Saturday, December 27, 2008

What They've Got That I Haven't Got

Well, I'm starting to get really excited. The wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-you can't-sleep-so-you-write-in-your-blog kind of excited. A lifetime dream is about to come true. It's not the horse in the backyard that I've always wished for or that trip to Venice we had planned for this February. We had to cancel that so I could pursue this. I'm about to embark on an MFA program in professional writing.

Now what on earth is that, one might ask? And why would that be a dream of a lifetime? Simple. It's what I was always discouraged to do. And here, at the ripe old age of 52, I'm still rebelling against my writer parents. They were against education in the arts. "You either have talent or you don't and if you have it, you use it."

To them, one didn't waste time in graduate school learning to do something you already know how to do. They were old school, boxcar-riding, depression babies. They neither had the money or the time to indulge in MFA programs. (Actually, they weren't hobos riding in boxcars but I thought that sounded good.)

So now that they've both left this world and moved onto that great graduate program in the sky, I've found the courage to pursue this dream of my lifetime - to become a fulltime writer. They were fulltime writers and strongly discouraged me from following in their footsteps. Like good parents, they were trying to spare their child from a life of misery. And like a child who wants what she can't have, I've held onto this dream with a vengeance.

It's not that I don't like working in the prison and being a social worker. I've managed to write a book, a few books actually, while doing so. And articles and poems and screenplays. So, what's the big draw to the MFA? "What have they got that I haven't got?"

In the "Wizard of Oz", when the wizard is distributing the rewards, he prefaces each speech to the four seekers with "but they have one thing you haven't got." To the scarecrow, he says it's a diploma. I suppose I'm looking for the diploma, the piece of paper which will allow me to eventually write for a living from home, perhaps teach, and graduate from the prison. But it's more than that.

Someone once said that MFA programs don't teach you how to write but they provide courage. In that respect, I'm more like the lion than the scarecrow. It's not the brain I need, not the diploma but fortitude. That's the one thing I didn't get from my parents - an alcoholic father and an unhappy mother. Perhaps that's the one thing they couldn't give.

In the end, I suppose courage is the one thing I can only give myself - permission to act in the face of fear. But let's be honest, that little ticket stub called a diploma won't hurt either. It stands out on a resume and says "she can write" or at least "she can fulfill the requirements of a degree program." In the end, my parents will probably prove to be right. Nothing takes the place of action. And for now, this MFA is the action I'm taking.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

In Praise of Imperfection

Yesterday, I mailed off a bundle of Christmas cards, finished the last of my Christmas shopping, came home and wrapped presents while "Scrooge" was playing on the TV. A perfect holiday-prep day, all around. And yet I felt like garbage inside.

I had done all the right things. Not in the order of Mother Teresa, mind you. I wasn't collecting money for the poor or passing out Toys for Tots but I hadn't murdered anyone or stolen anything. Now why is it that every time I do something decent, maybe even good, I feel so bad?

I have a cantankerous mind. It misbehaves in all sorts of ways but the most annoying aspect is this inclination to cut myself to shreds when I have tried to be good. I guess the Apostle Paul called that our sinful nature (see Romans 7.) But I no longer believe in sin. Then again, I might rethink this.

I no longer believe in a personal savior either though I might rethink that, too. I'm certainly in need of one. But whenever I call upon the name of God or Jesus, it's as if someone shouted "Incoming" and I feel like diving under the nearest table for cover. No offense on the Almighty. It's not Her fault. It's a residual effect of the cult.

So, I pick myself up and dust myself off, a daily experience. I've gotten to the point that I pray to God just to help me not be afraid to pray to God. If that makes sense. The last sentence in Paul Tillich's incredible book The Courage to Be goes something like this: "The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God disappears in the anxiety of doubt."

This God that's bigger than God is the God of imperfection, the God of what is. This God does not condemn. This God lives with, grows with, falls with, suffers with me. Sounds suspiciously like the little child born in Bethlehem. Maybe I do believe after all. Believing through self- doubt like mine is like trying to see in a monsoon. But I'll give it a whirl and when I do, I'll remember that I'm allowed to be imperfect. There's a word for that, too. Grace.

Merry Christmas.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Staying Connected

Today is a day of gratitude. Not just for "the sun, the moon and the apple seed" but for connections. Connections are hard for survivors of trauma. Connections require trust and they are things most people take for granted.

Connections are relationships - with God, with self, with others, with the world. And the challenge of feeling how I am related to the world is no small thing. I mean FEELING, not just knowing. I know I am connected. I am married. I have children. I work in a prison. I belong to a church. I am connected on the outside but inside, sometimes that's a different story.

The closest thing I can compare it to is being a burn victim. Your nerve endings are shot, incinerated by the trauma of fire. When one has been through trauma, I'll speak for myself here, now that I have lived through abuse, my natural nerve endings seem to be singed. I look alright on the outside but inside I feel nothing. My brain registers danger and it's easy to feel disconnected and alone. It's a physiological response - the fight or flight response to the alarm of impending danger. And nothing feels so dangerous as connections.

The real challenge is staying connected to myself and this happens through my body. "The body heals the mind," says my therapist. As I tune into my breath or my pulse, I am reminded that my body is a creation and I, my soul, inhabits my body. I am joined to myself.

I wish it didn't take so much work but this new paradigm requires concentrated effort - the effort to remember that I am free of abuse and free of my past. And that leads me back to gratitude. To be grateful for what I know in spite of what I feel. Feelings are not facts and facts are not necessarily feelings. I know I am blessed. It's just a matter of remembering day by day.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

A New Paradigm

So the book is out and people are reading it. Amazingly. I don’t know what I was thinking. I guess I thought I’d send it out like some castaway with a message in a bottle and wait to see if anyone found it.

Well, they have and the response has been kind of overwhelming. Not that I want to toot my own horn. But when you’ve been slogging your way through the dark alone, or almost alone, for years and come to find out that there ARE actually people out there who are listening, well, it’s time for a paradigm shift.

New paradigm. Sounds like the Age of Aquarius. What I mean is that I’m working on a new personal paradigm where my inner experience matches the outer one. The new outward experiences I’m enjoying like ones of affirmation, encouragement and acceptance.

Sure, I’ve gotten some criticism – people say the book is too hard a read, too painful, too raw. But that’s kind of the point of the whole thing – to help other people experience and then empathize with what I and many others like me have been through. Losing the Way is not for the faint of heart. Neither is the truth. I appreciate those who can weather the storm and lose their way with me, only to be found.

I’m not saying I’m any kind of great writer. I’ve just written a book which I hope will serve as a cautionary tale for those who give their whole hearts, souls minds and strengths to anything or anyone other than the Ultimate. That’s the bottom line. “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” As a former idolator, as a member of the human race, I figured I had something to say. I never figured so many people would listen.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

On Faith, Luck and Four-Leaf Clovers

Yesterday on the golf course, I found a four-leaf clover. Walking along through the dewy grass (it was about 8:00 in the morning), I looked down and there it was, peeking up at me through the tangle of grass.

Every spring and summer, I look for four-leaf clovers and I find them. It’s simply a matter of looking - one of those “seek and ye shall find” things. And I always take it as a sign. Of what, I’m not sure. It certainly didn’t improve my golf swing yesterday. But it does remind me, in a funny sort of way, that I am not alone and for me, that’s the big thing.

After my mother died, I found several 4’s and even some 5’s. She is still with me, I concluded. On the golf course where my grandfather used to play, I frequently find them. He is there, I say to myself. And what’s so good about not being alone? Like faith, it reminds me that I’m part of a greater whole, connected to something beyond myself, even if it’s just a part of nature, that’s enough, too.

I have a neighbor and she believes in luck and God. She believes that God is overall and she believes she is held in His will. She also believes in the wheel of fortune – that sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down. I told her how to find 4-leaf clovers and she found a patch of four and fives behind her house. Almost forty of them. Talk about luck and she is, in fact, one of the luckiest and most giving and most thankful people I know. Now she finds them everywhere.

Four-leaf clovers are everywhere if you just know how to spot them. Someone actually taught me how. “Just look for the anomaly,” she said and there they were. Four leaves sticking out from among the their three-leafed brothers and sisters. It’s not about luck really – luck is the meaning we attach to the exception or the coincidence. Perhaps faith is the meaning we attach to the ordinary, day-by-day stuff of living. It’s about meaning and that’s what I’m still looking for, on the golf course and everywhere else.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Confessions of a Fledgling Churchgoer

This is a sermon I am going to give at my little church next Sunday. My minister was kind enough to ask me to speak. Here's what I came up with. What do you think?

About three years ago, I was standing on a beach in Westerly, Rhode Island on a very windy, drizzly day. It’s good that there was a mist in the air because I was crying. The reason I was crying was because I was missing someone terribly. And the person I was missing was the Lord.

“Go to church,” said a voice in my head.
“I can’t,” I said.
“Go to church,” the voice grew louder.
“I can’t , I can’t,” I cried. The picture of a small white church with green shutters came to mind. It was St. Mark’s.
“Just try,” said the voice. “Just try.”

Well, here I am, standing before you all, amazed at both myself and God. The reason I am amazed is because many years before, I had sworn I would have nothing to do with God or churches ever again.

You see, I had been in a fundamentalist cult called The Way International from the time I was fourteen until I was twenty-nine. The leader of the group hated churches. He hated religion in general, except his own brand of Christianity which taught you could basically commit any sin you wanted so long as you prayed about it and quoted Scripture. That was his definition of grace – playing God for a fool.

Well, like the Scripture says “Be not deceived, God will not be mocked. For what a man soweth , that also shall he reap.” The leader of the cult, a man named Dr. Wierwille, (he wasn’t a real doctor), perverted the Word of God and taught us to do a lot of bad stuff – the usual stuff you hear about in cults – sex, fraud, mind control. We learned it all and the whole time, I thought, crazy as it seems, that we were doing the will of God.

So, I reaped what I sowed and the whole thing came crashing down on my head after fifteen years. Spiritually and physically abused, I had nowhere to turn. I was not allowed to leave. It wasn’t that they were holding a gun to my head. No, cults hold people captive by instilling complete and total dependence on the leader. The three D’s of cultic control are dependence, deception and dread. Cult leaders capture the minds of their followers, just as mine did, and I was helpless to act.

Now, the Doctor always taught that seminaries were the breeding ground of Satan so as soon as I left The Way, I hightailed it for the devil and went to divinity school. It’s as if I was on a great boat that got shipwrecked and I got washed up onto the shores of Yale Divinity School. I was a wreck. I tried to go to services there but every time someone opened a Bible, it was like shouting “incoming” to a war veteran. I felt like diving under the nearest pew. I skipped my classes on the Old and New Testament (since I was very familiar with each) and immersed myself in the classics. My mind woke up. I started to think for myself.

In The Way, we weren’t supposed to think for ourselves. Cults don’t allow followers to doubt but I am curious by nature. I’m a doubter. But the more I doubted, the worse I felt. I was told I was not doing the will of God. I was told I was possessed. I was hungering for truth but leaving The Way would be tantamount to giving my soul to the devil. I was terrified to leave. If it wasn’t for my mother, who faithfully hung in there with me all those years, even when I accused her of being a messenger of Satan, I would not be standing before you here today.

Fast forward to St. Mark’s. Once I summoned up the courage to walk through these doors, I heard the minister preach and one of the first things he said was “Don’t park your mind at the door.” That was a refreshing change. Maybe this would work, I thought. Of course, I stumbled through the liturgy, books and papers flying everywhere, not knowing when to stand or when to sit, and mostly doing it with tears streaming down my cheeks. I was crying again. But this time from joy, this time from the feeling that I was home.

For the last three years I have had the privilege of facilitating the woman’s meditation and journaling group. I guess old habits die hard and I was programmed in the cult that I had to be involved. But I didn’t want to be too involved. I desperately needed the fellowship of other women, spiritual women, who were on the journey, seeking and loving God as much as I did. You see, it was really a selfish thing. I have been the one who has benefited the most.

I went to Bible study and encountered for the first time people actually expressing doubts about the Scripture (they did that all the time in seminary but I paid no attention. I had shut off my heart to the Word at that point. It’s amazing that they let me stay, at all, isn’t it?) Anyway, at our little Bible studies, I heard individuals speak their own minds and express their own opinions and raise their own questions. And they did this in a loving way. They weren’t afraid that the wrath of God would come flying down on their heads.

It seems like a long time since that day on the beach and an even longer time since my time in the cult, over twenty years, actually. I have two children who were born into the cult who are now grown and pursuing their own dreams, one in film, the other in law. I have just completed a memoir about my experience called Losing the Way.

In closing, what I really want to say is thank you. Thank you to St. Mark’s for opening your hearts and arms to me and allowing me to question and doubt and do dishes and not do dishes, sell cheese and not sell cheese and not damn me to hell for any of the above. I have been most fortunate to have found such a treasure right down the street from where I live, a place where I can bring all of me to love God with all my heart, my soul, my strength AND my mind. Thank you so much.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

What's in a Name?

Alright, alright, so maybe “the Cosmos” isn’t the most personal and intimate designation for the Almighty but, in a funny way, it works for me. As a former fundamentalist who took EVERYTHING literally in the Bible, I believed that God was in fact a fatherly type being who loved me and cared for me. I never questioned the patriarchal bias against women and assumed I was a second class citizen.

Anyway, after leaving the rigid fold of spiritual abuse, I encountered all sorts of names for God. G-D, let His name never be spoken. Her name? Its name. you see how confused I am. I don’t know WHAT to call this supreme being who seems to have manic/depression (note the seasons, wasps, sunflowers, typhoons, sea horses, bluebirds) or is wildly hyperactive with attention deficit disorder. No offense on my Higher Power but something seems to be a little amiss around here.

Like, for instance, why don’t we know its (their?) name? A friend of mine says we should just call God “ALL” but that sounds too much like a laundry detergent. (It IS a laundry detergent.) I have landed on the side of “cosmos” or “universe” or “Mystery” because those seem to be the most general and inoffensive terms to my sensibilities. Other strokes for different folks.

This doesn’t solve the problem of a personal relationship with the Lord. See, I said it. “The Lord.” Now is that Jesus or Buddha or Mohammed or Lao T’se. No, I like to think of hanging out with Jesus even though he could be disconcertingly unpredictable – one minute tenderly gathering the flock, the next minute trashing tables in the temple. It’s hard to let my guard down with him sometimes because I just don’t know what he’s going to do next. It’s kind of hard to get the warm fuzzies from a spiritual terrorist (not that I’m saying that’s what Jesus was but he WAS radical. And “love” don’t even get me started.)

I know I’m going into more detail about my spiritual journey that you probably asked for but this, as they say, is “where I’m at.” My personal relationship and experience of connection with the Lord is the most important thing in my life. God and I have discussed this a lot – what he/she/it wants to be called and it mostly depends on how I’m feeling that day. I have lots of appellations for my husband – Lucky, Duardo, Duecalion, Duke, Guagy, darling, studmuffin – you get the idea. So why not God? What’s important here is how we’re relating to each other and I suppose as I slow down and stop looking over my shoulder all the time, I’ll relax into just calling God, God.

I have a ways to go before that happens. For now, like e.e.cummings said, God is everything that is “Yes.” So, Yes, I worship you. Yes, I love you. Yes, I marvel in you. Now, THAT’S a mystery worth seeking.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

A Close Call

I have been battling depression all my adult life. Perhaps battling isn’t the correct word. I've been running from it, frantically. I see its shadow coming, and I'm scared as a child alone in the dark. It rolls over me like a Mack truck and leaves me flattened. Fortunately, lately with the help of medication and psychotherapy, the truck stays mostly in its garage and days are brighter.

But I had a scare the other day. I let myself get overtired, doing too many things, going too fast and not getting enough sleep (always a red flag.) I got to work yesterday, thought everything was fine – that I was getting stronger and learning to take one day at a time when all of a sudden, my stomach twisted into knots, I couldn’t breathe and my mind started to plunge. I could sense the truck starting up and rolling down my street towards me. In a panic, I called my boss and started to cry. “Go home,” he said. So I did. I’ve been resting ever since.

The truck backed up into the garage. I did my meditation so I wouldn’t fear it, whether it came or not - acceptance is a great part of healing. I’m almost back to “normal,” (“normal” being a relative term.) I happiest now when I’m in the stream of life, not hiding behind some bush from the Mack Truck barreling my way. If you’ve ever been through a depression, you know what I mean. It’s hard not to fear its strength and destructiveness. But I’m learning a new paradigm, one in which I don’t fear but rather ACCEPT what is happening inside me and trusting in the cosmos to pull me through. So far it’s working. Today was proof.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

On Writing about Evil

I was happy to see Kathryn Harrison’s new book, While They Slept, reviewed in the “NY Times” today. I haven’t yet read the book, but I know Mr. Robert Pinsky could not have done it justice. The book is about a boy who murdered his abusive father and mother and little sister while his older sister was asleep upstairs.

Pinsky talks about the “flatness of tone” when “speaking about the unspeakable.” Maybe I’ve missed the whole point but it seems to me that “flat” is about all one can be when speaking about the “banality of evil,” as Hannah Arendt called it. I mean, what was Ms. Harrison supposed to do? Sensationalize it like it was some tabloid serial?

No, flatness seems just right. Like when I sit with a young man who murdered his pregnant wife because she confessed to him that the baby she carried was “probably” not his own. How am I to react? I take my cue from him, the horrified criminal. He has enough tears for the both of us.

I’m guessing that Harrison’s understatement allows the readers to feel the terror themselves, without interfering. To some, this may seem flat. But to any survivor of trauma, it’s on the mark. Trauma is enough to silence us all to stand blunted and numb before its destruction.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Amazing but True

If you want to watch a fascinating video about the brain and enlightenment, check this out:
My son turned me onto it. He keeps me current with the latest in consciousness and what's out there in terms of thriving reality.

Ready or Not

My book is getting ready to come out soon - at the end of this month. All sorts of feelings here – excitement, anxiety, hope and apprehension. I mean it’s only the story of a part of my life – a particularly difficult period of my life. And I’m hoping it will help someone know that they’re not alone in the struggle to break free from abuse, if that’s what they’re going through.

I wrote "Losing the Way" for three reasons. First, because I had to tell the truth and move past the trauma. I had to bear witness to what had happened, as if by writing about it, I would make it real and begin to heal. Second, my hope was to help someone else who might be going through something similar. Very simple, as long as I keep my eyes on that ball, the healing ball, I won’t freak. Third, I wanted to help other people who know nothing about cults, what it was like to be IN a cult, to feel it in their bones, not just in their head.

The cult stuff, the betrayal of the “secret” opening the “lockbox” used to be a big deal. I was under the impression that if I told the truth, I would be damned. Now THAT’s a cognitive distortion, if there ever was one. Who’s to say who’s going to be damned and who’s not going to be? If telling the truth of one’s own experience is that bad, then I choose to be damned rather than to remain silent. Fortune-teller error – that things will turn out badly and you treat it as an already established fact.

I never set out to write a bestseller. That’s not the point. If I can begin to heal, help someone else and enable other people who know nothing about cults FEEL what the experience is like, then I’ve succeeded brilliantly. That’s my prayer and hope. We’ll see what happens. But it’s like being eight months pregnant with your first child. Ready or not, here she comes!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Disqualifying the Positive

Years ago, after I left The Way and ended up at Yale Divinity School, I went on a quest to find "My Truth." It was a rather calamitous search because I forgot my flashlight. Instead I brought a pick ax and a saw, determined to unearth and dissect every morsel of reality I could find.

The problem was that after the brainwashing of the cult, I assumed reality must be a pretty grim business – you know, “nasty, brutish and short.” I didn’t dare to look for anything positive because, to my way of thinking, that would be a lie. In other words, if it was to be true, it had to be hard or bad or both.

One might attribute this attitude to my Jewish heritage (no disrespect intended.) I think this tendency to think negatively is all about control. If you’re negative and it comes true, then at least you predicted it – you think you’re in control. If you’re wrong and something good happens, then you don’t mind being out of control because it’s good.

Anyway, my error in “disqualifying the positive” was quite costly to me. I nearly lost my children, not to mention my mind. I was under the mistaken impression that for something to be Real, it had to be negative. Wrong! It’s taken me years to believe that I can be positive and still have both feet on the ground, that I won’t float away to some unseen Oz over the rainbow and be overtaken by the wicked witch. It’s taken me years to accept the good life has to offer. Years!

I could begrudge the time lost in the slough of despond, in my descent into hell. But that’s been very rich ground for my seeds of personal truth to grow. Today I count my seedlings, weeds and flowers and cherish them all. Good and bad. I don’t discount the beauty anymore because I’m no longer afraid that it will be snatched away from me. It’s not only around me. It’s inside of me. I’m positive about this and, finally, I’m not afraid to say it.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Mother's Day/ Mother's Years

I'm sitting here in the library with my twenty-five year old son who is watching the Lakers/Jazz playoffs on the TV. It is something he would do with his father who is a great basketball fan. My daughter was watching it, too when she was here half an hour ago. This is not something I would choose to do in my spare time but it is something I've grown to love and accept - that my children are quite separate and still quite connected to me.

We don't have to love the same things, though we share a history and a present that is hard to match. My son heard the whole book of Genesis during the first month of his life, as I read to him between breast feedings. His younger sister spent the first two weeks of her life in a psych ward (because that's where I was, having just left the cult.) We had many rocky years between then and now, fighting through custody battles and the back and forth between residences. During their early years, I was living at a theologically liberal divinity school; their father remained involved in the fundamentalist cult. My children not only travelled between houses but between worlds.

Now, grown, they are (if I say so myself) extraordinarily open-minded and balanced individuals. They grew up learning to read between the lines and not think in terms of black and white/ all-or-nothing categories. How could they with one foot in their father's world and one foot in mine? Neither their father nor I proved to be "right." The only rightness in either of our parenting was in how we loved our kids.

In my limited view of this life, love seems to be the one thing that overcomes all cognitive distortions - it allows for nuances, for differences and similarities. It doesn't judge. I could wax poetic and quote I Corinthians 13 but I'll let that go for now. The Bible is too confusing when it comes to love; too many fights and wars "in the name of love." Actions are the things that matter. And the actions of my grown children, coming to see me and hanging out, not just today but many days, for many years, remind me of how lucky I am. Years ago, I could never imagine such peace.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

here we go again

so I changed the format again from one of the extraordinary blogspot templates. Easy as one-two-three. I'm just wondering what the fine print says and if I've unwittingly signed up for a secret society that uses the number "897" for a code name. That's another "distortion," I suppose. It's called paranoia. When you think the world is conspiring against you to jam you up, then it's time to stop and take stock. In the cult, EVERYTHING was a conspiracy of the devil and we had to be on high alert ALL THE TIME. (Please note the capital letters used for emphasis. This too is a distortion because even though we believed the milk was contaminated by non-organic substances, we were, in fact, correct. It was.) Sometimes, as Freud said, "a cigar is just a cigar."

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Suffering From Reality

So I’ve been thinking of changing my blog again. I mean the whole thing. I’m bored with it so if I’m bored with it, why shouldn’t everyone else be? It’s gotten too serious – I’ve gotten too serious. I need to lighten up. Maybe throw in some photos of kittens (I don’t own cats) or post a picture of my last trek up Mt. Everest. No, I think the problem is this. My focus has become diffuse – that is to say – I don’t have a particular topic I’m writing on, except REALITY.

Can we narrow that down?

How about to a cult-survivor’s reality?

There are certain ways cult survivors see the world that “Normal” reality-survivors don’t. For instance, I tend to distrust ALL authority figures based on my bad experience in the Way, where the Prophet/Teacher/Doctor didn’t know his @#* from his elbow. Now that’s a distortion because there ARE (a few) authority figures (even in the ministry) who are sincere and upright. My minister happens to be one of them.

Also, as a former cultist, I tend to think that those in authority should be PERFECT or they’re total flops. That’s a cognitive distortion (to use Burns’ term) known as all-or-nothing thinking. Just because my minister happens to have a few flaws, say, he is obese, does not mean he is a bad person. He is actually a very intelligent and kind and thoughtful person.

So I’m back to where I started, kind of. But I think I’m going to change the name to “Suffering from Reality.” Is that too much of a bummer? I want to be bright and cheerful and helpful but even the Buddha’s first noble truth was that “all life is suffering.” To be alive is to suffer. But reality can be tolerable, if not downright fun, if we just know how to detach from our crazy thinking patterns – ie, thinking patterns learned in the cult.

One caveat – you don’t have to have been in a cult to suffer from these cognitive distortions. Everyone’s thinking is warped in some way – otherwise we wouldn’t be the loveable humans that we are. So keep thinking and keep reading and keep suffering from reality. Maybe one of these days, we’ll see that suffering is thriving simply by virtue of staying in the game. You go, girls and boys.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

A Missing Hero

I just heard about the polygamist cult in Texas. How my heart goes out to those girls and women. I was not born into my cult. I had the good fortune of parents who rescued me when I was ready to leave. I can only imagine what it must be like to be raised in such an environment.

A few years I attended a workshop of SGA's (second generation adults) - people who were born into cults. I was invited because I joined at such an early age - 14. Still, I found myself sorely out of place. While the issues we confronted were similar - child sexual and psychological abuse, my experiences did not happen in the context of a cult. My experiences occurred in my family and neighborhood.

Trauma is trauma and recovery is recovery. But children born into cults face an unique and daunting hurdle. And that is to blossom into a self which is utterly at odds with their family, community, religion and even their own identity. They literally have to remake themselves.

I so respect the courage of that sixteen-year-old girl who went to the authorities to report the abuse in her cult family. She now seems to have disappeared. No one can find her. If it were me, I'd be hiding somewhere, holding on for dear life, afraid that the demons will overtake me. Hopefully, she hasn't done anything drastic.

I know of a sixteen year old who reported her father for psychological and verbal abuse. She reported him after he threw a slipper at her. Her father is now in prison. And she took her own life after going to the authorities. Her love for her father and guilt was that great.

I pray that that brave girl is safe. I pray that her courage extends to herself and her own survival as much as to others. A hero, may she get the help she needs and deserves.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

On Losing the Fear

Now that my ankle is almost whole, I’m back at work again. I work in the infirmary of a maximum-security prison for the mentally ill. I missed working with the inmates – running coping skills groups and “doing” counseling. It’s actually great to be back.

What makes it really great is that we have a new team leader – a young psychiatrist who excited about being there, too. He believes in respecting the inmates as human beings and giving them skills, support and hope that they can improve their lives. Just what I believe. I’m looking forward to working with him.

Yesterday, I was at a mental health conference and happened to sit with this doctor at lunch. We got to talking about the difference between working with the mentally ill violent offenders in a prison versus a state hospital (were he had worked before.) How did he do it without the help of corrections officers, I asked.

He smiled and replied that he had a team of “bouncers, bikers and marshal arts experts” who kept things in line. If a patient got out of hand, these men were at the ready and strode into danger as a fireman runs into a burning building. These men were fearless.

“Studies show that criminals seek out victims who show fear. Predators can sense vulnerability,” he said. I can attest to that in my own history – from being a child who was molested to being an adolescent who was raped to being an adult who was sexually abused. It’s the “sitting duck syndrome.” The more afraid or vulnerable you are, the more likely you are to be a victim. Makes sense.

But how do you get over fear when you’re afraid? How do you find the courage when you have no confidence? How do you stop being a victim? How to be a butterfly instead of a caterpillar? (I sound like Lion from “The Wizard of Oz.”)

Well, if we follow the example of those “mental health technicians” in the state psychiatric hospital, then we see that preparation and fitness is a big part of strength. We also see that carrying yourself with supreme confidence – that going INTO the direction of your fear and not running from it – is key. It also doesn’t hurt to have a faith in something greater than yourself to carry you through.

With this in mind, I am facing the world with my story, determined to bring hope to victims and closure for the victim part of myself. In the dead of night, my dreams tell me I am still afraid but in the light of day, with eyes open, I can face my fears and share my truth. That’s what I’m working on these days, since being back to work.

Friday, March 14, 2008

100 monkeys?

So, thanks to some of you out there in Bloggersville, I found out what the 100th monkey is. It seems there were some scientists on a tropical island and monkeys were running all over the place. The scientists decided to try an experiment – they put sweet potatoes on the beach for the monkeys to eat. One monkey tried one, then another monkey tried one, then another and another but the sweet taste of the potato mixed with the grimy dirt and sand did not make for an appetizing meal. Until….

Until one day, one monkey decided to wash it in the ocean and then eat it. Behold, a sweet sweet potato! Good news travels fast, even among monkeys, it seems, so once the word got out about potato washing, everybody was washing their potatoes. But it seems it had to reach a critical “tipping point” before ALL the monkeys partook of the secret.

Before anyone could say “monkey’s uncle,” the news had magically traveled to other islands and other monkeys were washing their sweet potatoes as well. So by the time 100 monkeys had heard about this, the whole South Seas were awash with washed potatoes and smiling monkeys. That’s the story as I understand it.

But I have a few questions about it. First of all, how does anyone KNOW there were 100 monkeys and that the 100th monkey was the ONE who tipped the scale? Second, what about the law of exponential increase (I’m not sure that’s what you call it but it’s about generations - an older monkey teaches baby monkeys and those babies teach their babies and so on and so on?) The 100th monkey effect seems to imply that the phenomenon occurred lickety-split but it actually took years (according to My last question – where did the monkeys on the new islands get the sweet potatoes? Did scientists plant them there. too? Did one monkey swim to another island with a bagful of potatoes or did they take a canoe?

I know, I know. I’m sounding cynical again. Listen, I have nothing against 100 monkeys washing sweet potatoes or 2,000,000 people trying to save the world. (Oprah and Eckhart have at least that many tuning into their webcast.) The world certainly needs saving. But to cite some unscientific “proof” as to how it will happen is, in my opinion, just one more example of magical thinking clothed as spirituality. It’s not rational. And it’s the stuff of cults. (see Lifton’s work on mind control) Each one reach one makes sense to me but that’s been around a LONG time (see the Bible.) A New Earth is nothing new.

Sorry. I don’t mean to detract from a very exciting phenomenon – a spiritual awakening on the internet. But what about the poor souls who don’t partake, those who live on islands without the proverbial sweet potatoes, or those who are too old or too dumb or too skeptical to wash them in the ocean? They will forever be in the abyss of white potatoes and there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Or perhaps God, like the scientists, will intervene and drop those sweet orange morsels from the sky. One can only hope. Til then, I’ll keep trying to engage my brain and look out to sea for a better idea. Perhaps one will come to me.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

On the Ek and Opie Show

Last Tuesday, at the health club, I met a middle-aged woman dressed in black spandex. She was bemoaning how busy she was and how today was so rushed and she was not "being able to live in the present moment."

I picked up on the lingo. "So," I said, "did you listen to the Oprah webcast last night?"

"Oh, YES!" she exclaimed. "It was incredible. I'm a Buddhist and people always think I'm too religious but he made it so clear. I feel like there's hope for the world again. It's all about the 100th monkey."

100th monkey? I asked her about that and she explained how one good deed leads to another and you never can know how you're touching people and changing the planet. Then she raced out of the locker room because she was late for her Butt-Buster class. She never did get to the monkeys.

well, I thought. Here we go again. Another savior. Another urgent meassage to save the world by a born-again believer. Not that I'm opposed to saving the world because it does need saving. But this is not a new, radical message. It's as old as Jesus and Buddha and all those other bright lights. It's just a matter of listening.

Does anyone know what the 100th monkey is?

Friday, March 7, 2008

Flashback, another poem by me

Like a doctored snapshot
the mind seeks correction,
reliving another’s rough
touch, a slap on the face,
a punch in the mouth,
flight into the potted plants
on the floor and being kicked
in the side or perhaps
something deeper, a penetration
which splayed you open
like a bass as your perpetrator
leered at your exposed glaze of skin.

You flash back in sleep
and it awakens you –
a spark of terror in
a midnight fire that
throws no heat and
leaves you shivering.
No redemption in this –
only the soul’s trembling
attempt to make light
in the darkness like
a bulb flickering
then going out.

In the morning,
another flash. This time
insight. Chickadees sing
outside your window.
Crocuses poke at the earth
and fear retreats as you
rewind the film
and sock it away.
You hold yourself shaking
like a mother holds a child
after a warm bath.
You rock yourself,
swaddled in daylight.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

On Flashing Back

Today in my little Episcopal church, which I now love, we talked about the blind man whom Jesus healed. We also sang “Amazing Grace” – “I once was blind but now I see…” And for once, I didn’t have flashbacks to the cult. It was amazing.

The thing about flashbacks is you’re “flashing back” to a time of traumatic experience. It’s as though the mind is trying to bring light to a horrific situation by reliving it. But in reality, flashbacks, as anyone who’s had one can tell you, only terrify. They retraumatize the survivor. That’s why it’s so tricky to write about violence and abuse.

The point in writing about trauma is to bring light into the darkness, not to overwhelm the reader….or the writer. Sometimes, when I talk about my book, I find myself once again consumed by the trauma I experienced. I find myself remembering painful things that pull at me like a surging undertow. In order to maintain my balance and see clearly, I need something greater than myself to hold onto.

It’s hard to survive reality on your own. I’ve found I need the spiritual support of a Higher Power. Because to God, “darkness and light are both the same” and Jesus is the one who made the blind see. When I “flash back” into the darkness, I now take the light of the Spirit with me like a great lantern. That way, I am no longer blind. I see reality for what it was and is and I can thrive.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

From Caterpillar to Butterfly

Well, I told you I probably would and I did it. I changed the heading again! It doesn't have the snappy ring of "Surviving Reality" but it's the next step. "Thriving reality" is a state of being, a state of grace, a stage in life. In order to move from one stage to the next, be it victim, survivor or thriver, we have to grieve the last stage, let it go and move on. It's a never-ending process.

Here's a little poem I wrote about it:

Does the caterpillar know
when it’s turned into a butterfly?
Does it mourn its
flat-footed groundedness
when it’s flying through the air?
Those wings, like arms of a
royal robe, opening and closing,
decreeing, celebrating, does
the butterfly know that it is now
what it was not?

And how, with time,
we must all detach
from the chrysalis that
incubates our future selves.
How, before long, life’s womb
spits us out and sends us flying
into the air of change?
Some would cling to the cocoon
forever but the cocoon fades, too,
and soon becomes a grave.
We might as well release the cast
that holds us to the ground.

Grieve the caterpillar.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Victim Mentality Freedom

VMP. I just learned a new acronym. I always love learning new acronyms. This one sounds like a venereal disease. Actually, it stands for “Victim Mentality Propaganda.”

Now, what’s interesting about this “condition” is that it connects the word “mentality” with “propaganda.” Of course, there are people who are perpetual victims, who blame the world for their problems and take no responsibility for their lives themselves.

But those who WERE victims and have moved beyond it, have a story to tell. That is not propaganda – that is the survivor’s story, the cautionary tale. That is what my memoir is.

Unfortunately VMP comes precariously close to “BVM” or “Blaming the Victim Mentality.” This acronym (I just made it up) came in response to a book called "Blaming the Victim" about women (primarily) who have experienced sexual abuse or domestic violence. It answers the question of “Why didn’t she just leave? No one was putting a gun to her head.” In some cases, there was a gun. In some cases, just the threat of a gun was enough.

I can recall many times in my cult when I was threatened with death, destruction or maiming if I were to leave. I was convinced the devil would take me if I left and yes, I took it very seriously. I was under the thrall of mind control.

It takes a great deal of courage (if not desperation) to finally leave any abusive situation. But psychological or spiritual abuse is the most challenging precisely because there IS no gun. One can argue that “it’s all in your head,” like the “gaslight effect.” (If you’ve never seen the movie “Gaslight,” I highly recommend it.) But that is the essence of mind control – that you think it is all in your mind when it is not. There are outside forces at work.

Healing is a process from victim to survivor to thriver. As a victim, I was stuck in my abusive situation. As a survivor, I excaped. As a thriver, I now live and share what I have learned through VMP -Victim Mentality Freedom. But I am ever mindful of those victims who are still caught in their desctructive webs of abuse and are trying to break free. I pray that my story (not propaganda) may assist them in some small way.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Law of Attraction Unplugged

As you know, I’ve been out of commission on my library couch for a good six weeks now with a broken ankle. In that time, I have “discovered” Oprah. Every day, at four’o’clock, my husband and I sit down with our martinis and microwaved popcorn and turn on the TV to channel 3 to see what Oprah has up her sleeve for the day. Two weeks ago, it was “Living Green on the Planet” so we switched to cloth napkins and canvas shopping bags. Last week it was the “Law of Attraction” as set forth in the popular bestseller “The Secret.”

Now for those of us who were involved in the Way International, “The Secret” is old news. Wierwille called it “the Law of Believing.” I don’t know what Jesus called it but he certainly placed a lot of stock in faith. The book, “The Secret,” is no secret to me, in fact, it’s a little annoying, with its parchment-like cover and fake waxed seal as if we’ve discovered a treasure map to success. The “life coaches” swear by it. I’m skeptical.

Having been a believer for so long with dubious results, I object to the formulaic approach to life. Input in, data out. “It’s a law” they say, as simple as gravity and those who don’t believe end up in the “wrong place at the wrong time” and may be subject to all sorts of untowards circumstances, such as the holocaust, tsunamis or involvement in a destructive cult. What about AIDS babies, I wonder. “Who did sin?”

The proof, they say, that you’re “plugged in” to the secret of the universe is prosperity, happiness, a million+ dollar home in Malibu and traveling all over the world. Bad feelings equal bad thinking, equals bad believing.

Now, as a clinical social worker/ therapist, I know the power of positive thinking, I have no objection to that. I teach it to inmates on a regular basis. But to say that their poverty, addictions and lack of education is based on their willpower alone is to oversimplify very complicated issues.

Even King Solomon recognized that the “race was not always to the swift or the battle to the strong, or bread to the wise or riches to men of understanding but time and chance happens to them all (Ecclesiates 9:11) So how do we account for time and chance? I think there is such a thing as “bad luck” no matter how much you believe. Humans have been known to defy the law of gravity. Why can’t God throw in a wild card every once in a while?

I don’t believe in God the Machine. I believe in God the Creator/Destroyer. He/She/It is in charge and no matter how hard we follow the “laws”, there’s always that element of grace and surprise. Remember the father whose son was “possessed with demons” and Jesus asked him if he believed? The father said, Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief.” I’m a chronic hopeless doubter by nature and that’s my prayer every day. “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief.” As Dr. John Juedes said in an enlightening interview on believing on the, the relationship with God is what’s key here, not just my feeble capacity to operate some law as if it were a computer.

Sorry this is so long. I know blogs are supposed to be short and to the point. But I feel strongly about this. Thanks for reading. Please leave your comments and tell me what you believe.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Reality and the Devil

When I was a student at Yale Divinity School, fresh out of a fundamentalist cult, I encountered a student who read tarot cards. She was a single mother as I was and our daughters played together. She had short cropped hair, wore no make-up, sported unshaved armpits, and lived in the brightly-colored South American clothing of an ecologically-minded feminist. By biblical standards, which I was trying hard not to apply, she was a virtuous woman. She operated her own loom, spun her own yarn, knit prolifically and made delicious lentil soup. She also believed in Jesus.

One day she asked me if I wanted to have my "cards read." Sure, I said, though not without intense fear amd trepidation. It was a Friday night. We sat on her apartment floor as the children slept in the other room and she lit some candles. Then she pulled out "The Deck," wrapped in a black silk cloth. She carefully unwrapped the cloth and invited me to touch the cards, just start randomly shuffling them, holding a question in mind. I followed her instructions carefully, with one eye on her, just in case she grew fangs and her head started rotating on its axis.

This was some devilish stuff, I thought, though I had ostensibly come to divinity school "looking for the devil." Our cult leader used to say that seminaries were the breeding ground of Satan. So when I left the cult, having not had much success with God, I figured I'd give the devil a try. Here I was - face to face with the devil's wiles. But as it turned out, neither of us showed signs of demon possession - eyes rolling back in the head, uncontrolled fits of cursing God, human sacrifices, pledging my soul to Satan.

Instead, what I learned was yet another tradition in unfolding the archetypes of the spiritual self. The Chinese have them in the I Ching. Hindus have them in mandalas. Native Americans have them in their own ceremonies. To me, the devil does not exist in these material things. The devil exists when we elevate these man-made forms above the Mystery of Being, above God, be it a deck of cards or a black leather-bound book.

As Shane the cowboy said, when asked about guns, "a gun is only as good or bad as the man who uses it." I believe the same applies to spiritual traditions. If we exalt a human device above the mystery of God, if we turn it into an idol, whether it's astrology, tarot or biblical research, then we are playing with the devil. It's only as good or as bad as the person who uses them.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

On why I changed the heading AGAIN

As I said before, blogs are organic things. As I evolve, so it evolves. We seem to be in some kind of growth spurt.

Last month I fractured my right ankle in two places. I have been, for all intents and purposes, a cripple, confined to three rooms - the library, where I sleep, eat, work and play; the bathroom and the kitchen (sometimes). I haven't climbed the steep stairs of our one-hundred-and-fifty-year-old house to my bedroom in over a month. My husband has patiently assisted me in almost everything.

I've had a lot of time to think. I've thought about cults and trauma. I've thought about cults and recovery. I've thought about the past and the future. I've thought about the purpose of this blog. I have decided that I would rather explore reality, in all its breathtaking complexity than just focus on cults and my past all the time.

Therefore, I think the most fitting new title to this blog is "Surviving Reality." Corny, I know and it sounds like a support group for people who have been on Reality TV shows. But I'm talking about Life, uncut and uncensored. Reality - Spiritual, physical, psychological, emotional, sexual and so on. The key here, of course, lies in knowing what reality is. Not always easy.

Shortly after I left the cult, I asked a a warm-hearted psychiatrist if I was crazy. He assured me I was not but he did say I was "suffering from reality." I'd like to dedicate these posts to "Survivors of Reality," which, we all know can be pretty brutal....and beautiful. I'd love to know how other people find their ways in this crazy world - how they survive and thrive. That's what I think we're all really after, anyway, isn't it?

Knowing me, I'll probably change the heading again. Until then, keep on surviving.....and thriving.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Thanks, Dalai Lama

“The best thing is, whenever exploitation, sexual abuse or money abuse happens, make them public.”
The Dalai Lama

I ran across this quote as I was sailing through cyberspace and it made my heart skip a beat. I hope the Dalai Lama said it and there’s no reason to believe he didn’t. (There goes my skepticism again.) He is a religious leader, not a cult leader.

The essence of bondage seems to lie in secrecy. When abuse is made public, there’s no more room for speculation, shame or fear. That’s why a free press is SO important and why cults do everything in their power to suppress the expression of free speech.

I strongly believe in the freedom to open the lockbox. That was a major motivation in why I wrote my memoir, Losing the Way. I decided to make my abuse public as a way of ensuring that it wouldn’t happen again – not to me, not to anyone else.

The Bible talks about this all over the place but I’d have to look long and hard to locate the scriptures – they’re all about confession and walking in the light and shunning things done in darkness– something like that. (Perhaps this is an indication of my recovery- that I’ve actually forgotten where some of the verses are. Either that or its early onset Alzheimer’s.)

Anyway, I’m so glad to have found this quote and wanted to share it with you. Hope you find solace in it as well.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

On Why I Changed The Heading

Someone may notice that I changed the heading of this blog from "Cults and Trauma" to "Cults and Recovery" and this person may say to him or herself, "hmm, I wonder why she did that." The reason is quite simple. That is what this blog is turning out to be.

It seems that blogs are organic, evolving things and, Mystery forbid, that I conspire to stunt its natural course. It grows as I grow. If I stop growing, I may very well be stuck in cults and trauma, overwhelmed still by my upbringing and involvement in a destructive cult. But the truth of the matter is that, I'm fine. I'm absolutely fine. One might even say, I'm "recovered."

Well, maybe I won't go that far but I'm certainly on the road towards a healthier outloook and healthier way of life. The original purpose of this blog was to reach out to other people who have experienced abuse and to offer hope. I still want to do that but I would be lying to say that I needed hope. I have hope, finally, after years of struggle. I have a faith and a purpose. I have a home and people who love me, whom I love. Life is grand.

It's easy to get stuck in focusing on the "wounded inner child" - the child who was abandoned and abused, traumatized. It's easy to forget to develop a strong loving inner adult, one who cares for you and allows you to care for yourself. My daughter reminded me that she, as my "outer child" was very happy and I, as my "real adult" was also. So, sometimes, the trick of recovery is simply having your inner reality agree with your outer reality.

At the risk of freaking some people out, I'm going to quote the Bible. (I still love the Bible - another sign of recovery.) "When my mother and father forsake me, then the Lord will take me up." Psalm 27:10. It's an amazing thing, our capacity to heal and I thank God or the Universe or the Mystery for the grace to be in a place where I can say...."I'm better."

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Then Again.....

Then again.....

Which president was it – either Hoover or Wilson- who said he wanted to meet an economist with one hand so he wouldn’t be able to say “on the other hand.”

Well, regardless of who it was, today I want to take another look at my last blog entry and consider “the other hand.”

Perhaps I was being too dogmatic. I certainly didn’t mean to be and, Universe forbid, you accuse a former cultist of being that.

All I was trying to get across was that I have now “recovered” to the point of being able to actually entertain a belief again. Once I left the cult, I thought I would never be able to believe in anything. The betrayal went too deep.

The “other hand” of belief in something is not disbelief but doubt. I doubt my connection to the Greater Whole plenty. But in the doubt, I am reminded that I am free, no longer in a stranglehold of dogmatic belief.

I can believe one thing one day, another thing another day because it’s only a belief. It’s not absolute. And that’s what I was trying feebly to get across in that blog – that “The Absolute” is beyond me and I don’t even have the name for it. But I can make one up because it’s MY belief. That’s all I was trying to share.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

My First Existential Crisis

I had my first existential crisis when I was eleven. I was looking out my window into the vast starlit sky, and for the first time in my life, I felt my breathtaking insignificance. I was alone, utterly alone in an indifferent universe and so I started to cry. I mean cry. Sob. Howl.

I knew I was making a scene but I cried, hoping that someone in my family would hear and come to my rescue. But my mother was working at her desk in her office and had barely looked up to grunt “good night” to me when I went off to bed. And my father, as usual, was drunk in the basement watching repeats of “All in the Family.”

I watched the hands on the dial of my electric clock click from 9:00 to 9:15 to 9:30. Finally, the door burst open. The silhouette of my mother loomed above me.

“What on earth are you crying about?” She snapped. The annoyance in her voice made me cringe with shame.

“I’m all alone.“ I sobbed.

“ All alone? What are you talking about?”

“I’m all alone in the universe,” I repeated. “There’s no one there. Infinite just keeps going on forever and ever and there’s no one there.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. You’re not alone. We’re right here. Now go to sleep and stop making a fuss.” She closed the door and quickly padded down the hall to her office in her bedroom slippers.

A few years later, I found my way into a fundamentalist cult which promised to hold the answers to 95% of your questions about life and God or your money back. At fourteen, I had found what I was looking for. It wasn’t until I was twenty-nine when I left the group, battered physically, sexually, and psychologically that I renounced any belief in God or answers. And once again, I was alone.

It’s been over twenty years since I left the cult and I still don’t know even 5% of the answers about life and God. When I first left The Way, I remember lying on the ground one summer night, looking up at the sky. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I wondered once again if Anyone was out there. Again, I felt totally alone. My fists clutched at clumps of dirt giving me the only solid thing I could hold onto - earth.

Then something happened. A falling star made it’s way across the sky like a delicate silver thread. I realized at that moment that I was not alone. I was part of something wonderful, something beautiful, something bigger than myself. I was part of a Mystery. Sometimes I call it "God" for lack of a better word. "God" to me is just shorthand for this Mystery. Sometimes I call it the "Universe" but mostly I don’t know what to call it. Mostly I just call it "the Mystery." It's comforting to have a name for it even if I don't know what "It" is.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Decision, a poem by me

It will change everything, she says.
Are you ready for this? Are you ready
for the palms of strangers to read your future
for their stars to influence yours
to throw you off course, out of orbit?
Are you ready for a bomb
to be dropped in your neighborhood
to blow out your windows
to leave you homeless, perhaps friendless
ostracized for something you did a hundred years ago?
Are you ready, she says,
for the irresolvable to park itself
on your doorstep, to take up residence
in your garden, to leave your home
a designated site, a historic battlefield,
a national cemetery? Are you ready?

I don’t know if I should change my name
move to a new town where no one knows me
where my confessions are as shocking
as an empty paper cup blown in the street,
littler of my early days, my indiscretions written
on paper because that’s the only place to write them,
I don’t believe in priests or fiction.
My other voices clatter like wind-tossed shutters,
they creak and whisper but they do not tell the truth,
not like the real story which I no longer believe in,
which no one may believe let alone understand.
Still, I’ve written my memoir
and I will probably stay where I am
and keep my name like a landscape
in a hurricane ravaged
then renewed.

Monday, January 7, 2008

A youtube spoof on how to be a cult leader

this is sadly true but it made me laugh. Humor heals, too.

Why Don't You Just Get Over It?

“It’s been twenty years, why don’t you just get over it? Stop dwelling on the past. Get on with your life.”

These are common sentiments of people who do not understand trauma. They are also common expressions used by perpetrators of the abuse. These words minimize the impact of trauma.

Trauma is a subjective thing. Why two soldiers go to war and witness the same atrocity and one comes back psychologically unscathed and the other riddled with PTSD, no one knows. But we do know that once a person has been traumatized, it is not just something they “get over,” as though it were a common cold.

Researchers have discovered that trauma is experienced first in most primitive part of the brain, called the amgdala. That is our “monkey brain” at the core of the cerebral cortex. It is the non-verbal part of the brain. Terror is experienced but unprocessed.

This is where therapy and support groups come in. Why do support groups for victims of rape, domestic violence and war have such power? Because in these safe places, people are allowed to verbalize the horror of what they experienced. In other words, the trauma is expressed but not relived. The power of expression is that the speaker now has control over what before was out of his/her control.

The point is not to relive the trauma but to excise the pain of the past abuse through expression. That is why I have written my book. For me, it was a very painful but healing, if not cathartic, process.

Through the process of writing, I came to understand what I had not understood before. I came to accept responsibility for choices I had made. And I came to forgive myself for things I believed were my fault but were not – such as the abuse.

Expression is an extremely powerful tool in healing from trauma. Judith Herman, in her book Trauma and Recovery speaks of “bearing witness” to the pain one has experienced. We all know about witnessing. We know about telling the story of the death and resurrection of our Lord.

My story is a witness to the death and resurrection I have experienced - both to the trauma I suffered at the hands of “believers” and to the power of understanding ears and hearts to heal. That’s how I have moved on. (And I have moved on.) But I couldn’t have done it alone.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

A Statement of Faith - Resilience

At the start of the new year, I guess it’s only fitting that I forego resolutions (which I make every day – the same ones) and start with my “Statement of Faith.” It’s kind of like one of those “This I Believe” type things but it’s what helped me through the hard times to the good times, there and back again. Without faith, without a “belief” of some kind, I never would have made it to recovery. Above all, today, with a broken ankle to boot (no pun intended - I actually did fall down the stairs two days ago), I want to start off the new year on a positive note. A hats off to resilience and persistence. They, along with love, are what have saved my life.

I believe in resilience, in the power of a person to sink to the depths and rise again. Resilience is like the palm tree that bends to the ground in a hurricane and survives to bear fruit the following season. To me, resilience is the defining quality that determines failure or success in a life.

I work in a maximum security prison for the mentally ill. Every day, I encounter men who have lost everything, the clinically depressed businessman who turned to cocaine then slept with his sixteen year old stepdaughter. He lost his wife, his family, his job, his house, his will to live. Then there’s the bipolar twenty-year-old who had his first manic episode and tried to rob a bank because he thought it was funny. He’s never been locked up before and is scared beyond words. He thinks he will die or be killed in prison so he becomes acutely suicidal. Then there’s the thirty-year-old felon who tried to kill himself with a rifle and then was arrested for possession of a deadly firearm. They come to me broken and suicidal. My job is to help them find a reason to live again.

It isn’t easy but it is miraculous. The key is connection. I’m not saying it works every time, but once a person has made genuine contact with another human being, something happens. A spark. Someone has taken their pain seriously so they begin to take their pain seriously themselves. They begin to take their lives seriously. They come to the point of saying, if I don’t matter, at least, my children matter or life matters or God matters or the mystery matters. Something matters.

At the end of my favorite movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, Clarence the Angel gives George Bailey a book inscribed with the words “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.” I never used to like that part. I used to think it should say “No man is a failure who doesn’t quit.” Many of the men I see come to me friendless and alone. And yet they don’t quit. Many of them want to. Many of them want to “hang it up” and die but they hang on to the precious sliver called life.

I guess my job as a social worker is to be a friend of sorts. But it’s more complicated than that. In prison, I don’t have the liberty to do what regular friends do - I can’t bring them food or go on walks or talk about my personal life. But it’s that miraculous connection that’s made that makes the difference. So maybe Clarence was right after all. “No man is a failure who has friends.” We can rise above anything if there is one, only one person who believes in us and believes our life matters. Then we can be resilient and rise above anything.