I think I’ve been watching too many cop shows. Or maybe I’m just stressed out.

My dreams have all been violent lately. Or, I suppose, it would be more accurate to say near violent. Threatening.

The gun kind of threatening.

The night before I dreamed about storm troopers—complete with those white helmets and bulky body armor just like out of Star Wars. And big guns.

And last night, I heard a noise in my house—I don’t have a house. This was the imaginary house of my dreams. I went to investigate it. I’d left the door unlocked. The door was open when I got there, and a man was sitting at my kitchen table with a pistol aimed at my cat.


I don’t know why he was aiming for my cat. But I ran outside. I ran right past the storm troopers as well, out of the building and into safety.

Generally, I don’t believe our dreams mean very much. I find fragments of real life in my dreams, memories, things I’ve seen on TV. I seem to just be trying to work some things out left over from the day—like a puzzle I’ve got a few more pieces to find a place for still.

But I start to wonder when I’m dreaming variations on the same thing.

In college, I dreamed again and again about running away from my parents’ house. They were always long, complicated dreams that I woke up from exhausted—having run from their house to, let’s say, a grocery store and then hiked for hours across a field. Where I ran into a chicken laying eggs. And then wondered how to take the chicken with me. Meanwhile, I kept running into my friends who did various, odd things. (As those friends were inclined to do.)

I had these dreams on and off for more than a year. They didn’t begin straight after I left my parents’ home. The dreams began six or eight months after I had severed all ties, after I returned to the States from a semester abroad.

There was some truth to the dreams. I had escaped before—I’d been rescued—and then been returned. Leaving the country and then returning reminded me of that other, much older experience. And so I kept dreaming it. Trying to think through how to keep myself safe.

So I wonder about the guns. I remember a gun. It was a black pistol, like the one the intruder was pointing at my nonchalant cat. Someone held a gun to my head. But I don’t remember what happened.

I suppose I will have to.



I’m reaching a point where I feel blessed by what I have endured.

I am not saying I would choose it if it came to that. I certainly wouldn’t wish it on anyone else.

I also don’t mean I feel I’m a better person for it. I’m a decidedly worse person. I have contributed less to my community and my loved ones because I was so preoccupied with getting through the day. I have lost my temper more often, had less patience, been more reactive, not been able to follow through, stood people up, and let people down because of it.

My character is what it always would have been. But I have been impaired.

However, I think I know things I wouldn’t otherwise know–not at a deep level. And I think what I know is more accurate than what we know if we’ve lived more sheltered lives.

I know, for example, that some people really and truly wish to harm others. And they will unless they are stopped. I will never be fooled by anyone’s slippery charm, nor will I make excuses or look the other way when serious shit is going down. I know some people are simply evil.

I know I will die. Some of us know that only in the abstract. I know it in a much deeper way. I know I may die unexpectedly. I know I can’t control my death. I may not be able to prevent it. No manner of positive thinking or being right with God will protect me. When my number is up, it will be up.

I know there are other things that happen unexpectedly, even alarmingly. Our best-laid plans are thrown apart in a moment. Not every day. But sometimes. I am not immune from it. Neither are the people I care about.

I know there are a great number of things in life that I cannot control. I can control some things. I am not utterly helpless. But I know the limits of my own power, and those limits are sometimes well within the power we would prefer to believe we have.

I don’t know what difference it makes for me to know these things, but I feel my life is more authentic because of it, more balanced. There is nothing I need to turn away from or to not see. I have seen human beings at their worst, lived through a world with God at his most absent, and experienced the most intense terror possible. I know what it means to be vulnerable, fragile, helpless and in pain. And I am not scared of it. I know the score.

Rights You Don’t Have

Mike (not his real name) was sitting in the front office, talking to his 8th grade history teacher. It was a heated conversation, a contentious conversation. The conversation went something like this.

“Yes, but I needed it.”

“So, you just took it. Even though it didn’t belong to you. And even though you hadn’t asked.”

“Cuz I needed it.”

Taking something without asking is usually called stealing. It is against the law. As a society, we have decided that you do not have the right to take someone else’s stuff. Even if you think you need it. You may like it that way or not like it that way, but that’s the agreement.

Mike didn’t like it that way. He hadn’t agreed to anything. Mike believed he did have the right to take something from someone else. He didn’t believe anyone else had the right to take something from him, but he did think he had the right to take something from someone else. If he thought he needed.

Mike isn’t a thief. He’s just on his way toward growing up to be a narcissist. He believes he has rights society in general does not agree that he has.

Kids sometimes get confused. So maybe Mike was just being a kid. But I see this kind of behavior over and over–not just in kids, but in adults. People who believe they have rights others haven’t agreed they have. Special rights. And I don’t mean gay rights, or transgender rights, or some other kind of rights some politicians will say are special rights.

I mean the right to take someone else’s stuff. Or to go to the front of the line. Or to not pay your bills. Those rights. Rights that would lead to total anarchy if we shifted our ideas around about them.

I was in what you might euphemistically call a bad relationship for a long time. Nine years to be exact. We spent a lot of time in couples counseling trying to fix things. We talked a lot about boundaries, about where one of us began and the other ended. I got that. I didn’t feel confused about who she was or really who I was or that we weren’t the same person.

But I didn’t understand what my rights were. I assumed I didn’t have rights I actually do have. And she assumed she had rights she didn’t. It could have worked out perfectly, except that she kept stealing things from me: my time, my dignity, my safety, my well-being, my comfort, my mojo. And I let her. Because I didn’t understand it was theft. I thought people were allowed to do that. I just couldn’t figure out why she kept wanting to.

It seemed mean. Why would you keep wanting to do something mean? Aside from the idea that you don’t care that it’s mean or that it hurts someone else, you do it because you think you have the right to.

It doesn’t usually bother us too much if we do something that hurts someone else as long as we feel it’s within our rights. Mostly, we think they should probably just deal with it and move on. Eating a healthy diet when I know others are hungry doesn’t really bother me, although I might be able to help if I gave my grocery money away. But I feel entitled to eat. So I do.

Narcissists, generally, believe they have rights no one else has agreed to. When you complain about it, they mostly seem to think you should suck it up and deal.

The following is a list of rights some of them may believe they have:

1) The right to be comfortable–to not be inconvenienced, feel pain, or have unpleasant emotions.

2) The right to be entertained. Constantly. Boredom is a clear violation of their rights. This goes back to #1.

3) The right to attention, admiration, and uninterrupted positive regard–both from themselves and from others. They should not ever need to feel embarrassed, ashamed, or like a failure–although the rest of us do from time to time. This goes back to right #1.

4) The right to have what they want when they want it–without working for it, asking for it, waiting their turn for it, or sharing it.

5) The right to exact revenge.

Understanding this has provided me with immense clarity for why my mother in particular behaved the way she did with me when I was growing up. You see, what is most remarkable about my memories of being physically abused by her is her well-articulated sense that she was being victimized in some way. She might be hitting me over the head with a chair, but she seemed to believe she was the one being hurt. Now, I understand.

I may have violated her right to be comfortable. If my behavior cast doubt on her parenting skills, and she found herself feeling an uncomfortable emotion about it–say guilt, or shame–then I was clearly violating her right to be comfortable. If I was busy playing by myself, I might be violating either her right to be entertained or her right to continuous positive regard.

Obviously, she would be upset. Anyone who believed their rights were being so terribly infringed upon would be. And she had the right to exact revenge. So she would.

It’s a warped way of looking things, but that view makes my world growing up make sense. Absolute sense. In a way that nothing else has.

I grew up with a distorted view of what my rights and the rights of others were. I had no rights, and others had far too many.

Did you?

Distress Tolerance: Part 2

Since I shared with you my decision to tackle my terror of writing and before that my terror of cleaning house, I thought I should let you know the outcome.

The world is a beautiful place. Oh, and I recognize my hands as belonging to me. Life is good.

It took two days to get there. Writing, it turns out, terrifies me quite a bit more than dusting the furniture. Perhaps I would have gotten there faster, but I had a cold. And coldy brains just don’t work as well.

Yesterday did not go as well as today. I was coldier. Or maybe it just took me a while to get the hang of it. But today I’d say has been a success.

I began in the same way I approached cleaning house: in 10-minute increments. But I found tolerating distress while writing is harder than tolerating it while cleaning. Not more painful, perhaps, but more difficult in a practical sense. Because writing uses a lot of the brain. And so does distress. Cleaning, not so much. You can get all choked up, dissociate, have flashbacks, start thinking about ways to take revenge on your perpetrators all while giving the sink a good scrub. Do those things while writing and you often find yourself not writing anymore.

Also, cleaning has a clear end in sight. Even though I was working in 10-minute increments, there was no defined endpoint for when I should actually stop writing if I continued to be able to get through each set of 10 minutes. Endpoints help with motivation. They keep us focused on a task. Endpoints are good. I didn’t have one, and that made it harder too.

So, today, I changed it up a little. Ten minutes first. Then 20. Then 40. Then 80. Eighty provided an end-point. If you can handle doing something for an hour and 20 minutes, you are probably good to go. Or at least that was my reasoning. And it did help. I stayed more focused. I dissociated less. I kept writing through the distress.

Interesting things happened. First of all, I was okay for eight minutes. Eight minutes into it was when the anxiety began to set in. Funny, isn’t it? I have a remarkable sense of time, although I can get lost in it as well as anyone else. Still, I know pretty well how long a minute is, how long 10 minutes is. And I imagine my mom must have had an average. Eight minutes to get up out of bed (she was always in bed), use the bathroom, head down the stairs, and into my room. From whence the screaming and throwing things began.

So the challenge became getting to the eight-minute mark and then waiting for the anxiety to subside. And it did. Eventually. Not quickly. But eventually.

What’s interesting to me about distress tolerance as a therapeutic technique is that it makes your mind cease to be the enemy. In PTSD, you are no longer in danger, but your mind continues to be an unpredictable place. Distress tolerance doesn’t change the distress, but it means the distress ceases to be terrifying. And that reduces a great deal of the feeling of overwhelming powerlessness that is the core of the problem. You still cannot stop the distress. You can’t make it go away. But you can outlast it.

I believe distress tolerance also unlinks the chains of a fear structure, so that particular triggers no longer activate self-propelling sequences of memories and thoughts that maintain an association between those triggers and terror. In that sense, and I wasn’t expecting this, it is more effective than thought-stopping (which also has its uses.)

It works because the thought and the emotions simply stays where it is, rather than getting routed to something else–say a comforting image of a loved one or a favorite place–that may eventually link back to the terror again and in that way keep the structure intact. (Since so many things do link back to terror.)  In distress tolerance, you simply stay in the same place. So that the link becomes trigger->terror->nothing. The associations don’t link back to anything that can then re-activate the terror.

As far as why it made the world seem like a more beautiful place and why I recognize my hands as being mine again, it’s a little harder to explain. And I’m tired now. I still have a cold, and it’s time to try dusting again. So that will need to wait for another day.

But you should really check out Quratulain Balouch. She’s awesome.

Marta, Guadalupe, and the Others

Pray for us. Courtesy Wikipedia.
Pray for us. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Just as I wanted to tell you about Veronique, I want to tell you about Marta and Guadalupe.

If you’re new around here, I will have to first tell you that my father was a sex trafficker, that he trafficked me for sex from the time I was toddler me until I was a teenager. I’m sorry to have to share that with you, but there it is. Life is sometimes an ugly place. And I’ve seen a lot of the worst ugliness in it.

I was never alone. Just as Veronique performed with me in pornographic films when I was a young teenager, Marta and Guadelupe were there when I was wearing headbands and black patent leather shoes and learning how to skip rope.

We couldn’t speak. Having been smuggled into the country from Mexico or places southward, they didn’t speak English. I didn’t speak Spanish. But in the summers, when we solicited for men at the Travelodge pool, they swam with me. When the washer broke in the house my dad kept them in and he went to fix it himself (being that kind of handy guy), I played with them and their broken truck in the dirt in the yard. As an adult, it has made listening to languages I don’t understand a peculiar comfort. But it also overwhelms me with sadness to think of them.

They weren’t there for very long. A few weeks, maybe a few months. I remember Marta and Lupe the best, but there were others. Always others, as one set of girls disappeared and another took their place.

I have a vision of a warehouse in which girls like Marta and Lupe, dirty and hungry and crying, are kept in large cages, like dogs. Maybe that’s where I imagined they came from. Maybe it’s something I really saw. It would be a bizarre thing to have seen, but I’ve heard of stranger things.

But what it evokes for me is the immensity of the suffering of the girls smuggled into the country and then brutalized by men like my dad. It makes me aware of my own privilege. After all, I went to school. I was allowed contact with the outside world, which gave me other resources to draw upon beyond the depraved world of sex trafficking. I spoke the language of power in this country. And I escaped.

Did Marta? Did Lupe, with her long braid and quiet smile, even stand half a chance? I hope they did. I really do. I’m afraid they didn’t.

God, do you love us at all? Why do you allow us to do these things to one another? Where were you when we needed you? Where are you now?

Tackling More Fears

Last weekend, I tackled cleaning house. Today, I’m thinking about writing.

They are the two activities that seem to frighten me the most, after taking a shower. And I think I’ve finally gotten the shower thing under control.

My mind is a funny place. Maybe all minds are, but I would hate to speak for your mind if that weren’t true. What’s funny about it is how literal it is. I seem to have grown up in a culture that expected metaphor and “deeper” meanings. But the shower scares me because I don’t want to be six and have to give a man a blow-job in there. Cleaning scares me because I don’t want things thrown at me while I’m doing it. And writing scares me for very similar reasons. It’s not really all that complicated. It’s not deep or metaphorical at all.

You might expect writing to scare me because I am afraid I will fail at it, or I think people won’t like what I write.

Perhaps all I needed was a brief knot-tying tutorial.
Perhaps all I needed was a brief knot-tying tutorial.

Well, I’m sorry to break it to you, but I have failed at a lot of things before. You have no idea how many times I failed at tying my shoe. I still have scars from falling down and skinning my knees. As a runner, I was an utter failure. Walking didn’t always go well for me either. (I had the broken arm to prove it, when I tripped in a “walking race” in second grade. I lived through that. I can live through a blank page. I can even live through 200 pages of absolute crap.

And as far as what everyone thinks? It’s nice, of course, to be liked. It’s nice to be thought well of. But let’s be real for a second here. I don’t like everyone else out there either. Why should everyone like me?

No, my fear of writing is entirely about a fear of physical assault.

My mother had two obsessions when I was growing up: cleaning house and reading (which later became writing). More specifically, that I should be cleaning and not reading (or writing).

It’s not that the house had to be clean. It wasn’t. It was, in fact, a total disaster most of the time. It was about controlling my time. She was obsessed with my cleaning. If she was unhappy about something, it was probably because I hadn’t cleaned the bathroom. Or taken out the trash.

A good book takes you out of reach.
A good book takes you out of reach.

If I didn’t allow her to control my time, I didn’t love her. And that led to screaming, and then throwing things, and sometimes real physical violence. Or suicide. The reaction looked like this: You didn’t clean the house -> You don’t love me -> I should die.

Of course, there was a deeper problem. There is some degree of depth and metaphor here. I won’t deny all of it. Cleaning represented my enslavement and the extent to which I was merely an object used to accomplish tasks–either domestic work or prostitution. In a sense, there was no real difference between them. My parents simply had different ends to which they preferred to use me. But use me they did.

So, I actually spent more time trying not to clean than actually clean. But either way things got thrown at my head.

It may be harder to see what she had against my reading and writing. She actually started it all: reading to my sister and me at night, taking us to the library every week for years and years, keeping books by the dozen all around the house. But what I did was different. Non-sanctioned. Rebellious even. It had to be stopped.

Because if I was lost in a good book or writing a really great scene in a story (according to me, at least), then I obviously had a life and mind of my own. I was more than just an object if I had thoughts worth writing down or was spending my time imagining things she didn’t even know about. My mind made me something more than merely a slave, available to serve her. It made me a human being.

That had to be stopped. And it was. Usually with a command to go and clean something. And that’s how the throwing things comes in.

We are All Just Mammals

I seem to be in the mood to take potshots at grandiosity. Bear with me. I’ll find a new topic soon.

I was thinking today about one of the allures of the 2×2 cult I was raised in: it made us “deep.” We had our minds on “higher” things while the rest of the world was caught up in “fleeting pleasures.” I suppose it made us feel terribly superior. Terribly important. Superiority can be seductive. Wanting to be “deep,” to have a life with more meaning and purpose than everyone else can be like crack cocaine.

Do we really think we are better than Bruno?
Do we really think we are better than Bruno?

It’s one of the reasons, I’m quite sure, we’ve seen a rise in the popularity of terrorist and extremist groups. (Other than the availability of RDX and assault rifles.) And I tend to think it’s why psychoanalysis can’t seem to let go, although there’s so little evidence that it’s all that much more than fantasy and fairy tales.

We are all just mammals. How “deep” do we really expect to be?

Of course, I don’t imagine we should always jump at the most obvious idea, or grasp at the first solution that comes to mind. Some thoughtfulness, some reflection, some honest attempt to get at the whole truth does seem in order.

Still, I’m not sure that someone who spends his life creating video games feels any less satisfied with life than someone who spends 6 hours a week in church. I’m not sure that quilting is any less fulfilling than physics.

I think our lives all have the same degree of meaning. I don’t think anyone is “deeper” than anyone else. The bifurcation of the world into “deep” and “shallow” seems to me to be entirely false.

We feel empty and unfulfilled when we are cut off to some degree from our own experiences, when we don’t feel all of our feelings, and when we aren’t engaged in activities that resonate for us. That can’t be fixed with the right ideology.

It isn’t about doing something in particular or about having a certain set of beliefs. It’s about doing and believing what is right for you.