Let’s face it, I’m old enough to be the mother of most of my classmates. Some days it’s more obvious than others. Like last week, in Crisis, Trauma, and Disaster Mental Health Counseling class, we were discussing the September 11 terror attacks, and I realized that everyone in class except for me and the instructor was approximately eight years old in 2001. Eight. I was 38.
I’m even old enough to be the mother of some of my instructors if I’d gotten started on the kid thing in my late teens. But still. In many ways, age does not matter. And in fact, I’m often envious of the folks who get to start out in this career so young. How marvelous that they know what they want to do in their mid-20s.
And then, I remember that I too knew exactly what I wanted to do in my mid-20s. I wanted to be a writer, so I got a Master’s Degree in English. I had some classmates then who were in their mid-40s and older. I envied them because they actually had life experience to write about. I hadn’t gotten far enough to realize what I was doing would eventually count as life experience. I mean, who’s to say if I’d become a counselor at 25 I wouldn’t now be returning to school to get my MFA in creative writing?
We can only be where we are at any given time. We can’t know what our unchosen life would have been, where the road not taken might have led us. As Cheryl Strayed wrote in Tiny Beautiful Things, “I’ll never know, and neither will you, of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.”
We can’t spend our lives second-guessing our decisions. We decide what we decide when we decide it. There’s no going back, no do overs. Some people make better (and isn’t that a subjective term?) choices. Some are born into more privileged circumstances, and some people just get fucking lucky. Even if we plan, and listen to our parents, and invest properly and go to the right schools, there is no guarantee life will pan out according to plan.
All we can do is be open to the moment and what it presents, weigh our options, and follow our passions.
I’m currently working on a group project for my Counseling Sexual Minorities class. We are looking at Attachment Theory as it applies to LGBTQ people and the clinical implications for counseling this population. For my part, and to help the cause along, I decided to take a look at the relationship between attachment styles (secure, fearful/avoidant, dismissive, and preoccupied), identity integration and lesbian shame.
Attachment theory suggests that how well our primary caregivers met our needs as infants and children determines how we relate in relationships later in life. (For a more complete discussion, check out this site).
The Cass Identity Model is one of the primary ways of evaluating how well gays and lesbians have integrated their sexual orientation into their lives. It has six stages, beginning with Identity Confusion (am I a lesbian?) and ending with Identity Synthesis (I am a lesbian and I am out in all areas of my life). (For a more complete discussion on the Cass Model, click here).
The Internalized Shame Scale is an assessment tool used to rate individual’s levels of internalized shame.
Turns out there is a correlation between a lesbian’s attachment style and the amount of shame she experiences. The two studies I looked at gathered data on about 500 lesbians and discovered that those lesbians with a secure attachment style had lower levels of shame (as measured on the Internalized Shame Scale) than those lesbians with other attachment styles (fearful, dismissive, and preoccupied).
The first study (published in 2003) looked at 380 women who self-identified as lesbians and as a level 4, 5, or 6 on the Cass Identity Integration Model. The results aren’t really that surprising. What’s surprising is that overall, lesbians scored 49.8 on the shame scale where 50 is a clinically significant result (i.e. pathological). As a comparison, heterosexual women average a score of 33.
It’s important to note that most infants and children who escape childhood with a secure attachment style tend to remain securely attached in other relationships as their lives go on. Not so with LGBTQ children. Even those who begin life securely attached run a high risk of shifting attachment styles later in life due to particularly severe breaks in important relationships: rejection by their family when they come out, for example. Rejection by peers, teachers, clergy, friends.
One paper I read for my presentation reported that 43% of LGBTQ youth experience some form of physical violence. In addition, a significant number get kicked out of their homes when they come out to their families. LGBTQ people are barraged daily with messages that it’s not okay to be LGBTQ. I just have to open my laptop and scan the headlines on any given morning to read that politicians want to strip me of my rights, that “christians” want to round us up and put us in camps, that self-appointed guardians of morality want to outlaw me, and that people like me are threatened with death just for being who we are.
Sure, we’re gaining rights, but we also face a backlash from those who believe we are less than human, less than deserving of equal rights. The Kim Davis’s, Antonin Scailias, Michelle Bachmans, Ann Coulters, Ted Cruzs, Marco Rubios of this world. We have the right to marry, for now. But how long will that last? Will a change in our country’s administration threaten my rights again? Will I ever be able to relax or must I remain vigilant?
The second study, published a year later looked at 100 lesbians who scored a 6 on the Cass scale and who had also spent at least three years in therapy. What this study showed was that these lesbians scored 43 on the shame scale and 58% were securely attached, compared to 49% in the previous study.
What are the clinical implications of reduced lesbian shame, more secure attachment styles, and higher rates of identity integration? Therapy may work to repair attachment by providing a new secure base, resulting in reduced internalized shame. This is good news.
Why am I interested? Funny you should ask. One of the amazing (and awful) aspects of this graduate program I am in, is that I am constantly analyzing myself, challenging my assumptions about myself and monitoring the way I am in the world. I can’t think of a single class I’ve taken that didn’t shove me right up into the shit, from the initial Family of Origin Issues class, where we looked at intergenerational patterns and all the ways we have unfinished business with the people in our lives to Human Development: Gender in which my mind was blown regarding the social constructs of gender roles and the false dichotomy of binary genders (i.e. boy/girl, male/female).
Every class has taught me something about myself: Ethics, Psychopathology, Psychodiagnostics, Group Therapy, and so it has been with this class, Counseling Sexual Minorities. I signed up for the class with a level of excitement and anticipation I’d not had for other classes because we were finally in my wheelhouse. I thought I knew a thing or two about this topic, at least from the client side of the couch. I wasn’t prepared.
In general, the class has been less than stellar, but even still, I wasn’t prepared for how digging into all the ways in which LGBTQ folks are discriminated against would impact me. I figured that I’ve been out of the closet for the past 40 years and had dealt with my internalized homophobia and had come to terms with my sexual orientation, but what I have realized so far this quarter is just how exhausted I am, how much I shut out on a daily basis in order to protect myself, and that there’s a simmering rage just below the surface that is eating away at me.
The other day I ran across a story on some county clerk in Texas who likened her fight against same sex marriage to the fight against Nazi Germany. Really? And the rhetoric amongst the GOP candidates who want to roll back what few legal protections LGBTQ folks have terrifies me. One candidate whose name shall not grace this blog has stated he would nominate Supreme Court justices who would repeal same sex marriage.
And that’s the thing that just kills me a little inside all the time—other people think they have a right to determine what is best for me simply based on whom I love. Everyone has an opinion and sometimes even a vote about what rights I should have. Just this morning there’s a story on the front page of my local paper about a debate in Charlotte, NC on LGBT protections. A debate. About my rights as a human.
As I grew up, instinctively knowing that there was something different about me, I tried hard to keep that difference under wraps, to not let my true self out for fear of rejection. But eventually the need to be true to myself overruled cultural mandates to fit in. Being authentic, regardless of sexual orientation, can be challenging for many of us, but I would posit that most people don’t spend most of their time with this level of anxiety.
As I came out over the years (coming out happens over and over and over again, by the way, not just once), relationships fell away. Some repaired, others did not. I remember writing to a friend from my high school days when I adopted my oldest daughter. My friend wrote back that I was an abomination, that my daughter deserved better, that I was going to hell.
Eventually, I learned to be more discriminating, oftentimes pushing people away and shutting others out who may not have rejected me. Better to protect my heart than to have it shattered over and over again. Even now when I know better, when I am pretty certain that the folks around me are open and accepting, I still armor myself against betrayal, though occasionally I let down my guard and show up as completely out, completely me, defenseless, and vulnerable because I feel safe, because the environment seems to exude acceptance and warrant trust. Sometimes I’m right. Sometimes I am very wrong.
I am tired. I want to lay down my shame. I want to live in a world where I am not afraid, where no one cares who I sleep with, where no one is threatened by my relationships, where no one wants to strip me of my dignity, humanity, my rights. I want to live in a world where no one gets to vote on my right to marry, work, buy a house, use a restroom, adopt children. I want to live in a world where who I am is not up for debate.
Last November, Bellingham hosted its very first TEDx event, Here by Choice. Many terrific speakers made this an unforgettable day and though I didn’t plan ahead well enough to attend in person, I did watch most of it via live stream on the Intertubes. I was inspired, moved, educated, motivated.
One talk still resonates with me these many months later: Galen Emanuele’s Improv to be a Better Human Being which you can watch here. I didn’t come away from watching Galen thinking I would make a great sidekick to Wayne Brady, Drew Carey, or Ryan Stiles. I came away with a newfound respect for the power of the word Yes.
Galen begins his talk by asking the audience a few simple questions: would you want to increase joy in your life if you could? Do you have someone in your life, who, when you tell them you are going on vacation, they say “aw man, you suck!” Is there someone else who shoots down every passionate idea you come up with?
Negativity, Galen tells us, sucks the energy right out of great ideas. Saying no halts progress and destroys an idea. According to Galen, the principles of improv offer a better approach. Improv depends on the principle of “yes, and” and operate on a handful of basic tenets:
Make others look good
Be positive and optimistic
When I finished watching Galen’s presentation (back in November and just now, for a refresher), I determined that I would begin the New Year with a commitment to saying yes. I decided I would not let no be my default answer, the first response that crossed my mind and my lips.
Saying yes can be scary. The first thing I consciously said yes to was to The Haiku Room—Yes, I would accept the invitation offered and agree to write a haiku a day for the entirety of 2014. I’d never written a line of poetry in my life. I did not see myself as any kind of poet. What if I failed? What if the real poets laughed at me? I said yes anyway, in spite of my fears. Now, I cannot imagine these past four months without my haiku family, real and virtual. What a gift saying yes to haiku has been.
The next thing I consciously said yes to was an invitation from my friend Cami to run in a 10K race the first weekend of January. I hadn’t been running in four months as I was trying to recover from some heel injuries, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to jumpstart my way back into running with a 6 mile race. And Cami runs marathons—I’d never be able to keep up. She cajoled and then I remembered my commitment to say yes. I had a great race—I loved running with Cami, and that run launched me to another level of running. We finished that run in about an hour and 7 minutes.
My friend April is training for a half marathon next week and asked if I wanted to do her long training runs with her. I’d never run more than seven miles, but I said yes to a 9 mile run, and then I said yes to an 11 mile run. I just ran a 10K this weekend in 54 minutes because I said yes to running this year.
Not everything that I’ve said yes to has turned out to be amazing and awesome, but nothing has been awful either. I’ve had experiences I wouldn’t have otherwise had. I’ve stepped way, way, way outside of my comfort zone and discovered that, huh, nothing bad happened. I survived no worse for the wear and maybe even a little wiser.
I’ve made friends. I’ve written more than 50 blogs (because I said yes to two blog challenges) and more than a hundred haikus. I’ve discovered that I can run around Lake Padden twice and even three times and that really, it’s not a bad run from Squalicum Harbor to Fairhaven Park and back again. I’ve learned that I can be honest, tell my truth, stand my ground and that the world will not crumble. In fact, just the opposite happens—I find renewed strength and support.
So, give Yes a try—commit to saying yes, to being positive, to building others up. I highly recommend it. Take 12 minutes and watch Galen Emanuele’s TEDx Talk—say yes. You’ll be glad you did: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VhkcmN-CCYw
Well Dear Readers–I left Ghost Ranch and the 2013 AROHO Writers’ Retreat yesterday morning, pointed the Jeep north and just drove, grateful that I had nothing to do but steer and follow Siri’s directions to Provo (a strange place to end up after a week with women writers, but conveniently located). I pulled into the Hampton Inn around 7:30, excited to sleep in a real bed, alone in my room with my own bathroom, so thankful I wouldn’t have to make the trek across the desert from my casita to the communal bathroom to pee in the middle of the night.
I’m still unpacking all that the week taught me, but I re-learned a few truths (and sometimes re-learning is the most painful and revelatory sort of learning):
Never judge a book or a person by its/their cover–what lies within is all that matters. As I sat and listened to all of the women who were brave and read their work, I was blown away every three minutes (the length of each reading).
Ask for what we need. As I listened to AROHO founders Mary Johnson and Darlene Chandler Bassett throughout the week, their power and determination continued to impress me and to impress upon me the (for lack of a better word) miracles that can occur when powerful women decide to go after what they want. If we don’t ask, no one will know what we need.
Acceptance and self-acceptance come when we just do our thing, walk our own walk, talk our own talk and rest confidently in our (overused word alert) authentic self.
Everyone has a story. The key to the story lies in the telling.
I went to a writing retreat, but the work I did there had less to do with writing and more to do with simply being, in the quiet, in the desert (an apt metaphor if ever there was one), with myself.