Overcoming Fear and Judgment and Turning Your Demons into Art

I have a friend who lives in a fearful situation. We have had several amazing conversations about how much she does not want to admit that her situation has to change, and that she has to change it. She has taken steps forward and backward, knowing that neither place is where she wants to be. Now she finds herself sapped and exhausted, her creative well dry.

Fight or flight, the human fear response, means, when threatened, you defend either by standing up in defiance or running away to stay safe. When we stay in this state for extended periods of time, we cultivate emotionally closed behavior. In effect, we hide. We all do it. It’s a natural response we have to learn to circumvent because living in this closed state means living without creativity. Creativity is the water in the well now behind a locked door. In order for my friend to reaccess her creativity (and her joy), she will have to open the door by confronting her fear.


Fearful situations are not new to me. I have lived in fear and some days I am still encapsulated by it. Fear is the single greatest hamper to writing fruitfully. I often choose not to write because I am afraid to write honestly.

Honesty is immensely important in any form of writing. The most obvious is journalism. How many journalists or memoirists have fallen from grace when a grain of truth was discovered to be a seed of falsehood? Truth is the spine of good poetry. It beats in every word choice, and rides the verbs directly to the heart of the reader. And so it is true for fiction, where authenticity is revealed by the turning of the leaves in Fall or the clear movements of a character engaged in an act as mundane as a fireside nose-picking.

We have all heard or been told to write what we know. That statement is the core of writer’s block for the fearful. At our best, writers compose directly from the heart. For me, writing about what I know means about abuse and the ways hurt can be passed on well after it’s genesis. In order to create work worth reading, I sit in the pain of my characters, or relive my own dark histories. When I don’t write, it is because I am either afraid to experience those hurts, or I am afraid to share them.

I might think too long about myself on the page. After all, the basis of pain in my work frequently stems from authentic personal experience. While the pain belongs to my characters, it also belongs to me. When my characters are read, I am also read. Frankly, I don’t always want to be read. And I don’t always feel it’s fair to share the hurts I have been given; those moments were always shared either by the person giving the hurt, or someone receiving it with me. This fear stems from judgment. What will the outside world say? How will my family feel about me “tattling?” So I close down. I think other thoughts, and the distance between myself and the page is born.

My husband is fond of saying, “If your abusers don’t want the world to know they abused you, they shouldn’t have abused you. It’s not your job to hide what they did.”

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He’s right. We are responsible for our own actions. If you don’t want the world to know you’re an abuser, don’t be an abuser. But you can’t expect the victim of your abuse to remain silent to the grave, especially in the days of public media.

Further, compartmentalizing the ugly pieces of my life experience means denying part of myself. Those horrible moments continue to shape me. They are as much of me as my children or teachers who amazed me, or my husband who supports me as I unclothe my victimization on paper.

One choice I make is to write, but write for me. To that end, I have an entire journal dedicated to things that piss me off. I have written pages of intense, loathing-filled, most likely unforgivable statements. I cry while I write, or write in all capitals, or underline ferociously. If I’m too horrified by what I’ve admitted, I can burn it later. What lies between the covers of my anger journal is probably the most authentic, raw writing I have ever done.


Whether we are writing for ourselves or for the world, fear can cut off the creative flow. When this happens, we have a couple of choices: we can stop writing, or we can write.

We may not intend to stop writing. I have woken up to find the muse gone. That access is never barred forever. In fact, it took me years to learn that I was angry, and it took me months after that to realize that it was okay to be angry. When I stopped hiding and faced my anger, I was able to stop judging myself for being angry and just be angry. It was liberating.

Please notice that I had to STOP hiding from my anger. I was afraid of the anger, and I had to deal with that fear in order to write. The inability to touch your creative flow is the unwillingness to step into that deeply authentic space where the fear churns.

To write means to face that fear.

Seeing fear allows fear. As this is not an easily penetrable idea, I will expand it: Seeing our fear means admitting that we are afraid. If we reach this point, we can gently remind ourselves that it is okay to be afraid. If we can admit our fear, we can accept our fear. If we can accept our fear, our fear will fade. Amazingly, it will fade without digging deep into why or how we are afraid. The trick is in opening the door. Or removing the block.

But what if that block is a person?

Here’s the thing–if there is a person standing in the way of your truth, they will most likely expose themselves by getting loud, going on the offensive and striking at your core. Feel bad for them. They are just as afraid of the truth as you are, but they are choosing to remain it’s victim instead of becoming a survivor. Feel bad for them, but distance yourself and write anyway.

I write to survive. I tell my truth to let others know they are not alone. I’m blessed with a supportive community of survivor truth-tellers. They found me just as those who would rather stay hidden have removed themselves from my life (or given me reason to remove them first). Your tribe will find you.

Being a survivor doesn’t mean living your life unafraid; it means choosing truth over fear.

Choose your truth. Write your truth even if you write it as fiction. It will change your life in scary, beautiful ways. I’m not saying it won’t be hard, but it gets better. And when you leap, let me know. I am ready to read you.

 

Why I’m Not at Peace with Memorial Day

I have a difficult relationship with Memorial Day. On the one hand, I have family and friends that were veterans of the United States military. On the other, I have family and friends that were targeted by the United States military. On that first hand, I have family and friends who regret being part of the military even while they commemorate their brotherhood with those who served beside them. On the other, I have family and friends who would not be joyful and free in their lives without U.S. military intervention.

It’s a struggle for me to celebrate after any death due to war. The most horrible aspect is that I have connections to more veterans who died due to their service after returning home than to those who did not come back. Either these vets suffered from Agent Orange and died of prolonged, painful, debilitating illness, or they went untreated for PTSD and other disabilities  often due to poor government programming for reintroduction.

What I wish is for no war. It is a fool’s wish, optimistic at best. War, some argue, is hardwired into humanity. And where would minorities be without civil uprising? Perhaps what I wish is that we were better at humanity, as being capable of empathy and compassion-powered nonviolent communication.

I am grateful to the servicemen and women (any otherwise gendered) who believe that I am worth it. That I am America. That I am worth dying to protect. But even that is a tough statement. The identities tied to me are Arab, Muslim, Other. While I see myself as American, I still find myself making the joke that I am half alien in awkward situations. That I am somehow less than human because my father is an alien (aka immigrant). I make that joke because I heard it in America’s service-person heartland where I grew up. It wasn’t made to amuse me. The point was to bring me down.

The Bible Belt is rife with patriotism. And where patriots breed, so does white supremacy and racial exclusivity along with Christian, right-wing conservatism. And entire families of service people who resent the presence of Other like me in the United States. Who see America as the white man’s land. No, this is not without exception, but it was the strongest message I received in that swathe of America driven by cross-and-guns economy.

Am I allowed to feel grateful? I’m really not sure whether I am. That’s the heart of what I’m saying here. I struggle with this every military holiday.

It is demanded that I show unflagging gratitude. That I plant stars and stripes on my lawn and sculpt them on my cakes with seasonal berries. That I deploy fireworks in celebration of war. That I nod gravely to veterans and thank them when I don’t know where they fought or who they killed or their full context of why. They could be detached, American Sniper-style sociopaths who would love to shoot me down given the chance. I have known plenty of vets whose tales of deployment debauchery include sexual harassment of the men, women and children they were stationed to protect. Whether it was indecent exposure or hands-on assault (often to mock cultural or religious norms or because they were American and privileged and fucks could not be given), they viewed their charges as less than human as I have been viewed and treated. And what of the purposeful physical harm to innocent civilians done by bored or angry warriors trained in body but not mind for the trials of war?

These men and women who serve–they go away, they are changed, and those who return find themselves in a permanent search for the what they left behind. For what they can no longer access because they are not the same human they were before war.

Still, I love the idea of a country of liberty protected by heroes. I don’t know if this is that country. I am afraid to raise all veterans to hero status, even if their lives did end. It could be they never wanted to give their life for America, but America took so much from them they found no other option. If so, I tip my hat.

It could be they had no intention of sticking around for deployment but did their jobs anyway. If so, I tip my hat.

Maybe they were children given a false perception of military life. I know I was. I saw it as stable and safe. I believed I would be stronger, better, smarter if I surrendered my freedom to the government. But I grew up and realized I am a woman and the military is a boys’ club in which I would likely be sexually harassed and assaulted with no recourse. I do see change in that attitude, but not much and not fast enough to make a difference for my enrollment. I tip my hat the women who lost their lives in the forces, whether physically or emotionally. I tip it to the men as well.

It could be they wanted to protect whites. That leaves me in a cold place.

It could be they believed in creating a better world for all of us. If so, I tip my hat.

Maybe they just wanted to kill people. Especially my kind of people. They wouldn’t be the first I’ve met. I can’t tip a hat to that, but I can show up to say, “When you give your life to America, you are giving your life for me. I am America.”

Most likely, I don’t know you. There is a chance my intersectional identity will cause you to disqualify me from this celebration or that my complicated view of a holiday common placing the intentions of many and varied soldiers means I am less than American. If not, to the survivors I say: It is hard. We have lost many we love. But the idea of a cohesive America worth dying for says to me that we are a family. I hope you agree. It hurts to go on without the fallen. I will raise a glass to them. I will tip my hat because they were loved and it is important to remember.

How to Stay Connected While Writing Your Trauma

If you enjoy understatements, here’s one: healing after trauma is hard work. I often find my lips have glued themselves shut when my therapist zeros in on the traumas most alive in me. I’d be terrible at poker.

But here’s the thing–I’m great at putting my head down and getting through. I am strong in multiple ways. When it comes to healing, I don’t give myself a break. We found the tip of the iceberg? Great. Let’s haul that whole sucker out of the water and chip it into slush in the next 45 minutes. Go! It’s a game of catch and release for me with transformation in-between. But sometimes, even with my therapist grounding me, I get lost in the process.

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An aspect of trauma is it can make reality slippery. I have post-traumatic stress disorder from violence in my early years. It comes with periodic flashbacks and anxiety attacks. Both experiences are expressions of a disconnection from reality. While a flashback will end itself, an anxiety attack won’t.

Consider this: if you’ve ever panicked you know that you get lost in a possible outcome,  however likely or unlikely that outcome is. Maybe you’re standing on a bridge on a windy day and you start to think the wind will blow you over the edge. Maybe you are lying in bed at night and you are suddenly afraid there is a monster under the bed even though you checked before you got in and you know, rationally, that nothing is there. It doesn’t matter. You still have to work to calm yourself down.

In my trauma writing classes and as a writing coach, I invite participants to access their trauma and transform it on the page. The first step is saying, “Yes. This happened to me.” Even though people come to me with that as their goal, it is fucking terrifying.

It’s easy to get lost during step one, so I have a whole toolbox full of tools designed for the trauma writer. It includes relief projects and objects, writing prompts geared toward grounding, reminders that writers are safe where they are right now, breath work and the mantra for every trauma session I teach:

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I repeat it at intervals. I keep it written on a notecard and prop it up during classes. I send it in emails. I shout it at myself when I am alone with my computer and I find myself in tears and shaking, my body numb and cold and my seat seemingly disappeared out from under me. Panic is not a joke. Fear is not a joke. But neither of them define or own me. I own them. I am not my work.

I am not the words I write.

I am not the experiences I’ve had.

I am not even the body that was hurt.

I am not what I was told I would be. I am a success.

I am more than what I was said I could be. I am more than my anatomy. I am a friend, lover, mother, mentor, writer, teacher and WHO I CHOOSE TO BE.

Trauma is my work, but I am not my work.

If you find yourself panicking, no matter your situation, remember that the disconnection does not define you. You are not this moment. WE are not this moment. We are more complicated, more capable, more beautiful than any aspect of ourselves being expressed in this moment and any we may choose to put on the page. We are not our work.

Do you have a mantra? I would love to know yours.

Love Always Wins

I just discovered that I never shared this byline here!  I recently covered the wedding of my friends Rebeka Lee and Jenna Proffit for the amazing site Equally Wed. I was inspired to write about this wedding because it happened immediately following RFRA passing in Indiana. Jenna pedaled on stating, “Love always wins.”

image courtesy of Stephen Phillips, BloomBasics Photography
image courtesy of Stephen Phillips, BloomBasics Photography

I am so proud to have my voice and support included on this amazing site catering to LGBTQ couples. I hope you’ll head over and have a read. The piece is brief, and the photography is done by local Bloomington photographer Stephen Phillips. You may remember him as the artist behind my author photos.

May 15 #LinkYourLife Roundup (and #WeekendCoffeeShare)

If we were having coffee, I’d wink at you and smile. Why? Another Friday and more lives linked. Yesterday’s linkup was particularly powerful.

I am a life blogger. I am also a writing coach with a passion for understanding what makes people tick. I don’t believe any person is two-dimensional, but social media makes us seem that way. We share only the extra-good or extra-bad creating a flat digital impression of ourselves.

Here, friend, let me refill your cup. Stay awhile. What I want to say is people are complicated. It would be simple to write off parents like mine. They were abusive. In some ways that abuse remains active. But the truth is they have overcome an enormous amount to change who they were into who they are. They are overwhelmingly MORE and BETTER in supportive, nonviolent ways. Not everyone gets the chance to see their parents change. Not everyone would take the chance (nor do I think everyone should). But I had that chance. They are complicated; I am complicated; our relationships are complicated.

And YOU. YOU are complicated. I know this, too, because I requested you take a minute and link your life with mine. Show me something deeper than the initial social media scratchings. And you did it. Thank you. The world feels like a better place because we are showing up and sharing our loves, fears, ugly and beautiful moments that define us as more than blogger, mother, nephew, dude. It feels like we are about to rise up. Read on. See why.

I hope you enjoy these pieces as much as I have. Be sure to join us next Friday. Find out more about #LinkYourLife here. Participants, feel free to link your social media below. Comments with more than two links get held for approval. I’ll catch and approve those for you!

@Ruebi_LHB got us started with a cringing and LOL-worthy relation of her attendance at a wedding. 

My addition (@shawnamawna) was this post on the complications of my relationship with my mother.

@ShareenM shared her mission statement, and the news that she is seeking submissions to link lives on her site!

@allisonmaruska linked us up with her personality type and how it affects her writing (as well as her characters).

@parttimemonster wrote a beautiful post for #1000Speak on choosing body compassion every day. Don’t know what #1000Speak is? Go here. She also shared her 2014 story.

@cunninghamb103 shared a #WeekendCoffeeShare post, another amazing series you can participate in and get to know other writers. Bill’s post is a moving tribute to his recently departed uncle, a Vietnam war veteran who lent stability to his family throughout his life.

@writeswrongs was an undocumented immigrant who was later squeezed into too small clothes and a friendship filled with Cheetos and trouble. You don’t want to miss her voice. It will change you.

@tdudleypdx reminds the world of “double jeopardy for double-dutch girls” in a heart-rending post she wrote four months post-Ferguson.

@Forrie1 wrote a thought-provoking poem about his father and their different relationships with faith

@rksteg shares the physical and mental trials of a seemingly undiagnosable chronic illness.

@KimGANEPossible was a single mother who was saved by her daughter, but not in the expected way.

@JennBerney shares an installment of her #memoirmondays memoir-in-progress in which she learns what “gay” means.

@Charli_Mills learns a life lesson from dandelions, one that strikes deep in the heart.

@thecowation shares an interview she did for StoryCorps on activism, anti-violence and healing

@campfiresally wrote her life in a memoir, Leaving Tinkertown, and it won the 2015 Zia Book Award for nonfiction!

@aaminahshakur talks about the frustration of generational differences in parenting and safety and adapting to a new culture of needs. As usual, she pulls no punches.

@karrihiggins is undergoing a tattoo project. People try to explain her tattoos to her, but she persists in her endeavor to immortalize words spoken by her brother to his last victim.

Finally, my site has a Facebook page. If, like me, you are there more than Twitter, click here and “Like” the THQ page for Thursday reminders of our Friday linkups as well as weekly roundup posts.

Fattoush

If there is a salad I miss, this is the one. Yes, I could make it without the bread, but what’s the point? That crouton-like crunch, the way the bread soaks up the dressing, the beautiful mix of texture and flavor in your mouth . . . Well, I don’t know that I can do this salad justice. It only take a few minutes to throw together. This is the type of dish you can throw grilled chicken on top of and feel like you’ve had a gourmet meal.

Another reason this is a favorite of mine is that it brings up memories of watching my aunt fry this bread, lifting it from the oil with a slotted spoon. She is always so cheerful as she cooks, as though it’s exactly what she wants to be doing even while the sun beats through the windows, sweat pearls on her forehead and she pauses to pull her shirt away from her body, fanning it to create a breeze against her skin.

This version instructs you to bake the bread into crouton disks.

image via wikimedia commons

I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!

Fattoush
Serves 6
Prep Time: 20 minutes

4 small tomatoes
1 small onion
1 and 1/2 cucumbers
1/3 bunch mint (leaves only)
1/4 bunch parsley (leaves only)
1/3 head Romaine lettuce
1/2 green pepper
1 radish
1 tsp sumac
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tsp salt

2-3 loaves pocket bread (“Loaves,” here, refers to a round of pocket bread.)

Split loaves and bake bread in oven at 180 degrees until crispy and golden. Remove from oven and allow to cool. Then break into small pieces.

Chop onions, tomatoes, mint, parsley, green pepper and radish coarsely and place in large mixing bowl. Cut lettuce in half lengthwise and then widthwise into small rectangles. Mix together with chopped ingredients, salt and olive oil. Add baked bread chunks and mixture and serve immediately.

Hint: If you don’t like soggy bread, serve the salad without the bread mixed in, and place bread chunks on table as you would croutons.