Being Poor

I was that girl in school.
The poor girl.
The one whose uniforms weren’t like everyone else’s. The one whose clothes were only new if the store was closing down and had an 80% off sale.
The one who, when all the kids had their names called on the day school portrait orders were delivered, never had her name called.
The one who never got to go on the school trip unless it was subsidized.
The one who always took seconds in the lunch line if there were any extras.
The one who was ridiculed for having greasy hair because her family could only afford enough water to bathe once a week.
The one whose experiences in life were exclusively limited to which ones had a special funding program for people who couldn’t afford them.
The one who stole food stamps from her mother’s pocket when she was asleep so she could buy a candy bar every once in a while because her mom always told her “no.”
The one who, knowing how much it sucked to be poor, sometimes gave those food stamp dollars to the vagrants on the street that looked more hungry than her.
I was that girl, who has never quite understood or got over how anyone could take the backpack she carried on the first day of fourth grade and rip it to shreds along with the expensive floppy disks and school supplies inside, which would mean a sacrifice to replace.
I was that girl who, while everyone labelled her an “over-achiever,” was taking the most advanced mathematics and science classes she could in the hopes that if she tried hard enough, she would get a degree one day and have a job that would mean that when she had a family of her own, they wouldn’t have to know what it meant to be “poor.”
And who, when she fell pregnant at age fourteen, didn’t press charges against her rapist for what he had done to her, but because she didn’t want him to do it to anyone else; Because she had already been shown for so many years that she wasn’t worth much anyway.

Being poor is so much more than how much money you don’t have in your bank.

Whatever

Being poor is knowing exactly how much everything costs.

Being poor is getting angry at your kids for asking for all the crap they see on TV.

Being poor is having to keep buying $800 cars because they’re what you can afford, and then having the cars break down on you, because there’s not an $800 car in America that’s worth a damn.

Being poor is hoping the toothache goes away.

Being poor is knowing your kid goes to friends’ houses but never has friends over to yours.

Being poor is going to the restroom before you get in the school lunch line so your friends will be ahead of you and won’t hear you say “I get free lunch” when you get to the cashier.

Being poor is living next to the freeway.

Being poor is coming back to the car with your children in the back seat, clutching…

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Why I Chose to Speak Out

Chances are good you found this blog either from Freshly Pressed or my post “A Letter of Regret From Your Anxious and Depressed Friend” was making its rounds somewhere on a social media site. While the letter was many things, it was not fiction or hyperbole. Many people can relate to parts of it but few will relate to all of it. That’s because, naturally, it was created from my own experience. I am so glad it’s helped in whatever way to so many people, and that’s why I posted it publicly. In fact, most of this blog is dedicated to helping open eyes in one way or another, but what it isn’t dedicated to doing is garnering sympathy for myself. That is the last thing I want.

No, I am not suicidal. I speak more about this in “My Conversation With the Un-Dead” and “Keep Going (My Conversation With the Un-Dead Part 2)” where I state, “sometimes we have our reasons for either continuing to fight or giving up the fight.” I have two very good reasons to continue to fight: my children. This does not mean my mind doesn’t jump to scenarios in which I think, how would this look differently if I weren’t here? And, I wish I didn’t have to do this anymore. For a long time, I thought those feelings were completely normal. But there are people who never imagine how much easier it would be to take a quick exit, and I think those people are very fortunate. But I am also fortunate.

My two beautiful reasons to keep fighting I just mentioned, are a privilege. Many people do not have this privilege. Do I want to be a mediocre mother who cares more about her own pain than her kids’ futures? Hell no. I didn’t work so hard to be a mother for the past eleven-and-a-half years, forfeiting what many people thought would be a “better life” than being a mother at age fifteen, to suddenly quit because the going got tough. Depression, anxiety, and PTSD have definitely changed me, but I’m a stubborn little shit and refuse to accept defeat.

Throughout school I was bullied intensely. There was not a day that someone didn’t have something to say about my appearance, clothing, religion, participation in class, family, what have you. (I’ll give details of this in a story later.) My things were stolen and vandalised, I was not allowed one day of peace. At home I wish I could say at least it was peachy there, but it wasn’t. My mother was a single mom of two (stubborn little shits) and while I believe she did her best, and believe that she believed she did her best, she had her own issues that created an environment that could sometimes be equally, if not more, destructive. We were alone in Montana, far away from family, and we had little. The budget of everything- money, patience, time, etc., was stretched a bit too far. Although things evened out a bit when this incident happened, and my sister left home, I was soon left with a new set of challenges that ultimately became unbearable and I felt I had no other option than to start afresh somewhere far away, in Utah.

So while I did leave home at sixteen, I did not give up on school. As I told in this story, getting re-enrolled and graduating was a whole lot of work. What I didn’t include in the story was that I also worked part-time jobs, starting a couple of months after my eldest was born, because I had to in order to make ends meet. My sister and her boyfriend watched my eldest son for me while I was at school and work my senior year. Had it not been for them, it would not have been possible. They continued to watch him as I began attending Westminster College full-time (and still worked full-time) until the day my son called my sister “Mom.” Because I was already struggling to pay the rent due to my hours spent in class, beating myself up that my grades weren’t doing as well as I’d hoped, and popping caffeine pills to keep awake to do all these things (to the point where I had a residual twitch in my eye), this one word was the wakeup call that it was no longer worth it. My son meant more to me than a degree. But I have never quite been able to release the guilt that came with it.

Part of getting into college/uni was getting scholarships, because Westminster is expensive. One of these scholarships was based on two essays, one about my greatest achievement, and one about how we can make a better future. I can only guess my essays were good because I won out of all applicants in the nation that year, which came as a huge shock. I have always found it difficult to believe something I did deserves any kind of award, but nevertheless, I was extremely honoured. They were so kind. And while accepting the award in front of the attendees of their convention, I gave a speech:

“To say that I am grateful for this award is not enough. Instead, I would like to tell you all why I am here. I did not get this award because I was good at sports or because I had a perfect 4.0 average, or some rare, coveted talent. I got this award because I happened to be presented with an opportunity to share with others my ambitions and values… I offer my deepest gratitude, and also my word that I will never let this award go to waste. It is an investment in a life that is going to impact others’ lives tenfold.”

Pretty big words for an eighteen-year-old girl with no crystal ball. But my passion was genuine. I meant every word. So as I grew older and saw how all my friends were still in school and on course to graduate and I was not, I felt like a liar and a failure.

During the time I would have still been working for a degree, many things happened in my life. I got into a relationship that turned out to be abusive, got pregnant, left my job, became an agoraphobic, lost my house and got news about The Accident while eight months pregnant, lost my sister, parted with the baby (the only daughter I ever had… read about that in Dear Lucy), and many other things… then ended up in the UK, married and about to have my youngest child.

I’ve been here for five years and while the original intention was to have a large family of in-laws around and do the “mom thing,” I found myself in the circus of a master narcissist. Although I’ve chosen not to be involved with them any longer, the lasting damage they caused added itself to the pile. I am an outsider here, and yes it’s hard to make friends when the British Way is so different than the American Way, including but not limited to, talking about pain.

Not talking about pain may make you more likely to be accepted in the superficial friend circles, but I have never been popular. Because I have never been popular, I don’t care if I’m not popular. In fact, it kind of scares me if ever I find myself in such a position. But the flipside of this is that yes, it is a lonely existence. I have been through so much that I can’t stand small-talk. That ability to hold small-talk conversations left me when my sister was in the hospital. After that I’d have panic attacks where I got overwhelming waves of emotion leaving me feeling like I was never going to be okay again. There are times when I feel fine, but occasionally a trigger happens that sends me into a despair, a depressive state for a while, unable to have normal conversations because the depression is overwhelming.

The past several months while experiencing one of these depressive states, I had to withdraw from humanity. I spent a lot of time with my kids, and when they went to bed I’d often weep. I’m going through some kind of stage of grief and I’d cry with a sense that my eyeballs would pop out of my head and my stomach was being clenched. I went through months of zero appetite, and months of too much appetite (you can read about this here) and felt I was shutting down, dying, one piece at a time. I’m not working right now, because I can’t. My symptoms and conditions are affecting my life in all aspects. And I hate this.

I have come through all these things and been okay, I thought, until the panic attacks started coming on a near-daily basis. Having the work ethic I do, I can’t help but feel like that much more of a failure. It’s humiliating to be in this position for someone like me who has been so independent for so long. And it would be easy to accept that this is where it ends, this is what’s become of me. Let go of the reins. Give up the fight.

On May 31st, 2015 I had this moment. I was silently sobbing in bed, trying not to wake the kids. It was a sort of panic attack, but no hyperventilation. Just sobbing, weeping, crying. Feeling worthless, hopeless, stupid… all the undesirable titles anyone has ever thrust upon me and more, because when you’re conditioned enough, the abusers don’t even need to do any of the work, as you’ll walk into the cage all by yourself (like in this story) and do the harm without any of their help.

I’d written “A Letter of Regret” three weeks prior and submitted it to an online publication because I thought it was worth being seen and distributed. They hadn’t responded. I had about five days left to wait for any word, but on this night where I was up until three in the morning crying and wondering what in the heck I was doing wasting my life waiting for something to come along and make a change, make me feel like it was all worth it up until this point, I got angry. Not angry at the publication for their lack of response, but angry with everything.

I REFUSE TO GIVE UP. I REFUSE TO BE A STATISTIC. I REFUSE TO BE DEFEATED. I REFUSE TO DIE LYING DOWN.

I can’t have the same kinds of jobs I used to have. My nerves can no longer handle the extreme stress of the industry. And I have a lot of talents, but I’m a terrible salesperson. I’ve been telling myself “I need to start writing again” for years. People have told me to write a book, mediums have told me I’m going to write a book (think what you want about that), but the only thing I’d written in about a decade was one story which I’ve yet to release. So in my little moment, I decided it was time to just do The Thing. Get back up.

The first day of June I started this blog. I wrote the About page. I wrote a few more posts, put up that letter, and shared them on some Facebook pages. Suddenly the letter got a whole lot of attention, and the comments of support were overwhelming. Then came Freshly Pressed, which kept me awake until three in the morning again, but for a different reason. It reminded me that while I am not profiting from any of this in a monetary sense, my contributions have value. In turn, my life full of hardship and struggling, peppered with the odd triumph, has had value. I have a unique perspective, combined with a love for words and a firm grasp of the English language. I may not know how to get a book published, but I’m not going to let that stop me from telling my stories.

I refuse to accept that my life has been for nothing. There are too many unexplained coincidences and blessings for me to think I’m meant to hold a run-of-the-mill job, which I’ve now learned I’m not fit to do. I am a wonderful kind of weird and I feel like I was given an extraordinary gift of resilience and an ability to communicate it in a way that can teach. And I refuse to allow what feels like the breaking of my spirit (the anxiety, the panic attacks, the depression, the PTSD) to be the final chapter of the book of my life. Excuse my language, but… Fuck. That.

Someone, somewhere, needed to hear one or all of these things. And that one person, maybe that person is you, whom my words have helped, you are why I chose to speak out.

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It’s Still Self-Harm

I suffer from generalised anxiety disorder, depression, and PTSD, that I know of. As much as these diagnoses say “mental illness” or “mental health issues,” for me they are also very physically related. Not only do I feel like I’m being zapped with volts upon volts of electricity as I shake, sweat profusely and get clammy palms at the thought of confrontation, but I am constantly worried about my body. And not in a way most people would think.

When I started doing these blog posts and looking through my hard drives for photos I thought would be appropriate, I saw my body in the various sizes it has been in the past five years. In 2010 I weighed about sixteen and a half stone. By the end of 2011 I was ten stone. That’s about ninety pounds’ difference, over forty kilos. Since that time I’ve put on ten pounds here, twenty pounds there, then freaked out and made resolutions and worked it back off again. When I see the pictures of how big I was, I feel disgusted that I could’ve let myself get that big. When I see the ones of me smaller, I think how good I looked, how I wish I could be that size again, but also how I remember still feeling huge and disgusting at the time. Over the past six months I’ve put on weight at a rate so much higher than ever before, and am now a good thirty pounds heavier than a weight I’m comfortable being. Except I’m only comfortable with being any weight in hindsight, because no matter what size I may be, I still feel uncomfortable. This got me thinking… what is my problem?

I see these people running around outside in their spandex and neon shoes and even when they’re three hundred pounds heavy, I envy them. I envy that they have the courage to get out there and sweat, running around alone in public, because I would hate for people to be looking at me doing that, regardless of size. I hear of consistent runners and exercise-doers and I am in admiration of how these people can keep these routines in place. I envy myself when I look at my pictures, for being able to get in shape all those times. Sometimes I have no idea where that discipline came from, but I want to find it again.

When I moan about my weight to those I know, thinking how annoying I must sound that I’m even talking about it, I hear generally encouraging things. Some people tell me I’m not too big at all, that I still look great, but thanks to anxiety I don’t accept this as truth. I’m not fishing for compliments from them, but in my head they’re looking at me and seeing all the things I see when I look at me, which is this bulge and that ripple and that flappy bit and this crease, and I feel the need to excuse myself for how I am. I feel they hate me for whining about it, but I can’t stop. They waste their words reassuring me about something which will only stop being an issue when I stop using it to hurt myself.

As I went through another bout of deep depression and started gaining a little bit of weight this year, I felt not only angry with myself for getting carried away with my eating habits, but a masochistic sense of relief and a compulsion to keep getting bigger. I stopped caring about how much butter I put in this, or how much sugar was in that, and completely threw out my own philosophies on eating properly. I was beating myself up constantly that I was only compounding my own problem and making more work for myself. I knew that if I didn’t hold back the portions, my clothes would no longer fit and I’d have to buy more, which I couldn’t afford. But then I’d buy another tub of ice cream, and go to the scale and feel worthless and stupid for gaining another three pounds in one week.

After thinking heavily about it, I’ve come to understand why I do this. I don’t harm myself in the traditional sorts of ways most people would think of when they hear “self-harm” but this is a cycle of anguish that never seems to end. It’s still self-harm even though there’s no blood or bruises.

When I’m feeling better and more motivated, I can look in the mirror and appreciate my stretch marks as “mommy stripes” and my returned layers of fat as “womanly curves” and “proof I’m eating,” which is good in a way because I’ve experienced loss of appetite for weeks at a time and starvation due to poverty alike. But within a matter of days or even minutes I’m saying all kinds of mean things to myself and going to the cupboards to find something high in fat, salt and carbs. It doesn’t feel the same as “emotional eating” where people binge when they’re either happy or sad. It is deliberate sabotage of what I know in my conscious self to be healthy and good for me.

When I’m bigger that means I’ve also stopped doing any kind of real exercise which equates to weaker muscles. When my core is weak I can have excruciating and debilitating back spasms. When I have that extra layer I experience the cutting off of circulation and numb limbs when I’m on the floor playing with the kids. I’m slower. I have less energy. I increase my risk of developing diabetes, which runs in my family. I stop going out of the house. I stop seeing friends. I feel ashamed when I see people who knew me when I was smaller and this can trigger panic attacks. I create more pain of the physical, emotional, and psychological varieties. I tell myself I’d be so much healthier and happier if only I were smaller like I used to be, while simultaneously feeling fear of being that size again.

The fear of being healthier is attached to the incidences in the past in which I was sexually and non-sexually harassed or assaulted by others. When I’m smaller I get a lot more attention for the way I look while loathing the ‘lookers’ for being so shallow. In addition to more serious incidences of abuse, there have been times in the past when I’ve been followed through town at 5:30am by a large man making kissy noises at me, been touched inappropriately in the workplace, been disregarded as an intellectual based on stereotypes of pretty girls (so much wrong with that), been asked to flirt to earn the company free work, been whistled at, hollered at, objectified and singled out for being attractive. I’ve faced competitive attitudes from co-workers, hatred, animosity, and bullying from other women, threats to my well-being, and general negativity.

But those things are in the past, and it’s the anxiety and PTSD telling me to be afraid of what I should be doing for the sake of my health because if I do it, I might get hurt. It’s nonsense, but that’s the difference between one who suffers from these conditions and one who doesn’t; the privilege of rational thinking.

I know that if I exercise and eat appropriately I’ll slim down and my nicer clothes will fit, my release of endorphins will increase, I’ll feel more confident, have more energy, a more consistent heart rate, possibly a reduced rate of panic attacks, and so many more benefits. I know that if I just put my workout clothes and shoes on, turn on my fitness DVD (because there is no way on this earth you’ll find me jiggling, panting and sweating in front of strangers), I will be done in about thirty minutes and feel really accomplished. I know this, but in the straightjacket of depression I can hardly bring myself to do what is needed to get it done.

These are three invisible illnesses among many. Their ability to manifest in a physical form can include literally preventing a person from doing or saying something they know they should, and compelling them to say or do something they know they shouldn’t. It hurts to know these things have any power over me, despite all my stubbornness and shows of determination and willpower in my former years. And it hurts even more that even though I accomplished so many amazing things before, I can be prevented from doing a few silly crunches and lunges.

So as I’ve been writing about strength and putting one foot in front of another, I thought it time that I get back up and try again to take my own advice… and I’ve done two workouts in three days. It’s no big deal on paper but any victory over self-harm for someone battling it feels like a gold medal.

…and if this sounds like you, reader, you’re not alone.

Get back up off the floor and keep going, keep fighting.

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Photo and design of papercut: credit Lucy Jerwood http://www.facebook.com/twinklecuts?refid=12 (Thank you Lucy!) Artwork created for the Always Keep Fighting Campaign (see here).

Finally He Claimed Me

I always wondered where most of my looks came from, because I don’t look that much like my mom.

I’d heard all kinds of stories about him, and used to imagine what it would be like if he were around. His head was so big they had to special order his hat at the mine, my mother would tell me, they used to call him ‘buffalo head’ and he was a black belt in karate.

He never remembered my birthday, except once when I turned eight and got a card in the mail from him. Well, he almost remembered. The date he’d written in the card was three days late. His memory must’ve been really bad, because he always forgot to pay the child support, too. Ten long years and not a penny.

The last time I’d seen him I was two years old and eating peach flavoured yogurt. He and my mother were embroiled in a brawl that landed her with two black eyes and a broken ankle. She said she was leaving. He made my sister and I sit on his knee and choose with which parent we wanted to live. I was never able to stomach peach yogurt again.

As the years passed I learned why I was so afraid of Chucky from Child’s Play; he thought it was funny to put my head in the dark attic and tell me “Chucky’s gonna getcha!” I learned my feet looked just like his. I learned he used to work in the mines as an engineer and hated when my mom put a jumpy snake in his lunchbox. He was rumoured to be the best piano player in cowboy boots anybody had ever seen. I learned he always broke his word, that we shouldn’t get our hopes up for those “daddy promises.”

My mom told me stories of the things he used to do to her and how convinced she was that he had once plotted her murder. He was thwarted by a passing hiker. I believed her at first but then wondered if she was just angry because he wasn’t the husband he should’ve been. You were supposed to be a twin, she’d say. None of his brothers pay child support. They all do this. Maybe he wasn’t paying, to punish my sister and I for choosing to live with Mom. He had two new children now, maybe they were more important. What did he need us for, anyway?

At the age of fifteen I finally got to meet this man, the myth, the legend. He really did have a buffalo head. He really did wear cowboy boots. He looked so much like me. I wondered how many of the other things were true.

One of the first things he said to me after thirteen years of being a stranger, was “I should’ve killed your mom when I had the chance.” I was stunned. We ate pancakes at IHOP and went to the mall. He spent money on me. He saw I had a three-month-old baby, yet he pinched my sides and said, “You need to lose that weight.”

After enduring rants about how my mom just wanted to mooch off him and the government, and diatribes of how amazing he was and how much better my life would’ve been if only I’d got to live with him all these years instead, still I agreed to keep in contact with him. He was a smart man, and some of the things he said could be pretty convincing. But so many other things were so critical.

He said he’d pay for a landline phone so he could have a number to reach me. He said he’d call, but after the first week he never did. He emailed me for a while but his emails were like conversing with Jekyll and Hyde. I never knew what to expect.

Finally I said I couldn’t take it anymore, that there were two sides to every story and then the truth. I was sick of being in the middle of the tug-of-war between his accusations and my mother’s defence, and my mother’s accusations and his angry backlash.

He called me a “whore” and a “slut” for having a child so young. I was “going to be a welfare slob just like [my] mom” and he wanted nothing to do with me.

A year passed, I moved to Utah to live with my sister. He promised to help support me and my son, saying how glad he was I was finally getting away from my mom. “I guess you’re kind of my responsibility too,” he’d said. But it was another daddy promise. And after an argument where I’d defended my sister’s boyfriend (who is a good man) he told my sister he wanted her, “but not bozo and not bitch.”

I tried to enrol myself in high school there to finish my junior year. Without a custodial parent to sign papers, I’d be charged $5,000 to be able to finish. “You’re telling me, a teenage mother who is trying to defy the odds against her, that I need to be wealthy just to get a high school diploma? Where do you think I’m going to get five thousand dollars?” The one thing I wanted, to beat the statistics, shot down in one phone call.

One week into the new school year, I tried a new approach. The don’t-ask-don’t-tell approach. I called a different high school. They told me yes, come down today, it’s already started… in fact, you’re a week late. Bring a parent to sign the forms. I told my dad, “You’ve done nothing for me my entire life. If you do nothing else, please just come and pretend you have custody of me and just sign these papers so I can finish school. Please.” He said I didn’t need a diploma, I could just do what he did and get a GED and a scholarship for the mining program at the U of U. I insisted I just wanted to finish high school. He told me I was stupid, but he went with me and signed the papers anyway.

A few weeks into it they called me to the office. They’d found out I was living with my sister and my baby. They knew I didn’t really have a parent there with me. I thought I would be in trouble, but they had nothing but respect for me and wanted to offer some support. This came in the form of a mentor and a few phone calls to my old school. My old school sent revised transcripts to show what grades I would have had when I left three-quarters of the way through my junior year, and together the new counsellor and I calculated how many more credits I needed to graduate. If I failed even one, I’d miss out on that diploma.

In the time I’d been pregnant my freshman year, given birth in my sophomore year, and been a mother my junior year, I’d worked so hard to get the best grades I could. During the second year I taught myself my lessons at home. I had to omit some extra “elective” classes which took out that room for error. Now even with college-level Pre-calculus and Physics on the roster, I had to keep that ball rolling. It wasn’t about just finishing for me, it was about finishing with flying colours. I had something to prove.

The end of the year came. I’d scored 26 out of 36 on the national Aptitude Competency Test. I’d achieved a 3.8 out of 4.0 Grade Point Average. I’d written two essays and won the Accepting the Challenge of Excellence award on the national level from the National Exchange Club. With that scholarship and some founder’s scholarships I earned by my ACT and GPA scores, I was accepted to Westminster College, my college of choice, due to start that fall.

But now it was graduation day. And all I wanted was that picture everyone gets to have at the end of the ceremony, smiling with their family and their diploma in hand, adorned in their cap and gown. My reward to myself for making it to the finish line despite every challenge set before me, a sunny picture of me and my son together with the piece of paper that said YOUR STATISTICS CAN SHOVE IT in my grasp.

My son to came to the ceremony with me; I had asked my friend if she would watch him. I begged my dad to come. He insisted he had more important things to do. I pleaded, I told him it was important to me. He reluctantly agreed. Thinking it would be better than to force my young friend to keep this toddler quiet during the ceremony, I asked my dad to sit with him instead. He did, or at least he said he did.

The ceremony ended and there were all the graduates with their families taking places on the lawn and getting out their cameras. I trekked up one hill and down the next, around the front and then around the back. I couldn’t see my son or my dad anywhere. I called to find out where he was so we could get that picture; He said he’d seen me cross the stage and then he left. I was devastated. I’d worked so hard for several years with this exact moment, this treasure, in mind. I trusted him, and he let me down. I should’ve known better. Just another daddy promise.

A short time after, his mother came to town for a visit. I was invited to dinner to meet this woman for the first time. She was cold and I didn’t like her. He was extra jolly, but maybe that was just another twenty-one ounce glass of straight whiskey taking hold. He bragged about his cooking skills, bragged about his more important kids and their piano lessons, and then put his arm around me.

“Guess what my daughter did? My daughter got into Westminster just like you, Ma. She gets those brains from her dad.”

Finally he claimed me, and it was nothing like I’d ever hoped or imagined. I hated it. I hated him. I hated all the things he’d ever promised and failed to produce, his daddy promises, and all the words he’d ever said, and his arm around me.

This was my accomplishment, and he was using it to pat himself on the back.

I was angry at him for a long time. But instead of being angry, I choose to be thankful; It helped make me who I am and realise how much I don’t need his acceptance…

I claim me. And because of this man, I claim the son of this slut that much more. I am there for every performance. I am there for every graduation. And I’ll take photos of every. damn. one.

At one point I thought his greatest gift to me was signing the papers to get me back into school, but now I think his greatest gift was showing me how not to be a parent person. I have wisdom and resolve and determination far beyond my years. And I don’t have to wonder where I got that, because for this, there is no question.

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I Thought I Said “No”

It was a during a time when so many other things were going on. I had finally got skinny again. I was being bullied less. I had resolved to try out for cheerleading out of stubbornness and while the popular girls didn’t accept me onto the varsity team, I was good enough to be on the wrestling cheer squad. Though a bit of a consolation prize and clearly because I wasn’t ever going to be one of them, I was excited. Things were at least a little bit better than three weeks before.

While in the gym during the try-outs, laying on the floor stomach-down, I noticed something unusual. My breasts were sore. To me this meant my suspicion was correct; my life was going to change forever. No sweeping it under the rug.

I was not a person of many friends but I did have one whose birthday sleepover I went to the next day. I had been nervous all morning and afternoon because I didn’t know what to do about what was on my mind. I thought I said “no,” I kept saying to myself over and over again. By early evening I was in tears. I felt bad for interrupting Irenea’s birthday celebrations but as it was just us two in the room and she insisted, I confided in her.

I was supposed to take the bus home from the dentist. I didn’t have any money and didn’t know the bus schedule. The last few times I had taken the bus I had fallen asleep by accident and woke up five miles across town, as the bus pulled into the station for the night. I was fourteen. I didn’t like the feeling of walking home across town alone. I was too anxious to do that. I called the only person I knew with a car; His name was Justin.

Justin was sixteen. He thought he was some hot-shot. He drove a light blue Monte Carlo. A few nights before, he had driven me to the cliffs above town and played Prince’s song Purple Rain, telling me some story about his cousin’s funeral. He put the seats back and was trying to make a move on me. I kept saying I want you to take me home now. He finally did, huffing and puffing about it the whole time.

Things were so bad at home I wanted to be anywhere else but there. So this day when he picked me up from the dentist and said “Do you want to watch a movie at my house?” I agreed. I didn’t like his ultra-blond hair under his bandanna and his transparent eyebrows, his tendency to act like some black gangster with his Afroman rap tracks and his “naww” instead of “no.” He was a pretender. I loathed him the minute I saw him. But he was kind of nice to me. Hardly anyone was nice to me.

He drove me to Hastings and he picked out two movies to rent. Then he took me back to his parent’s house. It was a blue double-wide on Monad Road. He got the DVD player from downstairs and set it up in his bedroom. He put the movie on. As we watched the first few minutes on his bed, I felt so uncomfortable. If my home had been a normal home, maybe I would have seen being in his bedroom as a red flag. But I was used to sitting anywhere there was space and he said he didn’t want his parents to interrupt so I didn’t mind, until he started touching me.

Gathering all my courage, I told him I really don’t want to do this right now. He did stop, for five minutes. Then he tried again. I don’t want to do this. He paused again, but then on the third attempt I got scared. I froze up mentally, and I don’t remember anything except laying on my back, staring at a TV screen. Lights on, nobody home, unable to move until the credits started rolling. Suddenly back in ownership of my mind, something told me I was pregnant. It wasn’t just paranoia, it was like I knew in the full sense of the word. I looked down toward my legs suddenly and saw he was still there. I told him to get off me and ran to the bathroom. I was in shock. How did this happen?

He seemed pretty pleased with himself. I kept saying I was pregnant, and I just knew it. He kept telling me I wasn’t. I asked if he’d used a condom. He said no. I was enraged that not only did I say “no,” I mean, I thought I said “no,” but to top it off he didn’t even use any protection.

I didn’t want to tell anyone. I didn’t understand what had happened. Why did I go with him? How did it get that far? This was the person I’d heard had bragged about getting twelve-year-olds to perform sex acts on him. I really didn’t like him from the moment I saw him. But I panicked thinking of falling asleep on the bus and being alone walking through town at 9pm. How ironic that my avoidance of danger landed me in it all the same.

He drove me home where I kept silent and stunned for three weeks, trying to pretend it never happened. Until the birthday party. I think I’m pregnant but I said no, I told Irenea. I was hysterical. I thought I said “no,” I thought I said “no,” I implored.

She said we had to tell someone. I told her I was afraid to tell my mom, so we told the principal the next day. Then the police. If not for me, I thought, then for the twelve-year-old girls he’s been bragging about. Someone had to stop him. I had no idea how difficult telling the police was going to be as I had to describe in detail what exactly had happened and use technical, anatomical terms. I was fourteen and it was humiliating, sitting in front of this cop whose wife used to babysit me as a child, having to describe in those cold technical terms what exactly transpired and trying to remember how and at what point my pants were removed and why.

Over the years, I have tried to come to terms with this and have begun to understand what happened. I’d been abused as a child by a man parading as a Christian minister/do-gooder which set the foundation for the dissociative episode when Justin pressured me for the third time. I have often struggled with people telling me that isn’t rape, I didn’t fight back. I didn’t say “no” properly. I’ve heard I was making it up, I just didn’t want to get in trouble for being pregnant, I’m a liar.

But I never said yes. I never gave permission. I said “I really don’t want to do this right now” and “I don’t want to do this.” Neither of those come close to being a “yes.” He was notorious for this kind of behaviour. But no one wants to say that. They’re so busy slandering me for pressing charges and saying what a good man he was. They didn’t see what I saw in the short time I knew him.

He died in 2013 while running from cops during a routine traffic violation stop and was ejected from the car. He never did get his act together. He remained a delinquent until the day he died. Somehow in my mind it adds to the pain knowing that he never did change his ways, he never did redeem himself. As if somehow that would make it better.

I thought I said “no” but while I didn’t say exactly “no,” what I did say should have been clear enough.

It should have been enough.

The Woman I Am

I have my father’s head, the buffalo head. Hats never fit. Disproportionate to my body.

I have my mother’s thick hair, enough for ten people. Hairclips never fit. So heavy it gives me headaches.

I have a wide set of shoulders, like a football player. Blouses never fit. Not very feminine.

I have really long arms, monkey arms. Sleeves never fit. Wrists always exposed.

I have large hands, as big as a man. Gloves never fit. Handshakes with women feel awkward.

I have an extra long torso, too long for your height. Shirts never fit. Legs too short to match.

I have very muscular legs, like a body builder. Jeans never fit. Thighs too thick for the waist.

I have big feet, like flippers. Women’s shoes rarely fit. I have to buy men’s.

Yes, my skull is big. It must be because I have a large brain full of thoughts and cares. This brain helps me to understand so many things and imagine even more.

Yes, I have a ton of hair. It must be because of all the stress I’ve had and the hairs I’ve shed, for after all of that I’m still not bald. This hair has kept me warm when I’ve given my coat to the person who needed it more.

Yes, my shoulders are extra wide. It must be because I’ve been given so many responsibilities I needed the extra space to support the weight. These shoulders have carried people over obstacles who could not keep going on their own.

Yes, I have long arms. It must be because I needed the extra length to reach higher, and to have room to give more hugs. These arms have embraced the most beautiful babies and lifted up so many.

Yes, my hands are large. It must be because I was meant to create so many things. These hands are skilled, nimble, strong and capable, and have produced the most beautiful works.

Yes, my torso is almost freakishly long. It must be because the greatest loves of my life were to grow there and they needed extra leg room. This torso has helped me to stand tall and defend what mattered most.

Yes, I have muscular legs. It must be because I needed them to be strong so I could get back up again, and again. These legs have helped me to make long journeys up steep hills.

Yes, my feet are massive. It must be because I needed to be able to trudge through deep muck and still maintain my balance. These feet have helped me to keep from falling over and to travel for miles without wearing out.

I’ve always wished I could feel like I fit, but I’m so thankful for my head. I’m so thankful for my hair. I’m so thankful for my shoulders, and my arms, and my hands, torso, legs, and feet. I love them, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

I love my body because it fits the woman I’ve become.

The Woman I Am.

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