Over the past two weeks, I’ve written a little to you about my business Instructional ABA Consultants and my early career as a BCBA. This week I celebrated my twin nieces Grace and Emma’s third birthday. That’s them in the photo for this blog. They are related, I promise. As I held my now not-so-baby nieces on my lap I also held my desire for the world I want them to live in. This one’s for the girls.
Being There & Not Being There
In the fall of 2018, my sister was 32 weeks pregnant with the girls and I was around four months pregnant with Declan. My sister shared her birth plan with me as she got closer to the delivery. A piece of that plan was not wanting family there until after the girls were born.
On a Friday morning, Kristen’s plan changed when she found out she had preeclampsia and HELLP syndrome meaning the girls had to be delivered immediately. At the time I was overcome with fear for my sister and what to do with Henry. My ex-husband was less than kind when I spent time with family or when I was not the one caring for our son. I called my dear friend and babysitter in tears. She immediately jumped in to help with Henry. I called my sister, let her know that I was on my way to Ohio, and left.
This is a day of joy and despair that I will always remember. My sister and baby nieces were in crisis, I was pregnant, and felt fear for my family. Isolation is a common tactic of domestic violence and my ex-husband used this birth just the same. Nothing was below him. As I drove to Ohio I was ordered to turn the car around and when my nieces were born I was told I didn’t love my own son if I didn’t come home. I cried in relief of their birth, for my sister’s wellbeing, and for the cruelty of my ex-husband. I stood my ground, of course, and stayed with my sister and the girls.
My Sister’s Beautiful Little Girls
I remember their tiny little fingers and toes as my brother-in-law took me to the NICU. Emma’s soft, fuzzy blonde hair and Grace’s dark brown are still clear in my memory. I kept thinking for 32 weeks these babies have so much hair! Linked up to tubes and swaddled into boxes, my baby nieces were safe and still developing as though they were in the womb.
I will never forget braiding my sister’s hair and wheeling her to see her daughters. To see her reach into each incubator and brush their hands, “I’m mommy, I’m mommy.” Healing from her emergency c-section my sister poured love into those baby girls (their papa too) as they welcomed their daughters into the world. Me? I was an aunt. The very thing I wanted, even before I wanted to be a mommy of my own.
Leaving Domestic Violence Behind
Over the last three years so much has happened and changed. My baby nieces came home from the NICU after four weeks and just in time for Thanksgiving. Wonderful, beautiful Declan was born. Dametrius became my son. And I left domestic violence.
I have spent an incredible amount of time in shock over how I have been treated simply because I am a woman over the past year. Raised in a household where gender did not define our worth, I have been overcome with disbelief time and time again as I have been met with discrimination. Discrimination that I, until I faced, did not know still occurred in this day and age let alone in my own family.
When I came out to my father’s family about my experience with domestic violence last fall, his family’s radical views on women came out of the woodwork. A cousin I held dearly turned on me within a day of me standing up to my ex-husband reciting the 10 Commandments to my dad. An uncle told my dad, his own brother, that if I submitted to my alpha husband God would restore my marriage. Another uncle sent me a weekend retreat I could attend to learn my place in my marriage. Another cousin even went as far as to state, “he didn’t hit her, it’s not abuse, what’s next she’s going to say he raped her? Husbands cannot rape their wives.”
I did not and do not have words for the belief system that was exposed. As I let go of a family I thought I had, but never really did, I wailed to the skies, “What?! I am losing my family because I am a woman with a voice? Because I refuse to be abused?” I cannot tell you the pain and relief that came due to the separation from this side of my family. As I chose to set the boundary of, “I will not be in relationship with those who support my abuser or use religion to oppress women,” I set a precedent for my nieces. I cannot imagine a world, Goddess forbid, that Grace or Emma find themselves being mistreated and told how to act, or else, because they are women.
Over the course of the last year not only have I been discriminated against by my family but questioned time and time again in the court system. To this day my legal team is fighting against that stereotype that because I am a successful business owner I must be a bitch. For a year now, when I have brought forth true concerns of safety for myself and my sons we have to fight this narrative. Time and time again I have been told I cannot fly my feminist flag in court.
What if it’s not a feminist flag? What if I am a human being who is just asking to be considered equally within the court system? What if I am not trying to control but instead a frightened, concerned mother? What if I am not a bitch but instead an excellent, caring leader? And what if I am just a person being brave and trying to call for justice, as well as create hope, through my talents in business?
I do not want this for myself yet more than that I do not want to ever see my nieces treated as less because they are women. I want a world in which when my nieces speak, they are heard and believed. A world where when they wish, dream, desire, lust, and wonder they are free to pursue what lights the fires in their souls. A world where when injustice comes it’s met with justice, not discrimination. I never want my nieces to even consider being a woman a limitation. It is not. We have a long way to go in building a world where the world does not default to limiting them. Unfortunately, it took a divorce for me to see exactly what is still happening in our world.
Grace & Emma, be thirsty my loves. Be brave. Be fearless. Your Aunt Jessie? I’m trying, my darlings, to create a small but carefully laid path of hope and justice in our family and world so you may walk a little easier than me.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve written to you from a more personal place than usual. My intention in writing these pieces of my story is to share my humanity with you. As human beings, we all go through trials and tribulations. We all have hardships. And we all fall down but rise to stand tall another day. The last twenty or so months have been challenging as a society and the world has certainly not been hardship-free, even before COVID entered our worlds.
Mitigating Damage from Outside Noise
This week I’d like to write about the noise of the world, including the noise that has surrounded me, and how to differentiate noise from the truth. When I say the noise of the world I’m referring to Brene Brown and her reference to the warrior’s ring featuring Theodore Roosevelt’s speech.
Remember that Brene teaches us that the noise from the stands (the outside world) says nothing about our worth and that worth is inside each warrior dusting the blood from their knees to fight another day. In my observations over these past 20 months, and speaking honestly since our last administration took office, the noise from the stands seems to have increased in volume. At times the roar of the crowd can be deafening.
As someone living with PTSD, noise in and of itself can be challenging for me. When that noise is coming from others, it may not hurt my ears but can hurt my heart. Do you all remember this little ditty as a child; “Stick and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt me”? Yeah, me too. It’s a bullshit ditty if that’s a thing.
What the ditty should go like is “sticks and stones may break your bones but words can break your heart.” We as humans are not immune from the painful words of others and those words can make us question our own worth. It’s painful to realize that when others say unkind words (and worse) that there is a subset of people who choose to behave this way intentionally. These are the people making noise in the stands.
The Worst Part of the Crowd
The intentionally hurtful people in the stands seem to believe that by pointing out the imperfections of others that they are somehow pointing out their own perfection. That is to say that if they can be loud enough about how their belief system, sexual identity, race, gender, and the like is perfect that maybe, just maybe, it means their own, differing lifestyle is better than yours.
This may have made sense tens of thousands of years ago; classifying each other by how they looked and behaved. This allowed our ancient ancestors to know who was in their tribe and who was an actual threat. Yet as language and thought developed, currency also developed, and all of a sudden these cheap shot demographics became a sorting of worth. You need not look further than slavery and the treatment of women or look into the holocaust as societal examples for the danger of this type of behavior.
At a societal level, in a power-over dynamic, fear is necessary to keep the power in place. Teaching people to fear other people is very simple to do: just sprinkle in judgment, divide a few resources you say are scarce, add a God of your choosing, and tada! you have power. This is also bullshit, yet remains very real for a lot of people today.
Power & Control
Personally, I’ve always hated power-over dynamics used for power and control. Using resources to restrict others fires up my soul up like nothing else. Using both covert and overt differences as the fuel to feed this power is the match before the gasoline that starts the fire. For those of us who refuse to use a power-over approach and believe in our bones that humanity is equal, deserving a life with choice, a life with resources to live day-to-day encounters can be maddening.
Also, personally, even as a woman I have never felt this attempted power-over as closely as I have this past year. I have been told hideous things from my father’s family regarding women and their “God.” I have heard messaging from almost every person in the legal system to not fly my “feminist flag,” in our country courthouse. I have even faced the local football team head-on about racism in regards to my son.
The words I have heard from others in the stands this past year have been ugly, to put it mildly. It took me almost a full year to realize the noise from the stands was not real but my worth is. I have stood in the ring, dusting blood from my knees, and forcing myself to face the hate but not using it to fight. Hate begets hate.
Stop Listening to the Noise
Here in the US, we’ve been struggling for over a year, but it’s been a lifetime for so many others. My son surely did not have his first encounter with racism on his freshman football team. I’ve been questioned as a woman countless times even before this past year began. And people in “power,” have been using others for personal gain at any cost (including human lives) for centuries. Yet outside of this power-over dynamic is a power within with a different dynamic. A power that demands that all humanity is treated equally and deserving of respect. A power that tells us that no matter how loud hate is, love can overcome it.
So which will you choose? Will you choose to continue to section off pieces of humanity based on what they believe, how they look, or if you feel you can gain control over them? I certainly hope not. I also certainly hope that if you are choosing not to use power-over, you are using power with and standing up for your worth, as well as the worth of others.
We are brothers and sisters. We are more alike than we are different. If you ever find yourself in the stands, adding your anger to that of the crowd, know that you can stop, walk to the ring, and help your sister stand.
Last week I wrote to you about how gratitude can be a life raft in the middle of adversity. Specifically, I wrote to you about the stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic knowing so many of us are exhausted. I hope that shifting to a mindset of gratitude was able to help you find a little joy last week as our nation’s COVID-19 cases continue to rise. I know firsthand, outside of the pandemic, how hard it is to find gratitude during pain. I also know firsthand that it is life-saving. I’d like to tell you more.
Fear or Love?
Around seven years ago I was new to running a business and had been single for a bit. During that time I was settling into my path. This was the beginning of building a spiritual mindset that still carries me today. Gabrielle Bernstein is a spiritual leader I followed who taught (and still teaches) about enlightenment. In her work, Gabrielle guides her readers through their egos back into their spirits. She encourages others to drop fear and embrace radical self-love. It is a hard and worthwhile journey I promise you.
Back to me. At the time, I was light, joyful, and a little naive, if you will. I did give myself a piece of advice that was worth remembering; “Jessie, my love, there is fear and there is love. Both are hungry wolves within your soul-chose wisely which wolf you feed.” Even today, with much more at stake, I often center with this teaching and remember to lean into love, even when fear seeps in.
The Wolves of Fear
I would like to tell you that as I aged into my 30s I became wiser and kinder, that I was a cocoon that turned into a butterfly on my way to full enlightenment. I was not. I was breaking from the inside out. You see, in believing that love conquers all, I got married very quickly after my stint as a single woman. Within one week of becoming a married woman, my ex-husband changed his behavior towards me.
Five years later, in the office of a trauma counselor, I realized that I had experienced domestic abuse. 5 years of domestic abuse. It was only through the work of an amazing trauma team that I was able to quiet the fear, to rest the wolf. Yet, as I progressed through treatment, it was as though new wolves were growling to be fed.
To begin, I had just moved back home to Ohio. I had grown up incredibly close to my father’s family. I knew my family and I approached the world differently but I still loved them despite our differing beliefs. What I was unprepared for was what came when I opened up to my family about my experience of domestic abuse and what would come next.
Feeding the Wolves
Within two weeks of opening up to my family about my experience with domestic abuse, my father’s family decided to side with my abuser because I was not submitting to my husband. I was told by a cousin I loved dearly that because I wasn’t being physically beaten that I was making it up. When my wonderful, kind, and bright father stood up for me, one of my uncles explained that an exorcism might be helpful (seriously). Another uncle, my favorite, sent me information on a retreat I could attend to learn my role as a wife so that God would restore my marriage (seriously).
In leaning into my family I was exposed to a radical belief system that men are the head of the household and strong women need only to submit to make any abuse stop. To this day my ex-husband spends time with my father’s family and to this day my young sons are exposed to them on a regular basis. I just tell my little lions, “boys and girls are the same,” to hopefully plant the seed of equality amongst a field of bigotry.
You may wonder why I haven’t shared this before or why I am sharing it with you now. I’ll tell you. I didn’t share this earlier because I was afraid of the court system. I thought if I spoke out it would be used against me. I guess it still might. I’m just not feeding the wolf of fear today. I am sharing it with you now because I want to let you know that I’m not just talking, I’m action. You see, leaving domestic abuse and going through a divorce combined with the exposure of and loss of a portion of my family is a pain I never saw myself dealing with.
Yet here I am on a Monday morning, snuggled with my dogs, happily planning a quiet day on my farm. How? I remembered my own wisdom and, through the healing I embraced last winter, I also embraced gratitude. My experience with domestic abuse and divorce is just that, an experience. I got out and found that the most incredible family and friends were standing alongside me. They reminded me every day I was worthy and reflected love to me unconditionally until I was able to slowly feed my own wolf of love.
I’ve changed my own language from what I’ve lost to what I’ve gained. I haven’t lost a marriage, I’ve gained freedom. I haven’t lost a family, I found my true family. I haven’t lost myself, I’ve found her.
In shifting to a daily practice of gratitude I am not able to stop pain from happening and I am not totally free of fear. Remember the crowds in the stands? They can be hateful and loud. It hurts even more when a portion of the crowd shares your DNA. At least for me, it did. But outside of that noise is peace and knowledge that every human life matters, including mine. I am able to wipe the dust off my knees from whatever battle is ahead and bow in gratitude to the people standing beside me.
I do not know what pain outside of the COVID-19 pandemic you might be facing. But this I know to be true: love is stronger than fear. Dig deep into your soul and coax that darling wolf of love out. If you can’t feed her yet let others help, then say thank you.
The world will always bring adversity but your heart will always offer you love.
In gratitude to my family, friends, and employees for reminding me of who I am.
If you are experiencing domestic violence or abuse speak up, reach out, get out.
Over the past several weeks I’ve noticed a recurring topic of conversation within my tribe; “I’m exhausted from the last year and a half.” Each person that I speak with is talking about the COVID-19 pandemic and is in disbelief this is still our life. I keenly remember the start of the pandemic and how high all our emotions were running in fear of a threatening virus entering our world.
To still be dealing with that same stressor, with case numbers approaching levels from a year ago, exhaustion is an apt way of stating how we all feel. We’re not just dealing with a virus, we’re dealing with living our lives through an active, dangerous virus.
Trying to Find Peace During the Pandemic
With no end in sight, it’s hard to feel chipper and happy, let alone grounded. Peace can feel far away. I’ve heard a lot of “rinse, lather, repeat,” and “same shit, different day” comments in reference to what we are all walking through right now.
In the early days of the pandemic, Brene Brown spoke on her podcast, “Unlocking Us,” that she was just waiting for a checklist of what to do and once she had the checklist her recovering perfectionist could rest. Well, Brene, we have our checklist and the treatment fidelity is low. In scientific terms, this means we are not near containing the virus, which is incredibly frustrating.
As the virus carries on in all of our personal lives it can start to feel hopeless. The heart of the matter is this; we can provide good, accurate information and it’s up to each and every one of us to choose to follow it or not. We simply cannot control other people’s behavior.
Thinking About Others
I am going to pause here to let you know that not being able to convince a person to make a logical, kind decision (even in non-pandemic times) has been the bane of my existence. Truly. I have an aunt and sister who operate the same way. We see the systems for what they are. We see human life as incredibly worthy of equality and get frustrated (OK, sometimes livid) when decisions are made that move us away from equality and logic.
I am still on a journey of realizing that no matter how much I believe in making kind decisions that I cannot control other people and make them drink my preferred brand of logical, kind Kool-Aid. People are, in fact, allowed to make their own decisions and it’s incredibly frustrating when those decisions can potentially cause harm to others (please see the ongoing pandemic).
In light of being given a magical wand of authority, what spell could we possibly conjure in the midst of this climate of adversity? What can we do when a real stressor or danger is presented day after day with high and divisive emotions being publically shared?
It is easy to lash out at others, question their beliefs, invoke shame, or simply shut down into our own little world. I have been guilty of both at times. Neither has provided any long-lasting relief. But something else has and I’d like to share it with you.
An Attitude of Gratitude
I’ve recently written that I have been in the process of divorce, which is stressful enough by itself. The stress from the divorce on top of the pandemic took me to my limit. Early on I started following the work of Lee Harris. At the time I did not have more good days than bad, quite the opposite. Lee recommended a gratitude journal as part of a healing journey.
At first, this suggestion annoyed me. I’ve followed many different spiritual teachers for well over a decade and thought to myself, “I know, I know–an attitude of gratitude.” It felt like one more thing was being added to my checklist while my mindset was basically “what is there to be grateful for as my world is burning down?”
Lee gave a scientific reason, which at the time was just enough, that convinced me to begrudgingly start a gratitude journal. Lee explained that when you have experienced trauma your neurochemistry is depleted and leans more towards negative emotions. He went on to explain that writing five gratitude statements a day can change your brain chemistry. I was in need of rewiring and had already started acupuncture to rewire trauma inside my body. It felt right to rewire my mind so I started the journal.
At first, I wrote very small things like “I’m grateful for a Henry kiss goodnight,” “I’m grateful for Declan belly laughs,” and “I’m grateful for a dinner with my three boys.” I wrote moments each day that started to become a tiny light. As I leaned into this tiny light, I truly did begin to see more things to be grateful for regardless of the world around me.
I was able to move outside of the tiny gratitudes and see bigger things to be grateful for; a huge one being the incredible people that surround me. I call them my tribe but my family and friends are unmatched in their ever-present love of me (and my love for them). I am a lucky woman. In writing gratitude statements I was able to see that even when the world looks like it’s burning down around you, there is still more good than bad. Truly.
Staying Positive & Looking at the Good
My own external circumstances have not changed. I am still living in a pandemic and still dealing with a divorce while recovering from domestic abuse. I am still running a company during a pandemic. I cannot speed up any external circumstances beyond my control. They will stay, just as yours will stay.
I do not know when the pandemic will end. What I do know is that we can take care of our own hearts and minds even in stressful times. Especially in stressful times. I know what it feels like to want to wrap yourself in a blanket and cry the day away. I know what it feels like to scream in frustration at the top of your lungs. It’s OK to ride these feelings out. As they subside noticing what was beside you all along will shift your internal world. I promise.
The world outside is messy but I bet you have a few things to be grateful for. So, maybe even today, instead of arguing with someone for the millionth time about your stance on (masks, vaccines, the economy, etc) you could take a deep breath and call your mom. Tell her you love her. Can’t talk to your mom? That’s OK, call dad, a sister, a brother–make a phone call to someone you love. Say thank you. Then pick up the pen and find what you’re truly grateful for.
Over the past several months I have been writing about moving through anger while I’m doing it myself. Last week I gave you a glimpse into finding peace amidst adversity. The sun peeking through the dark forest, if you will. Personally, it is knowing the sun always rises that allows me to place my hands on the dark, damp, leaves of the forest and breathe in relief during pain.
As humans, we are conditioned to avoid pain for our own survival. As mammals, we have genetic coding to literally keep us alive. Yet as we developed as a social species and created hierarchies we also developed a great big lie (okay, many great big lies). The specific lie I’m writing about now is that the goal of life is to be happy and that happiness is obtained by achieving external desires.
The forever-running list of “if I just have, look, get, or accomplish I will be happy” purrs in far too many minds. It’s poison looping within our own minds telling us to escape anything that feels unhappy, anything that feels painful. I believe this is why so many of us choose what is wrong for us over what is right. Immediate escape to happiness over a lifetime of hard, right choices.
But what if we learned to choose differently? What if we chose to see pain as a powerful teacher and not something to fear? Pain as a phase and not a state of being? Pain as part of the human experience that allows us to live a fully abundant life? Not fully happy, but fully alive.
The Big Lie
I’ve struggled with this lie many times over my lifetime. Personally, I was not chasing external belongings but belonging itself. From this, I created a narrative of not wanting to do anything that caused harm to another person even if that person was hurting me. I thought by saying, “yes,” all of the time I could keep others happy and if they were happy we would all be connected and I would belong.
Then, when I belonged, I would be happy. I was a belonging junkie if you will. It took a very serious and dangerous situation in my own life to realize that I was dying from my own addiction to belonging. This situation forced me to face the pain of saying, “no,” even when it caused hurt to another person in order to truly find belonging in my own heart.
Saying what is right for yourself can be incredibly painful. It’s so easy to get lost in what is right for everyone else. Remember that part about humans being social animals? We genetically don’t just avoid pain; we also look for companionship, for our tribe. Sometimes we desperately want our tribe to be people who were never truly meant for us. Losing them is hard. Sometimes our own limits and boundaries feel life-threatening to those we love.
Don’t Lie to Yourself
I gently think of parents of a child struggling with addiction. You love your child yet through your love you have to let them go as you hold boundaries set by recovery teams. In less severe cases I believe all parents hold boundaries that can feel uncomfortable towards their own children.
Outside of parenthood, we all have a set of boundaries that protect our sacred selves. Boundaries are the lifeboat in the storm of life. The little raft you hold onto as the pain crashes around you and keeps you afloat until you wash up onto the shore of your next chapter.
By choosing what is right for yourself you must be willing to lose everything the world says is right in order to be strong and wise enough to choose for yourself. Each decision that is right for your own heart is one wave closer to the shore. As you lift your weary head, look around, and start to swim towards the shore you will see some people floating behind you while those who have always been by your side are applauding from the shore.
Choosing what is right for you can be easy at times. Other times it will feel like it’s ripping your soul in two. Perhaps it is the ripping that creates the space for growth. Each right (and hard) decision is the only way to live the life you were born to live. Life isn’t about being happy and comfortable all the time. The abundance of human emotions and spirit are all-wise councils. I’m not sure how happiness alone has sat on the throne for so long.
Authenticity is knocking and she wants her seat back.