Tank

I live in a tank. Occasionally, my fish throw down a sandwich for me to eat.

My tank is lined with plastic grass and studded with cardboard houses. Taped to the inside wall of the tank is a blurry photo of a city skyline. I hate looking at it, because it reminds me too much of home. Life outside the tank is so much more wonderful. The air is sweeter because the trees outside aren’t plastic. The trees outside clean the air themselves, so we don’t have to depend on fish scooping us out once every week to filter the air and clean our plastic trees and cardboard houses, protecting us from germs that don’t exist in life outside the tank.

I’m lucky because I have other people living in my tank with me. I’ve heard of some people who live by themselves in tanks, with no one to talk to or interact with. My buddies and I don’t talk much but I like knowing they’re there if I ever feel like it. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like living in a place like this all by myself—with no one to bounce off of, no one to shoot the breeze with, no one to occasionally poke or play tag with. Just me alone with my thoughts. That idea always scares me. What happens when I run out of thoughts and there’s no one around to help fill me back up?

I have only vague memories of what life is like outside the tank, because we were taken away when I was four. But when something really dramatic like that happens even the vague memories seem real and definitive. I almost remembered the feeling of real grass on the soles of my feet or the taste of pure earth air. I had a blurry recollection of looking up at a sky filled with tiny, faint specks rather than the single glaring bulb that doused our tank every night when the fish turned off their salt lamps. I remember what running water felt like through my fingers, but now all I can splash in is the blue cloth “river” we were so generously provided with.

Don’t get me wrong, my fish are nice enough. They almost never forget to feed us, and their faces are gentle when they quietly observe us. I know Phil, who lives with me, used to have a fish who’d scream and slap the tank and make rude faces. I felt happy that our current fish are so nice to us. Occasionally they’ll blow bubbles at us and Phil says it’s them attempting to communicate, but I have no idea what they’re trying to say.

Aside from that our fish also do a really good job of making sure the air in our tank stays clean. It sucks to be shoved into a squishy bag every week and sitting dead bored as they meticulously clean out every toy and refill the air. I hate being scooped up with the itchy net and feeling helpless for the seconds I’m dangling in water before I’m put inside my air bag. Sometimes I forget to hold my breath and choke on water during the transfer. If it’s the blue fish taking me out, she usually pauses to watch me get settled and make sure I’m okay before cleaning. I appreciate that, because I would definitely not want to die during a tank cleaning.

Sometimes I do wonder how I will die. I’ve heard stories of people climbing out of their tanks in rebellion, only to drown before they can find our homeland. No one’s really sure where to go outside the tank. In fact, I wouldn’t know hardly anything about life outside the tank if it wasn’t for Phil, who was older when he was captured and has gone through three sets of fish including our current ones. Phil knows a lot more about the world than I do and I like hearing his stories even if they do make me sad about missing life outside the tank.

Sometimes Phil mentions wanting to try climbing out like others have. I’m scared to because I don’t want to have that choking feeling of swallowing water last for more than a few seconds. I’m afraid if it does it will kill me. I don’t’ really know what death is or what dying looks like but Betty, our third tank mate, seems terrified of it and apparently in our homeland it’s something you want to avoid. I don’t know, I was too young when I was captured, and my parents and I never found each other in the enormous tank we were all dumped in right after the capture.

Phil doesn’t seem to be afraid of dying. He says he knows a way that we can climb out and live long enough to get us back to the homeland. Do you even know where the homeland is? I ask him every time he says this. Not off the top of my head, he replies, but with something as important of this, I’m sure we’ll find the way.

I hope so—I mean I hope it works out for Phil. I’d hate to have him die searching for something he misses so much. He keeps asking me and Betty if we want to come. More like he keeps telling us we have to come. He makes it out like the fish are involved in some huge conspiracy against us. I don’t know about that. Creatures with such gentle faces can’t be up to much harm.

Betty refuses point-blank to go with Phil but I’m still on the fence. Betty says we have no reason to go—life is easy here, we’re taken care of. Life outside the tank is too dangerous. Here we’re safe, clean, fed regularly. We’ll die for sure if we leave, she says, but if we stay here, we’ll only maybe die.

I don’t know who to listen to. Most days I stand with my nose pressed against the glass waiting for the fish to appear with their gentle faces and throw me a sandwich.

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.

Looking from the Outside

When I look at myself from the outside, I see someone who’s successful. I see someone who’s composed, eager, passionate and grounded. I see someone with a good sense of humor who’s willing to laugh at themself. I see someone who’s face many battles and come out strong. I see someone with boundless energy, who never wants to stop trying. I see someone beautiful. Someone whose expressions change with the mood and whose watchful eyes follow the quiet people, the ones who can’t speak out. Someone whose outsides change with the season, whose thick and vibrant hair pokes out from under cozy hats, whose bright face is punctuated by studs and rings. I see a tiny body vibrating with energy and pain. I see hands rough from a lack of self-care. I see skinny limbs wrapping around a broken heart. I see a spirit worn from what it has seen, a world of people full of pain and love and joy and heartbreak and betrayal and learning and power and gains and fear. I see an open heart willing to take in the greatest burdens in hopes that it will grow enough to help everyone it encounters. I see ears tender from listening to the voices all around it and a mouth well-used defending the rights of those they care about. I see a world of words pouring forth from their brain and an intensity of emotion boiling inside the small figure. I see marks on the pale skin, ridges built from pain too massive to contain. I see ready hands and a comforting smile. I see elegance; I see flaws. I see fear in the watchful eyes. I sense anxiety behind the comforting words. Nervous ticks punctuate their movement. I see sadness hidden behind the colorful attire. I see someone who acts like they know who they are but in reality is struggling and fearful of never knowing. I see someone who’s been trying and is afraid of the day when trying is no longer enough.

“Candles for Orlando” By Tonie Bear — Burnt Pine

Candles for Orlando, June 15, 2016 Five hundred, twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes. What happens in the span of a year is a blur of motion: feelings smeared across a moving train, purple sorrow, red hurt, green anger, and yellow fear. It’s a whirlwind of emotion, pain twisting around regret and spiraling into depression. But […]

via “Candles for Orlando” By Tonie Bear — Burnt Pine

What Builds Me Consumes Me

What Builds Me Consumes Me

I feel like I can never love people enough. Sometimes it physically hurts knowing I will never be able to express to certain people how very much I care about them. And I want to help everybody with everything. I love everyone. I love you just for existing. I want you to exist. I want to help you with every piece of your life. I want to know what’s going on in your day. I want to see you and smile at you so you know I care. And it’s wonderful because it can make me so hapy to know I love people so much and I am so full of love and caring. And it can be horrible because it makes it nearly impossible for me to leave the toxic people in my life.

The people that mean the most to me will never know how deeply I love and care for them, they’ll never experience the intensity of the emotions I feel on their behalf. The empathy that destroys me from the inside out when I torture myself over someone else’s pain. It consumes me. It should kill me. But instead it’s what keeps me alive. If I don’t have people to care about I feel no purpose. That’s why people are so important to me. And that’s why no one will understand. I don’t need people to keep me company and make me happy. I need people to share their lives with me and let me care about them. Let me feel this intensity when they show those special parts of themselves that not everyone knows. To let me worry for them at 4pm because that’s their appointment. To let me worry when I know they’re driving. And to smile when they make it home safe. And glow when they text me. The feeling of happiness I get when someone lets me share their lives is indescribable and incomparable.

It’s the intensity I crave. That’s why I have to work constantly in emotionally exhausting positions where my job is to love and to worry and to care. That’s why I don’t understand people who just don’t care. I feel everything. And I love that. But it eats me alive. And I can’t go much longer. But it’s what will sustain me for years and years and it’s what’s kept me going for the past 21. I dread the day no one is left for me to love. I need those people. I need that contact. That worry. Their voices. Their touch. Give me the smallest part of you so I can expand it for myself and use it to fuel my soul. I love you. To everyone out there, I love you. You exist, you are here, you deserve to be loved, and I love you.