Survivor Support Groups – are they really helping?

11 years ago, my only brother took his own life. About a year into my grief, after the casseroles & lasagna’s stopped coming, the random visits from friends who felt the need to hold my hand became scarce, the scents from perfume left on my clothes from forced hugs, had long since faded – I decided I needed a different kind of support. I needed to be around people that weren’t sick of hearing about my loss. I needed to talk about my brother, because I was so scared I would forget him, and even more, I yearned for a place other than home, that validated the trauma that I went through, and where I could meet others that truly understood.

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Members of the suicide survivor group and I attended the Out of the Darkness overnight walk – 2008.

I found a Suicide Survivors group near me, for people who have lost someone to suicide. It was just as you would expect it to be; everyone sits in a circle, there are a few trained moderators. Lots of boxes of tissue, a donation basket for the tea that you steep and fumble with but never drink, various pamphlets and literature you are never offered just for decoration. The moderator starts, almost in an exaggerated whisper, and reserved to a fault. I remember looking around the room, thirsty for my turn, but quickly found myself deeply immersed in others peoples stories. With every story of loss and heartache, I felt my own wave of emotions come rushing back – it was almost too much. Uncontrollable tears, shortened sobs as they searched for air from fear of the onslaught of painful feelings, others trying to comfort those that spoke, quietly shedding their own tears. I felt like I needed a reprieve, a moment of hope and light, but each was a story of loss, there was no words of hope in sight. So around we went, unzipping our hearts and letting our private pain spill onto the floor in the middle of this circle onto the cheap unraveling rug that seemed to be the focal point when we didn’t know where else to look. Each person was hesitantly commingling with each others grief hoping we could find a similar story, a similar look of sadness, or some new thought or opinion on why we had to lose our loved ones in such a traumatic way.

One day in the group, a woman came in who had lost her sister 10 years prior. I remember listening to her sadness, it felt so different than the rest of ours. Less frantic, more controlled. She was still sad, but she could breathe while crying. I know that sounds funny, because yes I know we all breathe, but in the beginning, it feels like you can’t, it’s scary. She was taking deep breaths, and I remember feeling jealous of them. I thought to myself, I hope my grief feels like this in 10 years, like a pre teen wishing for bigger boobs. After about a year of going to the group I started to get exhausted by the level of sadness and weight in each meeting, it started feeling like I was picking off scabs of work I had already done, and re-injuring myself. I needed light, I needed stories of hope, I needed to hear about what else people were doing with their sadness.

Fast forward to current day. My brother has been gone 11 years, 6 months and 29 days. Faces of Fortitude was started 14 months ago. In its inception it was meant to assist in my stage of grief, and very quickly grew into something larger than I ever imagined. It’s now become a movement, where people affected by suicide in any way, can apply to have their portrait taken and words shared with the world, regardless of how they are affected. I have shared over 100 Faces and counting, of people who have lost loved ones to suicide, people who have attempted to take their lives and survived, and also of the first responders of suicide deaths. I had finally found what I yearned for early on in my grief, a way for people affect to both share their narrative  and truth as well as words of hope and encouragement for what comes after our trauma.

I recently started seeing a trend, I have started getting messages from people relating to the words and stories because they were on the other side of the issue, and they were relating to other perspectives and stories. Like the 39 year old dad who messaged me, fighting major depression and suicidal ideations, who saw my post of a person who lost their dad, and all of the pain and anguish she had to process and go through even as an adult, made him realize what his daughter would go through, and decided to finally get help. The woman who lost a sibling to suicide, and commented on the photo of a young teen who struggled with the darkness and their own sadness, offering to be a big sister and mentor to the young girl, encouraging their talents and to live another day. It’s become clear to me, people not only need to share their own stories, but they need to hear the experiences of people on the other sides of suicide, in order to help them grow and heal.

About 6 months ago I decided it was time for me to revisit that same suicide survivors group – and the outcome wasn’t what I expected it to be. I went hoping to do what that woman did for me early on. I wanted to show them what over a decade of processing grief looked like, to be a beacon of hope for someone else. It started off just as I remember it for the most part. I entered and oddly there was no desk to check in as there was before. Strange but I didn’t give it much thought. Paper signs with “Survivor Group” handwritten and arrows lined the halls, I followed. I entered a room with two other people. Hesitant eye contact, tissues placed on the floor in the middle of the circle. As people trickled in, we exchanged awkward glances and hellos, all in a deafening whisper. The two moderators began to speak, and I couldn’t help but liken them to SNL characters. Exaggerated whispers, monotone, long pauses in between phrases, eyes filled with pity when they locked with  yours.

We began going around the room, people introducing themselves and sharing their stories. A few people were regulars and were known by first name. A few people had brought friends, and were still in very early stages of grief, the kind of tears that made your body shake and you didn’t know why. Some had lost brothers like me, and were rather fresh – 1-2 years into their grief. When my turn came, I told them I was what 11 years of grief looked like. That I wanted to do what someone once did for me. I told them briefly about my project and how it had been helping me process. One woman held back her tears and said how good it made her feel seeing someone who could talk about this kind of trauma and handle it with normal breaths. That is what I had hoped, and I felt happy I had made the decision to come.

The woman next to me was speaking, she had lost her son just 10 months before. She was inconsolable, and as I put my hand on her back, someone entered the room late. I like to consider myself a sensitive and an empath, and I can tell you right when he entered I knew something was wrong. I felt dread and I felt anger. I tried to keep my focus on the poor woman to my left, rubbing circles on her back helping her find her center as she composed herself. He was a middle aged, white male, work boots, carhartt jacket, sunburn on his face around the whites of where sunglasses once sat. Those sunglasses were now sitting on the back of his head. He tossed his keys and cell phone on the ground in front of his chair, sat down, made a sound of disgust, leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms, sending darts with his eyes as he looked towards each of us.

The passive moderator looked at him and said in her monotone soft voice just above a whisper: “Hello thank you for joining us. *uncomfortable pause* You are the only person who hasn’t introduced themselves. Would you like to? You don’t have to, just if you feel comfortable of course.” He opened his arms and made a whatever shrug gesture and said “Sure, whatever, I don’t care!” to which we all exchanged looks and his bad energy vibes intensified for me. He said “My name is “Scott” (name changed for privacy). My wife killed herself about hmm lemme think, like 11 months ago, hard to keep track. I am doing great. More time for myself, more time to go fishing, do shit I wanna do. I am pretty carefree, belligerent some may say. I am trying to figure out why everyone is so fucking sad!”

I sat there enraged but also immediately felt in danger. This person had taken a safe space and immediately filled it with all the things those of us inside it were trying to rid ourselves of; judgement, shame, anger etc. The moderator basically fumbled with her reply, almost too quiet to even hear it, and was fairly dismissing with his behavior, using a lot of “I’m so sorry you feel that way” type replies. Another person in the circle was bold and started talking, saying that her tears were not ridiculous or unwarranted. Honestly I stopped listening at that moment because I was watching his face, become more and more enraged as she talked. He was preparing his rebuttal. And I didn’t want to hear it, I was convinced he was going to get violent. I raised my hand, interrupting the woman saying – “I am so sorry, I have to duck out early, I have another appointment” I thanked them all for their time, and practically ran out of the building. I sat in my car, shaking with fear and anger. WHAT was that? HOW did that happen? More importantly, WHY did that happen.

I spent the next week, mulling it over and spoke to a friend who worked in the industry and had mutual friends who worked at the place the meeting was held. She was appalled and promised to do some research for me. Turns out, this man, they believe was someone who had been calling into a local helpline, berating and harassing the volunteer support line workers to know end. He was allowed in the building. He wasn’t forced to check in with anyone, or record his email. He didn’t have to talk to anyone before entering the safe space. Furthermore I learned, that shortly after I left, he made a scene and had to be removed from the building.

Why aren’t people getting the help they need when these types of traumatic events happen to them. The people in this group no doubt were shaken by this event. But even more – Scott – this poor hurting human, his rage was out of control, all from his immense and painful grief. Those of us who know grief and its many masks, know this stage all too well. Why is there not help for him, family members reaching out, policies in place to make people feel safe from situations like this.

Then I realized, we all had the same experience. Why are we sticking all the people who have attempted in a room together, and all the people who have lost in a different room, and then giving separate classes to the first responders? There is something in a cross narrative that is tangible for me. Something we aren’t touching on to help each other. Our shared experiences help us feel less alone, and validated, but with suicide comes a very serious type of processing – tunnel vision. It’s hard to see past your grief because it’s so traumatic, likened to that of your body being in an airplane crash. So sometimes we need to be taken out of that line of sight, by hearing and seeing something that can possibly provide answers or insight to our own trauma: the other side of the coin. Family members who have lost sharing their pain with people who have attempted. First responders sharing their stories with people who have attempted, and so on, learning from each others specific kind of pain.

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So it’s time to create new types of meetings and support groups to match how society is growing and bringing mental illness more into the spotlight. A monthly group that has multimedia presentations with things that are happening in the news around suicide and mental illness, and people can discuss them. A few people speak, each sharing their stories of how they have been touched, all from different types of experiences with suicide. People bring in self help and mental health books they have read for a book exchange, there’s a therapist business card bucket, that you can put your therapists card in if you want to recommend them to someone else! Mental health and suicide prevention event dates on a flyer circulating for people to take home. A focus each meeting on one struggle that everyone across the board can related to: One week it’s GUILT, the next week its Self Confidence, etc. Artists who do grief pieces bring in their art to show, and explain how it helps them process. There will always be a licensed therapist and mental health professional present to help keep things on task and give supportive feedback. We draw up a blueprint of the first group and make it a downloadable PDF on the Faces of Fortitude website, so you can build a similar type meeting in your city or town. A group that has strict guidelines for the best practices and worksheets helping guide the meetings. So that people can feel safe, guided and organized.

Its 2019 – Suicide and Mental Illness is in the news daily, more people are bringing the topics out of whispers and into the light, where mature and informative discussions are happening. It’s time to update these outdated forms of support with the times. It’s time to hold ourselves accountable for that progress and not waste another moment – I am ready to start this process by encouraging a cross narrative between those who have been affected. My own process through grief and healing has grown exponentially since starting this project, and I have watched Faces I have worked with, heal as well. All because they are listening to each other, having dialogues, and taking things away from each others process. THAT is the golden ticket, and that is what we need to take healing from suicide and mental illness to the next level.

 

Holidays: For the Helpless & the Helpers

Video version of this post can be found HERE.

Some of us LOVE the holidays, and some dread them. The REASON both sides feel so strongly is very often lost on each other. I am a Christmas baby, born 2 days before. I have always LOVED the holidays. However after losing my brother, and having estranged family members, I also have felt the despair and sadness that come during this time of year. I have had to make some very intentional efforts to keep those feelings balanced. I wanted to share them with you.

The Helpless

Whether we are suffering from mental illness and feeling isolated and alone, we are missing a lost loved one, or estranged from family we used to once be close to – the holidays can make those feelings magnified. Because I have been there, here are some of my go-to reminders and ideas to keep my head up and avoid too many dark moments of sadness.

  1. Be kind to yourself. Set reasonable goals for yourself. Don’t over commit. Give YOURSELF a gift by not putting yourself in toxic situations in the name of “family”. I am a firm believer that family should also equal love and support. SURE we all have tests and issues, everyone has a level of dysfunction, but it shouldn’t be to the point of causing you more emotional harm. Blood is NOT everything. You can choose who you spend your holidays with, there are no laws saying where you have to be. Make the choice that FEELS the best. We should never willingly sit through abuse, narcissism, hurtful or ignorant comments, in the name of “family”.
  2. Be kind to others. I find showing kindness to OTHERS in memory of people I have lost, helps remind me that there are others also suffering this time of year, and also makes my heart happy. Sure you can donate things to a shelter, or time at a food bank. But you can also be creative. Friends of Jimmy story.
  3. Change things up! New recipes? New tradition? Something NEW each year will help keep things interesting and fun.
  4. Give yourself the gift of missing at least one planned function. If you have 5 on your calendar, decide to take one off. And use that time JUST FOR YOU. Go get a massage. Go the movies with a friend. Order pizza and watch Elf on your couch. Snuggle a pet or someone else’s pet. Give yourself that gift.

The Helpers

Most people that are IN REAL LOVE with the holidays, sometimes have a hard time understanding why some people are grinches. It fills us with so much joy that it’s hard for us to see past our warm festive circle. Often times the easiest thing to do when met with someone struggling during our happiest time of year, is to just leave them to themselves, but thats not always the best option. Here are some things that I have tried to remember when feeling festive around people that are struggling:

  1. Please don’t say “You are welcome to come over, just let us know” to everyone. I mean that’s a fine gesture in itself but you KNOW there are people that won’t reach out and invite themselves – so you need to take your candy cane loving ass a step further and reach out to them. Gently ask what their plans are, tell them maybe something you are stressing about, and ask for their help. Make them feel needed and wanted, because they ARE needed and wanted. It’s not easy to feel a part of something if the hosts have ALL their people and ALL the things they need for a huge dinner, it’s actually easier in those situations to fade into the back and not participate. SHOW vulnerability and make sure people know how and why they are needed at your holiday event.
  2. No Guilt. If they can’t come or can’t do it – IT’S OKAY. Make sure they just know that they are welcome and that you just wanted to make sure they had a comfortable place to be around people that are easy and love them.
  3. If you sense someone pulling away during this time, keep STAY ENGAGED. It can be as simple as texting a funny gif, picking them up their fav coffee or tea while you are out and dropping it off to them to say hi, making sure they know that YOU see them and you want to love on them.
  4. DO NOT give advice. The worst thing you can do during the holidays is try to fix whatever is upsetting the person who is hurting. If they are estranged from a family member, don’t tell them how to make it better, or how family is blood and “you only have one mother”. You don’t know their story, and aren’t in their shoes. If they lost a family member, they don’t want to hear “they are in a better place” or “remember the good times” – because if that were true, they would be doing it. The truth is, the holidays are SHITTY for people with family who have passed or are estranged from their lives, and they need that validation. VALIDATION and an EAR. That’s all. Tell them – “UGH that is so horrible, I am so sorry you have to go through that. It has to be so hard during the holidays. I am so happy you are here with us.” And then let them say whatever they need to say, without fear of judgement.
  5. BE AN ALLY. Thanksgiving is a fabricated racist made up holiday that was full of lies stuffed down our throats as kids. Now while I am NOT a supporter of mega politics being discussed at holiday parties, I AM a proponent of civil rights and the correct side of history being protected. So if UNCLE JEB decides to thank the PILGRIMS, you can raise your glass and say “Sorry I will not thank anyone who mercilessly massacred innocent Native Americans – but CHEERS to unlearning!” If our dreaded president, Ted Cruz or any other horrible topic arises, you can stand firm, share your sentiment, and be an ally, without engaging in arguments. Political arguments during the holidays with ignorant people are the same thing as throwing all of your hosts food in the trash. Cause you lose your appetite that quickly. In short: Be firm, Be an ALLY, Don’t waiver, but also, don’t talk in circles with idiots. Most of the time, people with anxiety and sadness during the holidays are fueled and teased by these types of people, and don’t have the energy or heart to stand up to them. Whether its racism, gender bias or refusal to acknowledge, politics or just good old family gossip, at least one of those triggers us during the holidays. It’s nice to have an ally there to be our battle assist.

In closing – the holidays are BASICALLY fabricated marketing money makers now. Pilgrims were murderers, Jesus wasn’t born on Christmas, if you even believe he existed, so make of those holidays what YOU need out of them. For me, both are about my CHOSEN family. The people around me who care about me and are part of my life, the duration of the year, and who may need extra family around them. 

 

Sit. Feast on your Life

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here, Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your Life. – Love After Love ~ Derek Walcott

I am sorry for my absence. I have been busy feasting. On food? I mean yes, do you even know me? But more like feasting and thriving on my life. It’s official; Feasting and Thriving are my two fav adjectives of 2018. A friend told me recently, that I should share this part of my journey with people. Honestly I had been thinking about it but was unsure how to approach it. All I know is how I feel, it’s been hard to put into words, so be patient. I am occupying a different space in my life and in the lives of people around me now. It feels significant, and special; and I am well aware that I am not alone in it. I have thought for hours about how I would open this blog post, and then the poem above that was read to us by Oprah herself (casual) at her Live your Best Life weekend, came to mind.

I have welcomed myself back to the table, and am now Feasting on my own Life.

This piece will attempt to share the part of our lives as parents, that change when your child, the one you have dedicated your entire adult life to making healthy, happy and wise – grows up – uses the tools you gave them, (better than you would have used them yourself at their age) – to create their own space. This is me trying to find words to tell you what comes next. What can be next.

Shift Happens

Space. I keep coming back to that word. Space can be scary. I know it’s scary for most parents, it was to me as a mother. I didn’t like the idea of space between myself and my 60721247daughter. “You can live here for the rest of your life if you want!” I would often say – resembling overbearing TV mom Beverly Goldberg. “And then you can get married and we can get a bigger house and I can watch your kids and when we get older you can take care of us, like the circle of life!”. It sounded beautiful, but in reality it was my fear of space and I’m sure utterly horrifying to my daughter.

The shift started.

The air got thin in the small spaces of our apartment and relationship.
Uncomfortable. Irritable.
I quipped she’s not ready. She will never be ready. I have more to teach her.
She pushed and pulled backI’m ready… oh crap maybe I’m not ready. Help me be ready. Show me all the things. Never mind I know them all. Shit maybe I don’t.
Dad pushed with his tough loveLet her go and figure it out the hard way.

I started to get frustrated. Did I want her to be ready? Her dad seemed hurt, frustrated. Said he wondered why anyone would want to spend so much $ on rent when we are such chill parents. When you could stay here FREE and just LIVE and save money.
Because Dad – I need SPACE.
There’s that word again. Was I hurt or was I just scared of that word? Is it that scary?

space
spās/
noun
1.a continuous area or expanse that is free, available, or unoccupied.

  1. “a table took up much of the space”
  2. 2.
  3. the dimensions of height, depth, and width within which all things exist and move.
  4. “the work gives the sense of a journey in space and time”

…Within which all things exist and move….

My feelings were different that I thought they would be when we got to this point. I thought I would be resistant, sad, angry. But surprisingly I wasn’t. I felt like I was in a mad rush to a finish line. To get her ALL the things she needed to know before she found Space. Hurry, can you unclog a toilet? Do you know about deposits and utility bills? How about mail forwarding? What about budgeting? Savings – shit we have never had savings, never mind skip that one and we can go back to it and google what it means. Grocery shopping. Let’s gather things you may need – Ice trays? What about a pasta strainer? Will you need an iron? Do you even know how to iron?

And then all of a sudden it felt that I had been preparing without realizing it. I had subconsciously kept things over the last few years in preparation to give to her. A whole set of plates and glasses from her 19th birthday that I bought at Goodwill – “I will keep those if they are ever needed for big parties…” Blankets and sheets just because “Who knows when they will come in handy”. Two of most things just because. Was I subconsciously preparing for her space?

It was Fall. The air got even more stuffy in those spaces. Windows closed figuratively and literally. Time was closing in for this shift. I could feel it in the air. I wriggled to find elbow and leg room. My own path at my job was being carved with a heavy but beautiful shovel. Hard work, lots of brush to clear and new paths to pave, but it was mine. I loved the work, I felt pride. It helped with that stuffy air at home. To sweat it out making progress and be praised and rewarded for it. I felt like at work I was building a house with every tool I needed, and at home I was trying to do it with my heart and a stapler.

The majority of my adult life, until a few years ago – consisted of a collection of movements, choices, actions – that were all connected to other people. Helping other people do what they needed to do to continue on their path of happiness. It’s what made me the most happy. You think something is out of your reach? HERE, let me show you how wrong you are, let me show you you can do it, you can reach it,  you can achieve it. There, LOOK how GREAT you are! I knew you could do it! I was the powerhouse behind the powerhouses.

maxresdefaultOne day in late Fall, Maddi started to search for her Space. Not far from home – I would echo as her search began. You want us to help with your dog, and during busy reps for you right? Code for: Ok you can go but please give me some breadcrumbs and a key to your apartment…should you need us…

As the search narrowed, I tried to find things with my own eyes – to fill that space I knew was coming. But nothing could fill a space like that. Nothing ever. No one had earned my love on that level. Who else could I love as much as the human who used to fill that space? Who on earth…

Sometimes an idea comes to you from thought. Sometimes it comes from inspiration or example. Any of those can have lines drawn to them – but I am a true believer in fate, and timing and the universe aligning how it should and just as you need it at that very fleeting moment. It was that kind of moment that I found my passion project. It was the universe, being stirred with a wooden spoon by my brother, with a dash of my maternal back stock, that I had been saving for myself for a rainy day. This back stock is like the little section of cookie dough we save for ourselves when we are making cookies. “It’s not enough for a cookie, I may as well eat it”. That one. Over the years, each time I had prepared this love for another – I had saved a small bit for myself – a little each Mothers Day for the past several years. The love and care I was unable to sprinkle on the person I used to call mother – I was saving it up for when I needed my own mothering. I have often said I am sometimes jealous of the Mother my daughter has. But that means I am jealous of myself? How does that work? Regardless, how am I gonna season her and other people’s lives with this good shit and not take any for myself?

So I brought out my mom dust. My remnants of magic. And realized they needed to be used to season my own feast. I was that person, on earth – that could be loved as much as my own daughter. I was the person who deserved that space and that love. That mama bear magic, was ME. (cue tears cause I sobbed when I wrote this, Oprah would be so proud of me)

And practically overnight my passion project was born. Inspired by a photographer traveling through our studios, by my brother and both his life and his death, my struggles and journey as a mother and wife, inspired by my love of helping people and wanting to lift them up and inspired by my desire to carve a space out just for myself. My Space.

But then, like a whirlwind – everything happened at once. My daughter found a great deal on an apartment. Its perfect mom! BUT I would have to move in before Christmas and your birthday. It’s just 5 blocks away on the same street and LOOK you can see it from the window. AND it has all the bells and whistles!! *wince*

PAUSE. I waited with baited breath for my own reaction. Waited for the air to get stuffy and suffocating. Waited a little longer. I grounded my feet and bent my knees for when my earth started to tremble and crumble.

24294327_10156806327724256_1872130628326576842_nNothing happened. In fact I felt something strange. Was that excitement? Nope, couldn’t be. Okay maybe it was. YES it was actually. Okay we can do this. Let’s do this. DAMN this is actually going to be fun. You want me to help you unpack and get take out Chinese food like best friends? You want me to come over and just hang? All of this INTENTIONAL space. Intentional space with this human I made who now wants to make space for me. Every time we hung out in her space the first few times, I had to hold back tears. It was mind blowing.

Then in my space I began to build. With fervor like I had been hibernating of years. October 12th: Project envisioned. Week one – mission statement and title. Week two – self portrait. Week 3 – first round of portraits. 3 months in now – over 35 portraits and stories have been told. People in this whirlwind throwing around words like Publisher, Gallery Show, Book Deal. Wait wait – it’s almost too daunting. I remind myself “Self Care. Self Love. Self Awareness.” and keep going. But wait – I thought this was just going to be a little thing I used to take a few photos, of family and friends and that was it?

Wrong. This is what happens when you make space and your heart jumps in feet first.

And just like that, 3 spaces were born.
My daughters space.
My own space.
A safe space for people to connect with me on the topic of suicide, mental illness and loss through my passion project.

I have always felt pride. Pride in the way I have mothered my daughter, despite having not the best of examples. Pride in my marriage and my friendship with my husband. Pride for the adult my daughter has grown to become. Pride in our space, and our ability to make a lot out of a little. None of those things were pride I could feel alone. None. It was collective and that’s great, but none were things I am singularly proud of. So now I have this pride that bubbles. It’s a strange and awesome feeling. It’s just mine. I can create rules for it, boundaries, celebrate it anytime I want and navigate the waters absolutely alone. A good alone.

Does this mean I no longer want to care for people and take care of them? Of course not. Does it mean I have “found myself” and am dropping all of my care and self set responsibilities as a mother, wife and friend? NOPE. In fact my care for people has not faltered, and that  is something I am proud of. What it does mean is that with the same LEVEL that I have cared for others and all of these things, I am also now caring for myself. I am caring enough to want to carve a piece of this place out for myself, and sit with bare hands and eat it whole, letting it get beautifully messy. I am caring enough that I want that same size piece of love from myself and FOR myself, as I give to others.

I am asked almost daily by some that know me “HOW are you doing now that Maddi has moved out?? Are you OK!?? Are you so sad with your empty nest?” I am more than OK. I have my daughter wanting to spend intentional time with me, and including me in her life, in her space. I have my own space to room and grow. I am able to continue to help, nurture and care for my adult child from here, while making her proud of the help, nurture and care I am now giving to myself. Her, and my husband are my biggest cheerleaders, both vocalizing how I have been their biggest supporters over the last decade, and how now – they are excited to give that back to me.

I like this space. I wouldn’t have wanted it 6 months, a year, or even 5-10 years ago. I wouldn’t have had the compass to navigate it. I had to go through it all. I love now because of how I loved then.

For more information about my project, Faces of Fortitude feel free to visit my Instagram or Facebook pages.

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Babies need: Love, food, music and bandaids. The rest is just a bonus.

“So I think I’ll need a bandaid (need a bandaid),
Or maybe three or four (or five or six or more)
And a bottle of that spray stuff
We just got at the store.
Some sticky tape, a roll of gauze,
And if you’d be so kind,
A washcloth and a piece of ice,
But not the iodine.
No iodine.” – Trout Fishing in America
(IF you don’t know this song – google it. Then buy their very first album for your toddler. The song where they throw nursery characters out the window is GOLD)842DB9FF73FD4F4E87C932D0CE01A315

Kids. Thats too broad, BABIES. Toddlers. I both love them and hate them. Madison had colic. She legit cried 12 hours a day for 6 months. It was torture. However, after that she never had another fit or tantrum ever again. No lie. We like to think she got it all out. And all of the things people told us, to help us get through those hours of crying. None of it worked: thanks guys. It was then Ryan and I both realized, lets just be extreme cause fuck it we aren’t sleeping anyways! And shockingly, those against the grain ideas, actually worked, FOR US. So, this is my “What to DO when you’re expecting and all of your friends think they know better and the books were written by rich white women with married parents and nannies” list.

Lots of people are having babies. Contrary to popular belief, there is no RIGHT WAY to raise them. That “What to expect when your expecting” line of books? Total bullshit. Your friends who have kids and have “more experience”? Meh some may be helpful but chances are, their situations are not YOURS. And this is what I am here to tell you – my list – is a list of all the things I did AGAINST the grain, and literally opposite of what people told me, AND IT ALL TURNED OUT OK. Not only is our daughter beautiful, smart, amazing and successful; she is fierce, free thinking and not only speaks to us, but considers us friends at the adult age of 21. None of those things could I claim when I was growing up, so something we did seemed to work.

Pregnancy:

  1. Pregnancy Vitamins. You don’t have to take those horse pills. Fight me on it. Change your diet. Eat more greens. Look at what is in them and find fresh ingredients to give you those nutrients.
  2. DO take daily naps. If you have to, take a nap on your lunch break at work. You should be taking DAILY naps starting in month TWO at the latest. YOU ARE MAKING REAL LIFE ORGANS IN THERE. Your sleep will make a stronger baby bear.
  3. Sex. All the time. No the baby won’t see anything, its ok. Do it all the times.
  4. Foot rubs. All the time. And if your partner doesn’t like feet, remind them YOU ARE MAKING FEET WITH YOUR BODY. If you don’t have a partner – your friends better warm them hands up. Its the saving grace for a pregnant person.
  5. Wine. Its OK just be cool. A few glasses of red are good for you. A bender with fireball isn’t recommended.
  6. Birthing choices: If you want an epidural, or to be in a hospital and have pain meds, that is ABSOLUTELY your right and makes you no less of a mother. Seattle is full of uber granola parents that like to push their “drug free, bloody hot tub” views on other expectant moms and I roll my eyes every time. Both ways are just as brave. You are bringing another human to life outside your body. I give a fuck how you choose to endure that pain. You are a warrior. Period. Don’t shame people for their birthing choices, they are birthing, thats a WIN in general.

BABIES!

  1. Formula or Breastmilk? Breastfeeding IS HARD. Don’t worry if it doesn’t work for you. It seems like so much work for so little, I know. Its literally a milky water that was specifically made for your baby. Its not gonna come out like a tap most likely, cause that shit is like GOLD! Either be ready to do the (pumping) work, or just take a breath and do your formula research. There are plenty of amazing choices out there for those that decide to not do it. Then see the end of the last paragraph and stop judging each other for it.
  2. Co-Sleeping. Its ok to let your baby sleep with you. You won’t roll over on them. You won’t forget they are there. You WILL sleep more, and can feed from bed. The baby will sleep better near your heart, its where they were for so long. If this is not possible or you aren’t comfortable with this – get them a “Momma Bear” its a bear that sits in the crip and makes heart sounds and is very similar to the sound they hear in the womb. It did wonders for us.
  3. FOOD. Madison’s first food was a piece of red licorice. Then her second bite was mashed up penne noodles. She was barely 24 weeks old. Baby food, shmaby food. Its over priced, and full of things. Sure we got them for Madison to supplement, but we did not fear food. If the baby reached for something, I tried to mash it up and give her a taste. As she grew that included wine and spicy things. Sure be smart about choking and large anything with no teeth, but that is literally COMMON SENSE, I would hope.
  4. TV. “Not too much tv! Limit screen time! Only rated G!” Listen. This is utter nonsense to me. They key isn’t limiting SCREEN TIME, the key is limiting alone time. Don’t use it as a babysitter. TV isn’t harmful, its using it wrong thats harmful. TALK to them about what they are watching, engage so its not a zombie looking at a screen. Talk through it and become part of the audience with them. Madison accidentally saw a rated R movie when we were overseas when she was just 3 years old. The short version of the story is – someone told us “American Pie” was good movie for young kids (thanks Omeed lol). We were in Zambia, Africa and drove an hour to see it, so when the apple pie scene happened we were like “Well shit…” and just rolled with it. You improv and make it work. Later when friends asked how the coveted movie trip went, big mouth Maddi said “It was silly a man put his peepee in a pie!” and yup that was that. It happens, and they will survive.
  5. Candy. On halloween night, when Madison was just 1 year old – I let her take her kid-eating-candyloot, sit super close to the TV and dump out her candy. She looked up in awe. I said “Eat as much as you want!”. I even sent a photo to my sister because I was so proud of doing exactly the opposite of what we were allowed as kids. What ended up happening? She ate 3 pieces, felt sick and didn’t eat anymore. To this day she has never overdone it on candy on halloween. Because it was never something she had to rebel.
  6. Clothing. Blue and Pink are dumb. Ok I don’t really mean that but lets try to not encourage the forced societal gender norms at day one, what do you say parents? Ryan and I didn’t buy it – so we decided we were going to dress her like Harriet the Spy. Baggy, primary colors. And then when she was old enough to choose her own clothes, we welcomed it. Take it further, let them choose YOUR CLOTHES. How does that feel? Weird right? So maybe make it a collaborative effort. Stripes, hearts and pineapples DO SO MATCH!tumblr_ofznwl2GWj1vc5zsdo1_500
  7. Adults. I was raised with a “Don’t speak until you are spoken to” and “respect your elders” era. And then of course I am an XGen kid so that all went out the window in my teens in a negative way. However when we raised Maddi we were able to foster and encourage a happy medium. As a toddler we spoke to her as a human, not a baby. Even her gibberish was a language and we entertained it. Every word was celebrated like a 3 point goal and usually rewarded with a little dance or high five. At 18 months she barely spoke over a whisper, but it was a well thought out whisper. Her fav words to whisper were “Elephant, Water and Monster”. When she did raise her voice it was secure. We taught her to always look adults in the eye, always stand your ground and speak your mind. You can disagree without loosing your intelligence and patience. Always question adults and their motives, always.
  8. Bandaids. Buy them in big boxes. Same with neosporin. Don’t be stingy with them. Just because YOU can’t see the cut doesn’t mean its not there. Always wait 5 Mississippi second before reacting to a toddler or baby owie – bandaid doesn’t need to mean drama. They feed off you. If you blow it off, they will too most of the time. We would wait, she would gauge our response, whimper a bit – Ryan would say “You are all good!” and I would say – “Lets get a bandaid and then keep playing” and it was all good! They know you are there to help heal them but also that its all good!
  9. School. Yeah I think you all know where I am going to go with this. Babies need music, love and you. Toddlers need music, love, you, picture books and sesame street. When they are old enough to walk they need to go to busy places with lots of moving parts and stimuli. No I don’t mean something Montessori based, I mean the real world. Take them to an open air market, to the car wash, gas station. Take them to the DMV and the hair salon. Let them touch and feel things, get dirty and talk to them about it all. THAT IS SCHOOL. That is where they learn. Preschool, K-whatever. That is all important of course, but do your research. Let them skip days and take them on day dates. Be an active part of their education, not with the PTA but with attention and time. We were never rich with money but we gave her all the time and energy we had.
  10. Finally – Siblings/family. “Don’t you wish you had another baby?” “Its not fair to her to not giving her a sibling” and the worst “Its easier with more than one, they will play together and you don’t have to do as much!”. Its not for everyone – multiple kids is hard and its something Ryan and I knew we didn’t want to tackle. I read something a long time ago in an OLD parenting book and its literally the only piece of advice that wasn’t total bs – Dr Spock said that ideally each child needs 5-7 years of “only child” attention. Over the years I have spoken to people that spaced their kids as such and they all praise it – I have no experience with it but it makes absolute sense to me. Either way you do you.

Raising kids is a lot of work. I once had a girl friend call me, in fear – because her and her partner were pregnant and she was absolutely terrified. She said “We have no money and no big house – I don’t know what we are going to do!”. I told her to calm down. Babies need 3 things, love, food and you. The rest will come if you ask for help. The government can help, your neighbors can help, I mean total strangers will help via the internet if you get someone to tell your story. You are not alone.

LOVE your baby. Snuggle them and make eye contact as much as possible. Thumb through a National Geographic magazine with them on your lap while listening to The Score, pointing out Lauryn’s verse in the title track and teach them to say the word FIRE with that as reference. maxresdefaultLet them help you cook and throw food at each other. Let them taste ingredients and talk to them about each one. Make their chores be watching movie classics like The Wiz, Goonies, The Breakfast Club and The Karate Kid. Let them yell at you for taking a toy away, then after thank them for being real and explain the process with a cool head. Let them stay up late and watch old TV land episodes of 227 and Welcome Back Kotter and make it their background noise. Let them feel a vinyl record and know what a cassette tape is. Watch Pee-Wee’s playhouse and name the furniture, then tape up your faces and go to the grocery store.

They can learn things to help them succeed in the quickly growing tech world, like to code, to use a MAC and “proper” grammar – at school. Shit, they are selling coding toys for TODDLERS. I could code my myspace page to have a cool background. Thats about it. They will get that education around them as technology advances. The things you can give them are priceless. This is what parenting is to me when they are young. Let them LIVE with you and show them the salt of the earth while they are at your fingertips. Time moves fast, and before you know it, these formative years will pass. Take every second you have and make it unforgettable.

It’s Not Right, But its Ok…

9a14d86ab5a97da648ecb4e418d7ee5b--whitney-houston-purple-dress“It’s not right
But it’s okay
I’m gonna make it anyway
Close the door behind you
Leave your key
I’d rather be alone than unhappy”
– Whitney Houston

One of my favorite things to see, is women celebrating the successes of other women. It’s actually brought me to tears when I have seen it happen in front of me. When my daughter was about 17 or 18, I sat in on a parent watch day at her ballet school. As the girls waited their turns to watch each other fly and twirl across the room, snaps and a few claps rung out when someone did well, but mostly there were standard and even as a courtesy, clearly a  guarded but kind support of each other. It’s a competitive industry, I get that. There was however ONE girl, a lovely, beautiful strong dancer, who seemed to have a secure sense of self as she stood there. And as my daughter flew across the room and nailed a triple pirouette and the courtesy snaps began, this girl bursted with praise, saying her name and acting like a proud big sister and said “That was amazing, you are beautiful, so proud of you!” I was watching and I started to cry. WHY did I cry!? OF COURSE it was because it was sweet, and I was a proud mom, but part of the reason it touched me, was because between women, THIS IS RARE. Apathy to veil competition is more more prevalent on the daily or worse, shaming and bullying. WHY is it so hard for us to celebrate and cherish each other?

The term “Slut-shaming” is broad, but it’s what I want to discuss or attempt to. A large portion of society thinks it is reserved for a specific group of women making certain choices. I actually see the term covering a bigger range of people. Young girls, teens, young women, middle aged women as well as older women. It affects us all. Over the years, I have been a part of and witnessed women shaming other women, across all parts of life and spectrums.  I want to dig into to where it starts, and try to pose some questions that will spark discussions, so each of us can try to figure it out for ourselves.

The Younger Years

I feel as though female shaming for lots of us in the 30 or older generations, started in the home. It was part of the baby boomer generation of our parents. The modest era. It was textbook. Men can express their sexual freedom and physical security, and not be shamed; women cannot for fear of being shamed and called a whore or a slut. Growing up I heard things like,

“You can’t watch that, it’s too risqué”
“No makeup until you are older, or you will look like a hooker”
“You cannot leave the house like that”
“If you wear that skirt you are asking boys to see you as a sex machine”
“You should probably cover up, you don’t want guys to get the wrong idea”

eff5aa810ca70288e1c17ba18d956a665077a3c0_hqWhat is the “wrong idea”? I have always been confused as to why my choices in attire should somehow also include the sensitivity to the men or boys around me that weren’t able to control themselves. Their issues somehow overrode any feelings I had of pride in my body or excitement about slaying an outfit I was wearing. Instilling a fear that I may be mistreated, harassed or raped because of my clothing, putting the accountability not on the other person, but rather on the girls with their choices in clothing. Parents, what message are we giving to our girls, when we say these things?

I do believe that the parents of my generation and beyond, are working to change these behaviors, but it’s a SLOW process. There are a few factors that contribute to the speed of this changing – mainly because the generations before that were RAISED this way, are now running our country and mostly white, misogynistic men in power. They are making and enforcing rules in offices and schools, they are bribing and paying off sexual abuse incidents so they will go away, they are making laws about our bodies and taking our rights away. That in itself is harmful to any parent or child trying to change the path of their body consciousness and self-worth.

The Teen Years

Middle school and high school are some of the hardest years EMOTIONALLY for everyone. Your hormones are raging, you are trying to fit in, you are clashing with your parents or guardians, life is a hot mess and then add pimples and braces and good lord, I never want to go back to that time ever.

“I’m bossy/ I’m the first girl to scream on a track/ I switched up the beat of the drum” — Kelis

I experienced a lot of shaming from girls in school. At the time I saw it as cruel and mean. I look back now as a mother and an adult, and see it as sad and systematic. We all lashed out because of insecurity and inadequacy issues. We took the shaming most of us had in our homes, and when faced with the ultimate vulnerable  situation aka High School, we came armed with weapons. What better than to harm others with than what harmed you – surely those will work! Every girl in high school is struggling with so many things, and for some reason, the females around them are the only ones they find safe to lash out at. The boys around them are comparing them to other girls or worse photoshopped ones in magazines and movies. Young girls see that and we immediately let it affect our self-worth, let it define us. And all at once the battle for unattainable perfection begins, and the meter to measure our progress is set by the women and girls that surround us.

“To love ourselves and support each other in the process of becoming real is perhaps the greatest single act of daring greatly.” – Brene Brown

Right now, mainly girls, in public schools all over the country, are being sent home because of what they are wearing. Sleeveless shirts, skirts too short (but not cheerleaders cause you know, that’s ok…) ripped jeans, the list goes on. The main reason the administration says is because “Wearing those things is DISTRACTING to others in class”. On the evening news here recently, there was a local high school, reporting that students were being sent home for ripped jeans. The group asked to go home was outside of the school with the news reporters. The reporter asked one of the girls outside the building, why they were being sent home. This young girl had a brilliant and calm reply: “They say our jeans are distracting, so they are taking us out of class when in reality, what is really distracting is taking us out of class and not letting us learn.” She is my new favorite human – her parents should be proud.

Young Women – we are adults, KIND OF

Finally we are out of that competitive horrible judgemental place and we can get on with our lives, AMIRITE!?  Oh wait. The real world is just as bad…there is just sugar put on things to make them seemingly easier to handle or ingest.

Now we have to deal with shaming in the workplace or in college life. With pressure of what we wear or what we don’t wear. Social media adding an ENTIRE new cog in that wheel, so things like adult videos and nude photography – will also come into play. In preparation for this post, I made a call out to hear other women’s stories. I got a few public replies but it was the several private ones that were shocking. There were women being asked to wear certain types of shirts and bras in their office, as to not be distracting to the men on staff. This HAS to be illegal. But of course no one does anything. It’s seen as okay in schools and places of business because it is shelved under “employee rules” or “Codes of Conduct”. There was a young woman who was a nanny and wore a hip cute bikini to the YMCA and was told by staff they were getting comments from other mothers and that she had to cover up if she came back. How humiliating! There was a woman who was told if she wore white, and her bra was visible, she must wear a tanktop underneath, as to not tempt. These stories were infuriating to me. How on earth is this still happening and being excused? How about you not hire humans that can’t be adults and control themselves. On that note, let’s touch on how it makes us feel, when a young adult woman makes the choice to be a stripper, escort or prostitute.

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Treat ’em like a prostitute (Do What?)
Don’t treat no girlie well until you’re sure of the scoop – Slick Rick

Several months ago, I had a conversation with a friend of my daughters via Facebook.  She made a post about the slut shaming and revenge porn backlash about social media celebrity Blac Chyna. It was over a dirty break-up and her ex decided to shame her revengefully by sharing private nude photos of her, and a private intimate video of them – putting it into the world for all to see without her permission or knowledge. This young girl said in her FB post something to the effect of (she has since deleted the post or I would quote it) “Don’t know why Chyna is so mad at those nude pics being leaked, she’s is a stripper, she does it anyways. You act cheap you get treated cheap”.  I decided it was important that I start a dialogue with her publically about this. Ok I am not being honest, I was mad – and I LAID into her. Spouting so many details and points, I am sure her head spun. Her response was “She is a ho, so that’s why she is being treated that way. She needs to respect herself so others will respect her”.

It felt fundamentally wrong to hear that statement come out of a woman’s mouth. There is a GIGANTIC difference between being confident in your body, and choosing to do a job that gives you control over that body – and another human, male or female, taking that power away from you in order to harm or shame you. This young girl isn’t alone, I see different versions of this ALL OVER the media and around me. How often as a woman have you heard or even said these statements (don’t worry, I am guilty of some, too):

  • “She needs to put some clothes on, no one wants to see all that”
  • “Did she paint those jeans on?”
  • “People with asses like that should not wear pants like that”
  • “She really should get her money back for purchasing so little fabric”
  • “What is she even wearing!?”
  • “How did her friends let her wear that?”

Ladies. We have to do better.

ADULT WOMEN – Now we are MOTHERS, raising NEW WOMEN!

So we take what we learn, unlearn ourselves and are determined to raise a more independent, more confident and more secure woman in our own daughters, RIGHT? Wrong. You know that old adage “We grow up to become our mothers”? Well, it drives me crazy, as I have worked my ass off to be the exact opposite of my mother and how I was raised. However it still happens. The insecurities and prudish ways of my mother peeked through out of sheer fear of putting my sweet daughter into the rough misogynistic world! It was about me doing what those girls in high school resorted to. I was worried that she would be hurt, judged and shamed, so I took every measure to make sure it didn’t happen. When Madison was 11 she wanted to wear makeup. I was horrified. She already had girls at school teasing her. WHAT is she thinking, that would surely make it worse!

It was then that my husband gave me that cabin pressure/airplane landing moment, he said “You are doing exactly what your mom did to you when you act like this. And you grew up, had issues with friends and with your body because of it. How about you do the opposite. Let her explore. Let her find herself and feel beautiful in her way. Let her find her own way and support her regardless.” And with his help and reminders, that’s what I did. And it WORKED.

I recently witnessed an exchange on professional ballerina Michaela DePrince’s instagram when she posted a photo where she was partially topless. There was a comment from a Dance Mom – whose young daughter is a fan of DePrince. It was a shaming comment to make her feel badly about posting a photo that was partially topless and she told her to have more “self respect” and that it made her not want her daughter to see it. DePrince’s response was so lovely and strong. It was exactly how I hope this next generation of women would respond to shaming by another female, or anyone for that matter. But alas I know that sadly, Michaela’s reply isn’t the norm, YET.

Why do we as parents automatically shame the female when we feel that something is different, too expressive or god forbid, scandalous? We need to challenge ourselves and each other to take a step back, to not react impulsively, to resist the urge to immediately degrade the choices of females. I am so concerned as to why our first instinct isn’t praise, support and love and I am convinced that we need to start training our minds to start making that change.

Doesn’t it seem like since day one for each of us, we have been competing for the same thing? The approval and appreciation of what society thinks the perfect woman is. Goals of having the words “Perfect” and “full package” being used to describe us. Some of us even find men that says things like “Arm candy” and “Dime piece” or even “Prize” to make us feel worthy and loved.

My fear is that this typical woman, who needs this approval, grows up to excuse an abuser. She is a victim of sexual assault, or even worse. I grew up with some many instances that were discussed here, and I KNEW it wasn’t right, but it was ok and excused by everyone around me, so after awhile, it became acceptable. This week in the news, Hollywood mega mogul and producer Harvey Weinstein was accused of sexual assault by numerous actresses. Tons of fellow actors coming to the support of their fellow actresses on social media. Then yesterday, designer Donna Karan of DKNY was quoted at a fashion event when asked about it and came out to defend Weinstein and blame the victims. “You look at everything all over the world today and how women are dressing and what they are asking by just presenting themselves the way they do. What are they asking for? Trouble.” This is a woman who designs sexy women’s clothing.  I spat at the TV. I also have a DKNY bedspread now up for grabs if anyone wants it.

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THIS is what this entire post is about. THIS is where our problem is. Are we giving the next generation of women the tools to combat this type of rape culture blaming? Do all women know their value and worth – are we able to bind together to be a united front when the victim shaming and rape culture blame comes at them full force? I know that the young women of my generation were not able to do that.

I am however hopeful of this next one, because now we are seeing small light coming through the cracks in the once broken spirit of women, a confidence in the new generation of females. Young women that are fierce, that are proud of their bodies, that are not afraid to stand up to a man or an organization to protect their rights. Women that don’t ask how they look in their dresses or if their ass looks big, but instead they own the dress and the ass and give zero fucks what people think of them in it.

Hopefully these young, powerful and body-conscious females can use that security and tenacity to bind together and bond with the women around them. We can show solidarity, love and support rather than apathy, competition and cruelty. To realize that celebrating our female coworkers, peers, friends or even family members, doesn’t mean we are any less fierce ourselves. Celebrating and cherishing the women around us will just create a more powerful sense of self, and a camaraderie that cannot be bought or faked, and will give us a shield and superpower to properly deflect the misogyny in everyday life. It will create a new normal filled with Powerful Women – taking our rightful place equally among the men in our society and lives.

Hang Tough, Tonight’s the Night

I almost married Joey McIntyre. Okay maybe MARRIED is a strong word. I almost was in the RUNNING to marry him – and for a short, tiny moment in history (like legit only 24 hours), he knew who I was separate from all of his millions of fans. He also thought I was 19 when really I was only 15, but I digress.

Lets start at the beginning. Celebrity Crushes. Lots of us have them when we are young. It’s a strange phenomenon as a tween/teen. From writing their last names as our on the front of our school folders, all the way to traveling miles to see shows, collecting bins of movies, photos and magazines, entering ridiculous contests in the hopes to catch a moment with these people. It shapes our likes and dislikes in our real life relationships and crushes. Every person I have ever dated, whether I want to admit it or not, was similar in either personality or looks, to my 3 main teen crushes. I truly think the process is important. It’s a way to feel connected to something bigger than yourself. A type of fantasy land where you think anything is possible, and you just MAY BE good enough – because said celebrity isn’t able to see you in real life and tell you that you aren’t. It’s what all of our self-esteems needed at that point in our lives. When I was coyly kissing a magazine page, I was a queen in my mind.

In the 80s and 90s we had young teen celebrities that we were exposed to either via TV sitcoms or movies. No internet to speak of to connect us to their lives, TMZ didn’t exist. Our version of the Internet was the TEEN MAGAZINE: Bop, Tiger Beat, 16, Bopper, etc. If I had to calculate the amount of money I spent on those magazines, I would say it would be comparable to a college education. They started simple but then got UBER fancy, with pull out posters, bifolds and holograms. Some were ALL pin ups and no articles, and by articles I mean “See what Johnny Depp does on the weekends” or “Are you the right girl for Christian Slater?” And my favorites were the “Win a date with_____”!  As someone that now works for a company with tons of photographers, I have yet to figure out how those magazine photographers managed to capture what they did – the way each heartthrob looked into your soul and made you feel like they were looking ONLY at you and wanted to be with you in real life.

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The cast of Silver Spoons

In 1984 – I stumbled across a TV show called Silver Spoons. Looking back, the premise of the show was SCARY white rich stuff. Rich kid comes from boarding school to find his rich real dad being an adult child, he quickly befriends local obnoxious kid (played by a little Jason Bateman) and then enter the one black character, his dads manager named Dexter Stuffins (WHO even DECIDED that?!) and his hip, breakdancing kid Alfonso (played by Alfonso Ribiero). I totally didn’t care what it was about. I was 10 years old and had my first crush. I actually don’t remember the entirety of any episode. I was too busy gazing into the eyes of the main character, Ricky Schroder. Baby faced, blue eyes and a smile that could knock me out – I was smitten. I started taking down the art in my room, and taping up photos from magazines of Ricky.

Two years later came my first real MOVIE crush. A little movie called Stand By Me came out. I was 12 and totally becoming a horror fan. I knew that this was an adaptation of a Stephen King book, and that’s what got me to see it. At 12 I wasn’t allowed to watch a rated R movie, so of course I saw it at a friends house. There was a DEAD BODY. There were people SMOKING and talking about BOOBS. There was lots of cursing. But most importantly, there was a little known newbie actor named River Phoenix. He was a bad boy who ended up stealing the hearts of the entire audience by the end, including mine. Ricky was very quickly replaced by River. I watched every movie as he grew through his career. I listened to his music and followed his life through the magazines as best as I could. I STILL feel a twinge of jealousy of actress Martha Plimpton (now in the show The Real O’Neils) because she was his longtime girlfriend.

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River Phoenix

I said hello to him once. It was a moment I will never forget. It was 1989 and my aunt Bridget called me and said “Mariangela, did you hear? River Phoenix is filming a movie in TACOMA! I will drive you out there if you want to go!” It was the summer before my freshman year in high school – so I played it cool but inside I was screaming. “Sure I will go, maybe I can say hey” which was code for “You are my most favorite aunt ever, I will try to not pee myself.” I carefully planned my outfit based on every single thing I had read about him in magazines. I got matching faux round eye glasses, no makeup, wore all black and my Doc Martens. He was filming I Love You To Death at a local pizza place. I stood patiently with a small group of people waiting to say hi. I was calm. I tried SUPER hard to act like I didn’t care. I kept telling myself “River wouldn’t WANT you to care, so you don’t care” but really I cared so much. He walked over, and shyly made eye contact with each of us, and said hello. He looked at me and said “Hey…” and I said “Hey…” and then he smiled like halfway and walked away. And just like that, my heart exploded and I was sure he wanted to date me, but alas, he kept walking. Three years later that same aunt called me, asking me if I had heard the news of his sudden death. And while I was sad, I had already moved onto my 3rd and final major crush. I had already begun the quest to become Mrs. Joey Mcintyre.

As I exited middle school and was ushered into high school, the MTV era had begun. MTV VIDEO channel to be clear. All videos, all the time. I was hip to boy bands, but basically a LITTLE too young to appreciate New Edition and too old to have patience for NSYNC or Backstreet Boys. Enter New Kids on the Block, stage left. 5 guys from Boston, MA. with thick accents and matchy clothing. I bought all of their albums. I quickly became obsessed with the youngest member, Joey, for many reasons that, at the time, seemed like they were easily clinchers for marriage.

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Joey McIntyre

He was a Capricorn like me, he loved old school hiphop and also the Rat Pack including Frank Sinatra and all the crooners that had played in my house since I was a baby. He wore gaudy jewelry and large prints and drove a Mazda Miata. I was an Italian in the 80s so all of those things were part of my life’s natural progression. See what I mean? It was clear.

In 1989 they announced their Coke-sponsored “Magic Summer Tour” that took them around the world for 2 years. The first Seattle date I wasn’t able to score a ticket for – they sold out the King Dome. So I was focused on studying their set via the Disney tour they televised, and saved all my money to get the very best seats possible.

Tacoma Dome, February 13, 1991. I spent $250 on a 2nd row center seat. I had my friends help me make a sign. A huge, six-foot sign to be clear. I knew the exact time to put up the sign because I had watched their Disney special 617 times and knew it by heart) — it was when they were sitting on stools for a slow ballad, so they could read it. I told all the girls in my row the plan, to help me hold it up, and then vigorously point at me as they read, so they knew who it was from. What did the sign say, you ask? It was a “doctored” verse of one of their early songs and said “Hey Joe, I’m a Capricorn, and if you can get with that then check Me Out!” So my faithful minions did just as I ordered, and held up the sign. The guys all read it, teased Joey and he laughed, smiled and waved. As they did the next song, he kept making eye contact, and smiling, and I SWEAR he was blushing. Now just barely 16 years old, I LOOKED like I was 19 – as I matured very young. Fully developed and tall, wearing light makeup, dark red lipstick, a short mini skirt and a black and white polkadot shirt, similar to one I had seen him wear in a magazine shoot one time. I looked perfect. So as he made eye contact he mouthed “How old are you!?” to which I shot back with fingers, all ten and then nine. I figured he was 2 years older, he didn’t want a baby that was freshly 16. He wanted an older woman, so I told him I was as old as I looked. He smiled and kept dancing. Then they had a set and wardrobe change. The lights came up partially and mood music played as we waited.

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NKOTB

At this point what happened next is still unreal. As I am giggling with my friends about the fact that he actually SAW the sign and read it – I feel a tap on my shoulder. I whipped around and saw a GIGANTIC body guard. I immediately thought I was getting in trouble for my sign. I began to say “I’m sorry…” and he said “Joey McIntyre would like to invite you to his hotel after the show. Do you know where the Sorrento Hotel is?”

**WE HAVE JUST LOST CABIN PRESSURE**

Now I need to pause here to say that I am not the FAN GIRL type. I am prepared, calm and collected and always try to stay cool in the face of cool people. Mainly because I watch fan girls freak out, cry, pass out, and it’s so crazy to me. If anything I say nothing and don’t want to bother them. I vowed from a young age I would never be that girl, so I nicely asked the 10-foot man to repeat himself. He smiled, nodded, and repeated himself, and it was clear he had done this dance before. I am pretty sure it was the closest I have had to a fan girl freak out ever. I said OH MY GOD about 200 times. Every girl around me was either immediately my best friend or worst enemy. The next series of events made me have deep regret for several years.

My parents had driven myself and a few friends to the Tacoma Dome. The deal was, one of my friends parents would bring us home. I HAD to see the end of the show and the encore, I had paid $250 for that seat. I sat through the entire rest of the show, almost unable to focus. They had a sparkly encore and jetted off stage. At that moment I realized what I had to do. I was CRAFTY I could figure this out. I had $100 in my pocket for merchandise. That Hangin’ Tough hoodie was gonna have to wait. Now remember, the Tacoma Dome was SOLD OUT and I was in row 2, which means 20,000 people getting out before me. It took me almost an HOUR to get out of that stadium. Once outside, I found my friends, and they basically told me I should come home and not lie to my parents. Girl. Stop. I told them to tell their dad that I had found another ride home with another friend and made them swear to me that they would not tattle.

It took me time, of course, to get out of the ride home situation and figure out that I needed to call a CAB. In 1991, at a boy band concert in Tacoma, there were no taxis just waiting. So I found a guard that called me a taxi. The taxi cost me $85 because of course 20,000 people were trying to drive at the same time. FML. Didn’t everyone know I was trying to go meet my true love and that he would probably propose on the spot and we would live happily ever after!? If I remember correctly, the concert ended around 9:30PM. I didn’t make it to the Sorrento Hotel in downtown Seattle until 11:00pm. This was on a Wednesday which was also a SCHOOL NIGHT. When I pulled up, there are TONS of fans, screaming and waving to curtain-pulled windows, hoping one was the correct room. Two huge tour busses, engines running, parked out front. I make my way through the girls, because I actually have a reason to be there. I search for the guard who spoke to me. FINALLY I find him, in a mad rush I said “I’M HERE! Sorry it took me a long time! But I’m here, it’s me, I’m here!” He was so nice but his face was somber when he said “Where were you? Joey was looking for you! They have been here a few hours already, and now are about to leave for Portland! They have a show tomorrow night so we have to leave tonight!”

I AM JACK’S WAVES OF REGRET.

I was crushed. I didn’t know how to react. I cannot cry. I will not be one of those people. Be cool. I cried with no tears. Sure enough, moments later, the crew started bringing their bags to the bus. The guys appear, the fans go crazy. I am standing at the front of the group, tears welling up in my eyes but swallowing them back to be cool and brave. I see the guard whisper and point to Joey that I was there. He comes over, says “I am sorry I have to leave, hope you enjoyed the show. Oh, and nice shirt” winks, smiles, touches my hand, and disappeared into the bus. I just stood there. Frozen.

The busses start to leave and I feel a TAP on my shoulder. I turn around and IT’S MY DAD.  Apparently one of the girls had tattled and he came to find me. The conversation went like this:

Dad: What the HELL do you think you are doing?
Me: He invited ME!
Dad: Oh really, and what exactly were you going to do when you got up to that hotel room??
Me: Um, probably just hang out, watch TV?
Dad: MMhmmmm pretty sure you are grounded for a year.

But it was such a valid question, looking back: What exactly did I think I was going to do, exactly?! I was 16. He was 18. Back then I really THOUGHT we would watch TV and maybe kiss. Sex was the furthest thing from my mind. Ok, not the FURTHEST but certainly the scariest. Marriage, on the other hand, was not. I cried the whole way home. The next week I searched the “I saw you” sections and articles interviewing them after their following few shows – thinking maybe, just maybe he would remember me, and regret not watching TV with me, and he would give me a shout out secretly. But it never happened.

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From left clockwise: Ricky Schroder, Joey McIntyre, Corey Haim, Johnny Depp, Alyssa Milano and River Phoenix

And just like that, that was the end of my teen crush years. Looking back, it was such a FUN time of my life. I felt free to dream and fantasize. I felt pretty and I felt special. It’s so true that those young age crushes help form our loves down the road. Every male and female I have dated over the years and now the man I have been married to for 20 years – all resemble something I loved in each of those movie stars and musicians that was mostly up to that point, unattainable. Every woman I have met that looks like Alyssa Milano I immediately crush on. I think all androgynous women are gorgeous because looking back, Ricky and River were both VERY pretty and gender neutral to me. Even Joey was very PRETTY. I loved GOOD big beautiful teeth and big smiles, a slight over bite, bright blue eyes, a dark side, humor, musicality, kindness. If you have met Ryan, you know I attained my dream man, all wrapped up into one.  

Loving what we cannot have is a part of life. It’s a part of growing up. NKOTB still tours and even has cruises. I have never once considered going. I am a different person now. I have grown up. I have seen photos of Joey’s lovely wife, and his gorgeous children – and he has such a beautiful family. I even feel weird saying I have seen those things. It feels so invasive now as I am older. Their music and his voice guided me through my years when I was trying to figure out who I was. All of my crushes, unbeknownst to them, made me feel special and like a queen at times. They gave me courage to talk to real boys, security to sing out loud, and even the ability to say no to people down the road. I got out of them what I needed. I have no desire to continue the saga of what could have been. I have never once wondered. I have always been grateful for that night at the Sorrento – such a fun story to tell – and even more grateful that it went down the way it did. I am pretty firm that my love affair with the band and the man – ended that night at the Sorrento. It almost got TOO close to breaking that fantasy barrier for me. Everything happens the way it is supposed to – I am a firm believer in that. Regardless, when ‘Please Don’t Go Girl’ comes on Sirius FM 90s station, I turn it up and sing for everyone to hear. That’s my jam.

Generational Appropriation

222841_10150288774389256_5110799_nFor 15 years, I was a white woman who had dreads. This is the blog post that explains why that sentence carries weight and causes reaction. Dreads were a part of who I was for almost half my life and what many people visualize when they hear my name. Quite honestly, I’d already written four paragraphs about why I got the dreads, and how that decision came about, but then realized it wasn’t important. So to make a long explanation short: I got dreads. At the time, my hair was LONG so the dreads were all my own hair — no extensions or fake anything. I rocked them for almost 15 years. They gave me a courage that is hard to describe. Courage to rock different clothes. Courage to take risks. Courage to become who I felt on the inside.

I was at the height of my insecurity when I got dreadlocks; it bubbled over into every single part of my life. Before my dreads, I felt like a plain, chubby girl with a seriously cool rapper husband. I was often an invisible person with low self-esteem who felt people wondered how on earth I could have snagged a guy like Ryan. I had plain hair, and back then I never had the courage to make my hair a part of who I was. Let’s be honest: I probably didn’t really know who I was. So I got dreads and, looking back, they were a tool — knowing what I know now, I didn’t realize they were another culture’s tool that I borrowed, something I didn’t acknowledge or truly understand. As times changed, and society began to wake up, the climate that surrounded my hair choice started to change.

“If you’re going to take on something that does have sacred and historic significance and an unequal history of power dynamics, it’s important to honor that history,” she said. “Be an ally by knowing your stuff and being respectful and acknowledging where it comes from.” -Jamia Wilson

It started with a few select people in the music scene – who began to side step away from our family and friendship. Now I’m aware, looking back, that my dreads were the reason, but at the time – I had no clue. Then there were a few snide remarks, links posted without tags, but nothing to me. “Surely they couldn’t mean me?” I would think to myself. I wonder how I would have reacted to being sat down and talked to about the topic with one of those trusted friends. I truly had no idea of the appropriating or the frustration and anger I was causing.

All of these little things and moments had been in the back of my head, eating at me. So a year ago, I asked Ryan if he thought my dreads were offensive and if I should cut them. He adamantly stated that it was not the same and that mine were pagan and stemmed from that part of old witch culture. So I dropped it. Still, I had the nagging insecurity that people were offended or talking about them without talking to me. But, truthfully, Ryan had told me what I wanted to hear, so I quickly let it go.34302_470259619255_4864580_n

Then about five months ago, I started getting obvious looks and comments from strangers in public — and one of my biggest fears is being humiliated in public. So I was pretty mortified. I’m sure most of the people around me at the time had no idea what was happening BUT I DID. I got eye rolls, snickers, audible sounds of disgust, and comments like “WOW, for real!?” or “That’s not right.” It was then that I knew the hair discussion had to be reopened and I needed to do equal parts research and soul-searching.

I consider myself a fairly forward-thinking, awakened individual on the topic of social and racial justice. I consider myself a white ally to the POC in my life. So how was my hairstyle choice affecting them? I wanted to know. I asked several friends and got the same response from all of them. “Well, we know why YOU have dreads and we know you didn’t mean it that way. Your intentions weren’t malicious, so you get a PASS. But most other white people with dreads are frustrating and triggering.”

With that, I felt it in my heart — a feeling of horror, of disgrace, of sadness. Oh my god, had I been everyone’s exception for all of these years? And if they were giving me a pass, that means I’d been offending everyone else in the meantime? Just the thought of that horrified me. I knew then, it was time to make a change.

The thought of cutting my dreads TERRIFIED me. I went to Ryan, just like I had almost exactly a year before, to get his opinion, thinking he would repeat the same thing he had a year earlier. He didn’t. Instead, he looked at me and said, “It’s time. The world is a much different place than it was 15 years ago; we know more, we are more sensitive, and if we are going to stand as allies it also means we have to make choices as allies.” I trust this man’s opinion on all political and racial matters with my life, so I knew he was right. I legit cried for two hours, but I knew that the choice to cut them and why totally outweighed my anxiety for whatever was under the 86 dreads that had lived on my head for over a decade.

I need to touch on that, because as a mother – this part was important. My insecurities were out in full force. I shared my fears with our daughter. I told her that I was frightened of finding out what was underneath, that maybe the fierce woman I had grown into over the years was because of the hairstyle. Maybe they were my style and strength and not anything else inside of me. I was so scared to go back to who I was 15 years earlier. My daughter saw the fear in my eyes and I think it was shocking to see. The strong mother who had gotten her through so much was crumbling over some hair. She looked at me and said, “Let’s pick out a haircut that you can totally rock. It’s going to be fine – just please don’t bleach it.”

“Never mind searching for who you are. Search for the person you aspire to be.” ~Robert Brault

IMG_0839With the help of a few key close friends, several text conversations that consisted of me flipping out and them reminding me to stay calm and breathe, the decision was cemented and new style was picked. I found a stylist through a friend that specialized in the emotional side of big hair changes, and I took the plunge. I was determined and had made the choice, so there were no tears and no freak outs. I knew it was about something bigger. I knew I was taking steps to being a better ally and a better example to the other people around me trying to do the same.

I need to dig into the reason for the change. This needs to be discussed because it is about society and their tendency to want to whitesplain things that have cultural and racial undertones. Sure, if you are trying to find reasons and excuses on the side favoring dreadlocks on white people, they are definitely there. I’ve had discussions with white people about it and have gotten the same comments.

“Everyone takes looks from other cultures!”
“What about St Patty’s Day?”
“But Cinco De Mayo!?”

Even writer Feminista Jones was quoted in an article on the subject once and stated, “My research informed me that Indian monks wore them long before they reached the Western Hemisphere, so I’m not sure anyone has any particular claim.” If you LOOK for reasons and excuses in history, you will find them. Maybe they did not ORIGINATE in any one culture. Maybe they can be found in many races throughout history. That is not the point here.

In my research, here is what I found: Dreadlocks, for the marginalized cultures, was a symbol of resistance against signs and actions of colonization and expectations of assimilation. It was their form of a voice, of power, of freedom, so to speak. Your St. Patty’s Day drinking isn’t taking from a marginalized culture that our country spent hundreds of years enslaving. Appropriation means taking from a culture that has created a style or art that was used as a tool to assist them out of their oppression, and adopting it as your own. Using it either for social clout or as a symbol of hip coolness or even worse, for profit.

In our current political climate, I often hear from people asking how they can be better allies. They want to know how they can get WOKE and how they can help fight alongside their friends that are being targeted and oppressed. I think every one of us being aware — taking a look at our lives, at how we conduct ourselves, and how we are portraying ourselves to both the world and our children — is an important step. I excused my dreads for years because (at the time) I didn’t know better and I was given a pass by my community (at the time). In reality, if I am going to continue to teach my daughter to be a voice of justice to the privileged community around her, I need to make decisions that reflect that. We all need to be more conscious of how we live and sensitive to how our actions (or inactions) may be affecting people around us.170602_17_0602_Donut_Day_CL_0001.jpg

This post is not meant to judge the choices or journeys of others. It is not meant to start an argument on who is right or who is wrong. I will not entertain discussion around why I may be wrong in attempts to aid in anyone’s white fragility. It is meant to share my process, my lightbulb moment, my growth and journey, and how it has shaped me into who I am today. All of the missteps and mistakes I have made in my 42 years on this planet are part of who I am today. I would not take any one of them back, but I would not want to stay stuck in them, either. Life experience helps us make better choices and learn how to move forward. It is my hope that this piece will help start meaningful and powerful discussions in your own circles, so you can reflect on the things you can do or change in your own lives to become better allies.

It feels good knowing I took one very small step in making myself less of the problem and closer to being part of the solution.