Thursday, December 24, 2009

End of quarter 1 and holidays

On thge 18th of December I finished my first quarter at JFK. I find myself happier and more engaged in this program than I've ever before been in my academic career. How to explain the excitement of both coming to a greater understanding of humans and relationships and discovering ever more complex and intriguing questions about the mind and ways we come together as families and society? To me it is the joy of understanding things I've so long wondered about and finding new and more exciting questions to ponder... this is something I would gladly pay to do for the rrest of my life, but thankfully will not have to :)

In my first quarter I learned about how family structures and systems can lead to problems in individuals. I learned about how psychologists can come together to prevent and intervene in many of the mental issues that will sometimes plague us throughout our lives. I learned about how the transitions we make through life tend to lead us into particular patterns of troubled thought and behavior... but most importantly, I learned that I truly love to solve these puzzles, speak in public, be inspired through inspiring, and have a mentor who supports and encourages me to reach beyond what I believe I can do.

For this quarter I created a workshop proposal to help people leaving jail and prison to build a life that is better and more satisfying than what they had before. This quarter I discovered a model of conceptualizing and visualizing identity development that might be important and useful in helping therapists treat mental illness, and this quarter I came to the understanding that my usefulness as a part of humanity may most effectively lie in researching and writing, in publicly educating and advocating for underserved people, in developing programs and workshops that people all over can use to lessen thier problems and maybe even overcome them.

And I learned that I am really a great mommy, even when I don't have as much time as I wish... that I am too stuck in my head and need to get back into feeling with my body and emotions instead of only through my mind.

So this coming year I will take all of this and add even morre. I will hike into the mountains and memorize the beautiful vistas they reveal. I will meditate and focus on that outside of my thoughts. I will play again.

And this holiday season I am taking this as a challenge and a goal. To love and be loved. To laugh and learn and enjoy. For life is a short journey, and the trip is that which we must find all our beauty within.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Limits of Our Potential

As expected, my master's program is inspiring a lot of soul-searching and self-evaluation of what I truly believe to be true about myself and other people. If I am to become a person who will attempt to help people journey toward their version of happiness, I must know where I stand on the crossroads of any given path. How much can people change? What are the limits of personal potential? What is possible, likely, and probable. Where is the line between reality and fantasy? What is healthy, normal, functional, dysfunctional, and unhealthy... what do I truly know to be true?

In the end, this is my truth; I believe.

I believe that every person, no matter their past, crime, family, addiction-- no matter what-- can be whomever they choose to be. I also believe that I do not have the power to change anyone; I simply have the power to believe. And believing is an amazing power and gift sometimes.

I've seen people wilt and descend to depths of darkness and despair for the lack of it. I've seen people climb from the bowels of their own personal hells for the same simple thing. Some people live their whole lives without belief, some people are limited by belief, and some people transcend reality for it. For hope and belief are entwined and connected irrevocably. One cannot have one without the other, and we all need them both to thrive in the harsh light of the world.

But belief in itself is neutral. We all hold beliefs that lift us and weigh us down. our potential is limited only by the beliefs we choose to live by; in the end we are bound by the limits of our faith.

So this I know this chilly November evening: I believe we each are the person we believe ourselves to be, and that in every moment we are free to believe we can be someone different than who we were today.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Constructing the self

As I continue to work toward the development of a program to effectively help individuals leave jail and prisons and build lives outside of crime and self-destructiveness, I continuously return to the very basic question of reconciling the disconnect between "our" understandings of a good life and "theirs." It seems, to me, that larger society tends to forget that these people are adults who have had their entire lifetime to construct the ideals and belief systems that have brought them to wherever they are in their inner lives, and that in order to reach them where they are, we must respect and understand that, no matter their past, they are complete individuals with justifications and valid points of view that must be considered and respected.

This is a difficult problem for everyone involved, we (as integrated citizens with positive lives) recognize that much of the basis for their problems in living is due to immature and/or irrational thinking patterns and systems, coupled with inadequate coping skills and social supports etc.. But, in order to truly meet these humans and reach out to them in a meaningful way, we must validate and empower them to not only embrace and enlarge the strengths they possess, but to come to the conclusion that other parts of their behaviour are not effective or worth maintaining within their lives.

In order to do this, we must begin within ourselves. We must find the capacity to place ourselves in thier shoes and truly understand how and where they are right now. We must put aside our notions of what they should be, and simply engage them as who they are-- confirming their strength, beauty, specialness, and value right now... no matter what they have done in the past. if, for example, we are speaking with an individual who was imprisoned for prostitution, we have to be able to transcend our initial response to them, as a "fallen woman" and help them to see the strengths and courage that brought them to that state of being before we attempt to "change" them into a person we believe they should be. For this woman, let's call her Jane, carries with her a journey that has brought her to the state she is in at this point.

Jane's (imaginary) story: Jane was born in the early 80's, the youngest of 4 children to a couple whose marriage was stormy and stressful. Jane's mother worked 60 hours a week as a waitress at Denny's and drank heavily in the evenings and on weekends; her waitressing job left her tired and sore after hectic shifts on her feet, and she was often inconsistent and irritable because of the lack of financial security and social respect she experienced at her workplace. Jane's father was a construction worker who, getting older, began having health problems that kept him from working during long periods of time. He did not belong to a union, and was also a heavy drinker who frequently took his stress and frustration out on his wife and children in the form of physical and verbal abuse. As Jane approached adolescence, her father began to sexually abuse her, and she was also sexually abused by other men in her family and neighbours. Jane, upon reporting the abuse to her mother, was told that she was a "lying slut" who must have "asked for it."

At 16, Jane's mother kicked Jane out of the house, blaming her for the increasing distance and instability of her marital relationship. Jane, already failing in school, stopped attending at all. She had been secretly drinking from the age of 11, and in her desperation decided she had nothing to lose and moved into using crack and crystal meth. At 16, she was young and pretty enough to interest a local dealer and moved in with him a his girl. He supplied her with a steady supply of drugs and a place to stay, that he physically and emotionally abused her was "normal" in her experience. This arrangement worked well enough for her for several years, especially as she was willing to ignore his trespasses, infidelity, and abuse. She was in love with him, seeing the "real" him underneath his brash exterior, and it was the major tragedy of her life when he was murdered by a rival dealer when Jane was 20. At 20, then, Jane found herself alone, without a steady source of meth, which she was very dependent upon by this time, and the years of hard drug use had taken their toll on her looks and her body. To look at her then, was to see someone closer to 40. Her teeth were begining to rot, and her emaciated body no longer had the lean muscle tone of youth. Unable to attract the interest of another dealer, and lacking any vocational skills, she lived on the street and briefly took a job waitressing with her mother. Soon, though, she discovered that she could not make enough money to support her drug habit, let alone pay for housing, and moved to stripping at parties. It was not long before she began to prostitute herself along with stripping, for the moment still through a "legitimate" service, and was able to make enough money to support her drug habit, rent a stable room, and have some of the luxuries she had before enjoyed with her dead boyfriend (designer clothes, manicures & pedicures etc..). Time was marching on though; with each passing year of drug abuse and selling herself in various ways, she was losing what remained of her looks. By 24 she had become so "hard" looking that the service dropped her and she found herself once again unable to support herself.

It was then that Jane hooked up with Joe. She knew he was a pimp, and a mean one, but at least he would take care of her. She started selling herself on the streets, and giving him all of the money, in return for his "protection" and a steady supply of drugs. He beat her on a regular basis, to prove his ownership of her, and as punishment for any infraction of the many rules he had for his stable of bitches. She was arrested many times for prostitution and having small amounts of Meth, and by the time we meet her she was finally given a year in prison for solicitation.

In prison she has not been "clean." She has traded sex for drugs and alcohol with guards and other prisoners alike. She is now an irregular drug user though, since she doesn't have a constant supply, and doesn't have much hope that anything will be different for her once she gets out of jail. She did get her GED in prison, and can now read at about a 6th grade level, but doesn't believe it will really improve her chances to succeed in the "legit" world, especially with her record. Jane is 26 years old, and chance has brought her into our lives at this moment; where can we go from the place she is in?

Sure, this is an imagined situation, but it is not unlikely or an exaggeration of what has been true for many people we would meet in any given prison or jail. Jane, in fact, has a much nicer history than is the case for many of the women we would meet-- she came from an intact family and parents who had jobs. She was able to engage in a long-term relationship that provided her with stability for 4 years, and avoided street prostitution until a relatively late age. When we look at her story, though, we must avoid seeing it through our own history and belief systems. We must avoid pitying her or vilifying her both. If we pity her, we are depriving her of the respect she deserves for having survived the hardships of her life, worse though, we are subtly telling her that she is not like ourselves and invalidating her basic humanity and dignity by taking away her power and responsibility in her life. If we vilify her we are again missing the amazing feat she has accomplished by surviving to this point, and depriving ourselves and her of the respect and dignity she deserves for making the best choices she could in circumstances that we cannot truly imagine for ourselves. We are failing, from either stance, to understand the deeper experience of Jane's life and how she understands and rationalizes what she has gone through and done up to this point.

For we must start at the begining of Jane's life, and see how she saw on this journey. In her experience, "normal" includes chaos, instability, violence, and insecurity on every level. Her ife has taught her that she has little intrinsic worth, except as a sexual medium, and that her misfortunes are a result of something inherently bad inside of herself. From her parents, she learned to use substances as a way to cope with the harsh realities of life, and also that she should accept and tolerate every kind of abuse as "the way life is." her responses and behaviors, though irrational to us, are normal and rational responses given the reality of her experience. And underneath this all, if we are to reach and help Jane, we must realize that she is deeply wounded and bound by all of the negative self-talk she carries from her family, and the condemnation of society (which she is profoundly aware of).

So if we meet Jane with any hint of disgust or criticism we will lose her from the very start. She is carrying enough self-hatred and cynicism to punish herself far more than we could ever hope to do... what we need to do is see underneath the ruined person she will show us and look at her as the innocent child she once was and still is in her deepest self. Look at Jane, and see her as your 9 year old niece or child. See the potential and beauty of her hope and possibility to love and give her own special greatness to the world. See this beautiful child, with tears staining her cheeks as she faces disappointment and betrayal from those who should have protected and loved her. For this is the person you must reach out to, and recover, to help Jane build a life that will succeed.

But you must not tell Jane, at first, for Jane has been long infantilized and invalidated by a system who cannot see her as the whole person she is and always has been. You must begin by validating her as a rational being who has survived and overcome hardships that you cannot imagine. Do not tell her you understand, or know, where she's been. You haven't and don't-- just listen and ask her to teach you where she came from, what she's seen, and the choices she has made. Express to her, truthfully, your amazement at her strength and persistence. Point out how amazing she has been in facing her reality. For the truth of the matter is that Jane HAS been amazing in her ability to survive in the face of her reality; but she cannot see that. What Jane sees is the unforgiving criticism of her family and society. She sees herself as a worthless failure, damaged goods, deserving every punishment, and incapable of being anything except "trash." Before anything else, Jane must see her own power and potential. She must begin to BELIEVE that she is worthwhile and special. She must begin to hope that her past doesn't have to define her future. Only when that begins to happen, can we bolster her inner-strength by asking her to see how perfect and innocent she once was. Without that initial self-love and forgiveness of present, she will not be able to objectively see herself as that child-- she will bring with her the adult mind that cannot forgive even the child she once was.

While this is where we must begin with all of the Janes and Joes we meet, we must continue, also, from a self-removed place. Until we can validate the usefulness of their coping-mechanisms, no matter how destructive, we will never be able to fairly ask them to consider trying some other ways to cope with the hardships of living. Substance abuse is a very effective method of escaping the harsh realities of life; we must not discount the utility or pleasure that individuals gain from these habits. The key is to validate the purposes and rational of substance use, but empower the individual to decide for themselves that there are equally (or more) effective ways to cope that do not have the risks and costs of abusing substances.

Ultimately, we cannot ask a person to respect our views until we are willing to also respect theirs; further, we cannot hope they will respect themselves when we do not first respect them. I believe that self-hatred and pessimism is at the very root of individual failure to succeed in life, particularly when carrying an "ugly" past. It is my hope that we can come to believe in the potential and good of every person; only then can we help them discover that within themselves.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The nature of Criminals?

In one of my classes we had to choose a specific population of people to develop a workshop to deal with issues of treatment and prevention. Out of all of the populations that have drawn my interest through the years, and in light of California's impending early release of 40,000 prisoners due to inhumane conditions and overcrowding in prisons, I chose to focus on the plight of offenders who are at the end of their period of incarceration.

This is not my first foray into the world of criminal justice, it follows my jail poetry program that I constructed for my BA Honor's thesis, but it is the first time I really considered the reality and inner consequences and causes of criminal deeds. Like most people, crime has been a peripheral life issue; something I fear being the victim of and cannot understand the motivation for. Unlike many people I know, I have been closely touched by violent crime-- one of my good friends was violently murdered in 2005-- and I still suffer occasional nightmares and difficulty dealing with the senselessness and horror of what happened to her. I also know that at least 5 of the people I was friends with as a teen are in jail for murder, or have been murdered-- these peoples' misfortunes, and having discovered the loss of many others to addiction, overdose, suicide, and intoxicated accidents, have brought the world of lawlessness much closer to my door than a person of my gender and cultural background would have ever been likely to encounter at any historical period before now.

But the system of law is no longer in congruence with the societal mores and norms of today. That this is true can be clearly illustrated by the fact that we have more imprisoned people than we've ever had, more than any other nation, and that the majority of our criminals are incarcerated for crimes that barely seem valid as reasons for disrupting the lives of an individual and the families who love them. More than half of the people in our jails and prisons are doing time for drug convictions and substance-abuse related crimes. I'm not seeking to engage in the debate about legalization of drugs, or decriminalization of related problems, but rather explore the reality that the discontinuity between public opinion (and morality) and criminal law has created a somewhat unique historical melting pot, if you will.

For there used to be a fairly wide gulf between those who are and are not criminals. Most people have lived lives that were clearly and proudly apart from any hint of lawlessness, and respected the validity and morality imposed by the laws of our land. Perhaps, in prohibition, we can see the closest approximation of our current situation, but even then there was a larger societal acceptance of alcohol as an evil-- and at least women (the gatekeepers of morality) were largely submissive and accepting of the restrictions imposed by law.

Now though, with less gender stratification and a loosening of traditionally rigid standards of morality and behavior, I guess it would be hard to find any one of us who does not have a close and loving relationship with a "criminal." Few of us feel any guilt about breaking traffic laws, at least, and many of us engage in the "criminal" act of using marijuana on at least an occasional basis. For even those of us who no longer smoke pot, there is a good likelihood that we have tried it or have been accomplices or harbourers of the "criminals" who do. Likely you, as I, have a hard time conceiving of the pot smoker as a "criminal," and yet the law does.

The result of this, then, is that the line between criminal and low-abiding citizen has eroded to a point of near invisibility. This erosion causes our society to accept and celebrate the underworld and criminal society as a part of our larger culture, and creates a conflicting and confusing standard for our children. On one hand, they witness the impotence and irrelevance of laws that do not reflect our real standards of living, and on the other hand we still think of criminals as those bad people who are outside of the bounds of acceptable society. While we may not think of our family member or friend who uses any drug as a criminal, we will so classify any stranger who has been caught and jailed for the same offence.

It is this conflicting, confusing, and injust problem of thinking that leads me toward the lives of those who become trapped in a cycle of crime-- very difficult to escape-- and to consider the issues they will face when they return to a society that largely blames them for being caught, and not for the deed they committed. Before they became criminals, most of these people were "ill" and needed help to recover or overcome addiction and chaos. Their crime was not the drugs but their timing and lack of social support. If they were not poor, or a minority, they would have gotten probation, rehab, community service, or let go. But, being poor, they become stigmatized by the experience of incarceration. Their time in prison makes them irredeemable and deserving of harsh treatment and distrust.

And, even if they were guilty of a "real" crime, one that hurt someone else, we must consider and accept the fact that they are leaving incarceration; they might be moving down the street from you.

In the end these thoughts have led me to the ultimate question of this situation. 1) are humans redeemable? 2)How can a person be redeemed? and 3)how much punishment is enough to satisfy our need to teach these people a lesson?

Friday, October 30, 2009

The 2nd Spring in Fall

Three mornings a week I wake at 7, enjoy the gradually lightening sky, the ride my beach cruiser 5 miles to JFK university for class. Wednesday morning, on my journey to Community Mental Health with Dr. Wong, I breathed in the fresh air off the mountains as the curious mixture of fall and spring intoxicated my imagination.

It's the end of October, nearly Halloween, and the grass is still lush and green. Morning glories in near-neon purple display themselves the whole day long here. The bougainvillea, Hibiscus, and Oleander of summer are still lush and showy in the cool mornings of fall. The multitudes of roses, in nearly every yard, are blooming in full pride, what may be their last round of prideful showings this season.

The deciduous trees are changing their colors, blushing red, orange, and yellow-- the green showing underneath like petticoats of ruffly tulle. Eucalyptus spreads the heady smell of menthol and pine-needles across the breeze, and it reminds me of long walks in the frosted pine forest of my family farm.

Then, beyond this all, the Jasmine of spring has flowered again. White petals of sensuous evenings an aphrodisiac in the wind. The calla lillies have burst into bloom along-side birds of paradise, Cannas, true Lillies, and camelias on trees and shrubs. This cacophony of spring and fall coming together strikes me as symbolic of my new life in this beautiful place.

Coming here, I looked for a new begining, a path to shed the me of past and don a new wardrobe of the hopes and aspirations I'd once thought to be unattainable. As I ride along now-familiar streets to the halls of my new professional life, I see that with the newness of spring I also carry the cycles of fall in my bag.

The goal must be, like the fusion of seasons here, to enjoy, accept, and embrace the past, present, and future of who I am and who I will become. As much as I love the newness and innocence of spring's abundance and fury, I also need the comfortable cloak of fall's changing leaves. And as much as I thrive in the temperate climate of this place, I now crave the sight of snow on the mountains surrounding our valley.

And perhaps this mish-mash of seasons best shows why this place is so perfect for me to build my life and become my best self... For the weather here understands me, it, too, must combine and experiment with combinations that might not work anywhere else in the world... it, too, has no care for the rules and procedures in books and tradition... but, it, too, still carries with it a love of order and tradition (though it may not seem so to some) that influence the combinations and tangents of its wild and free spirit. For, here, the climate nurtures the wild hybrid Passiflora right next to the most pedigreed English rose, it shelters the ancient cypress and olive, in the same yard as a grape vine invented last year. It allows for all manner of eclectic gardening, beauty, life and death... it sends pollen indiscriminately from bastard bush to royal bloom. Here, thee environment is scientist, artist, mage, and magician. Here. I see my own reflection (past, present, and future) on every early morning ride.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

My new role as grad student

Well, I started grad school last Monday at JFK university in Campbell. It is always amazing and stressful to add a new role and responsibilities to your life but I am weathering it quite well.

My new days start at 7am with the buzz of my alarm clock; I hurry to shut it off before Lily and Eric are wakened and wander, sleepy-eyed, to the fridge for my caffeine fix and then to our semi-comfy vintage sofa to check my email and think about the coming day.

Now, the sky is just begining to lighten when I wake up. It has a blue-ish gray tinge and seems heavy with the weight of coastal fog that rolls in throughout the night. I barely notice the lightening of the sky as I continue to wake up, often because I'm still in reverie of the dreams I just left behind, and it happens so quickly that it's easy to miss.

Eventually I pull my fleecy, pink, polka-dotted robe tight and slip on my shoes to adventure out to the deck in our backyard. I smoke my first cig of the day, thinking about what I need to accomplish, how I will quit smoking, the gardening and outside projects on our to-do list, and the beauty of new flower blooms throughout the back yard baskets. In the stillness of morning, the hummingbirds whir by to drink sugar-water from the feeder I hung and some early bees begin to wander through the vines and flowers we are learning to cultivate.

In the early mornings I think a lot about life, how much happiness I am finding in the gentle climate of this valley, and how happy I am to raise Lily in this special place. I imagine what my life might be like in 5 years, when I am a practising therapist, and have ever-more complicated roles and responsibilities to think about. And sometimes I think about how peaceful it is to sit outside, amid greenery and flowers and hummingbirds and bees. I think about how I might one day bring this serenity into my practice, creating a haven of natural calm and beauty to relax and invigorate my clients. Maybe a little cabin in the mountains, with a garden and shady terrace to host therapy sessions... Or, maybe a little bungalow on the beach, with the sounds of the waves as background, the salty ocean air to energize, and barefoot walks on the beach to help calm the troubles of the mind... perhaps the backdrop of the mysterious and infinite ocean would help provide perspective to my and their problems and lives.

Then I shake myself out of reverie, start a hot shower, remember to wear my sunscreen, and bundle up for the chilly 5-mile bike ride to school.

This new morning ritual is a good change for me. Some private time to think and be Juliette instead of Mommy. The bike ride fully energizes me and makes me feel ready for class (I feel like I'm in better shape already) and then the class itself always excites me and makes me impatient to learn more.

This is interesting stuff I'm learning, and there is no end to what I can learn in this field... I can think of nothing better than that-- and maybe having a beachfront office to operate out of :)

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Chat with the Stork-- an informal research poll

So one day, you and your significant other decide you want to have a baby. You go to the stork to sign up for one and he says, "It's your lucky day! We have three of our top models available and now you get to choose which one you want! Sheesh... you think you have red tape down here?!? I've been telling the guys upstairs, for centuries, that this random distribution thing is making a lot of trouble with mismatched kids and families! Can you imagine what a pain it is to get approval from every bureaucrat that ever lived before something new gets enacted?" (Who knew the stork would be a chatty Cathy?!!!). "So I have model A; It's the genius model, off the charts IQ, the thing is that it has trouble with social situations and making friends... you know, "fitting in." Then there's model B; it has an easy time making friends and fitting in with the crowd, but only has average intelligence. Last, but not least :) , I have model C. This one is guaranteed to be happy throughout it's life, whether or not it can fit in, but it has a pretty low IQ.. mentally disabled."

So, the question is, which child do you choose? I would also love to know why you would choose the one you chose, if gender would make a difference in your choice, and if it would: why and how?

Please make sure to include your culture/nationality of origin as well as your gender so I can put together a nice description of my findings from this poll :)

Thanks for taking part and I look forward to seeing how this ends up!

Bookmark and Share

Friday, July 31, 2009

A note for those who oppose changing the "Gifted" label

I have come across several, many :), people who oppose any attempt to move away from the use of "gifted" as a categorical descriptive, or who oppose the institution of any label at all. I would like to address both of these objections here:

1) For those of us who oppose labeling people as "gifted," OR anything else, who believe we should all just accept that people are people and we are all different from each other... I agree. I agree that we should, ideally, arrive at a place where we are each individually considered and accepted, in all of our similarities and differences. BUT, we must also realize that this place is an arrival point, a destination, not where we can, or should, depart from or begin at.

We must consider and understand the developmental needs of people, children and adults, and exersize compassion and empathy with the needs and developmental stages of each of us.

We must understand, and accept as normal, that we each begin as infants who lack internal/intellectual structures for understanding ourselves and our worlds, it is this lack of preimposed structure that allows us such incredible ability to adapt to whatever world we are born into, it is this that has allowed us to, as a species, flourish and thrive in spite of vastly differing experiences, environments, and cultures. And, perhaps, it s this internal malleability that truly separates us from other species of animals-- As far as we can tell, we are the only animals who are born without an instinctiive drive to be "x."

From, at least, the day of our birth (and likely in our prenatal experence) we observe and take in the environment and stimulus we encounter. First we become aware of the existence of things, then we catagorize them, then we refine our understanding of catagories, then we make connections within and between catagories of our knowledge. This process starts simply and becomes exponentially more complex as we accrue knowledge and form more and more connections. This is the way we learn, simply put, and is universal in our experience (though differently organized between each of us).

Thus, while we can eventually reject catagorization of things or attributes, we MUST first understand them in terms of catagories of things t be able to do so. For example, I must first understand that a cow is a thing, then I will understand that it is a different sort of thing than I am-- something we call an animal, then I will come to understand that a dog is also an animal, even though it is different from a cow, and both are different from me, I might then understand that the cow is an animal we keep for milk or "food." At the begining I am likely to not understand that the cow is ACTUALLY the same kind of being as the steak on my plate, though I "know" we call them both cow. Eventually I come to realize that the cow is, indeed, the same thing as that steak, and that in order to get that steak from the cow we must kill it. I then have to determine how I feel about that-- it's a big issue, death, pain, value, rights etc..-- and my conclusions on the issue may lead me to any number of ultimate beliefs about cows. Including, but not limited to, the idea that I no longer feel comfortable catagorizing cows as animals we use for food; I may in fact decide that I do not want to accept that there should be any "animals we use for food." The point is, though, that I cannot go from not knowing that a cow exists to believing we should not eat them. I also cannot leap from not knowing that anyone believes in something called "God" to hating people who don't believe in that thing called "God;" I must first understand the concepts and differences between believing or not believing in that "God."

So it is that we cannot ask a person, or science, to understand or process any idea, including "giftedness," without first labeling the phenomenon and categrizing it as a concept for consideration. Further, we, as intelligent adults, may ask why we should mention or investigate things like "race" or "giftedness. Wouldn't the world be a better place if we never had these concepts? Sure, it would. Along with concepts like religion, strength, power, masculine, feminine, ability, hate, country, and difference; the human drive to categorize and assign value to some things over others is, ultimately, the ONLY cause of war, hate, envy, murder, torture, xenophobia, ownership, nationality and so on. But, it is also, perhaps, one of the single largest defining characteristics of the human being. It is a natural, unstoppable, feature of each of us-- whether or not we like to believe ourselves to be so.

Babies catagorize things as "me" or "not me" (in terms of alikeness), in order to develop catagories of things like alive/not alive, human/animal, safe/not safe, good/bad etc... Small children refine their groupings of things and as they explore themselves and their nature they use comparison and contrast to understand themselves and others: Joe has a penis/is a boy, I have a vagina/am a girl. I wear glasses/ Seth does not, Mike is white/I am black. As small children they begin with these simple information, without assignment of value, to understand and construct their ever-expanding understanding of reality. The assignment of value comes a bit later when they collect information about the meaning of these differences: I have to wear glasses because my eyes are ""bad"/ Seth does not have to wear glasses because his eyes are not "bad"/ Seth has better eyes than I do. Until understanding the meaning of having or not having glasses, that they are tools for correcting vision, I cannot assign value. Until I assign value to that attribute I am not equipped to re-evaluate the assigned value it has. I must understand that my eyes are "bad" before I can think about what it means to have "bad" eyes, which I must be able to think about before I consider if "bad" is really the right word to describe my difference from Seth, and ultimately come to the logical conclusion that my eyes are not REALLY "bad", they're just different.

In the same way that we cannot prevent our children from seeing and taking note of who wears glasses and who does not, or who's skin is pale and who's is dark, of who has a penis and who has a vagina, we also cannot prevent them from noticing who learns faster or slower, who can read and cannot, who thinks about dinosaurs and who thinks about chess, or who can draw a picture that is "realistic" and who can only draw scribbles or stick people. It's their job, you see, to notice these things. It is how they learn and grow into themselves and society.

And, it seems, we are naturally predisposed to view "differences" as negative things. As social beings, who have largely adapted to surviving through forming social groups of "sameness," we are naturally suspicious of foriegn objects and attributes. To simplify the reason for that, let's say you are in the forest and you are hungry; you see a plant that you have never seen before and another plant that you have often eaten without harm, or have observed others "like you" eating without any ill-effects. Your natural/instinctual response would be to eat the plant that your experience tells you is safe, and also to be wary of that plant that you don't know. Our evolutionary (or experiential), if you will, trajectory has programmed us to be suspicious of eating things we cannot identify.

We have, no matter how illogically, as a species generalized this suspicion to all new or different stimulus. Until we understand, catagorize, an process a given thing, we are likely to be wary of it or assume it is "bad." We may not like this about ourselves, we may believe it to be a "bad" predisposition, we may try to overcome it, and we may try to deny it in ourselves, but like it or not, it is a natural and neutral/to positive trait that humans possess. It is what keeps us from eating poisonous things, jumping off of cliffs, or letting strangers into our houses.

And, luckily, children possess this trait (or else we'd have to watch them every second of the day-- no matter their age!) of discrimination. It is our job, as adults, to show them when and how to apply this trait (as they get old enough to do so), and help them understand and evaluate the stimulus they come in contact with.

Therefore, we must accept the necessity of labels to describe differences among, and between individuals, as a tool for our understanding and acceptances of such differences.

2) For those of us who object to changing the "gifted" label because you feel it to be an accurate descriptor of the phenomenon, because you have fought long and hard to accept it and have it accepted, or for any similar or related reason... I can understand your objection. I do not agree, for what it's worth, though.

As far as it being an accurate descriptor-- well, I, quite simply, disagree. First because the word "gifted" is a vague and loaded term. It is, in of itself, somewhat meaningless, because it does not describe any particular attribute(s) or experience(s). Also, it is not an objective term-- it's root and meaning are based upon positive phenomena.

Perhaps you, as a parent or "gifted" person, feel like it IS a positive thing, inherently. That's great, and I am glad for your experience as being a good one. The thing is, though, that we are not looking for a way to describe only you or your child; we need a term/label that we can comfortably apply to at least the majority of us--- not only you.

Maybe you feel like the problem is with our inability to "accept" ourselves as being "gifted" with this positive thing; maybe you're right. Or, maybe our feelings about the label are valid as well. Perhaps our inner pause on a term that implies "good," "advanced," "desireable," "superior," etc... is because our experience does not fit with these adjectives. Perhaps we don't feel, or want to feel, like we are any "better" than anyone else. Perhaps in our own minds we are normal; we are special-- just like everyone else. Perhaps we just object to the murky complications of a non-objective label... it clouds our ability to consider and understand the truth. Perhaps we are rebelling against the idea that anyone should tell us how to feel or think about ourselves/our children. Perhaps we are painfully aware of all of the negative consequences of that loaded label, and think of it as anything except a gift!

For whatever reasons we each have for our feelings on the issue, I think we can all rationally, if not emotionally, agree that the "gifted" label makes things more difficult for everyone who has to deal with it and all it means.

I'm voting for "Dabrowskian" or "Hypatian" as a new label-- two inspiring but semi-obscure people who can lend us their names without telling us how to feel about it :)


I really hate the term "gifted" as a descriptor of individuals who reside on the right reaches of the bell curve. I think it is an inappropriate label that fails to describe the experience or issues faced by such people and also creates difficulties, particularly in our egalitarian/anti-elitist society, and complications to an already difficult and complicated issue.

We all have a natural tendency to assume that other people think, feel, and experience things in the same way we do. A part of mental/emotional maturity comes with learning and understanding that this is not the case. But, this label makes it feel shameful to investigate the different ways of seeing-- to attempt to understand relies first on the acceptance that one IS different. For most people the understanding is natural and acceptable-- "I am more emotional than most people I see," "I am better at basketball than most of my friends," "I am more interested in people than things," and so on. All of these personal observations, that are a necessary part of individual development, are objective observations with obviously positive and negative attendant qualities. Most personal understandings, acceptances of the quirks and individualities that make us unique, are socially encouraged and acceptable.

The understanding of self, and of what makes "me," me instead of "you," is a fundamental developmental journey for humans. This journey of self begins in infancy; The child progressively grows to understand that s/he is seperate from caregivers, family, society... we slowly come to understand that we are autonomous beings with various dependencies, defining characteristics, needs, desires, understandings, and experiences. The toddler, in one example of a heightened stage of personal understanding, urgently discovers and processes his/her truth of being a seperate person; we understand and (hopefully) patiently support the child as they test what it means to be A person-- as they test the boundaries of their self-hood, assert their own opinions, needs, and desires, and in various ways feel out the scary place that it is to be alone-- an individual. Then, more smoothly for a time, the individual continues to come to an understanding of the self as the self. From, maybe, 4 until adolescence, the child continues to refine and develop their sense of individuality-- their particular tastes, preferences, joys, talents, and shortcomings. This period is smoothed by a modulation of physical and intelectual growth; the person has adequate time to perceive and process the changes and understandings they come to.

Adolescence, then, is the next time of "urgent" self-discovery and examination. Like the cognitive leap that propels the infant into a "sudden" discovery of "self," and the attendent difficulty of understanding that "difference," the adolescent experiences a period of rapid cognitive and physical change. Suddenly they percieve that they are "different," they do not realize that these feelings are as a result of physiologic changes in their internal workings-- to them, things are just suddenly different-- their thoughts, feelings, desires, and needs. We all recognize adolescence as a difficut period for children and parents-- akin to the difficulties of the "terrible twos," though obviously quite different in scope and length. The urgent demand for the adolescent is to come to understand how they "fit in" with their society, and also how they do not fit in. They are faced with the internal demand of processing how they are the same and different. Emotional maturity, then, begins to develop as the individual comes to see that their view of the world is different from anyone else's. They proceed through various and conflicting desires to "fit in" and also to "be myself."

We all experience these stages of inner development, and often have additional periods of "urgent" self-exploration in our mid-20's and then in the "mid-life crisis." These are normal and necessary experiences of individual development which allow us to form and utilize important information and skills for coping and thriving throughout our lives.

While certain aspects of our personal development are expected to be dealt with internally, for the most part we are able to come to understand and process our experiences within the context of our familial and peer groups. In fact, the feedback and shared experiences of family and friends are integral to our ability to process and effectively understand ourselves.

For the "gifted" child, though, this process of normal identity formation and integration is often disrupted and problematic. EVERY child, in the latency period (most often thought of as age 6 or so through adolescence) has the need to be a part of a peer-group (however that is composed) or groups and also familial group in which they are accepted and "fit in." This sense of self and of being a part of, instead of apart from, allows the child a secure and safe foundation for exploring their uniquenesses and idiosyncrasies while still maintaining inner cohesion and security. Children in this developmental stage need to feel "normal" and tend to naturally feel "normal," even though they are not the same in all ways. They tend to be ego-centric in nature, percieving their thoughts and feelings to universal, but capable of projecting themselves into the experiences of their friends and families to come to, at least, an understanding of how they might feel if they went through the same thing. Children in this age-range most often form groups of peers who they share interests and cultural experiences with; this is one example of how they cope with their internal need for "sameness" and social acceptance.

For many "gifted" children (increasing in profundity and difficulty the further to the right on the curve they reside) this is where the breakdown of normal emotional/identity development begins. At a time when their emotional/social needs are for normalcy, "sameness," and acceptance, they begin to discover that they are not "normal," the "same," or accepted.

They often find themselves unable to form "peer" groups because their experiences are limited to children their own chronological age, and in dealing with older children or adults, the physiological differences are too apparent to alow "sameness" to develop (as further compounded by this being the age when physical differences are being noticed and seen as important). These children usually have vastly different thoughts, concerns, and interests than their age-mates and are seen, and see them, as incomprehensile and "different."

This is a HUGE problem for the "gifted" child, for they still have the same developmental needs as their "normal" counterparts. The proper development of their social self and inner-self still rely upon having their needs for acceptance and being "a part of" a larger group being met; they still rely on the important groups in their life to provide feedback and alternate experiences so that they can process and understand their own thoughts and perceptions of life. These things are absolutely fundamental to optimum personal development of the individual.

For a large part of coming to understand ourselves relies upon our ability to compare and contrast our own experiences, thoughts, perceptions, and understandings with those of the people in our society. We talk a great deal about "socialization" of children without talking about what that means or why it is an important developmental tool. I believe that a large part of socialization is just this; having a social mirror to help us understand ourselves, as we relate to the larger world, and others as they relate to us and the larger world. This social mirror is extremely important for us to develop understanding and empathy for all people.

For many gifted children, though, this social mirror is fundamentally distorted. In order to understand the self in terms of the larger world, the child must both understand how s/he is a part of, and apart from, that world. For the "gifted" child, that social mirror seldom, if ever, shows the person how they are a part of society. The mirror only shows them that they are apart from their "peers."

But the internal drive for social/identity integration moves on. The child is still driven to understand themselves and others, with or without the social mirror-- it is, after all, a developmental imperative. And so s/he attempts to make do with the tools and information available to him/her.

And here is the begining of the problem of the label "gifted." Children this age, you see, do not want or need to be "better," or "worse," or even "different" from their peers. It's great if they are "better" at something; they can run the fastest, read the fastest, or dance the best. They enjoy their excellence AT something, or things, but they REALLY do not want to be "different" in any fundamental way. They realize that everyone is better and worse AT things, and that is acceptable and even celebrated. It doesn't seperate them, deep down, because these are not defining characteristics of that person. They are still Nathan, or Karen-- they are still normal, multi-faceted, and accepted people. To be labeled, though, AS "gifted" is a much different thing. It becomes a defining characteristic, it IS a defning characteristic, that says who they are, and even worse, implies (explicitly) that they are "supposed" to be (overall) better and different from other kids.

We, adults, find it hard to remember, but we didn't always want to be "better" than anyone else. We wanted to be better AT things, but we wanted to be normal-- we felt like we were normal. For we were, and ARE, normal to us. We each live, from year-to-year and moment-to-moment, in our own minds. To us, our experience is normal, our rate of thought, our curiousities and interests, our talents and problems... they are all normal, to us. If left alone, to our own minds, without that social mirror, it would never occur to any of us that we might NOT be "normal." And none of us would have internal struggles between our natural inclinations and perceptions of how the outside world sees us and expects us to be. It is our understanding of ourselves in relation to others that allows us to develop the desire to be better or the same as other people.

But children, and adults, have a natural dislike of labels that imply inherent value-- unearned value-- on some people and not others. For the "non-gifted" the label tells you that you are somehow less, that, through no fault of your own, you are unfairly disadvantaged and judged. For the "gifted," the label tells you that you are somehow "more," that through no work or achievement of your own, you are unfairly advantaged and judged.

Many adults assume that the "gited" child will be happy to learn that they are "better' than other kids, and often they fear that the child will become arrogant and develop negative personal traits due to that arrogance, like elitism, feelings of superiority, lack of compassion and empathy for others and more. Their fears, though, are based on the erroneous assumption that these children will gladly accept and internalize this label. It is completely disregarding the normal human needs of the individual-- we all, at every age, need to feel accepted and a part of something. It is also disregarding the normal need and desire of individuals to "earn" their accomplishments.

We all know and accept that the way that we value things is directly correlated to how hard we had to work to get them. We might appreciate that our parents provided for our material needs when we were children, but we naturally took those things for granted. The car we were "given" did not mean as much to us as the car we "bought" and earned. The allowance we got every week for being our parent's chldren had nothing of the emotional significance or pride that the first payccheck we worked for possessed. It is through our efforts and achievements that we truly value things-- by having to exersize the patience to save up for that toy, we come to value it as a symbol of our own mastery, by having to practice the piano we embue our mastery of a new piece with deeper meaning than notes on paper or sounds in the air.

"Gifted" children, and adults, have these same needs and systems of value. Just as we can't "give" a chld self-esteem by telling them they have worth-- they must develop proof of that worth for themselves-- we can't simply label a child, or adult, as "gifted" and expect them to accept that as an accurate description of who they are.

They are not "gifted" to themselves, but as they come to recognize and see that they are, indeed, different, that label COULD and sometimes does lead to negative internal development. They COULD, and sometmes do, become arrogant, have feelings of superiority, and lack empathy or compassion for others. This is not because they are inherently bad people, or predisposed to negative qualities, but rather because they are developmentally neglected and stunted (though not intentionally) by a society that has little understanding of their needs or feelings.

Because, unlike other children, they are not "allowed" to deeply consider their differences and idiosyncracies. They are not "allowed" to search for broader understanding of this label and what it means to them, as individuals. They are not "allowed" to examine the areas of themselves that set them apart, and make them unique... they are expected to "just be happy" with their good fortune-- without ever having a chance to understand why they're supposedly "lucky" or "gifted."

This label makes people bristle. Both the "gifted person," who doesn't feel or understand it, and others who resent, don't understand, and don't want to think about, it because it makes them or their children "less" than the best. The "gifted" person comes to feel guilt and shame, akin to survivor's guilt, because they don't see what makes them "so special" and they did nothing to EARN their "elevated" position. They may feel like they were improperly labeled, that they are not "gifted," or that there is something wrong with them-- that they are "bad" because they are "enjoying" the fruits of something they don't deserve.

Even more, they are still DIFFERENT, but they don't really understand how or why. They experience ostracism from their peers, ridicule, shaming, singling-out, by peers and adults. They don't "fit in" and they don't know why. They may try to hide their difference, they may pretend to be at the same skill levels as their age-mates, they may stop volunteering their true thoughts and begin to just parrot the observations of other children, they may fail to pursue their real interests, and they may do this to the depth and extent that they come to be unaware of their internal selves, or cut off any part of themselves that do not "fit in" with the person thhey "should" be.

That is, if they are capable of learning to "fit in."

Often enough, though, they cannot fit themselves "into the box." They cannot escape their inner drive to be who they naturally are, and they exist on the outskirts of their "peer" society, hurting and alone.

What they really need is the ability to understand, the factual truth of, who they are and why they are different. They need to have the information of how and why they are different (that their brains work differently--- and that it is a NEUTRAL and objective difference, not a qualitative or value-ridden experience). They need to be given the tools and materials to process this information, as well as the patience and acceptance to work from, so that they can objectively and rationally accept themselves and others. They need to be armed with the information that their perceptions and thoughts are not right or wrong, better or worse, JUST different. And this need for objective, non-judgemental, data and feedback needs to be vailable throughout the developmental process through childhood and adulthood.

That is not possible, though, as long as we continue to use the term "gifted" to describe these individuals. The word itself is too loaded with meaning and connotation. It is not a neutral or objective adjective like brown, blue, blond, or freckled. It inherently implies value and desirability, no matter societal trends, for a gift is always a welcome thing, and to be gifted is to be the fortunate recipient of something of value..

So, it is clear that we need to agree upon a diferent "label" to understand the needs and experience of the "gifted" child and adult. What, though, do we use? I have pondered this question for many years, balking against my own label of "giftedness", and have yet to come up with a good answer. We need something that either accurately, and neutrally, describes the phenomenon, or something that is separate from the experience, and neutral because of it's lack of connection to the concept.

Differently-abled would be good, except it is already used to describe those who are in some way disabled-- and thus has connotations of negatively impacted developmental/physical manifestations. Atypical has some merit and accuracy as a descriptor, but has underlying negative connotation as abnormal. In the end I think that probably the best route would be to use a term that is currently neutral or without meaning.

Perhaps we could agree upon some person's name (perhaps who has been important historically as an example or advocate) as an adequate categorical title. Maybe we could be "Dabrowskian," "Terminian," "Franklinian," or "Hogian." We, even as young children, know we think faster, know deeper, feel more intensely, and have different interests. If it was because we're "Hypatian" it would not be embarrasing or isolating any more than Jill's ability to outrun all of us, or Cameron's knack of making the funniest jokes.

If parents recieved a letter informing them that their children had, or had not, been determined to be suited for the "Terminian" program, it would not make them feel either insecure or proud of their child.

And, finally, upon knowing that you are "Dabrowskian," it would not be good or bad to look deeper into what that means. It would not be admitting, or believing, that you are "better," or "exceptional," when your experience (as yourself) tells you that you are still "just you." You could talk to your friends, family, teachers, and others about how you feel about being extra-sensitive to clothing tags, bright lights, and injustice without them feeling like you're bragging or being arrogant. You could pursue your interest in physics, as a "Franklinian," without fear of threatening other people. You're not special, and you're not saying you are, you're just different--- like everyone else is different, and special--- you're simply you.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Thinking about...

I have been doing a lot of thinking. A lot of introspective examination. A lot of tryng to remember. A lot of trying to understand. It may, on the surface, seem a sad process. There certainly are sad moments in this journey, but in actuality this is a joyful process-- I am learning to accept and understand things I have long cut off from myself-- I am learning to beccome the full person I need to be. I am learning that many of my long-held assumptions were incorrect or incomplete; In doing so I am discovering how to correct and complete my experience.

I am remembering the joyfulness, the wonderful love and acceptance, of my childhood. Instead of seeing only the failures; I am discovering the many successes of myself and my family. For years I harbored anger toward my mother for what I saw as her failures as my parent, now I am discovering that she did not "fail" me in many of the most important ways-- and perhaps as important, I am coming to empathize with her and how difficult it must have been for her to experience my childhood with me.

One of my most important blessings, as a child, was that I was born into a "gifted" family. I was lucky enough to be "normal." I was lucky enough to be seen as an individual; to be cherished and respected for who I was. I was lucky enough to be born into a family that didn't ask me to conform to preconcieved ideals of thought or personality-- I was exceptionally lucky. And this acceptance and love prospered throughout my family-- mother, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents... We were, none of us, conformists. All had lived, loved, experienced, life in different ways. Some of us were exceptionally talented in music, in art, in academics, in emotional understanding, in self-understanding-- we were all unique, and I was lucky enough to be a part of that we.

I never felt "different" as a young child-- I never was. For we were all different-- that was the norm. My feelings of difference came later-- 7 on-- and while they started outside of my family culture, they ultimately fractured my sense of sameness in every situation. This is an important realization-- one I am struggling to understand and integrate (so I apologize for repetition of this realization) into my current identity.

For I am coming to understand that my normal emotional development was stunted and in some cases halted, probably around the age of 7. I have, for years, been trying to understand and solve the inner struggles that have plagued my life for so long. I believe we each have an inner drive, an imperative really, to reach our developmental potential-- in all ways of development; intellectual, emotional, spiritual, physical, and social. I have been struggling with that drive and my impediments to that development for too long. I feel, though, that understanding (finally) where my development fractured will allow me to retrace the milestones I should have reached and ultimately integrate the fractured areas of self-development with my non-fractured self.

The reasons I share this experience, whether it be of interest or not, are varied: 1) it is hepful for me to write and organize my thoughts, 2) I have some hope that sharing my experience might in some way help others who have had similar experiences, and 3) because it might be interesting to read about :)

My recent revelation that my emotional/social problems are likely rooted in my school-age life has been a supremely freeing and joyful thing for me. It has allowed me to empathize with myself as a child, and also with my caregivers. It has also given me a specific point of reference in understanding my emotional/social deficits and a means of developing a plan of recovery from them.

Most of all, though, it has given me an understanding of the imperative of learning to accept myself-- all of myself-- and understand my unique needs and abilities.

I started this with the idea of how I was "normal" in my family because I believe that feeling accepted and respected as an individual was the most important developmental foundation I had, and that, perhaps, being singled-out or otherwise made to feel "different" is detrimental to one's development-- in all ways.

As I grapple with trying to accept my differences and their causes, I am largely dealing with the psychology of highly-gifted children and adults. In many ways I am dissatisfied with the term "gifted" to describe this population of individuals. I believe that, in the American culture at least, it engenders an almost automatic bristling of feathers-- The very term suggests that this population possesses something better, or is better, and is too-often percieved as describing people who have an "unfair advantage" over the rest of the population. Beyond that, though, I believe that it is a completely inadequate descriptor of the experience of "gifted" people; in particular, of the proundly giifted.

For the experience of being "profoundly gifted," for most, is anything but a gift or advantage. We are often taught (by society and our experience) that we are strange, wierd, incomprehensible, and unaccepted by the world. We are often taught that we should be ashamed (either implicitly or explicitly) of our "giftedness" and that we must hide and deny large parts of ourselves in order to "fit in."

I cannot speak for anyone else, but I have, in most of my life, hated that I was different, and would have gladly given up my "gifts" in order to just have friends, be liked, and "fit in" to a society which I had to live in but never felt a part of. Honestly, I have lived my life HATING myself because I could not live up to the expectations and demands of the society I lived in. And I still dislike myself, deep down, for that, but am working hard to learn to understand and appreciate my differences and potentials, now that I can CHOOSE what society I will live in.

And so I will end this with a promise/warning that coming closely on the heells of this entry will be my account of my "gifted" experience and the ways I attempted to deal with my desires to fit in-- particularly by cutting off parts of myself that I believed the worst offenders of my "difference." I hope that my experience will help others deal with their own experience and/or help you understand and protect your gifted children from the experiences I contended with.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Value of the Root

I first wanted to die when I was nine years old. I don't remember what happened leading up to my moment of clarity, I do remember, however, starting out with the idea of running away. I walked out into a warm, sunny, day and ended up sitting on a curb near a bus stop, crying uncontrollably, embarrassed by my public display but far too focused on my feelings of hopelessness and despair to even attempt to hide. I had gone walking with the intention of "running away" but once I got to the bus stop I realized that I had no idea of where to run to and, even more importantly, that running away would take me from all of the goodness in my life-- the love of my family, the comfort they freely gave-- and would do nothing to free me from the terrible bleakness inside of myself. So I sat on a curb, crying, and vainly searching for an answer to my unhappiness.

Had I been older, or a different child, I might have shared my depression, sadness, hopelessness, and despair, with my mother or aunt who had been my regular caregiver since I was born. Had I been older, or a different child, I might have known that the help needed could only come through honestly admitting my thoughts and feelings-- by asking for help. But I was not older, and the child who I was was afraid to talk to the adults I loved and trusted-- who I knew loved me unconditionally-- I was afraid, not of getting in trouble or being dismissed but rather, of hurting their feelings.

For I was afraid that they would blame themselves for my unhappiness, and I knew it was not in any way their fault. And while I don't know the entirety of my reasoning process that brought me to that point, I do know that I always believed that knowingly hurting people was the worst thing somebody could do. And I didn't want to see them cry, I didn't want to make them worry, I didn't want to be to blame for making them unhappy.

So I decided to sit on that curb and find the answer myself. But I was only 9, and my understanding of psychological development and cause and effect was limited when it existed at all. And as I looked for the cause of my unhappiness, as small children are wont to do, I only reached back to the most recent source of trauma and never expanded my examination to find the root.

It happened that the most recent traumatic event had been quite serious; an adult in my life had gotten drunk and molested me one night. As I remembered that event, and felt the guilt and unhappiness that surrounded that victimization, I recollected that it was not an isolated event in my life, and concluded that THOSE things must be the cause of my unhappiness. In my childish logic I decided to share my problem and solution with my "grown up" cousin, who was 16. She told her mother and I imagine things would have been taken care of in the family if I'd been old enough to develop patience. But, being a 9-year-old, I needed resolution right then! I finally knew what was wrong with me and I expected it to be fixed instantly-- when the instant patch-up didn't materialize I became rapidly more and more anxious and depressed about it. Within days of my epiphany, hours of my disclosure, I had worked myself into such a state of agony and depression that I was overwhelmed and fatigued by my inner turbulence. I discovered that, deep down, I just wanted it to be over; I didn't want to continue, I really just wanted to die.

I can't really describe the terror and disbelief that I, as a 9 year old child, felt upon the realization that I wanted to die. I sat on the ground, arms around my knees, rocking myself as I tried to understand how I could even come up with that idea! As I dissected my realization I understood a few basic things that haunted me for many years after: First, that I didn't believe I would ever feel better and, second, that I didn't want to suffer endlessly. As I thought about this bizarre idea I became more and more frightened. While I was dreadfully unhappy, and wanted the unhappiness to end, I did not want to die. Death was a scary thing; death was forever. If I died it would make my mom very sad; I didn't want to make her cry. But I kept coming back to the ultimate belief that the only way to end my suffering was to not live anymore. A very scared and horrified child, now, I knew I needed help immediately. But I also didn't want to hurt my mom, I didn't want her to know the awful truth of my unhappiness-- or especially that I had gone crazy and wanted to die! I had seen tv programs that had mentioned suicide hotlines and so it seemed the best thing to do. Surely they could tell me how to deal with this, and since they didn't know me it wouldn't hurt them. I grabbed the phonebook and took the phone with me into my closet to call..

The next day I was called out of class to go to the principal's office. I had no idea why, no preparation, and was shocked to be greeted by a very sad looking principal and a large smiling woman. I was taken from school to the psychiatric ward at Children's Hospital and had the dubious honor of being the youngest child they'd ever had on suicide watch.

I don't know how long I was in that psychiatric ward. I remember flashes of things; feeling simultaneously relieved that I was going to be "fixed" and unhappy because I was away from my family. I remember hating to see my psychiatrist-- it seemed to me that her main goal was to make me cry and write about it (I imagine she must have found me to be emotionally "abnormal" and was likely attempting to gauge my responses)-- she repeatedly scared me by telling me I was never going to see my mom or brothers again. And after that I was temporarily placed in a different aunt's home before finally being releasd back into my mother's custody.

And the ultimate effect of all of that was this: It was absolutely, enequivically, unquestionably, true that all of my problems were because of the episodes of abuse I'd experienced. The end.

And I've spent the rest of my life trying to recover from the exceptions to my history. I don't want to downplay the damage that abuse does to a person, it is horrible and profound, but in the last few days I finally remembered something.

In all of the years that have passed, in all of the intense research and study, in all of the therapy, through all of my depressions and suicidal episodes, under all of the hopelessness and despair laid the one unifying factor: I didn't quite fit in the plan for recovery, and I never made sense in terms of the victim. Even in psychiatric care I was never "normal" in abnormality or even really treatable or diagnosable. Something was definitely wrong with me but no one could tell me what.

But finally, after 24 years of trying to "heal" from the terrible moments of my childhood, I have remembered that my 9-year-old-mind was immature. I have remembered that I was far more bothered and ashamed of having killed a baby bird by trying to rescue it than I ever was by the times I was molested. I have remembered that the root of my unhappiness was further back in my history than the drunken fondling I had quickly tried to forget- and never blamed myself for.

The root of the problem was not tthat I was victimized by a couple of thoughtless men who never really intended to hurt me-- though they did. The true root, or as e.e. Cummings said, "the root of the root" was much more insidious and subtle than any of that. It was the fundamentaly unfair and unkind way I was treated every day in the world outside of my family-- mostly, at school.

For the truest, deepest, source of my life-long unhappiness has been my feelings of isolation and strangeness. For many years I deeply felt that I wasn't even quite human, and I hated myself for not being able to be like everyone else. I thought, as a child, that I as different because I was abused and that conclusion was fortified over years of affirmation by experts, but they were wrong and so was I.

And, sadly, this belief that the root resided in exceptional moments of my life further increased my emotional problems. For it separated me from the people who accepted me as I was; who loved me and encouraged me to bloom. By being "the victim" I was placed further away from those who could relate to me, and I quickly found that I could not really relate to other victims... I did not generally share their experiences or issues.

For I was always a self-confident little thing. I had a deep and abiding belief in myself; I absolutely knew I had intrinsic worth and deserved to be treated well and be happy. I had no shame about the things that happened to me (it never occured to me to blame myself), I had no real anger toward the people who abused me (except my father who I believed to be a bad person) because I knew that their regret of their actions was more punishment than they even deserved, and that they had victimized themselves more than they had ever hurt me. For I always retained, inside of myself, a core that was untouchable by other people-- a core that was built and sustained by the love and nurturing of a family who neverlet me forget how wanted and speciial I was. And this core saved me from being traumatized by careless, unthinking, actions; It did not, however, save me from the daily institutionalized abuse I was forced to endure at school.

I have heard many people argue that children need to learn to deal with bullying and teasing at school. That there is some inherent value in the "socialization" of being forced to spend 9 months of the year with a group of your "peers." Perhaps that is true for some, or maybe even most, children. Perhaps it is good to teach children how to conform to societal norms, to fit in, to be like everyone else... but it is not true for everyone. It was not true for me.

And I feel more than a little silly to, at 33, sit down and trace my problems back to a "little teasing" in my school years. It seems like something that should have been gotten over by now-- maybe it would have been over for me if only I had remembered before. But now, in the midst of a long-overdue depressive episode (that leads me to write novel-length blog entries :) ), I have only just been able to see that I might not be unhappy for the reasons I always believed-- and more importantly, I might be able to repair the hurts now that I see where they are coming from!

For the daily abuse and degredation I endured, from the age of 7 into my teenage years, is unthinkable and unbelievable to me now. It is hard to understand oneself as a child, to remember things from the perspective you have outgrown, and I've found that the only way to fairly evaluate your own experiences as a child (fair to the child you were) is to imagine another child, that same age, in the same situation. And as I think back, remembering moments I long ago hid from myself in futile attempts to survive the hell I had to endure, I see myself as Lily might be at 7, at 9, at 11 and so on. I see her hopelessly confused because everyone hates her, I see her sitting alone on a sticky bus seat trying to ignore the people all around as they call her "stinky," "ugly," "nerd." I see her alone by the trees at the edge of the playground during recess, talking to helself, making up stories about fairies, sticking to the shadowy places of the schoolyard in order to not be noticed and taunted by dozens of heartless kids. I see her hiding a book inside of the textbook, quietly reading because the lesson is another boring repitition of a skill she learned years ago, and shamefully crying when the teacher walks to her desk, holds up the book, and publicly humiliates her for "being too smart to learn with everyone else!?!" I see her, so many times, surrounded by the entire schoolyard of children, in the middle of an inpenetrable wall of bodies, as she is beaten by ever moving kids jumping forward for their chance to punch her, kick her, spit on her. I see her bravely trying to unhear the insults, to unhear the shouted "Nobody likes you!" "You're a freak!" "Ugly, stinky, fat creature-- Yeah, she's a Creech-er feature!!" "did you look at me? Who said you could look at me? You must need your ass kicked again!" "Why don't you just go home and die!?!"

It is so hard, painful, to remember the daily treatment I got from my "peers." I have pushed it out of my mind, tried to forget the humiliation and pain, and tried to "accept" that it's a normal part of growing up. But, seeing my imaginary Lily in my place... I want to cry at the thought of what happened to the beautiful, happy, child I once was. All of those things were a part of my daily life in elementary school, they were the bulk of my daily experience at the age of 9... I can understand why I wanted to die.

And I finally understand why I battled with that desire for the next 20-ish years of my life. For as much as isolated incidents of abuse were able to slip by without damaging that core of me, I could' undersand (even then) that they weren't my fault, even the regular abuse I witnessed of my father beating up my mother and brother didn't touch that core (I knew it was my father's fault-- no mine, not Jon's), but the fact that I was hated, put down by teacher's and student's alike, that I was regularly beaten up for no reason other than being different (and that the teacher's never stepped in to protect me from any of the abuse), and the fact that I was daily inundated with the "truth" that I was less, that I was not good enough, that I was fundamentally unlikeable, unlovable, by the world outside of my family... The fact that even my "friends" pretended not to know me at school, that my first "boyfriend" was one of those pretenders, that there was no safety and no escape from this daily torture... That, finally, reached the core of me and slowly eroded my sense of self, my emotional and cognitive abilities, and ultimately my ability to cope with anything "in real lfe" for as long as I've lived.

But, you may ask, what's the value of revisiting that part of your past? You call this the Value of the Root, and yet I see nothing of positive value yet...

The thing is, that I have been living a life of this errosion of self. I have lived a life forever trying to be "good enough" to be liked, to have friends, to not be ignored, to be loved by people who don't "have to love me." I have lived my life in the emotional logic of a 9-year-old child, and staying there has kept me from normal and healthy emotional development. I lived, until January of this year, in a city that demanded conformity in order to be liked. I lived in a culture that judged me on my ability to be "in the box" and do what was expected of me, a culture that continued to tell me I wasn't good enough because I wasn't skinny enough, didn't say or do the right things, didn't THINK the right things, didn't CARE about the right things, didn't wear the right clothes, and generally was not the person I "should" have been. Everywhere I went, no matter how many friends I made, and even at the time when I had the most friends... I always had the underlying feeling that I still wasn't good enough.

Perhaps, or likely, as an adult that was largely because I didn't think I was good enough, and maybe I irrationally perceived dislike and dissaproval where none existed. But, I was never accepted by the popular crowds, and most especially I was never accepted or liked by the "popular girls." And while those popular girls may have been the only ones who refused to accept my attempts at friiendship, they were ultimately the ones I "needed" the most. Because, deep down, what I needed was to know that I am fundamentally OK, that I am worthy of love and respect by people outside of my family, that I am not a freak, that I don't have to "fit in" to be a valid human being.

I don't think I could have come to that realization in St. Louis. There, I was still stuck in errosion because I couldn't ever fit in with any of the cliques. Upon moving out here, though, I suddenly found that I do "fit in." You see, this particular little patch of America is largely made up of people who don't "fit in" in places like St. Louis. Even more, no one even tries. When you walk down the streets of Santa Clara, Campbell, Santa Cruz etc.. you don't see two groups of people; the cool ones in expensive clothes, full hair and make-up, and ridiculous high-heels versus the nobodies that don't count anyway. Here, everybody goes through their lives in jeans and a t-shirt. The women rarely wear make-up, an no one has visible designer logos stamped across their chest. Here, a plastic beauty does not fit in, people are natural, people don't really give a damn what you look like. Here, that homeless-looking guy in the coffee shop might be a multi-billionaire and he's still driving a Camry from 1999. Here, you don't get a pass because you're pretty; they want to know if there's anything behind that face. Here, I'm not crazy, weird, eccentric, or strange... here I can be Juliette, whoever she may be.

And that is the real value of the root; It is only by knowing the cause of my unhappiness that I can begin to work to change it. It is by knowing that I have erroneously placed blame on comparitively insignificant things that allows me to get to the right medicine for my ills. It is knowing that my conclusion that the recipe for happiness relied on external acceptance was wrong, knowing that the true core of my being needs to be nurtured and healed, knowing that I must raise that unhappy 9-year-old into the emotionally mature adult she was meant to be... these are the value of the root. And this is, finally, the truth that can set me free.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Rethinking body II

I've been trying to remember when my obsession with appearance began. Thinking back over what I can now remember of my life, I think it must have started at the same time that I began to feel like something was very wrong with me... and THAT probably started when I moved from private school into public school in 2nd grade.

I remember loving school when I went to a small private Baptist school called Victory Baptist for kindergarten and first grade. There, I was well-liked by the other children and the teachers. It was a small school, probably no more than 60 or so students; the kindergarten was in a small classroom upstairs, the 1st-8th graders were in a large first-floor classroom together, and the high schoolers were in a seperate large room on the second floor, separated from the kindergarten class by the principal's office. The school building shared a lot with the church, which was across a small drive, and during school hours the parking lot and yard served as our playground and lunchroom (when the weather was nice).

I remember being very popular at Victory Baptist. I was friends with children from all of the grades, my best friend was a girl in high school, and was the mascot for the cheerleading squad. The classrooms were set up in such a way that we all learned, primarily, independently. In the large elementary/middle school room there was a big desk in the middle of the room (probably several desks put together) where the 2 (or maybe 3) teachers could be found. all of the students had small cubicle-like desks of their own and our coursework was made up of small workbooks (called Paces) that contained lessons, worksheets, and tests. We had a different Pace for each subject and in order to complete each grade the student had to successfully complete all of the Paces for that grade-level.

I am still fascinated by the educational program there; each student was working at their own speed, we were all on differrent pages, and Paces, at any given moment. If I remember correctly, the day was divided up into periods for working on each subject (to make sure we studied everything) but we were never pressured to move faster or slwer in our work, nor were we ever compared with the progress of other students. The teachers were there to help us if we had a problem (and maintain order), but even with a student/teacher ratio of probably 30:1, no one was neglected or left behind and it was unusual to not find one of them available at the exact moment you had a question or needed help.

I loved school there and sped through the work at a speed that seemed to shock the teachers. During my first grade year I finished the curriculum for 1st, 2nd and most of third grade-- never once being told to slow down, or being given any indication that I was "strange" or even that I was gifted-- I was treated like everyone else, and I never felt like I wasn't.

I was taken out of Victory Baptist and enrolled in the local publlic school foor 2nd grade; V.B. had wanted to skip me into the 3rd grade and my mother felt it would be socially harmful for them to do so. At first I was excited about going to public school. My friends in the nieghborhood all went to Lemaster's Elementary and I thought it would be fun to go to school with them. From the begining, though, it was disasterous for me. I don't guess either my mother or I was prepared to successfully transition me into the public school culture into which I was thrust. My mother had no idea of what was fashionable for elementary school kids in 1982; she sent me to school in bell-bottoms, butterfly collars, and the cheapest tennies they had at Kmart. I, up to that point, had never given a second thought to clothes.

At Victory Baptist, there was a dress code: all girls must wear skirts or dresses that are knee-length or longer. We were allowed to wear pants under our dresses in the winter, but had to take them off when we got to school. I'm sure it also restricted other aspects of clothes, and perhaps make-up/hair, but I only remember the skirt rule (and only because skirts meant you had to be a lady and not climb trees or do other things that might show your underwear :) ).

All, or nearly all, of my clothes until then had been hand-me downs from cousins or family friends, or came from the local thrift stores. I had never minded that (I probably didn't really realize that it was any different from anyone else, and likely the other students at my school had wardrobes very similar to my own--- though I can't remember anyone caring much about what anyone was wearing) until the first day I went to public school.

I remember being so happy and excited; it was quite an adventure and I didn't really know what to expect. I had been to the elementary school for the yearly carnival they held in the summers, where I most vividly remember the cakewalk and musical chairs, and knew that it was HUGE. There were many different buildings, a real playground with a jungle gym and swings (I'd been there to play sometimes), and since I had friends who already went there, I don't remember being afraid at all.

And I don't remember much of that first day, most of it bled together into the one thing I do remember... I was sent to the principal's office (I think because I wouldn't stop crying) and I remember walking down the walkway between the buildings, I remember that it was sunny but the walkway was shaded by a roofway, and I could barely ssee where I was going because I was crying so hard. I remember wondering what was so wrong with me, why everyone hated me, why they all made fun of me, why they were mean to me, why I was so weird, why?

I remember wanting, so badly, to be liked by the people at school. I remember that I promised myself I would find out how to be "good enough" to have friends there, to be normal, to fit in.

And now, thinking back to that time in my life, I am a little overwhelmed by the sadness I feel. Before that day, in spite of all of the abuse I witnessed and endured, I was a happy child. All signs point to my having been sexually abused by my father, likely as early as my toddlerhood, and it is certain that I spent my life before 3 living in a home where my father regularly beat my mother and my older brother without mercy. I remember that my first real nightmare happened when I was still in a baby crib; I dreamed that my father was the boogey-man and he'd killed my mom and brother so he could have me all to himself. I remember my dad kicking in our door when I was 3, when my mom changed the locks and seperated from him, I remember him picking her up by the throat, punching her, screaming that he was going to kill her, holding a knife to her throat as she struggled to breathe, and Jon and I crouched crying under the dining room table. I remember being taken to a big bed in a basement and losing myself in the focus of a babyoil bottle on the bedtable as someone I trusted and loved did things I knew to be wrong... All of these things and more happened long before that first day of 2nd grade, and yet I remained a happy and whole child.

For, despite the bad things that happened, I knew I was loved. I was secure about myself, believed in myself, and had strong family bonds and caring that largely mitigated the horrors I had seen. And, beyond that, the bad stuff that happened was the exception to what was normal in my childhood. Most of my life prior to that had been spent with people who deeply loved and cherished me, and though I had witnessed the violence of my father against my mom and brother, I had never before encountered violence against me (well, other than normal sibling fights). In fact, unlike most of the stories I have heard from women who were molested, I was never sexually abused in any way that even hinted at violence or shame. I would never say I was abused in a loving way-- I don't think it's possible-- but that I was abused by people who truly loved me, who had no intention of hurting me (and probably did not think they were), and never was I told, by them or anyone I told about the abuse, that it was in any way my fault, that I had done anything wrong, or even that I should be afraid to tell anyone about what happened (at least that I remember).

And certainly those events had helped shape me into the person I was then; I was, at the very least, hyper-sexual for a 7-year-old. I was flirtatious wth men and would use my looks and flirtation to get things when I could. I don't remember enough else to know what other ways I was effected at that point. The real point is, that my spirit was still intact. I had the self-esteem and confidence to place the blame on the people who had done wrong instead of myself; I disliked my father and thought he was a bad person (never considering the possibility that his actions were anyone else's fault), and the other people... I guess I seperated them in my mind: the good them who loved me and I could trust and love, and the bad them who had done what they did.

But I was still whole, I still FELT, I still loved deeply, enjoyed living, had fun, played with my friends, tagged behind my big brother wherever he went, and felt like I was just a normal kid, accepted, loved, basically OK. And I was a VERY sensitive child in many ways.

Though resilient in terms of overcoming the bad things, I had always been an exceptionally sensitive child. I, even into early adolescence, had a deep desire to be good and helpful. I wanted everyone, but especially the people I loved, to be happy and it upset me terribly to have done something bad or to be otherwise disobedient.

While my brother, likely toughened by his regular physical abuse by my father, required harsh discipline in order to show he felt bad (via cryng) for what he'd done, a harsh word or raised voice was nearly always enough to reduce me to a tearful ball of regret for my naughtiness. And my sensitivity, up to then, had been protected and accepted by my family. I was sheltered and dearly loved for who I was, and I knew it.

So walking into that school with hundreds of children, most of whom had been raised to be street-smart and tough, was very akin to throwing an infant into a hungry lion's den. I didn't have the roughest idea of how to defend myself, I'd been protected by my older brother and family, and I came from a far different culture than the culture I then had to deal with.

For Lemaster's was a part of the Riveview Gardens school district, a small district in the northern part of St. Louis County. I understand that, when my parents bought the home I spent my first 13 years in, it had been a decent nieghborhood-- quiet and safe. By the time, though, that I entered the local school system it had become a much more dangerous place. As happened in many areas, "white flight" had blighted the home values and invited in the problems of inner city St. Louis. The particular nieghborhood I lived in was largely still safe, and I never thought twice about the color of my nieghbors. The house next door had been bought by a black family and their three daughters quickly became my best friends.

The thing is, though, that the inner-city black culture that I was soon in the midst of was truly foriegn and incomprehensible to me. While I had been raised to believe that "ladies" don't fight, don't say anything if they have nothing nice to say, had been taught to love learning and reading, had never been exposed to materialism, and was firmly entrenched in the belief that people should treat others as they wanted to be treated, the majority of kids I was in school with had been raised quite differently.

First of all, they were raised to physically defend themselves against any real or perrceived wrong. Fighting was not only a reasonable solution to problems and aggrivations, it was generally the only solution they knew of. There was also no cultural taboo against boys hitting girls, or the idea that fighting fair meant a one on one fight-- at least if one of the fighters was white. Crying was for sissies, and all of the other students had, at least by then, learned not to cry... ever, in public. Making fun of other people (sometimes called "jahning") was an acceptable form of amusement, even when people got hurt and even though it often started fights. A person's place in the social heirarchy was often very dependent upon them having the "right" clothes, shoes, bike, and toys. Enjoying things like reading and learning was completely uncool and nerdy-- a certain path to becoming a social outcast. And over-all the basis of interaction had nothing to do with that golden rule. How you treated others was based on 1)how much respect they had and their place n the social heirarchy, and 2) how they would let you treat them (and how far you could push before they pushed back.

So now, as an adult, I can see that never had a chance in that environment. I can see that there was nothing wrong with me, that I was just put into a situation that was far beyond my ability to deal with. I can see that but I don't know how to fix the effects.

Because I never learned to fit in at school. I tried and tried to become whatever I needed to be to have friends. I tried dressing like them, learned to talk like them, became as invisible as possible, tried avoiding them, learned not to cry, learned to fight back when I got punched... everything my childish mind could conceive of. But, I was not intellectually mature enough to realize that I could only fit in by becoming culturally like them, and even then I would still be only marginally accepted because I am white and they were black.

I was such an outcast, in fact, that even the uncool kids didn't want to be seen with me-- they were cooler, had more respect, than me. And all those nieghborhood friends I had counted on-- they still played with me in the nieghborhood, and even at the bus stop, but as soon as the bus came into sight they silently removed their friiendship and ignored me like everyone else. I was a pariah.

All of this was made much worse by the fact that I had entered 2nd grade with an almost 4th grade education. I was maybe even a brilliant child; I loved learning and it came easily to me. Added together with my natural comfort with adults, I was nerd extrordinaire from the start. But, unlike V.B. that had nurtured my exuberant curiousity, my advanced education was a big problem at my new school. The teachers were constantly telling me to stop working ahead, to stay with the class, to slow down, and even that I was too wierd and should "act normal." I remember that in the first month of 2nd grade, before I fully understood how things worked, I had gone through the entirety of the math book and filled out all of the worksheet pages and tests, as I was used to doing at my old school. I proudly presented my completed book to the teacher one day and was horrified and embarrassed when she angrily made fun of me, in front of the class, for trying to show off how smart I was and being too big for my britches. She then made me spend the next hour erasing all of the pages I had completed and finished by admonishing me to keep up with the class from then on.

In the first month of school, that first year, we visited the library. I was quite excited to find that it was at least 5 times as big as the one at Victory Baptist. I happily chose several biographies (being in a history phase then) and brought them to the librarian to check out. She looked at the books and laughed; confidently stating that I could not read them. I remember being puzzled at first, having never been told that I could not read something, and she told me that they were 6th grade books, not 2nd grade books. She said I wasn't old enough to read them, which further intrigued me and led me to seriously piss her off by continuing to ask why there should be rules about what books we can read, and to show her that I could, indeed, read the books by opening one and reading aloud from the first page. I was ultimately kicked ut of the library for the day and had to leave with no books checked out. I still didn't understand why I should have to get Dick and Jane books, or Curious George types (which were the books deemed to be at the 2nd grade level) instead of more interesting ones like the biographies of Harriet Tubman and Ben Franklin that I had initially desired. I was sent home with a discipline note to tell my mom that I had been disobedient and would not check out a book from the library. I thought I would get in trouble but instead my mom was FURIOUS at the librarian and teacher for not letting me get the books I had wanted. She marched into the school the next day and raised hell until I was granted permission to chose whatever books I wanted, which made me happy but did nothing to improve my relationship with the teacher or librarian :)

Both of these anectdotes are to illustrate how badly I fit in at my new school, and how unfair and impossible it was for me to adapt to my new situation. I had grown up in an environment that offered and encouraged me in my intellectual development; I was surrounded by books and was reading full-length novels by the time I was in 2nd grade, my mother read to us every day and was seldom without a book in progress or in her hand, and my aunt (who babysat us) encouraged us to read, play games, and learn from the world around us at all times. We could all read what we wanted from what was available, and reading was, by far, my favorite pass-time. But most of the kids I went to school with had few, if any, books in their homes. The idea of reading for fun was ridiculous to them, their parents didn't read books unless they had to, and no one who was cool had ever been shown with their nose in a book. Even my next door nieghbors, and best friends, always thought that my reading was a bizarre quirk... they accepted it, though, as another one of those crazy white folk's habits and didn't mention it much.

And while I knew that being smart, and not beng ashamed of it, was one of the things that kept me firmly entrenched in the "outcast" role I was placed into, I (thankfully) had the self-esteem to decide that I would not try to change that about myself-- at least not at that point.

Instead, I became convinced that if I could just "look right" then people would like me. And I think I have spent the rest of my life stuck in that 7-year-old-mind's decision.

It saddens me to finally understand, after 26 years, that looks have nothing to do with my problems and that my obsession with "looking right" has probably, in all honesty, been far greater of a harm to my life than the emotional trauma that precipitated it.

I can finally see, looking back over my life, that I chased harder and harder for the appearance that would gain me acceptance and only got further and further from anything that would actually work. As I grew up I was often told, by my peers and by the adults in schools, that something was wrong with me, that I wasn't right, that I wasn't normal, that I didn't fit in, and that was lacking in one way or another. I believed them, but not in the "normal" internalized way. For my foundation of love and acceptance in childhood had given me a secure idea of myself as a good and worthy person, and my family continued to love and cherish me for who I was as I grew up and entered adolescence. So I was sure that it wasn't something inside that was wrong, but something outside, and now I am sure that it started out from the outside but slowly leaked into me and took from me the very natural goodness and beauty that my family had always loved.

Because I find myself at 33 with no close friends, other than my partner, and no idea of how to make them. Thinking back over my adult relationships, I realize that at some point I became incapable of forming deep relationships outside of romantic involvement-- and I think that happened when I was 18 or so.

I used to know how to make friends, and have them, with relative ease. Outside of school I always had friends of all ages, and I was naturally curious about people in general. I also have a natural inclination to like most people and had thus found it easy to get to know individuals-- even though the group dynamics in schools forever eluded me and still does.

Around 18, though, I became tired of being used and hurt by the people I knew. I had never been picky about my friends, happily getting to know anyone who gave me a chance, and had ended up befriending a long list of selfish people who used me for the dependable and reliable affection I freely gavee them. I don't know if it was sudden or gradual, but I ultimately decided not to be that person anymore, and lost my curiousity about people along with my desire to understand them.

While I have had many friendships, well mostly acquaintances, since then, I don't know if I have ever been able to be more than a shallow kind of friend. To be honest, I don't know how to have more than a shallow kind of relationship, outside of my romantic partner, and that really bothers me.

For this all began as a rethinking of body, inspired by many things, but ultimately because I want to be a healthy role model for my child. And it is the rethinking of my relationship with my appearance that has led me to understand how deeply entrenched in the physical world I have allowed myself to become. No matter the contributing causes, I have devolved into a woman who has no idea of what is important, who honestly believed that I could find happiness by changing only the environment of my life, by learning the physical care of a home, by creating a beautiful world n my immediate surroundings-- but never really considering that I may need to change also the inner parts of who I am.

I have this chance, this amazing and rare chance, to really become whoever I want to be. I have a new homeland, in effect a new identity, the security and anchor to frame whatever I chose to become my new self-portrait-- but no idea of how or what the inner workings should be.

And the inner workings are what is at the root of my isolation and fundamental insecurity. I have spent my life observing how people interact, learning what motivates people, memorizing the right words and right behaviors, poring over fashion magazines and gaining a deep insght into trends and fashions. I have done all this to the detriment of my own emotional growth. For in my focus on observation I have traded the experience of emotional maturity for the almost scientific knowledge of human behavior. I have approached my friendships and familial relationships as an objective observer instead of a real human being, and in doing so I have harmed myself and whatever relationships I have had.

My family still loves me and accepts me for who I am. I do not know what they think of me, or how they see me, but I know the love is still deep and secure. We are not close though; I go to my family gatherings and feel as much an outsider as I ever have in a group of people. I see these people, I love them, and I wish very deeply to have a close relationship with them-- to, as an adult, be their friend. But I don't have any clue of what frendships are made of.

I can read books and learn that they are made of shared experiences and bonding through self-disclosure... but is that all that makes us friends? Why is it that I can truly care about people, and want the best for them, but never feel close? Why do I feel inadequate and incapable of real connection? Why don't I know what to talk about, the appropriate feelings, or where to go?

It's easy to make acquaintances, to initially begin to get to know someone, but that is the begining and the end for me. I am finally coming to see that it is because I somewhere left my heart and friendly mind-- I was probably chasing after losing more weight or changing my hair.

But now that I see that there is a problem, I have the possibility of repairing whatever it is that's wrong. And this may be the most important challenge of my life, for I am being and becoming the person who will most heavily influence the shape of Lily's personality. As she comes to an age of her own observation, as she observes my interactions and friendships in order to make her own, I will soon be the model for her emotional/social life. And while my shortcomings will not necesarily doom her to a lifetime of shallow relationships, they will ertainly make it harder to learn social happiness and fulfillment. Aside from that, I want that too!

I want to have close friendships with the people I love! I want to be happy and full of joy, have a full life! I can make my house beautiful, I can become successful, I can lose weight and chase beauty, I can do anything-- but until I learn how to be a friend I don't think any of that will truly matter. For at the end of the day I will lok into myself, and my beautiful life, and realize that it is empty without friends to share it with.