I’ve been writing and rewriting this post in my head since Friday. The angle and scope have changed at least six times. This is why I don’t plan blog posts. You just get what comes out of my mouth; well, fingers.
A friend posted this weekend about the challenge of doing health disparities research while also identifying as part of the group you’re studying. I get that. It’s difficult to read and hear the “bad” things about your group. About you. Whether those are the health risks and outcomes, the adverse experiences (e.g., violence and trauma), or the culture of discrimination that surrounds us. As a queer woman who predominantly studies the LGBTQ community and is currently focused on cis-identified, lesbian and bisexual women, my work resonates strongly with my life.
Over the past year I’ve had the privilege to interview over 20 women over the course of two projects – one I took over and one I coordinated from prospectus through data analysis (well, still working on analysis!). The thread running through these two projects was stress, and I could weave a tapestry of pain, coping, and resilience with these women’s stories.
Pain. Being called slurs in public, at work and school. Getting the “side eye” and “mumbled under breath comments” directed to them and their partners. Being told they weren’t welcome in churches and workplaces. Seeing others lose jobs. Having their partners not recognized by family, friends, neighbors, and healthcare practitioners. Being afraid for their safety. Struggling with under- and unemployment. Illness. Injury. Financial burden. Juggling work and home and social. Feeling underwater. Depression and anxiety. Coping. Television watching and snacks. Chocolate. Wine and beer. Smokes. Drugs. Addiction. Bingeing. Overexercising. Exercising healthfully – and with partners. Making balanced, home-cooked meals. Finding community. Therapy. Finding accepting religious spaces. Meditation. Resilience. Seeing beauty and worth in oneself. Redefining community norms – accepting people of all shapes and sizes and backgrounds. Giving the finger to heterosexist norms – for bodies, for women, for relationships, for families. Loving their partners publicly at all costs. Loving themselves.
Pain and coping and resilience.
When you’re interviewing women like you for research projects, you create and keep space. You are not their friend. You are an ally. You are a community member. Perhaps even a neighbor. But, you are also a researcher. It’s challenging. I’ve listened while women cried on the phone. I’ve held uncomfortable silences. Assured women they could take a break or stop. Been grateful when they trusted the process enough to carry on talking. Sharing. After the calls is when I exhale. When I cry. When I hold those truths close to my heart and send each of these women caring. Spiritual hugs. I also hug myself.
I am these women.
I experience pain. I cope. I am resilient.
This year’s experiences have challenged my coping. Between January and June I fell hard into alcohol. Into starvation and binge-eating. Into insomnia and oversleep. I also kept my head down and kept working. Challenged myself intellectually and won difficult successes. I published twice. I applied and was accepted to NCI’s summer institute. I aced our program’s most challenging methods courses with a professor I admire and who scares the crud out of me. I kept going.
Two main threads ran through these past 6 months: risky coping and emotional numbing. I felt defeated. Sad. Scared. Suicidal. I did what I could to not feel. This mostly resulted in pushing feelings down into my gut and letting them out only when drunk or alone. Drunk. Or. Alone. I got good at it – drowning those feelings. Pretending they didn’t exist until I was panicked, crying uncontrollably on the floor, and wondering why I was existing. Not living. Merely existing. In addition to the obvious problems – anxiety, depression, suicidality, addiction – my capacity to push-down my feelings had a more sinister effect. It numbed satisfaction. It strangled joy. It obliterated gratefulness. It crushed my ability to listen to myself. I didn’t have the tolerance for listening nor feeling. I knew I was having feelings, but I drowned them so quickly that soon I couldn’t feel them for myself nor from others. Even if they were positive.
I learned about being published early in the semester – before I’d really dived into numbing. When I heard that news I was upside down happy. So damn joyful. By April, when I heard about being accepted to NCI, I couldn’t feel. While I knew that being accepted to this institute was an amazing opportunity, I didn’t feel joyful nor grateful. So, I lied. I played out joy and gratefulness. I smiled. I exclaimed. I Facebook posted. And I drank.
Today, I’m 25 days sober. Today, I went for what’s become my regular 60 minute walk post-institute. Before heading out I was tired. Lightly happy about my work day. By 20 minutes into the walk I was joyous. Breathing full. Feeling energized. And so I ran.
I. RAN. I picked up my feet for a minute and ran. And then I walked. I felt strong. Satisfied. Excited. And so I ran again – for two minutes. And then I walked. I still felt strong. Satisfied. Excited. And so the pattern continued. Running wasn’t easy. I was winded. I felt a bit awkward – heavy. Hell, I’ve not exercised like this in AGES. I mean A-G-E-S, people. But, I listened. I gave myself time to breathe. I ran in the woods so I felt protected. Safe. Comfortable. I ran and walked and ran and walked. I repeated the pattern until I knew I was done. Joyful and satisfied, I walked the rest of the way home.
After, stretching upon my yoga mat, I smiled. I told a friend. I smiled some more.
And then I sobbed my feelings out of my gut and onto the floor. Big. Ugly. Cry.
Big. Ugly. HEART-FULL. Cry.
Big. Ugly. JOYFUL. Cry.
Big. Ugly. GRATEFUL. Cry.
When I thought it was over, I kept crying. On my hands an knees in table pose, crying. Sitting back on my haunches as if in seated prayer, crying. Curled down in child’s pose, crying. For the first time in months, I felt heart-full of joy because I finally. felt. grateful.
Grateful that I am tumor-free. Grateful that I am sober. Grateful I didn’t kill anyone by DUI. Grateful I get to own my truth. Grateful I am here – in D.C. – actively participating in this cancer training institute. Grateful that I am taking time to eat healthily, sleep, go to AA meetings, and exercise. Grateful I trusted myself to run. Deeply and joyfully grateful.
I experience pain. I cope. I am resilient.
“Look, and I know that sometimes our only choices are between shitty and shittier, but whatever we end up doing we gotta own it. Somehow find grace in it.”
– Gloria Mendoza, Orange Is the New Black Season 5
For most of this year, I felt that my only choices were between shitty and shittier. Tumor Surgery. Pain. Financial drowning. Feelings. Binge eating. Starvation. Alcohol. Suicide. I didn’t own my shit. Didn’t own my feelings. My fears. I could not find the grace in it until I hit bottom. My place of no return. My one step away from killing myself or a stranger. My place of hurting someone I love. From losing my life – literally or figuratively.
Twenty-five days ago I went to an AA meeting. I began to own my shit. Yet, for 25 days since then I’ve not seen the grace in it. Until today. Until listening. Until running. Until breathing and believing. Until big ugly crying.
Sometimes the choices are between shitty and shittier. Early sobriety is shitty. Being drunk is shittier. Pushing down feelings is shittiest. But embracing resilience, looking my shit in the eye and choosing to do better. Listening to my Self, and allowing my Self to feel again…. That, my friends, is grace.