Keep Your Devil

darkness

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You don’t have to stay here
it’s not your fault
let him deal with the blood
there are enough walls
between you and magic
escape through this window
board your unicorn
you are better than this place

I will keep your devil in this box
for a time. When you return
we can look at him together
watch him clean the mess
he made with your body
we will rinse our vaginas
free of his lingering ash

I have heard unicorns
are spiritual healers
take yours to the tree tops
when the sun has cured you
request one silken hair
to drink with her milk
she will oblige you, I’m certain.

Find more from Shareen On the Verge.

An Open Letter to My Friends and Family: I Am Surviving

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I want to tell you what it feels like to wake up in a bubble. To wake up and look around to find the world is far away and your pillow is not real, or not as real as it was when you went to sleep. When you thought to yourself, “Great day. No blips on the radar. Everything’s alright.”

I want to tell you what it’s like to walk around wrapped in a fog-like haze. For your children to speak to you but you can’t focus on their faces and their voices sound like they are filtered through a can. Like they are wavering echoes in the distance and even when they hug you, say “I love you, Mommy”–even when their bodies are warm against yours and you are laying kisses on them, you aren’t sure if this love is real. You feel guilty. You feel ashamed. You try to look at them and can’t see them because your eyes don’t hold still, or if they do they only focus on a nose or a freckle or an errant hair.

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I want to tell you what it’s like to wake up one day fully present. To feel ease in your heart because everything is so normal. To congratulate yourself because you were told you could do it. Your friend said, “You just shrug it off. You just put a different story in your head.” And your story is different now. You check off your multipage list with efficient abandon. You treat yourself to a latte. You skip your makeup because you don’t need to fool anyone. You don’t need to trick them into believing you will remember what they say or that a voice inside isn’t screaming at you to get. out. of. here. It’s too hard.

No lie, most days the world is far away and I wonder if I’m slipping into another dimension. It’s like swimming, but the water is thick and heavy and I never get anywhere. I do mean swimming, not treading.

No lie, I hate telling people I need a break. I hate wondering if my face is making the right expressions. I hate stepping into the bathroom and practicing my smile in the mirror. I try to get it all the way up to my eyes. I hate the effort of relaxing my jaw so I don’t get a headache. I hate the feeling of being not quite here. Of being not quite anywhere. I hate it when you tell me to shrug it off. When you say it’s easy. When you say I can do it. When you discover your absolute suggestions aren’t enough and tell me maybe I should seek professional help.

I want to tell you what it’s like to jolt awake in the dark with your heart racing. To find darkness in darkness through dreams. To struggle awake, shake yourself, roll side to side to slow the beating. To pick off the subconscious webs. To strike your path back into daylight only to find the shadow coats you from the inside. No shower will wash it away. No affirmation with disappear it. You cannot think your way out so during the day you don’t hear words like dramatic, melodramatic, overreacting, loosen up, big deal out of nothing, just calm down, you’re fine, you have to change your thinking, have you tried meditation? You cannot choose something else. You didn’t choose this. You would never choose this.

It’s unsettling, and people look at you sideways when you say you have anxiety. When you shut down, go silent, disappear mid-conversation for no apparent reason. When you talk in circles because you aren’t sure if anyone can understand you. If you said it right the first three times. If you are making any kind of sense because you don’t make sense to yourself.

I want to tell you how hard it is to know why I am this way. How hard it is to self-advocate. Admit I need to walk away. Tell you why I am this way. Tell you I am this way. Tell you I am triggered, or having a panic attack, a flashback, or any other trauma response. Use words pop culture has skewed outside their true experience. Use the words meant to keep me safe but only put me in more danger because they have been equated with unnecessarily negative and anti-intellectual when really, they are the bridge of compassion that leads me from victim to survivor.

I want to tell you how much those words sting my tongue. How they crawl red across my cheeks and make me certain I’m a liar. How your sigh when I am working hard on just being lashes me down.

Anxiety, to me, doesn’t mean getting wound up for a little while. It means body numbness, headaches, backaches, clumsiness, tremors, feeling cold, rapid heart rate, expansive fear, stuttered speech, and words tumbling out in the wrong order. For days. For weeks sometimes. Even with therapy. Even with familial support. Even with clean eating, supplementation and medication.

I want to tell you that not all anxiety is the same, and I know the difference. But most of the time my anxiety rides me like the tearful child on my back who just scraped her knees. Who needles me between my shoulder blades where I can’t reach. Who I am trying to comfort as she squeezes my neck. Who is pushing me down and pulling me close and nestling against me to stake her claim over who I am to her.

And I Will Carry What is Mine

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I often wake with heartache, like I endured some loss in dreams. I rise from my bed in a fog, day breaking before my eyes can see. I move into the light with precision, accomplishing morning tasks, albeit gracelessly.

The pain sits on my chest. It is heavy but soft, an infinite blanket of sadness. I feel it in my knees and back. I try to swallow it down with water, but water passes through it. Even sunshine cannot touch this darkness spun from the needs or beliefs of others I have, often inadvertently, undertaken. I try to tell myself, “These things do not belong to you,” but my hands are fisted and refuse to open.

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Today I woke from troubled sleep and moved into the day with clarity. There was no pain. I did not falter or panic as I moved through my morning routine: clothe kids, feed them, pack lunches, make coffee, make my own breakfast, finish dressing, preschool drop-off. After, I put down the windows of my van and felt the cool promise of Fall.

Fall is my beginning each year. Fall is where I climb, Winter where I descend the most, and Spring where life recovers. Fall is the season of my creativity, when my heart aches the most for the family I am separated from, when I set everything down that is not mine and travel inward to undertake the most daunting projects of grief and wholeness and personal re-creation.

This year, my list is formidable. I refuse to look at it too long because I will start to believe it is impossible. But today, I set aside any expectations that weren’t mine. I lined up all my goals, measured each objectively. Felt their weight, their shape. Felt how they belonged to me. I asked myself what I could accomplish and smiled with anticipation.  I feel ready. I feel free, alive, capable.

There will be hard days–there always are–but the trees are dancing outside my window and the morning made promises I know it will keep.

Writing with F-Bombs, Curses and Words of Power

I think a lot about curse words. I hear them from my children, the television, the world. They come at me from every angle. This may be, in part, why I don’t generally use them unless someone scares me or I stub a toe. It took me many years of consciously trying to get comfortable with the word “fuck.” If you paused when you read that to wonder why, you aren’t the only one. I often wondered why I wanted to desensitize myself to a swear that sits one from the top of the American swear chain. The answer is, now that I have lost my revulsion/fear of it, I can utilize it’s strength by adding it to my own. I’m still not there with “cunt,” frequently ranked #1.

I believe in the power of words. Throughout history, words have been considered magical–power words, true names, curses. Words carry community, define our abilities, group us in classes, restrain us, free us, transport us to other worlds . . . When it comes to illness or struggle, words can greatly empower, allowing us to understand ourselves or loved ones in ways previously impossible because we did not have the language to grasp individual need. And, just as easily, words can block us and tear us down.

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Recently, I read an interesting blog post from another writing instructor who said he disagrees with use of the term “shit” to describe any sort of writing, and will never use it with his students. Specifically, he was referring to applying the word as a quality assessment of one’s work. I shared my post Writing the Shit in which I talk about “shit” in the literal sense, as the mucky life experiences we often get mired in but can choose to metaphorically compost through writing and use as fertilizer for growing a better future. He said my essay didn’t sway him, and that’s fine by me, but in my classes, I teach students to write as a release, to accept their negative experiences as negative, so I have no qualms using “shit” in that context. Basically, I’m using “shit” as a power word. Still, I would never describe what anyone has written as “shitty,” even if I did enjoy Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts” (read it here) as an affirmation that written words don’t have to come out right the first time.

My son uses “bitch” as a power word. He flings it at me when he is overwhelmed, overtaxed, hungry and unable to grapple with the multilayered demands of the external world. You know, when he’s having a tantrum. On one hand, this is not okay with me. I try not to take offense, but it happens. I’m human. On the other, because my son never uses the word unless he’s really, truly hit his max, it’s helpful. It doesn’t matter if he’s not even a tween yet and adolescent in his vocabulary–because he only uses it at critical mass, the word never loses its pungency, always grabs my attention. Plus, there is evidence to show that swearing eases pain among other uses. The same is true in writing.

Allow me to linger here for a moment. When you are learning to write more effectively, you spend time on long and short sentences, when to use them to heighten your emotional setting. Alternating sentence lengths and then using several short sentences in a row is a great way to build to a climax . . . which is where you would deploy your X-rated language and garner the greatest reader response. (It doesn’t have to be a power play. The four-letter word might just be the best word.) Pop-culture is dotted with humorous characters defined by their expletive-laced dialogue, but they are only funny when surrounded by straight-laced (and often highly intellectual) individuals who offset their (usual) idiocy.

To date, this piece contains the most nefarious language of anything I’ve ever written publicly. I’m sure I have a couple of mercurial pieces kicking around in my journals, but the gist of what I’m saying is I only deploy questionable language in two situations: when I privately need to express the emotion in order to release the thoughts associated with it, or to drive home an emotional point in a story, poem or essay. I try not to use this language verbally because it perceptually dumbs me down. Let’s face it, I’m a woman of color in America. I’m already viewed at a disadvantage. Just take a peek at the stereotypically gendered versions of this e-card:

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Sigh.

Back to the subject at hand. I’m a coach for people who are working through trauma. Aside from being perceived as less intelligent by the majority, if I come at clients with profanity in my conversational speech, I am choosing to make less room for their emotions because they may receive my strong language as emotional aggression.

This isn’t to say swear words can’t be used compassionately. I recently bucked to attention when my therapist reflected my emotions back to me using the term “fuck.” I’m sure I wore my shock through my whole body. The truth is, he got it just right. He said for me what I hadn’t been able to say to myself. The word and emotion connected and I sat up straighter, more equipped to own the issue and move on. It got me thinking about how friends will listen to what’s stressing you and tell you, “That’s fucked up.” It feels so good to be heard.

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But let’s not limit cursing to negative situations. “Shit” is regularly employed to positive ends. You just won one thousand dollars? “Shit!” Shout it, draw it out, whisper it. The aim is the the same. It’s an utterance of excitement, joy or approval. What if, instead of “Shitty First Drafts”, the chapters was titled “Shit! I Finished My First Draft!” It tells a different story, right?

Truth be told, I have significant difficulty wading through expletives when they are aimed at people. We are all complicated and make mistakes. I would even broaden the popular social definition of “profanity” to include any sort of name-calling. This is why I humble myself when I feel a grudge forming and guard my tongue. It’s tough to engage anyone who swears for the sake of swearing. I never know when to take them seriously. I tend to distance myself or ignore swearing when it makes me uncomfortable. But I don’t believe in censoring the individual. While I would step in and suggest a more gentle approach should they turn those words inward, I believe it’s worth it to know a swear and know when to swear it. Power in words.

10 Free Resources for Creating a Writing Practice for Self Care

Not everyone can come to my classes to write through trauma in a supportive group setting, so I decided when I started teaching that I would provide my core in-class resources on my site. I believe writing is an excellent tool in the self-care kit. I’ve put these posts in an order that you can use as an in-home syllabus. Consider working with one post per week, and complementing it with prompts from the linked page (see below). 

While I believe the safest way to start an expressive writing practice for the purpose of accessing trauma is in a group setting, I also feel certain that there is benefit in writing on your own. Sometimes you just need time and a little privacy to let go of what is not serving you (or record how you’ve grown).

I hope these pieces aid you on your healing quest. I will update this list periodically, so bookmark this post and check in. And feel free to ask questions/make requests.

As always, when you are writing:

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Resources for Writing through Trauma

Setting Up a Safe Writing Practice

Why You Should Use Relief Projects and Objects (and what they are)

How to Stay Connected While Writing Your Trauma

Overcoming Fear and Judgment and Turning Your Writing into Art

Writing the Shit

Giving and Receiving Compassionate Criticism for Writing

5 Techniques for Accessing Your Creative Flow

Epistle: A Writing Exercise (I always recommend starting with a letter to yourself outlining your writing goals)

More Writing Prompts

If you decide you’d like to work with me one on one or join a class/workshop/retreat, see the links below and use the events box in the sidebar to find me.

What is a Writing Consultant?

Classes

August/September Course Offerings by Shawna Ayoub Ainslie in Bloomington, IN

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It’s that time again! My next set of classes at Unity of Bloomington has been approved. Here are course details:

Writing through Trauma

Six Mondays from August 31-October 5, 6:30-8:30 p.m. This class will be a supportive space for adult writers negotiating difficult topics, regardless of genre or experience. We will discuss writing trauma from a safe space, self-care, critical reading, how to give and receive constructive criticism, what writing style works best for us and why, finding our voices, and point of view among other topics. At least 30 minutes of every session will be devoted to in-class writing. Writers are encouraged to share their work, but not required. Regular out-of-class writing and reading will be assigned for in-class discussion. The class is $80 per person and is open to all genders. Attendance is limited to 15 participants and advance registration is required. Some scholarships are available. Please contact Shawna directly at shawna.ainslie@gmail.com with scholarship inquiries.

If you would like to provide a full or partial scholarship for current or upcoming writing through trauma classes, workshops or retreats, please send me an email.

What Makes a Successful Story?

Five Sundays from August 30-September 27th, 2:00-4:00 p.m.

In this class, we will examine critical and commercial successes and failures among recent publications, including both short fiction and novel excerpts. A portion of each class will be spent practicing the literary devices and techniques we identify in our own writing. Completion of weekly reading assignments will be required for class participation. Students should expect to spend upwards of two hours on reading and writing between class sessions. Internet and email access will be necessary for materials access. The class is $125 per person. Attendance is limited to 15 participants and advance registration is required. Contact shawna.ainslie@gmail.com for more information about the class content.

Registration will be available online through the Unity website under Classes/Workshops/Events, and is now available by check made payable to Unity of Bloomington.

For more about Shawna, click here.

#WeekendCoffeeShare: Landscaping My Life

I wish we were having coffee. I could use a fresh ear.

I have been resisting old patterns under the assumption they are methods of self-destruction. But what if they aren’t?

For the last few weeks I have identified multiple areas of hurt, growth and transition in myself. My instinct is to step away from routine, put healthy relationships on pause, tend to myself and create space for new friendships and time alone. In doing this, I will grow, identify weeds to be pulled, find room to spread the roots I have been forcing downward into darkened spaces.

For weeks, I have resisted. In the past, this desire for space stemmed from a low sense of self-worth. My tendency was to burn my bridges using words as a whip. I actually feel that impulse now. I have to guard the sharpness of my tongue. I have to stop myself.

But if my life is a garden, many of my relationships are perennial. Perhaps I can trust they will remain strong without me watching, return when I am not looking. Can I be a plant in my life garden? Can I go dormant as well?

I’m wondering if my heart is speaking. Even as I go through the motions with my loved ones, I find myself resenting them for occupying my private space. I want to fold inward. I want to protect the vulnerable new tendrils making their way into light. I want to scream sometimes, to hide.

I have a safe space in my house- a dark spot with a lock. I find myself there more and more frequently. There is too much in the world, and I don’t want to be selfish, but I do need to get comfortable with this new ground under my feet.

This pattern is like rearranging furniture. I need to do it every three months in order to simply breathe.

I’m afraid. Even established plants can be lost to inclement weather or overrun by uninvited weeds. If you are not looking. If your gaze is inward.

But I am also at risk of being lost by not tending myself.

What would you do, coffee-lover? What wise advice do you have for a friend?

*#WeekendCoffeeShare is a series hosted by Part-Time Monster