One Long Year

Hello everybody, it’s bee a long year. I know it hasn’t been a year since I posted–but it’s been a year since I’ve posted regularly.

It’s also been over a year since I’ve self-harmed, which I consistently fist-bump myself for. It’s a great feeling. It’s the longest I’ve gone without a relapse since I started back in…I can’t remember when. Dudes, I haven’t even pinched myself or pulled my own hair out. I’m pretty proud of myself.

It’s been over a year since I got my job. I’ve successfully survived two summers at this place. Summers are insane. It’s the only time of year the school-age program is more full than the early childhood program. Since I run school-age, I am on my toes constantly. I planned an entire summer full of over 40 activities–field trips, STEAM workshops, dance lessons, theater and improv games, yoga, guest artists, trips to local businesses, and other stuff I can’t even pull up right now.

I was easily at work 10-12 hours a day at least twice a week running everything. For my first summer as a supervisor, not shadowing, it went pretty well. The kids had a blast and the teachers seemed to, almost as much.

Now summer’s winding down and I”m preparing to be a student again. I’m finally enrolled at UWM’s online Cultural Foundations of Community Engagement and Education program. In May I had to go through the process all over again to prove my residency. Last fall, they were going to charge me out-of-state tuition unless I filed an appeal or delayed my enrollment for a year. I didn’t have the time or energy for an appeal, so here I am. Classes start next week. It’s a Master’s program, but I’m part-time, so I’m not sure how intense it will be.

I’m hoping less intense than this summer. I tried to take an accelerated summer class, but ti didn’t work out. I was reading close to a thousand pages a week along with writing several discussion posts and reflection pieces. My final paper proposal was turned down a week and a half before the class ended. I dropped the class. It’s not because I didn’t think I could do what I needed to do–I knew I could. What I couldn’t stand was the idea of me turning in a sub-par paper, skimping on my readings, and half-assing reflection papers simply because I didn’t have time to put in more effort. I knew I could get so much more out of this course if I had more time. So I’m taking it this fall instead and planning to get the most out of it.

Oh, and I’m having nightmares about the upcoming school year as it affects the kids at work. Fun stuff!

I’m taking photos for a wedding in a couple weekends. It’ll be my first legit gig, and I’m pumped. I want to get some more practice in if I can. I also kind of want to start my own photography business. Some friends are encouraging me too. I take really good pictures and my camera is awesome. I think I’ll give it a try.

Stay tuned. I have a lot to say, just haven’t had much time to write it.

Peace out.

Three Rides

Three Rides

My family has no knowledge of the three rides I’ve taken in police cars.

In the span of less than one year, I was a passenger in three different police cars, all for the same reason: I was in crisis.

The first time, I was pacing around campus, overwhelmed over a variety of things. My thoughts were overwhelming me and becoming dark. Most of my friends were gone for the summer, including my roommate; I couldn’t find a job, my relationship with my parents was on the fritz, my financial aid for the next year was not confirmed. There was not much to keep me occupied or make me feel useful, and a lot to make me upset.

As I was wandering around looking distressed, I bumped into a friend, who said I didn’t look well. I admitted how I was feeling, and he suggested I go see a counselor.

Campus had free counseling services. I’d been seeing one for going on two years at that point. She happened to be on maternity leave at the time. (By some twist of fate, it happened that my supervisor, my counselor, and my psychiatrist all had overlapping maternity leaves that year.)

It was summer, so it was easy for me to get an appointment within the hour. I described my situation and my feelings—my damaged relationships, my feelings of uselessness, depression, self-loathing. As soon as I hinted at suicidal ideation, the counselor insisted I take a police car ride to the Crisis Center.

I didn’t have a choice in the matter.

The Public Safety officer that picked me up was nice enough. But niceness doesn’t cover the awkwardness of getting patted down and asked if I was carrying any weapons and confirming that the scars all over me were from self-harm.

It didn’t help that as I was lead into the car, one of my former co-workers was smoking in the parking lot and saw the whole thing.

The cop chatted pleasantly. I didn’t have much to say. The seat in the back was plastic, making it impossible to get comfortable or brace myself for stops and turns, and there was a grate between me and the driver. It was the first time, but not the last, that I felt like my mental illnesses made me a criminal.

I’d never been to Crisis before. The questions the intake survey asked were invasive. I knew it was all there to help me, but I felt extremely exposed and uncomfortable. The front desk staff hid behind mirrored panels that I realized much later were probably two-way. No one looked anyone in the face and there was a stifling, terrified silence. It took maybe half an hour for me to be seen to.

I cried like I had at my first counseling appointment, but this counsellor was nowhere near as good as the one I had on campus. She seemed idealistic and bent on fixing me. My exasperation at her unhelpful, amateur methods chipped away at my panic and distress, and I realized I was probably better off back on campus. I let her help me make a safety plan, which involved me calling campus housing and talking to my least-favorite supervisor (I used to work for housing, so a lot of the people I called that night were old supervisors). She apparently had no idea what a safety plan was.

I called the friend who’d seen me earlier, and he agreed to let me stay the night at his place.

The counsellor drove me back to campus in her personal car. We talked about tattoos. It was awkward in its own right; the counselor had suddenly become an acquaintance letting me borrow a seat in her car.

I had my documented emotional support animal living with me at the time. I couldn’t leave her alone over night per campus policy. But I also wasn’t allowed to move her to another person’s apartment. Given I was in a crisis situation and we were making plans in an attempt to preserve my life, I figured we could make an exception. No one I called could confirm it, and it basically ended with my favorite supervisor saying he would neither approve nor disapprove of my bringing the cat with me. The next day I got a tart email from the head of housing saying I should have had someone come over to my place instead of illegally transporting my cat.

Obviously she’d never been in a panic-induced haze.

My cat and I spent the night at my friend’s place. Crisis called him to check in, and he reported I was fine. Being surrounded by him and his roommates, all of whom were my friends, was comforting. I calmed enough to sleep. My cat slept with me. They fed me breakfast, and when the 24 hours were over, they ensured I made it safely back to my place.

I lay on the couch texting my roommate, who was out of town at the time. That was why I couldn’t stay at my place. There would have been no one there, and the group I stayed with didn’t want to uproot and move when it was just easier for us to have me come over, cat or no cat.

My roommate and friends continued to check in on me, but as it got darker, I started panicking again. I wasn’t sure what else to do, so I asked my older brother to stay over that night.

He begrudgingly agreed, spending most of the evening texting other people, and leaving that morning without much of a goodbye.

**

My second ride was the worst. I was making serious plans to kill myself, and it was terrifying. My friends knew something was up. I was not myself for days. Each night my plan was to either go to the Crisis Center or die. For several in a row, I was too exhausted from my own distress to do either one. But any time someone asked, I couldn’t answer. I told them I didn’t know what was wrong. I didn’t want them to worry. I didn’t want them to freak out. I didn’t want them to care.

When, several days into this, I bumped into a friend and an advisor, I must have looked especially upset, because they both immediately stopped talking and asked me what was wrong.

My roommate immediately offered, even joining me for part of the counselling conversation. I was seriously in danger that time and they had me committed to the treatment center.

Of course, I had to ride a police car to get there.

And this time, I didn’t just feel like a criminal, I was treated like one.

I was a danger to myself. They put me in handcuffs and the officer held my arm as he led me to the car. I will never forget the feeling. The weight of the cuffs on my hands. The pinch of the clasp. The ways I tried to maneuver my body to avoid the pain of the plastic seat pushing the cuffs against my wrists and back.

I never want to feel that again.

**

The next ride was almost comical. It occurred the following spring, a month before graduation, when several things cumulated into a nervous breakdown and a fierce desire to self-harm.

Before things got too dark, I felt myself in danger again and took the bus to Crisis. I had the presence of mind to pack an overnight bag. I took the wrong bus, got off at the wrong center, and used Google Maps to walk to the right one. I read my homework assignment as I waited for the counsellor to come get me. I calmly explained my fears and my desire to go somewhere where others could keep me safe and I would be separated from the responsibilities and anxieties that were eating me alive.

I got into the voluntary wing of the treatment center, which was a lot less scary than the involuntary side. My counsellor and I agreed that this was a smart thing to do. He was impressed that I’d brought everything I needed for an overnight stay.

Everything—except, of course, my anxiety/depression medication.

Well damn. “They won’t let you in without your meds.”

I offered to take the bus back to campus, grab my meds, and then bus myself to the treatment center. He told me they couldn’t let me do that. Despite the fact that I was asking to be committed, they couldn’t afford the liability of me going off by myself and changing my mind to take matters into my own hands.

It made sense, but I was beyond irritated at having to ride in a police car again.

They drove me back to campus to pick up my meds. The whole drive there, I worried that my roommate would be in the apartment when I walked in with a police officer. I’d hid under the bed earlier that day to avoid her when she got home and I was in the midst of my breakdown. We were going through a rough patch at the time. The last thing I wanted was for her to find out I was back at Crisis by seeing me with a police escort.

Another officer was hanging out outside my apartment. “What a coincidence,” I said, and they seemed a little embarrassed to admit he’d been called to help with me. For pete’s sake. As if one large armed man wasn’t enough to take on a tiny person like me.

My roommate was not there, but one of my neighbors did a double take when she saw me walk in flanked by the officers. I grabbed my meds and we went back into the car to drive to the treatment center.

I wasn’t treated like a criminal this time, going in voluntarily, but that didn’t cushion the harshness of the plastic seat I slouched in on the way over.

**

My hope is that I will not have to ride in a police car again. I don’t know what life will throw my way. I haven’t been suicidal in a while, and I haven’t self-harmed since I moved in to my new place. I use that as a marker, as a goalpost for this year. Soon I can say it’s been a year, and it’s that thought that keeps me from buying razors.

I’m still depressed. I’m still anxious. I still panic. I still have thoughts that I’d be better off dead. I still shudder when I feel my keloids, flinch when I see my scars, and I still panic and sometimes scream when someone cuts or gets cut onscreen.

These things are not going away and probably won’t for a while. Maybe ever. But if my goal for this year is to not take any more rides in a police car—I’m 83 days in so far, and counting.

Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day

Anywhere you go now, any grocery store, department store, dollar store—you’re greeted with pink, red, and white. Candy, streamers, balloons, cards. It’s always there weeks before the holiday, and once it’s over, we forget about it. That’s always the impression I got at my childhood home. The candy lasted another week or so, but the valentines found their way to a box under the bed the next day.

It used to be cute. We sent homemade cards to our grandparents and made little valentines for each other, which we stuck in a toy mail box and opened after a dinner of pizza and a chocolate cream cheese marshmallow fluff dessert.

But there was always the passive-aggressive competition between my parents as to who could be the most romantic; between my brothers as to whose cards were the funniest. I struggled to make mine in the least way suitable. In my tween years, my skin crawled when I opened cards from my older brothers, not meeting their gazes and avoiding the words that might have a sick double meaning.

Valentine’s Day has always been tricky. I made a valentine for my first crush, trying to design something neutral that wouldn’t scare her off. It either came off too strong or she was just a flighty person, because I never heard from her again. After I sent it I came out to my mom, who convinced me not to tell anyone. She didn’t give me dating advice or help me plan ways to see this girl.

Two Februaries later, my infatuation with a certain asshole cumulated into the two of us claiming some kind of relationship. It was scary, it was exhilarating, it was sweet. It started off happy and ended ugly. There’s enough on this blog about that story, and definitely more to come.

One year later, after that relationship exploded and some of the wreckage was finally blowing away, I’d met another girl. She was sweet, she was funny, she was fun to talk to, and, as it turned out, she was into me, too. We’d both made passing comments about February 14th, that we’d be spending the day single. A little over a week later, we admitted our feelings in a fluster and took the weekend to think about it. What followed was too months of sweet, innocent romance. It ended before things got messy or tense, and after a summer of space, we’ve maintained an amiable friendship that we both value.

And then there’s last year. I joked to my boss that I will never begin a relationship in February ever again.

I’m not going to say much about it. It’s over, and it didn’t end well. We haven’t spoken in months. I don’t know if we will. It still hurts. But I’ll say this: I’ve never felt that close to anyone in my life.

February is coming up again. I have no persistent crushes and no ardent desire to find a partner. I’m still bitter about the last one. And two years later, the first one still eats me inside.

I don’t know what I want in a partner, so I’m focusing on what I want in life. I see young people around me breaking their hearts over unhealthy relationships and pining for a partner at the expense of their friendships. I don’t want to be that person. I also don’t want to be the person that dwells over past relationships and lets it define them. So I’m laying it all on the table, hoping it’ll let out some of the steam. If I can make it past February without getting myself into another fit of love, I’m thinking I might be okay for a little while.

Long Time

It’s been months since I’ve posted anything. My goal was a post every two weeks last year. Life happens. It wasn’t even that dramatic. Jut a lot of becoming an adult. I got my first apartment. I have a full-time job and recently earned 40 hours a week over my previous 36. I run three programs and travel between four different sites. I just took out a 72 month loan for an awesome car. I’m living my life; I just haven’t blogged about it.

I lost my insurance this month. I’m required to get a group plan through work, and it doesn’t cover any of my mental health needs. I had to cancel all my counseling appointments and I’m dreading the day this week I run out of my prescription. If I can’t pay for my psych visits, my script will run out, and I’ll be on a limb. In October my pharmacy fucked up on me and withheld my meds for two weeks. During those weeks, the people around me could see a change. I was erratic, distracted, moody. Getting back on was like flipping a light switch. It’s ironic that, after just over a year of taking these and doubting their effectiveness, the moment I realize how well they’re working is the moment I’m threatened with them being taken away.

I’m sitting here typing and eating gummy bears by the fistful as my cat tries to eat my granola. At any rate, I’m here. I’m sketching out a few ideas for posts about my job and recent events. Look forward to that. In the meantime, peace out, take care, and keep on rockin.

Two Summers Later

Two Summers Later

It feels like every summer has a life and a story of its own. The past three have been the most emotional and life-changing of all my summers so far. Mostly, it’s been the camps that make it so.

Before I continue, I want to clarify for some readers who might not have experiences with summer camps. I talk about my camps a lot–some people in my life say too much. But anyone who’s been a part of a summer camp knows–there’s something about them. The closeness. The intensity. The season. The rigor. The relationships built fast and left too soon. The 16-hour days getting up early and staying up late. Getting down and dirty. If you’ve not experienced that, it’s understandable that you won’t feel the level of emotion that goes into my stories about camp. But if you have been a part of a camp, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

There’s a piece of me that will always be stuck with the first summer camp I worked for. It’s a stubborn piece. Some days I want to be selfish and let it go. Some days I wish I could walk away without feeling guilty and broken. But I don’t think that’s going to happen.

I made some amazing friends at this camp, both with the other counselors and with the kids. I was barely 19, working with high schoolers in my first youth-oriented job. What had even possessed me to apply, and to interview passionately enough to be selected? I credit the South Dakota trip as the catalyst for my desire to work with youth. Setting out on the trip, I was terrified of meeting the kids and convinced that I would fuck up their lives in the three days we were there. I wouldn’t know what to say or do with them or how to interact. Going there and meeting kids from a place and culture I had little contact with shook me. Hearing the stories of the suicide epidemic was what pushed me into the place of wanting to combat youth suicide, which soon turned into a desire to work with kids in any way I could. My experiences from the trip were a huge motivator for me when I interviewed for the job and started working there.

But I forget that I applied for the job before the trip.

I can’t remember applying for the job, writing my application, finding references, sending it in, agonizing over it. I remember doing that for the resident assistant position at school; not for this summer camp. I remember getting the email from my supervisor suggesting the job to me and a few others. I can’t remember what interested me about the job, since I was still pretty afraid of kids. Maybe it was the fact that they would be high schoolers. Maybe it was because it was similar enough to my current position that I felt it would be easy enough to transition to. Maybe it was because I had friends who were applying. Though I wonder about it, I don’t think my abuser had anything to do with it—we were dating at the time; she had no interest in the job at all, so I doubt she convinced me. Maybe it was just because I wanted anything but to go back to my parents’ house that summer and was looking for any way to stay on campus.

At any rate, I got the job.

I felt like I sucked at it. The kids still scared me; I wasn’t always sure what to say or do. But I went through the training, learned a lot, and enjoyed it; I was making friends; I was connecting with my supervisors. By the time camp rolled around, I was excited to meet the kids. I acted as a TA for the first group, the middle schoolers. I learned the names of all the kids in my class and things about them. I made solid connections with several of them, and we talked outside of class. I didn’t have to, but I joined them each day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I cried when they left.

The next six weeks I worked as a dorm counselor for the high school campers. I was going through a lot at the time. My abuser broke up with me, but we made the dangerous decision to remain friends. She was running hot and cold with me, sometimes wanting to be my best friend and sometimes ignoring me completely. My family was becoming hostile towards me, offended by my decision to further my education and experience by staying away from home. Thanks to counseling, I was beginning to recognize my depression and anxiety for what it was and put a label on my panic attacks, which was both freeing and terrifying. My self-harm episodes became more frequent and more alarming. During the first week, the head counselor noticed the scars on my arm. She took me aside and I broke down, telling her how much I felt I was struggling, how I felt I was no good at the job and close to quitting. She calmly talked me down, told me I was doing fine, and gave me ways I could be supported.

I kept trying. I made friends with many of the kids and learned all their names, though not as quickly as I wanted. As would become the tradition, the queer kids gravitated towards me. I was teaching a class called Images of Gender and I hit the cap of 24 students. I spent time with the kids even on my days off, having nothing better to do. I enjoyed being with them, though again I didn’t always know what to do or say and sometimes backed off to let the more experienced counselors handle things.

I didn’t agree with their disciplinary methods—making the kids do pushups or having them go on all fours saying “beep, beep, I’m a jeep.” I thought there were better ways to handle behavioral concerns. I felt that having them do those things would humiliate them, and I didn’t like that. If I witnessed a camper breaking rules, I told them not to and explained that what they were doing went against camp policies. If they asked why, I’d say that they were at our camp and needed to follow the expectations of camp while they were here, even if what they were doing was something they would do at home. If I heard one of them swear, I would say “I’m pretty sure you didn’t just say something you shouldn’t say, because I know that you know the rules. So I know I’m not going to hear you say words like that. Right?” It amused them. I never had a case of a camper continuing to swear after I spoke out.

The only time I yelled was when I saw them throwing bananas around the room. I was angry; I hate seeing food wasted. I tried to address the problem by talking to the individuals throwing the bananas, but when they didn’t listen, I stood in the middle of the room and yelled at them to stop. Seeing me—the tiny, timid counselor—screaming at them made them all immediately freeze. Because I never yelled or told them to do pushups, they took me very seriously in that moment.

Many of the kids liked me. Some saw me as their enemy, but I knew that I wasn’t going to please everybody, and each kid was going to have their least favorite counselors. There were some days I simply had to hide. There were some days I took my fears and frustrations out on my fellow counselors. There were some days I was not as engaged as I should have been. I knew this was not okay; I knew I had to work on bettering myself.

I thought I was allowed a few days to be weak; I thought everyone was.

The summer came to a close and the school year began. When I ran into my supervisors, we’d talk excitedly about next summer. I asked several times how I could continue to be involved, attending some of their fall and spring events and keeping in touch with my campers on social media. I asked my supervisors how I would apply for the following summer. I was told I didn’t need to, but that I would be sent an email gauging my interest in returning, and all I had to do was say yes. I knew I was going to; as difficult as it had been, I loved that job. I loved my kids. They cried when they said goodbye to me. I knew I’d made an impact, and a positive one.

I didn’t receive the email, even as the school year came to a close, even as my friends who applied started hearing back. One day I ducked into one of my supervisor’s office, explaining that I had one day over the summer I’d need off and that I hoped it wouldn’t cause a conflict with move in days.

She looked uncomfortable and said, “Oh, this is hard.”

“What?” I asked.

“Well, we’re not hiring you back this summer.”

I couldn’t speak. I could only stare. I felt like piece of me were falling to the floor. I thought of all the kids I’d connected with. The things some of them had said to me, about how I’d helped them, how important I was to them. I thought of every mistake I’d made that summer, of the negative feedback I’d received.

“I hope you’re not mad,” she said.

“I’m not.” I wasn’t. Not yet. “I’m…sad.”

This was worse than a breakup, ironic because later that afternoon my then-girlfriend broke up with me. This was worse than if my supervisor had told me at the end of last summer that I wasn’t coming back. They’d been telling me all year I could. What had I done to change their minds?

I agonized over it for months. When summer rolled around I cried when I thought of what they would be doing without me. I did everything I could to stay in their lives, working three hours a week as an elective teacher and volunteering for field trips. The ones who remembered me greeted me with excitement and love. I made new friends as well, once again attracting and mentoring the queer kids. My supervisors continued to interact positively. They even let me take three of the kids to my on-campus apartment to visit my cat. They trusted me completely. So why hadn’t they taken me back as a counselor?

I attended the end-of-year banquets, crying and watching them cry as they left, tucking away my favorite memories and chalking them up to a summer well lived. Wondering what I had done wrong, why they had rejected me, why it had to be like this. Wondering what I would do next year.

I wasn’t a teacher this summer. My new job schedule conflicted with class times. I’d had so many experiences since that first camp that I went everywhere confident in my abilities to mentor, build connections, lead, love, and succeed. I knew what that first camp had let walk away. They could have kept me on and I would have done better. They could have been straight up with me and told me off the bat I wasn’t coming back, because apparently they’d known all along even as they told me I could.

The only thing I did that summer was sleep over in the dorms so they could maintain the required student-adult ratio, and attend one field trip.

I could barely handle it. I couldn’t stand arriving on campus after most of them had gone to sleep, but at the same time I couldn’t bear the thought of arriving early to spend time with them. I was angry I could only attend one field trip but did nothing to fight for more.

I fostered my existing connections and built new ones. Still, it wasn’t enough. I felt myself slipping from their lives. I became less important. They stopped needing me.

I realized I could not return for another summer without breaking even more inside.

This time when I left, I didn’t say goodbye.

The Best Summer of my Life

The Best Summer of my Life

I’m coming to terms with the fact that the summer is almost over.

This summer has probably been the best of my life.

I’ve broken free from my parents. I cut toxic people out of my life. I let go of thoughts about my abuser and my most recent ex. I found my own place and have been living independently for two and a half months. I made the tough decision to withdraw from my first choice master’s degree schools to look into other programs that better fit my current needs.

I’m one of the only people in my cohort that I know of who has a professional full-time job and is living alone. Most people I know of are still working part-time and living with their parents or significant others. I’m not saying that makes me better—but it’s a different experience, and one no one thought I could have on my own.

I live within walking distance of my work, which makes every day easier as I wake up at 6 to open the school-age camp room at 6:45 almost every morning. For the first several weeks, I would follow this routine. It’s similar to my college routine, as I often worked early there as well or had early classes and walked a comparable distance to get to them. But it’s different; this time, I do not walk in with anxieties over what I should have done to prepare for class, or fear of not knowing who I would encounter on my on-campus jobs. I walk into work confident and excited. I know what to expect. I have a good idea each day which kids will be there, but even if some show up unexpectedly or are there when they usually aren’t, I can handle it. This is my realm. I’m a professional among professionals, sure of my step, confident in my role. It took weeks to get here, but by the time July rolled around I knew what I was doing. I have enough autonomy to make choices to guide my day, enough knowledge to fill the gaps of time where nothing requires my immediate attention.

My counselor said it usually takes six months to reach this point in a new job. I am once again fortunate to work in a place where people support one another, judgement is held back, humor is prevalent, and almost everyone loves what they do. All of this makes the job so much easier.

My job in the after-school program before this had everything this job had. But as much as I loved that job, the one I hold now has even more. It’s full time; often I get to see my kids all day, every day. I hold a title no one else holds; I’m recognized as having skills and requirements others don’t. I get time most days to work alone, developing my programs, making connections, and doing research. I have my own desk and laptop for work. I have a private phone with my own extension. My name tag states my position. I even have my own business cards.

It’s incredible. My position is everything I’ve wanted in a job. It’s something people told me I would not find unless I got my master’s, left the city, had years of experience elsewhere. But here I am, fresh out of college, and people are already looking to me as an authority in my area and expecting big things from me.

It’s been the best summer of my life, and I can measure that by looking back and seeing almost every day as one where I’m excited to wake up, excited to get to work. I’m sad to leave work, but each night I returned to a place that is my own. Once I leave work, I’m not weighed down by tasks to be completed. Instead of dedicating hours to homework and outside-of-class activities, I have time to keep my apartment clean and run errands. I have my own car, and am gaining enough confidence in driving to take myself to get groceries and even take some trips for fun.

But now I’m looking at the coming week and realizing that summer camp is almost over. Soon school will start; some of the kids I’ll only see in the afterschool program, and others I’ll have to wait until next summer to see again. I’ll spend more time at my desk planning. Soon I’ll be going into schools to run my own after-school activities, something I could only dream about doing four months ago.

It’s going to be hard to let go of this summer. With each youth program I’m a part of, it becomes a little easier to say goodbye. I’m less pessimistic and more resilient. It’s hard to believe three years ago people looked at me and wondered why I was trying when I clearly wasn’t good at it. It’s hard to believe that two years ago I would hide from some of the kids I worked with, cry almost every day over how hard the job was, and constantly question my decision to get involved in youth work. It’s hard to believe one year ago I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. It’s hard to believe six months ago people said what I wanted didn’t exist, and that I was nowhere near prepared to do what I wanted to do.

I proved everyone wrong—especially myself.

The past few summers before have been hard. The summer before I came to college was full of anxiety and an intense desire to get out of that house. The next, after my freshman year, I experienced heightened hostility from my parents as they resented my education, demeaned my experiences, belittled my successes, and discouraged me from taking on the opportunities that came my way. The following summer was the pinnacle of my relationship with my abuser and my first intensive job working with youth. It housed my first suicide attempt. Last summer, I was disappointed in having little to do; depressed; and again tried to kill myself. Each summer had its highlights and moments of joy. But this summer held the most excitement and happiness. This summer had the most days in a row where I felt good. I’ve had dark moments, but they weren’t been quite as dark and they haven’t been as long.

I feel confident. I feel comfortable. I know what I’m doing. I have tangible long-term plans. I know where I’m going. For the first time in maybe my whole life, I feel like I have my life in my control.

It’s the best feeling.

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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