Where I’ve Been, Where I Am, Where I’m Going.

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My mom and dad have been full-time RV’ers for the past year. That means they work remotely from the camper and haul it around whenever they want, wherever they want. This has been a major life change for them, and my mom has been writing about her experiences. Her most recent post was so authentic, so genuine, that it really inspires me to tell you what’s been happening since my last blog post five months ago. All of these have made me feel unsettled at times and under a lot of pressure, so I wasn’t writing about it. I felt paralyzed. I think I need to let that go and just say the things I need to say. It’s a lot all at once, I guess.

Jeremy and I decided to move to Charleston, South Carolina and we have been in the process of planning thus huge move. We’ve been together a year and a half, but we don’t live together and we don’t even live in the same state. It’s been awesome, I wrote all about how much I love our long-distance relationship. However, the next step for us involves living together and seeing if this will work long-term like we hope it will. We decided to move to Charleston because we both wanted out of New England, and I had visited Charleston once and loved it. We don’t have a community, jobs, or any particular pull for going aside from the adventure. Reactions from friends and family have ranged from “wow how exciting!” to “this seems like a bad idea”. Thankfully everyone has been supportive (even when skeptical) and I really believe we can pull this off. That being said, it’s still a huge transition as individuals, and in our relationship. First time living together thrown into a new apartment, city, jobs, school, etc. We won’t even know where to get a good cup of coffee, or which grocery store has the best deals. It’s overwhelming. We’re talking about money and being transparent about our fears, which is great. One thing I really value about our relationship is our transparency. We can be really frank about what we are feeling and why, and we’re really kind to one another. But the pressure is mounting and I’m starting to get nervous. I’ve done this twice before and one ended in abortion, another divorce. Hopefully the third time’s the charm. But I’ve got some baggage and it’s hard to be optimistic when I’ve had such dramatic breakups in the past. I feel confident that if it wasn’t working we’d do what we always do: be communicative and kind. Ultimately we’re going to find out pretty quickly what’s working and what’s not, and hope that the communication skills we’ve worked on so far will see us through no matter what.

I am still working for the same restaurant, but I am a bartender now. In the beginning, we were short staffed behind the bar, so every shift I worked was a bar shift for the first three months after training. We are now to a point where we have enough bartenders to give us all time on the floor as well, which in nice because bartending does get pretty repetitive. It’s one of my favorite things about the job, but working so many hours of the same thing was burning me out. Learning a new skill set is so exciting though, and makes me feel marketable for future employment. Bar training is difficult to get at a restaurant, and I’m really grateful that I have this opportunity. It’s been a difficult transition, too, although a really fun one. The hours are long, sometimes ten hours a day (with a break somewhere in the middle) and my nearly forty hours (and almost all the money I make) is Thursday-Sunday. By Sunday I’m wiped.

I scaled back my therapy to once a month, then school ended and so did my therapy (she is a doctorate student). She began her practicum this fall at a local business, but I haven’t yet called to resume seeing her. I think we did great work once a week for nearly a year, and I have the tools I need to go out on my own. There has been some anxiety with that, and I might be a person who needs regular or semi-regular therapy for the rest of my life. It has been so transformative for me. Talk-therapy has been an effective way to work out my problems. I need to talk about stuff out loud to work through problems. They can’t be solved in my head, I become too overwhelmed. Therapy was basically me paying someone to listen to me talk, because very rarely did she say anything. I often couldn’t stop talking long enough for her to get a word in edgewise. This was really important for me because I have the solutions, but have difficulty accessing them alone. It’s a lot to ask of a friend or lover consistently, and therapy was my “work” space where I didn’t have to feel guilty for dumping my crap into someone else’s lap.

I also started taking an antidepressant. I take Lexapro, 20mg a day. I have suffered from mood swings and anxiety for many years. I thought once I got older, I would feel better. Instead, as I got older, I felt worse. And, even though many areas in my life were almost perfect, and I had no reason to feel sad or unhappy (love my job, love my relationship, love my apartment, love my school, etc), I would wake up and be exhausted by the prospect of the day. I was tired, unmotivated, unbelievably sad, and anxious. This happens once or twice a year, it goes in cycles, so I just ride it out. However, this cycle was particularly bad. The worst one yet, and it really scared me. I was frustrated it would cost me my relationship, friendships, and possibly my job. A particularly bad day included a panic attack at work and I was hysterical – I mean unsafe to drive home crying uncontrollable and just totally losing my shit on the phone with Jeremy) – for hours afterward. The next morning I woke up feeling drained and empty. I couldn’t even remember what I said to Jeremy on the phone about it, only knew I had felt really emotional. By this point, I had called and canceled so many doctor’s appointments (correction: I said I wanted to/should call my doctor, but never following through) but that morning I hit a breaking point. I was so embarrassed about having had a panic attack at work (my boss was fabulous, and continues to be) that I resigned myself to considering taking medication. Up to this point I stubbornly refused taking anything. I convinced myself I could change my brain chemistry through a positive attitude and sheer force of will. In retrospect this was fucking stupid. Like, really stupid. My doctor explained that while emotions are important and necessary, unbearable persistent sadness was atypical. There’s a better way to live, and it’s by increasing the amount of time serotonin hangs out in your brain. It’s released and then a re-uptake process happens where it gets reabsorbed. If this re-absorption happens too quickly, you don’t have enough serotonin and the lack of it makes you very sad. At least, that’s what they think. So anyway, an SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor) keeps serotonin from being reabsorbed. The effect? Well, for the first two weeks, I felt amazing. I was chipper, motivated, nearly manic. A few people thought I was drunk or stoned. Perhaps it was the relief that I took action or maybe it was the drug. Either way, the first few weeks were awesome and then I crashed. I almost had another panic attack at work and I was pissed. I wanted an instant fix, which was silly. It can take months to get used to a new med, and even longer to find the right dose or kind of medication. There have been some frustrations but my dose was doubled and that seems to be working. It does come with some sexual dysfunction. Having an orgasm is really hard. Sex drive seems to be the same, and it all feels great, but I can’t quite seem to get there. Naturally this has been frustrating for both of us, but I quickly realized my emotional well-being wasn’t worth risking. So we got creative and we’re figuring it out. I have it on good authority that it will get better over time, but I can tell you one thing for sure: I never want to go to that dark place ever again.

School is awesome and it’s my last semester here before I leave. I’m very emotional about the whole thing and don’t want to talk about it.

I chopped off all my hair in an impulsive decision to have my outsides match my insides. Traditional ideas of femininity include long gorgeous hair. Duh. Everyone wants to be a bombshell. But inside, I’m a badass motherfucker who takes shit from no one. I’m fierce and I may be totally messed up, but I’m gonna try to chase down every dream I’ve ever had until I die. So I paid someone to chop off my hair into an adorable pixie and that was very rash and I absolutely love it. It might sound cheesy but I had massive anxiety for a full day beforehand. So badly that my stomach hurt and I couldn’t sleep. I’m deeply attached not to the hair itself, but what the hair represents. Something I can feel beautiful in, think others find me attractive. Cutting it off was putting a big middle finger to the system and saying “I’d rather not have thick long hair in the South next summer, and I’m spunky and fun and don’t need this long hair to feel gorgeous”. Cause the reality is I’m gorgeous no matter what, I might as well be comfortable. It’s why I’m almost always in a bathrobe and sweats when I’m at home (no matter what time of day/night it is) and I don’t wear makeup. It itches my face. I don’t wear heels because they hurt my feet and annoy me. I wear regular panties because they stay put and don’t go places underwear ought not go. Besides, I’ve received exactly zero complaints from dudes who got to the panty stage. I’d rather be comfortable. But the hair… the hair. I just couldn’t let it go. I was going to be a bombshell with long gorgeous hair no matter what. Except it’s heavy and hot and gets in my face. It clogs my shower drain and let’s be honest I’m not going to curl it out to look like a movie star. It will just air dry and be kinda wavy and kinda sexy but really soft and usually smell nice. But I didn’t feel like a bombshell. So, I chopped it off and looked myself in the mirror and thought “you might not look like old Hollywood on the red carpet, but this is exactly who you wanna be”. Everyone loves it and I’ve been told I look like an adult and really sexy. Everyone’s always grinning at me and my new hair. It’s awesome.

My sister got married, which was awesome and fantastic and I love her so very much, as well as her husband(!). The event was lovely and impressive they put it together in just a few months, less than six for sure, And we only had one fight and it was on the phone way before the wedding so we were totally cool. It was really emotional to see her make vows to someone, and to see the tears streaming down his face before her entrance music even started playing. It was evident he adores her! Plus, Jeremy was able to get the time off work so he met my entire family in one weekend. Even better, he nailed it, and everyone loved him. Comments range from “Keep him” to “Can I marry him instead?”. How neat is that? And totally new. They didn’t even like my husband this much.

I’ve taken up a new hobby, photography. I am taking photos for free while I practice using the equipment and build my portfolio. I would like to have enough experience with the shooting and editing process to begin marketing myself as a professional (paid) photographer once we move to Charleston. As a result, I’m looking for subjects to model. I’ve done one engagement shoot and three head shots/portraits. I have a family session booked next week and several people approaching me about getting their picture taken. Let me know if you are interested.

My lease ends October 31, but we aren’t moving until December, so I’m crashing on an air mattress (which I have yet to purchase, actually) for the last six weeks of the semester. It’s gonna be a crazy few months, but I’m feeling the positive forward momentum. Things are clicking into place but I’m still struggling to write regularly. I think I’ve realized I don’t know how realistic it is for me to write professionally or have the pressure to be creative on someone else’s schedule. I want to get back to the raw energy that attracted people to my blog in the first place, rather than worrying about edits and structure. I don’t want my blog posts to feel scripted or formulaic. They should range in tone, length, content, and perspective. It’s an ongoing process, this growing up thing, and I want to get back to the place where I’m inviting you to see the different ways I’m growing and changing. I think I put too much pressure on myself to “really know” something before writing it, because I was worried people wouldn’t like my writing. Now I’ve realized that I started doing this for ME, and people liked it just fine. Some said they were too long, others said where have you been WRITE SOMETHING! So, this is how I’m feeling today right now. It’s not going to sit in my inbox for later review. Soon I’ll have reached a logical stopping point and I’ll just hit

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Respect in Relationships

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A few days ago, I read an article about second marriages. Jeremy and I have discussed it extensively, and although we have more to learn about one another, we aim to build a life together. Since I’m divorced, I often wonder what it will be like to be remarried. One of the major talking points in the article was this question:

Why did your last relationship (or marriage) end?

When I started thinking about it, I reflected on how far I have come since my divorce. There are several posts on my blog about abusive relationships and the aftermath of the separation and subsequent divorce. It was a very dramatic and upsetting ordeal, but I no longer recognize the woman I was a few years ago. I still have the memories, but they feel like the details of a story I heard a long time ago – someone else’s narrative.

If you had asked me a few years ago why my marriage ended, I would have given you the skinny on the terrible human being my husband was. I would have lamented all the mistakes he made, the terrible ways in which he treated me, and I doubt I would have focused much on the role I played in my divorce. What happened was so traumatic and distressing… certainly my transgressions didn’t even compare, right?

Now, some years later, I can assess the situation dispassionately and with fairness. I can easily see the fundamental problem with our entire relationship – all four years of it.

Our relationship lacked RESPECT.

Respect is one of those abstract concepts I can’t really define. If you asked me to define it, I would create a bunch of scenarios and describe respectful behavior, or perhaps I would try to look it up in the dictionary, as I did just now:

respect

Even here, it’s like Google is grasping at straws. Yes, I understand you can respect someone FOR something. But what does it mean to pay someone respect? How do you show someone you respect them in a relationship? This is what I aim to figure out, probably over the course of my lifetime.

Hindsight being what it is, I can tell you exactly how I did not respect my partner over the course of four years, and how he did not respect me. On my end, I did not see him as my intellectual equal. I patronized him and I was condescending. I didn’t do these things on purpose – I don’t think I did, anyway – it was the result of being in a relationship with someone who lacked the things I needed to be happy.

If I could go back and do it all over again, I would gracefully exit the relationship after a few short months, rather than four years later in a courtroom, asking a judge to grant a divorce. At the time, I was terrified of being alone, of failure, and determined I could make our relationship healthy through sheer force of will. This might be possible for two people who already have a strong foundation and deep respect for one another, but for two complete strangers, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Things didn’t get much better as we argued about EVERYTHING. Every time a conflict arose, it was a bloody battle (hyperbolic here, no actual body fluids were shed in the course of argument). We were constantly fighting for “power” in the relationship. It mattered who was right and who was wrong, and neither wanted to concede. I don’t think either of us had figured out that it’s okay to back away from an argument with a white flag. It doesn’t make you weak, it makes you smart.

I felt a lack of respect in how he treated me as well. I’ve tried to figure this out, tried to understand where it was coming from. I can’t speak for him, of course, I can only guess. Maybe I wasn’t what he wanted either, and he was trying to mold me into his idea of a perfect mate. Maybe he was reacting to my disrespectful behavior. I suppose I’ll never know. What I do know is that there were many times when I felt myself dissatisfied and rather than walk away, I expected him to drink the Kyrston Kool-Aid and behave in ways I found acceptable. That’s not a solution – it’s arrogance. I’m sure at the time I deluded myself into thinking that I really was the “right” one. My suggestions were not outlandish – don’t drink and drive, please don’t call me names, stop trying to punch things when you’re upset – but it was not my place to outline his behavior and make corrections. The proof? I hated it when he did the same thing to me – answer your phone when I call you, don’t wear that skanky outfit, stop spending so much money. Can I really argue with his points? I could, but then we are missing the point.

In my current relationship, there is so much respect between us it’s almost ridiculous. I have a deep admiration for this human being, and am impressed by everything he is. Even more awesome – I can feel that he also admires me, and is impressed by me. Sure, we say nice things to each other, but we also show each other the respect we feel through our actions. We are polite toward one another, well-mannered, patient, kind, understanding, gentle, and we always give one another the benefit of the doubt. We don’t race to conclusions, don’t speak for one another, and I think we both have a self-awareness about the way we affect one another. We are incredibly present in the relationship. Respect drives our behavior, not passion or a sense of desperation.

I’ve only recently begun integrating these behaviors into relationships with other people, as well. I think, as a culture, we tend to be disrespectful of one another. “Live and let live” comes to mind – but what’s the fun in that? It’s far more entertaining to judge others, offer unsolicited advice, and behave selfishly. When someone is upset, we aren’t quick to accept responsibility for our own behavior.

By being self-aware about the respect I give others, I’ve seen a change in those relationship. There is a richness, a fullness. Our bond extends beyond common pastimes or where we work. There is trust there, and a growing sense that vulnerability is okay.

And yet, I still find myself constantly correcting my behavior, or receiving feedback from people around me. My best friend sometimes comments that I talk down to her and it makes her feel small. Rather than dismiss her comments (read: disrespectful) I try to understand where my behavior MIGHT be coming from (am I threatened by her, do I honestly find her to be a small person, am I frustrated with her choices, etc). More often than not, I think she wants to know that I HEAR her, that her feelings matter to me, and that I want to make an effort to show her more respect in our friendship. I certainly don’t intend to make her feel disrespected.

Being cognizant about showing respect is exhausting, at least for me, and it’s presented its own host of issues. I find respect is easiest to give and receive when two parties are being open and communicative about their needs. This is scary and does not come easily to some people. If you don’t tell me what you need, I can’t give it to you. I’m hitting a wall. At that point, I move forward best I can, erring on the side of caution.

Another issue I have noticed is that I don’t have the freedom to behave how I want to behave all the time anymore, because having an awareness about how my behavior affects others changes the game. It’s exciting to say whatever I want all the time, and it’s freeing to give literally zero fucks about what others think of me. But there is a delicate balance here. When is the time to bare it all, and when is the time to purposefully use a little more tact? It’s a case by case basis, not by person, but by moment.

Why do all this work? Well, quite plainly, I believe that all human beings exist to serve other human beings. We rely on each other – socially, emotionally, financially, the list goes on – and our relationships with one another require constant maintenance and care. It’s not easy and not fun sometimes to think of others just as much as I think of myself, but there is reward in enhancing those relationships and helping others to feel as respected as I like to feel.

Wherein I explain a BIG problem I’m having…

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This post falls under the following categories: stream of consciousness, emotional rant, and self-analysis. I’m a bit out of practice – having been on a writing hiatus these past few months – but I really need to sort some things out and I’ve turned to the page (so to speak) to do so. As with most tough-to-tackle life problems, I share this process with you.

When I was thirteen, I was riding a school bus when the bus abruptly hit a frost heave. Not surprising, considering it was March 12, 2003. March is a tough month for roads. Nice enough that snow melts, but so cold at night the freshly-melted snow freezes again. It also bears mentioning that I expected this bump in the road – and even joyfully anticipated it. Nothing is as exciting as your butt coming off the seat and catching an inch of air as you ride a school bus. I was thirteen, after all.

So, my sister and I boarded the bus, eager to race to the back for maximum air time. It was an empty bus – save for two passengers in the front seat (this was the “late” bus: running about twenty minutes after the rest of the buses left; intended for kids who had detention or after school activities).

We sat in our seats, perched on the edge, and placed our hands on the seat in front of us. Katy told me to get ready. When the bump came, we would grab hold. I did not have time for such a reaction.

When the front wheels hit the frost heave, I was suddenly and violently thrust out of my seat. My head hit the ceiling of the bus. I came down and landed right on my rump.

When the rear wheels hit the frost heave a fraction of a second later, I was again thrust out of my seat. This time, when I came down, my chin hit the seat in front of me. A school bus seat feels like a metal bar wrapped in thin vinyl. My mouth was positioned in an underbite (with my lower jaw extended and my lower teeth in front of the upper teeth) and the force of the impact cause my bottom teeth to jam my front teeth backwards into my mouth.

I remember standing up. I remember holding up my hand to the bus driver and trying to yell “stop” but my mouth felt funny. It was completely numb. I couldn’t talk. I walked forward slowly, swaying with each step as the bus swayed, and kept raising my hand in the universal “STOP” gesture.

Suddenly, I felt something in my mouth. I turned my head to the left and spat, seeing a spray of blood exit my face. I noted a tooth flew out of my mouth. From behind me, I could hear my sister laughing. She was walking behind me. I turned to face her, and her easy smile and carefree laugh was quickly replaced by an expression of shock and dismay. She immediately burst into tears.

The bus driver noticed me and quickly pulled over. I remember him handing me paper towels as he called someone on the radio. I pressed snow to my mouth and idly observed the way the blood changed the snow. The two children in the front seat looked on, impassive.

The driver took me home. My dad was striding out of the house and through the driveway as we pulled to a stop. I ran to him, clutching to him in panic and anxiety (he later told me that my face was almost unrecognizable as a result of the accident). I raced inside to look at my face. I bemoaned and panicked over the loss of my perfect smile and beautiful features. My dad ordered me to calm down and he called the orthodontist (ironically, I had been in the office just that morning to discuss the possibility of needing braces to correct an unrelated problem). The doctor urged my father to bring me in immediately, before the teeth set in place.

Once in the office, I was administered a few shots of Novocaine. I then lay on a table, in a back room, while a handful of dental assistants held me down. There was one for each leg, one for my shoulders, and one for my left arm. The doctor sat to my right and explained that he needed to press the teeth back into place. When one of the restraining assistants shifted her weight, I could just barely see my dad sitting in a chair by my feet, with his head in his hands.

When the doctor placed a thumb on each tooth and pressed them back into place, I was immobile and screaming from the pain. It didn’t feel like a scream, because my mouth was open, and I remember moaning. It was a desperate plea to stop, a helpless cry of someone who has no control over what is happening and in unbearable pain. My dad told me, later, that he had never seen so much blood in his life. It was spraying from my face, like a horror movie.

I was barely resistant in the placing of the braces. I just sort of laid there, probably in shock, or exhaustion. After that, we went to the ER to check for a concussion. Why they would make a child with a head trauma and no pain medication wait for more than five minutes is beyond me.

This was in 2003.

In the year 2011, I visited the dentist. At this time, I was 22. Freshly married and excited about my new grownup life. After taking my x-rays, my dentist advised me that due to short roots, I would likely need to fix my two front teeth (central incisors) earlier than most people. In my thirties or forties, he said. He explained that they drill down the tooth and place a crown over it. I remember going home to tell my husband this strange and not at all concerning news. The dentist was more concerned with my wisdom teeth, and they didn’t even hurt. That was 2011.

Two weeks ago, I visited a dentist for the first time in a few years. I’ve never had a cavity and take excellent care of my teeth, so when I didn’t have dental insurance, I simply didn’t go. I had my x-rays taken and immediately was questioned about the trauma to my teeth. The dentist was extremely anxious, and it was making me anxious.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Your teeth,” she said, “are so damaged from the trauma, they need to be replaced.”

“I know, my dentist told me that a few years ago. He said it wasn’t a big deal right now. Why are you so upset?”

The dentist looked at the assistant and then looked at me. “This is a problem right now. You might need a permanent retainer, or implants.”

“How much does this cost?” I say.

“Five thousand, maybe eight, it’s hard to tell. The surgeon will know.”

I went to the receptionist at the end of the appointment to schedule a follow-up with an oral surgeon. They scheduled me for a few weeks later. I went home and started poking around, looking for information on the accident. I knew it was a result of the trauma, and wondered if I could get the bus company to pay for it. I called my parents. They didn’t sue the bus company, just sent them the bills and the bus company paid for my braces. They didn’t have any paperwork.

I called the orthodontist’s office and asked them to send me any billing information in my chart. I received the name of an insurance company. I called, sent online requests, and eventually emailed with someone from the insurance company. She was very pleasant, and advised me she might need time to dig up these old records. I had been over ten years, after all.

A few days later, I heard from her. She told me that it wasn’t her office that processed my claim, it was a bus company claims adjuster. I contacted that person, and immediately received a response from her superior telling me the documents had been destroyed because the statute of limitations had been reached.

I was confused and frustrated. I had spent days trying this information down, fighting a mounting anxiety and sense of dread, and suddenly I was hitting a wall. I reached out to a local personal injury attorney – somewhat of a celebrity in this area – and he could not help me.

I met with the oral surgeon this past Monday, and the news was far worse than I had feared. My two front teeth (central incisors) are not connected to bone at all. Only soft tissue hold them in place. The teeth immediately to the right and left (later incisors; these four teeth are the front four in your top row) had over 50% bone loss. It would be irresponsible to replace two and not all four, as the second two have barely anything left.

For the front two? Maximum of two years. The second two? Five, maybe ten years. Maybe.

The surgeon then explained the only course of treatment available due to this advanced bone loss and root resorption. Remove all four teeth and place two implants on the lateral incisors and replace the front two with crowns. All four teeth are connected in a four unit bridge, drilled into the bone on the ends. Here is what that looks like. Same theory, but on the top row of teeth in the very front, instead of on the bottom row in the back (as pictured).

1

I again go to the receptionist desk and she types in everything the surgeon said. I am anxiously awaiting this dollar amount. A few minutes later she prints a long list of services – the treatment plan – with associated pricing. My insurance does not cover major restorative work. It should be noted that this is not considered cosmetic, as all the teeth lean on each other. These will fall out – and soon – and then my entire mouth is at risk, especially for increased bone loss and gum disease.

Total price tag for a permanent solution?

$15,000.

My heart dropped. Or maybe it started racing. My blood ran cold, or it started boiling. I was at ease, I was panicked. More than anything else, I was numb. And I desperately wanted this to not be my life.

Fifteen thousand dollars? That’s more than half what I make in a year. That’s three semesters of college. That’s more debt than I’ve ever been in – including student loans. It’s a new car, a down payment on a house, an impossible figure. I laughed at the sheer magnitude of this news.

Very quickly I discovered two things: I did not have the luxury of burying my head in the sand, and I had a serious problem: even more distressing than the massive dental expense was my insane urge to go completely haywire.

I have a tendency to behave very erratically when I feel powerless. In order to regain a sense of control over my own life, I act out in self-destructive ways. I sabotage relationships, put my job in jeopardy, blow off responsibilities, and engage in risky behavior. These make me feel empowered and safe, because I am doing something. The bad thing I am doing is better than the worse thing I can’t control.

However, I am a grown-up, and do not have the luxury of throwing a temper tantrum. I took a deep breath… and drove immediately to my job, where I worked as my last day of bar training for nine hours. My boyfriend was here and we talked through some creative ideas for funding, including a GoFund Me, becoming a stripper, and getting married to share insurance benefits. After a long day and impossible news, I was nearly hysterical with soul-crushing anxiety and exhaustion. Any option seemed better than the last, and I put Tanqueray on my feelings.

I awoke the next morning with a brighter attitude.

Technically, I woke up at the crack of dawn, and with a lot of anger. I snapped myself out of it pretty quickly – chastising myself for punishing Jeremy just because he was there. I think I only made one aggressive movement – throwing my chap stick a little too hard onto my nightstand – before pulling it together. I called my parents, told them what was happening, and came inside to find Jeremy on the phone with a family friend who happened to be a personal injury attorney. I spoke with her and she explained how the statute of limitations works and how firm the law is. If I were to file, it had to have been by 2010. There is no exception for this – not even ignorance.

Naturally, this sent me into an even darker place. I blew off class. I decided instead to spend most of my days off sleeping, cooking for Jeremy and myself, and watching Game of Thrones. I was determined to feel positive, but really I was just delaying the inevitable.

Today, the first day by myself since Monday when I got this news, I felt that overwhelming sense of anxiety creep in. I tried watching TV, I read Cosmo, I called a few friends. I couldn’t think about it, it was too huge for me to handle, and I felt myself want to unravel (which is a vast improvement to actually unraveling).

Then, tonight, I had sort of a breakthrough. I already know that I have control over my feelings (and how much things affect me), but I hadn’t admitted to myself that even if I want to be that kind of person, I don’t know how to do that. It’s pretty easy to say “turn that frown upside down, kiddo!”.

If I don’t want to get out of bed in the morning, it’s impossible to delude myself into thinking I do want to get up. I’ll get up, alright, but don’t kid yourself: I’m just going through the motions.

In the meantime, due to staffing complications at work, I’ve clocked 80+ hours of serving and training the past two weeks, the semester is nearly over, my sister is getting married in a few months, a close relative is going through a tough time, and I’m supposed to move to South Carolina with Jeremy in six months.

Right. Like I needed another thing on my plate.

Oddly enough, despite feeling worse for wear and positively drained, I’m tougher than this. I’ve gone through harder things than this. The accident makes for a great story, but I’m not a traumatized individual. I drive a car and don’t have a fear of public transportation or frost heaves. It makes for a great cocktail party story to entertain a crowd, but I’m really fine.

I’m pretty angry that due to a technicality, the bus company can get away with not taking fiscal responsibility for a mistake made on their watch. I’m pretty angry that my parents didn’t explore litigation, but they did the best they could with the tools they had. What’s that saying…? Put want in one hand and shit in the other, now see which one fills up faster? All the wishing in the world won’t change the law or the past. It is what it is.

Despite that mundane truth, my emotions are all over the place. Writing is making me feel better – more focused on the task at hand. At the end of the day, I just need to solve the problem. Get creative with funding, look into less expensive treatment centers, change my dental insurance to one that includes these services, and get a second opinion. Hell, maybe I’ll go to Mexico. I probably won’t become a stripper or start a marriage for insurance benefits. But I will figure it out.

In the meantime, I have to live my life. Like I said before: the semester is nearly over, my sister is getting married in a few months, a close relative is going through a tough time, and I’m supposed to move to South Carolina with Jeremy in six months. I can’t put this on hold much longer, but I can try to be more frugal and aware of my spending habits, and create a plan. Taking action will make me feel better and less like lashing out at coworkers or loved ones.

But, on those days when I “literally can’t even”, it’s a good idea to really explore those feelings to their natural conclusion, give the feelings rooms to just be, rather than feeling guilty or trying to manage them. Instead of shoving those feelings aside or trying to bury them, give myself the compassion and freedom to feel what I feel when I feel it.

In other words, I’m doing the best I can.

Living with PTSD Triggers – My Story

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My therapist told me I have mild PTSD. I laughed, nodded my head, and informed her that my last therapist told me the same thing.

Growing up, I was aware PTSD existed, but it was a term reserved for conversations about war veterans. I assumed I would never understand nor struggle with living with PTSD, because I was pretty sure I would never go to war.

The truth is, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can affect any person who has endured any trauma. The trauma can range from surviving a natural disaster to surviving a war. It can affect those who have suffered an assault and those who have no memory of ever being assaulted in the first place.

Not everyone who experiences trauma develops PTSD, but for those of you that have, this is my story.

Two years ago, I ended a marriage due to a violent incident between my husband and I. You can read about it here. It was that evening and those events which traumatized me. The word traumatized sounds melodramatic, but I assure you it is not. If it were anything less than that, I would not experience the symptoms I do today.

One such symptom is a set of “triggers” I now have as a result of the trauma. The trigger symptom does not apply to everyone, but it does apply to me. Also, even if many people have triggers, they manifest in different ways.

One of my triggers relates to hostility and aggression. I am “triggered” when someone behaves in a hostile or aggressive manner. The list of ways this can happen is extensive. I am triggered if someone raises his or her voice toward me. If someone has a caustic tone of voice, or a tone of voice that is biting, sharp, nasty, or harsh, I am typically triggered. If I get the impression someone is angry with me, I am usually triggered. When someone expresses anger in a physical way – pacing angrily, using body language that seems stiff and tense, advancing toward me during the conversation, pointing at me, etc – I am usually triggered. The reactions very on the intensity of the situation.

Sometimes, I have a reaction that is mild. This usually occurs when the person I am watching or talking to is only expressing anger about something else. It makes me uncomfortable to see someone so visibly angry. I am thinking to myself pay very close attention to what is happening. S/he could turn on you at any moment. Have an exit strategy. When I say “turn on you”, what I mean is I am usually waiting for the person who is angry about work/life/family stuff/whatever will stop merely venting and put all of that frustration onto me. This almost never happens, and I can usually manage my emotions fairly easily. I pay attention, check for exits, and try to calm the person down. The last one is most important. Keep the anger (of the opposite person) to a minimum so things don’t escalate.

The next level of intensity would be watching one person treat another person in a hostile or aggressive fashion, in front of me. This would happen if a couple or two friends were fighting in front of me, watching a parent discipline a child, or watching a supervisor correct an employee in frustration. Really, any human being acting this way toward another. My reaction is stronger in these scenarios – I tend to be jittery, anxious, and fearful of what might happen next. I fear for the (supposed) victim of the anger, for being unable to help or stop events from happening if things escalate, and I fear being collateral damage if something were to go wrong. I typically leave the room when this is happening, because what I am seeing has nothing to do with me, and I can walk away from the stimuli that disturbs me.

The most intense reactions come from hostility and aggression directed toward me specifically. If someone raises his or her voice to me, or uses physicality as a means to express anger, or uses a tone I find threatening, I am triggered and the reaction I have is not only disproportionate to the situation, but my behavior is inconsistent with my personality and logical assessment toward what is happening.

First, I’ll explain the reaction itself. All other reactions are milder forms of this, and this is as bad as it gets. There is a flood of adrenaline. My stress response goes into overdrive. My palms sweat, my head buzzes, and I feel chilly all over. My heart races, I find it hard to breathe, and I can’t think clearly. Whatever thoughts I do have are in capital letters (yelling) inside my head, and they tend to follow along these lines:

THREAT. THREAT IS BAD. ANTICIPATE THE WORST. MINIMIZE THE DANGER. MAKE IT STOP. MAKE IT STOP. QUICK – WHAT CAN I DO TO SLOW THIS HURTLING TRAIN DOWN BEFORE THINGS SPIRAL OUT OF CONTROL?

This is obviously a disproportionate response to most scenarios. Someone being angry and pacing across a room, or someone yelling at me because I have hurt their feelings, do not require a stress response as if my life were in danger.

My therapist explained today that during the stress response, we fight, flee, or freeze. I’ve heard the term “fight or flight” response before, meaning that you either fight against what is threatening you or run away. I had never heard the word freeze incorporated into that saying. For people struggling with PTSD, “freeze” becomes as likely as the other two.

When I have this rush of adrenaline, my body goes into overdrive and my mind races, but I am immobile. I am frozen in place, unable to take action, and feel powerless. What’s worse is I don’t even realize I am frozen until after the fact, and it’s certainly not something I am doing on purpose, which is why I say that my behavior is out of character for my personality and logical assessment of the situation.

Here’s a perfect example. A close friend of mine and I were having a conversation recently. During the conversation, I became frustrated at the way she was describing something. I spoke too quickly and came across sounding like an insensitive and non-supportive jerk. Her feelings were hurt, which made her angry. She snapped back and started arguing with me and yelling at me. As she kept talking, she got more worked up. I sat there while she yelled at me for what felt like a very long time (in actuality it can’t have been more than two minutes).

As I listened to her yell, and watched her become more and more agitated, I sat on the couch and didn’t move a muscle. My hands were clasped tightly in my lap and I stared, unblinking, into her eyes. I felt my head buzz and my body go cold. My palms started to sweat and my thoughts were in capital letters. At one point, I remember thinking “If I don’t calm her down she’s going to hit me”.

When she finally took a breath, I used that opportunity to speak to her in a very soft voice. I explained that I was sincerely sorry and I could hear that I had hurt her by the way I spoke. I soothed her with an even tone, and poured every bit of my regret through my eyes into hers. It’s difficult to describe, but in a way, I was trying to make it right as quickly and effectively as possible. I needed to calm her down before she attacked me, without appearing as though that’s what I was doing. In my head, the clock was ticking. I felt I had a narrow window to calm her down.

On the night my marriage ended, I was out of control of the events as they occurred. I did regain some level of control at the very end, but it was a bit of cleverness and luck that saved me. By then, it was too late. I had already endured the very worst of it, and had already experienced a thing I had never felt before: fear.

Lots of things are scary, and lots of stuff can give you an adrenaline rush. But trauma is different from riding a scary roller coaster or watching a horror movie. With those things, the risk is usually artificially inflated. The thrill of a roller coaster is that you might die, but most people understand it’s just for show. The scary movie is stimulating and might catch you by surprise or disturb you in some way, but you know it’s make-believe. Trauma is trauma because your life actually feels in danger. It’s not just your imagination or a structured game.

On the night my marriage ended, I believed my life was in danger. I had never felt that before, and as a result of believing that with every bit of my soul, I have triggers that did not exist before. Before that happened, I did not mind yelling so much. Physicality and anger were a part of my household growing up, in the sense that we had the freedom to be expressive as long as we were respectful. I never felt in any danger, and rarely did those things hurt me or make me feel unsafe. It wasn’t pleasant, but it wasn’t a cause for panic. However, that last experience was different in that things spun wildly out of control.

My therapist also explained to me that it’s not: Step 1 – Stimuli, Step 2 – Emotion. There is a step between one and two that happens so quickly (and unconsciously) that we don’t even realize it’s there. It’s the schema step.

A schema is a mental structure used to organize information and help make quick decisions about the world. Schemas are typically used in uncertain situations. When we don’t know or understand what is happening or what might happen next, we take the information we do have and plug it into the schema machine. Our mind finds the situation or experience that most closely matches it, and fills in the remaining or unknown with statistically likely information.

In my case, a schema might be that anger and hostility lead to violence and danger. I did not feel this way prior to the trauma I experienced. A previous schema might have been that anger and hostility in arguments lead to some form of conflict resolution. But, the trauma changed that schema, in the same way that it changed the way I feel about certain types of men and situations. My therapist explained that part of my treatment plan would include identifying what schemas are already in place, and we will work together to change those attitudes. The schema is the attitude about how the world works, and the emotion comes from the schema itself. Thus, the schema step is the unconscious one in between the stimuli and emotion.

When I say that my behavior is not a representation of my personality or logical assessment of the situation, it means that the intense emotion I have from the stress response causes me to behave in strange ways that I would not otherwise behave. For example, when my close friend became angry and yelled at me, I could have done any number of things. I could have yelled back, argued with her, talked it out loudly, walked out of the room, etc. However, instead, I was completely immobile. I didn’t move an inch or say a word – I barely breathed – and when I had the opportunity to, I spoke in such a way as to reduce the danger by calming her down. My words were genuine and I did feel terrible that she was so upset, but I was more concerned with staying safe.

Prior to the trauma, I probably would have had an all-out argument with her until we got it out of our system. I might have been defensive or showed emotion, I honestly can’t say. I can say that ever since what happened with my husband, I am terrified of confrontation. Whenever one does happen, I want it to be over with as quickly as possible, and I will say anything to calm the other person down, whether it’s true or not.

Situations like these are difficult for me to wrap my head around, because I do not maintain a self-concept of being a submissive human being. As a general rule, I feel in control and empowered. I feel confident that I can handle whatever life throws at me. However, when it comes to these triggers, I often feel as though I am in a free fall, grasping for any opportunity to protect myself from what feels like a life-or-death situation. Later, I feel embarrassed at my inability to participate in what I consider to be “typical” circumstances.

In addition, I am not shy or modest about the parts of me that are fucked up. I speak about them openly, and write about them openly, so most people are aware that I struggle with certain things. As a result, those who love me are careful not to behave in a way to trigger me, and if they do, they always feel terrible. Although this feels practical and sort of like a solution to the problem, I cannot rely on the patience and kindness of others to keep panic and anxiety at bay. In addition, there have been several situations where I found out later that the person couldn’t talk to me or be open with me out of fear that I would get hurt in the process. Sometimes I feel like I’m handing people the kid gloves with which to handle me, or that I am wearing a packing label that says “Fragile – Handle With Care”.

This is a topic about which I know very little. As treatment progresses, I will no doubt gain insight into how my trauma affected me. It is only very recently I have discovered that the PTSD is something that can be fixed. At times I felt irreparably broken, while at others I begrudgingly accepted these new aspects of myself as the “new” me. Now, I understand that although these triggers are installed in me due to the trauma, I can uninstall them through therapy.

I’ll never be someone who hasn’t endured trauma, but with the right tools and support, I can let go of the fear and anxiety that plague my relationship with the world and people in it.

Praise for the LDR!

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What’s the LDR, you ask? Long-Distance Relationship – something I never thought I would enjoy. As it turns out, the LDR can be really amazing. I’m certainly not a relationship expert – but I have made enough mistakes to learn what NOT to do. I’ve taken these lessons and incorporated them into my current relationship, and I’m slowly learning what TO do. It’s going really well. We have found a way to find balance and happiness. But first, some back story. Everyone loves a back story.

I met Jeremy when I was sixteen – nearly a decade ago. We worked at the same restaurant. I quickly developed a typical high-school crush on him. He was older than me (26 at the time), smart, handsome, cultured… complete puppy-love. Total infatuation. I lusted after him the way teenagers do, but it was never gonna happen. I used to get jealous when he talked about his girlfriend, secretly wishing (in the way only a teenager can) I was in her place. It was all very charming, really, but we were just friends. I was actually okay with that, because he was a really cool dude.

We closed the restaurant together most nights, which meant we were alone for hours. While I washed dishes and he cooked, we would talk about our lives. We were so open with one another. We talked, just the two of us, and bonded. He never flirted with me (which was annoying) and refused my many offers for a hug (also annoying; I was constantly hugging people; he did accept a high-five once!), but we were friends, and that was good enough for me.

After I graduated high school in 2007, I moved to the Midwest. He moved away from New England as well, and we lived separate lives. It was 2009, about a month before I turned twenty, he was in town visiting a friend. How serendipitous!  We met for coffee and I was shy and unsure of myself. The sixteen-year-old inside of me still lusted after him. Sadly, I lived there and he lived far away. Plus, I had a boyfriend.

We talked sporadically over the years – a phone call, text, or Facebook message here and there – but we were both doing our own thing. We were never as close as we had been when we worked together, but talking to him always felt like a touch of home. When I got married, I tried to let go of that insane infatuation, but I always wondered “what would have happened if?”. I guess the teenage girl in me just couldn’t let it go.

When I got divorced, I called Jeremy to let him know what happened. He had recently ended a relationship, too, and we bonded over the phone, sharing the details of our respective relationships. I had moved back to New England and so had he, but we were still a few hours apart. It was the closest we had been (geographically) in a long time. We talked about how we should get together, but I was in the middle of an emotional shit-storm and it didn’t happen. Not then, anyway.

I had some more relationships, and so did he, and we didn’t talk for a year or so. Then, in January, we reconnected again. We talked for hours on the phone. About everything. We began talking and texting on a regular basis. It shocked me how after all that time – especially with long periods of not talking at all – he didn’t feel like a stranger.

In January, I was in a relationship that I was pretty sure would be for the long haul. When everything exploded in my face, I leaned on Jeremy for support. I cried, lamented, and talked about how terrible everything was. I leaned into him and he leaned into me, and I didn’t feel isolated at all. He was a supportive friend.

We quickly decided we needed to see one another – it had been five years since our last meeting (when he visited his friend in the Midwest). He lived about three hours away and agreed to drive up for a visit.

I was so nervous. So nervous, in fact, that I was pacing my front porch while my best friend tried to calm me down. I changed my outfit about five times. My mind was racing. What if he drove all that way and we had nothing to talk about? What if he drove all that way and we didn’t click like we always had? Round and round I went in my own mind. I was wringing my hands and a complete mess. Equal parts excited and terrified.

When he got out of the car, I took one look at him and immediately relaxed. This was Jeremy, after all. If we managed to stay connected through years of sporadic contact and hundreds of miles in between us, there shouldn’t be a problem.

We went to dinner and had an amazing time. I was relaxed, confident, and safe. Everything we said and did felt natural. I was at ease and incredibly happy.

Over the course of the next few weeks and months, I was hyper-aware of everything going on around me. Reconnecting with Jeremy in this way – realizing how happy we made one another – happened at a very peculiar time. I had just ended a relationship and was not interested in a rebound, nor was I interested in making myself vulnerable all over again. I was on the mend, and that made things with him very tricky.

He was my friend first, incredibly patient, and available to me for every need. He was exactly like all of my other friends, except I was even more attracted to him than I had been before. The sixteen-year-old inside of me was jumping up and down and excitedly shouting You want him, he wants you, go for it! while the cautious and cynical twenty-four-year-old was calmly saying Be patient. Take your time. If he really does want you, he will wait.

For the first four months, I refused to enter into an exclusive partnership with him. I was determined to give myself the time and space I needed to heal from what happened. It didn’t matter that he was the only one I wanted, I needed to feel free. Despite my best efforts to remain walled in and guard my heart and soul, there was something about him that made me want to open up. Little by little, I revealed more to him about myself. There were anxiety-provoking moments, nerve-wracking moments, and lots of times when I said things that might shock the average Joe, but Jeremy took it all in stride. He listened to me while I processed my feelings for hours on end (no joke – I think our longest phone call was four hours long, and the longest I have talked without interruption is 90 minutes), held me while I cried, and was always available to me. He was kind, respectful, and patient.

At the beginning of the summer, I realized I had to make a decision. I was still afraid of what this meant, constantly analyzing all of my thoughts and feelings. I felt so unsure of myself, questioning my judgement and decisions left and right. All the while, we were rapidly reaching a point of no return. When the opportunity presented itself, I decided to exercise the freedom I thought I needed, and discovered I didn’t need it at all. So, I chose Jeremy. He had already chosen me, of course.

From that point forward, things have only gotten better. A decade of friendship has transformed into a powerful love – one that is full of trust and safety. These two things are vital to me, because I have been betrayed many times by people I trust. It is crucial that I feel safe in a friendship or relationship, otherwise it just won’t work. There was a lot of trust to begin with, because we were friends for such a long time before falling in love. Sometimes I wonder if, even though I want to call it infatuation now, I did fall in love with him at sixteen.

Which brings me (finally) to the reason why the LDR deserves praise.

I have been in a lot of relationships over the past ten years, but this is the first time my partner has lived so far away. Up until this point, I would have said that this would never work for me, because I crave attention. How would I get it if my partner isn’t there all the time?

What I found, instead, is that being in a long-distance relationship provided me the opportunity to find balance between my relationship and the rest of my life. I get all of the time alone I never thought I wanted. As it turns out, I really like being alone. I appreciate solitude. For the past eight months, I have lived: A) not with a relative and B) not with a romantic partner. I have roommates, so I’m not completely isolated, but my schedule does not revolve around my relationship. Despite the heartbreak I have endured, I haven’t given up hope that I will one day remarry and have children. It’s a dream for the future, but right now I need a lot of room to grow and learn more about myself. Being in a long-distance relationship gives me the best of both worlds: my emotional and physical needs are regularly met while I have the freedom to come and go as I please.

When you’re in a LDR, you have to work to prove you want the relationship. I am certain Jeremy cares about me because he puts in a lot of effort. In any relationship, certain things (should be) standard – affection, meaningful conversations, and sex (to name a few). I’ve had all of these things before, but I’ve never seen someone try so hard to not only court me, but keep me around. In the beginning, it was difficult for me to accept that I could be so wonderful that someone would work a ten-hour day then drive two-and-a-half hours just to give me a hug. “Five hours for five minutes” – that’s one of the many cute sayings we have for each other.

On my end, I couldn’t do the same thing for a long time. I didn’t have a car for a long time, and when I finally got one, I realized it wasn’t road-safe so I had to buy another. Once that happened, I had to make sure the car would make the trip. Well, I arrived in one piece and the car handled beautifully, so that’s taken care of.

Since I couldn’t drive weekly to see him until now, I’ve tried to find other ways to show him how much I value him. Once in a while I’ll pick up the tab, even though he always protests. I’ve sent him letters and cards, hidden love notes in his things for him to find later, and I am as available to him as he is to me. But above all else – I directly ask him what he needs, then give it to him.

Speaking of asking – communication is crucial. Distance does make the heart grow fonder, and in our relationship, that means that my fondness of him grows as we connect through conversation. I’ve found that in-town relationships survive longer than they are meant to because sex and companionship carry you through times of doubt. Without either of those things to lean on for support, we can only talk to each other. We talk every single day. We talk in the morning, or late at night after work, or in the middle of the day. We try to keep in touch through text messaging as well. We are always in contact with one another. Sometimes our conversations have to be brief – a quick “How was your day? Love you”, but most of our conversations are very long and very deep. We explore ideas about the world and ourselves, using the opposite person as a sounding board. There have been lots of little epiphanies along the way, and I often joke that he is ghost-writing my book, because I’ve come to some rather amazing conclusions while talking to him about my life.

Along the lines of communication, skip the bullshit and be open about everything. This seems like a no-brainer, and it’s a piece of advice I would give anyone who is trying to develop a relationship. There is so much sacrifice in a LDR, so take a short-cut and just be honest. That way, if it’s not going to work, you’re not sacrificing for no reason. However, it takes time to work up the courage to say things that you don’t want to say, but there is some safety in talking over the phone. It’s a sort of anonymity – there can be no face-to face conflict on the phone, and you really have to pay attention to what the other person is saying. When we talk to each other, there are no distractions. We each have the other’s undivided attention for the duration of the conversation. Without facial expression or body language to give cues, we really have to listen to one another.

Can’t write a post about the LDR without talking about sex. Let me start by pointing out that sex is complicated no matter what kind of relationship you have, but being in a LDR does affect your sex life. The most obvious example would be: I want it now and can’t have it now. When you have an in-town relationship, sex might be available all the time. With the LDR, you are limited to the time you have together. In addition to that, there is a kind of pressure associated with that time you DO have together – I found myself wanting to squeeze an entire week’s worth of sex into two or three days. It was an unrealistic expectation to put on myself, and it only made me feel guilty. I bring a fair amount of baggage to the table, and some of it has to do with sexual abuse I have received in other relationships. This was a perfect opportunity to continue our open communication, talking about how we felt about it. We didn’t have to make an action-plan – we just agreed that sex should happen when it feels right. So, for the time we are together, sex happens when it feels natural. When we are apart, we just don’t have sex. It’s as simple as that.  In the beginning, the not having sex was really frustrating. All I can say is that I got used to it.

On the plus side, since we spend the entire week talking openly with one another and finding other ways to connect, the time apart ends up being a type of foreplay. All of that pent-up excitement and adoration is released all at once. It makes for a very satisfying time together, as long as you can handle the time apart.

The number one reason the LDR works for me (aside from that fact that Jeremy is still a really cool dude) is I know when my needs will be met. This doesn’t just apply to our sex life, it applies to everything. I like my hand to be held, to share a bed with someone, and to get lots of hugs. I enjoy laughter and lively conversation, as well as sharing meals and sharing time with the person I love. Whether it be a phone call or a visit, I feel happiest when I know when to expect these things. This might not apply to everyone, but I imagine that if more people knew what was happening in the relatively short future, they would be more at ease overall. There are lots of times when we simply cannot know what will happen next, but the LDR should absolutely have some sort of plan attached to it.

I always know when I will talk to Jeremy on the phone or when I will see him face to face. Sometimes we plan this out day-to-day, and sometimes we know a few days in advance what our work schedules will be like. Seeing each other every week is a privilege, because we both understand that during certain times of the year, we will see one another less frequently. During the summertime his schedule is crazy – working sixty or more hours a week – and during the winter we have inclement weather to consider. I am in school and so I have classes and I work, and we still have regular lives outside our relationship.

No matter what the circumstance is, I feel safest when I feel in control. What makes me feel in control is the ability to regulate my own emotions without feeling like the rug is being ripped out from underneath me. So, barring an emergency, I know when I will see him and for how long. It helps me manage the time we are apart. As long as I know when we will talk or see each other next, I can manage any feelings of loneliness.

In addition to the short-term planning, we have an idea of what the future looks like. I am staying where I am until I graduate from school, which will take a little over a year. After that, I’ll be transferring to a different school to continue my education. Jeremy and I talked about it, and he encouraged me to pursue my dreams. We both agreed that a LDR arrangement would not work long-term, but we can make it work until we can find another way to be closer together. It’s not a plan per se, but it is an idea of what might happen next.

 

To My Ten-Year-Old Self: A Letter

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Inspired by this video.

To my ten-year-old self:

As I write you this letter, I am 25 years old. A lot of things have happened in the past 25 years. While I do not reflect on any of these experiences with regret, there are a few things that, if I had known them, I would have avoided all of the unnecessary pain.

For starters, some pain is necessary. Dad will tell you in a few years that if it doesn’t hurt, you’re not doing it right. That growth comes from discomfort. You’ll resist this idea, but I advise you to chase after the things that make you nervous or scared. Lean into that feeling, let it fill you up, but never let it prevent you from chasing every dream.

In a few years, the bullying will start. Certain members of your peer group will mistreat you – and you should absolutely remove yourself from those relationships as quickly as possible. As a good rule of thumb, if it makes you feel bad about yourself, stay away from it. Teasing is never okay when it makes you feel bad about yourself. Even if something is presented like a joke, you will know in your heart if it is mean spirited in nature. When this does happen, understand that nothing anyone says about you can define your self-concept. They are only words, and for that matter they are only the opinions of others, which are none of your business anyway. What really matters is how you feel about yourself.

On that note, be humble. You will make many mistakes. Use each one as an exercise in humility. Always ask for help when you need help. Always apologize when you know you have done something wrong. Choose kindness first, every time, even when those around you do not behave that way. Learn empathy – the ability to understand someone else’s perspective – and learn patience. Also learn to believe in yourself, even when you are behind the curve on some things.

Never stop singing. I am telling you this because when you are 12, kids at school will make fun of you and accuse you for trying to show-off because you have a beautiful voice. Do not let them silence that voice. Of course you are not showing off – it’s not your fault you have the voice you have – and music makes you feel good. Sing loud and sing proud, kiddo.

Do not quit when things get hard. You will struggle with this constantly. Mom and dad will let you quit enough times to feel like you never had to see anything through to the very end, for better or for worse.

Speaking of mom and dad – pay them respect. Try to accept this now: they are way more than just mom and dad. They are Lee and Tracy, they have identities beyond what you see and the role of parent, and they are flawed individuals. They will make mistakes. This is because you are the oldest. Believe me – they love you endlessly and always want to protect you.

Be especially kind to mom during ages 12-17. Do not punish her because you are finally starting to realize she is more important to Dad than you. She always was.

Be gentle with your father, because as he watches you mature into a young woman, you will likely make some choices that make him very uncomfortable. You have the rest of your life to make private decisions privately; for now, just try to behave like a young lady should.

Be nice to your sisters, but stand up to Katy. She can be bossy and scary sometimes, and you might be tempted to let her walk all over you. Don’t. Don’t let anyone do that, as a matter of fact, including mom and dad, boyfriends, friends, teachers, and strangers. Stand up for yourself, but always be polite and respectful when doing so.

Make an extra effort to build a solid respectful relationship with Kasey. She is so much younger than you – only three now – that it can be hard to connect. When you are 25, you don’t want to worry that your sister, now 18, has nothing to say to you.

Relax. Relax. Relax. I know that you don’t understand a lot of your own intense feelings. I know that some sensory aspects of the world bother you. Dad is (or used to be) pretty high strung, and you are equally high strung because of genetics or modeling. Relax. Chill out. I know that you are fearful of the unknown and things you can’t quite understand, but just because you don’t know, that doesn’t make it scary. Nurture an appetite for adventure and never let fear get in the way.

Never stop reading. Silly, I know, but you will thank me one day.

Never stop writing. Write about everything. Write all the time. Don’t worry if it’s any good. Develop discipline by writing every single day, immediately after homework (you should get in the habit of doing it now) and before any play. Writing is your homework (some days) and your play (other days). The final product is not important. No one has to read it. Just write.

Speaking of writing, if you haven’t figured it out, you’re a writer. You will be (and can be) anything you want to be – but at the core you will always be a writer. You will spend much of your adult life (I think) trying to figure out what that means exactly. But, accept it now and never let anyone tell you that writers are “starving artists”. By the time you graduate from college, that won’t be true anymore. Technology and culture to the point where the writer is as commonplace as the Doctor, Dentist, or Veterinarian; do not limit yourself for any reason.

Finally – always put yourself first. I do not mean be selfish, not in the bad way that you are thinking. I mean take care of you. You have a huge heart and will want to help so many people throughout the next ten years. You will not be able to help anyone if you are not well taken care of. The person responsible for your emotional and physical well-being is YOU. So, drink plenty of water (don’t wait until you are thirsty), eat properly (or try to – it can be hard), love your body no matter how frustrating it is, forgive yourself for your own mistakes, forgive others for theirs, try to see the beauty in the world, get enough rest, and find balance between work and home. This last one is especially hard. Pour about half as much of yourself into people that you want to; this gets you a lot closer to a balanced life.

Remember that you are beautiful and unique and special, but so is everyone else. Respect yourself, respect others, and keep an open mind about the complexities of the world.

With love,

Your older self.

PS: It’s okay to experiment with anything you feel comfortable experimenting with, on your terms, in a safe manner. But do not smoke cigarettes. Once you start, you won’t stop for a long time.

 

Love and Cognitive Dissonance Theory

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When it comes to ideas about why we stay in abusive relationships, I have drawn a conclusion (of sorts) from a few different philosophical and psychological theories. In order to tie this all together, I want to describe these theories first.

In social psychology, we are learning about the way external social forces impact our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Part of this discussion requires that we understand more about why we (as human beings) do the things we do in order to survive. For example – human beings classify things. This is not something we do for sport; it is a necessity. In order to safely exist in our own environment, we must find a way to understand our environment. This is how we ascertain which berries are safe to eat, why it’s important to stay a safe distance away from the edge of a cliff, and at what speed we should take a turn while driving. We are constantly collecting information about everything around us, and it is how we make decisions about what we see. This has kept our species alive. While some animals can easily survive with their speed or sharp fangs, human beings have only their minds. We are capable of considering the environment around us.

We do the same thing with people, as well. Just as we are aware we shouldn’t eat a certain berry because it is poisonous (something we learned from trial and error – it is not instinctual), we also learn about certain types of people. We subconsciously feel safer around people that match us – whether it be gender, race, socioeconomic status, or simply the way someone looks. Research indicates we gravitate toward other people that remind us of ourselves, because we trust ourselves, so therefore they must be trustworthy, too.

When you enter a room for the first time, your brain is busy taking it all in and making decisions in the background. You may not notice this happening at all. But, you enter a room and note several individuals also in the room. You need to take a seat. You will subconsciously sit near a person who feels safe, perhaps because they are well-dressed or dressed like you, or perhaps because you have a gut feeling that the person is probably okay. You might avoid someone who looks dangerous or unlike you, just to be on the safe side. You might also sit facing the exit, or sit in the seat closest to the exit, or simply pick a seat that is far away from strangers. We make these decisions based on feeling, sometimes without pausing to think about where the feeling comes from.

Our minds also categorize and gain information about people. We judge others despite our best efforts to be impartial – but don’t feel badly about this. Again, it’s all a part of the safety mechanism. Without claws or teeth or an especially strong hide (skin), we have to use our minds to give us an edge. Once we make an initial judgement, it tends to stick. In addition, a lot of the subsequent information we receive gets filed away to support our initial judgement.

So, that addresses exactly what our brains do, but let’s take a look at why that puts us at an extreme disadvantage. I’ll use a leaf as an example. This theory was explained to me with the leaf example, and it’s the easiest to understand.

Let’s say you pick a leaf up off the ground. You look at the leaf and remark: “This is a leaf.” By saying that out loud, what you are also saying is that the leaf is NOT the million things that make it a unique object in and of itself. You forever limit the potential of the leaf to be anything but that: a leaf. It’s a catch-22, of course, because if we didn’t call a leaf a leaf, the world would have no order. We must assign names and values to things, but by doing so, we are removing the possibility to see such things as anything but.

A person, of course, is more complex than a leaf. While a leaf has one million things that make it different than all other leaves – exact dimension, shade of color, intricate vein system – people have tens of millions of things that make them unique. We know this, of course, but as stated in the beginning of this post, our brains are busy categorizing and classifying things to determine what something is and what something is not; namely, what is safe and what is not safe.

When we meet someone, there are a few things we can determine right off. A person is male or female, a person appears to be a certain race or socioeconomic status, a person is such-and-such height and weight. Even more nonverbal cues can help create the picture of who this person “is”: he is wearing a baseball hat, ergo he must like baseball. Or, she has styled her hair, ergo she must take a lot of pride in her appearance and go to great lengths to look nice. Add to that the cultural and social knowledge we either subscribe to or has been taught to us from birth, and we might (unknowingly) make these assumptions: he is probably a “guy’s guy” because he is into sports, or she might be shallow because she takes so much time with her appearance.

This is all happening in the subconscious, mind you, whether we want it to or not. Again, it’s our way of defining the universe to feel safe and in control.

Let’s say baseball hat asks you on a date, and you accept. You go to dinner and discuss your hopes, dreams, families, and hobbies. Everything baseball hat tells you gets filed away in your brain under the folder “baseball hat”. The folder has probably been changed to “Peter”, because that is baseball hat’s name. So, Peter has a good relationship with his parents and is the oldest sibling. He works as an accountant and likes to spend the weekends taking his nephew to baseball games. Peter also enjoys music, but his favorite is country. The list goes on.

Fast forward again – six months – and you feel like you know Peter pretty well. You’ve fallen in love and you spend a lot of time together. You are confident that you can anticipate what Peter will and will not do under certain circumstances. You know he likes a lemon with his iced tea, and you also know that when he feels frustrated, he likes space. He always leaves a wet towel on the bathroom floor, but also always closes the shower curtain. To your knowledge, he has never lied to you, and he seems quite open about his thoughts and feelings. Peter loves you, too.

All in all, you feel great about your relationship with Peter. Things are going well. You are thinking about taking your relationship to the next level.

Then, Peter does something that you don’t see coming. Something that makes you sad, hurts your feelings, or confuses you.

It is quite natural for you to feel confused. After all, by this point, the Peter folder in your head is full of information. You think you know him pretty well, in fact.  Suddenly, you feel a cognitive dissonance.

The cognitive dissonance theory is a simple one – even though it sounds really fancy. Cognitive dissonance is made up of two words: cognitive and dissonance. The word cognitive comes from the word cognition, which by definition is the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses. Synonyms include learning, apprehension, and understanding. Simply put – cognitive is what we think. The word dissonance is typically used in music, and it refers to a lack of harmony between music notes. It can be simplified to being defined as a lack of harmony (in general), or, even simpler, a clash.

In essence, cognitive dissonance happens when we think or believe two ideas that contradict one another.

In terms of a relationship, cognitive dissonance happens when your partner does something to hurt you in some way. It can happen on a small scale (your partner doesn’t call when he says he does) or something major (your partner hits you). The dissonance appears because you are holding two attitudes simultaneously: I love my partner; I do not love my partner’s behavior.

At this point, you feel quite uncomfortable. Most people are acutely aware when dissonance occurs, because it is an uncomfortable sensation. When any cognitive dissonance occurs, the mind tries to create balance by solving the dissonance. The two attitudes cannot exist simultaneously, so one of them has to change. The attitude “I love my partner” is emotional and intense. The attitude “I do not love my partner’s behavior” is also emotional, but has more to do with self-concept and self-esteem/worth.

In the end, you have a tough choice to make. Do you accept the behavior in order to preserve the love, or do you end the love because the principle of the infraction is more important? For some examples, it is quite easy to resolve dissonance. For example, Peter doesn’t call when he says he will. This upsets you because he left you hanging, and you feel disrespected. You later have a conversation with Peter and explain your feelings, and he apologizes and tells you he will not do that again. You know you are upset, but at this point, might think you are overreacting and in the interim you might have minimized the behavior with such thoughts as “He must have gotten held up at work” or “Maybe there was an emergency”. After all, it’s only a missed call, right? The love you share with Peter is so wonderful that a missed call won’t end your relationship.

Now, in the other example, Peter hits you. You know immediately that this behavior is not okay, but it has never happened before. You are very distraught because the Peter folder SAYS he won’t hit you, but then he does. You are confused and terribly saddened. The love was perfect, but then he hit you. Peter apologizes later, of course, and promises it won’t happen again. You crave his love and affection so much that you are able to rationalize his behavior. After all, even though Peter never said anything to you about it, maybe some part of his part makes him behave this way. Everything else feels great, this was just a blip. And, you are sure the message sank in.

This is where things get a little tricky. Although I think we can all agree that missing a phone call is a far cry from hitting someone, the thought process is still the same. Peter behaved out of character, and a dissonance resulted. You are upset about the behavior, you talk about it, and apologize. Since you love him very much, you want to work things out. Add to this the complex expectations socially and culturally, and you find yourself in a losing battle. It’s a no-win for you, because there is pressure everywhere. Maybe your parents are divorced and you want to create a lasting relationship. Maybe you are lonely and willing to let some things slide (since everything is okay for the most part) with Peter. Maybe other partners have told you in the past that you are far too sensitive and you have a complex about it. Are you overreacting AGAIN? It doesn’t really matter what kind of pressure it is, only that it’s there. You and Peter do not exist in a vacuum.

All throughout this process, you can’t help but shake the feeling that Peter feels like a stranger to you, and for good reason. Since human beings are biologically wired to classify and organize the world around us (including people), it would make sense that Peter seems like a stranger. After all, nothing in the Peter folder prepared you for this. But remember the leaf – by saying it is a leaf, you are also saying it cannot be the million things that a leaf is unto itself. The same goes for people – Peter can be anything included in the folder, surely, but can also be anything outside of the folder.

Once you consider that fact, it seems a little crazy to fall in love at all! If Peter can be anything he wants, what are the odds he’s secretly a serial killer or is really interested in joining a commune? What if he proposes the very next day? What if he decides to become a priest? This is why we classify the world – because chaos would be the only other alternative. But, as with Peter and the leaf, we see that classifying the world doesn’t make it so; that is just what we SEE.

Upon reflecting on all of this, you decide to ultimately stay with Peter. Maybe he hits you again or forgets to call again, maybe he doesn’t. Maybe it was truly a fluke or a result of some other set of bizarre circumstances that (hopefully) never come up again. Or, maybe you ultimately decide to leave Peter, because once is enough. Either way, now you know the ugly truth about the world: there isn’t a way to know everything about everything, including yourself. Future relationships seem scary because you don’t trust your own judgement when it come to picking a partner. You might feel embarrassment or shame, and don’t want anyone to know.

The only thing left to do is focus all of that energy inward. When it comes to setting boundaries in your relationships with others, you are in control. People will only treat you the way you allow them to treat you. In a fashion, most things we experience are a direct result of our choices. This is not to say that the behavior of others is excusable, because the allow them to get away with it, because the two conversations are independent of one another. You can simultaneously hold these two attitudes: This is how I want to be treated and This is how I am being treated. It will feel uncomfortable, which is an indication that something needs to change.

My advice to anyone contemplating this: if something about your relationship makes you uncomfortable, there is a good reason for that. There is, somewhere, a dissonance that needs to be addressed. Although love is important and precious, only preserve that love which creates minimal dissonance. It takes a long time to find the right kind of partner – the one who creates dissonance rarely. It’s a rather clinical way of looking at it, which is a good thing. The love is mushy and you get the feels – they cloud your judgement. Your partner falls into one of two categories: this is working and I know it’s working because I rarely feel dissatisfied, or this isn’t working and I can tell because the majority of our conversations are fights surrounding our behaviors and how they make us upset. We are not compatible, and likely never will be.

As an afterthought: no one gets to decide what makes you happy. Only you know. Never settle for less than exactly that.