t pay for it and drive across town for it. And there’s usually something to do or somewhere to go after. Or I can get up in the middle if I know the house well enough and spend some time in another room. Or pretend to fall asleep. But in a theater there’s not much of an escape unless I want to squish past everyone to spend awkward extra minutes in the public restroom. And movie theater chairs aren’t comfortable enough to even pretend to fall asleep in.

Seeing a movie in a theater is extra fun and extra stress. For someone who overanalyzes everything, those few seconds it takes for everyone to take a seat define priorities. In my experience people tend not to make an effort to sit with me on purpose, so if I feel a need to claim someone’s periphery, I need to act quickly. The stress of making sure I sit where I need to is enough for me to consider declining every invitation I get, or relieved when I rarely get any invitations in the first place.

 

 

Christmas

Christmas

My parents sent me a package for Christmas.

I deleted the text my mom sent me telling me about it and tried to forget. It came a few days later. There was a box and a padded envelope. I took them to my apartment. I felt so angry holding them. And at the same time I felt guilty. I felt real shame. That here was a set of parents sending me gifts when I hadn’t sent them anything. Parents who were willing to give me things while I was planning to separate myself from them for good.

I dropped them on the floor and walked away to take off my jacket and boots. I considered leaving them untouched. Seeing that name on the address label—the name they still called me, probably always would—the name I thought I wouldn’t have to think about, the name that shouldn’t have belonged to me anymore if things had gone right. I walked back and ripped open the envelope. Inside was a money pouch decorated with passport photos of other countries. I opened it, thinking that maybe they’d left me some cash inside. But they hadn’t. Of course not.

I opened the box. A bunch of wrapped gifts lay inside. I took the top one out, noticing the tissue paper and ribbons that my favorite gift shop always used. The thought just made me angry. I wasn’t thinking in pictures but feeling in memories when the flashbacks came. All the times I’d gone in there buying things, shopping with my parents. The time I went in with my friend who came to visit me over break because I was panicking in the house for the four weeks I was forced to stay with them. The time years before when I went in with my mom to buy a present for my dad, and when I snapped at her just a little she threw the gift back at me and stormed out the door like a wounded high school mean girl. The times I’d walk in by myself when I was let out of work early to avoid going back to the house.

I put the gifts back in the box and shoved everything into my room, which was already littered with dirty laundry and leftovers from the semester. They stayed there for a while. Thinking about them made me angry. And also guilty. I felt so ashamed that I was begrudging gifts from my family. Didn’t that mean they still thought about me? That they actually did care? How ungrateful was I to want to remove myself from that? I thought back about the things they’d done. And they times it seemed like they might have loved me.

Maybe I was wrong. Maybe the abuse was all in my head. Maybe I was just an ungrateful, naïve, attention-seeking nobody influenced by a few books and opinions.

A conversation with a friend reminded me of the things my parents would love me to forget.

When they told me not to tell anyone I was gay, and forced me to cut off contact with the support group I was talking with.

When my father berated me for writing a letter to the governor advocating for environmentally friendly policies.

All the times my mother shamed me for embarrassing her in public—scolded me, shunned me, for things like forgetting my phone number when ordering a book and being too busy to help my brother when we were volunteering at a theater. For asking for rides to work and my internship. For asking my little brother if he needed help with his math homework.

I remembered my father standing in the kitchen facing me and my little brother and saying “I can’t believe you would be influenced by the most selfish person I know” and turning to stare me full in the face because that person was me.

All the times my parents locked themselves in their room or the office for hours and hours each day and how many days we went seeing them only at meals.

The passive-aggression surrounding each individual chore in the house, the tension and fear when doing them was wrong and not doing them was worse. How helping without being asked was something to be ashamed of because the smallest thing would be done wrong and nothing was worth being thanked for; but how waiting to be asked just showed how ungrateful, spoiled and entitled we were as children. The genuine anxiety that went into every load of dishes and every basket of laundry.

The hearts pounding because you never knew if the silence from the parents was because of something you did that they’re just not going to mention. The whispered conversations behind slammed doors.

My mom ranting about me to her mother on the phone every Sunday; the unsettling number of times she vented to me about my dad’s parents, pitting me against them and him, even when the family took the thirteen hour drive to visit them. She always found time to pull me away and tell me all the awful things about my dad’s family. How it all rubbed off on him, how much she hated him. And how much I should hate my oldest brother for being like him. And yet despite that demanding I be sweet to his face, thank him for each tiny service as if it wasn’t his obligation as a parent to provide for us. She micro-managed my every interaction, told me who to be at every turn, yet still found reasons to blame me for everything that went wrong.

The tone in my father’s voice when he accused me of using feminism to promote my gay agenda. His refusal to talk about my sexuality or my two relationships with women. His voice when he called me to yell at me about my email telling them I’d started taking medication. Asking about every detail of my life, insisting my illnesses were all in my head, that I was stupid and naïve for believing the doctor when he prescribed the medication. Demanding to know why I never told them anything anymore. I retaliated. “Do you really think I feel safe with you after how you handled my coming out?” He denied saying the things that he did. I remember him saying them. That he didn’t believe I had a right to get married, that if I was gay I could never have my own family. That most gay people were bad and flaunted their sexuality. That night on the phone I threw statistics at him about transgender suicide and homeless LGBTQ youth. “But none of that is you,” he told me. “You’re choosing to be oppressed.”

Throughout the next few days I opened the presents one by one. A jar of coconut oil. A stick of lip balm. A book about opera. A pair of thick striped socks. I left them lying in my room. They were all things I needed or liked. I felt so ashamed. It meant they knew me. They knew what I wanted.

But then I realized they never bothered to ask what I needed.

They sent me a money bag as if that made up for all the times they refused to give me money. They gave me lip balm as if that would heal the wounds left by their words. They sent me coconut oil not knowing I’d bought one earlier that week with the groceries that ate the last of my paycheck. They gave me socks as if that was the only comfort they cared to provide after twenty one years of abuse.

The gifts they gave me were safe gifts. They were the things I always wanted, the things I would never say no to. They came from stock facts about me. That I like to cook, I like opera, I like cool socks. Things they always knew. That almost everyone who knows me knows.

They never bothered to ask me what I wanted. And they keep refusing to give me what I need.

I’m not going to feel ashamed because of that. I’m not ungrateful. I’m not selfish. I’m not naïve.

I’m more of a person than they ever let me be.

I don’t have to like their gifts. I don’t have to be grateful for them. I don’t have to be guilty I didn’t get them anything. I don’t owe them anything for pretending they know me.

In the end the most liberating thing for me is how wrong they both are. My dad said I would never have a family of my own. My mom told me I’d never know what it was like to feel the unconditional love towards a child. But it’s the other way around.

I have a family now that’s more real than mine with them ever was. A family of people who love and support me for real and who know what I need and ask me what I want.

And I know the unconditional love towards a child. I feel that for every kid I’ve ever worked with. The fierce desire to protect. The patience to work through their most trying moments. The energy to see them day after day and always bring a smile to the table no matter how hard my day has been. The sadness when they walk away without saying goodbye. The comfort of knowing that no matter what happens, the love we shared will never, ever go away.

I almost feel sorry for my mom. She doesn’t get the comfort of knowing that. She blew it with me. And she doesn’t get to see the joy in my kids’ faces when they run up to me squealing my name. And she’ll never feel the swell of joy I get when I know how much I mean to them. And they’re not even my own children. I can’t wait until I have some of my own.

My parents didn’t send me those gifts because they cared. They sent them because it was an easy thing to do. They want to reel me back in. A consolation prize. And that’s exactly what abusers do.

It’s been a year since I set foot in that house and I’m never going back.

 

Conditional Worth

Conditional Worth

We’re put in groups with other random people who wanted to learn, and who want to learn this. We’re expected to take time out of our weeks to join together in a room and listen. We’re expected to participate, to listen to each other and speak up. We’re expected to look at others as humans, with respect, We’re expected to grow ourselves and take chances and make choices.

I get too attached to people because I have never EVER had the loving support I do now before this point. Love was conditional; affection was withheld. In my parents’ house there was a standard that had to be met. If you didn’t reach the threshold of perceived goodness, your worth was in question. Love was a privilege in that house.
I love my professors. They trust me and believe in me. They critique me not to shut me down but because they can see potential in me. They know I can do better. They want to support me. They want me to succeed, not because it somehow benefits them—because they see what I can be, and they want me to be there. For my own sake.

It’s a kind of caring I’d never had before but was fortunate enough to receive as soon as I came to UWGB. Within the first three weeks of classes I had a professor who spotted me as someone she wanted to see succeed. Someone she could challenge.

I was terrified of this and at the same time I was thrilled.

I was learning what it felt like to actually be appreciated. To have someone in my life who believed I was capable of great and important things.

But I was terrified of failing, because I had no idea that there would be any reaction but disappointment and isolation.

I still haven’t quite convinced myself that my professors aren’t going to do that to me.
That my friends will not shun me if I say one stupid thing.

That my real family, the family that’s been built around me in my four years at school, will not isolate and abandon me if I don’t fall in line.

My worth is unconditional. It’s not the tree that falls in a forest when no one’s around.
Love should be unconditional. Affection should not be a prize for perfection.

I still get too attached sometimes. Maybe more often than not. I want people to fill the roles I wished my parents had. I crave the unconditional love and support.

Lately I have seen more of it. When I have the energy to open my eyes. I can feel it. When they ask me. When they talk to me. When they give me that moment to breathe.

I love them too much for it and I don’t know how to give that back. I want to be as good as them. I want to be as strong. I’m building a new me on an old and broken foundation. It’s almost like I have to tear down what was there just to get something solid started.

It feels like a never ending struggle. Maybe it is. But I want to be okay someday. I want to help people the same way I’ve been helped. To see in them what they don’t themselves. To show them. You are worth it. You are strong.

False Hope

I’m sorry I’m not good enough. You know I’m trying. I see you accept the help from others you say you don’t need when I offer it. I’m sorry I can’t fulfill the role you somehow thought I could, no matter how many times I told you that isn’t who I am. For once I’m standing up for myself. I though you of all people would be the one to cheer me on. You even said you wouldn’t hurt me like the others. Maybe you don’t know, hurting doesn’t just come from active bullying. It comes from a lack of caring too. I’m sorry I’m not special enough or pushy enough to warrant your love and attention. I’ll stick around because you asked me to, but I can’t share with you my life if I know I’m just going to get blank stares and blanket statements. I thought you were different. I guess my hopes about the world and the people in it were as ridiculous as everyone said before I met you.

Bubble

Bubble

I’m in a bubble. No one can touch me. I can’t get out. I’m suffocating. All I can see are blurry images of what’s outside and pieces of myself and my mistakes reflected in the rounded surface around me, stretched and distorted to look bigger and uglier and repeated in the curves. Everyone’s image is bloated. Everyone’s voice is diluted. I could pop the bubble but it would end in a huge explosion; the residue would remain, splattered on my surface and those around me. And the people outside might not like what they see when the bubble no longer hides the worst of me in sparkling, smooth rainbows.

I Wore the Mask I Thought I’d Left Behind

I Wore the Mask I Thought I’d Left Behind

On Monday I was planning suicide. I woke up with a grim determination that it was time for my life to be over. I felt nothing. Not when my roommate said good morning. Not when my friend walked to work with me. Not when I taught Safe Ally Training to a bunch of wonderful people with one of my closest friends. Not when I tutored one of my own students, not when my boss joked around with me. I was wearing the mask my mother had taught me to use after years of her isolating me when I showed emotion.

I laughed. I smiled. I engaged in conversation. I was productive. But inside I was numb, burnt out by pain and loneliness and self-hatred. Inside I was convinced my friends had never really loved me, that my close friends would soon cease to love me. Inside, I was ready to die.

A few friends reached out. Noticed I was upset. I felt nothing. I went through the motions. I counted the hours till I could escape.

I thought of asking for help. Calling Crisis.

It never occurred to me to tell a friend. Never occurred that there were people who cared. I was convinced no one did.

I decided to go to work first. The last job of the day. My kids.

As I got ready to go, thoughts of self-preservation left in favor of writing out a will. I left my wallet, my money, and my cards on my desk. I5 gave my cat extra food, extra love. I snuggled the bunnies that didn’t like me. I conversed briefly with my roommate’s boyfriend, pretending I was invested, pretending I wasn’t about to leave and never come back.

When my ride dropped me off after work, I decided, I’d walk away and never come back. I’d find a bridge. I’d jump. It would all be over.

I wore my mask all the way there. Engaged in pleasant conversation with my ride. No one was allowed to see what was going on inside me.

I went through the motions at work. Laughed with my co-workers. Pretended everything was fine. They had no idea.

Then it was time to check in my kids.

I walked into the room where I was supposed to be to check in my 12 kindergartners. Incidentally, the teacher had let them out early today. Over half of them were already there, and they were looking for me. Under the table. Around corners.

They yelled my name when they saw me, and one ran into me for a hug. Several asked where I had been. I laughed and told them I hadn’t known they were there.

“Were you worried I wouldn’t come?” I asked one of the more vocal kids.

He tilted his head in consideration, then shook it definitively. “No, I knew you would be here,” he said.

That’s when the feeling came–for the first time–guilt. Worry. Regret.

How could I leave these kids behind?

I heard them saying my name with enthusiasm. I saw their excitement at seeing me. I saw their pure joy when they received new shoes as part of the programming for the day. I witnessed their sadness and fatigue when they encountered difficulties during the day. I listened to their needs and allowed them to skip homework. Instead, we played quiet games and colored pictures until it was time to go home.

I smiled and laughed with the parents, telling them about their child’s day, saying goodbye to the kids and hearing them chatter excitedly about what they had done and how excited they were to come back.

What was I thinking? I couldn’t leave my kids behind.

I rode back with my ride, in silence this time. I loved my kids. But I couldn’t shake what I had been feeling all day. I made a deal with myself: if she dropped me off in the parking lot, I’d run and find a bridge. If she walked back to the building with me, I’d make up some story about “forgetting” my ID and let her let both of us in.

But when she dropped me off at the parking lot, I walked back to the apartment slowly, and thought about the kids–would they miss me on Wednesday if I was not just late, but really and truly not there?

What about the class I mentored for? They were coming over on Tuesday. Maybe I could still around at least until then.

A stranger let me into my building. I knocked on my apartment door, and my roommate let me in. i bluffed it off. Pretended I’d forgotten. I was just tired. Went to bed.

Her friends came over and I went back and forth, trying to be social, trying to convince people I was fine. But I’d always retreat back into my room, feeling like crying but at the same time too numb to do anything but lie there.

No matter how many times my roommate asked me what was wrong, I couldn’t say anything. I was just sick, I lied, just tired. I didn’t know why I was so sad. There was no reason. I kept the mask on.

Tuesday morning it was the same. I skipped my 8am class. Too sick, I convinced myself, even though it was only a small cold I’d been living with.

I got up ad went to work again. Tutoring. I joked around. But inside I was seething. This time I was angry–angry at absolutely everything and everyone. I even hated being queer. I hated everything about myself and my life. I wasn’t looking forward to anything, I was just sticking around to do what I felt was necessary before I took the next step, whether that was suicide or calling crisis.

My supervisor decided for me. I stormed into the Pride Center, ranting about something or other. She asked me what was wrong. Said I didn’t look like myself.

I told her I wanted to die, but I kept waiting until my commitments were over, but they never were. I was living hour to hour with suicidal thoughts and it was only a matter of time before I did something.

She said, “You need to talk to someone.”

I said, “I know, I will, after tonight.”

She said, “No, I think you should talk to somebody right now.”

I pushed back a few more times. I needed to go to class. To see my students. To attend the club meeting for which I was co-president. Eventually she won.

“Should I see someone on campus?”

They would just tell me to go to Crisis, so I may as well just get a friend to drive me there and skip the police car.

Another friend was there and gave me a few pointers. What to look for. Where to go. I texted some friends, asking who was available to drive me. Within seconds my roommate replied, telling me to meet her outside the Union.

I gathered my things and walked outside. My numbness was wearing off as the situation became more real. Why was I doing this? Why was I so scared? Why did no one trust me to stick around?

I’d had the training. I should know.

I wanted to die.

I wanted to die, and my friends were trying to keep me safe.

Even if that meant going away . Even if that meant being processed by strangers.  Even if that meant admitting that I was a danger to myself.