My Body is Still Mine, Even When It's Sick

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As a human being in 2018, I am living in a constant barrage of other people’s opinions. Whether it’s from my mom or a NYT article about millennials, there is no shortage of people who want to weigh in on the way I live my life.

That’s a pretty universal feeling. Most of my friends are probably experiencing the same thing –– and some of them have much more overbearing mothers. But something unique about the opinion-a-thon that is life is the experience through the lens of someone with an illness. The moment you get a diagnosis, it seems that everyone you’ve ever met (and quite a few people you haven’t met) want to line up and give you advice.

 

Since going public about my illness, I’ve been offered every “cure” out there. Friends of friends of friends have sent me messages telling me to buy a certain tea, or do a certain type of yoga, or switch to a certain kind of diet. It’s an experience anyone with a chronic illness knows well, fielding a call from a step-uncle telling them that a sugar-free diet will cure their rheumatoid arthritis or that turmeric capsules will rid them of Lupus.

I have a lot of complex emotions about this phenomenon. On one hand, most of these people mean well, and that should count for a lot. For some people, sending you a cure they heard about on an episode of Good Morning America provides them comfort in knowing they are trying to help. It’s the last ditch effort of someone who can’t accept that you have an incurable illness and that they can’t fix it. It’s hard to watch someone you love go through something painful and know that there’s nothing you can do to stop it. For some people, sending these potential cures is their optimistic way of trying to do just that: cure you.

(I won’t even get into the people that don’t mean well –– but beware of people who try to sell you “cures” on Instagram in any form. These people do not mean well. These people want money and have decided to get it from a vulnerable population of people who will do almost anything in an attempt to feel better.)

Additionally, I try to cut loved ones some slack, because while none of their suggestions will cure me, some can actually help. Turmeric actually is an anti-inflammatory. Yoga actually can be good for digestion. Meditation won’t heal my intestines, but it’s a solid practice for anyone looking for a way to cope.

But I think there’s a reason so many sick people complain about the phenomenon of well-meaning rubberneckers trying to cure them. First of all, suggesting a million and one holistic cures implies that the patient in question could be healthy, they just aren’t trying hard enough. There’s an undercurrent of blame in the implication that there are “cures” available and all of us are just choosing not to take you up on them. It’s the same blame that comes across when someone says “should you really be eating that?” when I’m out to dinner.

There’s also a discomfort that comes with these suggestions, because sickness is a deeply personal issue. The way my body is or isn’t functioning may be something interesting for you to comment on, but for me it’s an everyday reality. And the ways I choose to deal with that are my choice. For the sick, agency over our own bodies is so important. I can’t control the way my body malfunctions, but I can make educated choices with my doctors on how I treat it. Your offhand text or Facebook message ignores that I’ve spent years researching and consulting with professionals to make the best choices for me. It implies that what I do with my body should be your choice.

So while I appreciate the positive intent behind the messages, I politely request that the loved ones of sick people please cut it out. Positivity will not cure your nephew’s diabetes, and bone broth will not change the fact that your coworker has POTS. If you’d like to have an opinion on something, please keep it to less painful and personal topics, like what music I’m listening to on Spotify. And if you really want to help, being a listening ear to a patient’s experience is much more helpful than any faux-cure could ever be.

Emotional Space

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Title: Emotional Space / Medium: mixed media collage
By: Bridgit Gallagher

Every time I fly alone, I cry.  I put on my headphones and let myself feel.  I take up emotional space and allow myself to deeply feel and experience these internal, ancient ruins again.  

As women, we are so often denied this space. 

Women are conditioned from childhood to be emotionally available for everyone else, but are punished when we take up that space for ourselves.  We are perpetually playing house, trapped in the ever-revolving door of mother, wife, lover, and therapist—even if we don’t have children, a husband, a lover, or are not qualified to counsel. 

In the doorway of my demise I stand / encased in the whisper you taught me.

We’ve come to expect our spouses to be emotionally inept, and in turn, have learned to accept the role of emotional caretakers in our relationships.  “Boys just aren’t good at that kind of stuff.”

We are expected to engage in emotionally laborious conversations with male colleagues, friends, and family members; conversations where we listen, give advice, and provide comfort, but are considered “emotional,” “crazy,” or simply “on the rag” when we display our own genuine feelings.

And yet—these men are always right, always logical and correct.  We are the crazy ones.  We are the emotional ones, the hysterical ones. 

The overbearing women of their profound lives. 

Our hearts become martyrs to the angry men in our lives, as we are taught to take responsibility for their emotions. 

Our bodies become silent sacrifices to the violent men in our lives, as we are taught to take their punches.   

“They can’t help themselves.”

As we grow in these lies stemming from childhood, our bodies become severed from our emotions, as we learn from the world to suppress and internalize these narratives.

If you could see but were always taught / that what you saw wasn’t real

The male gaze transforms our humanity into abnormality, into sickness.  Human emotions that are embraced and praised in men are pathologized in women:

Our anger turns us into bitches…

Our sadness, irritation, or impatience is really women being “sensitive” or “hysterical”…

Our self-concern, confidence, and imposing our own bodily autonomy makes us vain, shallow, or whores…

Our demand for respect and speaking out against violence, sexism, and harassment become symptoms: “crazy,” “ill” “manipulative”…

White, cis and heteronormative women internalize these roles best.  They don’t want to be that woman.

These women embrace their oppressors, believing in magical notions of exemption and protection.  They put on the mask of willful ignorance and help maintain the silence of women with multiple marginalized identities, such as queer women, trans women, nonbinary folx; fat women, black women, women of color, and sex workers.  

We’d even eat your hate up like love

*

And for all this, I unfold into myself—and weep.

I feel my way through the messy wreckage of myself…searching for the feelings I so routinely suppress…searching for the body I once lost…searching for the person I continue to forget to remember… the person that knows me best.

I feel the stories of my sisters.  I bear witness to the intersections of our lives.  I dream of the temple that is our lived experiences. 

And I live there—

And I cradle her—

 And I cry—

And I remember—in a world where we are too often defined by oppressive systems and narratives, it is easy to forget that there are truths and revelations waiting for us in the great beyond of ourselves. 

And I believe—that together, our truths and revelations weave a greater story:  the story of our liberation. 

Reimagining Community Safety with #NoCopAcademy

by Bridgit Gallagher 

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Over the 4th of July weekend in 2017 Mayor Rahm Emmanuel announced the city’s intentions to invest $95 million dollars into a police and fire training academy in Chicago’s west side neighborhood Garfield Park.  Chicago’s up-and-coming fire and police recruits will be trained in a state-of-the-art campus, spanning over 30 acres of private land.  This academy is the Mayor’s response to the scathing report issued by the Department of Justice concerning the racist, excessive, and often deadly force used by Chicago Police.  In other words, Rahm’s solution to a culture of racism in our city’s police force is more money for more police.

While this proposal is a satisfactory solution to racist policing for the mayor and his constituents, Chicago activists say no.  In early September, over 30 Chicago organizations endorsed a campaign under the hashtag “No Cop Academy,” including Assata’s Daughters, People’s Response Team, and For the People Artists Collective—just to name a few.  These organizations are demanding not only an immediate halt to the construction of the new cop and fire academy, but also redirecting the funds for community resources that create real safety. As stated on the #NoCopAcademy Campaign’s website:

Chicago already spends $1.5 billion on police every year—that’s $4 million every single day. We spend 300% on the CPD as a city than we do on the Departments of Public Health, family and support services, transportation, and planning and development (which handles affordable housing). This plan is being praised as a development opportunity to help local residents around the proposed site, but when Rahm closed 50 schools in 2013, six were in this neighborhood. The message is clear: Rahm supports schools and resources for cops, not for Black and Brown kids.  

The campaign’s mission statement goes on to explain that real community safety comes from social and economic justice, not more police.  In fact, the campaign recently commissioned artists to design posters imagining what Chicago could do with $95 million dollars instead. Artists submitted designs that explored what real community investment looks like: fully funded schools, mental health clinics, community gardens and kitchens; fully funded art programs and after school/community programs; public housing and solar panels; community conflict resolution trainings & programs, and libraries.  The list goes on and the posters are a powerful expression of what could be if Rahm Emmanuel cared about our city’s most marginalized communities.

The idea of police abolition is a difficult one for most.  It’s hard to imagine how our communities could be safe if we didn’t rely on police (and in turn, prisons).  When I have this discussion in my own communities, I generally focus on one point: police can only respond to crime, but can never prevent it. Crime prevention begins with strong, fully funded communities: communities where people’s basic needs are met, such as housing, education, healthcare, economic stability, nutritious food, and clean water (which is not a given for black and brown neighborhoods—Flint still doesn’t have clean water).  While people can generally agree with this, one argument I most often hear when I discuss police and prison abolition is “But what would we do with all the really bad people? Like the rapists and murderers and stuff.” Indeed, what do we “do” with all the “really bad” people?

To answer such a question requires collective imagination and deep critical reflection: to examine with a critical lens not only how our society is, but to imagine what it could be; not only to understand the causes of crime, but what our response to crime says about us as a society. In our collective imaginations about crime, punishment, and justice, our societal rules state that when you break the law, you must be punished. If you commit a crime, there must be some consequence, right? We can’t just let those people get away with it.  What would stop them from doing it again? How would we keep our communities safe if criminals were allowed to roam free? How would we function as a society?

These questions (read: fears) have been answered by a system of policing and prisons.  Police are here to “serve and protect” our communities by keeping a vigilant watch for law breakers and then arresting them.  Our courts decide the exact punishment, which is very often time in prison (or some form of containment).  Criminals serve their time and then are released back into the world.  But what does it say about prisons that 77% of released prisoners return within 5 years? What does it say about prisons when the United States makes up less than 5% of the world’s population but holds 22% of the world’s prisoners? Are people really just that bad, or rather, is there a fly in the ointment that is the United States’ prison and policing systems?          

One answer can be found in the very ideological structure of our prison systems: an isolated building filled with 6x8 cells, walls covered with brick, steel bars, constant surveillance; no community programs, no libraries (or limited libraries with banned books); limited healthcare and mental health services; limited (if any) higher learning classes; isolation from family and loved ones and limited physical contact during visiting hours; cold rooms; limited access to hygienic products (only this year did it become a federal mandate to provide free tampons and pads to women prisoners). And if people are not able to function and behave in such an environment? We isolate them further with even less access to basic needs and human interaction (read: solitary confinement).

Why do we believe that prisons are effective at reforming if there are so many repeat "offenders"? Why would Chicago activist work so hard against the cop academy if policing truly alleviates crime and poverty?  As an educator by training, I examine prisons and policing with the same lens I use to teach.  In my classroom, if children are acting out and breaking class rules, shaming and isolating those children never works. Taking away those resources and human interaction—that would help them better understand their behavior—only perpetuates the problem.  Shame and isolation gives children the message that they are bad and that message is internalized. And what do “bad” children do? They behave badly!

Yet, our collective understanding of crime, punishment, and justice says that prisoners deserve to suffer. Well of course they don’t have basic needs and severely limited human interactions! They don’t deserve such privileges! They did something bad and now they’re being punished. What did they think was going to happen?

But I invite us to ask a different set of questions: why did this person commit this crime? What happened during the moments the crime took place? Who is this person, really? What’s their story and how did they get here. What do they need? What services can be provided to truly heal and restore? Do people really heal when they are isolated and shunned from society? Or do we heal when we are deeply connected to our communities? What does it mean to forgive? What does forgiveness look like in a society? How can forgiveness transform a person? How could our societies transform if restorative justice and strong communities were its pillars?

What could Chicago look like if $95 million dollars was used to reopen the 50 schools and 6 mental health clinics Rahm closed in 2013?

What if $95 million was invested in Chicago’s black and brown communities? Or used as reparations for the victims and families of police brutality?   

What if $95 million was used to fully fund and staff libraries, schools, health care and community centers? What could Chicago look like if every neighborhood had spaces that belonged to them? Spaces to nurture children, engage teenagers, support adults, care for the elderly…

What would crime look like if our city had all these services? What would we look like?

These are the possibilities we dare to imagine and this imagination is crucial.  As the poet Martin Espada explains in an interview in Policing the Planet: “No change for the good ever happens without it being imagined first, even if that change seems hopeless or impossible in the present. History teaches us too that we are the agents of change.” Ultimately, the answer to the question I hear most often, “What do we do with the bad people,” is not a question I can answer alone.  The answer requires a collective reimagining of who we are as human beings in a society.  Do we want a world where we reduce people to “bad” and then lock them away until they’ve somehow magically “learned a lesson” without any real restoration and healing? Or do we want a world where we see people in shades of nuance and create institutions and a society that nurtures compassion, forgiveness, and strong community bonds?

If we want a society that reflects our best selves then we must dig deep for our best selves.  We become our best selves not when we are isolated from one another, but when we are deeply connected. Join the conversation and learn more at http://www.nocopacademy.wordpress.com.

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This is a really difficult time to write about women’s rights. This is a really difficult time to write about anything, really. So many of our basic principles of humane interaction (with various groups and with the world at large) are under attack. Where do you even begin to help? Where do you even begin to stop it? It’s a painful time to be an American.

One woman-specific component of this administration that continually baffles me is Ivanka. She seems like a smart person who genuinely cares and wants to help the world (specifically, women in the workplace and families) yet she’s somehow completely blind to her father. She’s someone I want to judge, because what she has assisted in creating is abhorrent. But, on the other hand, I have a lot of inner conflict about judging other women. It seems other women judge other women the most and hardest.

Growing up I had a sense that there’s a way to fight and hurt that is inherently female. Spreading rumors, turning people against one another, shitting on each other on the internet - these all seemed like inherently girl fight moves. At least, as I experienced them. Not that men and boys don’t judge, of course they do. But women might be more prone to viciousness on an insidious, quieter level. And it’s something I’ve tried hard not to perpetuate. It’s challenging enough being a woman. We don’t need to be turning against one another.

When this kind of behavior continued into adulthood, though, that’s when it got really hard to let go. Most recently, something happened that I think had to do with similar girl on girl crime. I was at a party with this guy I had been into. We spoke earlier on in the night and he was cool and friendly, then by the second interaction, he was a total asshole. He wanted me nowhere near him, made it pretty clear. And it felt very targeted - he wanted me nowhere near him, specifically. I think this girl I barely knew but whose boyfriend had been texting me to hang (I blew him off both times) had said something.

So, first of all, if this happened, of course, it’s very high school. But, at least in my experience, it’s also very girl. To purposely go after a guy she knew I was interested in and say something nasty about me, that’s conniving and ridiculous. And gross. And I hate that girls do that. On the other hand, what I don’t want to do is perpetuate the cycle of judgment and start shitting on her myself. So I’m caught in this place where I’m angry and befuddled, but I don’t want to judge her. I want to understand where she was coming from, and never repeat that kind of behavior myself.

And I want to understand to what extent this is really how girls and women treat each other. And how we can stop it. Because it seems like girls are ultimately hardest, worst, nastiest to girls.

So even if I think Ivanka’s behavior is inherently disgusting - how could she do this to America? - what I want more than anything is just to see her when I see her on TV or in the news, and not to judge her, knowing I will fight against any policy she helps perpetuate from exactly where I stand.

“We are Safe in the Arms of the Universe”

Bridgit Gallagher

 

“We are Safe in the Arms of the Universe” is a digital mixed media piece I created in response to my experiences with mental illness. Mediums for this piece include illustration, digital illustration, and collage. This piece serves as a reminder that I am safe even when I am crashing in the waves of depression, anxiety, PTSD, and survived trauma and gaslighting; a reminder that the storm will pass.  In order for readers to better understand this storm, I present to you, the waves:  

CW/TW: mental illness, self harm

It begins small.

Sand spilling—sinking—spreading.

Hidden in the cracks.

A slow formation.

Almost not there (not there) (not there)

Echoes-- echoes

(Oh)

I feel—something. Something, building.

A small…quiet danger.

I must search!

I must remember! (what’s happening)

I must prepare... (or maybe it already happened)

Long walls have me trapped.  I am grasping in the dark for something that is no longer here (that’s right…it did happen)… but I find the shadows…

Shadows that come to me in my dreams, hidden in the waves of quiet danger: a danger—a haunting presence—always close—silent screaming—out of control—all consuming—fear.

PaLpItAtIoNs

(Oh)

Is this real? (was it my fault or was it his?)

Is this happening (who am I to know?)

If only…instead…next time…you should have…maybe try…consider this…

…no…

It WAS his fault--It WAS HIS behavior--It WAS HIS CHOICE

Over and OVER again it WAS HIS CHOICE!

So why did they blame me? How DARE they BLAME me! theyblamedmetheyblamedmetheyblamedmetheyblamedme.

How did EVERYONE ALLOW THIS to CONTINUE OVER and OVER and OVER AGAIN why did NO one stop him why did NO one protect me (maybe you didn’t deserve protection) why did NO ONE CARE Noonecarednoonecarednoonecarednoonecared

PaLpItAtIoNs

My blood pumps heartache but suddenly I have rage in my eyes. My muscles harden and my fists tighten: I am stone.

I want to hurt.

Him. Everyone (maybe you should just hurt yourself)

I taste blood in my mouth. I am gnawing at broken bones. Anger boils in the blood of my wounds.

He and I are connected—at last (you’re just like him)

But the feeling is too much. I am scared by my own rage. Maybe I’m just like him (you’re a monster) Maybe I’m destined to hurt everyone around me (I am just like him) Can everyone see how broken I am (I am a monster) His fury is a mask I cannot take off. I look in the mirror and I see—him.

(after all, he is your father)

*

Righteous anger drips off me and I am left feeling raw and open, like a sore that never healed. I don’t want to feel what’s beneath this surface. At least with anger I have control.  I have power. I can break you and myself if necessary. Beneath this icy surface are eternal waves of grief that I cannot bear to feel (what if it breaks me?)

But these waves have already cracked me open. My soul has washed up to shore.

What if pieces of me scatter, never to return? What if I’m insane? What if the pain is too much? (maybe you should hurt yourself)

Fixed-track-single-tunnel-vision

--stuck

Maybe

I

Could

Just

Drop

Anchor

Here

(you should kill yourself)

                                               This pain….         is,         a never-ending….         wave

And I remember—

I am on the wave.

(oh)

*

In the stillness, I find myself again.

I have returned (from where?)

Only to ask myself  

(am I crazy)


 

     

 

 

 

 

Gendered attacks are leveled at women on a day-to-day basis. Women are called shrill, or bitchy, or needy, or crazy, or a million other pejorative adjectives meant to subdue. But there’s one criticism I’ve found to be specifically harmful to female patients as they weave their way through a diagnosis of chronic illness –– “high maintenance.”

Girls are taught from an early age that being deemed “high maintenance” is a bad thing. You should look pretty, but not take too long to get ready. You should be agreeable. You should be eager to please, and not a diva, and not too forthcoming with inconvenient requests or complaints. You should be “chill,” and “go-with-the-flow,” and a bunch of other vague terms that require you to not voice inconvenient feelings or needs.

That’s problematic for any woman –– feeling like you have to stifle yourself to meet a male ideal is the definition of misogyny. But a fear of being high maintenance can become dangerous for women with undiagnosed illnesses.

Scientific studies have been conducted around the different ways female pain and male pain are treated by doctors. Women are treated for pain “less aggressively” than men, which shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with history. All too often, women with genuine physical and/or mental ailments have been deemed “hysterical.” And while hysteria is no longer a feasible medical diagnosis, those same ideas seep into how we view women who express pain –– and how and when those women decide to express it.

As a female patient with a chronic disease, I often find myself slipping into the traditional gender role of the agreeable woman. I can be in immense amounts of pain and still smile politely when an ER nurse asks how I’m doing. I can be out with friends, white-knuckling my drink because the pain has hit suddenly and severely, and I still won’t say anything for fear of being deemed high maintenance or dramatic. I downplay my very real pain in an attempt to not be seen as needy, a thing that I’ve been taught from the beginning is the worst thing to be.

It took a long time for me to be diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. I was in nearly constant pain and I was terrified to eat because I knew it would just make things worse. I could rarely keep food in my body and lost thirty pounds in a matter of a few months. I was constantly miserable, but every expression of that pain felt like an inconvenience to those around me. When I was told by friends and family that I must just have “a bad stomach,” I convinced myself they must be right. I must just be complaining to much. This level of pain must just be part of being alive.

My story is not an uncommon one. For me, my diagnosis took nearly a year. For others, the process is even longer. And even now that I have an official diagnosis, I still second guess myself before bringing up a new symptom or expressing physical pain. When you’ve been conditioned to believe that low maintenance is the best way to be, the last thing you want to do is to draw attention to yourself by shouting out in pain, literally or figuratively.

That’s why it’s so important to call out the destructive language we use when we talk about women. Not only are the slights damaging to our collective psyche, they can be physically damaging. The fear of making a fuss can stop a woman from seeking help when she really needs it –– and when it comes to your health, we don’t have the luxury of wasting time.

 

Sam Reid is writer and social media professional from Chicago. When she's not working at her day job in marketing communications, you can find her blogging about my experience with chronic illness at Sicker Than Your Average or raising funds for some very important patient programs. Her goal is to bring patient issues to light and hopefully provide a bit of humor and humanity along the way. She uses her platform to put a face on invisible illnesses and educate others on the realities of the American healthcare system. Outside of writing as a form of advocacy, she spends her time dabbling in the comedy writing sphere, hanging out with her two cats, or eating overpriced cheese plates.

A Woman -- Liberated

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Bridgit Gallagher

During the summer of 2017 I participated in Swarm Artist Residency—a collective of Chicago creatives who organize annual artist retreats throughout the Midwest.  I found Swarm only a few months after I began taking myself seriously as an artist.  I’ve created some form of art all my life: I started writing poems when I was 11 and made several scrapbooks for my family; I took photography classes in high school and eventually was placed in honors art classes; I’ve created mixed media pieces just for the hell of it, and I’ve kept a journal since I was 10 years old.  Yet—I never went to art school.  In fact, I spent my college years doing anything but art: working 25 hours a week, going to school for 15-18 credit hours a semester, taking care of my sick Grandmother, and trying to get away from my alcoholic father as fast as I could.

Actually, my high school art teacher tried to convince me to go to art school, but I couldn’t.  Not only did I not apply for art school, I was furious that she even suggested it.  The school was out of state—an option my mother didn’t want me to take.  She wanted me home, close to her, safe—plus we couldn’t afford it.  I internalized this message without my parents ever having to tell me directly; so when my teacher encouraged me to pursue this option, I was outraged on her behalf. Even today, I can clearly recall nearly yelling, “But I’d be away from my family!” and her calmly responding, “Maybe that’s a good thing.”   

After I graduated university, I was lost. Finally, after 20+ years of working and going to school, I was free to do anything—everything! But I found myself gravitating towards the next thing: finding a job, getting married, having kids, etc.  I didn’t really want those things, but I found myself going down that path regardless. Throughout my childhood, my mother always showered me with fantasies of marrying a man, having plenty of babies, and being the new matriarch of our family. This vision for my life was one I simultaneously rebelled and yet—I wanted. Not for me, but for my mother. I wanted to make her proud and happy, and at that age I couldn’t see a different vision for myself. Despite the fact that I’ve spent most of my life rebelling, I tended to want, or thought I wanted, everything everyone else wanted for me.

So I said yes and got engaged to my partner of 4 years.  I really loved him and did want to spend the rest of my life with him, and yet—I wanted something more. Something I couldn’t imagine. During the wedding planning I found myself creating art. I made a 4 foot replica of my body by collaging Instagram photos of myself with pieces of cell phones and laptops, assembled on 4x4” canvas pieces. I felt like I was being dissected into boxes of expectation: expectations of my mother, of my partner, of my family; the expectation that I would get a 9-5 since I bothered going to university at all, at least until I was ready to have children. As a woman, I was born to fulfill expectations, especially of the men in my life.  Although I understood intellectually (read: academically) that I had choices, I couldn’t imagine them.  So I made art—and planned for a wedding.  

Wedding planning was something I was wholly unprepared to face.  Not a single part of this process was appealing to me.  More than the massive consumerism, the inherent sexism, and overtly romanticized ways in which weddings are planned, I struggled with something far more daunting: my father. I did not want my father to walk me down the aisle or frankly—even be a part of my wedding. I distinctly remember having a conversation with my aunt in the car about it.  I was explaining how I wanted both my partner and I to walk down the aisle simultaneously, so as to make the day about us and not have this hyper focus on the bride, and she almost hysterically warned me of what other people might think if my father didn’t walk me down the aisle and of how he might feel about being so blatantly rejected in the ceremony.  An entire childhood of alcoholism and abuse could be swept under the rug for the bride’s happy day.  Not only could I not envision a life I truly wanted, I wasn’t allowed to envision alterations to the life expected of me.  

Growing up, I constantly heard “life is too short to stay angry” and “blood is thicker than water,” all to mean that I should accept my father’s abusive behavior because we’re family and forgiving my father was the only way to find peace.  After years of trying to embrace these messages, I realized that actually, life is too short to maintain abusive relationships.  Having a relationship with my father simply because he was my father only deepened the wounds that he already made.                

Expectations turned into requirements, and my heart broke a little more.  I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t plan my life around anyone else’s needs or desires.  I couldn’t live the rest of my life feeling like a fragment of who I wanted to be. In the back of my heart I knew that if I continued this path it would be the ultimate betrayal—against myself.  My high school art teacher’s words echoed in surround sound…

So I decided to move to Chile for a year and teach.  While I was announcing these plans to my family over dinner, I also told everyone that I would be cutting off communication with my father.  I felt my family’s discomfort as they shifted in their seats and the weight of my words in their concerned eyes.  By centering myself, for what felt like the first time, I was changing my family’s dynamics, whether they were ready for it or not.  Expectations denied.     

Living in Chile was an incredible and challenging experience.  I was making art, but I still didn’t consider myself an artist.  In fact, I only began to consider myself an artist when my Chilean friends told me I was one.  I can recall one of my friends saying: “You’re an artist if you create art.  “Good” and “bad”, “professional” and “amateur” are not labels we should use when we think of ourselves as artists.  If you create from a place of love and beauty, then you are an artist.” I began to embrace this new identity, but still—in my heart, it sat like a foreign feeling.

When I returned to the United States I felt like a new woman.  I had spent a year making decisions centering myself and my own needs and it was liberating.  However, the role of caretaking soon called again. After my return, I began taking care of my Grandmother, who had become bedridden and was living at home.  I held a lot of tension in my heart about this call: on the one hand I loved my Grandmother and I would have done anything for her.  On the other hand, I felt like I was being sucked back into a role I had spent a year unlearning.  Expectations met, with hesitation.

Taking care of her is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done.  I didn’t know how deeply I could love another person, or how much endless patience I could give, until I began taking care of my Grandmother.  It truly felt like an honor to care for the woman who nurtured me my entire life, but it was challenging.  My entire life revolved around taking care of her and in turn, other parts of my life became smaller—except art.  During this time, the identity of “artist” felt truer and more real as I began creating and selling art in Chicago.  With the amount of energy that goes into caretaking and creating, it would seem unlikely that I would be able to do both, but as the poet Alok Vaid Menon says, “Art is the place we go to when language fails us.” Taking care of my Grandmother and watching her body transition is something I am still finding words for; dust that continues to settle in my heart.  

That’s when I found Swarm.  That summer I spent nearly a week living in a barn in Indiana with some of the most incredible women, femmes, and non-binary folks.  We had workshops every day, led by Chicago creatives.  One workshop that has stayed with me over the months was one on storytelling.  Lily Be, creator of The Stoop and manager of the Hoodoisie, led this workshop around a campfire, and taught us how to tell our stories.  Lily’s message rang true in every fiber of my being: telling our stories and hearing the stories of people is an act of liberation.  If we don’t tell our own stories, someone else will tell it for us.  Or, as the author Zora Neale Hurston says it: “If you’re silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

Around this campfire I began to see the ways in which I had avoided listening to my own voice: not attending art school, almost getting married; calling myself an artist only when someone else confirmed it first. Even in the art I was making, I wasn’t telling my story:  I was tiptoeing around myself, too afraid of my own shadow.  Furthermore, I rarely, if ever, spoke about my father and my childhood.  It was a family secret and I kept that secret, festering inside of me.  Even when I sat down to write this blog, I felt myself gravitating towards writing about political movements and actions, things that feel more important.    

One of the last things my Grandmother said to me before she passed away in August 2017 was: “Life’s too short to be uncomfortable in your own skin.” I’ve spent so much of my life burying myself and my pain, being uncomfortable in my own story. But the layers I’ve constructed around my heart peal back every time I tell my story and every time I hear the stories of my sisterz.  My sisterz teach me resilience and vulnerability.  My sisterz teach me radical love, for myself and others.  As a woman with 5 brothers, these are the sisterz I never had.     

And here I am, resisting and reimagining: writing about myself in a way I never have, creating art and creating community in a world that doesn’t value women or artists, and blooming into the woman my Grandmother always saw in me.    

Expectations, beyond.  

      

   

One of the biggest milestones of my adult life (so far) has been coming to a realization that everyone, myself included, is born a feminist. If I’m losing you, I’d ask you to spare one more moment and consider the following. When I say everyone is born feminist, I am not necessarily speaking of a movement so much as the basic idea behind the movement, an idea that at face value I think we can all agree makes sense. This idea is simply this: females are equal to males in value and capability, and should be afforded the same rights of personal and economical agency.  In other words, I carry a belief that whatever our differences physically, men and women are equals.   It would take years of experience - on top of seemingly endless class room discussions, personal observations, and small group talks - to piece together that the jumble of ideas and perceptions about myself as a female and my standing in the world could be easily summarized by the belief that I was just as capable and deserving as the opposite gender, of everything. If you cringed, gasped, or felt a prickle of unease at the suggestion that a female deserves everything, just as much as her male counterpart, then you already know (whether you know it or not) why it took me even longer to realize that this firmly held belief of mine, demanded thoughtful action that socially and politically is commonly referred to as feminist. Before I understood the terms and language surrounding the topic I was just a girl like all others, learning the myriad and murky rules of femininity at my mother’s hand… and my father’s hand, and my siblings, and the neighbors, and the people on the telly. I had more teachers on ‘how to be feminine’ than I ever had anything else, but I wouldn’t really notice that or become bothered by it until later. I assumed that was just the natural way of things. Little girls got taught how to be ladies, and little boys got taught how to be men. It starts young and it continues throughout your life. One of my earliest and few remaining memories from kindergarten is of my mother being called by my teacher because I had broken the number one rule of dress wearing, penny loafer clad, little ladies everywhere, and flashed my undies at the class. I know. There was no deeply thought out plan of action or motive besides that dresses were itchy, hot, and in the way of air getting to the legs. I wasn't sure what the big deal was, but I understood perfectly that mom was mortified and I was in the big trouble. For weeks I heard nothing besides how shameful and dirty it was to lift ones dress in public where boys could see. This was the first moment I began to understand that boys had an invested interest in what was under my clothes (how curious) and that a true "lady" understood this, and always dressed and behaved in such a way as to keep herself completely covered, or else she was bad and presumably bad things would happen to her. I was four.   Time kept passing and even though I figured out how a lady comports herself, this did not deter either my spiritedness or my willingness to compete with my peers. Although my favorite activity was still tucking myself into a corner with a book, my active imagination spilled over to playground and outdoor adventures that simply would not fit themselves within the constraints of modern femininity. I believed I could be a pirate or a knight on horseback just as readily as I believed I could be a killer lion, pretty Sunday dresses and matching hats be damned. And in a way that felt (and was) completely natural, I often did it with baby dolls strapped to my hip or back, because of course I expected to be a mommy too. I had no reason to think I'd ever have to choose between a life of purpose filled adventure and my desire for a family. I presumed naturally that I could have both, the way that I assumed it was perfectly possible to become a princess ninja.  But life teaches you quickly that you have to choose. For girls the choice has already been made. There was no one great moment of realization that struck me. It was a thousand little moments and unanswered questions (or their unsatisfactory answers). Once when I was seven shopping for back to school clothes, I wanted a Spiderman T-shirt from the boy’s isle. My mother wrinkled her nose and said it was for boys. There were no Spiderman t-shirts in the girl’s isle in those days. My mother used to buy me all sorts of books to feed my addiction to them. Books about Africa, and with little girls who looked like me on the cover. This was awesome for a completely different reason that I’ll save for another blog. But it frustrated me that she never acknowledged my love of Saturday morning cartoons or comic books besides to presume that I was only interested because my brothers were into them. When it came to picking a favorite color, blue was off limits. I liked red too, but even that seemed to dissatisfy my mother. Too aggressive. I remember learning in kindergarten class one day that blue and red make purple and thinking that was the coolest thing ever. I came flying home to tell my mother that I now loved the color purple. She assumed it was because Barney was my favorite afterschool program at the time. I never corrected her. Besides Barney was amazing. When I was thirteen years old the boy I was convinced I wanted to marry told me I looked really good in my green shirt. My favorite color became green for a while. When it turned out he didn’t like me the way I liked him, and my adolescent heart was shattered surely never to be repaired (youthful drama is fantastic) my older sister said something to me I’ll never forget. “At least now you can go back to liking purple.” As if it was perfectly natural to go through colors, music, foods and a plethora of other likes based solely on which boy was paying attention to me. Like the overthinker I’ve always been, I thought about that concept long after she forgot the boy’s name or that the conversation had ever occurred. I knew it was true, I had liked the way it felt to have this boy notice me in my pretty green shirt. I had felt fresh and newer than spring in my spirit every time I thought about it, and now just laying in the grass with one of my books surrounded by green was enough to make me feel like the world was mine and I was perfect in it. Did I really have to give that up just because the dream of being Mrs. So and So was dead? I decided boy or no boy green was awesome, and that if I ever decided I had a new favorite color, it was going to be about me and what I liked and not about what anyone else thought. I’m happy to report I kept that promise, small as it was. All of my household chores were “feminine” in nature. In short I had to follow behind mom, cooking and cleaning up after everyone else. My brothers were regulated to unfairly easy tasks, like taking out the trash once a week or mowing the lawn. I complained about this constantly. Why were our chores so unevenly dispersed? Keeping a household clean is a time-consuming minute by minute task when there are nine people living at home. Like any child would, I just wanted to be left alone to play and read my books. How I wished I could just throw a trash bag out by the mailbox and lark off to go play sports. I was not satisfied with the “everyone does their part” pat answer, when it was so clear to me that the weight of responsibility was mismatched and my part was never ending. Finally my mother just started telling me the truth. “They’re boys. Girls and boys have different responsibilities.” This blew my mind. I’d always been told some version of we did chores to pull our weight in the household as well as to prepare us for adulthood. Were my brothers never going to have to cook for themselves or launder their own clothes? Was I never going to have to know how to cut my grass or haul heaping bags of garbage outside to the corner? As always, I asked my questions waiting imperiously for answers and when they came they were unsatisfying. “Well when you’re married it’ll be a partnership.” “So I have to marry to be a whole person?!” Yes. I really was that dramatic. My mother got frustrated at that point and just reverted back to ‘do it because I say so’. My brothers played every sport imaginable and their constant rotation of practices and games held our families schedule hostage. Any interest I showed in playing a sport was generally treated as whimsy they didn’t have time for. Plus my mother didn’t think I could handle it. I never figured out what she meant by that. There were several possibilities. Each more bleak than the last. In all my years of high school English (my favorite subject) we read only one book by a female author. The running joke at my conservative Christian college campus was that a lot of girls just came to get their M.R.S. degree.  Another favorite was, ‘ring by spring or your money back’. Seventy-five percent of my friends were engaged by graduation. Our schools divorce rate was higher than the national average. Nobody saw a correlation I guess. When I would ask girlfriends about their dreams or what they felt Gods’ purpose was for their lives, it either centered around being a wife full stop or was ready prepared to adapt to whatever their future husbands mission would be and impending motherhood. I got blinks and blank stares whenever I dared to ask, “What if God has given ME a purpose and a mission that my husband is going to have to adapt to?” I found myself biting my tongue and parroting hopes I didn’t actually hope and beliefs I didn’t actually belief because I wanted to be the “right” sort of woman. Women’s chapel was always about how to survive and find purpose in singleness while waiting for the one. I had to argue once to be allowed to give the lesson at the end of a show we did as a part of youth outreach. Even though the bible was clear on women being able to lead children, we decided we wanted to be above reproach and open no doors for criticism. It broke my heart. It was the first time I remember thinking “you’ll never have a real voice here”. My bra straps could never see the sunlight without instant comment. I baby sat for a boy whose father spanked him because he let his sister put glitter on his cheeks. Throwing, hitting, running, or pretty much doing anything, “like a girl” is an insult. The boys assumed you couldn’t until you proved you could. But then you were the exception to the rule. Not being like other girls all pretty and pink is a twisted compliment too many guys will gave me and for too many years I embraced as a form of liberation. For the record. Other girls aren’t universally, stupid or silly and vain. How stupid is it, to tell someone what colors are for them, what activities are for them, and then disdain them for not being more like you? Whether or not I could wear a two-piece swimsuit and still call myself a modest woman was too often a topic of serious conversation. I baby sat for a boy who liked the color pink. Actively being a part of forcing him to change his mind was according to his mother “a real big help”. When I was barely eleven my older sister by blood became a teenage mother and my mother wouldn’t allow me to see her again or form a relationship with my nephew. My friend in high school was molested, nobody believed “a guy like that” would be interested in her or do such a thing. She was warned off going to the authorities with her accusations because it would ruin the rest of his life. Nobody cared all that much that his actions ruined hers. I got drunk at a party once my first semester of college (before transferring to the conservative bible school). It was my first and only time being drunk. I remember the paralyzing fear so keenly that I’ve never had any interest in going back to that state. I denied help getting home from a friend because he was a guy, because I was too drunk to stop him if he tried anything and I knew my parents would say it was my fault if anything happened. Shouldn’t have been dressed that way. Shouldn’t have been drinking. Shouldn’t have made yourself a victim. He asked me out shortly before I transferred and I turned him down because I knew I was leaving. In the back of my mind I thought, “good thing you didn’t leave with him that night”. I applied at an Audi dealership once for an administrative position that promised me more money than I knew how to deal with at 21. Everything was going great until the guy interviewing me over the phone asked me if I did any modeling, and if I was comfortable working with high profile clients, and could I be discreet? I held hands with a man as he cried, telling me about the time someone put a gun to his head because he was out with his girls wearing lipstick and heels.  I had no answer for why he shouldn’t die, besides that I loved him and I was sure god did too and that he was alive for a reason.   I cooked dinner with a friend as she explained that she hadn’t seen her nieces and nephews in years but her family still occasionally called to tell her they were praying her gay away, and tried not to notice the tremor in her voice. She told me sometimes you don’t get a choice and you have to make new family, and as an adoptee I knew the truth of that. But we both know nothing replaces the one you lost. So you see, it wasn’t one big moment. It was a thousand little ones. It was me thinking to myself, I think I should be allowed to decide for myself what colors I like, or style of clothes I wear, and they shouldn’t be allowed to determine who I am or my value as a person. It was realizing that what I’m wearing shouldn’t excuse someone elses violence against my person but that in our society, it does. I realized that for the majority of people the length of my skirt, where I was, who I was with, and how much I’d drank was how they would judge whether or not I deserved assault. I thought that was a hot mess that needed changing. I realized that I believed in every individual right to the pursuit of happiness without restrictions based on their gender, and that no defiance of someone elses perception of what is masculine or feminine should ever endanger their lives.  I realized, that if their value as a human being was not protected in society then by rights, society should change. I realized that I wanted to make the same amount of money for the same amount of work as my male peers, and I didn’t want my looks to play a part in whether or not I got a job I was qualified for. I realized that if that was not how society operated already, then by rights society needed to change. I realized that I didn’t want to constantly be marketed for sex, preyed on for sex, or disbelieved when I was violated. Nor did I want to be shaped mentally for breeding within the more socially accepted corral of marriage. I realized I didn’t want my marriage to feel like a prison sentence prescribed to me since birth, but a willing partnership between two equals. Both equally capable and willing to take out the trash or change a diaper. Both equally capable and willing of taking on the cooking and the burden of housework. Both equally capable and willing to sacrifice for the other, any which way their unique personalities and temperaments called for. Both equally willing to support the other in dreams and career work, and no presumption that naturally the males career came first. If that was not the mindset that society bred, then by rights, society needed a change. This did not seem at all remarkable to me. It seemed like common sense. It seemed natural. What any man and woman would want for themselves and their partners. The freedom and the safety to be as they are and achieve whatever heights it is within them to achieve without gender bias. But then you start sharing your ideas and that’s when you learn. “Oh, you’re one of those feminists.” I am. And I dare say most sensible people across a wide spectrum of beliefs are too.

One of the biggest milestones of my adult life (so far) has been coming to a realization that everyone, myself included, is born a feminist. If I’m losing you, I’d ask you to spare one more moment and consider the following. When I say everyone is born feminist, I am not necessarily speaking of a movement so much as the basic idea behind the movement, an idea that at face value I think we can all agree makes sense.

This idea is simply this: females are equal to males in value and capability, and should be afforded the same rights of personal and economical agency.  In other words, I carry a belief that whatever our differences physically, men and women are equals.  

It would take years of experience - on top of seemingly endless class room discussions, personal observations, and small group talks - to piece together that the jumble of ideas and perceptions about myself as a female and my standing in the world could be easily summarized by the belief that I was just as capable and deserving as the opposite gender, of everything.

If you cringed, gasped, or felt a prickle of unease at the suggestion that a female deserves everything, just as much as her male counterpart, then you already know (whether you know it or not) why it took me even longer to realize that this firmly held belief of mine, demanded thoughtful action that socially and politically is commonly referred to as feminist.

Before I understood the terms and language surrounding the topic I was just a girl like all others, learning the myriad and murky rules of femininity at my mother’s hand… and my father’s hand, and my siblings, and the neighbors, and the people on the telly. I had more teachers on ‘how to be feminine’ than I ever had anything else, but I wouldn’t really notice that or become bothered by it until later.

I assumed that was just the natural way of things. Little girls got taught how to be ladies, and little boys got taught how to be men. It starts young and it continues throughout your life.

One of my earliest and few remaining memories from kindergarten is of my mother being called by my teacher because I had broken the number one rule of dress wearing, penny loafer clad, little ladies everywhere, and flashed my undies at the class.

I know.

There was no deeply thought out plan of action or motive besides that dresses were itchy, hot, and in the way of air getting to the legs. I wasn't sure what the big deal was, but I understood perfectly that mom was mortified and I was in the big trouble. For weeks I heard nothing besides how shameful and dirty it was to lift ones dress in public where boys could see.

This was the first moment I began to understand that boys had an invested interest in what was under my clothes (how curious) and that a true "lady" understood this, and always dressed and behaved in such a way as to keep herself completely covered, or else she was bad and presumably bad things would happen to her. I was four.  

Time kept passing and even though I figured out how a lady comports herself, this did not deter either my spiritedness or my willingness to compete with my peers. Although my favorite activity was still tucking myself into a corner with a book, my active imagination spilled over to playground and outdoor adventures that simply would not fit themselves within the constraints of modern femininity.

I believed I could be a pirate or a knight on horseback just as readily as I believed I could be a killer lion, pretty Sunday dresses and matching hats be damned. And in a way that felt (and was) completely natural, I often did it with baby dolls strapped to my hip or back, because of course I expected to be a mommy too.

I had no reason to think I'd ever have to choose between a life of purpose filled adventure and my desire for a family. I presumed naturally that I could have both, the way that I assumed it was perfectly possible to become a princess ninja.  But life teaches you quickly that you have to choose.

For girls the choice has already been made.

There was no one great moment of realization that struck me. It was a thousand little moments and unanswered questions (or their unsatisfactory answers).

Once when I was seven shopping for back to school clothes, I wanted a Spiderman T-shirt from the boy’s isle. My mother wrinkled her nose and said it was for boys. There were no Spiderman t-shirts in the girl’s isle in those days.

My mother used to buy me all sorts of books to feed my addiction to them. Books about Africa, and with little girls who looked like me on the cover. This was awesome for a completely different reason that I’ll save for another blog. But it frustrated me that she never acknowledged my love of Saturday morning cartoons or comic books besides to presume that I was only interested because my brothers were into them.

When it came to picking a favorite color, blue was off limits. I liked red too, but even that seemed to dissatisfy my mother. Too aggressive. I remember learning in kindergarten class one day that blue and red make purple and thinking that was the coolest thing ever. I came flying home to tell my mother that I now loved the color purple. She assumed it was because Barney was my favorite afterschool program at the time. I never corrected her. Besides Barney was amazing.

When I was thirteen years old the boy I was convinced I wanted to marry told me I looked really good in my green shirt. My favorite color became green for a while. When it turned out he didn’t like me the way I liked him, and my adolescent heart was shattered surely never to be repaired (youthful drama is fantastic) my older sister said something to me I’ll never forget.

“At least now you can go back to liking purple.”

As if it was perfectly natural to go through colors, music, foods and a plethora of other likes based solely on which boy was paying attention to me.

Like the overthinker I’ve always been, I thought about that concept long after she forgot the boy’s name or that the conversation had ever occurred. I knew it was true, I had liked the way it felt to have this boy notice me in my pretty green shirt. I had felt fresh and newer than spring in my spirit every time I thought about it, and now just laying in the grass with one of my books surrounded by green was enough to make me feel like the world was mine and I was perfect in it. Did I really have to give that up just because the dream of being Mrs. So and So was dead?

I decided boy or no boy green was awesome, and that if I ever decided I had a new favorite color, it was going to be about me and what I liked and not about what anyone else thought. I’m happy to report I kept that promise, small as it was.

All of my household chores were “feminine” in nature. In short I had to follow behind mom, cooking and cleaning up after everyone else. My brothers were regulated to unfairly easy tasks, like taking out the trash once a week or mowing the lawn. I complained about this constantly. Why were our chores so unevenly dispersed? Keeping a household clean is a time-consuming minute by minute task when there are nine people living at home. Like any child would, I just wanted to be left alone to play and read my books. How I wished I could just throw a trash bag out by the mailbox and lark off to go play sports.

I was not satisfied with the “everyone does their part” pat answer, when it was so clear to me that the weight of responsibility was mismatched and my part was never ending.

Finally my mother just started telling me the truth.

“They’re boys. Girls and boys have different responsibilities.”

This blew my mind. I’d always been told some version of we did chores to pull our weight in the household as well as to prepare us for adulthood. Were my brothers never going to have to cook for themselves or launder their own clothes? Was I never going to have to know how to cut my grass or haul heaping bags of garbage outside to the corner?

As always, I asked my questions waiting imperiously for answers and when they came they were unsatisfying.

“Well when you’re married it’ll be a partnership.”

“So I have to marry to be a whole person?!”

Yes. I really was that dramatic. My mother got frustrated at that point and just reverted back to ‘do it because I say so’.

My brothers played every sport imaginable and their constant rotation of practices and games held our families schedule hostage. Any interest I showed in playing a sport was generally treated as whimsy they didn’t have time for. Plus my mother didn’t think I could handle it. I never figured out what she meant by that. There were several possibilities. Each more bleak than the last.

In all my years of high school English (my favorite subject) we read only one book by a female author.

The running joke at my conservative Christian college campus was that a lot of girls just came to get their M.R.S. degree.  Another favorite was, ‘ring by spring or your money back’.

Seventy-five percent of my friends were engaged by graduation. Our schools divorce rate was higher than the national average. Nobody saw a correlation I guess.

When I would ask girlfriends about their dreams or what they felt Gods’ purpose was for their lives, it either centered around being a wife full stop or was ready prepared to adapt to whatever their future husbands mission would be and impending motherhood.

I got blinks and blank stares whenever I dared to ask, “What if God has given ME a purpose and a mission that my husband is going to have to adapt to?”

I found myself biting my tongue and parroting hopes I didn’t actually hope and beliefs I didn’t actually belief because I wanted to be the “right” sort of woman.

Women’s chapel was always about how to survive and find purpose in singleness while waiting for the one.

I had to argue once to be allowed to give the lesson at the end of a show we did as a part of youth outreach. Even though the bible was clear on women being able to lead children, we decided we wanted to be above reproach and open no doors for criticism. It broke my heart. It was the first time I remember thinking “you’ll never have a real voice here”.

My bra straps could never see the sunlight without instant comment.

I baby sat for a boy whose father spanked him because he let his sister put glitter on his cheeks.

Throwing, hitting, running, or pretty much doing anything, “like a girl” is an insult.

The boys assumed you couldn’t until you proved you could. But then you were the exception to the rule.

Not being like other girls all pretty and pink is a twisted compliment too many guys will gave me and for too many years I embraced as a form of liberation. For the record. Other girls aren’t universally, stupid or silly and vain. How stupid is it, to tell someone what colors are for them, what activities are for them, and then disdain them for not being more like you?

Whether or not I could wear a two-piece swimsuit and still call myself a modest woman was too often a topic of serious conversation.

I baby sat for a boy who liked the color pink. Actively being a part of forcing him to change his mind was according to his mother “a real big help”.

When I was barely eleven my older sister by blood became a teenage mother and my mother wouldn’t allow me to see her again or form a relationship with my nephew.

My friend in high school was molested, nobody believed “a guy like that” would be interested in her or do such a thing. She was warned off going to the authorities with her accusations because it would ruin the rest of his life. Nobody cared all that much that his actions ruined hers.

I got drunk at a party once my first semester of college (before transferring to the conservative bible school). It was my first and only time being drunk. I remember the paralyzing fear so keenly that I’ve never had any interest in going back to that state. I denied help getting home from a friend because he was a guy, because I was too drunk to stop him if he tried anything and I knew my parents would say it was my fault if anything happened. Shouldn’t have been dressed that way. Shouldn’t have been drinking. Shouldn’t have made yourself a victim.

He asked me out shortly before I transferred and I turned him down because I knew I was leaving. In the back of my mind I thought, “good thing you didn’t leave with him that night”.

I applied at an Audi dealership once for an administrative position that promised me more money than I knew how to deal with at 21. Everything was going great until the guy interviewing me over the phone asked me if I did any modeling, and if I was comfortable working with high profile clients, and could I be discreet?

I held hands with a man as he cried, telling me about the time someone put a gun to his head because he was out with his girls wearing lipstick and heels.  I had no answer for why he shouldn’t die, besides that I loved him and I was sure god did too and that he was alive for a reason.  

I cooked dinner with a friend as she explained that she hadn’t seen her nieces and nephews in years but her family still occasionally called to tell her they were praying her gay away, and tried not to notice the tremor in her voice. She told me sometimes you don’t get a choice and you have to make new family, and as an adoptee I knew the truth of that. But we both know nothing replaces the one you lost.

So you see, it wasn’t one big moment.

It was a thousand little ones. It was me thinking to myself, I think I should be allowed to decide for myself what colors I like, or style of clothes I wear, and they shouldn’t be allowed to determine who I am or my value as a person.

It was realizing that what I’m wearing shouldn’t excuse someone elses violence against my person but that in our society, it does. I realized that for the majority of people the length of my skirt, where I was, who I was with, and how much I’d drank was how they would judge whether or not I deserved assault. I thought that was a hot mess that needed changing.

I realized that I believed in every individual right to the pursuit of happiness without restrictions based on their gender, and that no defiance of someone elses perception of what is masculine or feminine should ever endanger their lives.  I realized, that if their value as a human being was not protected in society then by rights, society should change.

I realized that I wanted to make the same amount of money for the same amount of work as my male peers, and I didn’t want my looks to play a part in whether or not I got a job I was qualified for. I realized that if that was not how society operated already, then by rights society needed to change.

I realized that I didn’t want to constantly be marketed for sex, preyed on for sex, or disbelieved when I was violated. Nor did I want to be shaped mentally for breeding within the more socially accepted corral of marriage.

I realized I didn’t want my marriage to feel like a prison sentence prescribed to me since birth, but a willing partnership between two equals. Both equally capable and willing to take out the trash or change a diaper. Both equally capable and willing of taking on the cooking and the burden of housework. Both equally capable and willing to sacrifice for the other, any which way their unique personalities and temperaments called for. Both equally willing to support the other in dreams and career work, and no presumption that naturally the males career came first.

If that was not the mindset that society bred, then by rights, society needed a change.

This did not seem at all remarkable to me. It seemed like common sense. It seemed natural. What any man and woman would want for themselves and their partners. The freedom and the safety to be as they are and achieve whatever heights it is within them to achieve without gender bias.

But then you start sharing your ideas and that’s when you learn.

“Oh, you’re one of those feminists.”

I am. And I dare say most sensible people across a wide spectrum of beliefs are too.

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I came to a red light while driving to work in Hollywood, CA, when a homeless woman caught my attention. At the time, I was working as a stylist for a few years yet my career wasn’t evolving they way I wanted. In between gigs, I was on my way to return clothes at a showroom when the best thing that’s ever happened to me happened to me.

The woman was very tall, thin, chocolate complexion, with a buzz cut, and random patches of dirt covered her body. She began to cross the street, then I noticed her blood stained bottoms. She had no pants on, just a ripped, dirty tank top and some shorts as underwear. I was in my car tripping, looking around to see any reactions from the people in the other cars because she was so exposed.

I watched her get across, being caught up in my thoughts and emotions, I had just started my cycle that day. Next to crosswalk was a Trader Joe’s, once on the side of the building, still in plain sight, she proceeded to pull down her bottoms and squatted. That entire moment of from when I first saw her to the light finally turning green, may have only been 2 minutes but it felt like forever to me. I had so many questions, but the one question that was burning in my heart was, "What the hell do homeless women do when they have their period?"

People with periods should be able to manage their menstrual hygiene stress-free and with dignity. However for individuals experiencing homelessness or living in poverty, that can be a dreaded monthly challenge. Menstrual products are not easily accessible or affordable to everyone.

Homeless women and girls may use unsanitary materials such as plastic bags, old rags, newspaper, dried leaves, or socks, because they do not have access to menstrual products. 1 out of 10 girls in the developing world miss up to 5 days/per month of school because they don’t have sanitary pads. Poor menstrual hygiene not only affects physical health, but also social and mental well-being.

Taboos and stigmas related to menstruation often portray women and girls inferior to men and boys. Commercial pads and tampons are made more expensive because of import and sales tax, effectively taxing females for their physiology. Seeing that homeless woman is what inspired me to create my organization, #HappyPeriod.

#HappyPeriod provides menstrual care items to homeless communities, and we’ve been in service for over two years now. We hold volunteer events to collect donations and assemble everything into menstrual hygiene kits, then pass them out through street distribution and shelter drop offs. We have created a simple model, easy for volunteers to get involved, no matter their location. We currently have chapters in 10 cities across the country.

I wanted to see a change and I decided to not wait on someone else to do it. I say create what you wish existed. I didn’t ask for permission to make a difference and you shouldn’t either.

Love & Unity,

Chelsea

#HappyPeriod was founded by Chelsea VonChaz and her Mother, Cherryl Warner, on February 8, 2015. 

#HappyPeriod was founded by Chelsea VonChaz and her Mother, Cherryl Warner, on February 8, 2015. 

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Writer Fredelle Maynard (mother of the more famous Joyce Maynard) once wrote a parenting book in which she stated that children should hold the belief that “never since the beginning of time has there been anybody just like you.”

There are plenty of arguments to be made for the idea that this notion has upended the practicality of plenty of children, resulting in a generation of what the right-wing likes to call “snowflakes” –– children who have grown into adults who internalized the belief that they are special and that their stories are unique. But here’s the thing –– I think that for better or for worse, that notion is true. Tomi Lahren can call me a snowflake all she wants, but I believe my stories (and yours, and the woman next to you’s) are worth telling.

No two people have the same set of experiences. Even the most seemingly unremarkable life has been interspersed with interesting stories (or stories that could be interesting, if presented in the right way.) The magic of some stories is in the grandiosity of adventure and mystery, while the magic in others is finding a meaningful way to capture the average drudge of an ordinary life. I believe in personal narratives the way some people believe in religion. The old adage “everybody’s got a story” resonates in my core, and it’s driven most of my life.

The feeling that I had a story to tell is what drove me to start my blog, Sicker Than Your Average, where I share everything from the fantastical to the mundane about living with a chronic illness. That’s my story –– I have a (sometimes debilitating) autoimmune disease, and there are a million tiny stories wrapped up in that big one. I have found sharing my experiences to be liberating, and validating, and sometimes downright spiritual.

But it doesn’t come without discomfort. As women, we’re painted into a corner. We’re told to be quieter and more mysterious, and to “keep it to yourself.” That if you’re too much or too loud or too open, you lose some of your appeal. Bottling it up has been a feminine art form in my family, so it’s occasionally difficult to be the squeaky wheel. Women who share their stories are often characterized as dramatic, or oversharers, or attention-seeking, or about a million other categories of undesirable.

You don’t have to look far from the daily news to see this act of suppression in practice. Over the past several weeks I’ve been inundated with tweets and news stories and opinions from acquaintances that all fit along the lines of: “Hillary Clinton wrote a book. Isn’t that annoying?” A woman can rise to the never-before-achieved level of being the first female nominee for president from a major political party, and we still as a society seem to want her to keep quiet lest we become uncomfortable.

In the face of all this anger directed at women who share their stories, it becomes that much more important that we do. People criticize in the hopes of silencing you –– making it paramount that you, in turn, yell a little bit louder. If you’re a woman who relates a personal experience into the public dialogue, I guarantee that there will be people who disagree with you. There will be people who criticize you. Those people do not change the fact that you have a right to tell your story and say your piece. Whether your story is about a relationship with a partner, or your relationship with your malfunctioning body, or your relationship with an entire nation, these stories matter. It may be overly idealistic in 2017, but I live with the irrevocable belief that stories can and do change minds and build a more understanding world.

Motivations differ –– some women write to achieve the catharsis of articulating grief. Others, like myself, want to advocate for themselves and others in similar situations. You only have to look as far as #HowObamacareSavedMyLife on Twitter to see how individual stories can be a catalyst for political change. Sharing stories of adversity builds empathy, which I firmly believe is the most important foundation piece of a functioning world.

The capacity for change is what keeps me writing and talking and sharing even when my self-conscious inner-critic wishes I would give in and be quieter. When the messaging that tells women that we’re better seen and not heard weasels its way into my brain, I think of all of the people who have come to me after reading about my experiences and said a simple “Me too. Thanks for putting it into words.” Those kind of human connections are worth making yourself vulnerable for, and they’re why we have to keep putting ourselves out there. Owning your stories is far more critical to the human experience than abiding by old school norms could ever be.

Sam Reid is writer and social media professional from Chicago. When she's not working at her day job in marketing communications, you can find her blogging about my experience with chronic illness at Sicker Than Your Average or raising funds for some very important patient programs. Her goal is to bring patient issues to light and hopefully provide a bit of humor and humanity along the way. She uses her platform to put a face on invisible illnesses and educate others on the realities of the American healthcare system. Outside of writing as a form of advocacy, she spends her time dabbling in the comedy writing sphere, hanging out with her two cats, or eating overpriced cheese plates.

What does it mean to be empowered? Guest Feature on Windy City Underground

The My Body, My Choice Project directors, Esther Kovacs and Diamond Weems teamed up for the project's first radio guest feature with Michelle Gonzalez, Program Director of Windy City Underground.  We talked empowerment, what this project means for us, and what we hope to accomplish.  Check it out!

Esther Kovacs and Red Bella live in studio discussing "THE MY BODY, MY CHOICE PROJECT".

Posted by WindyCityUnderground.com on Tuesday, January 24, 2017