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.

 

 

Hurt Worse

Hurt Worse

It’s been three weeks since you carved the word “fragile” into your arm. The letters didn’t leave the rough, deep-set scars you’d hoped for. At the same time you’re relieved that your co-workers don’t look close enough to see the pink raised lines that still whisper the bitter word.

You forgot how warm it was getting. And how intuitive some of them are. That they might notice how you hold the hem of your sleeves in your palm or that you’re wearing sleeves at all.

But no one really notices the way you clutch your arms around your ribs. When the scars start to heal no one pays attention to your itching. Even the people who know. It’s better that way. It’s not like in the movies where one person sees it, touches them gently, and fixes everything.

The last time you gave in like that, there was a backwards spiral. Those aren’t fun. It’s not worth it.

Even if you think the reaction would be better this time—better to just leave them hidden there and hope.

Hope they don’t stretch back open when you couch dance to The Lion King on Friday.

Hope the bleach water and goggles are enough to hide the red lines on Saturday.

Hope your roommates are too tired to look at you twice when they first get back so you have time to throw a blanket over the evidence on Sunday.

Hope that by Monday they’re set in enough that you forget about them and can focus on school and work and chores.

Take one breath every day and hold it till the lights turn out because that’s the only way you can make for even a tiny bit sure that nothing else is going to happen.

Remember the last time something else happened?

That’s where the word came from in the first place, when the best people averted their eyes when you stepped out of the police car clutching your overnight kit and smelling like deodorant from the treatment center.

The only way to prove them right is to take the word and make it real. You can’t think of a better way than with the help of your silver friend.

Remember the time you sliced off the top of your thumb prying it out of the pink plastic shaver? You don’t remember the pain. Only the blood that didn’t stop coming. Sometimes that’s the best part.

There’s that one time you did it in the shower because you thought you’d never come out. Even though you knew the voices in the rooms across the hall. They’d just showered and no one would be looking in for a long time.

There’s not enough gauze in the bathroom this time so you have to deal with it. It hasn’t been this bad in a while. Each step and turn stretches the split skin and there’s this metallic ache in your muscles. You’re not good at sterilizing. Maybe one day you’ll get tetanus. You wonder if it’s as debilitating as people say.

Three weeks later lying on the bed and twisting your arm in the crooked light of your desktop lamp. How did you get the letters in that spot anyway? Three weeks is kind of a long time. A lot happened, anyway. But you’ve managed to hold your breath all twenty-one days.

The ones on your leg stayed better. You wonder if anyone sees them when you’re in the water. They probably notice the hair first. You never shave.

I think you’re wondering if I noticed. If your tiny winces masked by an extra-loud giggle and your hitched breath lead me to some conclusion. If I noticed the way you held yourself. I’m not sure if I did. I wonder what I would have said if I had.

I think part of you wants me to be the one to fix this. Is that what I want? I want you to be fixed. I feel like I’m the last person you should count on to do that.

I think the funny thing is not even knowing how much she hurt you and still comparing myself and asking if I’m hurting you worse.

Then I look at your fake smile and wonder if anyone will ever hurt you worse than you hurt yourself. I think the reason you want the scars to last is because you want them to hurt worse than the pain.

Witch

Witch

Every year at Halloween I would go as a witch. I’m not sure exactly how the tradition started—it was probably just something cute my mom came up with. Or maybe it was because even then they all secretly thought of me as a bitch. Maybe it was some prediction for how I was supposed to turn out later in life. Or maybe it was just because they finally had a girl—“girl”—and wanted to latch onto gender roles as soon as possible. While my brothers ran around in bedsheets and Ninja Turtle masks and the dragon costumes that I occasionally stole to wear as pajamas, every Halloween I eagerly donned my black dress, striped tights and floppy fake-satin hat. I clutched my purple broom in one hand and my bag of candy in the other and skipped through town, confident that I was the cutest girl anyone had seen that night.

After I while I wised up and realized the only one who cared how I looked was my mother.

When the youngest of us turned twelve we stopped going trick-or-treating, my family still made a pretty big production of dressing up to have dinner on Halloween. I got older too. Wiser even. One year I went as a witch with jeans. That happened to be the year I didn’t give a shit about making anyone happy on Halloween. I really was a witch that night, if you believe my mom. I let myself be snarky and didn’t monitor every single little thing that came out of my mouth. I played the games my little brother invented for us that were supposed to be Halloween themed and let myself be a sore loser and say out loud if I thought my brothers were cheating. I sat sprawled on the floor and threw my hat on one of the chairs. I didn’t even bring out the broom that night but left it hanging, draped in fake cobwebs, by the fireplace.

My family was apparently scandalized at my newfound autonomy. They were shocked that I was not letting everyone walk all over me, as I had done for the past, what was it then, eighteen years?

That winter was the winter my Dad said without hesitation in front of my little brother that I was the most self-centered person he knew.

I did not want to spend another Halloween at that man’s house.

Counselling told me to try again. To make an effort (as if I hadn’t for the past two years I’d been at college). So I tried. I faked happy. I put away the witch costume but that doesn’t mean I changed their perceptions. To them this was a costume. This person. This face. This suddenly-okay sibling. Suddenly interested in what the others were doing. Suddenly not getting into arguments with the father figure every meal.

When that didn’t work I put on another kind of costume. I was as gay as I felt like I could be. I dressed in loose baggy clothes and didn’t take my hat or shoes off inside. I wore rainbow bracelets and scarves. Some days I amped up the jewelry and other days I went around in jeans and a hoodie. I sat on tables and yakked about myself. If they didn’t want to talk to me, I’d talk to them. I chattered nonstop. I made gay jokes. I made romantic, very non-heteronormative comments about female celebrities. I corrected pronoun usage and added endless strings of what-ifs to discussions.

They really hated that.

So I went back to being quiet. Put on the costume of the broody twenty-something. It wasn’t that hard as it was right around my first breakup so I told myself that was my excuse. But less and less I considered that place home. Less and less I wanted to go back. More and more I looked for reasons to not be there on Halloween, which was coming up, and which was normally the only occasion I felt okay spending with my family.

But my little brother was so excited about his costume, and all of his cool ideas for our family-only party. I thought maybe it was worth a shot. Maybe I’d have fun. Maybe it would turn out okay in the end.

He wanted to dye his hair blue, since mine was purple. I wanted us to be hair dye buddies. He was working through his own identity crisis at the time, so maybe sharing a piece of a costume would strengthen our bond.

But of course any similarity to the rebel older sibling was a symptom of my negative influence. My mom quickly intervened and temporary hair chalk was used instead. They did it before I came. I brought a bottle of blue Manic Panic I’d purchased especially for the occasion, excited at the idea of a bonding experience with my favorite sibling. My mom flipped shit, yelling at me about cosmetics and cancer, how could I be so insensitive after Uncle John’s three golf-ball-sized brain tumors, she didn’t care if I’d been dying my hair for months, I could get cancer if I wanted—she didn’t care about that—but how dare I bring it into her house—how dare I threaten her family.

Once again I avoided my little brother’s eyes bulging in astonishment, mumbling at him not to retaliate as I bent my head to my mother’s verbal abuse. With my mother acting as a gargoyle over my shoulder I looked up each individual ingredient to see if they were cancer-causing. After finding them all to be FDA approved my mother sniffed and walked away without a word. I looked to my brother, who shrugged, and said his costume would be okay with just the chalk. Besides, he had rehearsal in the morning. He wasn’t sure how his director would feel about a blue-haired news reporter.

I steadied myself and turned my attention to my own costume. I was going to be Watson. Dr. John Watson, from Doyle’s classics, moustache and all. I blew up snapchat with costume selfies. The hat. The coat. My parents didn’t even flinch at the fake moustache. I was pretty proud of myself.

I never wanted to be a witch again.

Dr. Watson lived for maybe an hour before I had to take him off to cook. My beloved doctor demolished by gender roles. So much for my newfound freedom; so much for sticking the finger to everything Halloween had stood for until this point.

I was a girl again and had to do what girls are supposed to do. I may as well have been wearing the floppy hat and clutching the broom, red-faced and chubby-cheeked, following my mother like a clueless duckling waiting to fall into the water.

To Anyone Who’s Ever Told me I can’t Do It

To Anyone Who’s Ever Told me I can’t Do It

You’re wrong.

I buy my own food. I take the bus to work. I have 4 jobs, 2 internships, class, bills to pay, a cat to feed, medication to keep track of, and a family that was loathe to send me $100 for groceries for the whole year, who fucked up my financial aid, and who refuse to give me physical or emotional support and who actively criticize and invalidate me.

On top of this I live with 3 diagnosed mental illnesses, struggle with emotional PTSD after a childhood and adolescence of abuse and neglect, and I’m a queer person in a Trump world, where not only students but also professors have gone out of their way to sensationalize or invalidate me.

And yet I still somehow find the time and energy to fund raise $113 in a day for a cause I care about, lend several hours of my time to volunteer for efforts that are important to me, reach out to help and support those around me, communicate with faculty and staff for projects outside of work or school, fight to make my university a better place, stand up to people who are fucking things up, support my successful friends and colleagues, and help my school outside of my work hours.

I have succeeded in all of my classes. I have done well enough on assignments to get praise from my professors. Sometimes my professors ask me to work with them. I seek out academic challenges and they readily send them my way. Many of them have pointed me towards volunteer and work opportunities, and have offered to be references for jobs or write letters of recommendation for scholarships.

I have been successful in all of my jobs. I have received praise from supervisors on doing a good job, being a role model, going above and beyond. I have had productive and enlightening conversations with them. I have worked to better myself and seen my progress. I have formed lasting relationships with my co-workers and in many cases have been a part of a cohesive and amazing team. I have seen the impact my work has on those around me–whether it’s them beaming over their improved writing skills, finding their own passions, gaining valuable life skills, seeking out challenges of their own, growing as people, learning about diversity, becoming a better ally, becoming a better friend, finding joy in everyday things, opening up to themselves and others,  finding their safe places, making connections, gaining experience.

I have forged amazing friendships. I have encountered incredible people and worked to keep them in my life. We’ve had life-changing experiences and supported each other through thick and thin. I’ve been through breakups and lost friends to misunderstandings and abuse. I’ve become incredibly close to people who end up leaving. I have found comfort in unlikely people. I’ve worked through an intense fear of being loved. I’ve taken dramatic steps in relationships. I’ve fallen in and out of love. I’ve created a support system for myself that has been there for me during my darkest times and has shared with me some of my greatest successes. I’ve helped friends through depression and anxiety and even suicide.

I’ve lived amazing experiences. I’ve traveled to places that 15 year old me never would have dreamed about. I flew on a plane by myself and navigated my way through a foreign city on my own. I have friends in other states and other countries.

I’ve battled with my inner demons and, in some cases, won. I have scars that will stay with me my entire life, but I refuse to let them take me down.

I’ve three times tried to kill myself, but guess what, I’m still here.

So yes please get mad at me for saying things that don’t appeal to you, for questioning your authority, for taking things into my own hands, for going out of my way to do things that distract me from my ultimate goal (get an education). Please do blame me for things outside of my control. Please do take advantage of me and freeload off my efforts. Please mock my experiences and make light of my struggles. Please discredit what I tell you because I can’t possibly know anything. And while you’re at it, go ahead and say I’m not doing anything with my life. Go ahead and make fun of me for trying. Go ahead and mock my passions. You won’t be the first or the last.

And you’ll never know how I’ll keep fighting. How I’ll move on from your verbal bashing. How I’ll protect myself. How I’ll stop asking you for help because I rarely get the help I need from people like you.

And I guess I should thank you–for reminding me that the close friends I have are extraordinary, that most people I will encounter in life will be more like you. People I will learn to fight because for once in my life, I know I’m right about something.

That it’s never wrong to keep working for what you see needed around you.

When Life Becomes Work, your Work Becomes your Life

When I think of all the kids I have been privileged enough to encounter in my short time working with youth, I can remember every time one of them said or did something that changed my entire perspective. I remember the stories that I heard from the students in South Dakota that made me realize what I wanted to do with my life. I remember the middle schooler who said inspirational things about life and then told me her life was not meaningful. I remember the six year old who told me she wanted to die. I remember the high schoolers who told me what life was like at their school, telling me things that I never thought could happen. I remember the elementary school girl who made her fingers into a gun and pointed them at her head. I remember the tears of the kids who couldn’t go home when they wanted to and couldn’t think about anything else. I remember the kids who cling to my arms crying and can’t tell me what it is that they’re feeling. I remember the four year old who ran around the room pretending to shoot people. I remember the boy who ran around the room knocking things over and screaming and then flung his arms around me and held my hand and sat in my lap. I remember the faces of all the kids I’ve ever worked with. I have so many names etched into my existence. I have so many voices laced into my dreams. I have so many stories weighing down my heart. Sometimes I wonder how I manage to rise in the morning and smile at my kids when they run to me shouting my name and hid my tears until I fall into bed at night.

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.