Friday, February 27, 2009

Conversation with Claire...

Yesterday on facebook
Claire wrote:
Breakdown time.

This is stuff I have to do alone, it's not yours, and I'm not dragging it to your door.

Last night...

Radio silence for a while. I don't know how long. If I don't deal with this demon, it's going to eat me alive. Or stare me into a state of catatonic horror. Either way, bad. Have to collapse. Have to rest. Have to just breathe pain and suffer. I'm sitting with it.

Love always always always,


I wrote:
Oh Claire.
I'm here.
This is difficult I'm sure.
I'm trying to not feel too selfish. I would dearly like for you to share with me. I've missed you. I opened space for you because you seemed to want more space. That space isn't conditional on you being fun or in good health or clear or not going insane. I figure if we're gonna be friends, if we were gonna build something, it would be through all sorts of life changes. Your suffering would not deter me, as my suffering has not deterred you.
I feel vulnerable to you, Claire. I worry that maybe you were a mirage and that maybe I imagined the fact that there could be something more.
I know that this is the voice of my insecurity. But it has been strong for a little while now.
I respect the fact that you need to be on your own with what you're going through. Just know that I'm still here. I'm far away. But I am still here.
Is there something specific that has happened? Maybe you don't want to talk about it but I am still here if you change your mind.

Bye for now, Claire. I love you, too.


Yesterday on yahoo
Claire wrote:

Subject: Another response too long for Facebook...possibly triggering. Probably triggering. Definitely triggering.

(Just don't read this. Just don't. You have too much to deal with already. Just know that I love you, I care, I'm just done right now. I feel like I'm done for. Really don't read this. I'm going mad. Warning I guess.)

Tonia -

I know. I know. I've missed you too. I'm so sorry. I just...can't. I just can't put out energy I don't have. It's not there. I have felt you opening yourself up, and needing me to be more present. I have felt guilty and horrible as I pulled away. I have felt the need to be more present. The active desire is dead in me right now. I feel disemboweled, emptying. I'm screeching. I'm pouring out blood and excrement. I'm losing people and places and safety and comprehension and sanity left and right. I can't take it. I just can't take it.

I'm afraid. Of you, of me, of us being friends or whatever. I'm afraid. I'm terrified. I'm pissing myself.

I've bitten off way more than I can chew here. Especially now. I'm overwhelmed. I am completely overwhelmed.

You have done nothing wrong. It's all me. I can't take it.

You trigger trigger me because you ARE me. You are as honest and raw as it gets, more so than me actually. It's scary. I feel like in certain ways I'm looking into my future. I'm so frightened I want to curl up in a ball and suck my thumb. I know I can't handle what you deal with daily. Not now. Not ever? I never could. Could I? Here I am in this privileged pansy-ass position and I'm already losing my marbles. I'm already dead. I'm a shell. Am I?

I am afraid that I'll look into your eyes and see the same horrifying uncertainty I feel in mine. I'm afraid of how huge these emotions are. I can't take a breath. I can't breathe. They are breaking into me. They are taking me apart. I would give an appendage for a sufficient distraction right now. It feels like death is imminent. Maybe this is just how it feels.

I'm afraid you'll see me and see brokenness and pathetic disgustingness. I'm afraid you'll reject me. I'm afraid I'm not good enough.

I've been trying to tell myself that they're just feelings. They won't kill me. But they feel physical, like pounding and stabbing. My ears feel full of blood, my head feels full of spoiled meat. I can't find joy or happiness or even the most meager pleasure anywhere. Just death, death, death, death, DEATH.

It feels like the end. This feels like the end. My end. I can't take my own life, but the alternative seems worse. Inching through my days gasping for air until I finally die. No. NO. I can't live like that. What's the alternative, though? I can't die. I won't die. My body won't fucking die. It goes on. It insists on continuing. Where does that leave me? Where does that leave you? Us? Ryo? Eddie? Anyone?

You just lost your father, Tonia. You just stared death in the eye in a massive, profound way. I know you have been tormented...maybe by questions not unlike this. That's another thing. You're afraid. You're broken. You're dealing with impending death and doom, too. You seem to be dealing better, but how would I know? I'm not in your head. I can read your blog, but your blog is not being inside your mind. It's a good indicator, perhaps, but it's not the same. Reading you is not being you.

Maybe there is no better. Maybe we all just crawl. Maybe we all inch. Maybe there has never and will never be any other way. Fucking fuck. FUCK. This is it? This is all? This is LIFE? It can't be. It fucking just can't be. It was supposed to be something else. Anything else.

Then I remember that there are no supposed to be's. They're all lies. I don't believe them anymore. The protective coating has melted away, and the vaccum of space is all that remains. I can't face it. I can't face life knowing that's all there is.

There's no direction. No map. No plan. Every day is inch forward towards death. Routine and stress and not enough money. No safety. No comfort. No rest. No peace. Then death.

There's nothing lonlier. Nothing scarier. Nothing more excruciating than confronting the utter pointlessness of your existence.

You are stronger than me. You are smarter than me. You have more integrity and honestly and intelligence and grounding and everything in your pinky nail than I do in my whole being. You are astounding. You are a true survivor. You are so fucking boggles me. I try to understand where you come from...and I can't. I can't even understand it. You scramble my brain and perception of reality. It's good, but it's draining for me. I am not energized by deep emotional contact. I am drained by it. Our last conversation was like open-heart surgery with no anasthesia for me (probably was for you too!). I can't explain it better any other way. I am so profoundly messed up.

You are not selfish. I am. I am being selfish. I am being selfish because it's the last coping strategy I've got. I have actively shrunk from you, because I'm on full on basic operating survival mode. One more system crash and it's the blue screen of death...whatever that means...I don't know...I know I'm on the brink and something very, very bad is on the other side.

I'm about to snap. In half. I can't speak honestly or be honestly or work honestly. I feel choked by lies and falseness.

I'm not a mirage...I'm tired. I'm sick. I'm weak. I'm so fragile and vulnerable and horrified. I don't know what to do anymore. There's nobody left. There's nothing left.

I told Eddie last night that I felt like I should have died in the accident. I feel like I'm not supposed to be I've overstayed my welcome somehow...ever see watch the Show Dead Like Me? Ever see the episode where the main character refused to reap the little girl's soul, and her 'boss' had to come do it for her, told her that souls that go unreaped rot inside the bodies of the people who are supposed to have died?

That's what this is like. I feel like I'm rotting from the inside out...and from the outside in, and every other way. I can't eat or sleep. Even my juices smell rancid. My brain feels like an iron ball of deadness in my head. Oh Tonia, Tonia, it's unbearable...and what makes it weirdly worse is that I know you get this...I know you've been in this exact won't tell me it gets better like every other fool out won't lie. It doesn't get better. It's like a thick fog of suffering that continuously surrounds especially. I can't even fathom where you are...I just can't. That's why I don't want to do this. You are already suffocating. I can't offer you my need for feels terrible. I know it's wrong...but how else do we connect/bond? Traumatic bonding is all I know. It's all I understand.

I can't leech support from someone who's floundering in her own way. I can't pull you under to save myself. That's what it feels like I'm doing...

I know you want me to come as I am, and I want to come as I am. But I feel like a lot of what I'm bringing doesn't belong where you want to go. Where you are. I feel like you're past it and it's useless to you. It won't add to your life, bring you an peace or anything good. Maybe I'm wrong about that. I don't know. I don't know what's right or wrong anymore...I feel completely ruined by sorrow, need...I'm fucking lousy with it.

I feel like a fucking asshole for ever writing this. You have way too many of your own sorrows to bear. Way too many. Eddie even suggested I 'latch onto you', siphon your energy to survive. I balked. He doesn't know what he's saying. I think it's what he does...affixes himself to people to get by. I think it's what I used to do. I think it's something I don't even know how to help doing. I...don't want to do that to you. I don't want to do that to anyone. I don't want to be a cancerous lesion. I can't do that to you...that's why I didn't want to write this...though even writing this feels like doing it...

Tonia, you and I lived different lives. You learned to take care of yourself young. You shouldn't have had to. You grew up way before your time. You became self-sufficient on your own terms. I deeply admire and envy this. I can't do it. Every time I've tried, I fail so miserably that I come crawling back ever quicker to what I knew before. Even though there's no safety or solace there either, at least it's familiar. I've been somebody's child my entire life. My father's child, my grandmother's child, my lover's child...I've been the entertaining whirlwind of petulance so long I don't know anything else...everything else terrifies me. I don't want to be an adult in a world like this. I don't want to live in a world like this. I'm cracking.

I don't know what's next. I don't know how to move beyond it. I don't know how to create something new...from what? From emptiness? From garbage? And even if I did have something good to built with, what would I build? There's nothing. Nothing comes to me. Everything that does is tained.

You seem so healthy in ways I can't understand. You seem so sound, so solid. I know you struggle. But you seem to bounce back so much more quickly and more resoundingly. Maybe it's because you had to raise yourself, literally. You came by this through hard living, hard learning, and a lot of self-reflection and inner work. I'm not there. I'm looking at the size of the task. I'm taking it in. I'm freaking out. It's too big. It's too much. I don't know what to do with all of it.

Maybe this is all stuff you go through, and you only seem more...everything because I'm not yet in a place to not idealize those I admire/like/love? Maybe I have to grow the fuck up and stop doing this...treat you like a human being and not a demi-god? What an uncomfortable, awkward place to be in.

I know part of racism. Swinging to the other end of the spectrum to avoid dealing with the latent racism inherent in our every interaction. I know a lot of it is this. I know you're aware that I am not exactly, uh, evolved. I have a fledgling race consciousness. I pushing myself to grow. Things are getting unfamiliar.

That's all me.

Ryo...there's no saving him. He'll be lost to manhood. No matter what I do, what I say, what type of fucking example I set for him...the game has already been played. I've already lost. *He* has already lost. He'll grow to benignly hate and barely tolerate me (or actively hate, if his father decides to push him that way for whatever it is I'm doing or not doing right...I'd like to hope Juan would never do this, but I honestly can't put it past him...he doesn't know better, I don't think), and/or only know how to suck and take from me like every other male child, male person. There's no way out. I can't stop it. I don't know how.

I have been debating within myself since the day he was born, and especially lately, whether or not to continue raising him. I don't want to abandon him, and I don't think I could ever leave him. I love him so much. I ache with love for him. But I don't know what to offer him that isn't pain. I don't know how to make a life for either of us that isn't saturated with pain and suffering. I don't want my life for him. I don't want my parenting for him. I want him to be happy and deliriously in love with life. I don't have that to give. I have a shitload of confusion and pain. Sometimes I feel like I'd rather eat my car exhaust, or just lie in a dirty pile until I starve to death than bring that to him. I don't want him to know how painful life is. My life. I don't want him to know this. Know me. I can't bear him feeling these things. I just want him to stay little and innocent and protected by that. I feel so helpless, hopeless. So owned by sadness.

Would he be better off without me? With nobody but his father for guidance? Of course not. Ugh. There's no way. There's no way out. He is torn between the two of us. Torn between two homes and two families and two totally different ways of being and dealing and looking at life. What will he learn? Where will he go? What will he do? Who will he choose? Will he feel safe? Loved? Will he feel torn? Will it be normal to him, or will it confuse the living fuck out of him? Will he hate me, Juan, both of us? Juan's not open to working with me to raising him like a girl...gentle, kind, seeing women as fellow human beings instead of tools to use...Ryo will prioritize his words over mine, patriarchy will see to that...

Patriarchy is what got me here. I started to sense the enormity of it. Started to sense how wildly out of control everything is. Started to let the madness creep in...and it swallowed me.

There's no predicting what will happen. There's no certainty. There's only tomorrow. An endless procession of tomorrows.

I don't know how to be in a healthy relationship. I don't know what it feels like or tastes like or smells like. I don't know what to do now. I feel like every move I make will be a stumble, every word out of my mouth poison and everything I do is tainted.

You are not responsible for my pain. For fixing me or making me feel better. Those are my responsibilities. I...just don't know how to do that, try to heal, in whatever way I can manage, AND be a friend...or an anything. A lover. A parent. An employee. A person.

Ryo's father is an asshole of colossal proportions whose continued fuckery is driving me insane. I can't stop him. He has every. ounce. of control in the situation. He makes all the rules. I can scream, cry, and beg all I want, on my half and on Ryo's behalf, but he's going to do exactly as he pleases. We are both going to suffer for it. We are both already suffering for it. I don't think he really has any idea what he's doing. I think he's just doing what he thinks should be done. Maybe he doesn't care.

Since I was very young I've always felt like I wouldn't live very long...I've always felt like I didn't really want to...I didn't understand why I felt like this then. I understand it a hell of a lot more now.

All the heavy emptiness the break with my family has left a hole too big for every star in the universe to fill. Without the dysfunction and lies, it's howling nothingness. It's torn a hole so, so can't heal and it won't heal and

These past few years have been way, way, way too much for me to handle alone. I have to deal with everything alone and I can't stand it anymore. I'm everybody's hinge, everybody's support, everybody's ace in the hole and THERE'S NOTHING LEFT. THEY'VE TAKEN EVERYTHING. I've managed to distract myself enough to keep going, but the distractions are running out/losing their luster. I can't run from what's happened anymore. The emptiness is devouring my flesh.

We all deal with these things in the ways that feel safest and most sane to us. Dropping off the face of the planet feels safest and most sane to me...but it's what I always do. Everything is always there when I come back. Nothing gets resolved when I go AWOL...I just get a little break, and the pile of putrescent garbage is right where I left it.

I love you. I love Eddie. I love my son. I have no idea what any of it means anymore, if I ever did.

I exist, which is the only thing I can say for certain.


I wrote:
I'm reading it. I'll read anything, ANYTHING you send me, Claire. Okay...going back to read now. Hugs...

I wrote:
I wish you could just come to me. I'd so dearly like to hold you now. You're right, I can't fix you. I can't fix this. But I'd dearly like to be there for you. I don't know if you want to here this, it's so obvious part of you probably already realizes it. You're transitioning. You're morphing. It's just that inside the crucible it's awful It feels like shit. Torn and pulled, hopeless, not able to see past the's painful. I get what you're talking about. I've been there before. As I type the times I've literally been shreiking, a mad lady shell rolled up in a ball begging, hoping for someone to come and fucking put a gun to my head, just fucking put me out of my howling, miserable pathetic tormented existence...
But no one came.
I had to sit inside it. Feel my way through it. Breathe in the bile and the shit and the piss and feel the toxins inhabit me. Be so ultra conscious of the sickness, the cancer...
Not knowing if I was going to make it...not wanting to make it...paralyzed internally...a mess of rot and rage and hurt and fear...
I told Papi today that I feel anxious. I feel anxious a lot. I live with constant anxiety. It started when I was with my crazed dry drunk abusive and btormented ex the biker Black lesbian violence against wimmin worker who everyone thought was hot and wonderful. I lived in daily fear of her coming home re-traumatized and unable to speak to it or deal with it. I knew she came to displace what she was feeling onto me, to shove it into me to fuck me with it and scare my soul. I lived in daily fear of the scars she seemed so capable and willing to inflict...scars that could not be seen. Towards the end I started medicating myself with cold and flu medication so that when she got home I was to dosey to really emotionally connect with what she was doing.
By the time I actually left her I was a mess of horrible confliction, not knowing whether I was coming or going, not sure if I even wanted to live. unexpected knocks at the door caused me to jump with surprise.
I've lived with anxiety pretty much since then.
When I left her I was a tormented mess. Horribly confused about what it meant to be me, a Black identified feminist S/M dyke. The answers I thought I had no longer made sense. I was literally coming apart at the seams. I was thirty when I finished that relationship. I'm forty one now and I'm in the end part of that process now. There was a lot I chose to leave behind. There was a lot of me I literally had to cut out, cut away so I could survive.

Claire, I had been in that place where I felt as if I was going to either kill myself, find someone who would or just plain old deconstruct at a cellular level.
I've slashed myself with scalpels before. That offered no release or relief.
I've howled. That was better.
I've screamed. Good, as well.
I've talked. But inside of incestuous little communities of resistance that just got me laughed at when the people I thought I could trust put what I told them out on the power and popularity based community open market.
Writing has worked best. As you know, a lot of my tortured writing is angry cussing writing. I've got to vent the putrid puss somewhere. I've go to sream it out, cuss it out, vomit it. I share what I will and don't bother myself with who sees so much anymore. It was silencing me.

Claire, have you ever done readings about the stages of birth?
There's a physiological place called transition where most mothers who are birthing vaginally get to where they literally believe they are going to be torn apart, that they are incapable of birthing, that they made a mistake, that they need to get away, that they need to stop tha damned donkey and get off. When they're in that place, when we're in that place there's no telling us that this is a sign of movement. There's no telling us there is coming out the other side. There's just us, nervous, uncertain, crazed, pained balls of pulsating flesh crying for some goddess mama to come take all the pain away.

Lovely...tears...hang on. Hang on! You're in it. You're there. I'm not going to tell you that when you come to Eddie is going to be any different. I'm not going to tell you that Juan will have suddenly become the perfect anti-patriarchal co-parent. I won't even tell you that Ryo's options will automatically be any better.

But you'll be different again. Every time you go into this place, if you don't fight it, if you just let it come and wash over you, you'll come out the other side different. You will always be more...more of who you already are, bits and piecs crystalized. Not all airy fairly new agey. But just...I can't explain it...changed by the journey, as horrible as it seems.

The world will not change. You're right. The human world will not cease to be an icky fucked up messed up idiotic place overall. I won't tell you that systems of domination will automatically evaporate.
But this is growth, Claire. Seeing the mess, staring it in the eye, understanding your part in it, listening to what you're here to do...discovering what that is...this is the life process. It's not much. But then again, it's massive.

You're in saturn return, Claire. Look it up. It's right on time. It happens. It's the gateway from your twenties into your thirties. It happens for all of us. Come out the other side. I can't tell you how. It's a mystery. It is a secret only you will be able to finally know. But come out the other side.

Claire, be safe. Be well. All my blessings to you and yuors. Peace to you.
Hang on.

Claire wrote:
Tonia -

There were no words to describe what I'm going through, or what this message meant to me. I almost burst into sloppy tears at work yesterday when I received it. It didn't take the pain away, nothing can of course, but it gave me a window into myself, and a chance at understanding what is happening. That did help. It is even harder to endure this when you can't understand what's going on, why.

I went through this after the accident to an extent. I went through this after having Ryo, but in a totally different place, time, and headspace. This is a very different situation I'm dealing with it in now. I think that every time I've tried to leave my family, leave my life of irresponsibility and denial behind, something like this has happened. The walls came down. Each time I would lose my mind and run home, in one way or another. It was too heavy, too much. I couldn't take it. I couldn't take losing the only world I'd ever known. The burden lifting, the curtain lifting felt torurous. I didn't want to let go.

I think I can now. I am trying. I think I can handle it now. I am trying. I think this is growing up. It fucking hurts, like nothing has ever hurt before.

It's really hit home the past few months that there's no going back. My childhood is over. Isn't that insane? I'm 30 years old, and I'm still breaking that barrier. My adulthood is halfway through, and I'm just getting started. I have so much to learn. So many skills to acquire that I haven't yet acquired. It's all's just there's so much catch-up to play. So much work to do. So many, many miles to go...

I talked to my boss at work. She was very kind and understanding. She said she's been here, too. She's about the same age as you, and was once married to a very mentally ill, very emotionally abusive person. She said by the time she got out, she didn't know who she was anymore. She said counseling helped. Eddie is helping me look for feminist counselors I can talk to. I think it may be very beneficial for me. I'm hoping so.

She was also once a vitamin salesperson, and gave me some advice on how to eat better and which vitamins could help me feel better and why. She's been great. :)

In so many ways I still feel like a wide-eyed teenager. Sometimes I still feel that old starry-eyed-edness that makes the world feel so new, so unknowable. Sometimes this makes me feel hopeful, but the older I get, and's made me feel afraid. Afraid for myself, for Ryo. If I can't care for myself, if I don't know how...then I can't care for him. That can't happen. I must learn. There's no more time to fuck around.

Saturn return. I'm going to look that up now. I do know that turning 30 was huge for me. Huge. It felt like a deep shift. At the time, it was a happy one...or at least, not feeling like I was being torn apart. I didn't know that others experienced all, but much less like what I'm going through.

I did a bit of reading on transition while pregnant, but it's been a long time. Thank you for the reminder...the description was dead on. I felt like I was coming apart. I still feel unstable and shaky, but a bit more centered. Wobbly, but functioning. It's a weird place I'm in...nothing feels real.

The actual experience of labor transition was very, very was labor overall. I don't know how things would've went if I'd have stayed at home and not run to a hospital...but I think in the end it would've been much the same. The experience itself was a total meltdown of all barriers and borders between what I thought I knew, reality, and there was oceans of pain, emotional as well as physical. At the hospital...the pain, the feeling exposed, the doctors prying, pushing hands...ugh. The nurses cold, mean stares and even colder, meaner words...ugh.

More reading is needed. More thinking and researching and exploration. As always.

Eddie and me had a long discussion the night this started about how the patriarchy was like the Matrix. A prison you could neither smell, taste, touch, nor see. But if you became aware of certain things, you could sense something was wrong with the world. What makes you crazy is not knowing what. What makes you crazier is taking the red pill and finding out. I feel like I've taken the red pill, Tonia. There's no going back now. No plugging back in.

This knowledge sucked me down, down, far under I didn't know where I was anymore. It hit me all at once. It knocked me down. I'm reeling.

I think you get this completely. I know you do. I think you're much farther along the road than I am. I think you are so dumbfoundingly brave. This is so big. It so consuming. To even attempt to deal with it requires courage of the highest caliber. You amaze me! It's dizzying.

I'd remembered that you'd gone through some abusive relationships in the past, but I didn't remember the specifics. I'm so sorry. I understand what it's like to be at the mercy of someone's unresolved issues every time they come home from work. My dad, a few's horrible. That you had to medicate yourself to get through it is just awful. I'm hugging you mentally right now. I so know that place. I so know the damage it can cause.

Feelilng like I don't know who I am...yes. Very much this. Who I am, why I'm here, what the point is, what my place is...too much.

I'm right smack in the middle of that damage, at least partly. There's blood and my guts all over the place. Lots and lots of cleaning and caring and healing to do.

I think I understand about cutting out, leaving behind to survive. Cutting out needs, expectations, rules, people, whatever you need to, just to keep going...going over internal inventory...looking at what can go and what can stay, and who...stuff does build up, and feel sick and cancerous.

I can't believe people actually laughed at you when you shared with them! Oh Tonia...that's the worst. The worst possible thing anyone can ever do when you're hurting is to laugh at you. Fuck that, fuck them. No wonder you pulled away. Ran away screaming. I would have, too.

I've suffered with anxiety since I was a child. I didn't know what to call it then...but I'd have these moments of desperation and overwhelming fear. I'd always find something to distract me, or think of something that made me feel better...but as I've aged, this has been harder and harder to do. It's been building for so long...

I'll make it. The tunnel is not endless. I've survived it before, I've survived other things...I'll make it. I don't know how...but I will. Your words and presence and support have helped tremendously.

I'm here for you, too, T.J. I'm fragile right now, I'm slipping. But I'm finding my footing. I'm still here. :)

Thank you again from the bottom of my heart for reaching out to me. I needed it beyond desperately. Thank you for sharing your experiences and what worked for you. I appreciate it, and you, beyond any articulation. :)

Love always,


I wrote:
I'm glad something I wrote offered some support. What's happening for you is painful. I'm glad Eddie is going to help you track down a counsellor. I think counselling is so crucial. Not just in crisis situations but just generally when we know we're carrying lots of stuff. Maybe in the meantime if there is a university near you there might be a crisis counsellor at a wimmin's center who can meet with you until you find someone permanent. You might also want to try a rape crisis center as you're a survivor. They would probably see you, too.

I had to giggle when you wrote about your adulthood being half over. Claire you have just come out of childhood at 30. You're biologically a woman but at that point most of us are still trying to figure out what that means in practical terms. We still need parenting. I know I did. I think that's one of the difficult things about the young mamas movement. At twenty or twenty five or twenty eight a woman is still taking in information after having just left their/our crazed families and homes and teenage hood a few years earlier, we're still learning.

The thirties turns all we thought we figured out, what we hastily pasted together, artificial rules and ways of being we thought would take the place of parents and family...the thirties turns all that upside down. When we realize that there is nothing solid around us we usually freak. Saturn return lasts a few years. It doesn't just poof happen. so really you're still transitioning into your thirties.

At 30 with ten years of adulthood under your belt you've got probably another fifty years to go. You're not half done. You've just begun.

At 40 I'm only ten years ahead. I'm trying to use what I learned in my twenties and thirties to make something real for myself. I'm still learning. I'll always be learning.

Herbals and homeopathics are not horribly expensive. I've suggested them before. I think they're really useful and help maintain balance in the body and in the spirit. Even just getting some nice fragrant oils if you like scents. Not so much to wear but to diffuse in your place or in your room. You might enjoy the calming effect.

I know you're here for me, Claire. You have been here. I know you're not feeling solid right now. But I think you're right on time and doing fine in the grand scheme of things.

Oh! And can I share our conversation on the blog? I really appreciate what we've shared in the past few years. I think our lives are very different but I've always watched and read you with absolute giggly happiness at what you're willing to share. Hugs and much love, Claire. You know we don't have to be all lesbianly. We could be amazing friends and family. That's fine for me, too.

More hugs.


Claire wrote:
Tonia -

Busy right now at work so no time to respond in depth, but wanted to say I got this and read it. Chewing it over. Thinking.

What you said about just leaving childhood at 30 is something that is blowing my mind, just blowing it. I never thought of it that way at all...when I do it feels differently. The way I think about my life feels different.

Thank you again. Will try the suggestions about homeopathics and herbals, and scents. I'm open to trying different things to help me cope right now.

Much love,


I wrote:
I'll wait for your response before I post anything, okay? I really am glad there's stuff there that gave you pause to think. In terms of homeopathic and naturopathic remedies Rescue Remedy might be a good one as it is a crisis situations. Oregano a really good infection and cold preventative.Even sage as a ritual tool and incense are really good, too. Hugs. Love, Tonia.

Claire wrote:
Tonia -

You may absolutely post our conversations. Yes. :)

Thank you again for all the suggestions, will be looking them up tonight! :)



Saturday, February 21, 2009

Another one of my old blog readers responded...

Hey TJ,

Done. I updated your link in my sidebar. I've been posting more but I want
to get better at writing in a focussed, honest way before I request
membership. I don't feel like a super valuable ally yet, but I want you to
know I'm working on it. I haven't stalled out or forgotten.

I started reading a site a couple of days ago that I thought you might be
into. It's by a male who identifies as genderfluid who is writing about
gender and wardrobe and sex. It's a bit of a narrow focus, but he goes
pretty deep sometimes and seems willing to think and be challenged.

If you haven't seen Matt Bernstein Sycamore at Nobody Passes, I thought that
blogger might make a potential invite for you too. Puts a lot of himself out
there and has a more wide-ranging analysis than a lot of folks, and he is
critical inside queer and activist communities.

I don't know if these links will be helpful, but I thought they had more
depth and more connections and more personal integration than most bloggers.
And I thought those were some factors you were hunting for, so there are the
links just in case. They're both white males in San Francisco, but that's
what I've got to offer this week I guess.

Let me know if I can post any other links or help you that way. I can at
least do that.

Rock on,

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Mayhem: The Weekend Event for Leatherwomen...

This is a weekend long leather wimmin's event taking place in Vancouver. I know I'll see lots of old "friends" there. But that's okay. I can walk with my anti-social hermit like self and carry a full body klingon cloaking device.

Monday, February 16, 2009

This is something I wrote for a Toronto gathering I hosted on Poly a few years ago...

It was part processing what had happened in the relationships I'd had before, part coming into consciousness of all it entails to be poly, part sharing the development of conversation with Papi about poly, part developing a personal mandate as a poly woman and part political critique...

Tuesday, March 07, 2006


I've been searching the net for blogs written by people engaged in messy, layered, insightful, politicized polyamory. I'm seeing bits and pieces of what I'm seeking here and there. seminalson, my primary partner, well only partner right now, commented that I hadn't really written anything about our relationship. As with that moment of recognition over my relationship to my parents which I wrote about a little while back, here again I was confronted with how layered my relationship with him has been.

One layer...or many held within one...

This piece I'm posting as I'm still reckoning with the knowing that the various polyamorous linkages I worked to support inside the community I was a part of - azania - are mostly disolved in large part due to my intentional family members' (partner included) unwillingness to proactively envision how insightful, loving, non-competitive, communicative, truthful, healing connections between us grounded in compersion could manifest and contribute to us building healthier, more communicative relationships with each other. sigh

excerpted from

this is a piece i began as an introduction to an event i hosted about poly a few years back. the event was conceived in resistance to the way that polyamory has been embraced in the groupings i've encountered in various toronto scenes and circles.

even as i was moving toward more fully embracing poly as part of my life and value systems, i hadn't felt nourished by the poly culture[s], groupings i had encountered. on the contrary, i felt taken aback and tempted to move away from polyamory as a sustainable idea.

i chose to resist that impulse. instead i reaffirmed my commitment to exploring relationships outside the monogamous binary. i chose to dig deeper via the writing of this piece which is still a work-in-progress. it's taking shape as i learn and i'm continuing to learn as i get clearer about my emotions, moving through them to a place where i will eventually be able to let this point you would do best to consider this a collection of wordings and emotions still coming clear...a coming together of beliefs grounded in experience...

on building relationships defiantly consciously, possibly...
copyright 2004

over the past few days we [he and i] have been speaking about the possibilities for him to explore sex and sexuality again with others not me. i'm tired of being the one to push and nudge and question and cajole as we [he and i] move toward new border territory. i don't want to be the only one offering input into where he will or won't travel in search of new experiences anymore. it's too much work. i've suggested he consider two different wimmin we know as possible lovers. these are queer[ed] wimmin i know, admire, trust and enjoy spending time with. these are both wimmin who are/have been polyamourous. these are wimmin who feel solid to me, who are experienced in ways that i can/will also be able to learn from. we [he and i] talk about approaching these wimmin, who both seem to like him a lot. how do i feel as the person who has suggested this as a good journey to embark on? well, i'm happy about the possibility that this might happen. but i'm also feeling tremors of insecurity...that this might happen. i'm excited about what sorts of experiences and insights he may/will/can bring back into our primary relationship. i wonder about how the influx of new energy will morph our relationship. i know that regardless of how he chooses to proceed, he'll have a good, smart, safe, consensual time. still...the little girl me is scared that he won't like her anymore. the tired mama me is worried that i'll seem like ole 'wifey' at home. i feel cranky. i feel expectant. i feel nervous. i feel full. i feel jumbled. i feel. i feel! i don't know how this is gonna turn out. i can't read the future. brace for impact! we're coming in for a landing...

i've been reflecting on the possibilities for pursuing relationships that cut against the monogamous, coupled grain.

this is risky talk in a monogamy-oriented, couple dominant, binary-fixated world where people who don't find one partner and quickly settle down to unhappily married anti-bliss aka boredom are seen as freaks and enemies of the church and state.

people who choose to do otherwise live under the strain of oppression. there is a huge impact on our finances, on full access to health care, pensions, insurance packages offered to families of employees, on the ways our relationships are ignored or attacked, on the ways our children are offered parenting and familial paradigms which do not reflect themselves and their families. i've observed that under the obviously tremendous strain and ever present threat of attack, one of the most prevalent forms of resistance utilized by poly folk seems to be the ever present "everthing-is-blissful-everything-is-under-control-impermeable-all-weather-smile".

my personal experience has allowed me to observe close up that if a poly-loving person is not smiling and insanely happy with all aspects of their poly relationship[s], other poly people have a tendency to blank their upset, to express an inability to understand or to shy away from the person. as i've struggled through the emotional upsets associated with my own poly relationships, i've felt as if i was doing something wrong or else i wouldn't be as miserable, sad, frustrated or downright annoyed as i've felt at times. i struggled with a sense that there had to be some sort of emotional deficit on my part. perhaps a bit of childish immaturity that blocked me from experiencing the full, always happy high of poly? maybe i wasn't really cut out for polyamory after all.

as i've tried to maintain a belief in my own intuitions and my own perceptions, i've been able to make enough space in my life to have conversations with the other poly-loving people in my life. from this place i've been able to ask some crucial questions, to critique and deeply explore the mechanics of poly in an oppressive environment where our choices are under attack and totally not supported by our families, communities of origin or state institutions.

this sort of excavation leaves me vulnerable to other forms of attack. it means i risk looking like a 'poly traitor', like an agent of monogamous/coupled/binary domination working from the inside out. audre lorde said that the silences we maintain will not protect us and i'm still believing her. i've chosen to be open about the range of my experiences with polyamory and to break a silence i've maintained for way too long. my/our reluctance to speak messy, uncomfortable truths only restricts the evolution of poly, keeping this revolutionary movement and the culture in a developmental infancy of sorts even as we attempt to offer it to the world as a viable form of resistance to monogamous/coupled/binary domination.

who am i to be saying any of this? basically just some woman who walked in off the street and into a group called the ethical lover at the uoft wimmin's center about four or five times. given that fact i may be defined as just a newbie attempting to chat about polyamoury, non-monogamy or ethical sluthood when i don't really know.

so, i'm wondering...
is there a length of time i should be doing poly before my observations will be considered acceptable?
what premier poly people do i need to be in a quad with before i can ground myself in my own experiences and observations before i can offer personal leadership from the insights i've gleaned just by being born on this planet?
is there some sort of poly community leadership that i should be deferring to who are the people to decide where, when, how much i can speak or critique?

i see open speaking as a powerful force with the potential to radically transform and push us onto greater heights of self knowledge. that's where i wanna be, anyway. i'm not here to destroy anyone's idea of poly community. i'm here saying i want to fully co-create and powerfully co-facilitate. it's just that i'm suspecting i'll be needing a whole lot more than some theory as per the pivotal book 'the ethical slut' and the willingness to smile gracefully under pressure, if i'm going to be able to consciously and consistently build the kinds of relationships i'm craving.

i first heard about polyamory about seven years ago when i attended an ongoing series of workshops being offered by a white queer woman in toronto. i only went to one [two?] of her meetings. i was in a highly abusive, emotionally toxic as hell monogamous relationship with another black woman at the time and even going to something like a poly workshop felt dangerous to my immediate well-being.

i did however, go out and guessed it... 'the ethical slut' and start reading, then thinking, then wondering. i liked a lot of what they had to say, but at the same time, i found the book a little vague in terms of the actual shit people in relationship, any kind of relationship, can encounter. i also noticed that even as both the book's authors were white wimmin, they had no race analysis, nothing that went beyond them implying that fucking dark peoples/ethnic peoples is a good way to explore 'different' cultures.

so, there i was -- a black conscious queer gyal wondering how to actually make this beast, this poly thing fly?

i had lots of energy and willingness but very little...unh...well, actually no tools to speak of. i remember way back to my mid twenties i had tried to incorporate a third person [a new lover, a young[er] leather bottom, dyke boy] into my partnership with the other black lesbian i had been exploring, living, loving with for many years. i had decided to bring a new lover into the mix all on my own because i had fallen hard for another woman not because my partner and i had made important decisions about our relationship ahead of time. we [my partner and i] talked and talked and cried and talked and yelled and talked and cried and even tried going to a counsellor. in the end, i stopped seeing the lover. eventually my partner and i ended our relationship, too.

all this to say, i haven't seen anything that looks like a practical blue print for doing poly. people try a lot of different ways to make their shit work. organizing the pussy pen event polyvisions in 2003 was one such attempt.

as i've already mentioned, i'm not a poly 'veteran'. i'm still learning. as a writer, artist and grassroots community organizer i tend to explore and learn and grow in very publicly shared ways. why try to evolve alone inside my head when i can do it in a room full of people who are also trying to transform or in a piece of writing i will eventually share by publishing it?

functioning transparently opens space for me to come out of isolation before the shit hits the fan. it also allows me copious opportunities to hold myself accountable through attempting to be transparent in my process.

having said this, i have to situate myself as someone who has actually only had one 'successful' poly relationship configuration...i'm sitting in it and still negotiating it. by successful i mean the relationship i have with my primary lover is full of talking, struggle, negotiation, exploration of our individual desires, emotions, insecurities, impulses, fears as a conduit to maintaining friendships, family, loverships, alliances and community networks intact and still functioning.

my recent attempts at the past four or so years have failed dismally for a variety of reasons ranging from:

lack of clear communication
my idealizing/pedestalizing and therefore deferring to the primary coupling
no leadership or clear boundary setting offered by that primary coupling in terms of what they were doing or offering to any single person who came in close
downright lying
a lover's casual disinterest in the relationship we shared
a lover's ability to speak 'love' but not live with loving intimacy
a lover's finite amount of attention/focus/energy/time coupled with this person's infinite capacity to cruise, flirt, lust and fuck.

guess you could call me a disgruntled [yet still hopeful] poly gyal who really believes in compersion emerging out of of multiple, open, honest, respectful, realistic, loving connections. i'm feelin' the theory. but in addition to liking the dream, i'm also actively attempting to realize it by gather practical skillz as my path crosses with others at different points in their own poly experiences.

i'm bringing a lot of political luggage and language with me wherever i travel. i'm a black conscious, patriarchy questioning, erotophobia resisting, working class, immigrant, bio femme, ethnical slut who believes that anti-oppression is not just something we study in class rooms or show off like a business card in activist circles. i'm expecting that my lived poly relationships will be permeated and informed by my politics.


well, after the relationships i've tried and left, i'm asking a lot of questions. like:
okay...i'm with this straight, middle class, young[er], black man, right?

how can i do poly with anyone and ignore my feelings about society's labelling of poly people as sexually obsessed nymphos or indiscriminate hedonists?

how can i do poly with him without critiquing the big, marauding black dick stereotype when it's always smacking me in the face courtesy of white poly wimmin/people who may not have critiqued their desires for black male flesh?

how do i avoid remembering that black people's family constellations, our sexualities and our choices were colonized and controlled along with our labour during centuries of slavery only just passed?

how do i avoid noticing that in any sexually radical community where people aren't examining the roots of their own desires, they may find it difficult to avoid being ruled by their desires, moved by them in ways that may seem mysterious even to them, but not to me necessarily?

how do i ignore the reality that in any white-dominated community where people aren't going to pains to examine white supremacy or their ancestrally bequeathed legacies of racism, my dark-skinned, black, hetero, male lover will/may very well be constructed as a scary beast man and/or as a really popular, exotic giant walking cock for rent?

and how will i evade being constructed as the big, loud, unfeminine, not nice, aggressive, black bitch and/or as a hot, easy pussy?

in an attempt to consciously fuck and do poly, i ask myself and my present primary:

do you want to relate to yourself as a thinking, feeling, spiritual human being who makes conscious, careful, caring sexual choices that you can stand by long after you've bedded a sexual partner?

or are you chill with being received as/seen as a commodity, a brainless, smiling, willing genital organ to be pushed here and there as you are manipulated into the lives and beds of those who desire you even as they do not critique their unearned privileges or the ways they may be able to oppress you?

how do your childhood issues/scars related to abandonment, bullying/torment, safety/fear, parental control, playground acts of racist oppression, not to mention the patriarchal emotional conditioning of boy children, impact on your self-esteem, the ways you see/relate to your body and to the ways you experience desire?

how does our collective history as the dominated, impact on/hinder your willingness to see yourself as beautiful and desirable in your own eyes regardless of who lusts [or doesn't lust] after you?

how does all this relate directly to your need/willingness to be desired/cruised/fucked by every/any person you encounter on the sidewalk?

how does a hormone-driven, knee jerk reaction to sex differ from the act of being consciously and conscientiously sexually radical?

can you tell the difference?

have you thought about it?

can you take time out from flirting, cruising, dating, sexing to think about it?

or is this conscious, intentional poly thang just a facade covering/obscuring the fact that you really just wanna get laid?

i've been asking my primary partner about his relationship to the patriarchy.

as a man who exclusively sexes wimmin, is he being conscious of how he can easily become the focal point of a subtle, smiling, destructive competition between any group of wimmin who are feelin' him?

can he separate out his need to be seen as desirable, cute, studly or virile and stop unwittingly playing his part in female-on-female competition/warfare for his time/body/affection/attention?

i've asked myself what it means to be a queer girl sexing men?

even with a conscious grounding in things political, i've observed in myself and others how horribly easy it can be for internalized patriarchal stuff to end up being one of the factors at play in mix gendered poly relationships in ways that are not particularly different from what goes on in monogamous/coupled/binary relationships.

i've actually found myself waiting near tears for lover, a man on quite a few occaisions who had gotten distracted by another woman on his way to meet me or decided to elongate a date without consulting with or information me. in the beginning, my feelings of resentment at this sort of happening and the ways it was normalized were directed at his other wimmin lovers and primary female partner, not at him.

ironically, although all us wimmin were/are brilliant and articulate people who all observed him behaving like a big, child-like, sex junky as he exercised no real ability to take responsibility for his choices or to take leadership in the relationship dynamics he had such a large part in setting up, none of us ever said to the others:

'how's about we wimmin meet and figure out what, if anything can be done about this lover/partner we all share and his not cool ways?'

speaking with another one of his exes recently, i shared a suspicion that i have, that, in a twisted sort'a way, it may be the fact that most of us were powerful, queer[ed]/radical wimmin which kept us silent about the ways our relationships with/to him and each other inflicted a particular kind of damage. this fear of seeming stupid, of being embarassed, of feeling not really as liberated as we thought we were could have been a powerful incentive to just smile and keep silent. in addition, many of us, including me had made the choice to sleep with men/him despite [un]spoken prohibitions in some lesbian circles against fucking/doing love relationships with bio men. i think there was a way that crossing the lez/straight divide, seeming to 'go back', meant that i had made my bed, now i expected to get fucked [over] in it and smile while it was happening.

perhaps none of us woman lovers of this particular man wanted to seem not perfectly in control of ourselves and aware of the significance of the choices we're making in relation to him or any other male lover for that matter. an admission of lack of control sounds like vulnerability, like disempowerment, like...hetero woman stuff. perhaps an investment in seeming 'evolved' and 'together' betrays an unwillingness to unpack feelings about past/present relationships. i can claim the fact that emotions such as jealousy and insecurity seemed childish and distinctly un-poly-like. i can claim the fact that i allowed this vibe to have clout enough to keep me confused, silent and 'in my place' least for a few months.

of course, in the ex-relationship i've referred to in this writing, i have to say that there were conversations between us wimmin, most definitely. we'd talk deeply about our belief in poly, about our lack of jealousy or insecurity and about our affection for each other. we never delved into the impact our lover's actions were having on our psyches, our schedules, our self-esteems or on our trust for each other. it seemed to me as if we each kept trying to out-do each other by advocating directly with him as the focus, for our own sakes as we tried to gain sufficient time and attention from him.

i finally left that grouping, saddened, yet freed, but with the definite feeling that i was:

the 'bad one'
the one who had disturbed the flow of things
the one who had messed with the group
the one who couldn't just keep smiling and processing with someone who, from their own behaviour, was mostly just interested in fucking and keeping things sounding and seeming 'nice'.

i left so swiftly, so completely that i didn't have time to return everyone's stuff. i've got a sweater, a book, a cap that says 'pervert'. yeah, i see that particular ex, his other lovers and his primary partner around town at community events. their names come up in conversations with people who may or may not know of our past connections.

i'm still not cool with the fact i was so overwhelmed by the messed up relationship dynamics i experienced with him, his partner and his other lovers, that i couldn't remain engaged long enough, close enough to work things through. i still don't want to get too close to this grouping of people. they're still smiling that 'everything-is-cool-blissful-and-in-control' smile that tells me they may not have moved very far from where they were when i left...'though i'll add that i could be wrong about their collective/individual movement over the years since i loved them close-up.

the reality is, i've made my peace with the fact that their way of doing relationship and their way of communicating with each other works for them . i'm cool with moving onward and building something that works in ways i can understand and relate to...elsewhere.

on a related topic, in that particular relationship my lover's primary partner was a hetero [cultured] woman [now seemingly defining as queer(?)]. by this i mean she existed, from my estimate, well into the onset of her mid-years as a heterosexually indoctrinated/culturated woman.

this was/is of huge significance. the experience of sharing a lover with her left me a little wary of entering into dynamics with straight wimmin. not because they fuck men exclusively, but more because there isn't the history of questioning monogamy, erotophobia, heterocentrism in dominant cultures. in a heterosexual's upbrining [and even at the best of times with queers] the lessons we've learned as children/youth about relationship permeate our existences well into adulthood. in other words: you don't just wake up one day, shave part of your head, dye the remaining hair green, liberally spice your conversation with words such as 'heteronormativity' and 'binary', hang out in the queer part of town and overhall your indoctrination in regards to relationship/family/marriage/commitment and so on. it just doesn't work that way.

what i observed with my lover's primary partner and see vestiges of still in many/most hetero wimmin i encounter is that binary-indoctrinated, heterosexual wimmin are not encouraged or actively supported to analyze the ways all wimmin are taught to accommodate the demands/ needs of others, especially men, no matter how difficult or upsetting it may be to do so. they are taught to stifle emotions not conducive to maintaining a facade of contentment. they are taught to not fully speak their minds or voice their pain. in essence, this is the purpose of hetero-patriarchal girl training 101.

if a woman raised to adulthood and beyond in hetero, conservative culture isn't actively studying the impact of her upbringing and critiquing the ways her values/responses/desires/ability to speak openly as she reflects on this upbringing...
unless she is consciously working to move beyond performing acceptability as she unearths and confronts her patriarchal conditioning, her ability to acknowledge her insecurity, her pain, her anger and her impatience with anyone but her partner will be undermined. this is hetero-coupledom at it's 'best'. by this i mean this willingness to keep the shit behind closed doors and not air dirty laundry is simultaneously the cornerstone and downfall of heterosexual, coupled, male/female binary relationship.

but what happens when the folks involved are poly?
what does it mean for information to flow between the primary coupling and then separately...independently between the male primary and each individual woman lover?
what happens when there is no group involvement in primary couple disagreements centered around lovers orbiting the relationship?

the patriarchal/male focussed relationship continues, no?

for me all these questions went unanswered. there was a lot i saw/intuited that was never confirmed by my lover or by his primary partner. that sucked.

existing as part of this sort of dynamic meant that i had inklings of things not going well between the primary coupling. i would see my lover involved in long, sad-looking conversations on the phone with his primary partner. sometimes i would ask about what had happened, ask if there was something going on, was his partner upset, did she feel jealous because of something i was doing? he would direct me to speak to her and she would say no, she wasn't jealous.

which would have been fine if it weren't for the fact that it doesn't take a particularly sensitive or intuitive person to smell shit or to see blatant contradictions even as these are being denied.


so, i've made a pact to not do poly relationship with hetero wimmin...unless they're able to speak to their emotions even the messed up seeming ones...still...waiting...

but even if my present partner and i should find such a woman, there would still be other facets of oppression and domination coming into play.

for instance...
what about lookism and white supremacy?
i couple these together because very often as a black femme, i'm realizing that the ones constructed as 'real' beauties to die for are euro femmes/light femmes. there have been a few too many times i've been offered the possibility of dealing with someone who already had a white femme partner. i'd be the stand-in, the one who might or might not get a date for the big event, the one taking up space in the background, the black back-up girl.

damn! i'm too cute to be relegated to the wings because people can't take a look at how their desires are informed by dominant value systems and admit that even with attraction there is oppression and a centuries old program of affirmative action that knocks [darker] wimmin of colour, wimmin who are even seen as geeks inside our geeky communities or who are disabled or living with chronic illnesses or who don't speak english or who are too poor to get cool outfits and show up at sex radical fetes to one side.

i'm looking at classism and it's taking a while to make the links. but i've got questions...

how does it impact on the ways we communicate?
how does classism and accompanying restrictions on truth-telling encourage us to avoid speaking to the realities of our lives even with people who are close to us and in situations where it may be possible for us to find support and understanding?
how do class and the whole 'don't air your dirty laundry because it will lower your cachet, your face in community' ethic play a role in how we process our poly relationships and ask for support/guidance when things about our relationships are challenging us?

as i meantioned earlier, although the party line in my relationship was one of non-hierarchy and communication, there was a giant, stratified dome of silence and dissimulation around issues involving the primary coupling. the presence of this particular kind of managed/semi-openness means that to this day i can still only guess at what was actually going on between the two of them fer real.

struggling to understand even years later means acknowledging that we were all at of african descent. but, both of the primary partners were children of families grounded/formed in [upper]middle-class [very different than economically wealthy] values. i observe[d] the two of them attempting separately and in tandem to question what the significance of their upbringing.

of course i could see the two of them attempting to defy the ways they were raised. from where i was positioned this looked like a lot of funky dreadlocks, odd clothing, ways of being that would have been defined as eccentric in the larger society, long rambling theoretical/creative conversations over hot/cold drinks or while walking arm-in-arm and, of course, sexual radicality.

this was a lot of fun, but as a working-class woman, raised poor, with values learned and fully claimed as i've grown, there were a lot of power issues that should/could have been discussed/initiated by them as the ones maintaining primary status. sadly, there wasn't a hell of a lot of verbalized defining or breaking down of what exactly they were doing and how my lover's numerous, transient lovers [myself included] fit or didn't fit.

sadly, even with the resistance they mounted against their classist indoctrination, it was clear that my lover and his partner, being adult children of middle-class, black folks from diasporic african communities, were very well versed in the suppression of speaking and denial of emotion.

years later, no longer vested in their validation/approval, no longer handing over my power to critique and demand change...
maybe i can ask them:
do you understand how it's possible to talk and chat and speak and whisper and chant and still believe...
there are some things you only hint at but don't say outright.
some things you couch or speak around.
some things in conversations you might choose to direct elsewhere.
sometimes you just don't want to see another's feelings or hear them speak about painful circumstances you've participated in fostering.
sometimes it's possible to simply not 'get it' when an an otherwise articulate and clear person is critiquing your behaviours or actions.

obviously I must have been complaining, raving and not in command of my intellect or faculties when I attempted to critique what I saw and experienced, right?

there was precious little room for me to express my upset. everything expressed to me by either of the primary coupling about the interrelationship was always done in such modulated, low tones, friendly tones, almost completely unemotional tones. i felt constrained by their inability to share emotion collectively as freely as sex was shared. although, smiling and laughing was definitely okay, anything angry or sad or annoyed, left me with the feeling that i was upsetting the crew of our rickety little boat.

there were boundaries they did not name or claim that i ran up against repeatedly, nonetheless. i wondered and still wonder observing them about what it means for him and her to maintain a particular/pecualiar kind of status as a prominent, black, primary poly coupling in this city even as my ex-lover's inability to prioritize, schedule, commit and, ultimately, to hold himself accountable for his choices/desires could only have been driving his female partner and at least some of his other woman lovers slowly up one wall and down another. maybe he's 'changed'.

i wonder if there's anymore space available for lovers/female partner who are pissed, angry, sad and want to have issues addressed not one-on-one with him, but with the entire grouping of wimmin he samples?
i wonder if he still feels his stomach churn and roil when a lover cries and shows upset at how his choices impact her?

i have to claim the fact that near the very end of my time in the orbit of this primary coupling [after i had broken up with her partner/my lover] i observed this lover's female primary partner attempting to find out what had upset me and why i was leaving.

this is me saying loud and clear that i didn't take her up on it.
this is me wondering if any of the contextualizing i am doing in this piece lends context as to why i couldn't quite suspend disbelief long enough to take her up on the offer of a waiting ear.

onward and upward...
by the time i made the decision to depart, having asked so many times, so many questions about how the primary coupling saw things working and how/if they claimed what wasn't working in their relationship, only to be ever so slightly pushed back, deflected...
this offering on the part of my lover's primary partner to listen to my vulnerability, my pain, my upset felt, felt like i was being managed.
it felt like too little, too late.
it felt like, a dialogue was being offered as a way to lubricate a passing without issues being addressed in any fundamental way. although my lover had made the mess and eschewed any responsibility, preferring to symbolically say: "next", i saw his primary partner coming close in to do a kind of damage best she could.

i felt angry. i experienced her overture like a slap in the face, not an embrace or an offer of the communion i had craved in earlier times. coming when it did, her offer was more like a pat on the hand: 'there, there. don't be too, too upset with him. he doesn't know any better, you see. don't you? here's let me give you some temporary salve for the damage you've sustained. then let's hug, call it a day and you can stay in our long as you behave and don't let anyone know.'

even as she and i had spent time socially and had played a little sexually, there was no precedent for deep digging or meaningful communication about the relationship structure that housed our two relationships in imperfect symbiosis.

now, in the midst of a personal/group crisis incited by me saying [and emailing] i was extremely unhappy and was leaving, there wasn't the trust, the time, the space or the support for the sort of conversation lovers and lover's partners should have had, should have been having from the beginning.

years later, with that relationship tucked messily under my belt, i realize i'm not so interested in seeming happy, perfect or so emotionally modulated that i'm willing to pass up the possibility of actually building the sort of relationship configuration i'm desiring. i'm more interested in strategizing around ways to eliminate denial and deal in reality as it presents itself. i'm using that past unhappy, poly relationship as a compass and a map for what i don't want to do this time 'round.

a fictional account based on how i try to move through the world:

queer poly girl one: 'hi!'
queer poly girl two: 'how are you today?'
queer poly girl one: 'fine! great! unh...just great!'
queer poly girl two: 'how's things with your primary partner?'
queer poly girl one: 'cool, cool. we've had a few...unh...challenges...but it's mostly smooth sailing. how about you?'
queer poly girl two: 'me? i'm not fine. we've been processing my annoyance with sweet, young, flat bellied wimmin who giggle, point their titties and make little manouevers designed to destablize the the lovership i'm in, while simultaneously professing their admiration for and belief in the values behind polyamoury. my housemates/lovers argue over how housework gets done and over who's responsible for the children when someone is going out on a date. nope, i'm not cool today. actually, i'm never cool. got loads of stuff on my mind. and you know what they say...awareness is pain and pain although, a reminder that i'm alive, is definitely not cool.

these days i've graduated from being a fairly nomadic date and short term lover to being a full-fledged primary. no more complaining about what the queen bee/primary is doing/how she's doing it/why she's doing it, cuz...i'm... her!

what kind of primary am i planning on being?
what exactly am i doing?
damned if i know. everything is up for negotiation.
what am i bringing to the table?

for starters...

a willingness to take personal responsibility and leadership.
a willingness to speak often and openly.
a willingness to challenge my male partner/all future partners/lovers to name/claim/explore their attractions, desires, lusts, longings, flirtations intellectually, emotionally and politically instead of beginning and stopping at the physical.
a willingness to proactively create and participate in relationship dynamics that are affectionately, insightfully critical.
a willingness to speak to my needs, wants, insecurities and dreams.
a willingness to live according to an articulable, constantly evolving system of politics, beliefs and ethics that i willingly and clearly share with my partners, lovers and their partners and lovers.

at this point in my development i need to ground myself. i will need to build consciously and truthfully. human beings have been hierarchical creatures for thousands of years. social, communal models of collectivity are mostly flawed and doomed due to this history of power [over]. my compromise is to acknowledge the ways power can be wielded when there is a primary coupling/dyad where lovers may or may not be shared by both partners.

through speaking and claiming the ways that power and dominance can flow along with love and lust even at the best of times, i'm seeking at least be able to point out situations where i experience my connection to my partner as pivotal and central. often in the poly relations i've observed and/or participated in, there have been subtle and not so subtle power struggles for dominance, in effect attempts to establish hierarchies of relationship non-verbally while speaking party lines about all participants being considered worthy of attention, time and respectful consideration.

i have a big part to play in the treatment of people who flow in and out of the relationships/partnerships i help build. i'm accountable for my actions and my choices. i'm accountable for the dynamics i invite others into. this means that whether i verbally invite others into the relationship being created between my partner and i or whether i just go along with where he chooses to flow, i am responsible for what is created between us and other lovers. i can't fluff off this responsibility. i won't fluff off this responsibility.

i've let my partner know that my reputation as an ethical slut is bound to his because i'm in partnership with him. this means that if he decides to be cavalier with the affections of the wimmin he develops attractions for and plays with, i will actively expose, question and attempt to curtail this sort of disrespectful, dishonourable behaviour. i will critique his behaviour in times when he is clearly speaking love, poly, openness and respect but acting out patriarchally as a dick-focussed, intimacy-fearing, unreliable, untrustworthy, double-speaking, traditional oppressive male.

i've let him know that if i get wind of him standing up wimmin without some just cause, like the sky is literally falling, or dealing with them in any way that seems to me disrespectful of his lovers' basic humanity and need for respect, i will speak with him about it and then i will call the wimmin/woman he is seeing myself and speak to them/her about the impact his actions are having on them, their psyches, their schedules, their self esteems and their lives in general. this is what a primary partner taking on leadership looks like from where i'm standing.

i'm encouraging my partner to explore/process his attractions for the various wimmin who flow in and around our lives/relationship/family/community before he and/or they decide to even think about getting naked. we've agreed that conscious intentionality will be the order of the day.

to this end we have conversations about who he shares friendly/instense/unspoken/ flirtatious erotic energy with. i'm asking him to spend less time smiling in that come hither way he does and more time finding comprendable words to his feelings/desires/thoughts/ beliefs/needs. he is developing a new personal/political/sexual/social vocabulary.

i'm asking him to have conversations with the wimmin he/we know about different dynamics that are unfolding. i've also been challenging him to process past/ended relationships where communication had/have stalled or completely ended. i'm getting the sense from him, that i'm adding a kind of weight to his desires that gives him pause to think, pause to pause before embarking on new erotic flirtations and interactions. he's stopping to reflect before he attempts to dip his dick. i appreciate and admire the ways he is stretching, growing and making himself more of an ethical slut.

as for me? well...

i choose to not smile and turn the other way.
i choose to not smooth over rough edges.
i choose to not pretend when i can say my piece.
i choose to not embrace popularity over honour and ethics.

this is my commitment to builing poly family/community.
this is my commitment to building solid partnerships and loverships.

of course these are ideas i'm presently building on, tweaking, expanding or revisioning. this is a growing process for me. i'm learning and walking without a safety net as i often do. i'm transforming poly territory by embracing an existing body of knowledge/skill which points the way to the possibility of building intentional, conscious, accountable relationships.

i'm actively synthesizing my own poly ethics and lore by including real-world critiques based in radical anti-oppression politics and my understanding of what it means to be presently living under various forms of social domination based in power [over].

the reflections i'm engaged in may sound deliberate and overly thought out to those who have taken on freestylin' poly writing and lore as bibles of a sort. for some there may seem to be very little room for lustful, affectionate spontaneity in what i'm proposing. truth is, this sort of processing is an energetic investment in ethical community and intentional relationship building that will eventually afford me the emotional and psychological space to play and explore while participating in relationships that reflect my own polyvisions.

Monday, February 09, 2009

I'm not feeling well today...when I'm better I'll have to read this...seems useful...

This article was written for a course at Villanova University, and is made available on Serendip with permission of the author as a contribution to ongoing discussion of mental health, science as story telling, and science and education. Comments are welcome using the forum access materials at the en

The Story Hour:
The Use of Narrative Therapy with Families

Sarah M. Gibbs

Abstract. Helping clients and families to understand their life stories is the foundation of narrative therapy. Building on the post-modern tenets of social constructionist philosophy, narrative therapists believe that truth is relative and debatable, and that people can rewrite their personal stories to accommodate life transitions and challenges. Drawing on the recent literature, this article presents a brief review of narrative therapy, highlighting its theoretical underpinnings, basic strategic approaches, strengths and uses. A personal reflection by the author, as well as a brief case study; are also included.

Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.
---- Hannah Arendt

Introduction and Review of Narrative Therapy

Family therapists have a fifty-year history of engaging with new and unorthodox ideas, of questioning commonly held views, and developing creative practices. Although the theories may be diverse, the field of family therapy is generally characterized by a number of common themes, such as considering the problems people face in the context of life and life transitions; as well as understanding people's identities and roles as constructed through family relations, history, and culture. Over the past two decades, the use of narrative, which focuses on understanding the central themes in a client's life story, has emerged as a powerful family therapy approach (Anderson and Bagarozzi, 1983; Byng-Hall, 1998; Nichols and Schwartz, 2006; Freeman and Couchonnal, 2006). The metaphor of the narrative derives from a social constructionist orientation, and represents a paradigm shift in the way that therapists view their own role in the therapeutic process (Legg and Stagaki, 2002; Nicholas and Schwartz, 2006). At the center of post-modern philosophy, social construction seeks to understand the processes by which people describe, explain, and ultimately view themselves and the world (Legg and Stagaki, 2002). Consistent with these post-modern origins, narrative theory rejects the notion of a universal truth, in favor of multiple realities and perspectives. Thus, the client is regarded as the expert on his or her story, while the therapist's view is regarded as one of many, rather than the "correct" or privileged one (Legg and Stagaki, 2002; Nicholas and Schwartz, 2006).

Family stories provide a contextual framework and connections to the past, that may be used in therapy to help members better understand their current situations. Yet much of the meaning that people bring to personal and family narratives is based on and maintained by the dominant culture in which they live. In all societies certain values are given a preferred status, whereas others are subjugated. While the culturally approved lifestyles and values often change throughout history, those people whose experiences do not conform to the prevailing current cultural story (such as ethnic minorities, disabled persons, gays and lesbians, or people with non-traditional gender roles), may feel their stories to be less valid (Jones, 2004; Freeman and Couchonnal, 2006). The perception of being at odds with societal norms and expectations may even lead people to ignore or conceal important aspects of their personal narratives. Narrative therapy places a strong emphasis on the role that society and culture play in the development of personal struggles, and thus may prove especially effective in working with ethnically and culturally diverse families (Woodcock, 2001; Allison, 2003; Freeman and Couchonnal, 2006). Even cultural metaphors, such as Greek myths or the universal story of the "evil stepmother" can exert an influence on family dynamics (Anderson and Bagarozzi, 1983; Jones, 2004). Narrative practitioners can help families identify and dismantle any destructive or marginalizing cultural narratives, while cooperating with them to construct more empowering cultural stories.

Many people seek professional help when they perceive their story as empty, stuck, or incongruent with their personal experiences. Thus the primary goal of narrative therapists is to help individuals and families construct more satisfying and authentic stories (Anderson and Bagarozzi, 1983; Coulehan, Friedlander and Heatherington, 1998; Nicholas and Schwartz,2006). This process of transformation starts with therapeutic conversation, employs a collaborative approach, defines and externalizes challenges, deconstructs the story's meaning or significance, emphasizes the utilization of strengths, and ultimately generates construction and anchoring of alternative narratives (Anderson and Bagarozzi, 1983; Byng-Hall, 1998; Androutsopoulou, Thanopoulou, Economou and Bafiti, 2004; Freeman and Couchonnal, 2006; Nicholas and Schwartz, 2006). A further exploration of these therapeutic techniques is outlined in the following section.

Narrative Approaches and Techniques

First and foremost, the foundation of any therapeutic approach is establishing trust and rapport with the client or family. In the case of narrative therapy, this often starts with listening to and acknowledging client's stories. Listening actively to client's existing family or cultural narratives often sheds light on how they view themselves, how they define their challenges and solutions, and their attitudes towards change (Woodcock, 2001; Freeman and Couchonnal, 2006). While this type of listening may seem simple enough, it requires the practitioner to be aware of their existing preconceptions. Thus, narrative therapists are encouraged to explore their own personal and cultural stories, as well as past experiences, so as to avoid both imposition of their own stories and inadvertent filtering out of the client's relevant narrative details (Coulehan et al., 1998; Woodcock, 2001; Androutsopoulou et al., 2004).

Another significant aspect of the narrative approach is acknowledging the right of the clients to name their challenges and define their own reality. This requires the therapist to adopt a naïve approach to the narrative and indeed to counseling in general, and to allow the client to be the expert. A partnership is formed, wherein client and therapist work together as coauthors in the mutual exploration of perceived problems (Nicholas and Schwartz, 2006). While this effort is collaborative, the therapist acts as the facilitator of the conversation, creating space for new stories and meanings. Some strategies to help clients define their challenges include suggesting that they give their narratives a title to reflect their view of the challenges and themselves, as well as externalization techniques (Woodcock, 2001; Androutsopoulou et al., 2004; Jones, 2004; Freeman and Couchonnal, 2006). Narrative therapists believe that people are not their problems, and the process of externalization helps clients to see that they are less confined by their stories, and to focus instead on experiences providing exceptions to their problems. In using externalization, practitioners may encourage clients to label, objectify or even personify problems, to allow them to be seen as separate entities (e.g. people are not anxious, but overtaken by anxiety) (Coulehan et al., 1998; Woodcock, 2001; Dallos, 2004; Nicholas and Schwartz, 2006). This technique can serve to decrease helplessness, opening up new avenues for change. A second and related technique is that of "mapping" the problem, which involves posing questions that encourage people to determine the degree to which the problem is affecting their lives (Jones, 2004; Nicholas and Schwartz, 2006). Such questions as "How does anxiety create trouble for you?" can lead to an exploration of how clients can exert their own influence over the problem at hand.

The process of deconstructing stories has origins in literary interpretation, wherein deconstructive readings are used as part of a larger interpretive strategy that aims to destabilize cultural hierarchies (Legg and Stagaki, 2002; Boston, 2005). This practice has been adopted by narrative therapists, as a means towards offering alternatives to problem-saturated personal narratives and destructive dominant societal norms (Boston, 2005). Deconstruction is also a necessary prequel to the process of narrative reconstruction - the ultimate goal of therapy. In listening to client's stories, therapists attempt to identify dichotomies, exclusions, exceptions, and hierarchies of characters or voices, as well as possible alternative plots or meanings buried within the narrative (Androutsopoulou et al., 2004; Boston, 2005; Freeman and Couchonnal, 2006; Nicholas and Schwartz, 2006). Practitioners may point out their observations to clients with rhetorical or circular questions, such as "What would have to happen to change this story's ending?" (Legg and Stagaki, 2002) or asking them to speak from the perspective of a subordinate voice (Boston, 20055). In effect, deconstruction serves to "read between the lines" of the given narrative to reveal new meanings and initiate the authoring of a new story (Nicholas and Schwartz, 2006).

A strategy used as a part of many therapeutic approaches, seeking out and utilizing strengths, lies at the core of narrative technique (Eron and Lund, 1998; Allison, Stacey, Dadds, Roeger, Wood, and Martin, 2003; Freeman and Couchonnal, 2006; Nicholas and Schwartz, 2006). As client and therapist work together to define challenges and deconstruct the story, previously unrecognized competencies and strengths are often revealed. The therapist can bring these so-called "unique outcomes" to the fore by asking about times when the person or family has overcome a particular problem, or when the problem was less noticeable or stressful (Freeman and Couchonnal, 2006; Nicholas and Schwartz, 2006). This search for exceptions to the dominant narrative can be difficult, because often clients want to focus on all that is bad, and do not believe they possess strengths or narratives of competence (Jones, 2004). In this case, it may be easier for clients to begin by relating stories about a mentor or public figure who has overcome similar obstacles, followed by speculation as to how this relates to the client's own exception stories (Freeman and Couchonnal, 2006). By identifying exceptions and strengths, the focus of the therapy begins to shift towards the future and creating a new narrative.

Just as culture, history and context may shape a story; stories also have the power to bring about change. Narrative therapists can help clients to recognize and reaffirm their abilities to author their own lives, and can assist them in this process by helping to develop alternative meanings and interpretations of existing and exception narratives. A new story is built around what strengths and meaning say about the nature of the individual or family unit, that is, determining how the new story reflects not only what the family is, but what it wants to be. The anchoring of this new story can be accomplished by reframing a situation or offering different versions to the client for consideration, which provides clients with new options for problem solving and healing (Freeman and Couchonnal, 2006; Nicholas and Schwartz, 2006). Individuals and family members can be encouraged to enact new behaviors within the therapeutic session,
and to reinforce them on their own time through homework such as journaling and developing rituals (Woodcock, 2001; Jones, 2004; Freeman and Couchonnal, 2006; Nicholas and Schwartz, 2006), or by interacting with other people in their lives who can authenticate the new story (Eron and Lund, 1998; Freeman and Couchonal, 2006; Nicholas and Schwartz, 2006). The therapist can also serve to reinforce new stories by providing a summary for the client of what has transpired in the therapy, either verbally or in the form of a letter (Nicholas and Scwhartz, 2006).

The flexibility of narrative therapy is one of its greatest strengths, allowing it to be employed in concert with other therapeutic approaches and with diverse client populations. Narrative approaches have been used in combination with attachment theory (Byng-Hall, 1998; Dallos, 2004), family systems models (Woodcock, 2001; Dallos, 2004), strategic therapy (Anderson and Bagarozzi, 1983) and even solution-focused modalities (Freeman and Couchonnal, 2006). It has been shown to be effective with individuals and families, and is being adapted for use with groups (Jones, 2004). Narrative strategies can be combined with play and art therapies to treat self-esteem issues and improve coping skills in children and adolescents (Wood and Frey, 2003). Certain contraindications for the use of narrative therapy are supported by the literature, for example, in the case of clients with brain damage, mental retardation, or episodic psychosis (Freeman and Couchonnal, 2006).

Perhaps narrative therapy's greatest limitation is the difficulty in assessing its effectiveness: How does one measure the transformation of a personal story? As such there is limited research to support the usefulness of narrative therapy with individuals and families. However, some narrative theorists and clinicians have recently begun exploring the concept of coherence as a criterion by which to evaluate client progress (Byng-Hall, 1998; Androutsopoulou et al., 2004; Dallos, 2004). In this context, coherence refers to the more quantifiable aspects of a narrative, such as linearity, consistency of plot, relevance, and the lack of contradictory statements, all of which have been shown to increase or improve with clients undergoing narrative therapy (Androutsopoulou et al., 2004). Much of the coherence work has evolved from research based in attachment theory, which has provided some reproducible data showing that adults who can tell coherent stories about their childhood experiences with their parents are more likely to raise children who are more securely attached (Androutsopoulou et al., 2004; Dallos, 2004). In addition, the leading narrative theorist John Byng-Hall has used various clinical examples to illustrate the benefits of helping family members to tell more coherent stories (Byng-Hall, 1998). These researchers propose that assessing client's stories using the coherence criteria could help practitioners to detect areas of narrative incoherence that may serve as jumping off points for therapy, as well as allowing both therapists and clients to monitor and
discuss how the narratives are transforming throughout the process.

Personal reflection

Although I had never been exposed to the theories and techniques of narrative therapy prior to this summer, I have always been drawn to post-modern and social constructionist philosophies. Science works within popular models and theories, yet it is widely acknowledged that scientific progress is often made by those individuals who reject the popular dogma and think outside the box. Thus as a research scientist, I felt that deconstructing dominant scientific paradigms was an essential part of my job, but I frequently experienced situations where the same data could be interpreted in multiple ways. While debating experimental results lies at the heart of scientific discovery, I often found it frustrating that so many scientists would claim their work to be evidence of an absolute truth. To my mind, scientists build stories as much as any scholar in the humanities; demonstrated most significantly by historical hindsight: few now believe that the sun circles the earth, despite daily observations suggesting it is so! Although almost any scientist would admit as much, there is little tolerance for this type of thinking in the scientific field at large, aside from scientific historians and philosophers. For modern science to progress, the concept of an "absolute truth" must be perpetuated.

Narrative therapy embraces the concept of relative truth, yet also employs the very scientific strategies of exploration, observation, and the gathering of evidence to support or refute the dominant narrative. This approach comes very naturally to me, as does the collaborative nature of the narrative therapeutic interaction. I like the premise of accepting clients as experts on their own stories, as opposed to viewing them as helpless and lost, while still being able to offer them my own expertise in helping them understand how their story has affected their behavior and relationships. And because neutrality and objectivity are not considered useful (or even possible) within a social constructionist paradigm, narrative therapists are given permission to voice their opinions, favoring and giving credence to one version of a client's story over another. When appropriate, narrative therapists are also encouraged to disclose their own stories. As a person who is full of her own stories and opinions, I feel I would be much more comfortable acting in this capacity than in the role of an authoritative or persistently neutral therapist, one whose job is, in the Rogerian tradition, to primarily reflect the statements and feelings of the client. I find it useful and validating when someone tells me a personal story that relates to my own situation, and I would welcome the opportunity to judiciously provide this service to my clients. I also appreciate that narrative therapists seek to highlight their client's strengths and help them to externalize their problems, while still emphasizing the personal responsibility that each person has for authoring and assigning meaning to his or her story.

Finally, I appreciate that narrative therapy makes a deliberate effort to consider the role of society and the dominant culture in how people view themselves and their lives. I have felt the pressure of societal norms at many points in my life, and know firsthand how powerful an influence they can be. The most obvious of these centered on my career in science, a role that society has yet to truly accept for women. Almost every woman scientist I know struggles with pressures from scientific society, which requires absolute and unflinching dedication, and mainstream culture, which demands that women be consummate wives and mothers. Faced with these competing value systems, it can be very difficult for women scientists to recognize their desires and set their own life course. Interestingly, I encountered an unexpected cultural conflict when I chose to leave research science and pursue a career in counseling. While it is common for women to leave science to raise children, it is unusual for them to pursue a different career entirely. In fact, it is unusual for anyone - male or female - to leave a science career at the point I did and embark on a new path. The dominant story in scientific society is "The only people who leave science are the ones who are not successful." Thus my dilemma was compounded by the fact that I was actually good at what I did, and many people in my field of research could not understand how I could walk away from grants and job offers in academia. For a long time, it was hard for me to understand it, too. I had been pursuing an academic science career for 15 years, and had allowed myself to become convinced that it was what I wanted. Even when I became desperately unhappy, I still clung to the story that I would be a scientist, aided by the encouragement of the culture to which I belonged. When I finally left, knowing I had made the right decision, I temporarily lost my identity. One year later, I am still in the process of building a new story for myself, one that can integrate my past career with my new aspirations. I feel that as a narrative therapist, I would have a personal understanding for those clients who are struggling with the influence that cultural and societal norms have played in their lives.

Case Study (hypothetical)

Marie is a 42-year old woman who reports free-floating anxiety, periods of dissociation, and frequent crying spells. She experiences insomnia and often takes long naps during the day. Marie says that while the symptoms have been present for four years, they have recently increased in frequency and duration and are becoming incapacitating. Marie is a widow: her husband and father of her children, John, was a firefighter who was killed in the World Trade Center attacks of September 11, 2001; his body was never recovered. After 9/11, Marie quit her job as an elementary school art teacher to concentrate on raising Alex. The family currently lives on life insurance and compensatory payments from John's fire department. The oldest child, Steve (17), is responsible and shows great concern for his mother; however, he gets into frequent fights at school and with his sister Marybeth (15). Marybeth has few friends, spends much of her free time at home, and frequently takes care of Alex (6) after school and on weekends, while her mother sleeps. Marie has been taking prescription medication for depression since March of 2002. She does not drink, and reports that the family has no history of using drugs or alcohol.

When listening to the family stories, it becomes apparent that they are still struggling with unresolved grief surrounding John's death. Marie says that she had belonged to a 9/11 widow's group, but stopped attending because she "didn't have time" and felt she "didn't belong." Marie channeled much of her energy caring for her children, and took great effort to ensure that they rarely saw her grieving. With the help of Steve, she has put most of the family photos and movies into storage, along with her husband's clothes. She calls Steve and Marybeth the "rocks I hold on to", and praises their courage and commitment to the family following their father's death. However she now finds it increasingly difficult to "keep it together." Marie feels that her symptoms are preventing her from being a good mother to her three children. Steve is somewhat obsessed with 9/11. He has read many books about the tragedy and conspiracy theories surrounding it. He gets very agitated and opinionated whenever the topic of 9/11 is raised; and although this has led to arguments with friends and family members, Steve says that he "owes it to my father" to "spread the truth about what happened." He idolizes his father as a hero, who taught him to "be strong" and "to be a real man". Although only ten when her father was killed, Marybeth recounts vivid memories of her time with him. Shortly after 9/11, she made a small shrine to her father in her room at home. She says she frequently "talks to my dad" and keeps a journal about 9/11 and the memories of her father, but doesn't share them with her brother or mother. Marybeth is frustrated at what she calls the "lack of caring" on the part of her brother and mother concerning John's death; she feels that they have "forgotten him" and that she is the "only one who still cares." She gets angry when people refer to her father as a hero; to her, his death was "a waste" because he was unable to save anyone - this is a source of friction between her and her brother.

The members of this family have used very different ways of dealing with the events of the past five years. There are many layers to their story, and I feel that the personal tragedies of losing a husband and a father have in part been obscured under the more public story of 9/11. The fact that John was a fire fighter adds another layer of cultural mythology to the narrative, and the lack of a body to bury has left part of the story unfinished. My goal with the family is to help them uncover the personal stories of loss that are currently buried by public myth and their individual grief processes. For Marie, the challenge is to help her build a personal narrative of a woman grieving the loss of her life partner, as opposed to the "9/11 widow" with the "hero husband." Steve feels that he is following in his father's footsteps by not expressing his grief, instead channeling it into anger and intellectualism; he would benefit from a new story in which he is a son and a brother, not just a replacement father who must always be strong. While Marybeth has addressed her loss, she should recognize she is not the only one who misses her father, and that she need not continue carrying the family's grief. Finally, John's death should be acknowledged by all, so the family can recognize a shared loss and help one another to grieve.

The public mythology surrounding 9/11, and the heroism of the fire fighters who died at the WTC creates a conflict for those wanting to commemorate a personal loss that is simultaneously becoming an historical event. As the five-year anniversary of 9/11 approaches, the event becomes a primary media target, making it very hard for victim's families and friends to avoid. This may in part explain Marie's increased depression and anxiety in recent months. I would use deconstruction techniques to help this family separate the public tragedy from their personal grief. I want to help the family to write the story of their father and husband, apart from his larger-than-life role as a 9/11 hero. Marie and Steven in particular need to acknowledge their personal losses, which in turn may help Marybeth to feel that she is not alone in her grief. Asking questions to elicit stories about John as a regular human being, father, and husband, as opposed to a firefighter, a hero, or a part of American history, would be one approach that I would take.

Ultimately, my desired outcome in working with this family is to help them author a new family story that personalizes their losses, allowing them to grieve and begin healing. Grieving is complicated when there is no body to bury, as it leaves unanswered questions and no designated grave or memorial. Thus as a way to anchor their nascent story, I would encourage the family to create some sort of ritual to commemorate John's death, allowing every member to have creative and emotional input. They may make a small shrine in the house, or plant a tree in a park, but the point is for them to work together to create a personal memorial that can serve as a sacred place for grief and contemplation. In this way, they not only build a story that honors the memory of their husband and father, but also create something new together as a family unit; this shared experience will hopefully serve to strengthen the emerging family narrative.


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This is the page where I found this article...